Wednesday, 3 November 2010

My first 'Present' from an agent!

Many people who call themselves Property Finders actually work in partnership with estate agencies and take a share of their commission – which naturally means they are drawn to certain agencies which, in my opinion, narrows down the search options for their clients. I don’t do this. When I first started doing this job and explained to estate agents that I was part of a national network of fully licenced Property Finders and that essentially I could be introducing new clients to them and not expecting anything in return (apart from a good working relationship) I was greeted with great suspicion. Even now some of them can’t quite believe their luck, but it makes total sense to me as it means I can be totally independent and provide a much better service for my clients.

I must admit that I harboured hopes of receiving the odd bottle of wine (or case, even!) when a sale goes through, but sadly, apart from occasional coffees or lunches I have received no' bribes' or thank you presents! I was therefore ridiculously pleased to open an email from an agent I spent quite some time with last week which appeared to be ‘offering’ me a client!

This particular agency proudly advertises the fact that they speak English & German – but this is also the agent who advertises properties with ‘a toilet not to miss’. In his email he explains that he has had an enquiry from an English lady who is interested in one of the properties on his website but that this particular property is for sale in 3 different ways and that it is beyond his language skills to explain this to her so would I like to contact her. It is one of those ‘En Viager’ situations which I won’t explain here as I feel a whole magazine article coming on, but I can imagine how hard it must be to explain it in a different language. Sadly I have not yet had a response from the client but I feel that the gesture is a small step towards entente cordiale – although I would have preferred wine!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

First Bank Holidays, now Strikes!

I regularly travel back and forth between France and the UK and have never had any problems (apart from the Ryanair cabin-crew’s non-stop attempts to sell me tepid pizza, over-priced perfume and ’smokeless’ cigarettes), until last week. Due to UK commitments I was doing a Monday - Friday trip so despite the fact that a General Strike was announced for the Tuesday I thought I would be fine. Stupid me! We landed early at Carcassonne (to the usual fanfare of tinny Ryanair trumpets) and I was in plenty of time to catch the 3pm train - if it had existed. The ticket machine then managed to sell me a ticket for the next train, even though that one had also been cancelled. Then, as if by magic, they announced that the train from Toulouse was finally arriving after a 45 minute delay. Me and possibly 200 other travellers decided that this was our only chance out of Carcassonne so we all piled on. I’m sure I have read somewhere that reservations are compulsory on French trains and that standing is prohibited but nobody else seemed aware of this and the aisles & corridors were so blocked that there was little chance of a guard complaining. I managed to extricate myself from the mass of humanity, dogs & suitcases and got off at Narbonne, knowing that the next train to Perpignan was not for 1 hour - but there it was on the other side of the platform just waiting for us! I arrived home in plenty of time to get ready and go out for dinner with clients, and felt extremely smug that I had somehow managed to beat the system. This smugness lasted until Friday…..

…. Friday morning at 7am I arrived at Perpignan station optimistically clutching my train ticket for the journey to Carcassonne, via Narbonne again. I had checked the newspaper and the internet the day before and SNCF was confident that there would be ’No Perturbations’ to the circulation. One glance at the departure information board made me very perturbed indeed. Yet again, my train did not exist - and if I missed my connection in Narbonne I would miss my flight. The only train leaving anytime soon was a sleek & shiny TGV heading off to Paris (via Narbonne!). I sneaked on, reasoning that as there were no stops until Narbonne, I could hardly be thrown off, and with a bit of luck, the guards would be on strike too. I made it to Narbonne station and there my luck ran out - the departure board was a disaster zone showing that no local trains were running. They had helpfully put on a couple of buses as an alternative but only at 4 hourly intervals and I needed to be at the airport within 2 hours. How I managed not to cry as I handed a taxi driver 110 euros to drive me 30 minutes up the auto route I will never know.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Lost in Translation

Several estate agents in this area of France now claim to speak English – but this is more a matter of opinion than fact. Some of them even have their websites translated into English. My favourite used to be one who frequently advertised properties as having ‘A toilet not to be missed’, but I have just discovered a new one whose descriptions are as baffling as a flat-pack furniture instruction booket. Here are just 4 examples:

15 min of Perpignan Ouest~Dans the heart of city, near the trade and schools, house of stone village, renovated in 2006, high quality services. with rez of roadway: Arranged part, porche.~au 1st: opened kitchen, living room/stay, room and room water. Reversible Clim.

