We did begin to wonder how bonkers the agents thought Brits were when it came to buying property.
We were looking for a largish place to accommodate the family should they all decide to come and visit together. One agent took us to a property that looked big enough on paper having had two largish extensions. On arrival we discovered that the two extensions were actually coming away from the original property. You could put a fist through the gaps in the walls on all floors. ‘Not a problem’ said the smiling agent, ‘just knock the extensions down’.
Funny how estate agents minds work. Why this one thought we would like to buy a property, knock two thirds of it down at more cost to us and end up with a property too small for our requirements, is still a puzzle..
Agents seemed not to worry about showing us round properties with ill relatives in bed either. Something we found most disconcerting. One gentleman was surrounded by enough medicines to start a chemist shop. When we entered the room we actually thought he was no longer in the same world as us. We were so glad when he moved. In another property a similar situation occurred and we felt like we were in a scene from the TV programme ‘allo, allo’. This time the grandmother insisted on getting out of bed to say ‘bonjour’. Her daughter tried to make her stay in bed but she was adamant. The agent, the owner of the property, her son, us two all not knowing what to do and her mother tottering round her bed in her nightie to greet everyone. All we needed was the knob on the bed to start flashing or two RAF chaps to jump out from behind a curtain!
We do have to make a special mention here of two lady agents who were lovely and made us laugh ….. for all the wrong reasons.
They took us out to view properties together. A safety thing we thought and quite sensible. They always used a Satnav. Again, quite sensible. They had named the male voice on the Satnav Jacque. Jacque quite often seem to go on strike and shut the Satnav down. We knew when it happened when cries of ‘Jacque, Jacque – talk to me Jacque’ floated over from the front of the car. This was normally followed by a lot of thumping of the Satnav. They obviously worked on the theory if all else fails hit it. Probably why the Satnav didn’t work in the first place. Going out with them bought a whole new meaning to the song ‘lost in France’.
We think that these two lasses should also be running for the French National team in the Olympics. They took us to see one property and inmate one wanted to see the cave (wine cellar) that was situated in the garden down a long flight of ancient steps that disappeared into the darkness. Our lovely agents were not so keen as they only had one torch but inmate one found a light switch that worked, so down we all went. The two girls didn’t stay long! Going down into the cave disturbed a colony of bats. At the sight of the bats the girls ran screaming back up the flight of steps closely followed by a large line of bats swooping over their heads. We hope they didn’t hear our laughter from outside the cave as they were really lovely lasses.
For those who do not know already, you rarely get an exact address when looking for properties in France. Agents guard their portfolios and prospective commission very carefully. They’ll arrange to meet you somewhere close by and then either drive you there or ask you to follow them. It’s all very cloak and dagger.
One stunning looking property we decided to look at was actually just outside the Loire region in the Mayenne. It looked lovely from the photos so we thought it worth the two hour drive to get to it.
At this point, if you have some James Bond theme music or other spy film music, I suggest you play it as you read on……..
We were told of a car park where to meet the agent. The date and time were agreed. The day came, we checked our map and set off for our ‘clandestine’ meeting. We didn’t even know what the chap looked like. We only knew his name. Surprisingly for us we found the car park with no trouble at all. We sat and waited, carefully eyeing everyone who arrived. The appointment time came and went and we were beginning to get strange looks ourselves. Just as we were contemplating ringing the agency there was a knock on the car window. A gentleman in, I kid you not, white trousers, a striped blazer and wearing a cravat, leaned in and asked for ‘Stefan Farrool’. It took a nano second to realise that ‘Stefan Farrool’ was of course the way Inmate one’s name sounded when pronounced by a Frenchman.
Introductions were made and after a little general chit chat the agent promised to ‘find a house to make Madams heart sing’. Obviously ‘Monsieur’ doesn’t count when it comes to buying a house and after our previous days property experience I was a tad dubious about being called ‘Madam’.
The agent asked us to follow him. We arrived at some rather impressive gates. Even more impressive was the way the gates opened with no one in sight. We looked at each other and thought we’d hit the jackpot as we followed the agent up the gravel tree lined drive.
The house looked even better than the pictures until ………. we went inside. The rooms were very small and the salon had a mural filling one wall, painted by the nephew of the owner. He was extremely proud of the mural but not being related to the lad ourselves we weren’t wearing rose tinted glasses like his Uncle. Between you and me – it was ghastly. We did not say anything and even managed to make appropriate noises when the owner graciously said he would leave us the mural. We could not see how he couldn’t unless he took the wall down and replaced it with another.
