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Category Archives: architecture

The Start To An Annus Horribilis

January 2010, the beginning of what was to be our worst year as hobos in France. As we waited for news about Tom’s progress in the UK, I received an email from Alexandra to say the Bureau d’Aide had not accepted our 2008 income tax assessment that consisted mainly of capital realised before we moved to France. The Bureau insisted on having our 2009 assessment. I quickly replied, reminding Alexandra that the 2009 figures would not be declared until May 2010, in accordance with the French income tax system, and the 2009 assessment would not be with us until August 2010. She telephoned me and became quite upset that I didn’t have a 2010 tax declaration form on which to record our 2009 income, telling me to “go to Aurillac and get one”!

Eventually, and after much logical persuasion, Alexandra realised that I was physically unable to provide the Bureau d’Aide with our 2009 income tax assessment form. So, she advised me to write to the Bureau d’Aide, and to send all the evidence I could find to prove our income and any savings for 2009. A taller order than she could ever have envisaged, bearing in mind that we could not carry our household filing cabinet – but, we did it, with a struggle!

However, everything was bounced back at us a few weeks later, the Bureau d’Aide bureaucrats did not believe that four of us had survived the year on a total income of just over €8,000, net of taxes, bank charges, and the last of the EDF and telephone bills relevant to the house in Champagnac. Of course, that €8,000 didn’t include the cost of running the car all over France, but I had sent receipts for all vehicle repairs, fuel, insurance and toll charges. But, the €8,000 did cover the cost of camping site fees and a couple of B&B bills, receipts also sent to the Bureau d’Aide. It’s amazing what one can do when somebody says, ‘You’ll never be able to do that.’ Hobo Stew is a favourite dish in our household!

Tom was discharged from hospital after five days, but he was readmitted a couple of days later, another toe was infected, more surgery was necessary, Tom’s right leg was infected from toes to groin. Tom now has three and a half toes on his right foot, and he responds with a grin to being called ‘Tommy Hobbit’, Bless him. His brother, Martin, came through his medical emergency and has since undergone surgery to implant an ICD (Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator).

Alexandra was at a loss as to what to do next, we had received a letter from the Bureau d’Aide telling us we were out of time to apply for Legal Aid. We spoke on the telephone and I asked her to help me to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, we could not let this go. Alexandra was clearly horrified at my suggestion, and she told me we had no Case to take to the ECHR at that time, but it would be a consideration after the Cour de Cassation judgement was made. Catch-22. We couldn’t file at the Cour de Cassation without paying the cost, up front, of two avocats. Paying those fees would have left us with no money on which to live. We had to secure that Legal Aid, but Alexandra had backed away, that was the last contact we had with her. Although, we did receive an emailed new year message for 2011, and again for 2012, with a brief assurance that she remains at our disposal.

As Tom was heading back to France from the UK in February, I was hand-writing our nineteen pages of application to the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg. Computers and printers don’t work in a tent, the plugs drop out of the holes in the walls!

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Lots Of Gallic Shrugs!

Christmas 2009 and New Year’s Eve 2010 was a rather depressing festive season for the four of us. We found it difficult to muster any level of enthusiasm, but we realised that we had to do something positive, if we were to survive this major setback and fight another day, another battle, in the same war.

Tom and I travelled to Champagnac to collect accumulated mail, also the Income Tax documents required to support our Legal Aid application. The front of the house, the entrance hall, and the stairways, were in a dreadful mess when we arrived. The front entrance door-lock had been broken, there were boxes and cartons strewn up the stairs to the first floor landing, and there had obviously been a very wet period recently, evidenced by thick mud on stairs and up walls. The beautifully made double-glazed windows and doors, fitted in November 2007, because we were bound by law to honour the order we had placed with the Artisan via our architect, were draped with spiders’ webs and sticky with cooking grease. Tom just focused on where we needed to go to locate the tax documents, I just felt sickened as I followed. Neither of us turned around to take a backward glance as we left the village as quietly as we had arrived. Our friend, Madame ZC, had left our mail in our mailbox that morning, before she left for her son’s house in Paris.

A couple of days into January 2010, I duly wrote a cover letter to accompany the necessary documents to the Bureau d’Aide in Paris, the centre of all French Legal Aid administrations. Then, with nothing better left for us to do, except wait, we started putting our lives back together again, insofar as we could, picking each other up, brushing each other down, starting all over again, as the song goes! At that time, we were pet/house sitting, once again, for Sue and Rick in the Dordogne.

