[11 May 2005]
In the 1980s, the BBC used to run a sitcom called Sorry. It told the suburban tale of Timothy, a 40-something librarian who still lived at home with his domineering mother and self-effacing father. The son was played by Ronnie Corbett, a vertically challenged comedian famed for his shaggy-dog stories. Beyond the fact that the comedy was truly appalling, the scenario both traumatised and terrorised me. I didn’t want to be a little person and so kept well away from libraries. And I didn’t want to live at home longer than I had to. As my 17th birthday loomed large, I packed my bags and left.
It was the very end of the 1980s. Thatcher had already devastated the social infrastructure of the United Kingdom. “Gizza job” had become a call to arms for the boys from the black stuff. And for far too long the charts had been dominated by mulleted electro-popsters who thought that camp was the new black. But in the conservative bubble that still is the South-East of England, things were very different. Crisis! What crisis? As I was making up my middle-class mind on whether to become a doctor, accountant, or rock star (and in some strange way and at some strange point I would be all three), people were selling their ridiculously expensive semi-detached houses and quitting their ridiculously well-paid jobs to take semi-retirement in France.
And why not? The reality was that 10-to-15 years ago France didn’t just offer ‘Gallic charm’ as your standard well-to-do relocation publications might advertise, but paradoxically gave ex-pats access to a slice of bucolic middle-Englishness that only ever existed for a select few in England itself. In 1993, John Major may have wanted to paint an English idyll of “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, and as George Orwell said old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist”, but it was France that offered it on a Limoges porcelain plate. Except, that is, for a few cultural alternatives: the game being played was boules, not cricket, and the beer was chilled.
Oh, the welfare state was also still a reality. And because nul n’est prohpète en son pays, flaunting a few played up to eccentric clichés would be met with mild admiration from the locals. Ah, ces anglais. A simple trip cross the English Channel would place your social status in the ascendancy, much like serving in the colonies in the 19th-century. Sort of.
Let us not be naïve. The French put up with this for two reasons. Firstly, because we were (often begrudgingly) complimenting them on their quality of life. Secondly, and most importantly, because we had the time and money to invest into their dying rural communities. The good sterling profit you made on the sale of your house in England converted into a small fortune that financed what at times felt like a permanent holiday.
With programmes such as Channel 4’s Relocation Relocation, British television is still cashing in on these trends. But the onus is shifting. If these programmes teach us anything, they teach us that it is no longer simply a matter of selling up for the easy life, but finding something affordable to start with. As house prices shoot through the roof in the UK (sorry about the pun), the new holy grail is the first rung of the property ladder. Low interest rates and a booming economy have kept Britain on the financial boil. This is great if you have money to start with or are prepared to get yourself massively into debt. And the figures show that the British are quite obviously willing to get themselves massively into debt: personal debts are estimated at over a trillion pounds, that’s an average household debt of 155 percent, with over 50 percent of borrowers not knowing how much debt they are actually in! This has also been coupled with record levels of bankruptcy. And this for a government boasting a “full employment enterprise economy” to quote MP Gordon Brown. Could the apparent affluence be a service industry veneer over a post-industrial emergency? Surely not.
Yet roughly one in two young Brits aged between 20 and 25 now lives with their parents. For me this is dangerous Timothy territory. Twenty turns to 30, 30 to 40, and the next thing you know you’re investing in an out-of-the-way motel and talking to yourself in a high-pitched voice. But university graduates cannot afford to rent, let alone buy. Coupling a student loan with a massive mortgage was probably not quite what these fledgling adults had in mind when they dreamed of flying the nest. Whatever one’s situation, relocation or investing in foreign property may be the only viable option.
As it turns out, three percent of all rural properties in France are now British owned. The bad news is that all this investment is pushing up house prices on this side of the Channel. And as objectives change, so the attention turns to urban centres. Paris prices might have rocketed beyond the reach of many French workers, but it is foreign investment that has seen prices continue to reach for the bank manager’s nirvana. Ah, ces ang£ais! According to recent statistics, two-fifths of all foreign investment in French property is British, and about two months ago I decided that I was going to have myself some of that.