We carried on exploring and were less than impressed at the inches of bat droppings that were on the floor of the grenier, along with the broken window in a turret room through which a number of birds had flown and were making themselves at home. They had been making themselves at home for a number of years judging by the number of nests and piles of guano to be seen in the dilapidated room. Even looking past all the decor problems. this wasn’t the place for us.
It was as we were leaving we discovered that unlike English agents and sellers, the French ask you there and then if you wish to buy. We tried in our faltering French to say it wasn’t quite what we were looking for. That it was one of the first properties we had looked at but, the very large Parisian owner looked as if he were about to explode. How dare we turn down his magnificent chateau emanated from every inch of his body.
When all else fails play the delicate lady ……. I looked at the agent, rubbed my eye to show sadness as I touched my heart. Give inmate two an Oscar! The agent changed completely, became very sympathetic and explained ‘Madams problem’ to the bristling owner. We took this opportunity to say quick ‘Mercis’ and slipped into our car. Inmate one managed to drive at a sedate pace towards the gates without spraying everyone else in gravel. Would they or would they not open or where we going to have to bust through them. Phew ….. they did slowly open!!
A tip …… When buying a house in France have a few polite stock phrases for ‘no’ for when you are asked if you want to buy the house and you are standing in front of the owner.
We decided not to use a map and a pin as a means to find somewhere to live. Knowing our luck we’d have ended up in the North Sea or on the top of the Eiffel Tower. After engaging our brain cells we opted for the Loire region. Plenty of wine and some pretty impressive chateaus to visit too.
Our first foray into French properties found us staying at an Auberge in Chateau La Valliere. It didn’t look much from the outside and inside wasn’t much better either but it was somewhere to lay our heads. We booked to have a meal there on our first evening with a view to eating out the rest of the time.
As it happened, the food was so good we ate there every evening. The young female chef was extremely talented and produced superb wholesome food at unbelievably reasonable prices. One dessert she did we have done our best to copy and still eat today …. small filo parcels full of cinnamon spiced apple with a caramel sauce and ice cream.
Bright and early the next day we collected the agent we had been dealing with and drove to our first appointment. Out in the countryside and a short distance from any neighbours was the collection of three properties. Two small houses and a third with a barn attached. We had it in mind to run a gite business so this we thought would suit.
We were greeted as we got out of the car by an elderly lady who we reckoned must be in her eighties at least. She may have been of mature years but she certainly had a sparkle in her eyes and a lively step. She took us to the first house where two young ladies were living. Unlike as would have happened in the UK, they hadn’t bothered trying to tidy up at all. One had to look through the piles of clothes, magazines and crockery to get an idea of the place. This didn’t seem to worry our twinkly eyed hostess who just carried on smiling. The second property was similar to the first but with no occupants and needing quite a bit of restoration - a roof for instance and a wall here and there.
From there we went to the larger property. We entered through the kitchen. It was unlike any kitchen we have ever had to work in and would need, as far as we could see, a total refit. From there we went into the salon where we surprised to see a minstrel gallery at one end. Our hostess told us that the bedrooms led off from the gallery and she took us up to see them. Regular sized bedrooms and nothing special of note. From there she led us back downstairs to a door under the minstrel gallery. She stopped by the door, smiled and announced her ‘piece de resistance’. She pushed the door open for us to go in.
What a sight befell us …… a bar complete with tables and chairs arranged around a dance floor, ladies and gentlemen’s toilets and swaying gently from the ceiling above the dance floor – a glitter ball. We seemed to have walked into a nightclub hidden away deep in the French countryside. From outside there was no way that you would have guessed it was there.
It wasn’t until we were leaving that the centime dropped …… it was a bordello. The minstrel gallery was for young ladies to parade themselves and the hostess who showed us around ….. the Madam herself. All this confirmed by another agent some time later.
You couldn’t make it up if you tried …… the very first property we were shown was a brothel hidden inside a barn attached to a house. It could only happen to us..
After another day of exploring seemingly deserted villages we concluded that the Charente, beautiful though it is, was not the region for us. We decided to use the rest of our time there as a holiday.
We spent a day in Cognac and found the town was buzzing with activity in preparation of its annual music festival. We knew nothing of this but certainly enjoyed the pre festival delights. Amongst many floral displays to music being built, a saxophonist made of flowers on a roundabout was a real eye catcher…… his saxophone, hair and bowler hat were made all of flowers. Stages were being built all over the place and we did have to duck and dive occasionally but thoroughly enjoyed the jazz, blues and soul music that seemed to come from everywhere. This year the festival runs from the 5th of July until the 9th and the Cranberries (for those in the know) are one of the headline acts. Click on the picture below if you would like more information on the acts taking part.
