After much moving and back and forth, Ben and I had all our possessions in the same place. We added a member of the family with the addition of a kitten, who had escaped the autumn cull- when farmers “get rid of” litters of kittens to avoid overpopulation. The 2 month old Dale, or as we more often called him mini chat, was our first official house guest, but we would soon find out that many others would follow.
But before getting to house guests, a little bit about finding a house in the French countryside. There are currently 27 houses for sale in Pouillé. In a village with a population of a little over 700 people this represents a huge amount- about one out of ten houses, roughly, is for sale. The numbers are similar in neighboring villages as well. Houses stay on the market for a long time as owners cross their fingers that one day their decisions to renovate old winemakers' homes and windmills will pay off.
Renting a house, however, is a different story. As a musician and a freelance writer, respectively, Ben and I make little money and even less sense as candidates for a loan. Buying a house was not a possibility for us so finding a house to rent was our only option. We started browsing the French equivalent of Craig's List – leboncoin.fr – for rentals in the area and found exactly two. We visited the first one together, an uninspiring track house that we would've taken if the owner hadn't decided halfway through our visit, possibly after meeting us -the tattooed musician and the American writer- that she would rather sell the house then rent it.
A few weeks later Ben made the trip to visit the house we live in now. It was big, had a yard, a large bedroom, and a guest room. I learned all of this through texts and calls from Ben and our friend Juliette, who toured the house with Ben and updated me on their visit while I was back in Paris, doing one of my awful summer jobs. I saw the house- an old winemaker's home that had been entirely renovated by the owner- through photos when Ben got back. We said yes to it right away because we were ready to have a place to live.
Living in a house in the French countryside is very different from living in an apartment in Paris. I knew I would miss the charms of Parisian apartments, but I hadn't realized that the standard practice in the French countryside was to gut old houses of their inherent beauty and replace everything with cheaply manufactured modern conveniences. The elderly population in the countryside almost universally prefer electric heat and intense insolation, shunning the days of their youth when they huddled around a fireplace for heat and shivered themselves to sleep in drafty bedrooms. Bathtubs, fireplaces, stone walls and wood beams- everything must go- seems to be the overwhelming philosophy of renovation projects in the region.
Our home was no exception to this rule. The landlord, who fancied himself a homme à tout faire, a sort of freelance handyman, had done all the work himself and cut every corner along the way. Upon first glance the house is fine, and we have made it a very happy home, but every day, at least in the early days of living here, a new architectural shortcoming seemed to come to light. The styrofoam paneling on the ceiling to retain heat, the plastic showers that have leaked since day one, the obviously impractical white tiles that immediately show each speck of dirt in a country house which people track mud into every day. The neon lighting overhead, the mirrors in the bathroom hung so low that you have to be on your knees to catch your reflection, the list goes on. We took everything with a sigh, a shoulder shrug, and a smile because we were happy to be living together and happy to be living in Pouillé.
I know these are first world problems. I know we are lucky to have a house to call a home. And I want to say that aesthetic issues with the house wouldn't even merit airing in public if that's all there was to the house...
But then the electricity went out. Over and over again. Despite the fact that our house had been on the market for so long that the landlord decided to finally rent it out, somehow he had failed to equip the house with a steady source of electricity. Apparently he didn't see a problem with that.
We tried to take it in stride- the fact that we were essentially illegally sharing electricity with our neighbor/landlord through a cord connected to his house, until November rolled around and it started to get cold. Equipped with the option of an antique wood stove that had been left behind by the owner and a noisy electric heating system, we tried to rely on our stock of wood to heat the house instead of straining our electricity reserves. But heating wasn't our only challenge.
While living on limited electricity we learned that: we couldn't have the oven and the stove on at the same time, we couldn't wash clothes (something I need to do practically every other day with all the muddy jeans, soiled socks, and sweaty shirts that working in the vines generates) and cook at the same time, and that- for reasons unknown to us- sometimes we couldn't simply boil a pot of water to make coffee without shorting out all the electricity in the house.
