Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reducing Euro rental prices and LDLines delays Dover/Dieppe route

Details of a couple of quick website updates:

For the last year or so to broaden the appeal of our Brittany Holiday Home to Euro-zone customers (principally from Ireland, but occasionally Holland and France), we've offered rental rates in Euros as well as British Pounds.

Now as the Pound edges ever closer to parity with the Euro I've taken another look at the rental prices we charge and significantly reduced the Euro holiday rental rates across the board.

On the travel options part of our website I've been adding details of the new French law that requires you to carry a high-visibility jacket as well as warning triangle in your car when driving in France, and also added a link to the AA's travel advice for motoring in France.

Also I've updated our website after noticing that LD Lines has changed the start date of their new Dover/Dieppe ferry route which was due to commence operation in January 2009, but is now shown on their website as starting on 2nd February.

Just remains for me to wish everyone a Bonne Année, and I'll see you all next year!

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chocolat - delicious French filled entertainment to read and on TV

I noticed that tomorrow evening (New Year's Eve) BBC2 is showing the film adaptation of Joanne Harris's book of the same name.

Earlier this year I finished reading the book, and loved it, so am looking forward to seeing the movie which has received some good reviews on Amazon and Internet Movie Database.

Set in the 1950's the story tells of how a travelling single parent Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk arrive at a small French village and decide to settle down for a while. Vianne immediately runs into opposition with the local priest over her plans to open a chocolate shop, in Lent, an act he sees as being inspired by the devil to tempt the villagers away from his black sermons.

Vianne's not easily cowed by him though and her delicious chocolate temptations soon start winning over the hearts (and stomachs) of the villagers as the battle rapidly escalates when a gipsy encampment arrives on the river, further inflaming the small-minded nature of many of the villagers.

The book switches between the different characters, their viewpoints and perspectives, from the chocolatey desires of Vianne and her plans for an Easter Chocolate Festival, to the inner torment and hidden secrets of the priest and to the local people caught between the opposing forces of religion and politics.

The film stars Juiliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Dame Judy Dench and looks to be a great adaptation. If you don't manage to catch the film tomorrow night then the Chocolat DVD is only £4.98 from Amazon and the (thoroughly recommended) Chocolat book is only £5.99.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

No electricity at the Gite - my EDF Christmas present!

EDF - Electricity de France
We've just got through what has to rank as one of the most stressful challenges we've had so far in the last four years of renting out our French Holiday Home - no electricity in the house and guests arriving tomorrow.

On Wednesday afternoon (Christmas eve) I was working at home on the seemingly endless supply of emails I receive and starting to try to think about relaxing for Christmas when I received a phone call from Cherril, our local Brittany Agents, to tell me that she'd had problems in the house.

We've not had any guests staying for Christmas week this year but we did have a family due to arrive on Saturday for a week's stay (including New Year's eve) and so Cherril had been over to the Gite ahead of their stay to clean everything, make the beds, put the heating on, open the blinds, etc.

In the quieter off-season periods when we don't have guests we ask Cherril to turn off the heating, water and electricity, so one of the things she was doing whilst over was to turn it all back on again.

In the kitchen is the fusebox for the various circuits, the main house trip switch, and the mains on/off box where the EDF electricity supply enters the house. The main on/off switch is also a circuit breaker, you push a button in for on, and another for off, and no matter how much Cherril tried she couldn't push the 'on' button in. It appeared to be stuck; something inside the switch had obviously broken. Alan had been over and he'd not been able to turn the electricity on either.

Cherril phoned me up to tell me all this and ask if I had any suggestions as to what to do, and after consulting with a French electrician we concluded that there was nothing she or I could do as the broken circuit breaker was owned by EDF (Electricity de France), the state owned electricity provider.

There was nothing for it but to phone up EDF and see if I could arrange for them to come out and repair or replace the broken circuit breaker. By now it was 4pm in France so the chance of getting a repair engineer out at such a time wasn't looking good.

It has to be said that generally I hate having to talk to anyone on the phone in France; whilst I'm comfortable enough talking in shops and restaurants I just feel that my French isn't good enough to cope with talking to someone remotely. And as for trying to explain that the main circuit breaker was broken, we couldn't turn it on, and we had no electricity .... not looking forward to the call at all. Plus of course I didn't know what the French word for circuit breaker was either!

Anyway I wimped out and about 30 seconds into the call to EDF I asked "parlez vous l'Anglais" to which I got "Non" and so continued being a wimp with "Est-q'uil-y-a un autre person qui parlez l'Anglais?". They're clearly well versed with desperate Englishmen that don't speak good French at EDF as after a short wait I got through to someone who did speak English and I could explain the problem, only to be told I'd phoned the wrong number and needed to telephone the "Depannage Electricite" number instead.

