Vive La Différence

IMG_1567Things are done just a little bit differently in France, and quite rightly so;  for, when in France, one should expect that things are done ‘the French way’. But even loving it as we do, it still means that sometimes we walk into the unknown, not quite knowing what to expect.

Over the years we have come across numerous things that at first caught us by surprise but that now seem so commonplace that we don’t give them a second thought, and often it’s not until a visitor makes a comment that suddenly we realise that what we take as normal is indeed anything but.

Take – for example – the very simplest of things, like moving a piece of furniture upstairs. For most people this involves some muscle from a male member of the family and a friend. For us, though, it means opening the ‘coffin-hatch’. This is a hole in our ceiling, directly over the hallway, where two side-by side portions of the floor are lifted up on hinges and latched into place against the wall.

P1000900Originally intended to be a means of removing a coffin and its contents after several days of lying in state in a bedroom, the coffin-hatch is a French affair that never fails to enthral.  Opening the hatch is scary, revealing an 80cm by 230cm hole through which it would be only too easy to fall. Despite its terrors, though, it’s a very simple system that has been operating for hundreds of years. I mean, why should we even bat an eyelid at this! After all, there is no other way that anything large is ever going to come up or go down.

Roddy unwraps the block and tackle that sleeps in the crook of a built-in gantry – two lengths of right-angled iron concreted into place in the first-floor wall. He whips the hauling chain through the fixed block in the gantry and the standing chain and moveable block, complete with lifting hook, descends into the hallway with aplomb. I then take command on the first floor while he descends to deal with the item that is going to go aloft.


The furniture is carefully wrapped in a pair of strops whose looped ‘eyes’ are then carefully placed on the hook,  at which point I start to work on the hauling chain until the slack is taken up and very slowly, but surely, the heavy and often antique item is hoisted up onto the first-floor landing.


Our garden watering-system is also a little on the archaic side. We have a well, and there is nothing unusual in that, of course, as many houses in rural or semi-rural areas have one too. This precious liquid is quite expensive in France, which is another attraction for a free source of it. The actual process of ours however, is somewhat bewildering to the newcomer. I’ve shown the system on the blog before, because it fascinates me, but when I first saw it, I was as dumbstruck as anyone else who visits us for the first time. Firstly, there is an old wheel and pump that no longer draws up the water – it is now redundant, a cobwebbed relic of the past that sits like a shadow against the wall. But one that we refuse to remove, it is a part of the history. It has been replaced by a far more sophisticated system which was installed in the 1930’s and involves an electrical pump, which at the time must have been quite a novelty in itself.  The pump still works just fine and the only nod to the 21st century is some new wiring, put in place when we arrived.


The system has a vast and very heavy pressurised cast-iron holding tank, a pressure gauge, various taps and knobs to be turned and pulled, and metres and metres of old lead pipe and garden hosepipe.


Even though the workings seemed so confusing and complicated at first, it has become second nature to operate for me now, I could do it with my eyes closed and as a result our potager is thriving.


So you see, one way or another, I thought I knew how most things work in France, but there was still one thing in the French system that I had not experienced; university. Millie will be starting at a French university in September and we’ve had a crash course in learning how the system works. The academic side was somewhat easy,  as we were helped by teachers and friends, and Millie held our hand through all of this, the child teaching the parent!

But this week, we had to find accommodation. Unlike the system that I know very well in the UK, it’s all somewhat different here. University is free, which is AMAZING! But there are no halls of residence as such. That wonderful first year in Great Britain where one knows one’s child is going to be eased gently into the big grown-up world does not exist. In France they are out there on their own, so to speak, and so were all of Millie’s friends; we quickly found ourselves in the desperate search for accommodation. Studio apartments disappear quicker than one can read the advert, dial the number and then talk to the owner. Too late! – we became used to rooms being let to someone a few seconds quicker off the mark.


Millie is going to Poitiers. We knew we had to move fast, they have a huge shortage of flats and other accommodation. Monday saw us driving north for a couple of hours to look at possible choices. We were not the only ones, there were several others waiting to look around, each with that slightly lost-at-sea look on their faces, no one really knowing quite what to do. Whether English or French, this was a new phase in these very young adult’s lives.


