Athens and Kifissia

I have been curious about how Greece is doing, given the economic troubles and the refugee situation. So I was pleased to accompany “he who is tired of being called Mr. France” to a conference in Kifissia, an affluent suburb of Athens.

The short answer is, they are doing as well as can be expected.

You can see that before the downturn gracious old homes were being sold, to be demolished to make way for apartments.

Gracious apartments? No, unfortunately not. Developers were following their usual pattern of squeezing the biggest, cheapest building possible on a lot, preferably with the fewest possible parking spaces. Street parking in this area, even given the number of vacant buildings, is already at a premium. Traffic is already congested. Honestly I hope the squatters who must surely live in these buildings render them uninhabitable, that permits expire and that whatever eventually goes in is scaled for the area, including the area-standard one-lane streets.

It looks like the greedheads lost a round. For everybody else, it’s just plain tough. Good people went under too. Many businesses located just outside prime locations went under and have not been replaced. Many beautiful restaurants went whole meal times with maybe just half a dozen tables filled. I was delighted to find Greek designers with shops alongside the usual Italian and French ones. I was less delighted to be the only customer in many of them. Whatever remains, such as the church and park above, is beautifully maintained.

I’ll let this healthy little guy stand in for the scrawny, barely weaned kitten I fed one lunchtime, so hungry he forgot he was supposed to be feral. He filled up and finally did run away before I could get too serious about rescuing him.

Above is the temple of Hephestos. Many temples and other monuments seem to have been restored as part of philanthropic and academic archaeology programs.

American money built or rebuilt this stoa for use as a museum. These efforts continue, of course. In general I got the feeling that education, philanthropy and tourist money are keeping people coming and ordinary businesses afloat. Tourist places were pretty busy. The rest were either shuttered or just hanging on.

If you can, consider going to Greece. Consider visiting cities and towns, rather than just rushing to the beach. Have a nice stay and throw some money at the locally owned businesses. They need it and there is still a lot to like.

Do you really want to live in the French countryside?

When I thought of buying a house in the country, this is what I thought it would mean. Dinner parties with friends, lovely table settings featuring flowers and ferms from my own garden. Silver from the States, china from France, what a lovely blend of cultures. Etc.

Wrong. This photo was lifted from a beautiful book, “Tables Fleuries,” probably all rights reserved, so if the photo goes missing, you know I was hit with a threatening letter from an irate lawyer, nattering about copyright protection. I hope it’s not the one I live with, that being precisely his line of work. Then again, maybe that would give me some scope for negotiation.

In my life, dinner parties happen in Paris. Given the scrub that passes for plantings on my balcony, the cramped kitchen and the lack of decent storage, my guests are lucky to get food on the table. And going to a florist for a setup like this, oh, my, it would cost more than the food. Plus I’d have to plate everything — no room for “family style” serving bowls — and I’m too lazy for that.

Here in the country, no dinner parties, so no problem.

Garbage disposal
This is my country life. This is what passes for big excitement around here. Finally, after nearly three years owning this house, things have progressed to the point that the garbage disposer was installed. If you live in the States, you grew up with one of these. Over here, no, it’s unheard of. I had three electricians walk away from this basically DIY-level installation and I got the disposer itself through Amazon, shipped from England. This little baby is what keeps food waste from mummifying in the landfill. It goes down the chute, pauses to be ground up, then off to the water treatment plant. Not only is it wildly convenient, cutting smell in your trash and Destop/Drano bills like you wouldn’t believe, but I think from an ecological perspective, it makes sense, in much the same way as electric cars do. Think about it. Electric cars do create pollution. It’s just that they pollute at the power plant rather than on the road. Presumably it is easier to clean up one power plant than thousands of cars.

So. Here is the deal on living in an unfashionable part of the French countryside. Your friends from out of the area will not visit you. Okay, one or two out of the whole lot, as a once and done kind of thing. All those warnings about people who come and stay and hope for chauffeur and maid service, etc., those must be Brits writing that, given that their friends live a lot closer. Probably over time, their “friend” list shrinks in direct proportion to the number of visits like that. There isn’t much in the way of manufactured entertainment; Netflix is a lifesaver. There aren’t many places to shop, especially if you are looking for English-language books; thank you Amazon for braving the wilds of France.

You’d better be able to entertain yourself. You’d better be your own best friend and in general be self-reliant. Romance, I don’t know, not an easy one; even my handyman met his wife when they both lived in Paris. So maybe bring someone with you. And, though of course you will never be French, no matter what it may eventually say on your passport, I strongly suggest that you find a way to get involved with the locals. 

