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David Robbins: Saux long to my dream of owning a French chateau

Fate had put it up to me this time. I had been dreaming about buying the Chateau de Saux in the south-west of France for years. And now it was up for sale. Viewing was by appointment only, but I didn't need to view it. I had been gazing lovingly at it for a decade.

It was a stone's throw from where we went every summer. Sure, didn't we get married down here? Didn't I "live" down here for six months? (Well, OK, three.) Haven't we been coming here for years? Saux? Why, I'm practically a native. It's funny what you can convince yourself of when your heart is bent on something. In my own mind, I had already bought the place and had moved on to wondering if droit de seigneur still operated this far south.

"Hold your chevaux, mon ami," said the wife. "Why don't you talk to some ex-pats who already live here?"

She had a point. Or, as the French say, a "point". So I spoke to ex-pats around Cahors and Agen, and another lot further north, near Gaillac. They were mostly English, but there were some Irish too. One couple I met through friends was typical. He was a retired businessman. They were wealthy and could afford a large maison bourgeoise with a pool, outbuildings and some land. They employed a full-time gardener to look after the grounds, and a housekeeper came for a few hours every day to do the laundry and tidy the house. Their friends had similar arrangements.

They were retired, middle-class people with large houses. They played bridge together and went to admire each other's homes.

My typical couple had Sky's satellite TV service, and used it to listen to BBC Radio 4 during the day. A box set of Downton Abbey was being passed around among their friends this summer. They liked to visit brocantes (antique fairs) in the area, buying up old French lace, bed linen and napiery. Napkins embroidered with initials are popular, because they make a nice gift to a friend who shares the same initials.

This couple were not anti-French by any means. They simply wanted to live an English middle-class life in a French landscape, with better food, wine and weather than they might have in Chiswick.

It struck me too how little this kind of life had changed since the days of Jane Austen. There are still the visits and the obligatory admiration of the host's home and taste, the card games and the gossip. The modern version is a little speeded-up, that's all, because they don't have to travel everywhere by horse.

My source couple did not have much to do with the native population. They did, however, know a former lesbian (French) who had left her partner (French) to take up with a heterosexual English man. This had caused quite a stir, both sexually and geopolitically. Other couples I met in the area had been there for years, yet did not speak French.

"I don't have to," said one ex-engineer. There was one economy for the ex-pats, he explained, and another for the French. The ex-pats were serviced by an army of English/Irish builders, brickies, plumbers, pool maintenance people and even caterers. They simply didn't have to interact with the French.

This region of France used to be the English-French border during the 100 Years War. There were medieval tax breaks available from the English to build fortified "bastide" towns and so consolidate the English presence. In the 1980s, there was another English invasion.

"A peaceful one this time," joked one Frenchman who has seen the English come and go around the Dordogne.

Now, the English are retreating again. Their pensions have collapsed and they can no longer afford to keep two houses. The Dordogne, says my French friend, is a sea of For Sale signs.

"Mind you, it's not easy to get to know the French either," an Englishwoman who lives near Agen all year round told me. "They keep to themselves, they have their family life, and they're all in bed by 9.30pm."

It takes time to break into French society. "After about five years, you might be invited over for an aperatif," says an Irish artist living in Quercy. "And five years after that, you get the call to come for an actual meal."

I took a last drive past the Chateau de Saux. I looked at its tower, its pigeonnier, its Cypress trees and its pool terrace.

"We couldn't have bought it anyway," said my wife at my elbow. "Unless you have €900,000 stashed away somewhere that I don't know about."

"I know," I sighed. "But I can dream, can't I? Saux long, then."

drobbins@independent.ie

Indo Review