It happened like this..an English family moves to France. Part 12

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 Jake and George on the beach at Marennes

We got a dog.

Well, you do, don’t you ?  When you need to set up a new business and you’ve got three children, no income of any note and a huge house to restore, you do tend to get a dog, n’est-ce pas?  All the best people do it.

George was never really a puppy.  We bought him as a puppy, sure, but he was really more like a black blob with four huge paws.  Great Danes, we were told, usually live till they are seven or eight, but George lived till he was almost twelve.  He died while with us  in Istanbul … and that is a different story.

Walking the dog

George brought in to our lives a whole different element.  We started walking instead of cycling.  We found ourselves talking about the dog – discussing his food, his bed, his exercise.  Bruce had never had a dog before but I had had three rescue dogs when I lived in Spain even though I am not a particularly doggie person.  He was great with the children, and they were great with him, lovingly dishing up his food and fondling his huge floppy ears (at this time the French were still docking the ears of Great Danes, something which has since been banned thank goodness) and stroking and brushing him.  For some inexplicable reason taking George for a good walk was not on the agenda of any of the children – that was somehow our job.  He was extremely obedient once he got over the silly-doggie teenage days and in all those years we never had to keep him on a lead or tie him; when we told him to keep to heel, he did, and when we told him to stay and guard, he did.  No questions asked.  He would even bark to order and could look quite frightening.

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 Jake and George.  He was an intensely soppy dog and brilliant with the children.  He was quite posessive of us as a family and, although we never witnessed even the slightest hint of aggressive behaviour, we would not have liked anybody to have put him to the test.  Great Danes are big animals, and George was BIG.

A huge house

Asked what our aim was in buying a restoring a huge place like Les Cypres, we would have had no answer.  It wasn’t that we had visions of being chatelains and living the chateau life (whatever that is!), and nor was it some idea that we needed a bigger and better house than most.  It had been for sale for something like twenty years and no sensible person would touch it.  In all those years it had stood like a great ghostly blackened hulk at the edge of the village, slowly and inexorably deteriorating a little more each year.  And as its condition worsened, so the giant cobwebs, pigeon droppings, woodworm and dust grew.

But for us there has always been – even now – something about these magnificent old places that was just … addictive.  We were (and are) both very good at seeing through the mess, picturing what can be done, and getting on with it.  We were both also very good at doing things on a shoestring, using up old stuff to make new, and sourcing interesting and inexpensive things from bath tubs to curtains, from roof slates to plaster board, furniture and gravel for the drive and power tools and light switches …

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  This is now the utility room at Les Cypres.  That little table … the children used to do their homework there and it has had many a layer of poster paints and Christmas card glitter scrubbed off it.  The entire ground floor of Les Cypres has these quarry tiled floors, and some sections in the hall pre-date the existing house which stands on the site of an older property burnt to the ground during the French Revolution.  As these old places have no damp-course, restoring the floor was a major problem.  We had neither the time nor the money – not to mention the energy! – to dig up the floor and start again, but after many trials and errors we discovered that boot polish is the best way to get a shine on the tiles.  It was a hands-and-knees job that kept me fit for many years, though nowadays I have a couple of cleaners in.

To take on a project like this you really do have to be able to turn your hand to anything, seriously anything.  It is no good being able to do parts of the work – the wiring, for example – you need, between you, to be able to do it all.  And you have to be able to “see it” even when things are at their worst.  There were plenty of times we ran out of money and nothing got done, likewise plenty of times we just collapsed in front of the TV in a state of exhaustion after a day at work, unable to lift the smallest hammer or paint brush.

Despite the vision and enthusiasm I shared with Bruce for a lovely house to be really proud of, and despite our joint burning need to see an end to the sad state it was in and had been in for many years, I nonetheless remained homesick.  Had a magic fairy appeared and waved a wand, I’d have opted to go home, no two ways about it.

I have frequently tried to analyse it.  I had already lived abroad a great deal and had worked abroad for four years.  I was made of tough stuff, I was adaptable, tri-lingual, competent, self-assured  … yet felt a homesickness that was sometimes overwhelming.  I think it was a combination of the circumstances under which we lost our home in Sussex, and the nightmare of the Gestapo incident, the house tax episode and the Carte Professionelle fiasco.  Almost as those things had soured France for me for ever.

We knew a lot of people

We still had no friends.  Goodness, we knew plenty of people, but there was no other woman around I could pop in on for a chat, or go shopping with, or compare notes about the children, the school, our husbands, and the general ups and downs of life.  I remained feeling very isolated.  As soon as the house was half-way decent, we invited local people in – the village doctors, the notaires, the farmer across the road.  But nobody invited us back. Not even once.  As time went by we discovered that the Parisian French are vastly more sociable and open-minded, and French friends we have these days are without exception ex-Parisians or French people who have lived and worked abroad.

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  In the kitchen with friends, all French.  That’s me on the left with a red belt.  Building debris all around us!  Several years later that fireplace suddenly collapsed, narrowly missing my cleaning lady who would probably have been badly hurt.

Essential building work

That first winter we dealt with the absolute essentials: the worst of the roof repairs, and hardboard over the perished timber floors.  We also got the central heating going, hot water and a bath tub, one toilet and installed the essentials like washing machine and drier.  Apart from that we cleared and cleaned, then cleared and cleaned again.  There was a huge amount stuff left behind, much of it nice old furniture, but most of it empty bottles, old mattresses and pillows, broken pots and about forty broken chairs.  There were pigeons residing in a room on the top floor and huge quantities of little pots, some of which I kept, which all smelt of strong ointments of some kind.  There were old trunks, some in relatively good condition (use gloss varnish on perished old leather – that works fine), which themselves contained miles of old tablecloths and aprons, pictures, sepia photographs and momentos, old shoes and even silver candlesticks.  In many regards it was great fun, despite everything being dusty, dirty, motheaten and covered in pigeon droppings.  Much of this stuff was carted off in to the numerous barns that were part of the property – they later made 8 houses, to give you an idea of the size of them.  They were largely derelict, but where the roof was intact we stored all sorts of thing from the house; some of it worsened and got thrown away, some of it we sold and some we restored and put back in the house.

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The entire house needed to be re-wired.  The chart on the wall next to the meters show which switches apply to which rooms.  It was quite a feat that Bruce dealt with in under a fortnight.

For me it has always been of prime importance to get the place clean and tolerably tidy, even if everything not only needs decorating, but floors have got to come up or walls be knocked down.  Regardless of anything I absolutely must hang my plates and pictures on the walls (unless decorating is imminent of course), place my furniture and books about and get an overall sense of “home”.  An undecorated room could remain like that for 6 months or a year while we dealt with more pressing repairs and maintenance, and in the meantime I felt I may as well enjoy my stuff.  Seeing my old granny’s plate up on the wall, my encyclopedias on their shelves and my father’s paintings of South Africa over the fireplaces, made me feel some level of familiarity with my surroundings, and quite possibly even spurred me on to get things done.

You just make do

The children’s rooms, up on the top floor, were in the worst condition, but for a year or so it was a giant “dormitory”-cum-play area for them, and they really enjoyed that.  Not needing to worry about the state of the flooring or the walls, they let rip and ran riot up there, doing what they wanted – within reason – till their rooms were decorated at last.

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The living room with bare plasterboard/breeze block on the walls, and chipboard on the floor that was so ingrained with dust it went white; no curtains, no lampshades and there were doubtless sacks of cement and tools just out of sight, but all my bits and bobs are out.  That was important to me.  We seem to be watching something – its not the TV which was in the corner behind.  Me sitting between my mother-in-law and Bruce, Pippa and William in the foreground.  I expect Jake, who was about six, took the picture.

