Wednesday, 9 January 2019

January is the cruellest month, with no more leaves: aka French house - the sequel

View from upstairs - denuded of leaves!
I have just come back from an extraordinary week, which has been a wild ride on every level - physically, mentally, and emotionally - in both good and bad ways! It has been perplexing and nerve-wracking, uncomfortable, exciting, funny, character building, exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately satisfying. And I have cycled through all those emotions and more, sometimes in the space of an hour(!).

For I have just spent a week in France preparing for the acquisition of my house in the 'within spitting distance of the Dordogne', and then putting certain things in place - from a water account in my name, to a radiator in a bedroom - once I was officially the owner.

I will keep this account thematic, as has become my wont in travel reports, kicking off with a little flavour of the house's story, followed by my own.

The house - a two up, one down detached property (plus an attic with lots of potential!), and dating from 1850 or thereabouts - was in the hands of the vendor's family for some 44 years all told: initially lived in full-time by her parents-in-law, from 1974 till their death around the turn of the century, and then adopted as a holiday home by the vendor and her husband for a few more years. Whereupon they decided they liked the village so much that they bought the much bigger, grander house next door and took up permanent residence there, while my house-to-be languished unoccupied for the next 15 years or so till I walked through the door last Friday. Interestingly, the woman who sold it in 1974 to the vendor's family did so because she was also buying a bigger, grander house...right behind my house! So you can see it is well used to being surrounded by its former owners, haha.

House at its saddest-looking, now the wisteria has died back!
The journey out

I am surprised to report that the journey out to France was somewhat eventful...First off, and most uncharacteristically, I genuinely forgot to lock my car in the long stay car park (as opposed to paranoically imagining as much), and enlisted the help of a shuttle bus driver to take me there and keep his engine running while I legged it over to do the biz. Back at the airport, I was subjected to a hard sell by the lady in the Jo Malone concession of the Duty Free, who was determined to sell me a 30ml bottle of something, thinking I couldn't possibly resist the 20% discount versus normal retail. I managed to escape without a purchase and just a spritz of Peony & Blush Suede, which I rather regretted, and wished I'd gone for Mimosa & Cardamom instead.

Once on board, I was pleased to see that my row companions were two adults of roughly my own age. As I explained to them, I am almost always seated next to babies and small children. "He's a bit childish, actually", said the woman, nudging her husband in the ribs. Then within a few minutes both the row across the aisle and the one diagonally opposite were suddenly full of very young children, luckily engrossed in that modern opiate of the child-friendly tablet.


I turned to the couple, and mumbled ruefully: "See...I spoke too soon."

Then while listening to the first officer's spiel over the tannoy, I clocked that one of the flight attendants was called Vanessa. I have never met another Vanessa in person, and decided to make myself known to her, even though I was travelling under the name of Kathryn. However, when she approached with the duty free trolley, I noticed she was sporting a gigantic spangly pink bow in her hair, and decided to pass on this particular Vanessa, even if another were never to come by.

At the French end, there was no sign of any luggage, despite our planeload waiting patiently for a good half an hour by the disconcertingly static carousel. At last a cry went up: "The belt is broken - the bags are coming in the lift!" Shortly afterwards I could see my case a few tantalising feet away just beyond the passport control queue. I went to grab it, but was told to go back, as people were not allowed to walk in front of the passport desks. Eventually a baggage handler made a three sides of a square sign to me over the heads of the queue, which I realised was an instruction to go out of the baggage hall and nip back again via a staff-only corridor to the rear of the lift, where my bag was indeed waiting, and legitimately grabbable.

The bears huddle together for bodily warmth

January is the cruellest month

The single most striking thing to mention about the whole week was the cold...damp, bone-chilling, freezing, bitter, bitter cold. With an occasional side of fog. I had to defrost the car every morning, and even in my Airbnb accommodation, which had probably seen no visitors since the summer and was heated purely by a single mobile radiator, I typically wore two vests, a top, a jumper, a sloppier jumper on top of that, and a TV blanket I had brought with me, slung over my shoulders. And often got under the covers of the bed to boot, even in the day! My own house, though, was a whole other level of coldness - it was like my garage in winter...a building with a roof and walls that manages to feel inside as though you were outside. This was doubtless due to neither being heated. I've never known a domestic interior that 'nippy', but was determined to make it through to the end of my stay in my own home, if it was humanly possible!

