Monday 29 January 2007

la saga de la voiture

We have been living in London for almost 10 years. For most of that time we have lived close to a station, and contrary to what the newspapers would have you believe the trains arent that bad most the time. This means that most days, a car is superfluous to our needs. After a brief period of car ownership in 1997/8 (and most of that time, the car sat out in the street rusting away and not being used) we became public transport converts. Moving to the French countryside means that we will need to become car owners again.

This has not been without trauma.

The first nasty shock was the price of cars. In the UK we often hear about "rip off Britain" where cars cost SO much more than in Europe. I am here to say that, like most tabloid newspaper led stories, this is made up nonsense (how polite was that!). Used cars in the UK are cheap. Incredibly cheap. This is because although there isn't a square inch of road not already occupied by a traffic jam, the population of the UK have recently discovered the joys of motoring, and by golly, they are going to have a new car to do it in. Thus they replace their cars every 2 or 3 years, and you can buy a 5 year old car for about 10% of it's original price.

In Europe (and especially France), people keep their cars for about 7 years. This means that there are only 1/3 the number of used cars available, and hence they are more expensive. They also do a lot more miles.

Because we believed what we had read in the newspapers and seen on the TV, our original budget for a car has had to be increased - by 200% - in order to get a used car less than 10 years old. Because we are currently in the UK and our French language skills still don't cover cars we decided to buy a car here, and get it all sorted before we moved. We KNEW this would a slightly more expensive option, but it's still a bit of a shock.

After months of research reading road tests, used car reviews, looking at pictures and trying to work out what the car actually had to do, we decided we need a small MPV. First thought was a Renault Espace, but although they dont get body rust (plastic body, you see), they loose their shine and look faded and very used very quickly. As we intend collecting people from the Station this may not make a good initial impression. Susan was convinced we didnt want a car that was a "poverty indicator", therefore 10 year old Mercedes diesels are out, although they are bulletproof.

Once we actually started looking at cars "in the metal" it quickly became obvious that, notwithstanding their slightly dodgy electrics, the Renault Megane Scenic was the car for us. A nice versatile layout inside, plenty of legroom, a turbo diesel engine (for added fuel economy) and not so big that we cant drive it through Preuilly or park it at our house.

We found just the car, had it checked by DEKRA (the "checking out a car before you buy it thing" company) and were quite excited about it. When the report arrived, it showed the turbo wasn't working. This meant that instead of costing us £179, the report saved us about £700. It soon became obvious that any car we looked at in our preferred price range was going to need work, and maybe we would be better off spending more on a car and buying one with less problems.

We finally settled on a 1999 Renault Megane Scenic which came with a good report. It has air-conditioning, a CD player, loads of legroom and seems quite solid. We have it booked in to have the cam-belt changed later this week (It's important, if the cam belt goes the engine self destructs and we are driving to France next week.While we are in France we will be doing the change of ownership thing at the sous-prefecture in Loches. We will then have a local numberplate, and be indistinguishable from other local people - most of whom also seem to drive Renaults.

It should also be said that insuring a car is more expensive in France than it is in the UK. This was another shock, but like most shocks, one that we have to live with!


Friday 26 January 2007

A whole week in Preuilly

23 - 30 December 2006

We decided to spend Christmas as close to our new home as possible, so we rented a gite (through Gites de France) in Boussay for the week.

The flight for Poitiers leaves Stansted at 6.45am, which means having to be at the airport well before decent people are normally up and out of bed. Luckily, Uncle Geoff and Aunty Pat came to the rescue, offering us a lift to and from the airport. What champions! This was especially needed as we each had a suitcase full of clothing we intended leaving in Preuilly, as well as plenty of winter woollies.

Arriving at Poitiers in the fog the pilot decided (somewhat wisely, we think) that as he couldn't actually see the runway he wouldn't land. This meant a diversion to Limoges. At least we managed to leave the ground in England - this was the week that all European flights from Heathrow were cancelled due to fog.

At Limoges we decided that instead of waiting for the coach that Ryanair were going to take us to Poitiers on, I would see if we could change our car hire and drive to Preuilly. Luckily, the guy at Limoges airport Hertz is on the ball, speaks good English, and is efficient - and luckily we managed to get the last car he had available. Thus we left Limoges on a clear but very frosty day, to see if we could manage to find a marche and do our shopping before arriving at the gite.

Once again, however, roadworks, lack of familiarity with the road signs, and just bad luck had us in St Savin at 12.30, without any shopping but with an appreciation of the minor roads of the upper Vienne. As it was lunchtime, we had lunch - Pizza and Badoit water, followed by coffee. We then drove to Yzeures to shop at the supermarket.

