Tuesday, May 12, 2015

French Houses, Florida Houses

I am intrigued by our fantasies of alternative lives, particularly the alternative lives we envision for ourselves when we're at midlife.  The fantasies of younger folks I'm familiar with from watching reality shows:  everyone thinks they'll be the next great pop singer, the next great chef, the only person who can dance, on and on I could go.

With yesterday's announcement that American Idol will be coming to an end, perhaps I should write more about that fantasy of being a superstar.  But I'm much more interested in the narrative of people who quest for a different quality of life.

Last week, a friend gave me Don Wallace's book, The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All.  Just from the title, you likely understand the trajectory.  I want it to be a cautionary tale, but it will likely make me want to pull up stakes and move to a distant village--preferably one with good food and plumbing in place.

My friend told me that it was much more realistic than those Frances Mayes books that made us all want to move to Tuscany.  In other words, we get a sense of what it really takes to restore a ruined mansion.

I think of all of us with home repairs that we never quite manage to get done, and how we all yearn to move someplace else with even more home repairs--in a foreign country, where we really don't speak the language or understand the building codes.

What does this say about our culture?

The two people in this book are writers living in New York.  They're struggling.  I don't understand how they can afford to live in New York, much less come up with extra for a French house--even if it's a French house that only costs roughly $15,000. 

That fact should have tipped them off as to how much work it would be.

The other day, my spouse and I were laughing about the time we were finishing grad school and as we so often did, we read the Sunday paper and went out to look at HUD and VA repo houses.  We found an amazing house for just $29,000, which was cheap even in 1992 dollars for a house that was essentially 2 houses on a huge lot.  The house was over 4,000 square feet in a time when not many houses were that big.  Not a great neighborhood, but not bad.

So, we went to the bank to get a mortgage.  The very kind banker did not treat us rudely, although he did help us understand the way of the world when he said, "You know, we usually like you to have a full-time job before we loan anyone this kind of money."

I felt a bit huffy.  Couldn't the banker see our potential?  I was about to get a Ph.D. in English, and my spouse would soon get his M.A. in Philosophy.  Of course we would pay the money back.  We were honorable people.

During the recent housing crash, I thought of that banker--and then I thought of all the other bankers who threw that rule out the window.  No job?  No problem--here's your mortgage.

My dreams of escape do not involve exchanging one house for another.  I keep thinking about all the places in the U.S. that I would like to see, places where I would like to linger but not to settle and sink roots.

My dreams of travelling the U.S. in an RV are less escape dreams than back up plans to a back up plan should I lose my current job.  This morning I took a walk through my neighborhood and made it to the beach in time for a gorgeous sunrise. 

Perhaps I'd have done the same if I woke up on an island off the coast of France.  But I'm happy to have had the chance to do it here.

And happy to know that I could do it almost every morning if I wanted.

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