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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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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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Lies Laid Bare

Until our second avocat, Julia, received our resident locataire’s Attestation (sworn Statement), she seriously doubted we had sufficient hard evidence to win our Appeal. One of our witnesses, Madame B, had responded to Julia’s request for an Attestation with a letter addressed to Tom and me. In the letter, Madame B emphatically refused to give evidence for us, and she concluded by writing that she would consider any further contact from us or our avocat, to be harassment.

Who is Madame B? Madame B is a retired businesswoman who moved into Champagnac during the same month that we completed our property purchase in the village. She is a French national who had spent some 30 years living in the UK with her British husband, they were divorced and she moved back to France to be near her elderly mother. One side of Madame B’s family originated from Russia, the other side from the Champagnac commune. Madame B speaks fluent English as well as her mother tongue, also Russian. When she heard about our immediate concerns, in the village Bar/Café-Tabac-Presse during the evening of the day we had completed our purchase and had discovered the deception, she immediately offered to accompany us to the notaire’s office to translate for us, when the notaire returned from her holiday. Madame B did accompany us to the notaire’s office, and she translated for us. When the notaire telephoned our sellers, putting the telephone in loudspeaker mode to speak with seller, Madame T, and asked her if she or her husband had given Monsieur C a rental Contract, the response was, “Non.” The notaire asked our seller the same question twice, the response was emphatically, “Non”, both times. The notaire then asked Madame T if she or her husband had rented the garage to Monsieur C, the response was shouted, “Non, he is a liar!”. The notaire thanked Madame T, disconnected the call, looked at Tom and me and said she could not help us, but she would “speak with the sellers and persuade them to offer” us “some compensation” for our “inconvenience”. The notaire also advised us to “sue the Immobilier”.

Madame B gave her contact details to us and urged us to pass them to our avocat, We followed through and Monsieur MA said he would contact Madame B and request her Attestation. He had never contacted her. I asked Julia if Madame B could be subpoenaed, or a French equivalent. She shook her head and told us Madame B would probably just say she could not remember, it was two years ago.

Monsieur MA had never contacted the resident locataire, Monsieur C, either! Julia contacted him by post and he replied immediately, telling her he had been waiting for our avocat to contact him since July 2007. Within days of making contact with Monsieur C, Julia telephoned us to say she had received a wonderful Attestation from Monsieur C, via his avocat, plus documentation that included copy of his Rental Contract. The Rental Contract covered Monsieur C’s apartment, sole use of ‘Mon Garage’, sole use of one of the three cellars, sole use of a rear courtyard outbuilding, and sole use of a measured, designated section of the loft. All documents had been endorsed by our sellers, ie Madame T. Included with the documents was a copy of Monsieur C’s Contents Insurance, and copies of every Contents Insurance Policy that he had renewed each year during his tenancy. There was also copy of a letter from the insurance company, it confirmed copies of Monsieur C’s annual contents insurance renewals had been sent to Madame T each January during his long period of tenancy, until 2008 when their client had informed them of the property change of ownership.

Julia told us that was the evidence we needed to prove our Case against our sellers, it was conclusive beyond all doubt. That evidence, together with our pre-Sale Contract, signed by both parties, and which stated that we had sole use and enjoyment of the property, was more than sufficient to prove the sale was fraudulent, in French law and terminology, a vice caché.

That’s when we dared to start hoping we were seeing light at the end of that long, dark tunnel. How very wrong we were!

 

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People

Different people respond or react in different ways when life suddenly turns turtle for themselves, for loved ones, or for friends. Our family and friends were no different when we told them our house in France could never be our home. But, I think the worst parts of the responses and reactions have probably been associated with the sheer disbelief that we have met since August/September 2007. In all honesty, I can’t blame anyone for not believing what has happened to us during that time. I can’t blame anyone for not believing the difficulties we have faced during our fight for justice in France. It is a fact that nobody could ever have envisaged how we would be living now, compared with how we lived our lives in the UK before we moved to France.

I digressed because I am now receiving stunned messages from family and friends who, understandably, have not realised, probably have not believed, just how serious our situation has been throughout the past 4 years and 6 months. In simple terms, it must have seemed incredible, ridiculous, unbelievable and beyond all comprehension. But, for each and every paragraph I write, there is a formal document to confirm the content of each paragraph.

A few days after our initial conversation with Monsieur MA, avocat, the resident locataire, Monsieur C, sent  a formal, registered letter to Tom and me. In the letter, Monsieur C refused, point blank, to allow any repairs or restoration works to be carried out on any part of the property that was rented to him. He also referred to our ‘family’s dream’ becoming our ‘nightmare’. What a charmless person!

I telephoned Monsieur MA and was able to speak with him immediately, his cheerful greeting was confirmation that we did, indeed, have a vice caché Case against our sellers. I asked if our property insurances policy would cover the cost of the legal fees, Monsieur MA replied that we were not covered under the policy. Tom and I had €50,000 set aside in our French Bank account to pay for the restoration and conversion works, €10,000 more than our architect had quoted. We also had £25,000 savings stored in our UK Bank account, the rest of our life savings. I asked Monsieur MA for a ballpark figure for the cost of the proceedings, his reply was €4,000 to €6,000. I quickly explained to Tom and he immediately agreed that we should proceed.

Monsieur MA was totally incorrect. To date, the proceedings, other expenses incurred due to French law, the extra costs associated with owning one property and having to live in other properties, plus the expense of having to constantly move around France, in addition to having to pay in full for all medical treatment, has cost in excess of €55,000. Our remaining life savings, plus £5,000 loaned to us by our eldest son, plus £1,200 jointly loaned to us by my sister and my cousin to pay towards my breast cancer and cardiac issues, well, that little lot just saw us through the three years until my pensions kicked in and started being paid! It took a little under eight months for DWP to finally start paying my pensions, that was after I had contacted an MEP about the delay. The MEP (then) was Caroline Lucas, she is now the Green Party Leader, a wonderful, caring person.

Monsieur MA had some bad news for us, though, we could not undertake any works on the property during the proceedings, but any existing works Contracts would have to be honoured, in French law, and the cost would be claimed from the sellers in due course. So, we paid Monsieur MA’s initial bill, he thanked us; we paid the architect’s bill, he thanked us; we paid the double-glazing guy – the new windows and external doors had already been ordered – he thanked us; we had paid for other materials up-front and we gathered all the receipts together.

But, temporary repairs on the toilet and other plumbing requirements gave up the ghost, the plumber was unable to carry out further repairs and we weren’t permitted, in French law, to have new plumbing. The electrical installations that would have been entirely replaced under our ownership, were suddenly considered by EDF to be ‘dangerous’, but we weren’t permitted, in French law, to have a re-wire. Yet, it took EDF over three years to disconnect the meters, so we had to keep paying Standing Charges until the meters were eventually disconnected! People, eh?

Oh, and Monsieur MA was (for want of other words and terminology) incorrect, our legal costs would have been covered by our insurance Policy – if Monsieur MA had bothered to contact the agent! Some people are just not thorough. However, we didn’t actually discover that little gem until over a year later.

Bottom line – we had to move out of the property.

 

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