Bathroom Numéro Deux

Hi! I’m back – did you miss me?

I’m not getting any better at regular blog posts, am I?

So much has happened since the spring and in subtle ways, although we are in the same place, doing the same things, life has changed quite a bit. But that’s for a future post.

First let me fill you in on what Colin and I have been doing to the mill since we last spoke.

The summer was a whirl of visitors, which was lovely! With the whole of my side of the family arriving for a week in August we knew we had to get some more sleeping space live-able and enough bathroom space for 8 people to feel comfortable.

We had already decorated a guest bedroom downstairs last year, but having wrecked the rudimentary downstairs bathroom in the process of plumbing in the new one upstairs, it was now getting a bit urgent to do something about a second bathroom. Another reason for the slow progress downstairs was that it took a while to decide what we were going to do with it. It didn’t really meet our needs as it was, next to the kitchen area and separate from the downstairs bedroom.

Most of the ground floor is a large, open-plan living room and kitchen and although the bedroom at the end is OK, the layout at that end of the house meant that guests had to come out of the bedroom into the living room to cross the corridor into the bathroom – not ideal! Hang on. This is going to get confusing. Time for some visual aids.

Downstairs floorplan (before)

Downstairs floor plan (before)

Unfortunately, I can’t run to rinky-dinky design software, so you’ll have to make do with what I can cobble together in PowerPoint. But you get the general idea…

The original bathroom was large, with a bath and a sink, a large plasterboarded-off area in one corner that held the hot water tank, plumbing for a washing machine and a large towel rail. Granted, there was no hideous wallpaper – but only because Monsieur had never even bothered to finish the walls. Oh yes, and the usual solitary bare light bulb to add to the effect.

Downstairs bathroom - before

Downstairs bathroom – before the Coles duo got at it.

An ensuite bathroom to the guest room would be nice but although there was a small downstairs toilet next to the bedroom, it wasn’t big enough to put a shower or even a wash basin in.

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So, we decided to be a bit creative.

In short, we would pinch some floor space from the bathroom to add to the loo, knock a door through from the bedroom and turn the original bathroom into a utility room/laundry. Simples!

Downstairs floorplan (after)

Downstairs floor plan (after)

The theory was simple but it still took quite a while to do. The dividing wall between the toilet and the bathroom had an enormous heated towel rail mounted on it, so that had to come off before we could knock out the wall. I would have loved a wet-room style shower but the shower tray had to be raised to create an adequate fall for the drain. This was because the original waste water pipe, which ran through the cavity wall along the whole depth of the house, was buried in concrete, above ground level and we really didn’t want to disturb it.

Work in progress

Work in progress

We built a strong platform to support the shower try (our grandson was happy to help with the nail gun, under strict supervision) The stone shower tray we had bought was so heavy that we could barely move it –luckily my son was over to stay at just the right time to help us manhandle it into place on its dry mortar bed. The wall between the new utility room and bathroom couldn’t go up until we had the shower tray in place because it was too big to get through the door!

Knocking a hole in the wall of the guest bedroom to create a doorway was interesting as we discovered that, although the bedroom floor was perfectly level in the doorway to the corridor, there was a 3cm difference in floor level between the bedroom and the former toilet floors!

We didn’t seal off the original toilet doorway as it is useful to be able to access the new bathroom straight from the main living area – so we have a kind of Jack and Jill arrangement, where we keep one door locked, depending on whether the guest bedroom is occupied at the time or not.

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For once the work was going according to schedule. Shower tray in, walls and floors tiled, sink and loo fitted. One week to go until the family were due – just enough time to clean up and accessorise.

Then on Friday morning, as I walked into what was going to be the utility room, there was a bit of a sploshing noise as I walked across the floor. Looking down in horror I realised that the floor was flooded. It took several hours to clear up the mess and locate the source of the leak. Amazingly it wasn’t our plumbing at all. We discovered that the ground floor copper feed pipes, which the previous owner had helpfully buried in the concrete floor, had both sprung leaks. French water pipes have to be sheathed in plastic ducting and the water from the leaks was pouring out of each end of each length of ducting – impossible to see where exactly the leaks were, except somewhere under our newly tiled bathroom floor. We could have cried. Luckily we were able to shut the water off to that end of the house while we figured out what to do. We attempted to dig up the floor in the future utility room, hoping the leak would turn out to be somewhere we could get at without ruining the new bathroom. But it was an impossible task. We decided that we needed some professional help but getting a plumber on a bank holiday weekend, when France was playing in the World Cup final was just NOT going to happen. So we adopted the French attitude to life, went out and enjoyed the weekend and waited for the plumber who arrived bright and early on Monday morning.

I explained to the young guy that there was a leak somewhere under the floor of our new bathroom and asked helplessly if there was anything he could do? “Madame,” he said calmly, “Tout est possible” Anything is possible.

After a couple of hours he packed up and left, having cut the two offending pipes at either end and rerouted the hot and cold feeds up the wall inside a cupboard, across the ceiling void into the next room and reconnecting to the shower, sink and loo at the other end. I could have hugged him but as I thought he might find that a tad embarrassing I made do with shaking his hand and thanking him profusely instead.

So, we had a second functioning bathroom when the family arrived and a lovely week was had by all. And here it is!

Downstairs bathroom

New downstairs bathroom, viewed from the guest bedroom

downstairs bathroom 2

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It’s fair to say that not a lot of progress was made on finishing the utility room until the autumn – I don’t know about you, but it just seems such a sin to be indoors when the weather is beautiful.

