After a drought, let there be a flood. Well actually not. In reality neither is an appealing option but I use the metaphor to witness the fact that I seem to be pedalling a rather large volume of twaddle this week. Two days on the trot after a post last Tuesday AND another on Saturday is unheard of chez Half Baked.
I have decided that Tuesdays for the foreseeable will be devoted to Taste. This will mostly be something edible, but some weeks it might be something beautiful. Always with the caveat that taste is entirely subjective. I do love cooking, I do love tinkering with interiors. I have had a food shop in my chaotically careening life and I have had a house-rescuing business for the desperate to sell and needing a budget savvy person to help them turn their sows ear into a silk purse. And right now, as seems to be a constant theme in my life, we are renovating our home. Actually strictly speaking two houses – the one in France which will again take centre stage when I resume the Coup de Coeur series and the one we live in, here in Massachusetts. Positively the potential for a frisson-making wave of excitement, no?
Whatever it is you can be sure it will eventually form an eclectic whole because I do not have a set taste either in food or in surroundings. I am influenced by many cultures and by many experiences. But there is one absolute. Life forced me to be frugal for a very long time and I am fortunate for it. The habits are ingrained and I am the better for it. So the food we make is not extravagant. I say we, because some of the delights I intend to entice you with are the work of HB² himself.
I have long expounded the good sense in eating food that is reared or grown as close to the ground I walk on as possible. I recently discovered when strolling back to my husband’s office after lunch with a table full of boffins and mentioned my theory to one of them, that I am defined as a locavore. I had no idea. I guess everything has a label in this hashtag day and age. Perfect I am not and here and now I do my best to adhere to my principles but I must admit that I do buy things that have been flown or trucked a pretty substantial distance to tickle my palate. When we eventually settle into retirement and a forever home, we intend to grow as much as we can, raise chickens and ducks and geese for their eggs and possibly sheep and goats for their milk so we can make cheese. HB² will have some vines and we will make some wine. For this reason we have to survive several years …. vines are not viable for a minimum of three years and most wine-makers will tell you that white varieties need five years and the reds seven. And a pig. The Brains thinks I am joking but there will be a pig. And that pig will never be eaten. Actually, when he was newly courting me and met my eldest daughter for the first time, she said to him ‘if you want to win mummy, forget diamonds and flowers. Get her a pig’. She was deadly serious. That’s the dream. For the moment we are here and after a rather faltering start I am ready to embrace all that this place offers. Which is much.
So there you have it. Let the feast commence. Next week … for now I need a lie down after this flurry of activity. And tomorrow, there’s even more!!
PS, the essential PS: The title is from Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit ‘Livin’ The Vida Loca’ which is an appalling attempt to link to my discovery that I identify as a locavore. Dreadful, no?
Here’s the man himself enthusiastically recanting the story of the devil-red lipped temptress who who forcibly enticed him to ‘live the crazy life’ which is the correct translation of the title. Absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the script. Poetic licence, please.
Surprise! Surprise! It’s Monday and I am keeping the promise I made a couple of weeks ago to devote each start of the week day to bringing you stories of our quite possibly never ending renovation project in le Cantal deep in la vraie France profonde. Until I moved to the US to spend the whole of 2016 this had been an occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
Actually, it’s no surprise because I do always keep my promises and I never ever say anything I don’t mean. Voilà! This tiny billet-doux is simply an introduction to the continued saga. For the rest of the week I will post a previous installment a day, bringing us neatly to next Monday when I can pick up the reins and relight the fire which I know must be burning with heated anticipation in your bellies at the thought of this cornucopia of delight even before the Christmas fun frolics and fantastic festival of over-indulgence really starts. Just call me a truly big-hearted girl as I scatter my glitter freely and seemingly without restraint.
Rules of engagement …. this is NOT a renovation blog. Although I have renovated several old properties including an Art Deco flat in south west London, a 17th Century cottage with Georgian facade in Oxfordshire, a 19th century village shop, a Victorian farmhouse in South West Ireland and, my personal triumph, a 1950 ex-council house which I sold to a couple who were disappointed that I had replaced the windows, so convinced were they that they were buying a vintage farm cottage. Trust me the original metal cased local authority standard issue frames were not pretty and, have further faith, the Georgian-bar, double glazed lovelies were not only elegant but equally importantly stopped the rampant leakage of heat from every aperture. There is a crucial link between all those projects and the jobs I later undertook when running my own business helping others maximise the potential of their property for sale. I have worked always with budgets ranging from microscopic to frankly non-existent. So non-existent, in fact, were the finances of most of my clients that I failed to follow through on collecting my own fees. I felt their pain you see, when the sale of their home was prompted, as it so often is, by one of the fabled real estate ‘Three D’s’ – Divorce, Death, Debt. They smiled, I starved … it’s a theme in my life.
The same funding method applies to our place in Southern France. It is a labour of love and sweat and pain and tears and virtually no money and so far we have been at it for more than three years. Apart from a pot of gold which is basically … well basically just a pot. Peer closely into this vessel and you will see cobwebs, dust, possibly even fossilized spiders and other unidentified creatures and once bobbish bits, but you will spy not so much as a farthing in hard cash and no flexible plastic friend either. Apart from this entirely useless and not even decorative receptacle, there is the issue of HB² – this is ‘The Husband with Two Brains. My husband for the avoidance of doubt. He and his brains are mostly to be found flitting all over the planet doing oversized brain things with astrophysics and radio-astronomy but he’s a rare sighting in France. Those who have experienced trying to undertake a project that then reveals itself to be an increasingly major spiraling upwards to a breathtakingly vast project, from afar with no budget to pay others, will surely sympathise. Of course, I am in France and originally and until this year the apartment we rented was 2 hours North of the house. Now I live in Grenoble and I am more like 6 or 7 hours East. That and the fact that there are things that I am simply not physcially strong enough to sensibly tackle. I’m always looking for sneaky tricks to make myself a littler slenderer but squished by falling masonory is a little extreme, I rather feel. It means that I only do the things I can do and presently I visit about once every 5 weeks. There is a reason for the cadence. If you are good and behave very very (and indeed very) well, I might be persuaded to share the logic.
