Originally written June 21st 2022
I’m here! After a long journey, I have finally made it to our little cozy village house that our neighbor tells us used to hold patients who were waiting to be treated at the local village hospital. What happened to the watchmaker’s home you ask? A year later, I am still wondering the same thing!
When Andy and I got heavily into the financial details of owning a second home, I had actually reached out to the watchmaker’s real estate agent. We had chatted throughout the month of March about Andy and I coming to see the home if it was still available in June, when I was finally off of school. From the little information that I was able to collect from googling around online, I had discovered that reaching out to real estate agents early was highly recommended. Neither Andy nor I had ever been to the south of France, so we decided to create a list of homes to go and visit, stretching across the entire south. We talked openly about our willingness to let ourselves fall in love with the watchmaker’s home and agreed it was the home we were hopping on a plane to visit come June, but we knew we should see more than just one home in order to feel as though we had done our due diligence. Setting up viewings with real estate agents in France is very different than doing so in the U.S. In France, the person seeking to buy a home does not have an agent. It is up to the potential home buyer to find homes they want to tour and then contact the agent, FOR EACH HOME! There were instances, however, when we were on a home tour, where the agent would suggest a few of their other listings not too far away. Unfortunately, we always declined, already having a pretty set schedule on the days that we visited homes. The process of having to contact multiple agents, though, meant that if you wanted to view five different homes, the probability of you having five different agents was pretty high. In our case, trekking across the entirety of the south of France and having 15 + listings on our plate meant a slew of agents from many different regions and backgrounds.
Around May, when we were about half way through planning our final list, it started to click as to why it was suggested to try and connect with an agent early. There were quite a few homes that made it on our list that had numerous agents on the listing, each one from a different agency. Despite leaving numerous messages, both voice and email over the past few weeks, we couldn’t get a response from any of the agents, much to our frustration.
It was starting to feel as though most of my correspondence was strictly set to tracking down someone who wanted to show me the house of interest. To our surprise, there are a lot of foreign agents in France. During our search, we had English, Norwegian, Dutch, Irish, Scottish and Danish agents, but it seemed to be strictly the French agents who would let your requests go unanswered. While we still aren’t 100% sure why this seemed to be the case for us, one French agent did shed some light on a potential reason. “We need to fill the windows,” she said in English with the most perfect and elegant French accent. She tilted her head towards the window facing the street. The front window was lined with ads for homes that were for sale, catching people’s attention as they walked by and glided to a sudden halt in front of them. “We aren’t in a hurry to take them down, then we’d have gaps in our offerings.”
Another difference we were soon to discover were the home advertisements themselves. Many of them are quite misleading, listing a larger, well-known town in the area as the location of the house. When you arrive at the town, though, you are then chauffeured 10-20 minutes away from that location to where the home actually is. This aspect is really disheartening, as you are usually taken away from the ideal location that got you to set up the appointment in the first place, and transported to a location in the middle of nowhere that toots a traveling boulangerie as a key feature in the otherwise desolate town. And then there were the photos, the awful, awful photos. You are lucky if your listing features more than three blurry photos actually depicting the home. So many times the photos will give you zero context as to a home’s layout or the actual space and more often than not, there will not be a photo of the outside of the home. When we asked an agent about this, they had said it is because the listing agent does not want other agents poaching the listing. We were surprised to discover that a seller can have multiple agents for their one home, pitting them against each other. It started to make sense why some homes had up to five different agents, all from five different agencies. I will say that in some cases, however, this feature actually worked in our favor. There were quite a few times where we were able to find the listing on multiple sites and contacted every agent, only having one finally get back in touch for a showing. So, while having multiple agents made it a little harder to keep track of whose house was whose, it did widen the possibility of getting a return call and being able to get our foot into the door, no pun intended!
Another thing we found interesting is that most agents would meet us in the town square and walk us to the home. Some even had us sign documents saying that if we bought the home, it would be purchased through them. Addresses are not given for homes in France, in order to prevent the buyer from just going to the home and propositioning the owner to sell to them directly, cutting out the agent (and their fees) entirely. There was definitely a learning curve when it came to this buying experience!
When it came to the circumstances surrounding buying in France, we were actually quite lucky. Because of covid, many countries (especially the ones who fuel the south of France holiday home market) were still banned from entering. That meant that homes were sitting for much longer than usual and that owners, eagerly ready to part with their properties, were willing to cut prices more than normal. We crossed our fingers and created a list of 17 homes from Caracassone to Menton.
