Skip to content

Posts from the ‘House buying’ Category

Vendre dit vendredit: Part Three – The merit of all things consists in their difficulty

An occasionally regular series charting a seemingly endless search for the perfect maison familiale.  You can catch up on previous installments by typing Vendre dit into the search box if you are so inclined.

I have to take a deep breath and cast my musty mind back more than three years for this part three.  And there are, appropriately three parts as it turns out.

DSCF1776

The Mairie, Champs sur Tarentaine-Marchal

It was the beginning of Winter and we had flown from London for a fleeting visit to this place that had welded itself to our collective heart.  We had much to do.  We were to be interviewed by the Mayor of Champs sur Tarentaine to see if he would agree to marry us.  He did.  So we then booked lunch at the very nice restaurant just outside the village.  It was a lovely lunch, followed by an in depth discussion of the arrangements for our Wedding Feast.  To take place in the garden (under the pretty, rustic awnings if it was too cool or too sunny) and to consist of a wonderful array of food (mostly what Madame dictated since our English notions of Wedding Fayre where frightfully outré) with delicious wines aplenty and beautifully decorated tables.  We sat and chatted with our very good friends and discussed the invitations which she insisted on designing for us and he explained the etiquette of the vin d’honneur mariage at the Mairie immediately following the ceremony.  All was glowing rosily in our world.  And fired up with our joie de vivre and the sure knowledge that we were entirely unassailable in our love-bubble we rang an immobilier in Aurillac and asked if we might see a house he had on his books.  He was called Eric.

DSCF5131

We arrived at Eric’s office and Eric was no-where to be seen.  We took our seats and I glanced at my mobile.  A hysterical note from a daughter indicated that I needed to send her money.  I did this instantly and seemlessly on my iPhone and congratulated myself on my epic grasp of modern technology.  Whilst cursing the downside of raising children on ones own which is that when they are in need there is only one point on their compass.  We waited some more and eventually Eric surfaced.  During the wait, his glossy assistant had gleaned that we wanted somewhere with a decent patch of land but that it would be a maison secondaire so needed to be reasonably practical until we collectively retired.  She had punched this information emphatically into her computer and not for the first time in my life, I marvelled at how it can possibly be that some women are able to maintain a perfect manicure and type whilst I need never bother with polish unless chipped and distressed become nail haute couture.  We christened Eric, Eric the Fish on account of the Monty Python sketch in which Michael Palin wants to buy a licence for his pet fish, Eric and the shop-keeper is also called Eric.  He’s an halibut.  Eric lives with a dog called Eric and a cat called Eric.  And so it goes on.  Anyway Eric the Fish bid us follow him out of town to view the house.

DSCF5205

Now it should be noted that our friend Eric (not Eric the Fish) is a motor cycle cop.  In fact he is known as Eric Motard.  That means Eric the bike-cop.  Eric had assessed the house we were going to see with a single sentence – ‘I know that place … I often have a speed trap almost outside it’.  Eric is a hero.  Later, at our wedding all my daughter’s will fall in love with him and announce he is a French Bruce Willis.  Eric keeps tropical fish.

We sped out of town behind Eric the Fish.  Two Brains was tangibly agitated behind the wheel, convinced that we were going to meet Eric Motard and his speed gun at any moment.  Imagine the embarrassment.  Our Gendarme friend Philippe (you may recall that all our friends are called Philippe.  Except Eric) had the ultimate embarassment when he was stopped for speeding in his own village.  Twice.  At the time he was the station sergeant.  On a particularly nasty bend we spied the house and beyond it a layby into which Eric the Fish shimmy-ed adroitly somehow avoiding a speeding truck bearing down the road in the other direction.  We creeped and peeped, took a deep breath and our lives in our hands and turned across the road to a white-faced halt next to the immobilier.  He waved nonchalantly at the house and said there is a garage underneath but it would be madness to park in it given that this is a route nationale and  known for it’s accidents.  He didn’t seem to think this fact might in any way put us off.  We walked down the road, backs glued to the bank and staring death in the face.  We dutifully entered the house which was clearly a maison secondaire for a family with teenaged or young adult children who took advantage of the skiing just up the road at le Lioran.  The basement garage was full of snow boards and skis and it was all very sportif.  The house itself was an interesting patchwork of purples, puces, violent ocres and magentas interspersed with the occasional and presumably strategic accent piece in lime green or scarlet.  Not to my personal taste but châcun a son gout.  It has to be said that the views out over the valley were beyond magnificent notwithstanding the road between house and view.  But we explained to Eric le poisson that really we couldn’t live on such a fast highway, even if it was not our fixed abode.  That we have five young adult children and the idea of letting them stay, go into town for a night out and negotiate the road in high spirits was unbearable and that as nice as the elevated garden was you would need to have your mountain goat Boy Scout or Girl Guide badge to get up and down those steps in the dark.  He suggested we follow him back to his office to discuss.  We should have sneaked off into the yonder the other way but being polite and English we did as bidden.

