We pulled off to the side of the entrance, sitting as far away from the crowds as we could so that we wouldn’t have inquisitive eyes on us as our English pierced the French countryside.
It was the last day of our trip before heading back to Pittsburgh. Since our last house showing, we had visited Nice, zipped through Villefranche-sur-Mer and popped by Menton before crossing the border into Italy and spending four glorious days in Cinque Terre. It was the perfect ending to quite the epic journey. Between hiking, eating and just simple exploration we were able to establish enough distance to clear our heads and really think about the possibility of becoming homeowners abroad. Over gelato, roaming the narrow streets of Riomaggiore, we chatted about costs. Would this change how we would have to live back in Pittsburgh? Nibbling on focaccia along the beach in Vernazza we considered what our summers would look like. Did we even want to go to the same place every summer? Sipping on spritz in Monterosso we mulled over the idea of what exactly was art and that conversation brought us to this particular meeting while in the middle of our EuroDisney trip. I still can’t believe I was able to pull Andy away from an amusement park for enough time to have a meaningful conversation with someone, but here we sat, via facetime, looking at an older woman sitting at a dining room table. She was moving the phone back and forth, trying to capture the best angle, finally stopping when just her head filled the frame. Her name was Dana and she was an American who found herself living in a small village house in Vaison-la-Romaine with her husband Jim, also an American. She had a warm, soft presence about her and for a moment, it was hard to imagine the two together when I thought back to the brief meeting with Jim outside of the rum bar. “Hello you two! I am here with Olivier,” she said, panning the camera to the left and focusing on him standing behind her. “You can ask me anything you’d like,” she said, refocusing just on herself. Jim trudged through the shot and gave a small, hurried wave, not looking in the phones direction. “Jim says hi,” Dana announced, “so, what exactly would you like to know?”
We began by explaining that we thought Olivier had done a great job showing the house, but we didn’t quite understand what exactly was staying and what exactly was going and, most importantly, what was considered art. Andy explained further that the stairs were mentioned in the showing and how we thought perhaps it was a lost in translation moment. She chuckled a bit and nodded. “I can see the confusion now,” she looked up at Olivier then back down at us. “So, Jim’s installation on the side of the house will be taken down along with the stairs he built at the bottom door. The cave was too small for him to work in, so he built the stairs to give him more room to work. There are stairs under the wooden platform, though, that are original to the home, so you will have stairs, don’t worry.”
“And the doors? Windows? Other stairs? They all stay too?” Andy asked, leaving no stone unturned.
“Yes, those all remain,” she confirmed, smiling at the ridiculousness of the confirmation, but understanding now our reservations.
We looked at each other and smiled as if relieved. “Olivier had said he wasn’t sure what appliances were going to stay,” I started. “Are there any remaining with the house?”
She looked up, her gaze directed into the kitchen, no doubt looking at the fridge.
“We bought this house for me because Jim was diagnosed with cancer and we were told there was little chance of him surviving,” she paused, breathing in deeply, then exhaling. “He wanted to set me up in a small house in the middle of a town where I could walk to anything I needed. It was the perfect house for that, but Jim actually ended up beating cancer and surviving. Because of this, the house isn’t fit for our lives. He needs a much bigger place for his work,” she finished with a small shrug.
We paused, a little surprised with the dark turn the conversation had taken. Despite the decade or so Dana had spent in France, she was still very American, talking candidly about private matters with complete strangers. The mood had shifted and she looked sad, as if she didn’t want to leave her cozy, little village home.
I absolutely couldn’t imagine buying a home in order to get yourself established for when your husband died just a few short months later. Knowing the space would only be yours and that you wouldn’t share it or the experiences within the walls with your other half. To have mentally prepared yourself for watching your partner slip away and for you to start a life all on your own in a foreign country to then have everything flipped upside down and have him survive. She must have been on a complete emotional rollercoaster the past few months. My heart broke for her and her circumstances.
Andy interrupted the silence to continue the meeting.
“Do you know where you will move too? Somewhere close by?” He asked, steering us away to a less dark, original topic.
“We were thinking out west, towards Bordeaux. We’ve been looking at some old farms that have plenty of space for Jim. Moving large items so far, though, would probably be more costly than just rebuying them. Because of that, all of the appliances would stay,” she said, looking back in the direction of the fridge.
We racked our brains for any other questions we could think of and, when we came up short, Dana suggested we get back in touch if we thought of anything later. We thanked her for her time and found ourselves sitting by the entrance for a few moments after the call had ended.