So here’s the nub. I’m not here to advise or pose as an expert. What I do is tell stories and the Marcolès stories are intended above all things to be entertaining. As you read the stories, you need to bear in mind that I am writing retrospectively … that we agreed to buy La Maison Carrée (The Square House) in 2013 but didn’t take ownership for a year and it was a further 9 months before we got the keys; that the house is considered the jewel of a very tiny and perfectly formed medieval ‘city’ due to its being the oldest building in town and that we consider ourselves custodians of it for our lifetime.. By the way, technically for reasons I may explain in a post it is a City not a Village despite having a head-count of less than 500 inhabitants. For us the town and their sensibilities are paramount. Is it fay to feel that we were meant to have this house? Crucially considering that we bought it even though it sits literally plumb centre of the cité when our natural habitat, given our collective inner hermit would be an uninhabited island or at the very least the middle of entirely no-where, high up in the elements where you feel nature and have no choice but to go with her …. I jest. Sort of. No really, I’m joking. I think. Actually, face facts, I am decidedly not joking.
I SO enjoy your comments and take gently delivered and kindly meant advice well and to heart so please do join in and spritz the commentary with your own wisdom and experience but don’t expect me to be the very brilliant Gill at Côte et Campagne who IS an expert and is renovating on a tiny to nonexistent budget and who, with the stoic, good-natured support of her partner Trev has achieved nothing short of a miracle of a rescue of a small village house. Gill is an artist by training and it shows, Trev has taught himself to be a true artisan with all things wood. Take a look …. they humble me. They also renovate and repurpose furniture and other things …. I dream of the day when I am ready to go into a buying spree of frenzied proportions in their shop. Be still my frantically beating heart.
And on that note … overcome with my own ability to create such gleaming lustre as I sprinkle my fairy dust and strive to make the world a shinier place, I will leave you to prepare yourselves for my bounteous gift of 6 episodes in 6 days of ‘Coup de Couer’ – the story of a couple driven by love, insanity and absolute and mostly unswerving certainty that it truly and really WILL be beautiful. Eventually.
A demain mes amies ….
PS: The title is a Cilla Black Song ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ …. the aforementioned Gill will understand why I picked Cilla. Apart from the reason that must be hers to share, she (Gill, not the late and hugely lamented Cilla) and I share a notion that houses have spirits, souls if you will, and sometimes those pesky buildings are reluctant to cooperate – in fact sometimes they can be downright unhelpful and even entirely resistant to the tender efforts of well-meaning rescuers. Thoroughly stubborn and suspicious …. these are not love-affairs for the light-hearted, in fact sometimes one feels that the house would rather lie and decay into the ground than accept the attentions of it’s enthusiastically amorous new owners …. here’s Cilla at her finest as your bonus:
Anyone Who Hard A Heart
Anyone who ever loved, could look at me And know that I love you Anyone who ever dreamed, could look at me And know I dream of you Knowing I love you so Anyone who had a heart Would take me in his arms and love me, too You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me, Like you hurt me and be so untrue What am I to do
Every time you go away, I always say This time it’s goodbye, dear Loving you the way I do I take you back, without you I’d die dear Knowing I love you so Anyone who had a heart Would take me in his arms and love me, too You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me, Like you hurt me and be so untrue What am I to do
Knowing I love you so Anyone who had a heart Would take me in his arms and love me, too You couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me, Like you hurt me and be so untrue Anyone who had a heart would love me too Anyone who had a heart would surely Take me in his arms and always love me Why won’t y
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
The previous owner of the house was a photographer of some talent. He could make the silkiest purse out of a lady pigs ear, of this I am certain. When we looked at his wonderful images on the numerous websites that carried Maison Carrée to her adoring public eager to stay for a few days and sample the delights of his culinary skill as well as the comfortable and welcoming interior she offered, we never once worried about wall coverings. Downstairs was pristine white and upstairs had some sort of nice neutrally wallpaper. When we arrived to view what turned out to be the Wreck of the Hesperus, one of the stand-out moments was the realisation of what that nice neutrally wallpaper actually was. Not wallpaper in fact. Not fabric. Nothing so outré for our Monsieur. Nay, nay and thrice I say nay … he’d gone a whole new road – a positive Route Nationale, a Motorway, an Interstate Highway. I can imagine the sprightly conversation he had with himself inside his head:
‘What shall I cover the upstairs walls with?’
‘How about floor, old chap ..?’
‘You genius! Floor! Of course – floor is the way forward for these walls. And shall we perchance wallpaper the floor?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Obviously not. That is an absurd notion’.
And so it was. Laminate clip together floor. But not just any laminate clip-together floor. Oh no! This was laminate clip-together bargain basement, below economy starter range floor. The floor that the salesman guides you too first before pointing out that absolutely anything at all that you choose from here will be better, even spending tuppence halfpenny more and thus securing himself an extra portion of fries on the commission he earns. That sort of laminate clip-together floor. And it had been slathered all over the walls. Look closely at the top picture …. do you see what I see?
Having done as bidden by the kind M. Terminateur so that his crew could busy themselves ridding our roof of those pesky vrillettes we occupied ourselves as best we could, whenever we could (remember it’s a four hour round trip from North West to South West tip of le Cantal on winding backroads descending and scaling deep gorges and negotiating tight épingles (épingles de cheveux being hairpins) and though I am presently living in the land of mahusive distances and ludicrously cheap fuel, I honestly think it’s a stretch for a daily commute that you aren’t getting paid for. I was polishing the staircase for entertainment one day when there was a thunderous crack followed by a thud, and a whisper later, a riotous crash. I dropped my bottle of special wood oil and rushed up the stairs (killing the chances of the oil drying to a gratifying sheen in the process) to find HB² looking frankly irritatingly smug. He had taken a crowbar and jemmied a generous sliver of the offending floor from the wall and underneath looked rather interesting.