Not being spirit lovers we didn’t bother with any of the readily available tours where one can enjoy a tipple or two after which the town is named but instead enjoyed a cool beer by the river.
Angouleme was another town to stick in the mind. Fantastic views, great cafes and a lovely place to just sit and people watch. Something we did quite a bit of as there was no need to hunt out immobiliers. If you are a Bugatti fan, it’s a place to be in September when they have their annual race round the ramparts. Click on the picture if you would like more information.
One of funniest moments in the Charente was when we came to leave from Poitiers Airport. As we had to return our hire car we thought we set off early to allow for mishaps, drop the car off and have something to eat at the airport. A simple plan but, as we all know, the best made plans of mice and men are apt to go pear shaped.
We didn’t get lost on the way to the airport as many of you are no doubt guessing, nor did we break down. We got to the airport in good time only to find it shut! How can an international airport be shut? We checked our tickets and we were meant to be flying that day. We looked through the windows and could see where we needed to drop our car keys. We could also see the stairs to the restaurant but even though we tried many doors – could not find a way in. The place was deserted.
Not having anything better to do we sat on some outside steps to think things through. Others began to arrive and discover the same problem. Glad we weren’t the only ones flummoxed at the situation. It became quite an entertainment to watch and guess peoples nationality as they approached the terminal. Many did not seem to notice the ever growing crowd outside the doors. The game soon lost its appeal as it became apparent that most travellers were British. Only the British would knock on an airport terminal door. Only a Brit would call ‘Hello – anyone there?’ through a letterbox of an empty French Airport terminal. Only a Brit would queue by a locked door of a seemingly empty building. We stayed sitting on the steps. Our thought being if the place ever opened the plane wouldn’t go without us. After quite some while of just waiting to see what would happen, word went round from a traveller used to the airport, that they would be opening soon as there was a flight due.
As check in time approached it was all action. Speeding cars and screeching brakes as everyone needed to get an airport moving seemingly arrived at the same time. There was an air of tension and confusion for a few moments and then, it was like it had been open all the time. The only thing there wasn’t time to do was have something to eat. Typical, no food when we arrived and no time for any as we left. Charente was definitely not the place for us but where to look now?
For our first day out we decided to explore a bit of the countryside. We quite fancied the thought of living in the ‘wilds’ or maybe in a small hamlet of one or two houses.
Map in hand we set off in the car. It is at this point I should point out that Inmate 2 is dyslexic and now and again, when map reading, right and lefts can be a bit of a problem. We drove, and drove and drove. The countryside was pretty, lots of cows – not many houses and not many villages.
We stopped to check the map. A little ‘trick’ inmate 1 now uses. The theory being the sooner we find out we have gone in the wrong direction the sooner we can get back on the right road. Surprisingly we were still on the route we had planned. We had driven quite a distance - over the departmental border into the Limousin. We had noted on the map, a lake with what looked like a small hamlet/village by it. We thought it would be worth a visit and maybe we’d find somewhere for a morning coffee or an early lunch.
We saw a sign pointing to the lake. Turning off the main road we followed the direction of the sign. Logically there should have been another road, or at least some kind of access track leading to the lake. It is worth noting here something we have now learnt through living in France – when it comes to road planning and signs, logicality goes out of the window. We found no road, no track, no other signs and no human in sight to ask. We gave up and decided to head on towards the next village for lunch.
We were amused by the three mannequins that greeted us with smiles as we entered the village. We were pleased to see shops but became a little bemused that there didn’t seem to be anyone around. There was a mannequin of a butcher standing in the doorway of the butchers …… which was shut. There was a mannequin of an artisan up a ladder supposedly painting a window of a house. There were mannequins of three elderly ladies standing together as if they were chatting. There was a mannequin of a man sitting on a bench. There were no real people to be seen anywhere. There seemed to be nowhere to have a little bite to eat either. As we left the village there were three more mannequins, a man, woman and a child all smiling with hands raised as if waving us goodbye. Surreal or what!!!.
We stopped to check our map again. The next village was a good 40 minutes further on. Whilst it’s fine driving long distances when exploring you do have to remember you have to drive back again. We decided to turn round and go and find somewhere to eat nearer to where we were staying. As we drove back through the ‘mannequin’ village we still saw not a living person.
Conversation over lunch was all about what on earth was going on in the village of mannequins and that maybe, living out in the ‘wilds’ was not such a good idea. Where to look next – village or town?
Having decided that we quite liked the idea of living in France. The next question was actually the big one – where in France did we want to live? It’s not until you start really looking do you realise how big France is.