Two weeks later, Tom was looking and feeling very unwell due to dreadful pain in his toes, in fact, most of his foot had turned purple-black by then, although he had been treated for an infection at Sarlat Hospital some weeks before; he was actually treated for infections in his foot several times, by different doctors, in different towns and Departments, throughout a period in excess of a year. Tom was also suffering from a chest infection that just would not respond to antibiotics. I telephoned our private health insurance company to find out if we needed to be in the Cantal for Tom to have hospital treatment. The agent was very unhelpful, and I got quite sharp with him after fifteen minutes of listening to opening and closing files, papers rustling, heavy breathing, and a series of very audible Gallic shrugs. Eventually, the agent returned to the phone to tell me our health insurance had been stopped, and it would not be renewed. Just like that! We have never discovered why that happened, despite writing several times to the company’s Head Office in Paris. We will leave that little conundrum for the legal powers-that-be to unravel, in due course.

Fortunately – and, it will become clear why I say ‘fortunately’ – we received a call from Tom’s youngest brother, Pete, in London, to tell us their middle brother, Martin, was undergoing serious heart surgery possibly that week. Tom didn’t hesitate, he left France for the UK within hours, heading for my eldest son, Iam, and his lovely wife, Tracy, in Northumberland, planning to be with his younger brothers two days later.

Within hours of arriving in Northumberland, Tom had been admitted into hospital for emergency surgery to remove at least one toe that was beyond saving, due to gangrene in the small bones, as far as could be ascertained at that point. Iam had immediately contacted me to let me know what was happening, and the following two weeks consisted of endless days filled with anxiety as we waited to find out what else might need to be amputated.

I believe those two weeks were probably the very worst that we, certainly that I, have endured throughout this entire, disastrous chapter in our lives.

 

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Heading For Paris

So, where did we go wrong this time? Well, to answer that question, we first needed to know what had taken place in that Appeal Court, in Riom. Alexandra didn’t bother with the preambles, she gave us the bottom line in a series of telephone calls and emails, question and answer format. The judiciary “recognised the sellers’ fraud.” But, they decided, the sellers are elderly, they are retired. Yes, that’s true, and so are we. The judiciary commented that the sellers were “arrogant”. But, it was added, they are elderly. We’re not arrogant, but, to reiterate, we’re elderly too.

The judiciary did not agree that the garage was important to the purchase of the property. But, had the garage not been important, we would not have spent thousands on an architect and Plans; we would not have  submitted documentation to the Tribunal, including formal medical information, to prove how important that garage space was to us, to our health. The Tribunal ruled that our health issues were not for the judiciary to consider, our health issues were of no importance to the Tribunal.

The judiciary recognised that the sellers had ‘hidden the truth about Monsieur C, the locataire.’ But, they added, Monsieur C had (has!) an assured tenancy, a protected tenancy, and he can’t be forced to leave the property. But, where does that leave us? That question is not for the judiciary to answer.

The judiciary recognised the fraud committed by the sellers where the selling on of the hairdresser’s Lease was concerned. But, the sellers are elderly. Yes, we’re elderly too. The judiciary recognised the fact that the notaire had not divulged to us the selling on of the hairdresser’s Lease. But, they added, the notaire was “young and inexperienced”, and the justices had correctly ‘smacked the notaire’s wrist’ during the first Tribunal.

The Appeal Tribunal President concluded by saying the Court recognised the fraud (again!), but the judiciary did not have a law in place by which to find in our favour. Vice caché laws have been in place since the late 1990’s, 1997 or 1998, depending on which avocat one speaks with! The Tribunal President went on to add that we could take the Case to the Cour de Cassation in Paris, to Appeal. The Cour de Cassation is the French Supreme Court. Presentation of an Appeal to the Cour de Cassation requires the services of a ‘specialist’ barrister who acts accordingly with instructions given directly by the main avocat, ie in our case, Alexandra. There are approximately a dozen specialist Cour de Cassation barristers who are reputed to be the best in France; apparently, they really know their onions where the laws of France are concerned! A Cour de Cassation barrister will, apparently, only take a Case that has the highest possible chance of succeeding!

Cost? Too much! By that time, we were running on fumes! I was honest with Alexandra, and she responded, ‘You must apply for Legal Aid. You can obtain it within six weeks, your Case can be heard at the Cour de Cassation within 6 to 8 months. We will start the processes at the beginning of January (2010). The Appeal Judge did not consider your human rights.’

That conversation took place two or three days before Christmas Day 2009. It took us until November 2010 to get the Legal Aid. We are still waiting for a hearing date to be set by the Cour de Cassation in Paris. The only way we managed to obtain French Legal Aid was through intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg. But, that’s another story!

