on fait les choux gras

Everything seems to have been such a rush recently – so much seems to have happened in such a short period of time, which makes up for those weeks where we were sitting waiting for the chance to go to France and sort out Chez Blanchard, and whilst we’ve been waiting to sign for Les Capricornes – a name I shall explain later!

First, it was getting my house on the market, with the delightful Home Information Pack. Effing HIPS. Bah. Labour job-creating, money-wasting nonsense. Took ages to complete, then I swapped companies, on pain of small claims courts threats to the original company (does the small claims court still exist, by the way? It seems to have definitely slipped out of vogue!) and then the new company ended up being cheaper, faster and suddenly everything was on the go. House signs were erected, visits were arranged for initial voyeurs, the house was cleared out, my mother hacked some bushes, I vacuumed – and that doesn’t happen very often! – and cleaned the kitchen. More things were boxed up, thanks to my local supermarket’s free wine boxes. When we move in, we’ll look like complete winos, though that is a role we intend to take up only when we’re over there! I’ve labelled everything in a bizarre obsessive-compulsive way, with a ‘theme’ for each wine box, and then sub-categories. Cups and saucers are all wrapped up in newspaper, books are sorted and packed. I have accumulated an inordinate amount of cups and saucers. I like a lovely cup and saucer. Now I sound like my nana, I shall explain. I have my delightful Wedgwood tea set and several beautiful Habitat mugs, a few Whittards’ cups and saucers, and some other beautiful china. I always used to mock my nana’s insistence on a china cup and saucer, when I was in my grunge phase and didn’t care about matching mugs, let alone cups, and heaven forbid a saucer would be used for anything other than putting underneath plant pots! Now, a couple of decades on, it seems like a travesty not to enjoy good tea from a china cup, or a fresh coffee in anything other than a Habitat porcelain mug. And whilst I may be forced to abandon the suits and shoes for a life on a petite fermette, I shall be wandering around in my wellies (more about them later) in a suitably flowery frock drinking tea from a china Wedgwood cup. It is the last bastion of culture, the last bit of ‘Margot’ in my new ‘Barbara’ Good Life. So they’re all packed carefully and ready to go.

But whilst viewings have been frequent, which has been fantastic in a recession, with mixed reports from the papers – the housing market is on the mend, it’s at pre-recession prices, it’s at a standstill, it’s dead, it’s recovering, it’s alive, it’s dead –  ad infinitum – the viewers have been a little odd. I’ve had neighbours knocking on for a look-see with no intention to buy, weird couples, a woman who seems to have married some kind of illegal immigrant half her age who can’t speak English, a good few weirdos who march round the house as if to say ‘is that it?’ and I wonder what they expect. I bought the house on first sight. I loved the staircase, and it was big enough and in my price range. Similarly, Les Capricornes. It was big enough and it was in our price range. It’s roughly where we wanted it to be. It needs work, sure, and it’s not ‘perfect’, but it’ll do. And I wonder what some of these buyers want with £110,000. Do they expect a mansion???! Sure, it’s little, but with the average house price now being a quarter of a million pounds (How did it ever come to that??!) and usual-sized family homes going for half a million, it does make you wonder what they expect.

I have been doing my best with a good ‘sell’ job. Ann Maurice, House Doctors, eat your heart out! I’ve focused on the unique selling points, the quality, the garden, the added features, the fact that the house over the road is on for £20,000 more…. for a foot wider, an ensuite and a smaller master bedroom…. but no nibbles. Not even a little one. Now I wonder if we’ll ever sell, and that in itself brings complications. Pessimism tastes horrible.

Despite this, I’d been over to France to sign the compromis, effectively guaranteeing that Madame will sell and we will buy. 90,000 euros by April. No worries! Now I worry about exchange rates, buyers’ markets, unsellable houses, realistic pricing… And it’s a trauma! Luckily, my fantastic accountant has sorted everything out for me, tax-wise, and my tax bill isn’t too big. That’s one relief.

