French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Axis Mundi


We are hiding out today. Our reprieve from the heat wave is over.  At 7 PM it is still 32 degrees celsius, which for you in the States translates to too darn hot. Nothing to do but wait it out. 

This is a good place to do that. This is the first floor landing, the center of the house. You can sit in that tired but comfy chair and sense both the horizontal axis of the house, front to back, and also the vertical, along the staircase. On this floor there is even a secondary axis, along the length of the house. So even though you sit four or five meters in the air, you have a sense of being anchored, of being right where you should be.  It is a good place to read a book. Right now I’m reading Edmund de Waal’s “The White Road,” in which the Dutch potter takes an elegiac pilgrimage “of sorts,” as he puts it, to the sources of porcelain clay. He is in no rush; today that suits me just fine.

As decor goes, the landing could use some. A side table would be good, and a lamp. I need a picture on that wall. For the most part though, the things that I can actually see from here are in good shape. Nothing calls for attention. So I’ll finish the day by doing a little reading. Jacques and I will enjoy the view.


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Next steps


Well, obviously it’s time I gave up on the first floor being finished, even sort of finished, and just showed it to you. After all, as a photo like this one shows, these houses are never actually finished. Soon, soon, really, I’ll post photos of the bedrooms, whatever you have not yet seen. Just a Couple More Pictures on the wall. Or maybe I’ll just give up.

But first, what do we have here? Yes, that’s moisture on the skylight, somewhat obscuring the bird poo. On a day when much of France is expected to be in the mid-30’s — I think that is mid-90’s, Fahrenheit — we have fog in the morning and temperatures in the mid-20’s. It doesn’t happen every time but when it does, I am grateful. Weather reports are broadcast several times a day, who knows why, it doesn’t change from hour to hour. However from them I have learned that I am in a narrow coastal belt that is somewhat protected from the wildest of the Brittany winds and also from the hottest of the heat waves that can hit south of us, down towards Bordeaux, pretty hard.

Beyond that, can we see forever? No way, we’re fixing up an old house. All we can see are those bricks. As my fellow renovators are aware, once the hard shell of a brick is gone — in this case I think it is all gone — nothing remains but the soft, porous center. It took close enough to 150 years for the outside to go. The rest could be gone pretty quickly. Birds love this stuff. They not only have nested in the chimneys themselves but have pecked out some of the bricks and are nesting there. This particular chimney has three layers of nests.

So. You can take the chimney down and just leave it down. You lose much of the character of the house but it’s safe and cheap. Many people do this but it’s just not me. Besides, my site supervisor is a journeyman bricklayer who knows where to get those narrow little bricks.

Our plan is to ride out the winter with the chimney you see. In spring, down this old guy comes, to be replaced by one that looks just like it, but is new. I am outlining a whole Phase 2, work to be done when we can stand to think about it. This is high on the list. My bank account is in no hurry for spring.

It has been a long couple of years. We’re all a little burnt out. After this it’s all small ball, little jobs that it’s hard to get excited about. The guys are on another job, apart from bits and bobs here and there. I am beyond tired of writing checks. Sometimes I think of you guys who do the work and also write the checks. I have done that myself. No way would I want to do it again. Hats off to you. The learning curve is enormous. The work can be exhausting. Crumbling houses throughout the French countryside are grateful to you.


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Cold Comfort

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My plan was to buy some time for Stuart, who is doing some last-minute work on the first floor. I want to show you those rooms after a little more furniture goes in and a few more pictures are up. So I was going to write a little post about something I found when I was unpacking, this can of refried beans. I was delighted. Then I was amused that someone who moved to a new continent because she decided she didn’t want to live without the restraint, refinement and sheer quality of, say, Dammann teas or Descamps bedlinens, should be so happy to discover this gem of Mexican peasant cooking, hidden deep inside a “kitchen” box. And, well, my ethnic heritage is English, Irish and German. I could write a whole treatise on the influence of German polkas on Norteño music; that doesn’t make me Hispanic. So how is it that canned refried beans make my short list of comfort food?