 

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The Second Judgement

Throughout 2009, family and I concentrated on pet/house sitting, moving around France with very few breaks whereby we would have needed to return to living in the tent for long periods. We maintained contact with Alexandra, the avocat who had taken on Julia’s case-load whilst that lovely woman fought for her life with her family constantly by her side. During our initial telephone ‘meeting’, Alexandra laughed when I explained to her that I could not guarantee picking up my emails on a set day. She just did not believe that we were living in a tent between ‘sits’.

I’m fairly certain that, at that point, Alexandra considered me to be, either, paranoid, or, totally up the wall! But, she had spoken with Julia before our second telephone ‘meeting’, and Alexandra commenced the call with these words, “I am so very sorry, Christine, I thought you were joking. Julia has explained to me about how you and your family must live until we win the judgement you need.”

Several weeks after that second telephone conversation, we received a credit from the avocats’ offices in Toulouse, we were no longer required to pay the last facture that was sent to us by Monsieur MA before he was dismissed by Julia.

Justice!

However, we did need to find a further payment for the Avoué (barrister). In French law, the presenting avocat must have a Cabinet, or Practice, within the Department where the Case will be heard. Our Case was being heard in Department 15, ie the Cantal. Due to the fact that we could not find an avocat in the Cantal who could speak English, indeed, we were advised by our local l’Huissier (Court Bailiff) that an English-speaking avocat did not exist in the Cantal, we had to look further afield right from the onset. Hence, we had found Julia’s Cabinet in Toulouse in the Haute-Garonne (31), via the Internet, and we were required to fund the cost of an Avoué to present our Case in the Cantal, every time it was heard.

A Case may only need to be heard once by the justices, but, as it was with our Case, the justices required to hear sections of the Case on different days, three days in total! The set-up can add thousands of euros to the costs of the Case, and Monsieur MA should have explained that to us when we first made contact with him. He didn’t do that, but, at the end of the day, it would not have made any difference if he had told us we would be paying for two avocats. I have clarified the processes in the event of anybody else needing to know. It can present as a rather large shock if the set-up comes as a surprise!

Two weeks before Christmas 2009, Alexandra and I spoke on the telephone for the last time prior to our Appeal hearing date, everything was ready. The sellers’ avocat had apparently attempted to stall for more time, but the Court had rejected that request. Alexandra confirmed that Julia had worked very hard on putting all the evidence together, in order that the Judge would see at virtually a glance that we had overwhelming evidence to prove the sellers’ fraud. Alexandra was upbeat, she was confident, we relaxed a little and started to look forward to Christmas.

Late in the afternoon, on 18th December 2009, Alexandra telephoned us, we were pet/house sitting for good friends, Diane and Brian, near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne. Alexandra was audibly shocked and angry, but she told us without hesitation, the sellers’ fraud had been recognised by the Tribunal, the Judge had called Monsieur and Madame T “arrogant”, but our Appeal had been rejected.

 

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Money Flowing Like Water

Just before we headed back to the Dordogne, Tom and I travelled to Champagnac to collect our accumulated mail from our good friend and former neighbour, Madame ZC. As we pulled in outside our house that can never be our home, several neighbours were standing, chatting, in the Place de l’Eglise, they looked towards us as we left the car. Within seconds, they had all joined us and were talking ten to the dozen, shaking hands, kissing us on both cheeks, as we struggled to keep up with their excited questions. Eventually, our former next-door-but-one neighbour, Madame ML, a retired Moulin Rouge dancer who had retired many years before to the commune of her birth, Champagnac, from Paris, took control and politely asked us if we had returned to stay, and had we won our fight for justice against “the people who have treated you shamefully”. Briefly, with Madame ML translating the more complex aspects of the French language, we clarified our current position to the dozen or so villagers who were clustered around us, and who were listening intently. Each and every face dropped and they became still and silent as we spoke. Then, gently patting Tom and me on our shoulders, kissing our cheeks again, they all wished us good luck and started to walk away.

Suddenly, Madame ML, who must be in her late 80’s, possibly older, slowly walked back to us, hugged us both and told us, “You are very strong. You are strong like la résistence, you will win. Have faith in your family strength.” That was very encouraging for us, especially during the months to come!

