It happened like this..an English family move to France Part 4

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  • Me on the balcony of Primrose with our daughter
  • Tonnay Boutonne, 1991.

We sold the house near Rochefort at the required profit – or close enough to it.  At the eleventh hour the buyer suddenly wanted to pull out, which would have been a disaster for us.  In France the system is so much better than in England, for when you choose a house you put down a deposit of approx. 10%, varying according to the value of the property.  If you pull out you lose that 10% unless there was a condition or clause in the initial contract.   In this case there was no clause, so it would have meant that we picked up the 10%, but that was not what we wanted.  The stress of it was huge.  Het-up phone calls back and forth, wringing of hands ….  We had already paid our 10% for our new house, organized a mortgage for the balance, and were due to complete later that same day.

The French notaire is like a god

The notaire handling the sale was one Mme Drouart.  She was brilliant, a fairly tall and wide woman with a mass of grey frizzy hair.  She was somewhere in her sixties.  Her office was in a narrow street with only the oval brass plaque sticking out of the wall to indicate there was a notaire at all.  I worked with her a lot.  She once told me she wished I was her daughter, and she looked after me during those first months of finding my way in and out of the legal system.  Notaires in France command a high level of respect, and I think that one of the things she liked about me was that I was so English, ie so casual, in my address to her.  I respected her, of course, but I was chummy rather than in awe.  It never dawned on me to be in awe.

Not that I’d have called her by her first name – to this day that just isn’t done.  I recently interpreted for some UK friends who were completing on a house and, to my horror, my English friend called the notaire by her first name.  My friend, of course, thought she was being friendly, but from anybody other than a foreigner who had not long been in France, could speak no French and was clearly not au fait with French good manners, it would have been astoundingly rude.

Mme Drouart had no children of her own and was married to a man considerably older.  She had lived in the same house all her married life, a huge batisse in the centre of a nearby, and she smelt of soap and lavender.  I learnt a lot from her, enjoyed her company, and in all those years she was the only woman I was to work with.  She took me under her wing with a gentle kindness that I very much appreciated though, of course, any sales were French francs for her.   She died three or four years ago and is buried in the village.

Anyway, she swung in to action and somehow managed to persuade the buyers that they did want the house after all.  How she did it I don’t know because the situation went from a very firm “we’re pulling out”, absolutely a dead cert, to buying again.

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  • The front of the house looked nothing like the back, almost as though there had been two different architects.  We were surrounded by farmland in all directions.  At first I didn’t mind the isolation.

Primrose, a manoir-cum-hunting-lodge.

We called our new house Primrose.  That was just our name for it and I have no idea why we chose it, though my father had had a motor boat of that name when I was a child in the South Pacific.   The house was really called La Petite Jarlee, a small manoir-cum-hunting-lodge perched on an isolated hill near Tonnay Boutonne.  It had a history to it, dating from 1800 or so, and being the hiding place of a WWII collaborator who was eventually murdered there.  We sometimes wondered if it was haunted … it had a kind of “feel” to it – not menacing in any way, but a constant feel that somebody else was there.  I don’t really take any notice of that kind of thing, but several times I thought I could hear a piano being played.  On the top floor there was an entire appartment with a secret door and a double floor so that he couldn’t be heard … the neighbour told us that he hid up there for several years after the war ended as French patriots sought vengeance, some of it brutal.

The property had been built as a hunting lodge, though it wasn’t clear to which Chateau it would have been attached or who the original owners were.  We imagine a hunting lodge as a timber cabin – well, I do anyway – but although this property had no exquisite features apart from fleur-de-lys tiled floors, it had been created with elegance and taste.  What was left of damp old wallpaper and curtaining was of good quality.  The rooms, although not large, were nicely proportioned, with big windows overlooking fields and trees.  Off to one side were the ruins of another building, way too far gone for restoration, though we did half-think of doing a new-build there.  The same neighbour, a farmer whose house was about three miles away, told us the old building had once been a chapel but that didn’t seem likely to us.

We chose the property for several good reasons.  One, it was incredibly cheap, even for those days – about £35 000 for a run-down seven-bedroomed property, five acres of land and unbroken views in all directions.  Two, it had potential – we would do it up and it would be worth considerably more, and also there was a wing to one side that we could make in to a holiday gite to supplement our income.   Three, we were surrounded by all the little isolated fermettes my clients hankered after and I would therefore have less travelling to do.  And last, but not least, it seemed to me at the time to be a little entity in itself, a sort of beacon, somewhere I could hide and lick my wounds.  I had wounds to heal.

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  • The front of the house when we bought it.

The job.

I remember one client asking me if I worked.  I had driven her and her husband round and round all day, showing them in to properties, explaining the conveyancing system, interpreting as and when required, pointing out features in the town … and she asked me if I worked!  Yes, I said, I do this.  Oh, she replied, I suppose it is a kind of job.  You have no idea, I wanted to say, you have no idea – the hours of driving people like you round and round, listening to whatever you are saying, showing you in and out of houses, all on the off-chance you will buy.

It worked like this, more-or-less in this order:

– I would find several houses for sale, drive over to see them (often quite a long way), take photos, go home and type up details (in itself stunningly tedious once you have done it several times), and then put a couple of ads in places like The Lady and The Telegraph

– in order to do this I had to use up precious funds on petrol, advertising, getting films developped etc., and I had to bear the children in mind. Frequently one of them would come with me; Jake, aged only 3, often came with me.  I decided he was my lucky mascot.

– enquiries would come in by fax or by phone.  Because in those days it was cheaper to phone in the evenings, people invariably phoned at night, just as we settled down to a film, or supper or both.   I would then post the details to the interested party, knowing full well that only 2 or 3 for every 100 would result in a sale

– this had to be done in a roll-on system so that I had a stream of new properties, a stream of new clients and a stream of new ads.  I could never be without clients or without properties.

– the client would usually turn up, but sometimes they’d make an appointment and simply disappear off the face of the earth.  This could be devastating for me because, in order to see them I had usually driven to 2 or 3 different places to pick up keys, phoned around to make the appointments, left Jake with a childminder (who had to be paid, of course) and then driven to wherever we had agreed to meet.  I would wait an hour or so before deciding it was a no-show and I would then have to take the keys back and phone the disappointed vendors who would tell me that les anglais are not serieux.  There were no mobile phones in those days.