I was wondering how to treat all this. Amusement, for sure, but then what? Irony? Some sort of “Family of Man” homily? Hard to say, so I put it all down and picked up the NY Times article on the disintegration of the Middle East. Yikes. Really, who cares about the beans? How are we going to deal with the people who are here now, just trying to get away from that mess? They don’t care where their food comes from. They are just hungry.

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These are not refugees. These are men working in Istanbul, loading a truck. I didn’t want to get into the whole artists’ rights thing, nor did I want to pirate an image, so I am showing you one of my own shots.

To be honest, visually there is not much difference, unless you go for one of those pictures of 50 people in a 10-person raft. People who have just arrived look middle-class. They and their clothes are still pretty clean, often pretty Western. Their kids carry teddy bears. In short, they could be us. The difference is that they are running for their lives and we are not.

So I thought about that a while. I have a small apartment attached to my house, fixed up just because it was there. Why not move someone in? A little Googling turned up French politicians urging citizens to take in refugee families. But, you know, they are politicians, going for that feelgood statement. Was there an announcement of a program? Any way at all that this might be made to happen? No there was not.

I started to wonder about the wisdom of stranding a Muslim family in the middle of the Vendee countryside, an area where the Republicains only narrowly beat out the Front National, where you see “Europe Blanche” spraypainted on public property — and not painted out. More Googling, which turned up a public statement that says sure we want to welcome them, but not for long. Vendée Solidaire, indeed.

I have no clue how this is going to play out. I searched further and found a couple of NGOs that might possibly be looking to house people. Of course there was a refugee music festival, doubtless featuring performers who have been in France for decades if not their whole lives. My hunch is that I am writing about a generous impulse that will go nowhere. We shall see. If there is any movement at all, I will let you know.

 


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Attic

This is what I started with. Dirty beams, full of happy insects. No insulation. Water damage. Ugly partitions that made no sense. Flat walls with arbitrarily placed doors, which visually are just the pits. Floors that look more or less okay, until you try to do anything with them. No plumbing and minimal electricity. It was dark up there.


This is what we did. We made the place watertight. We used ultrathin insulation so we could still see the beams. We killed the bugs and treated and cleaned the beams. We replaced the leaky skylights with new ones that are approved for use in historic houses, plus we added a few. We added a bathroom, a bedroom and a kitchenette, which means plumbing and a whole lot of electricity. We broke up the utter flatness of that wall by putting in a closet. So we have one less door and a somewhat separate area for the kitchenette. Oh, and the floor? They — not me, my knees would never forgive me — screwed down every plank at about three inches on center. They removed the planks that were still too far out of whack, replacing them with other boards. They poured a self-leveling compound over that, put a foam cushion over that and oak flooring over that. I guess it’s good that you can’t tell that it was in such bad shape. Since the photo below was taken I have added a floor lamp in the corner. The light is too bright to photograph well but that corner is now a great place to settle in with a book.



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Baby, baby!

I don’t know. Maybe when I had that drama with the bird netting and the broken wing I was judged to be totally guilty — hey, I was — and sentenced to a whole lot of avian-related community service. 

Look at this little guy. I found him in the garage, on the floor next to a massive pile of bird shit that indicates a nest just above. The Web site I checked tells me he is not quite two weeks old. He needs lots of protein, preferably mealworms,  chopped up. Ugh. I fed him chicken. He eats little tiny bites, not very many. The site tells me he’ll want more in half an hour. Is that 24/7? What about water? When does he start feeding himself?

His mom knows he’s there. I hope she’ll rescue him but the site tells me it’s not likely. So I have him in a tiny paper – lined plastic dish in a little box, still in the garage but I hope up where the cats won’t get him, though Jacques keeps them away pretty well. Advice welcomed.

