Lifestyle & Culture

Weeking Reading, Chapter 4: Marcia Buys a Home! In France!

December 11, 2014

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Photo © Gene Turner

Photo © Gene Turner www.yesishotthat.com

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3

IT WAS A TUMOR in that extraordinary brain of Vladimir Petrov, malignant and inoperable. The man had endured the wrath of Stalin, survived six bitter winters in a Gulag labor camp, fathered seven children, died on an operating table then rose up to father two more, one of whom was Andrew. Now he was resigned to passing on. He was eighty-three.

Andrew was devastated. His father was his hero and champion. He had been close to a decision about joining some friends who’d moved to New York and were exploring the city’s art scene, but now there was no question. He committed himself to being at home with his father as he lived his last months, days and minutes. His own life and his art—which were wholly congruent—came to a stop at the portal his father was about to pass through. His devotion to this duty was complete, and he was seldom out of earshot of his father’s voice.

I, on the other hand, decided to move on. It just seemed right.

I called Gwen and told her I wanted to buy the house. We negotiated a price with the English owners and then, as it goes in the charged atmosphere of a residential real estate deal, I was moved into the holding pen where sentiment and emotions fight it out with finance.

I knew a little bit about what I was in for, having bought and sold houses before, but only once by myself, and never in a foreign country, in another language. I was completely dependent on this woman with whom I’d spent a total of about four hours out of my life.

Gwen recommended we use her notaire for the closing.  She didn’t trust the one the owners wanted to use. I left that up to her—what did I know?—and we set the closing date. Reams of paperwork were spat out of my fax machine and spread out all over my office as I tried to concentrate on my jobs.

Then up popped the inevitable complication that always comes up at this point in the proceedings, scattering everyone like chickens with flapping wings. Gwen’s notaire had uncovered a title problem. But this was serious. The sellers had bought the house from a widow with young children. Under French law, the house therefore did not legally belong to the sellers. It didn’t dawn on me until later: They were trying to sell me a house they didn’t own.

The sellers were English, which I’d thought was an advantage. (Why? People can’t lie to you in your own language?)

“See? We told you that you should have a lawyer,” said everybody.

The English couple spoke with me by phone. They were terribly sorry; they had no idea that this would happen. They were just trying to help this poor widow whose husband had bought up a lot of ruins on speculation, then left her deeply in debt. They paid her for the ruined house and then fixed it up to sell and make their money back. Their notaire had said it was okay.

“Their notaire is a crook,” Gwen said.

They wanted to work something out. What if they sold the house to a friend of theirs, who would then sell it to another friend, who would then sell it back, using the multiple sales to seal off the illegal one. Like bricking over the dead body in the cellar.

I ran that by Gwen, who simply said, “Nah.”

Damn! I was on such a roll. I wanted that house in that village.

I thought, what if I went back to the village to see if there was another ruin this couple could fix up and sell to me, legally this time? Because maybe they’d made a slip on that house, but fixing up a ruin really seemed to be the most affordable option in the region. I didn’t need a bastide with a swimming pool and lots of land that I’d have to worry about when I wasn’t there, which would be most of the time. No, another little village house would suit me just fine—something I could lock and leave, maybe under the eye of a neighbor I would befriend. I’d like the same big country kitchen, floors of old red tiles, thick stone walls that held in the sun’s warmth, roughly plastered white and clean on the inside. I wanted a big old fireplace, the kind where pots used to hang, the essential little terrace for eating outdoors and a view of the mountains from my bedroom. That’s all.

I decided to go back to the village for a week in February, around my birthday. The English couple had taken the house-they-didn’t-own off the market, and they were now renting it to vacationers. I arranged to rent it for the week, while I looked at whatever else they might turn up.

I looked again at the cassette Cindy had sent me. She’d driven down from Grenoble to videotape the house I thought I was buying, and to look around the village for me. On the tape was a roller-coaster tour of the house with her commentary: “I wouldn’t try these stairs after a couple glasses of wine.”

She wanted me to forward the tape to the end, and look at the footage she’d taken of another place. In the village she’d chatted with the manager of the inn, who’d told her about an apartment for sale—the top-floor apartment of an artist, with a view. She’d gone with the innkeeper to see the apartment and had recorded the interior space and the views on the tape she had left. “Take a look, cherie—the view from the terrace is magnifique!”

