Monday, October 24, 2005

A scrappy job

In our second act as homeowners, on Saturday, Dawg and I spent the entire day clearing out all the scrap metal from the house and garden. I cannot believe that we: (a) had so much scrap around, (b) used our own two hands to dispose of it, and (c) had so much fun doing it.

It was exhausting, sweaty work. For some reason, there was never-ending amounts of tangled chicken wire strewn about the garden. Chicken wire is surprisingly heavy, and when it has been sitting around, exposed to the elements for several years, difficult to maneuver. The better part of the afternoon was spent staggering around underneath the chicken wire, trying to throw it over the edge of the trailer without letting it crash back down on our heads. The fun part was climbing aboard the trailer and stamping the wire down with my feet to make room for more. I'm such a ten-year old.

The most disgusting part of the day was attacking the mess in the attic. The attic is a lovely space, but is filled with -- no lie -- several hundred pounds of filthy old clothes. These clothes are filthy not only because they have been lying around in a dirty attic for an untold number of years, but also because an animal of uncertain species left rather large turds all over the clothes. Ewwww. Okay, it's not fresh shit. It's several years old and is grey and crumbly with age. But still. Oh my lord.

It is a testament of our love for this house, and how badly we want to restore it to normal, that Dawg and I got rid of the clothes ourselves.

Let me repeat that.

Dawg and I got rid of the shitty, dirt-laden clothes ourselves. Me - who gets freaked out by touching wilted lettuce leaves! Dawg - who has a phobia about Other People's Dirt! We did it. Who'da thunk?

Of course, we wore masks and heavy gloves and used a pitchfork so we wouldn't actually have to touch the clothes. But, gah! Feeling those bits of turds crunch to powder under our boots; blinking particles of God-knows-what out of our doesn't bear thinking about. But now, it's done, and it never has to be done again. Well, not the clothes part anyway -- there is still a lot of shit (literal and figurative) up in that attic that we'll have to get rid of somehow.

All in all, it was an honest day's work, and we congratulated ourselves all the way back to Paris for being rugged, hardy sort of people. Then we went out for sushi.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

So we own the house. Yay. Now what?

The first thing that Dawg and I want to do is clean the place up. The house is filled with junk. Real junk. Not, ooh-maybe-some-of-this-could-be-antiques, junk. I'm talking smashed mirrors, rusted cans, beer bottles, filthy mattresses type of junk.

Technically, the owner was supposed to clear out the house before title passed to us. But, given that he is a festering piece of crap himself hadn't lifted a finger to clean the house in the 30 years that he owned it, we didn't expect him to start now. Instead, our notaire and agent had a shouting match with him at the closing, insisting that he contribute some money to our cleaning costs. The FPC refused. (BTW, I no longer think of him as the gypsy as I'd be inadvertently insulting gypsies. The man looked like a crusty heel. And he stank so bad I got a headache.) After lots more shouting, bulging veins, and flying spittle, the FPC agreed to pay taxes on the house for the rest of the year, and the agent agreed to chip in 200 euros toward cleaning costs. Dawg and I were so sick of the whole thing, we caved. We just wanted our house.

Two days after signing on the house, we drove back to Burgundy, armed with masks, rakes, shears, disinfectant and 15 heavy-duty garbage sacks, and spent the day hacking out a path in the wilderness-like garden, and clearing out some of the crap in the house. It was a funny day. We filled 10 sacs full of crap, and would have filled more but we kept getting interrupted. Curious neighbors would wander by and we'd have to stop and say hello and be friendly. In this neck of the world, we have to be super-friendly and open to make sure that we are not pigeon-holed as Parisian or American snobs. And God knows, what with Dawg being German and all (our village was occupied during WWII -- German soliders used the kitchen in our house), he certainly doesn't want to give any bad impressions or fit a stereotype. So, we smile broadly and wave and say "Bonjour" to everyone we see.

Some people ignore our frantic overtures of friendliness (a few even look annoyed) but mostly everyone has been welcoming. Our next door neighbors (very nice people, but with horreneous taste) have already invited us over for an aperitif. Another neighbor, Jackee, has agreed to help us cart away some of our garbage. The person I liked best was our nearest neighbor, Titi, a tiny wrinkly guy of about 85. He told us that he's gardener, and still seems to be at it, despite his age. When we met him, he was wearing green wellies and a mackintosh, and was effortlessly pushing a big wheelbarrow full of manure into his yard. He stopped to chat with us, clapped his hands with delight when he learned we were officially neighbors, and told us he'd be living next door to our house since he was a boy. Dawg and I are dying to pump him for stories about our house. But we can't exactly invite him over for tea yet.

