In France, it was called la confinement, as if the entire populace were delicate ladies of the landed gentry enduring pregnancy in private. From March 17 to May 11 we were permitted to leave our homes for one hour a day, to market, exercise, or walk the dog. We were required to carry an attestation we filled out ourselves, stating our reason for being out and about. People complained a bit, even though it was merely self-monitoring. If you were stopped by a gendarme and didn’t have your attestation, you were fined 135 euros. We were never stopped, because we always had Desmond on his leash. At ninety pounds, he’s the second-largest dog in the village (a hundred-plus pound Newfie enjoys first place). Desmond is also half Great Pyrenees, a feared and respected breed in this part of the world, where they work as livestock guardian dogs, defending flocks in the actual Pyrenees. Every spring the local paper runs an article about what to do if you’re hiking and run into one of these intimidating beasts (freeze, don’t make eye contact, send the silent thought-message: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”) Even the most badass gendarme knew better than to make trouble for us when we had Desmond.
Every afternoon we walked from our tiny apartment in the centre ville to le faubourg. The village was gloriously deserted. One of the boulangeries was open, but the others were shut. As was the boucherie, the bank, and both the Templiers and the Café Sola, local watering holes that usually remain open even in the middle of winter, when all the tourists, vacationers, and day trippers have gone home. We climbed the gentle hill to rue du Soleil and stared at the house, hatching plans for the remodel.
What did we want? What did we need? What could we do without? These were questions we hadn’t really asked ourselves. Neither of us had ever done a major remodel, or even a minor one, come to that. When we bought our house in Portland in 2004 the kitchen had already been redone, outfitted with a cheapo electric stove from the clearance aisle of Home Depot. I knew next to nothing about stoves, but even I could tell it was junk. We told ourselves the first thing we would do after taking possession was replace the stove; in 2020 when we sold the house, the objectionable piece-of-junk stove was still there. It worked fine, and we’d never wanted to waste money replacing it.
The ugly house is a little less than 1,200 square feet, divided between the two floors. First, we thought we could live on the ground floor and rent out the top. In the high season we could make enough to cover our mortgage for the whole year! This would relieve us of the need to generate income, giving us more time to sit around in cafés drinking tiny cups of bad coffee and reading cheap French paperbacks.
This is and was an excellent idea . . . for someone else. I could imagine adjusting to a parade of strangers entering our small front courtyard and tromping up and down the stairs, imagine enduring the sounds of their footfalls overhead, their showering, fucking, and general vacation-making racket. I could NOT imagine cleaning the place after they’d left, washing their sheets, scrubbing out the toilet, and tossing out the half-eaten jar of anchovies they’d left behind in the fridge — then reading the reviews on Trip Advisor criticizing the water pressure and thread count.
Also—and perhaps more critically—there was the reality of living permanently in a 500-ish square foot one bedroom flat with a single bathroom and a man who, like all men, behaves as if it’s his own private daily retreat space.
In the evenings, after the nightly 8:00 applause for French health workers (we stood on our third-floor terrace and banged pots and pans with wooden spoons, then slung some wretched French at the neighbors across the way), we worked on the floor plans. Upstairs there would be a master bedroom and bath, a chambre d’amis (I love this translation for guest room) and bath, and my office. Downstairs: open floor plan, kitchen, pantry, and small half bath, otherwise known as WC, a water closet or “Vay-say.” We almost forgot: we would need a stairway. We’d been so focused on ridding the house and the world of the hideous exterior staircase we forgot we would need an interior one. I developed a dowager’s hump from hours spent hunkered over Pinterest, looking at staircases. For a week, I was sure we should we have one of those wrought iron spiral numbers.
They’re very French and we’re in France and so why not? Then I thought, no they’re too French. I didn’t want to wind up with a place that looked like a suite in Paris, Las Vegas. And in any case, we may be in France, but just barely. Collioure is Catalan, and I thought the house should at least be conversational with that style, not that I really knew what that was. When I Googled “Catalan style” the first hit was a recipe for Catalan-style spinach. The most famous Catalan architect and designer is Antoni Gaudí, whose cathedral, Sagrada Familia, is so resolutely itself it can’t possibly serve as a design reference for anything except that last acid trip.
One rainy afternoon we walked Desmond over to rue du Soleil, let ourselves into the house, and measured a space for both a spiral staircase and a straight stairway to run along one wall. Suddenly, I was shocked at how small the place was. ANY staircase was going to take up too much room. Not to mention a sofa, or a dining room table. No floor plan on earth was open enough to give this place the illusion that it was anything more than a fancy hut.
I wondered, then, if it was too late to back out of the deal. Nothing seemed to be happening. The banks were closed. The notaire was closed. No money had changed hands. Maybe if we didn’t keep calling our banker to ask if there was any news, everyone could forget the whole thing. C’est possible?