‘I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ I confided to the agent. ‘We simply must find something on this trip, or we’ll be homeless.’ She looked thoughtful for a moment, before coming up with an idea. I think you’d do better with a more modern property than the ones we sell. Would you like me to introduce you to a colleague who runs an agency round the corner? They have some modern properties that I’m sure would suit you better?’
‘Oh, are you sure?’ foolishly. ‘I mean, aren’t they your competition?’
She laughed. ‘This is France, my dear. We have lots of arrangements like this, where the welcoming agency pays a commission to the introducing agent when a sale is forthcoming.’ She smiled.
‘Oh, I see,’ I replied. ‘Well, yes, of course we’d like to see what your colleague has to offer.’
The agent was quickly on the phone, speaking in rapid French, but with an unmistakeable English accent, making it quite easy to follow. She put down the phone, explaining that the other agency was owned and run by a Dutch couple who were pretty much tri-lingual. She ushered us to the door and pointed down the cobbled street to an orange sign we could just make out in the distance. Wasn’t orange the Dutch football team colour? queried H. Not now, H, not now. The agent closed the door with a flourish, no doubt happy to be rid of us. We walked away, each of us strangely silent as we contemplated what would happen if this also proved a disaster.
The fog which had been hanging over us like a blanket all morning now seemed to be rising, lifting my spirits a little as we wended our way towards the orange sign beckoning to us at the end of the street. We glanced at the large picture window and immediately spotted the photo of a rather pretty bungalow with blue shutters.
‘How much?’ from him.
I peered a little closer. ‘Actually, it’s in our price range.’ Hope springs eternal. We climbed up the steep stone step and pushed open the stiff door. A loud bell clanged in the distance.
‘Enough to wake the dead.’
A tall, smiling man came forward to welcome us. I knew instinctively that this must be the Dutch owner. For one thing, all Frenchmen seemed to be short and this man looked well over six feet.
‘Hello,’ in impeccable English. Yes, he must be Dutch. What is it about all the Dutch and the Germans that even the roadsweepers can argue about the politics of the day or on every subject under the sun in perfect English, whilst we English……
‘We rather like the look of that bungalow in the window. Could we take a look at it?’
He looked at his watch. It was five to twelve, the inviolable French lunchtime, when everything that moves closes for lunch. ‘I tell you what. We’re just about to close for lunch, but I’ve got a leaflet on the property here. Why don’t we meet up at two, right after lunch, which will give you time to consider it in more detail?’
We agreed that was a good idea and shook hands.
‘A bientôt,’ we chorused, suddenly cheerful at this new turn of events.
You won’t believe this, but the leaflet he gave us was in Dutch! I think he must have run out of English versions, but that didn’t help us much. I searched my memory-banks for snippets of German learned a long time ago to try to make sense of the thing.
‘De woning is goed onderhouden en is gelegen op een perceel van 2133 m2 aan de rand van een middeleeuws dorp.’
‘Huh? I’m going straight back to tell him what I think of him. Does he want to sell this place or not? How anyone is supposed to understand such double-Dutch I don’t know!’
‘Look. Don’t panic,’ optimistically from me. ‘I think woning means habitation and perceel van 2133 m2 means the number is the land size. That looks good. And in any case, I’ll know straight away if it’s the place for us when we see it. I have a gut instinct for this one. Just trust me…..’
At two-fifteen the pleasant Dutchman returned. We were already learning. Nothing moves fast in France, and especially not after the all-important midday meal.
‘You have eaten well?’
We nodded, not wishing to tell him that after we had eliminated the escargots, the cassoulet (didn’t know what was in it) and other strange concoctions on the lunch-time menu of the local bar, we had dined on a simple pizza.
‘O.K. then. Follow me,’ a black shiny folder underneath his arm.
We followed him out of the agency, with me nearly falling down the steep step onto the cobbles below. Just saved myself from this undignified ignominy in the nick of time.
The fine drizzle and fog of earlier had now given way to a wondrous blue sky with not a cloud in sight. This was more like it. We raced after the agent, our creaking knees no match for his long, lengthy strides until, disappearing suddenly around another one of those sharp corners, we found ourselves in the main Place de la Halle. He marched over to his Renault 5 and our hearts sunk. Were we all to fit into this tiny vehicle? The agent saw our faces and laughed heartily. ‘Don’t worry. There’s room enough for us all.’
There were only three doors, so he opened the passenger side and we struggled into the back, bent double with the effort before collapsing onto the back seat. He clanged the door shut several times before it engaged, then walked around and jumped into the driver’s seat, somehow expertly folding his long legs into the cramped space inside.
‘This is cozy, isn’t it?’
Silence from the back.