But once we got going again it didn’t take long to fit a decent amount of cupboard space, a large sink with one of those spray attachment type taps for washing down all manner of dirty things and refitting the enormous heated towel rail.  This is an absolute boon for drying clothes when the weather is bad (I’ve never been a fan of tumble dryers). The floor will eventually be done in here too, but that will be when we do the whole living room and kitchen floor.

new utility room

The new utility room cum laundry

Utility room sink

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So… That’s done. Time for a rest.

NOT

In two week’s time we will pick up the new kitchen – and that is going to be a bit of an adventure in itself. Watch this space!

(Oh, and if anyone has any tips on surviving without a kitchen for several months – I’m all ears!)

Makeover of bedroom #3

When we moved over to France we registered as freelance ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ (self-employed). We both work from home, at the mill, working for clients via the internet. The daily commute consists of falling out of bed and, after a leisurely breakfast, looking out over the river, either from the kitchen (in inclement weather) or (more often) the balcony or terrace, we head back upstairs to start work.

We have plenty of space for a home office but so far we just don’t seem to have got round to creating one. For 18 months I have camped on the landing, on a large table, surrounded by still-unpacked boxes of books, craft supplies and anything else that hasn’t been given a permanent home yet. Colin decided to move into the front bedroom where he spends his days pouring over spreadsheets and charts on a number of screens arranged across an old dining table.

This room was particularly depressing when we moved in. The grubby yellow wallpaper and Marsupilami border probably looked cute when the room was first decorated for the previous owner’s little daughter but, as she had just finished secondary school when they moved, it had definitely seen better days! The sliding doors installed across an alcove to form a wardrobe had long since fallen off their runners and a previous leak from the toilet stack pipe next door had left long dark brown trickle-y streaks down the wall.

How it looked when we viewed in April 2016…

Mmm, lovely!

At the end of October we took a week off around the public holiday of Toussaint (All Saints Day) and spent a few days, getting up late, pottering in the garden, visiting the area and generally chilling. By Wednesday morning Colin was getting fidgety. He was bored. He needed a project, he said. (So much for the lazy week off…)

We couldn’t do any more on the living room until the external wall had been re-rendered as this meant changes to the windows, so we decided to take a big breath and get started on the ‘Finish Upstairs’ project. Step 1 – decorate the last guest room.

After sorting out leaks and improving insulation it was down to the decoration. There were three main objectives:

  • add plenty of clothes storage space
  • bring in as much light as possible ( the room faces west so only gets direct sun in the evening – cool in the height of summer but gloomy in winter )
  • make the bedroom as comfortable and relaxing as possible

A day out in Rennes (coincidentally, the home of our nearest Ikea store) provided the tall mirrored wardrobes, drawers and bedside tables and plenty of soft furnishings. We decided to go for a colour palette of teal blue grey and dusky pink, as we wanted the room to feel comfortable for both ladies and gents. The natural daylight is bounced round the room by the large mirrors during the day and we switched the standard, tatty bare bulb which hung from the centre of the ceiling for a couple of down spots. A more intimate and cosy atmosphere is given by the over-wardrobe spotlights and table lamps, which can be controlled and dimmed from the comfort of bed, via a remote smart dimmer switch.

Not sure who that funny woman is in the corner…?
At night, the ‘warmth’ and brightness of the lighting can be controlled by wifi remotely

So, that is Step 1 finished. All I need now are some pictures. I don’t know about you, but the art I hang on the wall has to say something to me – I can’t just buy a mass-produced poster because it is the right colour. So I’m hanging fire for now until the right thing leaps out and says ‘take me home’. If anyone knows of any contemporary landscape/wildlife watercolour artists who do nice inexpensive prints of their work, please do leave me a comment. 🙂

Next the landing…

Just a Saturday afternoon spent sewing

It’s a dull December Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting in the kitchen with my sewing machine in front of me. Yards of pale blue Toile de Jouy fabric lie in folds around me and the log burner is crackling away merrily.

I haven’t had the time or the inclination to sit down with my sewing basket for a long time – I haven’t really got the time now – it’ll be Christmas in three days and there is still plenty to do, but I’m motivated. Oh, SO motivated.

“What are you making that is so important?” I hear you ask. A Christmas gift? Some curtains for the room soon to be occupied by relatives over the festive period?

Nope. I’m making sandbags.

Yes, you heard right. I’m making bags from old duvet covers to fill with sand to stack across the doorways.

It was only to be expected, I suppose – living on the river. When we bought the moulin we looked into the risk of flood and were quietly confident that we wouldn’t have a problem. The occasional crues, high river levels, run in cycles of 12, 15 and (major flooding) 100 years, Madame Arnaud, the technicienne de la rivière, from the river authority had explained. The 12 and 15 year highs meant the island that is our garden behind the mill floods, but the house stands a good 2 metres above the island and has never flooded. We verified the information against the public records and she was right. The last 100 year flood happened in 1999, so we wouldn’t be around for the next one.

Maybe – if it wasn’t for climate change.

The first two years were fine then one morning, in February this year, we got up and discovered that our garden had disappeared. Nothing but a boiling torrent of murky orange water swirling around the bend and off into the distance. It caused a bit of excitement, I can tell you, but the water was nowhere near the level of the living accommodation and after a couple of days it went down, the island popped out looking fresh and green and everything went back to normal.

Until mid-November.

The first thing that happened was that, while we were away for the weekend, a large lump of tree came floating down the river into our leat and bashed its way through the steel grill which protects the entrance to the wheel, smashed the wooden vanne, sluice gate, and disappeared down-river having removed the axle casing from the water wheel. With the vanne no longer controlling the flow of water from the main river,we arrived home to find ten thousand litres of water a second, crashing through the tunnel under the house, roaring out the other side and smashing into the river bank of the island. I jumped on the phone to Madame Arnaud and she arrived within the hour to open the sluice gates on the main weir to divert the water away from our millstream and lower the flow of water into the millpond to a trickle. Phew! All we had to do now was to wait until the river level dropped in the spring so that we could fix the vanne and get everything back to normal.

