In the merde


The business end of our toilet – and also the place where (lucky me!) I do my potting up. But hang on, that’s a genuine sixteenth century wall you can see. So it must be pretty …

A cautionary tale of why dreamers shouldn’t buy houses in France!

For a long time I’ve not considered blogging about our renovation project here. I wanted to keep it a secret – mainly because I was frighteningly sure that my neighbours would tell me: ‘But you can’t do that!’ (C’est pas normal/correct, Catherine!)

And also because any electrician, plumber … anyone … who has ever come into this house to give me a quote has automatically fallen into one of two (typically French) schools: 1) so pricey you’d have to win the lottery to employ them or 2) on the ‘black’ and frighteningly aggressive to boot.

There is a third category – just plain rude and sneering about the place I live – but they are not numerous or worthy enough to deserve a class of their own. And, of course, they must be jealous (see toilet delivery system above) …

The two main French schools (perhaps I should begin writing a history of art, after I have finished with fosse septiques?) have one thing in common – their ability to make me feel as if I’d be a fool to think about doing … whatever it is I want to do.


The delightful space that a previous French plumber thought would make a good bathroom. Now only fit for my pots, but god knows what horrors were enacted here in the course of the 20th century. ‘We have ways …’

This is a country in which – and you won’t believe this – it is actually illegal to get someone more distantly related to you than your brother to help you with any renovation work, gratis.

But landing ‘in the merde’ before Christmas has made me realise that it is all just so very ridiculous and that it’s time to break silence.


Close-up of the fosse. I have no idea what the beer bottle is doing there. It could be that Nick (the Bon Viveur) was more shocked than he let on when he heard our pre-Christmas news … Even the very nice young man who did the inspection was puzzled/astonished to see that our fosse had been sealed off completely with a concrete slab.

So – before Christmas we were sent a lovely official letter (which will cost us 70€ odd) to report that our fosse septique (septic tank) and general water disposal system does not (after all) conform to European regulations on two counts.

Firstly, the grey water from the bathroom (not the toilet itself) goes straight into the public drains of the village. Naughty, naughty. Secondly, the grey water from the fosse itself does not run politely down to a filtration system. Like every other system in the old village here, the pipes from the fosse run down to the river.


Funny that. When we bought the house, the previous owner produced papers in 2011 to prove that the whole system did conform (albeit rather shakily) to the new European rules – it was judged to be a ‘conforming non-conforming system’. But double negatives (and French) are not my strong point, and I may have misunderstood.

I never liked it. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night and the season is changing, I can smell my own s..t. But we thought (as real dreamers are prone to do – this is the downside of dreaming): ok, it needs doing, it conforms at the moment, we’ll cope in the years that come. Never for a minute did we think we were in danger of being forced to spend a lot of money within the next four years.

Moreover – and you may think I’m clutching at straws – I was always rather pleased that the pipe running down to the river was broken and our grey matter was watering my pumpkins, rather than anything else. Let’s be grateful for tiny mercies, I thought. At least we are only putting our own health at risk, rather than anyone else’s.


Focusing on the point at which that (lovely?) grey water nurtures my pumpkins … but at least does not run down to the river.


The shock was that the previous owner had reported that all the grey water (including that of the bathroom) ran down into the garden. And in 2011 all of that kind of awful carry on was considered, in our case at least, to be legal. But it seems he was ‘mislead’.

Adding insult to injury. Inquiries around friends in other villages have revealed that their mayors have actually invested in a public sewage system so that all of their waste runs out of their houses. All fine and dandy – except it mostly just goes into the nearest water course.

But – ha, ha, last laugh on us and the luck of my friends! In their cases the responsibility now lies with the mayor and commune. They don’t have private house inspections any more.  So they won’t have to handle any of the 10,000€ odd burden that may fall on our shoulders.

In our case – and in the light of a letter sent in September last year – the mayor and the commune have washed their hands of the entire problem in the village.

This is a horrendous mess on so many levels. Not least of which is the stink sometimes whilst lying in bed at night.

The thing that astonishes me most is that no-one will talk about it! I have, very politely (too politely) been trying to broach the subject with people I trust since 2011.

There are no public meetings during which pensioners (which we nearly all are here) get together to try and plan how to force the mayor to help us with public subsidy (that boat has sailed, in any case). And if I mutter to myself ‘it’s not like this in the UK’, I sound exactly like the kind of expat I detest most.

Consequently you have a situation in which 50 plus old-timers could be forced to spend between 3,000€ and 10,000€ sorting their own s..t out. There are builders, as we speak, digging up the public road to create little soakaways (we have no flat land around here, so that’s the only option). When I look at them, I have really absolutely no idea what the ‘plan’ is … or if there even is one. And wait … how much is 50 households times 5,000€?

Ah, probably not enough, because it took 98,000€ to renovate the teeny little one-up/ one-down next to us.

Chatillon. 6 Sept 2011 082

The little visitor’s centre adjacent to our house and parking, just above the garden. Before renovation at a cost of 98000€. Shame no-one stopped to think: hang on, what this lovely little village needs to stop it dying is a proper, first-rate 21st century sewage system!


