French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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Jacques Report

This morning, as I was trying to decide whether to get coffee or just sleep a bit longer, Jacques was alert. Okay, when is he not alert, but this time he actually heard something, a scratching noise. Bless his brave little heart, he ran down to investigate. Five minutes of crazed barking later, I decided to go down, too. Realistically, what were my choices?

This was it, the whole thing. A loving mother rat with wings, oops, pigeon, tending her little brood. She must have figured out that she is safe behind that glass because she didn't move: not before I got there, not since. That said, I think she'll be glad we're gone.


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But is it Art?

On my first visit to Paris, I went to the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes. I couldn’t believe the whole city was as beautiful as the neighborhood I was staying in — the view from my room, a room without even a private bathroom, was of the gardens of the Prime Minister’s official residence — so I wanted to get out to a few other areas. Back then the Jardin des Plantes was considered pretty far out there. Anyway, it was January. It was cold. The animals and I were staying indoors. The chimps were bored. When I walked into their little building, they noticed. After all, I was the only person there. They ran over immediately, so excited, and spread shit all over the 5-meter-high windows, pooped in their hands, even, to provide themselves with more, um, artistic media. As I look at this wall I wonder whether I haven’t come back to where I started.
Pretty soon this wall will be covered with this paint. The furniture and silkscreen will return to their usual positions. I live in hope that it no longer looks quite so, well, poopy. The idea was to have the wall disappear behiind the clutter of stuff we have in this room. We shall see and I may update this post with an “after” photo. Meantime, I’m having a lot of fun. Making art is real work but this, this is fun. Though I am starting to wonder whether my Painter friends, Sharon and Frank, have been keeping a little secret from me: once they have worked up the general idea, I bet they’re having a lot of fun, too.


Four hours later, there it is, missed spots and all. The color is less poop, I hope, and more ’70’s almost-avocado, which makes it appropriate to the age of the building. The sofa is calling my name. Jacques’ cushions, the ones he loves to attack when dogs appear on screen, await him. And if you are wondering what the big kids do when they paint, there is one of Frank’s silkscreens. I’m tired. Time to watch Wimbledon.


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Baby birds of the year, etc.

Look what I found, nested just outside the window of what used to be the pink bathroom: baby pigeons. I thought of pigeons as city birds but here they are. I know for a fact that pigeon poo can quickly destroy a building; one of the things I looked for when I first visited the house was evidence that the birds had moved in, which would have meant structural damage far beyond what I could have afforded to repair. So I’m telling myself that wood will rot but stone can take the abuse, which I hope is true, and that they’re not pooping on the window, which I want to keep. Worst case, they are pooping on the shutter, which will be replaced, anyway, along with its rotting buddies, when I find a stack of cash to do the job right. So the babies stay; may they grow and prosper.


Missing stacks of cash are also keeping me from the landscaping that I want to do. Apparently there are so many tree stumps and stones in the ground, not to mention the “cadeaux empoisonné,” the debris that the workers abandoned all over the place, that there is nothing for it but to scrape the soil surface and start all over. Love to but that’s not in the cards right now. Instead I am trying to figure out what to do until my money tree bears fruit. It’s all about finding the right strategy.

I’m reading Christopher Lloyd’s book, Meadows. If I can’t plant a decent lawn (Julien just broke a lawnmower blade on a rock), why not make a virtue of whatever is already there? I’m hoping that the late, great Mr. Lloyd will show me the way. 

Next to the house, I’d prefer something a little more civilized. Long, long ago and far away, I wrote a thesis on a Harvard-educated Los Angeles landscape architect, Edward Huntsman-Trout.  HT is well known for his many commercial projects. That’s understandable: hardscaping, the core of a commercial design, lives. Plants die and get swamped by weeds or swapped out for easier-care substitutes. But when I spoke to his friends, they admired his character, first of all, and his knowledge of plants. They spoke admiringly of the way he used plants to shape spaces. In much of his later domestic work, he liked to borrow an idea from Italian landscape design. He would plant a more formal scheme near the house which, as the planting moved away, would become less formal, eventually blending into the surrounding countryside. 

I had the privilege and great good fortune to spend an afternoon with his widow at their house in Mandeville Canyon; at that time, that far back into the canyon, it was pretty wild. I was so taken with her that I didn’t really look much at the garden. She loved the house, which was his design, and spoke at length about that. So all I can really tell you is that the garden didn’t look designed. It looked as if it had always been there, waiting for the right house to complement it. Where were my advisers? The house and garden probably should have formed the core of my thesis; back then I was out of my depth and I’m sorry to say I missed a great opportunity. Anyway, for the next little while I’ll be studying the masters and hoping some of that brilliance rubs off.

