Friday, March 13, 2015

A delightful encounter, and the sun is shining!

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Misty with warm sun later 15 degrees

Spent morning uploading property from earlier in the week.  There are fifteen pages of information for each property, plus writing the advert in French and English.  I also have to trim and improve the photos, cutting out distracting elements and lightening and brightening to give the best impression possible of the house.  I then crop and reduce pixel size.  Each property takes a good hour/hour and a half to load.  The phone is silent for once and I glimpse an array of blue tits and great tits devouring the fat balls on the bird table.  They are currently getting through two a day and are so fat, it is surprising they can take off from the platform.

WF rings to say that he has finally got his new computer up and running and is applying for his CII (insurance institute) membership and will start doing basic exams.  He also says his contract is not going to be extended beyond the three months, and that they are now having very few calls since the television campaign ended.  Yesterday, he spent ten minutes on the phones and the remainder of the eight hours playing board games with an African lady. Games supplied by the employers who are funded by government grant.  This has been a very useful first experience of work for WF who is now getting his CV in order and out to the Employment Agencies whom we found to be the best conduit for finding work.

Late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky, and the fields are glowing orange, I head north and wait for my clients in a small village.  All of the shutters are closed and the only activity is in the municipal offices.  Birds cheep, a light breeze plays with the dead leaves gathered in the crook of the road, a plane passes overhead.  My phone rings.  It is the seller of the house in my town and she says my would be buyers needn't bother ringing her directly anymore because she has found another buyer and will be signing in the agents office this afternoon.  I think 'Bollocks, that is xxxxx euros up the Swanee'.  I ring the relevant agent and he gives me the name of the buyers and when I tell him the story of my would be buyers, he says Oh la la!

At that point, the clients arrive so we get out of our cars and say hello and then back in and they follow me to the property.  The lady, who is easily in her late 60's, is a slight sprite of a woman, tiny in proportion with wild curling waist length hair, Sybil Trelawny glasses and delicate hands tortured by arthritic joints.  She is wearing an ankle length skirt, overlaid with a camouflage jacket and many bangles.  The ensemble is topped off with a trilby which has been enjoyed by many ravenous moths.  She jumps down from the battered green van and skips over to me.  'My husband is very quiet!' she exclaims, breathily, 'but that is alright because I do the talking'.  She paused very rarely for breath, giving me chance to point things out, during the next two and a half hours.  She was an absolute delight and absolutely adored the property if it were not for the road noise.  The road is quite some distance away, down a track which has terrified previous visitees.  She exclaims that there is not a lot of work to do in the house.  I am thinking I need more French clients like her because the majority of them can find fault in a perfect house, never mind one that needs replastering, rewiring, new kitchen, new bathroom, new windows, new septic tank and decoration throughout.  I don't know what her husband thought of the house because he didn't get a chance to speak.  They left finally, saying they would have to think about it but they weren't in a rush, and I felt rather shell shocked.

Back home and we enjoy the rabbit and chorizo casserole which had been simmering in the oven for the past three and a half hours.  Yum.  Accompanied by a crisp white rioja.  OH is fed up of working in the rental unit.  He says if he was writing a blog, he could copy and paste each day with the same activity.  This is most uncharacteristic.  I suggest he comes with me tomorrow and he agrees.

More perishing footie on the telly.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

There is a nasty smell somewhere.....

Tuesday 10 March 2014


With Easter coming up fast on the rails and the Euro now just brushing 1.40 against the Pound Sterling, I am on the hunt for fresh stock to fill my pages.

The first property is at the lower end of the price spectrum and is in a very pretty market town.  The owner is lurking in the ground floor shop when I arrive and flicking dust off the faux Tiffany lamps.  We go via a side passage and into the tiny courtyard.  The walls of the surrounding houses rise high above us and I ask when, during the day, the sunlight arrives. Between midday and 2 is good apparently.  It feels dank and cold and the owner says it is easier to appreciate in the heat of Summer.  Sad plants etiolate towards the light.  

Into the house and there is a small kitchen, leading into a large living area with beautiful exposed stone walls, oak floors and full height patio windows leading out onto the balcony. Two excitable small dogs bounce out to meet us - a King Charles cocker spaniel and a Chihuahua.  They are evidently the source of the terrible odour in the building.  I don't have much of a sense of smell but it is making my eyes water.  I throw open the patio doors to 'enjoy' the view and get a couple of lungfuls of fresh air.  The chihuahua tries to throw himself off the balcony so, alas, the doors are closed.  I get the chance to see the new roof that was put on my rental units building, opposite and normally too steep to see from the street, and realise that the roofer has not put on traditional tiles on the facade side, but has covered the entire roof in new ones.  What has he done with the thousands of old and valuable tiles which he took off?  Fortunately the local technical services have not said anything but normally new is not allowed right down in the centre.