Large house of town of F5 type of 134 M ² livable, in calm environment and without opposite, made up 3 rooms, living room, dining room, arranged kitchen equipped, dependences, garage possibility. Beaucoupe of seal with released sight.

Dans district calms villa 2 faces including/understanding entered giving on stay, opened kitchen, dining room 3 rooms a bathroom 2 wc garage and dependence the whole on 252 m ² and portions out ground.

Village at two minutes of Prades~Sur heights of the village with released sight, without opposite, House of village renovated, Beams and Stones apparent with terrace of 55M ²

I think I can confidently say that my services as a bi-lingual property finder will continue to be necessary for many years to come!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Roadworks Ahead - perhaps?

They are digging up the road just on the bridge near my apartment. There are plenty yellow signs warning ‘Route Barree a 100 metres’ and a sign pointing left indication ‘Deviation’. Why do people not believe these signs? You can clearly see a massive coned off area encircling an enormous digger machine and yet people continue to drive straight ahead as if the signs are lying or they are expecting some kind of parting of the red seas miracle to occur. Apart from the extra traffic noise (as the detour runs straight past me) it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to my evening glass of wine on the balcony as I watch the traffic drive forward, look right and left hoping for some other escape route, and then have to turn around. The strangest sight so far was this morning when the crazily named ‘Frogbus’ (a brilliant bus link between Perpignan Train Station and Girona Airport) did exactly the same thing as all the other optimistic drivers. It was particularly bizarre as it had no reason to be travelling along this particular stretch of road in the first place!

On a related note, I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee in a town called Thuir, just 10 minutes drive away. I took the normal road and travelled for the usual 10 minutes with the train-line on my right, heading for the roundabout, when, out of the blue there was a large yellow sign with the horrible message ‘Route Barree’ - but no other clues! No prior warning, no helpful deviation signs. Apart from doing a 3-point turn (which has never been one of my strong points) and travelling back the way I came for another 10 minutes, the only possible solution seemed to be to take the road to the left. It was a bit narrow but I (and an entourage of 4 other cars) followed it until we came to a complete dead end. I am proud to say I have learned some new hand signals!!!

Friday, 30 July 2010

A Fete worse than death???

I’ve previously mentioned some of the strange ‘Fetes’ that the local villages celebrate – Cherries, Artichokes, Apricots, the Sardane, the Flame of the Canigou etc. etc. These pale into insignificance compared to the one I discovered last weekend. Prats-de-Mollo, a small medieval village up in the Pyrenees recently invited everyone to come and attend the annual “Fete du Slip”. Yes, the Underpants Festival! Here is my translation of an extract from the Tourist Office Website details:

The Programme: In the afternoon a 7-a-side rugby tournament and other diverse inter-village competitions will take place. This is a family occasion so everybody is therefore invited to remain fully-dressed. It is not until around 21h, after the aperitifs and barbecues that the participants will be invited to feel more relaxed. Underpants and swimwear will therefore be de rigueur when the foam party commences. Anybody is welcome to show off their underwear by taking part in the grand parade organised for the occasion.

Having done a little more research on the matter (thank you Google) I find that there is a story/legend that tells of a General who was so displeased by the performance of his troops that, as a punishment, he ordered them to complete an assault course dressed only in their underwear. The young men of Prats de Mollo decided that this was something worth celebrating and this is now an annual event run by a committee calling themselves ‘Les Slipards’. Who cares whether it is true or not – what a great excuse for a party!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Le Castillet - Perpignan

I was watching the Bastille Day fireworks last Wednesday – a fabulous display let off from the roof of the Castillet. What would Perpignan do without its' most famous landmark? So far I have seen it covered in Catalan Flags celebrating the local Rugby Team’s victory, it has had films played on the walls, it has had abseilers climbing up carrying the ‘sacred flame of the Canigou’ and it also housed the the clock counting down the days to the opening of the new TGV link to Barcelona (unfortunately I wasn’t there on the last day but presumably they put up a sign saying ‘Train Delayed’). It is always used as a focal point for any Perpignan festival or celebration and it is an ideal ‘meeting-point’ when arranging to meet visitors to the City as you cannot miss it! But what is it?
The Castillet was built in the 14th century as a gateway in the city ramparts. 100 years later, Louis 16th ordered its’ conversion to a state prison, and later its’ walls were fortified and it became a defensive bastion. Early in the 1900s many of Perpignan’s ramparts were pulled down to allow for the expansion of the City but the Castillet was left. It now houses the ‘Casa Pairal’, a museum of Roussillon folklore & culture, and you can also climb the steps to the tower for a spectacular view. It well deserves its’ role as the symbol for Perpignan – and even has its’ own page on Facebook!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Will I ever be able to speak French?

