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Maison Secondaire...

Locals - though endearing - have patois deliberately difficult to understand; increased water pressure sees ancient geysers (not the author) forcibly ejected from window; and no word for 'entrepreneur'.

Peter Maile wrote engagingly about A Year in Provence and I would love to do likewise. Sadly living in rural France, part-time over the past 25 years, I only have enough material for a Long Weekend in Normandy. But I have some thoughts to share with you on the joys of a second home abroad.

Of course you must start with the people. We were amongst the early of the current influx of Brits buying in France and then were still considered to be something of a novelty in our area. We asked our neighbours if they resented this and they said, absolutely not. If it wasn’t us it would be Parisiennes and they would rather have us!  Nough said. When asked why we bought in the area I tried to explain about my army career being northern Germany or southern England and that Normandy was between the two. Property prices were cheap and so on until our neighbour engaged my eye rather sternly and said’ …and the people are nice!’  Didn’t make that mistake again. And they are. Endearingly polite, patient and forgiving and yet it is very hard to get to know them well and they simply don’t understand us. Why would anyone buy a large, draughty, remote old farmhouse when you could have a modern apartment in Eu, Dieppe or Rouen where the walls are upright, ceilings horizontal and the plumbing works?

Linguistically it is also a challenge. I was once asked, by a Brit, if my neighbours spoke English? Come on this is rural Normandy! They are descended from Vikings! They have a patois deliberately difficult for even Frenchmen from outside the area to understand let alone us. Some patiently speak Parisienne for us but it is clearly a struggle. We had lived there for 3 or 4 years, had a perfectly social relationship in the village, when someone remarked how much our French had improved. Really we exclaimed, flushed with pride. ‘Yes’ they answered, ‘When you first arrived we hadn’t a clue what you were saying!’ Our gardener is wonderful as he is impoli!  Most people will nod politely if they don’t understand. Not M Hedde. His face goes blank and you have to go through it again until the light comes on. Fortunately an engineering background helps: Words fail me, see sketch!

Of course the French tradesmen are a law unto themselves and ours typify the breed. Arriving to check the house over before friends were due to arrive at the weekend we found a 50 cm trench running through the kitchen waiting for some more pipes. Having taken our dishwasher in for a modest service, some months later we found it about to be scrapped. The chimneys have to be swept each year - by law. How do they know when to turn up – but somehow, each year without fail, they do. Plumbing is a joy and the French make arbitrary decisions without always thinking of the consequences for the humble owners of their more ancient properties. Increasing the water pressure seemed like a good idea but the impact on less than modern plumbing left a lot to be desired and saw an ancient geyser (not me) forcibly ejected from a window! As for the decision to replace a perfectly good septic tank with a new abomination and extensive filter beds…. Apart from ruining the garden for a year or two, they now have to come and maintain it every couple of years, but that is another story.

Finally of course there is officialdom: as one of the Bush’s so succinctly observed, ‘the French have no word for entrepreneur!’ I am not sure of the linguistic stem of bureaucracy but I feel sure it must be French or if it wasn’t, it is now. They have it to a fine art form. Importing some furniture when we first arrived I was informed of the impressive range of documentation required in order to do this, including a letter signed by the Queen. Fortunately a missive, regally typed and signed by my clerical officer and stamped with several seals in red from the Royal Engineers Recruiting Liaison Staff worked just as well. My apologies Your Majesty!

That said, at least you can get to speak to people. If you have a problem with your tax, you can make an appointment to see your local tax adviser. If you have an issue with your utilities, there is a local office, staffed by people and not answering machines. If all else fails, go to the local Marie and you can speak to the Mayor. They may pretend not to understand you, they will do what they were going to anyway but at least you can talk at them!

So is that enough for an extended essay? Have I whetted your appetite for my magnum opus en Normand? If so please let me know. I feel another book coming on!


Ian Daniell