He proceeded to slice his way through both the front bedrooms and the back one – the one with it’s cleverly placed shower delivering to a spontaneous auditorium at the back of the house for the ladies of the village, should he decide to give of his famed full frontal peep show once more. I’m considering selling tickets if we get desperate enough that we need extra funds. By lunchtime the walls were fully delaminated and revealing the secrets of their pre-veneered days. My nerves were in shreds because this stuff was razor sharp and entirely rigid. Two Brains clearly should have been wearing a helmet but instead favoured an interesting series of movements that echoed accurately St Vitus Dance to avoid being brained or scalped by the merest slither of a second. We had a car full of laminate to take to the lovely man at the déchètterie with the enviable view. After two p.m. Obviously. This is rural France and everything stops for lunch. For two hours. It took multiple trips in Franck our trusty unalluring but reasonably priced car and a deep and meaningful conversation to ascertain whether this vile material computes as wood. It doesn’t. It is to be viewed in the same way as a carnivore regards nut cutlets. It simply is not meat. Nor indeed wood.
Do you see what I see ….? It’s Franck skulking sneakily waiting for his next load of laminated booty
Meanwhile back at the ranch The Brains was eulogising over what had been uncovered. Previously we had paid scant attention to the one unplastered wall on the stairwell merely having a cursory discussion over whether we should give it too a smooth finish. But in that deluge of lethal laminate everything changed. It was akin to the moment in Carl Sagan’s Contact when Jodie Foster sees the universe with fresh eyes from a beach somewhere out ‘there’ that she has landed on after being lunged through space at a squillion miles an hour. In the comedy shower-closet bedroom are exposed the same glorious planks, cut by someone with an eye for rigidly even lines that rivals my mother’s. By way of explanation – my mother is a wonderful letter writer but has always shunned the slip of lined paper popped under the page to guide the pen evenly approach and consequently, although she commences elegantly (even now in her mid-eighties) she rapidly starts to wander at an angle so that by the time she reaches the bottom of the page she is writing at a 45° slope. It’s a foible that no-one ever mentions, but all notice. These walls were clearly made by a kindred charpentiere. They are of tongue-in-groove construction, about 9″-10″ wide and slender. They slot together very well sporting the odd large flat headed nail to complete the perfectly rustic and rather naïve effect.
And still the excitement continued. The layout of the house, and we had assumed the original layout, was a small landing with doors at right angles to one another. One into a bedroom with a square double doorframe through to a further room and the other into Peeping Tom’s Joy – the room with the freestanding shower in front of the window. But taking the cladding off the walls had revealed a door from PTJ into the back bedroom. This poses new questions about how we lay out the upstairs. Our thought process is fluid and a teeny bit erratic so this revalation just adds a zesty new spritz to the operation.
On the other side of the wall were further, piquant delights – loose hessian overlaid with several layers of historic wallpaper. A couple of florals, a groovy grey linear embossed which immediately took me back to the dull horrors of my childhood and my favourite, a sort of squarial pattern each square containing a picture – a flowerhead here, a windmill there, there again a boat, and even the makings of a medieval town. I wonder about the person lying in bed looking at the pictures – I wonder if they had ever travelled from Marcolès and whether they dreamed of getting on that boat and searching for treasures in far-off lands. In fact we know that a very tall Russian lady lived in the house for decades last century – maybe she was put in a boat to cross the sea or maybe her journey escaping White Russia as a small child was overland. Either way it must have been arduous, gruelling and not a little frightening.
I am reminded of another house long ago and far away in England. The girls and I lived in the grounds of the, by then closed, only Jewish Public School in the country (US readers Public School obscurely means Private School in England). Carmel College. There was a house called ‘Wall House’ which was perfectly invisible except for a front door with a letter box. In it lived a very very grand Russian lady of advancing years who wore astonishing velvet and brocade ensembles which cascaded to her ankles and conjured up vivid reminders of an age so bygone that I never knew it. She invited me to take tea. I was seated on a glamorous and very upright silk upholstered chair. She called out in Russian and clapped her jewelled hands smartly whereupon and instantly in the corner of the room a shabby bundle of cloth shifted revealing a remarkably decrepit and faintly moth-eaten man. He bowed and moved into the kitchen from whence he returned after a pause during which she and I continued a rather formal and resolutely non-probing conversation, bearing a silver tray complete with very ornate fine porcelain teapot and guilded and delicately painted teacups with their dainty matching plates on which were slices of terrifically inebriated fruit cake. He served us sombrely and then went back to his corner, disappearing like the Psammead into his quicksand of sheets. I suppose he had been with her all his life. The world is full of surprises and some of them are quite uncomfortable.
Anyhow, there was a statuesque Russian lady for many years in Marcolès. Hold that thought. Particularly the height. Because the other curiosity hidden behind the disgusting veneer is a series of oval holes. You might remember there is one that casts down on the stairwell from the privy giving it an air of anything but privacy. But there are more. Some have been boarded over and some stuffed with newspaper. But why? They are reminiscent of those holes you stick your head through on an English Pier and have your photo taken as a pin-up girl in an eye popping bikini or a muscle-bound man in striped bathers. The odd thing is the height of them. If you wanted to stick your head through them you would have to be a VERY lanky lady indeed. I imagine they were crude internal portholes to let some light into the middle of the house but I rather like the image of a Frenchman on stilts, complete with compulsary moustache peering through various cut-out holes just for laughs.
