Monday, 28 September 2015

Give me your money, The sum of me.

A surprise last week to discover that we have been lied to all along about the emission safety of diesel in Volkswagen. The CEO resigns, there is talk of collusion with government and a cabal of screeching and hair pulling ensues- are all diesel cars what they seem? Should all cars now be retested in light of this deception? The thought of juicy compensation has consumers dribbling with delight.

Before I tackle Volkswagen, permit me to digress wildly to another topic. I have been reading Andre Gide's diary for several months. Such a vast book (and in Gide's own words, the writing he was proudest of) that I savour minute portions every day and cannot bear to race through it. Gide wrote in his diary that he had La Porte Etroite in his head for fifteen years before he actually began writing it. Similarly, one of my favourite books, La Belle du Seigneur, took the author, Albert Cohen, thirty years to write. You are now wondering what writing has in common with producing an automobile. Making cars is about making money. Writing books is about creative expression and not necessarily for commercial gain. And for both Gide and Cohen, writing was a profound labour of love.

One could argue that everything that is wrong in our world has less to do with love and more about money. We are world class racketeers, exploiters, pimps and prostitutes in equal measure when it comes to money. Nothing and no one, perhaps except the last remaining tribes in the depths of the undiscovered wilderness, is immune to the effects of or the need for money.

Call it my age but I hardly hyper ventilate anymore when news such as the Diesel scam gets exposed. Drivers will rightly feel hard done by but the  perverse expectation that we as consumers have between what we want, how much we are prepared to pay for it and what our purchases say about us, means that yes, we are happy to overlook being scammed about diesel emissions. I drive a diesel car and am amazed at how economical it is to run, the savings are substantial and literally music to my ears. Do I lie awake at night worrying about polluting the planet? No. That's the truth- the unadulterated, plain, perhaps shameful truth. We all have parameters of what defines us- call it values, standards, even aspirations. For example|: I object to animals being exploited and intensive, industrialised animal husbandry. I object to pesticides, insecticides and processed food. I object to vivisection and protest by taking no medication whatsoever even if I need it. I dislike fussy eaters with a passion and usually want to throttle them. I believe in God and my Catholic faith makes me a better person. I find people who buy dozens of cookbooks but eat microwaved ready meals daily to be the most confusing, if not deranged species. I do not follow trends or fashion. My favourite meal is roast pork. I could go on and on but I hope you get the point: we're all different and to encapsulate what goes on in the human mind is well, IMPOSSIBLE. What means something to one person is a laughable joke to someone else. Therefore since I was sold a diesel on the basis of fuel consumption don't expect me to self-flagellate because the manufacturer told a massive porker. They were driven by the bottom line and greed. There have been so many of these scandals in my lifetime that it would be a perfect surprise to discover that ethics and profit can co-exist in the world of big business.

The real issue with all these rip -offs and lies is the fact that the entire world is rigged for us to buy into widespread deceit and to say thank you at the same time. Every time you buy a pharmaceutical drug or even that ready-made lasagna, not all is ever what it seems. Do you honestly believe that the maker of that luxury lasagna didn't cut corners in some way in order to increase their profit margin? Do you really believe that the proclivity of doctors to prescribe antidepressants has to do with anything but profit? I spent years of my life standing in trains and paying a fortune for the privilege of doing so. How is it possible that in a country where millions of people use trains daily that the service can be so expensive? Clue: the fares began to rise when the network fell into private hands. The curse of the dividends is to ensure that shareholders reap the benefit of  the trust they place in those who must make them richer.

The sum of me
Readers may remember that I wrote about longing to live in a small space and not have so many possessions. Earlier this year I fulfilled that simple ambition- I ruthlessly got rid of everything that I hadn't used in twelve months and decided to put the remainder of my possessions in my car.  I then drove off on an adventure. Whatever couldn't fit  in the car was offloaded. And so the pottery collection, the cd collection, the electric stuff, the clothes, the china, crystal, hand made furniture, Persian carpets, potted plants, all went. Adios! I kept many books but not all, some basic clothes like jeans and jumpers, some of my paintings, a few photos and of course, my dog. I feel lighter and more disconnected from my past. In a sense I wish  I could live out of one suitcase only. It's called paring things down and deciding what we actually need. I used to love the way people stood in amazement looking at my things. Now I have nothing, I'm wondering what they will find amazing.

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Tide of Humanity Drifts Away

The saddest image last week of a young child drowned along with his mother and brother in a failed attempt to reach Europe. Meanwhile here in the UK much has been made by the homophobic brigade about how our country is full, there is no more room and crucially, how our way of life must be preserved.  There is of course another viewpoint- that immigrants make a valuable contribution to society through hard graft and resourcefulness. Whole swathes of hitherto barren land became fertile through the care and attention of Jewish settlers in that disputed state known as Israel. Since the days of the Saxons and Angles, the British gene pool has metamorphosed dozens of times through force or choice by both invaders and immigrants. Furthermore we now know enough about genetics to understand that we are all essentially related to a small core of common ancestors who came from Africa.  However we manage to differentiate ourselves by our beliefs and customs we are all effectively the same.

