French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Semifinishes

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We are starting to get there. The photo above is the entry hall, looking toward the front door. It’s hard to tell we did anything at all, which is just the point. In fact we had to extend the front wall — shorten the corridor,  basically — to create a couple of utility chases. Then we had to recreate and reinstall the cornice. There is a little more trim work to do and obviously a lot more painting. When we are done it will look like nothing ever happened.

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This is a rather unflattering shot of my plasterer standing at the other end of the entry, cleaning the wood trim. Somewhere I have a photo of this staircase before any work was done. It looks a lot like this. You have no clue the wall was insulated, the staircase stabilized and a lot of electrical wiring run beneath the steps. That is just how we want it.


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Kew

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So yes, after a few days in Kew, I got to the gardens. They are nice, more interesting than I remember them from 30-some years ago. The big find in the bookstore was the beekeeper’s bible. A great garden such as my future one needs great beehives, don’t you think, so it’s good to do a little research. I also found hedgehog food. I live in hope that my little guys will move back. Maybe I can lure them with treats.

The big find in the garden was a nesting pair of parrots.

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Can you see them up there? I must say I surprised and impressed myself by getting both birds and the nest in the same shot. Love must be keeping them warm. I don’t know how else parrots could survive in this near-freezing weather.

After that, and as the glasshouses were closed for maintenance, everything else was a bit of a letdown. So I headed back into Kew and my afternoon class.


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Gardens in February?

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It’s minus 2 in my home town and my home has no heat. I should worry a little about the state of the plumbing, don’t you think? But no, instead I’m here in Kew for a class, looking forward to spring.

Blame it on Zita Elze. She has her flower shop right on the path between my class and the little cottage I’m renting. It’s a pricey little place: Elze’s, not the cottage. My “bargain” bunch of flowers was specially built for me because I just couldn’t bring myself to drop £50 or more on something that I couldn’t bring back to France with me. One day, I hope before I leave, those parrot tulips will bloom and be stunning. For now I simply enjoy the way that I can’t really tell where the flowers end and my landlord’s garden begins.

When I bought the house I was going to emphasize its geometry. The house is clearly laid out and beautifully and classically proportioned. If you wanted to go all clean and spare with it, you could and it would look great. But then I found the Fortuny lamps that I have always loved and they seemed so much better than, say, the latest thing from Philippe Starck. So okay, a little Venice crept into the mix. Then my friend Jennifer sold me some harem-worthy hand-painted Turkish tile panels. So all right, a little Ottoman here and there. Then Minna called to offer a great deal on her Astier de Villatte dishes, which no longer worked for her. I was not not not going to do the Astier de Villatte thing. It was just too obvious. But what a deal and well, maybe in the little kitchenette… Then my framer showed me this exquisite Breton-made, gold-flecked mouth-blown newel post finial. I have just the place for it. None of these things are in place yet but I can tell what’s coming. Mies van der Rohe is about to run smack into Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Mies would love the clean, spare, Dan Kiley-type garden I had in mind for the house. I’d show you a picture but everything is copyrighted. Think of a stand of trees planted on 10-foot centers, maybe six in each direction. It’s a clean, powerful look, easily able to complement the clean, powerful lines of my house. I thought it would be nice to have a garden different from my California garden, all wild rosemary and sage, held together only by the skills of Andrea Hurd and her team of gardeners.

So maybe the spirit of Zsa Zsa steered me into Elza’s. I was drawn in, couldn’t resist, and immediately thought yes, this is what my garden should be. Actually it will be a lot like my California garden only better, because it still rains in France. She sells Astier de Villatte candles, wouldn’t you know, and they look great mixed in with her flower arrangements. She also mixes in bird feathers, straw, little terracotta urns, you name it. Many people do that now but I have never seen it done this well. 

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Right there in her shop, negotiating for a cheaper bunch of flowers, I remembered that Mies did stark modern apartments for other people; he lived in a converted barn. And his garden? I don’t know — never saw it, never saw a photo. What I do know is that I am suddenly okay with my house and grounds being a little on the chaotic side, perpetually in the process of becoming. But let’s get the heat on, please.


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Still no heat.

  
I know. I’m supposed to write about the house. And here I am showing you this rainy day view from my hotel in London. So what is it, a house blog or a travel blog? 

Well, hard to say. The windows are going in but slowly. The stone floor is mostly there but not quite. The kitchen is on order, maybe a month from completion but, the way this project is going, maybe a little more than that. The shower door guy hasn’t bothered to get back to me. Will the really excellent painter show up to get the bits that he didn’t do last summer? Probably not, though probably whoever does paint out the house will be pretty good. My current best guess is that the house will wrap up — just Phase One, no landscape or anything — in May, about a year behind schedule.

Meantime I am here for a class and a visit to my favorite museums in London: the John Soane Museum and the V&A. I guess we must being getting close to the finish because I have no need to shop for house parts. It’s not a bad way to pass the time. The danger is that eventually I’ll do enough of it that I’ll wonder why I started the house in the first place.