Journalist/editor/novelist and now memoirist Don Wallace is a man of three islands—Manhattan, Hawaii, and Belle Île, France. He is the author of four books, including the novel Hot Water and One Great Game: Two Teams, Two Dreams, in the First-Ever National Championship High School Football Game. His essays, articles, and fiction have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, SELF, Fast Company, Wine Spectator, Naval History, and other publications. For more about Don and updates on Belle Île-en-Mer, visit his website and his France blog.
Excerpt from The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All
© Don Wallace 2014
The Third Island
Our second winter in New York City was the worst in a decade. Too many times Mindy and I joined the huddled masses in a bus shelter, feet sunk in a drift of slushy dirty snow, staring at some travel poster placed there to tempt us. The photos were almost always of islands in the Caribbean or Greece. Along with the other misérables we stared at the posters unabashed, drunk with longing. We wanted an island like that. Who wouldn’t?
One winter’s day, as I stood in the hall outside our cramped illegal sublet apartment, tugging at my snow-soaked shoes, Mindy came to the door holding a sheet of paper folded in thirds: a letter. The moment she began reading it aloud, lightning struck. Suddenly the gods were speaking. They’d chosen a human voice so as not to frighten us off—the voice of a woman, with a French accent. A familiar voice. Gwened Guedel was writing “to give a piece of news” as she quaintly put it. We heard it amid thunderclaps—unless that was my heart pounding:
“A small house, in quite poor repair, has come up for sale in the village.”
Gwened Guedel wasn’t really a goddess, but she was the first Frenchwoman I’d ever known. And Mindy’s stories had built her up so grandly in my mind before meeting her in person. The impressions I’d gathered over the years—we’d made a couple of visits to Belle Île since a solo stay the winter of 1980—had been of a scintillating but stern Fairy Godmother: love the shoes, fear the wand. Because Mindy was always on her toes around Gwened, I was too. Her mental energy was exhausting. Even in her kitchen she darted and jabbed, light on her feet, as if in a knife fight refereed by Larousse Gastronomique: “Take that, you ham! En garde, mon tête d veau!” Petit and fashionable, more voluptuous than any college professor I’d ever seen, Gwened seemed to invite men to flock around her while maintaining that she only cared about their minds.
Most of all, Gwened played the teacher. At every opportunity, she had tweaked Mindy’s accent and grammar. Similarly, lowering her aim quite a few notches, she would take pains to acquaint me with my educational and cultural shortcomings. Not intentionally, of course. Well, it probably was intentional. With Gwened, intention was everything. All shortcomings were to be recognized as such and dealt with summarily, without delay. Cognisance mattered. And culture. Sans blague, was Gwened ever cultured! But that hadn’t stopped her from setting the hook on us as ruthlessly as a real estate speculator.
“…quite poor repair…” Mindy repeated, holding the letter in her hand and looking at me. She was smiling. So was I. “Poor repair” could only mean one thing: cheap.
Were we crazy?
Maybe enchanted was the better word. Though we joked about it, there was something witchy about Gwened Guedel—in the modern, chic, Updike manner. Yet Gwened hardly needed clairvoyance to guess that this particular island village lingered in our minds.
Still, her calling out of the blue like this was unprecedented. It had been three years since we’d shown up at her door—and been shown the door the next day with a brisk “Enjoy the island!” On the island, a visit meant to last a week or two stretched into a month, then two months. Mindy and I got our mojo back, and then some, before stumbling over a new self-discovery: We couldn’t bear to leave. Our families in the U.S., and even Gwened herself, hinted it was time to return and face the music, but like a pair of Peter Pans, we didn’t want to grow up. I’m embarrassed to say that Gwened had to kick us out.
But our reluctance to leave must’ve made an impression, because her letter was written as if it were yesterday. Which for us it practically was. Captives of our New York daily grind, we looked backwards to “island time” as if it were a window through which we might one day stroll again into a greener, saner world. We thought of Belle Île on dark nights when we needed to restore ourselves after some setback, such as my being invited to a second job interview at The New Yorker only to have the editor pick up the phone and arrange for “a better fit” at something called Motor Boating & Sailing. Or Mindy’s agent calling to say he’d accidentally mislaid the manuscript of her novel for an entire year, calling her “Penny” the whole time. Or just a little thing like finding a drowned and boiled cockroach in the tea strainer after we’d finished our cups of Earl Grey.
