Rent a House? On the Continent

WE’VE been living in rented houses on the Continent the past ten years. There was our wonderful Praderhof in Merano, with French gobelins and oak-paneled halls, sun terrace and large park, surrounded by the vineyards, orchards, and castles of South Tyrol. One Christmas Eve the central heating broke down during a blizzard and there was a leak in the roof. We worked all night to get the place dry again. There was the villa in Beaulieu with the view of the palms and the Mediterranean from the dining room, and of the olive groves and railroad tracks on the other side. When the Train Bleu went by, twice a day, the house would gently shake to its foundations.

I remember the house in Zehlendorf, on the outskirts of West Berlin, which was complete with a photographic darkroom and a good cook, and only six minutes by car to a sign: “ATTENTION! 10 METERS TO THE

SOVIET BOUNDARY!” And the small house overlooking the harbor of Monte Carlo; from the balcony one saw the illuminated contours of the Casino at night, and in the morning the wind would bring the fresh scent of the incoming tide. There was the Landhaus in the Austrian Alps, and the gloomy villa in Vienna’s Cottage district which we took because of the nice garden; unfortunately, the summer was cold and rainy and we were stuck with the gloomy interiors.

Once, in the spring of 1950, we lived in a thirteenth-century castle in Alsace, in the foothills of the Vosges, near Strasbourg. It. had three-meter-thick walls, a colorful history, several ghosts, and practically no plumbing. One wing was occupied by another American couple, two rooms by a Belgian diplomat, and we had what was called the dungeon wing. The former dungeon had been transformed into a bathroom of some sort. The water faucets acted whimsically and the stove was always on the verge of an explosion. The dining room had church pews but was so far away from the kitchen that the food was always cold by the time it was served. The library had a magnificent fireplace. One chilly evening we made a fire. The flames reached out of the chimney, in the nearby village the church bells started to peal, and the four-man fire brigade arrived in a battered truck. We were fined 1000 francs. It was a happy day when we moved into our castle and a happier one when we moved out of it.

There are certain advantages in rent ing a house on the Continent. No doubt it is economical for large familie’s or groups of adults. Life in holds, even in the best ones, gets monotonous and standardized. When you live in a house, you get to know your neighbors and learn more about the country and its people. Yes, there are certain advantages. But there are also plenty of drawbacks.

Except in Switzerland and Scandinavia (and even there the housing shortage is bad and few places are for rent), European housing simply isn’t up to what the American is used to. Too often he is offered “atmosphere" instead of comfort, and history instead of innerspring mattresses. Metternich or Lola Montez may have slept in your room, but it’s damp and the windows rattle. The kitchen stove is an enigma and the heating system breaks down when you need it most. Don’t expect much by way of ice cubes, dry cleaning, window screens, and garages. (In our castle, we parked the car in a corner of the stable, separated by a low fence from the quadrupeds.)

The owners of these houses, impoverished by decades of wars, deflations, requisitions, and high taxes, are unable to keep up their properties. Sometimes the facade is spruced up but the rest of the place is about to cave in. Many Europeans consider the drawing room or grandfather’s old library the most important part of the house; little care is taken of kitchen and bathroom.

It is almost impossible to rent a house by long-distance phone, mail, or cable. Unless you’re lucky and get the house of a friend who goes away for a while, or unless your friend in Europe will choose a house for you, you’d better look for yourself. Theoretically, you may approach a reliable travel agent. He knows all about hotels, boats, planes, festivals, and cruises, but very little about private homes. He may contact his correspondent in the region where you want to live. The correspondent duly advertises in the local papers. Or he may contact a real-estate firm. But by the time the offers are forwarded to you, the good places are gone. There simply is no effective, international clearinghouse for rentals abroad.

Before renting a house, we write to a real-estate firm that has been recommended to us by a friend, by the nearest American Consulate, the local chamber of commerce, or the office of the local automobile club. Or we go to the town, take a hotel room, and inquire of the concierge. (The hotel concierge is often better informed than the mayor.) We tell the realestate people exactly what, we want and go around with them. We would never rent a house unseen, and we know why.

There is the American couple who fell in love with a house overlooking the Ligurian coast of Italy. They saw it for a moment in a romantic moonlit night and signed the six-month lease the next morning, still somewhat in a daze. The house abounded with charm and atmosphere—and with rats in the attic. The electric stove almost electrocuted our friends, 1 he: beds were bad, and there were no rugs. They fled two weeks later; of course, they had to pay rent for the rest of the term. Other people took houses with lovely formal gardens and no plumbing to speak of. There are people who didn’t inquire about the heating system and were stuck with enormous coal bills during the cold season. Even so, they were freezing. A friend rented a charming chalet in a quiet, remote place near Salzburg and then discovered that the installation of the telephone cost him $200.

We always look at a place in clear daylight. Even dilapidated houses with ornate rococo facades look beautiful in the soft late-afternoon light. We inspect the house from cellar to attic. Does the plumbing work? Does the bathtub leak? Is there plenty of hot water? The location of the kitchen is important. In a house in Vienna the kitchen was in the basement, which was unhealed and uninhabitable in winter. We lost several cooks who couldn’t stand the Siberian climate downstairs. When the cook was off, my wife had to put on her fur coat to go down and make a cup of coffee.

The servant problem has become serious in Europe. It seems that all good servants have steady jobs. The ones you can hire either have to be trained or must be fired for many reasons after a while. There are few laborsaving devices in European houses. For a middle-sized house which you could easily manage alone in America, you often need one or two servants in Europe. At one time we had to have a cook, a cleaning and washing woman, and a man who came every morning to heat the furnace downstairs.

It is often said that servants’ salaries are low in Europe, from twenty to thirty dollars a month. But you also pay social security premiums and health insurance, which double the salary, and there are food bills and higher bills for utilities. Almost everywhere in Europe, water, heating, lighting, and telephone are more expensive than in America.

There are no local taxes for people who take a house for a short time, and there is little red tape. Most countries demand that you register with the local police. Real-estate agents get the customary commission. Ask for a written inventory and check it carefully before you sign the lease. Some landlords consider their American tenants a bonanza and expect them to repaint, renovate, and generally fix up their run-down houses. If an involved contract is laid before you, check with the nearest American Consulate to avoid fine-print traps.

As I said before, there are advantages in renting a house on the Continent. One is that you get homesick for America and its well-run, easy-tomanage houses. That alone is worth the money you’ve spent.