French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


Do you really want to live in the French countryside?

When I thought of buying a house in the country, this is what I thought it would mean. Dinner parties with friends, lovely table settings featuring flowers and ferms from my own garden. Silver from the States, china from France, what a lovely blend of cultures. Etc.

Wrong. This photo was lifted from a beautiful book, “Tables Fleuries,” probably all rights reserved, so if the photo goes missing, you know I was hit with a threatening letter from an irate lawyer, nattering about copyright protection. I hope it’s not the one I live with, that being precisely his line of work. Then again, maybe that would give me some scope for negotiation.

In my life, dinner parties happen in Paris. Given the scrub that passes for plantings on my balcony, the cramped kitchen and the lack of decent storage, my guests are lucky to get food on the table. And going to a florist for a setup like this, oh, my, it would cost more than the food. Plus I’d have to plate everything — no room for “family style” serving bowls — and I’m too lazy for that.

Here in the country, no dinner parties, so no problem.

Garbage disposal
This is my country life. This is what passes for big excitement around here. Finally, after nearly three years owning this house, things have progressed to the point that the garbage disposer was installed. If you live in the States, you grew up with one of these. Over here, no, it’s unheard of. I had three electricians walk away from this basically DIY-level installation and I got the disposer itself through Amazon, shipped from England. This little baby is what keeps food waste from mummifying in the landfill. It goes down the chute, pauses to be ground up, then off to the water treatment plant. Not only is it wildly convenient, cutting smell in your trash and Destop/Drano bills like you wouldn’t believe, but I think from an ecological perspective, it makes sense, in much the same way as electric cars do. Think about it. Electric cars do create pollution. It’s just that they pollute at the power plant rather than on the road. Presumably it is easier to clean up one power plant than thousands of cars.

So. Here is the deal on living in an unfashionable part of the French countryside. Your friends from out of the area will not visit you. Okay, one or two out of the whole lot, as a once and done kind of thing. All those warnings about people who come and stay and hope for chauffeur and maid service, etc., those must be Brits writing that, given that their friends live a lot closer. Probably over time, their “friend” list shrinks in direct proportion to the number of visits like that. There isn’t much in the way of manufactured entertainment; Netflix is a lifesaver. There aren’t many places to shop, especially if you are looking for English-language books; thank you Amazon for braving the wilds of France.

You’d better be able to entertain yourself. You’d better be your own best friend and in general be self-reliant. Romance, I don’t know, not an easy one; even my handyman met his wife when they both lived in Paris. So maybe bring someone with you. And, though of course you will never be French, no matter what it may eventually say on your passport, I strongly suggest that you find a way to get involved with the locals. 

Learn French. Anything is good but more is better. Then you have to meet people. If you work here or have schoolkids, it’s job done. If you are lucky enough to get involved with someone — at my age, with my level of crabbiness, I figure it’s a miracle that I did — you’re set. Barring that, look at those social groups in your area. They hike and eat and I don’t know what all but they do get you into the community. The chances are excellent that you will be welcomed.

Pick up DIY skills. They will save you a lot of frustration. If you don’t have a hobby, develop one, maybe related to one of those social groups. I knit and garden; it’s a good thing that I enjoy both. If I were here full-time I’d join the local tennis club. Get a dog. Have a plan to move back, should you decide France is not for you. Knowing that you have an option can make it easier to choose to stay when the bureaucracy strikes, or some other maddening calamity befalls you.

I am happy that I have this house and that I am in France, especially now that I have my garbage disposal. But no question, it’s a big adjustment. And of course in the end, wherever you go, there you are. You’ll be thrown back on yourself all the time, much more than in a city. Be sure that’s okay with you.


No, not the holidays…..

I know it’s getting close to Christmas because the stepkids finally got their lists to us. Really, a week before the big day. In their defense, their dad tells me that he was not in the habit of actually buying them gifts, just wrote checks, so the request for a list took them by surprise. This is not our first Christmas but it is the first Christmas for two of the grandkids, so I guess we all need to adjust to the new reality. For the next five years or so, shopping for the little critters will actually be fun: I don’t want to miss a bit of it.

I’m not actually Christian, haven’t ever been, though I was sent to Christian schools, so it’s not such a big day for me. It will be nice to have everyone over, of course, but it always is. They are good eaters, not too picky. That organic, free range, humanely raised capon that I got from The Curtises will be a hit.  I’m not the kind of pagan that does a Solstice ritual, either, so for me these short, cold days are more about the end of the year. I think about what has happened and what is to come.

