Thursday, 22 January 2009

We weren't prone to panic, which was just as well, but never before had we felt so close. We had a mixture of emotions; a bit like being tickled, a cross between pleasure and panic. We were laughing but somehow we wanted it all to stop and at the same time to carry on. We'd put one foot on the roller coaster and had no choice now but to hang on and enjoy the ride.
After several phone calls to our financial advisor, who unfortunately for him was on holiday in Spain, we arranged a verbal agreement for the extra cash. We viewed the house for the second time, signed the necessary papers and phoned various members of the family to share our news. 
Now all we had to do was get a high enough valuation on our house for the re-mortgage and we had two weeks to do it. After that period our offer couldn't be retracted, whether we had the money or not! 
It was a scary time and certainly one I would not want to repeat...ever! 
Northern Rock had just gone under and there was a lot of talk about a failing economy. Not the best news for us at all, especially as we needed to sell our house. However after 4 months we found a buyer, or rather they found our house, and the rest is histoire!  
Well I say history, we still had to make the move! Brian came up with the idea of doing it ourselves; you know, hire a van, buy a trailer, make several trips... at first I thought he was crazy; my opinion didn't change! 
All I can say is thank God for hair dye. It's amazing how someone can go almost totally grey over a short period of time! We did though still have our sense of humor, valium and the promise of cheap French wine!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

After our disappointing news we headed back to the gite with a couple of bottles of wine and drowned our sorrows in front of the fire. We woke early the next day and lay in bed thinking about Le Pont De Vinade and realised that if we missed this opportunity we would regret it for the rest of our lives.
I got up and stared at my scribbled calculations. We had only offered our maximum bid, we did have two other figures we could go to, though they would mean quite a stretch financially. Was it worth the risk? In cases like this I usually follow my instinct, and my gut feeling was carry on with the offers. We wanted the house, it had great potential and we didn't want to loose it.
After breakfast we telephoned our friends, Stella and George, who'd lived in the area for several years and knew it well. We thought, if anyone can help us make up our minds, they could. Now both retired, George had worked as a French diplomat for most of his working years. Academically brilliant speaking 7 languages fluently, Greek being his first, and always impeccably dressed; we knew we could rely on him for an honest opinion. 
We drove through their imposing wrought iron gates and across their graveled drive and after the customary kisses entered their beautiful Charentaise home.
Stella had laid on a fantastic spread and we sat and ate whilst telling them of our dilemma. 
" What should we do George, we love the house, but do you think they're asking too much?" I said.
He studied the details, looking more like a solicitor in his shirt and tie than a man relaxing at home.
" Now let me tell you," he said with his familiar, passionate tone, " If you did not get this house, you'd be fucking crazy!" And with that he picked up the phone. 
" Oui, Bonjour...."  He continued speaking in French, most of which we couldn't quite understand, though we recognised our names, the name of the house and our 'if push came to shove we'd loose it' maximum offer. Then the receiver was replace.
"OK! You have just bought yourself a house!" he said with a grin. "We'll go together tomorrow for another viewing and to sign some papers, but your offer has been accepted. I think this deserves a glass of champagne!"
We really wanted the house, but we had just one problem; we didn't really have any money. Well we had collateral, but no actual cash and because we weren't really ready to buy in France, we hadn't arranged a loan or even the possibility of a loan before leaving England. It was a problem that we were determined to over come. At this stage our priority was to get a price agreed for the house so that we knew what sort of figures we would be dealing with.
After many pieces of paper with scribbled calculations, we came up with a maximum price we could afford to pay for the house... then a maximum maximum and then a, 'if push came to shove and we'd loose it if we didn't maximum.'
We contacted Mark the following day and arranged to see him at his office to put forward our offer.
It was the first time we'd seen his estate agency and we were surprised at just how small the room was. Just big enough for him and his colleague Madeline, two desks and possibly 4 customers. 
We sat in front of Mark and nervously put forward our maximum offer. He nodded politely and smiled  sympathetically, "I don't think that'll be enough, but we can try," he said in his pigeon English; though something told me he'd said that particular line before.
He picked up the phone and put forward our offer. At this point my heart was in my mouth. We so wanted the place, but we realised we were pushing our luck. We knew the house was worth more, it was whether we could afford it.
"No, I'm so sorry. He won't accept your offer, it's too low," he said as he replaced the receiver. 
We were gutted. At this stage we didn't feel we could raise it up any higher. We left the office feeling more than upset and tried to kid ourselves that something else would come along, something cheaper, something more suitable...