PS: When I arrived back after taking the very last load of the offending clip-together laminate flooring to the dump (and we have kept a plank as a grim reminder of the way it was) the elderly couple opposite were arriving back from a toddle out. They meandered across the street and asked me how it was going. Oh, really good I regailed them. We’re progressing well with the clear out of all the dreadful things – can you imagine, he had cheap laminate flooring on the walls. Lunacy – he was clearly mad. They nodded in that slightly absent way that polite people have and took their leave. As they opened their front door, I swear I could see laminate flooring on …. the walls. Just another oh bugger moment and a further reminder to self to keep thy big mouth shut.
The bonus is entirely to indulge my mother and the child-me that she raised – she used to play Johnny Mathis to us on the gramaphone in the drawing room on rainy days amongst so many other 45s of Unicorns and Doctor Kildaire, Nellie the Elephant and Dusty Springfield and Ferry Cross the Mersey and Doris Day, as we puzzled our puzzles, stuck our fuzzy felt and honed the skills required for taking tea with grand ancient Russian ladies by making our own tea party for the teddy bears. Those halcyon days when I didn’t question her lack of ability to keep a straight line when writing her comments on my report cards or the milk order because she was just simply ‘My Mummy’ ….
If you enjoyed this you might like to catch up on previous installments by typing Coup de Coeur into the search box in the side bar. The more the merrier at this party – so much more fun that way.
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France …..
And so it came to pass that we had an almost cleaned out interior. One little thing kept bugging me, though. As hard as I tried, the floorboards in the grenier just refused to be clean. I swept them, mopped them, swept them some more and mopped them again and again but everytime I thought I had banished their dusty film so it came back. The thing is this. Sometimes even I can be a teeny bit unobservant. The me, who prides herself on having the most point perfect eye for detail can fail to see what is slapping me in the face with a leather glove and blinding me with with an eye-achingly bright light like a Gestapo Officer up close and far too personal. On the other hand it took The Myopic Brains moments to notice when he arrived on one of his famed flying visits from wherever on the planet he was saving stardust. ‘See those holes, darling? The holes in the charpente which you have so eloquently been likening to the ‘Bottled Spider’ image that Antony Sher conjured when playing Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. Those holes, my love – they are worm holes.’ This was an epic ‘oh bugger’ moment for us both. Up to that point we had been convinced that the house had no major issues and that it was simply a matter of stripping back and restoring and that the most taxing issue would be where to place the bathrooms.
Woodworm is a serious issue in any culture. I have yet to recover from my mother breaking the news to me at 23 that she had burned my doll’s house (a 1920s treasure that was home to my imagination during the decades of growing up and which I had assumed would house my dreams forever). It took me years to forgive her so perhaps those that are devotees of the idea of Karma are now looking sagely (and, perchance a little self-righteously) at me and quietly explaining that she, karma, is a bitch and will always eventually, and probably when you are least expecting it, bite you in the bum. In France the major issue is Capricorne or Longihorne as some will confusingly call it. Like turmites they will strip a house systematically and thoroughly and are impossible to get rid of. If you are infested with Capricornes there is no choice but to have all the woodwork replaced and even then, like all good terminators there is a good chance that they’ll be back. They are lethal. My husband is a Capricorn.
We called in to see the mayor. He pulled his phone from his pocket, twirled it idly in his fingers like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’, performed some sort of sleight of hand scroll of the screen with the finesse of a seasoned poker player and found us two numbers. Writing them extra carefully and clearly he looked at us with the heaviest and gravest of expressions and wished us heartfelt good luck and godspeed in our quest to get a verdict. His last words echoed in our agitated minds … ‘l hope for your sakes it is not capricorne for these would indeed be a severe catastrophe’.
Bug Man Number One was more local being only 30 km away rather than the 180 km trek that Bug Man Number Two would have to make and by good fortune he was able to rendez-vous at the house in two days time. We barely slept for those two days …. I convinced myself that if I had had the sense to recognise what the issue was a little earlier with my mop now propped in the corner eyeing me mornfully, all would have been well but since I was wearing the dunce hat and sitting on the naughty chair I had condemned the house and it would probably have to be burned like my dolls house. And the village would hate me because it is their emblem, their symbol. In fact any entente cordiale between Britain and France (tenuous at the best of times, let’s face it) would crumble and there would be friendly and then unfriendly fire. Probably a war. There was little doubt in my mind that I had brought about The Apocolypse. And it was all my fault. And The Bean. She’d been there all the time and she hadn’t done anything to help. If in doubt, blame the dog. So I did. But it didn’t help. My guilt was my straight jacket. I couldn’t eat nor sleep and consequently when we arrived for the meeting on a freezing cold February morning I had all the aesthetic appeal of mouldy baguette slowly decaying in a murky puddle. In truth distinctly less appeal than that. And a stomach that was growling and gurgling like a Grizzly Bear that has indulged in a barrel of rotten apples because although I was not hungry, it was.
The man in question let’s call him M. le Terminateur had the air of an unsuccessful travelling purveyor of quackery in the wildwest. Wire-rimmed spectacles, slightly stooped and with a long face that was, well … long. Slightly melancholy. And he carried a bag – bigger and baggier than a briefcase out of which he produced an archaic looking probe. He advanced up the two flights of stairs brandishing the prod before him, his expression the epitome of ideal had he been an undertaker – sombre, dignified, subdued. He spied the offending beam instantly and with no clues from Two Brains who was seemingly glued to his side, and poked it with aplomb. He then peered solomnly at the beam and turned to walk back downstairs. The twittering fool that was me almost fell backwards down the stairs in my haste to get out of his hallowed way. I managed to effect a perfect study of a grovelling buffoon as I silently implored him to give us good news. We gathered before him, we mottly three, The Bean, having grasped the severity of the situation, showed solidarity by prancing on her hind legs and adopting her most appealing expression. He delved again into the inky depths of his cavenous bag bringing out a piece of paper and a pencil. On it he wrote one word and then handed the pencil to my husband to write down our details which he already had but just to be certain, you understand, so that he could send us an estimate. It was only after he had left as stealthily as he had arrived (and after a total of less than 10 minutes in our house) that I dared to gibber at my husband to let me see the paper. The word written was Vrillette. I had no idea what it meant but I knew it didn’t spell Capricorne. I knew for now, my beloved is the only Capricorn of note in my life. And the weight of my guilt felt less tortuous. For now. I am a mother so I am, of course, hard-wired to guilt but nothing so extreme as the fear of having to torch the jewel of the village need trouble me for the moment.
