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“The room fills with smoke – we can hear the woodworm coughing –”

Becoming involved with France is a little like messing about on the water – there are countless opportunities to make a complete tit of yourself. The reasons are many and varied, but language has got to be right at the top of the list. It is language, or in our case, the lack of it that has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the many elephant traps that have littered our path, and into which we’ve blundered with the grim inevitability of clockwork toys marching off the edge of a table.
Below is an extract from my 2003 diary describing, in characteristically negative tones, just a few of the initial problems we encountered on taking possession of our French house. It’s testament to the many wonderful aspects of the French experience that we’re still persevering and, indeed, actually enjoying it.

…………I fall back on a lifetime of Boy Scout skills to coax the fire into life using a copy of the Midweek Herald (9 parts asbestos), some damp kindling, some damper wormy bits of house that I’ve found, and some sodden logs. The room fills with smoke – we can hear the woodworm coughing – and the ceiling starts to steam and crackle around the uninsulated stove pipe. I stand by with a fire extinguisher. We eat dinner and listen to some pop CDs – anything more serious would have me swinging from a noose right now.

That’s the first day. Then it gets worse……..

We sleep on the floor in the sitting room. A newish-looking mattress had been left in the house. After checking it for stains and finding no evidence of Anything Dreadful we lay it down on a new dustsheet – 12’ X 9’ finest twill, £7.99 from Screwfix – then cover it with a new double sleeping bag, both for insulation and isolation. We’d brought our duvet from home, so lay there in reasonable comfort listening to the stove crackling. We could also hear the roof leaking, and were dimly aware of Things Dropping on Us.

The following morning Patrick appears through the snow on his tractor bringing us 2 cu mtrs of logs as promised, right on time. It includes some well-seasoned dry stuff for which we’re really grateful, and he only charged 30 euros. Now that is good.

“By now I have the chauffage working so half the drips are hot!”

I start to apply myself to the most pressing tasks. The electricity comes into the house from the barn on two separate lengths of flex. The original is the one that keeps tripping. The later one comes in through the bathroom window (yes, through it!) and feeds the water heater (le chauffage). It would be barely man enough to power a door bell in this country but I turn a blind eye for the moment and concentrate on the tripping-one first, managing to bypass a great birds nest of corroded and flaking wires. The supply trips less frequently now, so I can take time to take stock of the plumbing. It has all been installed by the Australian and is truly appalling. How can a grown man make such a balls-up of such a simple system? He’s used micky mouse plastic pipe, but obviously hadn’t been prepared to pay for the correct fittings. Everything is bodged, glued and smeared in sealant. Almost every joint is dripping. He had even jammed a length of gutter under one joint to carry the water away to a less important area of floor! By now I have the chauffage working so half the drips are hot! Never mind, it’s only plumbing. I can’t fathom the waste arrangements though – does it all go off to the fosse septique down that new soil pipe in the cellar? And why is there a macerator on the lavatory?

There’s at least one smashed or missing pane in every window - I think they must have enjoyed some pretty physical rows. The snow’s stopped now so I measure up for new glass. June’s spent a happy morning “finding” things and making it all look much homelier, but she’s now ready for a break, so off we go through the stunning scenery and wonderful trees down to Argentat for replacement glass, and to sort out those dense pillocks at Credit Agricole. I’ve had an account there since March, and despite all my faxes and phone calls they’ve obstinately failed to send my cheque book. I’m ready for aggro, but it turns out to be unnecessary. They hand me my cheque book immediately with what I feel is a look of disdain. Well why couldn’t they send it then?
We also call in to introduce ourselves at the Mairie in Neuville. It actually goes quite well – we meet the Mayor’s secretary who seems very pleasant and lets us have a leaflet of the footpaths in the area.
We drive back up to our arctic wasteland past the little cottage that I’m now convinced we should have bought. It looks delightful. The shutters are open so it’s obviously been bought. Bastards!

“…the ground itself is faintly illuminated by light from the stars. Fabulous.”

“At home” we soon have the fire blazing, the wine open and the dinner ready. We’ve since heard that the previous owner was a bit of a boozer. – I’m not surprised. It wouldn’t take me long to go the same way.

