French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


Peaceable Kingdom

If you have much interest at all in American folk art you are likely to be familiar with the painter Edward Hicks and his Peaceable Kingdom series of paintings. They show a little slice of heaven: lush foliage, lions and lambs happy together, a whole universe about as far from today’s crazy world as one can get.

With the guests gone, the contractors gone for the day and my furniture finally escaping from padded boxes, my own small-caps peaceable kingdom is finally emerging.

This is the view from my dining table. You see a Turkish copper bowl atop an Italian slate-topped table. The Moser Shaker-inspired chairs, made in Vermont, are just in front of my English contractor’s reproduction of French windows. In the garden are a wind chime from Germany next to a picnic table and chairs from Leclerc, of all places, which probably means from China. The morning is as quiet and calm as it appears to be.

Let’s hope it’s catching.


Victory lap suspended

You see before you my kitchen, just a couple of hours before my guests appeared. You see workers, actually a couple of very talented craftsmen, but do you see drawers, shelves, a faucet, much of the other normal apparatus of a working cooking area? No you do not, though you do see a bit of an unpacking and building frenzy. You also see a woodbutcher throwback, oak countertops. Why would that be? Well, my nice but hopelessly disorganized contractor did not contact the marble/Silestone guy in time to order anything different. I’ll stop there.

So, sorry, no photos because there was not time, what with all the last-minute bed making, picture hanging, furniture moving and, finally, kitchen stocking. The house does look quite nice and soon will look better. The victory lap will resume in two weeks.


Couch Potato land

Really? You want to see the place? Not just bits and pieces? Oh, okay. Be careful what you wish for.

This is the area in the attic that is set up for TV. For you, that may be it. For me this whole house is filled with memories. 

Charles Moore and his good friend Donlyn Lyndon wrote a lovely book, Chambers for a Memory Palace, all about how space shapes our perceptions, interactions, etc. I am not such an abstract thinker. This house is clearly becoming my memory palace. I will be able to take you around every room and tell you specifically why. I’ll try to keep it brief. I’ll avoid rooms you have already seen.

So here you see your basic complementary color scheme: red, green, yellow. I see a drive down Fillmore in San Francisco. “Stop, drop me off, park the car. I just found our sofa.” So Robert did; we had been looking for ages and were pretty desperate. I had found our sofa, with fold-out beds, even. We bought it on the spot and my aesthetc credibility went up a mile. I see Robert’s chair; I wish he were here to sit in it. There is a red rug we bought on our first trip to Istanbul and the tan one we bought on the last. The propaganda posters, not yet hung, are from a trip to Viet Nam. I remember our guide taking me off the luxury path that Robert enjoyed to this little shop where an indifferent sales clerk was clearly baffled by all these Americans wanting this stuff. Mathieu made the table. An ersatz Japanese young man dreams of Elvis, fries and a Harley. I bought it for a boyfriend, a bit of a dreamer himself, who later died.

And yes, it’s a pleasant place to watch TV.


Couleurs et Co.

Okay. It is Thursday and I am going to show you three things. But, note to the originator of this feature, this is a one-off, honest! 

As we are getting moved in, I couldn’t help but notice how many pieces I have bought from one local company, Couleurs & Co. Some time ago Parisians who were tired of Normandy started summering on the Ile de Ré, which is not far from here. A style developed that was deliberately anti-Saint Tropez, sort of a French Martha’s Vineyard or shabby chic. This guy, Mathieu, has had a lot to do with the development of that style. Maybe it is elsewhere, too, I don’t know. Since work on this house started, I haven’t gotten out much. You will see his pieces in a few shops on the island but I have the good fortune to have his workshop located right near here. There is not usually much color involved but his stuff is great for a vacation house. I find myself putting it everywhere except the principal rooms.

This is my favorite. Mathieu took an original pair of windows from my house and made this wardrobe.

This is the most practical, by far. Mathieu probably just found it at some sort of sale, cleaned it up, marked it up and made my utility room a whole lot more useful.

And finally, here is a shot of my attic, featuring a shelving unit Mathieu found or made. It makes a great light-duty kitchen island.


