Sometimes when I am lying awake at three in the morning and I have exhausted all the usual worries – work, money, old age, children – I start to worry about our house in Castelnaudary. Can we really justify the luxury of a second home? Should we try to rent it out? Will it suddenly fall down? This last one is a bit bizarre. The house has been standing for 300 years and will outlast us, but thoughts at three in the morning aren’t usually very rational.
I know when my worry about our French home will disappear. It isn’t when we first arrive there. The house is a four storey “maison bourgeoise” in the centre of town. The front half of the ground floor is used as a shop so our entrance is at the back of the building, along a narrow, not very pretty, alleyway. But when we open the front door and step inside I know what to do. I walk the length of the hallway and then look up. I look up through a central staircase that ascends four floors to the minstrel’s gallery at the top of the house, the whole illuminated by a skylight in the roof. The sight never fails me. The first time we viewed the house and I looked up like that, all I could say in in my best French was, “Mon Dieu”. The estate agent standing next to me must have known at that point that he had made a sale.
Then it’s up the shallow, broad stairs inlaid with tiles to the next floors. The house is a simple design; each of those floors has two massive, perfectly proportioned rooms on either side of the staircase. We open up the shutters in every room and we’re home again. It’s time to remember the things we have forgotten. The espadrilles left behind because we only wear them when we’re here. The foothills of the Pyrenees seen from the top front bedroom. The swimming towels used on trips to the nearby Lac de St Férreol. The sound of French voices drifting up from the square outside. The sun lighting up the alleyway in the late afternoon.
Of course it’s not all perfect. The damp in the cellar seems to be getting progressively worse, there’s a small hole in one of the party walls and a large plant growing on the roof. My husband has tried to lassoo the plant with a rope via the skylight but without success.
The first drink of the holiday always takes place at Café de l’Industrie, a short walk away. Ali the owner never forgets us and shakes our hands, a favour only given to regulars. As I sit there enjoying my pastis and admiring the plane trees lining the cours de la République I know why we’re here. In the words of the American Express ad, it’s priceless. That’s something to remember at three in the morning.