The Artist and I had returned to comparatively sober lives in the UK before we heard that the offer we’d made on a property in Brittany had been declined. However our agent, (Lorraine-the-Notaire’s-daughter), informed us that if we were to increase it by 10,000 francs, the owner would happily accept, as she was adamant that her home be sold to ‘les anglaises.’
There’s not a drop of English blood running through my veins (FYI it’s an exceptional blend of Celtic and Russian) but, nevertheless, this was ‘crunch’ time. The point at which we could either up the ante or discard the whole venture, without losing face, on the grounds that the price was too high. In the cold light of a British winter, we contemplated our alternatives.
Family members and friends had been curiously divided in their opinions. While some encouraged us to ‘follow our dream,’ others sharply cautioned us to ‘wake up and get real.’ Energetic Francophiles offered their labour in exchange for food, wine and eventual visiting rights, while the doom-mongers predicted that we’d be shoveling our life savings into a voracious money-pit. My mother – whose opinion I valued more than anybody’s – said she hadn’t heard such enthusiasm in my voice for a long time and that we should go for it if we could afford to, as long as we weren’t about to ask her for financial assistance, because she hadn’t any money. In the end, as with all major decisions in life, it was entirely up (or down) to us.
Trying to buy more time to decide, I suggested making a counter, half-way offer.
‘It’s hardly worth the effort,’ said the man who’d previously stood so firm on how much (or rather how little) he was prepared to lay out, ‘let’s just get on with it.’
Not wishing to come across as a pushover, I was still reluctant – until I remembered something my colleague’s wife had mentioned. The property was strewn with discarded implements, farm machinery and other rubbish, which the vendors would dump – unless we instructed otherwise.
‘You could easily sell them – they’d fetch a fortune back home, it wouldn’t cost much to transport them. And that’s worth quite a bit,’ she’d indicated a heap of firewood stacked at the end of the barn, ‘you won’t have to buy fuel for years.’
So the bargain was struck, and entente cordiale preserved.
Now, long, long ago, in a land of legend and rugby, I earned a reasonable pass in O level French. I studied it at A level and later took advantage of the lessons provided by my company, when it was twinned with a similar one in France. Before long I could converse in the language so well that the Chief Exec ‘invited’ me to attend a dinner party thrown for a delegation of our Gallic partners and there was talk of me taking part in a job-swap.
Sadly, none of this qualified me to comprehend the lengthy legal contract – written in French (naturellement) – that was sent for us to decipher and sign. But, when all efforts to find a willing translator failed, I had no option and – with the help of my battered Harrap’s School Dictionary – managed to get the gist of most of it.
It’s fairly standard,’ I said when I’d trawled through several pages, ‘but there’s one paragraph I’m not sure of. We either must or must not do something – I can’t quite make out what – for either three or twenty-one years – I’m not sure which.’
‘Is it going to stop us buying the place?’ asked The Artist.
‘It’s a bit late to wriggle out of it now – our word is legally binding, remember? And there’s a strict regulatory framework governing house sales over there, so it should all be fine.’
‘Then what have we got to lose?’
Once we’d sent back the forms and deposited the money in the Monsieur Le Notaire’s account, the formalities were dealt with fairly quickly and we were soon on our way to take possession. The passage that I’d been unable to figure out meant that, as the previous owner was over 70, she was no longer obliged to pay the ‘Taxe d’Habitation,’ or Council Tax. And because she’d contributed to the local Commune for over twenty-one years, we’d somehow been granted three years worth of exemption too. We didn’t really understand why but we were not about to argue!
Along with the key, we were presented with a sizeable cheque. It transpired that sterling was particularly strong against the franc on the day that we’d transferred the funds and we’d benefitted from a spike in the exchange rate. So, far from paying more for the property, we were actually being given concessions and refunds! We viewed all this good fortune as validation that we’d done the right thing and – after introducing ourselves to the Mairie (mayor) – we drove up the lane to our house, giddy with excitement – and more than a little apprehension on my part. Maybe the reality wasn’t as perfect as we’d been imagining? What if we’d made a huge mistake?
But I needn’t have worried. As we rounded the corner and the ‘longere’ came into view, I was filled with the same emotion that I’d experienced when I first set eyes on it. Despite the general air of neglect – slipped slates on the roof, peeling paint on the window frames, the huge barn doors propped at a precarious angle – it felt familiar, solid and safe.
Turning the curiously-shaped key in the lock, The Artist and I stepped through the door into our ‘new’ Breton home.