What I didn't like about our neighbors was this: every. single. one. of them looked at the house, grimaced, and then said: Bon courage. Translation: Good luck -- you're gonna need it. We always respond with a wry shrug and smile, and insist that it'll be hard work but fun. Still, I always feel a thrill of panic when they say it. Are we crazy for taking this on? I'm not entirely convinced that we're not.

Anyway, in other next steps, we have arranged for a meeting with our architects friends at the end of the month. F. and K. will drive to France from Berlin with their favorite carpenter and F's dad, who is also an architect and who speaks fluent french. Dawg and I, for our part, will arrange to have local masons, roofers, electricians and plumbers come to talk to the architects while they're here.

Since my french isn't really up to making arrangements and talking shop with the various builders, my job will be to deal with Red, the English guy that lives in our little village. I'll have to write another post about him, he's a character, but for now, I'll just say that he's a very handy guy, and has agreed to help us out as much as possible. He has already voluntarily strimmed half of our garden. No more hacking through the jungle!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

More pictures

Hmm. I've not yet mastered adding pictures. Excuse the mess.

These pictures were taken at various times in February and March. The photos with snow are pictures of the front of the house, though we never enter that way because the door is locked and no one has a key. In the end, we'll probably keep the door facing the garden (see, e.g., the sunny pictures) as the main entrance.

So, do you get how this all goes?

Picture #4 is the house from the street. You enter the property though the rusty gates shown in picture #2. Once you're inside the gates, you are facing the barn/garage (or, as we like to call it, the "guest cottage/wellness area") as shown in picture #1. When facing the barn, the house is to the right of you, as shown in picture #3. Picture # 5 is the back of the house, which we use as the front.

Got it?

Here she is!

It is Amityville-esque, is it not?

Now, mind you, as rotten as the house looked on this day, this is the house at its best. It looked even worse the day we bought it. This picture was taken in March, on our second or third visit. It don't look like this anymore. These days, weeds have completely overtaken the yard, and any attempt at a stroll through the "garden", requires safari hats, scythes, and effortful, jungle-like hacking.

Still, you can see why we love it, can't you? The potential for an amazing place is there. Scrape that ivy off, slap some paint on, replace all the windows and the front door, and you've got yourself a mighty nice-looking house! Of course, it'll still be uninhabitable, but whatever.

Friday, September 30, 2005


As of 5pm yesterday, after a long and complex closing, Dawg and Lola became the proud owners of a lovely, but completely useless, 19th century house! Owners and house are doing fine.

Pictures of the little dumpling will be posted later.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

It's really happening

We just got a call from the notaire. He wants us to sign the act de vente next Friday. Dawg and I looked at each other for a second, then panicked. We decided to put off the signing until the following Thursday (Sept. 29th). We need to get our heads straight. There is so much to do...get insurance...arrange to have all the junk cleared out of the house....start lining up potential to our architect friends...figure out how we're going to pay for all this....ack!

It's incredibly exciting. And scary.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Very superstitious

I had reservations about starting this blog before the house became officially ours. In blogging about the house before we bought it, I would clearly be thumbing my nose at Fate, which would promptly strike back. But, my confidence about this house was so high (mistake #1), that I went ahead and started the blog anyway (mistake #2).

Well. Fate decided to teach me a little lesson. You know... give me a taste of what it could do, it if really wanted to screw me.

In France, a potential buyer and seller sign what is called a "compromise de vente" (a promise of sale) in which the parties state their unequivocal commitment to buy or sell the property. Even though title doesn't transfer upon the signing of a compromise, both parties are pretty much locked in, and whoever renegs on the agreement has to pay the other 10% of the agreed purchase price.

After taking a couple of deep breaths, Dawg and I signed the compromise in mid-July. And then we waited to hear from the agent that the owner had signed. We waited...and waited...and waited...and finally, after nearly two weeks, we called to see what was going on. Well.

The owner told the agent that he had found another buyer, who was willing to pay 20% more than our agreed price. He wanted to pay the agent half of his fee, abandon his oral promise to us, and sell to this other party. We were going to lose the house.

This happened one week after I started this blog.

