“We were swimming in water because the roof was like a sieve. The roof didn’t really exist.”
IRIS & KARL
KARL: You know how it is: You grow up somewhere, you know where everything is and it’s kind of boring. We are originally from Vienna, Austria, and we had tried to escape for quite awhile, but it’s difficult because one fights against so many preconceived notions and ideas and family. The place you grow up is kind of a big nail you hang onto. Anyway, we had a child and he went to elementary school at this time. I always had problems with schools, personally—I never liked schools and the schools never liked me, in Austria. And we had some issues where our son went to school, because it was this old-style, authoritarian, unfriendly kind of school. I was not into this kind of thing and we thought we had to move somewhere else and we didn’t really care where.
During summer vacation we visited Brittany, on the Atlantic coast of France. Now Brittany is very pretty, it’s empty, it’s out in the countryside. And while we were there we saw a building for sale about 500 feet from the ocean. Old. Big. It was once a small hotel slash restaurant bar. Slash movie theater!
IRIS: And it was called Les Dernier Sou. Which means “your last cent!”
KARL: It was totally a fixer-upper. It was a project. We had heard stuff was cheap there so we asked around and we found out the price was 60,000.
IRIS: 60,000 dollars.
KARL: No, francs.
IRIS: I can’t believe it.
KARL: Translated, it was about $10,000 US.
IRIS: This unbelievably huge building with twenty rooms! It was amazing.
KARL: $10,000. And we thought, “Well, you know what? Here it is. We’re going to buy that.” The idea was originally because it is a hotel and has so many rooms, that we rent out the rooms and that is how we will survive.
IRIS: So we bought it.
KARL: We bought it, we went back with our car to Vienna, we packed our stuff, and came back with our son—who did not speak a word of French—and moved in.
IRIS: Not a word.
KARL: So now we had a project. This house was huge. It had two and half floors, it had this huge steep roof that was covered with black stone slates, and there was this movie theater in which everything had to be fixed. Summer was over and the weather changed in a way we had no idea it would change. The summer is beautiful in Brittany, but when summer ends, it gets extremely stormy—it starts raining and it does not stop for the next half year. It’s kind of beautiful in a way but the trouble was we were swimming in water because the roof was like a sieve. The roof didn’t really exist. It was a disaster. We went there with all of our stuff—with our child—and we were walking in water inside. It was really bad.
KARL: Just stupid. This was all the money we had, and we had spent it.
IRIS: We couldn’t order somebody to work on the house for us. We had to do everything on our own.
KARL: The main issue was this steep roof covered with stone slates. The stone slates were about the size of a pocketbook and they were held in place by steel hooks nailed into the roof. The issue is that the air is so salty there that the steel hooks would rust away and one slate after another would fall.
IRIS: We could hear it in the night. One after the other crashing down.
KARL: We didn’t know the roof was full of holes. And you can’t just put in new slates because you can’t get underneath the other ones. So we tried to hire somebody, a local guy, and he said, yes, he knew the building. He also said the building had been empty the last ten years and only foreigners would be stupid enough to buy it! He wouldn’t touch this building. “Throw it away, move away, do something, it’s not worth it.” That’s what we got.
IRIS: So Karl sat for weeks, on the roof!
KARL: Meditating. Until I figured out kind of an untraditional way. We bought boxes of new slates and I bought this silicon stuff and I just glued them in. And I went through the whole roof, which took about half a year to complete because it was so seriously big.
IRIS: But there was no more water in the building.
KARL: Yes, we managed! The building started to dry out. But we were totally running out of money. We tried to figure out how to even get people there and stay in the hotel, because this was pre-Internet. This idea of posting on the Internet, which costs you nothing—this did not exist.
IRIS: And our fax machine didn’t work anymore because a thunderstorm killed it. We were not connected at all anymore.
KARL: Yeah, we were really stranded. But the house, we managed to fix it up to the point where we thought we might be able to rent rooms. It was pretty. It was very simple, but it was pretty.
IRIS: It was okay!
