It happened like this..an English family moves to France. Part 17

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Apparently the storm was called Martin.  I wonder who decides on the names ?  And why call a storm Martin for goodness’ sake ?  Call it Dracula, call it Frankenstein or Medusa or Gorgon – or even Cerberus.  But don’t call it Martin !   

On the evening of 28th December 1999, the biggest storm in recorded history hit the Charente Maritime.  We knew nothing about it.  In the South Pacific and in various parts of Africa or Central America we were quite often aware of potential storms.  But France ? Nah !

December 1999

As we sat around in my mother-in-law’s house in England, discussing post-Christmas calories and New Year resolutions, the phone rang.  It was my little cleaning lady, Francoise.  She was staying in our house with George.

Madame!” she wailed down the line, “there is a storm!  I opened the windows to pull the shutters in , and now I cannot close the windows again!”

“Oh Francoise,” I tried to calm her, “just ask a neighbour to help …?”

“You don’t understand Madame!” she screeched.  ”This is a big storm!  A very big storm!  One of your chimneys has come down!”

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We phoned Michel.

Eh oui,” he confirmed, “it is very dangerous.  Water is coming in downstairs in my house and I have moved everything upstairs.  The telephone lines will be down any minute …”

“Seriously serious?  I mean, should we dash back ?”

“I have never seen the like … ” and the line went dead.

How bad was it ?

We spent a fretful night trying to sleep.  At first light the following morning we loaded the bemused children and our luggage in to the car, my mother-in-law dashed about making sandwiches, and we set off for France.  In the frosty darkness the headlights scanned the road as we neared the coast; a fox ran across in front of us, the children went back to sleep.  It is funny how far away Dover seemed when in a hurry.  It is often like that.  A journey that you would normally consider just a bit boring takes on proportions over and beyond the norm.  I have to admit that mostly I felt cross.  It couldn’t be that bad.  What was the fuss ?  The ferry seemed to be operating as normal, the sea was not overly choppy, Calais was fine … but as we passed Paris  and the Charentes drew closer, it was astonishing.  Trees were down everywhere.  Big lorries had been blown over on to their sides.  Hundreds of crashed cars, pylons down, houses crumbled, roofs gone, trees, trees and more trees lying all over, like huge injured creatures waving in their death throes … people were about, some wandering shell-shocked as they looked at the broken world around them, but most were working hard, shoving trees and branches out of the way so that traffic could move.  Fire trucks and army vehicles were everywhere. France has a fantastic emergency service system.

The trip that usually took 8 hours from Calais to our house took over 20 hours as we sat in never-ending queues while roads were cleared, other roads closed, bridges condemned and thousands of army troops mobilized.

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Emergency services in France were excellent.

You have to hand it to the French.  Within a matter of hours they had swung in to action.  Help came in from neighbouring countries and even as far as Canada, with generators and roofing contractors.  Army tents, despite high winds and bucketing rain, appeared.   Thousands of people were without water, gas or electricity (in fact 3.4 million were without electricity) at the coldest time of the year.  It was the worst energy disruption in Europe ever.

As we drove along it looked like a scene out of a war film, and we gazed in dumb silence at mile after mile of blitzed trees and buildings, crushed vehicles and, as we neared the coast, boats blown up out of the water on to the roads.  Pavements and roads were broken up.  Thousands of little seaside businesses had lost everything in a matter of minutes.  Over a hundred people were killed.

The day ended early, raining and bleak.  Very few lights were on.  Factories had, their walls broken, regurgitated their wares out in to the car parks.  Gaping holes in roofs and walls, like missing teeth, grinned hideously. Traffic jams everywhere with priority given to army and emergency vehicles.  All sorts of things were strewn over the fields and the roads – fabric and papers, broken bits of doors and windows, roof tiles, even clothes.

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Like a knife, the storm had sliced through sections of the land, leaving others completely untouched.  You could see forests where it looked as though some giant lawnmower had passed along one edge, smashing all the trees down in a neat line, leaving all the others tall and straight and untouched.  It was the same in some of the streets – one side with houses broken and crumbling, the other side they still had their Christmas lights swinging incongrously.

Trees and more trees

On either side of the motorway, as we sped down, ever further south, more and more trees lay.  Mile upon mile upon mile of toppled trees, from the small saplings to huge pines.   It was amazing how quickly the army shifted them out of the way so that traffic could pass.  A real and impressive feat of organization and manpower.

I kept thinking it’ll be all right.  I reassured Bruce that it would be all right.  We reassured each other that it would be all right.  We chatted with the children.  We put tapes on.   It couldn’t be that bad.  After all, almost each time we stopped on the motorway for food and petrol the building was only slightly damaged, sometimes even intact.  Only one stop could not give us any petrol, and at only one place were we diverted off the motorway via a small town which, also, seemed to be intact.

So it was bound to be all right.

 

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We tried to remain positive, cheerful.  Francoise had always been a terror for exaggerating.  Always.  Poor old thing, she has nothing else in her life, so she exaggerates …  Chimney down, my foot!  How would she know ?  Unless she went outside in the (apparently) “dreadful” storm, she’d have no idea whether or not the chimney was down.  Daft woman, bless her  …

The chateau

And as we saw Les Cypres at last rise up on the grey and darkening horizon ahead of us, for a wonderful moment I thought I was right.  There it is!  I exclaimed!  Untouched!  Silly Francoise!