He said he had two houses that were just the ticket.  No pictures of either because they were new on the market but we would be foolish to let the opportunity slip.  We went and had lunch in the town.  Aurillac is the prefecture or capitol of Cantal and very lovely …. small with only 28,000 population but beautifully formed and very artsy with  strong bias to music and in particular, jazz .  We chose a restaurant quite badly and managed to attract an extraordinarily surly waitress who told us the menu du jour was finished and then proceeded to serve it up to several tables who came in after us but what she did deign to serve us was very nice if twice the price.  It happens.

Back at Chez le Fish promptly at 2:15 we set off and I could not begin to tell you where we went.  It seemed to take an age but eventually we arrived in a tiny hamlet.  We entered a small, rather dark house midst an explanation that it came with about a hectare of land on which the owner kept a couple of goats a cow and some poultry.  And possibly a horse and donkey.  How you can have any misunderstanding over the latter, I silently pondered as we walked straight into the main piece to be greeted nervously by a stooped very elderly man standing pointedly poking a weak and clearly freshly laid fire.  ‘I did as you said’ he said to The Fish and to us ‘The fire makes the house much nicer. That’s what he told me’.  The Fish (who it should be noted looked rather uncomfortable and had some sort of coughing siezure as this nugget was being imparted) had clearly told him that if he lit the fire all of a sudden the house would take on fresh and beguiling personality and we would be possessed of a passion to buy it.  I’m surprised he hadn’t told the poor soul to bake a fresh loaf and grind some coffee beans as well. It was a sorry little place.  Jaded and neglected like it’s sweet old owner.  He told me he was a widower.  His wife had died a little while ago and he had continued as best he could (I don’t know how old he was but I would guess either side of eighty) but now all he wanted to do was move to Toulouse where his son and daughter were.  They were too busy to come and see him but if he could sell, he could move near them and then he would be happy.  I walked quietly round the house and said his wife had pretty things.  She did.  Very few but they were pretty.  He said he missed her still but it was time to move because he now struggled to cope and it was a long way for his daughter and son to come and see him.  And they were busy.  He told me this over and over as though by referencing them enough times he might magic them up.  If we’d had the money we would have bought the house then and there and driven him to Toulouse and found him a place where he could be warm and cosy.  Near to other elderly people and people that might deign to talk to him.  I was not convinced his daughter and son would have time to spend time with him  even if he was next door but maybe I surmise unjustly.  I felt hollow when we left because I knew we could not and would not buy it and I wished I hadn’t put him to the trouble of lighting his fire fruitlessly.  As I’m very afraid it will always be.

The Fish then escorted us to his other gem.  The most bizarre house I had ever been inside though now I know it is not at all out of the ordinary.  Being a beady eyed bird, I spotted instantly that this was a décès (deceased estate) the clue being in the assertively placed post-it notes in sundry lurid colours on all the furniture and fittings presumably being code for the various beneficiary’s spoils.  The house was positively cavernous.  It was reached by a path that a toddler could traverse in two steps.  In other words it fronted directly onto the road – it was in a small and rather disconcertingly quiet village.  It had a sort of brooding silence.  We imagined that the garden which was about an acre must all be to the rear.  It felt rather Kafkaesque inside.  Arrow straight corridors with several doors either side all opening onto seemingly identical rooms.  Square, wallpapered by a latterday lunatic and gloomy.  Obscurely it had two kitchens one on either side of the corridor.  Both completely kitted out identically to include twin past-their-sell-by and quite possibly extremely dangerous old cooker, huge chipped enamel sinks with rusting taps, ancient cupboards (not lovely antique cupboards you understand, more hoary unsalvagable cupboards)  bow fronted vintage refrigerators each big enough to store a body and formica topped metal table and chairs.  This mysterious arrangement was not explained and we were too polite to ask … We were not, however, too polite to ask to see the garden.  ‘Certainly’ said The Fish.  ‘Hop in your car and follow me’.  ‘No.  The garden.  We just wanted to see the garden.’  ‘Yes – it’s about a kilometre down the road.’  This was our first experience of a phenomena which is commonplace in France … terrain non attenant where you have land but it doesn’t join your house. Sometimes it’s in several different locations but none of them ajoin, let alone surround, your house.  I had visions of lovely leisurely lunches on a long table under the trees and wondered at the sheer logistics of planning such a meal in your two kitchens.  In fairness, the reception rooms though sombre would wake up and smile with some care and there was a sweet little parlour that would make a cosy office and there was  running water though it was unclear whether hot water was a consideration.  But no cellar which is odd in such a once grandiose place. And to take coffee in the garden would require a thermos flask and to take a glass of wine would require a cool-bag.  Or alternatively a footman in full livery, obviously, to push his trolley down the road and convince the invisible neighbours that the English really are all mad dogs.

