French Shutters.


One of the things I love most about my house are it’s shutters. We use our shutters often, to keep out the heat of the summer’s day, to trap the cool in the house and let a gentle flow of air pass through the louvres , or to batten down the hatches against the noisy winter storms.

Last summer we started on the onerous task of painting the windows of our house. The windows are a century old, the paint is almost non-existant, peeling from decades of strong sunlight. But the windows are in deep reveals protecting them from the vagiaries of the weather and the wood is in good condition. The windows that we finished last summer looked wonderful in their new coat of paint, but sadly the shutters were left lacking.

Last summer we also attempted to renovate a pair of shutters, but we knew almost immediately that we would never manage the deep louvred openings and so started looking for someone who had the equipment necessary to do a good job.

One of the things that makes France such a wonderful place to live is the presence of small enterprises which are capable of undertaking craftmens jobs with skill in abundance. We found a four man team who could sandblast and hot-seal spray paint the shutters, and with whom the whole business was undertaken with jovial good humour, a fair amount of negotiating on price, and an analysis of what team we would support if France, Scotland and England were up against each other in a rugby final.

Yesterday we collected our first two pairs of shutters. “Husband à la maison”, in a moment of extreme enlightenment and wisdom, had recommended we only sent two pairs of our twelve pairs of shutters to be renovated at a time. Each pair of shutters has at least two panels and up to six. When our two pairs of shutters were returned, we lay them on the grass and set to, with much scratching of heads and a tape measure to try to pair them up again.With each matched shutter the process became more and more simple as the possible matching options reduced. Hanging them up again was another question entirely.


It’s a lesson in motivation, for no sooner are the painted shutters rehung, than the unpainted windows behind them need to be renovated. 

In France, if you leave your house unoccupied for more than two weeks you are obliged to close up the shutters or risk violating your house insurance. In reality most people close their shutters even if they are only absent for a weekend.

For us it’s a race to the finish or we may have to stay at home all summer until we’ve completed them.

But that’s another story!

Big Jobs Hanging Over Our Heads.


When we first moved into our house it was 10 days before Christmas two years ago. The house was barely habitable but we made the best of it, and somehow we didn’t notice the peeling wallpaper and paint just metres from our dining table. The first new year I set to task to repair the one wall and boxed-in beam where a burst pipe had left ugly paper and plaster hanging by threads. A year later I patched and finished the remaining walls with lining-paper but never got round to painting them because hanging over my head was an even bigger problem, a problem which didn’t easily give itself to a solution – the ceiling!

Our house had only been owned by one family before us, and when we bought it the resident was 87 years old and known by many to be miserly. Certainly he had never made any repairs or upgraded the decor. When the dresser was pulled away from the wall, the paper behind it came off the wall in one entire sheet. Often closed up, the house had suffered from the damp and neglect, and gradually the paint on many ceilings, and especially that of the diningroom, had quite literally bcome unstuck and dangled in curly peelings above our heads.

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For two years the ceiling laughed at me from above and I wondered whether it wasn’t time to call in the professionals as only a month or so after scraping off one lot of peeling ceiling paint, the previously solid edges in their turn would decide to peel.

But then suddenly with another Christmas around the corner, I reasoned that if I took the matter to task, and simply in turn failed to do a decent job, well then was the time for the plaquist, as the french plasterer is called. It seemed worth having a go and trying to turn the dining room around for this, our third Christmas in the house.

And so suddenly, last week, with the lull that comes at the end of the tourist season, and with the christmas season hot on its heels, I hauled myself to the top of a ladder and braced myself for what probably is the most unpleasant renovation job, because the one thing about repairing a ceiling is that the only place for the dirt and detritus to fall, is on you!

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There were two huge cracks nearly the full width of the room!wp_20161119_0031

Large chunks of plaster pulled away when touched!wp_20161119_0071

More paint came off the ceiling than stayed on as I scratched at it!wp_20161119_0011

and even the moulded coving paint was crazed and loose!

After several days of sanding and filling the ceiling resembled something like this…

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After filling all those holes in the ceiling and all the crazing in the coving, there was only one thing to do – sand it all smooth. I ended up white from head to toe with plaster dust and there was only one place for me at the end of all that – in the shower!