Another phone call, another wimping out with the French, another transfer to an English-speaking assistant and I explained the problem again to the helpful lady at the other end of the phone. They said they'd send someone out later that afternoon, or in the evening, and would phone Cherril 15 minutes or so before they arrived so that she could pop over with the key.

Well by 9pm French time they still hadn't phoned or made an appearance so we decided to try again the next day. Unfortunately Cherril was going out on Christmas Day so I waited until Boxing Day morning, and after checking with Cherril that they'd still not heard anything, I gave EDF another ring.

This time I had more problems on the phone. The man I spoke to didn't speak English, couldn't transfer me to anyone else, and I managed to totally fail to explain what the problem was. This lack of communication carried on for 5 minutes or so until I think he tried the "I can't hear you" trick and I got cut off. Telephoning EDF back again I struck gold with someone who spoke English first time I asked and I humbly explained the predicament again that we had no electricity, that there were people arriving at the house the next day, and that we thought that the Service Depannage (Circuit Breaker) was broken. The lovely lady promised to send someone out that day but couldn't be sure whether it would be the morning or the afternoon.

And result !

At 4pm-ish French time a nice man from EDF called Cherril to say he was on the way to the Gite, they went over, let him in, and he replaced the Circuit Breaker with a shiny new one and we had electricity again. Hurray !

I have to say that although it all worked out in the end it's been a stressful experience all round and one that I don't fancy going through again in a hurry. I had visions of guests arriving to find a cold and dark Gite - not the kind of holiday welcome that we aspire to present - or having to try to contact them and tell them the bad news, and then searching round to try to find alternative accommodation in another Gite or Hotel for them. All in all not a good way to spend Christmas worrying about this and I'm glad that it's all resolved successfully. I think a quick drink (or two) to celebrate is in order ...


Monday, December 22, 2008

P&O Reindeer Training game

P&O Ferries are running a great little Reindeer Training School game over on their website right now.

You play as Rudolph, Dasher or Dancer and have to run along an ice-strewn course, jumping over holes in the ice, collecting the presents (for points) and getting a free bonus points for the flying P&O logos!

To play, go onto the P&O website and click on the 'Reindeer training' picture.


My top score is 5,500 ... some way off the high score table as the top score is 97,000 and number 500 is 22,000 ! Better keep on playing


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Which is cheaper - Paypal or Visa?

Just now I was paying for some video editing software I bought off ebay from an Australian seller and as I reached the paypal checkout page and saw the option to choose how the foreign currency amount would be converted I got to wondering (and Googling) as to which would be cheaper - Paypal or my credit card?

For overseas card payments you're offered the option of either letting paypal do the foreign currency conversion (which is the default) or letting your credit card do the conversion.

Thinking that I was bound to be being taken advantage of with the Paypal default I thought I'd do a bit of research into the two options, and was pleasantly surprised.

I bought the Ulead Video Studio 10 software for AUS $17.90 including Airmail shipping to the UK.

Firstly I found from my bank's credit card terms and conditions (helpful copy I found online) that they "will change the amount to sterling at the exchange rate used by the payment system and will charge 2.95% of the value of each foreign-currency transaction".

Then I Googled across a very useful Visa Exchange Rate calculator that lets you choose your credit card currency (GBP), the purchase currency (AUS $), enter your bank fee (2.95%), and in return are provided with a handy little print-out-and-put-in-your-wallet exchange rate table as a ready reckoner for when you're overseas.

Today Visa's exchange rate for AUS$ to GBP is 2.16 to 1, which means that with the bank fee my purchase will cost £8.53.

In comparison Paypal offered to charge me £8.37 using their own AUS/GBP exchange rate of AUS $2.13665 to £1.

So even though Visa was giving me a better exchange rate this was more than wiped out by the credit card overseas handling fee.

I thus paid with Paypal and saved myself 15p which I will be investing wisely !

By the by, the video editing software is so that I can try over the Christmas break to put together for our website some videos of our Brittany Gite. Next up I need to buy a firewire card ... so I'm back off to ebay for that purchase ....

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Speedferries notice to all creditors

Speedferries SpeedOne
Continuing the situation after SpeedFerries (in Administration) stopped operating, I received an email from the administrators today:

Speedferries Limited (In Administration) (‘the Company’)

On 12 November 2008 the Company entered administration and T Burton and I were appointed as Joint Administrators. The appointment was made by the Company's Directors under the provisions of paragraph 22(2) of Schedule B1 to the Insolvency Act 1986. Please find attached at the end of this email, the formal Notice of Appointment of the Joint Administrators.