We decided we would have to be quick off the mark, and we both knew the second one we looked at was ideal – with a city-centre location in a beautiful old building which had started life as a private home. The view from the window out over the rooftops made me think of a movie, but I cannot remember which one!


I can think of worse views to wake up to!


Certain this was ‘the one’, I stepped forward and spoke to the owner; we would take it, I said, before anyone else could beat us to it. We shook hands. Others, too slow and still in discussion, looked bemused at being beaten to the chase. I felt awful for a moment before realising that if I had not spoken then someone else would have done – and it would have been us with long faces heading down the stairs to another listing. In our haste though, I added insult to injury as I reached into my bag to retrieve my cheque book to write the deposit and realised that I didn’t have a pen. Our prospective landlord didn’t either, and he had the audacity to ask the last girl leaving if she had one. Not only had we bagged the apartment and left her empty-handed, we were now borrowing her pen to seal the deal!

Paper work completed, we walked with a certain spring in our steps for less than a minute to the pedestrianised city centre, found a delightful cafe and sat outside with a much-needed coffee.


We were overlooking the 12th century carvings of the impressive Roman Catholic church, Église Notre-Dame la Grande. The whole of the building was rebuilt in the second half of the 11th century, in a Romanesque style and was inaugurated in 1086 by the future Pope Urban II.


I am ashamed to say I had not very good and totally uneducated, preconceived ideas about Poitiers. Much of it formed in my mind from visits to tennis-courts on the outskirts of the city. I had no idea that the city-centre was this gorgeous and now I cannot wait to visit more often.



The sun played hide and seek all morning long.


Slowly the number of people walking down the streets dwindled and instead the restaurants filled up. It was lunchtime.


Poitiers abounds with charming narrow streets and half timbered buildings. There are numerous tree lined squares and a buzzing café scene.


We passed by the huge medieval buildings of the Palace of Justice which began its life as the seat of the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine in the tenth through twelfth centuries.


Poitiers was indeed a complete surprise, and like so many things one comes across in France, was yet another example of when to ‘never judge a book by its cover’!


45 thoughts on “Vive La Différence

  1. We have a pulley system too for getting things up and down into the loft. Millie will love Poitiers…there are lots of eating places and cafes and quaint streets…a really lively place. We certainly do and she will be nearer to you. What is she going to study? Your vegetable patch looks wonderful. This year we got our first crop of our own cherries just like yours…pale red..we are still having wall to wall sunshine about 30 degrees.

    1. Hi Denise – I totally agree with you, I think Poitiers is right up Millie’s street. I hope she settles in quickly, and it gives me a great place to go for the weekend occasionally, too! I can see a sofa bed is going to be on our shopping list! Congratulations on your cherries!! XX

  2. Hi Susan, well done in finding such a beautiful apartment for Millie, those views are amazing! It looks a very historic city, and I suppose the outskirts of many cities are sadly a bit grim. I agree with you that it’s strange for the new students not to have the security of halls of residence, it really is throwing them into the deep end, isn’t it? Good luck to Millie when she begins her course, I’m sure she’ll have a great time, and I’m sure you’ll really enjoy discovering the city with her too. xxx

  3. Hi, I have been to France and never seen the hatch before. Now I will be looking next time I go, what a great idea!

  4. Millie; félicitations, you go to uni and Poitiers is a lovely, lovely, wonderful, just right in size place to be – AND you’ve got yourself a room in the old town center. Just HOW lucky can you get?! Such great news 🙂
    Wish it would be possible to find something suitable like yours in Zürich…. The daughter of a friend of ours is looking for a room to start her off at university. Her father, after months of searching and going ‘further and further’ away from Zurich, gave up looking for anything IN town and booked her a room or a share some 20’ by train away. She is NOT HAPPY at all but I think she needs to learn a thing or two, about ‘wanting’ and ‘getting by’…. Maybe this will teach her a lesson in being modest when you can’t have the 1st prize!