Dawg and I were devastated. Although we cursed that crazy gypsy owner up and down, secretly, I blamed myself. I had started the blog! I knew what could happen, and I did it anyway!

After we calmed down, we realized that the gypsy was probably playing games with us. I mean, the house has been on the market for nearly a year with not a single interested buyer -- then suddenly someone wants to buy it at the same time as us? And pay 20% more for it?? Not even we, who adore the old broken down thing, were willing to pay more.

Luckily, the agent and the notaire were fully on our side. The notaire is a notary, but not like we have in the U.S. In France, the notary plays the role of a real estate lawyer. He's the guy the checks to make sure that seller properly has title, draws up the act of sale, checks planning regulations, and notes existing charges against the property. Weirdly, he's the representative for both the buyer and seller, and he has an obligation to be impartial.

In this case, the notaire said that the gypsy was legally obligated to sell. After we negotiated the price, the gypsy wrote a letter to the agent giving the agent the "irrevocable right" to sell the house at the agreed upon price. The notaire said that this letter basically committed the owner to signing the compromise de vente. If he failed to do so, he would have to pay us 10% of the agreed price, and pay the agent 100% of his fees.

The gyspsy backed down and signed the compromise without further fanfare -- although, after signing he did call Dawg to tell him that we needed to "make a little more of an effort on the price. (This after months of negotiation and having already signed the contract. Crazy.) Dawg gently told him to kiss our ass.

You must be thinking, dear readers, that if I am so worried about tempting Fate, why am I still writing about this house that I don't own? Well, I'll let you in on a little secret.....

It is not really August 2nd.

After Fate gave me this little nudge, I stopped posting in this blog until we got the all clear to sign the final contract. August 2nd was the date the gypsy signed the compromise de vente. Today is actually September 19th.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Loving you is easy cuz you're beautiful

I saw the house and I knew. It sounds so trite, but honestly, from the moment I stepped foot on the property, I felt absolutely certain that this was our house.

Here's what I wrote about it at the time:

February 28, 2005 -- Tomorrow we get a second look at a gorgeous 18th century house that we fell in love with last week. If nothing is seriously wrong with it (that is, beside having no heating, electricity, kitchen, bathroom, etc.) we will buy it. I don't know how I will feel tomorrow, but last week it was, as it is said in France, a coup de coeur -- a blow to the heart. So much so that I walked around, I often found myself staring at the property with my hand pressed to my heart, as if I were swearing an oath of fealty. I couldn't help it. Every time I saw something new I liked (like the master bedroom with the cold, clear light spilling across the hardwood floor), my hand would fly to my heart. I saw family Christmases there. I saw picnics under the big tree in the garden. I saw long, gauzy white curtains fluttering from the top floor windows in a June breeze. I saw us drinking wine and eating cheese in front of blazing warm fireplaces. And, without even saying a word, I knew my Dawg saw it all too.

March 14, 2005 -- we're going to make an offer on the house on Saturday. It's going to be much, much, much lower than the owner thinks. In fact, it'll be half his asking price. That first visit, we saw the house as it could be. The second visit, we saw it for real. It is practically a ruin. We've had two architects take a look at it and both of them winced when they saw it. The last one, who took measurements of the rooms and listed all that needed to be done, shook our hands at the end of the day, glanced up at the house and said, "Bon courage," then he looked at the house again, tried to find something more encouraging to say, but in the end, he could only shrug and say again, "Eh oui. Bon courage." It's hard not to be terrified.The good news is, we met an English family that lives in the village and they told us that the house was on the market last summer for 50% of the current price! The owner (apparently a strange gypsy-ish character with sharp mood swings) decided to jack up the price when another old house in a neighboring village was sold for approximately the price of "our" house. Thank God we met these people. Not that we'd have bought it for this guy's asking price -- but our starting price might have been as much twenty thousand higher than it is now...or we might have abandoned the project. Of course, the owner could very well tell us to kiss his gypsy ass when he hears of our low bid. Well, if so, so be it.

