The ‘France’ category:

I went for another bike ride

May 12th, 2014

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I went for an 86 mile bike ride with my brother in the Massif Central this weekend.

My wonderful wife gave me a present of ‘an adventure’ for my birthday; she’d organised for my brother to come over from England and bought me a guide book to the Massif Central as a suggestion for where we could go. I did a (tiny) bit of research and opted to base ourselves at Condat, cycling north up to Super-Besse (a 2008 Tour de France stage mountain finish) on day 1 and then east into the empty hills on day 2.

Day 1
40 miles. 4 hours.

We arrived at our campsite around 1pm, and, after chatting to the guy who runs it for ages, we set up our tents, had most of our lunch, then set off around 1:50pm.

It was sunny and warm. The plan was to ride 18 miles to Super-Besse, climbing from 700m to 1,350m, then take some tiny lanes round the back for 20 miles all the way back down.

The climb up was long and relentless, but actually really nice; hard physical exercise in pleasant weather in beautiful mountain surroundings is a joy. We stopped along the way to finish our lunch.

Eventually we arrived at the foot of the climb to Super-Besse. After about 100 metres I had to get off and walk as, due to the gearing on my bike, I simply could not move forwards up the steep slope. My brother managed to ride the whole thing, partly due to having more suitable gearing, partly due to being fitter, younger, and more good looking.

The town at the top was pretty gloomy to be honest, and the weather had become cold and windy.

From then on it remained cold and windy and we stayed high for a long time. We had hoped to glide effortlessly back downhill and to our campsite but the reality was miles and miles of hilly climbs up cols.

The countryside was very pretty though, so it was worth the struggle.

Finally we arrived at the downhill. Unfortunately I’d discovered that my brakes were nowhere near good enough to stop me when going down steep hills so I had to keep jabbing them on whenever I reached speeds of around 25mph. It was exhilarating though!

Day 2
46 miles. 8 hours. 

Day 2 began a bit like day 1; the weather was sunny although slightly less warm, and we spent the first couple of hours climbing. This time however the road was a little twisting lane along the side of a steep-sided valley with a beautiful river running beneath us, the sort of mountain cycling we’d hoped for.

We made the most of it, stopping every now and then to watch a kite swooping overhead or to try to identify a wild flower. It was lovely. Progress was therefore slow and after a few hours we’d barely covered 10 miles, but it didn’t matter, it was fun. We sat by the roadside overlooking some big hills and had our lunch, then continued up.

Pretty soon afterwards the rain started, and with it came the wind. We were high up and it was bleak, the unimpeded strong wind whipping the cold rain into our faces like tiny pieces of ice. Then the rain turned into actual tiny pieces of ice – hail – and that really hurt. The timing was pretty bad because we’d hit the toughest part of the ride, but there was no turning back. We were soaked through, freezing cold, but oddly having a great time. Even when we had to pedal as hard as we could downhill into the wind just to move forwards at 4mph we found the challenge rewarding; it was pretty much as horrendous as it could be but we were slowly eating away at the miles.

We rode slowly over loads of cols, passing through seemingly deserted tiny villages. Most of the time was spent going uphill, and even when we went downhill it was slow and painful with the bastard wind pushing us backwards and pelting us with rain and hail.

After literally hours of this we finally made it down off the high hills and out of the clouds and, even though we were shivering and exhausted, our final 5 miles descent back into Condat was magical; the sun was out and was drying the wet roads, creating curtains of steam that we whooshed through as we freewheeled round the swooping bends of the mountain road.

Lessons learnt
– I definitely need better gears and better brakes; going up was hard and going down was hard.
– When heading into the mountains always take warm clothing even if the forecast’s good; I only had fingerless mittens and my summer bike shoes were sodden.

– Cycling in the Massif Central is awesome!!!

The Tour de France

June 29th, 2013

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I love the Tour de France.

It’s not an easy thing for the casual observer to get into; on the surface it’s just a bunch of peculiarly-dressed men riding bikes round some pretty countryside. But there’s a load of exciting stuff awaiting anyone who puts in the effort to understand it. Then it becomes a bunch of peculiarly-dressed men riding bikes round some pretty countryside with tactics and rivalries and super-human feats and crashes and, most exciting of all, drug scandals.