I’ve always considered myself as fluent in French - obviously some of the terms I have come across during my work as a property finder reveal gaps in my education (why was I never taught the words for ‘mains-drainage’ ‘down pipe’ and ‘public right of way’ at school) but a couple of hours with the dictionary always helps. What I now find confusing is that the French either use different words or even words that I have never heard of - they respond to my cheery greeting of ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Bonsoir’ with ‘Bon-journee’, ‘Bon fin-de l’apres midi’, ‘Bon appetit’ etc. This morning I answered a second telephone call from an agent who greeted me with ‘Rebonjour’ - that is not even in the dictionary! And nor is ‘Sandwicherie’ but that is another Blog entirely! The local paper has just run an article about visitors who take their holidays in July rather than August and refer to them as ‘Juillettistes’ and ‘Aoutiens’.

I have had to take up drinking black coffee as whenever I ordered Café-au-lait I was informed that I wanted Café-Crème (or Vice-Versa depending upon which part of France you are in). Actually, during these hot sunny days I seem to have even more trouble ordering coffee as I somehow always seem to end up with a beer or glass of rose in front of me - it must be my accent!

My husband is ‘fairly fluent’ but is always keen to improve his vocabulary. The other day I was explaining how ‘bouchon’ literally translates as ‘cork’ but also describes a traffic jam. He was still mulling this over as we walked over to the newsagent. There was a man with a dog on his way out of the doorway and two large ladies standing back to let him pass, and then out of nowhere a woman with a pushchair containing the ugliest baby I have ever seen tried to barge through the middle of everybody. My husband recognised that this was the perfect opportunity to use his new word - but unfortunately announced ‘C’est un cochon’.......

Monday, 28 June 2010

No such thing as a free lunch?

One of the occupational hazards of my job as a property finder is that I spend a lot of time in cars with strange men. Not the clients, I hasten to add, but estate agents. So far, the only time I have been scared is by the way some of them drive, but last week I was nervous for a different reason.

There is a nice old man who lives opposite me in the ground floor apartment. He has a large terrace and he spends much of his time tending to his many potted plants. From an initial ‘waving’ and ‘calling out greetings’ acquaintance we are now at the stage where we occasionally invite each other over for coffee. Although the chances of him reading this are slim (as he does not speak a word of English or possess a computer), to avoid embarrassment (mainly mine!) I shall refer to him only as JC.

Soon after noon last Friday JC telephoned to ask, if I hadn’t already started my ‘preparations’, would I like to join him for lunch? As my ‘preparations’ had only so far extended to getting a rock-hard slab of Brie out of the fridge that didn’t show any signs of being soft enough to eat that day I replied that I would be delighted to join him. He then informed me that we would be going in the car and we agreed to meet outside the garage entrance at 1pm. To be honest I was quite pleased at the thought that we were going to a restaurant as he didn’t strike me as being a gourmet cook!

When we set off I asked where we were going and JC replied ‘La Boucherie’. My heart sank – we were obviously going to choose the food, take it back to his apartment, he was then going to cook and it was going to be a long afternoon! I then wondered (to myself) why we were driving to the butcher’s when there were so many in our own locality. JC continued to chatter about his family, his heart condition, Sarkozy etc. etc. as we drove and I watched where we were going and worked out that it was probably to Porte d’Espagne (on the outskirts of Perpignan) where there was a large shopping mall that stayed open all day. But no, we turned left at the island and ended up on the ring road leading westwards towards Spain! I was beginning to quietly panic by now - how could I have been so stupid, this man was obviously not a friendly old pensioner but a psychotic killer, bits of my dismembered body would be found scattered over the Pyrenees, I would never see my family again, nobody knew where I was etc. etc.

