Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Hunt is on...

"Dear Mr N, 

It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to organise a meeting due to problems with coordinating everyone's schedules. At last check, the 'buyers' would be available on Monday 24th of February 2010 at 2pm in the offices of Mr. Twisty. Hoping this will fit with your own arrangements.

Yours sincerely,

Your Notaire (property lawyer)"

Ahh - you see, the sale is close! But it ain't over, as they say, till the Fat Lady sings. Not even humming the tune yet - I can tell you ;-)There's still things a hangin' in the balance. Patience ...

Now, where were we? That's right, we had bought La Fontiane and returned to outer Paris where the family, then of 3,  lived in a wee apartment of 67 sqm in a darling residential suburb. 

So why oh why did we wish to buy a house in Provence? Why would we want to give up Paris and all its excitement for the provincial life?'WE,' originally, did NOT! I did! Call it my outdoorsy NZ upbringing but the day I observed myself sternly telling my toddler messmonster that under no circumstances could she run in the grass on the way to the market because there was quite simply too much dog poo, was the day it dawned on me that Paris and I had nothing more in common. We had both changed, grown up and away from each other. From within his comfy office in Vélizy, Beaker was not affected by this of course - and as such was rather hard to convince that a move to greener pastures for the benefit of the whole family was such 'a brilliant idea!' He reluctantly came round though and Provence was the obvious choice because he had grown up there, not to mention the fact that the rest of the family was still entrenched living in the Pays Dignois. Provence is his home. France, for Beaker consists of Provence (pause) and Paris, in that order. The rest is just filler.
photo from here
So he set about trying to find a fulfilling and similarly paid job in Provence. Not an easy thing for a man who sells military aircraft to the Greek Government for a living. It meant a career change. Not an easy thing indeed for anyone, let alone a Frenchman, and a conservative 43 year old to boot. Changing your career at that age in France is the equivalent of professional suicide. But that's my Beaker! You don't spend 3 years negotiating a contract for 15 Mirage aircraft without a little patience and a passion for challenge.

So find a job he did ... one that would be situated eventually in the lovely city of Aix-en-Provence after an initial period at the Sales Headquarters in Paris. I had the go ahead to start the house hunt. Barely, just barely I contained my excitement. 

As you can imagine, there were some memorable visits. I'm sure you've had some yourselves when looking for your own dream home. We had a set budget in mind, which at the time was in Francs. We had very strict criteria: old stone, immediately liveable - with some renovation work, South facing, not near a main road or highway (ie. NO noise pollution so not under a flight path either, not more than 30mts from Aix,and certainly not under any of the huge high voltage power lines that litter the French countryside. Oh yes - not near one of the Nuclear Stations either for that matter... 

I would make appointments from Paris and as soon as I had enough houses to look at over a two week period (sometimes 3 per day), I would pack nearly 2 year old Chickpea into the TGV to Aix where on arrival, we would stay with friends who very generously loaned me one of their cars each time in order to conduct my mission. It pretty quickly became apparent though that anything worthwhile either disappeared before I arrived in Aix, or was waaaay out of our budget. We found La Fontiane almost immediately while I was still pregnant with Libellule. You may remember Beaker's unequivocal response: Too far from AIX. A money pit. FORGET IT! So with heavy heart the hunt for something 'better' began in earnest...

After what seemed like hundreds of duds, I eventually, I visited a house in Robion that a real estate agent had gushed was EXACTLY what we had been looking for! So I literally dropped everything and RUSHED down to see it. South facing: check! Renovation work - PLENTY. Actually it was a complete pigsty ... but nothing that a couple of coats of white paint couldn't fix, I was sure!! No - What got me, apart from being 300 000 francs over our budget, was a low rumbling NOISE that I could hear from inside the house. After espousing the environmental benefits of double glazing in all the south facing windows (this should've been hint enough), and while I was still reeling from the  the extreme state of filth and squalour inside the house, we all ventured outside into the 'landscaped garden.' Squinting in that bright Provence sun... I could just make out the tops of the lorrys jolting along the main road at breakneck speed, from behind a grey bessa block wall that was in the process of being built at the bottom of the garden.(Note arrow points to said road...) 