A copy of the Notice of Appointment of the Joint Administrators is also available to download from the Company’s website:

Immediately following appointment, the Joint Administrators, in accordance with Paragraph 3 of Schedule B1 to the Insolvency Act 1986, explored the option of a sale of the business and assets of the Company. Unfortunately, the offers that were received as part of this process were insufficient to provide the best outcome to all creditors, and as such the Joint Administrators regretfully announced the closure of the business on 25 November 2008.

As such, Speedferries Limited (In Administration) has now ceased to operate services between Dover and Boulogne and customers with pre-booked tickets are advised to seek alternative travel arrangements.

Customers who have booked by way of credit card should contact their credit card providers to determine if they are eligible to claim a refund for these now cancelled services. Some debit card services may also offer a refund so it may also be appropriate for customers to confirm with their banks if this option is available. Customers are further advised to check the Company’s website as there is a link to a section 'Credit Card Information' where further information regarding contacting your credit card provider and documents your credit card provider may request of you is available. Please note we are currently sourcing customer bookings/reservations data from the Company's external reservations database managers. This data is not yet however available for provision directly to the credit card providers for all customers.

Customers who wish to obtain a refund in respect of cancelled crossings and pre-booked tickets (and for which the option of claiming against their debit card or credit card provider is not available), are advised that, due to the administration, refunds in respect of these tickets are not able to be met, and that you now rank as unsecured creditors of the administration. We will continue to log your claims as unsecured creditors.

The officers of the Company are required to submit a Statement of Affairs, but as yet we are not in a position to give any information regarding the financial position. We shall send you a report as soon as it is reasonably practicable which will explain the objectives of the administration and give details of the financial position of the Company. This report will also provide an update on the prospects of a dividend to unsecured creditors.

If you have commenced formal recovery proceedings against the Company, I suggest that you contact my office before continuing, as a matter of priority, as no legal processes may continue against the Company without my consent or permission of the court. Please refer your query to Rob Apollo at the following email address:

If you contend that you have any form of security or reservation of title in respect of goods that you previously supplied, please contact my office immediately and provide full written details and copies of documentation relating to your claim. Email queries should be referred to Simon Cooper at the following email address:

Yours faithfully
for Speedferries Limited (in administration)

Angela Swarbrick and Tom Burton
Joint Administrators

I've already lodged a claim with my credit card company for the remaining unused tickets on my last block purchase of SpeedFerries tickets. The person I spoke to had heard of SpeedFerries failure and said that they'd had another claim a few days beforehand. I was advised that the card company would send me a claim form, still waiting for it to arrive, and the process after that seemed a bit hazy as to when I would get a refund of my ticket purchase. Will let you know.

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"Bon Courage!" by Richard Wiles - Book Review

One of the advantages of owning our own holiday home (apart from some great holidays in France ourselves of course) is that it gives friends and relatives an easy source of birthday and Christmas present ideas.

So no surprise at Christmas last when I received Bon Courage!, fresh off the Amazon delivery lorry.

The author Richard Wiles has written a number of DIY and home improvement books and magazine articles, including Ideal Home magazine. The book starts with him describing how after a collapsing marriage and then losing his job as Senior Editor of a lifestyle magazine he came to make a fresh start by falling in love with the idea of the ultimate DIY project, renovating a French farmhouse with his new partner, Al.

Actually the story of how Richard and Al came to buy a rural Limousin property doesn't actually start until Chapter 2, as the book opens with the perils of camping inside an old barn:
Not content with nibbling through the groundsheet of our tent and stealing our supplies of chocolate whilst we'd been shovelling manure from the adjoining barn, the mice were taking liberties now. As I played the meagre beam of the torch along the tent, I traced the shadowy beam over them lining up along the tent apex beneath the flysheet, eagerly awaiting their turn to launch themselves down the canvas sides as if our tent was some giant theme-park slide.

Richard's story unfolds that after buying an uninhabitable farmhouse and arriving there from the UK during torrential rain, they decided to pitch their tent inside the barn on the basis that it would be warmer and dryer than in the outside field. Unfortunately they'd not figured on the antics of the mice that treated their new guests as some kind of food supply-cum-adventure park!

Slowly the enormity of the challenge of converting their farmhouse dream dawns on Richard and Al as they struggle to clear mountains of accumulated farm debris (including piles of manure, chicken droppings and broken farm implements), integrate with their eccentric neighbours like the elderly Veronique who treats them to copious gateaux and coffee every time they pop round, and of course the many twists and turns of French bureaucracy.

