A House in Provence Chapter 6

Today I will once again be outside pulling weeds.


One of the many religious statues in Niches all over Provence.

Swimming Pool and Landscaping

As might be expected, building a pool in Provence is right up there in stress and disappointment as we experienced in building our house. I’ve met an American lady living in Aix who says she will never, never (she said repeated this twice) have anything built in Provence. She did need some work done in her house and had a man come out to look at what was needed and now she is waiting for the estimate of the work and has no plans to hear from him any time soon. If you have expectations and want something down right away you will end up with a stress ulcer and have periods of time when you think that your head is going to explode. I should add that even Maurice, being French and all, has the same reactions and can’t believe how hard it is to get something done here.
My American friend thinks it is just different in Provence. According to her, people in Provence always put their families first in their lives. This is one reason why shops close for lunch with those long breaks because this is a family time for getting together over a meal. Friends come next and in France this means that these friends are ones you have had since childhood. They might have other acquaintances, different levels of friends, but never one they value more than the ones made first. Down near the bottom of the list is work and this certainly appears true to me. I often see shops closed for lunch around the various villages in Provence, as well as the rest of France, and think that if this were done in the States, everyone would stop shopping there; Americans would take their business elsewhere. Customer service, as we in America think of it, will probably slowly make its way into France mainly because customers will start demanding it and, most probably, because the shops will discover that they make more money this way. I could be wrong but there are more and more shops in Paris doing this. Can it be far behind in the country?
Back to the swimming pool. Maurice picked out a local builder who, in fact, lives three houses down from us. He first talked with us in October and told us they could start sometime in January. January came and went with Maurice calling and leaving messages several times. Finally we were told they would start our pool at the beginning of February. They didn’t start digging until the end of the month. They decided that we needed two support poles under the end of the pool nearest where the land dropped off so two deep holes about ten feet deep were dug. Maurice and both the pool builder and landscaper all thought that the pool needed to be very near the end of the land so it would be in the sun more time. To me this wasn’t an important factor as once summer sets in and the temperatures start soaring, it isn’t that necessary to be in the sun. You aren’t going to get a serious chill sitting in a tepid swimming pool in the shade if it is in the 90’s or more. I put up a little protest but let Maurice put the pool where he wanted.
When they started digging it looked like the pool was going to be way too close to the house, like we could jump into it from our porch with very little effort but that didin’t turn out to be the case. The pool, because the land was so low in realtion to our house, was built as a cement square sitting above the ground at first. To get to it for a look we had to climb down from the porch or consider putting a plank across from our porch to the pool but never did. Eventually the landscaper came and filled in two porches with dirt right by our house which helped to get around out back.
Progress on the pool was in fits and starts. Sometimes there were workers everyday doing something but we went most of April with not much of anything being done. We had been told, and had started hoping, that the pool would be finished by early May. This didn’t happen. We were planning a trip to the States at the end of May and Maurice didn’t want to leave without the pool being finished. He had learned to be around as much as possible when work was being done or something was done wrong. One day our neighbor across the street came roaring over as we came home from a trip to the grocery store because a huge truck bringing equipment had torn off a branch of one of their trees trying to turn off the very narrow road into the even narrower entry way to our house. Their house was the first one built on our street and the wall surrounding their land was built much too close to the road-we were required to have about 6 feet between a fence and the road-and some of the braches of their trees and bushes hung out into the road. I didn’t understand what the big deal was. It was an oak tree that grows all over the place and I’m sure they didn’t plant it, and they couldn’t even see the damaged part of the tree from their house or land, they had to walk out onto the road to see it. I think they were mad that the truck driver didn’t come tell them and just threw the branch over the wall into their yard. They thought Maurice should have been there to supervise. I don’t know how this could have been done when we never knew when anyone was going to show up and I doubt that Maurice would have been out on the road to watch the truck in any case. Half the time we didn’t know anyone was at our house until we looked out a window and saw a truck pulling up near the pool. I learned not to open the shutters to the bedroom until I was fully dressed as I sometimes was surprised when a workman or two strolled past on their way to work.
Our landscaper couldn’t do much of her work until they put the soil around the pool. Maurice had the name of the man who was supposed to do this and called him one day to see when he was coming as the swimming pool supervisor had told him the dirt mover man was due on a certain date. The digger knew nothing about it. The supervisor of the pool was doing the same thing the supervisor of our house did, telling us what we wanted to hear while, at the same time, collecting money. Maurice was able to get the digging guy to come out-he had his own earth moving machine-and finally fill in the area around the pool. It made such a difference and gave us an idea of what the yard would finally look like when we, some day in the distant future, got it finished.
The landscaper put some nice gravel on one of the porches and planted lavender and rosemary on the hill below the pool. She said it was really a little too late to plant them as it would be a little too warm so we had to water them every day or so. I wasn’t in Provence at the time and Maurice bought the flat hoses that spray out thin misty little jets of water. I had hoped for the hoses I used to use, soaking hoses, as I think they do a better job while saving water. I think Maurice didn’t want to bother with burying them or pay the higher price so now we are commited to this type of watering system The hill where the new plants are is huge and it will be an enormous job. It turned out we only had to water these plants for the summer. By the next summer we were told no watering was required and they all seem to be thriving.
We have huge expanses of land behind the pool that will require landscaping and I would like to, at one point, build a little pool house/covered area or cabana to put chairs under. This will be a year or two down the road when we aren’t putting out masses of money for other things needed for the house and yard.

