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Monday, July 20, 2015

The 10 Questions People Ask When They Hear You Have a House in France

The 10 Questions People Ask When They Hear You Have a House in France

1. Where is it?

2. Is that in Provence?
Funny, that’s what my mother asked. Repeatedly. Even after she was there. It’s in Brittany, Mom, about 400 miles north and west of Provence.

3. How do you get there from here?
It’s 27 hours from where we live, Honolulu, nonstop. That includes two redeyes, a 3-hour fast train, a one-hour slow train, a 45-minute ferryboat, a 20-minute walk to our garage, and a 10 minute drive to our village. From New York, where we lived when we bought the house, it was only 13 hours if we made all the connections just so. Miss a connection and it’s purgatory as the jet-lag catches up to you.

4. Are you crazy?
There are times when, yes, we must have been crazy. In 1984, when we got the letter saying there was a house for sale on the island, we were broke, stressed, working entry level jobs in Manhattan and maybe already a little nuts. The letter was from our friend Gwened, a French professor who had a house on the island. It sounded like a wonderful contrast to our gritty, down-and-dirty Manhattan. We bought the house in 1985. We were probably certifiable at that point.

5. Wait—it’s on an island?
Belle Ile en Mer, a tiny Breton island, ten miles by five.

6. Who lives there? How many people?
It has about 4,500 full-time residents, mostly Bellilois with roots going back three or four hundred years. It is one of France’s most beloved places to visit, however, so in summer as many as ten or even twenty thousand people are on the island on any given day. There are twelve ferries a day; everybody rents bikes and just heads off into the countryside. They picnic, hike along the rocky shores, stop in cafes to eat crepes and mussels. And then they go home, many of them after just one long, memorable day. The result is it’s not ruined. There are no condos, no beachfront villas, no time-shares.

7. What do you do there in your glamorous French house?
We live our slow village days, which include talking to our neighbors, walking from house to house to check out the roses and gardens, strolling down the lanes to pick blackberries or go down to the beach, about 20 minutes away on foot. At the beach we lie on towels with our neighbors from the village and adjoining villages and talk some more. When the waves are good we go surfing. We hike the moors. When they’re not we read books and practice our French, while our French friends practice their English.

8. And that’s it? You call that a vacation?
Well, there’s going to the open market for local produce, local fish, lamb, cheese… You tend to go with your neighbors there, too, or run into them there. Then you cook your food and eat it, usually with a neighbor or two, if you’re not over at their house. Then in the evening you have drinks as the sun sets and there’s food cooking again. After dinner you drop by your neighbors. So, yes, we call that a vacation.

9. Doesn’t anything else ever happen? Don’t you get bored?
Things do happen, I swear. The pace and style of the days are lulling, however. The peace and repetition tend to inflate the meaning of small events, of course. Someone once left a bike leaning against a stone wall for two days. The suspense was unbearable: when would this person move his bike? The mailman brings gossip from other villages. He also cuts the grass, if you have a lawn; but we don’t. I once offered to cut the Viscount’s lawn, but my French was bad and he thought I was offering to cut off his penis. That was about 25 years ago and people still talk about it.

10. So how did you stretch all this into a book that has 326 pages?
It’s a story about how we got there as much as what we found—for instance, there was a long struggle for seven years before we could spend the night under our roof. There was a stunning deception by our friend the French professor—at the very beginning she tricked us, sort of hypnotized us, into buying the house, which turned out to be a ruin. And at the end she tricked us again. There were bad moments early on when several people in the village—a local Bellilois, a neighbor, and a second home-owner from the Continent—did us wrong. What, you ask? Oh, they stole our well, stole our road, murdered our rose bush. Yes, it was murder. Then there was the actress, known for assassinating bad guys while wearing vinyl culottes and nothing else. Of course I mean in the movies, not in real life, but man, did she ever stir things up. Not as much as Marlon Brando did when he apparently came through about fifteen years before us. His mistress still was dancing around the Celtic temple stones at twilight, twirling her scarves like an AARP-worthy Stevie Nicks, decades later. And then, of course, there is the story of how we introduced surfing. And baseball. And guacamole. Two out of three caught on. Guess which? We also started a tradition, completely by accident, of Bellilois newlyweds spending their wedding night in our bedroom. Not with us. But the really major moments came when…well, they’ll come when you read the book, of course. You think I’m going to give it all away?