New skin

I guess that’s the best way to put it. My house had a peel. Now the new skin is growing back. Or maybe this stuff is just face cream, I don’t know.

This stuff is called render, enduit  (ahng-dwee) in French. Let’s stick with the French word. They spray it on and trowel it flat, the way they do stucco in the States. But instead of wire mesh, they spray it onto the stone, so the layer — this is the first of two — is very thick.

I can sound pretty metaphysical, with all my references to what the house “wants.” In this case, it’s not metaphysical at all. The builder’s intention is communicated in the stonework.

This is your top of the line, gimme my enduit, stonework. The corner stones are dressed, which is to say they are angled at the corners. They are chipped to allow good adherence to the enduit and the chipped parts are angled back to meet the stone that built the main house. If you are going to do something as insanely expensive as fix up a derelict old house, hope for a house built like this one. Chances are they didn’t cut corners elsewhere, either. Fortunately for me, the main body of my house was built in this way.

And, well, then there is this. Some time later an owner wanted a more imposing look, so he added wings, little rooms that originally just stuck out there; I have changed things so that the rooms serve a function but originally, inside they just looked odd. Anyway, he wanted flash on the cheap, so he didn’t go to the trouble that the first guy did.  You can see that the corner stones are just squared off. Though the ends are dressed to adhere to the enduit, they are placed nearly flush with the body of the house. In this situation, the crew will have to build out the enduit and feather it back to leave the corner stones exposed. It’s the knock-off handbag of stonework methods.

So, if you are still with me, you are surely wondering why I refer to cornerstones, when those big blocks are in the center of the wall. And what’s going on to the left? Well, there was a third part, a second addition. They added a small apartment to the main house. To the addition to the main house. It’s solid enough but it is built more like a country cottage. These stones were not meant to be hidden. The crew packed the enduit around the stones and let it dry. Then they went over it with a wire brush to clean off the loose bits and make it look nice. There will be no second layer.

And there you have it. The guys will do a first layer all around the house. They can do about one side of the house per day. Friday they will clear out. A friend is coming for her summer holidays, so I’m sure she will want to read that. When she and her family leave, the crew will return and give the whole place a second layer. And for I hope the next 50 years, that will be that. In 50 years, will the archaic skills needed to do this work still be passed on? I hope so — these buildings were meant to last — but you never know.


Downsizing score: Astier de Villatte

A friend of mine was moving from a humble but practical apartment to a grand one with a lot less storage. So just before, she called me. “I have to move. Can you buy my Astier de Villatte? It’s perfect for a country house.”

 Well, deals on that stuff come up just about never so, okay. I bought it, sight unseen, on the word of a friend with exquisite taste. She lives in very central Paris, no parking, so one afternoon I pulled over where she was waiting curbside on her one – lane street. We tossed everything into the trunk. She patted Jacques on the head and off I went to the house.

That’s it, end of story, until today, about 8 months later. Today I was finally able to unpack the stuff. It’s a lot. What was presented as a sort of dessert service for four, plus a couple of things, is actually way more than would fit in this drawer. It feels more like a housewarming present than a purchase, which I guess is why I’m showing it to you.  How very nice of her to think of me.


I can now sleep in my own house.

I’m taking a bit of a victory lap right now. I hope you guys are okay with that. And I hope any potential burglars have noticed the security cams dotted about. They connect to a company that monitors them for me and swears they will call the gendarmes should they detect malfeasance. I hope to never test that.

Anyway, this is the master bedroom. It looks tidier than this but Jacques has never looked lovelier, so I decided to go with this shot. Poltrona Frau “Massimo” bedframe. Bathroom finished, of all things, and to the left; closet, not yet fitted out, behind me. It now has both bedside tables with lampshaded lamps and the boxes are unpacked or at least out of the way. Over the bed is a nice print of the Grand Canal in Venice.

Since I moved from California I have been camping in tiny apartments or an unheated house. To return to civilized life, not 100% but definitely close enough for now, warms my heart more than you can possibly imagine.

In a couple of days I’ll show you the kitchen.