Diary of a move: Part 2 - Arrival
Once we’ve cleared Paris we start looking out for a place to park up and eventually pull up at a rest area off the motorway about 3.30 a.m. Spotlessly clean toilets and wash basins.
Get the dogs out to let them stretch their legs then try and settle down for a few hours’ kip.
Monday 30th July - 06:30 a.m. Finally give up the struggle to try and get some sleep. I’m cold, stiff and tired, but keen to get back on the road (easy for me to say. Eddie’s the one doing the driving!)
A quick wash and brush up and a coffee from the flask we brought with us and we set off. One of the great things about driving in France is the fantastic motorway network – we haven’t been on anything other than (empty) motorways since we left Calais, and about 95% of the entire journey will be motorway. We stop at the first service station we reach and grab a quick bite of breakfast. Next, a rest area where we can give the dogs a walk and give them their breakfast. So far they have been so good, happily settled in the car. They must be wondering what on earth is going on!
We’re quickly eating up the miles. Just before we leave the motorway network we stop at a service area to buy some lunch. Once we leave the motorway, the excitement starts to build. Here we are in rural France, just a couple of hours from “home”. We stop in a small village, by a river and eat our lunch in the shade of the trees. We take the dogs for a well deserved walk along the river bank then its all back in the car for the final leg.
We are staying the night at the b&b we have stayed at each time we have visited. F & R have guests but have kindly offered us their spare room and a hot meal. We arrive about 5 p.m. and after a quick beer and catch up we head off to the house to meet E and Mr S.
Arrive at the house to find total chaos. Mr S is in the stages of moving out (thankfully) but looks to be a long way from finishing. He and E are having a flaming row about the dog. I try and explain to Mr S our situation and why we felt we couldn’t take the dog. Mr S seems to be in a highly emotional state, and when he grabs a kitchen knife and thrusts it at E telling her to “kill the dog” we step outside for a quick conflab. We agree we’ll have to agree to take the dog and just sort it out later, rehoming him if we have to.
As soon as we tell Mr S we’ll take the dog he immediately calms down. He says he will give us €400 for food for him. He then quite happily shows us where all the meters are, the stop cock, the gas tank (virtually empty by the way) and shows us the hay he has cut for us in the hayloft. There are quite a number of large round bales in the fields which have been cut for our neighbour and he will come and collect these shortly.
By the time we leave everything is much calmer and we’re all set for the appointment with the notaire at 9:30 next morning to sign the final contracts.
Back to F & R’s for a lovely evening of good food, and good company. Collapse into bed at about 11 and sleep like a log.
Tuesday 31st July – 07:30 Wake feeling refreshed and excited. It’s finally here – the day we’ve been dreaming of for the last 5 years. It hardly seems real. F has made us a lovely breakfast and at 9:00 we set off for the short drive to the notaire’s office. We have to take the dogs with us as we have nowhere to leave them, but they are quite happy in the car and if it gets too hot we will just have to bring them into the notaire’s with us!
Arrive at Villecomtal and meet E and her husband G. Time for a quick coffee and G says he’ll keep an eye on the dogs while we’re at the notaire’s and will take them for a walk along the river.
Arrive at the notaire’s a few minutes before 9:30. It transpires that Mr S is already there, in a meeting with his lawyer, the notaire and his ex wife. They divorced 10 years ago and she has been waiting since then for him to sell the house to get her divorce settlement. In the interim, she took out a mortgage on the house to provide her with some cash and she is here to sign a document to agree to the mortgage being repaid. Unlike in English law, where the solicitor would simply pay off the mortgage with the sale proceeds, in France the borrower must agree in writing to this.
After about half an hour E goes to find out what’s happening from the notaire’s clerk. He says that there seems to be a slight problem in that the ex wife is refusing to sign the document. No real problem as legally she cannot refuse to sign it.
Time ticks on and eventually the notaire appears. He explains the ex wife has decided right at the eleventh hour that she will only sign if Mr S agrees to pay her more than the sum originally agreed from the sale of the house. The notaire assures us she has no legal right to do this.
More time passes. Mr S appears looking absolutely livid. As he passes us he spits out some invective in French about his ex wife.
11:30 and G turns up with the dogs in tow. He was expecting the signing to have been completed by now (as were we). We’re all a bit nonplussed by what’s going on. And so we wait, and we wait.
And so the day wears on. The notaire comes out periodically to update us (she still won’t sign); Mr S and his lawyer appear every so often for huddled conflabs. And we wait.
Eddie’s mobile rings. It’s the livestock haulier to say that due to their stopover on Sunday he has not had to stop so often en route and will be arriving this evening. Let’s just hope we own the farm by the time they arrive!