After renovation in April 2013. At least the BV seems happy with his work (renovating a small mirror). The workmen were (mostly) very pleasant and called down cheerfully to the fat lady weeding in her garden below for about 11 months – I had to mow around the scaffolding. And yes, you guessed it, nobody informed us that we would have to play host to this scaffolding for all of those months just after we had moved in.

That’s the cost of living in France. Completely mystifying. Which is why I’m going to start blogging about my own renovation project.


This is the pretty bit.


A kind of mezzanine area over what we hope – if we ever have any money after sorting our toilet issues out – will be a cool summer living room.


The so-called summer living room down below. We are still good at dreaming; just as well. This week I have often been reminded of David Bowie’s Kooks.

The most recent addition to my long list of French tradesman coming in to give me a quote on a new upstairs bathroom asked me where I was going to put the corridor in our nice new potential mezzanine/library area. That would be something similar to the Auschwitz-type arrangement that we just took out?


The library area. We have, unfortunately, an awful lot of books that we seem to have hauled most of the way around the globe in recent years.

Shy girl is gone. I’ve had a little January break, but I’m going to be out on the streets trying to work out what we can do to avoid this unplanned building and financial chaos. ( Well – maybe not tomorrow, it’s the weekend.)


Christmas Day 2015. And this is why we are here, although I frequently have to remind myself that this exists when there’s a bit of stink up …

24 thoughts on “In the merde

  1. The Frustrated Gardener

    I feel your pain but enjoyed your post enormously. We are shortly to embark on a building project in Kent, albeit not involving drains in a major way. Our house is nearly 200 years old and no one know where our original drains go to. This was fun about 5 years ago when they stopped working! I hope you get your situation sorted and continue to develop the lovely spaces you have depicted in your post.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks! I noted that you were going to be starting another project and look forward to a progress report. Next time something goes wrong in our old house – I will think of your word ‘fun’!!

  2. rusty duck

    Oh so familiar. But it will be worth it, honest it will. Just hang on in there.
    It was our first project too… to replace the large hole under the lawn which was our merde pit. With onward drainage straight down to the river. A cool five figure sum (£) out of the budget before we’d even begun on the house. Your home and village look gorgeous. I can see why you fell for it. I hope our combined experiences at least provide some realism to others who may be thinking of doing likewise. Unless you are very lucky indeed there is a lot more to it than roses round the door.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I do hope you are right about ‘combined experiences’ Jessica! It was your own blog that made me decide to be honest about what we were up to. People do seem to think we live rather a romantic, laid-back life here! (Not raining today – for a change – thank goodness!)

    1. Cathy Post author

      Hi – unfortunately what I should really be doing is cleaning those d…n beams. But, as you can see, I am shirking in front of the computer!

  3. Jacqueline Winterborn

    Lovely to see the ‘pretty’ bits of your renovation…and so frustrating that the village has such an ostrich for a mayor! My house also functions on soakaways, but my very feisty neighbour sent the inspector off with a flea in his ear, pointing out that it served only 3 retired ladies, so a fosse septique is hardly needed…

    1. Cathy Post author

      I think you’d actually have to be French and elderly to take that approach, but love it! A bit like an 80-odd year old gardening friend in central Dublin who had an official complaint about her burning her green rubbish in the garden (as she had done for 40 years). ‘What are you going to do about it’, she replied? ‘Put me in jail?’

  4. Christina

    I can really relate to your post, Italy or at least Viterbo is in many ways just the same, some of our grey water goes into an irrigation ditch (not strictly level here either). I love the spaces you are creating in your lovely home. All I can do is agree with the other commenters that you should just concentrate on the positive.

  5. johnvic8

    I am sorry you are having to deal with a problem as “stinky” as that. I just googled “waterless toilets” and found dozens of entries. I recall reading about a Swedish developed toilet some years ago; it was waterless. You may want to look into that as an option. I have no idea of availability and cost for you there.

      1. Island Threads

        John has just remind me, when I visited the USA and Canada in the 1990s there were toilets out in the countryside/mountains with ways of dealing with the produce without the need for septic tanks, I remember some used the sun with mirrors, sorry I can’t remember more, Frances

  6. Melissa Miller

    Hi Cathy have you looked into a microstation for your sewerage and grey water problem. It may be a non-starter because of the lie of the land but there are various shapes and sizes, we have a PureStation as it is shallower than a lot of them but have a Google.

