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Saturday, July 09, 2011

Peasants Under Glass: How We Ended Up In France, Part I




It is universally acknowledged that among the excuses and justifications for buying a house abroad, which for most dreamers means Provence or Tuscany – those most popular destinations on the World Heritage List of Truly Romantic Landscapes – is that here, at last, you can shake off your stoic, stodgy, perpetually winterized and repressed self and find brilliant weather, real life, tasty food, valuable antique furniture, slow wine and true love – or, at least, great earthy rip-snorting sex – among the tan and tasty local truffle people.

And it’s all true, I’m sure. But we’re talking about Brittany here. A dark and stormy coastline of brutal rock-cliffs and deadly 40-foot tides. A fogbound coast on the latitude of Labrador. A land of sheep. Mussels. Seaweed. That smell of mudflats at low tide.

Still, we bought a house here, on the island known as Belle Ile. To be precise (transparent, as they now say): we bought a ruin. And spent the next 25 years renovating, or not, depending on our income.

I guess this still slots us firmly in the genre snidely referred to as “gastro-porn” and “reno-porn” and “euro-porn” and, for all I know, “cougar-porn,” honesty compels me to set a few things straight. First, when what we now call tourism began in the early 1800s, and pale lumpy potato-and-beer people started spending springs in the South of France and Italy, they were fleeing nasty, cold, poorly ventilated houses in dirty, muddy, smoky Northern European cities. While this does not quite describe our beautiful house, nor our beautiful village, I could show you a couple of Belle Ile abodes that fit the description of dirty, muddy, smoky. It’s a rural island, after all; cows still outnumber SUVs, for now.

Second, Mindy and I don’t have any excuses. I grew up in Southern California, a place known for its fine weather and tanned, trim bodies. Mindy grew up in Hawaii. So one of the first and most common questions thrown at us by puzzled bystanders is, why didn’t you just stay put? What have you got against California? Hawaii?

It’s a good and fair question, much as we hate hearing it.

To answer it properly, I’m finding, takes some soul-searching. Also some searching of our culture, our time, our country. It’s been 25 years now, and counting, and the short snappy answer that feels honest and right and cocktail-party-ready still eludes me.

One thing I can say with reasonable confidence is that we made the decision before we had the facts in. It was a true leap of faith, or of impetuosity, the kind of impulse that leads young men to get tattoos and young women to get their noses pierced. But we weren’t exactly youngsters when we made our leap. At 33 years of age you’ve pretty much used up your allotment of stupid moves, right? But it turns out that we were just getting started. It turns out we had untapped reservoirs of stupid moves.

And so, as David Byrne of Talking Heads sings in that song about beautiful houses and beautiful lives: How did we get here?

***More to Come***

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