About a month ago, a friend died. She had been fighting cancer for decades and it finally took her out. I may have just a couple of good friends left from the time before I knew Robert. The rest fell away, one way or another. Usually I don’t think about it but this year, with Margaret’s passing, I have. It will be fine. My life has been marked by radical changes in direction but my real friends manage to tag along and new friends appear — some through this blog.

So what about next year? Well, more of the same. In my case that’s a good thing. I am fortunate to have a comfortable life. 

Now that the house is basically done, I have been wondering what to do with this blog. I have been buying time, in effect, by posting about whatever else catches my attention, mostly the refugees. My gift to you is that I will not post about refugees or other social injustice again. Well, unless something really horrible happens, or really great, like a family moves to the apartment. But I’ll keep things on a personal, “this happened to me,” level. My hunch is that anyone who wants to be is as well informed as I am. You have read the Huff Post article about refugee profiteers. Maybe you subscribe to The New York Times or another good newspaper. You don’t need my Greek chorus crying “Oh no, oh no.” The journalists do it better. I’ll leave them to it.

With Trump coming in, we will all need the occasional, maybe daily, escape. I hope that will sometimes be me. I’ll focus on Jacques and on the house. There is more work to be done here and a garden to be revived. All politics will be local. This corner of the French countryside is lovely, quite unspoiled. I’ll see what I can do about sharing more about it.

If you get a minute, light a candle for Margaret. She was Tibetan Buddhist, actually, in the tradition that does the throat singing. Very cool. But she was raised Catholic and she’ll be okay with a candle.


Jacques Report

 When people see me alone they generally ask one thing: where is Jacques? In this case the answer is, he’s in the house.

By the time I got Jacques, I knew I would have what by California standards is a large garden, plus a couple of barns, AKA rat havens. I believe that dogs need jobs. Whatever they were bred to do, they should be trained to do. So, perfect, Westies are great at killing little rodents. Surely I could just turn him loose and instinct would drive him to catch the little critters and break their disease-carrying necks.

Westies are lively and sociable. He would need exercise, as do I. So why not play with him a little? There is a local agility training group. Blessedly, it has not been taken over by those crazed, OCD border collies. Those dogs are maniacs. They win every time but for the rest of us, when they walk in, the fun walks out. There is still plenty of fun in that agility group, along with every kind of dog imaginable. If we did agility, Jacques could play and socialize. Plus, we could practice at home. Plenty of space, after all.

Apparently Jacques sees things a little differently. Okay, a lot differently. He watches TV. Dog TV is his favorite channel, followed closely by Animal Planet. He knows the tunes for the pet food ads and runs to the set when he hears them. When he sees a dog or cat — he is so over the big game on, say, Nat Geo — he grabs a nearby rug, dog bed, whatever, and thrashes it around. It looks for all the world as if he is wringing its neck. If I get some good video footage, I’ll update this post. Meantime if the barns have rats, they lead untroubled lives. The only little critters Jacques brings in long ago died natural deaths.

And the agility? Hohoho. So far, no way. I thought I would start with weave poles. The first step is to space rhem way far apart: see above. Then you put your dog on a leash and walk through with him. Over time the poles get closer together and the dog goes off-lead and weaves through on his own.

Except, well, no. Jacques isn’t going for it. He sat on the back porch and watched me position the poles. I got out the leash. I could see the look on his little canine face. Leash, back garden, does not compute. I tried to be cheerful. Look, weave poles, what fun! No. Jacques, who loves city walks, was not going to be walked around his own back garden. Was it the terrain? Maybe it was a little rocky there? Jacques went back to the stair landing and watched me reposition the poles. I pulled out the leash. Look, fun! Jacques stood up, turned around and went into the house.

Agility will have to wait for another day.


What was that about old age and treachery?

I guess the French administration is getting serious about recycling. In Paris they do take it seriously. At my old building, everything went in bins in the basement. To me that’s the gold standard; of course, it’s how we did it in California. In the new one we dump bottles at the corner but the rest goes into bins. It’s not bad. At the house, no, I think the trash guys must love their landfills. When it comes to recycling, they take a definite passive-aggressive attitude toward the whole thing.Some kids came out the other day to give me a new bin and instruct me in the art of trash dumping. I’m old. I can’t help but think of men and women just out of college as kids. So there they were, sweet little true believers, trying hard to be polite as they explained to the old Luddite standing in front of them that the trash was just all wrong. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were being conned, that their bosses were the Luddites, plus I was so astonished that my French kind of gave out. Really, I’m not the type to con children into believing in Santa Claus but I’m not the type to disabuse them of the notion, either. So with all that going on in my head, I just listened and waited for them to finish.