But as we drove closer we could see that not one, but two chimneys had come down.  A large part of the roof was off.  The huge iron gates had been ripped off their hinges.  The barns, which we had recently started to re-roof now had almost no roof at all.  And our trees, our lovely trees, were all down.  We stared in silence.

We couldn’t drive in because of the fallen trees, so we parked on the village road and walked round.  It was now almost totally dark, and because there were not even any street lights, the house looked not only gloomy but ghostly against the night sky.  A tree had fallen against our front door, but William climbed in one of the burst-open windows and let us in the back.

We stood in the black and silent hall.

“Francoise!” I called.

Francoise … echoed the house.

“George!” called the children.

There was no sign of Francoise.  George emerged from his basket in the kitchen, trembling and cowed.  I could smell that he had crapped indoors.  He wagged his tail nervously, trying to tell us that it wasn’t his fault, he had been locked in, too frightened to go out anyway, he was sorry.

“It’s OK, George,” we told him, “it doesn’t matter on this occasion.  You’re a good boy.”

Funny how he seemed to understand that he was forgiven.

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We made our way in the darkness, with the help of a couple of torches and a candle, round each room in case Francoise was lying unconscious somewhere.  It was difficult to see, but almost every window was broken and in a few places doors had come off their hinges.  A clothes’ horse, where I had left a few things drying, had been blown up against a door and had somehow wedged itself against it so that I had to kick it down. At the other side of the room a pair of boxer shorts were hooked, like a joke, to the window handle.

You always think you will wail if something like this happens, but you don’t.  Part of it is shock, I think, and part of it is knowing that wailing will only make matters worse, especially where the children were concerned.  We were the grown ups, and grown ups take charge.  So take charge we had to.

Grown-ups make the decisions

It was sometime around midnight by now.  We decided that there was no point in trying to stay there with windows open to the elements, no electricity and unable to see the extent of the damage.  So, having ascertained that Francoise was not there, we decided to drive the half hour to Saintes and stay in one of our properties, a flat that happened to be empty.  There was no furniture but we could sleep on the floor. I located the appropriate key, grabbed a few sheets and duvets and the wherewithall to make tea in the morning.  Very important to me, tea in the morning.

George, still nervously wagging his tail, trying to check that he truly wasn’t in trouble, climbed gratefully in to the car with us.  The bloomin’ dog, still concerned, decided to creep up on to the bed with us once we had gone to sleep.  A Great Dane is not good at creeping.  It was totally impossible to shove him off again.  He worriedly licked Bruce’s face, then my hands, and no way would he budge till I fetched a sleepy Jake who, after trying to get George back on to his blanket on the floor, persuaded the poor dog in to bed with him instead.

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We were up at first light again.  Saintes itself was relatively unscathed, it seemed.  We stocked up with food in the supermarket and made our way back to Les Cypres, arriving just as the cloud cleared, the incessant rain eased and the sun came out.  I hoped it was an omen.

Well, in some ways it was.  As we clambered, dog and all, out of the car, Michel appeared, carrying a spade and several buckets.

“Figured we’d need these,” he said.

“Took me over an hour to get here,” he added.

The damage was heartbreaking

In daylight we could better see the extent of the damage.  For me the part that hit me the most was all the stuff lying all over the garden.  It was the easiest to deal with, and arguably the least important thing, but to this day it is like a photo etched in to my memory.  Mostly roof slates, there were also bits of curtain, broken bits of caravan, the dustbins, various ornamental pots and plants, and the children’s trampoline for some reason best known to itself had landed on the roof of Francoise’s little car.   The roof slates, like hundreds of bits of grey confetti, were strewn all over the front lawn and the tiles off the barns likewise lay strewn everywhere.  Hundreds of them.  All around, toppled trees, their branches sticking out so that they had to be climbed through, or climbed over, lay with their roots exposed in great slabs of earthy underbelly.

A noise made me turn, and there was Albert, a hand saw in one hand and a pickaxe in the other.

“Expect you need me?” he asked.

One by one the men turned up.

Despite impossible roads and major problems in their own houses, they turned up to help.  Not one of their own houses had escaped but, as they explained, there was nothing to be done.  There were already no tarpaulins, no roof tiles, no roofers available, nor would there be for many weeks.

Our generator, kept precisely for this sort of emergency, had been stolen, presumeably during the night.  One worker, by the name of Eric, hadn’t turned up, and we were fairly sure it was him.  Only one of the men would have known where it was kept.

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Somebody put on a radio.  A girl with two children from the gipsy camp arrived, looking for work.  Along with the men, she and the children started picking up the debris.  It is an ill wind that brings nobody any good, for the damage provided work not just for this woman, whose name was Corinne, but for thousands of people all over the area.  Corinne, in fact, worked for us off and on for several years, constantly pregnant.  She died very young, aged around 26 I think, and already the mother of five little girls.  I went to her funeral and rumours were rife about suicide, drug overdose and even murder.  I didn’t want to know.

I found a note wedged under a stone by the front door:  ”Monsieur, Madame,” it read (in French) “here in the village we are so saddened to see the terrible blow your house has taken, and our hearts go out to you and wish you courage in the months to come.  It was so good to see the old chateau live again after so many decades of neglect, and we so admired your work and your entreprise.  As we all re-build in the wake of the storm, please know that we think of you.”

