This California couple bought a house in France for $36,000 and it completely changed their lives

By Tamara Hardingham-Gill | CNN

They were only planning to drop in on a friend, but the lives of Robin Johnson and Jim Thaman changed for good when they paid a visit to Cajarc, a small village in southwestern France, in the summer of 2001.

The US couple, who had been enjoying a vacation in the European country, were so taken with the pretty town, located in the center of the bucolic Lot Valley region, that they found themselves wondering what it would be like to live there.

And a year later, they were doing just that.

“When people ask, ‘how did you find this place?’ We say, ‘well the place found us,’” Johnson, who is an artist, tells CNN Travel.

The pair, who’d been together for around two years before the trip, say they’d always dreamed of living in a different country and were in a position where they could “semi-retire.”

“This offered us a way to start our life together with a blank canvas,” adds Johnson, originally from Michigan.

Blank canvas

Robin and Jim say they've spent between $10,000 to $12,000 on the renovation work so far.(Robin Johnson via CNN)
Robin and Jim say they’ve spent between $10,000 to $12,000 on the renovation work so far.(Robin Johnson via CNN) 

While they’d both spent time in France during their younger years, neither had seriously considered living there until then.

“I always loved France, but I thought if I ever wanted to live in another country, it would be Italy,” says Thaman, a woodworker and a musician from California. “So it was interesting when we ended up in France.”

So what was it about Cajarc that immediately drew them in?

The pair say that they were struck by the beauty of the town, along with its “very, very hip scene” and “interesting characters.”

As they explored the area, visiting the local market, strolling through the narrow streets and eating pizza at a waterfront restaurant, they were even more impressed.

But as the couple had to return to Toulouse to catch their flight home to the US that same day, they “didn’t have much time to do much but fantasize and promise to come back.”

However, after discovering that their flight was actually a day later than they’d thought, they decided to return to Cajarc to search for a house in the town that had stolen their hearts.

On arriving, they made a beeline for a local real estate office, but were unable to speak with anyone, and decided to head to a notary, or lawyer, to see if they’d have better luck there.

Fortunately, they learned that a relative of the local mayor had a home that had been on the market for eight years, and arranged to see the neglected property, which was priced at around $36,000.

While the house, which they say had been empty for eight years, and “hadn’t been remodeled in probably 70 years,” wasn’t in the best condition, they saw potential in it.

Postcard moment

They love the simplicity of their life in France, and are very grateful that they happened to drop into Cajarc over two decades ago.(Robin Johnson via CNN)
They love the simplicity of their life in France, and are very grateful that they happened to drop into Cajarc over two decades ago.(Robin Johnson via CNN) 

They were particularly impressed by a tiny courtyard behind the property, as well as the garden area.

“Not that many places in the village have nice outside spaces,” explains Thaman.

The sale price was also a huge draw.

“It was so affordable,” says Johnson. “We had the cash. It was like, ‘Do you want a new car? Or do you want to house in France?’ And we decided we wanted a house in France.”

They returned to California the following day as planned, taking some time to mull things over, before ultimately choosing to take the leap.

“We had to sort of do some soul searching,” says Johnson. “It was like, if we do it, and it’s a mistake, then so what?

“But if we don’t do it, we’ll always wonder what if. And that’s what it really came down to. We were willing to take the risk.”

When they asked the owner about the courtyard, they were told that it didn’t come with the house, but she would “throw in a garden plot by the river.”

“That sealed the deal for us,” says Johnson.

After making their decision, they wrote to the homeowner to offer to buy the 800-year-old house, and received a reply by postcard accepting their offer.

“Jim called the notaire and asked what we needed to do,” recalls Johnson. “He said the postcard would serve as our contract because the seller was a respected businesswoman and her word was good.”

In October, Thaman flew back to France to sign the papers. The couple say they were thrilled by how simple the buying process was.

“Everything went so smoothly,” says Johnson. “We felt that it was really meant to be.”

They married in April 2002 and were on a plane to France preparing to begin their new lives by June.

Once they’d arrived in Cajarc, they quickly got to work on renovating their new home, breaking down the walls in order to open up the place.

“A lot of these houses have little small rooms,” explains Thaman. “So my first tool was a sledgehammer.”

The couple had previously worked on a house together, so they had some renovating experience.

“We got a mattress to throw on the floor,” says Johnson. “We felt like we were back in college or something.”

They decided to color the walls “the old traditional way,” using a mixture of clay dug from a hillside near their home, and lime.

Johnson found various used lighting fixtures for their home at sales, including a $80 chandelier that had apparently survived World War II.