In the meantime, of course, Bruce still had his building business and the clients had not dried up at all even though I no longer sold the houses. He had masses of work and the usual stresses of running your own business, building sites, workers who don’t turn up, clients who don’t pay, dealing with attitude from the men/the clients/the suppliers, scrabbling around to find the wages each week, fixing the truck, fixing the digger, bills that cost more than the estimated … and his Meniere’s attacks.

We needed to find another way to make some money.

 

 

Part 13 to follow.

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Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  Her web site is http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk.  Her books can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries, or from Amazon/Kindle worldwide.  They are also available 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”

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 11

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Bruce bleaching the exterior of the house.  Industrial bleach is vicious stuff and you can burn yourself quite badly.  At the top of the photo you can see where the bleach has worked, and it was such a transformation.  From grotty dirty grey to a lovely off-white.  The surface area of the outside walls is about 6000 sq feet, so it was quite a job.  And before the bleaching started there was a lot of sanding of the stonework because of crusted dirt, old bits of pipes and wires and ariels, repairing bits of broken stone … it took at least a month. We had an Englishman called Kevin helping. He was a funny bloke, Kevin.  He badly needed work and we tried to give him some, but he was really pretty hopeless.  We found him lying down to do the weeding, slowly picking bits of grass out of a flower-bed.  He couldn’t understand it when we fired him.  Those shutters have been re-painted three or four times now, and we have found that “satin” paint works best.  Gloss tends to peel or crack in the sun (the south side of the house gets very hot) whereas satin paint holds its own.  The shutters are now fixed in the open position.  They were so frequently left banging around in the wind and, being English, we use curtains anyway.  So they got screwed back and are simply decorative.  Actually one of the things that makes French villages so dull is all the closed shuttered windows that line the streets; it give everything a blank look. 

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A huge pile of rubble in he entrance hall!  The fathers of the previous owners, two brothers, had split the house in to two, making a pair of semis.  There was a thin brick wall dividing the house across the hall (hence the rubble which was removed, one barrow load after another, by our daughter was by now aged 14 or so).  There was also a 1920s staircase which, in London, would have fetched a good price – but here in France, at that time, it was worthless.  We used the staircase in another building a year or two later. The door way to the right had been closed-off, making a cupboard in the other side, the other side being the dining room.  An old mattress, one of several left in the house, propped against the far wall, waiting for A Strong Man (ie Bruce) to take it out to the skip. 

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  • This is the living room.  In fact it had been split up in to three small rooms, presumeably for economy of heat during the winter.  The partitions were easy to remove, but the floor underneath was badly damaged – a mixture of woodworm, damp and age.  At first the room was very dark because of a huge tree growing just outisde, which – sad though it was – we removed.  Somebody had painted the stone fireplace a brownish yellow and, just below the surface of the paint we could pick out an old fleur-de-lys, which I have since managed to paint back in.  We covered the floor in hardboard, having neither the time nor the money for a damp course.

You cannot be a perfectionist

That is something of utmost importance when you take on a huge project as this was, particularly when you have a tiny budget as we did: do not fuss too much where fuss isn’t really needed.  You cannot be a perfectionist at times like this, otherwise you will never get the job done.  We know a man who spent four years trying to install his central heating; he was so careful about everything, so precise … he never got the job finished and in the end they called a plumber in, which they might as well have done in the beginning.

And it also depends on your version of doing something “properly”.  Some French friends bought a pretty house in nearby Fouras – that 1900s seaside architecture I love – though just a small (sensible!) house.  With great pride they told us they had done everything “properly”, even though it had taken them years.  But I look around their house (which I like) and wonder where the “properly” bit is … Many would disagree with me of course.  We all have different ways of doing things.  Furthermore a house like ours had plenty of lumps and bumps in it just because of its age and its style.  That suited me just fine.

You have to be decisive

You also have to be decisive.  Some dear friends of ours went through agonies while trying to decide the colour of their kitchen work surface.  We decide that kind of thing within a few minutes.  You have to know what you are about, you have to have a good eye for what you are doing, you have to be decisive.  And there is no point in regretting a decision.  If Bruce came to consult me every time he put up a radiator  or a balustrade, and I had been fussed as to whether it went here or there, the entire project would have gone on and on.  Likewise I never consulted him about the colour of the paint or the curtains, or where I hung a picture.  We trusted each other’s decisions implicitly.  That is essential.

There are quite a few things that have not got that professional finished touch but it doesn’t matter to us.  The house is nonetheless great, most people love it, and those who don’t – well, that’s fine, they don’t have to.

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This is now the library.  It is too big to call it a landing (the picture shows about a third of the room).  The hole in the floor was where the 1920s staircase was.  We diverged from the original architect’s plans and created a mezzanine/atrium in that void, otherwise it made the hallway below terribly dark.  The cast iron uprights that now serve as a balustrade all the way round are a mixture of antique stair rails we had found in the loft of House Number One and Bruce’s expertise with working iron in to something that looks ancient even if it is not.   The door leads on to a balcony – you can see where the ceiling had fallen away above it.  On the right there is an alcove in which stands an old statue of Mary, mother of Jesus.  We read in the archives that a previous owner had declared the statue was to be left there forever, or be buried with her.  So we have left it there to be on the safe side!  The door to the left led through to what became our bedroom and bathroom.

It sounds old-fashioned, but we quickly learnt to divide our labour in to boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs.  When a man is working hard, as Bruce was, it is essential to him to know that there is a hearty meal waiting for him when he stops, a couple of cold beers, a comfortable bed to collapse in to, clean dust-free clothes to put on. That was my department.  He did the Big Heavy jobs that I didn’t know how to do – and didn’t want to know.  I did the more feminine jobs like painting and decorating and making endless curtains – most of those windows are almost three metres high, floor to curtain rail.  To this day we divide our labour accordingly and, without having to consult each other, we each deal with different things.

That is another thing that is important when taking on a task like this.  You have to understand each other and neither party should tell the other what to do.  If you need to be told what to do, you shouldn’t start on the project.  You have to be able to see it for yourself and make your own decisions.  You have to be able to just get on with it, whatever which way you can; and if you can’t do it you need to know how to side-step it – if only for today.

Sometimes things were overwhelming.

Truly overwhelming, especially when there was nowhere to put anything.   Everything was heaped in to two huge rooms, except for the larger pieces of furniture which went straight in to the room they were – theortetically – destined for.  I am a very tidy person, and all the boxes were labelled, and I just went back and forth, back and forth, carrying things to different rooms regardless of whether or not they could be unpacked – which they invariably couldn’t.  This involved negotiating my way over planks, especially on the top floor where the children’s rooms were to be created, because the old floor was badly perished and unsafe to walk on.  The disadvantage to doing this was that, when there was a lot of work going on, in the case of the children’s bedrooms walls and floors needed to be repaired, replaced or created from scratch, the boxes get in the way.  But a judgement has to be made one way or another, especially when one needs access to the contents of the boxes.  You just have to work round it somehow.   I went up and down those stair cases and in and out of all those rooms all day long for four days; when I felt there was some semblance of order, and when I knew where everything was, I was satisfied.  If one of the childrenn asked for cellotape, or scissors or a dictionary, in that huge house and with all that mess, I knew exactly where to locate it.

The children

The children were amazing.  William in particular learnt a lot of DIY skills and today, like his dad, he is way above-average … though equally untidy, if such a thing were possible.

The children joined in all this upheaval.  When I look back on it I realize we laughed a lot.  We had our own silly language and our own funny little routines.  Routine is important to children and despite all the big changes (a new school for a start) we kept all the rituals and routines that made up the heart and soul of the family… each child choosing in turn what we would eat, for example, bed time stories, Sunday cycle rides and so on.

I was probably somewhat strict – there was “grown ups time”, when they were packed off to bed and they understood from a very early age that children’s time now happened in bed and it was grown-ups time downstairs.  I was also strict about toys – toys remained in the children’s areas, though there were also outdoor toys and, later, pool toys.  We never ever had toys all over the house and I cannot understand people who do.  Come to think of it, there were “kitchen” toys, ie paints and felt tip pens, which were used in the kitchen only.

