I’ve been Liebstered!

nordic-bliss-liebster-awardIsn’t that nice? Gill at Blog-sur-Aude (coteetcampagne.wordpress.com) has nominated — given, really — me a Liebster Award.

So what is the saying? Was it “Never look a gift horse in the mouth?” “Always look a gift horse in the mouth?” I forget. I looked. Isn’t that just like me?

It’s kind of a chain letter thing with no official recognition, varying rules and, frankly, a whole lot of work if you want to participate. I think I was asked to answer some questions and then nominate a bunch more tiny-readership blogs.

Ugh, all due respect, but I’m going to say thank you very much, then move on.

That said, there are a lot of pretty good small blogs out there. In the list at the right you will find the ones that I find time to read. In addition to Blog-sur-Aude, written by a fellow sufferer through French home renovation, I especially enjoy the blogs of the Curtises (grasspunk.com and bratlikeme.com), a couple in the south of France who raise grass-fed beef and four children. Also Roger Stowell, a neighbor who is a terrific food and landscape photographer (stowell.wordpress.com) who on his best days, takes the idea of food porn to a whole new level.

So, read on. The world is an interesting place. There are plenty of us who enjoy telling you about our little corner of it.

Paris and some progress


So as you know I have been racking my little pea brain trying to figure out workarounds for the lack of progress out there. One that seems to be going well is my suggestion of the old OFCI. This stands for Owner Furnished Contractor Installed. The best contractors don’t like it. They prefer to have everything under their own control. These guys have no such hangups. They mostly don’t want to deal with the hassles of setting up new accounts. No joke: in France any new round of paperwork is to be avoided. So, I don’t know, but it’s worth a try. If I can find a nice cast stone version of this lovely carved lion, I’ll order it right away.



This is blooming in the garden right now. I can’t wait to see my garden design. I don’t know whether cosmos will be in the mix but something tells me there will be no way to get rid of them. Excellent.

Schadenfreude Alert

So, have you all been waiting for a few disaster tales in the Peter Mayle vein? If you have, you may be in luck. I think they are just about to start.

I have a truly skilled bunch of guys — and even a female apprentice — who are installing the energy system, the plumbing and the electrical system. So far so good. Now we are about to move onto finish selection. I think this is where the fun begins.

I have been getting these crazy emails, having to do with the shower pans. I want ones that can be tiled. They, by way of my architect, keep wanting to give me this relatively cheesy drop-in type. I wanted a bench — you try shaving your legs without one, it’s no fun. I have been getting no for an answer and the explanations make no sense. The sizes of my showers change. The appearance is not at all what I had in mind. After about a ten-minute internet search, I found just what I wanted, at a reasonable price and available in France. So what’s the story?

I think I may have figured it out. These guys belong to a kind of cooperative that buys certain products in bulk — discount on quantity. As long as you want what they have, all is good. My guess is that it is mostly good for them, that they are buying at below wholesale and reselling at full retail.

So every time I want something that is outside their system, I will probably get a huge amount of pushback. It probably doesn’t help that I have neither met nor heard mention of anyone who is good at tile installations.

I see a long, cold winter in my future. Let’s just hope that by spring I have my preferred shower pans.

Concrete, at last


I am bringing you this grainy image from the Tapestry of the Apocalypse because you don’t want to see the house now. Really, the situation is better but it looks a lot worse.

The guys put down a sheet of plastic, a vapor barrier. It looks like a huge Hefty bag. Then, while two guys wait, one guy takes a wheelbarrow outside and dumps sand and concrete into it, then adds water. How does he know how much? I don’t know, trial and error, maybe. Then he wheels it back inside and dumps it out and the two waiting guys spread it out — they do at least have a spirit level — and wait for the next delivery. So, why didn’t they schedule a concrete delivery truck, which could easily have backed up to the house, and used a pumper to load it into the house? You know, with uniform strengths, slump tests, that kind of thing. I can’t believe this third-world mix-it-yourself process was cheaper, not with French labor costs being what they are. Once I get over the shock, I’ll have to ask. I expect to hear that outside the big cities –La Rochelle is 45 minutes away — concrete trucks do not exist.

The floors in the house will not bear any significant weight. It’s scary to see that kind of thing going on but really, the entire ground floor is level and each room is at the same elevation as the next. It will be fine. And what about the garage, where, you know, folks drive cars onto that floor? That job is months down the road. I’m not going to stress about it now. France teaches you to take one day at a time.

Or maybe it’s a different message altogether. Maybe France sings a sort of siren song to all us readers of Colette, Voltaire and Montaigne, we fangirls of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the like. All that beauty sucks us in, gets us to drop a little here, a lot there, then spits us out. People have been telling me stories that suggest that I should maybe get out now.

The other day I walked onto a huge stone yard with not much going on; in the States there would have been a dozen guys at work, all busy with customers. Here it was me and the owner, who did not especially want to talk about stone. First he wanted to know why anyone who could live in the States would choose to live in France. I didn’t have the heart to carry on about rabid Republican obstructionism, so I just said my husband died and I had to get out for a while. Then he wanted to tell me why he was alone in this huge stone yard. He can’t afford employees. He could use them to grow the business. He could make regular shipments to the States. The thing is, when business slows down — construction is cyclical, after all — he can’t lay them off. He won’t grow because he can’t shrink.

