Chapter Eighteen: Remake/Remodel
This time it’s to Roxy Music I must apologize. We spy the first green shoots of renovating.
Just after that first formal, vexed signing of papers with Monsieur and Madame, I came back through Saint-Maxime to meet with my friend Sasha’s mother Marina, a semi-retired architect and interior designer who was going to manage the renovations. Monsieur had agreed to let us in for an hour to come take measurements. The drive in to the village got me in the gut once again. It really was beautiful and green and lush and charming. I was on the optimistic, warm-hued side of the spectrum. Anytime that happened without me trying to make it so, I cheered.
Marina was good company. She was my first material link to what the house would eventually become and I trusted her. She was living out in Versailles where she looked after Sasha’s father Oleg, a fine artist of noble Russian origins who was suffering from Parkinson’s. She had a foreman who would do most of the overseeing on my house, a 30-something guy in very tight, very slim jeans called Marius, but she was available to make aesthetic and structural decisions, and to be reachable if something went horribly awry. She knew Sasha’s friend needed a hand, and anything she could do to make my life easier meant I’d be more available for her daughter, who was taking on a lot more in her new house than I was.
Sasha had envisioned a different kind of Perche adventure for herself. For her it wasn’t so much an ambivalent hiding place so she could lick her wounds, more of a dare or a challenge. One of her cousins once laughed at her when she said she wanted to buy a house in the country. “You don’t have a husband or kids, what are you doing?” Sasha would show her. This is the same person who took pilot lessons because she is afraid to fly.
She had two naughty, slobbery, very lovely German Shorthair Pointers, a male and a female she wanted to breed, and they needed space to roam. She also wanted to adopt horses, which she’d never owned before, nor did she know how to domesticate with any kind of expertise. Where my village house was relatively simple, if full of small headaches and design conundrums, her farmhouse had acres of attached pasture land, decrepit barns for her future charges, and rooms with ceilings so low they would require digging out floors.
Marina shared Sasha’s opinionated nature but she was more visibly a study in contradiction. Where Sasha dressed the part of the bohemian she is, Marina adopted the look of a resident of Versailles: pink Bermuda shorts, grosgrain ribbon headbands, polo shirts, boat shoes, and delicate gold jewelry. It was very tailgate picnic except that she was a salty, foul-mouthed chain smoker who arrived in France as a refugee with her husband and young daughter, where she became the family breadwinner. She rolled her dark eyes with the panache that only someone who has known much worse than construction headaches can master.
When I brought Marina out to Saint-Maxime—she didn’t drive, so I picked her up at the train station closest to Samira’s—she stubbed out her cigarette and gave me the high sign. “It’s nice out here,” she said, in heavily Romanian-accented French. (This was her being effusive.) We knocked on the peeling door and went in to plan how to redo everything Monsieur had lovingly, if amateurishly, if half-assedly, if dangerously, done with his own hands. He was there for our visit, and so we kept our voices as low and anodyne as possible so as not to inflict on him the details of how we would erase him. Handing over a house has an innate cruelty to it. I knew the circumstances were not ideal for him. We didn’t want to make it worse.
The place was going to need a ton of work and now we were starting to figure out exactly what and how long it would take. It didn’t look like we’d need to replace all the pipes, thank God. The floors were another matter. There would be wall reorientation. Adding water closets. Eventually building out the attic floor for a master suite. That last bit would cost a fortune, but in creating extra spare footage, it would increase the value of the house. Marina figured phase one (everything but the attic) would take three months with a couple of guys on site full time. They’d live there with me and the cats. She assured me Marius ran this kind of operation all the time. No, I would not have to cook for them. We’d just have to take turns taking baths and showers. It didn’t sound zen but it sounded efficient. When one is renovating an old house, that is already a lofty aspiration.
Saint-Maxime hadn’t changed. The tabby cat I saw on my first visit was still there, and looked to be the boss of the village. Camilla had told me that the one ugly façade that I could see in any direction, diagonal to my house on the church side of the street, was once a bar called The Yellow Dwarf. Now it was a house and the current owners showed up once in a while to bang a hammer for a few days before heading back to Paris, leaving their bags of masonry sand in the same spot since I first spied them on that December day. (If anyone needs some spare scaffolding, I’m not saying to come help yourself, but it’s literally still just sitting there.) The big open entrance to the joint was a ghostly reminder of when the area thrived to the point it could support a clientele seeking Pastis and companionship. On those early pop-ins before I got the keys to the house, I never saw anyone out on the street, nor anyone driving through except the odd tractor.
Like someone who had been in a car accident and needed to learn how to walk again, I practiced socializing with Georges and Geneviève. It helped that as we hung out, first at Samira and Claude’s and then at their beautiful mill house in the center of the nearest big village, about ten minutes away, I saw they had an impeccable sense of boundaries. They were not visibly fancy—Georges’ uniform was a sweatshirt stained with wood finish, shorts, and webbed Teva sandals with thick white tube socks; Geneviève like flowered tops and stretch pants. Their house was where they went all out, an accumulation of five decades of Georges’ beautiful woodworking and their obsessive antiques collecting. Every door was carved and fluted. The kitchen, with its floor to ceiling hand-tooled oak cabinetry, was so heavy with copper pots and cooking molds that Geneviève told me it took her a solid week, once a year, to polish them all. One day I would volunteer to help her polish them, I promised myself. That’s when I’d know I was normal, or better, or whatever.
They were cheerful but salty, with tons of local gossip. They’d have me around for dinners of oysters and seafood choucroute and didn’t ask piercing questions about my love life. They could see I was pretty lost and didn’t give a shit about what I did for a living except as it affected my happiness. They’d never heard of any of the subjects of my stories—hardly anyone in Le Perche knows or cares who is currently designing Lanvin, especially them. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I even know who is currently designing Lanvin.) We’d talk about the declining market for this or that period of antiques and their grandchildren and traveling and food and wine and which local mechanics to avoid and where the good bakeries were and which other village mayor, besides mine, apparently, was full of shit, and the way things used to be, when Le Perche was still thriving on its own, before all the Parisians came to buy up the empty houses to squat the weekend. Gilles made his own cider and Calvados which he poured very liberally. Evenings could go on late at their place. Every time I left I was grateful for their kindness and easy companionship, but I still didn’t have the energy or the courage to thrust myself upon them on a regular basis. They had grandchildren and their own lives and friends. I was glad to know they were there, but I would be taking it slow.
And yet I still felt the clock ticking to start getting my shit together. I knew that unlike back in the city where people were coming out of the woodwork, and American friends were constantly passing through, and I had options, even if I hardly ever pursued them, in Saint-Maxime isolation would no longer be something I indulged like a guilty pleasure, but a possible condition of my daily life. Maybe then it wouldn’t be so fun anymore.