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  • The whole area, for miles in all directions, was rich (or was it riddled?) with buildings for renovation.  This huge old barn was only £3000, with about an acre of land.  I always wore jeans because of the brambles and stinging nettles, and even where there were none, jeans were better for climbing in to lofts, reaching out to close shutters or whatever.

– as and when I had a client who wished to go ahead and buy, I then had to get him or her to sign a Compromis de Vente.  If I could possibly get this done in a notaire’s office that was great, but it was difficult to get a quick appointment and, to coin a phrase, I had to strike while the iron was hot.  It has always amazed me how my clients trusted me and signed in a cafe, or in the car or their hotel.  At that stage they would also have to give me a cheque for 10%, made out to whichever notaire was handling the sale.

– I also had to negotiate a price.  Sometimes the buyer would make such a low offer it was an insult to the vendor.  Either way, the difference between what the vendor was willing to sell for, and what the buyer was willing to pay – that bit was for me, whatever it was.  Sometimes it was a pittance, sometimes it was a lot.

– I then handed the whole thing over to the notaire and theoretically my role should have ended there.  But because my clients could rarely speak French, and the notaire virtually never spoke any English, my role continued, up and down throughout the various stages towards Completion.  I nudged it forwards, keeping the client happy, till I got my commission.

– then Bruce took over, if possible, with the house renovations – which is a different story altogether

– suffice to say it was a job fraught with hassles and stresses.  On the surface it seemed so pleasant to an outsider, but there were so many pitfalls along the way, so many loops to have to jump through, and the vast majority of my clients were selfish and demanding.  They didn’t think so, of course, but they were.  Believe you me, it was a high-stress job.  The competition from local French agents was vicious, truly nasty. Vendors were unreliable, and often enough just would not be available with the key for me to show my client around the house – my client that I had almost always gone to so much trouble to get.   And my commission was frequently the only income for the family.  Many a good sale would fall through simply because of some silly incident, or because of somebody cutting me out … And clients never seemed to understand this was my income, my only income.  They seemed to think that I was some kind of charitable bi-lingual taxi service and would become angry and unpleasant as soon as they realized there was money in it for me – in effect, their money.

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  • With one of my numerous brothers (far left).  Bruce, Pippa & Jake, my nephew Tim (seated in white T-shirt) with me sitting just behind him.  We called this the bri – or braai, to be more accurate – from braai-vleis, the South African version of a BBQ (literally burnt meat).

And it was a lonely job that I did alone.  Before this I had been a teacher.  I used to go in to school, teach the lessons, go home again.  Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it was not, sometimes I had marking to do, sometimes not.  But I got paid to do what I did, and I didn’t lose any pay if my pupils didn’t pass their “A” levels.  There were set books to work through and a fairly standard sequence of lessons and off-shoots of lessons to give. Standard things were provided – a staff room, coffee, colleagues, car park and a back-up system via the Heads of Department.  Now I had to create situations that in turn would create money.  I had to make thin air produce an income.  That is what running your own business is, just that.  There was no back-up system for me, nothing “ready” for me to use.  I knew nothing about price negotiation, documents, legal papers, cadastral plans, building permission, contracts … but I learnt it all very quickly and, rather to my surprise, found that I was not a teacher at all but a business-woman, and a good one at that.  I earned good money, did a great job, but the wear and tear on my nerves took its toll as the years tripped by …

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  • Jake sitting behind Tim in a home-made buggy.  Dear Tim.  He died the following year. He was only 19.

Part 5 to follow.

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  her books are available from Amazon/Kindle worldwide or can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries.  They are also available as e-books (£1.99) from http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk

 

– See more at: http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk/blog/it-happened-like-this-an-english-family-move-to-france-part-4/#sthash.6Di2O3BR.dpuf

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France, Part 3

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Our house in Breuil Magne

The Charente Maritime, 1990.

Our second house was a 17th century stone dwelling, with a huge barn extention in to which an indoor swimming pool had been installed.  There was also an orchard and the derelict vestiges of a tennis court.  The pool was deep and dark and remained freezing cold all year, summer or not.  We tried to swim in it once or twice. In the ceiling of the pool room were large electric velux windows, and french doors lined all of one wall.  The room was sort-of finished and had fancy lighting and a grotesque bar attagement, wallpaper at one end and tiles on the floor.  The previous owners had clearly had some money and then run out; a lot of the house was unfinished.

Breuil-Magne is a village on the outskirts of Rochefort, just south of La Rochelle.  The word breuil means hamlet in old French and magne (magnus), of course, is Latin for big.  It boasted a population of about 3000, a village school, a small shop and, as always, the boulangerie.

When we first drove in to Rochefort, while we were still house-hunting,  we couldn’t believe our eyes – the modern world!  Automatic doors!  Real supermarkets ! (still no cereal, tea or fresh milk though) A chemist that didn’t look like a scene from the Munsters!  Restaurants that were actually open most days and proposed more than 2 dishes!  Banks that didn’t look like the village post office!  After just seven months in the centre of France, it was a revelation.

Despite this, the area was nonetheless very run down and grotty.  La Rochelle itself, which was already a big tourist destination, had been renovated and restored, and was a lively, bustling town with many historic buildings and museums. Goodness – gourmet restaurants, entertainment and wonderful shops!  But Rochefort, which was our local town, was a drab grey ex-military town with monstrous stone buildings and – as ever – a constant smell of septic tanks and drains.  That was a characteristic of France for many years. But, credit where credit is due, when it was renovated, along with all the towns and villages in the whole area, it was transformed rapidly in to an attractive town with beautiful historic buildings, parks, fountains, flowers and lots to see.  The French authorities invested a huge amount in to re-making broken pavements and cleaning and clearing public areas and generally bringing France up to speed. That was after we had been in the area about a year, and we used to joke that once we arrived the French thought they’d best pull their socks up!  (For my French readers – that is just a joke!)

