Chapter Three: Looking, Not Finding
But learning! Shopping for houses with no money isn't a total waste.
I was now officially house hunting. Sometimes I’d take a day trip out to Le Perche, racing back and forth in the train or a car. It was a lot of effort but I had the time. And what could be more important than finding the actual place where I’d theoretically eventually land? After having read M. Beffroy for filth when he neglected to alert me that someone else had just signed for the first house—as if I could have gotten into a bidding war with only vapor for capital til Paris sold—I decided I couldn’t stand him and wouldn’t traffic in his listings. Of course he turned out to have the best ones by a country mile. Fuck.
Or so I thought. I still hadn’t refined my needs, I was still falling for pretty pictures without really thinking about whether it made sense for someone like me, who would be living alone, to be far out in a field all by herself, or part of a cluster of houses in a hamlet, or what.
From the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that total solitude would have been a terrible idea for a homebody who usually needs a firm shove to leave the house at all. Even in better times I could go days without walking out of my front door. And in worse times, like now, I realized I was in the grips of a mounting case of social anxiety. It was as if hard confinement were still upon us, except it wasn’t and we were all supposed to be free and desperate to connect again. Except I just didn’t want to go anywhere, other than house shopping, nor did I want to see anyone, except a realtor who wouldn’t read anything into my tight, fake smile.
Even real friends in Paris rarely saw me now that confinement was lifting, and I was at some point soon about to leave the comfort of their company. Either I was pulling up stakes in my mind already, which might have been partly true, or I was depressed. Given my history, which includes three previous instances of medical treatment for that very affliction, the latter was much more likely. It takes a ton of mental and emotional energy to project yourself into the complete unknown and convince yourself “it’s inspiring,” and that energy is hard enough to come by even with adequate amounts of available serotonin. I was starting to guess that if I were to put myself into real isolation, the kind without a choice based on fickle moods, my tendency to burrow could get out of control. I might go feral.
The potential future nests were, upon closer inspection, also often really not great. One “typical farmhouse” was 15 km from the nearest civilization, at the end of a bumpy, one-car dirt road covered in overgrown wheatgrass. It was next door to a similar looking house that gave onto the road at a more violent angle. The day I showed up, a reedy-looking man with thinning, greasy brown hair was sitting in front of the house on the angle, smack at the apex of the turn, in a rickety chair, his one good eye silently fixed on me as I crept past. I waved awkwardly, he did not wave back. Off to a great start.
The house I was visiting, one of three that day, abutted a babbling brook—sweet!—that turned out to be a public walkway. Where the road to the house was savannah-like, apparently the waterway was more easily accessed, if the empty can of high-alcohol-content Dutch beer I spied crumpled on the bank ten feet from the front door was a sign of things to come. To be fair, it could have been the neighbor’s.
The place had an adjacent outbuilding that could have made for a guest house but for the torrent of rose vines spilling over the entrance rendering it inaccessible unless you wore an iron suit. Very Sleeping Beauty, except without the supernatural gardening assistance once the alarm went off. As to the main house, the roof—mostly covered in those same gorgeous, expensive, high-maintenance clay shingles—was crumbling. Inside, piles of dead flies covered several upstairs surfaces, and a bumping noise emanated from the attic. “It’s the loirs,” said the agent blithely, as if infestation were an honor because it happened to be a protected species of dormouse that can get up to a foot long, full length. She was in her mid-30s, with frizzy hair and a fluffy sweater and spent a lot of time examining her manicure.
Another agent, a slender, mustachioed millennial with the dress sense of Iris Apfel, his twig-like arms stacked with antique ivory bangles, his feet never shod in something with fewer than three colors, had a better portfolio, though everything was out of reach price-wise given the work needed. He’d show me to another hamlet, where I’d see something gorgeous, but oops, it had black mold and needed an entirely new roof. Or I’d have to tear out staircases or add them depending on the flow of space between the OG grain storage, barn and squat. A lot of these houses were either originally built as sheds, so they were giant boxes that would need to be completely built inside, or they were built to store ostensibly much smaller people than me, with such low ceilings they resembled rabbit warrens.
