What did we know about our charming fixer-upper? Only what met the eye. The French devotion for history apparently does not extend to the history of individual property, or the history of the ugly house at any rate. Neil, our estate agent, knew that it was owned by a father and two sons who lived in Toulouse. Otherwise, it was a mystery.

The house is roughly 1200 square feet, a respectable size by French standards. At some point it had been divided into two rental flats. The rez-de-chaussée (what Americans think of as the first floor) featured a long hallway extending straight from front door to back. On the left side there was a tiny water closet-cum-laundry room, large bathroom, and bedroom. On the right, a kitchenette, dining room and tiny salon. The floor was wall-to-wall 1950s-era Catalan ceramic tile.

Three types of tile, assuring there is never a lack of visual interest.

Upstairs, you enter the premier étage (what Americans think of as the second floor) via a suburban-looking front door made of PVC with an “elegant” fan window. It was traditional to the region of find-the-cheapest-thing-out-there-slap-it-up-and-call-it-good. Inside, the living space was t-shaped. On the left, there was a large bedroom with a double bunk bed — I could and will write an entire post about the French passion for bunk beds – and a WC. On the right, just inside the front door, a big bathroom, that also housed the water heater and washing machine, and another bedroom. In the back, there was a kitchenette, dining area and tiny salon. French doors opened out onto the back terrace, and the intoxicating view.

One of two kitchenettes: the toaster is as wide as the dish washer

In early December, my friend Rachel and her family were visiting from Bordeaux. One day we walked over to the rue du Soleil so I could show her the house. Like the rest of the village, rue de Soleil was quiet this time of year. The holiday home people who celebrate Christmas in Collioure wouldn’t arrive for several weeks, and most of the rental apartments were shut tight. Two doors down from what we were already calling our house even though, despite many long meetings with our banker, we hadn’t a clue where we were in the mortgage process, there lived a couple from LA, who split their time between France and Italy. Currently, they were in Rome.

Rachel and I were shocked to arrive and find the doors wide open. Was someone robbing the place? We’d heard that the low season for tourists was the high season for breaking and entering. It was common knowledge among petty criminals that holiday homes were vacant, and could be burgled at leisure. Our house, being a rental property, wasn’t exactly bursting with Louis XIV antiques. Unless you were in the market for a French Scrabble board missing most of its squares or a faux leather sofa that looked imported straight from a third-rate fraternity, there was nothing much of interest inside. Still, as we opened the wrought iron gate we called “bonjour!” (To be discussed: Is one still considered insufferably rude if one fails to properly greet a criminal?)

Bustling rue du Soleil in winter, ugly house on the right

The French version of Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad bounded out of the upstairs unit carrying an IKEA pole lamp. As he jogged down the stairs he said – I don’t know what he said. I feel flattered when someone looks me in the eye and hits me with their zippy native French. I take it to mean either don’t look American, or I’ve gotten in the habit of holding my mouth in a way that looks like fluent French is poised to fly out of it at any moment.

Fortunately, Rachel is fluent. She said, “He said he’s the owner.” The owner! In all my research about French etiquette, I recalled nothing about what to do when you’re in the process of purchasing a house, and the estate agent has trusted you with a set of keys, and you use them to show a friend around the house, and then run smack into the owner. For a long moment, I wondered whether he thought we were burglars here to burgle his rental property during the off season.

Behind him, carrying nothing, a young woman with beautiful red hair emerged. She was Benetton ad beautiful, covered with freckles, with pale lashes and glass green eyes. Rachel said, “his daughter?” I whispered, even though it was clear they didn’t speak English, “I was told he only has sons.”

The intoxicating view. In the distance, Tour Madeloc, built in the 13th century

We don’t introduce ourselves because people aren’t big on introducing themselves here. You just start talking. I said I was one-half of the American couple who was purchasing the house, and he didn’t seem insulted that I was, um, trespassing. Instead, he was happy to talk to us.

He, too, wasn’t sure how old the house was. He guessed it was built right after World War II. 1947? 1950? It was designed and constructed by his wife’s family, who ran the boulangerie on Le Faubourg, as this side of the village is known. They were known as the best boulangers in all of Collioure, he said, and thus were prosperous.

French real estate law stipulates that only children can inherit property. If I am flattened by a tourist bus on the way to take a swim, my husband and my daughter inherit my half of the property. If Jerrod and I are both flattened by the tourist bus, my daughter inherits the house. We cannot leave it to my literary agent (sorry, David) or our dog.

Thus, French Hank Schrader inherited his wife’s house along with his sons, and Rachel and I quickly and probably erroneously surmised that now that the redhead Benetton model was in the picture, French Hank was eager to divest himself of his deceased wife’s family’s ugly house, rental income be damned. Or maybe he was just tired of the upkeep.

French Hank had something to show us. We followed him upstairs, into the kitchenette. He knelt down and beckoned us to get closer. He pulled back a plank of the faux-wood laminate flooring, to show – yes – pristine wood floors. He insisted that the hardwoods were in excellent shape and just needed finishing. Given the haphazard window treatments, the lovely authentic wooden volets Catalan languishing in the garage as shelving, and the cheap ass upstairs front door made of PVC, I was dubious. But months later, when we began the demolition (a French word, from the verb démolir), we saw that French Hank wasn’t exaggerating, and had every reason to be proud of the hidden hardwoods. They will be easily restored to their former glory.

A little beat-up but beautiful

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Jenny George says:

    Love reading these!

  • Jack Sabin says:

    We too are in the throes of fixing up a somewhat bedraggled house. We’re not sure why folks in the rural west feel obliged to decorate their homes as though the place was an discarded set from Bonanza. We’ve replaced the deer antler chandeliers with our thrift store finds that reflect our own odd sensibilities and tore out the wolf themed wallpaper to be replaced by butter yellow paint and wall tile.
    Since this is our first year we’ve planted only a modest garden; just enough to feed the marauding deer herds. Our one acre property is covered in tumble weed, thistle and weeds that indignantly resist modern biochemistry. They laugh at Roundup and spit in the face of 2-4-D. I’ve tried hacking away at them with my machete only to come away with cuts and aching shoulders. Next step: goats.

  • Diane Dean says:

    I’m hooked already! I’m looking forward to the next chapter including pictures. Nothing like remodeling to add excitement and vision to your life.

  • Petra says:

    Oh those floorboards! (Also are those your shoes? Gorgeous!)

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