When the euro was foisted upon Western Europe I remember the conversations and vociferous arguments around some well-to-do dinner tables. As the gin and tonic and Dubonnet and gin in crystal glasses clinked late into the night, the argument that kept being repeated was the need to protect the British way of life. The memory I have of those evenings is the various titbits being served- olives, peanuts, crudités, wine by the gallon and I recall remarking that none of it was British. What therefore was the supposed way of life we were seeking to preserve? The silence was deafening. Granted there has been a huge awakening in recent years that has seen the demand for home grown and organic produce soar but to this day, Britain cannot feed itself. Take a drive down any British motorway and count the number of foreign registered trucks – they are all delivering food to the supermarkets. Stand outside a florist's long enough and a Dutch truck will arrive to make a delivery of blooms grown in the Low Countries. And what about our insatiable appetite for cheaper goods of an acceptable standard? The label almost always reads Made in China. When we buy those we further condemn our own manufacturers to become more 'competitive' or die.

Britain used to have over one hundred manufacturers of pianos. Today there is just one. The same is true for clocks, watches, cars, jut about every single thing you can think of is made using some if not all components manufactured abroad. What therefore is the way of life we are seeking to preserve? Cream teas? Strawberries and cream? Cricket? Cornish pasties? I recently was away in France and how I missed England! I missed the feel of the place, the Edwardian and Victorian architecture, the damp, the morning dew, in fact, all those things that will outlive us all. I would argue that what defines us as being British is the past and the present. The crazy chaotic maddening things that are wrong with this country- too many cars, too many potholes, late trains, surly staff just about everywhere, well, I missed them too. The best thing about the UK is the bête noire in other parts of the world but which has now come to define us:  at any time of the day or night we can buy anything we want and from every part of the world. What began as a gentle introduction to curry (Coronation Chicken, anyone?) turned into a full-scale love affair where blond, blue eyed kiddies know their Tikka from their Vindaloo. How long did it take for curry to become part of the British way of life? Sixty years or so. How many generations is that? I worked for many years with Jews and came to love Matzo Meal, which I still seek out wherever I go. I also grew to greatly admire the Jewish work ethic which is indefatigable. The Jews came to Britain as refugees once and the Indian and Pakistan contingent came here for a better life too. Let's not forget that immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent was encouraged in the 50s and 60s. And today the road sweeper is invariably foreign-born as that job isn't exactly hotly coveted by British workers!

Is our country too full? I would contest that rhetoric. Our climate makes it difficult to grow crops but there are whole swathes of land that lie empty and which appear abandoned altogether. I'm not advocating mass construction on green field sites but there is a need for a coherent and unbiased study to be undertaken to establish how full we supposedly are. Is that argument due to a shortage of essential workers and services such as doctors, nurses, dentists, schools, housing? What about the argument that all immigrants end up sponging off the state- as in expecting benefits and an easy life? That is perhaps woefully untrue (unless you keep producing children)- the state will help you but not forever so where does that fallacy come from? There are some hard-core spongers who from one generation to the next prefer welfare to working but they are most definitely a very small percentage- the true culprits in that case are the ones handing out the benefits!

There is a lesson in the displaced, the eternal diaspora of human existence not just literally but metaphorically. Very little has been made of how this diaspora began. In my view, the press has not explored enough about the blame that lies in the West for meddling in cultures that do not share the same values and traditions as so-called democratic countries. Tacitus summed it up best: Aurum et opes, praecipuae bellorum causae. Gold and power, the chief causes of wars.  The victims of those wars need a place to call their own, a home. Just like you and me. 

 Photo copyright SvD. Burdock and nettle grow always side by side- the nettle stings and the burdock soothes the raging pain.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Have you seen your shadow, lately?

This butterfly cast a shadow as he sat upon a wild flower. Some butterflies wait patiently for me to finish my photos, others flit off before the camera even comes out. The incessant rain has trashed the meadows this year but this butterfly was lucky enough to find a welcoming and sunlit perch (our British weather is not famous for its sun!). Around the butterfly are the remnants of wild marjoram flowers which have almost gone to seed.

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Things I saw along the lake today, Part 11

Readers will be familiar with the wonderment I experience observing nature. The farmers have been blessed this year with a fantastic growing season where it has rained just enough for crops to mature and the dazzling sun has ripened everything to perfection. We all eat bread or a variation thereof and wheat is universal whatever your prejudices, beliefs, customs etc. I've been fortunate to watch the wheat being planted right up to the harvest season which is now. At times I wondered why the farmers were taking so long to harvest their crops but they have at last come along and the fields are littered with bales of golden ears of wheat. This scene reminds me of van Gogh- he was captivated by an almost identical image more than one hundred years ago.

