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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 13: Antiques and plunder

Two painted lovers dance on a boarded-up Pézenas door. Pézenas hosts months of arts festivals each year -- and sublime graffiti on occasion.
In October, neighboring Pézenas holds a brocante and antiques fair. Antiques, for customs purposes anyway, are objects at least one hundred years old. Brocante are newer second-hand goods. I've been feeling brocante myself. I sit at a computer and write 40, 60 hours a week. My career of choice, but unhealthy. True and hypochondriacal complaints and disorders wrack my system. My back spasms. My neck locks up tight. My knee clicks. For the male of the species, there are several verbal rites of passage. When an object of your desire urges, for the very first time, "Touch me there." When, for the first time, some younger guy calls you "sir" and means it. When your doctor, for the first time, prefaces a diagnosis with "At your age...." The estimable Dr. Wachtel, my internist, used those words just a few days ago. For the first time. My (older) sister, Alice, concurs sadly, "When you're past 50," as we both now are, "it's all repair, repair, repair." Pézenas is a regional assembly point for antique dealers. Furnishings from estate sales in the hinterlands are gathered here, a few are sold, most are shipped out. By the truckload, according to John Platings, who has seen them load and depart. We arrive early and park in a supermarket shuttered for Sunday. The town's main drag is closed to vehicles. Inside the barriers, brocante sellers line the curbs, tables next to vans. Two dozen antique stores are open for walk-in traffic. At one, the owner's ten-year-old has set up his own small sales table displaying used toys and children's collectibles; like mother, like son. The skies are overcast but dry. The mob is already out. It's the running of the bulls, only there are no bulls; and the humans are chasing, not chased. Chasing plunder. Plunder is Alain's word for getting the goods. Hunting plunder with him is a white-water expedition: rough, fast, exhilarating. He is a museum director, auction house habitué, decorative arts scholar. And a construction expert. He is a scientist of junk. Under his gaze, mere nails and doorknobs yield rich stories, from the mine to the smelter to the decorative period they exemplify to the marks of use they reveal. And he is admirably cheap. It's a moral position for him. New things, and their retail pricetags, offend him. It breaks his heart to spend more than a few dollars on anything, except the very rare and truly valuable. He believes in buying parts, not wholes. It's a bedrock principle: it keeps the prices low. Alain makes physical poetry from the pieces. Case in point at our house in France: an elegantly curved hardwood desk top, found amputated in a salvage yard, now supported on otherwise-acquired limbs, one a wrought-iron boot last. The finished desk is beautiful. It cost next to nothing. And it has its own abstracted iron foot.

The dining room looking out to the front entry..
This morning's haul: rusty andirons (black shoe polish will refurbish), a bottle rack (a Marcel Duchamp look-alike), two brown glazed cake pans (for wall decor), and a matched set of old metal bench supports. Alain plans to reslat the bench with scrap wood from the Emmaüs, the charity that sells castoffs. Alas: scrap wood is about all the Emmaüs is good for right now. The organization has gone upmarket. To raise bigger bucks, it has recently held a furniture auction in Paris, emptying the local outlets of their better stuff. What's left is "scary," an Alain word meaning dangerously ugly crud. At lunch, Alain regurgitates a lecture that caught his fancy back in Muncie. Something about string logic. He is an enthusiast. But I don't really get it. Or maybe it's the wine. Outside the dining room window, rue du Portail darkens. In eclipse. A storm opens up. We hear raindrops rattling the skylight, a bombardment of water balloons the size of marbles. Everyone jumps from the table, scouting leaks. The report: local flooding in one bedroom; and the kitchen lightwell wears streamers of rainwater. As usual: the little roof that frames our new skylights is imperfectly sealed. We all agree that the roof is a mess, and we've got to find someone to repair it. John Platings was supposed to, but he's left the business. It was unnerving at first to see huge dark blooms of water on our interior walls. But the old wall absorbs most of it. It used to be an exterior wall anyway, before we put in the skylights. Very few drops roll all the way to the floor, which is concrete, still bare of tile. There's no real damage; it just means we can't paint the lightwell yet.