PS:  When we returned to the restaurant that was catering for our wedding party less than a month before our big day Madame had never seen us before in her life and had no record nor recollection of taking the booking AND unfortunately was now catering for a bit of a do – another do taking the entire restaurant and garden and couldn’t possibly fit us in.  That she also lost the Mayor’s dinner booking for himself and several other frightfully important local dignitaries did nothing to salve the sore.  But that is another story ….

By the way, the title is Aramis to Athos and d’Artagnan in Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ because this is a story of three and I have always rather agreed with him. 

And another thing:  When I am writing stories of houses for sale I think it a matter of decency not to feature photos of the actual places.  Therefore, the pictures illustrating  each story are just that – illustrative.  All taken by me, of course.  However,  as it happens one of the buildings featured in Aurillac is for sale … it’s an ancient presbeterie and has a beautiful courtyard garden probably best suited to conversion as flats.  In case you were interested in a bit of light property development in le Cantal ….

Vendre dit vendredi: Part Two – Chasing down a daydream

I used to joke that I had kissed a lot of frogs before I found my Prince. The same principle seems to apply to our search for a maison principale in France.

Read more

Coup de Cœur – Part Two: Therefore is wing’d cupid painted blind!

We fell in love on the internet.  It’s the modern way.  The one touts their promise, the other falls under their spell and happily ever after they both live.  House and owner.  You didn’t think I was talking about Two Brains and I, did you?  You got  that I am talking about our fragile hearts being ensnared by our Maison Carrée?

The house was advertised all over the place – every single immobilier in France seemed to have it on their books.  Clock forward two and a half years and hindsight and a bit of experience has taught me that this means nothing.  Often an agent will have grabbed the content from an unprotected site and will be advertising it as his own.  But we knew where it was and we knew it was the former Tour Seignoural for the perfect little city it sits plumb central in.  And it is officially a city even though it would appear to be a small village to modern eyes, and we simply swooned when we found the website for the proprietor who was currently running the little jewel as a Chambre d’Hotes.  The description, down to the seductive promise that he is an accomplished masterchef and would  cook you local food  magnificently if you wished and that breakfast was all conjured from the local boulangerie, epicerie, charcuterie, fromagier,  had me wondering why he was selling at all.  After all this three bedroomed beauty, including the miraculous bathroom all  newly fitted, was kitted out with the most elegant antique country furniture clearly snaffled from local houses of some note and auctions and brocantes and the owner certainly and assuredly had excellent taste.  Hold that thought.

Beware the power of the picture!  Beware the interweb!  What greeted us when we arrived was entirely a different picture.  What on earth induced us to go ahead and buy I am not convinced I will ever know.  A certain madness unexplained.  Assuredly bull-headed stubborn-ness and a sense that this disaster of a place can be, will be, really special and an uncharted recognition that we should be the people to return the house to it’s former unpretentious glory.  And give it a properly appointed bathroom rather than what greeted us which I have flatly refused EVER to use.  And a kitchen that does not stink in that sickly sweet way of festering food complete with maggots and fresh fly-eggs – sadly it became clear that this was the state that unsuspecting visitors who had booked in on-line found the house in and I sincerely hope that none ever took their host up on the opportunity of his unashamedly trumpeted home made meals – rather they hot-footed it to the Mairie to complain loudly and threaten nasty reviews on the very internet upon which we had found the house languishing apparently so alluringly.

Once we had bought the place, once the place was ours we were hit with the reality that HB² is mostly on the wrong side of the Atlantic and that I, although more than once invited to row that ocean on account of my once-upon-a-time Olympian prowess as an oar puller, I was simply not equipped to begin, let alone complete the task of emptying the house once the ancien proprieteur had taken what he wanted … you guess that bit surely – anything nice, anything pretty.  Well, he would, wouldn’t he! There follows the account of the next nine months in which we, collectively being Winnie the Pooh, never lost heart.