No sockets, so no heating in Bedroom 2!
Small world...twilight zone

There were two odd coincidences during my stay, which reminded me of the goldfish bowl nature of village life. The day before the meeting with the solicitor, I popped into the secondhand shop to buy a tumbler and a couple of dinner plates - or any other accessories that caught my fancy (a swan necked lamp, as it turned out). I had met the shop owner on my previous visit in November, and reminded her who I was, adding that I was about to get the keys to the house. "Were you thinking of staying there, only it's very cold inside?" Noting my puzzled expression, she added: "Oh, it was me that did the furniture clearance for the vendor! Well, apart from the pieces you are buying, that is. In fact I am popping back there this afternoon to have a bit of a sweep round." Well, how very handy...I was able to ask whether the beds I had bought had any mattresses on them, and she assured me they had.

So that was one curious incident. The other happened a couple of days after I got the keys, when I decided to pick up bin bags from the town hall, the usual repository for such things. For anyone using their house as a second home,as I plan to do for the moment, full-blown bins are not deemed necessary. There was a surprising amount of paperwork involved in the procurement of these rubbish bags - of two different colours, no less - one being for recycling. As I was walking out with the rolls tucked under my arm, a lady ran out of the adjacent office, brandishing a pair of reading glasses. "Oh, take these too, could you? They belong to Mme G. You are friends, right?", swiftly followed by a colleague calling after her: "Yes, they are." Mme G being otherwise known in past blog posts as L, she of the house in the same street, with whom I have stayed until I bit the bullet and bought my own French bolthole. ;) I was most impressed that the ladies at the town hall had made the connection between us, and promptly agreed to deliver the proffered specs.

Cold comfort food

This may sound hard to swallow - and it was! - but I went the whole week without access to any hot food. I had a kettle in my Airbnb, and went on to buy one for the house - the only object downstairs, no less - but there is only so much cooking you can do with a kettle. ;) In case you were wondering, there were no restaurants that were both open and within striking distance of my accommodation for the first four nights, or my own house. That's if you discount McDonald's, where I did have a chicken wrap on the night I arrived. The wrap and salad were cold though, and the dressing managed to cool pieces of chicken that were barely lukewarm to start with. It was still very tasty, but I didn't go back. Instead, I lived off cold chicken breasts and bread, bread and Camembert, plus 'main meal salads', comprising some combination of lettuce or pasta with chicken, cheese, ham and egg. I didn't have a fridge in either place, but kept food and milk very satisfactorily on the deck outside my Airbnb and later in the boot of my car.

Al fresco frigo

By the last day, the lack of hot food - on top of the glacial cold wherever I was - was starting to get to me, and I decided to investigate bottled gas options for cooking. There was an old metal gas canister under the sink in my house, long since emptied and disconnected. I had had an electrician come by that afternoon to separate my 'wheat from my chaff' wiring anomalies, and after doing so, he had advised me to get a lighter gas bottle that I could manhandle as a woman on my own, which would handily come with its own regulator and accessories.

Several towns and supermarkets later, I found a 10kg bottle made of plastic, paid 30 euros, and filled in the necessary paperwork (it was the bin bags all over again!), before mauling it home. It was immediately apparent to even a lay person such as myself operating on a purely 'shape sorting' basis, that the coupling pieces supplied were not compatible with my bit of pipe leading to the hob. Several YouTube videos later, I decided to ditch a few of the accessories and take the bold and possibly dangerous step(!) of making a more direct connection between pipe and regulator...and hey presto, I managed to get three of the four burners alight. The other may be kaput, or just playing 'hard to ignite'. Then it suddenly dawned on me that I had no saucepan. Ah well, there's always next time...

Source: Chronodrive


During the week I wore perfume every day, and in the absence of any company, it created a morale-boosting backdrop to my more or less gruelling doings. From memory the order was:

Day 1: Hermes Cedre Sambac
Day 2: Chanel Coromandel
Day 3: Guerlain Plus Que Jamais
Day 4: Mona di Orio Musc
Day 5: Puredistance 1
Day 6: Hermes Myrrhe Eglantine
Day 7: Damien Bash Lucifer #3

I left 3, 4, 5 and 6 behind in the bathroom, as I have more of these back in England. Resident bears, and now perfumes...!