After these New York moments we would console ourselves with village scenes, treasures to be taken out and shaken to life like a crystal paperweight. On sunnier days, when we felt brave enough to make plans, one of us might pop the question—as in, “My dream would be a little house in a place like Kerbordardoue; what’s yours?”
So of course we were flattered to be approached, as Gwened no doubt intended. But that didn’t change the fact that the notion was lunacy. When you’re living on $17,000 a year, buying island cottages isn’t in your Top 10 priorities.
Besides, we’d already settled on an island—that big one called Manhattan—although I must say it was doing its best to shake us off, the way a dog does fleas. Mindy and I were barely hanging on, working entry-level jobs at age thirty. And then there was Hawaii, where Mindy was born and raised. If we needed some island R&R, we could always stay with her mom in the graceful old termite-ridden house on Diamond Head, squeeze in with her four brothers and fend off Mom’s boyfriends, eat Korean leftovers and surf practically off her doorstep.
And yet here came Gwened, eyes burning bright, bringing us the news that we needed another island—a third island—three-thousand miles away. And here’s what I don’t understand, even now, so many years later: We listened.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask how much,” I said. Mindy nodded, thinking the same thing: cheap. “I’ll write her back.”
“A house in Kerbordardoue. I wonder which one it is?”
“I’ll call her.”
Mindy put her hand on the black Bakelite wall phone, one of the apartment’s 1940s relics that contributed to the musty air of a time capsule. It was, of course, a dare. Were we still crazy? Still reckless? Still unembarrassed? Did we really think there was any point or sense to pursuing this blind alley, other than to reinforce previous bad decisions and to nurture the reveries that had led to us living underground on the black housing market and in a state of constant vigilance about keeping a low profile, like fugitives from the law?
Were we, in other words, still us?
A month, two months, three months went by. We kept talking. Gwened’s preferred mode of communication was a hand-written letter in proud English, the composing of which undoubtedly added time to the process. Each letter had to cross the Atlantic, be read and discussed, then replied to by Mindy in carefully crafted French, dictionary at her elbow. The process became attenuated like a nineteenth-century epistolatory novel. But eventually Gwened obtained a key to check out the interior. She wrote back: I regret to report that the house is in not-good shape.
What upset her most, however, was the lack of a garden. Not to have even a terrace, where one could sit out in the afternoon, or a place to plant flowers—this was unthinkable. No wonder the house had been on the market for so long. In good faith I cannot advise you to buy it, Gwened wrote, until I have looked around at property in other villages.
We were disappointed. Already we’d grown accustomed to thinking about our house in our village on our island. We’d begun to save money, just in case.
For a long time Gwened didn’t write. We understood. She had her teaching and her family in Tours, the pressure of being a representative of La France Feminine, tending to her husband and his wine cave and the teenager who threw typewriters. We knew she could only visit Belle Île during school vacations. After a couple of months, though, we wrote. Her reply came a month later, saying she would canvass the island in the summer. Months went by.
By the time she got back to us, almost a year had passed.
I am enclosing the list of the available houses in Belle Île. As you can see, the house next door is the cheapest. I went to see another one at 120,000 F but it is a ruin, damp with no sun. Sun is really the big advantage of the house in Kerbordardoue. Of course, I insist that it is not pleasant in July and August, since everyone is parking there.
The price is now 300,000 F. I do not think there is any possibility of having it lower. Taxes should be added (+12, 15%) and at least 200,000 F for living in the house. The roof is full of holes and should be remade. There is one tap of cold water in the house, but no sink.
…So having considered everything, I am convinced that the house is not a bad bargain. I went inside, and I was surprised to see that is rather dry and healthy. Upstairs you can have two or three bedrooms, downstairs a nice big kitchen about the size of my middle room, a bathroom and a small room. For about 550,000 F on the whole, you could have a nice house. Of course everything has to be restored from the beginning.