(The link above pictures one of the outbuildings of a shabby, overpriced place north of Mortagne-au-Perche that was so close to the main road you could hear the traffic even in the afternoon. And what does one do with a former chicken-and-bunny room? Can you render it habitable for two-legged friends?)
Part of the problem is that I spent formative years visiting my single working interior designer mother on job sites after school, where she would frown and disapprove bad ergonomic choices, and I’m just hardwired to want a place that makes architectural sense for a tall person who does not work with her hands except for typing. Also, everything so far was outside of a village. At this point, that was still all I was looking at, because these houses photographed better. But visits to hamlets and isolated forest dwellings were dominated by discussions of ever-changing septic tank regulations and which nearby fields used fertilizer when.
Poo is a problem in all of civilization, maybe that should be technically obvious. It’s just that in urban life, those infrastructural necessities are luxuriously distant. In a far-out hamlet I realized I would need to strategize my daily and seasonal life around feces, whether mine or someone else’s. I admitted to myself that the extent of my rural chops was having one or two extra features on my Swiss Army knife. Finally I decided that a village house with neighbors and reliable electricity and government-run sewage lines ultimately seemed wisest.
And anyway villages tracked best with the “Cozy Mysteries” chapter on BritBox, which Freddy and I had been surfing regularly on my computer up in my room. I told myself it was for gardening ideas. But if I was ejecting myself out of the only kind of nest I ever knew, I also learned that in a European country village there would be some social life for when I was maybe up for it again. There I could fall into the cushiony bosom of an Imelda Staunton or Judi Dench à la française and become the slightly younger companion to the dowager. Maybe her handsome older nephew, just a bit damaged from the war but still with hair and muscles, and yet somehow also not gay, would stumble into some local kerfuffle and we’d lock eyes over a field and settle down. Or whatever.
As I started to figure out better what I needed, I narrowed in on one really cute village house that was too expensive but had a charming brick courtyard covered in clematis vines. It was next to a hotel owned by nice young people who used to work for the restaurant Septime in Paris. I could work with this. And it was in Moutiers-au-Perche, ground zero of all Perche thirst pics. It had some complications, some non-contiguous spaces, and the garden was only hardscape, which could make it complicated to resell. But I was getting ahead of myself, as Paris was not moving even a little bit.
My ex and I were victims of circumstance. Maybe that’s acceptable for Europeans with genetic memories of domestic wars and occupation and plagues. Not acceptable for a Californian who takes her body weight in vitamins every day. No is just scarcity consciousness. Unseen forces can be vanquished with the right help. Finally I flashed on just that help: Jean-Pierre. He wasn’t a real estate fixer, he was a clairvoyant ostiopath I met when doing a story for T magazine on holistic beauty and wellness in Paris. (Remember back to our last chapter: I consult animal communicators. Nice to meet you.)
I had turned to Jean-Pierre for help in 2016, when my apartment in Montmartre also took forever to sell, despite being a total get. The lag threatened our purchase of the Paris house. When I asked him if he sensed what the blockage was about, he replied, “Alexahndrrhhaah? Do you have a cat who is kind of a bitch sometimes?”
Yes that would be Penelope.
“Well she doesn’t want to leave. She’s the reason.”
He told me to have a talk with her, to explain that the new house would be bigger and better. Then he gave me some magnetized salt to put under the doormat, and some Rosicrucian incense to burn, while he said he’d do his own work on his end. I don’t know what he did exactly but a month later after a small bidding war, the place sold at asking.
We were already a year waiting for the Paris house to sell when it finally occurred to me to talk to Jean-Pierre once more. He picked up right away when I called. I explained the situation, wondering if it was Fred this time. He told me he’d tap into the energy around the house, and would call me back in a few days with his take.
Please check back in next week, when Jean-Pierre will offer his remedy, and we will broach the subject of trying to frequent new men while still living with your ex. “How cool and French!” No, actually really awkward.