So if you live out where the trash guys hate the whole idea of recycling and have decided to make it our problem, not theirs, here is the deal. The rule is, you separate everything yourself. That yellow bin, where you see the paper sticking out? No no no, no paper. At all. Apparently that huge bin — huge by French standards — is to be used exclusively for hard plastic, something that almost never shows up at my house. That’s the bin where I am used to putting the cardboard and paper, just like in Paris. That’s when I realized this was true, Gandhi-style resistance to the whole recycling idea. Who knew that it could be used for evil, as well? The fix was definitely in; I know from Paris, that’s the paper bin, too. You can see that it is sized to handle more than the occasional milk bottle. In fact, in Paris we even put small dead appliances in that thing. Out here, you are on your own with the appliances and the paper goes in a little shopping bag — plastic, of couse, handed to me with ceremony and no sense of irony — that the young woman so kindly provided — smaller than the ones I take to the market. And you dump it every single time that tiny little thing fills up? Do they really expect us to do that?

You will see that some of that paper is cardboard. So. The cardboard is collected and kept where, I don’t know, and eventually taken to the dump. I was given a card, also plastic, so they could track my dump visits. I live nowhere near the dump and am not sure I can find it. By this time I was getting a sense of why “bouche-bée,” mouth agape, I think I spelled it right, was taught and emphasized in my French classes. That was me. Actually, as I get used to life in France, that’s me pretty often. Anyway, finally they get to where their bosses tip their hand: the actual trash.

The black bin — new, plastic, to replace the old plastic one that was in like-new condition — is for actual trash. However no actual trash is to be visible. It is all to be put in plastic, yes, more plastic in this supposedly enviro-friendly project, bags. Ah, so now I understood. Paper, bottles, that old toaster, whatever, just put it in a plastic bag and put it in the black bin. Think of it as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” bin.

We actually have been dumping our bottles right along. We have been surprised that the bin is never even close to full. I’m not surprised any more. Our neighbors are using the black bin system. With all the roadblocks the local trash company put in the way of serious recycling, I can see why.


The heat is on.

 Pump surround

The drill

The trench from the water pump to the house. Yes, it was as cold as it looks.

The entry hall with tile removed. To the right, that dark spot is where the salon floor was completely open to the basement.

View of floor heating cables in salon. The previous floor — mostly post-war tile, not at all sympathetic to the house — was demolished, so that the new finish floor would be at the original level.

After, view of supply pipes

 Last week we transitioned from camping in a construction site to living in a house. It took an insanely long time and cost double what I thought was a generous budget, but for all practical purposes, the house itself is finally done. The reason is simple. The heat went on.

I will recap for those who tuned in late. About three years ago I fell hard for a house that looked like the houses I used to draw in preschool. I was reeling from the death of my adored husband. The only things that were clear was that I had to get out of the old house and I had to find a place where I could be safe. What could be safer than a child’s dream house?

The thing is, since preschool I had studied architecture and historic preservation. I knew that too many people lived in houses like this but really only occupied the kitchen and bedroom, simply because they couldn’t afford to heat the rest. I knew I was in crazy widow mode but wanted, if at all possible, to shift that to crazy like a fox. I spent a lot of time with Google and YouTube, researching options, and came up with an aquathermal heat exchange system: expensive to install but dirt cheap to run. Thus the abundance of process piping. At the time it seemed so simple.

So a hole 70 meters deep was drilled to reach the ground water in my back garden. That first picture shows the enclosure where it pops up. Then they removed a huge tank, still half full of old, cruddy fuel oil, from the basement and in its place installed the pipes you see in the final photo but did not turn on the lights. Believe me, the lights are crucial. 

Every radiator was removed to be cleaned. The ground floor finish floor was ripped up — the few remaining planks of original wooden floor had warped and buckled beyond salvage before I bought the house and the tile, which covered most of the rest, was half a century old and not nice at all. In its place we put heating cables which we covered with stone tiles. The cleaned and painted radiators were replaced upstairs.

I would like to have turned on the heat right then, but no. It turns out that most houses have monophase power but houses with setups like this need triphase power. Who knew? Probably not my electricians, who let the ball drop on that, so we lost about six months while I fought with the electricians and we finally got EDF to change the electric meter. Lucky for me that triphase power — no, I don’t actually know how that works — was available in the street or we might have lost a year.

And finally, about three years to the day after I signed the agreement to buy the house, two capable young men appeared and spent several hours calibrating the whole thing. Just like that, the house became warm.

So what do I think? The best thing is that the stone floor is warm, now. I would not want a stone or tile floor in a cold climate without the underfloor cables, though I believe there are underfloor heating mats you can buy, if you don’t want to go to all this trouble. Supposedly the heated floor will act as a vapor barrier, so I won’t have to worry about rising damp, frozen pipes and various other ills that befall stone houses.

