They are calling the time after coronavirus “the new normal”. It seemed a good idea to use some of our long days of confinement while in lockdown to try and define what this might mean for Le Moulin de Pensol.
We weren’t enormous fans of the old normal. In fact, getting away from the old normal was what brought us out to France in the first place. We disliked what the English call the rat race. The constant quest for money to service enormous debt on houses that you hardly ever saw because you were out working or commuting long distances to and from work. Using some of that money to pay for treats to make it all seem worth it – a new phone upgrade, an expensive package holiday, new clothes that you may only wear a few times before they go out of fashion. And, of course, wine and whiskey to mask the pain of the knowledge that on Monday, you will have to get up and do it all over again.
So perhaps this desperately tricky period is a chance to redefine what we all want from life. For us, Covid has pushed us further down the road we were already voluntarily travelling. We hope the future holds significantly more self-sufficiency in terms of food production while looking after this area’s incredible biodiversity.
We have enjoyed having the time to read widely on permaculture, pasture management and no-dig gardening systems and have watched hours of YouTube videos on how to train mules and donkeys to be valuable substitutes for lawnmowers, and tractors and cars. I have signed us up to the French WWOOF network (Working on Organic Farms), where willing like-minded volunteers come and work on your land to exchange skills in return for accommodation and food.
We have also spent a lot of time restoring the old fruit orchard at the top of our land. This used to be a pick-your-own (PYO), and we have inherited hundreds of blueberry, currant and gooseberry bushes.
While I am happy to make jam which we can then serve to guests as part of breakfasts, I don’t remotely have enough time or patience to pick the harvest that we are likely to get from these plants now that we have pruned and cared for them a little. So the idea is to open an English style PYO, where people can come to Le Moulin, enjoy picking fruit in the sunshine and admiring the butterflies and bees while they do so, then perhaps have a coffee and a slice of cake over on the island serenaded by the twinkling River Bandiat.
If the season is right, they might like to buy a bunch of sweet peas, or some jam, or a pumpkin, or whatever else we have available at the time. I am not sure that courgettes ever really have a financial value during the summer – they can probably have those for free! After talking to the donkeys over the fence, they could be on their way, having whiled away a pleasant half-day, taking with them all the ingredients for supper.
The knock-on effect of this increase in French visitors is that our language skills need to improve radically. We cannot continue just to muddle by. To this end, I have signed up for a skype course run by a local Frenchman and absolutely loved my first lesson.
Did you know the French hardly ever use the terms dejeuner and diner? They say a midi or ce soir. Dejeuner and diner sound absurdly posh and overblown, especially when said with an English accent. Remember, the French we learnt was 30 years ago at school. From textbooks written by 50 year old men speaking the language, they themselves had learnt 30 years earlier. It’s hardly surprising the language has moved on a bit. I am looking forward to learning lots more gems like that!
The new normal for our visitors, be they bed and breakfast or gite guests, will also need to be designed. I know people will be reluctant to travel and nervous about interacting with people again. We will need to reassure them, and I think we are well placed to do this as we have so much space, and it should be easy to maintain some social distancing measures for all our guests.
Our B&B breakfast table, for example, is so large it is easy for guests to have breakfast separately, even if all three rooms are occupied. And we don’t have a set breakfast time, so it is unlikely that guests will bump into each other.
We will also amend our booking procedures. I will no longer take deposits or any payment in advance, as it seems likely that there may be future lockdowns as the virus peaks and declines. Repayment of deposits has been one of the most painful aspects of all of this for us financially.
Bookings will be made on a “pencil you in and see how it goes” basis. The PYIANSHIG principle. I may copyright that!