Watching it, I was only vaguely interested. The view was fantastic, but I couldn’t tell what it was like to be inside the place. Besides, I was stuck on the idea of a house, one that I could rent out in the summer season and bring in some rental income. Vacationers in Paris want an apartment, but in rural Provence, they want to live like natives, close to the earth.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

My friend Kathy and I flew over to spend a week in the village, and Cindy would meet us. Kathy was the design editor of the Washington Post’s Home section. With her professional eye and Cindy’s domestic expertise I had a powerful advisory team.

We flew into Nice, picked up a rental car and went hurtling down the autoroute as if we did it every day. But then at a rest stop we discovered that neither of us knew how to shift this model car into reverse. We tried every move we could think of to back away from the parking divider.  Finally, Kathy said, “Just drive over the damn thing.”

I was delighted with Kathy’s exuberance as we approached the village. It was a breathtaking sight from a distance. But somehow at the outskirts I missed a turn, and pulled into someone’s gravel parking area to turn around. We were admiring these strangers’ house, prettily landscaped and surrounded by a tall iron fence, when two big German shepherds came thundering around the corner toward us, barking furiously. I went to back up and suddenly remembered that I couldn’t.

“Maybe there’s enough room to turn in front of the fence,” said Kathy calmly over the noise. I rolled forward as far as I could, but the left front bumper wouldn’t clear the fence, and the dogs went insane. We watched them from the front seat, waiting for someone to come out of the house and maybe show us how to back up. Nobody came. The dogs roared and howled, heaving their bodies at the gate, flashing their fangs.

“Okay—I’m going to push,” said Kathy, opening the door.

“What? Wait…”

She bent over the hood, placed her hands on each side of the bumper and, with her bottom against the fence just inches from the snapping jaws, and yelled, “Turn the damn wheel!”

I knew then that to get anywhere in this country, I would need a technically explicit vocabulary list before I attempted to do anything.

The village was silent and dismal in February and I still loved it, the way you love your child even when he has a runny nose.  I took that as a sign that it was meant for me. However the house…was another story. Fixed up and seductively decorated, it showed well, but staying in it day by day, we found that it lived badly. It was bone-chillingly cold. The rooms were dark and sad; the clever freestanding fireplace wouldn’t draw. Water leaked from the kitchen sink and dripped noisily in the shower off the master bedroom. The house was crying.

I dreamed of the English widow and her bloody pile of bills.  I’d learned the left-out part of the story: The husband had shot himself.

Any way you looked at it, this was bad juju and I had narrowly avoided spending my golden years in this despairing blackness. It was the first of many times I would have Gwen to thank for steering me away from trouble.

But I was about to make another decision without her.

I made an appointment with a potential seller—who, by the way, was also an architect—to see another ruin in the village that might be available. We waited for him in front of a tall, narrow stone building catty-corner from the bakery. He showed up a little late, and he seemed uncomfortable, almost reluctant to be discussing the possibilities of this house with me. The price was low, but as my friends and I followed him up the crazy stairway from one cut-up room to another, our calculated cost of fixing it up mounted faster than we did. To every question I asked, he’d shrug and say, “You can do anything you want if…” leaving the conditions unspoken. “If you have more money then sense,” muttered Kathy, looking over the crooked floors to the tilting doorways.

Back out in the drizzly weather, I suggested another meeting and he gave a vague response. He hadn’t looked me in the eyes once.

A few days later we were walking around Roussillon, another hilltop village, hugely popular with tourists in the season. We stopped to look at the houses for sale in the window of a real estate office.

“Look at that—your house!” That was Cindy.

It did look like it. The house in the picture was typical for these parts, so I couldn’t be sure. The posted price was a lot lower than the price the English people had asked for.

“No, that is it,” Cindy insisted. “ I ought to know–I spent hours taping the damn place.”

Did that mean the non-owners of the house were still trying to sell it? Something was funny here. We were all interested in what the “architect” would say about this twist involving the first house.

The meeting was at his office, which was in a renovated wing of his own traditional house, set among lavender fields in the valley below the village.  While he shuffled some plans on his desk and tapped his pencil, his wife busied herself with phone calls. After a few minutes, I began to feel that I was doing all the work of selling myself on this ruin we’d looked at. Slowly, the house was imploding in my mind.

“By the way,” said the wife, “please don’t talk to anyone about that deal with the other house. We live here, and our children go to school here. Besides, it would be bad for our poor old notaire. He’s a nice man, and he didn’t mean to make a mistake.”

