French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


Baby birds of the year, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Algae, too much algae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


Birthday Thoughts: happy 81st, wherever you are

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

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

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


Garden Triage

I’m sure the contractors will return but for the moment they are gone. And oh, look what a mess they left in what used to be a pretty front garden.

As I have mentioned before, I bought a stone tent: spalling crépi, dodgy wiring and plumbing, no insulation but plenty of mildew. Folks had died in all the bedrooms and down in the dining room, too, though probably not from the food. The house was sad and in need of rescue. The garden looked to be in better shape. Then it turned out that it wasn’t. As the family ran out of money, they cut corners on maintenance. Improper pruning caused three stunning chestnuts to rot, to the point that they were soon going to fall right over. They had to go. Other trees had not been pruned at all. Bulbs were in desperate need of division. Rose bushes had become spindly. Three years of contractor parking and general abuse basically finished the place off.

This is the first week I have really had the place to myself. I did some shifting of stuff inside. Then it dawned on me; it was finally safe to do a little gardening.

I have a beautiful garden plan with no money to implement it. I have more weeds than plants worth keeping. Until the finances recover, I have one real option: garden triage.

So this is what I am doing. I tackle one little thing at a time. I do that and I don’t worry about what is not done. There is no point. Here I have a planter with thyme that survived the winter. So I added a little more thyme and added a few pelargoniums. I’m hoping the pelargoniums are tough, too, and don’t need a whole lot of water.

I am wildly grateful for anything that survives my style of gardening. Back when I lived in Los Angeles I would search the Western Garden Book for anything that was said to be both invasive and drought-tolerant. Those were my plants. This salvia is one of them and I am glad to have found it here in France. It has gone almost a year with no water, pouring rain, light frost, heat waves and near-constant shade, when it should be in full sun. It is not only alive, it’s in bloom. I love this stuff.

Back in December I thought the contractors would leave in a month or so. The city wants to sell me a strip of land and said they would expedite the escrow; I’d have the property by the end of the year. I believed them. Silly me. So here I am with trees and rose bushes that have intended homes and there is nothing I can do about it. Julien rigged up a temporary planter and we’re hoping they make it until the next bare root season. Most of the trees look a little dubious but this apple, Reine de Reinette, is actually setting fruit. I can’t wait to taste it.

The city approached me about buying that land because it is an attractive nuisance, a partly hidden area where kids like to party. They asked me to put in a wall. I thought yeah, and maybe a barrier hedge, too. So, David Austin to the rescue. The rose on the right is a rugosa, notoriously tough and just look that those thorns. That is a serious barrier. The one on the left is called Queen of Sweden and is earmarked for the planter along the front of the house.

Of course I pay close attention to anything that survived all this abuse and neglect. This bush not only grows with no encouragement whatsoever, it flowers for a month or two and is taking over its corner of the garden. May it live long and prosper.

My favorite discovery of this whole process is that deadheading roses is a meditative experience. If you can protect your knees, weeding is, too. I could learn to like gardening. Faced as I am with an acre of weeds, that’s good.


Locavores in Paris

I have been sick. It’s nothing serious, laryngitis followed by what, I don’t know, maybe just a pollen allergy. Anyway I have had barely enough energy to take Jacques around the block. Actually going shopping has been out of the question but I can still tap the screen of an iPad. Thus I found myself looking for delivered groceries that I actually wanted to eat.

I got spoiled living in San Francisco, shopping at the farmers’ markets or at Monterey Market in Berkeley. Of course the food was seasonal, locally grown and organic — or at least I always had the option of organic. Of course. My house is in an agricultural area, so the twice-a-week market is first rate. In Paris, if I want first-rate, I have had to eat out. Every time I see a TV show with a chef in his personal potager I think well yes, he must have been driven by desperation to do this. But now, thanks to my bedridden condition, I may have found the secret to finding good ingredients in Paris.

A few weeks ago I found “La Ruche Qui Dit Oui!,” the beehive, though maybe here they mean that in the sense of a collective, that says yes. I like them and they put out an entertaining newsletter. You put in your order. At the appointed time you go to a nearby location — in my case the lobby of a movie theater — and pick it up. Everything is seasonal, locally grown and organic. The staff is really nice. They have a tie-in with Bon Marché, of all things, so clearly they are well-connected. I got a beeswax-based hand cream that would shame Bert to no end. However the quality of the produce, well, not great. I’ve had better. Maybe I got them on a bad day. I’ll doubtless give them another chance, if only to get more hand cream. Besides, as I say, I’m not going anywhere right now. For food right now, delivered to the door, I had to look elsewhere.

I tried Auchan. I needed soap and how bad could the produce be? Well. If I were a food photographer, I would shop at Auchan. Everything came perfectly packaged and looking fabulous. Everything had the texture and flavor of cardboard. I don’t know how food can look so plump and gorgeous and ripe, while tasting like nothing. I do like the web site. I’ll go back but I’ll stick to the soap.

To my great good fortune, I found a winner. Le Comptoir Local is where I bought the confiture in the photo. They check the local, organic and small producers boxes, of course. Those labels look like they were purchased from Etsy, which I love. Overall, the quality was a little higher than that offered by the Ruche. The vibe of the packaging and handling was a little more professional. The food was excellent. I am surprised that only one of those jars is empty. The pear spread has cocoa in it; my morning oatmeal has never tasted so good. I don’t like marmalade but I have been reading Helena Attlee’s book, “The Land Where Lemons Grow.” She makes you want everything citrus so okay, I ordered some. I’ll order more, no question. It plays around in your mouth, bouncing from sweet to tart to something in between, then bounces some more. I’ll have to put some in food, some time. I still dislike industrial marmalade but Trois Agrumes has a permanent welcome at my house.

If you rent an apartment when you visit Paris, you could do far worse than to order from the Comptoir. They take a couple of days to deliver your order and I think they give you a choice of days and times. Order while you are still wherever you are coming from. Pick that first jet-lagged morning for delivery — come on, you know you want to sleep in — and wait for the goodness that is to come your way. Tell yourself you are allowing Paris to come to you.