 

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Vauclair Castle & Abbey at La Rochelle was built by the English in 1185. The town is rich with all sorts of ancient buildings, loaded with history, and a very good shopping centre. It is the capital of the Charente Maritime, and the French are rightly very proud of it.

That was the Winter of the Snow.

The Charente Maritime hadn’t seen snow for something like 25 years. The summer had been long and hot, and the heat continued well in to October or even November before turning cold and damp and nasty. And then suddenly, one night in January, it snowed. All winter we had been so cold, in an inadequately heated house, and so broke, that Bruce sawed up non-supporting beams in the barn for firewood. The elder two children slept in the living room with a log fire and Jake slept in with us. That huge old stone house was like an old-fashioned fridge – keep the outside cold and damp and the inside remains cold and damp too, so that even when the sun broke through the cloud and the temperature went up outside, it remianed freezing cold in the house. It was absolutely horrible.

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I love the lonesome tricycle sitting there in the snow! To the left is the barn that Bruce partly dismantled in order to provide us with firewood. There was about an acre of land, I seem to recall, and a large pond over there beyond the fence. Beyond was farmland. It has since been built on, some 20 or 30 bungalows.

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Our car in the snow, Jake just behind it. He’d have been coming up to 3 by then. He attended a “Maternelle” in the village – France has an excellent system for pre-school kiddies.

As was usual in those days, the sanitary arrangements were abysmal and there was just one tiny old-fashioned bathroom and no kitchen to speak of. These big old places almost always had a huge kitchen with a big open fireplace and, indeed, there was such a room but it had been used as a dining room and the kitchen was a tiny section of the adjoining barn, not big enough to swing a cat in and with a lamentable lack of equipement – an oven with no door was one item, I recall, and the sink was in fact a bathroom basin, pink.

So, despite lack of funds and the bitter cold, we set about improving and renovating as fast as we could. We gutted the tiny kitchen and broke down the walls to make a good-sized kitchen. We also installed another toilet upstairs. We had bought the house with the intention of a quick re-sale but now, seeing what that first winter was like, we wanted rid of the place as fast as we could. When we had come along it had been for sale for three years. My mother-in-law and I planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs when we arrived, which was in the September – still hot – and when spring came the front garden was ablaze with colour. Things like daffodils help to sell a house. By the time we got our first prospective buyers the stone facade that had been frozen for months looked warm and attractive, the new kitchen looked … er … well, it looked … shall we say ethnic ? and my usual arrangements of flowers and dried herbs, draperies and zillions of interesting little touches transformed the house in to an attractive Maison de Maitre that any buyer would be interested in.

And indeed, eleven months after buying the house, we sold at a tolerably good price to the third people to view.

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The kitchen! We didn’t get much beyond this, but that room on the left became a big walk-in larder. We had a sink and an old cooker and fridge, of course, and when viewers were coming round I put large bunches of dried leaves and grasses up on the beams, a big bowl of fruit on the table, a huge chopping board covered with vegetables, several racks of eggs …. it made the place look wholesome. Unfinished, but wholesome.

That was also the Year of the Gestapo.

Our accountant, who was stunningly unhelpful, told us to not refer to the tax inspectors as The Gestapo. Apart from that, he did and said nothing to help us. The law has since changed and professional people now have a responsibility to their clients, but at the time he had no responsibility at all.

So, one day towards the end of that dreadful winter, two men and a woman turned up at our front door and asked to see the cahier. Cahier means excercise book.

What cahier ? I asked.

I looked them up and down. All three were wearing trench coats and the woman had a hat on, a kind of trilby affair.

The cahier. The cahier of your accounts and activities, they said.

Ah, said I. No problem! We have only been here a few months and I have made just one sale. It is in my head.

I had a phenomenal memory in those days. I could remember the clients’ names, the addresses & prices of the properties, where and which and when and how – no problem.

Non, non, they shook their heads. It is the law that you have it written down in a cahier.

Well, I smiled at them, the accountant has all that kind of thing … and I shooed them away.

I really didn’t give it a great deal of thought afterwards. I suppose I might have mentioned it to Bruce, I don’t know. We had a proper accounting firm for precisely this kind of thing and, apart from being moderately amused by their bizarre dress-sense, I forgot about it. Weeks, months tripped on by, spring arrived. It was vastly warmer out of doors than it was inside. I caught my skirt on fire standing too close to a gas heater; Jake had bad gastro troubles and had to go in to hospital (that was the only week I was warm), I wished we had a microwave, the children’s homework was such a chore, the mimosa hadn’t survived the snow … life went on …

It was a legal requirement to keep a written record of each and every transaction, even if there had been only one, and we discovered this some months later when the Gestapo wrote to us. You have no cahier! cried the letter with disgust. Any details the accountant already had were not the cahier. No Tippex, and only a single line for crossing-out. Each page must be signed and dated. All details of the vendor, the buyer, the property etc. must be neatly entered. C’est la loi.

No worries, I said, I’ll do it now, no problem.

But no, that was not acceptable. Worse, not only was it la loi, but not doing it carried a heavy fine: 250 000 francs – about £23 000 at that time. I stood staring at the letter for some time, re-reading it, convinced I had misunderstood something. No, they were fining us 250 000 francs.

As it was, I was unhappy and lost in France. The winter had been dreadful and there were still months to go before the summer influx of clients, ie money. William was miserable at school. Bruce still hadn’t learnt any French. I had joined keep fit in the village and went along every week, and it was fun …. but I made no friends. There was nobody I could talk to. I felt completely bludgeoned, exhausted, and homesick.

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La Rochelle is lovely but avoid it during August.

I found a lawyer in La Rochelle

He was an expert at this kind of thing and came recommended by our accountant – so I was not certain if it was a good recommendation or not. La Rochelle was about twenty minutes’ drive from our house, and I was not yet familiar with it. It is quite a big town actually, with a population of about 75 000. I parked in the centre of the crowded town in a place that has since become a modern multi-storey car park. In those days it was just a traditional French place, difficult to get in and out of, with a little man in a beret taking your money and giving you a small pink ticket. After some time I found the lawyer’s office, wedged at the top of a narrow staircase in one of the old buildings opposite the front de mer. He was a nice guy, understood my predicament, but explained that this kind of case could not be won. He told me that when the authorities have a fine like this, and it is la loi, whether I didn’t understand or not, and whether the accountant/ Chamber of Commerce/ whatever should have told me or not, that was the end of that. I would have to pay it. I felt sick, really sick.

