Chapter Two: Discovering Le Perche
As best one can when one's brain is still not quite restored to order.
From the minute I saw that listing on Bien’ici, a geolocating real estate site, and all the dark green that surrounded it on Earth view, Le Perche became what Freud would have called overdetermined. It had too much meaning. Immediately, irrationally, it was my future life setting. No more discussion. The shattered mind will try to reconstruct itself around almost any structure at hand and Le Perche, about which I knew basically nothing, became that structure. At least the copious fantasy images I churned up were peaceful and pretty and that’s about as far as I got in terms of fleshing out what was now becoming the most important place in the world. Maybe I should Google it.
When I stumbled onto that first listing, and then more broadly Le Perche, my ex and I were still in the furious silent treatment phase of our breakup. In the few months since everything came out in the open, he had been ejected from our bedroom into the guest room across the landing. The shock had started to wear off for me, and the guilt for him.
We were selling the house, and so his kids were going to be uprooted, at least half the time. The kids and I were important to each other and we would be saying goodbye to our daily lives together. That was a band I didn’t want to break up, even if I hated its manager. The kids had just hit adolescence so they were due to discover their father’s failings anyway. All parents have them and all kids figure it out. But their dad did go the extra mile by taking our lives, adding Pop Rocks to the Coke, and shaking it all up furiously. The girl made it especially clear she was disgusted with the whole thing. This was the absolute worst part of the breakup.
My ex and I pointedly ignored each other but when I peeked out from the corner of my eye, which I did constantly, well, you guys, he was in love! Where I slithered through the house with bitter anxiety, he seemed to prance. The obliviousness with which he turned this cheap ass muse into the most hurtful possible getaway from the two of us only made me more furious. If he was suffering he sure wasn’t showing it.
I told myself I would reject his low-vibe escapism by creating a better version of my own. At least mine had butterflies and my most stalwart companion, my cat Fred. He was a blue-grey senior citizen with a modelly face, big ears and limp he acquired at eight months of age when he jumped over me in the bath and then straight through the window of my 6th floor walkup. He was trying to chase a pot of hydrangeas on the open sill, and spent the next two months in feline ICU getting his leg reconstructed for his troubles.
Freddy wanted to be where I was, no matter what, and at the moment I needed a friend who would let me cry hot angry tears into his neck. Freddy’s sister Penelope, a very sociable tortoise shell, managed the rest of the house. While Fred stuck to me like the emotional support animal he was, she’d make the rounds upstairs to the kids’ rooms before bunking down in the guest room with my ex.
(This brings me to the best aside ever: I am one of those weirdos who consults animal communicators. It started when Freddy had his fall, and a kind lady uncannily diagnosed his every injury down to the last detail before the vet did. She added that Fred told her he was my cat in another life and he wasn’t ready to leave me yet. Everybody else may leave, but he refused. When I asked this lady how the breakup was for the cats, she told me that Penelope was only sleeping in the guest room to help keep the peace. Girls of today, if you are reading along so far: please don’t think you have to do this.)
With Freddy always within petting reach, I sat on my bed reading Perche-related features in French lifestyle magazines. I was by now already pretend-living there through a computer screen, and apparently I had a lot of baskets of apples and rows of Wellington boots and muddy bikes and kids on horseback and fabulous thrift shops and misty fields dotted with indeterminate livestock.
I have been a member of the lifestyle press for 20+ years, and I suspect that the Matrix had already taken over so much of my brain that the shit was coming out of my nose, and I was so surrounded by the smell I could no longer detect it. I knew better than anyone how the blood sausage was made, and I still fell for all of it.
Whatever, I needed it.
Le Perche was said to be a peaceful refuge for Parisians. I imagined it like the Hudson Valley, where you could full-time it in nature without too much culture shock, and run into other people up for the weekend at groovy breakfast cafés. The region was close enough to Paris with easy enough cheap train connections. It wasn’t the Loire Valley where there might be more cultural life and tourism and food but also required a TGV or a much longer drive.
I had a lot riding on the construct when I finally went out to meet the real estate agent of that thirst trap of a house, let’s call him M. Beffroy. The first meeting already fell apart last minute because I missed my train. How was I supposed to know that some of the platforms at the Gare Montparnasse are a 20 minute walk away from the Metro transfer? (Visitors hoping to travel west from Paris by train: consider yourselves warned.)