This thoughtful and heart-warming message encouraged me and I silently sent out a thank-you to whoever had written it.  Jake and I went indoors and lit the fire in the kitchen.  We had a big stock of candles ready for nightfall.  I made large pots of hot soup for everybody.   Bruce hammered boards over the windows.    I picked up wet and torn things.  Tried to unpack our suitcases.

And I wandered around my house.

The storm had raged indoors.

The huge windows that Francoise had been unable to close had banged around all night.  The balcony doors had blown in.  Pictures had come off the walls, carpet and wallpaper was drenched in almost every room.  Ornaments lay smashed on the floor.  Every single window was broken, shutters lay hanging dangerously, or they had come off altogether.  Everything was wet.  Papers and photos I had left sitting on the bureau were strewn everywhere.

I cleared up George’s mess from the night before and listened to the children tell me what was broken in their rooms.  I wondered how all our tenants had fared, who had been injured, who had escaped.  I made tea, reassured the children, reassured Bruce, reassured myself.

I felt my strength topple at the edge of my being, grabbed on to it, stood it up straight, watched it start to topple again, stood it up straight again.  Like a naughty child who won’t do as he is bid, my strength kept wavering. I could feel my shoulders slump, I put them back.  There was no point in being weak.  But there was a lot of point in being strong.

Cry ?  No, I didn’t cry.

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 16

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 This shot of me was taken (I presume by Bruce) while we were caravanning in Spain.  

Teenagers

The top floor at Les Cypres became almost like the local youth club.  I have always liked children.  Children of any age, including teenagers, though in my teaching days there were plenty of moments I didn’t like them at all.  William had zillions of friends, some from his school and some from the village.  They poured in our front door, perhaps ten or fifteen of them at a time, and made their way up the two staircases to the top floor where all three children’s bedrooms were, plus a large living area/play room, two shower rooms with WCs and a spare room.  The kids that came from the village must have been awe-struck at first, though it didn’t occur to me at the time.  The kids from the school were rather more accustomed to large houses.

Rules about kids and cigarettes

I had to lay down a few strict rules about alcohol, cigarettes and noise.  William taught them all to drink tea the English way and at some stage in the evening, as Bruce and I sat infront of the TV, I would be aware of some clattering going on in the kitchen while one kid or another made fifteen mugs of English tea.  And then, an hour or so later more clattering as the empty mugs were brought down again and stashed in the dishwasher.

We kept out of the way, but if one of the kids spotted me he or she would say a polite “bonsoir Madame“, perhaps even come and shake my hand or give me a bisou.  If we went out for the evening I supplied several packets of pasta and jars of pasta sauce, and all these teenagers would crowd in to the kitchen and eat.  It was almost always cleared up.  Well, their version of clearing up, which was OK by me.

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 The kitchen. There are a lot more copper pots hanging up now, and we have re-painted and changed the curtains since, but this is more-or-less how it is today.  See part 12 for how it looked when we bought the property.  We kept an ye olde worlde style to the room, with simple timber units and old dressers.  Although one can juxtapose old with new, as indeed we have done in the house we now live in, this property would not have leant itself to it. 

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 The kitchen from the other end

In the hall we had an electric bell for calling the children to come downstairs when required.  One ring was for Pippa, two for William, three for Jake and a long continuous one for all of them.   Actually, my book “A Call from France” was originally named “The Calling Bell” for just that reason.  I cannot abide parents who scream up the stairs at their children, though in this huge house that would anyway have been pointless, especially if the kids had music on.

Our lives straightened out

As our lives straightened out, we were able to finance a few staff to help around the property.  I had a cleaning lady called Francoise for years and years.  She was a small, wiry woman with extremely short hair (very typical of French women in this area) She was a sex-maniac well in to her seventies, and would wear the most kinky underwear imaginable, all of which she would show me, whether in a bag or on her body.  She was not a good cleaner, but she was punctual and relatively honest, and very willing.  She could be very funny and we often laughed together.  She got older and older and more and more daft, and finally I had to let her go.   She had a kind of mental breakdown at the end and had to go to a phsyciatric hospital.  I went to visit her several times and then I sent Christmas cards (even though the French send New Year cards rather than Christmas) and post cards for a long time, but never heard from her again.

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 Our gardener, Vanina, still with us today.  I had gone in to the Town Hall in the village and asked the woman there if she knew of a man for the grounds – general small DIY, gardening etc – which she didn’t.  As I left, this young woman, then about 26, caught up with me and asked “does it have to be a man?”  I have since often joked that she is our best man here.

We also had Michel (featured in Part 7) and this chap, Albert.   He was divorced with two children, a nice, gentle man, hard working, strong despite being no bigger than a tadpole, a bit too fond of the bottle.  He worked for us for about two years I suppose till he got a position in Paris where the money was better and he could better provide for his kids.  I helped him with his Court case for custody of his children who were aged about 6 and 9 I think.  His ex-wife was an alcoholic and, poor thing, she killed herself before the case went to Court.

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 Albert sitting at our kitchen table.  The French do not do cups of tea or coffee the way we do.  If you offer a workman a cup of tea or coffee in France they will answer “… si vous voulez …” (if you wish).  But all our workers took to our British ways and very soon expected tea and coffee breaks – which was fine.   When everybody was at work on our own house, we all used to sit around that long table at lunch time, me and Bruce and four or five men, and I’d dish up soup from a big tureen and the men would hand the baguettes around.  In the winter there was a fire blazing.  They were comfortable, encouraging times.
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Lunch in Cap Ferret – Pippa, two of my neices, and my brother-in-law, Brian.

