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Category Archives: Garden

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow – D’oh!

Tom and I arrived at the house just before 6.30pm on Saturday 29th September. We had both enjoyed returning to the sheer beauty of the Puy de Dome on our left and the long ridge of Puy Mary to our right. We really do miss the mountains of the Auvergne when we’re traipsing around France!

Mademoiselle S, the hairdresser, was still in the shop section of our house that’s not a home. The small square window-panes were steamed up and we couldn’t see the shop interior. It was all a bit Dickensian! Tom and I looked at each other and we could almost read each other’s thoughts. Ah well, it was always going to be too good to be true!

Tom pushed open the front door to the house. That was easy – the entire locking device had been broken, no key-turning necessary, just a gentle push and the door swings inward every time. That was a brand new, double-glazed, front door, to match the brand new double-glazed windows, fitted in November 2007 and funded by us. The hand-crafted door and windows had been ordered by us the week before we completed the property purchase. What could go wrong at that stage? Plenty, as it happens! Eventually, we had discovered that we couldn’t cancel the order because we had signed the devis. Oh la la, one must not renege on a signed devis!

We plonked our rucksacks in the first floor apartment lounge and headed for a welcome cuppa made by our friend and neighbour, Madame Z, she lives three doors away. Sipping steaming mugs of English tea, we listened as Madame Z told us the male half of our sellers, Monsieur T, had passed away. Tom and I were genuinely saddened by the news, but we were not at all surprised. We have never considered Monsieur T to have been responsible for the fraud. He was clearly suffering with dementia when we all met in the notaire’s office for the final signing. At one point, I stopped the notaire reading the documents to us and asked Monsieur F, the Immobilier, if the proceedings were legal. He translated my concerns to the notaire and she responded so quickly that I couldn’t understand what she had said. Monsieur F turned to Tom and me and told us it was perfectly legal, he added, “In France, this is normal.”

Well, the news saddened us, but the possible implications worried us! We wondered if that might be the end of our quest for justice. We also wondered why neither Courts nor avocats had informed us. After three days in the village, no fewer than seven people from seven different families had told us Monsieur T had passed away just under one month ago. Surely, the avocats will have been informed?

An hour later we headed back to the house. The shop windows had cleared of condensation and we could see the shop was empty – apart from a large heap of hair cuttings and dust in a single pile in one corner. We tried to open the door, it was locked. So, we went inside the main door to the house and we were able to open the internal door to the shop.

I’ll try to explain the layout of the house, it’s a little like a maze! The ground floor comprises two large town-house style garages, side by side but divided by a wall. To the left of the garages is the main house entrance into a long hall that stretches through the building, right to the back door. On the left side of the hall are two good-sized rooms, ie the hairdresser’s shop, accessed by an internal door to the front room of the shop. At the far end of the hall, on the right, is the door to the steps that lead down to three cellars. Outside the back door there’s a large yard that houses several outbuildings. Originally, we planned for those outbuildings – most of them are derelict – to be demolished to make way for our ‘green space’, a garden. One of the outbuildings contains a wc, a hand-basin, a shower unit, and space for a washing-machine and tumble-drier. Electricity and running water are supplied to that outbuilding. We had planned to keep that section and use it as a utility room.

On the first floor of the house, there’s a large apartment with two double bedrooms, kitchen, lounge and bathroom. The second floor contains a second large apartment with one double bedroom, kitchen, lounge and bathroom; Monsieur C’s apartment is also on the second floor, a bed-sitting room, kitchen and bathroom.

A loft extension would have given us another apartment with three double bedrooms, lounge, kitchen and bathroom. Although, the open plan aspect would have brought all the apartments together to create one family home.

Lots of space for our big family! Also a major point for the Courts to consider, ie the architect’s main renovation Plans are dated April 2007, before any purchase documents were signed. Copies were given to the Immobilier, to our sellers, and to the notaire. Everybody was made aware of our plans – those plans did not include two locataires, those plans were created with the letter of the law firmly understood, the house was for sole use and enjoyment by Tom and me, and our family, and that was written in the pre-purchase/sale Contract.

Back to the hairdresser! She had gone! However, she returned on Sunday morning, accompanied by her cleaner, and we retrieved one set of the keys to the building. But, her cleaner did not return the spare set of keys that we know she has in her possession, the keys that she doesn’t know that we know she has in her possession!