WHAT TREASURES!! Along with vegetables, fruit and cleaning stuff and the staple goods for the beginnings of a larder, we bought Pintarde (Guinea fowl) and a box of 36 Oysters. Amazingly, the shop cost us little more than a week's groceries in the UK. Happy, we set off to La Promenade (the restaurant we ate at in September) to book for dinner. This time, they were closed for their annual holidays - that's twice we have tried in vain to eat there again. Maybe next time.

We arrived at the gite (in a hamlet called Roux) at about 6.00pm - just in time to light the open log fire and warm up. A bowl full of oysters (freshly opened) and a baguette, a circus on TV, and we were happy chappies.Next morning we decided to have a treat for breakfast - oysters grilled with a sliver of saucisson atop them, followed by preserved fruit. We thought a shopping trip in Loches might be a good idea, just to see if they have a Christmas market on Christmas eve. They don't, but we did have a pleasant (if somewhat cold) stroll around town, buying a bottle of Domaine de Ris Cremant - their ch@mpagne style wine in a small supermarket. We are amazed to see how much local produce is available in the supermarkets, actually. Wine, cheese, meat, vegetables - it appears that if it is grown locally, it gets precedence on the supermarket shelves. There is a lesson there for a lot of UK retailers. We checked out all the supermarkets in Loches (there are 4) to see just what is available, and the prices thereof. We also bought ourselves a pair of slippers each - tiled floors in -7c temperatures can be a bit nippy.

That afternoon we strolled from the gite to Boussay, a matter of 2 or 3 km each way, revelling in the peace and quiet. At one stage we stopped and listened, and could hear absolutely no man made (or man originated) sounds except for our own breath. Magic. We happened to see the world's strangest dog on that walk, maybe a labrador corgi cross - the unfortunate thing being it was a labrador's body on a corgi's legs. In order to preserve it's last remaining dignity, we didn't take a photo. I wish now that we weren't so sensitive.

On Christmas day Susan was unwell, so she spent the day in bed, and I spent it trying to find something on French free to air TV that was worth watching. At about 10.00pm I gave up and went to bed.

On Tuesday the 26th we had a first big stuff buying day. We drove to Castorama in Poitiers via Chatelllerault, checking out all the furnishing and hardware stores on the way. We had decided on Castorama as their website is comprehensive, and we were able to download the webpages showing what we wanted to buy. Thus we knew what stuff is called in French and how much is should cost. (Tricky, eh......). We bought a large tin trunk, a small hoe/pick, a large water bottle and a bow saw, as well as numerous small items. As we had an appointment at the bank at 2.00pm, we left at about midday, stopping for lunch at a small bar in Bonneuil-Matours. We had soup, andouillette and potatoes au gratin, followed by (for Simon, anyway) iles flottante. All this was served with a pichet of wine - for 11Euros. Bargain!

The appointment at the bank was to sort out the mystery of how to use the chequebook. It turns out that we didn't have a chequebook, but a paying in book. Once we realised this we ordered a chequebook, and managed to convince Credit-Agricole that I was of sufficient standing to be allowed to open a bank account. It was either that - or the fact we had transferred the balance of the money from the sale of Susan's house in Australia. As Susan had been unwell Christmas day, we still had our Pintarde to eat, so when we left the bank we went back to the gite, and had Christmas dinner a day late.

The 27th was gardening day - lots of hacking and slashing and piling up of tree cuttings was done. Even though it was very cold, we were soon in shirt sleeves. The house has a concrete laundry trough in the back garden, and the water in it had frozen to a thickness of about 4cm.

On the 28th we drove through amazing hoar frost to the Maison du Parc in Le Parc naturel régional de la Brenne, While we were there we were lucky enough to run into Tony Williams, a British born naturalist who has lived and worked in the Brenne for 20 years. After an interesting chat, we had a walk around some of the seasonally very white - and very cold - lakes which dot the area. The frost covered oak woods were very picturesque, and surprisingly full of birds.To warm up, we drove to Le Blanc for lunch. Again this was very reasonably priced, and a very pleasant interlude. We then commenced some motoring based sightseeing, it being too cold to spend much time out of the car. Amongst the sights seen were:
the mill at le blanc, and a cold buzzard by the road

a dolmen near Yzeures

On Friday, we met with another roofer (saga of the roof, part two, out soon......). Before that though, I managed to take some rather pleasing photos. One of the advantages of that part of France is the opportunity to take photos of sunrise after breakfast. Very civilised. As you can see however, also slightly cold. You can see our gite to the left of the frozen berries.

A little more gardening on Friday afternoon left the house looking a lot neater than when we had first seen it, and then all we had left to do was clean the gite in readiness for an early morning drive to the airport in Poitiers.