What “husband à l’étranger” wasn’t expecting however was a call to arms, because I reasoned that the only way forward, to seal those nasty little  paint edges from peeling in their turn, was to wallpaper over the lot. French wallpaper has one major failing, it is a metre wide, far wider than english paper, and when you have a three metre strip of 1800 grade heavily covered in wallpaper paste, it becomes extremely unwealdy and extremely heavy. “Husband à l’etranger did try to persuade me just to paint the ceiling, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

I apologised to my co-worker in advance for any expletives that might be uttered in the course of the undertaking and explained that any directed insults should be seen as “heat of the moment” and not taken to heart. He was quick to concur!

So it was we found ourselves straddled between several step-ladders, long-handled brooms propping the renegade corners, and covered with liberal dollops of glue, desperately guiding and  coaxing the unwilling paper to stick to the ceiling and then to ensure that the subsequent pieces lay alongside without gaps, overlaps or bubbles. Several desperate and frantic hours later the job was done.

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It took a night to dry, and gingerly the next morning I opened the diningroom door to see the result of our efforts. I’m happy to say that the ceiling was smooth and bubble-free!img_00161

There was just the question of painting  the walls…img_00341

in The Little Green Company “French Grey”.(…of course!)img_00411

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and all we have to do now is decorate it for Christmas!

Boating Season


Ther’s something really lovely about being up before the crowds on a sunday morning, and if I don’t go to the sunday market, the next best place to be is on the quayside watching the boats coming up the river. My kids cannot be roused before midday, so today I left them all in bed and headed out to meet one of the boats moored up at Rouen and welcome a group of 30 American visitors for a morning tour of the city.

My boat wasn’t there but plenty of others were, and no sooner had one set sail than another came to take its place.

WP_20150412_004I took a few moments to enjoy the spring sunshine and what promised to be another lovely sunny day. WP_20150412_002

And then my boat came in, moored and craned in place the gang-plank and we were good to go.WP_20150412_007WP_20150412_008

By the time they had moored up along-side the other 5 boats, there wasn’t much of a view of the river!WP_20150412_010

But Ile Lacroix, Rouen’s mid-river island was just visible under the bridge bathed in an early spring morning mist.

The American visitors had walked the gang-plank not knowing what lay in store for them but since the weather was beautiful, and the buildings magnificent, I think they had a nice suprise. Many are the days that the drizzle sets in and we find ourselves bedraggled with umbrellas blown inside out and trousers soaked up to the knees. But it’s the new season, the days are warming up and the cafés are spiling once more out onto the streets.

For me, it’s the opportunity to speak english again, and it makes me laugh when I struggle to find the words after a winter of unuse. By the autumn I will be fluent in my own language again, but for now i’m still tempted to use all those words in french which perfectly describe a object, an emotion or an action, where in english only a whole sentence will do!

All too soon the tour of the city is over and I describe to our visiors how to find their boat again, or give directions to interesting places so that they can stay on shore a while longer.

And for me it’s time to buy a baguette or two and a box of eclairs before returning home where my children are just getting out of bed!WP_20150323_011

The Historial of Joan of Arc, a New Museum in Rouen.


WP_20150323_012One of the great advantages of being a registered guide in Rouen is getting access to all the new exhibitions and museums at the “Avant Première”. Today I had the amazing opportunity to be one of the first through the doors of the “Historial de Jeanne d’Arc”, the new museum dedicated to the story of Joan of Arc, in Rouen.

Several years ago a small private wax-works museum was to be found in the Vieux Marché in Rouen, next to the site where Joan of Arc was burnt to death at the stake. It closed when the owner went into retirement. Today the doors opened on one of what I have to classify as one of France’s best museums, The “Historial de Jeanne d’Arc”.

Joan of Arc was imprisoned in Rouen after her capture and ransom from the battlefield at Compiègne, north-east of Paris. The English, having occupied of Rouen for some twelve years by 1431, during the Hundred Years War, imprisoned her in a tower of the Chateau Bouvreuil until her trial and eventual conviction for heresy and relapse. The new museum is located in the very building where the original trial, and later retrial were held, part of the Archbishop’s Palace, or Archevequé as it is known.

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WP_20150323_008The building has undergone extensive and painstaking renovation. The result is magnificent. The building alone, with its stone crypts, tommette tiled floors, and two towers is worth a visit. As we all agreed, just bringing visitors to the top of the Tour de Guet was worth every penny for the view alone. The views, never before seen by the average Rouennaise nor visitor, of the one rose window which survived the explosions of the 1944 bombing raids on the cathedral without being masked by the north transept gable were excellent; as was the high-level view of the Eglise St Maclou, a perfect example of the Gothic Flamboyant in the mediaval quarter.