Of course that was not the end of the story. When the estimate came through it was with an instruction that all the floor boards must be lifted leaving only a few to walk on. The men would come and inject the charpente and spray the poutres (beams) only when the space was prepared. We spent a total of 3 days working tirelessly together to get the rest of the do-it-yourself insulation out … I’d done my best but it was not good enough – the whole area had to be dust free. We wrenched up floor boards, saving what we could and ditching the worst and relaid them in a rather fetching patchwork but without nails which are themselves beautiful – long, crude, simple and mostly unsalvagable – to hold them. We brushed and we hoovered using the little lightweight upright vacuum cleaner that my mother had given me the year before. She is a little eccentric it must be said, and when I mentioned that I had left my wonderful hospital-quality, state of-the-art, all singing and frankly nifty dancing model with a friend in England and it felt a little churlish to ask for it back, she revealed that she had 4 hoovers. All brand new. None used because she also has a cleaning lady who has her own hoover. I chose a sweet little bagless number and drove back to France triumphant with her nestled in the boot of the car. This diminutive lightweight beauty has become one of my best friends. I feel very attached to her – she makes life so much more bearable not having to sweep all the time. A girl can only take so much Cinderella chimera after all. You will understand, therefore that my marriage nearly ended when it appeared that the brave little beast had died in action due to the sheer mass of dirt she was being expected to inhale. HB² had no comprehension that he had murdered my precious. Anthropomorphising household equipment is not in his remit. Fortunately both for him and for our marriage she had simply had a perfectly understandable hot flush but my grief did prompt him to go out and buy a cheap, cheerful and above all mighty macho and potent sucker-upper. My Little Engine That Could is back in the civilised confines of our appartment leaving Wild Bill to rule the wilds of Marcolès. And rule he did – spotless, dirtless and dustless in no time at all. We were ready for the coming of the bug-men.
We waited and waited. We waited some more. And then we waited. It is an often commented on fact that in France, if you aren’t actually breathing down the neck of the workman of choice they will repeatedly find other things to occupy them. These can be other money earning jobs or just propping up the bar and putting the commune to rights with their cronies depending on opportunity and how they are feeling that day. You do have to be prepared to get a little stern. Actually in our case, we have not experienced this tendency but it appeared that we were breaking our duck with this fellow. So we got stern (or to be accurate, HB² got stern and I supported him with dignity on the side-lines) and eventually the news came through that phase one was complete. I should explain that we leave a key with my heart-throb, M. le Maire so that our absence is not an issue if there is a need to access the house. Since vrillettes are all but invisible to the naked eye, I will just have to take M. le Terminateur’s good word that the operation had been a success. But we do now sport plastic tubes that look a little like rawl plugs all over the charpente. They are ugly and I dislike them and we will try and find a way to disguise them but I am not so churlish as to be ungrateful for the fact that they have saved the roof. That is good fortune indeed.
Whilst the coy little waiting game was being played out I continued to clear through the remaining cupboards. Nothing could have prepared me for finding a gun. I’m very scared of guns. I think that is a sensible approach. My good sense told me not to touch it – I became convinced that it was loaded and might simply go off at any moment. So there it stayed and I avoided going into the room it was in until The Brains returned some weeks later. He assured me that Wyatt Earp himself, Doc Holliday indeed and least of all Marshall Will Kane could do no damage with it because, darling, it is a toy. Which you will see from the photograph is obvious. I fear the delirium that our predecessor suffered from may be contagious.
PS: The title could only be stolen from Spike Milligan:
Today I saw a little worm
wriggling on his belly.
Perhaps he’d like to come inside
and see what’s on the telly
PPS: If you want to catch up on the previous instalments, simply type Coup de Coeur into the search box on the top of the right hand column and it will find them for you. Clever stuff so clearly not made by me!
An occasional series chronicling the tale of the renovation of a former medieval watch-tower in southern France ….. Part One is here, Part Two is here and Part Three is here The events in this episode took place a little under three years ago. How time flies when you’re having fun, n’est-ce pas?
As often happens once you have overcome the initial excitement of something or other and reality cloaks you in its slightly constricting mantle like a heavy woollen duffle coat a couple of sizes too small, or a pair of pinchy stiff leather shoes, you need to knock on the door of fortitude and ask for her help.
This was the moment to be gracious to Lady Tenacity. We were SO thrilled with the news that the house was empty and once back in France hightailed it pell-mell down the road to Marcolès from our present home further north. In fact our rented flat is in the far north-western corner of le Cantal and Marcolès is in the far south-western corner. It’s a two hour drive each way but it’s a really lovely two hours passing glorious views of the Monts du Cantal and diving into deep tree lined gorges and delving through glacial hills. It never fails to delight us. In the back of the car, making life less than comfortable for The Disgruntled Bean were the various accoutrements of operation clean-up. We picked up more en-route and The Bean became ever more peeved.