The following morning the temperature is –3.5ºC – thick frost and clear skies, but golly, the views are magnificent from here. The snow covered peaks of the Massif Central are so clearly picked out by the morning sunshine. Despite all our problems there’s no denying that this is a wonderfully beautiful area.
I cut a load more logs to warm up, and the noise of my chainsaw (tronconneuse f) attracts M Perrier over for a chat. It isn’t communication, as such, but I feel we’re bonding. He seems to approve of the sharpness of my saw – that’s given me a bit of credence I think – and we wave our arms around a lot and grin. He tells me about a husband and wife up the lane who speak English. That could be very useful.
Just before bed that night I crunch around the property in the hard frost. The stars are as bright as I’ve ever seen them in my life. I love that. Virtually no light pollution at all. In fact, the ground itself is faintly illuminated by light from the stars. Fabulous.

Sunday was spent glazing, then walking the footpath from Neuville Eglise - 8 kms of well marked tracks across fields and through beautiful autumn woodlands. The colours are absolutely stunning with the yellows from the birch and chestnut trees really lighting up glades. We crossed only one tiny lane in all that walking, and finally arrived back with a rosy glow and a pocketful of chestnuts.

The weekend has actually been quite pleasant despite the icy cold. Monday looks set to be good, too, with another beautiful frosty dawn, but unfortunately the day has some unpleasant surprises in store……..

The JCB, plus M.Perrier, plus a couple of builders who’ve parked their van right outside our kitchen window, are all busy filling in the huge hole. I risk ridicule and humiliation, by wandering out for a chat. It seems that the Perriers are having a new fosse septique. That’s fine.
I ask, conversationally, if they should happen to know “ou est notre fosse exactement?” After some blank looks they assure me “Non, il n’y a pas une fosse pour votre maison! Ce n’est pas la!”
No fosse! But the agent had assured me……
I’m able to phone and speak to her straight away, and she agrees that the vendor had claimed there was a fosse. She then phones back a little later to tell me very apologetically that indeed it didn’t exist, but as I hadn’t specifically asked that question in writing then I had no come-back.
Well, bugger that!
She did add, however, that a septic-tank-expert-woman (who spoke good English) would be calling shortly to inspect all the new work next door, and she would be able to give me some guidance.

“I was delighted to see on her business card that her name was followed by the letters SPANC.”

The septic-tank-expert-woman did turn up shortly as promised, but she was in a screaming rush and very taken-up with the Perriers who appeared to have transgressed some rule or other with their installation. Nor did she speak a single word of English – pas du tout! However, she was quite attractive in an earthy way, and I was delighted to see on her business card that her name was followed by the letters SPANC. I managed to make an appointment for Wednesday at 16.30.

I now decide to take advantage of the dry weather and make some repairs to the roof of the cottage. I’d been pleased to find a reasonable looking ladder in the barn, so I carry it out and prop it up against the house. Now you’re probably expecting the rungs will snap and that I’ll fall off and land on my backside. Well I expected that too, and so I leapt on the first two rungs with all my weight to test them. OK. Ha!
It was the third one that broke! - and despite the momentum of my plunging descent snapping the first two after all, I land quite gently.
I sit there miserably in the grass listening to those awful dogs barking, planning my next move and wondering if everything about this house is completely knackered or bodged. My answer comes almost immediately with a startling gurgle and a whoosh, and Strewth and Lightning if the contents of the lavatory don’t come flying through the wall at me!!
Holy Moly! Straight through the bloody wall, just beneath the bathroom window. I don’t believe it! That Antipodean meathead has just fed the outlet of the macerator straight through the bathroom wall. Gordon Bennett! That’s disgusting. I can only guess that he thought the rainwater off the roof would wash it away! Give me Strength!……………….

©Rodney Davies

Rodney Davies suffers from high blood pressure. He and June are making frustratingly slow progress renovating a crooked old peasant farmhouse high in the hills of the Corrèze. Unless any more spanners (clé anglaise) get lobbed into the works they should be able to retire in four years and spend happy summers there exploring, tinkering about, and eating and drinking a little too well.