Thursday, 20 December 2012

Renewed renovation

When we first thought about moving house, we hadn't bargained on taking on another renovation. We did want to move into the town proper and we wanted somewhere that would serve as both home and office. The one that came to us and continued to attract us despite lots of looking elsewhere turned out to be in need of a huge amount of care and attention. In every other respect, it was perfect: a fascinating old building just outside the medieval town walls and with the very rare advantage of a good-sized garden. In the end, we just couldn't resist it.

Unloved and showing her age
First priority was to get the office area functional, so that disruption to the business, Holt Immo, could be minimalised. As is usual with these ancient town house, the ground floor had never been utilised as accomodation but was just cellar and storage. It was dark, damp, and largely filled by the antiquated oil heating boiler and tank and an obsolete septic tank.

The office to be. You can see the big fireplace on the right, and the dividing wall with the central passage on the very left. The barrel shaped thing in the middle is a concrete fosse septique (septic tank). The weird configuration of pipes feed toilet bathroom and kitchen waste direct to the mains waste disposal bypassing the old fosse septique. The first thing we had to do was knock the dividing wall down and then get rid of the antique fosse septique.

On feeding the new waste pipes we discovered that the old ceramic mains pipe running from back to front of the house was broken in several places. Poor hubby had the task of digging this up and replacing with new pvc pipe.

The next problem was the extreme damp in the floor, due to a small watercourse running underneath. Normally, we are firmly opposed to any attempt to damp-proof these old houses, as the result tends to be simply pushing the water somewhere else and normally good ventilation is sufficient to deal with most damp problems. In this case, however, we opted for laying a damp-proof course and a new concrete floor. To keep some ventilation, we edged the floor with the local clay tiles, known as tomettes.


The wall behind the waste pipes was totally rotten so had to come out as well. This gave hubby a chance to hide the pipes within a new stud wall, at the same time making space for a toilet under the stairs.

After that major reconfiguration, it was largely plain sailing: pointing, replacing the large window at the front, lining and plastering the walls and ceiling and finally the decorative touches like dado and paint. With great satisfaction, we finally put the desks in place and stood back to admire our work.

  Now to attack our living accommodation! ...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

So where have I been lately?

Those of you kind enough to follow my ramblings so far will no doubt have noticed my prolonged absence.

Well, it's been an interesting few months. Having very nearly finished creating our beautiful dream house, it began to dawn on us that it really was too big and too difficult to manage. With regret, we decided it was time to move on. We were somewhat caught on the hop when some buyers turned up in early summer and the deal was done.

We therefore had several hectic weeks of trying to find a new house, negotiating furiously once we did, and at the same time struggling with the logistical problem of packing up a vast 300m2 house and squeezing what we could into the very much smaller new house.

An added complication was that the new house wasn't immediately habitable, so we took a rented house for a couple of months. Therefore, the packing up involved deciding whether things should go to the rental, to the new house, or into storage at a barn belonging to some very kind friends who agreed to help us out.

Sorting all this out while still keeping an eye on the normal daily business and household tasks proved quite a challenge, but we got there in the end.

So now we have a whole new wreck to tackle. Details of the first stage will be with you soon. Meantime, nostalgically, here is how the first big project ended up.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Vous Voyez Ce Que Je Veux Dire?

This phrase is a bit of a bĂȘte noir for me, know what I mean? A couple of years ago, I had a client who had the irritating verbal tic of repeating his every point at least a half dozen times and then rounding it all off with this phrase. At first, I thought it was because I was foreign and therefore evidently thick as a plank, but after a while I realised he didn't really know he was doing it, so I became more relaxed about it.

My main issue with the phrase, though, is that I have never managed to say it without virtually swallowing my tongue in the process. Properly uttered, it should come out as an elegant whole and sound something like "V' v'yez sk'j'vuddire". I can't seem to manage successfully the transition from "sk" to "je" to "v".

I wished badly for it this week though. I returned from an appointment one morning to find hubby waving a bit of paper with a phone number on it and saying could I phone this person back because he hadn't been able to follow what she wanted. The ensuing call with a clearly elderly person proceeded along the lines of:

