Chapter Seventeen: Count Your Blessings
I had two to begin with: we were starting to close on my house, and I was not my sellers.
At last it was time to sign the compromis de vente on my future house. This is a legally binding term sheet prepared by the buyer and seller’s notaires, who are like lawyers, and are required facilitators of all major asset transactions in France. The compromis is the first of many steps toward the final close, which takes a minimum of three months. Maybe you’ve heard: France is a country that loves paperwork even more than it does wine at lunch, waiting two days minimum to return an email, and never admitting fault.
Signing the compromis is the theoretical firing of the starter’s pistol, after which there is a ten day cooling off period for the buyer. On your mark, get set, wait! Once that’s passed, everyone is on the hook, and the long, slow march of the paperasse begins. There is a ton of due diligence on house closings, which protects buyers, but the papers required to complete a dossier extend back literal centuries and if they are missing, everything grinds to a halt.
I had the date of my compromis, and then the projected date of the final close three months later, both marked in giant red x’s on my calendar. As an antisocial nester who is not zen with extensive floating in improvised rentals, all I wanted was to get started on permanence and privacy. Among the grouplet behind this transaction—me, the real estate agent Camilla, my notaire, Monsieur and Madame, and their notaire—I was the one lighting all the matches under all the asses. I have lived in France too long to assume the process would move smoothly. As I didn’t have to take out a mortgage, though, I assumed it would move quickly. It didn’t.
The formalities all took place at Monsieur and Madame’s notaire’s office in the largest village nearest to the house. Now, being a notaire means having a license to print money. They get a 7-8% cut of every old or already-built house sale they help transact. Every notaire’s office I’ve ever visited in Paris is a bombastic symphony of soaring, orchid-strewn waiting rooms, conference tables chiseled out of fuck off marble, big art and baroque manners. They are a taste of the establishment and your friendliest access point to the actual French state, so when you pester your notaire, which you often have to do, you use all appropriate tenses and finish things off begging them to please accept the expression of your distinguished sentiments. (Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués. Learn that shit if you want to push anything along in France more consequential than buying peaches at the market.)
Out in Le Perche, houses are one tenth the price that they are in Paris, as are the notaire fees, so the experience feels more regional Robert Altman than Succession. Maître Pompadour, as we’ll call her, was the only game in town, but even her market capture did not net a fabulous space. Over the months that we’d have meetings in her office, she looked to be redecorating it in Ralph Lauren Home circa 1982: an upholstery swatch book in tones of rust and forest green velvets littered her messy desk. It jibed with her personal style, which was fake horsey: riding boots unfit for purpose, tweed blazers, long, bleached blonde blown out hair, always a silk scarf around her neck. It was unclear if she would ever get around to the waiting room, which was freezing and lit by crackling fluorescent light, its furniture the back of the Office Depot truck variety.
Maître Pompadour routinely kept us waiting, so there was time before every meeting—we’d have several before everything was locked and loaded—to mill around awkwardly together in the uncomfortable freezing cold. Camilla being a well-raised Englishwoman, we did our brittle best.
Before then I had only ever met Monsieur, the husband half of the divorcing couple, on visits to the house. He was the one staying there, receiving occasional visits from his four children. The arrangement was atypical—shouldn’t mother hen and her chicks have squatting rights? It made me suspect she must have cheated on him. I never thought like that until my own couple split up over dipshit cliché cheating two years before, and then my brain started to warp. I suppose that’s another way of saying, I was accruing life experience.
But now both halves of the former couple were present at the signing of the compromis, and so I finally met Madame for the first time. She was a knockout: the face of a young Holly Hunter with a rack to launch a thousand ships, in a fluffy sweater and tight jeans and a slimming little leather jacket. (Two of their four children were still-young twins. Seriously how did she manage to fit into those jeans?) Where Monsieur was bashful smiles and shaky-hands-hungover, she came in with a head full of steam.
They pointedly refused to speak to each other during the 15 minutes in that dank, polar antechamber. Once we were called into Maitre Pompadour’s office, it occurred to me that the vibe was so terrible, I might take the middle seat across from her desk, leaving Monsieur and Madame to find places on either side of me. And once we got to talking, I was proven to be right.
Before we could even get into the details of the house they started hissing at each other over her missing alimony money and who was going to move what out when and how was she supposed to feed the kids and oh yeah sure he’s really unemployed when he was surely just working under the table. When a few loud clearings of Pompadour’s throat didn’t do the trick, she finally raised her voice and told them to pipe down. She had a few pointed questions for them both, which is when I realized she was probably also handling their divorce. Bon courage, Maître.
Things calmed down enough for Pompadour and my notaire, on speakerphone from Paris to start running through the first draft of the document. (Please feel free to visualize a split screen of drastically contrasting interior design schemes.) That peace didn’t last long until Monsieur and Madame were at it again over some other logistical detail. This time I had to yell at them to keep it down so I could hear my own representative raising a few important questions about the state of the fireplace.
I hated my ex with such a blinding passion for the first full half a year of our breakup. It was either silent treatment or screaming fights, complete with thrown objects, sometimes in each other’s direction. These people were more bitter and out of pocket than even we were at our worst, though they had four kids together, which I suppose is one decent reason to raise the temperature. I was so desperate to learn the gossip, and then I realized I knew no one to fill me in.
After a good 45 minutes of bickering and collective document editing, we finally all signed on the dotted line. Pompadour asked for Monsieur and Madame to stay after, and I slid out of there with the insouciance of a very happily single woman with nothing else to think about for the day than paint colors.