A House in Provence Chapter 5

Beginning Building

Chapter 5

Months later the walls went up on our house, and finally, the roof. Now the building could really start to pick up speed since the weather wouldn’t be a factor. I hadn’t seen any of the progress on the house since the foundation and was looking forward to seeing what it looked like. It turned out that it looked smaller that I thought it would be at first. And it was all cinder block- the stuco plaster finish would be one of the last things done. When I walked around the back of the house I noticed that there was a four foot drop off out of our back door and back porch. The house had been built up on a foundation due to heavy rains experienced in the area. There had to be, by law, an area under the house for water run off. Due to my lack of understanding of the technical French, I didn’t comprehend a lot of what was said to Maurice during many meetings that went on between him and our supervisor. I could pick up quite a bit if the conversation was about general things but once it entered the technical stage my comprehension plummeted to zero. I wasn’t expecting our back door to be floating almost at my eye level. I could see right away that we would have to have some extensive work done to make the back of our house accessible.
We made a special trip with family to show them the house. It was locked up tighter than a drum. There were no workers there and Stephane wasn’t answering his cell phone. So we all got a good look at the outside. I asked Maurice if there was someway to get a key to the house so we could get in when no one was there. He told me that it wasn’t allowed-if we had the key then the building company couldn’t guarantee the work or items in the house. I couldn’t believe it. I found out that we wouldn’t get the key at all until the house was completely finished and we had what they called a reception and a walk through was done of the house.
One visit we actually were able to get into the house. We were looking at the kitchen area talking about counters and cabinets when we realized that the kitchen counter would stick out about 6 inches or so into the doorway. The door had been placed over too far. At first we were told that it couldn’t be fixed but in the end they did move it over. Then we were called one day and asked if we had to have a sink in the little room holding the toilet. (Most homes here have a separate room for the toilet with the bathtub and/or shower being in another room.) Maurice told me what they asked. I thought for a minute and said, “You know what? I’m not budging. I want the sink. What are they, a bunch of amateurs?” We would get the sink, or so I thought. When the house was finished, it wasn’t there.
The work did go more quickly and it was looking like the house would be finished before September. We got our hopes up forgetting about August in France. It seems that almost everyone takes off for vacation for the whole of that month. Work starts to taper off in July and it is well into September before everything is back to normal again.
It was then that Stephane started demanding 95% of the money owed on the house when only 75% or so was done. He was offended that we didn’t trust the company to finish everything as it was supposed to be done. The compressor for the air conditioner hadn’t been installed, nor had the plumbing fixtures. We were told that this was because there was a possibility they would be stolen. At this point Maurice and Stephane got into horrible arguments. I was afraid blows would be exchanged. The French often do this. You will hear two French people really arguing sounding extremely angry. Later, when you ask what the problem was, they are puzzled. Nothing was wrong, they were just having a discussion. This was a little different. I know Maurice was very angry and I was guessing Stephane was too.
We were at the house about 3 weeks before our so called reception when I noticed there was no light fixtures and I realized that this was something we had never picked out. We had only selected the location of light fixtures. There were bare wires hanging from the ceilings where, at least, we could screw in light bulbs so we wouldn’t be sitting in the dark. I noticed that there wasn’t a light of any kind in the entry way. I asked Stephane where it was and was told there wasn’t one. He pointed to the electical outlet on the wall. This was where we would plug in our lamp. I blew up and said it was ridiculous. How can you have a dark entry way without any light? Both he and Maurice looked at me like I was crazy and over reacting-this after their many arguments.
I found other things to be missing: no heating vents into the “water closets” holding the toilets so in the winter the toilet seats will be freezing. I assume they think that because you won’t (hopefully) be in the room for very long that no heating or cooling are required. There is a little window in these rooms which makes it even colder in the winter. The bathrooms with the shower and bathtubs only had wall heaters as well. They work effectively just taking a short time to warm up the room. The laundry room didn’t have a vent, either, but I was to find that the dryer made it a very warm room. The closets were empty of any shelves or poles to hang clothes on. The cabinets under the sink weren’t really cabinets. They were just door fronts,made of the cheapest wood possible, and the inside was empty with no shelves and old cement left on the floor from the tile installation. There was also no kick board under the bathroom cabinent, just an empty space which Stephane informed me was so there was a place for your feet to go when you were at the sink. There were no mirrors on the wall, medicine cabinets or drawers.
I wasn’t a happy camper and I wasn’t even in the house yet.

