02 February 2006

Monday in Montrichard

Monday, December 9, 2002. We woke up groggy in our gîte in Pocé-sur-Cisse, on the northern outskirts of Amboise. We had an 11:00 a.m. appointment with a realtor in Montrichard, 12 or 15 miles south.

Each time we saw Adrienne or Jean, the owners of our gîte, she or he would ask what we were planning to go see and whether we needed suggestions or driving directions. We were being very vague with them, because we didn't want to announce that we had come to buy a house for fear of jinxing the whole plan, or looking naive if we couldn't find anything. We were keeping the whole enterprise a secret for the time being. I think Adrienne and Jean thought we were dazed and confused, since we wouldn't really answer their questions or accept their help on our "tour" of the region.

And we were groggy from jet lag, that’s for sure. But Walt was in worse shape than that. He had some kind of sinus affliction that kept him from getting much sleep at all. Everytime he would lie down to sleep, his throat would get irritated and he would start coughing. He’d have to get back up, drink some water, walk around for a while. Once he could stop coughing, he’d try again. Same scenario. It was miserable. I was disoriented with jet lag and fatigue, but at least I wasn’t coughing.

We drove our Peugeot over to Montrichard on a nice road through the forêt d'Amboise and found a place to park on the main street, rue Nationale, where the Vallée du Cher realty office is located. I think we arrived right on time. I still half expected to be told there was a problem with the appointment and to be asked to come back later in the day or even later in the week. We had only five days for our house hunt, because we had to fly back to California the next weekend, so any delay would be serious. Walt had to get back to work.

At the realtor's, the young receptionist greeted us enthusiastically. She was expecting us, and Monsieur Bourdais would ‘receive’ us in just a few minutes. Could we wait? Well, of course. I was relieved to see that the atmosphere in the office was cheerful and informal rather than cold and stiff.

Montrichard, a town of 4,000 on the banks
of the Cher river, dominated by a medieval fortress

Monsieur Bourdais, an energetic, refined, and friendly 40-something man, was, it turned out, the owner of the Vallée du Cher agency. He had decided to deal with us personally, as we learned later, because he spoke English better than any of the agents in his employ. He didn’t know how much French we spoke, he said, even though our e-mail exchanges had taken place in French. We were lucky it turned out this way.

Come upstairs to my office, he said, so we can talk about what kind of property you are looking for. We followed him up a narrow staircase to the front office on the premier étage of the building. It was a decent-size room with a big desk and a couple of chairs for visitors. The window overlooked the rue Nationale.

Michel Bourdais of La Vallée du Cher realty

Bourdais asked us to describe what we were looking for. We told him we wanted a house in the country, with good privacy, but not too far from a town with tous les commerces — all the customary shops, including grocery stores, bakeries, and so on. We wanted three bedrooms or more, and we wanted a yard where we could have a vegetable garden.

Did we plan to entertain a lot, he asked? If so, we would want a large living room. And how much are you thinking of spending? We told him, and I was almost embarrassed at how low the figure sounded. “Nous avons un budget que nous ne pouvons pas dépasser” — we have to stick to our budget, I told him. “Tout le monde a un budget, vous savez” — everybody has a budget, you know, is what he answered.

Rue Nationale, the main street in Montrichard, December 2002

That made me feel better. I realized our budget was pretty low, but I didn’t want us to get in over our heads. We weren’t sure when or even if we might actually one day move to France, so there was no need to take on a huge mortgage. Remember, I was unemployed. Besides, I had seen a lot of houses for sale in our price range on the company’s web site.

Bourdais pulled out a big thick binder full of printouts of house descriptions and photos. His office staff obviously used a color inkjet printer. He said he had about 400 properties for sale in his portfolio within 25 km (15 miles) of Montrichard. While we sat and watched in silence from across the desk, he spent at least 15 or 20 minutes — it seemed longer — thumbing through the binder, reading descriptions, and putting post-it tabs on the properties he thought might be right for us.

When he had finished, he had indexed about twenty houses. He started showing us the pages and photos, and we narrowed it down to a dozen or so places that we thought looked promising. All were priced under our maximum, with maybe one exception. That one, he said, he thought we could at least make an offer on without going over budget. He said he would show us the 12 properties before the end of the week. Would we like to come back at 2:30 and start touring around?

The bridge across the Cher river at Montrichard

It was 12:30 and we were ready for lunch. Just a couple of doors down from the real estate office was a pizzeria that looked promising. We went in and got a table and ordered. It was one of those typical French places, small and crowded and warm on a chilly winter day. Bustling. I don’t remember what we ate, but it was good. While we were eating, we looked up and saw Bourdais in the restaurant, and we nodded and smiled at each other. I can’t remember whether he had just finished his meal or whether he was picking up something to take back to his office.

At 2:30 we went back to the office. He said he’d like to show us two houses in Montrichard itself. The first was up on the road that goes to Amboise, just a few hundred yards after you cross the railroad tracks, up on the right. In Montrichard there is a huge retirement complex up on the hill overlooking the town and the Cher river valley. The place we were going to look at bordered on the retirement complex property, which Bourdais said was an advantage. That land was like parkland, and wasn’t likely to be developed in the foreseeable future.

We arrived at the house, just 100 meters off the Amboise road, in Bourdais' Audi. There was a gate across the driveway, and it was locked. Bourdais tried several keys but couldn’t get the gate open. He looked at us and said, well, are you willing to climb over the wall? It wasn’t very high, so we said why not? I hoped he hadn't taken us to the wrong house. What had we gotten ourselves into? Over we climbed.