I was far happier.  Life took on a steadiness.  We had plenty of work, the children were well, we had a few friends.  We were not rich, but we were not poor.  We lived comfortably, could afford holidays, and I enjoyed the freedom of having neither boss nor clients to pander to.  The tenants kept me busy enough, as did the house and the children.  Bruce always had plenty of work but no longer had to work on Saturdays just to keep us alive and, although we frequently put up with, or dealt with, complicated and stressful situations, we were street-wise in the French system and knew how to deal with things.

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dinner on a “bateau Mouche” in Paris.

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Bruce & George in Monaco

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Where most people spend any money they may have on new kitchens or bathrooms, we spent ours on trips abroad.  We had both been born and bred on the move, so to speak, and to this day I would by far prefer a trip to Burma or Peru than any amount of smart kitchen!  This photo was at the Grand Canyon.

It’s interesting how one changes.  What only a few years earlier would have sent me in to a frenzy of irritation or worry, was now water-off-a-duck’s-back.  With the tenants I saw every kind of scenario possible, from flood of tears to wild temper, from drunken rantings to abject terror.  I was able to leave the tenants behind not just physically, when I drove away, but mentally too, so that their troubles didn’t weigh on me and the troubles they caused me weighed even less.  I wished them well, of course, but I did not take my work home as it were.  Crucial if you do not wish to go mad.

Troubles and worries vary enormously according to what you are accustomed to.  Stress is relative.  What is a problem for one person is not so for another.  One thing I learnt, and it is something I have taught my children, is that whatever the problem is, this time next year the chances are you won’t even remember it.  We had been through a lot of stressy scenarios and, although of course we didn’t want any more, we were better equipped to handle any that came our way.  From time to time I want to exclaim to a friend “is that supposed to be a problem ?!!” … but I don’t.  Because for them it is a problem, sometimes a real one, but I have already been there and done that …

Social workers and social cases.

I got to know the local social workers (who, oddly enough always had some kind of a defensive attitude towards me, as though they needed to stick up for the tenant when there was in fact no need to) and made my way in and out of the social system, helping people apply for the various aids available to them (as is the case all over Europe, even now, so many were barely literate), even making phone calls for them and setting up meetings.

Sometimes tenants moved out after a short time, others stayed for years.  One old gent died there in his flat and it was only when I noticed a bad smell that the poor old thing was found – I called les pompiers in and they had the gruesome job of dealing with it.   The smell lingered for weeks and the son, a man living in the north of France, caused me a lot of problems because he thought he could get a “free” flat somehow by trying to move in when my back was turned.

Another case was a very young couple whose baby died.  Both were extremely slow-witted (that is probably not the politically correct way of saying it?  I mean no offence!  But if you think about it, it only means that their wit was slow – which it was – even though they were actually nice people)  and under “tutelle” which is a very good system in France where a knowledgeable and competent person is put in charge of the slow-witted one, and the latter knows to do nothing without a go-ahead from the other.  It works well.  But this young couple didn’t have the sense to contact anybody when the baby appeared to sleep all the time; it didn’t occur to either of them there was something the matter.  At the inquest (which I attended in solidarity for the couple) the woman even exclaimed quite crossly that she was hardly going to wake the baby if he was asleep.  They had three more children in quick succession, and a nigh-on permanent social worker with them.  It is very sad – probably good-hearted people but so lacking in sense that all they could perform were basic animal functions. Does that sound mean ?  I am not being mean, just telling it how it is.

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My mother in old age – she was about 88 when I took this.

My days were spent viewing potential new properties, seeing the tenants about one thing or another, raising my children, running our home.  I did the book-keeping for the business and paid Bruce’s men on Fridays.  Money was a constant juggling act.  Sometimes we were left, after paying the men, with just a fiver for ourselves.  Yet we always pulled through, paid for things, never borrowed.

Our social life

We had people over to dinner at odd intervals, and from time to time we were invited back.  We went away a lot.  At every opportunity we loaded the caravan and set off, frequently within France, but usually over the border in to Andorra or Spain. We went to England at least once a year and looked up our friends and sat in cosy Sussex pubs with them …  the homesickness that had never really left me surfaced, then died away again, only to re-surface later, up and down, back and forth …

Having said that, if somebody asks me where I am from I usually reply that I was born in South Africa and that I have lived all over the place.  That is odd, because I was homesick for England, for Sussex, for my old friends – things that bore no relation to my years in Africa.  Perhaps that is precisely why: I did not really know where I was from and hankered after a base that I thought I had found in Sussex, and that had now gone.

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My father on the beach at Marennes, preparing for an oil sketch, George at his side.  I cannot say that my father had any specific talent for painting, but he produced lots of pleasant little oil-on-board pictures, harmless and quiet representations of what he saw.  Hey, he was a doctor, not an artist.  I loved what he drew.

The children tested us with lots of teenage trauma problems.  Family came out to stay and went away again.  My father came frequently because my mother was doing the St Jacques de la Compostella walk with a friend.  Those were precious times with my old daddy, a doctor, but keen on drawing and painting.  Just this morning somebody asked me at what stage I started writing and drawing, and it was around then, sitting on the beach with my father, that I picked up a biro again – after years and years of not drawing – and started to scribble little sketches.

