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With so many friends packing up to leave, are you too plotting your great escape? Just remember the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, says Peter Sherwood


I’m writing this from southwest France where I bought a place some years ago. I call it ‘a place’ but according to the agent – appealing to my suppressed fine taste – it’s a chateau. A dime a dozen around here. This one, she gushed, is quite new, around 1850, and spacious enough, although with 12 rooms a bit big for ‘moi’ – plus acres of gardens, a small forest and a lake with swans, protected and inedible. The central staircase is equally useless: exquisitely carved mahogany and likely worth more than the house. I hardly ever go upstairs, and I can’t rip it out and flog it, so what’s the point?

Still, the property was inexpensive, but not as cheap as now, the result of my lifelong investment strategy of buy high sell low. It offers a view over the distant snow-capped Pyrenees, when you can see them. It’s green here, which means wet and cloudy, often with no sign of mountains or even the front fence.

Other downsides are taxes on taxes and bureaucracy that makes India look like a Texas Libertarian movement, and with more layers that a trainload of Roscoff onions. Jumping through hoops in France could be an Olympic event, and red tape is highly prized. That’s what keeps the country architecturally rich and charming, unlike the entire east coast of neighbouring Spain and its hideous corrupt clutter down to the sea.

South from the mansion I met some Spanish people who’ve for 15 years lived just 2 kilometres over the border. I once asked how often they get to Pau in my pretty little corner of the world, a lovely 90-kilometre drive away. Turns out they’ve never been. I dared ask why. “It’s in France.” Not so the pragmatic French who cross over in battalions for cheap booze.

I like the house and its isolation because I don’t have to talk to anyone, which would be problematic because I don’t speak French. And there is always the local bar and a welcome sign for we Aussies; this is Rugby country, and they even tolerate Kiwis.

When the weather goes to hell I escape to my farmhouse in Provence where, as the song goes, “the weather suits my clothes.” It’s fine on my patio overlooking the lavender fields, except for some natural and wholly unnatural phenomena: Mistral winds that threaten to pick me up and hurl me to Morocco, and the infestation of Brit Francophiles in their ubiquitous straw hats and pastel outfits roaming trendy ancient villages in search of van Gogh.

My casa colonica in Tuscany was a dream until film crews arrived shooting movies and documentaries on some London advertising bloke who wrote a book about life with the Italian peasantry. After that came editors from every country’s version of House and Garden followed by (inevitably) Brits in straw hats. Soon Russian oligarchs bought the entire province then left on their super yachts for Monaco. I tried a whitewashed villa in Greece but was swamped by sweating hordes that drove me back to the damp side of the Pyrenees. Now I’m awake – and writing this from the balcony of my studio flat in Discovery Bay.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 20+ years. The former head of an international public relations firm, he is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.

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