Friday, 22 July 2011

Monsieur Detroit

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

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In his late twenties, dark haired and good looking, Monsieur Detroit was charm personified. His suit, shirt and tie appeared to have been selected especially to match the office decor, and the shine of his shoes would have found no fault with a Regimental Sergeant Major of the Grenadier Guards. He apologised profusely for being late, even though he wasn't, and pulled forward a chair for Mrs S, who is always a sucker for smooth-talkers like this, especially when their smooth-talking involves a sexy French accent and a minimum of English. I had the uncomfortable feeling that this would be a difficult session but hoped that I would be able to control the situation as my French is better than Mrs S's. My French appeared also to be better than Monsieur D's English, although this did seem to improve fairly rapidly. Cynically, I wondered just how much he was holding in reserve and how much of what we had seen so far was a performance designed especially for English ladies of a certain age.

It was not long before I thought my doubts had been confirmed. Monsieur D had pulled down a lever-arch file with a dark-blue cover which blended perfectly with the muted tones of the office. Leafing through this, he had selected a number of properties which were all priced far beyond my slim wallet. With a puzzled look, he checked the details that Bernice had noted on our previous visit.

I should perhaps explain at this stage that, despite the fact that France had adopted the euro at the beginning of the year, French estate agents, in common with almost the entire population of the country, were still paying no more than lip service to the change of currency. The properties shown in their windows might display prices in euros, but the agents still thought in francs.

Monsieur D asked me to write down the maximum we were prepared to pay. I did so, giving the figure in euros, francs and, just for good measure, sterling. I was determined he should realise he was dealing with somebody who knew full well how many beans make four.

"Ah!" he said. "'Ere is ze problem."

It transpired that the fault was mine. I had been speaking of euros when I told the super-efficient Bernice, on our previous visit, the maximum that I was prepared to pay. She, quite understandably, had been thinking in francs and assumed that I had made a mistake, saying thousands when I really meant hundreds of thousands. I waited for us to be ushered politely out of the door once the true level of our finances had sunk in, but the suave Monsieur D was nothing if not equal to the situation, although no apology was forthcoming from him and I gave none either. Another colour-schemed lever-arch file was produced.
Flicking through a seemingly endless number of building plots for sale, Monsieur Detroit eventually managed to find five houses that we could afford. Among them were both of those that we had previously enquired about, together with the House of Bells which we had been shown by Monsieur Moran, and two others. I explained that we had already viewed one through another agent, who was offering the house at a price almost 25% less than that shown here, and that, having seen it from the outside, we had no wish to view the inside of the 'flea house'. Monsieur D seemed unsurprised by this latter revelation. Indeed, it seemed slightly to improve our standing in his eyes. We agreed on the three houses that we were to view and, to our astonishment, Bernice handed us written copies of the details of each.

We were to travel together in Monsieur D's car and, in view of his sartorial elegance, the condition of this vehicle came as a shock. It was at least fifteen years old, in need of a thoroughly good wash, and the rust spots looked like an outbreak of chicken pox. The inside was no better. Monsieur D unlocked the driver's door and reached inside to do the same for the rear door. Opening this, he proceeded to throw empty drink cans, chocolate wrappers and various papers onto the floor before brushing the seat down so that Mrs S could enter. A similar performance preceded my admission to the front passenger seat.

Age and appearance notwithstanding, the engine started at the first attempt and we left the market square in a cloud of smoky exhaust fumes. Now that he had escaped from the constrictions of the office, Monsieur D was able to relax a little and we laughed with each other at our puerile attempts to engage in conversation, each using the other's language. This must have proved something of a distraction as Monsieur D did get slightly lost trying to find the first house on our list.

In the fulness of time, and after a very pleasant tour of the local countryside, we did arrive at the correct village, only to find our way blocked by a burly, red-faced gendarme. I was very glad that the brakes on Monsieur D's car worked well enough to stop us before we hit this human mountain. It would have been a soft landing, but the gendarme looked a bit trigger happy to me. Beyond this human roadblock was a seething mass of French peasant farmers and their wives, shepherded by another two gendarmes. The whole crowd was dressed in its best market clothes. So large was this heaving mass of humanity that it completely swamped the centre of the village. It was obvious that we would need to exercise a degree of patience. The man (it could only have been a man for all those chauvinistic farmers to be there), the man whose funeral this was had evidently been a personage of some standing in the local community. I was somewhat alarmed when I thought I recognised the two stout ladies from the wedding a few days before. Being a practising coward, I slunk down in my seat but at last everybody had been shepherded into the church and I was able to relax again. The three gendarmes stepped aside and we slowly made our way past the church and into a nearby side street. It was only with some difficulty that Monsieur D found room to park his car within walking distance of the house we were to view, a house where, we had been told, we would just need to finish off the renovation.

Finish off the renovations? The place was such a disaster we might as well have attended the funeral. The current owner had started converting two small, semi-detached, single-storey houses into one, but no doorway had been opened between them so it was still necessary to go into the street to pass from one to the other. In one of them the ceiling was supported by a veritable cat's cradle of scaffolding and there seemed no way to hold the ceiling up without removing it completely and starting again. In any case, converting these two houses into one would be like trying to make a thatched cottage and a public lavatory into one house. We were told that the present owner had decided that he lived too far away to find time to complete the conversion, so wished to sell. Good luck to him, we thought, as we dodged between scaffolding poles and over trenches to look out of the back window into the garden over which neighbours had rights of way.

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