Busy women

I sigh at people who say “I haven’t got time for …” because we all have time for whatever we really want to do.  Say you don’t want to alott time to this or to that, say you do not wish to fit such-and-such in to your schedule, but don’t say you haven’t got time.  I had not fitted drawing in to my very hectic life; it had been an unimportant aspect of the things I liked to do or not do.  But once I started scribbling again I found I really enjoyed it, and I produced lots of little water-colour pictures to go with stories I had told the children when they were little – bunnies and birdies and chickies – that sort of thing.  I also did a large collection of sketches on the islands in the summer months – simple water-colours of hollyhocks climbing the old stone walls of island buildings, blue skies, hazy sunny days.   Quite often the owner of whatever I was sketching would ask to keep it.  The rest were lost in a storm.  A great deal of stuff was lost in a storm.

This was 1999.  On 28th December 1999 we were in England celebrating Christmas and New Year.

By midnight we had lost almost everything we owned.

 

 

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 15

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The children growing fast !

 

Although the previous six or seven years had been full of stress and unpleasant situations, I was the first to say that I had learnt a lot.  I knew about conveyancing law, about talking with notaires, accountants, banks and administrative institutions of many sorts.   I therefore did not need an agent  to act for me when finding tenants for the Corme Royale flats.  I had toughened up a great deal and had become to-the-point and said what I thought – sometimes to my detriment!  I could act for me, no problem.

As in the UK, letting contracts were readily available, usually from any Maison de la Presse, and in those days they could be for either one year or three years.  That has since changed and three years is now the minimum, though furnished lets fall in to a slightly different category.  Ours were unfurnished.

Reading through the contracts and filling them out did not faze me at all, albeit in French.

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Bruce sparked out !

 

I placed ads in the local newspapers and in very little time I had tenants for all three flats.  I took the people that nobody else would take: there were not enough Council flats and houses, and these were people who would normally be housed by the Council.  They were not necessarily social cases (though they often were), but people out of work for whatever reason, or – frequently – people who worked only on the black and therefore had no work contract.

 

The social system

The local authority paid me a month’s deposit against breakages for each tenant and, as soon as the contract was signed, the rent was paid straight on to my account by the council.  Depending on the situation of the tenant in question, this could be 100% of the rent or as little as 20%.  But it meant that, come what may, I always got that part of the rent.  The council never ever got the breakages deposit back – not even once – because the tenant (as it wasn’t his money) couldn’t care less about damages or unpaid bills.  And the French system, being the socialist one that it is, carried on paying damages deposits and rents left right and centre, almost regardless and all compliments of the tax payer.

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We caravanned frequently during the summer months.  In many ways it was the only way we could get away from work, because we worked from home.  There are some wonderful beaches not far from here and lush pine forests.  William almost always had friends with him, so there were invariably six or seven of us plus George.  The children slept in tents. That old caravan got ripped apart in a storm some years later.

 

Tenants in France

Our very first tenant, actually, was the daughter of our worker, Michel.  She had split up from her husband and moved in to the top flat with her two little girls.  She was a good, clean tenant who always had her part of the rent (ie the part not paid by the council) ready for me in cash, and always kept her bills paid.  The tenant who took the ground floor … I just cannot remember him or her.  But the tenant who took the middle flat was a young English woman named Gina, with three little girls.  She paid the rent just once but stayed there for four or five months.  I afterwards learnt that she was on the run from the police in the UK and that her husband, who appeared briefly, was even more thoroughly on the run from the police.  Why they chose rural France I have no idea,  but from there they moved to Norway, where I hope they re-made their lives succesfully.  I have to say that Gina was rude, foul-mouthed, po-faced, demanding and totally unpleasant.  In her defence I will add that she was probably worried sick, fraught and lost.  Any hopes I had of chumming up with her were dashed within the first five minutes when she yelled at me:

“How’m I supposed to pay the f—–g rent when I ain’t got no f—–g job yet ?!!”

The tenants knew how to screw every penny out of the system.  It was quite extraordinary.  Many were perfectly capable of work but had no intention whatsoever of finding any.  Others would have preferred to work.  Some were simply not up to it.  Unemployment was high in the area and, because the bus service is very poor (both are still the case), people who did not drive and/or could not afford to pay for a car, relied on trains.  And if there was no railway in their town it was very difficult.  Rents in towns where there were railway stations were considerably higher.  So it was a bit of a vicious circle.

Our second property was in La Tremblade, a really nice little town just off the coast.

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Lovely port at La Tremblade.  Like so much in this area, when we arrived it smelt terrible – fish, seaweed, sweat, diesel – but now it is dotted with smashing little restaurants (essentially just seafood) and is an excellent place for a stroll.  There used to be a memorial to local men who were shot by the Nazis in 1942, but that has been moved to make way for a small park.  I hope the memorial has been put somewhere else because it is important that the young understand how devastating war is. 

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Church at La Tremblade. There are several shops, banks etc. and a very good market on a … Saturday I think.  They also do antiques fairs three or four times in the summer months. 

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Beach – we frequently walked George along here.  I don’t do ghosts and such like, but when we went back to this beach relatively recently, I had a strong feeling of George running along beside us.

 

The banks went with us all the way.  Although it was not necessarily easy to negotiate a loan, I always managed to get one from one bank or another – the cost of buying the property, the cost of restoring and converting it, my commission, general fees.  With one or two exceptions, we converted the properties in to flats.  I think there were just three that we left as cottages.

