It happened like this … An English family move to France. Part 3. Snowy winter.
Our house in Breuil Magne
The Charente Maritime, 1990.
Our second house was a 17th century stone dwelling, with a huge barn extention in to which an indoor swimming pool had been installed. There was also an orchard and the derelict vestiges of a tennis court. The pool was deep and dark and remained freezing cold all year, summer or not. We tried to swim in it once or twice. In the ceiling of the pool room were large electric velux windows, and french doors lined all of one wall. The room was sort-of finished and had fancy lighting and a grotesque bar arrangement, wallpaper at one end and tiles on the floor. The previous owners had clearly had some money and then run out; a lot of the house was unfinished.
Breuil-Magne is a village on the outskirts of Rochefort, just south of La Rochelle. The word breuil means hamlet in old French and magne (magnus), of course, is Latin for big. It boasted a population of about 3000, a village school, a small shop and, as always, the boulangerie.
When we first drove in to Rochefort, while we were still house-hunting, we couldn’t believe our eyes – the modern world! Automatic doors! Real supermarkets ! (still no cereal, tea or fresh milk though) A chemist that didn’t look like a scene from the Munsters! Restaurants that were actually open most days and proposed more than 2 dishes! Banks that didn’t look like the village post office! After just seven months in the centre of France, it was a revelation.
Despite this, the area was nonetheless very run down and grotty. La Rochelle itself, which was already a big tourist destination, had been renovated and restored, and was a lively, bustling town with many historic buildings and museums. Goodness – gourmet restaurants, entertainment and wonderful shops! But Rochefort, which was our local town, was a drab grey ex-military town with monstrous stone buildings and – as ever – a constant smell of septic tanks and drains. That was a characteristic of France for many years. But, credit where credit is due, when it was renovated, along with all the towns and villages in the whole area, it was transformed rapidly in to an attractive town with beautiful historic buildings, parks, fountains, flowers and lots to see. The French authorities invested a huge amount in to re-making broken pavements and cleaning and clearing public areas and generally bringing France up to speed. That was after we had been in the area about a year, and we used to joke that once we arrived the French thought they’d best pull their socks up! (For my French readers – that is just a joke!)
Vauclair Castle & Abbey at La Rochelle was built by the English in 1185. The town is rich with all sorts of ancient buildings, loaded with history, and a very good shopping centre. It is the capital of the Charente Maritime, and the French are rightly very proud of it.
That was the Winter of the Snow.
The Charente Maritime hadn’t seen snow for something like 25 years. The summer had been long and hot, and the heat continued well in to October or even November before turning cold and damp and nasty. And then suddenly, one night in January, it snowed. All winter we had been so cold, in an inadequately heated house, and so broke that Bruce sawed up non-supporting beams in the barn for firewood. The elder two children slept in the living room with a log fire and Jake slept in with us. That huge old stone house was like an old-fashioned fridge – keep the outside cold and damp and the inside remains cold and damp too, so that even when the sun broke through the cloud and the temperature went up outside, it remained freezing cold in the house. It was absolutely horrible.
I love the lonesome tricycle sitting there in the snow! To the left is the barn that Bruce partly dismantled in order to provide us with firewood. There was about an acre of land, I seem to recall, and a large pond over there beyond the fence. Beyond was farmland. It has since been built on, some 20 or 30 bungalows.
As was usual in those days, the sanitary arrangements were abysmal and there was just one tiny old-fashioned bathroom and no kitchen to speak of. These big old places almost always had a huge kitchen with a big open fireplace and, indeed, there was such a room but it had been used as a dining room and the kitchen was a tiny section of the adjoining barn, not big enough to swing a cat in and with a lamentable lack of equipment – an oven with no door was one item, I recall, and the sink was in fact a bathroom basin, pink.
