Which Way is Costa Rica?

This is the image. My happy home, which it is, with a beautiful, landscaped garden, where I now have only gravel. But soon, maybe, depending…

I won’t even show you the reality. Reality may well suck up my landscape money. It came in the form of a notice from my utility company. They informed me that electricity prices would increase, which I knew. I thought maybe 5%, tops 10%. But no. For the next seven months my electric bill will go up 50%. Then will it go back down? Not from what I’ve seen so far. My money seems especially attractive to them.

I had been looking at solar panels anyway. Honestly, it was throwing the dice to see whether I would live long enough to see them pay for themselves. It could be time to run the numbers again.

Or, maybe just move to a warm climate. Granada is nice, as is Barcelona. Maybe Malta or Sicily? Or, I hear intriguing things about Costa Rica.

I’d hate to start over again. I have friends here, ones I didn’t know before I moved to France. My French has improved to the point that it is only half bad. Maybe I’ll just pay up. Ugh.

Harvest Report

We haven’t actually had much in the way of summer weather. It looks like spring is going to morph right into fall, with only the length of day to cause anything to grow. Well, plus all the rain. It has rained pretty much every night and quite a few days, too.

It’s a pattern that has favored smaller fruit and vegetables. You can see that the San Marzanos are doing great, as are the cherry tomatoes and this smaller variety that I hope sticks around. The big guys are a sick yellow, still, and splitting from all the water. I put a reflective mat under the vines, to encourage early growth. I think the bees were drawn to the warmth as well, because the germination rate was huge. The neighbors hardly have tomatoes at all. Heh heh heh.

This butternut squash is actually bigger than it looks, close to being as big as Jacques’ head. I have two or three that size, thanks to all the rain. I guess I can roast and freeze it.

I won’t be showing you an overall shot of the potager. The potato leaves are yellowing and the weeds are everywhere. Julien and I weed enough that he takes a truckload of green waste in every couple of weeks and still, it’s bad. So, a bumper crop of dandelions for all you winemakers out there. My liitle kitchen garden looks pretty ratty, but it’s producing like crazy. I’ll keep it going until the Brussels sprouts are finished.

You also won’t see the berries because I keep eating them. Content yourself with my first tiny crop of grapes. I had to look a while to find a bunch that hadn’t been taste-tested into oblivion. They really are excellent, seedless and better tasting than the ones I buy at the market. These are trained against a wall across from the terrace. Looking at them, you might almost imagine that it’s warm outside.

The peaches are small, but getting there. And this apple tree is almost doing too well. I’d like to start picking them, but I don’t know when a Reine de Reinette is ripe. Maybe that one at the upper left?

Last one, I promise. Rose hips. Julien stuck some rugosa rose cuttings into the ground intending to transplant them. Then he didn’t. Apparently the spread by their roots because they are taking over, and fast. They, along with the sumac and raspberry roots, are likely Julien’s full-employment program. I guess the rose hips are for me.

It’s tea time. See you!

Quite a Day

I don’t usually think through my posts. If they seem stream-of-consciousness to you, that’s because they are, pretty much. This time I’m hoping to think it through enough that I don’t write something I’ll regret.

Afghanistan has just fallen. Yesterday, I think, Kabul was taken so, game over. My theory? I have one, but it’s pretty uninformed, based on a little reading, conversations with friends who served there and my own trips to the Middle East, though never to Afghanistan. So really, more opinion than theory and no point in posting it. But if my barns are suddenly filled with little apartments to handle the new influx of refugees, don’t be surprised.

Instead, let’s talk country house bling: my new rider mower. The old one, after five years of hard service, died. Julien pushed it way beyond its recommended limits but kept it maintained. Eventually, like an old car, it required a repair that would cost almost as much as a new mower, and would still need lots of work in the future, so a new mower it is. Julien has a buddy who soups up old tractor mowers and races them, so, win-win. He gets a new toy and I get a little cash. I hope to find one of these races and tell you all about it.

The new mower was delivered yesterday. The brand came out tops in my online research and this is the new model — not more than the top of my price range and with a new feature that facilitates cleaning. The old one had these handles for steering, which I found rather intimidating. This one, as you see, has a steering wheel. I may start mowing my own lawn, unless I can get Jacques to do it.