There was a lot of mail for us to open. But, we recognised a Toulouse postmark on an envelope, and we opened that envelope first. Inside, there was a neatly worded facture (a bill) for over €4,000, the anticipated cost of the forthcoming Appeal hearing. Tom and I were stunned, we had already paid that amount towards the Appeal, to Monsieur MA months before. I telephoned Julia’s office and spoke with the office secretary, she politely advised me that Julia was in hospital but she would ask Alexandra to contact me as soon as possible, hopefully, later that same day. We were given to understand that Alexandra was our replacement avocat, in view of Julia’s severe health issues.

Somewhat reluctantly, we opened all the other envelopes – Foncier and d’Habitation property taxes, water rates, Social Charges! A total in excess of €3,500.

Water rates of over €1,000? Yes, water rates payable by the hairdresser, but the hairdresser had refused to pay for the water she used, because we would not sign her Lease Contract!

Social Charges? Yes, because our locataires were paying rent – not to us, because we refused to receive or acknowledge payment of rent, as we had been advised by Monsieur MA. The rent payments were received directly at the local Trésor Public (Council Tax Office), to pay the annual property taxes. Both rents had apparently never been increased since the late 1990’s when Madame T had initially started renting out parts of the house, so the monthly rents were, in Monsieur MA’s words, ‘Little peanuts, just enough to pay the annual taxes for the property, if they do not increase too much before your Case is resolved.’

Taxe d’Habitation? Tom was 63 years old, and we didn’t (couldn’t!) live in the property. That was apparently of no relevance, because the house was considered to be our maison secondaire (holiday home), our tent was considered to be our main home, and we were considered to be rolling in money because we had “two homes in France”! The facture was for the difference between what had been paid via rent and what the Trésor Public estimated was still owed from the previous year’s facture!

Tax Foncier? Yes, the majority of us must pay that property tax. But, the facture was for the difference between…yes, as above!

It was obvious that Monsieur MA had not done with our money as we had instructed, and entrusted, he had just banked it for himself, and for the new business venture he has since started as an avocat!

It took the lion’s share of the rest of 2009, plus all of 2010, plus the first half of 2011, to prove we did not owe the money demanded in the envelopes that we opened that day. Well, we’re still battling over the water rates facture that now stands at €1,900, and is still rising, despite Tom and I formally requesting that the water supply to the building be turned off!

 

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Sticks And Stones

People often ask me how I can possibly recall precise details of events that happened several years ago, especially as our lifestyle has been, undeniably, utterly chaotic since 2007! When I reply, I sometimes see a fleeting expression that indicates total disbelief, but most folks are too polite to say as much! The bottom line is that I am blessed with a very good long term memory, and I subconsciously link public events that are of interest to me to my memory of personal events. Hence, I clearly recall what happened to family and me, in France, in October 2009, because my memories of that period are linked to the tragic, very premature death of a wonderfully talented young man in the public eye at that time, Stephen Gately. The words to the song I have posted above are indicative of how we conduct our lives as hobos.

During our years of fighting for justice, we have found some true friends of several nationalities, not only British, but also French, Flemish, American and Dutch. But, it must be said, we have also been verbally  ridiculed, taken advantage of, openly called “Traveller types” and “the Gypsy family”, and we were once accused of stealing from a house where we had pet/house sat months before the alleged theft, and the items had actually disappeared long after we left that property. If we were Travellers or Gypsies, we would possibly be afforded better treatment according to European laws! If we were Travellers or Gypsies, we might not consider the materialistic value of a house to be worth fighting for, to the detriment of health and well-being. If we were Travellers or Gypsies, we would be proud of our relevant history, culture and creed; but we are not Travellers or Gypsies, our current lifestyle is alien to us! We have ‘turned the other cheek’ on several occasions, we have carried out tasks, without complaint, that were not our responsibility, we have truly learned how not to treat others. Are we bitter? Absolutely not! French folks have an all-encompassing popular saying that we use almost daily, c’est la vie! That’s life.

Onward! Sue and Rick had asked us if we could return to Montpon-Ménestérol, in the Dordogne, towards the end of 2009, we were delighted to have that confirmed ‘booking’ in my diary. But, in the meantime, we travelled around France, enjoying, learning, meeting new people, experiencing nature’s fury in spectacular thunder and lightening storms, laughing as we quite often needed to lie on top of the tent to hold it down as the Mistral buffeted us and underpinned the reality of frail, human bodies. We even managed to spend two fantastic days in Albi, taking leisurely walks along the magnificent River Tarn, eating our picnic meals and feeding the swans, buying the odd day’s fishing licence only to catch nothing but the dreaded poisson chat that must not be returned to the water! France is only just beginning to jump on the ‘exploitation bandwagon’ of charging sometimes extortionate entry fees to ruins; many wonderful, historic buildings can still be accessed and appreciated by families for a very low cost.