Friday, July 17, 2015

After the Hacking, The French House gets a new DonWallaceWriter.Com website

We've got a new website and address:

Do me a favor and take a look? I want my machines to become acquainted with it...


Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Find Your Special Place

Everyone has a spiritual home, I believe, that is embodied in a physical space.

We found ours—a ruin on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany—almost 35 years ago. Every time I think or write those words, it still surprises me. We had no business going to Belle Ile. I was from Scotch-German-Swedish-English stock, born and raised in a mid-size city in Southern California, Long Beach. My wife, Mindy, was a half-Korean, part-Dutch-English-maybe-Hawaiian from Honolulu. We’d met in Iowa. Five years later, still trying to crack the entry level of any profession to do with books and writing, living on seltzer and pizza in New York City, we got a letter asking us if we’d like to buy a “little house in our village.”

Instead of going into what happened next—there’s a whole book about it (which I seem to have actually written)—or what happened after we bought that 1830s Breton house which threatened to collapse even as I signed on the dotted line—or even how I’ve come to feel how committing to this ruin that nearly ruined us saved us in the end—I’d like to explore how we find our special places. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, obviously, but what I’ve gone through has enough parallels in literature and in the experiences of my family and friends that I do feel comfortable speculating. (Okay, I love speculating—give me any fragment of information and a cup of coffee and I’ll spin you a theory—but still, bear with me.)

All of us are imprinted with sensory impressions from early childhood. I remember the warm laundry in the basket at my mother’s feet. I don’t remember, but always respond to, small or self-contained natural environments—humble gardens, wild patches in the corners of yards, alleys overgrown with morning glory vines. As I grew up, a certain iconic California landscape began to feel like mine; if I close my eyes I can picture it: a stand of wind-sculpted cypresses or pines or eucalyptus on a tall bluff overlooking a small cove. I assume it’s a patchwork of my years touring with my parents, going for picnics and weekends in San Diego, Palos Verdes, Laguna Beach, Pismo Beach, Monterey and Santa Cruz, where I ended up going to college.

That’s the physical side. Fifteen years into our adventure in “real simple” island living, I stood up while digging a hole for a new planting and realized I’d recaptured all those places here: my backyard, Boy Scout camping trips, family jaunts, college years, the sea. Belle Ile had it all.

So if you’re pondering where to find your own special place, even a mental place where maybe you can slip away by yourself for a few minutes, I’d start there. Ask yourself: what is my interior landscape? Take notes.

On the rational/intellectual/cultural level, I was the last person anybody in my college would’ve thought would end up in France. Everyone on my dorm floor had gone to Europe after high school; I’d worked at a winery. Spanish was my second language; like most SoCal boys, I loved heading down south of the border to rip it up. Tequila, surf, tacos and enchiladas—

And then I met an island girl who read Proust in the original and despite loving surf and her roots back home wanted to see the world. Who dragged me along, unwillingly, to France. Where the history available to the eye, the dizzying depth of time visible in the landscapes, the stubborn resistance to modern clone architecture, and the butter—oh, the butter—knocked me out of my comfort zone.

Suddenly I realized: I didn’t have to be “that guy.” That maybe I wasn’t finished growing yet, if I’d just give myself a chance.

Getting knocked off-balance, thrown for a loop, lost in the forest in mid-stride: that’s what France did to me. And that’s what we all need, counter-intuitive as it may seem. To find your special place, it seems, you have to escape your own coordinates, if only briefly. A period of disorientation is absolutely necessary to grow, to assess, to come to understand yourself. If you’re forced to grope around and make connections based on what you feel, not what somebody tells you or teaches you, then you’re on the path to finding out what matters to you.

And if there’s good butter there, well, then you know you’re getting close to home.

DON WALLACE's most recent book is
THE FRENCH HOUSE: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 2014). Photos at Pinterest Don Wallace The French House. His website is (when it isn't under repair) and he tweets @don212wallace.