My husband is visiting on his way to Bulgaria where he is producing a movie. From Montauban, our local town, I catch the train to meet him in Paris. To be honest, he’s still not happy about owning a house in France – what is basically a ruin, with no working bathrooms, no kitchen, and certainly no internet. (I have yet to mention the no water and no electricity part.) He's also aggravated by my obsession with everything French. I can't tell him that I came here to escape (from what, or whom, I'm not even sure). I can't say that at my age a woman needs to reinvent herself, that one day I woke up and realized everything I thought was going to happen to me had already happened ... These are not things you can explain to a man.
I meet him in the Place Vendome. After a month alone in the countryside, I'm aware that I look oddly astounded, almost feral, as if emerging from a lengthy hibernation ... Get a grip! I tell myself. After all, this is Paris, the eternally romantic city – particularly as we are staying at the Ritz
We walk together through the hotel’s arcade, past the glittering, jewel box windows, to get to the old Hemingway bar. It is packed. Only a couple of stools are available, the tables already occupied by tourists like ourselves – Americans, whispering loudly in corners. “Look,” my husband says, as we order drinks, “everyone pretending they don’t mind paying 40 dollars for a martini!”
"I forget how funny you are.” I say laughing.
“That’s convenient. Did you miss me?”
“Yes,” I say, busy knocking back the first vodka, relieved to feel the warm glow. I squeeze his arm. “I’m happy you’re here.”
“You should be," he says. "After all, I bought you a house in France!”
Well, yes, he certainly did.
Later on, we go for a walk. A tour of the Place Vendome: Armani, the jewelry shops I will never enter - then across the Rue de Rivoli to the Tuilleries. The soft dampness of the gravel, the smell of compost and leaves. Heaven. Arm in arm, we head for the Rodins where, despite my husband’s misgivings about France, he whispers, “Magnificent. ”
A good sign. Yes, I think, this is going to work.
But Paris isn’t France. And by the time we arrive at the Gare de Montparnasse to get the train south, I start obsessing about the house. Except for a few bad photos, he's never seen it, and I’m nervous. I’m nervous about him liking the countryside, and I’m nervous about the train, which like most of my old travel fantasies did not include packed carriages with screaming children and a third rate sandwich bar.
We arrive just before dusk at my friend Kathryn’s empty farmhouse, where we're staying – a rambling collection of stone houses and barns, her idyllic, story book version of life a la campagne, complete with horses, chickens and cats. Five to be exact. Out here there are wild cats everywhere; at night they leap from hedgerows across the car’s headlights like young panthers. I don’t mention this to my husband because of his allergies. Before leaving, I locked Kathryn’s in the pigeonnier with some cans of food, then vacuumed the rooms. But somehow the essence of cat remains, particularly in the bed where we’re sleeping. In the middle of the night, he can’t breathe and has to spend several hours outside, sitting in the front seat of our rental car with the doors open, trying to recuperate. He downs Allegra, without complaining, although every throaty wheeze makes me feel unreasonably depressed.
The next morning, he says he’s fine. “Why wouldn’t I be fine after only two hours sleep and with chronic jet lag?” he murmurs, giving me one of his glacial looks. At the bar in Monclar, we get coffee, plus a gallopin for him (a breakfast beer), then drive over to the chateau.
It has rained heavily during the night and the landscape looks forbiddingly bleak; one continuous brown smudge. There are deep watery potholes in the driveway, and as we get closer to the house I notice a few more chunks of crepie have fallen off the north wall. If I was nervous before, now I’m sinking.
We go inside. (This is before any work has begun.) My husband walks around silently. Naturally the photos couldn’t show the extent of the damage, the brown patches of damp, the broken fireplaces, the collapsed ceiling upstairs–– plaster chips still floating down after the first contractor's rigorous prodding. There are no ruined houses in Los Angeles, of course, so I suddenly see everything through his eyes. I watch him pacing, hands buried in his pockets, trying to hide his concern. “It’s a disaster,” he says, finally. “Far worse than I imagined.”
“Would you like to go down to the basement to see the original bread oven?” I say, sounding more English than I’ve done in years.
Instead, he walks out the back door, down the stone staircase, and into the garden where a few flakes of snow are now blowing in from the West. This, unfortunately, is the bad side of the house, the virtually windowless side that, admittedly, in winter, exudes about as much charm as a women’s correctional institution.
He goes to a point beyond the big cedar and looks out. More bleakness. But just then the clouds part, the sun appears and, miraculously, the hills rise up bathed in waves of shimmering light. “ A disaster,” he says, “but with a great view. So where are you going to put the pool?
I hadn’t thought about a pool. In my romantic vision of life in rural France, a swimming pool seemed far too L.A.
“Because that’s the only way I could possibly come here,” he says.
Stay tuned... find out how difficult it was to get a "Las Vegas Pool," as the French call it (ordinary white plaster-lined), built in Southwest France...
My book Mistakes Were Made (some in French) is on sale NOW! Amazon or Barnes and Noble!
Written by Fiona Lewis