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Listening to the church bell tolling we can always tell what time it is, day or night. By the time we left twenty years on, the sound of that soft bell tolling had become soul sustenance.

The Dutch truck driver spent the night parked next to the house. The next day, several men from the village unexpectedly show up to help unload the truck — we wonder if they want to see our American possessions or judge these foreigners, or if they just want to help, but their help was needed.

I know now that they will always appreciate a nice eau-de-vie after a day’s work is done, and I also know that lending a hand is a way of life in these villages.

We spent the day carting furniture and assembling beds. The volunteers enjoy the whole event, as if they’re in luck to chance upon a celebration. These Americans are curious specimens, having bought the hulking wreck in the middle of their village; this is a good opportunity to see them up close and take their measure.

The “kitchen” is a kitchen in name only. There is no stove, no fridge of course, but also no light, no gas, no storage — but there is an ancient bread oven sunk into a wall. There is also a sink with running water, thank God, and a niche with a door to the stables, now blocked up by rigid blocks of insulation called ciporex, where we will insert a fridge.

It’s up to us to furnish and build our kitchen. Everything in the house is in a state of disarray and filth, with huge piles of dirty clothes in the laundry room, most rooms without any artificial light, a colony of flies in the living room so bad the windows were black — all in all a daunting level of filth.

The mayor said we should ask around for help but the villagers refuse to touch it. Is it because we’re foreigners or because it’s too big a job? We don’t know. We learn that the couple who sold us the house used to have ferocious arguments and the wife would spend the night in the forest with the pompiers and villagers searching for her.

Work on that house changed us from greenhorns into old hands, mutating us into American-French hybrids. This wasn’t the ante-bellum house with expansive grounds and pedigreed horses I grew up with; it was better, it was magical old France and it was a huge, ambitious creation.

We’re not the same people coming back to the States twenty-something years later. Grappling with the physical work to deal with the two hundred year old structure and neglected grounds rooted us in more sturdy and less coddled bodies and minds.

It changed who we were as we changed our personal environment and eventually the village itself.

We put our heads down and kept after it for twenty five years, obsessively, lovingly, creatively. It’s a big house, over 10,000 square feet, but when we arrived it was just a huge barn connected to a 3000 square foot house that was barely livable.

The big fireplace with its huge chimney where the peasants had cooked since 1737 was blocked up. We opened it up and installed metal cladding up the flue to prevent fire from passing through into the house. (A friend said that the chimney was so big a family could live in it).

That room had served as an ancient kitchen, with its vintage wood cabinets and stone sink installed in a wall so it could drain outside, with its huge stone floor pavers broken by the log-cutting work of the peasants.

Those peasants had no respect for the noble materials originally installed in the house. They were just trying to survive a hard life.

The house was conceived and built by people of means but seriously degraded by eventual renters who had no understanding or respect for it. We did our best to bring it back to its former glory, and even beyond its former glory.

When we finally had to put it on the market it was snapped up in a week at full price.

Expectations of norms changed for us — what friendship means and how it is understood — how to greet people and say goodbye — what constitutes real food and the ceremonies around it — what self-reliance means — what to expect from workmen and how construction is done, — what government and medical services do and don’t do — how banks, taxes, and insurance work — how public transport worked — how to learn a language — the names of common objects, actions, and a thousand other things.

The list is endless.

Living with a literary French girlfriend in my thirties, I hadn’t learned the names of gardening, domestic things or construction terms, words like poinçon, faitiere, chauffe-eau, étanche, volets, pelouse, chataigne.

Coming back to the States, English seemed to have changed too. It’s strange seeing people confuse then and than or describe every other thing as “awesome.” “I’m good” in reply to “how are you?” still sounds wrong to my ears.

We keep having our expectations confounded as we try to fit back into American life. As returning natives, we’re permanently off-balance.

Our idea of how the world works was fundamentally rearranged in France and Italy. New norms and categories were installed without us realizing it until we considered trying to readjust to American life–a way of life that seems unnecessarily wasteful, cruel and inhumane.

To be frank, Europeans seem more human, less neurotic and self-critical, more communitarian. They seemed to know how to enjoy life more easily while accepting the life they have. The pace and scale of their life is more livable.

Americans seem to be trying to turn themselves into machines.

The European vision of life seems more evolved, more livable because the old ways are more firmly rooted, they haven’t been completely wiped out. Out in the French countryside, folks are unconvinced by the brave new world America is selling. Those people are indigenous to their land and culture, unlike most Americans, who are descendants of immigrants and refugees.

Passionate labor on a beautiful project for two decades also taught us about what our hearts desired. Building our refuge was our souls’ driving mission for as long as it lasted. (How to go forward with that same sense of focus in an American context and in the so-called real world is not so obvious).

We bought the house, moving a motley collection of furniture and possessions into it, and started work, neglecting little details like construction permits or even permission from the authorities to live in France.

Embarrassed, soft-spoken young gendarmes would knock on our door every few days, asking us for papers we didn’t have. Patience exhausted, they showed up one day to say that we, India, the underage children and I will be escorted out of the country.

“Don’t bother”, I say. “We’re leaving.” We pack up and hit the road for Venice.

We tell everyone we’ll be back as soon as we get our papers in order and we head over the Alps in our little green Volkswagen, an errand that takes almost two years. We were just beginning our awkward prison-break from the American paradigm.

In the end we achieved our dream of pulling back the magic curtain, because we built it and they actually came.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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