Politics, show-and-tell, now for the dirt. I signed up for one of those dating sites: Elite Rencontres, if there are any lurkers out there thinking “How can I meet this wonderful woman?” Elite, that’s your ticket. It’s actually quite interesting. These guys are serious, frankly more serious than am I, and I’m not wading through dozens of posts written by married guys looking for a fling. I’m okay with dating sites; I met Robert and Jean-Yves through them, after all. The guy that I spoke with yesterday, one that I met through a different site which shall remain nameless, gave me a new appreciation for the men that are my friends.

I’m not going to go all Andrew Cuomo, “balance ton porc” on you. You need to be able to make a power play to merit that and with me at least, what gives this guy his power, money, is irrelevant. He wasn’t a sleazeball — well, okay, maybe a bit, but the class version, like the VCs who hang out at a certain Silicon Valley restaurant with upstairs rooms. But the VCs hire the hookers in the bar, so at least the women get a bit of cash for themselves, and this guy didn’t want to pay. Well, maybe he’d put the drinks on his tab.

So it was basically a job interview. And, having been through a few of those before, I knew to listen for clues regarding what might be in this job for me. Spoiler: it wasn’t much.

He inherited his father’s house and was renovating it. He let his dad live in the crumbly old pile just as it was. Now that it was his house, time to fix things up. Maybe Dad said no thanks to any improvements, but still. Hmm. Then, first question, mind you, would I be willing to sell up and move to Normandy, where the weather is awful but I guess the cider is pretty good. Really, give up my whole life? I’ve done it before and would do it again for the right reason, but was he offering a right reason? Ah, no, not really.

Marriage, with all its legal protections, would be out. That was the second thing he brought up. The last three guys died on me, so believe me, I think a lot about what happens when it’s all over. Robert and Jean-Yves, each in his own way, made sure I was protected. This guy, nope, apparently not what he has in mind.

So I’m thinking deal-breaker right there, let’s see what else he has to say. Maybe he can salvage things. I think you get the drift: he didn’t. I think he had a list of questions; he kept looking down, then looking up and asking a pretty standard job-interview-type question. This deal was going to be on his terms, plain and simple. Her terms, whoever she may be, were irrelevant. He wanted someone pretty enough to impress his friends, good company, good in bed. End of story. To his credit, he was quite open about it. If he had any deeper connection in mind, he gave no hint of it. He loves his kids but the women in his life, maybe not so much.

He’ll find what he’s looking for. There is surely some very pretty, more-or-less age-appropriate actress, maybe — no disrespect to actresses, just saying they know how to present themselves to the public, a trait I do not have at all and which I sometimes wish I did — barely making ends meet who will go for it. I’ve been poor. I never took the deal but I get it. Or maybe someone who is doing fine, thanks, but wouldn’t mind a presentable companion, so more a social than an emotional connection. Whatever. I hope it lasts and I wish them both well.

Me? I had friends coming to dinner and bolognese sauce simmering. I sent off a couple of messages to guys in Affiny — the “lots of fish in the sea” gesture — and set the table.

Time to shake it off, I guess. Dinner was terrific, the best antidote. Piano lesson tonight. Other friends are coming this weekend. Music festival this weekend. Beach house with another group of friends next week. Then more music festival. A pretty busy few weeks after that. I have other things to do.

Country Life Report

Here you go, faithful readers. Do I sit around all day reading the essays of Montaigne and sipping rosé? I do not. Well okay, sometimes, but today I’m chipping crepi from the barn wall. How cool is that?

Crepi is like stucco, except it’s thick and spread over stone instead of chicken wire. Every so often it starts to fall apart and should be replaced. But not here. The plan is to leave the stone exposed.

The money from the sale of the rental house has come in. Eight months to close the sale and about eight minutes to spend the proceeds. I have shutters that are being held in place with bungee cords: time for new shutters. I have this truly hideous hole in the wall, see above, that will become a larger and more sightly opening, maybe even with a garage door. The apartment roof is going green, in its own way, sprouting all manner of growth on the tiles: time for a new roof. And did I mention that the guy who took away my handrails never brought them back? So, new handrails at the stairs. A hefty tax payment. My summer kitchen. Trees in the front garden. Gravel drive and pathways. I do believe that’s all the money and then some.