Finally at about 3:30 the notaire, Mr S and his lawyer appear. The ex wife has left, without signing. She categorically refuses to sign unless she gets more money. The notaire explains that she has no legal right to do this, but she has. Eddie asks what on earth we are supposed to do – the removal lorry is waiting at the house, the animals will be arriving this evening and we have to be at the farm to look after the animals. The notaire explains that an enforcement order can be obtained to force her to sign, though this might take “some weeks”. In the meantime, it may be possible for us to rent the house. Mr S is livid and trying to leave. Before he does, we manage to obtain his permission to unload the furniture (though not into the house) and that the animals can be unloaded when they arrive. As for us, well at least for tonight we’ll be sleeping in the barn with the animals (F & R have more guests arriving tonight and their house is full to bursting).
Eddie, me, E & G are all basically shell shocked, as is the notaire. He has never come across this situation and it seems to be almost as big a shock for him as it is for us.
For now, all we can do is go back to the farm and get the furniture unloaded as the lorry has to go straight back to the UK, wait for the animals and then see what tomorrow brings. I ring F (she and R have been on standby to help us unload the lorry) and explain what’s happening. She agrees they’ll meet us at the farm. We drive back almost in silence. It’s surreal, as though this is all happening to someone else, not us. This wasn’t how we’d imagined this day.
We get to the farm and we all get on with the unpacking. There’s no sign of Mr S. A few hours later and the lorry’s empty, all our worldly possessions are in the barn, F&R have gone home and it’s just us, the dogs and one hell of a huge mess.
Mr S returns. He sees the furniture in the barn and throws a complete wobbly. Yes, the guy is definitely a fruitcake. I ring E for some support and she and G arrive soon after. E & I try to calm Mr S down, and eventually he disappears into the house, appearing about 20 minutes later showered and changed (lucky him!), and he gets into his car and clears off.
E & G don’t want to leave us on our own but we assure them we’ll be fine. There’s nothing more we can do today so let’s just see what tomorrow brings. E & G leave.
Eddie and I sit on a bale of straw completely numb. Earlier Eddie had suggested we ring the livestock haulier and tell him to turn round and take the animals back, but we decided not to. Right now I need to see them so badly. They have become my lodestar, what represents normality in this nightmare we have found ourselves in. We try and eat something but neither of us can face food. And so we sit in the gathering dark, waiting for the animals to arrive.
11 p.m. The lorry arrives. The driver and his son reassure us that the animals are all fine and the driver suggests we give them some food and leave them on the lorry for the night as they are perfectly settled. Peering in at them through the slats in the sides of the lorry they do indeed seem to be remarkably calm so we agree it’s best to leave them where they are.
Midnight. We have set up the camp beds we use when we go to shows in the barn, and surrounded them by a little wall of straw bales so the dogs don’t go wandering off. As I climb into my sleeping bag I can’t imagine being able to get any sleep, but within minutes I’m out for the count. That’s shock for you.
Wednesday 1st August – 06:30 a.m. Wake to a lovely sunrise. Things can’t be all bad on such a beautiful morning can they? Think of the positives: we have each other; we have French law on our side; the animals have arrived fit and well. Things could be worse.
Manage to sneak into the house to use the loo and have a wash before Mr S returns. He comes out to see us. He explains he is seeing his lawyer later on today, but he thinks the sale might be off. He refuses to countenance giving his ex wife any more money, and if the price of that is the sale not going through then so be it. I ask him if he realises that if he does that, under French law he has to pay us a considerable amount of compensation? He says he does. I just can’t figure this guy out, but in my less than perfect French I’m going to have to find a way of connecting with him. He needs to see us as real people in an awful situation over which we have no control, not just a couple of strangers he has no interest in.
Funnily enough, it’s the animals that provide the catalyst. The lorry pulls round to the barn to unload them, and as they come off the lorry his face actually lights up (he did used to farm sheep and cattle before he lost his leg in a car accident). As he watches them settling in he says wistfully “It’s good to see some life back in the place”. I cling on to that. There is a human being in there. I dredge all that French vocabulary lodged firmly at the back of my brain and I just start talking, asking him about when he farmed, what he did, what were his animals like, questioning, questioning, telling him about us, what we do, about the animals, their characters, their foibles. It seems to be working. He relaxes and I get a glimpse of what he really might be like when he’s not involved in his hateful battle with his ex wife. He shows me where there is a water tap and a hose, he offers his old troughs for us to use. He volunteers information and asks questions. I move on from the past to his future. What was he planning to do when he sold the farm to us? I figure if I get him to talk about it he might see that pulling out of the sale doesn’t just bugger up our plans, it affects him too. He tells me about his plans to go back to Germany and work with his carpenter brother in law. Maybe I’m making some progress.
