The River Sarthe at Avoise

Weekend escape

“…And for the weekend  a  band of heavy showers, moving in from the Atlantic, which could merge to become torrential downpours in places and temperatures rather disappointing for the time of year – about 17 degrees….”  The sunny smile of the weather presenter did not quite sit right with the news she was imparting. We were due for another typically English bank holiday.

I know, I know. We had only been back in England for less than a fortnight. We weren’t due back in France until October. But the prospect of yet another dismal, wet Bank holiday was just too much to bear. During a text chat with one of our French neighbours, earlier in the day, she had been complaining about the continuing canicule, heatwave, and how the garden was suffering. That clinched it then. Jump online, book tickets and shoot off after work on Friday to arrive in the early hours of Saturday morning.

A few hours of peaceful, uninterrupted sleep later, we set off into the bright sunshine to get supplies for the weekend. Saturday is market day in Sablé sur Sarthe, our nearest town, about 10 km away. We love strolling around the stalls, bursting with every kind of fruit and vegetable, mostly grown by the stall-holder themselves. A visit to the stall of our favourite fromager, Monsieur Souchet, is compulsory.

fromagerie Souchet

Not only does he always have a wonderful selection of cheeses but he is a consummate showman, wielding his cheese knife across the top of the cheese held above his head, until the customer is completely happy with the size of the piece to be cut, then entertaining his audience with his jokey banter, giving advice on the best cheese to select for a particular dish and teasing elderly ladies about the wildly romantic meals they are going to be preparing for their toy boys. Next, some fragrant apricots and a couple of small, juicy local melons. Having served us with our apricots the young girl calls over the stall owner. Madame always asks when you will be eating your melons, then carefully selects those of the exact ripeness required from the pile in front of her, writing a number on each to indicate the order in which they should be eaten – and she’s not been wrong yet. Last stop is to pick up some young lettuce plants and pain de sucre winter salad leaves, to take home for the allotment. The grey-haired market gardener nods in recognition – we are regular visitors to his stall- and offers a few tips on how to care for his babies. I don’t think he is too confident that we can grow anything in the frozen, northern wasteland that is England!

After a leisurely lunch in the garden we strolled down to the river to spend the afternoon lazing under a willow tree, reading and watching the kingfishers and martins swooping about across the water. An incoming text message from one of Colin’s mates, bemoaning the fact that the Bristol –Swindon footie match had been abandoned due to the appalling weather, just added to our enjoyment.

Having been forced to dine out that evening (well we’d packed all our kitchenware hadn’t we?) we returned home to indulge in our favourite evening pastime of ‘gate-hanging’.  A glass of sun-filled red wine in hand we hang over the front gate, discussing the day’s happenings, planning the next project and watching the oblivious owls and bats that silently hurtle around our heads and between the ancient, terracotta-tiled roofs of the village. We can be found here most evenings, winter or summer, but tonight, with the heat radiating out from the sun-baked stone walls and a glittering array of thousands of stars sliding slowly across the sky, I felt gloriously contented and ‘at home’.

It doesn’t get much better than this – I hope we’ll be as happy in the mill as we have been here.

Medieval Festival at Parcé sur Sarthe

Medieval Festivities

All good things come to an end, they say – including our holiday. The journey back through the wormhole was not not quite as pleasant in reverse. But we have some lovely memories to help us get through the next few weeks and months. For our last weekend in Avoise we decided we had definitely had enough of packing. Everything was done apart from those things we would need for camping out in the house for a day when we came back in October; a mattress on the floor in the bedroom, the coffee maker  and two each of plates, glasses, mugs and cutlery for breakfast on the day of our move.

With the following Monday being Assumption Day, a public holiday in France, there was again a whole host of events on over the weekend. Following the success of their Fêtes Médiévales two years ago, the villagers of Parcé sur Sarthe had decided to do the same thing again this year. Having missed it in 2014 we were determined to go this year and on Saturday morning we cycled over to partake of the revelry. There was a fabulous atmosphere in the little place with everyone dressed up in medieval costume, a medieval market, dancing and music, jousting and falconry displays and a generally happy, family feel.