“That poor woman,” I started, biting my bottom lip, thinking about her.
“Yeah, really! Olivier didn’t tell us THAT part!” Andy said.
“She probably started to envision herself growing old in that house, so this is all bitter sweet,” I concluded. Andy nodded, but, remembering he was at an amusement park, patted my leg.
“Come on, we can discuss more when in line for things! The park closes in three hours!” I sighed, feeling exponentially heavier than when we started the meeting. Why did the two homes we loved the most have to center around death? I wondered.
Despite the topic of buying being a theme of conversation all throughout Italy, we hadn’t reached out to Olivier since our showing. We didn’t want to give anyone false hope or mixed signals until we had taken the time to flush out all of our thoughts, concerns and ideas. It was Olivier who reached out two days before we were due at Disney, wanting to know if we had any questions and if we needed any further information. For some reason, this effort of contact pushed us to vocalize our interest and set up the meeting with Dana. The only thing really holding us back at that time was the fear that we’d be somehow duped into buying a home where the previous owners would consider basic things “art” and we’d show up, keys in hand, to a shell of the house we originally toured.
Not having experience buying abroad, we weren’t sure what the normal practices were and, trying not to be culturally insensitive or daft, we mostly confided in one and another and heavily in Google searches to fill in the gaps we left home showings with. We had read that it wasn’t uncommon to have kitchens where the previous owners have taken all of the appliances. I was glad for the chat with Dana and even happier that she was American. I feel like despite her and Jim living in France for so long, they understood our lost in translation moments and could, if not relate to, at least understand the expectations we would be coming into this with.
We decided to consider things we wanted to change about the house, our budget, recent home sales in the area and conjure up an offer as soon as we touched down in the United States.
The next day we packed up our little car and headed further south to our next destination, Antibes. As you scootched yourself closer to the Côte D’Azur, housing prices jumped along with the throngs of crowds, all vying for a piece of the French luxury they had scrolled through on their Instagrams throughout the winter. This was the part of the trip where we had the fewest homes to see, only two, which were both conveniently located in the same town, Fayence.
We spent our evening in Antibes, wandering around the old, narrow streets and finally claiming the last free portion of the beach, surrounded by locals with their colorful beach blankets and coolers of beer. Some sat and played music, others brought pizzas to share amongst their growing number of friends. It felt like one of those moments of true authenticity that you don’t always get to feel when you are a stranger in someone else’s country. Sitting with our feet buried deep in the sand, cups of gelato and a deck of cards, we played Rummy until we couldn’t see the suit’s in our hands anymore. Reluctantly, we packed up, allowing the still remaining crowds of people to enjoy the soft glowing moonlight and good conversation.
Fayence seemed to be the perfect distance from everything you thought you wanted to be close to. All of the famous beach towns were no more than an hour and a half away, allowing you to feel close to the action, without being swarmed by it on a daily basis. As we drove to the listings, the landscape changed to forests and, then, suddenly we were riding along a beautiful lake filled with hundreds of paddle boats and kayaks gently bobbing in the bright, blue water. Saint-Cassien lake rests at the bottom of Fayence, just a short thirty minute car ride. As most of the listings we were viewing did not have a pool, having a lake so close seemed like a perfect solution. When we finally arrived at Fayence, we were surprised to find that it was market day, but that the town wasn’t swelling with people despite the event. As we walked to the agency, it seemed like mostly local people walking the streets, completing their daily tasks, which we both mentally took note of, liking the quietness of our walk.
The agency sat in the middle of town, tucked a little off of the street behind a few shady Plane trees. Opening its thin glass doors, we were greeted by three tall, blond women dressed in chic, well fitting, summer dresses. The three threw out a customary
“Bonjour” in unison before our agent, expecting us, switching to English. “Please, have a seat,” she said, motioning us away from the door and to the large table in the corner of the room. Uh oh, I thought, the last thing I want to do is talk about the listing we had already been ogling over for the past 3 months. As we sat down she opened up her computer. “So, we have a little bit of a problem,” she started, “the owner of the home had to leave suddenly to take care of a problem out of town and so we can’t go and see the property today,” she said, folding her hands and resting them on the laptop’s keyboard. “We don’t mind going without him,” I said, hoping that would reignite some movement on the viewing. “Well, he has the keys,” she said, a little defeated, “but, I am going to show you some other properties we have that may interest you.”
Andy and I looked at each other with a little shrug. What else could we exactly do, other than indulge her.