Tom changed the locks during Sunday afternoon! Yes, we’re paranoid!

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R.I.P. Winter Tent

Leaving Provence, we worked our way north to Janet and Mark, and their camping site in the Deux-Sevres. Once again, we were in need of moral support, some tlc, and a pitch for our tent! Metaphorically speaking, we were bruised and psychologically battered, and our only thought was to get to friends.

Through the forum and a Chats du Quercy link, we had been asked to pet/house sit for a gentleman who has a dog and two cats; all three pets were rescued from neglect and cruelty. Family and I have the utmost respect and admiration for Rescue organisations, and for the dedicated people who spend their lives striving to bring peace, love, kindness and new forever homes to the most vulnerable and endangered of domestic animals. Against all odds, Charity Rescue services such as Chats du Quercy, Greyhound Gap and Hope Rescue, among many, achieve remarkable success whilst constantly fighting to secure funds for a never-ending stream of abused and abandoned pets. Family and I are always very happy to ‘sit’ for people who rescue pets, the animals can remain in their forever homes, and we feel we’re giving a tiny contribution to their happiness and feeling of security.

First of all, though, we needed to return to the tent for a few days! In absolute honesty, we were not looking forward to that, my menfolk and I were really feeling very weary and disillusioned. Hope was fading for the first time in a long time; we hadn’t heard from either Court, and we had no expectations at all regarding being contacted by our avocat, Alexandra!

But, our spirits were immediately lifted when we arrived in Tillou, at Janet and Mark’s wonderful sprawling property. It was the 28th October, the birthday of our youngest family group member – and, alongside that welcome and welcoming pot of tea was a delicious, chocolate birthday cake, made by Janet, with all the appropriate decorations! Janet never forgets a birthday. In 2010, our youngest member received a box of reading books, books that travel everywhere with us, books that our youngster cherishes.

Such are the memories that will remain with us for the rest of our lives.

Well, the sun was definitely in full view when we arrived, but that was the last we saw of it for nearly a week! October is usually still warm, sunny, calm and settled in the Deux-Sevres micro-climate. It wasn’t in 2011! It was unseasonally cold, wet, windy and not at all kind weather for campers! The storms rolled in, and the storms rolled over, we were constantly struggling to keep clothing and sleeping-bags dry and aired. Having use of Janet and Mark’s huge portable barbecue was our main comfort, we were able to keep reasonably warm as we sat around the log fires we made in the big steel base, and hot meals were easy to cook between showers! Nevertheless, by the end of that six days, Tom was clearly unwell with yet another chest infection. How very ill he actually was, we didn’t discover until a week later. But, that’s another story.

During the night before we were due to leave Deux-Sevres to travel back down-country to the Tarn-et-Garonne, a massive tempest hit the region. Right through the night, we fought to keep the tent in position. The pegs held the guy ropes, but the stress from the guy ropes tore the tent to shreds! Flying twigs, and even small branches, ripped the nylon that had been weakened by alternating high temperatures and freezing temperatures, and the seams parted. Torrential rain had already penetrated one ‘wall’ of the tent two nights before – another good friend, Jeannie, had loaned us dry sleeping-bags, and she had kindly driven to us to drop them off – but, another night of horizontal, fiercely lashing rain finished off our winter tent, and two of us were saturated. By the time day-break arrived, we were all up, the car was packed, and our winter tent had been deposited in a poubelle for recycling! R.I.P. winter tent, you served us well for three years.

 

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A British Shrug And Drug-dealers In Provence!

It was the end of October 2011, and we were rather wearily heading for Provence, but our spirits slowly lifted as we headed south once again. We were looking forward to yet another birthday within our small family group, the birthday of our youngest member! Having already bought the two-wheeler with stabilisers that was tightly strapped and secured to the back of our ‘old girl’, our long-suffering Citroen, we anticipated much use being made of the bike in the ample grounds of a Provence gites complex.

My menfolk were all suffering in the aftermath of a particularly virulent gastric bug, so there were many pit-stops en route, and we arrived a little later than we had agreed with the owners of the gites complex. However, that didn’t appear to be a problem, a lovely pot of tea appeared within minutes of our arrival.