    I have never ever in my whole time heard or seen any talk about those coffin hatches. Learned something today. What a great way of storing stuff away. Last week we had a visit for the sale of our house and the lady asked HOW did you get your bed up here? Hers large one (same size as ours) has apparently been sitting in the garage over the past few years! I shall from now on think: You need a coffin hatch!!!! 😉

    We don’t have permission to use the water of our well. The puy is more than 30m deep and at the beginning we wondered if we could add a pump to get the water up for the garden. But quickly we were told that NO we couldn’t…. We have a water shortage already, and all our rain water, collected in a huge container under the lawn, is totally empty. We now only have clean tap water for everything. I see huge water bill looming!

  5. I also meant to comment on those lovely wild flowers around the church. Came home from CH late last night and a surprise visit at my mum’s home. She took me for a walk to show me the private garden of utter loveliness of a family who had a gem of wildflower garden in front of their garden stone wall. I would have loved to take pictures but had left my handbag with phone camera in the car….. I shall look at your lovely picture instead, Susan – thank you for all of this

    1. Dear Kiki – I think we have fallen on our feet with the room, for sure. It is going to be very convenient, and close to other friends, too. Millie is making so many plans, you wouldn’t believe it!

      Everything went up there – bed and all. We might have had to repaint one or two scratches afterwards, but ti all went up there!!

      And as for water bills – well, I can totally sympathise. We know all about that! I have half a mind to put all our grey water from the sink into a barrel, as well as the rainwater. We shall need help too if this heat continues!

      Must rush, talk more later XXX

  6. How exciting for Millie. I thought she might be going to another country for university. Another wonderful adventure for the Hays family.
    That pulley system is brilliant. Could use it here…
    Ali xx

    1. Hello Ali! We debated long and hard about the UK, but MiIllie wanted stay close to home, and I can’t blame her. She can always go further afield when the time is right. Hope you are all well – when will you be in France this year? XX

  7. Congratulations to Millie. I’m afraid she’s going to be all completely grown before I see her again. Seems she already is. So happy for her and all of you. Miss you all.
    Love the French insights and your pictures are beautiful, Susan.

  8. Congratulations to Millie. Am glad she will be close for visits, and what a beautiful place to explore! We have a laundry chute to send dirty clothes down from upstairs. Wonder if possible to rig a block and tackle for a two way passage……..would be helpful for hauling things up and down…..that coffin door must be nicer than making tight turns on stairwells.

    1. Oh my lord, I am so happy we do not have a laundry chute, (A) more laundry than I could cope with would appear with far too much ease, and (2) I KNOW the children would try to come down it for a lark! I have images of Roddy and a saw in hand already!!! 🙂

  9. I remember stopping off in Poitiers for a night en route from Arles to England about 30 years ago. I loved it and vowed I would return. Do we think that might be long overdue by now? I’m delighted for Millie that she is going to the University she wants to go to and that she has got a lovely place to live. So important. I love your coffin hatch and the pumping system. You know we live in Metro-West Massachusetts (in other words less than 20 miles west of Boston) and we have well water. The other night my husband forgot to turn the hose off into the pool and it ran all night … result, pool overflowing and well showing signs of being almost dry (tell tell signs here are rust in the water and an odor of rotten eggs as a result of an algae that lives here). I am not praying that the storms forecast for tomorrow transpire 😓 xx

    1. OH NO! Can you buy water where you are, in a lorry? I remember running out of water too often in the Caribbean and having to suffer the ignominy of having the lorry come past with water for the cistern, all while the locals looked over the fence and made comments about the English who couldn’t curtail their usage….

      And yes – you are overdue for a visit – we should make it a mission to have a coffee there!