Tuesday 2 January 2007

We are now French Homeowners!!

This happened in November (the 21st, trivia fans).

We flew to Limoges with Ryanair and booked to stay at L'Image (previously Grande Hotel L'Image) in Preuilly sur Claise. The drive was pleasant enough, only marred by some roadworks and the accompanying confusing signage around Bellac. This meant we took a slightly more scenic but only marginally longer route than we anticipated.

After driving through St Savin and Angles sur Anglin we stopped at Bricomarche, the DIY/builder's merchant in Yzeures-sur-Creuse. Here we did the first of what will no doubt be many wanders around French hardware shops looking confused. We bought a set of loppers for the garden and gardening gloves for Simon (his first ever pair). This was paid for using our new Credit Agricole Debit Card, making us feel really Frenchified. We then popped in to Intermarche, the supermarket next door to buy bottled water (essential until we get some plumbing) and various bits and bobs. Intermarche and Bricomarche are the siamese twins of the retail business - where there is one, the other is almost co-joined. They quite often have a petrol pump or two, which are 24 hours if you have a French Credit or Debit Card. (Like we do, in case you have forgotten!). On the way out of Yzeures we called in to la Promenade, the restaurant in we had visited in September, to see if we could book for dinner. Unfortunately they were complet, which meant we ate at Auberge St. Nicholas in Preuilly instead.

We then took ourselves to our local winery - Domaine de Ris - in Bossay sur Claise, just 4km down the road from Preuilly. Here we bought a Chateau Cardboard Rouge, 5 litres for 22 Euros. Although we didnt have glasses or cups with us on this trip, subsequent tastings have confirmed that this is a nice and pleasant, if somewhat lightweight, quaffer. When I have a long quiet afternoon to spare I will sample all their wines (in the interests on science, naturally) and post my findings.

L'Image is a really nice hotel. Family owned and run (at least 2 generations, with a 3rd in the wings) they also have a restaurant which is a good safe bet. They are English speaking, but willing to help with our French pronunciation (and no doubt, when such things matter, grammar). The rooms are a bit basic, but clean and comfortable. No TV, which is OK, because except for the Meteo and the occasional circus or wildlife program, French TV is pants. That is now my official opinion.

On Sunday we went to Fontevraud. That evening we went to a restaurant new to us, the "Chez Grand Ma" in Le Grand Pressigny, for a quiet, but very pleasant meal, accompanied by the new year's beaujolais.

Monday morning was grey and damp, and we were both suffering from Susan having spent the night coughing. The owners of the hotel were sufficiently worried about Susan's health to phone their sister in law, who not only works cleaning the hotel and serving tables when it's busy, but is the Pharmacist's assistant. She bought in some throat spay/anti cough stuff which is "perfectly disgusting", but which appeared to make a slight difference. While that was happening I popped down to the Maison de la Presse (newsagent and bookshop) and bought "Memoire en Images Preuilly-Sur-Claise", a book of old photos of the village and it's surrounds. Unfortunately there is no photo of our house in there, but there are some great pictures.

We then walked to the Notaire's office to sign the papers and (figuratively, anyway) hand over the money, the transfer of money having been credited to the Notaire's bank account from Australia the week before. Surprisingly, the transfer was quite turmoil free. All the legal stuff like identifying ourselves and talking about insurance and local tax was accomplished in two languages and hoarse whispers, Susan's voice being just about disappeared by this stage.

Ten minutes later Susan had the keys to her new house. We went to the house for the ceremonial opening of the door, and also to read the meters to send off a final reading to the various utilities companies. We also met with some builders to get a quote to have the roof fixed. This is the first move in what will no doubt be "the saga of the roof". Still - we aren't catastrophising about it (yet). At some stage the whole tale will be told, but at the moment neither of us has the strength.

After a small lunch at l'Image we did our first work on the house, starting to clear the garden. We made some inroads into the brambles and some self sewn elder trees, and cut back the ivy to as high as we could reach. This was a couple of hours of hot sweaty work in the drizzle, something that (no doubt) didnt help Susan's throat or cough. We made a mess of the garden, which is only to be expected - it will take a number of visits to continue clearing before we can say it is clear enough to start making it looked cared for. Having said that, we are pleased at what we did achieve.We had the full blown three course dinner at l'Image that evening, which was far too much food, both of us being dog tied. We would have been happy with the plat du jour, but we are still at the stage where we have to make the most (gastronomically) of being in France. Still - the wine was nice, a half bottle of Muscadet (the name of which I didn't note).

Next morning was a case of climb into the car and drive to Limoges without getting lost - which we almost, but scenically didnt, manage.