The leaves are falling off the trees, the potager is almost bare, and I can hardly believe that we've just been stashing away all the garden furniture, solar lights and all the rest for the winter. A couple of months ago we passed our 5 year milestone in this house, and in another couple it will be 6 years since we packed our bags into the boot of the car and came to live in France.
So here we are, already at the end of our first summer season welcoming guests. Inevitably as the days get shorter (sob) we go into reflective mood and start taking stock. What's it been like? What did we get right, and what did we get wrong? What have we discovered? What are we going to change or introduce for next year? Here I share with you just a few random ruminations for a cool autumn evening.
1. When we first started to think about living in France we were initially unsure whether to set up a maison d'hôtes or to buy a small house for ourselves and have a couple of separate houses nearby to let to guests on a pure holiday rental basis. All I can say is that the two of us are soooo relieved we made the choice we did, because it's clear that we'd have got an awful lot less satisfaction from the rental route. We honestly think that people who choose to stay in a maison d'hôtes or bed and breakfast must be particularly lovely human beings, because pretty much without exception everyone has been a joy to share our home with.
2. One of the things that we've got very right is the design of the house, which gives us as well as our two sets of guests complete privacy. So there's no question of bumping into someone you don't know very well (or even at all) when you emerge bleary eyed in the morning to make coffee, and no having to whisper to each other because there's another room right across the landing. Believe me, after 13 years of welcoming bed and breakfast guests in village houses, that's pure joy for me as well as for our guests!
3. The great delight in doing what we do is meeting so many different people and being able to share in their lives, hear their stories, sit down with them over dinner or a glass of wine, find them a perfect walk for the day. We've had guests from all over the place - France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, South Africa, Canada and the UK, many of whom we've got to know through lots of exchanged emails even before they arrive. Often our guests have invited us for an apéro or, in one case, for 'afternoon tea' - and that's very touching because it makes us think that they must feel really at home.
4. After several years of being chained to the kitchen while my guests sat down to dinner, finally I'm able to be out there sitting down and eating with them. That brings its own challenges, of course, like not getting carried away in a particularly juicy conversation while the next course quietly burns in the oven, but we seem to have largely mastered the art of cooking-serving-and-joining-in reasonably seamlessly now. I'm hugely grateful for those years in our restaurant kitchen though, or I have a feeling it would all feel much more difficult!
5. While we're delighted that all but one set of this summer's guests have dined with us at least once (and frequently more often), we've noticed that fewer people than we expected have eaten out in restaurants more than once during their stay (and quite a few not at all). To be honest we have a few mixed feelings about that: while we'd obviously like to be doing our bit to support our local restaurants by sending them our guests, we know that it's a growing trend for people on holiday to pull in the reins in one area or another and we understand the need to do that. So what to do? Well, we're going to do two things - a kind of two-pronged attack, if you like. The first is to try and find the time to write a better restaurant guide to give a more enticing flavour of what's on offer out there; and the second is to create a summer kitchen in one of the barns so that for a lot of the year guests in La P'tite Maison, our chambre d'hôtes suite, will have the means to rustle up lunch or dinner even if the weather's not really good enough to get the barbecues out.
6. We both feel incredibly lucky to be able to have the freedom to create in what we do, and to keep tweaking and growing to make our home and our lifestyle and what we offer even better (we hope!). That's really important for us - one of the things we both dread is getting stale and predictable, and we've seen too many people over the years lose their joy in welcoming guests by getting burned out.
7. We work as hard as we ever did, but we have a lot more fun doing it!