Photos copyright S. van Dalen

Monday, 3 August 2015

Buyer Beware! How not to get scammed when buying property in France

See that wreck nestled in the most beautiful countryside a million miles away from anywhere? What, I hear you say, and it's only 50,000 euros? Before you drift off into your imaginary paradise of how wonderful it would be to get away from it all while you live out your private utopia, growing your own vegetables, with lambs gambolling at your feet once you have restored that pile of stones to their former glory, STOP! You're about to fall into the trap of buying the WRONG property and worse yet, a French estate agent will probably not advise you to come to your senses.

French estate agents don't follow the same procedure as their British counterparts, the principal difference being that purchasers and not sellers pay them. Commission fees usually range from five percent to twelve percent or more per transaction. So if you buy a property for 50,000 euros, you will pay the commission of ten percent on top of that plus the notary fees (notaries manage the transfer of ownership and are essentially tax collectors for the state). It should be pretty obvious that since the buyer pays the agency fees and which are so steep, that agents can be unscrupulous… but more on that later.

Now let's return to that beautiful wreck. Here are some vital criteria to consider before you part with your cash:

Firstly, agents acting on behalf of vendors are required by law to provide you with an-up-to-date diagnostic report (although many will only provide the full report at the signing of contracts). The report is paid for by the seller and is a vital tool in assessing the value of a property. For example, if there is asbestos in the walls or in the roof and if there is lead or parasites in the property, the value should reflect this. Not so! Some French agents have been known to utilise a haphazard and unsubstantiated approach when valuing property. Buyers are advised to ask as many questions as possible before making an offer to purchase.

For example, demand to see the latest diagnostic report and go through it page by page with the agent. The report is divided into the following sections: the presence of asbestos, lead, parasites, whether the property is at risk of natural disasters (earthquake, flooding) and finally the Performance Energy Report.  Where agents act on behalf of the seller, they are also obliged to inform prospective buyers on the state of and type of sanitation - either septic tank or mains drainage and the obligations new owners face in complying with the law regarding antiquated systems.


The use of asbestos in the construction of property has been illegal in France since 1997. Prior to that date, it was the norm to incorporate asbestos into the walls and ceilings for insulation and in the roofing.  If there is asbestos in the roofing tiles, for example, the general view is that the tiles, being on the exterior of the property, do not pose a hazard to health. However if a storm were to damage the roof, the owner would have the responsibility of removing all of the tiles and replacing the roof, which due to the specialist nature of handling asbestos can be a very costly affair.


Buyers must be informed of the presence of lead, which can be found in the paintwork inside old buildings, pipes, windows and shutters. Lead poisoning can lead to death.


Buyers must be made aware of the presence of termites or other parasites such as woodworm, which if left untreated can cause serious damage. I recently came across a property where the last diagnostic report had been conducted in 2011 and in which there was only a passing mention of woodworm in the cellar floor. An updated report was not made available and when a prospective buyer with my guiding, insisted on seeing the latest report (2015), the cellar floor had been completely destroyed by the woodworm which had gone on to infest the woodwork in the first floor as well.
The cost of treating the woodworm was estimated at 3,750 euros which the vendor,  very reluctantly, was forced to knock off the asking price.  This is a good example of a property having been offered for sale at an inflated price without assessing the true condition based on the presence of parasites.


As of 2012, all property disposing of private sanitation must comply with the new ruling to ensure that the system is updated to become more eco friendly and to stem any possible spread of disease. New owners of property have twelve months to comply with the requirement to upgrade a traditional septic tank and which can cost up to 8,000 euros.

Location, location, location:

France is huge country that benefits from a perfectly maintained road network. A good agent will point out that while living in the sticks has its advantages (ideal for those seeking a solitary, peaceful existence), there are major drawbacks as well. Over time living in isolation can be a real drag- having to rely on a car to buy groceries because there is no public transport, being far away from schools, dentists, vets, doctors or a medical centre in case of an emergency but most importantly of all, and I've seen this countless times, when you want to sell your property, no one will want to buy it. In the end, the only way to offload it will be to slash the price or literally give it away. When looking to buy property in France, arm yourself with a map. Keep looking at the map and ask the agent how far the property is from a main road and the nearest town with major supermarkets, shops, train station etc.. Villages might be quaint and sweet but remember you will need basic groceries and some villages don't even have a single shop. I've come across picturesque villages where the only trading outlet is a bar selling alcohol and cigarettes (which happens to close early). If you're the type who needs to have a bit of a social life too, like learning to draw or joining the local swimming or keep fit club, ask the agent how far away those are. If you're a Catholic and mass on Sunday is important to you, there are churches in every town and village in France but no priests; you may have to drive thirty minutes or more to the nearest mass. A bad location will affect the future value of your property and could seriously leave you out of pocket if you decide to sell. Finally, if you must buy that wreck the rule of thumb is to restore a house to a liveable standard costs around 1,500 euros per square meter. Go do the math!

This is the busiest buying season in France when many British families choose to combine their holidays with scouting for that second home. Remember, don't be afraid to ask questions and good luck!
Samantha van Dalen is a British independent property consultant with experience of selling residential property in the UK and France. She is fluent in both French and English and advises purchasers on how to get the best deal when buying in France. She can be contacted on 00 44 (0)7910 199 072

 Photo copyright SvD.