Avignon, France

Gordon and Penny

Gordon and Penny live part-time in southern France, just out of Avignon, in a wonderful village that is centred on the wine industry.

Avignon with the Pope's Palace

Gordon always wanted a place in Europe. “When I was 20, I was working in the UK. I always said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we owned a pub here (in the UK) and spent six months of the year in France’. So I always had something in mind.” 

After visiting France many times over 20 years or so, he and his partner Penny, “decided on a whim that we should buy a place”. That was 15 years ago. 

“It was Gordon’s whim,” said Penny. “My idea was: ‘Why would you do something so crazy?’ I think holiday houses in Australia are silly. Why would you buy a place 22 hours away? We don’t even speak the language.”

 Gordon pointed out “It was a bit of an adventure – the proverbial Peter Mayle job.”

Peter Mayle wrote the international best seller, A Year in Provence.

But Gordon and Penny still love Sydney and the beach. And they do not like Provence in winter.

“We spent last Christmas here. It is not the place to be in winter. If you want to spend a winter in Europe you would spend it on a ski field. This place shuts down in winter. In Australia, winter might retard your activities by 30 per cent – here it retards you by 75 per cent. I take my hat off to anyone who would stay here all year ad infinitum,” said Gordon.

“Australia is just fantastic – a magnificent country. We live in Newport (Sydney) – I don’t want to leave it permanently. I don’t want to sit through another European winter”, he added.

So now they live two lives – a French life and an Australian life. And they love the contrast.

The story of how they pursued their dream is an instructive one for those who want to follow suit. It is also an amusing tale.

The process of buying what was the shell of a stone terrace house in the centre of a rather famous wine producing town in Provence tells us, perhaps, a little about Penny’s passions.

Penny and her sister (who spoke French) came over to France to find a house.

As Penny tells the story, “We were looking around and had some bizarre experiences. We had an appointment with an agent and she said ‘Are you going to the wine festival in the next village? You buy a glass and they fill it up all weekend for you’.”

“And we thought, ‘that is just what we need’. So we ditched the real estate agent and came here. We pulled in, there was a parking space, we got out, they offered us a glass, we walked everywhere and they kept topping it up”.

 Years ago, the wine used to come out of the town fountain during the festival.

Penny and her sister, glasses in hand, wandered through the town and wound around a corner and  “There was an agent with the door open – he had a photo of exactly what we wanted – a little house on the prairie with the vineyards and everything.”

The agent showed them a couple of houses in town as well. The choice ended up being between the town terrace wreck or the French country house.

They went for the wreck.

There were good reasons for this – principally transport. It was easy to access via train from Paris to Avignon and then either taxi or bus to their village. And the house in town had a garage, somewhere to store their car when they were back in Australia over the European winter months.

 But the house was a ruin. A previous owner had decided to renovate, but all he did was demolish. There were no floors at all and parts of the roof had collapsed.

Penny, often with the help of her sister, spent about three months each year for two years in the village, handling the reconstruction.

That’s how Penny learnt a lot of her French. With language, you learn fast when you have to.

But there are always those cultural-linguistic errors. Penny had one.

Her sister’s name was Cheryl and she referred to her as Cher. “In the village, I would call out to her, ‘Cher’, which means ‘love’ in French. So the villagers initially thought the new owners were lesbians.”

Penny said, “Once we started working on the house we became known around the village as Rambo one and Rambo two.”

Nowadays, the three-level stone house is superb. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a sunny terrace situated in the newly designed roof. Large doors open out from the kitchen/living area onto the roof-terrace.

One bedroom, that also leads into the kitchen and living area, was so perfect for guests, that after three years Penny decided to run it as a B&B. Now she spends about 8 months a year in Provence while Gordon manages about half of that.

“We have had the best time. We have met the best people. And the ones who are a little strange make fantastic conversation. We have had probably about three really strange people,” said Penny.

Gordon added that: “Most guests have been fantastic and, if you get Australians, they are on the adventure of a lifetime. Good senses of humour, easy maintenance, look after themselves. But they are always bad for our liver. You get people who don’t really drink back home who then turn into lushes for a week (on holiday) – that sort of thing.”

Penny provides breakfast – croissants, fruit, cereal. At times, if guests want to stay in, she will also cook an evening meal.

So again, life has taken a very rich and interesting turn for Penny and Gordon at 60. No RSL club in Warriewood for them.

The process of buying a property in France is vastly different to the process of buying property in Australia.  A French real estate agent at one stage tried to sell Gordon and Penny a property that had a long term tenant; a rented property.

Tenants in France have significant rights and purchasing a property that is tenanted can be a nightmare.

Also in France, rather than using a solicitor or conveyancer, you use a notaire. The notaire can and often does act for both buying and selling parties. This seems odd to an Australian.

The transaction costs are high. The notaire receives about 7 per cent of the property purchase price. This includes government stamp duty.

Like many people living in France, though, Penny and Gordon are financially comfortable; not rich, but well-off enough to be able to travel annually to France and spend between three months and eight months a year there.