I travelled back and forth between the lawyer, the accountant (who made it absolutely clear he didn’t give tuppence) and the tax office many times, determined there was a way out of this predicament. More stressy weeks went by. Then more. I refused to pay it. See you in Court, I said. Goodness, we didn’t have the money anyway!

It dragged on and on for months and months. I viewed properties and took clients, sold houses, looked after the children, lived life, all the while with this huge debt hanging over us. I was worried sick. The lawyer explained that the most likely outcome would be that I would be obliged to pay a certain amount every month till the debt was paid off.

What made us stay ?

It would have been easy enough to have just cut and run. We could (probably) have sold the house and left. That is what tthe lawyer himself advised us to do – just go, he said. Everything seemed to threaten. Everybody seemed a menace. Every time the phone rang or every time the post arrived I was convinced there was some disaster. We had done nothing wrong. In fact, we had done everything right. It ate at me, gnawed at me like a canker, the way troubles do.

But where would we have gone ? Had we cut and run, what could we have done? Pippa was doing well at school, William was starting to adjust and had got little chums. Business, once spring arrived, was good – excellent in fact. We had no house and no income at home.

Also, of course, we were fighters. No way was I going to allow anybody or anything to knock us flat. We had lost everything in the UK. It would not happen again.

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Me tucking in somewhere!

Eventually, I appeared in Court in La Rochelle. Funnily enough I was almost an hour late because the summons had been hand-written and the address looked like “rue de l’Ecole” when in fact it was “rue de l’Escale“. It was a very hot day and I drove around the congested streets almost beside myself, cursing under my breath, trying to find the appropriate street, and then trying to find somewhere to park. You’d have thought that being so late would herald disaster, but it didn’t.

The lawyer, frantic on my behalf, was champing at the bit, scurrying up and down the corridor looking for me. His face had gone from ruddy to purple and his hair stood up at odd angles. He flapped papers in my face. He had prepared a chart for me, showing how much I could pay each month. Vastly more agitated than I was, he bade me follow him up another narrow staircase to a large room.

Three men were waiting at a circular table and my lawyer explained about the hand-written address which had been written by the little man sitting to the left. I grinned at him and we sat down. I was not nervous. I have never been nervous talking to other people, whoever they are. It never occurs to me to be nervous. The man on the right was a judge and other two men were from the tax office. Several bonjours went back and forth. Also some hand shaking. The tax people, after some clearing of throats went first. They wanted me to pay interest on the “debt”, so the amount had already gone up considerably. The one on the left was scribbling notes and I made a little laughing comment about his handwriting. The lawyer looked uncomfortable, adjusted his glasses and shuffled papers. He put my case. He pointed out that I had done everything required by law – at the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of this and the Chamber of that and everything in-between. It was just this cahier business I hadn’t got right. But he sounded so wishy-washy. Lord, was he on the brink of apologizing for me??!!

May I speak ? I asked. I raised my hand as if in a classroom, and I saw the faintest hint of a smile pass across the judge’s face. Yes, said Monsieur le Juge. So I spoke. The trouble here, I argued, lies not with my ineptitude to write in a cahier, but with the local authorities who didn’t furnish me with the appropriate information. If you want to fine somebody, I said, fine them.

The judge agreed. I won.

Part 4 to follow.

Catherine Broughton is a writer, a poet and an aritst. Her books are available from Amazon/Kindle worldwide, or can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries. They can also be purchased as e-books (£1.99) from this site:-

Click here for part 2

It happened like this…an English family move to France, Part 2

 1989-1990. Lost in France.

As a family, we were happy in our own world.  We were closely-knit and all got along together.  The children joined in, we had little rituals and traditions that we stuck to, and family life was fine.  I am from a very large family, and both our parents and a variety of brothers and sisters, along with a collection of spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends, came to visit.   The children made friends at school and rapidly learnt to speak French, especially Pippa who learnt French extremely quickly – a matter of weeks.  Little girls are very receptive at that age.  William took  longer.  By the time Jake was seven or eight, he spoke better French than English, but as a toddler he spoke a delightful Franglish that only we could understand.

It is arguably terribly rude to not learn the language of your host country, and for me half the fun of being abroad is trying to speak the lingo.  But some people have a knack for it and others do not – it is like being able to sing, or draw or do Maths.  For Bruce it was very hard indeed and he just could not get his head round it.

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  • The boys in the kitchen.  The ceiling had started to fall in so we had to put an upright in to retain it.  The previous owners had “modernized” it, and we had all sorts of plans to create a more tradtional kitchen, in keeping with the house.  But we had long since moved on before we could even think of affording it.  All the rooms very huge, except for the bathroom with was pokey, smelly, dark and had no window.

Things were very different

It took a while to adjust to how different things were.  They were very different.  We had come from the most expensive area of the UK – Sussex – to a French backwater.  Even though we had both lived abroad a great deal, to include some third-world countries, we were nonetheless taken aback by the poor standard.  The village was essentially just a collection of dark grey stone buildings with a lorry-plagued road blasting through the middle of it and dangerously narrow (broken) pavements on either side.  The shops were very poorly stocked.  There were no cereals of any sort whatsoever, no tea, no fresh milk, and chickens were sold with their heads and feet still dangling grotesquely.  Christmas, so jolly and colourful in England, regardless of one’s opinions about tat and commercialism, was a non-event with one drab Christmas tree outside the Mairie (town hall) and the local radio blaring out of loudspeakers in the street, loud enough to drive you mad.

Another thing that was so different was the overall look of each village.  A lot of British people comment on it – everything looks so utterly dead, even today.  Shutters closed, nobody on the street.  Even the shops frequently looked shut when they were in fact open.  I hasten to add that this is not a criticism of France, it was just the way it was and I think many French people from Bordeaux or Paris or the Cote d’Azur would agree. It was terribly depressing.