Well, no, actually. The truth is, I was quite secure in my rented world, not having to worry about things going wrong in the place. I’d just have to phone up the landlord’s son-in-law, who happens to be a plumber, and things would get fixed. The flat is in a rundown 1920s brick building with quite visible problems of damp and so we got to know the son-in-law quite well. An amicable lad, he would willingly chat about his wife, football, and the building site he was working on. Then one day we received a letter from the bailiffs informing us that the landlord wanted to give the flat to his daughter and so we had six months to get out or face severe legal problems. Nice.
When the electric radiator in the kitchen went on the blink we got the plumber round and had words. He was, of course, sorry that we were told this way and that his father-in-law hadn’t telephoned to warn us about the letter. He blamed his imminent move on his wife, the football team he coaches part-time, and the location of his current job. And then, once he’d changed the radiator to find that it still wasn’t working because I’d mistakenly flicked the fuse to the off position, we exchanged sheepish goodbyes and I thought to myself: “if two-fifths of all foreign investment in French property is British, then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have myself some of that.” Ahem.
I had forgotten, however, that both my partner and I earn a French wage . . .
There is an anti-debt law in France, which tries to ensure that a household’s fixed outgoings do not exceed a 33 percent limit. So when we went to see our bank the maximum they would lend us was 150,000 over 20 years. To be quite franc, ce sont des cacahuètes. Property in France tends to sold by the square metre and the average cost of this tiny morsel of floor space in Paris is over 5000. Basic mental arithmetic tells us that given what we could afford, we would have to sleep standing up. But as a civil servant and therefore offering employment stability, there are organisations that are meant to help people such as myself. When I discovered that there was somebody out there whose job it was to negotiate privileged lending schemes between civil servants and banks, I rubbed my hands with glee and patted myself on the back for having put myself through the hoops to get a job in France. Needless to say, an appointment was made.
That day the sun definitely had his hat on as I made my way to meet my new conseiller. After a few basic formalities we got down to business. Payslips were handed over, tax forms consulted, the wizard waved his wand.
Reality is something I am generally in touch with. I know that life’s a bitch and then somebody kicks you out of your home. I knew that there was no way we could hope for anything bigger than a one-bedroom flat. But I was hoping that there would be room enough for me to start buying books and records again, and perhaps the chance to stop storing clothes in plastic bags in the cellar (where the wine should be). Maybe a small place in one of those stone Haussmann buildings, with parquet flooring giving off the smell of bees wax, a balcony just big enough to stand and drink coffee on, my partner playing a Debussy Prélude in the room next door, two ageing gents below wondering why the English had to go and return De Gaulle after the war; their wives two grandes dames in fur coats carrying poodles in Vuitton bags . . .
When I came out of my stereotyped reverie, I was offered 150,000 over 25 years. As always, the conseiller turned out to be a bloke behind a curtain with a megaphone. Nice enough, but a bloke behind a curtain with a megaphone, nonetheless. This left us with the same amount of somebody else’s money to spend, but with monthly instalments just slightly easier on the moth-infested wallet. My new financial advisor ushered me out with one of those hovering arms that look like a date is missing from its grip and told me that the hardest task was still ahead: that would be actually finding a place. He reminded me that the paper work would take about three months to sort out once we had found a place and what with the summer just around the corner, it left us about, hmmm, two hours to look. I gave him a dour smile as my hold on mid-19th century Paris loosened.
For some reason the older I get the smaller my living space becomes. We stuck to looking around the cheaper east side of Paris where we currently live, but estate agents had little to offer. We eventually got to see two places we could afford, both in the 10th district. The first was close to Gare de l’Est and advertised as a one-bedroom flat. The building was late 19th - early 20th century and in the throes of having a face lift. Once in the flat we were plunged into darkness. I suggested we open the shutters but they already were. It was lunchtime. Once my eyes had adjusted, it soon became apparent that the place only had a separate bedroom in the imagination of the estate agent. And that’s also where the bathroom and toilet were. After about 10 minutes of my partner and I sporadically bumping into each other the estate agent asked “have you seen everything you wanted to see?”