"Hello, this is Zoe Holt ... you wanted to talk to me"
"Yes. Are you the one with a house for sale?"
"Well yes, Madame; I am an estate agent; I have many houses for sale"
"Can you tell me where it is?"
"I need to know which house you are talking about ... do you have a reference number?"
"It's in La Souterraine"
"Yes, but do you have a reference? Or perhaps a price, to help me know which one it is?"
"I just want to know the address"
"But I don't know which house you mean"
"Oh, well, if you don't want to tell me the address ..."
"It's not that I don't want to, but I cannot tell which house you are referring to unless you can give me some more information"
"It says here it has an entrance hall, living room, kitchen, 3 bedrooms ..."
"Hmmm, but I have many houses like that: I need something to help me identify it"
"It's 176,000 euros"
"I don't think I have anything in La Souterraine for that price right now - is there a reference number?"
"The reference is xxxxx"
" Ah, that number is not one of my references. Have you perhaps got the wrong agent?"
"I just want to know where it is"
"I can't tell you where it is if I don't know what house it is. I think you may have called the wrong agent"
"It says here [repeats entire house description again] and Orpi"
"Right! [with relief] The house is for sale with Orpi agency. You are talking to Holt. The house is not one of mine. I don't know this house."
"I just want to know the address"
"It isn't for sale with me; it's for sale with Orpi. You must ring Orpi"
"Ah well, it's not for me anyway. If you won't tell me the address, I'll have to get him to ring you .... "

A few days later, I answered to phone to a much younger man:
"Hello, I'm enquring about a house you have for sale in La Souterraine"
" Very good, Monsieur ... do you have a reference?"
"I'm not sure what the reference is, but it's 176,000 euros"
"Ah ... did someone else call me about this some days ago?"
"Yes, but I want to know the address"
"I believe you have the wrong agency and this is not one of my houses. I think the house is for sale with Orpi? I am Holt Immo"
"Oh, well, OK, but can you just tell me the address ..."

Friday, 4 May 2012

A Fruitless but Fascinating Afternoon

This week, I had to make a visit to the central tax office in our nearest city, Limoges. Not to do anything mundane like paying or enquiring about taxes, but to search out the answer to a particularly odd property question.

This story started when I had an offer on a house a couple of weeks ago. Good news, except that when I started preparing the sale contract, it emerged that there was an issue with the ownership of the correct plots of land. In France, every bit of land is mapped on a cadastral plan and the entire history of each plot is theoretically available to all at the tax office. For the past few years, all the plans have also been available on-line. For the most part, it's a marvellous system and works very well, but anomalies do arise.

In this case, a very small village house with a little back garden is for some reason divided down the middle into two plots, but only one of these plots has ever been mentioned in the last three sales deeds. It is obvious from reading these old deeds, that everyone concerned in the various sales and purchases thought they were selling/buying the whole house (well, you wouldn't buy half a house, would you?), but in fact they weren't. So, I needed to investigate what was going on with the second plot, and a very interesting process it turned out to be.

The first woman I dealt with, although extremely pleasant, didn't come across as exactly fizzing with intelligence and was pretty quickly at the end of her resources, so passed me over to someone more senior. This woman was a lovely, able and funny person and we spent a pleasurable couple of hours trying to solve the mystery together. In the process, I was admitted through doors marked "NOTAIRES AND GEOMETRES ONLY" (the French love to surround themselves with regulation and then conveniently ignore most of it).

We ended up on our knees in a basement, sifting through sheaves of the original plans, hand-drawn and notated with exqusite precision. When she started talking about referring to the Napoleonic plans, attractive though that prospect was to a history buff like me, I had to admit that I didn't think it would take us any further. I think she was as disappointed as I at calling the adventure to a halt, but we had found as much as we were likely to.

I didn't really resolve my problem, though I now have a lot more information and a theory as to what has happened, but the experience was well worth a lost afternoon.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Lingua Franca

We all know Brits are rubbish at languages; it's a national characteristic. People blame antiquated foreign-language teaching methods, laziness, lack of will, lack of necessity when all the world understands English, Empire, island isolationism, and probably a hundred other factors. You know what? I think it comes down to sheer embarrassment.
Fairly obviously, one of the major features of living in a foreign land is the need to get by in a foreign language. I long ago resigned myself to the fact that I came at it too late in life and will never become utterly fluent and relaxed in French. Still, by dint of hard work and necessity, I have become pretty competent. By far the biggest hurdle to overcome was my wish to avoid errors at any cost. This can easily lead to saying nothing rather than exposing one's ignorance.
“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”
P.G. Wodehouse, Luck of the Bodkins 

I have a very dear friend who is Dutch. The Dutch, as we all know, speak every European language "effortlessly". When I first met this friend, we holidayed a lot together and I had plenty of opportunity to marvel at her facility in English (near perfect), German and French. She will happily engage strangers in long, complicated discussions on almost any subject. As my French has improved over the years, I have come to realise that hers is in fact not brilliant; nowadays she often relies upon me to do the understanding bits. Inspite of this, she is still the more chatty, partly because that is her nature, but mainly because she has no qualms about mistakes but ploughs on regardless.