We began to go over our wants and deal breakers and then discuss the price before she realized that she had nothing in this region close to our price range, and, if I was being honest, even the one she was showing us today was just over what we felt comfortable with paying. After reading up on etiquette when home buying in France, we knew that it wasn’t a faux pas to offer a little less. This gave us the comfort to book the viewings, knowing we had a little wiggle room.
The agent frowned, not sure what exactly to do now that all of her options had been exhausted. Feeling a little awkward and unsure of protocall, I slinked back in my chair, hesitant on how to announce we had spent all of our allotted time here and now must go to our next listing. I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the desk.
“We appreciate your help,” I started, deciding just to go for it, “but we actually need to be going. We have another showing in a few moments and don’t want to be late.” She nodded, pushing her seat away from the table to escort us to the door. We exchanged the customary thank you’s and goodbyes and exited into the warm provançal sun. That was easier than I thought!
The next real estate agency was located across the street and a few doors down. A petit, brown-haired woman in a slim-fitting skirt held a dossier of materials next to an office window lined with homes for sale or rent. Assuming she was glancing around, looking for us, we gently waved in her direction as we crossed the street and started our descent down to her. When we were close enough, she asked, “Rachel and Andy?” We nodded, smiling from ear-to-ear, excited at the prospect of seeing any home today. “Shall we be off?” she said, feeding off of our enthusiasm and excitedly starting down the street, then veering off of the main road and down a flight of old stone stairs. At the bottom she paused, allowing us to take in the beautiful foliage and antique fountain. “It’s so quiet here,” Andy said, looking around the small courtyard. “Yes, the house is close to everything, but set back in a quiet corner of the town. You will see, you even have one of these in front of your house,” she pointed to the fountain and all of the greenery. “Come, it’s not far from here,” she said, leading us down another small set of stairs and past a few village homes, stopping in front of a small cul de sac with 4 homes encircling a small, lush sitting area with a fountain in the middle. “The house is here,” she said, pointing up to the first house on the corner. My eyes rose up and up and past the rooftop terrace, rising a little more. “It is massive!” I said, my gaze still resting on the final level of the home. “Yes,” she agreed, “it’s a lot of house!” She went to work, unlocking the thick, wooden door, opening it with a low creek, then, stood in front of it, using her body weight to hold it in place as we entered. “Directly to your left is the kitchen,” she said, pointing in that direction. We passed through the entryway and into the kitchen and she followed closely behind us, allowing the door to swing shut with a large thud. The kitchen was one of the rooms featured in the few photos provided on the listing and one of the main reasons I booked the tour. I just hadn’t, at that moment, realized that the kitchen was located on the bottom floor. It made me immediately think of the television show Downton Abbey, whose basement was the staff’s domain with a large kitchen at its center. Looking around at the home’s modest interior, however, I didn't think this particular home’s inhabitants ever had a service staff, catering to their whims and needs.
In the photo on the listing, the kitchen was a large room with bright red, classic terracotta tiles and a large, worn butcher block countertop that wrapped its way around the space, encasing large, black cupboards with intricate, antique hardware. The centerpiece of the room, however, was the massive antique black stove that was only highlighted further by its beautiful gold accents. The photo oozed rustic, country French appeal and I could immediately see myself hovered over the stove, whisking away at the continents in a bubbling copper pot. Looking around now, however, the image was a bit harder to envision. To say the kitchen looked lived in was an understatement. Looking around the room, it seemed as though the owner had thrown a large dinner party and didn’t clean up before heading out of town for a week. Moldy, rotten fruit sat in a basket on the counter. Every surface looked as though someone broke off a piece of baguette over it, leaving flour dust and crumbs trailing about. The sink was piled high with unrinsed dishes, and flies swarmed over the mess. Grease stains and splattered food coated the fridge and stove. “It looks like a bomb went off in here,” Andy said, unable to hold back. “Yes, well, the owner is still living here at the moment,” the agent said, trying to justify the state of the kitchen. Instead of justifying it, though, it made me even more confused. People were actually living in this? It made me wonder if the woman was much older and perhaps couldn’t care for a house of this size anymore? Or maybe it came down to the laissez-faire attitude of the inhabitants of the South. No matter the situation, the go to attitude for this region seemed to be I’ll get to it tomorrow. Or perhaps the woman was being unapologetically herself. In the few weeks we had been here traversing the South, the people we have met have been warm and welcoming, but also accompanied by an undertone of, this is me, take it or leave it.