9 a.m. E arrives with a bag of croissants and pastries for our breakfast. I could kiss her feet. The driver makes us coffee. The kindness of strangers.
By lunchtime the animals are settled in, the lorry has been washed down and they are off to pick up their next load. Mr S has left for his meeting with his lawyer. Once again it’s just us. One BIG positive to come out of the day so far is how settled and relaxed the animals are. You simply wouldn’t believe they have travelled 1,000 miles over 2 days. It’s as though they’ve always been here. The question is, how long WILL they be here? We discuss our options at this point in time:
1. Get back in touch with the removal firm and livestock haulier and organise going back to England
2. Stick it out here. If the sale falls through, find somewhere to rent, find somewhere to store the furniture, find land for the animals. Then start house hunting again.
I’m definitely in favour of option 2. I can’t bear the thought of going back, and feel we’ll be in a much better position house hunting if we’re here on the ground. My only problem is my job, but as long as we can rent a house with internet access I can make that work. We talk it through for a while, and agree it’s option 2. It feels good to have made a decision. We’ve got some control back over our lives, and it’s good to cling onto that even if at this precise moment in time we are just about in the deepest shit we’ve ever been in.
After lunch F arrives to see how we’re doing and we update her on where we are. She tells us to come round that evening for a shower and a meal and in the meantime she’ll get the jungle drums going. She’s sure that if necessary she can help us find somewhere to rent, somewhere to store the furniture and some land to rent for the animals. Not for the first time since this all kicked off I give thanks for these kind people around us who are there supporting us. They will never know how badly needed that support is right now.
About 4 p.m. Mr S returns. He’s smiling so something good must have come out of the meeting. He comes over to me and says he thinks he has good news. It is possible to get an enforcement order to make his ex wife sign the document. Then he just slips in “My wife wants an extra €17,000. Of course, if you were to agree to pay it we could sort this out very quickly”. I pretend not to have understood his French and smile sweetly at him, whilst thinking “You absolute bloody bastard. Why am I not surprised that we’re being asked to pay more money? Somehow I just knew that was coming”. I tell him I think it’s best that we all meet with the notaire to discuss matters the following day. I think he takes this to mean I’m agreeable to paying him more as he agrees straightaway. After telling Eddie of the conversation I ring E and tell her what’s happened. She is outraged. She gets straight on to the notaire and a meeting is arranged for 3:30 the following day. She rings Mr S and he agrees.
We get some stuff together and set off for F & R’s. Give them the latest news. It’s good to have someone other than each other to talk this over with. Maybe we should pay the extra if it means we can still buy the house? Alternatively we could refuse and take the consequences. Opinions and thoughts are bandied about for a while. F has various ideas about somewhere for us to rent, she offers her own land for the animals as a short term solution, and has found somewhere the furniture can be stored already. It’s an escape route. It’s an “if worst comes to worst” plan B. It takes some of the pressure off. It makes me want to weep with gratitude.
Then we both have a much wanted (and needed!) shower. Clean and changed into fresh clothes things don’t seem so bad and at least we have the meeting tomorrow when hopefully we can resolve things one way or another.
For the rest of the evening we don’t talk about the farm. We eat good food, drink good cheap wine and laugh, laugh, laugh. It’s JUST what we needed. At about 11 we head off back to the barn for a second night on the camp beds.
Thursday 2nd August – 06:30 a.m. Another beautiful sunrise, another beautiful day. Once we’ve seen to the animals and been out to buy some food for lunch, we’re in a kind of limbo before the meeting this afternoon. We don’t want to leave the animals for any length of time so soon after the arrival, so we set up camping chairs in the shade by the barn. Mr S is around, but apart from saying good morning first thing he stays in the house. We discuss whether we should pay the extra money. God knows it would stick in my throat to do it, but we agree after some discussion that to get this farm that we have so fallen in love with we would agree to pay another €10,000. That’s our bottom line and if it’s not acceptable then the sale’s off and we’ll sue him for the compensation we’re entitled to under French law and we’ll find somewhere else. We agree we won’t go straight in with this offer, but see how the meeting develops.