Hollyhocks do well here. They self-seed and thrive in even the most awful concrete-strewn messes.  One day I stumbled into a garden center and found these little rangy bushes with flowers resembling my pink hollyhock volunteers. They are doing well and their horizontality complements their spiky cousins. So here they are out at a corner of the apartment, where I want to trend toward the fake wild. You see, I don’t get to blend into a forest. I blend into a lotissement. Visitors will have to use their imaginations. Still, it should be okay. Worst case I hope that visitors will think, “Oh, she’ll get to it eventually.”


Because I was traveling, I was a month without Jacques. That was a long, long month. Though I like to travel and Jacques likes to stay with Julien and his family, we are happy to be reunited. Here he is, trying to convince me that my best form of exercise is not rowing, not Pilates, not yoga, but chasing him and his little frayed toy all over the house. If I do sit down on that yoga mat he sits right in front of me and either talks me into giving him a little doggy massage or licks my face. Not a lot of stretching gets done.


He has also inserted himself into my meditation practice. When I bought the house I thought it would make a deluxe hermitage and so it has. However I can’t put the little zafu on the big cushion because then there is no room for Jacques and he will bug me and bug me until I make room for him. So I move the zafu and scoot over. Jacques settles in beside me and sits very still, a little white Westie mountain of calm, until the meditation timer goes off. Then he grabs his toy and makes me chase him around. I guess that’s its own way of living in the moment.


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Algae, too much algae

I’ll start with the pretty picture. Not my house, not me, not Jacques. No, thanks to a blog buddy’s suggestion, I was able to escape my algal difficulties by going to a Fete des Plantes, just outside Niort. Is that a chateau or just a really big house? Anyway, I picked up some lovely drought-tolerant, easy-care plants that I have not seen in garden centers here. I am delighted with them. Also it was nice to see that these people, who have a front garden multiples bigger than my entire property, have it under control. It gave me hope. Someday my lawn will come.


And here are the algal difficulties. You are looking at the pond at the house that I am selling and, in the meantime, make Available for holiday lets. I’m not sure this is the best pitch for it, but anyway… The pond is part of the municipal drainage system and must remain. Normally it’s quite pleasant, covered with duckweed, to be sure, but pretty and frog-filled. I have been a little worried about it. The previous gardener would cut back the bushes and just let the branches fall into the water. This cannot be good, I thought, so I let that gardener go, but too late. His carelessness turns out to have created huge problems. Julien tried to clear the pond with little success. He says the bottom is sludge filled. Trapped in the sludge are huge, fat branches, rotting away. He says it would take mechanical equipment to clear it out but the straight sides of the pond — the whole thing is cement-walled and I think has a cement bottom — plus there is all that water — make it impossible to get anything down there.

I need to get the house ready for renters, so I went over to review the current state of things. Oh, it’s bad. Apparently the algae is bad everywhere this year but so what. This algae is trespassing on my pond and it has to go. So I put on my rubber clogs and a bathing suit and waded into pleasantly warm water, pool net in hand. Jacques loved it. Oh the gaseous smells, as I disturbed the pond bottom. Oh, the squelching sounds, the froggy croaks. And the sludge, he couldn’t get enough of it. As I netted tens of kilos of thick algae, thick enough to prevent my new water plants from settling, Jacques attacked the piles of crud, pawing and biting it. As I cleared a horizontal cement siding, Jacques would run out and sniff the debris. Then he figured out that he could safely step right onto the sludge and attack the algae while it was still in the water. Terrier heaven: my water-averse dog waded in up to his tummy. The muddier he got, the happier he was.

Despite Jacques’ assistance, I cleared maybe 20 square meters of algae from the surface, for which the frogs are grateful. I found that it is possible to clear algae faster than it grows, for which I am grateful. I am left with a whole lot more, out in the center, which is too deep for wading. Maybe I can head out there with a couple of little flat-bottomed boats, one for me and one for algae, and clear it out that way. So where can I find a couple of those?

The water is clear but brown, thanks to the sludge and rotting debris. I decided to try some pond chemicals, which worried Julien. He likes the frogs as well as I do and didn’t want them hurt. Then he did some calcs and realized that my chemicals — anti-algae plus a couple of water-clearing agents — won’t even dent the situation out there. The pond is just too big. We both hope they don’t dent the frogs, either, though they are so diluted that I think my little croaking friends are safe. The next step is apparently to find some activated charcoal. Maybe a ton of activated charcoal. Then I can clear that out.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Not many people dream of moving to France so they can clear massive algae infestations. I sure didn’t. However I’m finding that I like all these garden challenges. Gardens are low-tech, easily understandable. They tire you out, so you sleep extremely well. Once in a while something pretty comes of it. For the pond, especially, I find myself driving to places I would never otherwise visit, aquatic plants being rather specialized, so occasionally a bit of adventure is involved. I think about this as I sludge-proof my car seats, so Jacques and I can drive home, looking and smelling like Mrs. Swamp Thing and her little Swamp Dog.