Fantasy turned reality

Robin and Jim say they were instantly welcomed by the locals, and spent many of their first years in the town going to parties.(Robin Johnson via CNN)
Robin and Jim say they were instantly welcomed by the locals, and spent many of their first years in the town going to parties.(Robin Johnson via CNN) 

They describe their first few years in Cajarc as “like living in some sort of fantasy.”

“Even taking the garbage out was fun,” says Johnson. “Laundry was fun. I’d hang the laundry and I’d hear somebody playing squeeze box somewhere.

“And we just felt like we were in a movie. It was very exciting. It was hard to explain to our friends back in the States.”

The couple say they were “immediately accepted” by the locals, who were “curious” about them, particularly the younger people, who couldn’t believe they’d left California for France.

“We were the first foreigners to move into our village,” says Johnson. “Coming from California, we were like rock stars.”

They found themselves being invited to “raves in the hill” and various other parties around the town.

“We were in our 50s,” says Johnson. “And we were hanging out with people in their 20s.

“And after a while we met their parents, who were more our age. But we met the parents through the kids.”

According to the couple, many of their friends are the parents, or even grandparents of the younger locals who embraced them so warmly at the very beginning.

And many more friendships were made while they were sitting in their garden. In fact, they sometimes joke that they “bought a garden by a river and it came with a house.”

They fondly recall being “adopted” by their oldest neighbors, who would introduce them to everyone “as their American kids.”

“They [the locals] appreciated that we were doing something to a house that had been sitting there for eight years,” adds Johnson.

“They were happy that we had taken the house on and were fixing it up.”

They estimate that they’ve spent somewhere between $10,000 to $12,000 on the renovations so far and are

Ongoing project

“We set it up that way, because frankly, we didn’t want to have a lot of people coming and visiting us,” admits Johnson.

The couple were inundated with visitors during their second year in the town, and although they enjoyed spending time with loved ones, having to “plan around everybody else’s vacations” became something of a distraction.

“After that, we really set limits on visitors,” says Johnson, pointing out that they wanted to focus their energies on working on their home and integrating into the local community.

The couple have long-stay visas, which means they cannot stay in France for more than 180 days, and spend half of the year in California, where they have another house.

They stress that going back and forth between the two countries works well for them, and they love having their summers in France.

“It’s just very active here in the summer,” explains Johnson. “And then in the winter, everything kind of shuts down.”

During their winters in the US, they spend time with Thaman’s children and grandchildren, and tend to any business related to their real estate investments.

“I do enjoy the winters in California,” adds Thaman. “We have a really nice house [there]. There are people I play music with and our life just works. We like having two different lives.”

Both particularly love the simplicity of living in Cajarc, and say their worlds are much more carefree there.

“I don’t have a dishwasher,” says Johnson. “I don’t have a clothes dryer.

Simple pleasures

“We don’t have a lot of luxuries. We ride our bikes, have dinner parties, and swim in the river.

“Our life here is super simple, and we like it. Then we go back to the States, and it’s so much about money and acquisition, that it’s kind of hard for us to really relate to people there.”

Thaman shares this sentiment, explaining that he was struck by the difference between the consumerism in California and the “relative lack of it” in Cajarc when they first began living there.

“People buy things [in France] and hold on to them,” he says.

Despite spending half of the year in France for over 20 years, Johnson admits that she still struggles with the language.

“Jim picks it up much easier,” she says, explaining that she finds it tough to keep up with the conversation while at “a big dinner party where there’s a lot of cross talk.”

“I understand better than I can speak. It’s still a challenge. But it’s something that I get to continue to work on. It’s coming.”

In the years since they bought their home, more expats have moved in to the town. However, the couple say that around 95% of their friends there are French.

“We’re friendly with them [the other expats,] but we are not friends with them,” says Johnson. “Because we’re here to live in a French community, not in an expat community.”

When fellow Americans ask them for advice about buying a property in France, they usually suggest that they rent a place in a village for a while before making the decision to buy, as it doesn’t always work out so well.

“We were lucky,” says Thaman. “We have met quite a few people that have just jumped into something and it hasn’t worked. And they have gone back to where they came from.”

Needless to say, the couple are hugely grateful that they happened to end up in Cajarc back in 2001, and say there’s no other town or village that they’d rather be living in.

“Every time I read one of these books about people moving to Tuscany, I go, ‘Our experience was so much more than that,’” says Johnson.

They recently had pizza with friends at the same restaurant where they “first fantasized about a life in France” during that initial visit to Cajarc and couldn’t help but reflect on how wonderful the experience has turned out to be.

“The reality is so much better than we imagined,” says Johnson.

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