Written by Jenn
“C’est une catastrophe!” Marguerite said when we told her we were planning to live
in the pink house for the school year.
“Une catastrophe? Je ne comprends pas.” A catastrophe? I don’t understand. That was all I could manage as a reply in my limited French. So many questions came to mind but stopped in the back of my tongue. None of the words I wanted to utter were French, so I kept silent with only a quizzical expression on my face.
The language barrier was tangible between us.
Arriving at St. Laurent de la Salanque after more than ten hours of driving from Paris in a clunky Hertz moving van, the kids ran around the tree covered boulevard to exert some pent up energy accumulated by such a long drive.
We were only stopping by this lovely little beach town, our future home (or so we thought), to drop off our van load of belongings. Jordy and Marguerite were our friendly new neighbours. They were our point of contact because Angus, the British owner of the house was currently in the United States. They kindly let us have access to the garage so we could store our things there.
The house was a summer holiday rental which we found on line last May. Brian inquired about a possible 10 month lease and signed the lease contract after we viewed it in the spring. Currently it was being rented out by a French family for the week, so we had decided to explore Germany before we took possession of the house.
The house at first sight didn’t really look like a catastrophe. It was a lovely pink home framed with aged blue shutters. A large oleander tree with deep fuchsia flowers stood in the front behind the pealing gate. It was quite cute, really.
Jordy and Marguerite tried to explain in a polite way why the house was a disaster, but we still could not quite grasp what they were saying. We were just warming up with re-grasping our French from years of schooling in Canada and our comprehension came significantly delayed. At the time, Brian and I had no choice but to leave confused with Marguerite’s statement. We were a little pressed for time to drive another two-and-half hours away to Toulouse, where we reserved a hotel room for the night on our way to Paris.
Then we experienced the “catastrophe” house ourselves.
A week later, we arrived exhausted after a full day of driving from Germany, and were anxious to settle into our new home. Right away we inspected the house. We were taken aback to discover a very strong smell of diesel in the basement. Jordy pointed out where the diesel stench was coming from. There was a hot water tank in the corner close to the basement guest room that consumed diesel fuel.
Brian was immediately concerned about the diesel smell, and didn’t like the idea of the boys sleeping in the basement with the toxic fumes. Concerned myself, I googled effects of diesel fumes and was alarmed by what I read. On the CBC News Health site it stated, “Diesel exhaust fumes not only stink, they may alter the way the brain functions.”
Short term effects were: “a feeling of being light-headed or “high;” a burning in the eyes, nose, and throat; heartburn; headache; unusual sensations in the extremities; difficulty breathing; tightness in the chest; and vomiting.” Long term effects included
respiratory damage and asthma attacks and inflammation of lung tissue.
Brian had emailed Angus, the absent owner about this but did not receive a reply. Concerned about the health of our family, and especially our boys, we asked Jordy what we should do. He said it was stupid to have bedrooms in the basement in such a humid climate close to a diesel tank. He advised us to keep all our windows in the basement open to optimize air flow. We did that and it seemed to help significantly.
Then we discovered more disturbing things about the house.
- Along with the toxic fumes smell in the basement, there was a heavy musty odour. I was perplexed to see the newly painted doors exhibit a foot-and-a-half of water stains on the bottom.
- All the shower and bath drains were plugged. Water flooded at our feet with every shower, emptying slowly, even after I cleaned the hair traps.
- The inside of the kitchen cupboards, bedroom dressers, and bathrooms vanities were grimy, as if someone hurriedly emptied them of its contents, neglecting to wipe it clean afterwards. Needless to say, I spent an afternoon cleaning the drawers with a disinfectant cloth before unpacking our clothes and toiletries.
- I spent the next afternoon cleaning the detachable parts of a dirty vacuum which smelled disgusting when turned on. Having a son who has reactive asthma to dust and mold, I couldn’t use a vacuum with a filthy outdated hepa filter. I searched through 3 different stores for the proper hepa filter with no luck. In the end, the vacuum was clean, but unusable because the filter was still disgusting and tainted the air with its putrid smell every time I turned it on. Marguerite and Jordy were kind enough to lend us their spare vacuum.
Then there was the problem with the pool…
After three consecutive days of swimming, the pool started to look a little green. By the end of the third day, it seemed to have gotten worse. We didn’t have any experience with maintaining a pool, so we asked our neighbour Jordy over to inspect the problem. He threw in some product to condition the water and showed Brian to hook up the pool vacuum to clean out the pool. We were curious as to how the pool had a thin layer of sand in it, and wondered if it could have come from the previous summer rental tenants. It was our 3rd day in St Laurent and we still hadn’t managed to get to the beach so it couldn’t have been us. We were also disturbed to find brown water stains on their swim clothes and towels after the kids dried themselves after swimming.
