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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?

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