Margaret and Dick   


September 2015: Les volets violets

  Occasionally a friend will describe their image of our home in France.  This tends to be (1) a lovely old house in the countryside complete with garden, or (2) an American-style townhouse.  I introduce you to les volets violets (the purple shutters), our affectionate term for our ancient house in Limoux’s old town, and its surroundings.

Our back door is on a street that is just under sixteen feet wide.  Your living room is probably bigger.  Go measure it.  Imagine parking a car in your living room.  Now imagine driving another car past the parked car.  Yup, that’s our back street.  If the window had been open when the Google truck drove through, the world would have seen what Richard was cooking for dinner.  The street outside our front door, shown below, is an expansive seventeen feet wide.  All homes in the old town are attached, which we would call townhouses.  In French they call them simply maisons, as this is the default style of construction in cities.
I had fun doing research for this story.  Limoux is old, and we live in the neighborhood of the church, which is by definition among the original neighborhoods.  The first evidence of occupation in the area dates from the first century BC.  The first mention of the town was in 944, the first mention of the church was 1120, and the bridge (Pont Neuf, the “new” bridge) was built in 1327.  The town fortifications, of which you can see evidence on our street, were built in 1350.

In the 15th century, the neighborhood was a bustling center for the manufacture of leather goods and woolen sheets.  (What, you were expecting fine Egyptian cotton in the 1400s?)  Property records don’t go back that far, but plats from that era match the layout of the neighborhood today.  Our house is twice the size of many in the neighborhood, facing onto two streets instead of just one, with ceilings that are taller than many houses on our block.  We suspect that the house was built by a successful merchant from the era of prosperity in the 1600s, possibly earlier.  The cellar certainly goes back to the 1400s.  Of the twenty generations that have lived and died in this house, all appear to be at peace.  We have no ghosts.

Indoor plumbing came to our street in the 1960s, and the public toilet was removed only recently.  When we were in the process of renovating our home, a friend scolded us for replacing the plumbing.  “Why does everybody feel they have to get rid of old furnishings?” he asked, undoubtedly imagining that lovely old house in the countryside.  We wondered what might be the appeal of a 1960s toilet in a low-budget rental.

The previous owner lived in our home until the early 1970s, when his wife died and he moved in with his daughter in a nearby town.  We met him and his children when we closed on the house, and I’m sure they were mystified by the American couple that snapped it up on the first day it was listed.  The house had been a rental for 25 years, and the top floor (now our study and guest room) had been divided into a warren of five tiny rooms barely large enough for a bed.  Last year a cleaning lady surprised us by saying, “I used to live here when I was a girl.  My room was here.”  And she pointed to Richard’s desk.

When we moved into the neighborhood, many of the residents were widows.  They would gather on the little place down the street and while away the evening hours.  Alas, most of them have left us, although a few still chase away the adolescents and reclaim their benches on hot summer evenings.

We’re thrilled each year, upon returning to Limoux, to see les volets violets and find the neighborhood apparently unchanged.  When neighbors bring us up to date on news, however, the evolution of the neighborhood becomes clear.  The French can now afford cars, and modern plumbing is high on the list of desirable features, so suburbia is a more attractive option.  As for the new crop of residents that have replaced our beloved widows, that’s the subject for another story.

- MMG  

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