As we sat and talked about ‘roles, responsibilities, expectations’, I noticed Madame B was not as visibly jovial as her husband; in fact, she looked distinctly nervous! Just as I was beginning to wonder when we would be taken or directed to the cottage for our ‘sole family use’, Monsieur B suddenly told us that he and his wife had heard about our ‘dreadful ordeal’ from friends who live further north. Without further ado, he proceeded to clarify a new agreement that he and Madame B felt would be in our ‘better interests’. Based on his understanding that we are pensioners with little to no chance of securing paid work, the new deal was that we should rent the cottage for €460 per calendar month, pay for our own utilities, and gas for cooking, carry out the full list of ‘jobs as previously agreed, in return for the low rent’, and consider it a ‘long term arrangement’.

By the time Monsieur B finished with, “Now, how does that sound?” Tom and I were virtually slumped in our chairs, we knew we could not afford to go with what the guy was suggesting. It was as simple as that! Furthermore, despite the €50 worth of fuel we had put in the car that morning, and the €50 worth of fuel it would take to get us back up-country to friendly faces, we were not prepared to be taken advantage of in that way.

I pulled myself together and politely asked Monsieur B if we could please revert to Plan A, as Plan B didn’t suit, and it certainly didn’t equate with his advertisement in a particular forum’s Classifieds section. Madame B swiftly agreed with my request, but Monsieur B just shrugged (had obviously lived in France for a long time) as he uttered the immortal words, “Well, I don’t believe you have much choice, Chrissie, your only alternative is to spend another winter in a tent.”

Family and I still have something left that is of immense value to us, our dignity. I thanked Madame B for the tea, and I saw honest tears in that woman’s eyes as she caught hold of my hand and gently squeezed it, mouthing one word, “Sorry.” We quietly headed up the drive, back to our ‘old girl’, and the sun was dropping beyond a beautiful blood-red horizon as we drove off to find the nearest, open camping site.

Provence in late October – an open camping site is a tall order! That night, we slept in the car, behind evergreen shrubbery that divides most French lay-bys from motorways. Just after 3am, the menfolk and I were wide awake and fascinated as we watched the drug-dealers at work. My word, there are certainly some busy night owls in the south of France! But, in reality, that was the lull before the storm!

 

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Snakes Alive!

During our many journeys around France, we have seen some truly beautiful sights, eg majestic Golden Eagles hunting over the vast, volcanic contours of the Auvergne; we had never seen a Golden Eagle before we moved to France. Short-toed Eagles, Eagle Owls with their huge, brilliant orange eyes, red and black Kites, and a host of other birds of prey that are generally only seen in television documentaries in the UK.

We once heard the low growl of a bear when we were camping overnight in the foothills of the Pyrenees. We were thrilled, not at all frightened or concerned for our personal safety. Brown bears in the Pyrenees are an extremely threatened species, quite simply, they kill sheep and are killed in return.

In Brittany, snakes were our constant companions! During the 2011 summer, a Western Whip fell from a skylight onto the bed in which Tom was sleeping. Considering that Tom had never been quite that close to a snake before, his reaction was extremely laid-back, he calmly called me! Western Whips are not venomous, but they can be rather feisty if they feel threatened, and they will strike and bite with speed if pushed into a corner! The snake slithered into a hole in the wall of the bedroom, shimmied its way down inside the wall, and popped out through another hole in the dining-room! We decided to open the patio doors that exited the dining-room into the tiny front garden of Nikki’s house, and we evacuated for a few hours! It seems that the snake took the hint, we didn’t see it again!

A few days later, whilst strimming a path through the meadow to Jerry the pony’s summer pasture, we came across a specific species of grass-snake, a Couleuvre vipérine, slowly guzzling a large frog for its lunch! At first, we thought it might be an adder, but swift identification via the forum on which I was a Moderator settled our nerves, although, not without some hilarity! Advice given included the instruction to ‘find out if the snake’s eyes are round or slanted like a cat’s eyes’! Mmmmm, I don’t think so! Who wants to get that close to a potentially venomous snake! However, at the end of the day, the frog had a lucky day, the snake was as startled as we were and released the frog before slipping away into the long grass. Somewhere in my on-line storage file, I have a photograph of that snake.