The key to being able to understand all of it is the TV coverage. Fortunately in the UK the Tour is perfectly covered by ITV4. Nowadays they do live coverage as well but their one hour highlights evening show is all you really need. You’d think that living in France and having French TV coverage would be far better but surprisingly it’s not; the French coverage is, in comparison, terrible.

The live coverage looks the same as every other live coverage but the commentary is, on the whole, boring and often irrelevant to what’s going on; if something happens you cannot rely on the commentators to explain it or even mention it.

And the French highlights show? There isn’t one. Immediately after the stage has ended an ‘after stage’ show begins during which they have interviews and show the podiums and chat about bits and bobs, little of which makes any sense if you’re not already fully versed in the ways of the Tour. By around 6:30pm this is finished and that’s it. How you’re meant to keep up with the Tour if you work normal working hours I do not know.

So my recommendation for anyone living in France (or anywhere else for that matter) who would like to follow the Tour is watch the ITV4 highlight show, the true home of the Tour on TV.


A little holiday in Lacanau Océan

May 11th, 2013

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Wednesday and Thursday were bank holidays in France this week, leaving just Friday at school for Soren… but they ditched that to make a loooong weekend. So we had 5 days off and, for only the third time since we’ve lived here, we went on holiday!

Thursday morning we drove over to Lacanau Océan, about 3 1/2 hours west of here, to a big campsite not far from the beach. It was absolutely pissing down the whole way over, letting up slightly as I pitched our tent, then stopping altogether about 10 minutes after I’d pitched it. With about an hour left before they closed we quickly went to the new indoor pool they’ve built (a sort of mini Center Parcs thing) and it was awesome; the boys had a great time on the slides and rapids and waves. After dinner at the tent we walked down to the beach. It was beautiful but the wind was very cold! Anyway, the boys had a great time digging and making sand angels.

Friday was a clear, sunny day, still not warm but nice in the sun. We went to the beach first thing; it was pretty busy but it’s so HUGE that was fine. So digging and splashing and all that sort of thing. We walked along the beach into town for chips, croque-monsieur and Orangina (Milo fell asleep in the trailer) then all the way back to the campsite for a rest in the tent and the highlight of the boys’ holiday, rolling about in the sleeping bags pretending to be caterpillars. More water slide and rapid fun, followed by ice-creams and playground, then another evening trip to the beach. This time it didn’t go quite as well as the big boys both fell into the waves fully dressed and emerged soaking, crying and traumatised. We had spare clothes in the van so got them all sorted but from their point of view it was a disaster. We got back to the tent and after hot chocolate they got into their sleeping bags and were fine.

And then today we did some more pool stuff before packing up and driving home via Ikea (which is so far away that we tend to make the most of it whenever we pass by).

They’re nice, holidays.


October 12th, 2012

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Our eldest goes to school – he’s a few weeks into his second year. Here’s how it works….

School’s obligatory from age 6, but most children go from age 3, some even younger if the school will accept them. Soren’s school has two sides; the little ones (maternelle 3-6) and the big ones (primaire 6-9). There are 30 children in his school.

So we drop Soren off between 09:05 and 09:15 and he hangs his coat and bag up on his little hook, takes his shoes off and puts on his slippers (chaussons). He goes through into the classroom and puts his name tag on the board then sits at one of the tables to do a puzzle or some drawing for a bit before the structured part of the day begins. Parents can help their child with the slippers bit but once the children have gone into the classroom we have to go; there were too many instances of children screaming and clinging to their parents so the teachers decided a clean break was the answer.

There’s a break mid-morning when they play outside in the courtyard, but only when it’s not raining or cold. When the weather’s even slightly unpleasant the teachers keep them indoors. They never get to play on the grass because (apparently) in the winter the ground’s too wet and in the summer the ground’s too hard. Given they’re only in their 20s, the teachers have old lady attitudes to children and the outdoors!