So it was a wet Thursday morning that my sister Abi took me to Liverpool ‘John Lennon Airport’ (how that must grate upon Mr McCartney’s nerves! Liverpool could at least have named the train station after him… especially after he brought LIPA to them! Can he do no right??!) and a quick Ryanair flight from snowy Britain into snowy France! To give them their due, Ryanair may be like a charabang to Blackpool, but they get you there and they do so without fuss, and mostly on time. And later, they really proved their worth.

Limoges was kissed with snow – and it looked beautiful. I cried a little on the descent, simply because it was so gorgeous, and with a little luck, a small part of it might be mine! Dad picked me up, and as we drove back to St Angeau, it was snowing a little. Then it really started coming down. Dad’s house looked fantastic – like those Christmas ornaments you get of houses with snowy roofs and shutters, lit up. There was a blazing fire and it was toasty warm in there, though it was cold outside. Swamped in a huge sofa, in front of a roaring fire, watching the snow fall outside… it was perfect. We had supper with Brian and Lesley, two of my dad’s fellow villagers, and I realised how relaxed and laid-back everyone is here.

The next day, I took my father to sign the compromis. I like to have my dad about, even if I am 37 and know more french than he does. I don’t think you ever really stop feeling glad you’ve got your parents there, even if you are approaching middle age. Maitre Ferrant was charming as usual, the estate agent, Thibaud, was on holiday in the Dominican Republic, and instead of Mme Roses, I met M. Roses, which was a little surprising, to say the least! Madame arrived, looking very frail and tired, and I realised what a marvel she really was. I really took to her. At one point, I just wanted to say ‘well, we’ll ALL live there!’ She’d come with her two daughters and their respective husbands, and we all crammed into Maitre Ferrant’s tiny office. I have to say it was very convivial, despite the obvious sadness that Madame was giving up her home of 40 years, and they were really wonderful.

M. Ferrant whipped through the reports. We have some asbestos. We have a little lead in the paint on the shutters – not a problem as long as you don’t lick the shutters, he joked. And we have an infestation of capricornes. Lots of capricornes. And some vrillettes. Some kind of insect, he explained. You can treat it with a toxic liquid. No problem. I did want to ask what capricornes were, but I liked to let my mind wander a little. My dad’s a capricorn. So’s Steve, and Dean, our very good friend. My sister is almost a capricorn. I had a vision of a house infested by December’s and January’s children, all being goat-like and capricious together. I understood it was some kind of insect and left it at that, my imagination free to go as wild as it wanted.

It did seem that the French are much more glib than the British about sorting out housing issues. Asbestos? just be careful when you get rid of it. Lead? Don’t injest it. Capricornes. Just kill ’em. Meh. I liked this attitude. No drama. No expensive builders and pest-controllers coming out to suck their breath over their teeth and present you with an enormous bill.

I signed numerous pages, which were then signed by just about everyone else. I realised we’re in a flood zone, but apart from mud slides in 1999, further up in the village, it’s not been a problem. I’m coming from flood-unundated Britain and feeling a little worried about it, but then I remember the house has been there since 1850, and it’s still there.

The energy efficiency document was the most charmingly sad thing about the house. Mine in Manchester is a good B. It’s efficient, warm, double-glazed, insulated and so on. The only advice was to get solar panels (what, are you kidding???! I’ve paid £30 for some nitwit to tell me that solar panels would work in Manchester??! Has he never BEEN to Manchester??!) and the EPC man chortled as he said it, knowing full well it was some government-spin that would be utterly unworkable in Manchester and take 20 years to make up for its initial cost. But Les Capricornes, as I named it there and then on the spot, was an F. Only a G is worse. An F. Poor house! I’m not sure what you have to do to be an F, except be a total waste of energy, but it was quite sad, but quite sweet! Likewise, the same advice adorned the french EPC report about solar panels, and I had to wonder whether some Bruxelles bureaucrat had devised the same piece of advice for all houses, except those A* houses with it installed already. I’ll make that house an A if it kills me to do it! Nothing makes a challenge for a teacher except to see some poor predicted grade for some hard-working delight. I’ll take that F and give you an A, I vowed, silently. The only teacher in the room, I didn’t want to raise suspicions about my mental health.