A House In Provence Chapter 4

Selecting A Builder

Chapter 4

We went to a huge development near Aix-en-Provence where over fifty model homes had been built so prospective clients could see the finished products of many French home builders. We finally settled on a well known builder in Provence, thinking this would keep us safe from a possible bankruptcy, which seems to be par for the course with any building project I have ever been involved in. We liked the model we had seen-it seemed to be good quality and wasn’t at an excessive price.
A few weeks later we met with an architect and he made changes to a standard plan that they already had. I had pictured a home with a wide long porch over-looking the great view we had. I pictured big wide sliding glass doors leading out to the porch making the porch a part of the living room. I found out that this wasn’t a possibility in the Luberon, the section of Provence where we would be living. Our house had to look like the typical bastide there with small shuttered windows, stucco exterior and tile roof (and no rain gutters). We were able to have some sliding glass doors but we learned that the heat can be so oppressive and the mistral winds so strong that small windows with shutters are a way of life here, a proven way to deal with mother nature. We would be able to have a small porch and Maurice and I decided we could extend it after the house was built with a patio. I even thought of screening in the porch but was told that the mistral would blow the screen right out. I wanted to spend time on the porch eating meals and enjoying the view but knew that something would have to be done for fly protection. Of course, this being France, no screens would be provided for any windows. They hadn’t had them for centuries, why start now? There is a small company starting to make screens for windows and doors and I think once people here find out how great it is not to have flies and mosquitoes invade their homes, that the business will take off.
We made a special trip to Provence to meet with the man who would be our building supervisor, Stephane. In one day we had to decide where we wanted every electrical plug, light fixture, placement of windows, bath tub, and much more. Then, at the end of this exhausting day, we had to pick out our bathroom tiles, floor tiles and exterior color. This was when I found out that the kitchen counters and cabinets were not included. I think this is fairly standard in France because when we moved into our apartment in Paris, the owner had us buy the kitchen cabinets and appliances separately. If we hadn’t, she would have taken them with her. We were to find out that a lot of other things wouldn’t be included in the price of our house, but this wouldn’t happen until months later.
Finally the time came for the ground to be broken. Again, we made a special trip down to Provence and drove out to our land. Indeed, there was a hole dug in the shape of the house but as we stood there looking at it Maurice said, “ Do you remember the house being this close to the road?” He was right. There was a ten foot difference between what we saw on our house plan and what, I guess, the man doing the digging had on his plan. This did not inspire confidence in our builder. The very first thing they do, and it is wrong? I was a little worried. A few days later a team came out and remeasured everything and we were told that it would be redug in the correct place.
Then we got a call from Stephane saying that they had found many more rocks than they had anticipated and we would have to pay extra. We figured this was something, being builders for years in the area of Provence, they should have anticipated and refused to pay extra for this.
With the problems we were seeing in just the beginning stages of building our house, Maurice thought maybe he should rent a room at a gite so he could be on site as work was being done. This might have been a really good idea if the area hadn’t had the wettest autumn in years. It poured everyday and they were unable to to start building the foundation. Of course, if the digging had been started in the correct place, the foundation would have been done well before the rain had started.
Before we ever started buiding, I had told my optimistic husband that building a house had never been a fun experience for me. People who tell you that their building experience was wonderful are the same as those married couples who tell you that they have never had an argument. And the fun was just starting.

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.