I was brought back to reality by JC tapping my arm and pointing to the left where to my great relief I could see what was at that moment the most beautiful sight in the world – it was a building with enormous model chickens, cows & pigs on the roof, and best of all, a large sign in front of it saying “Restaurant – La Boucherie”!

....and by the way, despite the outside decor, the food was delicious!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

And the Winner is - Ryanair!

After my very smug blog in March about how to beat Ryanair and get the best prices I am ashamed to say that they have won the battle. A few weeks ago I was looking into flights from Carcassonne to East Midlands and found one at a pretty reasonable 19 euros including taxes etc. As it had a notice saying ‘last seat available at this price’ I clicked and booked it. Today I was just browsing their site wondering whether my daughter could come out for a few days and then fly back with me on the same flight and find the price is now just 9 euros! Grrrr!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Whoops – nearly three weeks since my last post. My excuse is that I’ve been working very hard (which was never part of my game plan!) (And the picture shows the view of Mt. Canigou that I saw every morning on my way to pick up the clients so I can hardly complain). Some clients were over to view the properties that I had been searching for on their behalf over the past few weeks and as usual it has been a packed and busy schedule for all of us.

Drawing up a Viewing Schedule is sometimes the hardest part about property-finding: ideally I like to show 4 properties per day as any more can cause information overload for the clients, I then have to decide whether to show my personal favourites at the beginning or the end, and then I like to make sure that the viewings are in a sensible order and that we are not zig-zagging up and down the region too much. These idealistic plans would be marvellous if it wasn’t for the fact that apart from having to work around the weekly public holidays and daily two hour lunch breaks you have to throw estate agents and vendors into the equation. I cannot count the number of times that I have met an agent outside a house and we cannot get in because he has forgotten the keys (luckily only twice with clients), and as for vendors, I think it would be nice if they would put out their cigarettes, turn the television off and lock up their enormous dogs (and small children!) before allowing visitors into their houses. Have they never seen ‘House Doctor’!

Luckily last week’s viewings seemed to run fairly smoothly – the weather was glorious, the clients were lovely, only one vendor was out and none of the agents had to chase a tow-truck up a street in an attempt to rescue his car (as I witnessed last year)! The only time I felt things were not going so well was on the very first day and was entirely my fault – we had stopped for lunch in a little square and the clients chose salad and I chose to have prawns. It was only after the meal when my plate was littered with heads and tails that they told me they were vegetarian....!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Every Monday the local paper publishes the week’s menu for the local community schools - presumably so that the parents can plan their evening menus and not accidentally serve foie gras to their child for the second time in one day! I'm just surprised they don't also publish a wine list....!

Blancs de poireaux ou Haricots verts/mais
Fricassee porc/Semoule
Yaourt aromatise – Fruit

Salade Coleslaw ou conconbre vinaigrette
Escalope de dinde/Petits pois
Comte – Compote tous fruits

Salae de coquillettes au thon
Salade de ble provencale
Steak hache de boeuf
Courgettes provencales
Bleu – Fruit de saison

“Lulu au pais de miel”
Melon d’Espagne
Gigot d’agneau
Due carottes/salsifis au miel
Fromage blanc et miel
Tranche de pain d’epices

Terrine de campagne ou Mortadelle volaille
Calamars/Pommes vapeur
Suisse nature – Fruit de saison

Thursday, 13 May 2010

New film set in Pyrenees-Orientales Region

I’ve just been to the cinema to see "J’ai oublie de te dire" (you’ll have to imagine the acute accent over the ‘e’). No, I am not going to change this into a blog for film buffs but just mentioned it because it is filmed here in the Pyrenees-Orientales. In fact the producer lives in Perpignan but I am sure he didn’t choose to film it here just to save money but more because the scenery is very pretty!

There are some lovely images of village life in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a tiny view of the beaches and a good taste of Catalan culture with scenes filmed at Stade Aime Giral (home of the French Rugby Champions l’USAP) together with patriotic Catalan songs such as ‘Tomba, Tomba, Tomba’.

My second biggest disappointment was that for some reason there is no view of the majestic Canigou mountain which dominates the region. My main disappointment was how old Omar Shariff has become - but nevertheless a handsome man for a 110 year old!

Well worth seeing if you like sad films with beautiful scenery!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

It's another Holiday!