Learn French. Anything is good but more is better. Then you have to meet people. If you work here or have schoolkids, it’s job done. If you are lucky enough to get involved with someone — at my age, with my level of crabbiness, I figure it’s a miracle that I did — you’re set. Barring that, look at those social groups in your area. They hike and eat and I don’t know what all but they do get you into the community. The chances are excellent that you will be welcomed.

Pick up DIY skills. They will save you a lot of frustration. If you don’t have a hobby, develop one, maybe related to one of those social groups. I knit and garden; it’s a good thing that I enjoy both. If I were here full-time I’d join the local tennis club. Get a dog. Have a plan to move back, should you decide France is not for you. Knowing that you have an option can make it easier to choose to stay when the bureaucracy strikes, or some other maddening calamity befalls you.

I am happy that I have this house and that I am in France, especially now that I have my garbage disposal. But no question, it’s a big adjustment. And of course in the end, wherever you go, there you are. You’ll be thrown back on yourself all the time, much more than in a city. Be sure that’s okay with you.

No, not the holidays…..

I know it’s getting close to Christmas because the stepkids finally got their lists to us. Really, a week before the big day. In their defense, their dad tells me that he was not in the habit of actually buying them gifts, just wrote checks, so the request for a list took them by surprise. This is not our first Christmas but it is the first Christmas for two of the grandkids, so I guess we all need to adjust to the new reality. For the next five years or so, shopping for the little critters will actually be fun: I don’t want to miss a bit of it.

I’m not actually Christian, haven’t ever been, though I was sent to Christian schools, so it’s not such a big day for me. It will be nice to have everyone over, of course, but it always is. They are good eaters, not too picky. That organic, free range, humanely raised capon that I got from The Curtises will be a hit.  I’m not the kind of pagan that does a Solstice ritual, either, so for me these short, cold days are more about the end of the year. I think about what has happened and what is to come.

About a month ago, a friend died. She had been fighting cancer for decades and it finally took her out. I may have just a couple of good friends left from the time before I knew Robert. The rest fell away, one way or another. Usually I don’t think about it but this year, with Margaret’s passing, I have. It will be fine. My life has been marked by radical changes in direction but my real friends manage to tag along and new friends appear — some through this blog.

So what about next year? Well, more of the same. In my case that’s a good thing. I am fortunate to have a comfortable life. 

Now that the house is basically done, I have been wondering what to do with this blog. I have been buying time, in effect, by posting about whatever else catches my attention, mostly the refugees. My gift to you is that I will not post about refugees or other social injustice again. Well, unless something really horrible happens, or really great, like a family moves to the apartment. But I’ll keep things on a personal, “this happened to me,” level. My hunch is that anyone who wants to be is as well informed as I am. You have read the Huff Post article about refugee profiteers. Maybe you subscribe to The New York Times or another good newspaper. You don’t need my Greek chorus crying “Oh no, oh no.” The journalists do it better. I’ll leave them to it.

With Trump coming in, we will all need the occasional, maybe daily, escape. I hope that will sometimes be me. I’ll focus on Jacques and on the house. There is more work to be done here and a garden to be revived. All politics will be local. This corner of the French countryside is lovely, quite unspoiled. I’ll see what I can do about sharing more about it.

If you get a minute, light a candle for Margaret. She was Tibetan Buddhist, actually, in the tradition that does the throat singing. Very cool. But she was raised Catholic and she’ll be okay with a candle.

Jacques Report

 When people see me alone they generally ask one thing: where is Jacques? In this case the answer is, he’s in the house.

By the time I got Jacques, I knew I would have what by California standards is a large garden, plus a couple of barns, AKA rat havens. I believe that dogs need jobs. Whatever they were bred to do, they should be trained to do. So, perfect, Westies are great at killing little rodents. Surely I could just turn him loose and instinct would drive him to catch the little critters and break their disease-carrying necks.

Westies are lively and sociable. He would need exercise, as do I. So why not play with him a little? There is a local agility training group. Blessedly, it has not been taken over by those crazed, OCD border collies. Those dogs are maniacs. They win every time but for the rest of us, when they walk in, the fun walks out. There is still plenty of fun in that agility group, along with every kind of dog imaginable. If we did agility, Jacques could play and socialize. Plus, we could practice at home. Plenty of space, after all.