The house itself was not what we were looking for. First of all, there were a lot of other houses really close by. The yard was big, but it was on a hillside and was divided up into several oddly shaped plots, one of which was a narrow strip that ran down the hill to to the Amboise road, where there was a gate. It was true, as Bourdais pointed out, that we could have a good garden there — it had a southern exposure. But it also was completely exposed to the neighboring houses.

The first house we saw was the plain-looking one in the middle of
this picture, with the retirement complex up above it

The house itself needed a lot of paint and polish. There was a central hallway, off of which we saw a small dining room, a small living room, and a couple of bedrooms. The kitchen was a medium-sized, totally empty room — no cabinets, no appliances, no sink. It needed a new floor, I think. All over the house there was ugly carpeting that needed to be removed. There was no telling what the floors under the carpeting looked like.

One of the worst things about the house was the view. It overlooked two modern apartment buildings down on the Amboise road. I think they are subsidized housing, but I'm not sure. There was a good view of the river valley beyond them, but the apartment buildings, blocky and tall, attracted your eye and blinded you to the rest. On the plus side, there was a SuperU supermarket not far away, and the house was within easy walking distance of the Montrichard train station.

But it was not an auspicious beginning. Okay, it was only the first house. At least Bourdais had been able to find the key that opened the front door, so that climbing over the wall didn't turn out to be a complete waste of time.

Next we drove down the hill back toward downtown Montrichard, but instead of turning left at the stop sign, just past the old church and cemetery, we turned right onto the road that goes to Chenonceaux (the château is only 6 or 7 miles to the west). Then almost immediately we turned left and drove down a long street lined with platanes, plane trees, all cropped in the French style. We came to the road that runs parallel to the river and turned right. It was a more or less suburban, residential neighborhood.

The house we were going to see was on the side of the road farthest from the banks of the river, across the street from a campground. The campground was of course empty on this December day, but we immediately imagined it crowded with noisy campers partying on summer evenings. The house itself was attractive enough from the outside — two stories, very French, a big yard. The main living area was on the second floor, as it is in the house ended up buying. The elderly woman who lived there was at home. That surprised us, because in San Francisco the people who are selling their house are always asked to leave when potential buyers are coming to see the place.

The woman’s husband had passed away recently, and she was going to move into a retirement home. The house was stuffed full of furniture and knicknacks. The rooms were small. It was all dark and kind of gray. No lights were on, and some of the windows were shuttered (that’s typical here). The kitchen needed work, but at least it had cabinets and a sink. It seemed small and crowded. There was a fireplace in the main room, but it was strangely placed so that you couldn’t really enjoy it from the sitting area. It was only visible from the dining area, which was closest to the hallway and kitchen. It wasn’t a very spacious room. I think there were two bedrooms — it’s hard to remember.

On the ground floor, there was also some improvised living space, including a little sitting area, what is called a cuisine d’été (a summer kitchen), and a bedroom for guests. But none of it was really completely finished off. Concrete block walls and rugs on poured concrete floors were the style of the downstairs — it was a basement. There were areas where a lot of boxes full of who-knows-what were piled in corners.

We also went up into the attic, which was unfinished space. It was spacious and could be turned into more living space, Bourdais said. There was fiberglass insulation just laid on the attic floor, in with its paper backing turned up.

House number two was across from a campground and down the road from
an encampment where a group of gens du voyage were living in their caravans

Somehow, the river and flooding came into the conversation. The woman told us that in the last flood, two years earlier, the water had only come up to the front door but hadn’t actually come into the house. She showed us how far up it had come. It didn't inspire confidence.

Next door, there was a long, narrow strip of land that was partly planted as a vegetable garden and partly covered in what you could only call junk — an old car, I think, piles of rocks or paving stones, firewood, and farm equipment. It wasn't a junk yard but it was definitely had a rural appearance. The neighbor's house was on the back end of the lot, a couple of hundred meters from the road. I guess it was far enough from the river to avoid having water come up to its front door during floods.

Oh, the house we were looking at had an enormous back yard. It was nicely planted with fruit trees. It was flat ground (if a little soggy). That was a plus. But it wasn't at all private.

As we said au revoir to the owner and got into the car, Bourdais said he needed to point out to us that there was a gypsy camp just up the road about a kilometer. He took us to see it and explained that one of the gypsy elders had died on that spot a few years before, so it was considered sacred ground by his descendants. They would always return to that location every year and stay a while. Since the road we were on dead-ended at the encampment, the only way in was the road that passed by the house we had just looked at. Disclosing all that was a legal obligation, I think.

We drove back to the realty office. I was feeling a little discouraged. When we got there, Bourdais asked us what we thought. We said we wanted to continue looking.

Good, he said. I’d like to show you some houses over near Saint-Aignan, which is only 10 miles up the river. There are some good prospects over there.

Fine, we said. We had never heard of Saint-Aignan. Or if we had we didn't remember it. I needed to look at a map. Bourdais asked us to come back at 2:30 the next day.


  1. Again, a cliff-hanger... Cannot wait to hear how it turns out. Have you considered mystery writing?


  2. Cheryl, I was going to say the same thing! You're a riot! I can't wait to see how it turns out.

    So glad you and Walt avoided the band of gypsies, Ken!


  3. But C. and G., you both know how it turned out! What a stitch. I'm just trying to write it up the way it happened.


  4. This is quite like a French feuilleton ;)
    I can't wait to know if (or when) you're going to find your dream house ;)


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?