At the show in Olympia we spoke to many agents from many regions. All obviously singing the praises of their particular region. Some regions we discounted as they might be too hot or too cold. Some we discounted for the difficulty in actually getting to them. We were living with the idea that family may want to come and visit us so access to the UK needed to be considered.
We decided to have a look in the Charente region and booked ourselves a few days away to have a brief look round to get an idea of the department. We rented a gite near Angoulême. An experience never to be forgotten.
We arrived, thanks to flight times, in the evening just as it was getting dark. We discovered the directions we had been given by the gite owners not to be of much use. We rang them to get some help but no one answered the phone. Light was fading as we began stopping anyone we saw to ask if they knew where the address was we were trying to find. Eventually we found someone who had an idea and we headed off, after lots of ‘mercis’, in the direction they had indicated.
We arrived at the gite complex, recognising it in the gloom from the pictures we had seen. All seemed in darkness as we entered the courtyard. The main house in front was in darkness. The stable block on the right was in darkness. The gites to the left were in darkness. We walked over to the gites and discovered a key in the front door of one of them. What to do? It was dark, getting cooler and we were tired. We opened the door and switched on the lights - it did seem to be the gite we had booked.
We began to explore the rooms. A few moments later there was a knock on the door. It was the son (in his mid-twenties) of the owners who had come to tell us his parents had gone out for the evening. We asked if there were any shops or places to eat nearby as we had nothing with us because of the lateness of the flight. He told us "Non!" and that nothing would be open until Monday……. This was Saturday evening. After imparting this happy news and with no offer of anything like bread or milk he disappeared into the night.
Somewhat taken aback by the ‘non helpful welcome’ we took stock. We did had some coffee. Inmate 2 always travelling with a small jar ‘just in case’ and this was definitely a ‘just in case’ moment. We also had a packet of Maltesers and a packet of Minstrels. Supper that evening was black coffee, half a packet of Minstrels liberally mixed with half a packet on Maltesers. So much for French fine dining.
Breakfast was similar. Black coffee but with half a packet of Maltesers liberally mixed with half a packet of Minstrels. After breakfast we set off to find some food. The patisserie that we found on the outskirts of a nearby village must have thought us quite mad as we stood, talking quite loudly to cover the noise of our grumbling stomachs, and drooled over the cakes. Decisions were made. One or two cakes for now. One or two to be bought for later just in case there was nowhere else open. Thankfully we did find somewhere and were able to stock up for our few days stay. With full stomachs and shopping bags we headed back to the gite to make plans for our exploration of the Charente region.
To be continued ...........
Bienvenue from Outpost Plazac. Where to start on a blog when you have so many tales to tell?
Mmmm, errrr, ummmm ……. Ok, I have it. A short note on how we came to be living in France and the briefest of introductions into our world. Then, start at the very beginning so you can enjoy all the trials, tribulations and triumphs we have encountered along the way.
If you are interested in village life, french culture, history, caving, wildlife, markets, food (growing it and eating it), wine or a general ‘joie de vie,’ you should find, at some point, something in this blog of interest.
So, if you are ready, let’s start with a short note and briefest of introductions ………..
For a day out, Inmate 1 and I (Inmate 2) went to the French Exhibition that they have every year at Olympia in London. We had no thought of moving to France. Who could have guessed a day out would have been so life changing? From a getting in the car to go to places, to a jumping on the tractor and heading into the woods with a chainsaw kind of lifestyle change.
Visit the exhibition yourselves but be warned, you may find yourselves heading over the channel for a new life. We did, and neither of us remembers a conversation specifically about moving to France.
We started looking in the Charente region, rented a property in the Loire and bought a property in the Dordogne. A surprise to all and an even bigger surprise to us.
Having lived in a semi-detached house with a small garden, we now find ourselves with 16 acres of woodland and meadow. A gite and a house, both of which tested our patience when it came to renovation.
We are learning new skills all the time. Learning to drive a tractor at the age of 55 wasn’t actually on my bucket list but it’s fun. I would have learnt to drive the sit on mower too but my legs aren’t long enough to reach the pedals. That’s my story and I am sticking to it. That joy now falls to Inmate 1. I have however, laid rights to be in charge of the hydraulic log splitter. We are heading towards self-sufficiency but unlike Tom and Barbara in the UK sitcom ‘The Good Life’, we are not adding pigs or cows to the mix.
We now work harder than we ever did in our 9 to 5 jobs but it’s so much more pleasurable. You could of course come and see for yourselves by booking into Maison d’Amis and discover the delights of the area we now call home.
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Originally from London, I moved with Inmate 1, to France in 2007. Home is now on the outskirts of the Medieval village of Plazac in the Perigord Noir region of the Dordogne.