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Normandy gem the search for a French house part 2

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Normandy gem house

In search of a Normandy gem...  (2)

by Peter Clayton

The story so far...  After a disappointing series of viewings with a number of Normandy-based estate agents, by chance Peter Clayton and his wife spotted a faded "A Vendre" sign nailed to the front door of an imposing house, overlooking the village square in St. Maurice-Bocage.  Armed with the telephone number of the notaire in charge of its disposal and a selection of photographs, they caught their ferry home, hopeful that they had found their Normandy Gem...

Nine o'clock Monday morning and I was on the 'phone to the notaire.  Unfortunately he was not on the 'phone to me. Like the rest of French commerce, his office was shut on Mondays...  Nine o'clock Tuesday morning and I was on the phone to the notaire - this time with a little more success.  Although the telephonist at the other end would not connect me with "Le Maitre" himself, in reasonably passable English she asked for my email address and promised to send, tout de suite, information about the house, after having first established whether or not it was still "A Vendre".

As good as her word, three days and six menacing 'phone calls later, the email came through.  The property was indeed still available and was on the market at a "non flexible cost" of 90,000 euros, plus fees, taxes and the cost of several good meals out for the notaire and his staff, equating to another 12 per cent of the asking price.  Alongside the financial information came a carefully crafted description of the property:  "a non-fitted kitchen... a dining room (windows need replaced)... a lounge (windows need replaced)... four chambres (windows need replaced)... a water room... a landing with damp wall (sometimes going black because of charcoal up the chimney)", etc., etc.  No doubt about it, the writer had been thoroughly trained in the use of evocative prose as a sales technique.

Undaunted by the description given, I emailed back to express my continued interest in the property and suggested that I made a flying visit during the following week to inspect the rotten windows, damp, black walls and non-fitted kitchen.  To me the house looked in reasonable structural condition - a level and attractive slated roof and three-foot thick walls which would certainly out-live me.  The odd bit of damp and rotten window frames could easily be rectified, assuming the price was right.  At this stage, the jungle that was described as an attractive quarter-acre garden, was the least of my concerns.

An appointment was fixed - I was to meet the notaire in person at 9am outside the property on the following Tuesday.  Last minute ferry tickets were booked for the Monday night sailing from Portsmouth, returning on the late afternoon ferry on the Tuesday.  Because of other longer-standing commitments, my wife could not accompany me on the trip and gave me the daunting responsibility of delegated powers.

After a restless night on a reclining seat in the designated snorers' lounge, I drove on to the Cherbourg quayside at 6.30am local time, 5.30am UK and reluctant body time, to be greeted by a howling October wind, torrential rain and pitch darkness.  "Bienvenue - Welcome to France" flashed an ironic neon sign through the gloom.

With a couple of hours before my meeting forty minutes away, I made my way to a cafe on the outskirts of town for a melancholy croissant and a warming coffee.  The bon ami of the bar's staff and clientele - some of whom were already consuming pastis with their dawn coffees - lifted my spirits.  I was, after all, about to embark on the realisation of a dream which we had held for many years.  After a second coffee, and a hint of daylight through the steamed-up windows, the world took on a different perspective and I was determined to savour the occasion.

I arrived at our potential Normandy Gem a few minutes before nine and waited in the rain, in the car for the notaire.  As the church clock struck the hour, Le Maitre arrived, who, after the customary greetings, opened the front door with a subtle, well-aimed kick to the bottom panel.  The emailed description of the premises had prepared me for the worst, but, although the house had a certain damp, musty atmosphere - brought about by months of non-occupancy and lack of heating - it was actually better than anticipated.  Yes, the kitchen was "unfitted" (a generous description for a large square room with one solitary water pipe protruding from the wall); yes, the landing wall was damp and slightly black, but nothing that a bit of new flashing around the chimney stack couldn't fix; and yes, many of the window frames and shutters had seen their finest hour.  But basically, with a damn good clean and the services of a competent and, perhaps, multi-skilled decorator (firstly to rid the main rooms of their claustrophobic dark brown ceilings!), the place could be almost habitable.

An hour later, I emerged from the house with cautious enthusiasm, telling the very pleasant and patient notaire that I would be taking things a step further by asking an independent professional builder or surveyor to inspect the place on my behalf and report back.  I probably sounded as if I knew what I was talking about, but where the hell was I going to find such a person...?

With a few hours to spare before heading back to the car ferry, I decided to make a surprise visit to unburden my thoughts and experiences of the morning upon some English friends who had settled near St Mere Eglise.  It was the best spur-of-the-moment decision I had ever made.  Not only were they welcoming and genuinely excited about the prospect of having even more English neighbours, but they had already successfully been through the purchase and renovation stages of French property acquisition and generously armed me with a list of telephone numbers and email addresses of local artisans - some French, some English - who had assisted them in their own restoration project two years previously. They also reassured that my quest for a French property really was quite sensible and not necessarily the direct result of a mid-life crisis.

With confidence restored and a feeling of excitement I had not experienced for many years, I boarded Brittany Ferries’ “Barfleur” convinced that we had found our Normandy Gem...

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