Originally written on June 20th
Up until that point, we had been just looking at listings, we hadn’t actually taken any other steps in procuring a home abroad. No talks with banks or real estate agents. No deep dives onto Reddit or google about “how to buy a home abroad.” Until the point of finding the watchmakers home, everything was light and fun. A very half foot in half foot out approach to buying abroad.
The first photos of the watchmaker’s house drew you in. The facade, with its lovingly maintained original woodwork, popped in a cheerfully vibrant robin’s egg blue. The rez-de-chaussee (or ground floor) was being used as a tea house, serving lunch to the fortunate few who got one of their five petit tables. Past the dining room, through a large rounded passage cut into the centuries-old stone, was an absolutely charming kitchen. The space had all the allure of modern American practicality along with the charm of traditional French antique cottage decor. Worn market baskets hung from the ceiling and old nicked cutting boards of all shapes and sizes lined the backsplash around the deep porcelain sink.
But it was upstairs that stole our hearts. On the premier ètage, there were two bedrooms that were reminiscent of the Belle Epoch era. Beautiful gilded fireplaces rose from the herringbone-patterned original wooden floor boards and cascaded onto the ceilings above.The beautiful floor to ceiling windows, magnificent on their own, allowed large pools of light to spill into the rooms, illuminating all of their continents and bathing the rooms in a soft glow, bringing them to life. Large marble wash basins steadied themselves against the deeply carved wooden walls. Beautifully upholstered Louis XV beds were neatly dressed with provençal-style quilts. The charm of the home was only exemplified when we began to hear more about its past. It was the original home to the town’s watchmaker, who, at that time, was prosperous enough to afford such lavish sleeping rooms, tipping us off to his success.
“Wouldn’t it be really cool to own TWO homes with a unique history?” Andy asked.
Here in Pittsburgh, we ended up searching for a year before finding a home that was built by a saddle maker in 1865. After his death, the home was sold off and its rooms were rented out to multiple families, while the basement was used as a speakeasy by locals looking to indulge in secret. In the 1930s the home was briefly used as a VFW before falling into the hands of the Polish Falcons and becoming one of their “nests” for the next 30+ years. During the 80’s the home sat vacant until a kind and creative couple reclaimed the space as their home. Staying true to the home’s past as being used in many different contexts, Tom and Jean used their new home as a meeting place for the new church they founded, an artist haven, allowing struggling artists to stay for free in their attic, a campaign headquarters for Obama, and a concert hall where many musicians recorded their music because of high ceilings perfect acoustics. Their colorful stories only added to the allure and our interest when touring the home, as did the original bar in the living room equipped with taps from the 70’s.
But the watchmaker’s house was what started it all, the looking into our finances, the endless emails with French banks, the handful upon handful of loan declines from said French banks. It’s funny to be sitting here now a year and a half later at the airport with three months worth of personal possessions stuffed into two large suitcases and one backpack ready to board a flight to France for the summer. Lugging these insanely heavy bags through the airport definitely made me wonder if I really needed to pack a tub of Jif peanut butter or the three cans of my favorite pizza sauce. I keep telling myself that I will be in heaven one day when I am really craving a taste of home and that moment will be worth all the current suffering.
Originally written June 19th, 2022
Andy and I travel a lot, but owning a home abroad wasn’t really something we ever talked about. I think we likened the idea of it to extensive wealth and a certain kind of person. One with great means, class and status. We’ve always felt like two kids from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who worked hard and had nice things, but were in a completely different league.
The talk about owning a home abroad all started one afternoon after our respective work days had wrapped up. I was sitting on the couch when Andy walked into the living room, furiously scrolling on his phone. For the past few days, he had been following a producer friend’s journey through holiday home owning via their instagram stories. Lisa and her husband, Nick, had just purchased a little cottage in Acadia, New York and were spending a lot of their newly found free time renovating the space to rent it. Covid seemed like the perfect time to take on such a large scale project. As he scrolled through their progress pictures on his phone, he turned to me with such stark sincerity and asked, “What do you think about owning a vacation cabin?” I knew his question was more about floating a larger idea than it was asking about a specific location or type of holiday home. By asking this question, he was opening the door to the larger idea of second home owning, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I loved the idea of having a second property as a rental or the idyllic thought of opening an old B and B and catering to an eclectic mix of guests from all over the world. We’ve always said how nice it would be to have a rental or two, but time and money had always prevented us from talking about it in depth or with serious intention.