 …. In the meantime, here I am looking somewhere between despairing and disgusted in the best of the bedrooms the day after we took ownership.

DSCF2206

PS:  The quote is Twelfth Night – Helen declares of her Demetrius that ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is wing’d cupid painted blind ….’

PPS:  Part one of this saga is here

Vendre dit vendredi: Part 1 – Sorry but I’m gonna have to pass!

Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins isn’t it?  Maybe that’s why we are finding it so hard to find our perfect Maison Principale given that we are beautifully sated and fully occupied with our Square House.  Why do we need another house?  Well, we have a large family who we want to be able to comfortably accommodate when they visit and, in the end, we want our own land and quite a bit of it surrounding us because we are a teeny bit antisocial and to be able to grow and nurture and live a sort of half-baked gaelic good life.   La Maison Carrée was never intended to be our principal house though we will live there for part of each year.

I have spoken before of the idiosyncracies of the French property market and it does take a little getting used to.  I watch a programme on Channel 2 which pits two immobiliers against one another to find a home that ticks the boxes set by the couple of the day and what stands out to me is that prices don’t seem to vary from place to place at all.  So you can be easily commutable to Paris and the ask is pretty much the same as down here in Vache-ville.  I’ll try and put some meat on the bones of my theories about the property market in France along the way but for the moment, because it’s what I do, I will just tell the stories (and there are rather a lot) of the houses we have looked at.  One at a time to give time for full digestion – I don’t want to be accused of further gluttony!

So here is the story of the house we very almost bought:

We met the immobilier in a nearby town (remember, I observed they are generally extremely reluctant to give away the precise location of a property for fear of dirty dealing behind their backs).  He had been quite rude in our email exchange and we had been given no choice of day or time since he was coming down from Paris.  Which in fairness is a more than 5 hour drive on a good day with a following wind.  He stepped out of his rhinocerous of a  4×4 and the first thing HB² noted in a barely muted stage whisper was that he was wearing ‘European trousers’.  Two Brains has an untreated phobia of such garments.  He means corduroys in a variety of orange, pink or yellow hues (occasionally they even bleed into the emeralds and sapphires and I live in dread of an unplanned encounter with any shade of purple).  He blames the trousers for a particular type of personality.  Not, you will gather, a personality he is attracted to.  I noted the trousers and distracted him with the fact that the extraordinarily glossy woman with the man was dressed for some sort of mythical interpretation of outdoor pursuits.  She had clearly invested enough to prop up a small country in her attire.  The illusion was completed with a Dandy Dinmont Dog.  Which meant that The Bean would be trapped in the car because she can be a little, dare I say, fiesty with other four-leggers until they are fully accepted and even then can have random moments of vehement disapproval.

We set off for the first house (another time – you will have to wait for that one) and thence to the house that we had agreed would probably be a bit dark and oppressive.  European Trousers slowed to a snail slither as we reached sight of the place and pointed.  It was love at first sight.  A coup de foudre.  We drove down the long drive and parked up.  The drive went over, incidentally a bridge crossing a little river, which if you know me at all will tell you that I was pretty much sold, and as we got out of the car, a young man was propped against the front door with that air of nonchelance that the French effect better than any other nation.  The building is not an historic monument but it is historic.  The cellars (at ground floor level so probably more underneath) are 11th Century and the main building rebuilt in the 14th.  The young man who by now had charmingly introduced himself as the grandson of the deceased couple who had restored it to what it is today said that his grandfather had located the site of the original tower.  Had he lived he would have carried on restoring I am sure and my inner Rapunzel was already fast-forwarding to rebuilding the tower.  In fact in the village (about 5 km away) there is an identical building, but intact.  It is a storey and a half higher and has the most curious top to the tower which looks broken until you realise it is deliberate.  Who knows why.  The grounds were perfect … the stream, an orchard with apples, pears, cherries and quince a fine place for a beau potager and views over the valley several hundred metres below that are just breathtaking.  The house has 6 hectares.  We worked out that there was about 1 around the house including the swimming pool compound and driveway (the swimming pool incidentally had a pair of robust trees growing out of the cover so a little attention needed before necessary relaxing with an apero before an evening dip) and another 2 or so in the field below but we were intrigued to know what of the woods beyond was included to make up the other 3.   European Trousers who thus far had been frankly disconnected with the vital fact that we might be interested buyers deflected the question to young Monsieur Nonchelance who stepped up to the plate and explained that in his boyhood when visiting he was allowed to go as far as the waterfall.  This was a romantic notion but not particularly helpful.

