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When our house burned down we discovered ‘solidarity’

Sue and Mark Evans tell how their French community looked after them when they needed it most

A house fire devastated Sue and Mark Evans’ lives in Tarn-et-Garonne but the support of their French neighbours helped them back on their feet. Sue tells their story…

We had restored our farmhouse over seven years then one hot June morning there was a strange smell and a crackling sound. The dogs were barking for no apparent reason.

I opened the curtains to see flames leaping through the barn attached to our house. The landline was dead so I grabbed my old dressing gown - purple satin, my mobile phone and a pair of my husband’s jeans. Mark, not yet dressed, was in the kitchen making coffee.

We ran outside to see the fire taking a rapid hold. Having phoned the fire brigade we tried to get back in with some sort of notion that perhaps we needed our passports.

People often ask what you would take with you if there was a fire. The answer is nothing. The house had filled with thick black smoke and we never returned until the firemen left five hours later.

During that five hours, two-thirds of the roof and half the house went up in flames. Everything we owned was in the house, barn and workshop. My husband lost everything from his workshop including his father’s and grandfather’s tools. Our bedroom collapsed as the room above fell into it.

We watched helpless as a summer breeze fanned the flames. But we weren't alone

In my purple dressing gown I welcomed 40 firemen, the village mayor, the gendarmes, local journalists and our neighbours.

Joelle, our closest neighbour, held me tight when the fire took hold of the house and flames leapt higher through the roof. She saw that there was a swimming costume and teeshirt dress on the washing line and, having salvaged them for me, asked if I’d like her to bring us shoes from her house. She brought a teeshirt for Mark too.

The mayor arrived and telling us we were valued citizens of his village, gave us directions to a ‘safe house’ nearby. It was owned and had been prepared, by another neighbour.

When we arrived at there was an enormous quiche in the fridge and also a labrador in residence who seemed to have taken some personal responsibility for us.

Later that week another neighbour offered us for an indefinite time, a small gite at no rent. We persuaded her to take something and keep it for her children. We stayed there for over a year and she remains a firm friend.

We were offered at no cost, a place for our visiting family to stay. It was summer and the height of visiting season. I later found out the rental costs would have been 1000€ a week.

Members of choir inundated us with offers of sheets, towels and household goods.

In the days following the fire we spent considerable time at the gendarmerie and with our insurance company. A gendarme helped us write our statement and promised to drop by every two weeks to check on the house. He never failed to turn up.

The insurance company, led by our local manager who we knew, transferred cash to our account immediately, they could no doubt see that the swimsuit and teeshirt dress wardrobe wouldn't suffice for long.

They investigated quickly, told us they would rebuild but that it would take at least 12 months, and introduced us to the builder.

French friends offered to be with us during these interviews but we are stubborn and proud and decided from the start to manage on our own – your French language improves quickly when you are negotiating for almost everything you own.

When the firefighters had finished their work they formed a circle for a debrief. My husband asked if he could say some words of thanks. His emotion was apparent as he thanked the men and women for their bravery; many of them are the same men who clear our ditches, collect the rubbish and mend the roads. We know them well now.

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As Mark stood in that circle we both knew there was no going back, only forwards, in rebuilding our house and taking our French lives forward.

Of course after the fire and over the time of the rebuild there were times of deep fear and frustration. Faced with work not moving forward I called the finance manager of the insurance company one day complaining that the delays were ´incroyable, insupportable’ and every other French ‘able’ word I could think of. At the end of the work when I thanked him for his patience in our conversations, he told me he'd never had a problem and that I was particularly clear on occasions!

When we bought our home here we didn't expect that part of our integration would be through such adversity.

Our home is within a very rural community and although we wouldn't consider ourselves to be rich, we are when compared with most people in our commune. From the start we worked to get to know them in small and larger ways. The first Christmas Eve and for several following, to the consternation of our neighbours, we took small boxes of homemade chocolates to every local farm.

When setting up our home the temptation was always to buy more cheaply online but we bought goods and services locally in order to build up networks. We struggled with the local accent and tried to converse and joke with very puzzled looking farmers at our local fete.

And, when the chips were down, our work getting to know them paid off.

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