No McMansions in Mirepoix – blog post
This is quite the quirkiest house I’ve ever slept in. For one thing, it’s all of 12 foot wide, except, that is, for the top floor/attic, which measures 14 feet. (I don’t even understand how that’s possible.) Everything is at interesting angles. You think the furniture is placed crookedly and then you realise that the walls aren’t at right angles to the floor, anywhere. The supporting beam is at a weird angle to the boards that make up the ceiling.
Strangest of all, this house is on seven levels. Technically it is a three-storey dwelling, but each storey has a kind of half-storey leading off it, if that makes sense. So that you come into a dining area straight off the street that leads into a kitchen from which five steps lead to a tiny laundry. Up 13 more steps and you’re in a long, slim, beautifully light living room with blue-shuttered windows looking straight down on the narrow street.
Up seven more steps to a bathroom and bunk room that back onto a judiciously placed light-well. Eight more and you are in the main bedroom which has the same proportions and outlook as the living area a floor below. Up nine more steps to an attic bedroom (two foot wider than any of the other areas in the house) and five more steps take you to a kind of mezzanine sleeping area where you could settle half a dozen kids if you needed to.
There’s no garden. It seems, wandering around, as I do most days, that there aren’t many gardens in this bit of town. Some places have a bit of land at the back – across the back wall from the attic room I get a glimpse of red autumn tomatoes and sunflowers just past their best – but all the houses open directly onto the street, so that you come out your front door and you’d be in the gutter if you had one. As we lie in bed having our cup of tea first thing, we hear church bells and French voices drifting up to us as people start their day; when we go for a walk we exchange pleasantries with ladies washing their windows or putting out the cat, or old people sunning themselves on a strategically placed bench. Life happens outside.
It has the feel of an Indian town – people living on top of each other and most of the life happening on the street. Also, although they may look like dolls’ houses, the tiny front doors of these residences lead into sizeable homes. Last year Hamish and I stayed in a guest house in the heart of Bikaner, Rajasthan. The street was only wide enough for pedestrians, bikes and rickshaws. The house opposite was almost close enough for us to reach out and touch the little girl who lived there who I used to wave to from the roof. The door into the establishment was so small you had to bend to get in, and we had a truck load of trouble finding it the first time around.
Once you got inside, however, it was a veritable Tardis. Room upon room opened out (we discovered they had eight rooms for paying guests); there was an open air dining and sitting area on the roof and then another flat roof above that. Each of the guest rooms had their own bathroom, and our hosts had their own quite spacious living quarters.
It feels like the polar opposite of an Australian McMansion, or even a normal Australian suburban home, with its massive rooms, multiple living areas (dad’s den, parents’ retreat, kids’ area), decks the size of something from the Queen Elizabeth II and acres of garden. In Europe and Asia, people go to a park if they need a dose of green open space. The gardens, such as they are, are communal.
Like most Aussies, I have grown accustomed to my big house and garden, and I enjoy it. But I still miss the street life of the city where I grew up in India. I still find empty gardens and pavements lonesome.
And when I venture into the outer burbs in Melbourne with their McMansions, it depresses me. Huge houses containing a couple, maybe one or two kids. Big empty rooms dominated by flat screen televisions that take up almost an entire wall. No one emerging from their domain to chat to the neighbours. There are more interesting and sustainable ways of housing people than either massive suburban dwellings or the dog box apartments for overseas students that have been attracting controversy in Melbourne over the last few years.
We live in a pretty big house by Brunswick standards. These days we rattle around in it, but for most of our 16 years there, every room in the place was used to within an inch of its life, and that’s the way it should be.
Of course I am romanticising France, and India too. (I’m allowed to do that, I’m on holiday.) Who knows how I would cope if I had to live in a medieval house on a medieval street, which is what this is? I like to think I would take to it like a duck to water. I’ll probably never have the chance to find out, but while I am here, having a taste of it – having three weeks in ancient dwelling places in antique towns, I plan to keep enjoying every minute.
Pic 1 - me in our little house. Ours is the one with the blue shutters, the big window on the ground floor belongs to next door.
Pic 2 - a little shop for sale just down the road