French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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My new doctor


I don’t know. Maybe it’s these cold, dark, wintry days that are getting to me, making me wonder why I left my little people’s republic of Northern California (these deportation orders! My friends would be hiding their cleaning ladies in the basement, if California had basements…) to move to a place that can be by turns ossified in its bureaucracy or ossified in its self-serving excuse du jour (take that, artisan français). Surely there was a third option, maybe Amsterdam or Barcelona. Then something happens. Maybe the sun comes out. It may not shine exactly but it will give us a nice rosy glow, so flattering to my crepey skin. Or maybe I finally, possibly, have found my doctor.

Medical care here is generally excellent. I, however, am the patient from hell. I don’t get my blood work, don’t take my medicine. I’m constantly losing the same 5 pounds. It’s all so boring. I once had a boyfriend who skipped a blood test, the one that would have detected his colon cancer in time to save his life. You’d think I’d have learned, but no. Back in the States, every so often I’d have a Douglas LaPlante Memorial Colonoscopy. Now I’m over it. 

I found this smart but easygoing doctor who has seen my type before and has learned to roll with it. I like her but I don’t know, doctors, medicine, so dull.

And Then. I’ll spare you the tacky details but suddenly I needed an ENT guy right away. I didn’t dare call my doctor. She’d ask about that blood test she ordered two months ago. So I made M. Wonderful find a doctor in the neighborhood who speaks English and could see me at once. I don’t know how he puts up with me. But off I went, to the usual Paris doctor’s office in a stunning antique-filled converted apartment. Even the examining table was an antique.  No clerks, no front desk. I was greeted by the doctor, this tiny, skinny woman in black leather everything, I think, apart from a mohair sweater and the ropes of pearls that keep her anchored to the ground. No white coat. Her Pomeranian sleeps next to her desk.

She found the problem and fixed it, just like that. Then, right after she answered her own phone and complained to me about the patient who called — not in detail, just a general, casual, “I hate the French,” — she let me know that she advertises one specialty but has five and if I wanted, she could be my regular doctor. Well, I was hooked. The Pomeranian, the diamonds and cubic zirconia peeking through the mohair and pearls, this is my kind of doctor. And where but France, maybe where but Paris, could I find someone as eccentric as she is competent? And a French francophobe, to boot, maybe worse than me. I’m going to love this. I may even follow her advice.


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The paneling crack’d???


No, that would have been Agatha Christie’s first draft. She wound up doing much better. I’m the one with the cracked paneling.

These panels are original to the house. They didn’t have kiln drying 150 years ago, so there would not have been the problem we face now, dealing with shrinkage for years after we build/trim whatever. Plus, in 150 years you would think the wood would be whatever size it was going to be, kiln dried or not.

I think this is happening for a couple of reasons. First, the house is now pretty weathertight. The leaks are few and are being found and sealed. So when it rains, inside the house it doesn’t feel that different. That is the good news. The other news is that for various reasons, when I leave for a few days, the heat goes down but never off. My pipes don’t freeze. Mildew inside and spalling outside are over. But I think the air inside the house must be drier than it has ever been. I’m not sure but that’s all I can figure.

Well, no, maybe it’s this. There is no insulation behind the panels. They lie flat against the stone, at least I’m pretty sure they do. So maybe the wood is caught between the consistent dry warmth of the interior and the changeable heat and humidity outside.

The contractor says he’ll run around with caulk and touch-up paint to make all this invisible. I don’t know. Even if he actually follows through, cracking panels could be an ongoing phenomenon.


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Jacques Report

An idle dog is the Devil’s workshop. Yesterday I got too busy to take Jacques for his daily walk, some 45 minutes to and from what passes in Paris for a dog park. It doesn’t tire him out but he gets a change of scene and a little socializing. It beats jumping around in front of the TV set. But I had work to do and plans for the evening, plus the weather is awful right now, so no walk. When I caught him chomping on my yarn, did I take the hint and move everything to a table? No, silly me, I just said “No, Jacques,” and went back to whatever. Then I went out.