    I kind of sympathise with your predicaments but like many outsiders (remember the French tend to leave them to collapse) you have taken on an enormous building project without realising the cost of labour in France – almost prohibitive. Luckily for me my husband is/was a builder so we do not call on others and the one time we ended up with an extra large hole in the rocky ground because we changed from a fosse to a microstation and my husband turned it into a cellar, with stairs, we were told by a french woman that basically it would not even cross a frenchman’s mind to do that! I have a done a blog about our new build with microstation photos if you are interested.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks for commenting Melissa. What an imaginative thing to do with a hole! Yes – we have looked at the microstation option. In fact one was installed next to the visitor’s centre, which seems daft, since it is only a few metres from us and this could have been a joint venture with surrounding households, if only someone had thought to coordinate. That’s what I’m trying to do (too late, really). It seems crazy that individuals are shelling out money, when we could be doing this in concert.
      Am also looking into the possibility of an eco-pret to make it affordable. Our mayor did not apply for the grants to have a communal system when these were available – although I have had a hint from the guy who did our inspection that there is something afoot, for at least part of the village.
      Have already spoken to a friend in a nearby village with exactly our problem (after she read my post). They have an activist in the village who stood for mayor and was not elected. He is currently collecting info and trying to organise a pressure group (at departement level, if possible). She’s arranging for me to meet up with him.
      What I want to do is to spend money correctly, in concert with everyone else who lives here, since we live in the middle of a village. Thanks very much for your comment!

  7. Island Threads

    oh Cathy, I feel for you, I have not had a similar problem but when buying a home in Scotland I saw several that could become beautiful unusual homes, however I was on my own and had a very little capital and all my life I’ve lived on a small budget, so I had to pass them by, even so the house I am in needed some work, which has been on going, it was the size of the garden and that it had some trees in it that sealed it for me, (very few trees on the islands), so I understand why you were attracted to your house,
    from reading some helpful comments and your replies you seem to be going in the right direction, I hope you get some more useful help and can get the villagers together, I am wondering how people who do not have the money to pay for the work will manage,
    I am lucky this house is connected to mains and most in this part of the island are, the old septic tank is in the garden, but, when I was on Scalpay, Harris it was a septic tank with a run off down the hill, the road being at the bottom of the hill! there are a lot of properties on the islands like that, I am now wondering how it will affect them,
    I am glad you decided to post about the work you have done and are doing, it is interesting and the good sounds quite wonderful, you know the saying, a problem shared is a problem halved, Frances x

    1. Cathy Post author

      A very thoughtful comment, as always, Frances! I also have been frequently in a situation where I was on my own on a small budget. It has left my imagination for renovation rather ‘scarred’! Mostly I just get frightened now when something like this rears its head. My solution has been (twice now, once in West Cork in Ireland and again here) to buy a place that is immediately very liveable but has ‘potential’!
      Unfortunately here we have got quite far into the lovely ‘potential’ before realising we had to do something much more basic.
      But I think people are feeling this all over Europe. I often wonder how the people that bought our Irish house are getting on … probably ok, but they may have had to spend money installing a ‘pucker’ soakaway system for the lovely big septic tank in the field opposite the house.
      Like you, one of the first things that occurs to me about this is how pensioners on a very small budget are going to manage (especially as they have a mayor here who did absolutely nothing to guide or advise them when there were actually public grants going). It’s as much for their sake that I’d like to get some coordination here – the whole thing is just not fair on the elderly!
      We are lucky, since Nick – and myself to a certain extent – still have a few more years of earning a decent income left in us. But they are in straightjackets.

  8. Chloris

    But ‘ fosse septique ‘ problems are not confined to France.I know several people here who have had awful problems this winter. The worst was a friend who came down one morning to find sewage bubbling up through the kitchen floor. Now that would put you off your breakfast croissant!
    Your French home and garden are so beautiful, you are living a dream. We would love to have done the same, so I do it vicariously by reading your blog.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You are so right about the septic tank problems everywhere in Europe. Although it is shocking to think that there are many, many villages with no sewage system at all in France. It is a little different if there are many metres/even kms between neighbours. We’ve had problems ourselves in England, although not in a property we owned, rather in one we rented.

  9. bittster

    I’m glad to hear you are sounding the alarms and mobilizing. You’re right that it’s ridiculous to wade through this (no, hopefully there will not be any wading) by yourselves, and there should be some coordination. There should be some coordinated action, not just a knee jerk to the latest legislation.
    I am going to enjoy reading about the renovation work. It looks inspiring so far and through the good and bad the results will be worth it. Wish it wasn’t so costly though!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks for the encouragement – unfortunately I think one of the problems is that the French seem to like to keep these issues to themselves – if it were Britain (given that this is a village – not a farm in the middle of nowhere) we’d all have been out on the streets about 4 years ago and the mayor would have been lynched by now, not voted in again as he was in the last election. I hope the results will be worth it … the merde has rather rained on our more inspiring dreams. But we’ll see – never give up!

  10. Douglas MacKenzie

    Sorry to hear of your troubles, Cathy. I should send you my Samuel Beckett postcard with his thought, ‘Quand on est dans la merde jusqu’au cou, il ne reste plus qu’a chanter’. However, if singing with the local choir doesn’t ease the pain then I’m sure, when you publish a Clochemerle for the 21st century, the royalties will pay for a platoon of gold-plated French plumbers.

    1. Cathy Post author

      What a sweet message. I was, actually, out singing tonight, so you are spot on. I sincerely doubt that royalties will ever pour my way, however! Take good care of yourself!


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