We are on vacation.
And so is the rest of France. The little church was crowed yesterday, mostly with Parisians and their children. It was also the 50th wedding anniversary for a friend…a retired army colonel and his wife. But the occasion was marked by more sadness than joy. Only three weeks ago, one of their sons was killed in a traffic accident. We felt so sorry for him; we didn’t know what to say. We wished he could worry about the stock market…or the monetary system…or the war in South Ossetia – but it was all no more than the buzzing of a fly compared to the loss of a child. We were meant to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary, but who could offer more than empty words?
“Oui, mon vieux…yes, my poor old fellow,” was all we could say. We hugged him and said nothing more.
Yes, we are on vacation…but this is Markets and Money, after all. And there are always things to be reckoned with. Some important. Some trivial. Some sacred. Some profane.
But come 1PM, the lunch bell is going to sound and stand up from our computer and not touch it again until tomorrow. Then, after lunch, we’ll round up our crew of involuntary workers – three boys – and get to work. We have about 125 shutters in need of scraping and painting.
“Hey Dad, why do we have to do this? I mean, other people take a real vacation…I just spent the week with Paul and his family. They were really on vacation… and we just work.”
Henry also did some calculations: “Besides, if you add up all the expense of maintaining this place, it would probably be cheaper for us to take a vacation somewhere else…somewhere where somebody else paints the shutters…”
“If you added up the cost of maintaining this place, it’s probably a lot more than a nice vacation,” Henry argued. “We had to replace the roof a few years ago. We have Damien, [the gardener] who keeps an eye on the place. We had to have the plumber come and fix the furnace. You put a new door on the kitchen. It must cost a lot of money. We could have gone to spend a month in a nice hotel on the Cote d’Azur, for example.”
Henry had just come back from a week spent with friends. They didn’t paint shutters, or fix stone walls, or weed the garden. Instead, they went sailing…and to movies…and restaurants.
“Oh…and I was surprised by how much people hate Parisians,” said Henry. “They think Parisians are rich and snobby. And they’re right. You know Paul’s father would see someone with Paris license tags, doing something stupid, and he’d roll down the window and yell out – ‘Go back to Paris…’ or something like that.”
“But wait…Paul’s family is from Paris…they are Parisians…”
“Yes, but his father got local license tags. So when he’s on vacation, he pretends to be from the area and yells at the Parisians…
“But we had a good time sailing…it was nice to take a real vacation. Not like around here. We never get a vacation here, because there’s always so much work to do just to keep the place from falling down. Really, Dad, I don’t see the point….”
Henry is right, at least insofar as the money is concerned. When you add in all the costs of maintaining a summer house – or, at least this summer house – it is far more than the cost of a real vacation. In addition to all the costs Henry mentioned, there’s the cost of heat. Even though we’re rarely here in the winter, we still have to heat the place or it will soon be ruined by mildew. And here in Europe, it costs a fortune to heat a large, old, un-insulated house through the winter. Then, there are taxes…insurance…and the inevitable repairs.
What we’re discovered here in France is the same thing that Americans all across the nation are discovering – houses are ways to spend money, not to make it.
“Well, why do you keep it?” Henry wanted to know.
“Sentimental reasons, Henry. This isn’t an investment. And it’s not just a vacation spot. This is our home. We’ve spent the last 13 years fixing it up. We’ve restored it. We’ve planted trees and gardens. And you children have grown up here.
“Besides, our lives are otherwise rather nomadic. I work in London. Your mother and Edward live in Paris. You children are spread out all over the world. You’re going to be in Virginia next year. Maria is out in Los Angeles. We need a place to call home…a place to keep our sacred family documents….”
“You mean, a place to keep grandma’s recipe for bread pudding and Maryland beaten biscuits?”
“Yes…and your monkey outfit from when you were in the school pageant… We need a permanent family stronghold…a family seat…a place where the whole family could gather every summer.”
“Well, why didn’t we just stay at the family farm in Maryland?”
“Because my business took us to Europe…and because the whole area changed so much…with all those shopping malls and housing developments…it didn’t seem like home anymore. We had to retreat…”
“Well, I don’t mind that…I like this place. I just don’t like having to work all the time we’re here.”
“But that’s just part of the charm of it. Imagine if we had gotten a condo at the beach at Ocean City? We’d go crazy. We’d just sit around and read all the time. Here…we get to do a little stonemasonry in the morning and paint the shutters in the afternoon…”
“When I grow up, I’m going to get a place at the beach…and spend the summer there. You’re going to have to paint the shutters by yourself.”
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