It took a few days for the heat to penetrate the house. Now we are shutting down or shutting off radiators because the house has become too warm. It may be that the stone floor will be almost enough to heat the whole house. We turned down the thermostat. So balancing this system is a work in progress but the bottom line is that it seems to be using less power than expected. As a side benefit, the system operates the water heaters, too.

I do not yet know what the operating cost will be. I was told it had a ten-year payback period. This explains why developers stay away from such systems; it is not the kind of thing most people will pay extra for. I gambled that I would live ten more years, still be in the house that long and that power costs would increase, thus reducing my payback period.

I believe it is good for the planet, as it is a nonpolluting heat source. Ground water is piped into the heat extractor and, without ever leaving the pipes, the magic happens and the water is piped back to the source. It enables me to occupy my entire house, which I love. Plus, if the house does stay mildew-free, if it does eliminate spalling on the exterior, that’s all good and saves even more money.

So that’s heating sorted. Now I’m hoping solar panels and wind turbines become more efficient, so I can move onto power generation.


Refugee Update

So he’s going to build a wall and Mexico’s going to pay for it. Okay Don, good luck with that.

I had been meaning to write about this whole refugee thing. I had been working it over in my mind, trying to get from a long, rambling reflection on the whole issue to something that would be interesting to someone other than me. But it’s pretty hard to think about it right now.

So I’ll save you from my memories of a visit to Turkey where I came into contact with a refugee or two and with people who were trying to house their relatives who happened to be Syrian and were finding their houses full to bursting. Well, for the moment: you may hear about it later.

Right now it’s my own friends and family who are looking for asylum. I may well need that apartment for people I have known for years. I understand the Canadian immigration web site crashed last night. Interesting times.

So, refugees in France. You are steered to France Terre d’Asile, a private group that gets government funding. Those guys are keeping a close watch on their refugees, not wanting them to escape into the wild. I think that’s how they see my apartment, which I think is why they have not responded to my offers of housing here at the house. In Paris the group is a little more organized. They have you fill in a questionnaire that is heavy on inquiries about how willing and capable you are of teaching French. Again, the focus is on keeping the refugees well enclosed within the bureaucratic system. That I could teach English, well, no, I think they see that as counterproductive.

Also, though you will see many photos and hear many stories about families, the overwhelming number of refugees are men in their twenties and thirties. I had been thinking they might want to filter out a family or a gay couple or somebody that really needed to get out of the camps. Either they are just overwhelmed or the needs of the bureaucracy are being placed before the needs of kids who really shouldn’t be sleeping in a tent under a Metro line. I don’t know. 

Anyway, there may well be refugees at my house, in the little attached apartment. My contractor has been after me to put in another apartment or three in the barn. I have been saying no but now I’m not sure. Let’s see what comes in the email.


Jacques Report

Jacques isn’t looking too good. Believe me, this is not his normal. I think he’s a little subdued because we went to the new vet today. I think maybe his rabies shot has him a little down. Or maybe he just misses his old vet.

His first vet was great fun, stylish, charming and terrific with Jacques. She was, no question, the Paris vet from Central Casting. I’d have gone to her forever but we moved halfway across town, so that was that. This new vet is no fun at all: no style, nothing that would pass for charm but he knows his stuff and is a bit of a health nut. I’m pretty lax, so I need to surround myself with maniacs, just to keep me more or less on track.

It turns out that Jacques is allergic to Paris pollution. I start coughing every time we pull into town, so I can well believe it. “See that red hair in these paws? Does he ever chew on them? Yep, thought so. Look at these red ears. What are you feeding him?” I copped to the Orijen, thinking that might keep me from having to admit that Jacques would really rather live on table scraps, and whose fault is that??? Orijen is a Canadian brand that features no corn and all healthy ingredients. Well, that’s not good enough. Take that all you folks who laughed when you read the bag and suggested that maybe, just maybe, I was going a bit overboard. No, wrong, we were both wrong. Apparently Jacques needs either Orijen Six Fish, which he hates, or hypoallergenic kibble. I was sent home with samples. I think he’s really going to hate that stuff. After all the Brie we have been feeding him? It’s going to be a difficult transition.

New Vet is a big believer in organic ingredients. Jacques also has some oil that I put between his shoulder blades, where it is absorbed, in much the same way that one applies Advantix. It smells good. I guess it’s good for his skin. Can’t hurt. We can do this for a while.

Or, apparently, we could move to the country. New Vet allowed as how the Vendee was pretty clean. It’s a thought.