No YouTube uploads of the original, just the campy 1982 remake. Sigh. You’ll just have to imagine.


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Catania

I can’t say I’m thrilled with Catania. From what I have seen it has all the seediness of Palermo with none of the charm. This hotel, though, I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. It’s old. Though generally well maintained it has aspects, like dodgy wifi and wood-look plastic flooring, that I’d really rather do without. Though it has quite a nice restaurant, their idea of a light meal is definitely not mine. But then they throw in these things that a new hotel would never dream of including.


Look what I found! Right next to an outdoor shower! An outdoor shower is one of those things that I didn’t appreciate until I took one. Now I’m hooked. It’s one of those cheap luxuries that everyone should have though in this case, it being quite open to the view, I think I’d keep my bathing suit on. And why is there an outdoor shower? Well you might ask.



It’s because they have a scuba school. Right here by the rocks! The chances for loss of life and limb are infinite but come on, in Sicily, who’s going to sue? You can even go out without the scuba school. That’s how unconcerned they are.


No lifeguard, no problem. But look how clear the water is. And though there is too little shaded seating for my taste, the pool is lovely. There is a warm breeze. I have been reading a book, which I am generally much too tense to do. After a couple of days of not much to do, not much to look forward to, apart from the novel that I’ll read after I finish the memoir, I might settle down enough to stop complaining.


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Barcelona

I usually joke about the difficult life of the accompanying person but this time, no, not even as a joke. Barcelona is just too beautiful. This photo was taken at a reception in a room designed by Montaner, a contemporary of Gaudi. We drank cava, the local sparking wine, and listened to a couple of English lawyers talk about their efforts to ensure that this whole Brexit thing would be nothing more than a slight bump in the road. I wish them luck.


We went to something else at Casa Llotja de Mar. It featured this staircase in the entry courtyard and, just on the other side of the wall, an enormous hall with an oompah band and videos of Bavarian cows. I had a drink or two extra, to tamp down stray thoughts of Kristallknacht.


This particular event has no organized accompanying persons tours, for which I am grateful. Traveling around with 50 other people isn’t the best way to see a place. Instead I booked myself into two walks organized by Culinary Backstreets, of which I have taken one, so far. I recommend them. Our Catalan speaking guide took us to all sorts of places I would not have tried on my own, including this place, which has no name that I could find, but where the food was simple and wonderful. I half expected to see Anthony Bourdain at the next table but no, we were the only outsiders, three visitors with a translator.

These doors are all over the Born neighborhood. You see a portrait in this style surrounded by lots of graffiti, also in this style. Maybe there is a story behind it. I prefer less self-conscious images, like the one below.


And finally, though it may be no more a secret than Le Grand Vefour, I want to tell you about this quadruple gastronomic delight, lots of food fun, all within about 10 meters on Carrer dels Agullers, a quiet pedestrian street in Born. Vila Viniteca is a wine store that has all kinds of amazing imbibables, at all price points, and a staff that speaks fluent English. Just across from them is Vila Viniteca food, a grocery with a couple of tables, in case you want a snack. Just across in the other direction, where I sat while taking this picture, is a restaurant favored by locals, Agullers: soup, main, a bottle of wine and two coffees apiece for 35 euros. Breakfast and lunch only, neither web site nor reservations, at least I don’t think so. And finally, in the fourth corner, a panaderia — I forget the name — that makes this incredible spongy bread that is perfect for soaking up drizzled olive oil and crushed tomatoes. It’s all good.


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Birthday Thoughts: happy 81st, wherever you are

Robert would be 81 tomorrow. Perhaps it’s only coincidence but I have just now come to the end of the things that we planned together, fleshed out after his death by the answers to my “what now?” questions. The Vendee house we were going to buy together was going to be a second home. When I decided it would be my primary residence, I decided it would be one Robert, too, would be happy to call home. That meant it would need room for lots of books and it would need a hot tub, what people generally, these days, call a spa. He read voraciously and ended every day with a long soak.

In the last month the house has been buttoned up. The contractors will return but rarely and for nothing that would make it impossible to live here. A permanent spa will have to wait for the garden overhaul but I found one of those inflatable ones on Amazon. It fits nicely on the terrace. After only a few days the heater went out, so not such a hot tub after all, but it’s in. And here, two months early, is the new bookshelf. It’s not in its intended location but it is in. If I had been buying for this location I’d have bought one more section — Flamant makes them in a variety of sizes — but I’m fine with this and like that it does not overpower the room. Though I show it empty, it is now nearly full. That bottom shelf is filled, end to end, by Robert’s art books. I’m saving up for another one of these and will surely fill that one, too. When the overflow from the Paris bookshelves arrives, it will be packed out. That space to the right awaits its comfy reading chair and accompanying lamp.

So. The final milestone, the last of the things we had absolutely planned to do together, has been reached. The transition is complete. It’s going to take me a while to get used to that.