Link to Our Place in France Part 2
Little did we know that the nephew who sold us the apartment was the black sheep of the family. He had done the unthinkable. He had just sold his part of the Basque family home to two Americans. The rest of the family was outraged.
For our part, completely ignorant of any potential drama, we returned to the States and began looking at flooring, tile, fixtures, etc., working remotely with our advisor and the architect contractor. Knowing we were moving into a Basque family home, I wanted to reassure the original proprietor that we wouldn't be throwing wild parties and renting the apartment to questionable people. I sat down and wrote my first letter in French.
In it I told the original proprietor, a man in his 80s, a bit of my story - that I'd spent 5 months in Guethary in 1974-1975, that I'd fallen in love with the region, and that it had taken me 30 years to realize my dream of buying a place there. I let him know that we'd be visiting two or three times a year for 6-8 weeks each visit and that we'd would not rent the apartment to anyone.
Our advisor read my letter, offered suggestions on grammar and some phrasing, and off it went. I didn't receive a reply.
In the fall, we made our regular trip to Guethary to work with the contractor. Construction (actually destruction) had begun a few weeks before because there is a moratorium on construction in Guethary during the summer tourist season.
Shortly after settling into our rented condo above the small harbor in Guethary, we made our way to the apartment to see the progress. The apartment had been totally decimated. The were no interior walls, no floors, no ceilings. There was just a large shell of stone all around, above and below. What had once been load-bearing stone walls with one meter openings for doors, were mostly gone with huge stone beams overhead distributing the load of the house above, creating large open space throughout.
Where do you begin when you start from bare stone?
For us, it was the floors. We decided that if we picked the flooring, the rest would follow. After visiting countless flooring stores, we settled on a hardwood called Jojoba. It was reddish brown, but its grain color varied widely from almost white to black. The architect suggested we use a new subflooring/insulation called Fermacell because it would provide excellent sound, heat, and moisture protection.
We then picked out tile for the entry and bathroom, designed a huge bottle glass shower with galet (small stones) floor, selected an exotic free-standing curved tub for Karen, and worked with a kitchen designer to give us the latest in French (actually Italian) kitchens. Since we wanted the space to be as open and flowing as possible, the two bedrooms (actually a bedroom and an office) were to be enclosed by wall to wall sliding doors with beveled glass and shades/curtains for privacy if needed.
We met briefly with the original proprietor who told us that the construction didn't disturb him because the contractors worked during the day when he wasn't in his apartment. Our advisor met with him regularly and invited him to inspect the progress. He never mentioned the letter and I was afraid to ask about it. Our advisor had confirmed that he received it a few months before. We left France with the promise that construction would be complete in early December.
Of course there were delays. The tile we selected was discontinued. The wood flooring was unavailable for several weeks so the carpenter picked another exotic hardwood called Kampas, which was a bit more expensive, but in his opinion, much more durable and beautiful.
Over the course of these months, I learned a lot of French construction vocabulary as well as quite a few words used by contractors that you might never hear in polite conversation.
We returned to Guethary in January. Subflooring had been installed, all the electrical and plumbing was in. The Kampas was seasoning. By time we left a few weeks later, the bathroom was nearly complete - the tile was installed, the shower was in, the bathtub was everything Karen had imagined it to be, and the Kampas was gorgeous - much better than the original Jojoba. In spite of the delays, we were happy with the apartment. Our only mistake was we'd made the bottle glass wall for the shower too short, so that had to be redone. All that was left was the sheetrock, the painting, and the installation of the kitchen and the glass paneled doors.
We ordered rugs and furniture for delivery in April and left for the States looking forward to our next trip when we could stay in our new home in France.
And it was magical. Our advisor had taken delivery of the furniture and set everything up for us. The apartment was quiet with views of green hillsides and Basque homes, the ocean in the distance. We began to buy everything you need for an apartment.
Three days after our arrival, the original proprietor's daughter, who came to have lunch with him every day, knocked on our apartment door. She said the family wanted to meet us and that they had scheduled a get-together for that Saturday at 5pm. Were we available?
We were innocent sheep heading towards the unknown.
We bought flowers and a dessert and knocked on the original proprietor's door downstairs promptly at 5pm. The room was filled with people who greeted us formally (coolly). At that time, Karen's French was virtually non-existent, so I had to try to listen to multiple people and attempt simultaneous translation.
