Years ago, my father purchased a house in the South of France. “A vacation home in a balmy climate for when it is too cold in Switzerland,” he said. Owning a house in France had been his dream for years. It took him many extended trips from Switzerland, and lots of careful consideration, to finally settle on a place. The final object was nestled on the hillside quite a ways from the coast. It was only accessible by a meandering, unpaved road and after crossing the downhill neighbor’s property. It was a dream come true. A house for the summer where he could write a book, once he retired. Or simply relax and do absolutely nothing other than soaking up the French countryside and way of living. Perhaps only interrupted by occasional strolls to the local bistro or artisan shops.
An avid reader with a keen sense of humor, my father was much inspired by, and eager to duplicate, the spirit of Peter Mayle’s “A Year In Provence.” He brought with him much enthusiasm and even more idealism. The condition of the place: in a bit of disrepair, initially. Ok, much disrepair. My father, not to be discouraged, mustered all his drive and energy and began organizing and planning. Replacing. Improving. Renovating. Well, not so much he himself but mostly the local contractors. “Merde!” The plumbing had to be replaced! “You want a dishwasher, monsieur?” – that will be an extra problem. Heating, electricity, cable TV, you name it, it all had to be checked off one by one and mostly replaced or newly installed. Peter Mayle’s experiences and stories repeated themselves in my father’s house many times over. “Zut alors!” indeed. “I see,” my father sighed, “this is not Switzerland.”
Dragging along for months, and after many a frail nerve, newly learned French curse words, and surviving the shock of having financially supported most of the workers in the region, the house and surroundings finally took on the look and charm my father had envisioned. This included a generously sized infinity pool, a solid and non-leaking roof, working plumbing and heating, reliable electricity, and a detached garage with roof. All this complemented by a rather expansive area of hillside land with more than a dozen of gnarled olive trees on it.
“I will press my own olive oil!” he kept announcing for months with excitement. He did, eventually, and shortly thereafter vowed to never go through so much work, agony, and pain ever again. It was his famous “one-year-only” production run whose final cost per bottle easily surpassed the most expensive olive oils on the market.
Shaking trees, all twenty of them, plucking olives, collecting on the ground, collecting from seemingly all over, hiring a truck, hauling the lot to the local press, waiting, having it all pressed, waiting again, then bottling, – it was all too much, despite the many hired workers and supportive neighbors. As a token of appreciation and proud accomplishment, he sent me two dark green glass bottles of olive oil, complete with self-made labels. Unfortunately, one of them cracked on its journey with the postal service before it arrived in a fragrant and slippery mess on my door step in San Diego.
The olive trees kept having olives every other year. My father liked the look and shape of the trees. He appreciated them for what they were. Mostly from a distance by the pool, though.
Le Car – But Not a Renault
After living in the new French residence for a while, my father felt that there were still some things that weren’t French enough for him to blend into the local community. Driving a Bavarian car with Swiss license plates was not a good idea, my father declared. “It’s too big of a car. I will stick out like a sore thumb with those license plates and the people will wrinkle their collective noses at me!”
Picking a truly French car was easier than thought. Having bought a used Renault 16 in 1969, my dad had only sour memories of a car whose most memorable features were constant leaks from the windshield, door frames, and hatchback. And rust. And pretty much every component in that car failing. He often told stories about the 16 and kept repeating that he would never spend another Franc on a Renault. It had to be a Peugeot then.
One day, he went to Cannes and bought a tired used Peugeot 205 with proper yellow French license plates. After an often sputtering start in the morning, he raced that little car up and down the narrow and curvy roads just like a native Frenchman. “I know how to drive on these roads,” my dad bragged,”because I have driven across the Swiss Alps many times!” This often made me chuckle as he occasionally scraped on hillside rocks or hit small walls made out of natural stones while swerving around or parking. “The more dents and scratches it has, the more authentic it will look” he explained as the car looked more and more like an old golf ball.
In the end, my father felt integrated and accepted: he blended in and no one turned their heads anymore when he drove by in his French car with French license plates and in a cloud of smoke. Thankfully, he gave up smoking the pipe years later.
During one of my first visits after he had bought the house, my father and I drove hours from Switzerland to France by taking a turn into Italy, then driving along the coast toward Nice and Cannes. It’s a long journey and when we finally arrived at the bottom of that steep hill in the evening hours, I was looking forward to settling in for a quiet night. As our car started to slowly ascend the bumpy and gravely road, we were just about to pass the French neighbor’s cottage when the couple came out waving at us. “Monsieur, monsieur!” they shouted. My father stopped and lowered the window.
Now, even though I studied French in school for over a decade with adequate motivation, I not once received a passing grade in any of my French classes. Hence, my French language skills are practically nil. I understand some, but certainly don’t know how to speak any.
“They invited us in for a Pastis,” my father translated while making a turn and parking on the grass in front of the cottage. “We can’t refuse. That would be rude.” Before we got out of the car, my dad hastily briefed me on his neighbors: very friendly, enjoying the simple life, and in a great deal of pain as they had lost their only son in a motorcycle accident a few years ago. We got out and walked towards the building. “Oh, and their son was about your age when he died,” my father whispered as we entered.
I tapped into my French knowledge and exclaimed a solid “Bonsoir!” I was greeted with hugs and an avalanche of French that completely overwhelmed me. Monsieur took to my dad and engaged in conversation. Madame took a special liking to me; it turned out I seemingly much resembled her deceased son. Sitting there with a glass of Pastis in my hand, the only thing I could do was sipping, listening, and smiling. She talked to me for quite a while, more at me, really, and I listened and smiled even more. I couldn’t say a word because I didn’t know how. I didn’t understand a word either.