      1. Yes, our neighbors have the water lorry weekly. Usually we do OK and the water is now back to normal for the moment (but we did buy a second fridge for the basement and I have stacked it with eau minéral to conserve the water for bathing. I just need a good downpour to repair the pool to it’s correct level. I also need to be careful not to sound like a spoiled brat with that last remark!!! Poitiers for coffee sounds heavenly xx

  10. We have student accommodation in the form of halls of residence here in Rouen. You apply through CROUS which I think is National, and they allocate rooms and there are grants ( non refundable) for helping paying. Every student who applied through crous here gets 1k to help with the cost of living. We got a letter explaining that the state prefers students to work at their studies rather than getting a part time job, and so the state contributes to that ideal. If you are on lower incomes then that 1k is augmented depending the family précarité. Fabulous system. It puts the UK to shame with free university and non refundable grants. Then of course there are the Grande Écoles- that’s another story!

    1. This is all very interesting – Millie is now on a mission to find out if she can do something – thank you so much! I am amazed that no one at her school seems to have any idea about it – quite bizarre! Or as we have found a room is it too late??

      1. Sorry to delay writing Susan. I’m not sure small towns will have lodgings, but certainly big cities seem to. Bourses are allocated on family income but I think everyone gets 1000€ if they apply. Good luck! We applied through CROUS.

  11. Congratulations to Millie on going to Uni soon and starting a new chapter! Looks like you managed to find a great place for her, so very lucky!!

    I am always amazed at how different things are when you move countries. We have been in Canada for almost 10 years now, and like you, most of the things are normal to us now and it isn’t until we talk with family and friends that we realize it is somewhat unique to our country and/or province. So having gone through this once already, I am looking forward to see what surprises France will throw up for us when we make the move in 3 years time. So I am grateful to you for sharing your experiences with us all, it prepares me that little bit more!

  12. Another super post, Susan. So glad you got to see the real Poitiers – it’s one of my very favourite places! I even did two semesters at the uni there. And well done with the house hunting/flat hunting/studio hunting! It looks lovely, and that removes a bit of worry. All the best. I fly out to Russia tomorrow!

    1. Oooh – tell us all about Russia when you get back, please! Always wanted to go and visit – such a vast country and so much to see in so many different places. My sister in law is going to Mongolia later this year (five star jealousy) and will go through Russia as well. I need to buy a suitcase as a hint for Roddy!

  13. Poitiers looks like a charming place to go to University. Thank goodness you found a flat to rent.

    I remember your coffin hatch, I thought it was a little scary the last time you mentioned it.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

  14. Congratulations to Millie – methinks she is going to have an absolutely fabulous time – and if and when one needs a heart-to-heart with Mom and Dad, the distances are not overwhelming. Now: what will be her discipline? And does the room come with board or will she have to cook/get to know the local student haunts? I first went to Sydney Uni but also lived there, but had a number of gfs who ‘boarded’ – ie had room and food and bedlinen washed etc in someone’s private home . . . . our then Commonwealth Scholarships (without which most of us could not afford the six years 🙂 !) did pay some of those costs for out-of-town students . . .out of touch with the current system. Have never been to Poitiers but loved the photos and Mr Google has already been consulted . . . .

  15. Wow! I wish we’d visited Poitiers! It looks lovely and I’m sure Millie will be happy there once she settles in and finds her feet in her new life. I do so wish her all the best in the world, she’s such a lovely young lady and a credit to you both. The coffin drop – well I’d never heard of them until we visited St Fagan’s National Museum of History in Wales. It’s a really interesting place, with buildings from across the centuries re-erected on a lovely site. Amongst the buildings were a row of small cottages, all joined together and which had been taken down stone by stone from a place in Merthyr Tydfil. They were built in 1795 for the workers of an iron ore mine. The 6 cottages have now been equipped and furnished according to different eras in their ‘lifetime’, namely 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955 & 1985. The cottages, their pathways and little gardens are all depicted just how they would have been in these times (including outdoor privies!) and so one can see a whole change in peoples’ circumstances, the materials used, even for roofing, and how they used the meagre space inside. The first cottage would have had up to 12 men sleeping in shifts in the one room upstairs, while the couple who lived there stayed downstairs and the lady of the house looked after everything inside and out. It also had no oven, but a communal oven outside at the end of the cottages! Just imagine. It is amazing and incredible for young schoolchildren to gain a visual example of what their teachers are trying to tell them! I loved it. And one of the cottages, to get back to the point! had a coffin drop just inside the door, as the tiny winding staircase could never have accommodated a coffin. One thing that was interesting was that the cottages began as lovely stone built buildings, with their small gardens full of vegetables, maybe a pony or pig, but by 1985, The lovely slate roof had changed to a horrible modern red tile, the little back bedroom was a kitchenette, the garden had a greenhouse and some grass and nothing else and the outside of the cottage had been rendered with concrete and painted pink!! Who says progress is good?! that last cottage was so sad to see and I hope that now we have gone back to embracing the old and natural materials and methods of building. I think people are more aware and appreciative of keeping things true to the era, albeit with modern improvements, but done so as not to spoil the beauty of the original. Well, here endeth today’s history lesson!! Have a lovely weekend Susan and let me know how those puppies are doing! xx