That reminded me. “Speaking of that house, we saw that it’s for sale now, by the agent in Roussillon, and for a lower price.” They both leaned forward in their chairs and burst out with two conflicting responses at once.

He: “Still?”

She: “I haven’t even been to Roussillon!”

When we got in the car, Cindy cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “A house cain’t list itself.”

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Cindy’s husband, Ken, arrived to take her home, and after dinner at the village inn, they made up for their brief separation with an amorous reunion that must have burned the chill off the ancient walls. In the morning, wearing a smug smile as Ken held the car door open for her, she insisted I take one look at her apartment discovery before I left.

On my last day in the village, I went to see it with the innkeeper, who was a friend of the owner. There was no for-sale sign, no real estate agent. The story was simple. The owner was a Dutch artist, her husband had died, and she wanted to go live by the sea.

It was in one of the old buildings that gathered around the little Place de l’Horloge, the clock tower square, leaning a little toward one another the way old neighbors do. This one had been, in medieval times, the garrison next to the gate. You entered a massive old walnut door and went up two flights of stairs to the apartment. It was a shotgun arrangement of three rooms, with high vaulted ceilings, supported by enormous old beams, rising to more than fifteen feet. The artist had spared no expense with the hardwood flooring, the brass fixtures, the artful plastering. Little windowed doors opened, with a burst of fresh air, to the shaded chemin-de-ronde, a soldier’s lookout, running along the ramparts.

The first room had kitchen fixtures along one wall, including a brass-trimmed black stove. There was a skylight, through which you could see the bell on top of the clock tower, and a traditional open fireplace. The stones emerging from plaster in the southeast corner were vestiges of the old signal tower.

The middle room was bisected by a wooden platform, or mezzanine, as the French called it, reached by a ladder. The third room was a magnificent artist’s atelier, with light pouring through tall windows over the honey-colored floor. French doors opened to the terrasse, a wide, walled balcony that looked out across the green-and-gold valley dotted with pink houses, toward limestone cliffs in one direction and blue-violet mountains in the other.

It may have been a dreary winter morning, but in this airy, light-filled space you could imagine spring. I felt the hundreds of years of experience that had seeped into the old stones; they smelled of wisdom. I thought of what Andrew had said about borrowing it for a while. It was like that, I supposed, except that by buying it I could designate that Ben would have it after me. Not that he would be the least bit interested in it for at least forty years.

The apartment was not what I was looking for. In fact, it was dramatically different from anything I’d ever lived in, anything I’d ever even heard of. The nearest comparison would have been a loft in New York City. You could import the rustic beams, the stones, the old-fashioned plaster to SoHo, but this view of chalky cliffs rimmed with tangled greens, the jolly jumble of red-tiled roofs under an azure sky, was what made it something else entirely.

“I really need two bedrooms,” I said, for lack of anything else I could think of except “a house.” Jean-Pierre, the innkeeper, remarked that the man who owned the rest of the building was working on some rooms on the floor below. He called him at home, and fifteen minutes later I met Jean-Claude, my future co-propriétaire, in the unfurnished apartment downstairs.

He was about my age, small and built like a gymnast, his forearms festooned with pumped-up veins. His nose was hawkish and there was a deep left in his chin. His hair was going from black to gray, and his morning shave had left a shadow. His eyebrows shaded ferocious black eyes, and he had the bushy mustache of an old-movie Frenchmen, with the customary cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wore jeans and a crew-neck sweater over a shirt, and he held a saw, which he must have just picked up as a prop so he could put it down to shake my hand as Jean-Pierre introduced us.

He spoke English. He and Jean-Pierre, who had lived in Virginia, were the only French people in the village who did. When they spoke French to me, they made it clear and simple, which encouraged me to take a shot at it.

Jean-Claude studied me sideways while he showed off the features of the studio apartment. The concrete floor was not yet tiled, but there was a medieval window alcove that framed the mountain view I’d seen upstairs, set into a thick stone arch, about three feet deep. You could imagine a damsel looking out from its shadows, throwing open the tall paned windows to call to her lover.

Incredibly, this character had installed another mezzanine in this apartment, and its unnecessarily massive wooden ladder bisected the window alcove, ruining the effect.

He insisted that I climb the ladder and check out the mezzanine, which he’d built himself, as indicated by the saw. I could stand up on it, but my hair brushed the ceiling. I noticed electric outlets installed on either side of where a double bed could fit but couldn’t be imagined. There was space for another double bed beneath the mezzanine as well. I understood the urge to stack things to accommodate more people, but two double beds and four people in this small space? Wasn’t that a little too…opium den? I climbed down, mentally disassembling the mezzanine and throwing it board by board out the window.