We climbed the fantastic stone steps to the imposing castle door.  Inside everything seemed perfect.  The ‘monumental’ fireplace lived up to its name, the ground floor bedroom was delightful with a well thought out shower room and loo off and the possibility of making a balcony to the full length window (though it would need some monumental supports of its own given the size of the stone pointed to below as the ideal base), the kitchen was tiny (one of my criteria, as a incurable kitchen dweller has always been a kitchen big enough to live in) but as it opened onto the piece de vie which is absolutely humungous taking up, as it does, most of the ground floor, I felt myself compromise.  The restauration was superb … very sympathetic with lots of wood to include a built in Auvergne style clock, a lit clos (basically a bed built into the wall and very much of the region and which young man had happily passed many childhood nights when staying with his gramps) and a touch of magic in the form of a set of bookshelves which at the touch of a button will recess and allow the TV to make a grand entrance a la those wonderful moments in world of 1960’s James Bond.  It needed to be restored but Two Brains was confident it would be a doddle.  I leave these things to him.  Upstairs and one huge and another decent sized bedroom, the former used as a workspace possibly by a designer judging by the work-table both with shower rooms.  No bath.  A bit of a draw back for me as I am a wallower but entirely fixable.  The big room would divide comfortably into two good sized bedrooms if necessary as an asside.  It was fair to say that it appeared ET was correct when he said it was ready to move straight in.

Outside a liberated Bean was frollicking with a verve that would eclipse any Spring Lamb and clearly loved the place.  Her verdict was noted.

DSCF9988

We walked around squeezing hands like toddlers.  We knew we had found home.  A few days later we visited again, sans immobilier and the charming young nonchalance answered our questions as best he could.  It was clear that his grandparents had loved the place and we romantically imagined ourselves continuing their work and concluding it – making the house entirely what it once had been.   Captivated by the vaulted cellars build by men a thousand years ago we imagined these people smiling down at us.  We pointed to a tiny window almost under the eaves that we couldn’t understand – it didn’t correspond to anything inside.  Blithely he told us that his gramps ashes were interred up there so they would forever look over the valley.  I felt fine about that.  No, really I did ….

DSCF9957 DSCF0016

Back home we discussed and digested and cojitated both together and after his Brainship had flown back to Boston and came up with a price we were both happy with.  Questions were asked to ascertain the exact location of the mystery woodland, to stick a stake in the ground that we understood that the chimney needed attention and that we understood the exact condition of the pool mechanisms.  Bear in mind that our local friends suck their teeth at asking prices and endlessly fill our heads with tuppence ha’penny deals done on the Q.T.  We offered 75% of the ticket price and waited for the knock back.  Quite amazingly ET came back to us with the news that our offer had been accepted.  That was just before Christmas and I went to bed happy that I would have my forever house by summer.

In January I visited in a blizzard with eldest daughter and her intended – so they could see it at least from the outside.  They did not tell me I was mad.

DSCF0837 DSCF0835

March.  After a long period of flatline communication, we were suddenly summoned to a town nearby in 3 days time to sign the Comprimis de Vente (this is basically the moment of exchange of contracts and the comprimis should contain all the clauses we have asked to be included).  As it happened we were in Grenoble and so decided to run the document past the wonderfully effete and beautifully bi-lingual Philippe.  All our friends are called Philippe by the way.  The Brain has excellent French but is humble enough to reach out for a helping hand when needed.  I sat reading a magazine lost in the romantic notion of walking Grande Randonee numero 5 – 620 km through the Alps to the Med and Monaco.  3 or 4 weeks they suggest.  I could feel the grass, smell the air and ….. a problem.  A problem?  Two Brains was drained of colour and looked for all the world like a doctor breaking difficult news to a patient’s relative (compounded by the fact that I was sitting in the refreshment area of a modern Science institution).  Philippe, diplomatic as ever had balked at the price we were paying  and had then drawn attention to the value of the house 7 years ago (pre the 40% drop in overall valuations in France) …. around a third of the original asking price so way, way below what we had offered (remember the speed of the agent’s response).  But we are decent people of morals and we had already agreed that given the difficulty of guaging an accurate price we would just go with what we felt was right.  A rather lumpy swallow but swallow we would.  We loved the house.  The electrics have mulitple areas of non-conformity … sort of to be expected even though they look fine enough but the bit that presented an impasse was the Level 2 problem with the LPG Gas.  Expliques-moi s’il te plait?  Well, the thing is this ….  it could cause the house to explode at any minute.  Nothing lost (girder-made we are).  An email is sent tout de suite to ET and we set off on the 6 hours journey home falling into bed around midnight.  Up with the lark, wakened by the barking (and it is genuinely a barking) of the Brain Phone – an alert to a mail.  Possibly the rudest mail ever.  You WILL be at the notaires office tomorrow morning and tough titty, the problems are yours to solve.