I think I’ll do the before and after of the attic, if I’m not too distracted by this little addition to my household. Every 30 minutes is pretty frequent.

Update, four hours later: he’s gone. I fed him his chicken — much merriment from a friend who guffawed, you fed chicken to a bird??? — oops. Then I moved his little box atop a bigger box, the better to foil the cats. I went back after about an hour, thinking I’d switch him to high-protein soaked and mashed dog treats. He wouldn’t eat. Maybe he had indigestion but he looked pretty perky. I left the dog treats. An hour or so later he still wouldn’t eat but I could swear he had exchanged some pin feathers for the real deal. He looked a little belligerent. I thought well, if he has attitude, he may be okay. An hour later, no bird and no sign of mayhem. So either he was plucked from safety by a particularly sneaky owl or his mom got him back into the nest. I’m hoping for the latter.


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Staircase


Showing you this will be a little tricky. If it starts to seem a little geeky for you, come on back tomorrow. But one of the things that drew me to this house was the attic. It was a mess but the beams were gorgeous. I am used to living in places where you would never, ever waste even a broom closet, so the idea of leaving an entire beautiful, habitable floor of a house just sitting empty was a nonstarter. The attic was neglected, no surprise, and was blocked off, probably to help insulate the habitable floors. That was sad because this house design is all about axial symmetry. One axis runs front to back, with rooms opening to either side. The other runs top to bottom, with the rooms opening from the staircase. To let light and air flow through the house and to restore the axis, I had to open the stairwell from ground floor to roof. To stay warm, I insulated and put in somewhat-geothermal central heating.

I have shown you much of the attic, so I’ll focus on the stairs. Tomorrow I’ll do a few attic shots for you guys who have not been with me since I moved from California.

Above is the attic landing. Stuart wanted to note the poor condition of the handrail, thus the odd angle. You can see that a door opens directly to the left. There was also a door to the right. The wallboard was in terrible condition and the linoleum covered a multitude of sins. It all went.


This is how that area looks now. We kept the handrail but reinforced it and shortened the landing, so we could tuck a shower into the bathroom. The bedroom door is straight ahead, with the door to the main room to the right. The flooring is sea grass; I just noticed how it resembles the old linoleum.


The whole thing is lit by a skylight and a Le Klint light fixture.


The staircase blocked off. It looked even worse from the first floor landing. I have a photo somewhere…


The staircase now. Jacques likes his toys.



Here we kept the rails and that graceful curve. We refinished the stairs and replaced the drywall. The floor tile, which was peachier and cheesier than you can imagine from this photo, was replaced by pierre de Bourgogne.



Yikes. Photos do show you all the flaws. Ignore that little piece of wadded up packing material, okay?

And finally, here is a detail of the bannisters. I remember looking at those and thinking really, I can just buy them?


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Living Room/Salon


This is what I bought. Pick a pet peeve, any pet peeve. Dated curtains, absolutely needed because of the single-pane windows which leaked. Surface-mount wiring. Wallpaper, could be worse but not to my taste. And is that dirty fitted carpet on the floor? Eew. But the room also had those huge windows and pretty molding. Proportions are difficult to photograph but this room, like every room in this house, is beautifully proportioned.


So here the room is now, magically transformed into a very classy storage unit — right inside the door, too! We didn’t have to remove a fireplace as there never was one. We did remove the whole floor, not just the carpet. Somewhere in the archives is a photo of this room with caution tape over the door because stepping inside would have taken you directly to the cave. Beneath the carpet was rotted wood, so off that went, to be replaced by beams, concrete, heating tubes and a stone finish floor. The painting, a view from her house in the Drôme Provençal, is by my friend Sharon Romero. I may have the biggest collection of her paintings in the world, except maybe her mom’s house.


The curtains are gone, sorry. We insulated the walls, which allowed us to bury a whole lot of plumbing and wiring. Thanks to this space-age super-thin insulation that I have so often raved about, we saved the original molding and the rosette, seen below. I love a good rosette.