The good news is, this work is cosmetic, basically all finishes and furnishings. Longer-suffering blog buddies surely remember the five-figure sums that were buried in walls and under floors. This time, you’ll see it. Or I’ll see it. You guys will be thinking yeah, so, a room with a pizza oven. Oh, well. I take my pleasure where I can.

While I was wandering around trying to figure out how to finance my ambitious to-do list, I noticed that the crepi was starting to fall off, all on its own. So, why not, I spent a couple of hours helping it, chipping off bits here and there. I could do more of that. It’s kind of fun. In the end I’ll have to hire someone to get the upper walls, but that’s later.

The good news is, summer may have arrived. It took its sweet time and this sad little bunch of grapes is an example of how my produce production has taken a hit. That said, grapes, the first from vines I planted maybe two or three years ago. The cherries are gone. I may have to adjust my expectations, just think of them as bird food. By way of thanks, maybe, they are now hopping around on the ground; I hope that means they are munching bugs. They ate every single cherry, there being nothing else available to them. So, okay….

The tomatoes are happily throwing out leaves, which Julien is dutifully chopping off. I might have half a dozen tiny tomatoes on two dozen plants. At this point everything else in the kitchen garden is just leaves. We shall see.

Fortunately birds don’t like apples, at least not so far. I also have just the beginnings of other fruit: peaches and plums, mainly. No apricots, figs or persimmons. The pomegranate? I don’t know, yet. Lots of pretty flowers, though.

And that’s the news.

The Comeback Trail

Here you go, a more-than-slightly over-edited shot of the back garden on this rainy day. Jacques shines, as always.

Well. I was in Paris, then I came back here and got sick. So, long time, no blog. I’m well now, no worries.

Paris was newly open, which was a blessing, but no one had restocked, so it was a bit sad. Toward the end of the visit deliveries had been made and people were out. Things had picked up a bit.

I have to think about the direction I want this blog to take. I have a couple of projects to do this summer, but that’s it. My blog’s original reason for being — documenting the renovations — will be no more.

The thing is, I like you guys, so I want to keep writing something. But do you really want to read about my daily life? I sew, I knit, I garden, I brush the dog. Classic old lady stuff. Local politics, no, too boring. My current rabbit hole, my piano lessons, no, crazy boring to anyone but me. Or the other rabbit hole, chess: no, please no. So, must find a way to refocus. Right now it’s all a mystery.

Tested

So I just finished an all-day French exam, level B1, which is lower intermediate level. To become a citizen, I have to pass this thing. I figure these are my options. Photo 1, I passed. We can all relax. Photo 2, didn’t pass, misery. Photo 3, that’s me when it sinks in that I have to do the whole thing all over again. I’ll find out which applies in a couple of months.

For anyone in the same boat, the school giving the exam is Langue Onze. The hotel is Hotel Croix Baragnon: very basic but cheap, clean, well managed and just across from the school. I can recommend both of them.

I’m in Toulouse, for the first time in maybe a decade. With lockdown, many tests were canceled and trying to get one in Paris, well, forget it. So here I am, staying in the original city center, which is now pretty upscale. In general, Toulouse seems to have gentrified since I was here.

This neighborhood is full of antique stores and, as you can see, some interesting food: French if you must, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, take your pick. Within a 10-minute walk are more independently owned shops of all kinds, some incredible parks and gorgeous apartment buildings of all ages. They have trees here, big, old trees, with grass around them. Grass, not grates: take that, Paris. They haven’t done infill projects, so the apartment buildings still have big, leafy green gardens. In short, I like it here. I want to buy the storefront below and do something with it, I don’t even know what, don’t even care.

It’s getting hot. Chances are I’ll be happy to be back home, near La Rochelle, which is much more temperate. But to help ease the tension while I await my exam results, I’ll sip my new tipple, a bottle of armagnac from the ultimate Toulousain mancave, Domaine de Lastours.

Update: Cue the swans or the ducks, whatever they were. My results arrived: 94 out of 100. I should have done so well in school. There is plenty of that armagnac left, by the way. Come on by: we’ll celebrate.