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Even the bag searches and bands of heavily armed gendarmes with automatic weapon clutched across their chests, patrolling the village couldn’t put a dampener on the festive feeling, but it certainly brings home how unsafe the French feel in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks.

On Sunday the weather was again unbelievably lovely (I’ve been so disillusioned with summers in France and England in recent years that I dread peeking out through the curtains in the morning) We decided to take a picnic and explore the area surrounding our new mill. We spent a few hours strolling around local villages and ended up at the Chateau de Thévalles, which has a lovely restored watermill, just a few kilometres up river from our mill. In the spirit of research we did the guided tour.

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Céline, the young student who was earning some extra money during the summer holidays by taking tourists around the mill was lovely and very informative. When I explained why I was asking so many questions she seemed genuinely interested and chatted away asking about how we had found our mill and what were our plans for renovation. Did we have millstones? Was the mechanism still there? Were we going to restore the wheel to working order? Le Moulin de Thévalles, like ours, has been rebuilt several times and the latest building dates back to the 1800’s. It was fascinating to see how over the years the power of the river had been used to grind grain for flour and animal feed, pump water up to the chateau on the hill to water the gardens, power everything from sewing machines to farm machinery and more recently, in the 1900’s, to generate electricity for the chateau.

The latter was particularly interesting to Colin who was taking numerous photos on his phone of linkages and generators. Our vendor maintains that he has been using the water wheel to generate the electricity to run the central heating.  Unfortunately, the ‘turbine ‘ is no longer working – in my more sceptical moods, I don’t believe it ever did. But it would be incredible if we could find a way to make it work!

Compromis de vente

Compromis de vente

They say that moving house is up there with death and divorce in the stress rankings and while no one I know has yet popped their clogs there has been plenty of house-move stress and marital disharmony. Not between me and Colin I hasten to add.

On Tuesday afternoon we turned up as planned at Gérard’s office, ready to sign the compromis for the mill, together with the vendors-except that the vendors weren’t there. Apparently they weren’t able to make the appointment on Tuesday but Gérard was under the impression that we were returning to England earlier than we actually were, so was intending to get us to sign first then bring the vendors in the following day. We agreed that, as we would be around the following day, we would postpone the signing until the vendor was able to attend too. It did give us an opportunity to go through the contract on our own with Gérard, which was just as well as it turned out, as we found several discrepancies, including an additional 800 euros in fees , which we had negotiated would be included in the total asking price. We also discovered that the fosse (septic tank), despite the vendor’s assurances, was not actually aux normes (conforming to the legal standards introduced by the French government in 2012.) This didn’t come as a big shock, as I really didn’t trust the owner based on the short acquaintance we had had with him on our second viewing. He had however agreed to pay to have the necessary work carried out before the final contract was signed. Gérard didn’t actually have an appointment booked with the vendor for the next day and, when he still hadn’t called the following morning to confirm a time, I decided to bring a little pressure to bear via our mutual friend Chris. Chris phoned back with a time and a promise that the 800 euros would be included in the price.

Once again on Wednesday afternoon, we found ourselves sitting in Gérard’s office waiting for the vendor. They were late and Gérard explained that as Madame started work very early in the morning, she tended to like a siesta after lunch. Finally they arrived; Monsieur a short, rather self-important little man in his early sixties, with thick glasses, several days’ worth of stubble and who smelled strongly of alcohol as he sat down beside us. His wife was a thin bird-like woman who seemed quite nervous. The meeting got underway and Gérard explained to Colin and me that although the property was in the name of Monsieur, and he was the legal owner who would receive the money from the sale, because it was a family home, Madame also needed to sign the compromis on behalf of the family. This was obviously news to Madame who suddenly realised she had power of veto and declared that she had never really wanted to sell the mill anyway! Colin and I looked at each other in horror as the mood in the small office changed dramatically. Monsieur sat bolt upright, feet planted apart, his hands on his knees and loudly stated that it was his house and he would do what he liked with it. It took Gérard quite a while to calm them both and convince Madame to continue with the meeting. The next blow came when she realised that they would need to vacate the mill by mid-October. She exploded that they had nowhere to go, her job was in the town, the children were at school there and that they would only be able to afford a flat to rent. And there was no way she was moving into a flat!! Despite the mill having been on the market for over eighteen months, the extent of their preparation for this move seemed to have been a quick look on Le Bon Coin, an online small private ads site. Once again, Gérard came to the rescue, assuring her that their money would get a nice three-bedroomed rented house with a garden until they found somewhere more permanent and it could all be sorted in plenty of time for October.

