|Why is a summer house different?
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We spent most of last week on airplanes. From Paris to Amsterdam, then to Vancouver, then to Beijing and finally, back to Paris.
The best flight was Air Canada from Vancouver to Beijing. The plane was almost empty. We got on, put the seat back, and went to sleep. A few times in the night we woke up...opened the window...and tried to figure out where we were. There was a red glow off to the right side of the plane, which we took to be the arctic.
The hostesses on the plane were all Chinese. Very pleasant and professional.
Remarkably, all the flights were on-time.
But then, returning to terra firma, things started to go wrong.
We hadn't much time to keep up with the markets last week. But nothing much happened away. It's summer. Investors don't seem to be paying attention. On Friday, stocks went nowhere. Gold slipped a little. Analysts and commentators continued to bore and distract us with their explanations. But ultimately, nobody knows anything. Smart investors' only advantage is, like Socrates, they know they don't know anything.
A big storm had ripped through France on Friday. Electric lines went down. Trains to the southwest were all delayed. And then, manmade problems took over took over from natural ones. We sat on the train from Paris to Poitiers for an hour in the station while the SNCF tried to find a conductor. The one slated for the job had gone home when his shift was over. By the time we finally made it home, it had been a very long day.
Where is home? It is a big, old house in the country, southeast of Poitiers. Twenty years ago, we decided to globalize our business and our family. We looked for a base in Europe. Mostly by accident, we found this pile nearly 4 hours drive from Paris. South of the Loire, but in a region where few tourists set foot, prices were low and the quality of life - as near as we could determine after only a couple visits - seemed high.
Looking back on it, it was a rather impractical move. Whatever business we were to do in Europe, it wouldn't be out in the French countryside. We would have done better to stay closer to the city. But then, nearer to Paris seemed less 'authentic,' less 'picturesque;' and it was more expensive.
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We were amazed by how much house you could get for your money out here. The place cost us about the same thing as a nice beach-house in Ocean City, Maryland. But it came with 11 bedrooms and what seemed like acres of roof - some in slate, some in clay tile. In addition to the house, with its turrets, towers, gables, and oeil de boeuf windows, there were barns, stables, several farmhouses, workshops, wine caves, garages and other buildings. We thought all these things were a plus. Later, we learned that they were a big negative...because the roofs had to be repaired, at great expense. The house itself was a wreck too - with barely a single functioning bathroom and a kitchen that wouldn't have been out of place in the Dark Ages.
There was also a large pond, and a huge walled garden - an acre of space hidden behind by a 10-foot tall stone wall - which had been abandoned.
It was to this setting that our American family arrived - two naive parents, with 5 baffled children - in 1995. It has been our home in Europe ever since, serving as a summer house for the last 12 or so years. Now, it is summer again; we have now taken up our summer quarters.
We got back Saturday night. Sunday, Elizabeth rode a bicycle into the village to buy bread and croissants; we had our breakfast outside. Then, we took a walk around just to inspect the state of things. There were tree limbs down from the storm. One of them had knocked our gypsy wagon on its side. Otherwise, we saw no damage.
We bailed out the rowboat for a little tour of the pond and the orchard on the other side, in the walled garden. A goose was trailed by five or six little goslings. A ragondin, a south-American relative of the muskrat, slipped out of its hole and escaped under the bridge. We rowed around the pond, checking on the status of plants and trees. Then, we edged the boat up to shore on the walled garden side, near a small stone building where we keep garden tools. Stepping out of the boat, Elizabeth lost her footing and fell in the water.
"I know you find this amusing," she said, dripping wet, "so go ahead and laugh."
"No, I don't find it the least bit amusing. I'm deeply distressed that you think I would."
"Don't worry. It would probably be unnatural not to find it funny when someone else falls in the water. Besides, we're on our summer vacation. We can enjoy ourselves."
Americans don't typically go in for summer houses. They have suburban houses that are comfortable in all seasons and are meant to serve all year round. Prosperous families even have swimming pools behind the house, giving their homes a holiday atmosphere in warm weather.
But a summer house is different. The idea is not just to decamp to a cooler place in the hot, summer months, but to leave your normal, workaday life behind you. An ideal summer house has no TV. And no internet. Maybe not even a telephone. It is a place to escape the news and let your mind and body recover.
We have friends in Scotland who have a summer house in the Shetland Islands.
"It's paradise there, of a sort," they report. "We're on our own. We fish. The kids play in the tidal pools and turn purple, because it is so cold. We go out in the boat and check on the sheep on a nearby island. We have a radio and a telephone, but nothing else."
Here in France, people tend to head south:
"While you were away I visited friends down near Nimes, in the south of France," Elizabeth reported. "They have an old family house out in the country. It is what they call a 'mas.' Very simple. With thick stone walls. A square building. The sun is hot down there, so they keep the shutters closed most of the time.
"But it was very restful. It is just a summer house. They use it only once a year. The rest of the year the furniture is covered with sheets. But the whole family goes there in July and August. They take off the sheets and open the shutters to air the place out. They come with a pile of books to read. They see their old family friends. They eat well. And that's about it."
The charm of a summer house is that you do not do there what you do in your regular house. You do not rush from one thing to another. You do not go shopping - except for food. You do not try to stay 'in the loop.' You do not try to catch up on your office work. You do not eat fast food. You do not drive fast cars. No, a summer house is a different thing. It is for slowing down... reading...thinking...wandering...wondering...talking...
But there is work to do too. Each year, we paint shutters. Or redecorate a room. Or repair a stone wall.
This year, we have to fix our gypsy wagon. Remarkably, the glass in the windows wasn't cracked. But much of the trim on one side was broken. We got the wagon back upright with the help of our neighbor's tractor. Now, we have to put the trim back on.
But what's the hurry?
Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.
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