If only to overwhelm the visitor, we gained access to the stunning chapel,

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and grand staitcase of the Archevequé as we made our way to the end of the visit.

But what of the museum exhibit itself? Systematic and clearly explained, the story of Joan of Arc evolves through a series of “automated rooms”. Small groups of 20 pass through one room at a time in which a part of the story is told through film displays and “son et lumière” (sound and light shows). The entire visit is a technical masterpiece of the same genre as the “son et lumière” on the Cathedral facade every summer.. Jeanne d'Arc son et lumièreJoan of Arc’s trial was the first of its time to be written down and archived. Each character is named and identified, with modern day actors filmed and using the transcript from 1431.

The final two rooms are free access with interactive displays and an interactive “push-button” selection of questions posed to historical experts whose filmed responses dispell the myths that have grown up over the passing centuries.

Here it is possible to see copies of the original manuscripts of the trial and letters written by Joan to the Dauphin, and later King Charles VII and other trivia such as models of the city in medieval times.WP_20150323_001

When you come to Rouen, do not miss this great museum. Suitable for adults and children alike, leave at least two hours for the visit and then stride out into the medieval quarter where you can find cafés, antiques, and plenty of lovely boutiques.

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And if you are too exhausted to take another step, there’s always the lovely old workshop of Ferdinand Marou, metalworker from the Impressionists era who’s ‘atelier’ is now the most gorgeous coffee-shop.See you there!

What Have I Done!


The first night in the new house I lay awake until the early hours. “Husband à l’etranger” was still held up in Canada and the house was frankly just a little bit scarey. While furnished the house had had a certain charm, but once the furniture had been removed it was altogether a different story. I lay in bed oscillating between extreme guilt for having asked the kids to sleep in this “god-forsaken” place, and the horror of touching anything. At the same time I was actually just a little bit worried about what “husband à l’etranger” would say when he finally arrived to see it for himself. I rehearsed ‘ad infinitum’, “shall we put it back on the market” before succumbing to a comatosed sleep.

Thankfully our friend and electrician arrived early the next morning and set to work checking the power supply. Over the day he increased the number of sockets by 1000% since we had arrived to find only 1 safe and operational. By the end of the day we had 10 sockets at our disposal, five in the kitchen, one each for the children and one for the sitting-room, which, since there was no pendant light-fitting meant that at least we could plug in a lamp. The rest of the sockets in existance were hastily covered in black tape to prevent us using them, and by consequence, risking burning our house down!

The afternoon saw me buying a new freestanding cooker and freezer, and when I arrived back at the house I discovered that Gerald had gone beyond the call of duty, smashing out the build-in and lethally dangerous oven and  hob and the decrepid units that they were built into. Since the cooker wasn’t to be delivered for a further three days, and France is not a country known for pre-packaged ready meals, cooking dinner was a test of creativity and determination.

The kids were appeased by the fact that the internet was up and running from day one. This, a remarkable feat since the ADSL line into the house dated to at least a half century and had been bizarrely wired through the swinging part of the external door, meaning that on his arrival, “Husband à l’etranger” opened the door with rather too much force  and ripped the cables out of their connection and to the horror of the kids killed the internet stone dead.

Contrary to my expectations, “Husband à l’etranger” wandered around the house exclaiming every few moments how much he loved it, then rooted around for a mop-bucket, scourers and magic cleaning solution and got stuck in.

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If you think I was exagerating about the dirt, you may want a closer look!

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Not convinced?WP_20141231_002So there you have it – dirt at its grimiest!

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And me with the ‘wonder-fluid’. If you look very closely you can see the ‘before’ to the right- hand- side of the window, and the ‘after’ on the left.

So if you ever have a bad day, and feel that you are not keeping up with the housework, take another good look at these photos, and I can assure you that you will quickly feel a whole lot better!20150106_154912

 

 

House Buying in France



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On Monday I bought a house! In fact I have been looking for quite a while, and nothing has really stood out enough to entice me to buy it. Unlike many non-french people who buy in France, who have no particular need to be tied to any particular place, and have a “coup de coeur” on visiting a house in a tiny village or amongst rolling french countryside, I am very fixed to the small city in which I live and work, and where my children, all four of them, go to school. Hence the dream of finding a house became a major task. Where property in the countryside in France remains cheap, in the cities, as a result of  rural exodus, property remains often prohibitively expensive. There-in has lain my problem, finding the french dream in a the bustling city.