Rolling refinement of my croissant preferences

One of my staple cold food options on this trip was a croissant. I tried croissants from three different boulangeries in all, progressively refining my purchase criteria as I went along. In the first bakery I asked for a croissant that was 'nicely puffed up'. It was pleasingly pneumatic, but suffered from being a bit too brown on top for my liking. So the next time I skipped the puffed up aspect and went for 'golden but not too well done', thinking that one stipulation per purchase was probably as much as I could justify. This one hit the spot pretty well, but could have been a bit more buttery, so in the third boulangerie I spotted croissants specifically described as 'pur beurre' alongside other mere croissants with no descriptor. So I asked for one that was not too well done, the presence of butter already being assured. Unfortunately that was the biggest mistake of all. It was leadenly lardy, and unremittingly flat. Back to the drawing board. Or a pain aux raisins, maybe...?

Pictured below is the most successful croissant of my visit, resting on what appears to be the original font in my house, but which is in fact apparently a sink.

Add caption

Unexpectedly noisy appliances

For a house which was virtually empty, the few things already in there managed to make a disproportionate amount of noise. This struck me as amusing, given how I had always associated my stays in the village with the most profound silence imaginable, give or take the odd owl or pigeon. However, that was while staying in L's house - my own turned out to have its own orchestra. For as soon as I stepped over the threshold, I could detect a piteous cheeping sound from not one but two smoke detectors. They had not been tested in years, and now their batteries were clearly failing. I took them both off the wall, but they carried on bleeping wherever I put them. If I consigned them to the car, they would only annoy other residents or passers by. So there was nothing for it but to take them immediately all the way to a DIY superstore, where I purchased a screwdriver and a pack of batteries, constantly apologising to other shoppers for the cacophonous contents of my carrier bag.

And then there was the panel heater in the main bedroom...the only heat source in the entire house...because - you've guessed it! - in the past 20 years no one has stayed there out of season. I had the heater on night and day on various settings, topped up by a small mobile radiator I had had the foresight to buy before getting access to the house, having of course been tipped off that it would be perishing inside. At night the heater didn't let up making percussive noises - partly clicking noises as described in the snippet below from a heating website, but also something more akin to the 'boing-boing' / 'clang clang'effect you can get from flexing a sheet of metal, not that I have done so lately.

"However, because the radiator body is made of aluminium, clicking noises can sometimes occur. These are caused by the expansion of the aluminium as the radiator heats up, but don’t worry – clicking does not indicate a fault on the unit."

Hmm, looking at this article, it seems my heater may also have issues with its mounting brackets and screws, compounding the 'natural' noises made by expanding and contracting.

"They're designed to create heat, not function as a one-man band!"

Haha, my heater definitely has pretensions in that direction, but to be fair I was so grateful for its warmth that I bunged some ear plugs in and let it do its thing.

Another job on the list for next time, along with fixing a flooding toilet(!), having the all-pervasive damp downstairs surveyed, essential wiring done, planing down the front door and shutters that stick, and jet washing the bright green algae off the rendering. (I have innumerable scary photos of all these offending items, but can't bring myself to post them. Suffice to say that in the hall, for example, there is a bit of a distressed, 'King's Speech room' look going on - and that is being kind. ;) ) Oh, and getting a fridge, as I may not be able to rely on the weather being quite so chilly next time...

My various light fittings were mercifully silent!

Clearing character reference hurdles

At the meeting with the solicitor, right before I was declared to be 'owner' of the house in the same congratulatory tone in which vicars pronounce the happy couple 'man and wife', I was told that I had passed the 'condamnation' checks. I inquired as to what these were exactly, and learnt that there is a register in France of anyone who has owned property in the past and abused their status of being a home owner in some way. For example, by sticking 20 desperate migrants in their house in squalid conditions, in a money-making modern slavery scenario. Seemingly there is no evidence of my having been condemned for such misdemeanours. On hearing this news we all laughed, and the vendor turned to me and smiled, watching for my reaction. "Ooh", I replied facetiously, "that's given me an idea now..."