Until…

The following week France was hit by the first of a number of storms. The biblical deluge resulted in our river level rising by 0.97m to 2.4m overnight. OK, still nowhere near the level of the house, but it was a bit of a shock as we weren’t even into the rainy season yet. The island dutifully reappeared but then the following week it happened again – this time reaching 2.5m. And again the next week.

By this time, the local papers were speculating about a recurrence of the 1999 floods and the mairie, town hall, in the main town was sending out leaflets to local businesses and residents telling them to jack up their furniture on breeze blocks and prepare for the worst. The level of the river outside our window reached a record-breaking high and before it could subside the next storm was forecast. The whole area went into orange alert for flooding.

Today is Saturday. Tomorrow everywhere in the area will be closed. What if the river rises tomorrow, before the last crue has had a chance to subside?

Ever the optimist Colin is convinced that the moulin will be fine. Me, I like to plan for every contingency. There’s nowhere within 2 hours that actually sells sand bags, so he agrees to go into town again and buy some bags of sand from the DIY place.

And here I am, re-purposing old duvet covers…

Sandbags start to go into place

Lending a hand

Get involved. Meet people. Find some hobbies and interests.

If you move to a new area, wherever that may be, in whatever country, the advice is always the same. If you want to feel at home you have to put some effort into ‘doing stuff’ and meeting new people. That’s how you make friends.

Ever since I first left home as a teenager to go to University, I have moved around. Studying, following the work (mine and other half’s), chasing the promotions and more recently trying to escape the rat-race. Each time the resulting family upheavals, home-building and getting to grips with a new and more challenging job have left little time for anything else in life. I’ve always tried to make an effort to do the obvious – join the local gym, maybe find a club or an evening class to participate in, all with varying conviction/motivation/success.

So when we moved to France full-time, I definitely had to set about finding something to get involved with. Gymns are not a thing in the French countryside and as I do not have a competitive, sporty bone in my body team games were out, but I’d thought about yoga or zumba. Unfortunately the only two classes in the vicinity were during the day and as I still work, this didn’t fit in with my availability.

I had the same problem with an art and crafts class that I would have really liked to join. (for when I finally retire, maybe). It became increasingly clear that, always having lived in a city, I had been totally spoilt for choice in the UK and there just weren’t the organised leisure opportunities in the French countryside that I had so taken for granted.

So what do the local country folk do for fun?

They volunteer.

After asking around our friends everyone, it seemed, was involved in some kind of voluntary activity, whether that was charitable, ecological, educational or cultural:

helping out at after-school clubs

running a village toy library

running language courses for immigrants

reclaiming local river banks

cataloguing exhibits for a small, local museum

So we volunteered. Our first summer here we had just missed out on a local performance of the opera ‘Carmen’ at a small chateau in the next village. The following summer we made sure we attended the production of Aida at the chateau.

We discovered that this amazing production was staged by a young opera director, Julien Ostini. Julien and his wife, Véronique, had bought the crumbling Chateau de Linières with the express intention of bringing opera to the French countryside.

For the last three years they have produced a major opera with the help of 300+ volunteers – musicians, lighting technicians, professional singers and hundreds of local people who have helped out in whatever way they can – making costumes, cooking meals, providing lodgings to participating artists – whatever was needed to make things happen. The fact that thousands of local people have been able to attend top-class performances of major operas in their own area is a phenomenal achievement.

In July, I saw a poster in our village mairie (town hall) asking for volunteers to provide lodgings for artists participating in the opera. We had the space so I phoned the lady in charge of lodgings and offered a couple of rooms.

A couple of weeks later we played host to a lovely lady from Morlaix, who had volunteered as an extra and two young hairdressers and make-up artists from Lyon.

We had a ball!

We didn’t do nearly as much as some of the volunteers but we spent two weeks getting to know three lovely french women who had given up two weeks of their summer to work on this project. When they finally left for home we felt that we had made life-long friends – and had spent many a late hour over a glass of wine after rehearsals, conversing in French

The final performances were astonishing!

A couple of weeks ago the local members of the volunteers’ association got together for a barbecue. It was a lovely big family affair and we got chatting with several people that we hadn’t spoken to before. Interestingly we found we had quite a few mutual friends (our network is obviously expanding!) and many of them had already heard about Les Anglais who had bought the mill in La Roche.

As Julien proposed a toast we learned of the precarious financial state that he and Véronique had put themselves in to cover the costs of the previous 3 years’ productions. Next summer’s production would not happen unless extra, outside funding could be secured. (So if anyone knows anyone who would like to sponsor next summer’s performances, please get in touch!) But that wasn’t going to stop their last event of the year – three performances of Mozart’s Requiem.

This weekend it was quite emotional as we celebrated the success of the first concert along with our house-guests of the last few days – a secondary school music teacher and two students from the Conservatoire in Rennes, who, along with volunteers from all over France and many locals, had given up their half-term holidays to take part in an absolutely inspiring performance to a packed-out audience.

Chatting to friends we had bumped into outside the church afterwards, we realised just how much ‘lending a hand’ had actually helped us to feel more at home in France.

Minuit

It was only last Tuesday evening. But life has changed dramatically round here since then.

Our grandson was spending a week with us over the summer holidays, and according to the unwritten summer holiday rules (for things that HAVE TO BE DONE on holiday), we were playing Uno on the terrace late into the evening when suddenly, a plaintive mew was heard. Now, we get a lot of wildlife noises round here at night but not that many from pusscats as we are 2 kilometres from the village.

