French Life in a Gypsy Caravan
Volume XXII, Issue 5
When I first met Janet Hulstrand and Steve Rueckert in 2007, they told me of their love affair that began in France, how they picked grapes together in Champagne and how they subsequently also fell in love with the region. They told me about the house in the town of Essoyes that they were hoping to buy if they could get a mortgage.
Nestled along the banks of the Ource River, the charming village of Essoyes is renowned as the residence of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The village center is adorned with charming half-timbered houses, surrounded by champagne houses and eateries. Beyond the village, picturesque rolling hills host lush forests and vineyards, creating a captivating backdrop—just where their chalet-style house is situated, on the edge of the village, with a beautifully wooded lot and a substantial swimming pool.
I set out to help them achieve their goals. They got their mortgage, bought the house and the rest is history. Janet now lives in it full time, Steve comes and goes between France and the U.S., their two sons visit it often, both of whom now live full time in France, with one son in Paris and the other in Lille.
Janet is a wordsmith of note (author, editor, teacher); Steve is an artist, musician and teacher. Being the creative sort that he is, and a romantic to boot, he also fell in love with a “roulotte”—a gypsy caravan that he discovered in 1978 and lived in along the banks of the Marne River while studying at the Beaux-Arts de Paris.
A gypsy caravan is also known as a “vardo” or “wagon.” It’s a horse-drawn vehicle used as a residence that can be a masterpiece of woodcrafter’s art. The owner at the time had “dreams of sailing around the world” so he offered the caravan to Steve so that he, in turn, could afford to buy a boat. That’s when Steve began the first restoration to make it habitable.
Steve wrote in his missive about the roulotte, “The roulotte had weathered four decades, and was in need of some major repair work. I removed the rusted metal shutters and replaced them with wooden ones—carved with hearts. The trim needed replacing, and I removed the exterior galvanized sheet metal panels in the rear so I could replace the rotted interior walls.”
Steve returned to the U.S., but managed to have the roulotte towed to Essoyes, where the “vigneron” (winemaker), whose grapes he and Janet had picked, agreed to take care of it. Twenty-five years later (!), the roulotte was still sitting on the winemaker’s property, rotting away after having been vandalized by disgruntled field workers.
“After breaking everything they could, destroying the front doors, and stealing all the contents, they pushed the roulotte over on its side and left it for dead in a ditch by the side of the road,” Steve wrote.
During their time in the States, he and Janet were married, their two sons were born, and they created a life first in Brooklyn and then in Washington, DC. With the purchase of the chalet in Essoyes, Steve was able to relocate the roulotte and have it placed on the property of the Essoyes “ranch” (the family calls the chalet “Our French Ranch”).
Steve, the romantic, set out to restore the roulotte once again. He’d work on it from time to time when he was visiting his Essoyes home in France. But, then the pandemic happened and that gave him the time and wherewithal to complete the renovation to perfection.
He now lives part-time in the U.S. and part-time in his beloved roulotte in Essoyes. As he has written himself, “It’s all that it represents to me: freedom, remembering to always travel from within, creating, living, loving. And a home.”
The entire story of the roulotte, complete with all the photos, can be found on Steve’s website.
The Adrian Leeds Group®
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