Rebuilding the Ruin


French Workmen

What Chateau de la Vinouse looks like today.

What Chateau de la Vinouse looks like today.

It's 2005 and I'm in France looking for a contractor to start the restoration. It’s early March, still freezing, with flakes of snow whirling under the old front door. Having only seen the house once, and then in semi-darkness, I now notice there are wide cracks in the living room walls ( like small ravines), water stains everywhere and gaping holes in the ceilings. Am I despondent? Slightly.

What it looked like in 2005

What it looked like in 2005

At the local village shop, I ask about local contractors...

The first one to arrive walks around the house silently shaking his head. Pourri, he says––the whole house is "rotten." He doesn't say much else, but that may be because it's after two and judging from his blazing cheeks he's had more than his lunchtime quota of vin rouge. The next day, a second contractor arrives. He brings a long stick and like an enthusiastic pole vaulter thrusts away at the ceilings––so much so that large chunks of plaster come crashing at our feet. Voila! he says, looking altogether too pleased. Can it be fixed? I ask, hesitantly. Impossible! he says. Im-possible!

Fiona Lewis - Fiona's French Chateau - France Ruin ceiling

Downstairs there is a tarmac of electric green linoleum, obviously laid in the fifties. I'm hoping that the original 1810 wood floors are underneath.  But no, when we pry it up, it's cement. Cement?  Over the entire ground floor?  I hack away at a small section and yes, one beautiful wide plank appears. All we need now is to remove a few thousand square feet more. Impossible! says the contractor again. I am undaunted, however. I ask these contractors when they might be available to start on the rest of the house.  Both in turn look astonished–– perhaps at my audacity for even considering rebuilding such a ruin. They shrug their shoulders and mutter bientot, which in French means “soon,” but as I will discover often means "maybe" or "never!"

Thank God for Monsieur Bruni.

Mr. Bruni is a brilliant artiste (I know this because he tells me so right away). In his late sixties, he is retired but willing to tackle the cement floors if I can pay him in cash––"en especes."  That, plus the occasional bottle of rouge.  

He arrives and immediately strips down to his shorts, a pair of plaster-stained trunks, minus fly buttons. Fortunately, he is wearing underpants. He will sand off the old cement, he says, not with a commercial sander ( which would seem preferable, considering the square footage),  but with a small hand machine. The apparatus, I notice, is attached to a scary-looking extension cord, the webbing frayed at one end. When I express my doubts–– about the machine and his strength–– he says, raising a meaty fist, “In France there is no such word as impossible!”—which I have to admit makes a change. Later, M Bruni ( who is in fact Italian) will save me from a few catastrophes, invent several of his own, drink every drop of alcohol in the house, advise me on Botox and how to save my marriage.... Stay tuned!

Fiona Lewis - Fiona's French Chateau - France Ruin Mr. Bruni

Mr. Bruni sanding the floors. Quite a lot of French swearing for self- motivation...