Mountains at Collioure, André Derain, 1905. Pretty much the view from our backyard.
In Collioure, there were still renovation projects going on during the confinement. When I took Desmond out for his daily walk, I saw painting and plumbing trucks parked up and down the winding streets. But these were detail guys who could work alone — plumbers, cabinet makers and installers, and painters. We had an entire demo job planned and couldn’t begin until the déchetterie reopened. Just as administrative offices, cinemas, clubs, bars, and restaurants were closed until further notice, so was the dump.
That, however, gave us (me) plenty of time to fantasize about calling off the sale, continuing to live in the exquisite and exquisitely small apartment in the centre ville, where we paid a little too much rent, but were otherwise happy. This, however, did not solve the Single Bathroom Problem, a more immediate one than the stairway problem (see Stairway to Second Thoughts).
Perhaps you assume that the Single Bathroom Problem is one of vanity. That as a privileged American I cannot bear the thought of sharing a mirror while I brush my teeth, or that I need my own private salle de bain to perform my daily toilette. Indeed — skipping ahead a bit — when we were deciding on les elements (I don’t even know what the collective noun in English for the shower, sink, cabinet, faucets, and other bathroom-y stuff) for the master bath, our contractor Pascal naturally assumed we wanted two sinks. When offered a choice, apparently, Americans always choose two sinks. I said, “Pascal, we live in the south of France. It’s not as if we’re racing off every morning to our jobs at a fast-paced law firm. One sink is fine.”
But back to the Single Bathroom Problem. If we stayed in the exquisite and exquisitely small apartment in the centre ville, we would have only one bathroom, with no chance of adding another. If you have yoked yourself to another human with vastly different bathroom habits from yours, having one bathroom guarantees a stress-inducing daily emergency.
Our house in Portland had four bathrooms, so for many years we forgot about the existence of the Single Bathroom Problem. As I mentioned in my last post, like many men Jerrod engages in a personal Occupy movement in the bathroom at least once a day. While researching my recent book Yeah, No Not Happening, I read a piece in the Irish Times about how men feel about self-improvement. One man from Cork sold out his brethren, revealing the truth: Men spend so much time in the bathroom because it’s the only place on earth where nothing is expected of them. Armed with this new knowledge, I asked Jerrod whether we might arrange another hideout for him, leaving the bathroom free.
On an average day, Jerrod requires ninety minutes. I require a minute, possibly two. I’m Snappy Pete, in and out. The problem however is that I cannot anticipate when I’ll need the bathroom, whereas Jerrod is able to schedule his ninety-minute sessions whenever he wants. He will say, “I’m going into the bathroom, do you need it?” A short Beckett play ensues:
“No, I don’t need it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t need it.”
“When do you think you will need it?”
“What did we have for dinner last night?”
“Will you need it within the next twenty minutes?”
“Doubtful, but I might.”
“Just don’t knock on the door while I’m in there.”
“I can’t promise anything.”
Jerrod withdraws into the bathroom, and five or fifty minutes later I knock on the door. Because now I have to go.
“Are you almost done in there?”
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Is it a real minute or a Jerrod minute?”
This is why we could never manage in the exquisite and exquisitely tiny apartment in the centre ville, or on the ground floor of the Ugly House with the lone, impossibly tiny WC. Facts were facts: We needed to have a permanent home with more than one bathroom. We would need to honor our deal to purchase the Ugly House (because you have to live somewhere, right?) and join the two flats.
This left the seemingly intractable stairway problem. So, I called Valérie. Valérie was my first friend in Collioure. It was she who found the exquisite and exquisitely small apartment for us, and she who patiently answers all my questions about the perplexing ways of the French. Some of you reading this might know her and her sublime boutique, La Plage Rouge. Valérie also designs beautiful jewelry that echoes the heart and soul of Collioure, and is an accomplished interior designer. If anyone would be able to solve the stairway problem, it would be Valérie.
Jerrod and I live around the corner from Valérie and her family in the centre ville, and were part of the same quarantine pod. One windy spring afternoon, attestations in hand, we walked over to the rue du Soleil, to look at the house.
The gate to the small courtyard squeaked as I opened it. The noise seemed loud on the empty street. I unlocked the front door. I walked down the hallway and opened the back door. When the back door is open, you can see straight through the house to the breathtaking view – green hillsides, vineyards, and three ancient forts. I told her our ideas about tearing down the walls and creating an open floor plan. We would replace the wooden back door, currently painted mustard yellow, with French doors that gave on to the patio and garden. For many months of the year people live outside here, and we imagined holding many dinner parties, apéros, and writing workshops in our “outdoor” room.
Valérie agreed that the extraordinary focal point of our otherwise plain little house was the view, and everything on the ground floor should lead the eye in that direction. A spiral staircase would not only break up the space, but would also call too much attention to itself. Just because a staircase felt like a big component of the room, it didn’t need to be treated as such. She suggested a simple staircase running up the right-hand wall, painted the same color. The railing could run along the inside, rather than the outside, to further increase the sense of openness. We could build bookshelves underneath to save more space.
The staircase will be the last major part of the build out, so I still have plenty of time to rethink it hundred times, but Valérie’s solution is simple and elegant, and thus very French. That evening there was more good news: next week the déchetterie would finally reopen, and we could begin.