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  • My office, or the Power House as I used to call it!

Our energies found their own levels, with me doing most of the viewing of properties and taking potential buyers round.  This was partly because I always know where I am – whether or not I am facing north or south, which side of the town I am on or whatever – so I found it easy enough to follow the directions and locate the property.  Also, of course, I spoke French, crucial when discussing the price with the vendor and working through the papers with the notaire.  Bruce worked on the house to make it more comfortable, and he also tended to do the shopping and fetch the children from school, look after Jake and so on.  It was a role reversal that I had no trouble with, but I think he sometimes felt a bit useless – which he was not.

We pulled out all stops to integrate.

We too made a few friends.  Not many. And they didn’t last. We discovered that for every ten couples we invited to dinner we would be invited back perhaps once.  I don’t know why that is.  Just a different way of doing things.  We got the children to join in – judo, ballet, horse-riding and so on, attended the Christmas fund-raiser and the parent-teacher picnic … and remained 100% outsiders.

Well, we were outsiders.

Sales were good and we both worked very hard.  My days were filled with driving people around, showing them in and out of houses, explaining to them how the system worked, pointing out the land boundaries, listening to them talking, smiling and listening some more.  The British snapped up properties on a regular basis, sometimes buying something idyllic and frequently (like us!) buying something completely unsuitable.  It has to be said that the British snapped up all those derelict little properties that the French didn’t want and as a direct result of this (according to an article in a French national newspaper) places like Bricomarche opened – and created employment.  And so on.  All and any business brings in trade, and our business was not an exception.

The red tape also kept me on my toes. I had to drive over to Chateauroux, the main town, about forty minutes’ drive away, over and again to fill in this form and that form.  I tried to do things professionally, properly, be correct ….

But we had been at La Haute Perriere barely four or five months when we accepted that this was not the place for us.  We fought against it for a while.  It seemed ridiculous to give up and move on already, but look at it from every angle as we might, it was clear this was not the place to be.

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  • There were seriously hundreds and hundreds of grotty little properties for sale.  This one was in a village, though the British usually wanted something out in the countryside.  It sold for the French franc equivalent of £6 000 !  Unlike a UK estate agent, in France you have to accompany your client – sometimes for miles and miles. This is partly because that is expected from the vendor but also because your client would never find the property, down little lanes in tiny hamlets, in a country that is double the size of the UK.  Furthermore, properties in France could be with 10 different agents, so if you wanted to nab that sale you had to keep that client close.

There were a variety of reasons we had to go.  We were very isolated was one.  Although the little town had all essential shops, doctor and so on, it was backward and slow.  The dated telephone exchange still closed for lunch.  Everything closed for lunch, even some restaurants!   It reminded us both of the UK in the 1960s.  In fact, I think that is why the British so loved buying in the area – childhood memories.

Anything that might be entertainment was miles and miles away.  In Sussex I had belonged to a health club, complete with pool and a fully equipped gym, restaurant, huge lawns … but the nearest I could get to it in France was a keep-fit class in Chateauroux, and the keep-fit was so slow and lady-like it was not worth going.

Nothing, nobody.

There was nothing. There was nobody. The climate was dreadful. There was nowhere to go.  Nobody to meet.  Worse, we couldn’t integrate.  There should be a badge available for people like us who tried so hard to build-up friendships.  Part of the trouble was that Bruce spoke no French, and keeping company with somebody who doesn’t speak your language is tedious.  On the rare occasion we were invited out the conversation depended entirely on me, and trying to include Bruce was a chore for all concerned.  And he felt miserable, desperately attempting to join in, and one has to give it to him – he tried really hard and kept up a good, cheerful front against all odds.  But there was more, vastly more to it than that. Even though France is just the other side of the English Channel, the cultural differences are immense and it is foolish to think one can just slot in, least of all in an area like the centre of France where nothing had changed for donkeys’ years.

I missed my friends terribly.  In England the mothers used to stand around the school gate to pick up their children after school, and we would all be chatting to each other, and we would get chatting even if we didn’t know each other.  Here, the mothers stood in silence. One or two spoke.  Nobody spoke to me. I am a very open person, easy to talk with, casual and at ease with almost anybody – but I could never get a conversation going beyond the rather formal “Bonjour Madame”.  I tried really hard, and in the early days I was determined to swing in to the French way of life.  But I just couldn’t.

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  •   Another house for sale.  I sold it to a Dutch couple who lived in London and who wanted it for holidays. It was a good buy and I hope they had plenty of lovely holidays there.  The lake was part of it and there were grounds of about half an acre.  I can’t remember the price but it was something in the region of £20 000.

In France in those days – and even now to a large extent – it is quite usual for a property to remain for sale for years.  La Haute Perriere had been for sale five years before we turned up. We were conscious that this was potentially a big worry.  We had decided to move on, so move on we must, but the thought of trying to sell the monster we had bought, was daunting to say the least.  But I found, slightly to my surprise, that I was now a business woman; I had experience; I knew the ins and outs of advertising; I knew how to present a property, what to avoid … we did a bit of cosmetic work, vases of flowers, a few artistic draperies, and sold the place within a few months.  The buyers were an older American couple who, years later, telephoned us and told me they had hated the place from Day 1, and asked me to sell it again – which I couldn’t, for I had long since moved on, and moved away.

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  • A rare moment of relaxation in our garden, that first swelteringly hot summer in France.  My mother commented that the heat was as bad as Nigeria.

In the meantime we talked about where to go.  We discussed returning to South Africa, where I was born, and a part of me will always wish that we had done that.  We discussed Australia, where Bruce had spent his youth.  We talked about New Caledonia where I had lived, or Spain and any number of other places.  Mostly I wanted to go home, but we had lost our house and we knew that raising the funds for another would take a very long time.

And as all parents know, the children have to come in to the equation.  We had removed them from a school where they were very happy and doing well in the UK.  Pippa and William were now fluent in French.  They were part of the French education system.  And we didn’t have the funds for a big move anyway.  Oddly enough a friend asked me just the other day where I would recommend living – where in the world, that is – for we have travelled a great deal and lived in a lot of different countries.  And I replied:

“While you are young and energetic, if you are going to go to the trouble of moving country and culture, for goodness’ sake choose somewhere a bit more exotic than France!”

