Monday, September 21, 2009

House of Wonders

Reader warning: for the next few days, this blog will be Rated R-E for explicit descriptions of real estate. Envy-prone New Yorkers in lame little cramped apartments are strongly cautioned.

When I was a little girl, I would play for hours with the dollhouse my grandfather made for my sister and me: a replica of my family’s big white and green-shuttered old farmhouse. I would set the furniture, the food, the family members and the never-out-of-season Christmas Tree in place, move everything around, and then set it back in place again, over and over. Often our crazed orange barncat would climb in and terrorize the interior decoration, sometimes chewing awhile on the mother or the baby of the family. But no worries. His depredations just gave me another pleasant and welcome opportunity to sort and put everything back in place.

Since way back when, my dreams have been about houses. In scary dreams, there is a fire and I can’t get outside. Or I dream that someone is coming to get me, and while I’m hunting for a place to hide in closets or even drawers, I recognize in a panic that not one of the locks works. In more benign dreams, I might visit places I knew long ago, and rediscover each knob and cabinet and door in great detail. The most exciting ones are fantastical dreams of enormous rooms with ceilings sixty feet high, sometimes with a giant freshwater pool with a fountain in the middle.

Other people dream of flying or finding rubies, or maybe getting it on with their high school swimming coach. My dreams are nearly all houses. It’s not just fancy real estate porn, mind you (although there is a certain amount of lusting over that giant indoor pool.) Rather, my dreams reveal my deepest craving: that white-linen, chocolate-chip cookie, deep bathtub, puffy comforter, soft-sofa, stone gate feeling of being fully at home.

In the darkest days of my life, I would dream that entire new wings were hidden in a house I was living in at the time. I might open a door in my crummy graduate-student rental, and there would be room upon room of new beautiful spaces, full of old velvet and mahogany furniture. “How did I not open this door before?” I would inevitably think, as my wishes felt fulfilled by new open space and great old dressers and sofas. When I woke up, back in my old familiar room, with my old familiar problems swimming back to the surface, I would try to hang on for as long as I could to that sense of the possible lurking just inside the real. If I could only find that door again. Then I would be OK.

Last spring, I had a whole lot of these looking-for-home dreams, and they would inevitably take me back to my grandparents’ farmhouse, Locust Hill. Upstairs and way back on the south side of the house, I would find a door, and open it again and again to find room upon room of old carpets and big wooden antiques. Each new room felt eerily familiar and birthday-present new at the very same time.

These house dreams skate the thinnest possible line between the metaphorical and the literal. Their symbolism is so immediately apparent as to be almost embarrassing: can’t I be the tiniest bit more mysterious in my dreams? Why does everything Launa always have to be so damn transparent? The truth is simple and straightforward as an old foursquare colonial: houses are important to me in a way that my family is, that writing and thinking and teaching and sunlight are. That love is.

I write all this so you might start to understand what if felt like for me to walk into Bastide de la Loge yesterday afternoon. Remember everything I wrote last week about feeling disenchanted and then re-invigorated by the touch of the real? Well, this new house has plunged me fully and giddily back into pure enchantment. All of the wish-fulfillment extra wings of houses I ever discovered in my dreams have been put together by some sort of genius dream-architect. And then yesterday I was given (if only for the next eight months of off-season rates) its heavy iron key.

When we were planning this trip, neither Bill nor I had ever been to Provence. We rented both houses based only on their internet marketing and our budgeted price point. When we found Les Baumes, we thought it was the most luxurious and impressive property we would ever in our lives inhabit. We bit the bullet and paid (relatively) big bucks, Bill strategizing that a great first impression would win me over, as reluctant as I was to move overseas at all. Bastide de la Loge, in contrast, looked pretty nice online, but just somewhat less impressive. In our minds, we were going from our fancy Hamptons rental back to a much more realistic sort of place in which to spend the longer spread of our time. We liked its location right near the school. We liked the fact that it was big enough to have guests visit us. The phrases “washing machine” and “American-style refrigerator” might also have played into our decision.

A few weeks ago, when we first met Jessica, she walked us through the house’s courtyard, with its deep blue stone saltwater pool, stone lions and turtles and tables, and enormous potted plants and glass bottles everywhere. A dozen and a half big blue-grey shuttered windows were stacked three-high along an enormous western-facing yellow wall. The courtyard was about four times as grand as I had thought, given the photographs online, and it made me inordinately happy just to be inside its walls. I guessed that other beautiful things lay inside, but as the High Priestess of the Church of Delayed Gratification, I just so enjoyed the idea of waiting to see the rest.

Before we could get here, the day back at our cozy Hobbit Hole at Les Baumes was one long shameful and sad little episode of packing and tidying up / yelling at the kids (and on Abigail’s birthday, no less) / final dead-millipede rounds / eating through the last bits of leftover lasagne and yellow cake with chocolate frosting. The rain wouldn’t stop falling, and everything I stuffed into bags felt distressingly damp. Tumble dryers are either illegal or blasphemous in France, apparently. I am afraid to ask which. We left from Sillans to Aups for the final time, snapping a picture of the sign with the slash through the town’s name that told us we were at its edge and moving into new territory.