Throughout the book I enjoyed the easy style that Richard writes in and the amusing anecdotes and side tales of his adventures like John the builder who comes over to help Richard, speaks not a word of French, but manages to get by with the French tradesmen with phrases like Bon jewer mate and Low, me old mate - much to Richard's frustration.

By the end of the book Richard and Al are contemplating relocating permanently to France and buying a herd of Llama's to start a trekking business ...

Hopefully I'll be receiving the second half of Richard's story this Christmas with Bon Chance, also from Mr Amazon!


Friday, December 12, 2008

Google Reader (and Geoffrey's) useful tips for Blog/Website developers

Google Reader
I came across a useful page in Google reader help the other day, a set of Google Reader Tips for Publishers.

Among the useful tips Google Reader provides are:

1. Write useful and engaging content with good headlines to ensure your readers keep coming back for more (hopefully I do this on my blog so 'nuff said!)

2. Implement your feed in either RSS or Atom format (but not both) and to ensure you use a feed validator to check that you've formatted it correctly.

I use the excellent Feedburner service for our Gite Blog (now owned by Google) which automatically detects and provides the feed in the right format according to what program the end reader is using to read the Blog.

3. Make it easier for your reader to find your Blog with feed "auto-discovery".
Simply include a <LINK rel=alternate type="application/rss+xml" ...> line in the header section of your Blog and website pages and modern browsers such as Firefox and IE will auto-magically enable you to quickly subscribe to your conent.

All our website pages contain <LINK rel=alternate type="application/rss+xml" title="Our Weblog of Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany" href="">

4. Include feed subscription buttons so with one-click the reader can subscribe to your blog in their favourite reader.
Unsurprisingly there's webmaster help provided by Google on how to provide a button to join Google Reader, but if you look round most of the other main feed readers the instructions are fairly easy to find.

I do suggest you don't go overboard with subscription icons though, one blog I know of has some 30+ icons on the bottom of each posting which to my mind looks just overkill, untidy and overboard. We have 'Add to Yahoo', 'Add to Newsgator' and (just added yesterday) 'Add to Google' buttons on this Blog, and over on the Gite website page explaining what RSS is we've also got 'Add to Bloglines', 'Add to MyMSN' and 'Add to AOL' buttons.

All good suggestions and fortunately are all ideas that I am already adhering to.

To add to Google's suggestions, here are four of my own:

5. Provide the option for readers to subscribe to your Blog by email.
Many people haven't got the hang of RSS or feed readers so make it easier for them to join in by providing an email subscription mechanism. We use the FeedBlitz service which will automatically email each reader each day with all the new articles posted on your Blog. Our subscription box appears to the right of each Blog page - simply enter your email address and click 'Go', and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Personally I am still split between deciding which method I prefer to read Blogs. I subscribe to 9 different Blogs in my Thunderbird email program but then I receive daily emails from FeedBlitz for about another 18 Blogs. For me I prefer reading all the new postings in one go in one email, but you pays your (no) money, you takes your choice.

6. Keep an eye on where you got your readers from.
As well as established website log tools like Google Analytics which work OK on your Blog there are other niche players dedicated to tracking Blog visitors. One we use is My Blog Log and is now owned by Yahoo. I'll try to write something more about MBL another time.

7. Presentation is everything.
Don't adopt a font or colour scheme that alienates your reader and makes them puke when they visit your site, and equally do take time to customise the default Blog template to make it unique and "you".

It's been an awful long time since I setup this original Blog template and since then Blogger has moved on and is now all "widgetised" so to make more significant changes to the Blog template is going to be a big undertaking for me. Doing this is on my to-do list (somewhere after 'building a railway board for my eldest' but before 'solving world peace') so don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen in the next week or two.

But meanwhile if you want to see how I'm doing the new 'experimental format' Blog is over on Test In Brittany (original name, huh?)

8. Publicise, publicise, publicise!
It's no good having all the best prose and all the best widgets and all the best layout to your Blog if no-one actually finds it. Firstly ensure you notify the main feed directories that you're out there (there's an option in Blogger for instance to notify (ping) when you make a new posting for instance) and then there are literally hundreds of Blog directories out there on the web. Spend time doing a Google search for appropriate keywords and then subscribe yourself to them. I get visitors from,,,,, etc (and they're just the ones starting with 'b').

Also make sure you include your Blog details in your email footer and on other places you comment or write on. I get click-throughs from Flickr, LinkedIn, Blogger itself (where I have written about various new Blogger and Google features) and many many more websites as a result.