France has 11 national holidays every year. In the UK we have a 2 minute silence on Remembrance Day - the French have at least one day off (depending upon what day of the week the 11th November falls on). If a ‘moveable’ Public Holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday then there appears to be very little point in working on the Monday or the Friday! Last week my suspicions were aroused when a sign appeared in the Supermarket window stating that ‘The Supermarket will remain open all day on Saturday’. The Supermarket is, in fact, always open all day on Saturdays so the sign could only mean one thing - yet another public holiday was on the cards even ’though it is only 5 minutes since we commemorated Labour Day (by not labouring at all!).

I had forgotten all about this by Saturday when I drove down to Canet-Plage to wander round the market and spend an hour or two sunbathing by the sea. Much to my surprise, there was a US Army encampment consisting of tents, guns and soldiers dressed in World War II uniforms installed on the beach. This was part of La Fete de la Victoire or V.E. day as we know it. Towards lunchtime there was a procession of army vehicles around the town - jeeps, tanks & lorries filled with very authentic looking soldiers waving flags (and a couple of dogs wearing flags). The military vehicles were followed by a parade of Cadillacs, Limousines & Harley Davidsons which I think was stretching credibility a little! The only problem was that this coincided with the closure of the market so the procession was halted every few minutes while the local gendarme shouted at various traders who were trying to load up their vans & were blocking the road. Vive la France!

If there was a health and safety department in France they would be kept extremely busy - but, as there isn’t, these Festivals can be very exciting. I particularly remember one that was held in the evening in Perpignan which involved horses, fire-eaters etc. parading around the town - with just one gendarme and a whistle to stop the crowds from being burnt alive or trampled underfoot by horses! And I was once in Ceret watching the preparations for the annual bull-running festival - preparations which only seemed to involve setting up temporary bars on trestle-tables on every corner and tying flimsy bits of cardboard to shop-windows….

Apart from the National Holidays they seem also to have a ‘Fete’ for every occasion whether it be religious, cultural or even fruit & vegetable related. I am sorry to say that I have just missed the Artichoke Festival up in the ski-resort of Font Romeu - the mind boggles.

PS. As you may have noticed, I have not written for a while - due to the fact that I have been on holiday….hence the theme!
PPS. My thanks must go to Marie-Louise, a young lady who I met in the crowd who kindly forwarded these pictures to me.

Friday, 16 April 2010

A Day In The Life of a Property Finder

Am very proud to be featured in this Month's French Magazine in their 'Day in the Life' series. So proud, in fact, that I emailed my daughter and suggested she buy a copy. Her only comment, having read it, was 'what made you wear a black jacket with a blue jumper'!
To avoid criticism I have pasted the text of the article below, without the photograph..

Generally I am an easy-going calm person but you will often find me shouting at the television while watching ’A Place in the Sun’. Why are they only showing 3 properties? How far away from town are they? Why do they say it will only cost 10,000 euros to add a huge extension? Why do these people want to live in a place they have never visited before and why have they made no attempt to learn the language? Perhaps one day I will persuade Channel 4 to film me during one of my viewing days with clients to show them how I think it should be done, but in the meantime here is a ’behind the scenes’ look at a typical day of Property Finding.

9.30am - Out with estate agent to view 2 apartments I have selected after looking through his ‘book‘ (a folder containing details of every property on his books rather than just the ones in the window). The first apartment is ideal and fits the clients‘ very detailed brief but I make a note to warn them that they will have to ignore the flowery wallpaper (even on the ceilings) and budget for re-wiring as it does not appear to have been renovated for many years. It is an ’inheritance’ property and although it is sad to see all the possessions that represented an old lady’s life, I am also aware that the family are keen to sell so the price will be negotiable. The second property was actually owned by the agent himself (so he would not be charging agency fees). This was a second-floor apartment in a newly converted barn and was fabulous - with original beams and mezzanine rooms. The piece-de-resistance was that this apartment owned the largest part of the garden which consisted of a small lawned area, a shaded terraced area with built-in barbecue and finally, a swimming pool! Not part of my original brief but an added bonus in my opinion. This house would definitely go on my list of recommended viewings.

11.00am - Am now in a village just 10 minutes away from Perpignan and early for my next appointment so have time for a coffee and a wander around the town. In the ’Tabac’ I spot an advert for a house for sale that I viewed for my clients a couple of days ago and the asking price is considerably less than the price the estate agent is asking for. It would be unethical to go directly to the vendor now but it will be useful information for my clients when considering what offer they might be willing to make…

11.30am - Meet up with Christophe, an independent agent, who shows me two Maisons de Village. Although they both fit the brief, by nature Village houses are generally small and dark and these two are no exception. The final straw for one of them was that, although advertised as having a garage, the door is not wide enough to accommodate a car! I don’t think these will appear on my final viewing list.

12 noon - Everywhere is closing for lunch and I just happen to be a few minutes away from the beach….

2.30pm - Visiting a Maison de Villlage but this one is absolutely amazing. It has been renovated to within an inch of its’ life and has the most stylish bathroom I have ever seen! The two bedrooms are downstairs off a large hall, and then upstairs is a large open plan living-room/kitchen and then there are steps up to a Mezzanine level which is used as an office. Outside there is a beautiful terrace area with views up to the mountains. The added bonus is that the property also owns a garden - just 5 minutes walk away (not an unusual arrangement in villages). I thank the owner and tell her that I will be highly recommending it to my clients. (Sadly, when I met my clients I decided to cancel the viewing as the client turned out to be 6’4” tall and the ceiling height of the mezzanine level was considerably less!)

3.30pm - I’ve found it! Large garage with workshop, 3 bedrooms, a beautifully equipped kitchen and finally an upstairs living room with terrace and a summer kitchen! And best of all, it is not officially ’on the market’ yet as the owner wants to finish doing one or two odd jobs.

5.00pm - Back in the office and busy sending my ’warts & all’ viewing reports and pictures to my clients. All in all, not a bad haul of properties and I am able to recommend 4 out of the 6 that I viewed today, and have already highlighted 7 from the past few days few days of viewings. I have to admit I find it hard to hide my enthusiasm for certain properties but I try to remain impartial as it is entirely the clients’ decision - however, 2 weeks later when they flew out to view 11 properties that I had found for them, they fell in love with my ’Perfect’ house and are now happily living there.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

La Sanch - Good Friday

This took place over a week ago – Good Friday – but it has taken me all this time to try to find the words to describe it and I am still struggling. This is one of the scariest things I have ever seen (although I admit I have led a very sheltered life). The town comes to a standstill as the ‘Regidor’ dressed in red robes leads the procession and rings a bell to warn the town of the arrival of the procession of condemned prisoners. All are wearing hoods to protect their identity. Although La Sanch are a ‘brotherhood’, the religious connations are that they are accompanied by hooded ‘penitents’ carrying extremely heavy statues representing scenes from the passion to remind us that Jesus was also condemned to death.

The old town is silent except for ‘sacred music’ being played over loudspeakers and the sound of the leaders banging sticks on the ground to signify a rest. The crowd is respectful and quiet. We watched for nearly an hour but the procession takes an age as the statues are so heavy that the procession has to stop every few minutes for the bearers to take a break. Many are bare-footed, some wear designer trainers under their robes. I am glad to have finally seen this procession but the thought of it still makes me feel a little uneasy.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

French Undressing

A certain reviewer of French Life Blogs suggested that his idea of the perfect blog would contain posts about 2CVs, mushrooms and lingerie. As I am allergic to mushrooms (and, I suspect, 2CVs) I am left with just one area of expertise - and the subject does seem to tie in nicely with my last post.

The Times newspaper states that the English are now buying more underwear than the French. Incroyable I thought at first, but then realised it could very well be true. It is so easy to go into Marks & Spencers and stock up on your 5-pair pack of tried & trusted pants and to grab a couple of bras in the size you have been wearing for the past 5 years. Not so easy in France. In the Department stores the lingerie departments often have a whole floor to themselves and the displays can be bewildering – but so beautiful. Two impossibly stylish assistants (dressed in black) will be pretending to have a conversation but will be keeping an eye on you. After 30 seconds one of them will offer assistance and suggest that Monsieur relaxes in a chair. (Monsieur would usually prefer to stick pencils in his eyes rather than go shopping but always seems amenable to these trips). I will then be quizzed as to what I am looking for, the purpose (business or pleasure), and then asked what size I am looking for. My response brings a snort of derision and she will eye me up before choosing a selection in a size I have not worn since I was 12 years old. She will then accompany me into the changing room and, despite the fact that I have been able to dress myself unassisted since I was a toddler, she will then take a very hands on approach, adjusting straps, checking the fit (I have to admit that she was right about the size) and generally tweaking until she is perfectly satisfied. She then flings open the curtain to ask Monsieur for his opinion. He seems to approve – as do several other shoppers passing by! She then trusts me to get dressed by myself and I am then led to the counter where I pay before my husband sees the price.

Most towns in France, whatever their size, have small independent lingerie shops and these are even scarier. One amusing experience occurred in a shop in Montpellier where I discovered that there wasn’t even a changing room. At the back of the shop an attractive blonde woman had stripped to the waist and was trying on bikini tops while her husband vainly attempted to protect her modesty. Armed with my newly acquired knowledge regarding my size I decided to buy without trying and hurried my husband out before she decided to try on the bikini bottoms. We are still not speaking!

Friday, 19 March 2010

French Dressing

I see that once again, Britain has been voted the worst dressed nation in a European web poll. Quelle surprise! But I don’t think it is so much what we wear (nylon tracksuits aside), but the way that we wear clothes. How often have you left the house with your coat hanging open? The French take fastenings very seriously and if a coat has buttons or a belt they will be secured and tied as designed, and the whole ensemble will look neat and tidy. It’s not a matter of spending a lot of money on designer clothes – even the cheapest outfit will be styled with a jauntily tied scarf or the addition of a stunning brooch (and I’m generally talking about women here)!

French men also have ‘the knack’ – have you ever seen a Frenchman with a jumper tied around his waist? Non. If he has to carry a spare jumper it will be draped casually over the shoulders and have the two sleeves folded into each other at the cuffs. I think there must be a secret school where they learn how to do this, with another lesson on how to tie their winter scarves so neatly!

Tourists in France are instantly recognisable by the fact that they like to wear as few clothes as possible as soon as possible. At the first sign of sunshine (or a temperature in double figures) the British will immediately don shorts, t-shirts and sandals. The French will continue to wear polo neck jumpers, trousers and jackets until mid-end June in case there is a danger of a sudden cool breeze in which they might catch a chill.

Now, just don’t get me started on Americans and their fashion sense…. (two words I never thought I would find in one sentence!)

Friday, 12 March 2010

Snow, Snow, thick thick Snow

Usually the only conversation I have about the weather is when my next door neighbour comes out onto her balcony to fan herself and laugh at me catching the mid-day rays. This week I haven’t even set foot on the balcony as it has snowed. Proper thick snow. 30 centimetres of the stuff. Naturally the whole departement ground to a halt – the airport was closed, trains stopped running, the autoroute was blocked for hours and even the frontier border at Le Perthus was closed. Perpignan was a ‘ghost-town’ as none of the roads or pavements were fit to use and everybody stayed indoors. I had wanted to go for a walk to take some artistic photographs of snow-covered palm-trees but, having performed an Olympic-standard triple-salko on the corner of my street, decided to stay at home and watch the weather on the news.

What amused me most were all the complaints - Why don’t all villages have a ‘chasse-neige’ (snow-plough)? - Which schools are closed? – Who is in charge of the deneigement? (I love the way the French always have the perfect word for everything)! The English have a perfect right to be surprised by snow when it happens every winter and the whole country grinds to a halt because of a lack of grit. But this is the Mediterranean, famous for the sunny weather & mild climate. Snow-storms like this have not happened for over 30 years – and it really is a surprise!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Ryanair - fight or flight?

Flying Ryanair is a necessary evil as due to the price and the fact that they seem to fly into the right place I have to use them regularly. In fact, I book so many flights every year that I now look on it as a game – and it is very important that I win!

The setting for the ‘contest’ is the bookings website but this is highly dangerous as this is Ryanair’s ‘Home Ground’ which gives them a huge advantage as it is easy to get led astray by the tempting adverts of ‘Flights Just £9 – book until midnight on Monday’. These flights are extremely well hidden as (unlike other more helpful budget airlines) you can’t look up a month’s worth of flights in one go, and if you manage to find one of them they are more likely to cost £50 by the time you have pressed all the buttons and discovered all the costs for ‘optional charges’ and taxes. To give yourself an added advantage, start by clicking on and you can actually choose the highest price you are willing to pay for a ticket. Not wanting to be greedy I type in 19 euros as a fair figure which then gives me a good starting point to enter the site and battle then commences.