Champagne was poured and small dishes appeared. Introductions were made and I did my best to keep track of the brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and children. Then the questions began. I wouldn't call it an inquisition, but clearly, they wanted to know about us and our backgrounds. We did the best we could to respond to questions coming from a lot of different people. Then they told us about the house.
It was built by the original proprietor that we had met and his brother in the early 1960s. They built it themselves carrying stones from the Pyrenees and sand from the beach, doing everything by hand over the course of several years. When it was complete, their two families moved in and lived in the house for decades. In the 60's, it was the only house in the area with large open spaces surrounding it and unobstructed ocean views. The family build gardens around the house and raised vegetables that fed them for most of the year. Then one of the brothers died.
By this time, most of the children had left home to start their own lives in the area but regularly returned to the family home for weekly Sunday dinners, celebrations, and holidays. With the death of the one brother, his portion of the house passed to his children, one of whom was the 'black sheep'. We never found out what caused the rift with the family, but in his mind, by selling to us he was hoping to screw the rest of the family.
I was stunned by what we'd gotten ourselves into and did my best to explain this to Karen while maintaining some sense of decorum.
Each member of the family had brought a dish for the get-together. Unlike our store-bought dessert, all of their dishes were home-made, each their specialty. They brought sausages they had made from pigs they had raised and slaughtered. Pate from their own geese. Cheeses that they'd made from their own sheep's milk (called Brebis). Apple tarts with fruit from their trees. Wine from a family vineyard. You get the idea.
Karen and I ate red meat for the first time in decades to avoid offending them. As the evening continued and wine was consumed, the conversation turned towards recreational activities. I talked about my love of surfing, whitewater kayaking, hang gliding, skiing, and running, and they were intrigued. We discovered that they were all athletes in different sports. The original proprietor's son was an ultra-marathoner. His daughter did hard-core hundred mile climb/hikes in the Pyrenees. Somehow, we connected on a love of the outdoors and individual sports.
Amazingly, by the end of the evening, we were all good friends. We still spoke in the 'vous' form, but clearly, the ice had been broken and we had been accepted. All looked well.
We spent the rest of the trip furnishing the apartment, searching for art work, and working with the original proprietor in his garden. We left for the summer thinking we'd created the perfect retreat in a country filled with people much more reasonable than we see in the States.
Two months later, as a graduation present from Medical School, we sent Karen's daughter and her soon-to-be fiancé (he proposed during their stay in France), to Guethary where they had a great time exploring the region, visiting Spain, and playing on the beaches in the warm waters of the Bay of Biscay. They loved our almost complete apartment but mentioned that there seemed to be some irregularities in the floor.
We discounted that, looking forward to our trip in September.
About a week before we arrived, we got an urgent email from our advisor. He, along with the person we'd hired to look in on our apartment from time to time, had discovered that the floor had pushed up in several places. They sent photos of furniture leaning precariously, of storage areas in the kitchen being crushed from below. They seemed unreal.
When we arrived in late September, we discovered that the wooden floor had swelled in places. People talk about problems like this, and you think, sure, it's up an inch or two. That's what we thought before we arrived. But the reality was unbelievable. Areas of the floor had what looked like moguls on a ski slope. Our advisor had called them Bosses - moguls. They were huge. Heavy furniture was tilted severely to one side. My chair at the kitchen table sat at a 30 degree angle. We quickly discovered after nighttime falls, that walking in the socks was dangerous. If you didn't anticipate the bosse, you'd slip and find yourself facedown on the floor. People who saw it, including the contractors said the apartment wasn't safe to live in.
We contacted our insurance company who said that since the problem was a construction problem, we had to go back to the contractor. The architect/contractor came to look and said he'd never seen anything like it in his career. He blamed the Kampas wood and the carpenter.
As you might imagine, suddenly everyone was finger pointing at everyone else. The only point that they agreed on was that no one, in their entire careers, had seen anything so extreme.
In the States, if you have a problem like this, you go to the contractor's insurance company. They assess the damage, and assuming there's a verifiable problem, they pay for the repairs, then settle with the subcontractors' insurance companies behind the scenes. It doesn't work that way in France.
In France, you have to sue all of the contractors and the court will assign proportional responsibility. You may think our court system is backed up. In France, with all the civil litigation and issues like ours, it's much worse. So, now we have two Americans, trying to sue several French contractors and companies with large insurance companies behind them. We hired an attorney who told us it would be two to three years before this was settled. Just as quickly as we'd found paradise, it was lost.
More in part four...