Almost Invincible

Well no, of course not, but it sort of feels that way.

Yes, even here in France, things are happening, just when I was losing hope.

My first vaccination is Wednesday. AstraZeneca, same as Angela Merkel. When she walked past me in a restaurant a couple of years ago, a little good luck must have rubbed off. Seriously, vaccine is hard to find around here. Second dose in July. If I don’t have a stroke, I’ll survive this pandemic. Of course, this being France, I could drive all the way there — one hour each way! — only to have them say oh no, not you, we changed our minds. But let’s not think about that.

After a seven, soon to be eight, month wait, the notaire is doing the paperwork for the sale of my rental house. I have a bit of sympathy for the guy. France has a consumer protection law that limits the fees for handling property sales to such an extent that the work falls to the bottom of the priority barrel, doesn’t get done until there is nothing else to do. Over the last seven months I will have paid more in taxes and utilities on that house than he will earn in fees. So I, the consumer, am not feeling very protected. But he did write, saved it for Friday night so I’d maybe feel sorry for him, to let me know we’re just a week or three away. So three weeks, maybe four, but it’s finally getting done. My buyers might actually have their summer house in time for summer.

And of course spring is popping. Those are my cherry blossoms you see up there. We just had a tiny late freeze, nothing serious, so cherries are on the way, plus I expect some apples and mirabelles. Jacques just found his third hedgehog of the season, or maybe there is just one that he has harassed into three different hideouts. And the other day I noticed bees buzzing in and out of little holes in a sunny wall. To the tune of “Gimme Shelter?” We’ll soon see. Julien and I set up a beehive, following the instructions I found in my Collins Bee Bible. Plus we’re starting to talk about quails. Julien keeps chickens, so all I might need are little salad/apero-sized eggs. We’ll have to see about that.

Summer Kitchen

You’ll have to use your imagination here. We’re talking next summer, four or five months from now. Which may be about as soon as people can travel, anyway.

The barns have been talking to me. They are a little jealous of the house. I understand: I’d like to look that good, too. So when I came down here in November, it was with the thought that the potting shed and summer kitchen would be scheduled for completion in 2021.

I’ll tell you about the potting shed later on. For now, let’s stick with this.

See that oven? It doesn’t work. Once upon a time, you lit a fire on the floor, I guess. The heat went all over the place, including what looks to have been a great place to bake bread and all. The smoke went up in front of the oven and out the chimney. To get to the oven you what, held your breath? Wore a gas mask? Came back when the fire died down? I don’t know, but worries about smoke inhalation were enough to make me decide against repairing the chimney. We’ll clean that oven up and thank it for its service.

The wall to the left was to be the home of the barbecue. But, oopsie, we left it sitting on the terrace and 100km/60mph winds blew it right down the steps. Totaled it. But oh, my summer kitchen…. I decided to give myself an Ooni pizza oven for Christmas. The understudy would become the star.

Here is the culprit. Gas fired, so no chimney at all. Cooks your pizza in two minutes. Custom pizzas all around. Little did I know: I was about to fall into the Ooni rabbit hole.
You see, once you get the oven you need the pizza spatula, the pizza cutter, the bbq grill just in case some serious meatarian just won’t eat pizza — the carbs, doncha know. Then there are the flavorings, liquid, solid and fresh, and the leftover bbq tools. Where does all that go? The purpose-built table. Of course.
The table is on its way. I sent Julien a link to a table I found on Youtube, Ooni pizza oven tables being their own Youtube genre. He sent me an eye-watering receipt for materials — better to ask forgiveness than permission, right? — and I think he’s building it at home right now. Or maybe he’s just hiding in the dog house.
Mind you, we haven’t gotten to the actual space, yet. Fortunately for me, Kieron, the guy who personally hand-crafted the house renovation, will probably be available in June. He loves the house, so I’m pretty sure he’ll make a point of it. He and Julien will clean up the walls. I have no plans to paint or repoint or anything. They will pour a slab of colored concrete and stamp it with a roller. According to Kieron and Youtube, it should look pretty nice and have a pattern much like the older, existing floor, which we are keeping.