Across the room was a fireplace, its chimney adorned with a floral motif sculpted in plaster. Jean-Claude had cleverly restored parts of it himself, “wiz my gown ‘ands,” and he pointed out those parts to me, although the clumsy shapes gave them away.

But it was a wonderful space just the same, right under my apartment—yes, I was calling it my apartment. I wanted to know more about this man and his ideas for the building I might share with him, if he wanted to sell to me.

He had moved to the village from Paris, and he’d bought the building several years before, when it was in such bad shape that rain came in through the roof. He’d done much of the carpentry and electrical work himself, and hired the best masons—real artisans. He’d painted some of the walls on this floor a strong yellow, and covered others with a plastic wall covering, the kind that is textured, self-adhesive, comes in rolls found in the do-it-yourself section. These rooms were rented to European tourists who showed up in the summer, and this apartment would be his pièce de résistance—a good money-maker (especially packed with all those people).

In various periods, he told me, this structure built against the thick ramparts wall had been a garrison, and then a hospital. Most recently it had been divided into apartments, and then left to deteriorate. He had walked around the village with an archaeologist who was doing a study for the regional Parc du Luberon, and he could tell me fascinating things about the history of the village, of the three castles that once stood on the rock above it, the communal bread oven, the underground network of caves or cellars to which the caves in this very building were linked. Encouraged by my interest, he grew animated, switched to French and spoke passionately, emphasizing certain points by wagging a finger in my face.

I was hooked, flopping around on deck. I asked if he’d be interested in selling me just this studio apartment now, and maybe more of the rooms later. He wanted a moment to think. Jean-Pierre’s call had waked him, and he hadn’t even had his café. He wasn’t finished with the work yet, but he would sell it to me as is, and he named a price in francs. I calculated the dollar amount in my head and I could do it. I said yes.

I left for Washington with an agreement to buy two apartments instead of one house. On the plane, musing in the pleasant stupor of Air France’s generous wine service, I began to visualize a life ahead of me. An apartment tucked into a secure building (the ramparts, for chrissakes!) with an on-site owner (my personal knight in armor) would be a safe place for a lady to live, should she be on her own. I didn’t know if Andrew would ever stay there with me, or even if I really wanted him to. Sir Jean-Claude would guarantee me an on-site custodian with a vested interest to watch over my property in my absence. With the addition of the studio apartment, I could have guest quarters, and I could make a little cash by renting it the way Jean-Claude rented the other three rooms.  He would be my guide, my entrée to village life, my business partner. He would carry heavy things for me, fix loose shutters and refer me to a good doctor and dentist.  By giving up my carefully plotted criteria, I’d stumbled upon the perfect package

How lucky could I get?

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Andrew’s father died at home on St. Patrick’s Day, with his family around him, as he’d wanted. I went to the funeral independently. I was still under cover. All I could do was be there. “My baby boy,” his father had called him once, talking to me.  Now he was a man, but sobbing.

Sometimes the rush of time can almost be heard.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

That summer I flew back to close the deal on the two apartments. Jean-Claude insisted that I come to his house, meet his wife and “take a café” before we went to the notaire’s office.  Coffee was the last thing I needed, as jittery as I was. I sat on the edge of the sofa in their living room, looking out at their pool and the sharp rise of the cliffs just beyond it. The wife, Brigitte, was a pretty and sullen woman in her thirties, I guessed, with a boyish figure and short copper-colored hair. She served us slices of her own cherry tart, and then hung around the perimeter of the seating arrangement so that, if I wanted to speak to her, I would have to turn halfway around on my perch. As Jean-Claude conducted polite conversation, I took a bite of tart and chomped down on a cherry pit, sending a jolt of pain along my jaw line to my temple. I removed it discreetly and completed the thought I was trying to express to Jean-Claude, then took another bite and got another pit.

It was almost a relief to get to the notaire’s office and start signing stacks of papers and handing over every cent of cash I had in the world to strangers I could barely understand.

When the deed was done, Jean-Claude, Brigitte and Maeke, the Dutch artist, ushered me across the street to a café for a drink. We sat at a table outside in the blazing June sun. During the unbearable wait for the drinks, Maeke turned to me with an expression of exasperation and said, “Why are you always smiling?” I stammered something about being happy and then frowned to show that I was actually a serious person. I thought of the cherry pits. Intentional smile-stoppers?