My husband is a mild sort.  My mother always said they are the most dangerous.  The ensuing conversation with ET was lethal.  The man accused him of lying (he clearly thought the real reason was the discovery that the value was much lower than the offer – wrong M’sieur.  You were so very wrong.  Decency prevails on our side however bitter the pill).  And the deal was off.  End of.  A desparation call from the owner would not sway us.  We smelled a consipiracy but now is not the time to air that.  And numbed, we were back to square one.  HB² quietely commented that he should have trusted his instincts.  I mean to say – the man wears European Trousers!

Four months later we are still there.  We have opted to broaden our search outside of le Cantal.  As much as we adore it here we need to find the right place for us.  So the last few months have been about (and mostly remotely – remember Brains in Boston, Charm in Cantal) looking at other places. Our criteria are simple (for the location) snow in winter, sun in summer (if it pleases) and mountains preferably in sight but certainly no more than a half hour drive.  If you have ideas, please share them.  We are open to ideas.

I have just searched on the net for the house in question and it appears to be under offer … if that is the case, I sincerely hope it doesn’t blow up after money has changed hands

DSCF0055

PS:  I am inordinately proud of the title of this series because it marks a milestone in my absorption of French … I now find myself punning and playing with words even though the result may still be ‘Comme une Vache Espagnole’ and the words that inspired Part 1 … ‘Your lips are redder than her lips, they’re fuller, they’re redder but they’re not better’ altogether ‘ sorry but I’m gonna have to pass …. thank you The Coasters … you can hear the whole song here – it fits when you understand that the bar we are working to might seem modest (a 2 bedroomed rented appartment) but modest as it is, home is actually pretty much perfect.  A high bar indeed.

Even my soul is wet

It’s a new dawn! it’s a new day! it’s a new blog! … well not entirely, Michael Bublé,  but I AM feeling fine and the style it is a-changing.  And you might notice a new title in the next few days.  It is time.  I have published my first book, Russians Love Their Children Too in France and am now well entrenched in the second which needs some of my stories to feed it and so the blog needs a different emphasis.  Et voila! it will be a little more life-stylee … Eat Pray Love meets Gertude Stein on the set of ‘Allo ‘Allo if you will.  There will be food to share, some house renovating (our little project in the South) and much house searching for that elusive maison principale, crucial questions like ‘what should I wear to le marché on Thursday’ and ‘what do I do when cornered by the local buveur (boozer) on Sunday morning whilst taking coffee, tout seul‘ will be asked and possibly answered, all against a backdrop of an English siren dropped into a sparcely populated area of a foreign land whilst her love labours for a deaf super-power.  And of course photos with lyrical or poetic associations – and stories too … old habits die hard – now there’s a thought … Maria von Trapp meets Bruce Willis – by George, I think she’s got it!

The picture, chosen for the weekly photo challenge from The Daily Press, this week titled Early Bird, was taken by that very same husband in Chile at Los Salar just south of St Pedro de Atacama.  He has Two Brains and built an observatory on the mountain some years ago because he knew it could be done.  He also handles a camera quite well

DSCF2181

PS:  The quote, appropriately, is Pablo Neruda, ‘Sometimes I get up at dawn and even my soul is wet’ in ‘Here I Love You’ which forms part of his  exquisite first collection Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair

Of human bondage

The strapline to this blog is ‘a rootless writer takes root’.  I have moved house a lot in my adult life, it is true.  25 times in 28 years.  Not any sort of plan just circumstance conspiring.  Another day.  The story will reveal itself when it is ready.  That’s how it works – no planning just a perculation that results in a story being ready for the telling.

And this story is prêt à porter … instantly packaged and ready to take off the shelf.  In our search for our forever house, we have looked at many.  And there are almost as many stories.  But this one.  This one refuses to wait.