I pulled my knees to my chest, coddling my teacup between my hands and the notch between my knees. Andy sat down next to me, continually scrolling through the photos. I didn’t answer immediately. Giving his question a thoughtful pause, I pictured us sitting in a cabin, fire roaring. “We aren’t really cabin people”, I told him, finally snapping back to reality and taking a sip of my tea. My mind instantly floated back to the image of us in a cabin, looking at each other, wondering what we could do, (what we SHOULD do) other than being in the cabin, which I know for most people is half the fun. Something about the idea of being secluded in the woods with only large, wild animals as your closest signs of life seemed a bit suffocating to me. Andy grew up in the heart of Buffalo and had moved to Pittsburgh to work on his undergrad at The University of Pittsburgh, so small-city living is all he has ever really known. I, on the other hand, spent my first 20 years in a small, seven street town where no one locked their doors and each of the residents knew everyone else’s business. If you sneezed your neighbor two blocks away was coming by with a pot of chicken soup and a friendly “bless you.” It wasn’t until my late twenties when I moved to Pittsburgh and began “city” living. I wouldn’t exactly call us “city slickers” by any means, but rural or roughing it wouldn't be words that would immediately jump to mind either. Andy grabbed some of the covers, scooching over to share the photos. I turned my thoughts back to the conversation at hand.
“What a cool space!” I said, peeking over his shoulder at his phone. “They’re really doing a great job with it,” I started, “but when you and I travel, we go to Europe. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a landing pad for all of our European adventures?” I said, taking the phone in one hand, my tea in another. I enlarged the current photo, studying all of the thoughtfully placed furniture and decorations.
That simple question was all it took to break up the monotony of what had become our daily lives. Instantly, our mornings were spent perusing village cottages over our ritualistic coffee, starring and circicling potential purchases as if looking over a supermarket weekly ad. Then, after a few days of accumulating a list, we’d sift through the homes we had liked, looking up where the small hamlet or village was located, familiarizing ourselves with the lesser-known French countryside. Homes that made the cut were sent to Agnès, my French friend who lived in the north, for further review. “No, not that town. That town has a racist, homophobic mayor. He’s in the press a lot, but not for good things.” Having Agnès to help shape our list was an extra layer of security that we didn’t even know we needed. She steered us clear of regions and towns that were finding themselves in turmoil or scandal for one reason or another or just didn’t align with Andy and I’s free-spirited, liberal ways. And so, the filtering process continued until we built ourselves a pretty substantial list of loved and desired homes. Some were dreamy, once loved châteaux that had crumbling walls and viney overgrown gardens.Others were tiny village houses, with inviting, original wood-beamed ceilings and craggy stone walls. Many on the list weren’t exactly practical, but again, this was more of a distraction than a serious list of well thought through homes to buy.
Our wants for a home were simple, we didn’t want to live in a city, but we didn’t want to live somewhere without basic commerce. As we would not be there to maintain it, a garden or home with large quantities of land was out of the question, though Andy did want a small terrace or balcony. As Covid did a circus-level tumbling act right outside of our door, spiking one day then nose diving the next, these little mornings gave us hope and an activity to pass the time. It also allowed us to think about the future and provided us motivation when times were bleak and didn’t seem to have an end in sight. House hunting was the perfect, hypothetical distraction until one morning, in between the CBS news and breakfast, we stumbled across the watchmaker's home.
Originally written June 17th, 2022
Andy and I fell into a routine pretty easily. Each morning we would wake up and go down to the livingroom and turn on the news, desperate to gather more information about what was unfolding right outside our door. The first few days of lockdown seemed to bring rapidly changing conditions, with the news only heightening panic with their non-stop coverage of around the world happenings. The fear of the unknown is what seemed to have struck people the most. It very much felt like we were all sitting ducks, waiting.
Cups of coffee entwined in our fingers and computers on our laps, we would both answer work emails while pausing occasionally to listen intently to the news.
“How long do you think this is going to go on for?” Andy said, not looking away from his computer screen. “I’m supposed to leave for Boston in a week.” I breathed in slowly, unsure of how to answer. “We also have NOLA coming up,” I said, thinking about the birthday trip we had planned for when I was on spring break. Andy ran his fingers through his long, brown hair. “Let’s hold off on canceling anything just yet. You never know what could happen.” And that is how everything very much felt, as if we were living day-to-day, unsure of what was going to come tomorrow.
On the second day home from work, we had decided that it may be smart to stock up on food and personal care items, just in case things got as worse as the news projected it to. Andy is immunocompromised and is post kidney transplant, with an already frail immune system to boot, so viruses with unknown origins and side effects stretched our anxiety quite thin in the early days of the pandemic.