I asked if they could tell me a little about my neighbors.

“Women without men,” said Jean-Claude with a half smile.

“There are more women than men in the village,” said Brigitte, looking pointedly at me.

Maeke snickered and exchanged looks with the other two.

Okay. This is me buying a place in France. How do I like it so far?

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

In the after-shock of signing the papers, I left my room at the inn, which I now knew to call the auberge, for a midnight visit to my property. I moved through pools of lamplight until I found the entrance, set among the stones in the old wall leaning over a tiny rue. I opened the massive door with a long brass key, the kind you picture hanging from a chatelaine’s girdle, and crept up the stairway to my own door. The electricity hadn’t been turned on, so I felt my way through the empty rooms by memory and moonlight. Among the dusty bottles left on the mantel, I’d spied one half-full of brandy, and I took it with me out onto the terrace. There, I could see as far as the lights of Avignon on the western horizon.

Standing up here by day, surveying the valley, I could have seen me coming! It scared me. I was once again a little pot-bellied ten-year-old standing on the high dive, afraid to jump in  but ashamed to go back down the ladder.

Tipping my head back to drink from the bottle, I looked up into a deep indigo dome of sky. The eyes of thousands of stars were fixed—reprovingly, I felt—on me. I looked away, and in the darkness of a window, I saw my father’s pale ghost floating toward the crystal decanter on a sideboard that had been—not here—but in our old family living room. Was it a memory, a rumor among siblings, or a remembered suspicion?  It held me for a moment in dangerous fascination.  In recent years I had found myself creeping through the night on a silent trail to the liquor cabinet, feeling sly and cunning.

I shuddered.

No. Those days are over. I will be strong and healthy here. I will follow my spirit; I’ll find my best self.

The French doors stood open to the atelier where Maeke had worked on her large naïve village scenes. It was a huge room, with a very high ceiling supported by wooden beams. The tall windows on the eastern and western sides would catch different qualities of light—searching and tentative as the sun rose over neighboring houses, rich and knowing as it sank over the mountains. The vast hardwood floor had an even honey-colored sheen in the daytime, but now at night it seemed bottomless except for occasional floats of moonlight.

A third of the space I’d just paid for was an artist’s studio. Complete with a deep sink for cleaning brushes. This was some kind of commitment.

I went inside to stand in the middle of the room and try to imagine it as anything else—a living room? No, you’d have to pass through the two other rooms, one of which had a kitchen set-up and the other had the bathroom. Could this be a bedroom then?

I took a few slugs of brandy, walking back and forth, listening to my footsteps.

Who had I pictured at work here? Me, the occasional dabbler?  Me, the writer?  Or had thoughts of Andrew drifted into my decision-making despite my firm resolve to keep him out? After all, who knew how long he’d stay in Washington. He was a Cancer and, by his own admission, the crab does not like to leave his shell. He might hole up in the family house until the last soul has left and the movers come with trucks.

He might, at this junction, turn back to his own generation and its eagerly marriageable girls, or gather up the courage to tough it out in New York.

He was scared. I was scared.

But wait a minute. Was I considering yet another man’s needs in my plans? A young man, at that, who seemed to have no interest in making a living.

I was supposed to have tackled this tendency.

Okay, this really had to be a room for my own creative work. Surely that was what had attracted me to this space—not the idea of making a grand gesture to somebody who was obviously just passing through my life.

Then another practical thought broke through my daze. How long could I support homes on either side of the Atlantic? Sure, my business was doing well now, but there was that dark day just a few years ago, when the child-support checks were bouncing, and I came back from making a delinquent payment at the electric company to find a guy in my yard turning off the water.  Bad times can always come again.

Bands of panic tightened around my middle. I shook my head to clear it. I refocused furiously. No! I would set up an office and work here, like I did at home, with my desk, computer, printer and fax machine arranged in order to leave space for an easel. I could do my freelance assignments and paint. Keep the money coming in somehow.

I would find a way. I always did.

I drained the bottle, loving the comforting numbness that excused me from further worrying. Shhhh, it said. Let her handle it. You can sleep.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell

 

 



2 thoughts on “Weeking Reading, Chapter 4: Marcia Buys a Home! In France!

  1. Nancy Gold says:

    I have loved this series, and the lyrical voice with which Marcia writes. Is there more coming?

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Yes, there sure is!

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