Here’s my account of the momentous day from Heads Above Water, my book about our expat lives in France:
One night on the ferry and one night in a hotel watching France play Spain in the World Cup later, we pulled into Les Fragnes about midday on June 28th. Nigel and Philippe, the estate agents, were there to meet us as we rumbled down the drive with our trailer of essential belongings. They were delighted to see us and had laid out a picnic with lashings of wine for the adults and a mountain of crisps for the children. (They’d phoned us several times during the course of the morning to make sure we were still coming and hadn’t turned and fled en route.) They didn’t have the keys to the houses, though, so we could only peer covetously through the filthy windows. But the buildings were undeniably still there, so all seemed well. They discouraged us from walking around too much, saying we needed to get into Boussac in good time. So we took their advice, unhitched the trailer, quickly overindulged and followed them to the town.
Our first stop was at the insurance office. Before we could buy Les Fragnes, we had to have proof for the Notaire that we’d insured it, even though it wasn’t ours yet – one of those chicken and egg peculiarities you learn to live with in France. So Nigel came with me to see M Orvil, the best dressed insurance agent around with a penchant for pointy-toe shoes, and we sorted this matter out, pleasantly and not too expensively. Then on to the serious stuff chez le Notaire.
The first thing Chris and I did was remarry. Well, sort of. We changed our marital regime. The French see English marriages as being en indivision in nature. This means that if one of you dies, your spouse gets half of what’s left and the kids (or other relatives if there aren’t children) share the other half between them. Not really the best idea. So we took on the communauté universelle regime. Now whichever of us lasted longer got the lot, ideally to fritter away merrily before the kids could get their hands on it. Perfect. That process took half an hour or so and cost about four hundred euro. That’s probably more than we spent in total at our original modest little wedding back at Westerfield in 1986.
We went out to check on the kids, who were reading happily in the waiting room, while the rest of the cast arrived for the sale ceremony. First came M and Mme Paray, the vendors. They ran a business in Boussac. They had inherited Les Fragnes from some relative or other and had been letting it out for the last forty years ̶ to M and Mme Leblanc, who were the next to arrive. They were giving up their right to be tenants so that the owners could sell to us. They therefore had to be there to sign all the documents too. Nic our translator rolled up next. He was a beanpole of a man, with short grey hair and a friendly face. So with us, Philippe and Nigel and the Notaire, we were all assembled. There were slightly suspicious handshakings and cheek kisses, a lot of nervousness, and then proceedings got underway.
The sale took ages. The Notaire read out every page of the long, long Acte de Vente document, which Nic, sitting behind us, concurrently translated and quietly whispered into our ears. Then I got up and initialled every page and finally signed the last one, the first to commit to this crazy enterprise. Then Chris, then the Leblancs then the Parays, and then the Notaire. Phew. By now we’d sent the two eldest kids off with money to buy magazines and ice-creams in town, and brought Ruadhri in to fidget and snooze on my lap. Events go on for a long time in France.
And then, momentously, Les Fragnes was ours. The huge keys were given to us. Happy handshakings and cheek kisses all round, no nervousness anymore on the French side but a hell of a lot more on the English. We staggered to the nearest café for a stiff drink before packing up the family and driving back to our farm. The first thing we found when walking round the buildings was that about a square metre of wall was peeling away, just under the roof of the tallest house. That hadn’t been like that back in December. Could this be why Nigel and Philippe had kept us from poking around too much before the signing ceremony? And going into the houses, we discovered that the hunting club had ripped out the heating range, the lighting and the ceiling i.e. the few redeeming features. To Benjamin’s disappointment, the girlie calendars had gone too. We later found most of the hardware dumped either in the green lane alongside our property, or in the woodland beyond the dam wall of the big lake. Quite why they’d gone all the effort to perform this piece of mindless vandalism is a puzzle. We hope it wasn’t aimed at us. I think it was more a protest against the vendor for vending. But we were the ones who lost out. Talking of the big lake, it wasn’t many days before we realised it was fishless. Despite our request to the contrary, the fish had been removed and flogged. That felt extremely personal and was a massive blow.
That evening we were tired and despondent and now terrified by what we’d done. Chris inspected the dodgy wall and realised fully for the first time that the houses were built of mud and stones. And that was it. The hovels of Les Fragnes were just one step up from mud huts basically. Now, we’d had a sort of survey done. They don’t really have them in France, but you can get a builder or architect to take a look at a property for you and give his or her professional opinion on the state of the place. We’d used a builder recommended by the immobiler. He typed up a little report which stated firmly that the buildings were sain et sauf i.e. safe and sound. Yeah right, we thought now. But tough. Under French law, there’s no comeback. If you buy a house and it falls to the ground next day, tant pis. Too bad.
We set off to the motel in Montluçon where we had booked rooms for that night, gloomily certain that all three buildings we’d just bought would collapse during our absence. We cheered up a little over a hearty supper at Buffalo Grill, but tortured ourselves again through the wee small hours in the stiflingly hot hotel, where it was impossible to sleep anyway, even without having possibly made the worst mistake of your life. However, hope springs eternal, or maybe it was simply the jolt of caffeine to the brain, but after breakfast we felt positive again. We went for an invigorating walk around the neighbouring wasteground – this really was a budget hotel – and then hit the hypermarket before returning to our new home.
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