There are two more floors and more bedrooms though only one bathroom.  In the corner of the bathroom is a toilet, with no visible means of flushing it.  In response to my question of how do you flush it, the owner lifts the lid and presses a button.  To my absolute horror, there is a deposit in the bowl and a lot of filthy paper.  We both watch, me in ghastly fascination, as the contents circulate and are then sucked out.  Voila!  says the owner happily.

I escape as soon as possible.  Perhaps the smell is in the furnishings?  Perhaps one of the dogs had just had an accident.  Everywhere.

I get back in the car and drive to the next appointment, windows wide open and gasping in lungfuls of non malodorous air.   The road rises above the town and the panorama of rolling hills and valleys opens up, the grass sparkling and fresh in the afternoon sun.  A buzzard circles high overhead and tiny fluffy clouds mackerel the upper skies.

The next house is 18th century and a thing of beauty.  I recognise it as one I had on sale many years ago in a previous terrible existence as an agent in a national French chain.  The interior arrangement of rooms have been completely reworked into a more logical sequence.  Everything is in nickel order and smells absolutely wonderful - pine and vanilla and cinnamon.  It is typical of the area with its hewn stone window encadrements, orange tiled roof and great arched entrance.

A satisfactory end to the afternoon and I go home and still have no news from the would be buyers.  I wonder what they are trying on now?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Art deco and angst

Monday 9 March 2015

Sun with lots of wispy white cloud
6 degrees rising to 14

First things first.  Ring up the couple who run the agency with whom I work and explain that the seller of the house is in torment and the buyer has currently refused to pay more than 50% fees.  First round is described in this post

We chew it over and the head of the agency says that the problem is that if we agree to 50% too quickly, the would be buyer may well come back with an even lower offer.  He suggests we knock off another 10 % and see how that goes.  He also says I could ask the sellers to drop another 1000 euros off their net.  I can't ask them to do this and I won't.  They are already selling 30% below market value.  Oh if only someone would appear out of the blue with enough cash burning a hole in their pocket!   Decide that, rather than naming the sum, to ask the would be buyers to come up a way and, in view of the fact that they are five hours behind in time zone, sent them a carefully worded email.  I believe that when negotiation is delicate then you need to set out your points and give the parties time to chew over them. Other times, you need to be like a swift scimitar but today was not one of those times.

Another blind offer comes in, again over 30% lower than the asking price.  I ring up the enquirer.  She has no idea how much she can spend because she has not made any enquiries about her lending capacity.  Notwithstanding this, they are out in six weeks.  I pass on our banking and lending partner details and send some details of properties which may fit the bill.  A client from the far plains where once roamed Hannibal emails to confirm our RV on Thursday.  I suggest a property to him that has just come back onto the books.  A gorgeous mill - reservation contract signed 10 months ago - and the buyer has just admitted that he hasn't got enough credit to buy.  The sellers are fuming with the agent who apparently hasn't communicated with them, and left them to deal directly with the notary. 

This is my second bite of the cherry on this mill.  A couple from the US made an offer on it with me within two months of it coming onto the market.  The notary (with whom I no longer work after this debacle) had one month to produce the reservation contract.  Despite my providing him with all the information and documentation from the parties, four weeks later it was not ready.  The reservation contract is a pro forma into which individual information is slotted.  My clients got on a boat to cruise back to the States.  By the time they got off the boat, they had changed their minds.  If they had signed before they had got on the boat, it would have been too late to change their minds when they disembarked.

This notary was also the one who insisted that another couple of my buyers, come back from the UK to sign the reservation contract, instead of signing a power of attorney.  They duly came back, popped around to see the owner without my being present, and the owner decided to show them all the saltpetre behind the furniture.  They were terrified and didn't sign.  Saltpetre isn't anything to worry about and is present in a lot of old houses.

If you have a burning urge to read more about saltpetre, here you go

After lunch I head off south and the mountains are glorious and covered with snow as thick and crisp and glossy as Royal Icing.  The seller contacted me after I had spontaneously contacted all of the local gites and chambres d'hôtes to try and find some interesting new property.  I thought I was going to see a gite so imagine my joy when it turned out to be an early 18th century manor house plus a gite plus two hectares of land!