At this point I have sold the rental and moved from the Paris apartment. I am out of excuses for all that stuff in boxes, some still from the California move. So, on that concrete slab will be a table, sideboard and chairs from the rental house.

Every self-respecting kitchen needs a sink. And the frig? I don”t know. I have one, just don’t have a plug. All in good time.

Jean-Yves

This is not good news. So let’s do this now, in hopes that by Christmas you will have moved on.

This lovely man, the one I have lived with for the past five years, has died. Heart attack, followed ten days later by another heart attack. End of story. Today we placed his ashes in the Pere Lachaise columbarium, niche 7070. I seem to have a thing for guys who die of heart attacks. I’d just as soon have a thing for guys who live long and healthy lives, if it’s all the same to the gods.

Jean-Yves was an excellent patent attorney, highly regarded, but he didn’t give a damn how he looked, which suited me just fine. Pretty much: I admit to buying him shirts that would button across his tummy. That he needed those shirts tells you a bit about what happened. You know how your doctor is always such a killjoy with all that no smoking and cut way back on the eating and drinking, too? Well, Jean-Yves had no time for killjoys, not when there was a pipe at hand and a bottle of Jameson in the house.

I’m not only one who wishes he had listened up. He was an outstanding mentor. He trained an entire office of excellent attorneys. My grandson, who interned there for a summer, wrote movingly of how much he learned and of how much Jean-Yves cared about him. Moses, mind you, was Robert’s grandson; many men would have been no more caring than a lion slaughtering the cubs in his new pride. But those two bonded so thoroughly that night after night it was understood that I would vanish and leave them to their conversation, which often ran late into the night.

He’ll be missed.

The Guest Rooms

Looks pretty bleak, doesn’t it, like maybe the only guest is that crazy aunt you’ve heard rumors about. Fortunately this is a before shot.

Here is the same or a similar window from the inside. Note mildew, lambris ceiling and walls that never did look very nice. When they could afford a maid, she lived here.

I have to apologize for the haphazard nature of this post. I’m upgrading and changing computers and frankly, it is a nightmare. The new operating system has taken over. All my tidy files are trashed in favor of date shot date uploaded or who knows what, but it’s like Catalina decided to play 52 Card Pickup with my pictures. If I find better shots than these I will update the post. For now, I’ll have a full house at Christmas, so I’d better show you the guest rooms while they are more or less tidy.

There are two of these rooms, almost mirror images of one another. Some time after the main house was built, wings were added. The room in the top photo was a maid’s room and was given paneling at the windows. The room just above was never used and never detailed. A you can see, once we removed the ceiling covering we decided to stay with the exposed beams. Frankly I think the workers would have refused to cover them up.

The photo above shows the outside wall. The one below shows the wall facing back into the house. I don’t have a photo of the nasty peeling linoleum that the guys removed. Those floor boards are original to the house; I don’t know why they were ever covered.

The landing toward a guest room.
From the landing toward the other guest room, during construction.
The same spot, now.

So from the landing — seen here but I’ll also upload a floor plan, if I can find one — you would enter either a bedroom or, as you see below, a bathroom. Then beyond, for no apparent reason, there would be a door to a little tacked-on room. I could have retained the bigger bedroom and used the wings as bathrooms. However I didn’t like the idea of chewing up one wall with circulation, plus putting the bedroom at the end gave it more privacy. Plus I thought it made sense of the space, removed the tacked-on vibe. Maybe I would choose differently now but, too late.

The former pink bathroom, with a new sink and Jacques communing with the local fauna.
Former bedroom, which became the bathroom you see below. The drop in ceiling height was made to accommodate wiring and plumbing in the attic. This room became the bathroom you see below, plus a small laundry/utility room. Each floor has a backstage space.

Here is a progress shot of the other new bathroom. Toilets: before there was one, in the utility room. Even that was a step up from the outhouse with its wooden seats — yeah, family style — and huge stinky collection pit. To the left will be/now is a shower. The sink is on the opposite wall.

One guest room now — the curved window above. Below is a small apartment in what were the porcherie offices.
One room, with a mix of things inherited, bought and won at auction.
The other room, functional but not at all finished.
And the view, which I liked too much to relegate it to a bathroom and which, to my mind, is not as well framed by the larger windows.