After that, we went back to Les Capricornes a.k.a The Triangle on account of the shape of the land, to get some further pictures – since French estate agents don’t care for Ann Maurice, thinking ‘if you can’t see the potential yourself, then knob off!’ Ann Maurice wouldn’t be a popular lady in France, on account of the fact that most ‘vielles maisons’ seem to be sold in a complete state of disrepair. Madame’s daughters (in their sixties, no less, just in case you were imagining some youthful french ladies) were just my type. They’d brewed some good strong coffee, got two cakes and were chatty and really friendly. They liked my prenom and kept saying “Emma-Jane!” with delight, though I pointed out that only my grandmother calls me this! We joked about English traffic, and were bewildered by the notion they still held that London is constantly held in a pea-souper of a fog, like Victorian London might have been. I blame Ladybird books. I had the same notion until I was about seven, on account of a Ladybird book about England.

Then Brenda, La Belle-Mere, my father and I took a wander about the snowy grounds. Everything we saw delighted us further. Grapevines. An orchard. A polytunnel. Several sheds. Several lean-tos. A barn I’d forgotten about. A cabin for Jake. A forge!

I hadn’t seen the forge before, and yet when my father pointed it out, you can hear my tone of disbelief on the video I was recording.

“A forge??!”

Steve would love this. He hasn’t yet seen inside, and I know – I just know – that he can’t possibly imagine how wonderful it is yet. A forge. He’ll be made up! A wood-work workshop, a metal-work workshop, a barn, a hangar, a tractor, the land, the vines, the cave, it was all just a little too much to take in.

And yet, when I lay in bed, late that night, tucked up against the snow, I was possessed by a terrible fear. What the hell were we doing??! I know little about farming, except for a couple of weeks in my youth when I visited my maternal family’s smallholding in Stow. Steve and I are city babies, grey through and through. We’re English and we’re city babies, with a confused child who doesn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. Would my house sell? Would we get out of the country alive? It was all a little too much. And yet, that vision of Steve’s face when he sees the forge. It’ll all be worth it! I started to imagine the curtains, the living room, the kitchen I’d have… and it more than made up for the worries and the doubts.

On the day I was due to return, Papa and I set off for Limoges in the dark, not really taking on exactly how much snow had fallen. When we got to the airport, the plane was allegedly still going to land, so Papa dropped me off and I milled about, waiting for the call. It didn’t come. I overheard someone talking about how it had been diverted to Bergerac. I had visions of the time Abi and I were trapped in Cork airport, with 11 other hens, for her hen weekend. We’d been there for 9 hours when Aer Lingus told us the flight had been cancelled because some daft baggage handler had driven the baggage truck into the side of the plane, rendering it unfit for flight. By that time, we were fraught. Or at least, I was. We were put up in a hotel, given sandwiches and told we might be able to get a space on the Monday flight, but if not, the next one would be Wednesday. It was absolutely out of the question, they said, to transfer us to Dublin for a flight, or to replace the plane. One of the girls with us was supposed to be going on holiday, several of them were nurses with shifts to run. North Manchester General would come to a standstill! So I envisaged a cancellation and I waited to hear.

But better than that. Ryanair would transport us to Bergerac and fly from there. I know I was alone in thinking this was jolly good of them, since they could just say ‘oh, bugger off home and try your luck on the next flight that can get in’ but they didn’t. Within an hour, they had three coaches for us, and off we went, down the snowy roads (just having to put the fear that if they can’t land a plane, can you really transport 50 people on a coach out of there???!) across to Bergerac, where we hopped on the plane and were taken back to Liverpool. Lucky I’d chosen ‘John Lennon Airport’ – Manchester was closed. Just out of interest, what would they rename Manchester? “Noel Gallagher Airport?” (Now that would piss Liam off!), The Buzzcocks’ Airport? Mick Hucknall Airport? I’m sure there’s no-one quite as saintly for us.

Steve and Jake were late. Ironically, it took them longer to get from Bury to Liverpool than it took me to get from Bergerac to Liverpool. The snow was pretty bad. Steve was full of a cold. I’ve not often seen him so ill. And yet my excitement was brimming over. He was delighted. I knew he would be.

Now we have the house, the hard work starts, all the worrying begins…. and I’ve still got Christmas to get through!

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