The Key to Good Memories

The letterbox to our french house is, like most french letterboxes, fixed to the gate or railings facing over the road. On a sunny day, fetching the letters is a pleasant amble across the garden, tiny key in hand, to open it up and retrieve the contents whilst on rainy days the letters sit there the majority of the day until a brave soul risks the raindrops to go and collect them.

Our postman is a miserable man, at odds with the world, and despite many a cheery bonjour and a little bit of chitchat on our part, he remains resolutely a man of grunts – jabbing his finger on his computerized tablet where we should sign for parcels if one arrives as if he’s convinced we are foreigners without a word of french between us, and only miming exaggeratedly will do. Every time I take his stylus to sign, I say, in perfectly reasonable french, ” oh, would you like me to sign just here”, and every time a grunt, a few more jabs of the finger, and the next time, a repetition of the entire process.

I’m thankful though that despite this depressing state of affairs, not all our mail is boring and cheerless. Sometimes newsy letters and postcards come our way which give us the motivation to pick up the key to go and empty it.

A couple of weeks ago a quite extraordinary letter arrived in our letterbox. In the typical french cursive script, an elderly lady had put pen to paper to tell us how she’d discovered quite by chance that some English people had to come to live in this house, and how she wondered if she could pass by and pay a visit during the month of September on the occasion of her sister’s birthday. With the letter she included a photo of our front steps and it was evident that as a young girl she’d had a close connection with the house.Without hesitation we replied that they could come together the following Thursday.

And so it was that at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon the doorbell rang, and outside on the pavement stood three elderly ladies holding a bouquet of roses and three jars of homemade jam in a little wicker basket.

It was a lovely sunny day so we sat at the garden table whilst the younger of the three sisters told us how they, and their elder brother had been born and grew up with their parents in the house that they rented until the owner had decided he wanted to move back in himself.The owner in their day was none other than the elderly gentleman from whom we’d bought the house four years ago. The sisters had fifteen years of happy memories to share, and a handful of photographs of them taken over the years in various places in the house and garden. Their father had even stood on the balcony of the house watching the allied planes flying over Rouen in the Second World War and seen the terrible bombardments with his own eyes whilst the rest of the family took refuge in the shelter with their neighbours at the end of the garden.

We gave the three sisters a tour of the house, and at frequent moments they exclaimed in equal measure at how nothing had changed, or how doors or walls had moved position, and shared little anecdotes as they passed from room to room.

Inevitably, as we returned to the garden table for a cup of tea, we hatched up a plan to retake all the photos again, same sister, same location, same pose, and by the end of the afternoon we were in fits of giggles manipulating arms and legs round waists and shoulders, sitting, standing, reclining, and even with the correct tilt of the heads!

At last the final photo of the youngest sister leaning out of her old bedroom window on the top floor,

-“you know the way”, said “husband a la maison”, and she catapulted herself up the two flights of stairs with all the spriteliness of her fifteen year-old self.

Eventually with a sigh the sisters prepared to leave, and as they did so, the youngest sister explained how, at the age of fifteen, so disappointed to be leaving the house she’d grown up in so happily, she had, in a fit of passion decided to take a small part of the house with her as a momento. Running to the washroom in the cellar she’d pinched the enormous metal key from the lock and hidden it in her pocket.

She gave a wistful smile and drew the very same key out of her bag and ceremoniously handed it back to us, happy that four more children were growing up and enjoying the house just as they had,

..and that the spirit of the house was just as before.

Seventy-two years after it was last turned in the lock, the key is back home, bringing with it a wealth of incredible memories.

What Have I Done!

The first night in the new house I lay awake until the early hours. “Husband à l’etranger” was still held up in Canada and the house was frankly just a little bit scarey. While furnished the house had had a certain charm, but once the furniture had been removed it was altogether a different story. I lay in bed oscillating between extreme guilt for having asked the kids to sleep in this “god-forsaken” place, and the horror of touching anything. At the same time I was actually just a little bit worried about what “husband à l’etranger” would say when he finally arrived to see it for himself. I rehearsed ‘ad infinitum’, “shall we put it back on the market” before succumbing to a comatosed sleep.

