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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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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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