Thus began the most relentless and mostly thankless of enterprises. HB² took up a floor-board in the attic which is planted in our collective imagination as being a wonderful tranquil master bedroom and serene relaxing place when the house is eventually finished. He discovered that our predecessor had used sawdust for insulation. It doesn’t work. That was abundantly clear. The house was, is bitterly cold. Of course the fact that the same happy fellow had ripped several of the radiators off the wall in his spiteful retribution against those that dared to buy the house that he wanted to sell doesn’t help the refridgeration factor but the ingenious insulation wasn’t productive either. And in places it had provided a gleeful nesting place for some or other rodent. One that had made it’s hideaway complete with a variety of different flavours of nut. Mercifully it was not in residence as we set about getting rid of the wood filings. We took out something near to 30 bags from the attic. The black full sized dustbin lining bags not, for clarity, little carrier bags for shopping. It was back-breaking and necessitated wearing a mask and goggles and the white hooded clean suits that a friend had donated to the cause. I felt like a Ghost Buster but without the joy of a Marshmallow Man to distract me. About half way through the exercise, husband returned to the US leaving me to continue the clean-up, now with a looming deadline brought on by a discovery to be shared in a later post. It was winter, it was still a four hour round trip and my romantic little project began to pall noisily.
As a bit of light relief from the attic, the husband had braved the cellar. Despite the valiant efforts of the town ouvriers there was still ample room for improvement. Another 20 or so bags of rubble and wood and general stuff from centuries of life came out. But what was revealed was magical. So magical that it is worthy of a post all of it’s own … and for that you will have to wait.
Meanwhile, Madame Balai (Mrs Mop) as I was rapidly re-branding myself was cleaning the whole place through. The dirt of ages dissolved under my unrelenting mop and bucket and whirling micro-cloths which I brandished with all the skill of a champion cheerleader. The rather horrible floor on the ground floor looked marginally less horrible and the stairs and wood floors on the first floor began to look quite majestic. I cleaned the curious loo which sits at the top of it’s own staircase complete with red carpet which I’m afraid we consigned to a black bag all of it’s own for percieved and probably, let’s face it given the abhorrent provinence of the previous occupants, solidly sensible reasons. Bizarrely it has a window to the rest of the house which begs many questions which I have not yet had the pluck to ponder. I bravely tackled and proudly conquered the bathroom. The loo in there is not fixed to the floor which gives an added frisson of excitement to those brave enough to use it and the bath is the very same bath that was given it’s own fanfare by the previous owner as being big enough for three, something I care not to dwell on having met him. And I cleaned the shower on the first floor. This was genuinely a labour of love. The shower is a particularly odd feature of the house being on a podium in what has been the master bedroom. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for the facilities-in-a-bedroom approach favoured by many chic boutique hotels and will indeed have a tub and a pretty sink in the master bedroom of the finished house but this is simply incongruous standing with all its plumbing displayed to the world like a brazen flasher and has no virtue except for a dollop of comedy value. However, whilst we go through the process of renovating and restoring and generally swishing and swooshing the house back to the triumph it deserves to be, a working shower is helpful. I donned protective gloves, mask and goggles for the job because when I lifted the slats and revealed the tray it had clearly and absolutely NEVER been cleaned. I removed the sludge and hairy deposits of the antecedent thoroughly and zealously dredged the drainhole and can categorically state that I have seldom, if ever, been so fully disgusted. And I have lived a little. Indeed, I may still need some sort of therapy to truly achieve catharsis.
Now you will gather, I hope, that my husband loves me. And to show his love that very day, he announced that a refreshing shower, after all my hard, and victorious toil in conquering the swamp pit, was just the thing he needed.
I left him to it and took The Bean for a stroll round the village. As I was walking back to the house I had a thought. I ran it past The Brains on the way home a little later. As casually as I could. I just wondered. Foolishly I was certain. But I did wonder. If he had remembered to close the shutters on the window whilst he was showering. Since the shower is right in front of the window. The relatively large and low window. Of course he must have. Mustn’t he? No? Well that was an eye-full for the town then and in particular the very elderly lady opposite …. remember the house has absolutely no land to buffer it. I’m frankly amazed that M. le Maire hasn’t had complaints. Or maybe he is just too polite to mention it. I cringe at the thought that maybe the town ladies might be anticipating regular matinee and evening performances.
I didn’t count the number of times I went down, with the increasingly testy Bean, to clean. It was many severals. And it was groundhoggishly tiresome in that everytime I got it looking spruce, I had to drag more bags of rubbish and rubble through the spick and spanness and my fragile effect was royally spoiled. But all clouds are silver lined in world of me – you just have to keep those peepers peeled and embrace the good when it falls in your path as it invariably does. One of the shiney pieces of silver in this story is the man at the déchetterie or waste disposal point if you will. He has the most amazing view of the mountains from his little wooden hut and he takes his job very seriously.
Actually in my experience most of the people that work at such places, with or without breathtaking views are thoroughly nice – or at least they are in England and France. I have always been treated kindly by them. And this fella with his bella vista backdrop is no exception. He helped us with bags and bags of wood dust and yet more of rubble and some of indescribable and unspeakable impurity and always (having asked where we were from on our first foray) said emphatically ‘vous êtes de Marcolès, non?‘ he being in St Mamet-la Salvatat, the next commune over. It rather feels as though being from Marcolès in some way explains our undoubted lunacy. I like him. The Brains was less enthralled though when swinging a large and heavy bag of wood-dust into the vast metal skip, it split above his head and spewed shavings over him in a comedy moment of epic proportions. Or at least my laughter was epic. He remained stone-faced. In fairness, I did not escape unscathed … as you can see from this fetching picture of me complete with dirty lines effecting comedy whiskers.
When the walls were washed down, inevitably, given the age of the paint, much of it flaked off. The Bean should be less cantankerous about the place if she takes the time to notice that one of the slivers that snowed down onto my lovingly tended (a thousand times so far) staircase is an exact silhouette of Her Beanship.