"BBBBut you have double glazing," the real estate agent stuttered at me as I dropped my jaw in a mix of horror and amazement. When I'd recovered from the shock I explained to her, incredulous,that after being holed up in a small apartment with a hyper active toddler for 2 years, in a climate consisting almost entirely of drizzly, grey weather, one did not move to Provence for DOUBLE GLAZING! One moved to Provence to sit in one's garden and admire one's children carvorting in the dog poo-free grass! One may also like to invite newly acquired friends over for an apéritif outside without having overtly raise one's voice merely in order to ask what one's friends would like to drink! I could've spared my breath!

House after house, stone after stone: too dark, too small, too noisy, no olive trees, too far from Aix, too dodgy, too expensive, bad renovation work (so too expensive), nothing suited Beaker. Some weekends he would join me and we would visit together. Beaker hated the idea of renovating. In fact, he still does. He's the 'what you see is what you get' type with no capacity to imagine anything other than what IS. But without budget, it would seem we were destined to buy a ruin. There were no 'ruins' in the Real Estate books... only houses with 'potential!' Lots and lots of really expensive potential. Slightly cheaper if there was no roof left to keep the walls together, but much harder to get a building permit for(Ref chapter 1). I still ask myself to this day, should potential not make you money rather than cost you money? ;-)
photo from here 
I took a bit of time off from the hunt to have Libellule and get her settled over the winter months following her birth before actively searching again between March and September. 

September. Date of my own birthday. That very day, the search stopped in a rather abrupt and spectacular manner. Even Beaker saw the light, realised that resistance was futile and finally capitulated. We would contact Lizzy, check if La Fontiane was still on sale ("Hardly likely", thought I, "she would be snapped up! Boohoo")and put in an offer. 

No but really, what else do you say to your wife on her birthday when she calls you from the ambulance to say ... "We 3 girlies are fine dear, but Lolo's car's been completely written off and they're just taking us to hospital for overnight observation as Libellule has a wee lump on her head, most likely from tapping it against the window when the car finally came to a halt on its side, after a bumpy roll down a wee slope into a freshly plowed field."  

As I sat on that very slope, holding my two panicked wee girls tight in my arms,and looked down to notice the bunch of silverbeet and frozen chicken that I had bought not half an hour earlier, lying nonchalantly after being catapulted out of the car, just metres from my shaky feet ... did I even once take this as some sort of OMEN not to move to Provence. NO, I did not! I just vaguely sort of thought, "Bugger, I've wrecked Lolo's car and I can't even cook my birthday dinner to thank her for loaning it to me now cos I don't know where the rest of the vegetables have disappeared to..."
(clicking on this link where I found the above photo should take you to the tarot definition of 'plowed field...' Eerily apt in retrospect ...)

Well, after all that excitement, I really think that next time you need to meet some of the characters without whom La Fontiane would lose some of her charm:
Mr Buze, who sold her to us. She belonged to his grandmother...
The Famille Vittel, adorable next door neighbours who keep La Fontiane's grass neat and tidy with their herd of cows: from dog poo to cow pats - amazing how that transition seems normal!
And the gentle self-taught, English speaking woodturner who has been waiting (with our complete blessings of course) for us to start renovations before getting up the impetus to move the wood that now fills almost all of the barn and stables, and start up a workshop at his own house ... 8 years and two house moves later - he's thinking about retiring !!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Bits and pieces of a house by a Roman Highway

"Oui Lizzy it's EN here. Bonne Année to you! Just wanted to check we were on track for the sale of the house and that everything has been sorted out with the neighbours and the SAFER. If so, we look forward to seeing you and the buyers sometime within the next two weeks or so."

"Mon.sieur. E.N," Lizzy's raspy voice drawled out at the other end of the phone, " I've got a 39° fever running and I've put enough effort into you and your house." Click.

Laughing I said to Beaker, "I think she forgot to say 'Go to Hell' before hanging up!" And  from the tone of her voice, I'm sure that's the polite version of what she was thinking.

Such was the last we heard from the real estate agent, who is supposedly selling our house, a week ago...

Your story starts here! Ours started 7 years ago when I fell in love with a crumbling but stately stone  house in Provence... this house! Sold to me, idealistic and ridiculously positive Antipodean, with no little to no effort at all, by the very one and the same above mentioned Lizzy. A Lizzy who had at the time just returned to her very scrumptiously authentic home town in the Pays de Forcalquier... after a number of years abroad to set up in real estate...