The miaowing became more insistent so grandson and I grabbed a torch and went to investigate. Eventually we managed to identify the source- a small emaciated kitten which was trying to push through our thick boundary hedge along the roadside. We freed him up and he joyfully joined us on the terrace. He was obviously starving (making a beeline for the dish of peanuts on the table) so reluctantly I defrosted the only thing I had available (some monkfish I was saving for the barbecue) and he wolfed it down, purring incessantly. This little scrap was evidently badly injured and starving but very happy to see humans who might help.

With ‘minou’ purring ecstatically and curled up on my grandson’s lap, there was no way he wasn’t spending the night with us, so a cardboard box was found, lined with a piece of old towel and kitty was safely ensconced in the utility room for the night.

Who could resist those eyes?

Now the Coles’ household has been distinctly pet-free since the demise of my son’s childhood companions (left with us when he went off to uni and still around after 23+ years) and we had long vowed that we would never be tied by any more pets. Colin would become a real Victor Meldrew and ‘bah, humbug’ anyone who suggested that an animal around would make the home complete, reeling off a litany of smells, cost, fleas, can’t just decide to go away etc etc. So I was quite surprised that he hadn’t put his foot down about keeping the kitten overnight. Maybe it was our grandson’s imploring look! But we had to be sensible. Keeping this bundle of fluff was NOT A GOOD IDEA. So the following morning, grandson and I put together some posters and took them to the mairie (town hall), village supermarket and baker’s. No one had heard of anyone losing a kitten but agreed to put the posters in a prominent position, just in case.

We then did a door-to-door enquiry of our nearest neighbours (eight, to be precise, along two miles of lane in either direction). This took a little longer than anticipated as we met some lovely elderly neighbours for the first time and spent a long time listening to life histories and anecdotes about pets they had had. One old lady told us that she regularly had boxes of unwanted kittens dumped outside her house (and even a box of baby rabbits!) by second home owners who, at the end of their summer holidays, just ‘disposed’ of their holiday pets as they returned to the cities. She suggested that as we lived next to the bridge over the river someone may have just thrown the kitten out of the car at the end of their holiday , intending it to drown in the river .

We arrived back home to find the kitten still curled up in the box but looking very poorly. He had a fever and could hardly lift his head. But still he purred when he saw us! Nothing for it. Once the vets’ clinic in town was open again after the obligatory 2-hour lunch break, we bundled him into the car and took him to be checked over. The vet was thorough and very much on the side of the kitten. She obviously suspected that we were the cause of the poor little mite’s injuries but as I explained the situation she calmed down and showed me that he had fallen onto something that had caused a massive wound that had become infected.

He had all sorts of parasites and infections and had obviously been living rough most of his very short life. With our consent she kept him in to operate on the wound and we arranged to come back in two days.

On the Friday when my grandson and I returned to the vet’s to collect him, the vet explained that the wound must have been caused by him falling (or being thrown) onto a metal spike. It was very deep and had narrowly missed internal organs. As the wound was so badly infected she hadn’t been able to close it- just cleaned it up as best she could, and so she took me through a whole series of treatments that would need to be carried out twice a day until the infection was under control.

With a bag heavy with antibiotics, drips, anti-parasite treatments and other paraphernalia (and a wallet lighter by quite a few euros) we took him home.

One week on, grandson has returned to the UK and Colin and I are here with apparently a new addition to the family. Minuit, Midnight (as we called him due to his blackness and the late hour he presented himself) is recovering in leaps and bounds (literally!!) He has eaten us out of house and home and from one day to the next has grown in strength and delighted us with his madcap antics and affectionate ways.

One big problem arose immediately. We were due to go back to the UK in 2 weeks. Minuit needed constant care and the vet said she couldn’t vaccinate him yet as his immune system was working at full whack to deal with the infected wound. She didn’t think he’d survive an additional onslaught caused by the vaccine. So there was no way we could take him with us or even put him in a cattery. At a loss for what to do, I posted on a Facebook group I belong to for suggestions and immediately got a reply from an amazing lady who only lives 15 minutes away and who offered to look after him while we were away. Having taken in several strays herself she had been in a similar situation and someone in the group had helped out. She said it was her chance to ‘forward the kindness’.

When you go into the village to get bread for lunch, leaving your husband D.I.Y.ing and return to find he has spent the entire time playing ‘catch the red dot from the laser measure’ with the kitten

Two weeks on and Colin has abandoned all pretence of being unaffected by the charms of Minuit. Who’d have thought it – two sensible 60 somethings smitten by a kitten?

New kitchen – et voilà!

It’s a dull, drizzly-drazzly October Sunday and for once Colin and I (both suffering from heavy colds) have decided to award ourselves a day of rest. So I spent a quiet morning collecting and chopping the last of our tomatoes to make chutney and while I mused about how lovely it was to have a kitchen I enjoyed cooking in, I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t actually shown you the finished room! So this afternoon I’m sitting down to catch up a bit on the blog.

Let me take you back to this time last year…

Anticipating a kitchen-less winter at the mill we had crammed in a few ‘dinners for friends’ in November and December to keep up our side of the social round. They were a little bemused that we were ripping out a fairly recent kitchen which would obviously have cost quite a bit of money. But it just didn’t work. A small window (which couldn’t be enlarged) meant the area was dark and gloomy – not helped by the dark brown units and hideous green-and-red-splodge marble worktop that looked like the kind of culture you would find in a laboratory dish.

The kitchen, seen from the living room when we first viewed the mill

The hob and oven were squashed into a corner, where the adjacent unit had been cut back to allow room to stand in front of them but the drawer couldn’t be opened because the oven controls were in the way.

An enormous radiator next to the sink meant that I frequently burned myself when washing up and the poor fridge freezer next to it, struggled to cope.