We made the plan that I would be the one to go shopping, fitting as much as I could into my tiny Fiat, so we wouldn’t have to leave the house depending on how bad circumstances got. This was before masks were mandated and extra precautions were put in place. A lot of people were still working, and so things were pretty quiet in the stores I visited.
I slowly slid my cart from isle to isle, studying each row of items and deeply contemplating how to shop for the circumstances at hand. I grabbed multiple packs of chicken, some beef, a few packets of pork chops and then headed to the pasta isle. Pasta just seemed like the most sensible thing to buy for a looming global shut down and is overall a really versatile product. With limited ingredients I could whip up a different pasta dish every night. I threw a few armfuls of fusilli sacks into my cart followed by what could be looked at as a year supply of bucatini. Somewhere between the frozen food isle and the canned goods, though, I let my worry take over and somehow my cart entered the check out line brimming with more than a few rolls of cookie dough, potato chips, mug cakes and ice cream. All purchases I wouldn't usually make. It seemed to me, that if Andy and I were going to be stuck inside in the middle of winter for the unseeable future, these are things that could possibly get us through it.
The first weeks of the pandemic were weird. There is truly no better way to put it. For my generation, there wasn't any other event that had taken place before this that had sent the whole world into chaos. Events like 911 had transpired, reverberating the feeling of uneasiness far and wide,but this was the first global situation that left such a catastrophe in its wake.
People were buying massive amounts of bleach and toilet paper, only to turn around and try to sell it for triple and even quadruple the price online, just days later when every store ran out. The pandemic also quickly turned political, turning friends, family and complete strangers against each other and leaving people’s nerves and mental health in shambles. It very much felt like everyone was against each other and, for the most part, didn’t even know or understand why.
People’s inability to deal with their new day-to-day life began to play out on screen as world wide people having meltdowns in public became international entertainment. Websites like Reddit and Youtube helped spread people’s “public freakouts” like wildfire, introducing a new layer to the pandamonium, “cancel culture.” People’s public spirals were being circulated not only throughout the internet, but passed between friends and inevitably ending up in the hands of the offender’s bosses, leading to terminations and completely being shunned by their communities. This was happening not only on a low scale in small towns all over the U.S., but “A list” celebrities were not immune to being canceled because of bad behavior or insensitive social media antics.
“Are we literally witnessing the collapse of society?” Andy questioned, not removing his eyes from the news report one morning. A woman had been caught with an Iphone camera raging against an African American bird watcher in Central Park. The man, who questioned if her dog should be on a leash, began filming once the woman started hurling racial slurs at him. This ended with her losing her job and the dog that she had recently adopted.
“Either people are at the end of their ropes, or perhaps they’ve always felt this way and feel as though the pandemic has given them a free pass to be crazy,” I responded, sliding onto the couch and wrapping myself into the gray knitted blanket Andy was partially wrapped in.
And this was our life. After an hour or so of news and coffee, we would each disperse to our designated work spaces, Andy to his office, me snuggled in bed with my materials fanned out on the comforter, until reconvening at lunch. During this time I would respond to emails, grade student work, add grades to the grade book, email parents to keep them up to date on what was missing or overdue and continually be in contact with administration and other teachers on what students were up to and what things were working and what ideas were failing. Any time a teacher had success implementing an idea, they would post it on our staff Teams page, hoping that by sharing the information, they would be able to elevate just a little stress caused by teaching remotely.
My first hour of work was usually dedicated to responding to frantic parent emails. “My student says he never received your packet of work the last day. Do you have an alternative copy you can email?” or “I’ve just discovered that while I’m at work, my student has not been working on the work that has been given. They are about four weeks behind in EVERYTHING. HELP!”
During lunch, we’d stand over our leftovers around the kitchen island, chatting about any bizarre work happenings or which rabbit hole we had accidentally fallen down while attempting to work.
“So these people who are acting like goofballs in public, now people have started labeling them "Karens",” Andy said, taking a bite of his pickle.
“Hmm, it is a pretty basic name, so I guess that makes sense,” I bent down to pick up the dog’s water bowl to refill it.
Three months before the pandemic hit, Andy and I had decided to expand our family of three. When we met, I came into the relationship with Cammi, a 13 year old Australian Silky Terrier who was full of spunk and sass, even at her old age. But, despite her love and acceptance of Andy into our little pack, he never felt as though she was his dog. Bisous, also an Australian Silky Terrier, joined our clan just three months before covid hit, screeching any socialization activities we had planned for her in the spring to a sudden halt. Because Andy works from home and they spent so much time together those first few months, they grew an inseparable bond. With a dog that looked at him as if he was her whole world, now our family felt complete.