Men and mess

I drew the line at tools.  We all know that men carry tools around with them and put them down “somewhere – I -had-it-in-my-hand-I-know-I-did”.  Tools were not my domain, though I did announce at odd intervals (and the announcement was either not heard or forgotten within seconds)  ”I will put any tools lying around in my way by the hall door”.

Something I learnt on the very first day of our marriage (almost) is that when Bruce says “it won’t make much mess” – ignore that completely.  It will make a terrible mess.  Does this apply to all men or is it just my man ?  Cover everything or it will soon be smothered in brick dust, stone dust, sawdust, and every other kind of dust and everything in-between too.

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Another old photo of the house, circa 1880, judging by the clothes.  Mark you this part of France remained extremely backward till the 1990s, so the photo may well have been taken later, though I cannot imagine it was after, say, 1918.  Once I had time on my hands I was able to wade through a lot of these old photos and identify, using church and town hall records, the people therein.  The family immediately before us had nothing of any interest to relate, but a few generations back there was a lot of interesting stuff, much of which is on display in the property today.

Despite feeling overwhelmed from time to time it never occured to me – or to Bruce – that we couldn’t do it.  I don’t think this was because we were overly self-confident, but we were self-confident, very energetic, very speedy, very imaginative.  The only way forwards is precisely that – forwards.  You put one foot in front of the other, even if there is no money to do it.  You just find a way.  Round it, or over it, or under it … whatever it is.  I have never looked back and thought “we were crazy!” in a regretful or negative way.

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when you work hard it is crucial that you play hard (me in the multi-coloured outfit).  The elder two children already taller than I am.  Jake was on skis by the time he was four and, some years later, so were our grandbabies. 

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A section of the entrance hall today

 

Part 12 to follow.

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

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 10

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The road through the little town of Pont l’Abbe d’Arnoult.  That basket shop is no longer there, but I used to pop in regularly as it sold all sorts of odds and sods.  Opposite was a small supermarket.  The post office was at the other end of the place, boasting the most unfriendly and po-faced post mistress in the world!  The arch and the church on just the other side date back to the 14th Centuries; the church has a very ornate portico which is unusual because most of the churches in the area were fortified against the English during the Hundred years’ War and look somewhat bulky and plain.

We moved the children to a little privately-run Roman Catholic school in the small market town of Pont l’Abbe, which was to be some 15-20 minutes’ drive from our new house.  We had rapidly learnt that, although the village school we were leaving was undoubtledly quite excellent in its own way (despite only 2 hole-in-the-ground toilets for 105 children), it taught the children very little apart from how to speak bad (ie local) French and how to aspire to becoming a farm labourer.  We decided therefore that the village school in our new village, Ste Justine, although it was probably all very sweet and delightfully dated, was not for our kids.  I have to confess that we didn’t even look round it.

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 Driving the children to school in the winter was often so lovely, with a mist shrouding everything but the church spire.  The name of the town has nothing to do with an abbey, as one might suppose, though there is an abbey in nearby Trizay, about 5 miles east.  Apparently there used to be a bridge (pont) at a homestead either named Abe or the owner was named Abe, circa 1200 or so, before the town was built.  That is how the name evolved, l’Arnoult being the name of the river.  

The Pont l’Abbe d’Arnoult school was not a fee-paying school in the UK sense, where independent schools can be excruciatingly expensive.  This was not the same thing at all – the fees were really nothing much, even for three children.  It did, however, have a better standard and the children started to mix with “better” other children – note use of inverted commas.  The fact that it was RC was by-the-by.  There was a chapel, and a couple of nuns fluttering about occasionally, but it was otherwise an ordinary school.  As is the way in most schools on the continent, there was no uniform, and it was particularly from the children’s clothes that one could tell we were in a completely different social bracket.  Here the kids wore Rip Curl and similar makes, good quality shoes, and were always clean.  At the school we had left the children were frequently grubby and their clothes even grubbier.

A bonus was that there were a few other foreign children already there – and English girl by the name of Charlotte, I recall, a couple of Australian girls and an American boy.  This was a bonus not because we wanted the children to be able to speak in English but because, no longer being the only foreigners, they didn’t stick out like sore thumbs any more.

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The last summer at Primrose. Me standing outside the kitchen/utility room door, with the 3 children and two friends. William always had zillions of friends round, these two being Guillaume (in red and blue), who now lives in Germany with wife and child, and Benoit (in the middle), still living nearby and still in regular contact.

Security for children

The most important thing for children is to feel loved by their parents, to feel that their parents are united in the face of any childhood traumas and decisions, and to feel safe.  It is important that children feel their parents are going to protect them from danger and look after them if they are sick.  Wipe away the tears and be ready with cuddles.  So moving your children from school to school is not necessarily a good thing, but it is not a bad thing either.  In fact, it can be very good for them and it promotes sociability.  This was the fourth school our children had attented in as many years.  Although I’m not going to pretend that our children shone academically at school – though they held their own – they are now, as adults, all in above-average situations, have plenty of “nouse”, are multi-talented and socially adept.  They are also, as the French say, bien dans leur peau.  Really, one cannot ask for more.

It goes without saying, perhaps, that they put us through a whole world of teenage traumas, but the main thing was that we always stuck together, through thick and thin, and they always knew and understood their places within the family network.  We did things en famille.  Moving around gave them broader horizons and an ability to soak-up different situations as and when the needed arose – and they have carried this forward in to adulthood.

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Jake holding a kitten named TD, which stood for The Dragon.  It is a funny thing, I have never been particularly keen on cats or dogs, but we have almost always had them.  The children also had a hamster for a while.  It died and I had to dash in to Rochefort to buy another one.  One of them commented the hamster looked different … “really ?  Hmmm … well, hamsters do change sometimes …” I muttered.

As a child myself I went to fourteen different schools, all over Africa and the South Pacific, Switzerland – and the rest.  It never did me any harm, and quite possibly did me a power of good.  I always had my parents and my numerous siblings: they were the security net, the familiar faces and the tradition.  We made sure it was like this for our children too.  The network of the extended family also plays a big role in the life of a child and, bless them, both our families paid regular visits.

Children in France

Quite a lot of things in France were also so different in the handling of children.  On the whole French children are polite, know how to behave in a restaurant and, from an early age, are taught how to greet people when they meet – a little hand shake or, frequently, a bisou.  This habit of expecting to get a kiss every blessed time a child comes in to contact with an adult (though I don’t mean more than once a day, of course) can, even now, be slightly irritating.  Neither Bruce nor I want to kiss children willy-nilly, least of all if they have got a cold.  At the first village school children lined up regularly for theirbisou, as childhood good manners dictated, and I decided at a very early stage that, rather than spend most of the morning kissing a row of grubby and snotty little faces (or even darling little faces, because I do like children), I’d simply do an all-British wave.

Our sons, now adults, still kiss-hug their French men friends.  They also know about the British manly hand-shake-clap-on-the-shoulder, something which Bruce has always doggedly stuck to (quite right too) regardless of the nationality of the man in question.

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 Morning view from the patio at Primrose

We moved in to the Chateau des Cypres a few days before Christmas.

I had planned Christmas carefully, and it was supposed to be in Primrose because, although the sale had completed, it was OK by the buyers for us to stay there a few weeks.  This was essential to us because Les Cypres was in such a state, and there were fourteen of us for Christmas.  At Primrose there was full central heating, bathrooms and toilets, fitted carpets and an operational kitchen.

So it was arranged that Christmas stuff would stay at Primrose for now.  Apart from the beds, essential bedding and towels, the Christmas presents and the Christmas food Bruce’s men moved everything, one trailer load at a time to the new house (almost 2 hours’ drive),  back and forth, back and forth over two days.  I labelled everything carefully, clearly, and stacked things that were to stay all in one place.