So, we were REALLY looking forward to having  a kitchen we would enjoy cooking in.

After our somewhat challenging weekend collecting the new kitchen in the UK, we arrived back in France raring to go on the new project. Inevitably the day jobs got in the way for a few days but three days before Christmas Colin decided it would be a good idea to do a ‘test’ demolition of the wall dividing the kitchen from the living room.

The dividing wall between the kitchen and living room areas is gradually demolished

We had kind of assumed that this feature was built of concrete blocks faced with brick ‘slips’ but the initial exploratory blows with a sledge hammer produced nothing but a jarred shoulder. Lump hammer and coal chisel revealed that the wall was in fact solid brick, built in (appropriately enough) English bond. Two adjacent rows of brick with every other row having the bricks laid cross-wise. Not only that but the holed bricks that the previous owner had used each had 10 square holes, which he had very carefully packed completely with rock hard mortar on every brick. This meant that each brick had to be chipped out bit by bit.

After two bricks we decided that the exploration was complete and put the shelf back on the top!

On Boxing Day, (him, armed with his latest toy – a whacking great hammer drill thingy and me, with a lump hammer and chisel because I couldn’t even lift the drill!), we set to with renewed vigour. Four days and four van-loads of rubble taken to the tip later, the wall was gone.

Over the next few months our weekends were taken up with the following tasks:

  • Remove all old kitchen units, oven and hob
  • Remove radiator
  • Remove dividing wall between front door and kitchen and rebuild (it was cock-eyed and the previous owner had cut the corner off the back of the unit to make it fit.)
  • Replace old mouldy plasterboard and insulation behind sink and cupboards (from historical links – no damp now, luckily)
  • Install electrics for relocated oven, hob, extractor and fridge
  • New sockets
  • Down-spots, under-cupboard lighting and pendant lights over peninsula unit
  • Install new radiator by front door to replace kitchen one
  • Install all units, worktops, sink and appliances
  • Tile splash backs

The kitchen was all but finished by April but to be totally honest, the tiling of the walls didn’t happen until this month (ie October). The original tiles I had sourced in the UK just didn’t look right, so we ordered some more in France. Typically, they weren’t kept in stock and by the time they arrived 6 weeks later, summer had arrived, we wanted to be outside all day and I was already well into my summer project – a new terrace (watch this space!)

So there we are. What do you think? I’m really pleased with it and the first lot of friends to visit after installation of the new kitchen (a French couple who are very down-to earth  and habitually sceptical of our efforts) gave it a spontaneous ‘Waouh!’ when they walked in.

New kitchen from dining area
built in pantry, ovens and fridge-freezer
sink area
breakfast bar with drawer units
gas hob and wok burner

The old kitchen didn’t go to waste as the units went to a young couple who were just moving into their first home together in the village and the worktops were apparently just what a friend of ours was looking for, for her own kitchen makeover!

The floor will eventually be re-done when we do the whole ground floor (hopefully next year, funds permitting), so if any of you have any good ideas for a floor we can lay on top of  existing tiles, which will be suitable for kitchen, utility room,  living-room, guest bedroom and entrance – please let me know!

Making our cars legal in France – Getting ANTSy

Getting our vehicles re-registered in France had been a bit like wading through mud. First we needed to get the requisite documentation, then the tax clearance and now we were at the stage of actually submitting our application to import and re-register. All of this is quite time-constrained but the deadlines take no account of the time it takes for the administrative wheels to move – and they ‘grind exceedingly slow’.

Our next step was to access the website of the French ‘Agence Nationale des Titres Sécurisés’, the National Security Agency, who deal with (amongst other things) the registration of vehicles. Now, we already knew that to log in to this we needed a nationally recognised form of ID (a bit like the UK Government Gateway login or Verify). Typically in France this is your income tax reference number, and as we haven’t yet been tax resident here a full year to do a tax return and get this number, we needed to find another way.

carte grise

The garage owner in the next village, who had saved our bacon when our van broke down, two days before our major kitchen-collection trip had agreed to act as our intermediary for the application, so we set off with the bulging file of paperwork as soon as the last bit of paper was in place. We had a nice chat and he explained that his colleague who dealt with all the car registrations didn’t work Fridays but he would pass on our phone number and the afore-mentioned colleague would ring us when he was back on Monday. Monday came and went (as did the rest of the week) with no contact from the garage. So on Friday we ‘just popped in as we were passing’ and were told that his colleague had been off all week with ‘flu, but would be in touch on Monday, when he was due to return. The following week the phone remained stubbornly silent, and although Colin was sure that there was a good reason for the lack of contact, I wasn’t so confident. I didn’t want to spoil the good relationship we had built with the garagiste, (not knowing when we might need his help again), but it seemed pretty clear that he didn’t want to get involved with our application. So we decided to try elsewhere.

That Friday (being a day off for both of us) we took our shiny red dossier into town, to the local Renault dealer (as one of the vehicles was a Renault). The two ladies in the office were lovely and friendly but apologised, saying they were only allowed to register brand new cars on the ANTS site.

Undeterred, we moved on to the next garage/showroom on the local shopping area – this time a brand new Renault used-car dealership. Once again I explained our predicament to the salesman in the showroom. He listened sympathetically and suggested we ask at the Renault garage we had just visited. When I told him that we had already tried there, he jumped onto his mobile phone and I heard him tell the person on the other end that he had a ‘nice English couple that needed assistance – let’s see if we can help them’.