The house, a Manor built in the early 19th century with a bit over a half hectare of land (not really enough for us but the house looked so pretty that we were enticed) is not far from here and enjoys the most stunning views across to the Monts du Cantal and the Massif de Sancy.  It has a rudely large barn and a lovely orangery.  It also has a pigonniere.  Pigonniere (dove houses) are always described as ‘jolie’ here and I have no idea why.  The house belongs to an elderly man (now in his 90s) and his daughter who lives abroad.  This is normal under French law.  When his wife died he will have inherited 2/3 and his daughter 1/3.  If there were 2 children the house would be divided into 4, 3 into 5, 4 into 6 and so on – 2 parts for the surviving spouse and  the children get 1 part each.  It is a simple equation and in theory protects the living parent for the rest of their days ensuring they always have a home.  This particular old fellow is in nursing care (we know not, and it is irrelevant, where) and the daughter wants to sell.  All reasonable.  And the house is lovely.  Very, very tired but lovely.  A huge main room, a panelled dining room and the oddest kitchen with a vaulted, but quite low, ceiling and no windows giving the air of cooking in a submarine.   Despite finding various stuffed birds and animals stashed in a walk-in cupboard the size of a small bedroom, I was already planning the alterations to make it our home.  Upstairs many bedrooms – small, as is the norm in these kinds of houses, and a variety of particularly eccentric bathrooms.  This is France.  Taking the many littles and turning them into fewer biggers and a bit of judicious plumbing – hey presto bongo – a very acceptable upstairs.  Up again to a cavenous attic – big enough to accommodate a small commune.  There lay a dead Coal Tit, its small body swollen as a precursor to dessiccation, wings outstretched and its tiny head held proudly stiff as though stoically resisting the inevitable.  I have a life-long fear of dead birds – the result of Jane, our au pair telling me there was something magical waiting for me if I walked the length of a hosepipe which stretched from the drawing room windows round the entire house to the kitchen window, at the age of 4.  I was always inquisitive and gullible.  Still am.  Anyhow, the something magical was actually a dead blackbird, his startled eye shining accusingly at me and his beak so yellow that I found it difficult to eat an egg yolk for several weeks to come lest I find it crunchily lurking there.  But I did not let this poor departed bird put me off.  We were really rather warm to the house.

We remained warm as we descended to the cellar through a tiny door, down treachorous steps to find what appeared to be The Bismarck skulking there.  Closer examination revealed this rusted monster to be a boiler.  How on earth they got it down there I do not know. The cellars are large, I grant you but the access would challenge a Hobbit. I can only  deduce that it was a case of building the boat in the basement but it is clear that it will be far more difficult to remove.  As one surely must.  I should tell you that the cobwebs in this house are lustrous.  The Bismarck has not sailed for some time.

DSCF4290 DSCF4285

Outside I wondered idly why the lawns had been ploughed to provide not one but 4 large potagers (vegetable plots) growing all manner of good things but when we walked into the palatial barn, the triple- decker hutches housing high rise bunnies began to give a clue.  And the three sheep in their little field eyeing us with a mixture of fascination and fear.  And the back yard with its pretty old stone dove-cot and its large population of hens, turkeys, ducks and guinea foul plus plentiful pretty, and no doubt, tasty pigeons.  The wall of freezers gave another clue.  A clue to a small-holding that seemed to be at odds with the lovely fountain, stone sculptures and other accoutrements of manorial life.  It was like walking into a French version of ‘The Good Life’*  – Tom and Barbara having annexed Margo and Jerry when their backs were turned.   As we walked back towards the orangery, I noticed a car draw in and park next to the gate house (part of the purchase).  A woman snuck out and dove deftly into the door of the cottage.  This acted as a cue for the agent to casually  tell us that the dependance was inhabited.  We looked in the orangery and I gleefully imagined not just working in there but also the fact that my sculling boat would rack easily in such a large space.  In passing, I asked the Two Brained one what the agent had said … I thought I had misheard.  My French improves but his is far better than me after nearly 35 years living here part and full time.  I hadn’t.  The gate house is inhabited.  And on further questioning, not by transient tennants.