But men!  You have to love them!  Bruce forgot to explain this to his team, and last of all they moved the whole lot, frozen turkey and duvets, Christmas tree and custard, toothbrushes and pillows and saucepans and wine, all piled higgeldy-piggeldy on to the trailer in such a way that Father Christmas himself would have been fazed.

Cross?  Oh yes, ooooh yeeees ! I was cross.

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old photo of the property, found in a cupboard

It was extremely cold and I declared grimly that I was going to bed and would not be getting out of bed again till there was some central heating.   And I meant it!   Although I could cope with sacks of plaster where furniture should be, endless wires and pipes and tools, thick dust where stone and brick and timber had been hacked away for whatever reason, I could not cope with the cold.

I am an African!”  I roared down the stair well.

I could deal with walking on planks over the many trenches both inside and out of the property; I could deal with no kitchen of any note, only cold water in the sink, no dishwasher or washing machine yet plumbed in; I could put up with hair like straw because of the dust and children charging around carrying dust even further and adding to the infernal noise of hammers and saws and drills …. but I could not cope with the cold.  And it was extremely cold.  The house had not been heated for many years – indeed, have never ever been heated thoughout – and the cold permeated the very core of it.

I got in to bed with a hot water bottle and sat there, staring furiously at the wall opposite where forty year-old wallpaper hung in great strands of dusty brown, interspersed with cobwebs and dead insects.  Jake clambered in to bed with me – clearly the best place to be.

William, who was then 11, and Bruce had already started on the central heating a few weeks earlier and had promised – PROMISED! – it would be operational by the time we moved in.

“We have accidently moved in two weeks earlier than foreseen,” Bruce tried to reason with me.

“That,” I replied with furious logic, “does not make it any warmer!”

They worked almost all of that first night.  Every now and then I was aware of one of them in the room putting a saucepan under a dripping pipe, the sound of electric screwdrivers and drills, and sometimes Bruce cursing.  And then – at about four in the morning, the wonderful sound of radiators filling …

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 Chateau des Cypres when we first saw it.  We bought it in 1995 and paid the equivalent of £70 000 for the house, masses of large out-buildings and five acres of land.  It had been empty for a very long time and the roof was on the point of going.  In fact, Bruce insisted he be allowed to put some trusses and acrow-props in the roof to maintain it before we even signed the initial offer (Compromis de Vente) because it would not have survived another winter.

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My mother-in-law and the children on Christmas morning.  Several bits of fine old furniture, like the bed in this photo, were abandoned in the house.  At that time these items were worthless on the French market but almost gold dust for the likes of us.  That changed within a year or two and these wonderful old beds and wardrobes are now quite expensive, though anything really big still goes for a song simply because it is generally too big for today’s houses; antiques on the whole now cost considerably more than they do in the UK. 

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  The front of the house when we initially viewed it.  One of the first things we did after Completion was open those shutters and leave them open!  Many of them were dangerous and had to be removed, almost all were broken – in fact the ones at the two balconies never got put back because re-making them was such a major – and fundamentally unnecessary – chore.

 Click here for Part 11

 

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 are also available as e-books (£1.99) on the home page of this site.

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 9

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Although we found a buyer for our house relatively quickly, Completion dragged on for over a year.  He was buying, he wasn’t, he was buying, he wasn’t … I packed things and unpacked them, phoned the notaire, faxed him, stared at the telephone, stared at the fax, stared at the sky.  We heard that the buyer had moved to Hawaii.  We heard that he was now in Portugal.. We heard that he was moving here after all.  I put the property back on the market, showed more people around it, heard good news from the notaire and took it off the market again.  Another long silence, so I put the house on the market once more, showed people around … on and on till finally Completion, well tattered and almost unrecognizable, limped through the door.

A peaceful haven ..

Like most women, my heart just went out of the house as soon as I knew we were selling.  All the work we had lovingly put in became irrelevant, and all I could see was a monster in need of constant maintenance.  What had once been a peaceful haven for me where I could lick my wounds, became an isolated and cold wind-swept batisse that I no longer wanted to live in.  A large damp patch developped near the front door, the upper stair carpet started to fray in one corner, the fleur-de-lys floor tiles in the hall became too tedious to clean, and the flower beds were just fine with weeds  in ….

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Pippa waiting for the school bus outside our front gates. One year when we were camping in Spain we bought two concrete lions and, with the aid of a digger, hoisted them up on top of those pillars.  As far as I know they are there to this day.

I wanted to go home …

… more than anything .  We sat down and did the sums over and again, and it didn’t matter which way round we calculated it, we would be utterly broke if we went back to the UK, would have to find work somehow, the children would have to start all over again in the UK system … it just didn’t make financial sense, nor practical sense.  And any emotional sense would soon be thwarted by the practicalities of life.

I had access to a lot of properties because of my business.   I had seen every kind of property under the sun, both inside and out, and had negotiated every step of every element in a hundred and one deals.  I knew what we were about, what the values were, which loans were available, who to contact.  I could tell at a glance anything that was a quick camouflage job, indoors or out, I could judge the state of the roof, I could spot termite trails a mile off.   I knew all about the little hitches that could wreck a potential purchase, where and how to check the title of the vendors, where and how to check the boundaries of the land.

I was no longer the young woman who thought she was busy because she had a baby and two children.  I knew what real busy was, and I knew all about stress and disappointment.  I had changed.  And although I was aware I had developped a kind of hardness, a water-off-a-duck’s back attitude to so many things, I felt I was probably a better person.  A wiser person, certainly.

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 We both liked the old Roman town of Saintes, and toyed with looking there.  I had never lived in a town, though Saintes is not big.  It is still my favourite town in the area.  Until 1810 it was the “capital” of what was then called the Charentes-inferieures (Charente Maritime) but, like so many towns of its ilk faded in to grubby obscurity till it was restored and put on the map, as it were, in 1990.  The river Charente runs though it, lovely for boating or walking, and there is an excellent pedestrianized area with lots of shops and restaurants.

Red tape.

In the meantime, if I was to work, which I was, I still had to obtain my Carte Professionelle.  I hurled myself in an impressive variety of somersaults as I found the torturous routes through the system, which seemed to be designed on purpose to make everything as difficult as possible.  I became an expert acrobat, brilliant at walking a tightrope.  Nothing phased me any more.  I had been there.  Done that.   At the time it seemed to me that France wallowed in bureaucratic nightmare, but I now know that Britain is the exception – Britain, the US, Australia and other English-speaking countries.  We are “free” and, providing we obey the law we may do as we wish, within reason.  On the Continent it is the opposite – you may do as you wish providing there is a law permitting you to do so.   That is why the French use expressions such as “je n’ai pas le droit” which you would never hear in English.

I have no idea how many phone calls I made, nor how many letters I wrote, but I had to drive to La Rochelle (almost an hour) on five or six occasions and eventually met the Mr Valtel I had been told about.  Actually, he was very kind and really wanted to help me.  He was the first to admit the system was ridiculous and that I had been badly served.  He helped me through several loop holes as I got my dossier ready.  This included, I recall, having an “official police translater” translate my papers – which cost me quite a lot of money, but was a requirement.  She translated “estate agent” as Agent of the State, which caused great hilarity in Valtel’s office.  Another police official had written that I had been born in Cape Province, South Africa, Angleterre.

Not that I wish to ridicule the police – I am a great admirer of the police.  But I think the point is perhaps that they are precisely that – the police, invented for catching criminals.

The red tape was such that even Valtel had to make phone calls to obtain information.  On one occasion, with me in his office, he phoned the Minister of Somethingorother in Paris.  He flicked the phone on to loud speaker and explained my situation.  The Minister listened.

Ecoutez,” he said after a while, “il ne faut pas trop leur aider, les anglais.  Qu’elle rentre chez elle si elle n’aime pas.”

Translated: Listen, you musn’t help the English too much;  if she doesn’t like it she can go home.

