French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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First Floor, Part Two

Okay, okay. I can’t say I am especially proud of these rooms. They are not done yet, not by a long stretch. But I have kept you guys hanging for quite a while, now, and these rooms might not be done to my satisfaction for quite a while longer. So here they are, in all their unfinished messiness.

Above is, bet you couldn’t guess, the exercise room. As everyone promised, hefty doses of brown and blue drain the mintiness from that pink. This room is such a pleasure to be in, no matter how cold and gray outside. When you are as exercise averse as I am, that is important. The sofa is placed so that folks can watch the TV which has not yet been installed on the wall I am leaning against; thus the electrical outlets you see reflected in the mirror. There is enough space in front of it to make good use of that exercise ball, the mat that is rolled up in the corner or the massage table that is just to the left of it. The mirror is placed so that you can check yourself while you use the Pilates reformer. And, to the left, the rowing machine. On the wall is a print made by an American who lived in France at the beginning of the previous century.

Jacques and the cushions are French and the sofa is Italian. I think Cassina is Italian. The rest of it came with me from California. It would have cost twice as much to buy the reformer and rowing machine here, plus the throw my grandmother crocheted for me is irreplaceable. So, really, it may not pencil to have done this but maybe it doesn’t exactly not pencil. Maybe.


This, I swear, will make a fine library one day. It will, I mean it. We just have to glue that topless table back together and move it downstairs and reassemble it. Then we have to move the computer — a tower, so old school — the printer and all, and get it all set up. The Aeron chair, remember those, that will be great in the office.The navy blue sofa will go about where the broken table is. Stuart will build library shelves and all those hideous boxes will be emptied, their contents filling the shelves that now exist only in my imagination. This house has a storage issue which has been addressed but has yet to be resolved. And then, I don’t know. I think there is room here for some side tables, maybe another chair or two, lamps, a more suitable rug. It definitely needs a few pictures on the walls. 

I meditate — note the cushion. I think this is where I’ll set up my meditation altar. I am toying with the idea of having the guys build it a platform, so I can sit high enough to look out the window. That could be nice.


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The superinsulation 

There was a question about the insulation I used in the house. Just now I found a piece of it, so I thought I’d show it to you.

As you can see, it packs way down but can expand. I don’t know whether it insulates better when it opens up than when it is mashed flat. I don’t think the guys let it expand very much.


I was told that the materials were developed to insulate space capsules, then adapted for buildings. So the black plastic layer is quite stiff and tough. The layers of foil are no thicker than the stuff you cook with but are much stronger. The wooly stuff in between might be wool, I don’t know. I know the guys like working with this because it is not fiberglass. They don’t have to worry about what they are breathing and their skin doesn’t itch.


And finally you can see that one side is black plastic and the other is foil.

These photos are not protected in any way. You can probably download them if you like, to take to your favorite building supply store.

The stuff wasn’t cheap. I can’t quote a price because I didn’t buy it myself but my contractor kept saying it cost a bundle. However I believe it to be well worth the money. It insulates extremely well. I don’t have to worry about the guys getting some horrible disease from breathing fiberglass. It packs down thin enough that we were able to retain the original cove moldings, with just the tiniest trim piece to disguise the new wall. As with most of the money that went into this house, now that it is done, you would never know. 


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Next steps: Garden

This is what we are doing today. We are roughing in the electricity and pouring the concrete foundation for the newly refurbished gates. Jacques, the sneaky little delinquent, has run away twice now. If third time is the charm, next time might be when the nice lady with the sweet pit bull does not find him and bring him back. Then what will I do? So quick, get that gate back!

But let’s face it, this sort of thing is boring. So I am thinking about what to do with the garden.


This is the house I bought. What a mess, eh, but the front garden had trees and a nice sense of enclosure. Those pom pom bushes had to go and I am no fan of circular drives, so when the guys asked I said sure, take out the bushes. As rabid fans remember, those beautiful chestnut trees were rotted inside. We cut them down before they could fall over, something that was just about to happen.


This is my house now. Ooh, ah. It has been re-crepi’ed, at massive, painful expense. No, jet-washing would not be enough. I know, we tried it. Since we were draining my bank account anyway, we added the terrace to the left. We trimmed the yew to the right, not to pom-pom status but just to lift it. Somehow the feeling is lighter and grander, plus I can hang a nice little bamboo wind chime in the branches. But the garden, oh how sad. Two years of chopping things down and parking all over it has not been healthy for the garden. It is time to make amends — and add amendments.