DSCF4288

The (I must say at this point, very nice and very professional) immobiier asked if we wanted to see the gate house.  He couched his question with the clear intent of assuring us  that we didn’t.  We did.  It’s a whole house not a bike shed and represents a rather significant part of the deal.  We had naively imagined that we could produce a passive income from this little house as a periodic rental either for holidays or for locals, the rental market being quite buoyant in our area.  And certainly that when family and friends came to stay that it would provide independent living quarters which can be a blessing for all concerned.  We asked him who the people were.  And he told us (rather too quickly and smoothly) that they were the retainers for the old man.  Living free of charge in return for looking after the house and grounds.  For the past 40 years.  We entered their little home and everything changed.  This little huddle of humanity – an elderly couple, their daughter and her child were terrified.  They were silently pleading with us not just to like the house but mostly to like them.  I have seldom felt so helpless – all of a sudden I am faced with a family whose future could depend on my kindness because I have the wherewithal to buy this place.  They were clearly upset that their dogs were letting the side down by barking.   I made a fuss of the animals and told them not to worry.  That I love dogs.  The Bean was barking from the car which reassured them that I did not speak with a forked tongue but rather that I really do love canines.  Even if I utter with a curious foreign accent and knit my words together clumsily.  I dutifully looked around this humble, humble place – a poky main room, a tiny snug, a bathroom with a leaking roof and upstairs three squished bedrooms, each conjoined.  All tidied and polished for me to see.  The old man showed me a mirror he had stuck to the wall in the bathroom to improve it – one of those frameless affairs with double sided tape on their back.  It was oval.  The old lady took pains to tell me that they look after the house very well.  There is no heating in the house.  Just a wood stove.  It is simple to the point of being primitive and it is clear that they support themselves by selling a rabbit or a chicken here, some leeks and a pumpkin there.  All under the wire – we had noted that the sheep were not ear-tagged as is compulsary in all EU countries, not just in France.  But it was the fear in their eyes. The burning desire to make a good impression on us.  Us?  Who the hell are we?  Unwitting people who might take their destiny in our hands.  They have the knowledge that the house sale will almost certainly mean the end of their everything.  Tick tock goes the clock.  The agent was happy to tell us that we could get rid of them with six months notice.  I thanked them for being so kind as to let me see their home.  Their home.  I told them it was lovely, I made more fuss of the dogs and I walked away barely able to see let alone speak.  But speak we did.  Briefly to the agent.  And we left.  Neither of us spoke, though, much on the way home.  Neither of us spoke much over lunch, or supper.  Later we went to bed and it turned out neither of us slept much either, if at all.

DSCF3387 DSCF5538

We turned over and over and over again with possibilities to make it work.  Could we let them stay and let them have a bit of the land to keep producing an income?  Not really – the land is not enough for us to do what we want (we being in the lofty position of being able to choose to do something we want to do) let alone sustaining a small family as well with no other income.  And they would  need all of it to provide a living.  That is clearly demonstrated now.  Could we find them somewhere else to live?  Well probably, but it would be a flat in the town and they would have no income and they have been used to the life of small-holders.  And where would we put our sheep – theirs are filling the little field – three is as many as that little patch would take.  Could we keep them on as our retainers?  Hardly – we are really not people who see ourselves as feudal lairds even assuming we could sustain them as well as  ourselves on retirement income which in the cold light of day, we can’t.  My brain became tireder and tireder as it tried to work a solution.   I felt about as useful as the little blown body of the Tit in the attic.  Simultaneously the might of the combined brains of my husband were doing the same and getting just as far.  Between us we managed the square root of nothing at all.  And all the while I kept seeing their frightened faces.  I can still see them.  Beyond anxiety.  Backs against the wall, desperate in their naivety to please the potential buyer because surely then the status quo will be retained.

We will not be buying the house but someone will.  Someone who will, in all likelyhood, exercise the right to kick them out.  And the old man who started this whole sad story with his good intentions will wither away none the wiser.  Forty years ago did he think of the possibiity that he would be an addled old man dependent on care that can’t be found in the idyll that he created as his maison secondaire?  Of course not.  It seemed like a really good idea to allow a young man and his wife to come and take care of everything in return for a house.  Forty years later, he exists somewhere, tended to by nurses, never imagining that the pair that kept things tickety-boo in his Cantal retreat are facing hell at the end of their lives.  Samuel Johnson is often misquoted as saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Misquote or not, in this case it fits.  Horribly it fits.

On the whole I would rather have lived the life I have lived, as disrupted as it has been, than the life they lived in their innocent content, assuming it was forever whilst all the while the clock was tick, tick, ticking away to the inevitable moment when the bomb goes off and in their twilight, they are evicted because they have no human rights at all.  I may have been rootless but at least I have had some control over where I floated.  These people are about to have their roots ripped out of the ground and they have no more defence than a dandelion in a border of roses.

DSCF3438

PS:  The title is a shameless steal from Somerset Maugham and is chosen simply as a question of the words fitting my text rather than any similarity to the context of his great novel.

*For non-British readers, ‘The Good Life’ was called ‘Good Neighbors’ in the USA.