Her name is La Fontiane.
Not La Fontaine
La Fontiane.
Although the name still pertains to her spring or 'source' as we say in French
She is noted on maps of the area from the times of some or the other King Louis
as La Fontiane so that is good enough for moi
(note to self, check with Michou about the origin of the word: spelling mistake or Patois?)

Her first stages of construction, dated loosely at around the early 1500s, can be found in a small, perfectly vouted wine cellar complete with old wooden keg. The entrance of which you can see behind the cherry tree at the end of  the path along the outbuilding on the right. Of course, wine buff that husband Beaker is, he sees saw this as her only redeeming feature and it thus became the cornerstone upon which I built up my case in order to convince him over the course of a year that we should buy her.

You see, the first time Beaker laid eyes on La Fontiane, once he'd gotten over the initial heart attack, he virtually floored me with that look one saves for people that should rapidly be certified insane before flatly categorising her very astutely as nothing other than a huge, gaping money pit... Admittedly I was only at the beginning of my research for a house in Provence. But I was sure it was her. She called me. Beckoned me. Wooed me. Ma FOI - she had my name written all over her! 'Bloody negative French men,' were my famous last words before spending the next year visiting numerous other houses that, each for different reasons, fell ever so short of La Fontiane.

Underneath whose cellar are presumed to be the ruins of a Roman Villa, possibly also a temple, or maybe a rest stop as the house was built right next to the busy Via Domitia (Roman highway) in a still authentic but now out of the way part of the Luberon. La Fontiane has, shall we say, a certain magnetism about her. Earth magnetism it would appear as well...

She was built up and created bit by bit over the years with pieces unashamedly 'thrifted' from the ruins of nearby chateaux and other crumbling estates, by her successive owners. I always find this ironic, given that if you want to renovate in Provence and indeed just about anywhere in France now, there are strict regulations governing anything and everything pertaining to general overall outside appearance so that houses comply with official historical standards. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the Luberon is classified as National Park and as such I'm sure you can imagine the gleefull conversations yours truly has had with the resident Government architects and petty local beaurocracy, namely, the DDE with respect to a certain piece of paper known as THE BUILDING PERMIT.

"Given, Monsieur, that the house was built successively over a period of 350 years or so from any bits and pieces the owners could scrounge locally (thrifters after my own heart I can assure you), including the arched doorway of an old chateau, and some stones that may date back to the Renaissance; I was wondering if, to be in conformity with your historical records, you may  like me to also do away with my overtly modern idea of laying tiles or floorboards in favour of keeping the traditional beaten earth floor, and inviting the livestock in to eat with us as this would be most fitting for the 1500s period!"

Mais Non! - I didn't really say that. It only briefly flittered across my mind once or twice in the odd, very rare moment of intense frustration. GOLDEN RULE NUMBER ONE: Never argue with a French public servant. It is good form to be both obsequious and chipper in the face of blatant incompetency. Remember, they are legends in their own minds, heady with  their own power, and you must keep that illusion alive at all cost for fear of your tiny little 'building permit' file being unceremoniously buried for months and months and months under the thousands of other building permit requests... But we shall get to the perils and pitfalls of the French administration later...

For in the beginning, there was no building permit. Just 900 square metres of charming old, pieced together house, all the way up to her proud pigeon tower, and out buildings, on nearly 3 hectares of prairie land, with a spring that was important enough to take up a 3 page mention in the contract. If you want to further understand the importance of having your own spring within Provence, I suggest you read or watch Manon des Sources.

So go and grab a cuppa (maybe even a snifter of something stronger) for the tale is going to be a long one and you will certainly find out a few snippets of interesting information.

You may wish to ask how we could pay a rather hefty loan on such a house for 7 years and never (aside from the obvious holey pocket syndrome), never do her up. You may then be forgiven for asking what strange events prompted us to start her renovations last year. And of course, it would not be completely ridiculous of you to ask either, why, after starting renovations, we suddenly decided to sell on a whim...

Let me know when you're cuppa's ready and we shall begin. For now though. I'm afraid that I shall have to call it a night and take my cuppa to the covers with me. You see - I have a Paris Episode to write tomorrow for my other blog. A girl can not move to Provence, or even dream of moving to Provence, until she has left Paris.... and we've only touched the surface there too ;-)

Bonne nuit les petits!