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House diaries
A Working Holiday
Chapter 1: We Leave for France
Chapter 10: Looking for Mr. Goodstone
Chapter 11: A mission to la Clape
Chapter 12: Dinner at Château de Lignan
Chapter 13: Antiques and plunder
Chapter 14: The vintner next door
Chapter 15: The rooftops of Nézignan-l'Évêque
Chapter 2: Comes the crusade
Chapter 3: The 13 colonies
Chapter 4: Our curtains are dreadful
Chapter 5: Naked beaches
Chapter 6: A visit to Château des Estanilles
Chapter 7: A pilgrimage to Toulouse
Chapter 8: Remembering Collioure
Chapter 9: The priest and the mayor
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A Working Holiday
Chapter 10: Looking for Mr. Goodstone
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The wreck of the dining room.
Rob Thorne calls to see if he can reserve the house for twelve weeks.    Baby needs a new roof, so this sounds good. Twelve weeks of guaranteed rental will buy us an insulated roof, and put a weather-tight rubber membrane under those picturesque and lichen-badged tiles that love to leak so well. There are buckets stationed in two bedrooms. It's raining. It's been raining for days.   Valros is in a plain between mountains and the Mediterranean. The town is sometimes buffeted by ferocious winds called the tramontane. The north wind. When it rains hard and the wind is blowing, water streams down three stories inside our lightwell, to seep into the kitchen floor. We gather to watch the drips race down the unpainted plaster. We can't paint until the roof is sealed. The wind shifts the roof tiles, according to the contractor; roof tiles aren't glued down. This explanation avoids comment regarding his installation of a skylight, which is where the leak appears. The skylight covers the airshaft where Alain placed our new kitchen.
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Alain amidst the ruins of the foyer.
With twelve weeks guaranteed rental, we can do the roof, and maybe even the courtyard. Except it's not really a guarantee. It's a hoped-for result. The twelve weeks provide lodging for students at an art school in Valros. The art school sells two-week packages of painting lessons, lodging, and gourmet-like meals. Most of the students are sixty and older. They see ads in the Royal Academy magazine and Leisure Painter.    Rob has a short list of improvements we would need to make, to bring the house up to a certain standard of comfort and cuteness. Topping the list: an electric tea kettle in every room. The students are tea-addicted Anglophones: from all over the former empire, Australia, South Africa, Canada. At several points each day life depends on a cup of tea.   Rob Thorne is the previous owner of our house. Some of what we've torn out, he put in. But that's just the beginning. Some of my happiest days at the house are with Alain in the first few days of our ownership: two guys, two sledge hammers, no waiting. The mission: to obliterate every false wall and prospect for hidden stone work. Some walls are mortared up out of hollow brick block. They have to be destroyed with hammer blows to a chisel. Rubble piles up. The neighbors start to wear pinched smiles. What was a designated bomb shelter in World War Two, never needed, looks bombed at last.

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Looking for Mr. Goodstone: old walls worth exposing for their ambiance.
The art school seems like a reasonably safe bet. The school has operated for ten years. The founder, Jackie, who teaches the classes, is tired of administration. Rob will handle all the advertising and the bookings, for a share of the income.    It's a deal we can't refuse. We need the roof, which won't be cheap.   But Simone is upset: with Rob's art school grabbing three months, and with other advance bookings, more than twenty weeks of the coming year are already gone. The other weeks, Simone has client commitments she can't escape. So it looks like we won't be going to France in 2001. What's the point of having a house in France if you don't go? Simone vows to refuse the art school next year. Which will give us surplus inventory of nine slightly-used self-heating tea kettles.    We drive to Pézenas, to a fabric warehouse, to buy new dining room curtains. Ann Brown has been kind enough to call our current curtains dreadful, an offense against good taste. "I mean," she says, with British finality, "they really don't fit, do they?" The curtains are plastic lace, purchased at a do-it-yourself depot. Ann is right; they're refugee curtains. They don't fit at all: too narrow, too long, with the wrong kind of bottom. Dreadful's too kind.

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Looking into the courtyard. The beams are remnants of an old tile roof, long ago fallen in. On the left, Aimeé works atop the reinforced concrete wine cuves..
Ann recommends a store. An ancient dog sleeps by the door of a prefabricated metal warehouse. Right inside by the cashier are the hottest seasonal items: bolts of fabrics with Halloween themes. Halloween is big in France. Store windows are draped with cobwebs. Patisseries create treats decorated with jack-o-lanterns and goblins. Halloween is an English and American holiday, not French. According to Simone's French cousin Fab, the McDonald's chain, which is ubiquitous in France, introduced Halloween as a promotional gimmick. And it quickly became a national retail holiday. Stores sell lots of masks. I don't know when they're worn, since we're told kids don't go trick-or-treating.    We choose café curtains in an ivory macramé lace. Fine, weighty, luxurious. With a pretty patina. The owner helps us pick. She says that many Americans visit her fabric store, because they can't find these kinds of lace in the U.S. and Canada. She is wearing an apron in a yellow regional print and has red hair from a bottle. French women of all ages love red hair dyes, with names like deep sunset and black cherry. She also warns us that Valros has delinquents. That's Simone's translation to me. I bob my head and say, "Ah."   Lamalou-les-Bains reminds me of Desi Arnaz belting out his hit, Babalu. It's raining (of course). Simone is driving. David and Linda are in the back. Lamalou-les-Bains is a spa developed to a high standard in the 19th century. For forty years, until World War Two, Lamalou "was the place where the crowned heads of Europe and high society met," one guidebook recalls. There's a casino, clinics, and healing. It's where operettas go to be reborn each summer; the festival is more than one hundred years old. There are an unusual number of people on crutches. As we drive into town, we slow to a halt, for a white-coated attendant guiding a turtle-slow patient down the middle of the palm-lined road.
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