Odd, isn’t it ?  Although I have come to love France, I still feel that.

Part 3 to follow.

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  Her books are available on Amazon/Kindle worldwide, or can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries.  They can also be bought (£1.99) as e-books from http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk

Click here for Part 1.

– See more at: http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk/blog/it-happened-like-this-an-english-family-move-to-france-part-2-2/#sthash.oQM2hz8v.dpuf

 

It happened like this…an English family move to France, Part 1

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At the beginning, 1989.

Well, to be blunt, we were broke. We had been hit by the UK property crash in 1989 and we lost everything almost overnight. And that is why we moved to France.  No other reason.

In the preceding months, before we realized how serious the financial crisis would be, we had bought a little fermette, largely uninhabitable, in the centre of France, as fashion dictated.  The intention was to develop, as the British were hungry for cheap property in France and – goodness – it was cheap!   Although, before we met, we had both lived abroad a great deal, we were not immune to the British dream-misconception that life would be “different” in France.  Like so many of our compatriots we thought it could be an “escape” of some kind … in those days France was considerably cheaper.  Surely life would be easier ?  Surely it would be different ?

Well, yes, it was different – it was French!

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  This was the first property we bought, more-or-less, for the price of a garden shed in the UK.  I am standing by the door with one of the children.  The centre of France was a big mistake, though we were not to know it then. Although property was amazingly cheap, the area was bitterly cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer – a horrid, heavy kind of heat that was not pleasant at all. It was also a very backward part of the country, and seemed stuck in the dark ages. Many of the locals had no indoor plumbing and used an out-house, or even a bucket.

In the UK I had been teaching and Bruce ran a building firm, buying up the last of the run-down old houses in Hastings, splitting them up in to flats and then selling them.  It was exceptionally high-risk and hard work, but we were both extremely energetic, positive and determined people.

I taught French & Spanish

I had stopped teaching while expecting our third child, born in 1988. That was the happiest patch of my life, at home with a very good baby, with whom I was utterly besotted.  Pippa and William were aged 7 and 9 respectively and they went to a local prep school.  We had a lovely house that we had purchased when William was new-born.  We bought it as a two-up and two-down derelict cottage, probably the last one in Sussex.  We had enlarged and renovated it and we were rightly very proud of it.  We had good money, a smart car, holidays abroad. Even my teaching position had been pleasant enough.

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We had bought this as a derelict cottage when William was just a few weeks old.  By then it was already very difficult to find something in need of work in the south-east of England and we felt lucky to have got our hands on it.  It had been a tiny two-up two-down with a small kitchen extension.  It was in such a bad state that a health visitor came round to see what sort of conditions I was keeping the children in!  We turned it in to a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house.  Our blood, sweat and tears were in it. 

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  • On the patio in Sussex, England.  I loved that house and left my heart there.  It took me a long time to recover.

 

Sometimes when I look back on that energy I can hardly believe it.  I used to pop home during my lunch break at school to mow the grass – at first a half acre of derelict shrubbery and scrub and, bit by bit, as I cut the growth back and seeded, mowed and re-seeded, it turned in to lovely green grass, English grass.  I don’t know why I mention it here, for I have never been interested in gardening, but I suppose because it was one of the things I missed the most when we were in France.  My English garden with London pride growing in the borders.

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Me standing in the front garden in Sussex, the azaleas and rhododenrons in bloom, a few days before Jake, our third baby, was born.

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  • My rock garden with Pippa and William crouching at the top and the  London Pride in bloom.

I had loads of friends.  I have always been a chatty, up-front person.  I like girls, I like women.  I always had a chum with me when I went shopping or when I took the children out.  It is part of the very heart and structure of an English woman’s life, and another thing that I missed dreadfully once we moved to France where it was much harder to make friends, and to find the time to maintain any potential friendships.

We worked as a team.

Unable to meet bills or pay the mortgage on our home in England, we were just one more family amid hundreds and hundreds who lost out badly in 1989, many of whom reformed their lives around Council houses and menial jobs to survive.  What made us different was that we believed very strongly in ourselves.  We had had a lovely lifestyle and we wanted it back. We were hard-working and willing to take a risk.  We got on really well together and worked as a team, always.  We had huge energy, and we didn’t mind roughing it when we had to.  Bruce could turn his hand to almost anything, he was exceptionally skilled, and I could do the rest.  When I look back I realize we were multi-talented, but it didn’t occur to me then.  The main things were our enthusiasm, our determination and our energy.  We had three little children, but we scooped them up in to whatever situation we were in, and just got on with it.

We decided to let our lovely home, so we put a tenant in and we moved to France.  I will always remember the removal man telling me he moved a UK family to France every week.  As he made his notes he looked straight at me as added: “and every week I move a family home again”.  He was trying to warn me.

The tenant’s rent paid the worst of the mortgage.  About four months later he announced that he would like to buy the property and, although we’d by far have preferred to have kept it, we really had no choice but to sell.  And then, for no reason, he changed his mind, bought elsewhere, the bank forclosed and we lost the house.  I cried for weeks – for years.

Speaking French.

Periodically somebody will say to me “how lucky you could speak French!”.  Being able to speak French was, of course, a huge advantage compared to most foreigners trying to set up a new life in France.  Conversely, however, it was a disadvantage in more ways than one would imagine.  Had neither of us been able to speak French we’d have bumbled along together.  But as I spoke it well, thanks to childhood years in New Caledonia, everything fell on to my shoulders.  Talking to the teachers, helping with homework, opening a bank account, dealing with mortgage applications, insurance policies, the endless red tape provided by the French bureaucratic system, answering the phone, finding an accountant, applying for child allowance – all of a sudden I was no longer a housewife-cum-teacher.  It was exhausting.  Jake was still getting us up in the night from time to time, the children were confused and lost in school, and we had to find a way of earning money very quickly indeed.

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  • Bruce washing Jake in the kitchen sink – we had no bath, though there was a cold shower.

