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.

Entry Hall & Exterior

So this is what I bought. I was sitting in California nursing a sprained ankle and a broken heart when a realtor sent me this photo. If I like it in person, I said to myself, this is my house. I did and it is.

The house had issues, to put it mildly. That sad exterior coating — in this area they stucco over the stone rather than leave it exposed — was falling off in chunks. Pipes and wiring were all exposed and most in dubious condition. Rising damp was rotting the whole place, inside and out. But the slate roof was new and the foundation damp but solid. So I went for it.

They removed and replaced all the old stucco. They removed the rotting shutters and then, well, they just painted them and put them back up. For now. Windows were replaced with wood-framed thermopane windows which only leak a little bit.

Notice the incredible disappearing garden. It’s a long story, only partly attributable to contractor devastation. That yard is full of rocks and gravel. The stunning row of chestnuts had been pruned in a way that caused them to rot. Rather than have them fall over we pulled them down. The topsoil is almost nonexistent. This is the most serious unforeseen condition. It will cost well into five figures to properly landscape the front garden.

The entry was dated. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. Note head-height display cabinets. Note one original fixture that does nothing for the space and one replacement, which doesn’t work, either. Peeling paint is one effect of rising damp. Maybe the tile is a postwar replacement of, I’m guessing, the same gorgeous wood floor that was in the dining room. I don’t want to know who thought emphasizing the door to the electrical panel with avocado green paint was a good idea.

Oh, and the original doors leaked. Maybe the contractor didn’t notice because for over two years that door was never closed. We’re still working to remove the water stains. Baking soda is pretty effective.

At least you can see some improvements here. Display cabinets, gone. Paint, improved, with cabinet door de-emphasized. Radiator, damage from rising damp and unsympathetic tile replaced by heated stone floors.

This space has such a strong axis that we just went with it, giving it this solidly symmetrical pattern. I hope the horizontal lines stop that mental rush to the back door. Because I didn’t want the strong contrast of the more commonly seen black accent tiles, I was happy to find this more subtle variation.

Here you see the crew from Reignoux Creations installing one of the new doors. Steel and bulletproof glass in a period-sympathetic design. It works for me and I can’t recommend Reignoux highly enough.

Above their heads is a Fortuny light fixture, one of two in the entry. Things that match, what a concept. Also, as with the floor pattern, I hope the horizontal lines of the fixtures balance the strong front-to-back axis.

So here it is, home sweet home. The shutters are back, the door replaced and there is now a little foundation planting, at least. I’ll talk about the terrace, which you see to the left, and the apartment, which you see to the right, in later posts. This at least is clean and tidy and won’t invite one of those “abandoned” posts you see tagged on Instagram. I love those, but still.

I must have some shots with furniture in them, but sometimes it’s nice just to see the space. This is looking toward the back garden, with the old door still in place.

Opaque glass at the front door for privacy.

Clear glass at the back because I always want to see my scruffy garden.

I haven’t mentioned the stairs because they just needed to be cleaned. While alterations to the house were often dubious the original house, at least to my taste. was spot-on. Here is one of the details that figured in my decision to buy the place.

And here is Jacques, perched where he can see the front and back doors, sense upstairs activity and scent possible kitchen treats. Smart little dog.

Kitchen & Dining Room

So okay, inquiring minds, at least one inquiring mind, clamored for more house pictures. The terrible truth is, they are just crazy disorganized. They came from half a dozen sources over what, six years now, so they are scattered all over the place. And while a great mind, Frank Lloyd Wright’s, declared the fireplace the heart of the home, this mind declared fireplaces to be energy inefficient space hogs. In this house they were not even pretty. All were removed. Wright’s symbolic heart, gone. So where to start? Why not the middle?

Okay, too weird. Why not the start? This is the old dining room. Note the gorgeous, probably elm, flooring that has buckled and become unusable because for three years before I arrived, nobody heated the house. Don’t ever do that to your house, not in a place with freeze/thaw cycles and lots of rain.