"They wish it could be Christmas every day"

Both the town where I stayed before completing on the house, and a couple of neighbouring ones where I went in search of bedding and the gas bottle, set a lot of store by the celebration of Christmas. There were the usual light displays, but in the town where I stayed the first four nights there was also piped music in the streets...absolutely everywhere! The solicitor explained that they had one CD for the morning, and one for the afternoon, and played them on repeat. It felt odd somehow to be listening to "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" on 4th January, and the festive lights were still up and blazing in the other towns as late as the evening of 7th.

My village was too small to have lights as such, and its showing of Christmas trees - two municipal and two belonging to shop owners - was a little on the sad side. And also still up on 7th Jan!

Phantom perfume shops

Here are two signs that promised much, and delivered little. Well, in terms of actual perfumes that you sniff I mean, 'parfum' also meaning 'flavour' in French of course. So the cafe in the first photo can be forgiven, though it did cause me a disappointed double take as I peered in and spied only bags of coffee and tea on the shelves.

When I peeped through the window of the other shop, I wasn't rightly sure what I was looking at...

Wait, that's definitely a saddle, for of steps...then it is anyone's guess. ;) Ooh, I do believe I spy some municipal issue bin bags!

Taking leave

Then finally the moment had come to shut up the house and drive to the airport. I struggled to secure the shutters with their little metal hooks on account of the way the wood had swollen and was jamming against the sills. The vendor (to whom I entrusted a key) kindly offered to watch out for the shutters banging and flapping in stormy weather, and go inside and sort them out. Then she gave me her card, plus a list of tradespeople her parents-in-law had used to do work on the house. Some of these may realistically be dead now, but you never know, plus they may have descendants. Then in return, I presented the vendor with a photo of her son as a little boy I happened to find in the attic....and the bag of rubbish you see hanging up on a picture hook in the photo below (by arrangement, I should add ;) ).

Vintage pink tiles and sink! 

Even though my house is like an ice box at the moment, and the weather at its absolute gloomiest and most depressing, I was genuinely sorry to leave it. I want to go back at the earliest (clement!) opportunity and have the chimney swept, a wood burner fitted, and warm its cold, damp bones. The house has had no TLC for 20 years or more, and though I can't afford to do everything I'd like to at this stage, the will is most certainly there. And it was precisely because - instead of hi-tailing it to a hotel, as I was so very tempted to do - I stayed there in the depths of winter and toughed it out, that I feel as bonded with the house as I do.

And at the risk of ending on a cheesy note, to quote the Labour party campaign song of 1997: "Things can only get better"...

"Don't remember me like this!"


Unknown said...

It's so exciting to see you finally 'in'!
I enjoyed your posts on renovating Bonkers Towers in the UK enormously, so I'm looking forward to lots of posts about La Maison Bonkers. :D

Unknown said...

Wow - what an adventure! I hope you are keeping a diary. I'm sure there is a gap in the market for a book with practical advice on French house renovation and how to deal with stuff like the bureaucracy for bin bags. Good luck with getting your home lovely - and warm soon.

Vanessa said...

Thanks, Bejoux Noir!

I am keeping a sort of a diary...well, a little red notebook with a record of every conversation I have with an organisation / authority, and what action they require. So I am amassing quite a bit of info on things like currency exchange, bank charges, insurance, meter reading, the workings of - and admin relating to - something as simple as a gas bottle (all new to me!), and then the same for the bin bags, as you say. I am additionally in a conservation area, so have found out what I may and may not do in the way of exterior changes, like approved paint colours for windows and shutters. I feel that someone may already have put all this stuff together - but I never found such a book, so maybe not! ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, Bejour Noir's suggestion of a book is excellent ... think what writing about his experiences of moving to France did for Peter Mayle!

I feel a little bit exhausted after reading what you have been up to - you have amazing energy and determination, not to mention imagination, and your enthusiasm is inspiring. Funnily enough, my sister said something similar to me about our new house having "good bones", as it too has suffered from neglect and needs some TLC to bring it back to life. Leaking loos are another thing we have in common! But you will transform your little gem.