Apparently Jacques sees things a little differently. Okay, a lot differently. He watches TV. Dog TV is his favorite channel, followed closely by Animal Planet. He knows the tunes for the pet food ads and runs to the set when he hears them. When he sees a dog or cat — he is so over the big game on, say, Nat Geo — he grabs a nearby rug, dog bed, whatever, and thrashes it around. It looks for all the world as if he is wringing its neck. If I get some good video footage, I’ll update this post. Meantime if the barns have rats, they lead untroubled lives. The only little critters Jacques brings in long ago died natural deaths.

And the agility? Hohoho. So far, no way. I thought I would start with weave poles. The first step is to space rhem way far apart: see above. Then you put your dog on a leash and walk through with him. Over time the poles get closer together and the dog goes off-lead and weaves through on his own.

Except, well, no. Jacques isn’t going for it. He sat on the back porch and watched me position the poles. I got out the leash. I could see the look on his little canine face. Leash, back garden, does not compute. I tried to be cheerful. Look, weave poles, what fun! No. Jacques, who loves city walks, was not going to be walked around his own back garden. Was it the terrain? Maybe it was a little rocky there? Jacques went back to the stair landing and watched me reposition the poles. I pulled out the leash. Look, fun! Jacques stood up, turned around and went into the house.

Agility will have to wait for another day.

What was that about old age and treachery?

I guess the French administration is getting serious about recycling. In Paris they do take it seriously. At my old building, everything went in bins in the basement. To me that’s the gold standard; of course, it’s how we did it in California. In the new one we dump bottles at the corner but the rest goes into bins. It’s not bad. At the house, no, I think the trash guys must love their landfills. When it comes to recycling, they take a definite passive-aggressive attitude toward the whole thing.Some kids came out the other day to give me a new bin and instruct me in the art of trash dumping. I’m old. I can’t help but think of men and women just out of college as kids. So there they were, sweet little true believers, trying hard to be polite as they explained to the old Luddite standing in front of them that the trash was just all wrong. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were being conned, that their bosses were the Luddites, plus I was so astonished that my French kind of gave out. Really, I’m not the type to con children into believing in Santa Claus but I’m not the type to disabuse them of the notion, either. So with all that going on in my head, I just listened and waited for them to finish.

So if you live out where the trash guys hate the whole idea of recycling and have decided to make it our problem, not theirs, here is the deal. The rule is, you separate everything yourself. That yellow bin, where you see the paper sticking out? No no no, no paper. At all. Apparently that huge bin — huge by French standards — is to be used exclusively for hard plastic, something that almost never shows up at my house. That’s the bin where I am used to putting the cardboard and paper, just like in Paris. That’s when I realized this was true, Gandhi-style resistance to the whole recycling idea. Who knew that it could be used for evil, as well? The fix was definitely in; I know from Paris, that’s the paper bin, too. You can see that it is sized to handle more than the occasional milk bottle. In fact, in Paris we even put small dead appliances in that thing. Out here, you are on your own with the appliances and the paper goes in a little shopping bag — plastic, of couse, handed to me with ceremony and no sense of irony — that the young woman so kindly provided — smaller than the ones I take to the market. And you dump it every single time that tiny little thing fills up? Do they really expect us to do that?

You will see that some of that paper is cardboard. So. The cardboard is collected and kept where, I don’t know, and eventually taken to the dump. I was given a card, also plastic, so they could track my dump visits. I live nowhere near the dump and am not sure I can find it. By this time I was getting a sense of why “bouche-bée,” mouth agape, I think I spelled it right, was taught and emphasized in my French classes. That was me. Actually, as I get used to life in France, that’s me pretty often. Anyway, finally they get to where their bosses tip their hand: the actual trash.

The black bin — new, plastic, to replace the old plastic one that was in like-new condition — is for actual trash. However no actual trash is to be visible. It is all to be put in plastic, yes, more plastic in this supposedly enviro-friendly project, bags. Ah, so now I understood. Paper, bottles, that old toaster, whatever, just put it in a plastic bag and put it in the black bin. Think of it as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” bin.

We actually have been dumping our bottles right along. We have been surprised that the bin is never even close to full. I’m not surprised any more. Our neighbors are using the black bin system. With all the roadblocks the local trash company put in the way of serious recycling, I can see why.

The heat is on.

 Pump surround

The drill

The trench from the water pump to the house. Yes, it was as cold as it looks.