Armed with my knowledge I go back to the Ryanair website and select my flight – Girona to East Midlands, 14 euros (including tax) + 5 euros online check in (expected & unavoidable). On to the next page and they attempt a swift uppercut by assuming I want to check in a 15 kilo bag for £15. I swiftly dodge this by clicking on Hand Luggage only. They fight back by suggesting I might want to be one of the first passengers to board the plane for an extra £4 which I laughingly ignore as I hold the world record for the Boarding gate sprint. Shocked by my hidden strength they parry back by offering insurance which I swiftly dodge by scrolling down to the ‘no thanks I don’t need insurance’ which is spectacularly well hidden among a list of countries. We have made it down to the information section and all the totals are reading 0 extra! By this time I am feeling very smug, particularly when they seem to remember my name and fill in all the details of my address for me. Unfortunately they do not remember that I never pay for extras and offer me a text message reminder of my booking for 1 euro. Again, thanks but no thanks. All I have to do now is to ignore the button offering to add me to their mailing list (which I have already subscribed to as it is free!) and click the continue button. They have one last desperate attempt to sell me insurance but I manage to ignore it and get through to the payment page – also known as ‘round 2’. This is the shortest round of all as I deliver my killer blow – by using a ‘Prepaid Mastercard’ to pay for the flights thus avoiding their ridiculous ‘administration fees’. Ryanair are on the ropes and I am declared the winner!

Just as a quick footnote to this blog, I have to say that Ryanair thoroughly shocked me recently. I know better than to order food (not so much because of the inflated prices but because it is completely unpalatable) but I have occasionally been known to buy a drink. Even though it cost more than the flight, I treated myself to a Gin & Tonic. The steward plonked down the plastic cup, a tin of tonic water and two hand-wipes. I was just about to complain when I realised that the hand-wipes were in fact sachets containing Gin! As you are not allowed to bring on board anything sharper than a banana, by the time I managed to open them there was more gin on the tray and the passenger in front of me than in my glass. Ryanair, I salute you!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Let the buyer beware....?

I’ve always felt that the French property buying system is excellent – particularly compared to the UK system where so many things can (and do) go wrong and properties can be taken off the market just when you think you are about to sign the final contract. It is so reassuring to know that here in France, once you have signed the Compromis de Vente and the 7-day cooling off period has passed, the property will become yours. This is particularly weighted towards the buyer as, once the seller has signed the Compromis he is then committed to sell whereas the buyer has the advantage of having one week to change his mind.

This makes me wonder what Mikhail Prokhorov was thinking in 2008 when he made an offer of £360 million for the luxury Villa Leopolda in Villefranche-sur-mer in the Cote d’Azur . According to an article in the Daily Mail, he put down a deposit of £36 million and then, due to the global credit crisis, changed his mind. French courts ruled that under the terms of French property law he has lost his deposit and must also pay the owner an additional £1 million in interest.

On a happy note we hear that the owner, Mrs Safra (widow of a billionaire banker) is to donate the money to various charities – and hopefully this sum will not make too big a dent in Mr. Prokhorov’s estimated £6 billion bank balance.

The full article can be seen at:

Friday, 26 February 2010

The Right Time to Buy?

When is the best time to buy a property in France? Sadly the right answer appears to be 5 years ago! According to figures from Notaires de France (based on costs for an ‘appartement ancien’ in Perpignan), in 2004/5 prices rose 24.8%, in 2005/6 they were up 16.9%, in 2006/7 they rose by 7.7%, slowing in 2007/8 to a rise of just 0.2%. It would be nice if I could stop quoting figures right there but unfortunately the statistics continue and show a downturn of 5.9% by September of 2009. (Although this drop is considerably less than most other regions of France).

We bought our apartment in 2007. Am I shedding bitter tears because I bought ‘at the wrong time’? Not at all! We never bought the place with the intention of making a quick profit but for the enjoyment of waking up to Mediterranean sunshine, welcoming visitors to the area, making new friends and living the French lifestyle. What better ‘profit’ could you wish for?