Four (to a) bed maison

It is with mixed feelings that I must report the failure of my Norman invasion. On the one hand it is a little disappointing not to have found a bargain basement French property. On the other, however, I am relieved, along with my doctors and insurers, to have escaped the clutches of Monsieur Grand Ville, my Calvados-loving guide to the houses of Normandy.

Charming though his company was he became a little wearing, not least on my liver. I eventually persuaded him that I had to return early to England to have my blood checked to see if I was carrying a highly contagious and deadly virus. M Grand Ville was not inclined to accompany me but neither was he too concerned for his own well being. My guess is his doctors would be lucky to find any blood swimming around with the Calvados.

I moved swiftly away from his inland retreat and headed for the coast and a little place by the name of Houlgate, which I suspect is French for Harrogate or Margate. It is almost unique among Normandy beach resorts in that it does not end in "ville". There is Deauville, Trouville, Villerville, Blonville and braised veal. Then suddenly there is Houlgate. The beach has a certain charm which was retained despite the recent scares about an oil slick and the proximity of toxic nuclear waste. Put those alongside some tacky souvenir shops and greasy eateries and it was a real home from home.

While the French headed for the sea's healing waters, I headed for the nearest estate agency or immobilier as they appear to be called. The property gurus of Houlgate did not have M Grand Ville's charm, nor his taste for Calvados. Their leaflets bore thumbnail photographs of various sales executives, a habit I sincerely hope does not make its way across La Manche.

Their literature is prone to exactly the same breathless excitement we used to find at our own estate agents in the days when they had properties to sell. Not even the French language could mask an ugly intrusion into my sensibilities. Even for those whose skills in French are restricted to speaking slowly and loudly in English, the immobiliers left huge clues to imminent hyperbole by their overuse of the exclamation mark. A little photograph of the property in question would then be accompanied by words like "A SAISIR!" , "UNIQUE!", "NOTRE COUP DE FOUDRE!", "RARE!", "URGENT!", "A VOIR!" or "A DEUX PAS DE LA PLAGE!". Occasionally the exclamation mark would be replaced by a question mark as in "VOUS AIMEZ LE CALME?" but the capital letters are a give away.

Even in more detailed brochures the exclamation and question marks are regular visitors. One, extolling the virtues of what we would call holiday flats but which the French refer to as Un bon plan de vie!, was littered with them. Perhaps the exclamation mark has some hidden significance for the French as a sign of good fortune or good value. There again judging by these holiday flats, perhaps not. Houlgate is about a two-hour drive from Paris and was being marketed to weekend retreaters . Or was it? My French is a little rusty but it would seem that the brochure was suggesting that an entire French family could be crammed into a one-bedroom apartment for as much as four days a week. This kind of overcrowding would have the social services around in a flash over here but the French are clearly more flexible, which they would need to be if some of the family was to make its bed in the microwave oven.

I decided it would be uncharitable for me to deprive a family of eight of such a housing opportunity and retired empty handed to more familiar stomping grounds. I suspect more research is required or is that just an excuse for one last flagon of Calvados?

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