The owners have a thriving chambre d'hôte business and they showed me around the bedrooms.  Each one had its theme - one was art deco and had life size murals of willowy 1920s ladies painted onto the plaster panels which framed the fireplace.  There were stained glass feature windows in deep river greens and cinammons and oranges and a freehand painted chain of ivy romping around the dado rail.  Another room had special straw plasterwork and the walls had a delightful matt texture and, on close inspection, tiny chips of embedded straw.  In this room, chalk paint had been used on the doors and fireplace.  One room was being made over and the new sink was made of stone which came from Romania and contained many shell fossils.  

Typical of a manor house, the tall pitched roof was slate tiled and plaster rendered, with interior shutters as well as exterior.  The windows were framed with substantial stone revetments and some were in original early 18th century style with a thick band of stone forming the base of the upper two panes in a typical two upper/one lower page configuration.

We had coffee in the drawing room and I told them that I needed to go home and think about the price.  It is going to be around a million.

Considerably buoyed by this experience, I went next to see the house of the couple whom I had met whilst walking around the lake on Sunday.  A large contemporary property, it sits on the outskirts of our town, and is on a normally very quiet lane.  A few years ago, a terrorist came to stay with his mother and was hoicked out by the national police, but that is another story.  They have two cocker spaniels with huge doleful eyes.  One was called Noggin, a word which makes me laugh.   The house was well built but suffers from its location on the plot.  Once built, the owners realised that the only way you could see the views was from upstairs, so they have an 'upside down' configuration with a huge upstairs room and balcony and bedrooms and bathrooms downstairs.  The kitchen was large and the man proudly showed me how every cupboard and drawer worked.  He must have spotted my huge doleful eyes looking at the De Longhi coffee machine because, after a while, he finally finished showing me the last drawer and offered a drink.  We sat outside and the sun was warm and they told me about their travels and the dogs invited us to throw golf balls.

Home at 6.30 and OH still down the rental units so I whip up a huge Spanish omelette and salad.  Very tired - ran out of my thyroid medication two days ago.   

No reply from the would be buyers but, thanks to natty programme called Sidekick, I know that they have opened the email seven times during the day.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Mothers and Mothers in Law

Sunday 8 March 2015

Sunny with light breeze
6 degrees to rising to 15

International Women's Day

Woke up excited at the prospect of a visit on our big rental unit.  OH still muttering and cocooned in his sheet wrap so I went down town alone and ran around, opening windows and then closing them because I could hear the gypsies down the street, shouting and banging about.  I put on lights in the darker rooms and turned on the radiators in chilly corners.  At 10 am I was on guard at the front door.  Mr L was on time - petite and Vietnamese - he bounced up the 42 stairs with great ease.  We did the tour and he was smiling - always a good sign - and was taken with the large rooms and how light they all are. He took lots of photos and said he might come back with a member of his family.  Back home to pick up the dog and take a birthday present to a friend.

The friend in question is an ex-client and she and her husband bought a lovely little house, typical of this area with its orange tiled roof rising to a sharp peak and rectangular stone construction with shuttered windows.  They have recently added a large kitchen extension with cupboards from Wickes and a large granite central island.  I have spent most of my life with Ikea kitchens.  Whilst I love Ikea, I decided I loved Wickes more and stroked the gleaming marble, admired all the space for prep, and opened and closed the beautiful clerical grey cupboards.  The dog took the opportunity to run off and then, when tied up, to trample the monbretia and crap on the camellia.  My friend's dog, a Jack Russell, wouldn't let him over the doorstep so we all sat outside, caught up with the news, and drank a lot of lovely milky coffee.  

Back home to find that OH had dismantled the chainsaw and it still didn't work.  He went outside in the shed and I enjoyed ten minutes of peace and my lunch before he came back in and said he had a solution.  The solution was to take the circular saw, drilled to its bench, 250 metres up to the place where the cut branches were stored, and then cut them up there. I am 5'2" and just under nine stone.  The bench probably weighed more than I do and the land was gently sloping.  I needed oxygen by the time we got there.  The dog took the opportunity to run off so I tied him to a tree where he barked a lot.  

The wood had come from the London Planes which had cast many leaves over the new parking area and had therefore suffered severe trimming.  There is nothing like cutting wood to take away the romance of a wood burning stove.  Was amazed, after three hours of cutting, that our hands werent grazing the floor.  Wood is dreadfully heavy.

Went to the kitchen and cooked before sitting down and passing out.  Chicken pie with roast potatoes and apple sponge.  At 9.30 the phone rang and it was the seller of the house in town who is honest enough to have told me that the buyer I presented had tried to buy directly.  She says she cannot afford to lose the sale and is there any way that we can arrive at an agreement over fees.  My heart goes out to her - I so wish I could find someone better to buy her house - promise to speak to the head of the agency tomorrow.