Lunch break is at 12:15. They go off hand in hand with one of their friends in a neat line to the cantine where they have, for example,

Bœuf bourguignon avec pommes de terre
Crêpe à la confiture.

After lunch the younger ones (3, 4 and sometimes 5 year olds) have a nap. Then more school stuff, a mid-afternoon break, then we go and pick Soren up at 16:45. Regardless of the weather he’ll be wearing everything in his bag – coat, hat, gloves, scarf, even if it’s hot and sunny!

School is Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; they get Wednesday off.

We went on holiday

September 3rd, 2012

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Soren & the mountain

Living here has been a little like an extended holiday so we have never felt the urge to actually go on holiday. However, we have fallen into dull routines and got fed up of the things to do around here… so we went on holiday!

The whole of France goes on holiday in August so we timed our trip to be right at the end, just before school starts again, when everyone else has gone home. We drove down to the Ariège region of the Pyrenees (straight down from Toulouse) and camped at 800m in a deserted little campsite that’s actually a donkey farm. The owner told me as we left that one of his donkeys had been attacked by a bear in June, but he hadn’t wanted to tell me until we were leaving. That’s the thoughtful type of people you get in this area of France.

It was really cold. We drove around, going for walks and looking about. One afternoon we took the boys to a tree climbing place where they wear harnesses and do fun-looking things. We had a nice meal in a very pretty cafe. We ate the world’s biggest croque-monsieur.

After a couple of days there we drove part of the way back, stopping at Ikea (we needed some things and our nearest one is 3 hours away, so it made sense… except that it was heaving and took ages) before desperately trying to find a campsite in the dark. We finally found somewhere at 21:30 but it was closed. We drove through a gap in the fence and pitched our tent anyway, and it turned out fine.

The following day we drove to the Dordogne and had a splash about in the river. And that was it; we drove back home and the boys went crazy playing with all the toys they hadn’t played with for 3 days.

Just a short holiday, but a nice one.

Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain.

April 26th, 2012

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It’s raining.

It started 10th April and it hasn’t stopped.

Not just rain but mega downpours. And hail, hail the size of, er, normal hail stones.

And the weather forecast says it’s going to keep on raining forever. And gales on Sunday.

Maybe it’s time to move on. Hawaii has nice weather doesn’t it?


My trip to the local garage

March 8th, 2012

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Our van is making some strange noises so, on the recommendation of a neighbour, I called the local garage. I just wanted them to have a quick listen and tell me what it could be; we’d arrange what to do about fixing it afterwards depending on what they reckoned.

So I drove over for 09:30, as agreed. The place is like those desolate garages you see in American movies, with shells of cars dotted around the forecourt and piles of discarded parts against every outer surface of the corrugated metal workshop. There was smoke coming from round the back, black smoke that smelled like tyres.

I found Claude and he asked if I wanted a coffee. I declined. He then asked if I minded if he went to get something to eat as he’d missed breakfast. OK, I said, figuring it might pay to be friendly and get him on my side seeing as he was about to assess my van. We walked over to what the sign above said was a cafe, but it wasn’t a cafe any more, it was the garage’s break room. He offered me a coffee again and this time I accepted, perching myself on the edge of a bench and admiring the tastefully decorated ‘walls of porn’. He opened the fridge door and got out some eggs, some ham and some salami, fried himself some eggs, then sat down to eat his fried eggs along with 4 or 5 slices of ham. The salami wasn’t for him; he fed slices of it to his dog. He poured himself a glass of red wine from the open bottle on the table, downed it, filled it again, then took a modest sip. Once he’d finished his eggs and ham he made himself a brie sandwich and alternated between a bite of that and a spoonful of strawberry jam. He knocked back the remaining wine then got up to fill the bottle from a wine box on top of the fridge, sat down and poured himself a third glass. We chatted about cars, computers, hornets.

After about half an hour he finally finished his drink, picked up his plate and dumped it in the sink, then said let’s go and see the van. I opened the bonnet and started the engine, he poked his head in to listen then took out his mobile, pressed some buttons and chatted to someone for a few minutes – I think it might have been his mum. Eventually he came out from under the bonnet to tell me he thought it was probably something like one of the filters or maybe an air pipe that was blocked, nothing too serious, call me next week to arrange dropping it round.