We were a little discouraged with the house, but were resolved to make the best of it. Besides, we believed that every house had its own eccentricities. We were incredibly grateful to our ever-present and helpful neighbours Jordy and Marg who kept themselves available to us unknowing foreigners. To thank them, we brought over a pot of flowers and a small tin of cookies.
What was meant to be a five-minute gift of thanks turned out to be a couple of hours of visiting. They invited us over and showered us with a Catalan Hospitality of drinks and delicious snacks. Sipping our Muscat, we discovered that they felt unappreciated by their neighbour who took advantage of their good will. Marguerite prepared the house, washed the dirty linens, and prepared the beds while Jordy did the yard work and cleaned the pool for every weekly vacation renter; addressing issues as best they could when no one else was there to help. They did this all for free, out of the goodness of their hearts, while the absent owner got paid all the money. They expressed their frustration and anger for being treated this way, but they also cared about the strangers who came a week at a time to vacation there. Being entrusted with the keys and cheques, they bore an unwelcome and increasingly frustrated responsibility.
Brian and I were appalled by such a treatment. Being landlords ourselves, we knew that if a person wanted to go away for an extended time, it was necessary to have a professional property manager. Pay them well, and treat them well.
Marguerite and Jordy were shocked to hear the amount we were paying per month for the quality of house we were living in. They described it as a house in ruin – a disaster house, and encouraged us to look for a proper home. Jordy and his daughter were helpful enough to the extent of printing out rental ads for furnished houses around the area. Brian and I were touched by their gesture, and couldn’t help but feel an increasing dread of what-did-we-get-ourselves-into.
Brian was becoming more stressed about the safety of the house and started to entertain the thoughts of finding another rental. I, on the other hand, was more reluctant because we had just settled in. I loved the location and our excellent Catalan neighbours.
Finally, after four nights, Brian couldn’t take the guilt of having the boys sleep in the basement with such a strong diesel smell. We relegated them to sleeping in our bed upstairs while I slept on the couch in the living room.
In the early morning the next day we found Jordy by the pool trying to resolve the dirty sand issue in the water. We scratched our heads wondering where the sand was coming from. It had been 4 days since the kids swam in it and they were itching to take a dip.
Jordy decided to drain the pool and pressure wash the light film of algae growing on the sides. He connected the draining hose as we watched on, curious to see if the problem would be fixed. What happened was the opposite. The old patched up line at the bottom of the plastic floor of the pool burst open to reveal the source of all the sand. With it came an explosion of little pebbles from the ground.
“C’est caput!” Jordy said as has shook his head.
The pool exploding was our last straw. It was a huge sign which blew up in bright shining lights that finally told us this house was a complete disaster. The time to move was now or never because the first day of school was in one week. So Brian began the stressful work of researching long-term furnished homes on-line. He probably fired off two dozen emails before going to bed right before sunrise. The next day he received two replies, and that evening secured a vehicle for us to rent so that we could view them the next day.
Everything seemed to happen so quickly, and after a weekend of viewing three houses, we decided on a large, CLEAN, and peaceful villa in Agde. The Landlords were British and delightful and available (a novelty for us). The pool was immaculate and lined with tile instead of plastic (which we weren’t expected to maintain); and here’s the kicker – it was CHEAPER!!
In a matter of four days since the explosion of the pool, we had secured another home and was in the process of packing up our things and moving them with another rental moving van. We told Marguerite and Jordy that we were moving the next day and Lucy presented them with a painting as a thank you for being such wonderful, helpful, and welcoming neighbours. They were sad to see us go but were also happy that we found a better home.
Marguerite finally confessed that she was deeply worried about us living in the pink house, especially for the boys who slept in the basement. She said, “In the winter, there is no heat in the basement and it gets very cold, and it floods almost two feet. You would have ended up staying with us!” That piece of information made us sick to our stomachs. For the high price of rent we were paying, we were floored that the owner did not have the decency to share this news with us.
We emailed Angus to tell him we were moving because his rental was unlivable due to the leaking diesel fumes, not to mention the dilapidated pool and clogged drains. Angus had the audacity to accuse us of taking advantage of him by using his house and lease to help get our long-stay visas because we had no actual plans to live there.
I assure you, that was not the case.
Who would want the stressful predicament to search for another house, repack, move, disenroll the kids from one school district, then enroll them in another just days before school began? Being foreigners and speaking a broken second language while doing all this in such a short time was incredibly stressful, not to mention expensive.
In his last email, Angus mentioned that he sent his son to inspect the house for him. His son reported that there was no unusual smell of diesel and even ate his lunch in the basement close to the hot water tank. Perhaps Angus and his son are already exhibiting the long lasting effects of diesel fumes in their brains. He also accused us of breaking a pool that was already broken. He is the one who is guilty: of landlord neglect, and taking advantage of his wonderful neighbours. Jordy and Marguerite want nothing to do with him now (we keep in touch via email) and have resolved to let that pink house lie in ruin.