A House in Provence Chapter 3

Building A House In Provence
Chapter 3

So I married a Frenchman and I’m living in Paris. OK, so he’s not a prince and we don’t live in a castle, but we do live in a country covered with them. Everything is sunshine and roses, right? Wrong. Life can’t be perfect anywhere and as much as I love France I have found a few dark clouds here.
When I married a Frenchman I never dreamed I would have to worry about the laws of France. Someone told me that I should have checked all of this out before buying any property in France. They were right, but I didn’t. I just thought it would all mostly be like buying property in the States.
Napoleon dreamt up a set of laws that are now known as the Napoleonic Code. I vaguely remember reading about Napoleon and how he unified France and took thousands of different laws and made one big group of laws for the whole country to be run by. This sounds good on the surface until you, as a naive American, find out what happens when you purchase property in France. Basically, here’s what takes place: the interests of the children, parents, siblings and cousins all come before a spouse, if the other spouse should happen to die. And if you should happen to be the second wife, forget it – you are really out of luck.
We made an appointment to talk with a French lawyer to see if there was any way to “get around” these laws, as we weren’t experts in the French legal system. Maybe there was something we could do so I felt better about the possibility of living in my house at the end of my years knowing it would go to Maurice’s children when I went to that Vineyard in the Sky, so to speak. I don’t mind if they get the house. I mind that I can’t decide who will get my house nor sell anything in it without their sharing in the profit. We were led to a hot, oven-like room where I spent the whole time dying to open a window for a little relief.
Our lawyer turned out to be a woman. She was young and slim wearing a rather boring black business suit without the usual scarf thrown on to make it stylish. She wore no make-up but had beautiful black eyes and as she sat there talking in French that sent me into a comatose state–the French and the heat of the room were narcotic like to me–I began to think she looked like the star of Amelie, a French movie we had recently seen about a young woman whose life is spent helping others find happiness. The resemblance to Amelie ended with just the looks, however. As Maurice started translating some of the points she was making I could see that she wasn’t going to be helping me find any happiness.
As I sat in front of “Amelie” and Maurice told me what she was saying it became clear that the house we were building together, financed in part with my money, would never be completely mine. Smiling benevolently, she informed me that although the house wouldn’t be completely mine if Maurice should happen to die that I would be entitled to 50 per cent and a small portion of the other 50 per cent. His children, there are two, get the rest. We are also talking about the contents of the house. This means that if Maurice, God forbid, should die before me that I wouldn’t be free to sell the house, or any of the contents of the house, without sharing the money with Maurice’s relatives. My children would also be entitled to the same percentage of Maurice’s half, but they are in America and would probably not even try to get their share. I’m sure this is not the case with any French relatives.
I blew up and said to the woman lawyer, “Does France hate women?” She just looked mildly surprised and said, “It protects the children and the family.” I said, “But this is so anti-woman!” She didn’t agree. I think people in France have come to look at this code as their right. They don’t want to change it, as they might not get that house that belongs to poor Aunt Yvette or whoever. It was pointed out to me that if Maurice should die, I will have the right to live in my house as long as I wanted. Well, wow, that makes me feel better.
We gripe a lot about things in America, but at least we have the option of leaving our property to our favorite charity, or our dog, if we choose to. Ah, democracy. It may have started in France, but I think America did a better job with it.

A House In Provence Chapter 2

Building a House in Provence

Chapter 2

So, we had found our property. Now we had to find an architect, which involved looking at more houses to find a house we liked. We settled on a larger, more established company hoping that this would protect us from the builder’s going bankrupt. This had happened to me twice (years before in the States), and I was surprised when it happened to us in Paris when the little company renovating our place went bankrupt, too. The plans, when we finally got them, were then submitted to the mayor of our little village and had to be approved by the Luberon Park officials as well as city officials in Pertuis, the largest town in the area. I expected the whole thing to fall through at any minute, knowing the way French officials work, but it didn’t. Of course there were delays and roadblocks–this is France, after all. But we finally got our house plans approved. We were committed.
Right after we had put a deposit down on our property we went into our village and met the Mayor. He turned out to be a friendly guy, and I think that Maurice’s talking to him helped us get our plan approved, but the Mayor had something he wanted done before he approved anything. There was already an established road and sewer line running along side the property. He wanted the sewer line changed and moved across our property, coming out on the other side. We found out later that the property the sewer line came out on happened to be his! He wasn’t able to get the line changed, but it was an eye-opener for me. I think the mayor had a little jealousy thing going with the property owners, too. He owned a piece of land below us, planted with olive trees, and told us that every year he took his olives down to the local olive oil commune and had them made into over 300 liters of olive oil.
I saw a photo in his office of the village covered in what looked like 3 feet of snow and I asked when the photo was taken. He said that it had been taken 2 years earlier when they’d had a very unusual snowstorm. I had been in Provence the winter before and it was very cold, with a hard frost on the ground every morning. But, snow! What was it going to be like in the winter in Provence when the warm days went away, along with a lot of the people, tourists and locals alike, leaving us alone? I still had my doubts about living here.
One day we came back to our property just to look at it after it had recently been cleared. I was surprised at how large it was. It had looked smaller with all of the bushes and trees on it. Flies buzzed everywhere, another worry I had. I hate flies. I could see that we would have to have screens on our windows. I heard a donkey bray a little way down the road, possibly the source of the flies, but a rooster crowed from up above our property and I guess flies liked them, too. A hound dog barked the whole time we were walking around. Hmm. Could I really do it, this life in the country?
We went down to another small village for lunch, Peypin d’Aigues. I saw the word Aigues a lot around this area and it turned out to be Provençal for water. After a nice lunch under some trees we walked around to see what was there. We came upon a man renovating a house that happened to be owned by an American citizen who was Irish, named Finn, and his wife, who was from New Zealand. He was very friendly and told us all about the area and the fact that there were many English- speaking people around as well as a club in Aix for Americans and English. Somehow this helped me feel better about living in the area. Few French people I had spoken to spoke English, and I knew I was going to have to dedicate myself to learning French better than the very shallow way I knew it now. But knowing I could find someone to speak with in English helped my attitude and helped me to feel less isolated.
I have to admit that I still have some negative feelings about leaving Paris, but I’m feeling more positive as I think about the possibilities. I do love gardening and I think having olive trees will be interesting. I’m even thinking of having a beehive, such as the ones I’ve seen around the countryside, and harvesting my own honey. Maybe I can learn to bake our bread. If I looked at it from the right light, I realized that this could be the adventure I never dreamed I’d have.