They’re rare these days but I do think I’ve found a good, reliable mechanic.

We’re one year old today!

February 4th, 2012

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It was on the 4th February last year that we finally arrived at our modest French house and embarked on this little adventure.

That first night we camped in what is now the dining room, sleeping on inflatable mattresses that slowly deflated during the night. The next few days were spent exploring the house and the barns, excitedly discovering new things, figuring out where things would go and how we’d make our mark on the place.

A year’s a long time and we’d have done loads of stuff even if we hadn’t moved to France, but here’s some of what we’ve been up to.

  • We’ve renovated most of the house
    7 of the 8 downstairs rooms have been redecorated, the attic has (very nearly) been converted into 2 bedrooms, a septic tank and sand filter has been installed, the electrics redone, the little house in the courtyard has been re-roofed, and a couple of extraneous barns have been knocked down.
  • We’re self-sufficient-ish
    Actually we’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but we’re doing bits of it; the real deal must be seriously hard work!
    So we dug loads of vegetable beds and grew onions, garlic, peppers, aubergines, squashes, green beans, borlotti beans, carrots, parsnips, strawberries, rasperries, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. They were already here but we also had cherries, pears, peaches and plums.
    We got 6 chickens and set them up with a luxury chicken house and massive run, and they in return have given us 6 eggs every day.
    Corrie makes bread. Of course we buy baguettes but Corrie’s bread-making skills have been honed to the point that I prefer her loaves to those from the boulangerie.
    We don’t generate our own electricity, the well-water’s just for watering the garden, the heating is run on oil, we fill the van up with diesel about every 2 weeks… still a long way to go I think.
  • We’re spending pretty much all of our time together
    Apart from when Soren’s at school we’re all together. We’re not perfect – there’s the occasional *ahem* disagreement – but most of the time we have fun doing stuff with the boys or working on something as a family.
  • We have fun
    It’s nothing much and there are times when we’re bored, but overall we have fun. There’s weekly horse-riding for Soren, loads of stuff out in the garden such as a big sandpit, swings in various trees, a ‘secret den’, a slide, bikes and scooters, spades and soil and worms…. And for Corrie and me we have fun just doing everyday things, and seeing the boys enjoy themselves.
  • We’ve made friends
    We’ve got to know quite a few people, and even more to wave at as we’re driving along, and the boys have loads of friends to play with (all of whom are English I’m a little ashamed to admit).
  • We’ve explored a little bit
    Admittedly we’ve not gone very far, but we’ve been for walks around the tracks and woods around where we live and to be honest they’ve felt like enough of an adventure to satisfy us. We’ve spotted exciting wildlife and poked strange mushrooms and collected natural treasures and watched migrating birds and had picnics in the countryside and gone for bike rides….
  • Soren goes to school and is starting to speak French
    We’d originally thought home-schooling would suit us all best but that sort of thing simply doesn’t happen here. Plus we needed to kick-start his French as he was not keen on learning it from me! It’s working, and whilst he only goes to school for the mornings – 09:15 to 16:45 is a very long day for a 4 year old – he’s starting to enjoy it and develop new skills of which he is rightly proud.
  • I’m learning lots of new skills
    They’re mainly DIY-related, but I’m really enjoying making things and am getting pretty good. I don’t think I need to go into any detail as I’ve posted most of my projects on here already!
  • We’ve made another baby
    He’ll be here in May. Now that is going to be a real adventure!

In a year we’ve done all sorts of fun stuff. Hopefully we can have at least one more adventure-filled year.

First day in a French school

September 5th, 2011

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Soren went to school today, his first ever time. He did really well, had a lovely time, and we’re very proud. And given that it’s a French school and he doesn’t speak French yet, we were both rather relieved!

Our intention when embarking on our adventure here was to spend more time together, to develop and grow as individuals and as a family. The plan for education was therefore to home school.

There were three problems though. Firstly, neither of us is very organised. Secondly, Soren reacts quite strongly when he gets the faintest hint that we’re doing ‘teaching’. And thirdly, there are no French kids anywhere except in school.