PS: Of course the title is Snow White who righteously contended that if you whistle while you work the task will be easier, speedier and far more pleasant. It may be relevant that I can’t actually whistle ….
I’m no magician and smoke and mirrors are not part of any repetoire I possess however much I might sometimes wish they were. In arrant contrast, it was abundantly clear that the incumbent owner of the house was a maestro of the art. What greeted us was a filthy mess though there were still a number of rather lovely pieces in the house. But we had this feeling, this sense that it can be, will be, beautiful again. We signed the Acte that made us the legal owners exactly a year after we first viewed it. A year that will remain forever tatooed on my little brain and a year that provides the reference for a novel in progress in my head.
Three months after signing the Acte, the process of cajoling the previous owner (who mostly spends his time in Marseilles and seems mostly to be unable to leave his bed though he was beyond vigorous when we met) to come and take what he wanted from the house before the start of les grandes vacances on 1st July or thereabouts, was ongoing. The village had been totally and remarkably supportive of us and we had agreed that they could use the ground floor as an Office de Tourisme and that they could revert to the years old tradition of using the house in their famed Nuits de Marcolès. In France if the owner of the effects wants them you have to dance a lengthy gavotte before you can retain them or eject them. We danced. The village stowed things upstairs to make way for their tourist office. We continued to dance. The summer festivites came and went. We still danced. Le Monsieur came and went sporadically and things disappeared. He was clearly suffering from the cold further south in Mediterranean Marseille because he decided to rip the radiators from their moorings excavating chunks of wall with them. All this is legal by the way. We carried on dancing. Finally about a year ago word came that he had taken all he wanted. Exhausted, we threw off our Red Shoes and stopped dancing.
I drove south to my newly empty house. Wind back. Empty? Nah! Every stick of junk he possessed was still there. Somehow my enchanting house, the place I fell in love with on the internet, remember, had turned into a cold, unwelcoming landfill site. We had known it was impossible to walk across the grenier (attic) floor, my husband had kept the worst secrets of the cave (cellar) from me on the basis that the ladder was dodgy. Lies, all despicable lies – I’m quite the mountain goat on the quiet and I bound up and down ladders quite nimbly, thank you. But I chose not to argue, nor look, frankly fearful of what I might find. The truth was far worse than any imagined fiction. And sandwiched in the middle of top and underground floors are two others, which somehow seemed to have sprouted their own detritus. Abundantly.
Enter the town. Monsieur le Maire de Marcolès is officially my hero. His assistant can clearly trace her ancestry to celestial angels. The town would see to the emptying. The least they could do in the face of our saving their jewel (they call it their emblem) … well actually they didn’t need to, but my goodness me we snapped their hands off with the speed and certainty of a Kingfisher skewering it’s supper.
The town workers (generally referred to as les ouvriers) set about their task. They fitted it in between their routine and other jobs. I journeyed down after a month and was overjoyed. A week later I went again and could not believe what greeted me – there was even more debris than the week before. This bizarre and unwelcome routine continued for weeks. Smile-despair-smile-despair. Every single time I thought there was nothing else to unearth, the jolly ouvriers found more. Not that I was complaining, they were moving the damned stuff. And it was just stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. The physical incarnation of a clearly disturbed mind. The demented collection of a frenzied, and almost certainly certifiable magpie.
In November, we were in the Mairie (town hall, if you will) discussing something or other with the beatified assistant when the chief ouvrier came staggering in. He looked at us, shrugged the most glorious gaelic shrug I have EVER seen and told us we were entirely and clearly mad to have taken on the house. The beatifeic one laughed angellically. I felt sick.
Christmas loomed. We were to spend it in England. HB² arrived at my mother’s house on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day (his birthday incidentally), he checked email. The beauteous creature who is the assistant to the mayor of Marcolès (I’ve recommended her for canonisation) had sent us a note: ‘The house is empty. Happy Christmas’. We danced.
PS: The picture shows me clasping a rose. A rose plucked by the Mayor the first time we showed him inside a house he remembered from his childhood throughout his adolescence and for a large chunk of his adult life when it was always, always part of village festivities. Until the previous denizen moved in. The rose-bush flourishes on the side of the house. The Mayor has taken it upon himself to keep it tended in our absence. And tells me whenever he has pruned, or re-fastened it to the wall with a liberal sparkle in his eye – sparkling at ladies being something I have noted, he is more than rather good at. I may not have been promised a rose garden, but I beg your pardon – I got one tended by the highest official in town!
And just because I can and I fancy giving you a bonus … here’s Moira Shearer again but this time strutting her red shoes to Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ … let’s face facts, I know the feeling.
Catch up on the previous installments of this noble saga here which contains a link to part one
We fell in love on the internet. It’s the modern way. The one touts their promise, the other falls under their spell and happily ever after they both live. House and owner. You didn’t think I was talking about Two Brains and I, did you? You got that I am talking about our fragile hearts being ensnared by our Maison Carrée?
The house was advertised all over the place – every single immobilier in France seemed to have it on their books. Clock forward two and a half years and hindsight and a bit of experience has taught me that this means nothing. Often an agent will have grabbed the content from an unprotected site and will be advertising it as his own. But we knew where it was and we knew it was the former Tour Seignoural for the perfect little city it sits plumb central in. And it is officially a city even though it would appear to be a small village to modern eyes, and we simply swooned when we found the website for the proprietor who was currently running the little jewel as a Chambre d’Hotes. The description, down to the seductive promise that he is an accomplished masterchef and would cook you local food magnificently if you wished and that breakfast was all conjured from the local boulangerie, epicerie, charcuterie, fromagier, had me wondering why he was selling at all. After all this three bedroomed beauty, including the miraculous bathroom all newly fitted, was kitted out with the most elegant antique country furniture clearly snaffled from local houses of some note and auctions and brocantes and the owner certainly and assuredly had excellent taste. Hold that thought.
