French Country

My life in France is not what I expected.


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.


Voting in France

Well. Today is the first round of the French Presidential election. I might as well tell you up front that we’re a Macron household, that being the first question I’d be asking. No point in trying to influence you, dear reader; I think my only eligible-to-vote French follower just did. Besides, we were a Clinton household and look how much good that did. But look at this poster. They are put up on government-provided boards all over the area covered by the election. I think mostly they serve as a chance for defacement in fairly predictable ways. You see Hitler mustaches,  clown noses, etc. Compared to the rest, Macron got fairly respectful treatment.

This is the polling place, a kindergarten or preschool. Jacques and I had to wait outside. I don’t know the policy on Americans but there are definitely no dogs allowed beyond that door. It’s a charming building but honestly, there is not much in the way of a playground. A little hopscotch here, a slide over there and that’s it. I used to marvel at how totally wild kids went in the park playgrounds after school. Now I understand.

I also understand how they count the ballots so quickly. This is how it works. Proving eligibility is even harder than in some States. You need an ID plus a Carte Electorale, though I guess you don’t absolutely need the Carte Electorale. You show those to the poll worker and pick up as many of those little slips as you like. You see, they vote on only one thing at a time. As far as I know they have no ballot measures, no votes for judges and the like, nothing. It’s strictly one question each time. Then it’s into the little curtained booth, very like those in the States. You put the slip of your choice into the envelope, toss the rest and head to a second table. There you sign the book, just like the States, and deposit your envelope. Then you wait and see. There is just the one item, so it doesn’t take long. About an hour after the polls close, we’ll have a result.


New Doors!

Have I shown you this? I am only now getting over it. One night I fell asleep to the sound of raindrops on the roof. Nice to have a sound roof, I thought, and that was that.

Then in the morning I awoke to this. The roof was sound but the doors were not. This was the result, a major leak, the result of no weatherstripping whatsoever. Oh, oops, neither architect nor contractor thought about the doors, not that it would require much thought. One good storm during the two years of construction might have tipped them off, don’t you think?

Okay, okay, I’m getting over this, right? So, no way was I going to ask my contractor to do the weatherstripping. The fact that he wanted to build completely new doors suggested that any such thing would never be right. Besides, I have spent enough time here to realize that with the wind, the rain, the occasional freeze, wood is not the best solution for an exterior surface. Plus, I wanted new doors now, not a zillion years in the future.

Google to the rescue. I found the amazing maitres ouvriers, master builders to the likes of you and me, Reignoux Creations. They do metalwork that is appropriate for historic buildings. I’m sure I’ve written about them before. Anyway, I drove out to their place and saw the workshop. I looked through a catalogue and selected a pattern, which I tweaked. They sent a design drawing, which I approved, and we set an installation date. Right on schedule — that in itself is a nice change — the guys showed up. They ripped out the old doors — and they’ll none of them be missed — and put in new ones. When they were finished, there was just the slightest scratch to the paint which, if I provide a can of my crazy fussy Little Greene paint, they will repair for me.

The cash is not flowing, unfortunately, so I’ll have to save up to do every single door but I can assure you, every single door is on the “to do” list. Here is the door in the kitchen. On the right, through the window, you can see the new marquise, or is it marquis, that shelters the utility room door. More on that later.



The other day I took Jacques to Fontenay for a haircut, which gave me a couple of hours to wander about. It’s a beautiful town, with buildings from the early Middle Ages, though most of the historic center dates from the Renaissance. At one time this was an important city: on the ocean, a regional capitol, a center of agriculture and commerce. That is so over. Unfortunately it seems not to have found a new reason for being. Seriously the place above should be the coolest cafe/coffee house on earth, but no, even if one were to open, there are no customers.

As you can see they are working the Renaissance angle, just not to much effect. Really, a multiplex in the heart of the historic city, and a film festival that seems basically intended to introduce school kids to the classics.

Misguided multiplex notwithstanding, there remains plenty of interesting historic building fabric. This place was taken over by an architect who filled his windows with flat-roofed greenfield buildings, the absolute opposite of what towns like Fontenay need.

Maybe Monuments Historiques are part of the problem. I somehow doubt that I would want to be held to a serious restoration of a commercial investment building in a moribund neighborhood. Something about it not ever penciling might get to me. That said, it’s easy to see why MH would want to see this area treated right.

The empty storefronts are disguised by murals, such as this poignant evocation of the bookstore of my dreams. Notice how weathered the paint is. We could be dreaming a long time.

It’s a beautiful town, though, and Jacques got a great haircut. I’ll be looking for more reasons to go back as often as possible.


Third spring in France

I have noticed how quickly I become picky and dissatisfied. My first spring here, I was fresh from drought-stricken California, amazed at and delighted by the drifts of daffodils that just popped up out of nowhere, with no supplemental irrigation. In this, my third spring here, eh, daffodils, whatever. Just King Als. I need to order some other varieties.  And they were thrashed by the recent storms. I brought in a few; even shredded ones brighten a cloudy day. But they don’t thrill me like they used to.

I spent part of the morning at the prefecture, renewing my residence permit. My first year I was so pleased that I had more or less gamed the system. Folks in Paris dread this process, thanks to horrible waits, rude staff, arbitrary rules and all. Out here, the appointments happen spot on time and there is no hassle. Believe me, I am still pleased that I don’t renew my titre de séjour in Paris but why wasn’t the guy more friendly? I remember them being generally friendly. My friends have been teasing me, saying now that Trump is president, maybe I should apply for refugee status. This guy did not look to be in the mood for a joke, so I let it go. Still no hassle, for which I am still grateful. But where is that “welcome to France” vibe that I got used to? Does he think I voted for Trump? If so, maybe the joke would have gone well, after all.

Some things do still please me. All is not lost. One morning a couple of months ago I awoke to this little flood in my entry hall. My contractor did how much work without ever mentioning that oh, guess what, the front doors leaked like a sieve? How much? Over how many years? And he didn’t so much as throw in a little weatherstripping? So the floor was wet but I was steaming. Out with the old contractor, in with the new. Google to the rescue. The new guys are here today replacing these doors, sacred original fabric be damned. I think my new doors will withstand a hurricane. I hope never to find out.


Antiques Fair: Foire de Chatou

Yesterday Jacques and I had a little too much fun. We went to an antiques fair just outside Paris, the Foire de Chatou. I spent the day picking through the great selection of reasonably-priced stuff for the house. Jacques spent the day checking out the many other dogs and the food on offer. You can see him in the photo above, scanning for dogs. One of the best things about this particular fair is that they make a point of offering good food of all kinds. So, oysters and chablis for lunch, a couple of things to figure out how to get home, what’s not to like.

Here’s the little guy in front of a table that I got to use as a dining table in the tiny apartment attached to the house. Now I’m thinking maybe the finishes might not take the kind of abuse heaped onto a dining table, so we shall see, but it will be nice somewhere. Really,  bottom line, antiques fairs and auctions are all about the hunt. After all, once your place is filled with great finds, you can’t really shop any more. I believe this particular fair happens twice a year. I plan to be very picky, so that Jacques and I will have years of visits to look forward to.