March 28, 2005 -- We have put in an offer for the house. As expected, it's way, way below the asking price of the crazy owner, so we have no idea how he'll respond. Our sources say that initially he'll say no but eventually will come crawling around. We'll see. If not this house, we'll find another -- but I must admit: I love this house. Weekend before last, we spent the entire day in the village while our loyal, lovely architect friends from Berlin measured and made sketches of the the place. It was a beautiful day, even more beautiful than the first time we saw the house, and we feel in love with it all over again. We sat in the garden under the walnut tree looking up at the house and, almost like in a dream, the house morphed into a future version of itself. Gone were the dirty grey-blue crepi, the unshuttered windows, the brown peeling paint on the front door, the charred remains of a bonfire in the yard. As we watched, the house began to glow with beauty and warmth. The crepi became a light, welcoming color. The windows reflected a cozy, comfortable interior. Pink roses flourished in the garden and sweet-smelling jasmin twined around the handrail of the double staircase that leads to the front door. Fruit trees -- apple, pear, lemon -- sprouted along the long stone wall surrounding the garden. And we found ourselves sitting before a long wooden picnic table covered by a snowy cloth that flapped slightly in the breeze. All of this happened.Yes, yes, yes...I love this house.

Let me tell you something. This has to be our house. We must be fated for each other. Cuz this beautiful, blessed house, ain't really so beautiful. Not only does it not have electricity, plumbing, or heating, there is not one aspect of the house that does not have to be redone. The roof is sagging and has holes in it, the structure needs bolstering, all of the windows will have to be replaced, the front door needs...I don't know....a new door. There are five fireplaces, but they are all filled with cement. There is a bathroom, but I would only use it under heavy sedation. There is a garden, but the weeds in it are (literally) taller than I am. There is a room whose floor is completely covered with birdshit and dead flies.

To be honest, it would seem that we are buying the Amityville Horror .

But damn if I don't love it anyway.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

How It All Began

I have always dreamed of restoring an old house. Don't ask me why. I’m not a ‘handy’ person. In fact, I’ve never so much as attempted to repair a thing in my life. Before I met Dawg, when something broke, I either: (a) bought a new one, (b) continued using it until it was completely broken, or (c) decided I didn’t really need it anyway. But dreams are rarely based in logic or common sense, and the idea of restoring an old house stuck in my head anyway.

When I met Dawg, we quickly discovered that we had this restoration dream in common. Lucky for me, Dawg is handy. He installed our oven, washing machine and dishwasher when we first moved into our apartment. He rewired the electricity in the dining room and bathroom, while I stood by, cringing in fear. He takes apart, cleans, and reassembles the pipes under the sink when they get clogged. He has a big toolbox. Need I say more?

After fantasizing about it for a few years, about a year ago, inspired by passing a weekend in a fabulous 18th century manoir in the Loire (, we decided to go for it. For the next 9 months, we spent every day eyeing profiles of centuries-old houses on the internet (, pouring over the grainy pictures in a real estate magazines, calling owners and agents to set up appointments. Every Saturday morning, we'd get up at the crack of dawn to drive the 2 hours down to the Loire or Burgundy, check out 2-4 old houses, ask questions, scribble notes, take pictures of everything, do some more poking around the region, and then fight the traffic on the A6 to get back to Paris time for dinner.

House shopping is a lot like dating: you have a number of false starts before you find The One. There were houses we lusted over, even though they were bad for us. There were houses were couldn't get away from fast enough. There were houses that we liked only okay, but tried to work up lots of enthusiasm for because we thought they were what we should like. And, a few times, there were houses that we thought we loved.

There was:

  • the goregous 19th century farmhouse in the Loire, with the weeping willow in the courtyard, and phalanx of gnarled apple trees in the garden...situated in a town full of hideous cinderblock houses, and right next to a very loud and busy street.
  • the maison burgeoise in northern Burgundy, with the exquisite tile floors, spacious rooms, a vast and wonderful barn, lots of land....and a really good view of the 18-wheelers that rumbled by the living room window;

  • the cozy U-shaped farmhouse that lost its charm after we learned it was located in a town that was a deportation camp for French Jews in WWII;
  • the lovely overpriced house that had lots of land, tons of character, and a long-eared donkey in the backyard that liked to sneak up on you;
  • the sprawling farm with 9 rooms and no bathroom;

  • And then, all of the sudden, there was The One.


    I'm Lola, a 36-year old non-practicing lawyer living in France. Against all good advice and common sense, my husband (Dawg) and I are in the process of buying a gorgeous 200-year old ruin house in northern Burgundy, about two hours south of Paris. We're determined to restore it to its former grandeur. Too bad almost every architect we've met has run gibbering and screaming off the property.

    OK - I'm exaggerating. A little.