  16. Thank you, Susan, as your posts always are so interesting, informative, and touching! I’d never heard of a coffin-hatch before, and it really would be useful for moving heavy objects up or down a level. I’ve never been to Poitiers, and loved the photos of the beautiful cathedral and half-timbered buildings, and your post reminds me that every new place in France must have its unique character and surprises. Sorry there isn’t a dormitory system in place there, but you sure found a great place for Millie.
    Congrats to Millie, and I know she will love Poitiers and have a great experience there.

  17. Bonjour Susan.C’ est toujours un grand plaisir de lire des moments de votre vie familiale grâce à vos superbes photos.Moi aussi je ne connais pas Poitiers mais c’ est une ville célèbre en France pour les Ducs d’ Aquitaine, Alionore d’ Aquitaine ( Reine de France et d’ Angleterre !!! ) y vivait avec sa Cour et Diane de Poitiers la favorite du Roi François Ier .Donc une ville Historique très bien conservée comme vous l’ avez si bien écrit et montré en images.L’ Office de Tourisme de votre région Nouvelle Aquitaine devrait vous embaucher ! Le parc de loisirs du FUTUROSCOPE ( 2e parc français derrière Disneyland Paris ) est situé près de Poitiers et mérite le détour.Et un grand bravo à Millie pour sa réussite au Baccalauréat ! Quelle joie pour elle et toute la famille Hays ! Un moment de bonheur assez rare dans une vie.Quelle belle réussite pour une jeune fille dont le français n’ est pas la langue maternelle car le Bac est un examen très difficile ( souvenirs personnels…).Encore une fois FELICITATIONS Millie ! // Hello Susan. It is Always a great pleasure to read some moments of your family life thanks to your magnificent pictures.Like you I don’t know the city of Poitiers but she is very famous, in France, for the Dukes of Aquitaine, Alionore of Aquitaine ( Queen of France and England!!! )who lived there with her Court and also for Diane de Poitiers the Favorite of the King François I er. So a very well preserved historic city as you so well wrote it and showed in pictures. Tourist Office of Nouvelle Aquitaine should hire you! Near Poitiers is located Parc du FUTUROSCOPE ( 2nd theme park in France after Disneyland Paris ) and is worth a visit.And a big kudos to Millie for her Baccalauréat achievement.What a joy for a young girl and the entire family Hays! A moment of rather rare happiness in a life. What a great achievement for a young girl whose french is not the mother tongue because Baccalauréat is a very difficult exam ( personal memories…). Champagne! Once again CONGRATULATIONS Millie!

  18. Congratulations to you and Millie for finding such a lovely place for her to start University Life.
    Poitiers looks interesting. Nice area around Millie, so that she will have plenty of activities with the new friends she will meet at Uni.
    You probably were too busy this week, but perhaps your family went to see Le Grand Depart of Tour de France in your area, so close to you and lovely weather for the event yesterday.
    I watched on TV and feel in LOVE with the beautiful scenery. So Gorgeous!
    Enjoy your Sunday! Now you can relax knowing Millie has a place to stay when she starts her college years……Patty

  19. Woluckely it is not too far to meet Millie .whenever you want and Portier looks very pretty and historic to study there. Looking for the right apartment is difficult as everywhere but you got at least. Congratuation

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