We hadn’t realised that this was actually the same company as the garage we had just visited and the guy we were talking to was the owner of both. Having thanked him profusely we went back to the original garage and the ladies there immediately set-to, photocopying all our paperwork and explaining that they would do their best – maybe not today , but definitely on Monday. We suddenly realised that their initial reluctance ( and almost certainly the same went for our local garagiste) was that they had never had to deal with a foreign import before and weren’t sure how to go about it. They took our phone number in case there were any queries and we left feeling quite positive. A week later and no news. I’d suddenly realised that we would actually need something to show the gendarmes, if we were stopped, that we had actually applied to re-register the car and van, so I went back to the Renault dealer the following week to ask for a copy of the attestation, confirmation of application) The ladies at first looked nervous, saying it would take quite a while for the cartes grises to come through but that there hadn’t been any additional requests for information so they were hopeful… Then looked relieved when I explained why I needed the photocopies, confirming my suspicions about their original reactions.

Two weeks later, our lovely post-lady arrived with a sign-for letter – Yes! it was the carte grise for the car! Straight down to the local auto centre for some new registration plates – riveted not stuck (!) and we no longer stick out like a sore thumb when driving round the local lanes. Yay!

Still waiting to hear about the van, though.

quitus fiscal

Making our cars legal in France – the Quitus Fiscale

I’ve been getting better recently at coping with the French bureaucratic system. I no longer sit seething (well not as often anyway) at the fact that everything has to be photocopied, printed out, saved in paper folders – even when the process is all done online. I’m getting used to the fact that so many organisations insist on sending you a pass code in the post for an online service – even though they have asked for your email and mobile number. But the tax authorities have their own special little foibles.

As part of the process of getting our car and van imported and re-registered in France we had to get something called a ‘Quitus fiscal‘, a certificate to certify that all necessary taxes had been paid on the vehicle. I’d found the recommended list of documentation required, filled in forms, made photocopies and organised everything in folders to take to the tax office. Our first visit to this office when we first moved over permanently had been a bit of an education and our experience hasn’t changed over the many visits we have had to make since.

Our local town with its surrounding communes has a population of around 30,000. The large ugly 1960’s concrete block, sporting the words ‘Centre des Finances Publiques’ looks built to cope with a town this size, but when you walk through the sliding glass door you find yourself in a small room about 4m x 4m with a single glass window at one end and 4 plastic chairs arranged around the walls. As you can only pack about 8 people into this space there is often a line tailing back into the car park outside. Once inside, the experienced taxpayer makes a mental note of who is already there and who comes in behind, so that you can leap forward when your ‘turn’ comes. There’s no privacy so during your extremely long wait you are entertained with everyone’s financial situations and family circumstances, as they try to get some sense from the miserable and taciturn chap whose job it is to sit sideways-on at his computer behind the screen, rarely looking up as he deals with queries. (Mind you, if I had his job, I’d be miserable and taciturn!)

Our joy at only finding 4 people in the waiting area when we arrived quickly evaporated when, having reached Monsieur Services Clients behind the screen, we were told ‘We don’t deal with that – you’ll have to go to La Flèche’.

La Flèche is 40km away and as it was 11.30am and everywhere closes from midday until 2pm, we would have to go home and try the tax office in La Flèche after lunch. Monsieur was in quite a jolly mood today so he (still not making eye contact) volunteered the address of the afore-mentioned tax office without being prompted. I thanked him, saying I had been before, and refrained from mentioning that my previous visit had been a fool’s errand after he had sent me there on another matter and I was redirected back to him with a “What’s the matter with those guys? You’re the 3rd person this week they’ve sent over when it’s their job to handle this”

So, we weren’t terribly confident of success when we arrived at La Flèche Centre des Finances Publiques. This office at least has a ribbon-barrier queuing area for the Accueil, Reception desk, and two people working on it. Having shuffled very slowly to the front of the queue we were told that we actually needed the office on the first floor. (Just a suggestion here guys – why not just have a sign that points visitors to the relevant office as they come in?)

This time there was no one in front of us! A very friendly young man listened as I explained what we needed then disappeared off to photocopy my photocopies and fill in all the necessary forms (which he then photocopied and filed) before finally presenting us with the prized Quitus Fiscal for each vehicle. Yay!

Next, the actual application on the ANTS website.

carte-grise

Making our English cars legal in France

During all the to-ing and fro-ing we have done between England and France over the years that we have had a home here, all I have had to think about is having European insurance and breakdown cover, using the sticky beam-benders on our headlights (to avoid dazzling approaching drivers after dark) and carrying the requisite safety gear.

Things changed when we finally moved here permanently. As French residents we were required to officially import and re-register our trusty motors. Basically what we needed for the van and the car was a Carte Grise literally ‘Grey Card’, the equivalent of the UK V5 log book. Easily said but finding out exactly how to do this was no simple task.

Two things I’ve found out about living abroad are 1. Don’t assume anything works like in your native country; it rarely does, even in these international, global times. 2. I don’t know what I don’t know!!

Until quite recently the system was to pop along to your local Préfecture, County Hall and fill in the necessary forms. French friends who had not changed cars recently were adamant that this was all we needed to do. However France recently introduced their new online ANTS site, where all car registrations and updates to owners have to be done.

But to use this site you need to be in the business (a car dealer) or personally have official identification, which typically consists of an income tax reference, to register. As we haven’t been tax-resident for a full year yet, we won’t get these until we do our first tax return in April/May of this year. Happily (?!) the occasion of our van’s gearbox problem meant that we made the acquaintance of our local Renault dealer. When I asked him if he could help us re-register the car and van he was happy to help. He told us all the documentation we would need and we left promising to return in the new year when we had it all ready.