Simone, Alain and the kitchen sink on a broom..
We can, however, build a brick block pedestal for the sink. Which will be this afternoon's main renovation. First, Alain disconnects the water pipes. The cast-iron sink is lifted out (it takes three of us). We prop it on end, braced upright with a broom. Mark this moment: we no longer have running water in the kitchen; Alain insists this will be a temporary inconvenience. We then remove the sink cabinet, which was once a sideboard. This is one of Alain's bright ideas: use well-made but unfashionable old furniture as kitchen cabinets. He plans to cut four inches off the sideboard's height, to accommodate the pedestal, which will be the sink's new kickplate. Alain gets to work with his diamond blade cutter and a chisel, cutting bricks to size. The sound is enormous: a thick, high-pitched whine. This is why the neighbors love us. In a special rubber bucket, he mixes hydrated lime and water to make quick-drying mortar. He splashes big gray gobs on the bricks and tamps them into place, quickly building a platform, troweling off any excess that squeezes out. This is new to Simone and me. We watch like we're at a big city construction site. Momentarily, Alain is our household god: we worship the things we don't understand. I get a job: to wire-brush bits of mortar off the brick, so tile adhesive will adhere well. Alain takes the rubber bucket outside to twist it and pop out the hardening old paste and mix a new batch. Simone goes into the front room to record a phone message in both English and French that can't last more than 15 seconds but that still explains how the fax works. Rob Thorne calls to make an appointment for tomorrow. He wants to come over, to iron out the final details of the art school. He offers to intercede with our neighbors, too. We need their permission to add soundproofing to the windows in our lightwell. These windows once looked into an alley, now they look into our kitchen. Without soundproofing, we listen to their child-rearing, domestic battles, and bad French pop music; they listen to American action films on video and our kitchen clatter. The wife is seriously unhappy about this. Over the phone, Rob and I work out how many sheets and towels will be needed to service the art school. It looks like we're going to need twice as many as we currently have. He mentions the tea kettles again, anxiously. "You're serious?" Absolutely; he is. The English require a tea kettle in every room. He has one shocking and welcome bit of news: John Platings is back in the contracting business, specializing in roofs. John has this whole new system worked out. I call him immediately: "I understand from Rob that you're doing roofs." "Yes, well...." John agrees that he is, a bit reluctantly. He's still hoping to retire. I cheerfully announce, "Do I have a roof for you." We make an appointment to visit John at a job site, to see how his new scheme works. Night is falling. We hope to keep noise to a minimum after a certain hour. Alain rushes through some last, brutal tasks in the front entry, where loose electrical conduit drapes like vines. With the diamond saw he deepens a trough through the limestone and tucks the conduit inside. Roaring. He uses a hammer drill to install the doorknobs he's adapting as coathooks. And he reattaches an iron stair railing that's come loose. Lots of banging. I expect the neighbors to show up with pitchforks. For self-defense I've bought my own wooden pitchfork at the flea market.

The pitchfork stands guard in the vaulted ceiling room..
Limestone powder settles everywhere, like confectioner's sugar. It's worst on the ground floor, which we've tried to keep particularly clean. We attempt to reinstall the sink and discover that the counter is almost an inch too wide to fit in the available space. While Simone and I levitate the sink again, at the limit of our upper-body strength, Alain trims the cabinet to size. Then we discover that the trap can't be re-connected because the access hole is no longer in the right place. It's 10 p.m. (or twenty-two hundred, as the French would say). We quit. The sink is back standing on end, propped by a broom. Alain goes outside for a smoke. Simone wanders upstairs for bed. I push aside some of the tools that are accumulating on the dining room table and set up the laptop so I can check my e-mail. It's 4:30 a.m. in the US. I have a glass of wine, Château des Estanilles. Then another. When my e-mails get irresponsibly chatty, I shut down. We have reached that special place, the domestic tightrope where the job's not done and an essential service - kitchen water - is interrupted. We're sprouting loose ends like weeds.
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