Chapter 1 A House In Provence

This is what our land looked like at the beginning.

Building A House In Provence, Part One
When I first met my husband, Maurice, he told me he had always dreamed of living in Provence. He is originally from Nice and even has some gypsy blood flowing through his veins, so I thought it was a genetic thing—he had to have the sun shining on him to be happy. Once he retired, he brought up Provence again and wanted to start checking out property there. I was perfectly happy in Paris and while I thought Provence was beautiful, I wasn’t sure how long I could be content looking at a vineyard. It was Maurice’s dream, not mine. Well, marriage is made of compromises and I could tell it really meant a lot to Maurice, and so I decided, “Why not?” with a promise from Maurice that if I really hated living in Provence we could always sell and come back to Paris full-time. We wouldn’t sell our little place in Paris. I would be back here for short trips when I felt the need for the stimulation of a city. A friend said to me, “You have doubts about living in Provence? Do you know how many people would kill to be in your shoes?” I just know, having reached my ripe old age, that dreams and fantasies don’t always turn out to be what you thought they would be. But I was willing to give it a try.
We were given the name of an American man who sold real estate. He lived in Menerbes, the village made famous by Peter Mayle. I contacted him about helping us find a place to buy in Provence. He wrote back wanting to know our price range and when he found out (I’m sure he was laughing), he told us he couldn’t help us and that we would never find anything near Aix-en-Provence at that price, not even a fixer-upper. We would have to spend at least twice as much to find something small and ordinary at best. I could tell he didn’t want to waste his time with us, not with the commission he would get if we happened to find a place.
Luckily, we have French friends who moved from Paris to Provence. Although I had been a little discouraged about finding an affordable place after the Menerbes man, they gave us hope. They had a beautiful home and the price they had paid wasn’t far from what we could afford. We set out on a short tour with them and they took us to various little towns to have a look at the area. They lived outside a little village called Villelaure and we saw Lourmarin, Cucuron, Bonnieux, Ansouis and a few more. This whole area is covered with vineyards and rolling hills. Some of its villages are perched on top of a mountain. I rather liked the idea of actually living inside one of the villages behind a high wall with a little yard and a house that would be within walking distance of all of the shops and markets. Maurice didn’t. He wanted some land and a swimming pool, so it was time to find a real estate person again.
We made a couple of trips to Provence and looked around with various real estate agents. We found a lot of homes for sale in our price range, but I didn’t like any of them. Some were nice homes, but extremely isolated. Some were in a great location but the actual buildings were old and dark and would cost too much to renovate. A few looked as if various pieces had been added on by the owner in a do-it-yourself manner. One house had a device where wood had to be burned to heat the water. That was a little too country for me. We saw a brand new house in a crowded neighborhood that would have sold for half the price in the States. It was getting depressing because almost every house we saw was up for sale because of a divorce. It broke my heart to see the children’s rooms. I was starting to think Mr. Menerbes was right. We weren’t going to find a place in our price range.
On the last day we were in a little village called Tour d’Aigues and hadn’t liked the house the real estate man had just shown us, when he said, “How about looking at some property?” We thought we might as well look. Maybe building what we wanted would be the best thing, if the property wasn’t too expensive. It turned out to be next to a tiny village of 250 people in a rather isolated area located in the Luberon National Park. It was covered with dense brush, a few oak trees, bushes called Mimosa that are covered in yellow flowers in the spring and some wild olive trees. When we walked, we could smell wild thyme getting crushed under our feet, an incredible odor. Some people were walking in the area, as well, looking for wild asparagus. Maurice’s eyes lit up. This was more like it.
We came back the next day and walked around and then went up to the little village. It had a tiny church with Mary standing on top and a city fountain next to it, the type with a little head with water coming out of the mouth. There was a charming narrow street lined with houses bearing shutters and doors in bright Provençal colors. But that was it. There was not one restaurant or shop and that bothered me as I had to discard the dream of a short walk to a boulangerie to get a baguette. The nearest boulangerie was 4 kilometers away. Not too far, but not an easy walk either.It was Maurice’s dream and he really wanted this property, so we bought it.
It turned out that the property had been the inheritance of four family members, all aristocrats, who came from the nearby castle. They had divided it into four pieces and put it up for sale. Land is hard to find in Provence these days and we were lucky to find it before it sold. We met with two members of the family, a man with fluffy white hair and a pointed nose and his sister dressed in what looked like a Chanel suit with high heels, stockings and pearls. I was in jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes. A Notaire, who does all of the paper work and legal things needed to buy property in France, was in our meeting. The Notaire had brought his darling dog Pistache with him. I was surprised that the Notaire did all of the paperwork by hand, laboriously filling out the location of the property, the owners’ information, our information, etc. It took well over an hour. It was all done in French, of course, so I sat there totally clueless and made friends with Pistache. We signed the papers with the understanding that none of it would be legal and that the whole thing would be canceled if we didn’t get the permission needed to build our house.