Originally written June 15th, 2022
So, how did two thirty-somethings who had never planned on buying abroad find themselves with a house in a small Provençal village in the south of France? For that, we need to start back at the beginning, back in early March 2020, with the covid lockdown.
“I am so excited,” one of my 7th grade students said, rushing into my room and slamming an overflowing binder onto his desk. Papers scattered all around him on the floor, but he seemed unphased. “I’m going to sleep in and play video games and hang out with my friends for the next two weeks.” His friend, following closely behind him and sliding into the adjacent desk, nodding his head. “I’m going to stay up as late as I want and sleep all day!” Added the friend. I furrled my eyebrows as I set his packet of work on his desk. “Something tells me this isn’t going to be as fun or exciting as you two think.” More students scattered excitedly into the room and found their places.
It was March 13, two days after my 36th birthday and we just received the long, dreaded email instructing us to make two weeks worth of work to send home with our students. The state of Pennsylvania had instructed schools to close, covid was creeping in.
For weeks we watched on the news as it swept from one country to the next, grinding commerce to a halt and freezing daily life into snapshots of what once was. Even though we knew it was coming, it seemed everyone was taken aback by the closure email. Teachers who had taught for decades were left paralyzed, never having experienced anything like this in their careers, unsure of their next steps.
“Ok, ok, everyone,” my soft-spoken voice was getting lost in all of the excitement, “here is your work for the next two weeks. I will email you each a schedule of when the worksheets are due. When you have completed them, snap a photo of your page and email it to me for points.” I stood at the front of the room, the students buzzing around. “We are two weeks away from the end of the 9 weeks, so you all know the routine. The end of French will be the exact same as the end of Spanish.” I said passing out the last packet. I felt like I was literally in the eye of a tornado, this nervous energy swirling around me while I sat still trying to catch up with whatever the new reality would look like when the chaos moved on. It was as if the students were told they had two weeks worth of snow days. They were barely able to contain themselves. The introduction to something out of the norm had sent them into a tizzy.
The students had been instructed to walk through their daily schedule and visit each of their teachers to collect the work they would need to do during the time of the closure. Each teacher had 8 brief minutes to explain what was expected before the students flooded out into the halls in search of their next period. While the overwhelming feeling amongst the students was excitement, the teachers were silently, and some not so silently, panicking. Our school wasn’t set up for online learning, leaving us with a large question mark to carry home along with any materials we may need for the next 3 months. “Pack your materials as if you aren’t coming back for the rest of the year,” the final line of the email stated.
“Is this all that we have to do?” A small girl seated to my left looked up from her packet with big, chocolate chip eyes. Each of their backpacks and folders were bursting at the seams with anxiously cobbled together weeks worth of work. I’m not sure she, or any of her fellow students for that matter, could have fit another page into their already exploding binders.
“Yes,” I said sweetly. “For now. Just make sure to check your email in case things change.”
I was at the end of my second year of teaching high school language. For the first half of my day, I taught different levels of French. For the second half of my day I was the English as a Second language teacher and taught a 7th grade cultures course. The course was fun and light, walking 7th graders through 4 ½ weeks of basic French and then switching over to 4 ½ weeks of basic Spanish.
Feedback from the loudspeaker jolted everyone to a halt and the room quieted down. “Move on to your 8th period class,” boomed the principle. Office noise hummed in the background as phones rang off the hook and nervous chatter could be heard, but not fully understood. The speaker clicked off and students began to disperse.
“If I don’t see you, have a great summer!” I said, anxiously watching them bounce out of the room. A student brushed past me, “you too, but it’s only for two weeks! We’ll be back in no time!” She said, grabbing on to a friend's arm and sliding out the door. I stared blankly at the closing door. To be that young and clueless about the happenings around you; sometimes it’s a beautiful position to be in.
Walking behind my desk, I pulled an old printer paper box up onto it and looked around my room, trying to determine what exactly should be brought home. What materials would be needed if I were unable to return to this room? I puffed up my cheeks with a big breath of air then slowly let it out. This was going to be a long two weeks.
**Above is our journey from the Spanish boarder through the whole south and all the stops in between. You may notice Vaison is not marked, it was a totally by chance we ended up there!
Bonjour, Ciao, Salut! I'm Rachel and this is my story documenting our experience buying a home in France. If you are looking for advice on home buying, feel free to e-mail me or check the bottom of the home page for a link to a basic guide.