So, despite lack of funds and the bitter cold, we set about improving and renovating as fast as we could. We gutted the tiny kitchen and broke down the walls to make a good-sized kitchen. We also installed another toilet upstairs. We had bought the house with the intention of a quick re-sale but now, seeing what that first winter was like, we wanted rid of the place as fast as we could. When we had come along it had been for sale for three years. My mother-in-law and I planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs when we arrived, which was in the September – still hot – and when spring came the front garden was ablaze with colour. Things like daffodils help to sell a house. By the time we got our first prospective buyers the stone facade that had been frozen for months looked warm and attractive, the new kitchen looked … er … well, it looked … shall we say ethnic ? and my usual arrangements of flowers and dried herbs, draperies and zillions of interesting little touches transformed the house in to an attractive Maison de Maitre that any buyer would be interested in.
And indeed, eleven months after buying the house, we sold at a tolerably good price to the third people to view.
The kitchen! We didn’t get much beyond this, but that room on the left became a big walk-in larder. We had a sink and an old cooker and fridge, of course, and when viewers were coming round I put large bunches of dried leaves and grasses up on the beams, a big bowl of fruit on the table, a huge chopping board covered with vegetables, several racks of eggs …. it made the place look wholesome. Unfinished, but wholesome.
That was also the Year of the Gestapo.
Our accountant, who was stunningly unhelpful, told us not to refer to the tax inspectors as The Gestapo. Apart from that, he did and said nothing to help us. The law has since changed and professional people now have a responsibility to their clients, but at the time he had no responsibility at all.
So, one day towards the end of that dreadful winter, two men and a woman turned up at our front door and asked to see the cahier. Cahier means excercise book.
What cahier ? I asked.
I looked them up and down. All three were wearing trench coats and the woman had a hat on, a kind of trilby affair.
The cahier. The cahier of your accounts and activities, they said.
Ah, said I. No problem! We have only been here a few months and I have made just one sale. It is in my head.
I had a phenomenal memory in those days. I could remember the clients’ names, the addresses & prices of the properties, where and which and when and how – no problem.
Non, non, they shook their heads. It is the law that you have it written down in a cahier.
Well, I smiled at them, the accountant has all that kind of thing … and I shooed them away.
I really didn’t give it a great deal of thought afterwards. I suppose I might have mentioned it to Bruce, I don’t know. We had a proper accounting firm for precisely this kind of thing and, apart from being moderately amused by their bizarre dress-sense, I forgot about it. Weeks, months tripped on by, spring arrived. It was vastly warmer out of doors than it was inside. I caught my skirt on fire standing too close to a gas heater; Jake had bad gastro troubles and had to go in to hospital (that was the only week I was warm), I wished we had a microwave, the children’s homework was such a chore, the mimosa hadn’t survived the snow … life went on …
It was a legal requirement to keep a written record of each and every transaction, even if there had been only one, and we discovered this some months later when the Gestapo wrote to us. You have no cahier! cried the letter with disgust. Any details the accountant already had were not the cahier. No Tippex, and only a single line for crossing-out. Each page must be signed and dated. All details of the vendor, the buyer, the property etc. must be neatly entered. C’est la loi.
No worries, I said, I’ll do it now, no problem.
But no, that was not acceptable. Worse, not only was it la loi, but not doing it carried a heavy fine: 250 000 francs – about £23 000 at that time. I stood staring at the letter for some time, re-reading it, convinced I had misunderstood something. No, they were fining us 250 000 francs.
As it was, I was unhappy and lost in France. The winter had been dreadful and there were still months to go before the summer influx of clients, ie money. William was miserable at school. Bruce still hadn’t learnt any French. I had joined keep fit in the village and went along every week, and it was fun …. but I made no friends. A few superficial smiles and the odd bonjour only. There was nobody I could talk to. I felt completely bludgeoned, exhausted, lonely and homesick.