“Anglais? Mais non!” she shook her head when I tried a bit of English on her. She laughed, then cried, held my hand, hugged me, looked at me and kept talking. I smiled back, hugged, and let her hold my hand. Eventually, my father tired of keeping up conversations by himself and decided it was time to leave. She hugged me and hesitated to let go of my hand. We left and drove up the few hundred yards to my dad’s house in silence.
For the rest of the night, I felt moved, sad, and touched all at the same time. To this day, I still don’t know what she said, but I am sure it was filled with love and passion and longing for her son.
The Key to a Maîtresse
Having a house in the South of France was a secret difficult to keep from friends and family. Word spread fast and wide. Connections were rekindled or intensified by many with the sole purpose of visiting or using the house for free vacation accommodations.
A younger member of my father’s family, having been unhappily married for years, politely inquired whether it would be possible to use the house when my dad and his wife were staying in Switzerland. As a generous and kind man, my father immediately agreed. He felt sorry and thought this poor man should have some time by himself to muse, ponder, and enjoy life. Perhaps even mend his marriage. A key was handed over along with instructions on how to get the hot water boiler going and the pool pump flowing. “I feel good about this” my father shared, “helping others and making good use of the house at the same time is a perfect combination.”
Until my father returned to France one day and found the alarm not set, the lights on, the water heater left in the on position, the pool uncovered and filled with debris and leaves, hardened pizza slices in the microwave, the wine rack raided, and the refrigerator completely emptied. The unsanitary bathroom and uncleaned rest of the house were just icing on the cake. My father’s face turned red: “Well dammit! I can’t believe this!” He restored his French home to the state he had left it in, cursing under his breath, and fixed what needed fixing. And decided to let it all slide and move on.
Until that night when the phone rang in Switzerland. On the other end: that family member, rather frantically reporting that he had lost the key to the house and could not get in. This was news to my dad – he was not aware that someone was residing in the house at the time. After the initial consternation, and having been a lawyer for most of his life, and hence familiar with logic, my father first suggested a locksmith. Then perhaps consulting with the English neighbors the next lot over. Then, as a last resort, him driving down there with a key. None of the suggestions appeared acceptable to the young man. My father was puzzled and even more irritated. After squirming for a while on the phone, the young man finally admitted he had “company” with him. Company? Indeed, female company who also had her belongings inside the house and wanted nothing more than to remain anonymous.
My father rarely screamed. But he did that night. His precious house had been deflowered by one, or, as he suspected, probably many extramarital affairs by this young man. He asked for the key back and severed the already fragile relationship the two men had managed to maintain over the years. This did not change until the very end and they did not ever speak again.
The young man, however, right around the time my dad died, inquired whether he could use the house again, insisting he had a right to do so. Divorced, without a job, and having spent a significant chunk of his savings on dental work for a South American escort, he was clearly desperate for a place to stay. Needles to say, he was declined again.
The unpleasant end of this episode was only topped by another family member who had not been in touch with my dad or myself for several decades. A few weeks after my father had passed away, I received an email, sent through a family intermediary, with a question whether the French property was for sale and for how much: he was considering it for real estate investment purposes.
Misadventures de Style Français
One early summer, the pump and filtration system of the pool quit working, leaving the water murky with a greenish color and unfit for even dipping toes in it. A specialist was called in to inspect and fix all of it at once.
After the guy had opened the access door, looked around, and determined what needed to be done, he emerged from the enclosure with a stunned expression on his face. “Monsieur,” he stammered in his thick French accent, “did you know that there are exposed live wires around the assembly for the filtration system?” My father gulped in disbelief, thinking about all the times he was sitting in his pool, creating waves and enjoying the water as he swam back and forth. Each one of those times, or simply him articulating, cleaning, or fixing anything in the pool’s assembly, could have sent electricity throughout the entire pool and electrocuted anyone in it.
“Ignorance is bliss,” my father joked, “until the day you get electrocuted.” We laughed, but I knew that while minor French quirks in workmanship were easily brushed off, this one was crossing the line. The wiring was fixed at great expense and required quite some time, since many parts had to be ordered and replaced one by one. Even after everything was in order, my father never quite shook the lingering uncomfortable feeling that there may be other dangers lurking in his house somewhere.
Butagaz – Le Property’s Last Sigh
Months had passed since all paperwork had been settled after the sale of the house when an envelope arrived in my mailbox in San Diego. At first, I was a bit ruffled about receiving a letter from France, thinking that it may spell more troubles or issues. But, not to worry, it was a letter from Butagaz, regional distributor for Proxigas, the French gas company, with a refund check attached for gas bottles on the premises my dad had paid for long before the new owners took over.
Upon closer inspection, the handwritten check looked funny. Recognizing it was written in French, I also recognized that it was impossible to decipher both numbers and the written amount in words. Only by looking at the letter did I know that they had sent 541 Euros. A few days after I had deposited the check at my bank, it was returned just as the branch manager had predicted during our rather long conversation a week earlier about collection-procedures, time frames, and associated fees for all the work involved.
I visited the gas company’s website in France. With Google Translate’s help, and filling in a bogus phone number the system insisted I must provide to proceed with my message, I was finally able to communicate with the originators of this mess. The response came promptly: “Of course your American bank cannot read the check. It is written in French!” the lady wrote. Well, yes, you issued it and sent it to the United States where English is fairly common, what…oh never mind! I replied and stated the entire check is illegible, not for French language reasons as there are folks at my bank that speak and read French, but for reasons of bad penmanship. “Please return it” came the short answer in snappy French without an apology for the inconvenience, “we will issue another check.” So I sent it back.
It has been weeks since then, and months since the original issuance of the check. I am still hopeful that this will be settled in the near future. Peace and quiet needs to enter this chapter of my life; the house is now a thing of the past, and moving forward requires closure in this matter.