The agent walked over to the far end of the kitchen and opened a small door. “This is a storage room. Maybe like a basement in the U.S.?” She flicked on a light. Down a few steps sat what resembled a wine seller that was easily the size of both my dining room and living room at home. “This is a great sized space,” Andy remarked, looking from side-to-side at the big, almost empty room. The agent flicked off the light and led us out of the kitchen and back to the front foyer. “On the first floor, you have a bedroom and a bathroom,” she said, starting her climb up to the next level.They layout was something I had never seen before, as doors would just appear as you wound your way up the stone, spiral staircase. The first door led to a bedroom that mirrored the same titiness as the kitchen. The closet door was open and a mountain shoes stumbled out of it to the foot of the bed. The curtains were drawn tightly, allowing the smallest sliver of light to peek through where they met and illuminate the room gently. Unable to maneuver around the belongings strewn about, we stayed in the doorway.
“Up a few stairs is the bathroom,” she said, continuing on until a doorway appeared and she stepped through. We followed behind her, stepping into the less cluttered bathroom. The room was large, but dated, with a heavy, white porcelain tub lining one full wall of the space. Andy rested his hand on its lip. “This would take an hour to fill up!” He said, turning back to the agent with a smile. “I’m sure you love this!” He said, knowing my obsession with large soaking tubs and the hours spent while reading and unwinding. I smiled.
“The size of the bathroom is great. It has everything we need in one room and so much storage. I think it would all just need a little updating,” I said, looking at Andy. He nodded, agreeing that the space had good bones.
We all filed out the door and continued climbing further up the staircase. The next door that appeared let you off in a large, almost empty room. The floors and walls were done in wood, giving it a warm and cozy feeling. As we went deeper into the room, though, we saw a small black card table off to the side. On it was a cutting board and more rotting fruit.
I turned to Andy, “I was wondering what that smell was!” I said, wrinkling my nose. It seemed so odd to me that someone would not want to make sure their home looked its absolute best for a viewing. Was it a cultural thing? The agent, not wanting to dwell on the negative, walked deeper into the space, past the card table and into the next room. While the first room looked as though it could be used as a dining room, the second room seemed as though its original purpose was a living room. The space was also done up in wood, but had a small staircase off to the side that led you onto a balcony, overlooking the living space below. All the curtains were pulled and the room’s only light was being pulled from the previous room. An empty bookshelf sat in the corner and a leather recliner remained in the open position in the center of the room. I turned around in the large space, taking it all in. Being two people more on the smaller side, I wasn’t sure we needed even half of the space the house provided.
“There is a small kitchenette off of the dining room,” the agent pointed towards the small doorway that sat next to the winding, main staircase. I snapped back into house tour mode, perking up at the prospect of not having to go to the dungeonous kitchen for food. “That is really convenient,” I said, hurriedly walking through each of the rooms and into the small door at the other end. Once inside, I struggled to fully turn around in the small, closet-like space. I think I was so excited to hear that there was any semblance of a kitchen so close to the dining space that it didn’t register that she said kitchen-ette until I was standing inside the “room.” A microwave sat tucked into the corner of the counter, surrounded by stale baguettes and more rotted fruit. Under the counter, a mini fridge took up most of the space that side of the room had to offer. Clearly, there was no real cooking happening in this room. I backed out slowly, as if by doing so, I could pretend I was never there. Andy walked over and looked at me with a “how is it in there” look. My eyes got wide as I silently shook my head, indicating that he shouldn’t go in and he nodded his understanding, walking towards the stairs to continue the tour, ignoring the space completely. Also noticing my reaction, the agent remained silent, immediately following Andy up the stairs. A little ways up there was a door leading to a small, outdoor terrasse. The space was completely bare with the exception of a layer of faux grass partially lining the ground. I walked over to the edge of the space looking out at the beautiful landscape around the village and beyond. Rolling hills of forests cascaded down the mountain, leaving a blanket of green as far as the eye could see. My mind drifted back to the view from the Vaison balcony; the ancient architecture, the softly rippling river below, the muffled sound of French tourists discussing the bridge’s history. My mind fluttered further back to the conversation that led us here to this exact moment, the discussion of not being wilderness people and not finding comfort in being surrounded by complete nothingness sank in. Even cleaned up with a handful of remodeling projects, this was not our house. “It’s quite a view, no?” the agent said, resting her arms next to mine on the banister.