So there you go, 8 top-tips. Do comment if you've used any of these yourself or if you've any corker's that I've missed out.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Falling foul of ebay listing policies

In a situation that harks back to when I was suspended by Google Checkout for offering customers the choice of paying for our French holiday home on Google Checkout, I've now caused the ire of ebay.

In the first year that we started renting out our Holiday Gite (2006) we offered and sold quite a few holiday bookings through ebay, at what has to be admitted were knock-down prices.

As much as anything else it was a bit of a learning experience for us of holiday guests staying in the Gite, but at the time I figured that I would rather have guests who paid somewhat less than the advertised rate than no guests at all.

After cleaning, changeover and utility bills we didn't make very much at all, but it got our name out there, it covered our costs, and a couple of the guests have returned to us in subsequent years, so they obviously liked what they saw.

Over the years more people seem to have followed our lead and there's increasing choice (i.e. competition) for holiday home listings on ebay now, and we've also tended to not need to advertise on ebay as much as our Google page rankings have increased (e.g. we're currently showing as #2 if you search for "Brittany Rent", #6 for "Brittany Holiday" and #10 for "Brittany Gite").

Occasionally I do put up a listing on ebay (e.g. it'd be nice to sell the Christmas 2008 holiday week), only to find on Saturday that we'd received an email from ebay telling me that my listing had been cancelled because "it breached the Circumvention of eBay Fees policy".

According to ebay because I'd used the phrase "see our website for currently available dates" in the listing this was seen as an attempt to avoid ebay fees.

I argued back that I was simply listing the Gite for a week's holiday from now to the end of March 2009 (which is a quieter period for us), and that customers can have the choice of any dates that are still vacant (e.g. the New Year 2009 week is already booked).

Unfortunately the reply I had back from customer services has taken the line that
You are not allowed to offer different weeks in one listing as such a practice lowers number of listings on eBay and is considered to be Circumvention of eBay fees.

You may create separate listings for each week and then for the understanding of the prospective buyers you may mention in that 'Look my other listings for other dates/weeks'.

Well yes I can see that such an approach will drive up fee revenue for ebay if you're only allowed to list an item for one week's stay. I do believe that I've been singled out in a one-off by ebay as there are plenty of other auctions on right now that say "contact us for availability", but it's no use arguing any further as ebay has the final answer over such things.

So ebay listers beware of falling into the same trap as me - be well advised to read the Circumventing Fees policy.

(And if you do want a cut-price late availability deal, drop me a line and we'll see what we can do).

Update 9/12: Another email from ebay Trust & Safety about my cancelled listing, pointing me this time to the ebay choice listing policy which is a bit more explicit about listings not being allowed that give the buyer a choice of item colour/size or items that are 'subject to availability'. I've been told that any listings that offer a choice of dates throughout the year, or stays of varying lengths is a breach of this policy.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Christmas free downloads (and discounts) from AvanQuest

A couple of years ago I wrote about AvanQuest's Christmas advent calendar where they offered up a variety of free software downloads and discount vouchers against their eclectic software portfolio.

Well new year, same deal with AvanQuest's 2008 advent calendar, and again it's worth a look as there are some good games and useful freebies.

I also found by a bit of fiddling the URL of the AvanQuest advent calendar you can look at the different special offers for other countries that AvanQuest trade in: is the URL for the UK advent calendar, but change the country_id= to 1 for France, 2 for Germany, 4 for Spain or 5 for Italy.

The poor Americans don't appear to have the advent offer on (or perhaps they don't have advent calenders over there?)


Friday, December 05, 2008

'Mean' French Parents

When we were over in Paris on holiday earlier in the year we received a copy of the International Herald & Tribune each morning in the hotel we stayed in.

I was amused to read about a survey of European countries that revealed that French parents are the 'meanest' in Europe for handing out pocket money to their children, and the number receiving any allowance has shrunk over the past year.

According to the survey parents in France give a paltry 17.7 euros (roughly £14) per month and only 45 per cent give any pocket money at all!

In Blighty our mum's and dad's hand out the equivalent of 24 euros (£19) per month whereas the lucky Portuguese children receive the most with 59 euros (£47) per month.

Older French children don't fare any better with many 15 and 16 year olds only receiving pocket money on special occasions, birthdays, Christmas or after a particularly good school report.

In the Coan household I have to admit that our two boys are being paid at a below average rate, they both get £1 per week although we do sometimes buy them a comic to read as a treat.

So what of my Blog readers, are you more or less generous than the "average" ?

(And please no-one tip off our kids about this survey report !! Further details on the European pocket money report on the Telegraph website)