…I would love to have you as neighbors. I would help as much as I can for counseling the good enterprises in Belle Île. Good for you, one dollar is now worth 10,000 francs…
Love to you both,
We were right back where we started. The house still didn’t have any land for a garden, there seemed to be something unpleasant going on with the parking in summertime, and the roof had holes. You’d think any or all of these might give us pause.
But still the idea would not die. What kept us writing letters and on the phone that second winter, listening to Gwened Guedel? We had neither the time nor the money for this, no business thinking about islands, villages, houses. Even now I really don’t understand it—or us. I only know that we both wanted out so badly. Out of this world, our lives, the jobs we held, the times we lived in.
The longer Gwened spoke, the more we opened our minds. Maybe thinking of her as a bit of a witch wasn’t very polite of us, given her past generosity, proper manners, and stern professorial bearing. But it wasn’t altogether wrong.
Because when Gwened spoke, we could see.
Because it would be ours.
Or so the gods whispered.
Among the many curious things Mindy had taught me about France, an obsession with currency rates had to be the most arcane, right up there with spotting the difference between a skinned rabbit and a skinned cat in a Mouffetard butcher’s stall. But I caught on fast after a 3.41 franc-to-dollar ratio had translated into No croissants for breakfast, mon amour.
That was during my first visit to France, back when America was weak. In the past year, between Gwened’s first letter about the house and my scouting visit two months ago, the rate had gone to 10-to-1, in effect dropping the price nearly two-thirds. Also during the year, with the goal of this place in mind—still unseen, but not unimagined—Mindy had landed a job at Glamour magazine and I got a raise at Motor Boating & Sailing. We’d cut our expenses and saved every penny. We’d freelanced, applied for writing grants, entered contests.
Somewhat shockingly, our efforts had paid off. Our novels-in-progress each won a $7,500 prize from James Michener’s Copernicus Society. I won a $500 award from the Secretary of Mexican Tourism for an article about Baja California, and took home a set of luggage from the American Zipper Association (I’m not making this up) for a cartoon I’d drawn of a Central Park tent enclosure designed to house Donald Trump’s expanding ego.
So much good stuff happened that we both came to believe that Belle Île and Kerbordardoue were affecting our luck; for instance, it seemed I couldn’t attend a press lunch or conference without winning the drawing for the door prize. Steak knife sets, free stays at industrial park Ramada Inns, hot air balloon rides. It was hard not to feel that we were suddenly living a charmed life, albeit one weirdly overstocked with knives.
Just as our bank balance hit $15,500, the owners caved. It turned out they were five squabbling siblings, none of whom had ever lived in Kerbordardoue. Worn down by our long year-and-a-half of hesitation, they threw up their hands and cut the price in half, to 150,000 francs—exactly $15,000 at the new rate. Taking this as an omen, I figured out how to piggyback a detour onto an overseas story for my magazine, flew over, spent a couple hours going over the house with Gwened and Franck, and… “Oh my god, what have I done?”
Spent every penny we had and then some—forgetting to factor in that twelve-point-five percent tax, for starters.
Gwened now strolled out the front door and smiled with all her considerable charisma. Inhaling deeply, spreading her arms wide, she said, “It’s a wonderful house, Mindy. You will be very happy here, I can feel it.”
Loathe to show weakness in front of her old professor, Mindy straightened up and puffed out her chest like a soldier on parade. “What do we do now? Is that man coming?”
“Denis LeReveur should be here any moment.” Gwened turned on her heels and gave the house another once-over. “He is a sensitive young architect, and of course, he is Bellilois. That is the important thing for the renovation.”
But being sensitive and young and Bellilois, Denny the Dreamer was late. We circled the square eyeing the house, pacing off its length, peering behind at the adjoining shed, its exposed stone wall showing signs of collapse. “Do we own this?” asked Mindy.
“No,” said Gwened.
“I’m worried it could bring down our wall. Maybe we can buy it?”
What? Here we were, flat broke and looking at an expensive renovation, and Mindy wanted to expand our little empire. I didn’t know it, but this was the first indication that my wife had caught the French peasant’s disease: a compulsive desire to add to one’s holdings, regardless of reason or need.
“I think not.” Gwened sounded brusque, wary. Was she, perhaps, feeling a bit guilty about what she’d gotten us into?