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.
**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.