Loads of good luck, Vanessa, and lots of congratulations on finally owning your new home.


Tara said...

I third the book idea!

Oh my goodness V, I felt chilled just reading about your living arrangements. By the way, what is the configuration of the "one down"?

I know there is a lot of work ahead but I'm so excited for this adventure and happy you bonded with the house as I did with my flat on NYE.

I love that the town hall staff knew who you and L were. Sounds like you have a close-knit community in Stafford but this is on another level.

Vanessa said...

Hi Jillie,

Funny you should mention Peter Mayle...I lived in the South of France for one academic year in the late 70s, and devoured those books when they came out a decade later!, little thinking I would one day be getting more of a toehold in the country...

Thanks so much for your kind comments on my toughing the week out. I would never knowingly go into property development, but rather buy the houses I like and then find out how much they need doing to them as I go along. I realise you have to see past some quite scary flaws and keep your eye on a remedied and decorated state one day. And a room with more than a kettle in it!, though the kettle was punching above its wattage during my stay.

Commiserations on the leaking loo and congrats on the good bones. I have a good roof apparently, and as the original tiles are eye-wateringly expensive - and the house is in a conservation area, with strict rules on replacing like with like - that probably is the most important aspect to be in good order.

Thanks again, and good luck with your ongoing 'bedding in' at your new house!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

'Chilled' is the word, haha. Ah, well a two up two down is the usual expression, relating to a small terraced house with two rooms downstairs, and two up, excluding kit and bath. Here there is one large room downstairs with a fireplace, the font, a hob and a sink, so it will serve the function of sitting/dining room with a soupcon of kitchen. In addition there is the hall and the bathroom with the leaking loo, but for insurance purposes this is a three room house, as the attic - not being currently habitable - doesn't count.

I think you did just the right thing to stay in on NYE. I am sure your lovely flat will feel very much like home in no time. Especially with a visiting cat of a lucky colour to boot!

The community does seem very friendly. I even ventured into the old men's bar one morning, and only received benign looks, though these places can be intimidating for a woman as a rule, and if I wasn't desperate for a cuppa I might not have had the nerve!

Tara said...

You have plenty of nerve!
Thanks for explaining the downstairs layout. I thought you must mean one room but wasn't sure how that worked. I am fascinated by the font.

Anonymous said...

What a great example of true grit is your courage to buy and renovate your home in France. I really think it is wonderful and I am glad to have your experience vicariously. It reminded me of Driving over Lemons, same challenges but then in Spain, very hilarious. I hope your Maison will be a warm companion for many years to come! Hamamelis

Vanessa said...

Why, thanks, Lisa! Am liking your new moniker for the house too. It does seem that renovation is very much my bag at the moment, and spending rather than earning money. But Lord knows I couldn't do these things if I was working. I may need to rename the blog: "Bonkers about Bricorama" (other DIY chains are available!).

Vanessa said...

I was fascinated by the font too! Well, it was genuinely a can see the little channel that leads into the wall. Apparently the owner of the vintage shop, who lives in the flat above it, has one too!

Vanessa said...

Hi Hamamelis,

Thanks for your words of encouragement. I am aware of that book Driving over Lemons, but now I am curious to read it, even if it is set in another country. I will do my best to warm up my maison on every visit. Well, the sun does a great job in summer, but the good is undone in the off season. ;)

odiferess said...

Gosh that sounds exciting Vanessa, and more than a bit frightening! When I've moved abroad before I've had the luxury of a fully functioning home and an employer provided 'sorter' to help through the bureaucracy. Though I'm not sure anyone can really help with the horror that is signing up for utilities in Dubai!
Best of luck with the renovations and I'm sure that it will be a tres magnifique abode, or at least less of a chilly one, very soon. x

Vanessa said...

Hi Odiferess,

It is exciting and scary all at once! I didn't know you had lived abroad, never mind somewhere as exotic as Dubai. I am lucky to speak the language so dealing with helplines and authorities doesn't faze me, but I would be freaking out now if I had bought somewhere in Italy, say! You can't rely on the locals speaking good English round these parts.

A less chilly one is what I am hoping for. The temperature should be heading in the right direction soon...x