Thankfully our friend and electrician arrived early the next morning and set to work checking the power supply. Over the day he increased the number of sockets by 1000% since we had arrived to find only 1 safe and operational. By the end of the day we had 10 sockets at our disposal, five in the kitchen, one each for the children and one for the sitting-room, which, since there was no pendant light-fitting meant that at least we could plug in a lamp. The rest of the sockets in existance were hastily covered in black tape to prevent us using them, and by consequence, risking burning our house down!

The afternoon saw me buying a new freestanding cooker and freezer, and when I arrived back at the house I discovered that Gerald had gone beyond the call of duty, smashing out the build-in and lethally dangerous oven and  hob and the decrepid units that they were built into. Since the cooker wasn’t to be delivered for a further three days, and France is not a country known for pre-packaged ready meals, cooking dinner was a test of creativity and determination.

The kids were appeased by the fact that the internet was up and running from day one. This, a remarkable feat since the ADSL line into the house dated to at least a half century and had been bizarrely wired through the swinging part of the external door, meaning that on his arrival, “Husband à l’etranger” opened the door with rather too much force  and ripped the cables out of their connection and to the horror of the kids killed the internet stone dead.

Contrary to my expectations, “Husband à l’etranger” wandered around the house exclaiming every few moments how much he loved it, then rooted around for a mop-bucket, scourers and magic cleaning solution and got stuck in.


If you think I was exagerating about the dirt, you may want a closer look!



Not convinced?WP_20141231_002So there you have it – dirt at its grimiest!


And me with the ‘wonder-fluid’. If you look very closely you can see the ‘before’ to the right- hand- side of the window, and the ‘after’ on the left.

So if you ever have a bad day, and feel that you are not keeping up with the housework, take another good look at these photos, and I can assure you that you will quickly feel a whole lot better!20150106_154912



The Lion with a Friendly Face.

Today, right this very second, as I sit here writing, I am moving house.

Only this is not moving house as you would know it.

My house is in the UK, and I am in France. Believe me moving house is hard work, even if several hundred miles away from the house in question and the in-laws, the in-law’s friends (who I have never met), my parents and sister are actually doing the hard graft. My wonderful neighbour is making the tea and my mother in law has already made a bob or two at the local salvage yard.

Have you ever tried deciding whether to keep, bin or sell items described over the phone, when the items in question have long since deleted themselves from memory, or suffered the guilt associated with not actually being there to help? After all, why should these guys hand over a couple of their days to move my belongings when I am sitting on my sofa updating my blog? My fingers are twitching with the nervous need to be lending a hand.

In the immediate term the answer is simple, ‘husband à l’etranger’ is 4000km further away from the house than I am. I am pinned to my house because it is the middle of term-time, my buyers wouldn’t shift the completion date by one week to coincide with the end of term, any minute now four hungry kids are going to pile through the door, and ‘Petit Lapin’ is having her siesta on her inflatable bed in my bedroom. And thank heavens she is…

You see, moving house is hugely emotional, and leaving  a home means saying goodbye to friends and shutting the door for a final time. All of these things I cannot do – well save for being emotional of course, and i’m really good at that! When we left three and a half years ago we never said goodbye; no leaving party; no great fanfare;  I suppose we never really thought that we weren’t coming back. We left for adventure, and an adventure we have had and as we have undergone our adventure we have also transformed and realised that life has led us somewhere else.

Nearly every home that we have had has handed us the gift of someone special – someone that hasn’t made up a part of our family, but who has become family through kindness, generosity and spirited good nature. My neighbour became one of these people and she represents the best of my old home. In fact my old home used to be hers, until she moved into a house in the garden. She is so closely interwoven into the fabric of our family, that we could and would never disentagle her.