The back garden is in a similar situation, though not as bad. On balance it is actually in slightly better shape than it was. We pulled out some fences. We started mowing the grass, which is always brown at this time of year. So now I get to go back to the cheap thrills part of any project, design.

Mini-rant: paper and pencil are cheap. Deciding what to do when guys are standing around on the clock, then finding out that whatever you want to do has a three-week lead time to order parts, way expensive, especially in France, where three weeks can easily stretch to six. If you are a DIY type, it’s less expensive but no less frustrating. Do a schematic design; on a small job, a sketch with notes on the back of an envelope is often enough. Develop your schematic design, including choosing all finish materials, even if they are as close and convenient as Leroy Merlin. Then start construction.

Okay, I’m over it.


It’s certain that we will have to scrape the surface of the soil. We have trees like this one that have grown back from cut-down stubs. We have walls that were covered in something totally inappropriate and have to be refinished. We have ankle-twisting grooves from where heavy equipment was driven around in horrible muddy winter weather. We have fist-sized rocks covering one huge area. This was once a working farm and porcherie, so they didn’t really worry about how most of the back garden looked. Fair enough but now that most of the land has been sold off we might as well make things nice.

A friend of a friend, Rebecca Heard, did a schematic plan for the garden early on, before the house even had wiring. Bless her, she kept saying, “Isn’t it a bit early for this?” In a way she was right but her plan has been the touchstone for all my thinking since then. When I said I hated hedges she put them in anyway. As she pointed out, hedges are cheap. I could see right off that they are a great way to shape outdoor rooms. Now that I am researching windbreaks I can see that if you want to get out of the wind, a hedge is your friend. So maybe some hedges will come back.

I don’t know where I will land, in terms of design. That’s the great thing about design. Anything is possible. The better you are at analyzing what you have and visualizing what could be, the happier you will be with the result. Assuming you get there, of course.


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First Floor, Part One

This haunted house look is what we started with. Lots of rot, lots of mildew and boards that were just nailed up any old way. Clearly these rooms had not been used in years, except maybe for storage. They are the rooms in the wings, the ones that were tacked on later to make the house look more imposing. Inside they had no clear function or visual connection to the main house. You would come to a bedroom and then oh, look, there is another door and a whole other room. It was a little creepy. Jacques would come into these rooms and pee on the floor, every time. I don’t blame him.

But I was in mourning for a man with whom I had spent our wedding night in a bedroom that had just space for the bed and had windows very close, one on each side, just like here. I couldn’t bring him back but I could bring back these rooms and give them a purpose. So I did.


Above is the first floor landing. As I mentioned not long ago, we refinished the floors and stairs. We rewired, insulated, added new skirting board and painted. Then, those rooms. If you step through that doorway, just to the left is another doorway to what used to be the sad, old pink bathroom.


It now looks like this.


We did the usual hidden work, refurbished the radiator, replaced the window, upgraded the sink, put a toilet where the tub used to be and installed a shower, in which I am sitting. Obviously the shutters have not had their makeover.

Before you just walked into the bathroom. Then beyond that was the tacked-on room. So, what to do? There was a feeling that the tacked-on part should become the bath or a big closet. But really, no. I like privacy. I don’t want to step from a public space directly into my bedroom, just don’t, plus that space between the two doors would be circulation, anyway. So, bathrooms first,then bedrooms. The top half of the bathroom doors are glazed with ordinary Leroy Merlin cathedral glass. I put reflective surfaces on the walls; that mirror is destined for the hall. This keeps the corridors from becoming too dark.


And finally, you must be so sleepy, here is one bedroom. The pictures were brought from California. The headboard will be one of those linen-covered ones, just as soon as Caravane delivers it and its twin, which will be in the next room I will show you. Lamp from Couleurs & Co. The table is an old sewing table; my great-grandmother was a seamstress, so I am pleased by that.

To this point I had been a bear about preserving the original ceilings. The coving and rosettes were irreplacable. Well, we had some coving reproduced, but you get the idea. So the guys asked special permission, with all but a written justification, to take down those splintered, rotting boards. Of course once we all saw those beams it was clear that they had to remain exposed. So we killed a lot of bugs, gave them a finish coat and painted around them.


And here is a corner of the other bedroom, like the first but in the opposite wing. The Mongolian rain cape came here by way of Berkeley. The pillows are from Jim Thompson in Bangkok. One day my headboard will come and I will find the right side tables and all. I don’t know which day but if it involves a return to Bangkok, I can’t wait!