Social cases in France

The tenants varied.  They were all from the lower end of the social spectrum and they ranged from barely eighteen years old to old folk.  The level of their honesty and decency varied too.  Some were such dreadful spongers, out for what they could get.  For many, simply because I was the landlady, I was “bad”.  For others I was a salvation in a desperate situation.  And some of the situations were desperate – perfectly nice people who couldn’t get it together for one reason or another, or people who had had really bad luck.  But I’m afraid to say most were simply social spongers.  They wanted everything, and they wanted it now, and they wanted it for free.  They were dirty, rude, dishonest.  Any clauses in the contracts about no dogs, no cats, parking in such-and-such place, keeping the communal areas clean were usually completely ignored, and I have stepped over (and cleaned up!) every kind of disgusting stinky item you can imagine.

Sometimes it was very disheartening.  I remember one bottle-blonde lady, a very large lady, with too many children and a whole coffer of financial social support.  She had almost nothing in the way of furniture, so I donated a few bits – a couple of mattresses I didn’t really need, a cot for the baby, a few chairs and our camping table …. but did it make her any better as a tenant ?  No, of course not.  Her foul languange and her dislike of me, just because I was her landlady, was something !

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William in a wheelbarrow, mucking about with one of his friends.  That boy, Cedric, died of a drug overdose just recently.  

 

Despite this, it was a pleasant patch in our lives.  I enjoyed driving round viewing potential properties, going to the various banks, negotiating, talking to the vendors, the agents, the notaires, the bank managers.  Bruce was brilliant at thinking-out how a house could be converted in to flats, and in several cases created fantastic mezzanine areas in what had been loft space too shallow for use, balconies, walled gardens.  He did all the plans himself.  His vision was extraordinary and, although I enjoyed pouring over plans and ideas with him, that was really his department.  Efficient division of our labour was part of the key to our success.  I trusted his judgement and he trusted mine.  Often enough I would come home and announce we’d just put an offer in on such-and-such a house, though it was important Bruce come along to look at the structure of the thing.  He’d just say “good” and he trusted my instinct and my abilities.

Local property

The houses were built of local stone, with tiled roofs and thin clay block brickwork for the inner walls.  None had cellars, which was a shame; I always think cellars are interesting places.  Many had old bits of furniture abandoned in them, much of it too wood-wormed to be restored, but some of it worth saving.  Very few had any toilet, let alone a bathroom.  If there was a toilet it was usually outside.  It made me smile each time because I remembered a moment during my estate agent days when a client, English, asked me how come French toilets are usually outside or in a barn.

“Oh,” I replied, “this part of France, you know.  They have only just come down out of the trees.  They have moved indoors now, and I daresay toilets will follow …”

And as I said it I remembered that the vendor, standing with us, and an ex tennis champion by the name of Challumeau, spoke good English.  I very rarely wish the floor would open up and swallow me, but that was one of those moments.

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 Fine old stone fireplace in a derelict room, one of many, many, many.

 

Generally speaking building permission was not needed, though this varied according to the proximity of the building to the town centre.  If there was no wiring in the building it needed an official inspection by EDF personnel, but if there was exisiting wiring, no matter how old and dangerous it was, no inspection was needed for re-wiring.  There was always mains water.  Mains gas was a new idea to this part of France and almost non-existant.  Mains drainage was installed in almost all towns at about this time, so septic tanks were usually no longer needed either, though we did have to install one or two.

Rude tenants

And likewise despite the rude behaviour of so many of our tenants, I enjoyed that too.  For every nasty person there was also a nice one and that sort-of outweighed the nastiness – and Lord, did it need outweighing sometimes!  Over the next few years I got greeted at the door by snarling dogs, a man with a shotgun, many many a drunkard, screeching overweight women … argued with tenants about keeping things clean, tried to come to deals with them about keeping things clean … I had obsceneties hurled in my face, I witnessed out-and-out fraudulant abuse of the social system  …. I drove back and forth, sometimes as much as half an hour each way to keep rendez-vous that got ignored or were fruitless, or both … despite the low rents and so much good will on my part I had cigarette-and-beer encrusted people lurching infront of me and telling me I was a thief … and none of them could see that paying the rent was just a normal thing to do.

Yet despite all this, it was a good patch in our lives.  It was a positive, satisfying time and we felt good.

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Visitors from home were regular, and particularly appreciated during the winter months.  This is my aunt Flick with George at the market on Oleron, one chilly Sunday morning. 

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The Fort Louvois in Bourcefranc, a Napoleonic defence against the British.  I think it never served.  When the tide is out you can walk out to it, somewhat muddy and slippery!   This coastline is dotted with fortificvations of one sort or another, some restored and in good condition, others just ruins.

 

We bought properties in all the neighbouring towns, going as far as Saintes in one direction and Bourcefranc in the other.  Most of the properties were in run-down little hamlets, or in side streets of run-down little towns.  I think the smallest amount we paid was £13 000 for a house in Marennes, and the most was £60 000 for one in Saintes.  Most of them were around the £25 000 mark.

We had days off when essential work in our own house needed doing, or when Bruce’s Meniere’s was too bad, and when we needed to get away.  On the whole we enjoyed these projects very much indeed; there were some mistakes where we hadn’t borrowed quite enough money to complete the work, or when letting the finished product seemed to take ages, but on the whole it went smoothly.  The houses for conversion were plentiful and cheap.  Bruce and his crew worked steadily through them, and I worked steadily through tenanting them.

