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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 …
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.
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