If I think about our old home, I see her coming to the door in the evening when ‘husband à l’etranger’ was working in France (funny that – he did once work there!) and holding out a plate of delicious stew for my dinner; I see her in my sitting room baby-sitting my children and refusing to take a penny; I see her walking across the driveway to haul away my basket of ironing, and returning it to me later on beautifully pressed; and I see her arriving with a cup of beetroot soup when she spotted me wallpapering a ceiling (carefully using my upturned face at a paper prop) during what normal people would call lunch time. And with my face as a paper prop, and unable to either answer the door or call out thanks, she left the steaming soup on the window cill. When I think about my neighbour I realise how I was blessed by her presence and when I think about leaving that home, despite the fact that I am not actually personally moving the remnants of furniture, I feel hugely sad at my loss.

Which is why today of all days I am delighted that ‘Petit lapin’ is taking a siesta in my bedroom; because at 7am this morning her mother knocked on my door and asked if it would ‘derange’ me (put me out), if I looked after her for the day. Petit Lapin had conjunctivitis and her mother had to go to work. And maybe I have had the luck to know more than most mothers how unconditional aide is golden, how it enriches, how it enables and how it embellishes life. I can’t help the people helping me, but I can help someone else.

When we first moved into our house our neighbour left a small clay lion with a friendly face in the garden to watch over us, and if there is one thing I can’t now leave behind, it’s lion. He represents my neighbour who watched over us with her friendly face, her generous gestures and her bonhomie.

Of course we’ll be back to visit – but for the rest of the time I have lion to remind me of  what I am leaving behind.

And for all those that have given their time and energy to us – Thank you!

ROUEN – moving high rise -the “monte meuble”

I talked about moving house before – but last time, when it was my move, I lost the camera under piles of paper and boxes. Today the occupant of the 2nd floor is moving out, so at the crack of dawn I was woken to men’s voices in the courtyard below and the setting up of the ‘monte meuble’.

It is an ingenious device, but forgive my ignorance, because I have never come across one of these outside France. perhaps they exist elsewhere – let me know! I can’t believe the British or Americans would agree to these being used, especially in the times of ‘Risk Assessments’, ‘Health and Safety’ – all that litigation when something falls off and injures someone. The mind boggles. And that is exactly the point. Things do fall off…..

Unlike my move where the demenageurs had the good sense to strap the ‘ladder’ of the monte meuble to the window. This one is floating free at the top, barely resting against the window frame.

Like my demenageurs, these guys also don’t strap any of the furniture onto the platform. When my friend Carole moved  from her apartment, one of her wardrobes fell from the platform at a significant height above the ground and smashed into ‘firewood’ on the pavement below. “Explosé”  as she put it!

Well that lot isn’t tied on!

But I am relieved they took the cylindrical packaged chair (lying sideways) off, before they sent it down!

I can’t watch any more – too stressful.

Did I mention the thoroughfare to a busy kids nursery is half a metre to the side of the ‘monte meuble’ – hmmm!

Au revoir campagne – bienvenue la ville

I am taking a few minutes of “repose” to admire my new ceiling with all its ornate mouldings and ornamental detail, the intricate cast iron “guard-coeur” that prevents me from toppling out of my 4th floor french windows, whilst resting my feet on the honey coloured parquet that runs throughout this apartment. The christmas cards are on the mantle of the marble fireplace and the tree, whilst starting to wilt, is a reminder that the new year has arrived – and with it so have I, to the centre of the city. For the first time I have moved to the heart beat of Rouen and I am ready for new experiences.

A move of house, anywhere in the world is of course a major experience. It is best done, of course when you are fluent in the language of the host town. I, of course am not. We actually only had to move about 6 kilometers from suburbia to the pulse of the city, but we have always managed to make a meal of things, and this was to be no exception.

The first downside was that we were obliged to move. I like the word obliged, it works in both languages and people instantly understand why you are mad enough to leave a house with an enormous garden for an apartment which doesn’t even possess a balcony. The truth is though that the French system stinks when you are on the wrong side of it, and that’s exactly where we were.

Firstly, French rental contracts require a three month advice of termination. The trick is to find a new rental property which has only just been put onto the letting market, or not move at all. If, as we experienced, the only property suitable is actually vacant NOW, the horrible truth is that you will end up paying “double loyer”, that is, double the rent, as no landlord with an empty property is happy to leave it vacant. It becomes a game of bluff, and double bluff – and he will always have another interested party, and you will never quite know if it is the truth!