The entry hall with tile removed. To the right, that dark spot is where the salon floor was completely open to the basement.

View of floor heating cables in salon. The previous floor — mostly post-war tile, not at all sympathetic to the house — was demolished, so that the new finish floor would be at the original level.

After, view of supply pipes

 Last week we transitioned from camping in a construction site to living in a house. It took an insanely long time and cost double what I thought was a generous budget, but for all practical purposes, the house itself is finally done. The reason is simple. The heat went on.

I will recap for those who tuned in late. About three years ago I fell hard for a house that looked like the houses I used to draw in preschool. I was reeling from the death of my adored husband. The only things that were clear was that I had to get out of the old house and I had to find a place where I could be safe. What could be safer than a child’s dream house?

The thing is, since preschool I had studied architecture and historic preservation. I knew that too many people lived in houses like this but really only occupied the kitchen and bedroom, simply because they couldn’t afford to heat the rest. I knew I was in crazy widow mode but wanted, if at all possible, to shift that to crazy like a fox. I spent a lot of time with Google and YouTube, researching options, and came up with an aquathermal heat exchange system: expensive to install but dirt cheap to run. Thus the abundance of process piping. At the time it seemed so simple.

So a hole 70 meters deep was drilled to reach the ground water in my back garden. That first picture shows the enclosure where it pops up. Then they removed a huge tank, still half full of old, cruddy fuel oil, from the basement and in its place installed the pipes you see in the final photo but did not turn on the lights. Believe me, the lights are crucial. 

Every radiator was removed to be cleaned. The ground floor finish floor was ripped up — the few remaining planks of original wooden floor had warped and buckled beyond salvage before I bought the house and the tile, which covered most of the rest, was half a century old and not nice at all. In its place we put heating cables which we covered with stone tiles. The cleaned and painted radiators were replaced upstairs.

I would like to have turned on the heat right then, but no. It turns out that most houses have monophase power but houses with setups like this need triphase power. Who knew? Probably not my electricians, who let the ball drop on that, so we lost about six months while I fought with the electricians and we finally got EDF to change the electric meter. Lucky for me that triphase power — no, I don’t actually know how that works — was available in the street or we might have lost a year.

And finally, about three years to the day after I signed the agreement to buy the house, two capable young men appeared and spent several hours calibrating the whole thing. Just like that, the house became warm.

So what do I think? The best thing is that the stone floor is warm, now. I would not want a stone or tile floor in a cold climate without the underfloor cables, though I believe there are underfloor heating mats you can buy, if you don’t want to go to all this trouble. Supposedly the heated floor will act as a vapor barrier, so I won’t have to worry about rising damp, frozen pipes and various other ills that befall stone houses.

It took a few days for the heat to penetrate the house. Now we are shutting down or shutting off radiators because the house has become too warm. It may be that the stone floor will be almost enough to heat the whole house. We turned down the thermostat. So balancing this system is a work in progress but the bottom line is that it seems to be using less power than expected. As a side benefit, the system operates the water heaters, too.

I do not yet know what the operating cost will be. I was told it had a ten-year payback period. This explains why developers stay away from such systems; it is not the kind of thing most people will pay extra for. I gambled that I would live ten more years, still be in the house that long and that power costs would increase, thus reducing my payback period.

I believe it is good for the planet, as it is a nonpolluting heat source. Ground water is piped into the heat extractor and, without ever leaving the pipes, the magic happens and the water is piped back to the source. It enables me to occupy my entire house, which I love. Plus, if the house does stay mildew-free, if it does eliminate spalling on the exterior, that’s all good and saves even more money.

So that’s heating sorted. Now I’m hoping solar panels and wind turbines become more efficient, so I can move onto power generation.

Refugee Update

So he’s going to build a wall and Mexico’s going to pay for it. Okay Don, good luck with that.

I had been meaning to write about this whole refugee thing. I had been working it over in my mind, trying to get from a long, rambling reflection on the whole issue to something that would be interesting to someone other than me. But it’s pretty hard to think about it right now.

So I’ll save you from my memories of a visit to Turkey where I came into contact with a refugee or two and with people who were trying to house their relatives who happened to be Syrian and were finding their houses full to bursting. Well, for the moment: you may hear about it later.

Right now it’s my own friends and family who are looking for asylum. I may well need that apartment for people I have known for years. I understand the Canadian immigration web site crashed last night. Interesting times.