Valtel was mortified.

To cut a long story short, and after months and months and months, my Carte Professionelle was refused by the Powers That Be in Paris.  The reason was because I was a foreigner.  I was certain that was discrimination and that I could have kicked up a fuss.

“You are, in effect, forbidding me to work!” I exclaimed.

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  Our delicious boys!

Exhaustion

But, truth be told, I no longer cared.  I was seriously exhausted.  You wouldn’t think it but clients are very demanding.  Perhaps any job where you work with the public is demanding in a way that it isn’t when you work with a colleague or two, or an inanimate object of some kind.  I had to keep up a pleasant and smiling facade, be interested in what they were saying, not mind their children filling my car up with crisps and screaming in my ear … hour after hour, day after day, and all in the hope they would buy something.  And then I’d be so pleased because they wanted to buy something, I’d let the notaire know, let the vendor know … pat the whole thing through months of paperwork to Completion, be available on the phone for idiot questions and requests, (“Oh Catherine!  So glad to catch you!  Would you mind popping over to our place … he he, well, the one we are buying, and measuring the skirting boards for me?”) keeping my clients happy with their purchase till I got my commission cheque.  But often enough, for no good reason, the clients would change their minds and the sale would fall through.  Nobody paid me.  I had to create my own money.  Often enough it was exhilarating but sometimes it was gutting.

These things don’t sound so bad in themselves, I know, but it was continuous.  After a full day’s work and with three small children, it was sometimes as much as I could stand.

And so I stopped.  Just like that.  I was not willing to battle for the Carte.  I was not willing to exhaust myself any further.  I wanted to be at home with my children.  We were selling up and moving to the coast where, I hoped, there would be a bit more life and laughter.  I took out the last few of my clients (breaking the law utterly) and then handed them over to the notaire.  Waved. Said goodbye.

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  Jake playing in some drains on a building site.  Isn’t it funny how, thirty years later, you can still recognize the clothes your children wore ?  I remember that little sweat-shirt; it had baa-lambs on it.

 Health matters.

We found that Bruce’s Meniere’s would come and go.  There was no two ways about it, but the arrival of the post, which could quite plausibly herald some dreadful letter from some authority somewhere, triggered it off. The phone ringing.  People rang in the evenings, when he was home and the calls were cheaper – giving him no rest once he got home.  It drove us both mad, trying to get supper, get the children off to bed, tidy up, rest a bit – and that phone kept ringing.  We were obliged to answer it.  That was how we made our money.  Sometimes it was one of Bruce’s clients to say he was delighted with the mezzanine, or another client to say he was furious the electrics were not finished.  Frequently it was somebody being thoughtless, all wrapped up in their own project of a house in France and totally forgetting that we were real live human beings that needed time off.

Sometimes Bruce was so ill all he could do was lie on the floor.  He said he couldn’t fall off the floor.  At other times it was just a maddening buzzing in his head.

Something had to change and we had to find a different way of earning money.

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  We cycled almost every Sunday unless I had clients.  The roads around Primrose were very quiet and fairly flat.

Finding a suitable property

Of the thirty or forty properties that I knew were for sale, none was suitable for us.  We had become accustomed to large, airy rooms and big windows.  We were used to a lot of space and plenty of quiet.  With a limited budget (despite selling Primrose at a juicy profit) there were not that many houses available for us to look at.  Furthermore, property near or on the coast was more expensive – still very cheap compared to Britain, but almost beyond our budget.  To top it, there was very little indeed in the way of buildings for renovation and the few that there were tended to be village houses in run-down little streets, or grotty farm dwellings with no architectural relief, never mind pleasant views, and surrounded by nasty modern bungalows.

We both had a wild idea that we could perhaps buy a modern property in need of no work.  That appealed to us for a while, and Lord knows there were plenty of recently-built properties all along the coast, most of them square and unattractive boxes.  I love the turn-of-the-century, ie 1900s, seaside architecture but anything we liked as also too expensive, though for a while we did consider a magnificent house on a cliff, overlooking the sea, near Royan.  It had been “restored” in the 1960s and everything needed re-doing, so it was just up our street.  Some bright spark had even removed the original staircase and replaced it with a “modern” concrete one, complete with duff-coloured tiles!   But no, that sea view, so lovely, so hypnotic in the summer, would become a fierce and icy enemy in the winter.  So the hunt continued.

And it was one day, as we returned from a day trip cycling with the children on the island of Oleron, that we drove past a huge old house with a For Sale sign.

“Talk about a white elephant!” I exclaimed.

“Hmmph!” agreed Bruce, “I wonder which idiot is ever going to buy that?”

 

Part 8

Part 10 to follow.

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

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 8

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William in his home-made go-cart. Although he was only 11, he wrote an article about it which got published in an engineering magazine.

The land tax office

The letter stated, quite simply, that we owed this huge sum of money and that it should have been paid at the time of the purchase.

I phoned the appropriate office but the person at the other end of the line had no idea what I was talking about and the reference number on the letter didn’t seem to help. In fact, she said the reference was nonsensicle, even though I read it out carefully two or three times. She suggested I phone back later, which I did, but that didn’t seem to make any difference. We went through the same introductions and I finally asked her why she had suggested I phone back later ?

The British Consulate had once given me a good tip – always ask for the person in charge because a) it makes the one who answered your call jump to attention (his words) and b) the person in charge likes to feel s/he is indeed In Charge and does his/her best to have the appropriate information for you. Thus I was eventually passed on to somebody else (ne quittez pas!) who then passed me on to The Man Who Had Signed The Letter. All this took ages, and I waited through a variety of tunes, to include the inevitable Green Sleeves.

When The Man came on the line, he explained to me that an “agent” had seen the house and it was clearly worth a great deal more than the 350 000 francs (£30K) we had paid for it. (Somebody had been round to spy ?!!)

“I should hope it is!” I exclaimed, “we have done a great deal of work on it!”

“At the price you paid, it would mean it was a ruin when you bought it,” replied the man dryly.

“It was!” I said crossly, “it was a ruin and we have done it up, and now it is worth a great deal more!”

“Nobody can do that amount of work in so short a time,” he replied with a sigh of impatience.

“Well we did!”

I made an appointment to see him. He was off on holiday and couldn’t see me till he got back, three weeks hence. It was maddening.

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In my brother-in-law’s microlite on a nearby air field.

Frais de notaire

I knew what had happened and had, in fact, dealt with a similar problem for one of my clients earlier that year. You see, when you buy a property in France, you pay what are usually referred to as les frais de notaire. This is a misnomer because only a fraction of the fee goes to the notaire; the rest are government taxes, like land tax in the UK. These taxes depend on the value of the property. Because Primrose was now worth considerably more than 350 000 francs, the powers that be, in their wisdom, decided that we had given cash to the vendor and only allowed the 350 000 francs to appear on paper, thus saving us thousands in land taxes. In small village communities and with a people who don’t move house very often, this was quite possibly fairly common practice. With computerization I expect all this kind of shinnannigans is impossible now, but when you consider that the local notaire was quite plausibly the brother of the buyer or the vendor, or the godparent or something … it doubtless happened more that the authorities cared to admit.

Anyway, it had not happened with us.

Irritated and, of course, concerned, I waited for The Man’s holiday to expire. We still had the Court case for the Carte Professionelle hanging over us, work to be seen to, irritations and upsets with clients, the children to raise, stuff … you know how it is. We led busy, active lives.

Emmaus

Finally, armed with a mercifully huge collection of before-and-after photos, I went to see The Man. The office was near the station in Rochefort close to an Emmaus which has since closed down – a pity because it was really good. To this day the Emmaus in St Agnant, in aid of the homeless, is one of my favourite afternoons out – I love bric-a-brac and old furniture and what other people consider junk. Nowadays, however, you can only rarely pick up real goodies for a song because, like charity shops in the UK, an expert comes in to value things. But if you have got an eye for possibilities, it is a fun place to go. As far as I am aware it is the only charity shop in France – but I may be wrong about that. Emmaus is Biblical – it is the name of a hamlet just outside Jerusalem, and a couple of pilgrims saw Jesus there, after Jesus had died. It features in the gospel of St Luke.