Somehow we managed to get to the point of signing. In France, all parties are required to sign or initial every page of the contract itself, electric, gas, water, sewage, asbestos, lead, flood and mining reports. As this amounted to well over forty pages, in true French bureaucratic style, there was a bizarre carousel of papers passing from one to another, round the table until everything had been signed. And then we started again, because the vendors were using their own notaire, and he needed his own original signed copies of everything! Finally we all shook hands and Gérard showed Monsieur and Madame out.

As we walked back to the car we felt relief rather than elation. Apparently, Monsieur had decided that they were going to start a new life ‘on the other side of the Atlantic’ and nothing was going to stop him – not even his wife and children. One thing we were sure of – that marriage was not likely to last much longer.

France – closed for August

“Sorry to call you so early…but were you under the impression, as I was, that you were due to sign the compromis for the mill next week?”  My heart sank as I listened to our agent telling me that he had been trying to talk to the notaire that morning, but that she and her PA had both gone off on holiday for two weeks. We only had a week of our stay left in France and it looked like everything was going pear-shaped. I confirmed that Maître G had said she was going away but that she had given me her PA’s email address to send some documents to, in her absence – and now it looked like the PA had disappeared too.

France is notorious for shutting down completely during August. It’s one of those love/hate things for us. The French have their priorities right when it comes to work-life balance. They have strict rules for when they work and nothing gets in the way of their family and leisure time when they’re not working. But with my British hat on, it seems crazy that everyone goes off on an extended summer vacation just as the the busiest time of year starts in the summer. Restaurants and bars will close for their congés annuels, annual holidays, just as the tourists flock in. We’ve been stuck, waiting for several weeks in the past, for a spare part for the car,because the factory has shut down for August, just to be told with a gallic shrug – C’est les congés annuels. 

We rather anxiously spent the day waiting for the agent’s next call. “Leave it with me”, he’d said as he hung up, but we were still worried. We had decided that it would be a good idea to go back and walk round the village where ‘our’ mill was, just to check out the local amenities and acquaint ourselves a bit more with the area! It was really nice to see the place again, if only from the outside – especially as the weather had at last changed for the better and we could appreciate the beautiful setting in gorgeous sunshine.

Our agent was as good as his word and phoned back later to say that the agent for the mill was now back off his holidays and had been sent all the necessary paperwork by the notaire, so we could go ahead with the signing on Tuesday, as planned. Phew!

It’s been a busy few days, with a flying visit down to the Corbière region to see Colin’s sister and her partner who live down there. The amazing mountains and forests of the area and the peace and tranquillity of their isolated home was a complete change from the green rolling farmland of our area in the Sarthe. It was like being in a different country and made a lovely break.

Back ‘home’ in Avoise today, we’ve been visited by our neighbours from up the road,  who popped by to say hello, as well as their daughter and her friends visiting from Houston, who admired our 16th century house. After a lovely lazy lunch over at the home of Marianne and Jean-Paul who live in the next village and have been such good friends to us over the years, we decided that packing could wait until tomorrow and sat in the garden, reading and soaking up the sun. We’ve been really touched by our neighbours’ sadness to see us go (even if we are only moving 15 kilometres away!). Even the young guy from next door, who moved in relatively recently, and who we barely know, came over the other evening to say he had heard we were leaving and how he would miss us! It’s taken a while to build these relationships, especially as we are here for such a short time each year, but the warmth and generosity of the Avoisiens has made our time here really special.

Les Même Pô Peur - Avoise Fête de la Plage

Les Grandes Vacances

We’re back through the wormhole – a few hours driving and ferry and we are suddenly back living our parallel existence.  It’s quite a weird feeling. A familiar home, with everything as we left it, the daily routines, a lovely circle of friends and neighbours – but all quite different from those we were involved with just the previous day.

