Renovating houses in France

Following my last missive about buying a house in France I can now tell you my experiences of renovating the place.

Peter Mayle who wrote A Year in Provence did no favours to anyone thinking that they could buy a house in France and spend an extremely happy time completing their dream dwelling. The tales of Peter’s experience, although enjoyable were absolutely not true in my case.

David who I had employed to do the renovations and was living in the house turned out to be terribly lazy. He started work at 9am, took a two hour break and then knocked off at 5pm. He told me that was how French builders worked and he had always followed their habits.

Three weeks after we had arrived the work was going so slowly I told him to find some workmen to help and so Francois and Jacques arrived the next day. David then took on the role of foreman not doing a scrap of work but still enjoying a lot of wine at lunchtime and dinner.

A couple of weeks later we had the most blazing row about his behaviour and lack of labour. I think he thought he had found a gullible woman who had no idea of doing up houses. Wrong. I had renovated a three storey house in England and knew what I expected from the builders. After much shouting with him calling me every name under the sun I fired him. He left the next day with half the tools which I bought after we arrived because he told me they were necessary for the job in hand!

I like to think that I have a great sense of humour and many of my friends would testify to that, but my patience and humour were stretched to the limit. Left with two French workmen men who spoke not one word of English was a bit tricky! I was armed only with my daughter’s French/English dictionary from her secondary school which was passed around the table as I tried to outline the work that had to be done.

Francois and Jacques were like chalk and cheese, Jacques would smile all the time and would wiggle his moustache as he tried to understand what I was saying whilst Francois who probably understood less rattled on so quickly I thought my head would spin. Francois was obviously the chap in charge or so he thought!

It was sometimes impossible to make them grasp exactly what I wanted. I resorted to waving my arms around and speaking pigeon French, the two of them staring in amazement at my attempts to talk builder’s lingo. It always ended with us laughing our heads off while drinking cup after cup of coffee. I certainly could have done with something a lot stronger!

But what David told me really was true. Francois and Jacques used to arrive at 9am in time for a coffee and a de-brief from me about what I wanted done. I had decided it was better to start at the top of the house and work down. They would trudge up the stairs muttering under their breath, lucky I couldn’t hear, and wouldn’t have understood anyway!

They did indeed down tools at noon and rush home for their lunch. They would arrive back at 2pm in time for another coffee, retire upstairs and get back to work. I knew they were working by the clouds of dust that descended and rested gently in every single room.

I did complain quitely about it and after a gallic shrug of the shoulders and much laughter their suggestion was that I should only wear white clothes so then I wouldn’t notice!

When they had finished at about 4.25 there was time left until 5pm to have another coffee and get another briefing about their work the next day. As they left my brother started pouring the drinks. It is quite tiring trying to speak a language that you thought you knew but didn’t include builder’s lingo.

Turning the attic into a bedroom and sitting room took ages. Francois thought nothing of ripping out old lino and throwing it out of the window so it landed in the courtyard. During the time all this was happening I heard nothing from the next door neighbours. I did apologise every time I saw them but they just smiled and told me that they had done the same to their house.


Le Pigeons Bleu

Jacques and Francoise both had blue overalls liberally covered in paint and dust. One day they turned up giggling like mad and handed a new one to my brother Jem. From that day on they were known as Le Pigeons Bleu (why blue pigeons I asked myself and still don’t know!) And that was not the only nickname used. One day Francois casually picked up a HUGE bag of plaster slung it over one shoulder and marched upstairs. As he came down Jacques started whistling the theme tune from the Popeye cartoons, so we all did when we saw him lugging sacks upstairs, and the name stuck!

Obviously renovating a house required more than Jem’s toolbox so I spent many, many visits to a builders mega store called Castorama. The name still brings me out if a sweat! To give you an idea of how big it was if I lost and Jacques or Francois it was necessary to use our mobile phones to find out where we all were!

It was fine going with Jacques who drove at a normal pace and beamed at everything I said meanwhile quietly loading our trolley with was required. Francois was a different matter, he drove incredibly quickly, sometimes forcing my head backwards and my knuckles to turn white as I hung on. He would ask some poor man who worked there where to find certain pieces were and ended up in a rage if they didn’t have it in stock. That made the drive home even more perilous!

But I have to say that my two, no three pigeons worked hard and a really did an extremely good job. I think the key of it all was laughter – I put in a bathroom but insisted on a separate loo. I made to sit on the loo (lid closed I hasten to add) so that they could measure out how much room was needed in order to close and open the door!

It is an awful thing to say but I really can’t remember how long it took to finish the house, I think it is because I have to be careful about my blood pressure. I couldn’t and still don’t want to remind myself. Let us just say that we all exchanged present at Christmas and I can’t remember if they were there for the second one! Funnily enough I am still in touch with Francois by email so it is lovely to be reminded of my happy adventure!

The house was fabulous and just how I envisaged it, however during the time it was all ready to be opened as a B&B someone else had the same idea before me! It was not possible to have two in such a small village plus they had a swimming pool. So sadly after all the work we had done my dream disappeared in a puff of smoke and I decided to sell the house and renovate another one.

I must have been mad, although my three pigeons were looking forward to a new challenge!



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Jane Buckle

My Grandfather was called Bertie Buckle. He was a journalist in Fleet Street then went to live in India and founded the Bombay Gazette. I am not certain this was true but that was what my father told me! I always wanted to be a journalist but ended up doing Public Relations and Advertising, both of which meant that I was writing Press Releases, brochures and articles about clients. I formed my own little business specialising in P.R and Advertising. Unfortunately my clients drifted away one by one. They thought young and enthusiastic girls were preferable to an old lady of 55! I then moved to France where I lived for six blissful years. I renovated and sold houses and finally I realised my dream and wrote for three magazines there. I even had my own column in one of them. On my return to England I pitched for freelance work with all sorts of magazines and papers. I did write some pieces but I was over the moon when Silversurfers accepted an article. I like to think Bertie would be proud of his granddaughter.

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22nd Oct 2019
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I enjoyed reading Jane Buckle's experiences in France. I shall send a link to my friend who will shake her head and remember it well! She too had french Builders etc who were always very effusive on arriving and departing...the cheek kissing went on indefinitely! But she knew they were "borrowing" some of her tools and effectively ripping her off on occasions. Peter May's experience was indeed a rarity...and let's face it whether it was or not he made a good living from it. We loved France and spent a lot of time there but the rose coloured specs soon blurred up a little and realism set in. Take not of Jane all those who think it is easy to go out and renovate and start a isn't. Be warned!

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