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The history of Art is my totally favourite subject; this painting is by Caravaggio, dated 1601, and named The Supper in Emmaus. It is a lovely example if chia oscuro, ie use of light and shade.

Anyway, I diverge … I made my way to the appropriate room, up a flight of tiled steps and in to a spacious office overlooking the railway. There I was greeted by a pleasant-looking man in his forties. He wore half-moon glasses. An enormous weariness came over me and I flopped in to a chair without being asked and flung, perhaps a tickle rudely, the photos down on to the desk. He raised an eyebrow at me.

“I am terribly tired,” I said, and I was.

He didn’t respond. He probably thought he had misheard.. . or perhaps he thought it was something English women say, the way the French say “bonjour” and kiss each other. Perhaps all English women sit without being asked and announce whether they are tired or not.

He picked up the packet and tipped the contents out on to his desk. He looked through the pictures with genuine interest and, to my surprise, said (but in French):

“Yes, I have heard that les anglais are very good at restoring our old properties …”

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The larger of the two guest rooms. It was on the ground floor and boasted double doors on two sides, one out to the courtyard and the other to the woods. When we bought the house an underground stream had seeped up through the floor, which had half an inch of muddy water on it almost all the time. Bruce, with his habitual savoir-faire, dug a trench to divert the stream; it took a long while to get rid of the overall damp smell. After a year we moved the beds so that we could make a doorway on that far wall, and that led through to a bathroom. The bathroom was originally a disused bread-oven – you’d be amazed at how big the inside of a bread oven is!

He flicked through the photos, occasionally asking a question, and was quite interested in which room was which, how we had repaired the staircase, did I think the staircase was original, and he was so glad we’d kept the fleur-de-lys floor tiles in the hall … and so on. He said he’d love a house like that but that his wife would never agree to living in such an isolated spot.

“It was nonetheless exceptionally cheap,” he said finally, putting the photos to one side.

“You are not telling me that one is not allowed to do a good deal in France, are you?!” I asked.

He smiled.

“No, of course not …”

He handed the photos over to me and told me he would reach his final decision in due course. And that was the end of the interview. I wanted to thump my fist on the table and yell … but I just smiled and left … as one does.

About six weeks later a letter arrived from The Man, telling me that all charges were dropped and that we had nothing to pay.

“I could have told you that for free!” I shouted in to the empty room.

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We took on the kind of projects that most people shied away from. We were both very good at it. In the early days I would sometimes help with carrying buckets of cement and shovelling rubble, but I haven’t gone anywhere near that sort of thing for years now – and don’t intend to! I can’t remember this man’s name … Jean-Something I expect.

The Tribunal

We finally appeared in Court about a year after the gendarme episode. It had eaten at me almost constantly, and I had been veering from panic about going to prison to what-fun-going-to-prison-how-jolly-interesting-that’ll-be! Most of the time that inbred positivity remained with me and I didn’t think for one moment I would go to prison or anything like it. In fact, in many ways most of me just considered the whole thing massively tedious at a time when I already had too much to do.

I don’t know what I expected once I got in to the Court room – if I had expected anything at all – but one thing that did strike me was that, as each person’s turn came round, there was no notable calling-out of the name: Dupont v. Renaud! That sort of thing. Names of people, banks, businesses or whatever were sort-of half-mumbled by somebody sitting at the judge’s table, so when our turn came I had no idea we had started till I saw Vincent, our dear little lawyer, stand up and point to me.

I couldn’t hear much of what was being said and Bruce couldn’t understand much of what was being said. It seemed to be a fairly casual sort of conversation and, finally, I saw Vincent smile and he came over to us and said we should follow him out. Gosh, thought I, are they going to put hand-cuffs on me? I wished I had brought a camera.

But no. Nothing quite so dramatic. Vincent explained that I had been given two days’ suspended sentence. And that was the end of that. That was simply the end of that. It made me really cross. I wanted to storm back in to the judge and shout “after all this TRAUMA, all these months of waiting, all you can manage is 2 days’ suspended sentence ?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What an insult !”

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ile de Re, near Ste Maire

The Ile de Re

We went off to the Ile de Re camping that week-end. We lay on the beach with the children, and we splashed in the cold Atlantic waters. We tried to wash it all away in the sea and bask it all away in the sun. In the evenings we almost always ate out, overlooking the little port at St Martin or the little place at Ste Marie. We cycled for miles and miles, along the pistes cyclistes that wound past the beaches, through the marais and in and out of the villages. Miles of cycling. I needed to work it out of me somehow; I was furious, relieved, stunned, weepy ….I saw a young man bareback on a huge shire horse. I saw fishing boats pulling lobsters in. I saw my children play on the sand. I watched the sun drop over the horizon to the places where I was born and had lived. I listened to the waves splashing on the beach all night.

I felt it was time to move on.

Part 7

Part 9

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

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It hapopened like this…an English family move to France Part 7

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 Most years we skied in Andorra, though we did also go to the Alps and, later, Bulgaria, Austria and Italy.  One Christams in the Alps we couldn’t get in to a restaurant because everything was booked out; the waitress explained to me (but in French, of course) with all seriousness: “we are full, because here in France it is Christmas Eve”.  Jolly good, I replied, I wonder what the rest of the world is doing ce soir?

I will not make out that everything was high stress and misery, because it wasn’t.  On the whole, life was good and, had it not been for the upsets caused by the system’s inability to provide us, who were willing to work hard, and who created employment for other people, with the correct information, we’d doubtless have enjoyed life to the full.  Not only was nobody able to provide the correct information, but half the rules and regulations appeared to have been thought-up by Napoleon.  La loi Napoleon, they call it.  He died! I wailed.

Stressy situations

Anybody who has ever been in a stressy situation knows that it encompasses you.  Whether the problem is big or small, for you it is 100%, and it is nigh-on impossible to lay it down to one side and know that one day it will go away.  Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week, but one thing is for sure and that is that one day it won’t seem so bad, and you may have forgotten about it altogether.  A problem that seems so big when you are in it can reduce to a nothing after really quite a short time.  I can remember taking a friend to one side and confiding a terrible problem to her and, a year later when I saw her again, she asked me how I had got on and I couldn’t even remember quite what the problem was.  More importantly, what is a big problem to one person is water off a duck’s back to another.  It is all relative and most of it is just passing.

But it is difficult to remember that when you are in the middle of a maelstrom of hassles and worries.

It transpired that I had been “shopped” to the police by a French estate agent in Rochefort.

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  • One of Bruce’s men, Michel.  He worked for us for years and years but in the end we had to let him go because, as he got older, he became dangerous – and therefore a liability.  He was really angry and bitter about that and held it against us for years.

The gendarmes.

The gendarmes sat me in one room and Bruce in another.  He told me later that he shrugged and grinned and kept repeating “I don’t understand”, while the gendarme made copious notes.  Actually, I greatly admire the police force, but in this particular situation is was a bit ridiculous to say the least.

The building was on the outskirts of Rochefort, a dank and featureless place with pale green gloss paint on the walls and a lot of notice boards with various bits of paper attached to them.  I remember feeling slightly non-plussed, as if this was a scene in a play or a weak joke.  Nowadays, if ever such a thing happened again, which I trust is highly unlikely,  I would know to tell them nothing and let my lawyer take over.  But I was an innocent and have never come across a situation remotely like this before.  I sat politely, trying my best to look serious when I had an almost overwhelming desire to laugh.  Nerves?  I don’t know.  I am not the nervous type.  But  I dutifully related everything I could think of and told them about the difficulties I was having trying to even find out about a Carte Professionelle, let alone obtain one.  This, however, counted against me:

“So you knew you were working illegally, otherwise you wouldn’t have enquired about the Carte?”  !!

