Living In Provence: Getting There

Living In Provence: Getting There
NYONS, FRANCE. In July 2002, I gave up the rent-stabilized Greenwich Village studio apartment in which I’d lived for over 30 years and moved to Provence. I’d unexpectedly bought a nine-room house in the Vieille Ville of Nyons just a few months before. I moved because of a cat. Actually, several cats, to be exact. The cookbook author Lydie Marshall, my NYC neighbor and friend, had purchased and restored a feudal château in Vieux Nyons to which she had relocated her famous French cooking school. Along the way she also acquired eight cats. These were château cats. Clearly they could not be left alone when Lydie and her husband returned to New York for three months in the winter. The cats would need a human companion and caretaker to maintain the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Apparently, Lydie approved of the manner and style in which my own two cats and dog were living. She hesitantly approached me: Would I mind terribly living in her 25-room petit château for three months free of charge so I could look after her cats? Sacrifices made, I flew from Newark to Roissy on January 11, 1998, and arrived on the TGV at the old gare in Avignon on January 12th. I had been to Provence before, much farther south, in August 1963. Somewhere along the D541 between Saint Pantaléon les Vignes and Venterol, I fell in love, deeply irrevocably in love in one of those thunderbolt epiphanies after which you know your life will never be the same. I don’t know what it was exactly—the olive trees, the humpy mound-like mountains of the Drôme, the tiny perched villages, the brilliant white light, the lack of sleep…? Before that first Nyons visit, I’d had a vague idea, a fantasy, but as with all such reveries, there was a paucity of concrete detail, an utter lack of any sense of the dailiness of life, what it meant and felt like to actually live in Provence. Over the next five years, I returned every winter to baby-sit Lydie’s cats and each year, the agony of having to leave deepened. I knew I wanted to live here, but financially it was out of the question. In 2001, my New York landlord began escalating his harassment of me in the hope I would leave, enabling him to raise my $500-a-month rent to the $2800 per month he is getting now. There were a series of “accidental” burst sewage and water pipes that destroyed nearly everything I owned, including a collection of rare books, for which I collected a generous insurance settlement just before I left for Nyons in January 2002. Towards the end of February, I visited Aix-en-Provence overnight. Since I had made arrangements for the cats, I didn’t think it necessary to tell Lydie. A friend here mentioned to her on the phone that I was in Aix, not realizing I hadn’t told her, and when Lydie asked what I was doing there, the friend said the first thing that came into her head—I was looking for a house! When I arrived home to the château, I received a call from New York. Why was I looking for a house in Aix? Why wasn’t I looking in Nyons? Not realizing I had been looking for a house in Aix, I managed to feebly mutter something to the effect that she had already told me I couldn’t afford Nyons, that if I wanted to live in France, I would have to look in the Puy-de-Dôme. I was instructed she would call back in a few days for a report on my search for real estate around Nyons, her greatest passion, I might add. Knowing I couldn’t afford so much as a dingy studio apartment rental, I trotted down to have a look in the windows of the local immobiliers (a favorite Provençal pastime) for the sake of a report back to my “Supervisor”. Agence Bonnet had an adorable house in nearby Grignan for 70,000 euros. Quickly doing the math, with a 10% down payment, I realized this house was possible. Unfortunately it had just been sold. Was it as nice as the picture? Yes, said the Brothers Bonnet, but they thought it had been overpriced. What was I looking for?  Spewing and sputtering, since I actually hadn’t been looking for anything, I managed to come up with “ancienne” and “tradition.” They had the perfect house; it would be available the following week. They told me the street, quite close to the château, but not the number. I ran to look. Large beautiful homes and one minuscule, hideous wreck. That had to be the house. I was almost relieved. On a bleak and rainy morning, the Brothers Bonnet called to say they could show the house. It was exquisite, huge, charming and had just been fully restored. My first thought was “This is much too good for me.” As we went up the stairs, M. Bonnet said, “With each level the house gets better.” He was right! The price was a little more than I could manage. I was due to return to New York in four days. That night, my Supervisor called. Had I been to any estate agents?  One. And? Now it was her turn to sputter. I was instructed to see the loan officer at the bank and to use her name, a little trick I’d long ago learned worked miracles. Dressed in my most respectable clothes, make-up impeccably applied, I met with the…
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