The last weekend in July is always the Fête de la Plage – the annual village summer celebration. It’s a little misleading as there is no plage, or beach in the village – just a beautifully kept park with boat ramp into the river Sarthe.  Nonetheless, every summer the whole village gathers for a sit-down meal followed by torchlight- procession and a wonderful fireworks display and disco on Saturday night. Sunday is a lazy day of wandering round the bric à brac (carboot sale) haggling for bits and bobs for the house, sitting in the warm sun over a kir or two,  listening to the jazz band and people-watching. Being the first weekend of the mass exodus which is the French annual holiday, when everyone heads out of the cities into the countryside or to the coast, the village suddenly springs to life as all the French second-home owners arrive to dust off the house and gardens that have been neglected since Christmas or even last summer. Elderly village residents are joined by their children and grandchildren and even the municipal campsite starts to look busy. There’s a lovely atmosphere of community and holiday, which sadly will disappear again at the end of August. It’ll be sad to leave Avoise but we have every intention of returning each year to join in the Fête de la Plage, and catch up with the village gossip.

This week has been busy, starting with a visit to the notaire’s office to sign the pre-sale contract or compromis. The system in France is quite different from the UK, where either party is free to pull out, right up to the exchange of contracts about a week before the ‘move’day. In France the vendor and purchaser sign a legally binding contract as soon as the price is agreed. The buyer also has to hand over their deposit to the notaire at that point. They then have 10 days ‘cooling-off’ period to withdraw, but after that if either party decides not to proceed, there is a financial penalty- usually 10% of the purchase price.

Our purchaser was not able to be present for this signing as he was due for an operation, so he was giving power of attorney to the notaire, to sign on his behalf. It’s quite normal in France for both parties to use the same notaire to handle the legal and fiscal side of the transaction. Their role is to act on behalf of the state to ensure that everything is done properly, rather than to represent either party. We could have chosen to use our own notaire, in which case the state-set fees would have been divided between the two notaires – but it seemed sensible to avoid the time that is always wasted, waiting for queries and communications between solicitors to be sent and replied to.

We immediately liked the notaire that our estate agent had recommended. Maître (the professional title given to a qualified notaire) G is a smart, chatty young woman with a wicked sense of humour and a somewhat wacky French/American accent when she speaks English, which she does well. Although La Tourelle is officially in my name, and only I needed to be involved in this signing, the house has also been Colin’s home from the outset and it was good to be able to swop backwards and forwards between English and French, so that he could follow the conversation more easily.

We were a bit concerned to find that although our American buyer had returned the form giving power of attorney to Maître G, he had failed to get his signature witnessed so it would have to be sent back to the States for him to do so. We were assured that this would not be a problem as I could still sign that morning and she or her colleague would sign as soon as the requisite paperwork, duly signed and witnessed, had been received.

I had originally wanted to delay the signing of the compromis  for the mill until our buyer’s ten day cooling- off period was up, terrified of being in the situation where we were contractually committed to buying the mill, then finding the sale of La Tourelle had fallen through.

Maître G reassured us that she could add a clause suspensive, or condition, to our purchase contract that would mean that it would only be legally binding provided that our buyer completed the purchase of our house. Better still, whereas waiting until the end of the cooling-off period protected us from him suddenly pulling out in the early stages, the clause suspensive  would give us peace of mind for the entire process.

We agreed that we would make an appointment to sign the compromis for the mill for next Monday, when the estate agent handling that property had returned from his summer holidays.

The first step of the legal process underway, we spent a couple of days starting to pack for the move. The signing of the Acte de Vente, or final contract, is due to happen in October, but as we only have these two weeks actually in France before then, we need to get as much done as possible while we are here.

It’s amazing how much stuff you accumulate over thirteen years in a house – even when you are only there a few weeks of the year. As we ummed and aahed over what to keep and what to put in the pile for the déchetterie, municipal recycling depot, I found myself still making a mental note of little decorating jobs that needed doing, plants I wanted to put in the garden or things it would be good to improve. It was almost like packing things for your grown up son or daughter as they prepare to fly the nest. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t my responsibility any more – I soon won’t have a say in what happens in this house’s future life.  But there is another house out there , waiting for us to lavish love and attention on it – so it’s not all sad!