Everyone arrives on time for the meeting, including E’s boss who’s been brought in as reinforcements. The notaire starts by advising us that he has been in touch with Mr S’s lawyer and it has been agreed that we can stay in the house rent free for a period of up to 4 months while they try and sort out the situation with the ex wife. On the face of it this might sound wonderful but the house is an absolute crap hole. The man has been living in worse conditions than an animal. There are panes of glass missing in the windows, it needs cleaning and redecorating, the bathroom is too grim to think about having to use it other than for as short a time as possible. I explain all this to E and say there’s no way we can rent the place, even if it is for free, and live in it in its current state. E explains this to the notaire. Mr S looks slightly bemused. Eddie asks if at the end of 4 months there is any guarantee the sale could proceed. The notaire says he can’t give that guarantee. We therefore reject option 1.
The notaire then explains what options are left:
1. Mr S pays his wife what she’s asking for, which apparently nets down to €10,000 and not the €17,000 he mentioned to me, and the sale proceeds
2. Both sides agree to walk away from the sale on a “no fault” basis
3. We don’t agree to walk away, Mr S refuses to pay his ex wife, the sale doesn’t proceed, and he then has to pay us €35,000 and E’s boss €17,000 in compensation. We would all have to sue him for this. The case is clear cut, but as he has no assets we would not get paid until such time as he sold the house.
We advise option 2 is not on.
The notaire and E’s boss try to talk some sense into Mr S. Clearly the most sensible route is for him to just pay the damn money to his ex wife, but he seems adamant that he won’t. Eddie, E & I leave the room and let the men try and get through to him.
When we go back into the room, the meeting has been going on over 3 hours and no progress appears to have been made. E’s boss then lays it on the line and tells Mr S that both he and we will pursue him for our compensation no matter how long it takes. The bastard then suggests we pay his ex wife. In spite of what we’d agreed before the meeting Eddie and I both immediately shout “Non!!!” and I then absolutely let rip at him (in no doubt poorly constructed French) telling him exactly what I think of him. He says he won’t pay his ex wife on principle. Eddie says his principles are worth Jack shit if he’s happy for US to pay her for him!
The notaire (who I have to say was just brilliant) calmly says “Mr S has asked Mr & Mrs Gowen to pay an additional €10,000. Mr & Mrs Gowen have refused. Mr & Mrs Gowen, thank you.”
By now we’ve just about had it and have come to terms with the sale not going through. Eddie explains that if this is the case then we will find somewhere for us, the animals and our furniture and asks Mr S if he will give us a few days to arrange this. Amazingly, after what I’d just said to him, he agrees. In fact he seems really quite happy. E, bless her heart, says we and the dogs can move in with her and G until we find somewhere to rent.
So, we get down to the nitty gritty of what happens now. The notaire again stresses to Mr S the financial consequences of his actions. Mr S confirms he understands. Eddie asks how we get the 10% deposit back that is held in the notaire’s account. The notaire explains that Mr S has to agree to our having this money back. Mr S agrees. Eddie says he wants that in writing now. Mr S agrees and takes pen and paper. Before he starts writing, he lets slip some snide comment to E that she forced him to sell the house too cheaply. E asks the notaire to ask Mr S if once he’s broken this contract he’s planning to put the house back on the market at a higher price. Mr S confirms that’s exactly what he intends to do. He’ll sell it for enough to pay us and E’s boss the compensation we’re owed, give his ex wife what she wants, and still have more in his own pocket. Both E and the notaire tell him he’s mad, the house is only worth what we’re paying for it. Mr S shrugs and gets ready to write. Then the notaire delivers the killer blow (who’d have thought a French government official could be so dramatic??):
“If you sign to confirm you are breaking the contract that makes you liable for the compensation payments. But you are NOT released from the contract – not ever. You cannot put the house back on the market at a higher price, and you cannot sell it to anyone else. You have signed a contract promising to sell the house to Mr & Mrs Gowen at the agreed price and you can only get out of that contract if they decide they don’t want to exercise their right to buy. So you would have to pay Mr & Mrs Gowen their compensation, but you would ALSO still have to sell the house to them at the agreed price”. In other words buster, you’re stuffed. Woo hoo for French property law.
There’s a stunned silence which seems to last forever. I can now say I truly know what someone looks like when they realise they’ve been backed into a corner and there’s no escape. As the reality of his situation slowly dawns on him, he finally says: “I will pay my wife”.
The notaire wastes no time in getting that in writing from him. He dictates to Mr S exactly what the wording should be. Eddie, E & I leave the room – this is an embarrassing climb down for the man and much as I’d like to give him a good slap I don’t really want to witness his humiliation.
We all go outside. To say relief is washing over me is an understatement.
After a decent interval, we go back in. Mr S has written out the wording and now his pen is literally hovering over the page as he fights whatever demons are battling within him. He must hate his wife pretty damn badly. We all stay absolutely silent. Finally, he signs. Then he flings down the pen and leaves.