We tried everything, Ben turned off the water heater after our morning showers and then got up in the middle of the night to turn it back on so we would have hot water in the morning. We unplugged everything when I wanted to make a cake around the same time I was thinking of using the stovetop to make dinner. We tried our best, but it seemed like every simple gesture became complicated by the never ending cycle of the lights going out, sending us to the landlord's house to flip the switch on the circuit breaker to get the electricity back, then repeating as necessary.
“I think I'm going to go crazy” I texted my friend Kristen one morning, when Ben was away on tour and I was alone, left to bundle up against the early winter chill and go next door four times in the span of 30 minutes, in the vain hope that I would be able to make a cup of coffee.
Later that week, at a lunch with the winemakers I brought hard boiled eggs which oozed out of their shells when cracked open- the electricity had gone out just as I was starting to boil the eggs earlier that day and, not able to rally to go back to the landlord's house for the nth time that day, I had hoped letting them soak in the still hot water would do the trick. It didn't. I was mortified.
By the time Thanksgiving was nearing I was happy I had bought a ticket to spend the holiday with my family in California. Mostly because I knew I could cook and read by lamplight uninterrupted thanks to a reliable source of electricity. Also because I love my family.
While in California, I made plans to have a sleepover with Brigitte, my childhood friend and also my cousin. We had plans to meet at her house in Santa Cruz, which I had never been to. She gave me directions in a text message: “The main house is a white house...the lock box is by the front door, please let yourself in. Sit on the hammock, lounge on the couch, take a nap in my bed, walk to the park at the end of the street...There are a couple of beers in the fridge and crackers and cheese and anything else you can find to eat is yours...We can do anything you want, I just am so excited to see you.”
This is one of my favorite texts of all time. Brigitte lives in her equivalent of My Paris Apartment and I knew it the minute I walked in the door. A main house hidden behind two large Victorian houses is where Brigitte has her first floor studio apartment that made me feel immediately warm and welcomed.
Living in Pouillé had started to feel increasingly challenging- the electricity was a big thing, but also the transition from having a group of friends made up of people who were like me- lady food writers and goofy expats- to a new peer group of French winemakers, was harder than I thought it would be. I felt left out of conversations a lot, not used to being 100% French 100% of the time and felt discouraged about ever truly being friends with the people that now made up my social circle. I hadn't felt this isolated since when I first moved to Paris, and had to make myself at home abroad for the first time.
Not being able to make a successful hardboiled egg contribution to communal lunches- or even a cup of coffee in the morning for that matter- didn't help things. I was happy to be in my cousin's apartment- in a new place that felt familiar, sitting on a porch looking out onto the Cyprus trees that reach towards the California coastline, waiting to have wine and crackers with someone I've known my whole life, with whom I could do anything I wanted, we were just excited to see each other. That moment, and a fun night out with my cousin, was exactly what I needed to get me back to bubbling, like a kettle with unlimited access to electricity, with happiness.
Eventually the electricity in our house in Pouillé got sorted out. It's a period of our life that we've almost forgotten about now- thanks to a healthy human instinct to suppress memories that no longer serve us.
The lights are still slightly blinding and the styrofoam panels aren't going anywhere, but we've added our own touches to the house. We have our records- Ben's Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy and my Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye, and Fleetwood Mac. There's Ben's guitars, my books, houseplants, our cats, and a calendar that is filled with the names of friends who have booked their weekends at their adopted country house in advance.
There are the things that were waiting for us when we moved into our house- some unwelcome discoveries and challenging realities- and then there's what we filled our house with: not just our things, but also our friends. And I'm happy to say that our friends won't let leaky showers or fluorescent lights get in the way of our good times.
A home isn't electricity or tiles or questionable taste in interior design. A home is a place where the people you love feel at home, too.