Friday, 16 January 2009

The house, though previously renovated from a ruin, wasn't entirely to our taste. Jean Claude, a now single man after a rather messy divorce, had completed all the major jobs. A new roof, septic tank, rewire, new floors etc, however it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi! It looked more like student accommodation, with its mish mash of furniture and stark white walls. The original fireplace had been ripped out and expertly replaced with a fake brick, diagonally breasted, state of the art monstrosity. And the house not only lacked the woman's touch but craved the weighty swing of a sledge hammer in more than the odd place. It was perfect! I had bags of one and Brian had a sledge hammer and was definitely willing to travel.
We tried to restrain our interest, and returned to Jarnac for deliberation. It wasn't hard; we wanted the house, now all we had to do was find the cash!
We honored the other viewings out of politeness, though for us, none of them even came close. Mark showed us several fabulous properties, all within our chosen price range, but we had made our minds up. It was to be Le Pont de Vinade or nothing!
We met Mark, from 1a1 immo, an estate agency in Angouleme. We immediately warmed to him, however it put our pigeon French to the test, as he spoke little english. He suggested we should go in his car, rather than follow him, and as we headed out of town we soon found ourselves surrounded by vinyards. We knew our first viewing would be 'Le pont De Vinade' and as the Charente reappeared on our right we sensed it wouldn't be long before we arrived.
Suddenly, it appeared. Between the trees we caught the first glimpse, then as we got closer to the bridge we saw it! Our house! It was far more beautiful then the pictures could have ever portrayed. We drove in through the large double gates and into the garden, stopping in front of the boathouse. 
We couldn't believe it, the view of the river from the walled garden was breathtaking, we even had resident swans. A yacht sailed gracefully past followed closely by two canoeists; it all seemed too good to be true. 
" Bonjour!" came a voice. " So you must be Mr. and Mrs. Sanders. Pleased to meet you." Oh thank goodness, a frenchman who spoke perfect English. He ushered us into the house and from the moment we stepped foot in the door, we knew we had come home.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

We woke early the next day, croissants and hot tea beckoned. The weather wasn't great,damp and foggy; most unlike the image we had of sunny France. By the time we had eaten,washed and dressed the skies had cleared so we set off in our hired Twingo to Jarnac. With a pile of printed web images on my lap, we discussed how we would make the move, renovate, decorate and eventually live in our dream home. We were excited and totally blinded by the dream.  We knew, only too well, that the renovations would mean back breaking work, a good command of the French language and the frenzied waving of cheque books. None of these thoughts dared to cross our minds as we headed down the duel carriageway towards our first viewing.
As we approached Jarnac the traffic seemed to worsen; an unusual sight in France with their notoriously empty roads. We soon discovered the reason for the bottle neck. Jarnac was getting a bypass and the subsequent road works were proving chaotic for drivers.
We headed over the old bridge with the Courvoisier building on our right and turned left into a car park. By now the sun was shining and although the sound of the lorries roared on in the background, we had discovered jarnac!
We were amazed at just how beautiful it was. The Chateau De Courvoisier surveyed the old town with an air of superiority amidst the faded grandeur of its surrounding, ancient buildings. The Charente meandered gracefully past the weir, under its beautiful stone bridge and onwards towards Cognac. Substantial properties, with their blue and grey shutters and creamy stone facades lined the main street, behind carefully planted trees. And past the neon sign of the pharmacie were florists, gift shops, cafes and hairdressing salons; we were already feeling at home.
After seeing our dream home on the internet there was only one thing to do. No tell a lie, there were 1001 things to do. The first thing however, was to make an appointment with the estate agent in France... then book the flights and accommodation, time off work, get the children and dog looked after... and so on. 
We arrived in France trying to kid ourselves it was a holiday with a bit of property viewing. Why we felt we couldn't be honest with ourselves, I don't know. It could have been the fear of being disappointed, or perhaps the magnitude of our intention was just too much to handle. After all, if we did move to France, it would mean us leaving our sons behind in England. They needed to carry on with their education and would be nearly 18 and 20 by the time we emigrated. At any rate, it was our dream, so why should we impose it on them?
The gite we'd booked to stay in was a very tiny studio apartment in Saintes; one room with a mezzanine housing a double bed and wardrobe. We felt as if we were taking our lives in our hands as we climbed the handmade/Heath Robinson staircase, the base of which could be lifted with one finger. 
It was April and although the sun was out, the air had a definite nip, so I wasn't going to be needing my, carefully packed in a see through bag, sun cream after all. We had made the appointments for the following day, so decided we'd stock the cupboards from the local supermarket and for the rest of the evening chill out in front of the wood burner with a bottle of wine. At this stage we had no idea that the events of the following day would change our lives forever!
Make a wish... go on, close your eyes and make a wish. Now if I were to tell you that your wishes can come true, what would you say? I'd say... be careful what you wish for!

Our Escape To France