Given these challenges, the most significant of which was getting him exposed to as much French as possible, and the fact that we thought Soren would actually quite like to go to school, we signed him up. It’s not quite as big a deal as we originally feared since up to the age of 6 it’s all games and painting and stories and singing and so on.

There are a total of 16 children in his class: a couple of 3 year olds, half a dozen 4 year olds and a several 5 year olds. They hang their little rucksacks up on their hook, take their shoes off and put their slippers on, then go through into the classroom with tiny tables and chairs and various collections of toys and things to do. There’s a walled courtyard/playground out the back with some heavy-duty trikes. The teacher seems nice, the classroom assistant wears what looks like butcher’s overalls. It all seems sort of cute, slightly run down, but overall what you might imagine a typical little French school to be like. Hopefully Soren will continue to enjoy it there, make lots of friends, and learn lots!

Local festivities… for local people

August 27th, 2011

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Summer in rural France is a fun-packed whirlwind of local events. A couple of weeks ago our nearest town transformed itself into a fairground whilst it played host to four days of the ‘fête de Saint Étienne’.

As far as I could work out this involved the same fairground rides that had been to all the other events in the region over the last 6 weeks, a car boot sale, and some exceedingly grumpy ‘elders’ dressing up in costumes doing stuff that looked traditional.

It was all good fun, if a little casual: no-one knew when anything was happening, most of it took place in the street which was a main road that hadn’t been closed off, and it didn’t look like any of the participants enjoyed taking part. It was all rather odd and spectacularly naff, and therefore rather fun!

The best bit from our point of view was the fair. Milo had his first go on a merry-go-round and (contrary to the photo above) loved it, so much so that we had to prise his fingers from the steering wheel and pull his screaming body away from the ride. He got another go a bit later on; unfortunately it was the same scenario at the end that time too.

We introduced him to candy floss – I think he liked it.

Soren and I went on the bumper cars, which was brilliant fun! Some friends had bought a load of tokens for the bumper cars but their little boy hadn’t liked it so they gave them to us. We had three goes one day and popped down the next evening for another go.

Soren’s favourite thing there was the bouncy trampolines, the ones where you wear a harness and go boinging very, very high, doing somersaults and firing up into the air like a reverse bungy.

There was lots more to do I think, such as dinner in a marquee by the town lake, fireworks at about 11pm, a petanque tournament…. We were happy enough with the fair, candy floss, slushy and churros though. It turns out that even though we live in the middle of nowhere there’s actually quite a lot to do… in the summer.

Almost there

January 31st, 2011

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Ben is in France!  Today he visited the house to inspect everything and find out how the heating / septic tank / oil tank and all that stuff work.

Our currency exchange people have already transferred the money to the notaire, so tomorrow he just has to sign the final contract and the house will be ours!

It is pretty weird to be moving to a house that I have never seen and that Ben has only seen for 15 minutes, 7 months ago.  It seems that the inspection went well – everything works, the roof hasn’t blown away over the winter, and there is hot water and heating.  I can’t wait for next week when we can all explore properly and finally find out what we are letting ourselves in for!

Setback #1: we’re not moving in 4 weeks

October 6th, 2010

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We were gearing up to sign the contract at the end of October and move over to France at the beginning of November.

It’s not happening like that any more.

Our estate agent got in touch this morning to let us know that there’s a problem and it could be another 3 months! The owner, an elderly lady, needs the permission of her sons in order to sell one of the parcels of land – no-one realised until now. The trouble is, one of her sons is under care so he can’t make any legal decisions, a judge has to do it on his behalf.

This will take time.

So all our plans – removals booked, 2nd car sold, finishing work, storage, pet passports – are scrapped and we’re awaiting a new timescale.

It’s not a good day.

How to buy a house in France… or how we’re doing it

September 28th, 2010

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We’re buying a house in France. How have we done it? Well, it’s a long story, and it’s not over yet, but here’s how it happened….