Rooting through a drawer, I find some old pictures of my mother and also of my mother in law.  I did write about them a while ago, and here it is

My mother and my mother in law were both born in 1921 and were female.  They had similar working class backgrounds and lived through the Second World War.  Their resemblance one to another stops at that point.  My mother was born in Birkenhead, Lancashire  and lived with her three sisters and one brother in a terraced house.  She was the baby of the family and when she was born, Frank, the eldest, was already 15.  Her father was a butcher and her mother was a cook.  When the War started, she was evacuated into the countryside: she missed her family and the city and was only away a month.  She came back home and was then sent to Bletchley to do 'something with wiring'.  She was away a month there too and came back to find a job in the NAAFI which was much more her style.  Mum loved being the centre of attention and enjoyed her War to a large extent.  Dances, dying legs with coffee dregs and drawing a line on the calves to simulate real stockings, peroxide, exciting US soldiers (two of her sisters became GI brides), makeup and clothes.

      In 1942, having been bombed out of three houses, the family decided to leave the city and went to the tiny village of Weston Rhyn in Shropshire.  After the initial shock of no electricity (gas provided both heat and light until into the 1950‘s), no shops and so much grass, they settled in.  The War did not physically touch Weston Rhyn - on the one occasion when a German plane passed overhead, apparently my Grandmother ran out of the house, clutching her ration book, only to find herself alone in the street; the locals still warm and quiet in their beds. 

      I have a photo of my mother taken in the early 40's, standing on a rock at Llandudno, wearing a ruched one piece swim suit and with a figure that I have never, in any decade of my life, achieved.  She was always glamorous.  She was always well turned out.  Just about the only piece of advice that she gave me was 'get yourself ready first'.

      My mother in law was born in Preston, Lancashire and had two brothers and a sister.  Naturally blonde, she was once teased that she ‘touched up’ the colour with peroxide and was embarrassed.  She was conservative and never discussed the past with me, apart from mentioning that she and her sister Betty used to be on ‘fire watch’ which in the early stages of the War involved going onto roofs of tall buildings and spending the night looking out.  The most interesting story of all which is one which my hubby told me.  Apparently Lilian was in Ribbleton, it was in the early 60’s and she was hanging out washing on the line.  She looked up.  There was a space ship - a classic spinning saucer, hanging over the garden.  It span for a minute and then flashed up high and disappeared.   I have no hesitation in believing my mother in law - she was completely unfanciful and would not have welcomed the attention that this story would have brought.

      Apart from a spell in Birmingham, my mother in law spent the rest of her life in the north west - the latter twenty odd years near Preston, which is where my husband was born.  Her life was her family and her Christian faith and she was content with it.  My mother always hankered for a more exciting life.  We were in the garden once and a passenger plane passed overhead ‘take me with you’ shouted mum at the tail stream, and then laughed.  I was 13 at the time and it disturbed me.  We did not have a quiet life - mum and dad’s favourite occupation was moving house.  We must have moved on average about every couple of years.  Of most of the houses I only remember one or two rooms or a patch of the garden.  I have had to write them down in case I forget.   My brother and I had numerous primary and several secondary schools.  They were mostly dreadful and we emerged with poor exam results.  My mother in law was horrified to hear of our fractured education.  ‘You can move house all you like, but you’ll still be the same person’ she concluded.  A conclusion that my mother didn’t arrive at even after dozens of removals.

        It was my mother in law who came to stay when we had our babies and who cooked and cleaned for us.  She came on holidays and babysat.  She loved her grandchildren completely.  I remember her holding WF in her arms when she came to see me in the maternity unit and saying with wonder ‘its as if I have known him all my life’.  Her views on the relation between husband and wife were very different to my own and the cause of much grinding of teeth (probably on her part too) but I miss her enormously, so this is my tribute.  We all loved you and now your lovely malt loaf will be out there in the wider world xx

My Mother in Law’s Malt Loaf

3/4 pound of self raising flour
cup of fruit
cup of sugar
1 tablespoon treacle
1 tablespoon syrup
1 egg
1 cup of milk

Mix altogether well & put in a greased loaf tin, medium oven 1 hour.

The cup I use is a large tea cup - I fill it with mixed fruit and add some nuts.  I use three quarters of a cup of sugar.