Beware the power of the picture! Beware the interweb! What greeted us when we arrived was entirely a different picture. What on earth induced us to go ahead and buy I am not convinced I will ever know. A certain madness unexplained. Assuredly bull-headed stubborn-ness and a sense that this disaster of a place can be, will be, really special and an uncharted recognition that we should be the people to return the house to it’s former unpretentious glory. And give it a properly appointed bathroom rather than what greeted us which I have flatly refused EVER to use. And a kitchen that does not stink in that sickly sweet way of festering food complete with maggots and fresh fly-eggs – sadly it became clear that this was the state that unsuspecting visitors who had booked in on-line found the house in and I sincerely hope that none ever took their host up on the opportunity of his unashamedly trumpeted home made meals – rather they hot-footed it to the Mairie to complain loudly and threaten nasty reviews on the very internet upon which we had found the house languishing apparently so alluringly.
Once we had bought the place, once the place was ours we were hit with the reality that HB² is mostly on the wrong side of the Atlantic and that I, although more than once invited to row that ocean on account of my once-upon-a-time Olympian prowess as an oar puller, I was simply not equipped to begin, let alone complete the task of emptying the house once the ancien proprieteur had taken what he wanted … you guess that bit surely – anything nice, anything pretty. Well, he would, wouldn’t he! There follows the account of the next nine months in which we, collectively being Winnie the Pooh, never lost heart.
…. In the meantime, here I am looking somewhere between despairing and disgusted in the best of the bedrooms the day after we took ownership.
PS: The quote is Twelfth Night – Helen declares of her Demetrius that ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is wing’d cupid painted blind ….’
Actually, Julie Andrews, let’s not. Start at the very beginning that is. The fact is that this particular serial .. Oh! I feel the need to digress – I LOVE a serial! All those wonderful adaptations that the British do so well – from The Forsytes, through The Pallisers, much Jane Austen, many Thomas Hardy’s and no doubt a glut of Dickens whose great works were written as episodes for a variety of journals, only later being published in book form. This explains two things – firstly, why he serialises SO successfully on television and secondly the minute detail in his descriptives which can be the finish of many a secondary school student’s tolerance of his work …. his narrative can feel achingly slow to the modern reader but gathers pace and impact on the screen. Not so for everyone but I have carefully explained to four teenaged daughters and many attendant friends that he should not be dismissed as boring without giving the films and series a whirl first. And it is not just a British phenomena – for instance Alexander Dumas serialised The Three Musketeers (Three Musky Queers as my first husband irreverantly and, quite possibly these days illegally, always referred to them) in 139 episodes in Le Constititutionnel.
Back on piste … I do love a serial and this will be one. But I can’t quite start at the very beginning for the simple reason that the story of finding and buying this place feels as though it should be a novel. Based in the factual, it would be work of fiction with all players and places concealed and touched up with the clay and paint that an Author has the licence to apply at will.
So here it is. We bought a village house that needs renovating in France. Other’s do that too. And they blog – I follow one in particular because she captivates me. You can too, if you want to – just here. So that’s not unique. Where we bought it as English people is unique: Marcolès: newly recognised as ‘Une Petite Cité de Caractère’In fact only three villages in the entire Auvergne region currently hold this accolade and the award was made to the three as recently as May this year. But most important is what it is.
Looking at the picture you would be forgiven for thinking – nice but so what? It’s a nice little town house. In a village. Somewhere in France. What makes it special, if you will, is that it is a Monument Historique de France … gosh, wowy zowy. Boom!! But take a closer look and ask the question beloved of toddlers and indeed, I think, the smartest people throughout their lives …. why?
The thing with this little baby is that it was originally built as the City Watchtower. It is a tour médiéval – this is what it would once have looked like in 1203 when it is first accurately recorded:
As a point of interest, all of these examples are within 50 km of our own village
Sadly the community of Marcolès was less caring then than it is now. Or more accurately, I am sure, had other vital criteria for survival. The tower fell into ruin and the stone was pillaged for other buildings. However. For reasons unrecorded (but we intend to do our darndest to trace and clarify), the village or perhaps just one villager, decided to rebuild it from what was left (and some other stone they found lying around). And the result …la Maison Carrée. For non French speakers, that means ‘The Square House’. Which it is. It is also the only house within the city walls to stand entirely on it’s own. Detached. Reliant on no other. As the locals charmingly put it – you can walk right around it. Completed in 1830 it has been inhabited by a variety of people including a very tall Russian lady who the present Mayor (Marcolèsian born, raised, elected and something of a saviour) remembers vaguely from boyhood. I’m very tall and I love Russia and all things Russian (shoot me – I know its not de rigeur just now) … I rather hope I’m remembered too. As someone who DID something for the Commune. Gave something back, if you will. My HB² of a Spouse feels just the same.
So here we are. We have the house. Without giving anything away we signed the papers for the purchase in March 2014 exactly a year from the start of the purchase … but we didn’t get the keys til Christmas 2014. Stick with me – Part Two is all about le vider. No! NOT the la vida loca! though translated as ‘Living a Crazy Life’ it could be apt in this instance. Vider means ‘to empty’. You also use it when referring to gutting something prior to cooking. Which is about right in this case. It’s a whole story in itself.
À très bientôt
PS: I’ve called this series Coup de Cœur because it is the expression that French Immobiliers – those are Estate Agents to my UK readers, Realtors to those in the US (and apologies to everyone else) – use. Coup de Cœur means a favourite thought that doesn’t cover it, really it is more something that pulls at one’s heart strings. Immobiliers generally use it to imply an irrisistible attraction to a house. That overwhelming almost lusting for a place the moment you lay eyes on it, much less walk inside. A feeling which doesn’t necessarily have either foot in the common sense field …. which in this case, fits perfectly!