I wanted to ask them if they had nothing more important to do.  I wanted to ask them why they were doing this to me – somebody so willing to work and so willing to oblige?  But I said nothing, and after … I suppose it was 2 hours or so … we were both “released”.

“We’re leaving!” I declared as we drove home.  ”That’s it!  I’m starting on the packing tonight!”

But we stayed.

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  • The rear of the house, winter.  

We could not throw away what we had built up because of some hiccup in the law and we had the good sense to know that it was neither France nor the French that was doing this to us – the same problems, or varying versions of them, exist in any country.  For us it happened to be in France.  It was a great shame for it coloured France and the French for us both – an unpleasant colour that took us a very long time to wipe away.  And even now, after all the great things that have since happened, that nasty colour seeps back in to view, like ink spilt on a page, from time to time.

We had improved our situation so much

Having been bankrupt when we left England, now almost five years ago,  we owned an amazing house, a smart car (each), we went on skiing holidays and fun camping holidays.  We had built up a small circle of friends and had a bit of a social life.  The children were doing well at school and had lots of chums.  It was crazy to throw it away – not least because, if we did decide to go, the sale of our house would bring in no where near enough to get us home and buy a new house.  Had there been more that enough equity in the house, yes, I think perhaps we’d have gone.  Perhaps.  Nah … almost certainly.

We had to be sensible, and the sensible side of us knew that whatever happened, it would almost certainly work out fine.   I am very positive, almost always.  There is invariably a way round things.  I taught my children, and as adults they all quote it: “there is always a solution; it is just a question of finding it.”   We located a lawyer, a dear young man by the name of Vincent, who looked to be only about fifteen years old.  I went to see him and, Jake on my lap, told him the tale.  He smiled reassuringly, nodded, put his finger tips together the way lawyers do when they are listening.  He assured us that it was most unlikely I would be sent to prison, and that if I was it would probably be only for a week. I smiled.  That’d be most interesting, I said, I have never been in a prison.  I shall look forward to it.

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  • In those days Andorra was an inexpensive option, though that has no longer been the case for many years.  The snow there is more-or-less guaranteed, Pas de la Case a really fun little town, and I enjoyed speaking Spanish.  Furthermore, we could drive there in about 7 hours.

Meniere’s

It was at about this time that Bruce started to complain of a bizarre sensation in his head.  Sometimes it seemed to be a ringing in one ear, sometimes a buzzing in his skull.  Often it was a heavy sensation in and around his entire head, and his hearing seemed affected. He often felt nauseous and dizzy.  He put up with it in silence for several weeks then, as it was clearly not going to go away, we went to the doctor.

Meniere’s Disease is a malfunction in the inner ear, where excessive fluid causes a blockage which in turn creates loss of balance.  It varies from person to person, ranging from dreadful symptoms where the patient simply cannot stand up without falling over, to an unpleasant buzzing, and everything in between. It can be a temporary condition, or a permanant one, and can be difficult to diagnose because the patient does not necessarily show the same symptoms as a different patient, though the general ones are deafness, buzzing/heaviness, and dizziness.  It is thought that it is triggered by stress, and there is no known cure.   Bruce’s Meniere’s steadily got worse, a little bit each year, with bad and good patches throughout.  He has never recovered.

It was at about this time that Tim died.  I cannot write about it.

A close girl friend in England, somebody I used to spend a lot of time with,  and who I had known in South Africa, also died very suddenly.  She was doing a work out at the gym when she had a brain haemorrage – she was dead before she hit the floor.  Our children had played with her children many many times.   Dead.   It is an odd word when you think about it.  Her husband and the children returned to South Africa soon after the funeral.  I have tried to look them up several times when we have been over there, but to no avail.  Shock waves went through our household and for a long while everything seemed to be out of kilter and I felt almost as though there was a jinx on us.  Headaches, weepiness and nightmares continued.

The French medical system.

One thing I will say for the French is that they have a fantastic medical system.  I am a great champion of the NHS in the UK and feel we are incredibly lucky: as good a treatement, and frequently better treatment, than you can get anywhere in the world and all for free.  In France you have to pay a top-up insurance as only 75% is free.  Actually even then it is not free, it is refunded, which is slightly different.  Gosh, imagine the outcry in Britain if the government suddenly decided that everybody had to pay the doctor and then claim it back!  Never mind if the government declared the British had to also buy a top-up insurance!   The complaints, a favourite pass-time of the British who do not understand the system, would soon stop.

For our family of 5, this insurance cost something in the region of £30 per month – that was then.  We could afford it and on numerous occasions were glad of it, but some people cannot afford it and so only get 75% of their medical needs paid for.  The rest they have to finance themselves, though there is a system in place for people below a certain income…

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  • Winter walk on the beach at Fouras.  The fort is Napoleonic and several battles between the French and the English were fought here soon after the turn of the XIX century.  Fouras was the last French town Napoleon ever saw as he was transported by the British to the nearbly Ile d’Aix, where he spent one night before his incarceration at Ste Helene.  The fort was used as a prison for a while and when the railways came it changed rapidly in to a fashionable sea-bathing resort for the bourgeoisie.

… and the NHS

The system in France has changed in recent years, for you now have to (perfectly sensibly) get a letter of referral from your GP if you need to see a specialist, and you also have to keep the same GP.  In those early days you could go to as many different GPs as you wished, and as many specialists as you wished, getting refunded all the way.  The abuse of the system cost France a fortune and it was crazy.  If a patient didn’t like the treatment or the verdict of one doctor, they would simply go to another – and the French tax payer picked up 75% of the bill, from GPs to specialsts and back again.  Where our UK system falls down is that referrals to specialist doctors are done by the GP and/or the GP’s secretary and that is where the huge delays come in.  In France the GP gives you, the patient, the letter and it is up to you to make your appointment.  Cutting out the middle man, ie the secretary, saves a great deal of time for all concerned.

My nerves frayed almost beyond endurance and Bruce’s Meniere’s regularly laying him flat, we were well looked after by French doctors.

And that was just as well because it was also at about this time that a letter arrived in the post, from the land tax authority, stating that we owed them 650 000 francs – about £65 000.

 

Part 8 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 are also available as e-books:-

 

It happened like this..an English family moves to France Part 6

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Main picture: back in England celebrating my father’s birthday at Cliveden; me sitting  (in white) with my lovely old daddy, one of my sisters, and my brother-in-law, Brian.

It was a cruel irony that during the summer months, when I was terribly busy, friends and family would pour out to see us.  I am from a huge family, and we are all closely-knit.  Goodness, we were happy to see them, all those brothers and sisters and cousins – loved seeing them – and there were times we’d have as many as 9 or 10 extra people in the house, which was fun, exhausting, hilarious, entertaining, loving, appreciated hugely … and bloomin’ knackering!  I learnt that all meals, breakfast included, need to be outside. You’d be amazed at the difference it makes to the order of the kitchen and dining areas.  Sometimes I could barely get the sheets off and on the beds in the guest rooms in time for the next surge of visitors.  Everybody mucked in and we were a noisy, active, fun-loving household, playing silly games and probably drinking too much.  We all love good food, travel, literature, quick-witted conversation.  They were excellent times where I could enjoy conversation and laughter the way I had before.

During the winter months, however, when my loneliness was huge, and the Atlantic wind whipped in over the fields, nobody came.  The views that were so gorgeous in the summer, turned to expanses of wet grey and brown, lit by the occasional winter sunset.  I used to stand at the living room window and scour the muddy fields for a sign of life – a car in the distance, perhaps, or a bird in the sky.

I remember commenting to somebody – or was it just to myself? – that a huge view like that had a few disadvantages, and one is that when the weather is bad, you can see the bad weather for miles and miles and miles.  It was disheartening to say the least, and I longed and longed to go home.