The atmosphere in the room improves dramatically once he’s gone. It’s now 8 p.m. – I can’t believe we’ve been here nearly 5 hours! The notaire explains that he will get in touch with the ex wife this evening. He is hopeful that with this obstacle removed we will be able to sign the contracts tomorrow or Saturday.
I thank the notaire for both of us for all his hard work, and thank E and her boss. We have only been here a few days and we are already so indebted to so many people helping us with our situation. These people this evening have gone way beyond what their job descriptions demand of them.
We head back to the farm to see to the animals (a bit late!). We are feeling a mixture of elation and deep, deep relief. Eddie asks me if the ordeal has affected how I feel about the farm. I think about it for a minute and say, yes, it makes me love it even more because we’ve had to go through so much and fight so damn hard to get it.
When we get back to the farm there is no sign of Mr S. While we’re feeding the animals, E rings. The ex wife has signed her document and a meeting has been arranged for 5 p.m. the next day for the final signing. We’ve done it.
After we’ve fed the animals we walk up to the restaurant in the village. We are finally thinking that we can start to call this home.
Friday 3rd August – When we get up Mr S has returned. We decide it’s probably best to keep out of his way today so after we’ve fed the animals we put the dogs in the car and head off. We go and buy something for lunch then drive to the local lake. We walk the dogs round the lake then find a shady spot. We spend the next few hours reading, dozing, and taking it easy.
E & G told us to come round to their place for a shower before the meeting so we go back to the farm after lunch to collect our stuff. When we arrive it is a hive of activity. Mr S is moving out. He comes over when he sees us and apologises for his behaviour the day before. He explains the bad history with his ex wife makes things difficult for him. Today, I can be magnanimous. I no longer have the urge to punch him, so I tell him it’s fine and we understand.
We go to E & G’s and have a lovely shower and a civilised cup of tea in the garden.
We arrive at the notaire’s and Mr S is already there. So is his ex wife. She has come in to sign something else to do with the extra money she is getting, which the notaire is explaining to her. This time, the clerk assures us, there are no problems. Nevertheless, time drags on and I can see Mr S starting to get more and more wound up. He obviously thinks she’s deliberately making him wait. Eventually the notaire appears and says he needs Mr S to go with him. The document that needs signing has to be signed, a copy by each of them, at the same time, in separate rooms. Mr S goes off. Another wait. This isn’t good. Signing a simple document should not be taking this long. The notaire appears. He looks seriously fed up. He SAYS he is seriously fed up. Mr S has a problem with the document because his lawyer hasn’t seen it and he doesn’t want to sign it until she does. The notaire has faxed her a copy and now Mr S is waiting for her to call back. Surprisingly, the notaire asks me to go and have a word with him! I go in softly, softly “Is there a problem Monsieur?” No, no problem he says, he just needs to talk to his lawyer, he might not be able to sign the document. I say what does he mean he might not sign it? He says it might be prejudicial to him. I then lose my temper with him. I tell him, no. Enough is enough. We’re not going through this bloody palaver again. I tell him he signs it soon or the deal’s off. He starts getting worked up again and I just walk out. I’ve just had enough of his bloody rollercoaster moods.
Eddie, E & I go outside to cool our heels. Eddie is getting really pissed off with the whole thing now and quite prepared to just walk away. Still, he says he’s hovering near the exit because there’s no way Mr S is leaving without signing what he would have signed the day before, even if he has to rugby tackle the bastard.
The notaire then suddenly appears. “It’s done” he says. “Come, we can sign now”.
Off we troop into his office. Mr S is there already. We take our seats and the notaire starts to read the contract to us. As the church bells ring 8 p.m. Mr S puts the first signature on the contract. Every page has to be signed and it takes some time for him to finish. As soon as the last page is signed he says “Can I go now?” The notaire say yes, and off he goes without another word. I did shout “Bonne chance” to him as he left though whether he heard I’ll never know.
The notaire made it quite clear he was glad to see the back of him. We started to sign and finally at 8:50 it was all done. The farm was ours.
I so wanted to give the notaire a big hug – I’m sure 9 out of 10 notaires would not have put in the effort he did to try and get the sale completed – but I wasn’t sure this would be appropriate behaviour. Still, I did manage a squeeze of his arm and a whispered “Thank you sooooo much”.
More effusive thanks to E and we set off HOME. Too late now to move in, but one more night in the barn won’t kill us. Strangely, after the elation of the day before, tonight we feel pretty deflated. I guess it was that last minute stress that took any joy out of the occasion. Still, no matter how we feel tonight, the farm is ours and tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of our lives.
You think that’s the end of the story?? Oh, no, there’s more to come. Third and final part to follow soon.