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Monsieur Moran had recommended that we visit a colleague of his in a nearby town. When we arrived there some time later, it was only to discover that the colleague was on holiday and his office was closed. In fact, three out of the four estate agents in the town were relaxing somewhere in the sun by courtesy of the vendors of local properties.
We stood at the window of the only agency open, drooling at the properties offered, all of which were way beyond our pitiful budget. Or so it seemed. Then, tucked away in the corner of the side window, as if trying to hide from all their upper class neighbours, we spotted pictures of just two that we could afford. We went in search of a quick intake of the local morale booster before venturing into an office which hummed with quiet efficiency. Decked out in muted tones of blue and grey, and with subdued lighting from hidden ceiling lights and elegant uplighters, this was obviously an office that was accustomed to dealing in sums at least ten times what we had to spend. The receptionist introduced herself as Bernice and invited us to sit at her desk while she endeavoured to work out what we wanted. My spiel didn't sound quite as good now as it had in the bar where I had prepared myself with the aid of a dictionary. It did not help to be constantly interrupted by telephone calls which Bernice calmly answered and transferred, by faxes from other branches of the agency which had to be passed on immediately, and by e-mails arriving with a loud 'ping' on the printer beside her despicably neat and tidy desk. I felt like a grubby child who had gone into Fortnum and Mason's to ask if they sold tuppenny gob stoppers. We even had to go outside to point out the tumble-down shacks which we thought might be of interest. This caused quite a stir among the locals passing by, who immediately realised we were mad English people prepared to pay hard-earned money for any pile of stones standing, or even just lying heaped, in the corner of a French field. Almost to a man, they edged past us leaving as large a clearance as possible and making the sign against the evil eye. I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting to see the local dog warden approaching with a gigantic net to entrap these undesirable aliens.
There followed what seemed like three days of questioning and form filling. Before we could escape we had to explain that no, we were not French; yes, we were English; yes, we were married; no, we did not plan to live permanently in France; and so on and so on. At last we were graciously permitted to leave the presence having been given an appointment for two days hence when we would meet Monsieur Detroit, one of the negotiators, to discuss our requirements in greater detail. I could hardly imagine what greater detail was needed, unless they wanted my chest and inside leg measurements as well.
English estate agents attract a lot of criticism, some of which might well be fair, but much of which is almost certainly unjust. Be that as it may, there is at least one thing they could teach their French counterparts. Enter any estate agent's office in England and you will need a small van to carry off the amount of paper that will be thrust at you. Even the humblest property on their books seems to require five sheets of paper to describe it. Enquire about a property in France and you will be fortunate indeed to be given any sort of written details. Bernice had imparted no information about the two houses we had in mind apart from what we had already learned by looking in the window. So on leaving her office we tiptoed round to the side window and furtively memorised the locations of the two which we would be discussing in greater detail with Monsieur Detroit. The idea was to be one step ahead of him by having a sneak preview.