Take a large pan and put in the fruit, sugar, treacle and syrup.  Warm gently until the treacle and syrup start to run.  Add the cup of milk and stir.  Sift in the flour, mixing well.  Finally add the beaten egg.  The mix is quite stiff.  Grease the rectangular loaf tin and I usually line with baking parchment so it comes out easily.  Fill with the mix, leaving at least three centimetres between the top of the mix and the top of the tin.  It does rise considerably so place in a baking tray to avoid oven floor spills.  The top will crack as it cooks.  Test for doneness with a skewer after an hour.  It is better to cook for longer at a lower temperature than for shorter at a higher one as the elevated sugar content will cause the top to burn.  About 170 degrees C in my fan oven is usually fine.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The perfidy of human nature (or how low will you go)

Saturday 7 March 2015

Huge blue skies - ground frost warming to 13 degrees

The morning's entertainment consisted of wire brushing about a hundred years of petrified soot from the chimney breast in the new rental unit.  Previously concealed under a Barry Bucknell type plasterboard facing, from which OH had been trying to prise out a nail,  and instead the whole wall came away to reveal a whole hidden part of the room.  After I had taken off the loose material, and was standing back and thinking I had finished, OH handed me a long file to rasp down the lumps. Rasping takes a very long time.  I don't know how people ever manage to conceal rasps in cakes and it is not surprising that prisoners took so long to file their way out of their shackles.  Random, yes, I know.  Count of Monte Cristo was on the radio not long ago.

Soot has a very individual odour and is produced by incomplete combustion of the articles burned.  Its particles are really, really teeny and it gets everywhere.   OH, not the most observant of men, suggested I might want to go and wash my face before going to buy some bread.  I looked like a bad study in charcoal.

soot1 resized 600

Back home and go for a walk to get the soot out of my lungs.  This is the first day in weeks when there is some warmth in the sun.  The trees are full of birds and immense skeins of cranes are heading back north and the air is full of their loud 'crew crew' calls.

Out for a walk

Mistletoe didn't get where it is today by being easily accessible

Silvery birches

Later on in the day, and despite my best zen intentions, I am still brooding on the would be buyer who has tried to cut me out and purchase directly with the seller.

I think of all the points I would make, and exactly how the conversation would go.   I chop onions in a vigorous manner whilst I ruminate.  The phone rings and who should it be but the would be buyer so I channel my French estate agent and he gets the full contents.  What particularly stupefies me (but not for very long) is that in his opening sentence, he says he is ringing me out of honesty.  He says he has negotiated the sale himself so therefore he doesn't really owe the agency anything but he is prepared, out of generosity, to offer an amount as damages.  Would he treat another professional in this way?  I put the phone down and feel rather satisfied that I had actually expressed myself clearly and fully.  And right between his eyes.

I have been fortunate to encounter his type of honesty only twice whilst working in real estate.   In my experience as an agent in a national French estate agency chain, you are more likely to be shafted by your colleagues than by the clients.  This is where I learned to stand up and defend myself as it is a case of she who shouts loudest, doesn't get her commission split with people who are trying it on.

Over the eight years, there were a lot of people who came and went.  Estate agency is one of the few jobs in France for which you need no formal qualification.  We had air hostesses and engineers, artists and hygienists, lorry drivers, taxi drivers, hairdressers and drain cleaning specialists.  Some lasted a year or two, some a couple of weeks.  If you are thinking of trying the job and you haven't the tenacity of a terrier with a rat and the hide of a rhino, I have a word of advice - actually two - don't.  One guy cracked relatively quickly and confided to me that he would really like to sell up and leave the area and forget all about real estate.  I went to see his house to give him an estimation.  He said he liked to paint and showed me his latest tableaux.  They were tonal oeuvres - mostly in grey but some of them were very dark and had deep lateral slashes.  I thought of the Fast Show.  I thought, I really really mustn't laugh.  I was actually scared - and tend to burst out laughing at completely inopportune moments.  He sold his house privately to a couple who were driven mad by the bells of the local church.  I had a second bite at the cherry when they came back to the agency in order to sell and I found a lovely English couple who are still living there.

The phone then rings again and it is the guy I have been trying to track down to show the big rental unit.  I blabber on about going to the Chinese restaurant to try and find him and he says he is from Vietnam and I think I had better stop jabbering before I create a cultural incident.  We arrange to meet tomorrow morning.

OH discovers something has been eating his ground bait and so heaves out everything from the laundry room, spreading much ground bait all over the kitchen and bathroom.  I am required to examine the droppings and say what it is.  It is obviously something big. An hour later and the laundry room is looking more tidy than it has in months.  Just as well, as I get an email saying we have a visit on Saturday.