Within three years we owned thirty-six flats and cottages in the area.

 Click here for Part 14

Part 16 to follow.

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It happened like this…an English family moves to France. Part 14

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Jake in the hall.  I can tell he is aged seven simply because his front teeth are missing!  That means this would have been after June 1996.  We moved in to the house in December 1995, and the photo shows electric wiring still being chased in to the walls and the floors thick with dust – those tiles are in fact a beautiful red-brown.  I think perhaps almost a year went by before I was able to start cleaning in any proper sense.  On the left you can see the staircase which is made of stone.  Some of the steps had worn so much that there were dips in the centre, making it easy to miss your footing.  Bruce filled these dips with an ingenious concrete mix, so that it looks just like the stone.

I enquired about teaching.  I had already made a few enquiries when we first moved to France, now six years ago, and had been told that my teaching qualifications from the UK were not valid in France.  Despite an evolving “Europe” this was still the case and I was disappointed because teaching, compared to running my own business, seemed like a doddle!   On the other hand I had become accustomed to earning significantly more money, and that had to be taken in to consideration too.  Indeed, as a teacher I would earn no where near enough to help us realize our ambitions.

But it was also really rather irritating.  Being allowed to teach would have been a quick and easy stop-gap, if only a temporary one.  I don’t know how English is taught in French schools nowadays, though I think it is taken seriously, but in those days it was abysmally badly taught, and both the elder children used to come home from school with giggling stories about how their teacher had pronounced this word or that, not to mention entire nonsensicle sentences.  Anyway, the local education authority didn’t want me, wouldn’t even try me, and I declared somewhat loudly that it was thier loss.

So another business it had to be.

Visitors from home.

Meanwhile visitors from home came and went.  The guest bedrooms, of which there were 4, were the last to be decorated of course, and they were in varying states of repair with odd assortments of furniture in them, as and when we came across something to put in them.  One of my brothers-in-law, Big-Andrew, so named because he is 6’6″, slept on a child’s mattress on the floor for some time.  My mother slept on an old iron army bed and, right in to old age, long after the house was totally restored and good furniture installed, she preferred that old army bed.

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  • Big-Andrew is a sculptor, going by the name of Qadir.  He helped Jake make a model of George.  We kept it for years and years till, a bit at a time, a paw fell off, then an ear …

Visitors fell fairly neatly in to two categories – those who could cope and those who could not.   Or perhaps it is those who “get it” and those who don’t.  With a family such as ours was, it was essential to take us as you found us.  Dust, tools, planks, noise …. I remember some friends, Pete and Liz, who stayed a long week-end and who were really quite horrified at my odd assortment of crockery, not to mention the sheets I had rigged up at their bedroom window in lieu of curtains.  They were bemused and confused by the choices we made.  Things like faded old wallpaper hanging off the wall and broken window panes were the least of our concerns.  For several years my kitchen work surface was an old table, about 3′ x 2′ I suppose, with a small chunky drawer in the front.  In this I found a mouse with several new-born baby mice.  That sort of thing has never revolted me.  I’d rather not have mice, of course, but at that stage both the table and the house itself had been unused for a great many years, so the mouse thought she was in luck.  She had probably been nesting there for years.  I can’t remember what I did with them – I think I asked William to transport them somewhere more suitable.    The table turned out to be early 17th Century.  That mouse knew her antiques!

At week-ends we often set off with our bikes and our tents, though we soon progressed to a caravan.  Picnics (preferably not on the beach – I hate sand in my food!) and walks with George became a regular pass-time on our days off during the summer.  When you are working very very hard, and no matter how pressing the job in hand is, it is essential to not only take time off but to get right away from the work and do something totally different.

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  The children growing up so fast!  Picnic at La Palmyre.  Our daughter, opening the picnic basket, already very tall.  I see I am holding a bottle of beer – I have never liked beer.  Perhaps I picked it up for the photo. 

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  •   This became the dining room.  Pipes for the central heating running under the floor.  We would love to cover the floor with oak parquet, but it is such a huge area (65 sq metres) that our budget won’t stretch to it easily.  We had a fitted carpet over it for a long time but, what with three children + all their mates, a dog and all the building work, it was soon replaced by vinyl … yes, yes, heartbreaking, but there you have it …

Buying property in France

We decided to buy a second property in a nearby village called Corme Royale.  The aim was to let it.  At that time it was just another backwater, but sufficiently close to Saintes to attract lettings.  There was the inevitable boulangerie and a small post office – nothing else I think.  Like the other villages in the area it was grey and brown and dead.  But also like the other villages, it soon entered the appropriate century and got modernized and cleaned up.  Corme Royale is nowadays quite a sweet little town with all essential shops and an exceptionally good restaurant on the place there.

We needed 100% loan from the bank plus the money to convert the building in to three self-contained flats.  The money for the building work would have to cover a “commission” for me and a good wage for Bruce and his team for doing the work.   We would then sell one flat to pay-off the bank and let out the other two.   It needed some careful calculations and some clever ducking and diving.  It was crucial that there was enough to live on immediately, crucial there was enough to pay for the building work, and crucial the building work be finished, advertisements placed and the property tenanted as quickly as possible.  Speed was of the essence because the first installment at the bank was only a month after the loan – and we couldn’t pay the first installment till we got a tenant … and we couldn’t get a tenant till the place was finished.  And so on.  This sort of juggling of figures and of situations was something I became very adept at.