Just after my 62nd birthday in October, Nikki returned from the UK, and we returned to the wonderful Limousin lake environment where our friends had kept the caravan aired and open for another visit. It was during the following few days that we secured a long-term stay at a gites complex in Provence, to start at the end of October. The deal was this, we were required to clean and maintain the three gites and the gardens, swimming-pool and grounds, take bookings and sort out the changeovers, in return for sole family use of a two-bedroomed cottage in the grounds. We were also required to pay €100 per month towards electricity and water, buy our own gas for cooking and our own logs for heating. Now, some might consider that to be on a par with slave labour, but we welcomed the opportunity for stability.

The day before we were due to leave our friends and their cosy caravan, yet another snake was dragged into our lives by one of our friends’ cats! Another grass-snake, the very pretty, less than a metre long reptile was playing dead as the cat patted and toyed with it on the lawn. Fortunately, the cat was denied the chance of a coup de grace, and the snake was released into a safer environment out of the confused cat’s range of vision!

During the course of that day, one by one, all the menfolk were struck down by a bug that turned out to be a 24 hours vicious gastric virus! So, we were a very tired, drained and motley family group as we left our friends in the Limousin and headed for Provence. Little were we to know that, once again, as has happened several times during the past 4+ years, our homelessness would prove to be a wonderful opportunity for another British human being to kick us when we were down, and put us back in the tent!

 

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Not Exactly A Storm In A Teacup!

It’s fairly common knowledge that the past three winters have been pretty nasty across France, but the 2011 summer wasn’t much to write home about, either, in terms of decent periods of sunshine! Certainly, family and I were so very relieved not to be in the tent towards the end of August. Severe, convective storms were forecast to affect Brittany around the 25th and 26th August.

Thursday 25th August was hot, bright and humid to start, but the storms started rolling over us during the late afternoon, and they continued through the night, virtually without a break. However, we woke up to absolutely  torrential rain on the Friday morning, and, as we set off in the car to go shopping, we noticed a young birch tree had come down across the width of the road on the bend that curves around Nikki’s property. So, with my bright blue, plastic poncho flapping like wings in the rising winds, I took hold of the tree by its torn roots and slowly pulled it around to lie, lengthways, in the ditch. Tom sat helpless in the car, he couldn’t have helped, a deep chest infection had made it virtually impossible for him to even walk further than 3-4 metres from the house to the car.

Tree safely out of the road, where it might not have caused major issues for cars and bigger vehicles, but it could well have caused a fatal accident for a motor-cyclist, I climbed back into the car and we continued to Intermarché. What a mess I felt! Wet leaves and twigs covered me from the top of my head, down my poncho, to my saturated hiking-shoes! As I squelched into Intermarché with Tom, he looked at me and burst out laughing. “Sorry, love”, he said, “but you look like Worzel Gummidge!”

I sneaked a look at myself as we passed a mirrored pillar, Tom wasn’t wrong!

The rain didn’t stop, the winds alternated between gusty and breezy, and it was a thoroughly miserable day with a series of thunderstorms making their way towards the house from across the plains. It must have been just  after 4.30pm, and it suddenly turned very dark in the house. I glanced through the office window and noticed a huge, black cloud that seemed to hover over the house, the surrounding garden and meadows, it was like a massive umbrella. Then, I saw Jerry the pony on the furthest side of his paddock, well away from the house, his mane, tail and rug flapping as he galloped, heading away from the direction of the wind. Looking to my right, I saw what looked like a thick fog moving across the meadow towards the house. I knew what it was, having seen several tornadoes and waterspouts in my lifetime.

As I quickly turned to leave the office, I met our son as he rushed in, grabbed hold of me, and almost carried me through the house to the lounge! The four of us, plus the dogs, plus two of the cats (the other two were in the barn) crushed ourselves into the tiny space that was the downstairs toilet off a small passage-way between the lounge and kitchen. There was no window in that small area. As we squeezed into the toilet room, there was a huge clap of thunder, a terrible roaring noise, and then it sounded as though the tiles on the roof were dancing to Hornpipes!

I don’t suppose it lasted much longer than thirty seconds to a minute, but it felt like a much longer period of time, and it was terrifying! I felt so sorry for the animals, they were almost rigid with fear. Wonderful dogs and cats, not one of them scratched, bit, or tried to bolt, they remained exactly where we had put them in that tiny space, crushed between four human-beings.

Apparently, when Nikki contacted her property insurance people, the agent asked her if the damage had occurred on the 26th August; she told him that was the right date and he wasn’t surprised. So, I don’t think ‘our’ mini-tornado was an isolated incident that day!

 

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