So there we were with the days ticking by, unable to find a house or flat that could accomodate our large family, and yet be close to school, when as luck would have it one popped up on the internet as we were brousing. One of our vital criteria was storage in the form of a garage as our suburban house was a furniture depository by way of a garage, and that was not going to disappear overnight. Having viewed the apartment we were delighted that it ticked 9/10th of the boxes; location, bedrooms, garage and charm!

The first step in any house rental process is to provide a dossier. This contains identity, evidence of salary and references.  As this lay at our fingertips, stage one was to visit the Agence Immobilier, in this case, the Agence du Hussier (a crucial detail) to register our interest. Evidently this was all going too smoothly and a snag was due. My husband returned home ashen faced an hour later.

For those who don’t know, and I didn’t, a Hussier is a loan shark, and here-in lay the crucial point of conflict – he wanted money. When my husband placed his dossier on the table at the agence, the agent raised the rent by 200 euros per month. Outraged my husband left, not without haggling, but the hussier was not going to budge. The following day I arrived at the agence ready for a fight, and convinced of my chances of success, for in my hand I was waving a full page computer printout including the original rental price, address and photos of the same. It dawned on me that things were not going well when the word “erreur” cropped up several times, and I faced total humiliation as he flung out the phrase “ce n’est pas Bagdad” before turning on his heel and disappearing into his office, the door closing with a sharp snap!

A month later, eating humble pie we shook hands with the hussier and accepted the inflated rental, having found nothing comparable. After a delay of several weeks we finally signed the Baille (tenancy agreement) and met with the hussier, Monsieur Ploux, whose name was religeously pronounced with a letter missing thereafter. We were now the locateurs of an Apartment with garage in the centre of the city.

The final stage in the process was to visit the appartment for the inventory in company with Monsieur Ploux. As we gathered in the courtyard I enquired which was to be our garage from the row of four. There was an awkward silence and a shuffle of feet before our incompetent agent declared, somewhat shiftily, “il y a un erreur” (again that word)” il n’y a pas un garage”. Looking incredulously at the signed document in our hand which clearly stated “apartment and garage”, we looked to Ploux for an explanation, which wasn’t forthcoming. Clearly he believed that a second parking place would adequately make up for the missing garage, and for the same price! As tempers began to fray and Monsieur Ploux began to breathe his wine sozzled breath over us, we made clear our objections and the invalidity of the contract. Monsieur Ploux reached for his mobile from the depths of his pocket, and called the owner of the building stating that we were clearly difficult and unsuitable tenants.

A week later, and after some serious negotiation,( during which I was tempted to remark that we’d finally arrived in Bagdad), the price was finally dropped and we took ownership of the keys. We still had three weeks remaining to find storage for our furniture and the move was set for the week before christmas.

Moving overseas with an oversized removal van is one thing – when passing from one house to another, but moving from a house to an apartment is quite another. Firstly we had never had to consider the size of any of the ground floor furniture, and we have some seriously bulky stuff! We came to learn about an ingenious little invention called the “monte-meuble“. This handy piece of equipment is rather like a vertical escalator with a steel platform attached which is parked on a pavement and fastened to the window, onto which furniture is loaded and lifted mechanically into the building. Various French friends warned about unscrupulous removal companies who, to save time failed to strap on furniture – with devastating consequences!

As luck would have it, our “demenageur” let us down two days before the move and consequently we were left with precious little choice over who eventually moved us. I sat in pure frozen anquish as I watched item after item pass up the monte-meuble with not a strap or rope in sight! Included in this list was a precious antique gilt mirror, which miraculously arrived safely at the sittingroom window, only to refuse to fit past the “guard-coeur” and have to be sent back down again! But bless those hard-working guys as they solemnly carried the mirror four floors up via a spiral staircase!

A word of warning to all “would-be” movers! The cost of changing lodgings in France is exceptionally expensive, each individual takes his cut. In our case we were loath to pay the hussier the 1000 euro “frais d’agence” for his shoddy misleading service, but had no option!  Added to that were the” double loyer”, deposit and removal fees, none of which came to less than 1300 euros each. No, moving in france is not to be taken lightly nor on a whim!