It was terribly sad to walk away from Les Baumes. It’s the first place I have lived since I was a child that had a name rather than a number as its address. I would miss the view over the valley to the cliffs. I would miss our waterfall, and the sweet little bedrooms and (yes) even standing at the edge of the yard and gazing up at the sun while hanging all our clothes on the line to dry. There might never be a full moon like the one we watched rise in the east and set in the west. But after dragging the whole family and every scrap of our garbage out the door and into the car, in the pouring rain, I was perhaps not at my very best. There were a number of tantrums, and I will leave it to you to guess just who had them and when.

When we arrived with our battered Fed Ex boxes, bursting luggage, and Casino shopping bags full of old groceries and new birthday presents, Jessica and Gerard had just finished cleaning up the house from their final summer renters. The doors and windows were thrown open wide, and I walked into the cool, dark interior of the house.

Grace named it right away: the House of Wonders. She disappeared, swallowed up into its many rooms, and instantly took to opening every drawer and finding hidden keys, old candles, fancy cut glass, piles of ancient stationery, and yellow-and blue stoneware platters stacked twenty high. As Bill listened to Jessica tell him about the quirks of the plumbing and how to work the keys and the washing machine, I just wandered from room to room, taking it all in.

Every surface of every wall – up and down the entryway staircase, along the halls and inside each of the bedrooms – was hung with eclectic and stunningly quirky original artwork, stacked almost floor to ceiling wherever there was an open place for a hook. Most pieces were askew a little more than slightly. Aside from the frames on the artwork itself, there isn’t a right angle to be found in the place.

Off to the right, the kitchen was stuffed with enough pots, pans, stoneware tians, colanders, platters, spice jars, honey pots, wooden spoons, teapots, English cookbooks, Moroccan pottery, coffee cups and old baskets to stock a kitchenware store. The kitchen walls were lined with green and yellow tiles, and there were two wall ovens, four gas burners, and two electric. A big stone sink sat right in the window between the enormous wooden kitchen table and an even more enormous stone one just outside, under a metal trellis hung with a green canopy and wild climbing vines.

I thought to myself, of course, it’s the food, stupid. And this time, I’m going to be the one making it. My survival-mode days of heating up Fresh Direct to keep my family alive are officially over. This is the kind of kitchen that can turn an average Josephine like me into the Barefoot Goshdarn Contessa. I felt as though I had stepped off the little scooter I had been pushing around for years and had hopped into the Formula 1 racing car of kitchen-dom. It’s like when our midlife crisis Dad band, through an unlikely series of mishaps and coincidences, wound up rehearsing one night in the studio space of a real band, backed by a wall of 200 and 300 watt Marshall tube amps. Boy did we rock that night, and I think it had a permanent impact on how we sounded and how we felt about the whole project. Sometimes equipment matters.

On the other side of the hallway is a dining room with dark red walls and Moroccan art. (Jessica’s mother, the remarkable personality who apparently reveled in the project of decorating the house, lived in Morocco when she wasn’t in London or the South of France.) The table is (natch) very old and grandly scaled, with embossed leather on its top. (Isn’t your table embossed leather? Really, no? Whyever not??) Beyond the dining room is a great big room with an enormous stone mantle, low coffee tables and big plump sofas covered in big shaggy blankets, (and, joy of joys for the other three members of my family: an enormous TV hooked up to a satellite providing them with hundreds of shows. In English. This for the children who had no television at all about five months ago.)

I stopped there, just for a minute. I wanted to savor the sense of there being more to discover. I bet Lewis and Clark felt sort of that way, say in Ohio, way back before it became the ultimate swing state. They had already seen so much, and there would clearly be more. They couldn’t have predicted the Grand Canyon, or the Rockies, or even the alternately scary and soothing feeling they would have in facing the great plains. I knew there were bedrooms upstairs, probably with more art and big square pillows and enormous stoneware lamps with crazy chintz patterned lampshades. I was thinking there would be a bathtub, maybe two. I have deeply domestic tastes, my friends, so to me a really good bathtub might as well be the Great Salt Lake.

But I hadn’t banked on two full floors of more bedrooms. The place kept swirling upward and onward forever. More tiles, more rugs and pillows and extremely beautiful, quirky, and arresting original art everywhere. The house just kept expanding in front of me, filling itself up with strange old puppets and a treasure trove of books, and an enormous crazy-quilt of women’s hats hung over the master bed.

I was suddenly and deeply in love. With a house no less, with being here. I had that sense of home, but also the thrill of discovery I had when I used to poke around the back bedrooms of Locust Hill or my grandmother June’s attic, full of my mother’s old toys and papers and photographs from decades of my grandparents' lives, before any of us were born.

When I first got to Les Baumes, the air whispered to me through its open nighttime windows -- you’re here -- welcoming me to time, to reflection and attention and sensation. Here, the walls and the windows and the hundreds of secret drawers and corners are calling to me: now you’re here, Launa. And you’re home.

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