08 August 2011

Facing backwards and looking forwards

Eight years ago, we were just getting moved in. Our furniture and other belongings had arrived from Calfornia after a 10-week voyage down the California coast, through the Panama Canal, over the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, up the East Coast, and across the Atlantic Ocean to Rotterdam and finally Le Havre. The container was trucked down to Saint-Aignan in mid-July 2003.

What kind of less mobile "container" did we put all that stuff in when it arrived? The house we had recently found and decided to buy was built in the 1960s — it must have been finished just before 1970 dawned. In that way, the house is as old and no older than my lifetime experience in France; I arrived in Paris for the first time on December 30, 1969.

The back of the house from the yard and garden

Les Bouleaux — that's the official name of the house and the land it sits on — was built backwards on the lot, in my humble opinion. The house faces east, but it feels more like it's facing north. The big back yard, where we have our vegetable garden, is behind the house. From the front terrace, we overlook the road and we see two neighboring houses, at least in wintertime. In summer those houses are pretty well hidden by trees. There's no front yard at all.

Maybe this thing about wanting to face west is fundamentally American. In many ways, though, it would have been better for the house to face west and south. Views from the terrace (I still call it a deck, after my years in California — it's like an upstairs patio) would have included not just the garden but also the vineyard that's right outside the back gate, as well as the woods that grow along a nearby stream flowing into the Cher River. As it is, however, those nice views are what you see from the bedroom and bathroom windows.

The back of the house seen from out in the vineyard

When we came to France in December 2002 to look at houses, we were following a plan, not a dream. Being able to live out my life here is like a dream come true, for sure, but we were not guided by romantic notions of old historic farmhouses far out in the country. Our plan was more practical. We wanted a house that we could move into immediately when we decided to leave California for France — we hadn't yet made the decision to come live here full time. We wanted a comfortable place in a pleasant environment, not in suburbs but not remote either, and with a certain amount of privacy. And we wanted enough land to have a big vegetable garden.

Out of the 15 houses we inspected and considered over those four December days, before "promising" to buy this one, many felt more suburban than rural. We ruled them out. Only one or two felt more rural than this one — we live "in the country" but only three miles by car from the center of Saint-Aignan — and those needed extensive work of all kinds. One would have almost had to be gutted. Another sat on many acres of land, but the land was barren, and there was a warehouse-type building housing an industrial bakery right across the street from it.

The garden and house from the far back corner of the lot

Several other houses we considered, including two that are also very near Saint-Aignan, sat on land that featured a significant grade or slope from back to front. One had drainage problems and the basement had a couple of inches of water standing in it. Another had no kitchen fixtures at all, and the back yard went straight up a steep hill. It had been landscaped in the French style, with little boxwood hedges lining gravel pathways, but it was hopelessly untended and overgrown. It was hard to imagine having a vegetable garden there.

The house we decided on — this one — had several advantages. It was on a decent-size plot of land that is basically flat. The land was surrounded by an eight-foot-tall hedge that provided good privacy. The house sits at the end of a paved road, so there's little traffic. But there are neighbors — eight other houses make up the "hamlet" or little settlement we live in. The hamlet and our house are basically surrounded by vineyards. And the town with its restaurants, market, and supermarkets is only a couple of minutes away, by car.

Our house on the left, and some neighbors' old houses on the right

Still, it's too bad the house was built facing the wrong way on the lot. It also didn't have everything we wanted inside, either. The living/dining room seemed spacious, and the kitchen looked serviceable, but there were only two (small) bedrooms. And there was only one bathroom — well, a bathroom plus a WC, in the French style. The bathroom was enormous by French standards. It felt almost luxurious. However, we would have liked to have a third, larger bedroom and a second bathroom.

We have no regrets — that's the main thing. We've had a lot of work done on the house: new windows in the bedrooms, kitchen, WC, and bathroom. Electrical and plumbing work, mostly to add new outlets and put new faucets on all the kitchen and bathroom fixtures. We put in a shower stall. We had the deck patio terrace tiled. We put up an awning up over the back door. And, oh, we personally scraped, sanded, and repainted the walls in every room in the house. It took years.

Here's the front of the house, about a year ago

We also, finally, had the attic space converted to living space, and now we have that big bedroom/family/computer/TV room we always wanted, with as much living space overall as we had in our house in San Francisco. So here we are. It's chilly and blustery this morning. But the garden is growing, we live in France among the vines, and we haven't gone under. Unless the dollar completely crashes, or a windstorm blows us away, nous y sommes et nous y restons.


  1. And you are where you ought to be.

    You two showed SO much more sense than the people buying houses on the HGTV shows. They see one house--that's gotta be the one. The house has radon? Who cares? Way over their budget? No problem. I know these shows are strictly for entertainment, but home buying is serious business. (Recently I learned that the home buyers on each show have already signed on one of the homes and the other two are filmed just for the program.)

  2. I never thought about the orientation of your house before, but see what you are talking about. Guess you could extend your deck all the way around to the back for the view. Still it's fun to see the happenings on the street from the deck you have.

    The view of sunset and sunrise are what make your home perfect to me.

    Lewis and I spent the summer of '69 in Europe -those were interesting times of change, miniskirts, and great music.

  3. Ken

    I do agree with Evelyn - you can see everything from your deck - visitors coming your way and the regulars on the road.

    BTW: I love what you've done with the new addition upstairs. So welcoming.

    Hold on to your seat today- the markets have been going crazy since this morning and the greenbacks will be impacted.

  4. Isn't it wonderful to have really made this house your own, in so many ways? Last year's attic conversion was a huge thing, but all of the work you've done makes it something to really be happy with. I hope to see the views myself, one day, and then I'll chime in on the comments about the directions ;)

    (p.s.: Ditto what Carolyn said about House Hunters International.)

  5. From the photos, the name of your house is appropriate as it looks as though there are several large birch trees surrounding "Les Bouleaux".
    However, to make the house truly your own, have you ever considered changing its official name to one that reflects one of your personal passions?
    "Les Blettes", perhaps?

  6. i agree with Carolyn on the house hunters people.....the budget stuff kills me.....why bother to even have one.....and some people dont buy a house because the bedroom is the wrong color.....did yall see the HHI in Normandy???

  7. I greatly admire all your decisions. Your house and life are terrific!

    As for the stock market, don't look.

  8. Hi Carolyn, those TV shows look for the sensational, don't you think? Walt and I were serious and knew what we wanted, but we were also willing to take some risks. After all, we bought the house after just four days on the ground looking! And we knew it didn't have everything we had put on our checklist. It was after we signed the first papers that everything suddenly took on its own momentum and before we knew it we had sold our SF house and had to move. Luckily it worked out.

    By the way, we will be in the Perche in just two weeks for a four-day stay. I'm looking forward to that and thank you for the information about the area that you sent me a few months ago.

    Evelyn, wouldn't it be great if the deck went all the way around the back of the house? That's something to think about. I don't know how complicated it would be to build — very, probably.

    Dean, the house was given a name when it was first built because there were no street numbers in those days. Today, the name is an anachronism. There's no reason to take the nameplate off the front of the house, but it doesn't really serve a purpose.

    Melinda, Judy, The Beaver, Chrissoup — :^)


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