The guys removed the wood. My request to have it stacked for reuse was met with “Nah nah, can’t hear you,” and every last bit of it was burned. Why did I fire my architect? Here is one reason. So, out came the floor, leaving this odd half-basement that I think was filled, sort of, with rocks. Eventually, out came the fireplace. Of course the icky dark gray marble remains in the garage to this day.

Stone, pierre de Bourgogne to be exact, replaced the wood. We installed heated floors in most of the ground floor, reducing the need for radiators and giving the house nice, even heat. There are no hot or cold spots and the heat is lower than with radiators, so the air is not so dry. That said the heated floor does create a barrier that eliminates mildew, at least in the rooms where it is found. The basement and the utility room can still have problems.

Mildew, this in the old kitchen, is not your friend.
The guys removed the old ceramic tile. Jacques supervised, as only he can.

I must have a better photo of the old wall, but where? Anyway, you get the point. The kitchen and dining room were separated by this thick stone bearing wall and the kitchen was a dump, destined to become a big storage area if we didn’t fix that. Honestly, it was awful, useless as a kitchen and, as a dining room, just sad. So they removed the stone and put in a steel beam, thus joining the two spaces. Now the light flows from the front of the house to the back. I have a big kitchen where the elm-floored dining room used to be — note fireplace that warmed Dad while everyone else froze — and improved circulation and access to what is now the dining area.

Here it is, open, free space. Note the hole in the wall. The old dining room had a solid wall flanking the fireplace. I wanted natural light from multiple directions. Also I wanted a terrace at floor level to replace a kind of poky corner outside. So I had the guys put in a window, for which you see the opening, and a door which you see below. It was quite a fight, another nail in the architect’s coffin. But I won and really, it is so nice to have those things.

This, too, gives you some idea of how much nicer it is to have that wall gone. You can see the Lacanche stove where the fireplace used to be. A range hood has since gone in. The plumbing and wiring are in. The walls are insulated and finished; Stuart had a painter buddy who had some free time, so the entire house was painted way too soon, but it was a good job and the guys protected it, so, okay. Stuart and Liam are installing the cabinets, which were made in his workshop. Stuart also made the windows and the door.

The kitchen needs its range hood, but you get the idea. It is big, by French standards, light-filled and highly functional. The bar stools are by Thomas Moser and came with me from California. Most of the lighting is LED spots. The one hanging fixture is from a shop in Melle.

It is so nice and open. Maybe I should have left it like this, but I stood in the dining area to get the shot and I can’t relax at the table if my view is of the cooking mess that awaits me. So I had Stuart add a low bookshelf that is just enough higher than the countertop to hide a world of cleanup.

Here is the dining room without its furniture and, in general, with quite a bit of work to be done. The stone flooring is cut in to make room for bookshelves. Someone, can’t say who, exactly, has a bit of a cookbook addiction.

This is my only immediately available photo of the dining area. The furniture came with me from California. The bowl is made by Soy, in Istanbul. The view came with the house.

Checking In

It’s almost fall. That seems so crazy. It’s not as if nothing has happened.

In the real world, RBG, RIP. Am I worried about what comes next? You betcha. In my world, I might possibly have sold the rental house, for the second time, don’t want to jinx it but maybe, maybe. We have a new house guest, this time a young man from Afghanistan who left 15 years ago and has yet to find asylum. He’s almost legal, here in France, and finds our guest room to be a step up from the rat-infested basements and all where he has been staying. Supposedly he is about a month away from finalizing the paperwork. Hope so.

I know I have been promising you photos of the house. Before and after, all that. I’m getting there, sort of. Where my motivation has been sidelined by overthinking, mainly, my friend Roger Stowell has stepped up. I encourage you to search Instagram for roger.stowell.35, where you will find his take on the place, along with the many other images that he posts. Brilliant guy. Please like, comment, subscribe, etc. Let’s keep him going.