If we could pull this off – this would be the way forward.

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  • The church of St Nazaire in Corme Royale was a damp and cavernous lump of masonry for a long time.  Nowadays you can see how pretty is this 12th Century church which was originally built as a monastry for Benedictine monks, attached to the Abbey Notre Dame in Saintes.

I don’t know why we didn’t first go to our own bank.  There must have been a reason, though for the life of me I can’t remember what.  Perhaps they didn’t do “buy-to-let” loans, though as far as I recall French banks in general didn’t categorize their loans in the same way as their British counterparts.   The Societe Generale, after some 3 or 4 weeks of examining our dossier, gave us the loan for the Corme Royale property – 100% purchase + notaire‘s fees, plus enough for Bruce and his men to convert the building.  The call came through on my mobile phone while I was in a book shop, and I remember a feeling of elation, of “we’re getting there!”, of making great strides forwards.

 Mobile phones in France

Mobile phones hit France a long time after the UK.  The first one we looked at was in 1990, while we were still living in House Number Two.  It is funny to think of it now, but the whole concept of a mobile phone seemed odd to us and, more surprisingly, we couldn’t imagine that it was really particularly necessary.  However, as my job at that time involved a great many miles on the road, we decided it could be a good thing.

It took a lot of effort to locate a person who knew something about mobile phones, but after some time he and a colleague turned up at the house and opened the boot of their car.  Inside sat a large contraption, using up most of the boot space, and this was the mobile phone.

Worse, they couldn’t demonstrate it because there was no local reseau.  To top it off, the cost was the equivalent of about £2000.

“Forget it,” said Bruce.  And we did.

Then, in 1996 we heard that mobile phones were getting smaller and that there were more reseaux.  One of my sisters was with me, and together we set off to France Telecom in Saintes, where I was able to purchase my first mobile phone, about the size of a shoe box, and at the cost of £500.  My sister’s mobile, which she had with her, was not much larger than a packet of cigarettes.

“Ah!” exclaimed the monsieur at France Telecom, “you need this one (taps mine) here because it will otherwise not be powerful enough to pick up the signal, and will therefore not work.”

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  • My very first mobile was similar to this – the size of a shoe box, perhaps a bit smaller.
  • They didn’t anyway sell anything else.  We set off home again, me wondering if I would ever use the thing, and certainly never dreaming I’d use one daily for the rest of my life.  That big clumpy one was excruciatingly expensive, but I did use it a great deal, despite it being not only way too big for a handbag, but it also had a separate antennae that I had to screw in to either make or take a call.  I wonder if I have still got it somewhere ?   I tend to throw things out if they are not useful, not sentimental or not beautiful, but I have a feeling I kept that phone.

Merchants in France.

We decided – somewhat reluctantly – to not sell the ground floor flat after all – partly because of the complications involved in legally dividing the property, which entailed a whole world of criteria (which in turn meant added expenses) that we did not wish to meet, and partly because – wait for it – there were strict regulations about  re-selling.  In some ways this scuppered the sums, but the project was still worth doing.

We had by this time – 1996  – been in France seven years.  In that time we had bought five houses and sold four.  That was a great deal of moving by French standards.  We  found out that in order to keep buying and selling, especially if the properties were not for our own residential use, we had to be registered as Marchands de Biens – Merchants of Goods.

I made the appropriate enquiries.  My mother posted me a dictionary of business and technical vocabulary, and this became my bible for a while, as I negotiated my way in and out of government buildings and offices.   I very rapidly discovered that being registered “merchants” involved precisely the sort of bureaucratic red-taped nightmare that we both avoided at all costs.  We had already been through far too much of that kind of thing.

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  I loved my father very much indeed.  I loved both my parents.  My mother embarked on the walk to St Jacques de la Compostella and my father would come to stay with us while she was gone.  He was a constant source of enthusiasm, ideas, positivity and advice. He was a doctor, but he was also a good DIY man and helped with all sorts of odd jobs around the house.  I loved those days when he stayed with us.  His admiration and praise spurred us forwards.  I’d love to see him again.

The top floor of the Corme house was converted from an attic in to a nice little two-bedroom appartment.  The staircase went all the way up to the top, so it was ripe for this kind of conversion.  The one on the middle floor was also a two-bedroom, and the one on the ground floor, because of the hallway and the staircase, a one bedroom, though it did have a good-sized courtyard at the back.   I suppose it took two months before the first flat was finished.  I found a tenant, the bank got paid, and so on …

Tenancy laws.

Like in the UK, the tenant has everything in his favour.  I agree that they are now protected from nasty landlords and unfair rents, but it has gone way too far in the other direction.  Many many properties remain empty because the owners do not, understandably, wish to be lumbered with tenants who are not paying, or who are wrecking the place.  Going by the book it can take years, seriously years, to get rid of an unwanted tenant.  And that is a shame because housing is not easy for many people, yet there is really a lot available.

I located a hole in the market.  Most letting agents and landlords insist on a “CDI” which is a permanent work contract plus at least one, if not two or three months’ rent as deposit, bank statements, references and so on.  There was -and still is – a huge section of the population who are perfectly able and willing to pay their rent, who have access to money for the rent, but who do not fulfill the usual requirements.

That was a gap that we filled.

 

Part 15 to follow.

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 on this site.

http://www.britishinfrance.com/b14france.html

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