I did make one friend, an English woman with seven – yes, seven! – children.  I sold her a house in the village.  Her husband was in prison, a Frenchman, and her youngest was just a toddler.  What in the world she imagined she was doing moving to rural France with all those children, I have no idea.  It was lunacy.  But she needed me in a practical sense, so I helped her.  And I needed her in an emotional sense, and she helped me.  We were two lost English women surrounded by windy fields and foreigners, and we huddled together, so to speak, in our Englishness.  I cannot even remember her name now.

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  • My wonderful parents in our garden at Primrose.  I loved my parents very much indeed.  The grass is scorched yellow.  We had a pool installed during our third year there and I drove Jake the 40-minute drive to the public baths in Rochefort every day after school, five days a week, determined he would swim before the pool was finished.  

It was at about this time that, spurred on by a word of warning from a young notaire I was slightly friendly with, I made more enquiries about the legalities of my activities.  To date, everything had been fine.  I couldn’t for the life of me think I was doing anything illegal.    The incident with the “Gestapo”, however, made me ever-cautious and, following the advice of a British Consular representative, I placed no ads anywhere and relied uniquely on the jungle-drums.

Not, I hasten to add, that I wanted to be illegal in any way.  Quite the opposite.

“French bureaucracy is a nightmare,” he told me, “miles of red tape, stupid office girls who don’t know anything, dozens of different rules and regulations.  Even I after 40 years in France find it difficult.”

That is why, of course, so many new French businesses start up in the UK.

Now, listen – this is something really important one needs to know about the French fonctionaires, ie the women (or men) working in all the government offices.  And that is that they will give you very good and precise information in answer to your question.  Providing you ask the right question, the system is very good indeed, with a great back-up team.  But unless you ask the appropriate question, you get no information.

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  • I used to half-jokingly and half-ostentatiously call this room the library. Really little more than an overgrown passage, which also housed the piano (which nobody could play), it led from the living room to the guest rooms.  The house was interesting and on the left, between the two book cases, was another door leading to another room, and above that yet another door to a “secret”, but spacious room, accessed by a tiny staircase which we removed.

And so I went round and round in frustrating and frustrated circles.   There is no CAB in France, though they do have something similar – if you know about it.  If you don’t know it is there and nobody mentions it, it is of no use, not least because it is not a high street presence but a section of an office system.  Like many words and phrases you cannot translate Citizens’ Advice Bureau in to French, and I tried asking for somewhere I could get information … Yes, Madame, bien sur, information on what ?

The British Consulate was friendly and genuinely tried to be helpful but even they had little idea, and could only advise me to find out.  Sure, I want to find out, I wept, but who do I ask ?!

Rochefort, which was the closest administrative centre, was over half an hour’s drive away – closer to an hour if the bridge was up letting a ship through. The river Charente runs through there, and in the old days it was the main – the only – shipping route to Cognac.  Some pretty big boats still go through.

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old photo of one of the bridges on the Charente, next to Rochefort

Although the internet had by this time seeped in to France, it was nothing like the internet access to information that we have nowadays.  We had a computer which was more for storage of letters and manuscripts than anything else – and that in itself seemed marvellous.  Seems odd now, but in those days being able to correct typos on the screen, just like that, was still quite a novelty, not to mention saving documetns.  So it meant that I had to drive in to Rochefort, or phone in or write a letter.  But as I didn’t know who I was supposed to contact, or even why I needed to contact anybody in the first place, it was a true wild goose chase.

I started, of course, with the places where I was already registered – the Chambre de Commerce, the Chambre des Metiers, the accountant (yes, the same one) and so on.  Nobody seemed to have the appropriate information, and I wasn’t really quite sure what that information was supposed to be anyway.  I spoke to a solicitor who looked something up in a huge book, and he was able to confirm that as estate agent had to, by law, have a Carte Professionelle, but he couldn’t say quite what that was, nor where I should get it.  All this took a great deal of time.  Trying to speak on the phone was even worse because, true to form, I didn’t know who I was to ask for and the switchboard therefore couldn’t pass me on to anybody.  I was frequently put on hold (ne quittez pas!) while Green Sleeves piped down the line at me, on and on and on.

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  • Rochefort-sur-Mer is an old military town.  When we first arrived in the area it was a gruesome blob of dirty grey stone but, once renovated, it rapidly became an extremely attractive town with a good shopping centre and good restaurants.  This picture shows the Corderie Royale – the rope works.

The police.

Eventually somebody suggested I contact the police.  What in the world have the police got to do with all this ? I wailed.  But I did write to them, at the Rochefort address, asking them about a Carte Professionelle.  Something like three months went by before they replied to say that they did not issue Carte Professionelles.  I phoned them.

“I am well aware you may not issue them,” I said (but in French), “I am just trying to find out what it is and if I need one.”

They didn’t know.

My friendly notaire friend eventually gave me a form he had dug out for me, in which it stated what academic requirements were needed in order to be eligible for the famous Carte.  A degree was the main thing, and that was fine, I had two degrees.  But it still didn’t tell me if I needed one.

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  • A cat turned up one blustery night and we took her in.  She was in an appalling state. She turned out to be pregnant and produced a litter of 6 kittens which we named: Je Mog, Tu Mogs, Il Mog, Nous Moggons, Vous Moggez, Ils Mogent.  We let her keep 2, we found homes for 2, and had 2 put down.  People with cats, if they are not wanted for breeding, should have them speyed/neutered as quickly as possible before they go out and spread even more feline misery.

 

After countless phone calls, countless trips back and forth, countless letters, I wrote to the National Association of Estate Agents in the UK.  They replied within a week, telling me to get a Carte at all costs – otherwise, they said, you could find yourself in prison.  They added that I needed to apply at Police Headquarters in La Rochelle.  There, I needed to contact the Highest of the High, a man by the name of Valtel.

I was frightened and nervous.

Normally an extremely self-confident and self-reliant person, I found myself sometimes in tears for no reason, or in a temper.  I seemed to have constant headaches.  I had confused nightmares about the Gestapo moving in to our house, gendarmes in my car and the hill our house stood on crumbling in to a wide red river.

One side of me felt that it couldn’t possibly be that bad, that serious.   All transactions went through the notaire, after all, all accounting went through a chartered accountant, I had my registration number with my activity clearly stated on it – where was the problem?  I kept a very strict and careful record of absolutely everything I did, frequently writing down completely unecessary – and sometimes daft – information, and I signed and dated each and every page.  Nothing got crossed out and Tippex was banned.  ”The house with the red front door”, my notes would read, “vendor named Jean-Pierre Dupon (middle names unknown at this stage – to be provided.)  Chipped paint on front door.  Requested sale price 300 000 French francs but that is crazy.  Nobody will buy it.”   I wrote it all down in neat columns and neat notes, even putting in little illustrations of flowers in the garden and sketches of the front of the house.   Facetious ?   Oh yes, it was facetious of me.   They want me to keep strict notes ?  Well, they’re going to get strict notes!   As it happens nobody ever asked for the cahier, or anything like it again.

But the other side of me kept remembering the Gestapo, and apprehension made its way through to the very core of me.

During all this, of course, I was raising my family, running the household, running my business, getting on with life.  I continued selling houses.  Not only did I bring in good money but Bruce’s business depended entirely on mine.  And some five or six men’s jobs depended entirely on Bruce’s business.  Furthermore, clients who had contacted me months earlier would turn up to view and I could hardly say to them “sorry, my dears, I can’t show you anything because am worried about the Gestapo” !

So when the gendarmes turned up and “invited” me down to the police station, why was I surprised?

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  • Jake, all dressed up and everywhere to go !

Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.  Her web site is http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk.  Her books can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries, or from Amazon/Kindle worldwide.  They are also available 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/it-happened-like-this-an-english-family-move-to-france-part-6-2/#sthash.JaplwbH0.dpuf