Confessions of a chambres-d’hôtes owner in France

Confessions of a chambres-d’hôtes owner in France

Angela Weston shares the best anecdotes from her time welcoming guests into her home in Vienne, Poitou-Charentes

In choosing a house we often look for location or the feel-good factor. In choosing where to set up a chambres d’hôtes, I have heard it said it makes your job a little easier if your potential guests have similar interests to you. Personally, I think that takes all the fun out of meeting the vast array of people from all walks of life: different cultures, different interests and ideas to offer – perhaps some of which you had never even dreamed.

Running a bed and breakfast can be extremely hard work, of course, particularly if you offer an evening meal, and if you do all the work. However, it can also be enormous fun, especially when your guests eat en famille (with the family) or you at least have a little time to get to know them. The offer of a glass of wine or cup of tea on a sunny patio goes a long way to loosening up frayed nerves and tight tongues after a long journey.

Thanks to our website we had some wonderful guests from all around the world – from as far afield as Denmark to Australia and the USA to Israel. Getting your tongue around some of the names can be quite a feat and it’s possible to make the mistake of thinking that some are pure scams.

When we first opened our chambres d’hôtes we received an email from someone by the name of Snoren. I know we offer beds for the night, but honestly?! Instantly, I thought this had to be a scam, particularly when they were unable to send a cheque as deposit and the signature revealed their ‘names’ as Joke and Henk Snoren.

I hadn’t realised at the time that Holland no longer uses cheques and, of course, for someone who is Dutch the name Snoren is probably like Smith or Jones in English. The name Joke is actually pronounced Y(h)oke, and, well, we couldn’t have wished for a nicer couple. Having explained our errors they saw the funny side of this too.

Welcome one and all

Some of the things that surprise you occasionally are the different cultures, habits and expectations of different nations. The French, for example, tend to adore English B&Bs because of our quirkiness and exceptional service and hospitality – unless, of course, your name is Basil Fawlty.

Then there are the collectors who are in the area for exhibitions and events, covering everything from stamps to pottery and fossils, and from motorbikes to World War II memorabilia. You wouldn’t imagine the things that people collect or events that they attend.

One gentleman came along with his wife, his car boot almost full of red bricks: not just any old building bricks, but fire clay bricks, all with trademarks embedded (apparently plain ones are called ‘vanillas’). He was so enthusiastic about showing us the English building bricks he had collected and kept us enthralled all night with details of where he had purchased them, how they are made and the number of international associations – all in Franglais.

Then there was the couple who were involved in placomusophilia, the collection of pretty champagne caps. In France, it is big business and you frequently see them being sold at vide-greniers, as well as exchanging hands at collectors’ meetings. This couple travelled throughout France to attend the meetings, carrying with them a huge catalogue – over a thousand pages – picturing and valuing the various decorative tops, and large folders similar to those for stamp collections. One top designed for the Olympics was worth almost €1,000.

Eclectic attractions

Have you ever wondered where your Gala, Pink Lady and Golden Delicious apples come from? Wonder no longer. While the main crops here in Vienne tend to be sunflowers, melons and grapes, hidden away are the apple orchards. Representatives from a UK company used to stay with us because our chambres d’hôtes is central to many of the depots. They would test the apples for their sugar content, bruising and quality, and then make sure that they were shipped off to the correct shops back in Britain.

We had visitors from all over France and Europe who came to visit Futuroscope, students who came to work on local farms, and on one occasion a TV documentary company from Paris came to film the local melon production.

Our guests arrived in all manner of different ways, from Morgan cars to one particularly fit septuagenarian who had cycled a journey of 72km in a day to reach us. Not forgetting the 4×4 towing a trailer with a hot-air balloon, in which they were competing in the ‘rabbit’ chase at the local hippodrome with around 20-30 other balloons of different designs.

And ladies, if you ever have an email or phone call explaining that your prospective guests are a group of bikers, don’t think of noisy Hell’s Angels but respectable leather-clad businessmen who spend every evening relaxing by the lake and drinking beers.

Family affair

Then there are the many families who arrive, full of appreciation for your efforts, and whose children are little angels.

Of course, there are always challenges along the way! I have fond memories of a very nice family who booked to stay one night on their way to the south of France and one night on the way back: no problem.

Neither was the meal on the first evening – although I thought that one boy was acting a little strangely, separating and pushing his food around the plate. At the end of the evening, the mother apologised and said she had meant to tell me that one boy was autistic and the other had ADHD – I explained that this wasn’t a problem for me as I had worked with similar students in schools in the UK. I offered to make allowances for their return journey with rooms and meals; both boys had behaved impeccably.

On the return journey mum and dad had a row, and on arrival here, dad stormed off up to our local historical ruin to take photographs, while mum stormed upstairs with her daughter to watch TV, leaving me downstairs with both boys!

One boy seemed happy enough to watch a DVD that I had found for him, so I took the other one out to help me water the plants in the garden.

It seemed to be working excellently, but the next time I looked a medieval catapult ball which sits at the back of our garden (and is actually part of the local heritage trail) was in the river; our dog, who never goes in the water from our side as she considers it her boundary, was limping out of the river, mud up to her neck; and our heavy-duty, rustic garden swing was hanging limply by one rope. What was worse was that I never even caught the boy in the act, he was so quick, and was already fleeing the scene!

Lost in translation

Of course, I can’t forget the time when we had several couples sharing our evening meal around the dinner table, including a French policeman from another part of the country. He was a computer specialist for the police force and was visiting to undertake some work at a local station.

He had arrived at the table a little late when the rest of us were already in the flow of conversation. I had just been explaining to the guests that I was a writer and that I was putting together research and information on the use of poisons for a thriller I was hoping to complete. As the policeman, who understood a little English, sat down, I was just commenting that it was another one to add to my collection of poisons.

Well, you can imagine the look of horror on his face, particularly as he was about to eat. What made it funnier was the fact that there is a town just 20 minutes from us where the infamous murderess Marie Besnard lived, who reportedly poisoned more than 20 people back in the 1950s.

Well, many of these people are still dear friends, as are our other guests from the natural world all around us that we find on a day-to-day basis, everything from snakes and lizards to the fish in the river, and to the herons that steal the fish from the fishermen. Beautifully coloured dragonflies are plentiful and on one occasion I saw the most striking black and white butterfly I had ever seen in our garden. Not forgetting the various wildlife that I was covered with after falling in the river one time, but that, as they say, is another story.

Angela Weston’s property is now for sale

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