I found a lawyer in La Rochelle
He was an expert at this kind of thing and came recommended by our accountant – so I was not certain if it was a good recommendation or not. La Rochelle was about twenty minutes’ drive from our house, and I was not yet familiar with it. It is quite a big town actually, with a population of about 75 000. I parked in the centre of the crowded town in a place that has since become a modern multi-storey car park. In those days it was just a traditional French place, difficult to get in and out of, with a little man in a beret taking your money and giving you a small pink ticket. After some time I found the lawyer’s office, wedged at the top of a narrow staircase in one of the old buildings opposite the front de mer. He was a nice guy, understood my predicament, but explained that this kind of case could not be won. He told me that when the authorities have a fine like this, and it is la loi, whether I didn’t understand or not, and whether the accountant/ Chamber of Commerce/ whatever should have told me or not, that was the end of that. I would have to pay it. I felt sick, really sick.
I travelled back and forth between the lawyer, the accountant (who made it absolutely clear he didn’t give tuppence) and the tax office many times, determined there was a way out of this predicament. More stressy weeks went by. Then more. I refused to pay it. See you in Court, I said. Goodness, we didn’t have the money anyway!
It dragged on and on for months and months. I viewed properties and took clients, sold houses, looked after the children, lived life, all the while with this huge debt hanging over us. I was worried sick. The lawyer explained that the most likely outcome would be that I would be obliged to pay a certain amount every month till the debt was paid off.
What made us stay ?
It would have been easy enough to have just cut and run. We could (probably) have sold the house and left. That is what the lawyer himself advised us to do – just go, he said, France is riddled with rules and regulations, he said. Everything seemed to threaten. Everybody seemed a menace. Every time the phone rang or every time the post arrived I was convinced there was some disaster. We had done nothing wrong. In fact, we had done everything right. It ate at me, gnawed at me like a canker, the way troubles do.
But where would we have gone ? Had we cut and run, what could we have done? Pippa was doing well at school, William was starting to adjust and had got little chums. Business, once spring arrived, was good – excellent in fact. We had no house and no income at home.
Also, of course, we were fighters. No way was I going to allow anybody or anything to knock us flat. We had lost everything in the UK. It would not happen again.
Me tucking in somewhere!
Eventually, I appeared in Court in La Rochelle. Funnily enough I was almost an hour late because the summons had been hand-written and the address looked like “rue de l’Ecole” when in fact it was “rue de l’Escale“. It was a very hot day and I drove around the congested streets almost beside myself, cursing under my breath, trying to find the appropriate street, and then trying to find somewhere to park. You’d have thought that being so late would herald disaster, but it didn’t.
The lawyer, frantic on my behalf, was champing at the bit, scurrying up and down the corridor looking for me. His face had gone from ruddy to purple and his hair stood up at odd angles. He flapped papers in my face. He had prepared a chart for me, showing how much I could pay each month. Vastly more agitated than I was, he bade me follow him up another narrow staircase to a large room.
Three men were waiting at a circular table and my lawyer explained about the hand-written address which had been written by the little man sitting to the left. I grinned at him and we sat down. I was not nervous. I have never been nervous talking to other people, whoever they are. It never occurs to me to be nervous. The man on the right was a judge and other two men were from the tax office. Several bonjours went back and forth. Also some hand shaking. The tax people, after some clearing of throats went first. They wanted me to pay interest on the “debt”, so the amount had already gone up considerably. The one on the left was scribbling notes and I made a little laughing comment about his handwriting. The lawyer looked uncomfortable, adjusted his glasses and shuffled papers. He put my case. He pointed out that I had done everything required by law – at the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of this and the Chamber of that and everything in-between. It was just this cahier business I hadn’t got right. But he sounded so wishy-washy. Lord, was he on the brink of apologizing for me??!!
May I speak ? I asked. I raised my hand as if in a classroom, and I saw the faintest hint of a smile pass across the judge’s face. Yes, said Monsieur le Juge. So I spoke. The trouble here, I argued, lies not with my ineptitude to write in a cahier, but with the local authorities who didn’t furnish me with the appropriate information. If you want to fine somebody, I said, fine them.
The judge agreed. I won.
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