French banks

The other key to our success was the French banking system.  It was extraordinarily naive at the time, and in no time at all we were able to buy a bigger and better property called La Haute Perriere with 100% loan from a French bank.  They simply wanted to know how much we had earned the previous year, and that had been a lot.  They wrote it down on a piece of paper, got us to sign it, and were not interested in the fact that we had lost that income for good.

Now, one has to understand that, although on the one hand it was utterly crazy – crazy! – to buy such a big property, there were reasons behind it.  Folly, sure, but good reasons too.  Both Bruce and I always had a feeling of “just round the next corner … ” and “in just a month or two …”  We had complete confidence that things would work out well. Considering our ambitions, and the state we were in, that confidence sometimes beggared belief.  There was no question of things not working out well.  A possible failure didn’t enter in to the equation.  A big house like La Haute Perriere gave us a level of kudos, not for the local people but to our very selves.  It is a bit like looking smart when you go out – you somehow just feel better, even though you are the same person.  Our frame of mind, our mindset and our whole personal aura was go for it! Make it happen! get there!

That is what drove us on.

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I love this picture because I can just see Jake toddling as fast as his little leggies would carry him, towards the camera. Behind him I am just moving forwards to catch him.  The middle floor of this property had been arranged as a 3 bedroom flat, and that is where we lived.  There was a top floor which was accessed via a steep staircase at one end of the property; we called this The Tower.  There was a new roof but apart from that no work had been done on that floor and it was just a huge long attic that the children played in.  There were all sorts of relics up there, the strangest of all being five or six massive oriental rugs, laid out on the floor, one on top of the other.  They were doubtless worth a fortune, but there was no way of getting them down the stairs and we puzzled as to how they got up there.  It must have been when the roof was removed.   The bottom floor was three massive, bare rooms, decorated and boasting 18th Century tiled floors and a huge fireplace at one end.  The property had full central heating which was unusual for that part of France in those days – and gosh, was that needed that first bitter bitter winter!  This huge house had just the one bathroom and toilet, which was also typical of French homes at that time.  There were several acres of fenced garden, a tennis court, and endless outbuildings to include a lovely 17th Century dove cote.

We sold our little fermette in Palluau to some ambitious Brits who were seeking “the easy life”, and we made a good profit.  Doing this was clearly the way to make some good money and to move forwards.  We had befriended a local notaire who was very keen to sell to les anglais, and thence very keen to see me set up an estate agency.  In those days it was more usual to have an office and a shop-front to give us a high street presence, but we didn’t even consider this as it was unwanted overheads.  We arranged one of the large and more comofrtable downstairs rooms as an office and, along with my old typewriter, a phone, a filing cabinet and a second-hand photocopier, we set up business.  Bruce built two long “desks” that covered two walls, and on these we were able to lay out the photocopies of the properties, address envelopes and so on.

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  • One of the ground floor rooms

Success.

We were successful right from the word go.  No, not big success, but enough to live on, pay for the house and run the car. Thanks largely to the notaire, the jungle-drums worked like magic and we soon had a big file of properties for sale, mostly run-down fermettes, which was what the Brits were generally after.  We ignored the French market – they had estate agents of their own – and concentrated on the UK market, placing ads in The Lady and the Telegraph.  There was no internet in those days, so enquiries came in by phone or by fax, sometimes ten enquiries in one day and then none for a month.  The property details had to be posted to the UK, and then after a few follow-up calls we’d wait for people to come to France and view.  For every 100 potential buyers I got in to my car, and drove them round the countryside showing them any suitable houses,  about 3 would actually buy something.  I took as large a commission as I could, for those that did buy had to make up, financially, for those who didn’t buy.

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  • The countryside was generally flat.  This was the view from the kitchen balcony.  Years later William told me that he used to look at the horizon and imagine England over there, beyond the trees.  He also told me that for years and years he slept facing England.  He and I were both very homesick.

My property sales were dealt with by the same notaire , who benefitted from the transactions, of course.  He, in turn, kept one ear to the ground for suitable properties for me.  He supplied me with sales papers in English that I should get my clients to sign, and was a good source of support and general information at a time when I was paddling in the dark.

He didn’t trouble to mention to me – and perhaps he genuinely didn’t think of it – that there are very strict laws about conveyancing in France and that, what you could at that time do in all freedom in the UK was illegal in France, and carried a prison sentence.

Part 2 to follow.

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an aritst.  Her books are readily available on Amazon/Kindle, or can be ordered from any leading book store or library.  They are also available as e-books on this site

 

People in my books: Peter “Saying Nothing”

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Peter only ever came to Spain because Janie so wanted him to.  Not that he objected, not at all, but he was more the sort of person who’d go to the Lake District or to Cornwall.  He was English, he loved England.  He liked a ploughman’s in the pub on a Sunday lunch time.  He liked to watch football sometimes, but was not a keen supporter of any one team.  Tennis interested him too, though he didn’t play.  He liked the cricket in the summer, and English trees, red letter boxes, familiar voices.

He hoped he wasn’t boring, but he was a little – just a little.

He was greatly saddened, for Janie’s sake, when they had no children.  For himself, he didn’t much mind.  A baby would have been welcome, of course, but as there were none, that was fine.  But he knew it broke Janie’s heart and he would have by far preferred to see her happy.  It seemed it preyed on her mind off and on all the time.  He felt it was somehow his “fault”, though medically-speaking he knew that it wasn’t.  It was neither of them.  It was just the way it was.

When Janie disappeared he had to confess that it crossed his mind more than once that she had left him.  Logically, he knew it wasn’t the case – she’d have packed her things, she’d have spoken to him, or left a note.  She hadn’t even taken her passport.  Yet he would not have been all that astounded had she left.  He often sensed an underlying disatisfaction in her, nothing he could put his finger on.  He knew, logically, that some mishap had befallen her.  She had been hit by a car, or had had a different accident.  She had lost her memory (well, he was right about that!) and could not get back to him.

Never, not in his wildest imaginings, did he think she had been kidnapped.