KARL: But we couldn’t get anybody to come. We wrote letters to friends. We called people, “Hello, come visit!” But nobody ever came. Ever. We started feeling like we might not survive because we had no money left. Nothing. And we had a child we had to take care of. But we had another issue too. Brittany is very beautiful, but it’s very conservative. Our village had maybe 300 people in it and here we were and we are not conservative. At all. We were kind of like, well, a little bit hippy-like and we started painting the house in funky colors. So people were not really willing to make friends with us. There was no help or anything. So the only thing we could come up with was to sell it again. That was our only chance. We were dying.
Well, we quickly figured out that locals would never buy that house because they know an old building like this place is just trouble. And we couldn’t sell it to people from Paris who wanted to have a vacation home because it was way too big for that. Way too much work.
So to the rescue, we had an idea to sell it to Germans, because Germans might be the only ones uneducated enough to fall for a house like that. I mean, we did, right? So why wouldn’t they? And it looked prettier; I have to say it looked pretty. But the next storm that came in washed parts of the new paint job away in a second. It looked really terrible. So we had to repaint the whole huge house, and we knew we could only sell it when it looked pretty—because it looked so trashy when the paint was gone. So we had a short window where hopefully there was no storm and hopefully we could get people to look. So we put ads in German newspapers.
IRIS: Three German newspapers. The big ones.
KARL: Every month for three months. And we had plenty of people coming. But of course people coming and looking and people buying is a very different thing. At some point we started saying, “If we don’t sell it, we just leave this project. We let it sit here and just go somewhere and start all over again.” We knew we were not going to wait there for longer than a few months. We were seriously desperate.
IRIS: We were so ready to go.
KARL: The third month there was a German family that came, and they were the first ones who were kind of really interested.
IRIS: They were from the Socialist Party, and they wanted to have the house to for their members. So it was actually perfect, because 20-30-40 people would come stay there.
KARL: They were interested but driving a hard bargain. And we felt close to being very desperate. We bought it for like $10,000 but they didn’t know how much we had bought it for. In Europe you can’t find that out. Here in America you can look it up but over in Europe nobody knows! So we asked for $80,000, which for Germans is a joke.
IRIS: A total joke.
KARL: And we got the $80,000 but we had to give away–
IRIS: Every single thing we owned. They wanted to have everything.
KARL: All of our furniture, everything.
IRIS: They wanted it like it was—with my spoons, with my plates, everything. And we did it.
KARL: My whole library.
IRIS: We had an amazing library. Everything.
KARL: Freaking everything. And that was kind of it. They were stuck on that and they wouldn’t do the deal unless we gave them everything.
IRIS: This was the deal.
KARL: So this was our decision. We had the chance to walk out with no money lost. Actually we made a little money.
IRIS: We definitely made money, come on!
KARL: We made money, but we walked out with practically nothing.
IRIS: We left everything back.
KARL: The whole experience was devastating on many levels because nothing worked. Nothing worked the way we thought or hoped it would work. But looking back I wouldn’t want to miss these two years.
IRIS: No, never.
KARL: The other thing was, okay, yes, we walk away from the house, but where? We definitely didn’t want to go back to Vienna, because that was old news. So our idea was, we went from Vienna west to Brittany, which is totally in the west, let’s just keep on going, lets go further west and emigrate to the glorious United States!
IRIS: We almost thought we’d buy a boat.
KARL: Yes, we were actually thinking of buying a boat and sailing over!!!
IRIS: With the little stuff we had left.
KARL: When you go to the US you need visas and all kinds of stuff, which we did not have! So we thought we’d sail over and just land somewhere. I mean, who would know?
KARL: But we were not brave enough to do that. We thought, okay, let’s try to get a visa and move over there. So we applied for a one-year visa and they asked us if we had money.
IRIS: And we showed them the money we had just earned from our sale! It was perfect!
KARL: The embassy gave us the stamp and said, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” We didn’t have a real plan; we just wanted to check out how it was in the US. And that is how quit the hotel in France and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico!