It happened like this … Part 18. After the storm.
Seaside places were the worst hit because the exceptionally high tide caused extensive flooding; most businesses were ruined, some of them for good
The most extraordinary thing had happened. The day before we left to spend Christmas in the UK, I had been in Saintes. Christmas shopping, I expect. I happened to go past an insurance place and for some reason popped in. What made me pop in I have no idea, but I did. Many years earlier, when William was new-born, we had lost almost everything we owned in a fire and at that time had been badly under-insured. Perhaps something in Saintes that day had triggered that memory ? I will never know. But I spoke to the insurance man and told him how much I paid to insure the Chateau and all the out-buildings.
He looked at a few figures and, after a bit of calculating, he said:
“I’d say you are extremely under-insured.”
He looked at more papers.
“Furthermore,” he added, “the Chateau comes under the category of belle demeure, so your insurance wouldn’t work anyway because you have insured it as an ordinary house.”
There and then I handed the insurance over to him, a man I instinctively liked very much (he has since become a friend), put the chateau in the appropriate category, wrote the cheque and thought no more about it.
I have often thought that was such an extraordinary coincidence, and the insurer afterwards said that, had the storm not been such a big and obvious one, he’d have assumed it was fraud.
” I’m only getting in the car if you’re taking me to the beach; if you’re not taking me to the beach I’m not getting in! ” Goodness, although Gerorge was a magnificent animal, there were times when he could be such a plonker!
Francoise re-appeared with a tow truck to remove her car. She was shaken and weepy. I hugged her, tried to reassure her. When the storm had abated, determined that the end of the world was upon us, she had walked the 4 kms back to her place, leaving poor George to face whatever was to befall him, and us to our lot. Not that I blamed her – I may well have done the same. She scolded crossly under her breath as her car was hoisted. She was inordinately annoyed that her car was badly damaged but the trampoline barely even scratched. I helped her fill in the insurance papers. Her own flat, in the centre of Marennes, had suffered no damage at all.
As soon as the rest of the roads had been cleared, and as soon as the situation in my own home was … well, I won’t say bearable, for it was unbearable …. I’ll say as soon as I felt less sick, I drove round the various tenants to see how they had fared. None of them had phoned me, but the phone lines had been down almost everywhere. I hoped and prayed that none of them had been hurt, that their homes had not suffered too much damage and that at least that aspect of our lives – and theirs – could remain normal.
More storm damage
Of the 33 flats and the three cottages, just one cottage had not been touched by the storm. All the others, without exception, had had parts of the roof blown off, windows smashed in, trees had fallen against the building in several places, breaking sections of wall and, in one case like us, blocking the front door. Nobody had had electricity for several days. In the two places where there were septic tanks and no mains drainage, the tanks had overflowed and poured across the yard, much of it in to the house. The poor tenants, flooded out with the contents of their septic tank, and with much of their roof gone must have been beside themselves.
All but one of the afflicted properties had been abandoned. With gaping holes in the roof and no power, people had moved out and gone to stay with friends and relatives in other parts of France. One or two had been re-housed by the Council. As they got in touch with me, one by one, they all wanted their house repaired first … and there were no roofers left available, and no roof tiles, nor would there be for two or three months to come.
And so the rents didn’t get paid.
Which meant the banks didn’t get paid.
“We’re going to lose the lot,” I said.
And we did.
Just to exacerbate the situation several of the tenants seemed to think that I was going to compensate them for their belongings. Part of the conditions in the letting contracts was that they have their own insurance for their own possessions, as is the norm – but almost none of them did. Some became quite nasty about it, one family even banging on our front door and screaming at me about their TV and their clothes as it were somehow my responsibility. Others seemed to think that, because I was the landlady, I had not only a duty but also some kind of magical power to re-house them. I felt desperately sorry for them, even when they got nasty, but could do nothing.
One by one the banks got nasty too.
It was impossible to re-tenant the properties while there were sections of roof missing; it was impossible to re-roof the place till not only did roofers become available but the insurance agreed to it first. Round and round in vicious circles, all but ripping my hair out trying to save what we had built up, phone calls to the insurers, phone calls to roofers, to the banks, to the tenants … and over the next few months I watched it trickle through my fingers …
It is funny how, in a dire situation, some kind of survival instinct kicks in. Like in that old film “Gone with the Wind”, I said : “I can’t think about that today”.
I couldn’t worry about the situation with the tenants or the banks when there was nothing I could do. Once I had got it through my head that the situation was out of my control ( a sensation I have never been familiar with and have always had difficulty accepting), I concentrated my energies on salvaging what I could. It was simply impossible to reason with the tenants who were being difficult. All I could do was close my mind to them, despite their plight. France has a social system precisely for them. Some of the tenants I simply never heard from again – they took their things and left. One or two tried to help by doing temporary roofing jobs, but most sat back and waited.
And there was no point in reasoning with the banks. Rules is rules, and they had their hands tied too. Some were genuinely sorry and bent over backwards to help.
The children went back to school and, as is the way with youngsters, they soon forgot about troubles and even seemed to be vying with each other as to whose house was the worst damaged. Their bedroom windows sported boards over them for many months. Broken things just got hauled over the balcony in to our trailer (there were no skips to be hired) and William and Bruce went back and forth to the dump, emptying the trailer and then taking it back again. Between us we piled the logs up under shelter. The motorway logs, by the way, are on “display” along the motorway to this day – piled up high with a sign saying “Tempete de 1999” – thousands of them. Grass and moss are growing over them now, and many trees have grown back.
When you think of the size of pylons, it gives you more of an idea of the strength of the wind. The services who battled the elements to get the country functioning again were marvellous, truly marvellous.
Of course, the UK – and many other countries – have seen equally bad storms, many vastly worse. I have been in hurricanes and cyclones. I have seen fire damage, devastating fire damage. So in many ways I suppose that is what helped me keep it in proportion. One has to move on. It could have been so much worse. Many many people had lost a great deal more. We were grateful, and every cloud has a silver lining – our silver lining being a completely new roof for free. And because of Bruce and his team we were able to keep some semblance of a cash flow going, as the insurance paid out to them as they billed for repairs. We managed to keep all of Bruce’s men in work, all except for Eric who, his tail between his legs reappeared after a few weeks, but we didn’t take him back.
The big problem now, with the banks getting ready to foreclose on all our properties except Les Cypres, was to find a new income.
And, understandably, that old sensation of homesickness came back to me. It was such an irony for I had, by now eleven years since arriving in France, managed to overcome any left-over feelings of hankering after my home; I had more-or-less recovered from losing our Sussex house, and I had almost forgiven the French bureaucratic system for the traumas it had put me through. I had come to see that our children were, in so many ways, more French than English. And also, with a bit of a shock, when we were in the UK I’d find myself at the butcher’s asking for “white of chicken” because that’s how they say it in French, or looking through Yellow Pages alphabetically under trades and not towns.
Where, not long ago, I had criticised anything and everything that was French, I had just started to accept things the way they were, admire them, be happy about it. With the end of the storm came the end of that change of heart.
Not, of course, that I blamed France for the storm. Even at my worst moments I was not that bad. But that old feeling of being unhappy in France came back to me in full swing, whacking me hard and sending me reeling. More than anything in the world I wanted to go home.
William and a few of his cronies up on the top floor. William started playing the drums at around this time. The nearest teacher was at the far side of Royan, and I would drive him over there on Saturday mornings. The lessons lasted an hour, which gave me just enough time to whizz round the supermarket.
I suppose it took a year to sort out not just all the damage to the house and the out-buildings, but to claim the insurance and get things sorted and paid.
Irate conversations with the banks chipped away at my nerves. We were by now very seriously in debt, with thirty-odd little mortgages that were not getting paid. Some of the properties I was able to sell quickly and cover the costs, some went at a loss and I had to come to monthly payment arrangements with the banks. I had to time it carefully because the insurance companies would not pay out for storm damage on properties we no longer owned, but there was no point in doing more work than the value of the sale. It was a juggling act that I was able to pull off thanks largely to my experience in the realty trade. That, in turn, kept the men (all French men by now) paid and in work.
I slept badly. My nights were filled with confused dreams. Emotionally, I was back to Square One.
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