—-

“Saying Nothing”, a novel set in Spain, is avaiable from Amazon/Kindle by clicking below:

http://www.amazon.com/Saying-Nothing-ebook/dp/B007X2K396/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1378407632&sr=8-3&keywords=catherine+broughton

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  Her books are available on Amazon/Kindle worldwiode, or can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries.  They are also abailable as e-books:-

https://payhip.com/b/tEva    “A Call from France”

https://payhip.com/b/OTiQ    ”French Sand”

https://payhip.com/b/BLkF    “The Man with Green Fingers”

https://payhip.com/b/1Ghq    “Saying Nothing”

– See more at: http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk/blog/people-in-my-books-peter-saying-nothing/#sthash.KDiXbjHP.dpuf

People in my books: Janie “Saying Nothing”

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How would you cope if you were kidnapped?  You are not rich, you are not famous, you are not powerful.  Furthermore, you know nobody who is ….

She had always had a kind of romantic notion about Spain and all things Spanish.  She assumed it was because her first little teenage fling had been with a Spanish boy, because her grandmother, who she had loved, was Spanish, because she had many happy memories of childhood holidays in Spain.

She was aware that Peter could take it or leave it, but his aim was always to please her, and she knew he was happy enough to come along.  She hoped they would move there one day, after retirement.  There were clearly not going to be any children, so the world was their oyster … she’d have preferred the oyster (as it were) with children, but there were none, so that was that.

She had never slept with anybody other than Peter.  They had started seeing each other when they were just kids.  She had never been in love – she realized that during her last, very last, trip to Spain – but she loved Peter in that way you feel for somebody who is familiar and reliable and who loves you.  She had never felt passion with Peter. He was not the sort to instill passion.  Just love. A passive, kindly, you-can-count-on-me type of love.

When they set off for Gatwick on that last trip, she had no idea what was going to happen.  Not in her wildest thoughts could she have forseen such an event.  Not in her wildest imaginings could she had predicted such vehemence of feeling, the fear, the confusion, the anger … the violence … the passion.

“Saying Nothing” is a novel set in Spain:-

 

http://www.amazon.com/Saying-Nothing-ebook/dp/B007X2K396/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1378452483&sr=1-4&keywords=catherine+broughton

– See more at: http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk/blog/people-in-my-books-janie-saying-nothing/#sthash.IqQ7eNOM.dpuf

The French Language- the things you didn’t learn in evening class

Today Eden, who is seven, asked me if it was obligatory to go to the pool.

You would never hear this in English. “ C’est obligatoire d’aller a la piscine?” she asked after I suggested I accompany her there.

An English child would say “do I have to go?” or perhaps “is it important I go?” or something like that.  In English it is not obligatory and never could be.  The health club I belonged to in the UK had a sign in the changing room: guests are requested to kindly take a shower before using the sauna.  The health club I went to in France had a similar notice: douche obligatoire avant sauna.

It is obligatory you belt up when in the car.  It is obligatory you show your passport at customs.  But not to go to the pool or anything like it.

Likewise the French will use to have the right.  Eden again, and today again, asked if she had the right to an ice cream.  ”J’ai le droit de prendre une glace?”  An English child would ask “can I have an ice-cream?”  An American child, I am told, would just help himself!  I remember when we first came to France coming across a car crash.  One side of the road was blocked and there was a long long queue, as traffic passed swiftly and constantly in the other direction.  After quite a wait, I got out of the car and asked the young man standing to one side (aged 35 or so) to stop the traffic one way so that the others could get moving.  “Je n’ai pas le droit”, he replied.  I haven’t the right, he said.  So I did it.  When the police turned up they looked mildly surprised at me, but didn’t guillotine me or fling me in to prison.  Phew.

Then there is the word interdit.  Forbidden.  I think it has something to do with Napoleon.  Even though he’s been dead a long time.  At a nearby chateau is a sign “il est interdit de marcher sur l’herbe” – in English this would be please keep off the grass.

French is such a beautiful language, yet they do have this “hardness” to many of their words and ways of saying things.

As usual, just as the pop in to my head (accents missing):-

jeux de societe – board games

un point, c’est tout! – and that’s that!

quelquechose qui cloche – something not quite right

planetere – out of this world

joli – yes, it means pretty but it can be used in a way we would never use it in English, e.g something that is badly done: ce n’est pas joli.  The hem on the curtain is badly done – l’ourlet du rideau n’est pas joli

double rideau – (while we’re at it) is a curtain, whereas a net curtain is un rideau

epingle a nourrice – safety pin

au bout de la langue – on the tip of my tongue

bete noire – pet hate

queter – to ask for money, but not begging, ie to ask for money for a charity.  There is no word for a collection box, so I suppose one would say “une boite pour faire la quete”.  To beg is otherwise mendier

je connais comme sur le bout de mes doigts – I know it like the palm of my hand.  However, in French this does not really apply to, e.g a town or a street, more to a book or some other intellectual situation or item

ecole prive – public school, though in English we tend to say “independent” school these days.  The public/independent school in the UK is more-or-less unique in Europe.  Our children went to an ecole prive here in France, but it cost a tiny fraction of what it would cost in the UK and had no where near the same connotations or anything like it

c’est du jamais-vu – I’ve never seen anything like it

c’est plus fort que moi – I can’t help it

il y en a la-haut – sort-of equivalent to “she’s not just a pretty face” – you need to tap your forehead as you say it, indicating there are brains up there

manger a la pouce – to eat on the go

chair de poule – goose bumps

erreur de frappe – typo

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  Her books are available on Amazon/Kindle worldwide or can be ordered from any leading book store or library.  Links below:-

 

https://payhip.com/b/tEva    “A Call from France”

https://payhip.com/b/OTiQ    ”French Sand”

https://payhip.com/b/BLkF    “The Man with Green Fingers”

https://payhip.com/b/1Ghq    “Saying Nothing”

 

or from Amazon (click below):-

http://goo.gl/XbkYVK  “Saying Nothing”

http://goo.gl/1RVEdr   “French Sand”

http://goo.gl/LZG63T  “A Call from France”

– See more at: http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk/blog/the-french-language-things-you-dont-learn-in-evening-class/#sthash.nG92JA8I.dpuf