So all we needed for each vehicle was:

UK log book (VO5)

A European certificate of conformity,

French insurance

A Controle Technique (MOT equivalent)

Quitus fiscale (VAT import tax declaration certificate)

Plus the usual passport photocopy, utility bill (proof of address), bill of sale for the vehicle (who the heck has one of these when you bought it privately?), and a completed “demande” form, cerfa 13750.05

Getting a British registered car insured by a French insurance company is not easy – most do not want to know. We heard via Facebook that AXA would give 3 months’ provisional cover while you went through the process of re-registering so we paid a visit to our local AXA agency and 2 hours of paperwork (and a ‘gulp’ premium) later we left with a little square piece of green paper to display on our windscreens.

Next, the Contrôle Technique.

We booked both the car and the van in for a CT the following week at the local registered CT centre. I quizzed the manager about how he felt about beam-bender stickers on the headlights, as I knew they were technically legal for a CT, but that loads of Brits had had problems getting French CT centres to accept them. “No problem”, he said, and then wanted to know why we were moving to France. Was it because of Brexit? “Not good” he opined. We had to agree.

We knew that the Audi badly needed two new rear tyres so we went down to the local tyre fitter and booked the car in to have the tyres fitted on the morning of the CT test. (The earliest they could do, as they had to order them in)

The following Monday we took the van to the CT test centre and handed over the key along with a spare pack of beam-bender stickers ‘in case the current ones weren’t in exactly the right place’.

Forty-five minutes later the technician came back and reported a clean bill of health and issued our certificate and stuck the little square token to the windscreen. Result!!

A day later the tyre-fitting centre rang to say they couldn’t get hold of the tyres for the Audi for another week. (moderately-rural France is a totally different experience from the UK) I Googled the tyre and found an on-line supplier who could deliver the tyres to a local ‘partner’ garage for fitting. The price was good so I ordered and selected a garage about 6 km away. The supplier reported the tyres had been dispatched but after 3 days I had still not heard from the garage, so I rang to make an appointment for the fitting. The garagiste informed me that he didn’t fit tyres that had been bought over the internet- “he supplied tyres himself so why would he?”, he said.

So I rang the online tyre company and asked what I should do? “Leave it with us”, said the very helpful lady.

An hour later she rang back to say the the garagiste had decided he really did want to stay as a ‘partner garage’ with them (would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation) and that I would hear from him shortly regarding the fitting.

Meanwhile we had the appointment for the CT on the Audi. I agonised for a day about whether to cancel the CT, but decided to keep the appointment anyway and take the hit for the tyres. It would be another 20 euros for a re-test but we would have a piece of paper to say we had been ‘done’ which is all we needed apparently, for the registration people.

Back at the CT centre we read the local papers for an hour before the mechanic came back. He filled in forms without a word, so I summoned up the courage to ask how things had gone? “C’est une Audi“, it’s an Audi, he said with one eyebrow raised, as if only an idiot would think it could fail. Colin and I looked at each other, doing a telepathic hi-five then followed him outside, watched him fix the little Pass sticker to the windscreen, before waving a cheery bye-bye. “Oh, and you might just want to check the rear tyres” he winked as we got in.

Later that afternoon the garagiste rang and offered an immediate appointment, which we accepted, dropping everything to spend an hour sitting with his cheery wife and being licked to death by their Jack Russell while he fitted the new tyres. Not a word did he utter during the whole transaction.

Next the Quitus Fiscale…you’d better go and make yourself a cup of tea.

Part of history

Although sitting doing nothing isn’t normally in my nature ( I drive Colin mad by endlessly compiling and working my way through self-inflicted lists of ‘things-I-just-have-to-do’) I did spend some time this Christmas just kicking back, reading books, catching up on interesting websites I’d bookmarked about the local area and I fell to pondering.

This will be the ninth house I have bought and lived in since moving out to go to uni, cough-cough years ago. Although they have all (eventually) been lovely homes and I’ve many happy memories from each, I’ve realised that there is something a bit different about taking on an old place. And I don’t just mean the woodworm or ancient plumbing! Taking on an old property and lovingly restoring it is quite a responsibility and it doesn’t even have to be a national treasure to make you feel that way. There’s something about being a just a small jigsaw piece fitting into the history of the place, respecting that your house is also part of the local community’s history and memories, that gives you roots in the locality.

When we first came to view Moulin de la Roche, the then-owner had spent several years gutting the original building, removing any original features in his mission to create a ‘modern’ home. He told us that there had been a mill on the site for many years and showed us a photo taken around 1913, which shows a dilapidated building in a bit of a sorry state, with a mishmash of bits tacked on over the years. It’s true to say that it was never a lot of people’s romantic, chocolate-boxy idea of a water mill. It was and always had been a working factory.

I found a few old postcards of the mill which all showed a slightly different layout of the land, different outbuildings and additions to the main mill and even different courses of the water.

I’m fascinated by the organic way this place has developed, including it’s recent history which is all part of it, and I’ve decided to try and find out a bit more of the history of our mill. So you may see the occasional post on here whenever I find out a bit more.

If you have renovated in France, have you done any research into the history of your place? Where did you go to find information? I must admit that the task is a bit daunting, language-wise. I struggle with modern french, let alone archaic language but I really need to make the effort. I’d love to hear your experiences and tips – leave me a comment.

Operation Kitchen Collection – and it’s ‘Go’!

At 3 am on Thursday morning the alarm on my phone roused us to start ‘Operation Kitchen Collection.’ I’m really not bad at getting up early in the morning (just don’t ask me to stay awake after  9:30 pm!), which is just as well as we were booked on the 8:15am ferry from Caen to Portsmouth. We needed to be at the port an hour before sailing and allowing two and half hours journey time to Caen, plus contingency in case of problems with the Gilets Jaunes, Yellow-Vest protesters, we reckoned we needed an early start.

