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.
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 ….
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.
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
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.