He cranked the car into some form of spluttering life and we were off, skidding around the greasy cobbled alleyways until thankfully onto a tarmac road. He raced along at breakneck speed. I couldn’t see the speedometer but felt sure that the speed limits around here weren’t meant to accommodate Stirling Moss. Still, we tried to relax and couldn’t help but admire the wondrous scenery flashing past. This was more like it. Somewhat different from High Street back home. I had a sudden thought: ‘Oh God. We don’t actually have a home right now.’ I suppressed it and stared dazedly out of the window again. Everything seemed so surreal somehow, as if in a dream. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. This was important. I must make the right decision, a decision that would affect the rest of our lives.
Eventually I spotted the name of the village on the Dutch leaflet: Paradis de Quercy, heralded by a red and white sign, with another language printed beneath. Yes, this must be the village, but what did the sign mean? The agent laughed and explained that all signs in the region had the old Occitan name printed underneath. It was a way of preserving the heritage of the region. He cranked up the brake handle before fully stopping the car, throwing us all forward momentarily, whilst he studied the property address again. Then suddenly we were off again, careering around corners and doing handbrake turns before finally, with a triumphant ‘Voilà!’, we were turning into a long shingle driveway. We had arrived.
I scrambled out and gazed up at the house, which was positioned on a rise, slightly to the right of the long, curving driveway. ‘Look,’ I said to my other half. ‘It’s got crépi walls.’
‘I think it looks rather nice.’
We both stood and stared again at the house. I knew instinctively, just as I knew I would, that this was our house. It looked positively beautiful with its Mediterranean blue shutters, rose bushes around the door, and long stone terrace in the front. All around us were numerous variegated trees and shrubs, including plum, apple, oak, balsam poplar and chestnut, interspersed with rolling green grass.
In the doorway emerged Monsieur and Madame, the owners, walking out to greet these strange English people. We all shook hands and said Bonjour, before Madame ushered us inside. My mind momentarily cast back to all the other French houses we had viewed so far, and the dark, crumbling inner décor we had discovered. I held my breath. Inside, I knew at once that this was for us. It had a beautiful natural stone fireplace, complete with insert, which Monsieur explained was a log-burning stove. Set above the insert was a heavy dark oak mantelpiece, rather like a railway sleeper, the sort that everyone craves but rarely finds in England. We walked into the kitchen. Having already made my mind up, I dismissed the lack of facilities, knowing that him indoors would soon arrange something more suited to our English tastes. We completed the tour, noting the house was surprisingly spacious for a bungalow, with its three bedrooms and bathroom.
Monsieur was evidently pleased with the sunken bath. He beckoned to him who knows. ‘Regardez,’ he pointed. I could tell from the response that my other half was already picturing stumbling into that great hole and not being able to get out again. At least he didn’t say he’d look into it. Clearly, the sunken bath would have to go. Pity really. I rather fancied wallowing in Roman splendour, cavorting amongst the billowing soap suds of my subterranean pleasure retreat. Oh well.
Glancing in the mirror above the washbasin reminded me of how, as tall Europeans, we always seem to get caught out by short plumbers. It always seems to be the plumber who fixes the height of the mirror. He will always adjust it according to whether he can see his own face reflected back, forgetting that for ever more the taller owners of the mirror will suffer hernias from constantly crouching to see themselves in it! Why are plumbers always short anyway? And you should always beware of shaking hands with a plumber, or even a gynaecologist, because you never know where they’ve been!
We all walked out through the kitchen door into the back. The view was spectacular. ‘Regardez,’ repeated Monsieur, evidently sure that this would be the only French word we were likely to understand. The view certainly was wonderful and a million miles away from the tightly-packed, graffiti-ridden English suburban views back home. We could see for miles, the view permeated here and there by densely-wooded copses, undulating steadily into the distance. Without actually expressing it, I had been searching all my life for complete privacy such as this, and now we seemed to have found it.
Him whose mind always turns to money took Monsieur to one side. ‘C’est combien?’ Wonderful how his French improves when the need arises.
‘Un cent et quarante-neuf milles euros.’
‘Uh. You take one hundred and forty….?’ hopefully.
‘Non!’ hands facing downwards, one moving forcefully over the other in the international sign language indicating disapproval.
We had often talked about the usually unknown reasons why people sell, so we asked the vendor our standard three questions: ‘Why are you selling, why are you selling, why are you selling?’
To which came the carefully-prepared response: ‘The land is now too large for us.’ (This all sounded eminently sensible, but we later discovered the vendor had bought a new plot of land in the village, double the size of this one!). This all goes to prove that when buying an established house, one never knows the real reason for the sale.
After a further few minutes of kicking our heels in frustration, the agent walked up to us, confirming that the owner definitely would not accept anything less than the asking price. What did we want to do?
There was no question that this was the only house we had seen that had even come close to ‘ticking all the boxes’. It was habitable without doing major structural repairs, had privacy, space for him indoors to crash and bang to his heart’s content, was within walking distance of the village with its Boulangerie (I could smell those warm croissants now), and was within our budget.
We shook hands all around.
It seemed that we had bought our dream house.
Let the future begin!
.........Don't miss the final episode next Sunday