Which brings me to my point: if someone says to me "Do you speak French?", I'll reply along the lines of "After a fashion" or "I get by", or "Not really, but I try". Whereas, the large numbers of French people who know about a dozen words of English seem utterly convinced that they do, indeed, speak English, and are all too ready to demonstrate this fact. This leads to many tortuous conversations where the other party insists upon struggling manfully to communicate with their dozen words, when it is patently clear that sticking to French would be far more productive.

Doctors seem particularly afflicted by this syndrome. When my son was very young, he had various minor complaints which led to numerous referrals to paediatricians and the like. So many times, I have sat across the desk from some medical specialist who, the second he hears my accent, lapses into a strangled pidgin English which makes little, if any, sense. I usually respond to this by merely continuing to speak French, in the hope they will get the hint, when really all I want to do is scream at them "For Goodness' sake, speak properly, man!"

Of course, it is lovely of them to make the effort, and I appreciate it, really I do, but ...

Monday, 12 March 2012

Extended absence

Good grief; the whole month of February seems to have passed me by!

It's truly a wonder how time slips away in this life I lead - there are always so many different things needing my attention and the days pass in a flash.

This time around, the weather is much to blame for my lengthy absence from the outside world. There we were in early February, congratulating ourselves on nearing the end of what had been an exceptionally mild winter, when BAM! in came the snow and the ice and the lowest temperatures since the Ice Age. It was quite a shock, I can tell you. The snow was only average, to be fair, but the extreme temperatures plus a daily bit of afternoon sun meant that it melted and re-froze  for days into a very dangerous road surface.

Once we had got past the let's-build-a-snowman stage, it all became a bit tedious. Many of my clients whose houses are empty were naturally concerned about possible plumbing problems, and were ringing to ask my help. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do much: the roads were too dicey to get to many of these houses, and in any case there is not much one can do while the freeze is still on, since leaks won't normally become evident until the thaw.

This all lasted for only a couple of weeks, which as winters go is pretty reasonable really, but still it was quite hard going. A poor friend of mine, who is living in a caravan while he carries out renovations, recorded a temperature of -23°c one night. Chilly!!! Thankfully, though, it passed over soon enough and one day we awoke to a proper Spring morning, with sun and birdsong to cheer us all. A couple of days later, we had 18°c on our patio in the afternoon, and it has been pretty balmy ever since, with some really warm days and Spring galloping on apace.

Then I was struck low with an odd form of laryngitis which seemed resistant to all treatment; I kept thinking it was gone but then finding it back again with a vengeance. During this, I was barely functioning at the most essential level, let alone having the energy for blogging.

So, all in all, I have been very lax, for which I apologise. But I am back now and ensuring things are brought up to date.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What Colour Are Yours?

One aspect of French life which I really have embraced with full enthusiasm is the window shutter. What on Earth are we Brits doing, persisting with our impractical, outward-opening windows and leaving them all naked like we do? Having seen the light, I can only marvel at our national ignorance on this issue. Shutters are not merely pretty and a chance to play around with different paint colours; they offer a gamut of benefits which I have now come to appreciate in full.

The shutter is a marvellous asset for many reasons. Firstly and primarily, they offer protection from the intense heat of the summer sun. When it is really hot here, the trick is to leave all windows and shutters firmly closed when the sun is on them and then open everything up once the sun disappears for the day. In this way, the stone houses can be kept bearably cool. Equally, closed shutters are good protection from the worst of the winter weather, as they create a sort of primitive double glazing effect. Another benefit is that you can have windows open and shutters closed as a way of letting in air yet keeping out rain or light. They protect not only the inhabitants but also the windows themselves from the harshness of both summer and winter weather: I see all the time ancient houses with the original oak windows still in place and still sound and solid.

Then, there is the security benefit. I can't say this has ever bothered me personally, as I live in a very low-crime area, but the French have a peculiar obsession with burglary and most insurance policies require shutters to at least all ground floor windows and doors. For a holiday home which will be left empty for long periods, it's comforting to be able to close the place up completely. Indeed, when French people view a house, they are always most put out if there are no shutters.

Where there are shutters, there have to be inward-opening windows, which makes much more sense, as they can all be easily accessed for cleaning. This arrangement also allows them to be hung on lift-off hinges, so if they need painting or if you ever have to replace a pane, you simply take the whole thing off and carry it out to the garage (or off to the glass-cutter) for the necessary work.

There is one final advantage which is particularly useful in my line of work. Around here, most of the little villages have no need of anything so fancy as street names. Postal workers use owners' names as reference. Houses may or may not be numbered, but even if they are, the sequence of the numbers is usually totally random and many owners struggle to remember their number, as it has no practical use. This means that finding a particular house in a village can be tricky: I am aften to be found driving at snail's pace around a hamlet, waiting for my new vendor to leap out and identify himself. The one question one always asks when taking down directions is "And what colour are your shutters?"