I nodded with a smile, then turned to look up at the house. There appeared to be still another layer to the never ending home, but I was already feeling quite tired from the climb up the stairs we’ve already done.
“Are there even more rooms in the house to see,” I said, pointing upward. “Yes, one more space. The owner’s daughter used to live there, it’s a little apartment.”
This piqued my interest. I’ve always wanted a rental property, but never wanted something that shared the same exit or entrance with our living space. If the rental property had its own private entrance, that would be fine, but overall a rental in a separate location would be ideal, giving us passive income and privacy. Andy and I followed her as she climbed the remaining steps. The higher we climbed, the narrower the staircase became. At the top sat a small door that was slightly ajar. The agent pushed it open further, allowing us access to the small living room, kitchenette combo. “Eh, voilà!” she said, turning around to see reactions. Andy pulled at his shirt, trying to fan himself from the intense heat of the refinished, but not properly ventilated attic space. “Yes, well, with the windows open and a fan, it’s much more comfortable up here,” she said. She walked deeper into the space, edging herself closer to the small bedroom and bathroom that sat at the back of the space. We didn’t move with her. Together, unconsciously, I think we had decided at that moment that we had had enough, the tour was over. Or perhaps Andy felt as though if he went any further, he may melt. Either way, the agent, being good at reading body language, understood, making her way back over towards the entrance. “I have a couple who saw the property today before you arrived. They seemed to really like it and discussed a potential offer,” she said in a last ditch effort to apply pressure.
“Ok,” I said, looking back at Andy. “We have a lot to talk about and if we think of any questions, we can reach back out and inquire.”
She nodded softly, looking a little defeated. I can’t say I blame her, the last thing I would want to do is climb a hundred plus stairs twice in sweltering heat.
She shrugged, clearly not thrilled with the answer we had provided.
We descended the staircase in silence, glancing into each of the rooms that reappeared as we continued our journey down. Without stopping at the bottom of the staircase for the typical debrief, the agent opened up the door and ushered us back outside, into the blazing sun. “Bon, well, if you find that you have any questions, you have my email. It was nice meeting you both. Good luck with the rest of your trip,” she said, nodding her head forward then taking her leave.
We decided to take the long way, wandering through the market stalls and weaving our way through the back streets of the town. We were almost to the end of the stalls when Andy turned around to face me. “ Did you know Vaison’s market was started in 1483?” We had just left a house showing but it seemed as though Vaison was on both of our minds. “I didn’t,” I started, “but aren’t you wondering what exactly is ‘art’ to these people? We could buy the house and come back with no doors or windows attached.”
“Maybe this was a lost in translation moment?” Andy said, more optimistic than he normally was. “I can see myself on that balcony,” he added. “Hmm, we leave for Nice tomorrow. Should we message Olivier? Are you completely over the Chic house?”
The lack of time left made it so I felt more of a sense of urgency. As the days went on, we’d find ourselves further and further from the house, leaving Nice for Italy and then Italy for Paris to catch our flight home.
We pulled off to the side under a sprawling, shady tree.
“I think I’m nervous about the Chic house. I love it. It has a cool history and it doesn’t need any work. It’s also on the lower end of our budget,” he started. I sensed a but coming. “But…” I prompted.
“But, if we want to rent it, I don’t think we’d get any guests. If it was between that space and the luxury hotel that isn’t expensive just around the corner, I’d choose the hotel handsdown.”
I nodded, agreeing that I would do the same.
He continued, “also, if we needed to sell it in a pinch, I’m not sure if we could, which makes me nervous.” He had some really solid points.
“For Vaison, you know how important walkability is for me. That house sits just at the base of two towns that have a lot going on and if we didn’t want to drive, we could easily go into town to shop or go to restaurants,” he finished. I paused, making sure that his thoughts were finished before jumping in with my own. “Well, if we wanted to make the grownup choice and pick the one we could rent if we needed to, the one we could sell if times get tough, then it seems like one choice is clearly smarter. We talked about the ability for the home to pay for itself if it needed to. It would be very stupid of us to buy a home knowing it didn’t have that potential,” I added. “We also wanted to be in a nice sized village that had basic amenities and a house that provides you with a usable outdoor space that is easy to manage when not here. One house clearly checks all of these boxes.” Our mental pros and cons lists were stacking up and one place was clearly the winner. All we had to do was decide if we were really serious about taking that jump, or if this had all but a fun trip with an excuse to indulge our guilty pleasure of real estate browsing.
The next few days would be telling.
**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.