After coming to the conclusion that I’d quite like to not spend all day sitting in an office and in fact we’d quite like to spend our time together and grow stuff (vegetables, children), make stuff (treehouse, jam), do stuff (learning, camping) we decided we’d give the Guardian-reading cliché of a simpler, slower life a go.

We had a quick look around the internet and discovered that France could offer the basis for this sort of lifestyle, and with our modest budget, we’d probably be OK for a year or so – hopefully long enough to figure stuff out.

We bookmarked Green Acres and JB French Houses and soon found a place that seemed suitable in Limousin. We emailed to arrange a viewing and I flew over to Limoges in France to have a look.

That first trip in January 2009 was a bit of a failure: going all that way to see one property was naive. The second trip in June 2009 was better but I crammed in too many property viewings and it was a little hectic.

However, I did see a little house with a big barn and 1 1/2 acres that I really liked. So we all went back to see it and once we got back home to England put in an offer. The offer was accepted early July 2009 and the (slow) process of buying a house in France began.

Unfortunately the sale fell through because after three months one of the four owners decided she would actually like to keep it. Grrr! Baby number two was on his way by then so it was probably too late to start the whole process again, but I had one more trip over to France to look at a load of properties, all of which were unsuitable. Gutted, we put the whole thing to one side and focussed on our everyday life and the new baby, and even started looking for houses in England and Wales, although with a little less enthusiasm.

Baby number two (Milo) arrived, safe and sound and lovely in January 2010 and our thoughts turned to our France adventure once again. Using the same websites as before we put together a new list of properties, this time in Brittany. I flew over in February 2010, viewed 7 properties and had a good look round the area and decided it wasn’t for us. So back to the internet, and another new list of properties was compiled; in June 2010 I went back to Limoges to view loads more. This time I saw two suitable places! Given my experience on previous trips this was a rare success. We put in an offer on my favourite and on 11th July 2010 it was accepted.

As you can see from the date of this post that was a while ago, and it’s still not finished… but we’re getting there. This is how it’s gone so far…

  • We put in an offer and it was accepted 11th July.
  • The compromis (initial agreement between seller and buyer) was drawn up and arrived by registered delivery 16th August (3 weeks late due to some misplaced deeds :-/)
  • The signed compromis was returned, signed by the seller, our 7-day cooling off period passed, then the file was given to the notaire (solicitor) 15th September.

Hopefully we should get the keys 31st October. I’ll let you know.

We’re moving to France!

July 11th, 2010

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It’s a pretty basic little place in the Haute-Vienne (sort of in the middle to the left), with several outbuildings, a couple of acres and lots of potential. Most importantly though it’s cheap: £65,000. We tried to find something similar in the UK but smaller places with less land were at least £200,000. So although moving to France is perhaps a little drastic, it seems like a sensible option, at least to us.

This is why it seems sensible to us….

I spend my days traveling to work, sitting at a desk in front of a computer, then traveling back, hardly seeing my children or daylight: I leave at 7:30am and get back at 6:30pm. Earning the money to pay for their life does make some sense – millions of westerners across the globe do things this way and my working day is certainly nothing unusual – but is there another way to do things? Could we live more simply, focussing on time rather than money?

Now we do have a bit of money stashed away, earned by buying a knackered house, doing it up, selling it, buying another knackered house, doing it up, selling it, then living in a rented house whilst our plan took shape. That should make it easier to not have to focus on money for a little while – not forever, but hopefully long enough for us to be able to figure out a way of getting a good healthy balance back into our lives.

So what was our plan going to be? We started talking through several alternative lifestyles around 2006/07.

  • We could buy a motorhome and travel around Europe.
  • Or even a yacht!

With 2 children and 3 dogs though it’s not straightforward.

  • Or how about buying some woods and living in a big tent?

Hmm, that sounds nice in summer but it would be nasty in winter.

  • Let’s move abroad!

Yeah, maybe. But it’s complicated, it’s not a wise way to spend a deposit on a house, what about the children and starting school, what about our family and friends here in the UK, what if we never find any work out there….

We know, we know. That’s why we’re calling it an adventure!

These are the photos taken by the estate agent. It looks better in real life… just about.