I sprinted past families and mountains of luggage like a prelapsarian OJ, leaping on and off moving walkways, and arrived at the platform the moment they closed the train with a full blown asthma attack. I screamed at the ticket taker on the platform with the fury of a jilted woman trying to projectile vomit herself into a new zip code. I had lived in France long enough to know how futile it was to argue with train and plane people. Finally I trudged back home to my ex. From my room I could see the blue light from his computer screen glowing under the door to his room as he exchanged furtive emails with his dipshit lady love.
So then I rented a car to make the two hour drive west, and at about an hour and a half in, the hedgerows started lining the winding roadsides, like curtains of green pumping oxygen and life so rich I rolled down the windows to take a gulp. I could see through the screen of leaves here and there, and in the background were fields of fat horses and pastures of blazing yellow rapeseed. At first it smelled slightly like pee and then it smelled like honey. I took that as yet another metaphor.
When I arrived at a town called La Ferté Vidame, Alice finally properly entered Wonderland. At the edge of the village center, after all this peasanty innocence, there was a street lined by a massive, pompous double-alley of trees. Americans see those and sigh, every time, and I am no exception.
Tree alleys in France connote old money and centuries of order. Some of my fellow countrymen might call them “classy.” Don’t think too hard on it, I beg you. I mean the French aristocracy that planted them, bankrolled by local peasantry and the Transatlantic slave trade, was not a nice order. But for people of a young country, very old things are always reassuring, no matter how malefic their origins. They remind Americans that, say, mass beheadings and foreign occupations maybe aren’t the end of all things, and if you’re lucky, you and yours might make it through calamity too.
Then I turned onto a road that passed in front a dramatic chateau-ruin that I guessed (rightly) was ransacked during the French Revolution, when old money had a very important moment out of the sun. It was set far back from the road, across a massive park, set off by a pair of sculpted stags. The remains of the chateau were goth and magnificent and forgotten and my heart was in my throat.
Southwest from there, next came the forest in its full summer glory, with oak and ash trees making canopies above the road. Villages popped up inside its confines, little rows of sorbet colors and stone, sitting flush on the main road. The row houses were fringed with hydrangeas and topped with irregular terra cotta tile rooves dappled with moss. Then came more hilly open pastures demarcated by rough-hewn wooden posts. Hawks perched atop telephone poles, dive bombing the fields for mice. It was enough to make you want to change your name to Baggins.
M. Beffroy met me in a village a little lower on the charm scale than the one pictured above, and I followed him 15 minutes through fields of tall wheatgrass and winking bright red poppies to the house, which was two-story with just one neighbor across an undivided stretch of lawn. It would need a new kitchen and bathrooms and a laundry room would have to get put into the barn. Maybe a little bit of space reorganizing, but otherwise it was good to go.
Somebody at some point told me country houses don’t move fast so I was sure it’d still be available once we sold our place. And that would happen any day because it was massive and gorgeous and inside the Paris city limits and priced to move. Glossy magazine suspension of disbelief still firmly intact, with only the wispiest and most partial research, I didn’t pick up on Beffroy’s attitude. It should have been all I needed to know: He carried himself like a petulant boy king in a slightly too-tight tweed blazer, pinching out only the tiniest turds of info when I started to ask what it was actually like to live in Le Perche. Whatever, madame, I have another appointment. This is the attitude of somebody with more buyers than sellers.
Indeed within a couple weeks the thing was gone and I lost another internet lover. This house was one of those guys you back and forth with and stare at pictures of and project tons of shit onto despite your better judgement, and maybe even get a little amorous with before you meet. And then you never meet, or you meet and he is indifferent and disappears, and you’re heartbroken and back where you started.
Like internet lovers, I soon discovered that listings of ivy covered cottages in off the grid hamlets were a dime a dozen. So I started renting secondhand cars and successfully taking trains and visiting a lot of them, over and over while the Paris house sat inexplicably unmoving. Also like internet lovers, there is galactic misrepresentation in real estate listings. Even so most of these weird dogs would end up off the market within two weeks.
Please join me next week for an abbreviated tour of some of these mostly fucked up country houses, and a fresh new understanding of why the Paris house didn’t move.