The Exercise Room

I have one “before” photo of this room, which actually makes it look more cheerful than it was. This was the bedroom of the previous owners. The man died in the 1980’s, I think, and his wife died a couple of years before I bought the house — in this room, I believe. There was a nurse’s call button still plugged ino the wall, though the room was otherwise empty. The entire house had issues, but this room in particular was drab and dark. The paint and wallpaper looked to be decades old. The pictures on the wall took the form of pinned magazine photos. Though the entire house was neglected, in this room you could smell poverty.

We are talking about my first visit to the house, almost exactly seven years ago. Robert had died in our California bedroom only months before. There was no bedside button. I called the paramedics, who did their best, to no avail. I was still coming to terms with living without him. So, walking into this room, where a woman slept without her beloved for decades until she died in apparent destitution, well, it hit me pretty hard. The whole house needed work. This room needed an antidote.

Thus the pink paint. I tend to favor saturated and grayed colors. Here, no, it had to be bright. So, bright it is. Since then my challenge has been to tone it down with the brown of the sofa and floorboards and the blues of the carpet and reformer. I’m auditioning that lithograph right now. The colors are right and it’s a strong image. I just don’t know whether it is strong enough to hold that entire wall.

Thus too the choice of this room for the exercise equipment I brought from California. I found the vibe in this room to be too disturbing to put guests here and anyway, the stuff had to go somewhere. Why not the room that needs to be livened up?

The place is pretty well equipped. I have a rowing machine, a TV to distract me from the boredom of rowing, a Pilates reformer, a DVD player with way too many exercise DVDs, a yoga mat and props, hand weights, a balance ball, a medicine ball and miscellaneous books and other stuff. Yes, I do sometimes use it, generally in winter when going outside is not fun. I also have my meditation altar here, right where the bed used to be; I try not to think about it.

That’s basically the story of this room. It still has a different feel from the rest of the house, though no longer a problematic one. It is quite practical and peaceful. I have read that pink is calming and it does seem to be the case. This is no longer a difficult room to be in at all. Jacques seem fine with it.

Potager Report

Well, so, it’s harvest time. There are thousands of cherry tomatoes that I could neither eat nor give away. They are pretty much smashed on the ground, so I predict many volunteers next year, too. We could have all manner of tomatoes, given the unharvested remnants of this year’s bumper crop. I was able to rescue a few San Marzanos from the rotting mess. That’s it. Those mice can have at it.

We are clearing the kitchen garden. We could have gone for a winter crop, but Julien and I were so sure we’d simply repeat the failures of previous years that we didn’t plan very well. Plants went all over with no though of sunlight or water requirements. The whole irrigation setup was piecemeal. It’s too chaotic to simply continue.

So, out go the old plants. There are a few straggler butternut squash still ripening, plus some beets and carrots that I’m in no rush to harvest; I’ll leave them until last. Julien is a no-dig convert, so once we have cleared the area we’ll spread some aged horse poo that he gets from his neighbors — ah, the aroma — then a thick layer of cardboard. Then we’ll probably replace the plastic and walk away.

We’ll come back in spring. We’ll relocate the plastic sheeting to conform to whatever planting plan we dream up, then do a proper soaker hose/drip installation. I added a couple of hose bibs in the area, so that should go pretty well. There should be no neglected areas and thus no need for standard sprinklers.

We have had a long spell of steady rain, so the fruit trees are happy. I think we got four tiny apples plus a couple dozen mirabelles. But nothing died, which is a big improvement over my usual results. I see a few crossed branches and all so a winter prune will happen in January. We’ll also take a closer look at the Wild Wood. We found a hazelnut tree in there, and a quince. We need to encourage them and engage in further exploration.

I should be doing a winter pruning of my roses, but, well, lazy. Roger did a couple of them, most unexpected, thank you Roger. I should also weed around them and figure out what to plant under them that will choke out the abundant grass — abundant only around the roses, of course. Dream on if you think I’ll be able to get an actual lawn going.

So that’s it: the kitchen garden and the rest of the property, too. Long story short, we are tidying and settling in. It’s nice.