In mid-November Colin and I had spent a weekend in Caen to see a jazz concert. As the concert was Friday night and we weren’t planning to leave Caen again until Sunday, we weren’t too worried by the prospect of the nationwide demonstrations against hikes in fuel prices, planned for Saturday. Caen city centre had been totally deserted on Saturday as the blockades on all main roads had meant the public either couldn’t get in or refused to travel, in support of the movement’s demands.

As we started our journey home that Sunday, the protests had  clearly continued overnight and we were soon stopped by a group of Gilets Jaunes, who were ‘filtering’ the traffic by making vehicles wait for 10 minutes before allowing a few at a time to continue on their way ( at least, as far as the next road-block). It was all very good-natured, and we chatted with them as we waited. Even then, we witnessed one French driver who, clearly not intending to be kept waiting, attempted to drive through the makeshift barrier (a supermarket trolley, strategically placed in the middle of the road), only to be stopped by several protesters running alongside the car, banging on the roof.

Days of protests had turned into weeks and we’d been following the TV news as the demonstrations and blockades intensified, with some nasty scenes, damage to roads and motorway toll stations, and long queues of traffic across France. Hence, we thought it wise to allow ourselves some extra time to get the ferry!

Gilets Jaunes protesters outside Caen

As it happened, this time we saw no protesters at all, although scorched road surfaces and smouldering tyres showed where blockades had been. 

The following morning, in Bristol, we picked up the hire van and set off in convoy, up the M5 to Dudley. When we arrived at the depot I was very happy that they had laid on two strapping lads to load the furniture and appliances into the van for us. 

One was quite an athlete! Ignoring the tail lift on the van, again and again he leapt into the back of the van with fully constructed and fitted kitchen cabinets on his shoulder, swinging himself gracefully over the piled furniture and over the enormous puddles that covered the car park after the recent storms to repeat the process until everything was loaded and ready to go.

An uneventful return journey to Bristol, an evening with friends and a good night’s sleep followed, before another early morning start to catch the ferry back to France. We were due to arrive home in France around 5pm, leaving time to unload the van, have a shower and dinner before doing the next crossing back to England on Sunday.

You know when things are going just TOO well? It was about 2 pm, with the ferry an hour out from Caen and we were sitting in the cafeteria, having just finished lunch,  gazing out at the heaving grey waves merging into the grey mist which in turn merged into the glowering grey sky. It had been a relaxing if very ‘bumpy’ (as Colin likes to call it) crossing. A message over the PA system announced that our arrival in Caen-Ouistreham port would be 50 minutes later than scheduled. Inconvenient – yes, but not a disaster, and given the weather conditions, not unexpected.

Storm Deirdre hits the English Channel

Quarter of an hour later the nice French crew member announced that ‘due to a technical problem’ we would no longer be able to dock in Ouistreham but would have to divert to Cherbourg. Our new ETA was now 7pm! 

We had already passed the Cherbourg peninsular so the ship was having to turn around and go back out into the Channel to make its way along the coast to Cherbourg, through the raging storm.

There were very few passengers on board and we were provided with free cinema tickets and a hot dinner as the ferry battled its way back to port. A fellow passenger, who apparently was a marine engineer, informed us that he’d realised that the boat had lost an engine some time ago, so he was not surprised (Cherbourg being where the maintenance shipyard is).  No one moaned or complained (not even the Spanish truck drivers, who were blissfully unaware of the situation for sometime, there not having been a spanish translation of the original announcements) and the rest of the voyage was completed  in good spirits, despite several revised ETAs.

We finally disembarked at 8.30pm. Cherbourg port was empty –the passport control and customs staff had all gone home – so at least no more hold-ups there. 

Not so lucky with the blockades this time. Once out of the port we were flagged down by Gilets Jaunes, (Come on, guys. You’ve made your point!), who invited us to wait for ‘deux minutes’. We were already hours late, I said, so a couple more minutes wouldn’t make much difference. We chatted about our stricken ferry, and how we were due to return to England the next day. Just as well we weren’t due to leave from Cherbourg, the Gilets Jaunes said, as they were intending to blockade the port tomorrow! I asked them how the Paris demonstrations had gone that day, after the riots of the previous weekend and they bemoaned the hijacking of the protest by right-wing activists.  They were just ordinary people trying to make their voices heard they said and told us about how an American driver in a big 4×4 had charged through their roadblock earlier that day, scattering protesters -he’d been chased down and arrested by the police! Finally we were able to set off home –only now, we had a 4 hour drive home instead of the usual 2 from Caen-Ouistreham, on unfamiliar back-roads in lashing rain and gale-force winds. (Thanks, Storm Deirdre)

We finally pulled up outside the mill a few minutes before 1 am on Sunday morning!

Luckily, I had booked the afternoon ferry crossing on Sunday, intending to have a bit of a lie-in on Sunday morning after our busy few days. No lie-in for us now! A few hours sleep then up early to unload the van. And had anyone been watching, they wouldn’t have seen us leaping and swinging about, I can assure you! The worktops nearly finished us – they weighed a ton! We had originally intended to ask our neighbour for assistance with these if they proved too much, but next-doors were still in the Land of Nod after a ‘switching on of the Christmas illuminations’ party the night before. It had still been going strong when we got back in the early hours.

We dropped the last cabinet in the living room, locked up and jumped into the van with a full 10 minutes to spare before our scheduled departure time.

A living room full of kitchen!

After a somewhat hairy drive back to Caen, (with Colin struggling to keep the now unladen, very skittish box van in a straight line and with all 4 wheels on the tarmac in high winds), we got back to Bristol around midnight without further incident.

The guy at the van hire company asked all about our adventures, when we returned the vehicle the next morning, and said we had made his week. Good to know someone had enjoyed it!  Just one more, final trip back to France – and then the real fun starts.