This is true. Yesterday I heard about a woman who took over a business with two employees. A man owned apartments but was tired of managing them, so he turned it all over to her. A couple of years later he changed his mind — took back the apartments but not the employees. To get out of her legal obligation to pay these guys forever, she had to declare bankruptcy. In the States you just do and several years later you are okay again. Here you are kind of ruined for life. This is a bright, talented woman and I don’t know how she makes ends meet.

So okay, enough stories. Other people hear these stories, too, so when they hire people, they pay them under the table, so they can let them go. Undeclared income is not taxed. The government meets its sometimes insane obligations — have I told you yet about the mandatory campgrounds for “gens de voyage?” — by increasing taxes on income that is declared. Sometimes those taxes are levied on previous years’ income, which creates a whole new reason to go out of business or work on the black. So the government raises taxes on everybody else again. It’s a death spiral.

The point is, whether you are in business or not, you don’t want to get into the French tax system. I had thought I would give it five years, then review my situation. Now I am meeting people who are acting like kids watching an old horror movie, you know, the one where everyone yells, “Don’t get in the car!” I’m like the hitchhiker on the road. I don’t really have a Plan B. Time to think fast.

This is not a tidy job site.


So, there was a request for photos of the house as disaster area. It wasn’t put quite that way but I got the drift.

This is my entry hall. Note the temporary power box nailed to the wall. Note, rubble, still, going into its second month. Those neatly coiled cables seen in earlier photos are now strewn everywhere. Note, ten zillion color splotches, none of them right. The finalist is back behind me, also looking pretty splotchy.

Are they going to compact that rubble before they pour concrete over it? Eh, well, they’ll probably tamp it down a bit. The conduit nailed to the wall? And, you know, all those nails, in the wall? The guys will cover all that with drywall.

In a couple of weeks I’ll post an update. Right now, I just do my best to not carry on about the condition of the job site. And just in case my animist friends are right, I apologize to the soul of the house and give it a little pep talk. This is for the house’s long-term good, really. I should wander around burning a little sage and cedar, shaking a rattle, calling the helper spirits to bless the house and expedite its completion. Maybe the house doesn’t care, I don’t know, but it does make me feel better.

Visible Progress, at last!


This mass of rubble may just look sad but really, this represents good progress. You are looking at the most significant architectural change to the house. The contractor has removed the wall between the kitchen and dining room. Please note the bravura performance. They removed a rubble wall that was maybe 12 feet high, even more across, and about two feet thick. They inserted two steel beams, getting them dead level. They installed concrete block walls to support the beams. This was all done while working on an uneven, unstable surface and without damage to the existing, fragile, directly adjacent cornice. One day the National Trust will find out about these people and we’ll lose them to much more prestigious jobs. Today, fortunately, they are at my house.

We are now ready to reverse the kitchen and dining room. The man you see in the photo is part of the crew that is doing the rough wiring and plumbing.

At this point we have light from two sides of the room, which is already lovely. In the next little while the frames will arrive for the window and door that will be added on the wall to the left. Given the amount of light that has already been added, more light is hardly necessary. However it will be nice to connect the kitchen to the terrace, which will be just the other side of the wall.I don’t know about you but if I don’t see a space, or if it is hard to get to, I don’t use it.

Jacquemart-Andre Museum


This afternoon I went to the Jacquemart-Andre Museum to see the special exhibit on Perugino. The paintings were on loan from the Vatican. They were quite lovely, as you might imagine, but there weren’t enough of them to fill out a show. The Vatican kindly topped up the supply by throwing in a few by his student, Raphael. Well, that was nice of them.

My favorite painting was a bust of a modestly dressed, affluent, beautiful young woman, ostensibly a portrait of Mary Magdalen. It was a rare thing, a character study of a female. So often we are portrayed in some role or other.
Perugino, bless his heart, could have shown her in mourning or looking like your basic fallen woman and, instead, gave us a look into the soul of an individual. That painting alone was worth the price of the whole show.

For me, the only trouble with seeing a great painting in a museum is that you can’t live with it. You can’t watch the light change it or see how you react to it when your mood changes. There is only the 30 – second pause before you move on to the next one. The best you can hope for is that you will be able to revisit the painting or find a reproduction, and live with that.

Me, I’m living with this old house, 24/7. When I wasn’t communing with the Magdalen I was looking at the museum, which is a converted house. I realized that although they dressed everything  in Beaux-Arts clothing, they did what they wanted with the space. The photo is of a reception room. It has light, windows, a hole in the ceiling, columns, curves, whatever they felt like doing. I had been concerned about some changes that will go against the accepted canon of how one modernizes a traditional space. I was pleased to be reminded that the only thing that matters is that the finished work holds together. Now let’s hope it does that.