The second place was near to the up-and-coming, if not already there, Canal St Martin. It’s a 1960s block of flats which means it’s still classed as ancien. For me it’s new, but in a country geared to looking beautiful anything over the age of 20 is old. Though this apartment had been put on the market as a studio flat, there was an actual wall dividing the sitting room from the bedroom. And even if you can’t see the canal from the flat, a set of panoramic windows give onto the rooftops of Belleville. Oh, and there’s a fully functioning bathroom and kitchen. I told the estate agent we would think about it. We thought long and hard about the two properties that we’d managed to see, weighed up the options, came to terms with the fact that there wasn’t much left to buy in Paris within our budget, kicked the kerb, sat on a bench, and remembered that unless we found a place soon we’d be living under a bridge, nice though they are. Fifteen minutes after the estate agent had disappeared in her clapped out deux chevaux, I phoned her on her mobile and agreed to see her the next day to sign the relevant papers.
That was a month ago. Since then we’ve been trying to sort out the loan. Because house prices have reached record levels in France, two different grants have been introduced. The first is solely for people living in Paris wanting to buy a place in Paris. The second, introduced in February, is for anyone with a modest income wanting to purchase something anywhere in France. Though we don’t meet the criteria for the first as we haven’t been living in Paris long enough (you need to have been a resident for at least three years and we’ve only been here for two and half years, and even if we could wait another six months by then we’d be too old to qualify), our Wizard of Oseille (slang for money) informed us that we were eligible for the second. Finally something was going our way.
Or so we thought. The new Prêt à taux zero or PTZ, was brought in by the Ministère du Logement, to help low-to-medium earners by offering to lend a fixed interest-free amount to be deducted from the total sum being borrowed. Of course, the rules are quite strict. And this being France, the quantity of red-tape would make worldwide celebrations of the Chinese New Year look like a cheapskate’s attempt at wrapping a belated Christmas present. If you’re ready then here goes: the people buying cannot have owned property within the two years previous to the purchase, it must be their main residence, the combined earnings if buying in Paris must not exceed 28,420 of taxable income (average yearly salary per person is about 20,000), and the property must respect the current technical standards. Miraculously, we, and the property, are all those things. Oh, yes, my friend. We’re poor and homeless. But happy.
To finalise the PTZ, we had to hand over our tax forms so that our case could be presented to a commission from the ministry. This is when all hell broke loose. Not used to filling in French tax forms, it usually takes us a whole day of checking and double-checking that we’re doing things properly. Though if I’m honest, both of our forms are quite simple. Except that we still managed to fill in the wrong box on my partner’s form. This meant that we got a phone call from somebody dealing with our loan to tell us that because we were trying to ruin the State by screwing the République out of millions, the PTZ would be refused and we would get a visit from the tax inspectors. Images of prison bars and soap-on-a-rope flooded my admittedly somewhat pessimistic paranoiac mind. When the phone call came through we were on a break in the Loire Valley and immediately did what anyone on holiday always dreams of doing but never gets around to, we paid a visit to the local tax office. Having spent the previous months embroiled in the property market, we actually had all the papers at the bottom of our suitcase.
Once at the Hôtel des Impôts we explained that we’d made a mistake and repeated what we’d been told on the phone. The tax inspector looked at the guilty form, confirmed our error, promptly corrected it and . . . smiled. Of course we weren’t going to be in trouble, of course we were entitled to the PTZ regardless of the mistake, and in fact, the tax office actually owed us money. Our holidays were over. We knew our rights. We were on a mission.
Back in Paris and it was back to our financial advisor’s office. He had got the numerous messages I’d left and was unable to explain why the PTZ had been initially refused. He has now agreed to resubmit the request. But whatever happens, he was able to tell us that they would lend us the money to buy the apartment. It has been a struggle. One in which we thought long and hard about moving back to the UK. The system does appear more flexible there. But then our choice to move to Paris was based on more than whether or not we could become landlords.
Today, there may be as many French people moving to Britain than Brits moving to France, but the choices being made are radically different. If I was a young French graduate who wanted to engage actively in a burgeoning business career, then there is no doubt that I would hop over the Channel. But you would need to be earning enough to take out private health insurance, to pay into a private pension plan, and to eat healthily. All three being high risk ventures in the UK, at the moment.
When at times we forget why we moved to Paris, we go out for a walk, a meal, and a few drinks. And when we wake up the next morning and realise that we can do it all again that very night without having to take out, God-forbid, a second mortgage, and then we remember.
* * *
On the way back from our short break, with our minds somewhat distracted, my computer bag was stolen at the train station. It contained my computer and a couple of rare books. Just in case the thieves are reading this, any chance of having them back? At least the books? You’ll find my phone number in my diary or you can just email PopMatters. That would be very kind of you, thanks.