We returned to Sue and Rick’s home and pets via Janet and Mark’s serene camping site, where we helped to prune and treat very elderly fruit trees, watched the hoopoes in the meadow very early each morning, spent hours walking in Melle’s fascinating arboretum, a place we associate with peace of mind, and we stuffed ourselves with the delicious, variously flavoured, melt-in-mouth yoghurt sponge cakes that Janet makes for us every time we turn up on her doorstep!

After leaving the micro-climate of the Deux-Sevres, heading towards the hot, rather humid and steamy Department of the Dordogne, we quietly talked about the content of my most recent conversation with our avocat, Julia. It was looking very likely that our Case would not be ready for Tribunal presentation by that coming December, Julia was seriously ill, urgently required surgery, and she needed to immediately hand over our file to another avocat, our third avocat.

 

 

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Destiny

Picking up pet/house sits via the forum, on which, to my great surprise at being asked, I had become a member of the moderating team, we were quickly ‘booked’ by a number of pet/house owners across France! In fact, when Tom and I left Sue and Rick’s house in Montpon-Ménestérol, family and I were separated for several weeks from then, throughout July and August 2009. Two of us remained at Sue and Rick’s house to care for their pets, including two super dogs, a charismatic chook called Beaky, due to her twisted beak, and kind-hearted Fritz, their cat! Tom returned to the Aveyron to care for Skye’s little cat, Slinky, and two more cats that had arrived from the UK. I travelled across the Dordogne to Diane and Brian’s home on the outskirts of Les Eyzies, where I looked after their two brilliant dogs, Leah and Suzy, Tinker, the cat with human traits, and a large number of fascinating tortoises!

When we eventually got back together, family and I headed to a camping site in the Deux-Sevres, owned and run by the busiest British family we have met in France! Janet and Mark, and their two teen-aged sons, still run the camping site, in addition to working in their very busy, individual vocations. Every time we return to Janet and Mark’s tranquil camping site, enhanced by gently undulating farmlands and meadowland between Melle and Chef-Boutonne, we feel so warmly welcome, as if we were family returning to the fold.

From Deux-Sevres, we moved south again, back to the Mediterranean sun, sea and sand, where a dog stole our food and his owner may well have saved our lives! We arrived back on the Manjastre camping site, in the Var, in beautiful, hot sunshine. We were warmly welcomed back by the owners, and we enjoyed meeting many of the regular visitors, of several nationalities, who had been going to Manjastre for years. We made the most of being on that wonderful coastline during the following three weeks, and we spent a lot of the time sight-seeing as cheaply as we could. During our fourth and last week there, we returned from a day spent on the beach in Bormes-les-Mimosas, to find the contents of our tent had been wrecked; bread, (melted) butter, long-life yoghurt, UHT milk and cheese, cooked ham, it had all been taken! But, there was a paper trail, we followed it to a dog’s kennel located on the boundary of the owners’ garden and the camping pitches. There lay a gorgeous Golden Retriever, cleaning his front paws after devouring products that must surely have given him a very sore stomach before nightfall! That was our thief!

I had to let the owner know, we were so worried that the dog might have been poisoned by rancid butter and such-like! But, he was more concerned about our losses! As I explained to him, we needed to accept those losses every day, due to the heat of the day, it was an occupational hazard for us. The dog’s health was our immediate concern.

Two nights later, a huge Atlantic storm blew in, only our bodyweight kept the tent on the ground during that night. The winds were horrendously strong, and the trees all around us were virtually bent double. Throughout the night, we listened to the wind and the cracking branches, the tent was almost drowned in leaves, twigs and small branches by the time we ventured outside just after 6am the following morning. Later that day, the camping site owner came to see us, he asked us to go into one of the site’s static caravans that night, he was worried about the weather forecast, a second storm was expected. We thanked him, and we said we would pay for the night’s accommodation, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said he still felt embarrassed by his dog stealing our food, we all laughed and told him we were happy the dog had not suffered any nasty effects.

That night, we slept in the caravan that was sited at the top of the camping site, after packing away our tent and possessions. Through the night, the wind howled, and the rain absolutely hammered down, it was a continuous torrent for hours. The following morning, we discovered that our previous tenting pitch had been washed down the steeply sloping hillside in a mudslide. If we had been in our tent through that night, we would have ended up at the bottom of the hill under tons of mud and branches.

It seems to us that we are destined to continue our fight to the bitter end!

 

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