So, refugees in France. You are steered to France Terre d’Asile, a private group that gets government funding. Those guys are keeping a close watch on their refugees, not wanting them to escape into the wild. I think that’s how they see my apartment, which I think is why they have not responded to my offers of housing here at the house. In Paris the group is a little more organized. They have you fill in a questionnaire that is heavy on inquiries about how willing and capable you are of teaching French. Again, the focus is on keeping the refugees well enclosed within the bureaucratic system. That I could teach English, well, no, I think they see that as counterproductive.

Also, though you will see many photos and hear many stories about families, the overwhelming number of refugees are men in their twenties and thirties. I had been thinking they might want to filter out a family or a gay couple or somebody that really needed to get out of the camps. Either they are just overwhelmed or the needs of the bureaucracy are being placed before the needs of kids who really shouldn’t be sleeping in a tent under a Metro line. I don’t know. 

Anyway, there may well be refugees at my house, in the little attached apartment. My contractor has been after me to put in another apartment or three in the barn. I have been saying no but now I’m not sure. Let’s see what comes in the email.

Jacques Report

Jacques isn’t looking too good. Believe me, this is not his normal. I think he’s a little subdued because we went to the new vet today. I think maybe his rabies shot has him a little down. Or maybe he just misses his old vet.

His first vet was great fun, stylish, charming and terrific with Jacques. She was, no question, the Paris vet from Central Casting. I’d have gone to her forever but we moved halfway across town, so that was that. This new vet is no fun at all: no style, nothing that would pass for charm but he knows his stuff and is a bit of a health nut. I’m pretty lax, so I need to surround myself with maniacs, just to keep me more or less on track.

It turns out that Jacques is allergic to Paris pollution. I start coughing every time we pull into town, so I can well believe it. “See that red hair in these paws? Does he ever chew on them? Yep, thought so. Look at these red ears. What are you feeding him?” I copped to the Orijen, thinking that might keep me from having to admit that Jacques would really rather live on table scraps, and whose fault is that??? Orijen is a Canadian brand that features no corn and all healthy ingredients. Well, that’s not good enough. Take that all you folks who laughed when you read the bag and suggested that maybe, just maybe, I was going a bit overboard. No, wrong, we were both wrong. Apparently Jacques needs either Orijen Six Fish, which he hates, or hypoallergenic kibble. I was sent home with samples. I think he’s really going to hate that stuff. After all the Brie we have been feeding him? It’s going to be a difficult transition.

New Vet is a big believer in organic ingredients. Jacques also has some oil that I put between his shoulder blades, where it is absorbed, in much the same way that one applies Advantix. It smells good. I guess it’s good for his skin. Can’t hurt. We can do this for a while.

Or, apparently, we could move to the country. New Vet allowed as how the Vendee was pretty clean. It’s a thought.

Accompanying again

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I fell on a slippery tile floor. There were no serious injuries but the pain and bruises, oh my. Try not to do that, okay?

Fortunately this did not happen until after my birthday trip to La Scala, a conference add-on. Someone got many points for managing to get those tickets. Many. We saw a new production of Turn of the Screw featuring my old favorite, Ian Bostridge. I am trying not to think about what a short plane ride it is between Paris and Milan. Paris has opera too, after all.

So then I came home and fell in my own kitchen. Bare feet, slippery floor. Traumatic. It took much codeine to get me on the plane to St. Petersburg but I managed to fulfil my accompanying person duties. Okay, I skipped out on the receptions, but the Hermitage was calling to me. I live 20 minutes from the Louvre, not a bad museum, as these things go. I could still see checking into a hotel just across from the Hermitage and visiting every day for a week. It stretches over a few huge buildings and is a bit of a rabbit warren but, as you can see, quite an elegant one. The paintings we ignored to keep pace with our guide’s highlights tour would be treasures in most other museums.

No, this is not me trying not to think about how much it will hurt when I try to get up. This is some other lady in Lisbon. I was about accompanied out by this time but at least I could get by on aspirin. Lisbon was new to me. It’s a lovely city with fantastic weather. I gather there are severe financial troubles in Portugal but at least people aren’t cold. I only wish we had had time for fado.

There was enough going on in the last several weeks for several posts but, sorry, I spent most of the time on drugs. I can’t recommend it, not the fall, not the drugs. I’m in the PTSD phase — I actually have dreams where I slip, though I wake up before I land — so I should be able to get back on topic soon. My little country house might be developing into a full-blown country life. If things pan out, I’ll be meeting some interesting people.

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.

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. 

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.