Look what I came home to. My nice, eco-friendly bamboo knitting needle, chewed. It catches the yarn, now. I’ll try taping over the divot but I have a feeling it’s time for a new pair of needles. He didn’t touch the yarn again, all credit for that. Maybe it was because he sniffed the lasagna takeout container in the recycle bag, which he then ripped open. Poor thing. Even plastic tastes better than his kibble.

I could argue that the lesson is to take him to the park every day, rain or shine, snow, sleet, hail, etc., but really I think the lesson is, spend more time at the house.


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Design quandary

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This gives you some vague idea of what my living room looks like and also what I’m up against in terms of storage, or the lack thereof.

The room is pretty square, about 5 meters by 5 meters, maybe 6×6, I’m not sure. The ceiling height is up there, more than 3 meters. So you walk in through a door placed in the center of the wall. To the right is a window in the center of that wall. Straight ahead and to the left are blank walls. As is befitting a proper reception room, it is axial and formal. So I have a couple of concerns about how to deal with this room, how respect its character while also respecting mine.

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You see, this is how I live. Nice stuff but books everywhere and what a mess. I even use duvets, so I don’t really have to make the bed. Not that there will be a bed in the front room but you get the idea. Super-casual, a cleaning lady’s nightmare.

I have to figure out how to furnish this room and where to put all that stuff, especially all those books. Do I even want books and DVDs and all — yes, I still like DVDs — in what passes for a public room? Would I rather have them upstairs, where I am more likely to actually use them?

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One option is to say, yes, bookshelves everywhere. I like the way these shelves turn the corner. Stuff display can be a little difficult and having these corner shelves is a nice way to handle it. The furniture would have to be away from the shelves but it’s a big room; that’s not really a problem. I love the fixed positioning of these shelves but for me, that could be a problem.

credit-to-daniel-farmer_el_5oct12_pr_bt_190x190 My original plan was to make this a media room: thus the darkish walls. I don’t do the kind of entertaining that requires a formal living room. Even at my housewarming, at which I think I was the only non-French person, everyone crammed into the kitchen, around the kitchen island. They had a great time, that being where all the food and drink were to be found. So there is no social pressure; I can do what I like with the room.  But I like watching TV upstairs. Do I need two TV setups? When did need come into it?

Anyway, if I do that, and if I do shelves, I’ll need a niche. How many niches? What size? TVs are only getting bigger and they never seem too big. Should I go for something more flexible?

real-homes-6-easy-living-19dec13-paul-massey_bt_426x639_1 I had been thinking I would put shelves on the blank walls, ahead and to the left. But what if I put them on the wall with the doors? My floor plan is actually quite similar to this. With the doors open you look into the kitchen, which has a stove directly ahead and openings to either side. Great minds…

This idea is a real contender. The books have a home without dominating the room. The furniture can be placed such that no one has their back to the door and the circulation is not blocked. The TV can go on the wall opposite the door with pictures, mirrors, who knows what, all around it. I’m not sure how I’ll work the wiring but overall it’s not a bad plan.

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Maybe I should put books on all the walls, with generous openings for paintings, the TV, etc. Nah, probably not.

2873374-house-21jun16-simon-upton_bt_190x190 Maybe I should forget about built-ins, give myself the flexibility of furniture. The room needs a formal treatment, though. I can’t just run to Habitat or see if one of my local sources has reclaimed shop shelving or something. That works for me but not for the house. Furniture or built-in, I may be stuck with something made to measure.

I am used to living in small spaces, as tightly organized as a sailboat. This large space thing is great, no complaints, but it does have its own challenges. In a small house, those shelves would go on the wall with the door, no question. That space to either side of the doors is effectively lost; what better way to make use of it? But I don’t know. I’ll have to kick it around.


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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.


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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.


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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.