One of the major factors involved in house-buying in France is coping with the heavy fees associated. Price of home aside, the estate agent, or agence immobilière, demands a whopping 5% of the purchase price, and the Notaire, or lawyer demands 8%. The notaire can perhaps be partially forgiven as tucked away in his fees is the equivalent of the Stamp duty or land tax to the state which somewhat ofsets the rudeness of the bill. In comparison with the professional duties of the notaire, and his obvious level of expertise, the agent immobilier  gains ‘money for old rope’. What does the estate agent do for his money? He holds a set of keys, unlocks a door or two, and later, if it goes his way, makes a few phone calls on your behalf to negotiate the offers to the vendor. Is that effort really worth 20,000€ for a house of say 400,000€. Can such a bill really be justified? I decided not!

I made it my mission to avoid the estate agent. Without his fees I could offer more to the vendor whilst actually paying less than purchasing competitors who went through the estate agent. Essentially it works as follows: A house is put on the market with an estate agent, but the estate agent does not put up a ‘For Sale’, ‘A Vendre’ sign, nor do anything to make the property visible to the public. Essentially he puts the best view he can of the back of the house, or better still an interior shot into his agency window. Hopefully the photo is enticing enough to draw in the public, but invariably the vendor loses out because the pretty front facade is hidden from the buyers – all to avoid one eventuality, that the purchaser goes direct to the vendor. While in the UK, the fees are sufficiently low , and the ‘For Sale’ sign clearly displayed to prevent direct purchaser/vendor sales, in France the situation is absolutely the opposite. It is normal for a French agent to organise a house viewing but refuse to give the address of the house, name of the owner or any visual street view photograph, arranging to meet the prospective buyer at the corner of a couple of streets, at a local cafe, or preferably at the agency. The idea is that the minute they have crossed you over the threashold and/or introduced you to the owner they can claim their fee if the sale results.

Since the money at stake can be anything from 10-30,000€+, avoidance of the estate agent is a major benefit. Some houses sell by word of mouth,  friend to friend, associate to associate, but if all else fails a consistant letter-box fly-posting of requests for owners interesting in selling to contact you is second to none. I missed out on one beautiful house that I fell in love with because I ran out of fly-posts at the neighbouring house and never retraced my steps with more to post to the last few houses on the street. I ended up visiting it through an agent and kicking myself when a rival buyer outbid me. Had I not had the estate agent fees to contend with it may have now been mine. Another time I had searched intensively via Google Sattelite for a particular shaped garden path shown on an agents window photo, but ultimately, after all the searching and contacting the located house owner in question, a visit showed that the house wasn’t nice enough. Observing beyond windows shown in a interior photo shot to try to identify the colour and style of  front door on the opposite side of the road, or a church steeple, a letterbox or an unusual landscape or tree can bear results and each of these procedures have been rewarded with a visit direct with an owner.

So it was that at the weekend, after a rowdy friday coffee morning amongst friends swapping information on houses for sale, and a bit of zooming in and out on Google street view and sattelite to see what was on offer, I received a call from an owner of a very lovely house, responding to my attempt to contact him, inviting me to visit his home the very same day. Before the day was out I’d put in an offer, or proposition, and by the following day I was sitting in the notaires office signing the first document in the French house buying process…

…with not an estate agent in sight.

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The Day I Lost Gothic.


Somedays, (well actually normally at 3am when I wake in a cold sweat stressing about the impending tour on my calendar) I wonder who on earth set me up for this Tour Guiding malarkey! In the glow of the early dawn, the minutes ticking down to my second ever tour were gathering speed, whilst I lay in bed unable to mentally talk my way through, or indeed remember any detail about one of the principle monuments of the city! With the lightening of the sky came the terrifying realisation that I had only myself to blame for the terror I was inflicting on myself. Why oh why had I signed myself up for a career that involves public speaking in front of 30 strong crowds when I was the kid in class that skulked in the back of the classroom hoping not to be asked the question. For the first two tours I had the overwhelming urge to flee, much as had done the French soldiers on the fortified Pont de l’Arche on te Seine when faced with a fleet of ships containing 1200 marauding Vikings.

Suprisingly, the tours actually went quite well, and though my brain fumbled occasionally on the odd date whist trying to recall them at speed, the general ambiance of the group seemed to erase the fear after the first  ten minutes or so. The few minutes needed to walk from one monument to the next was enough to mentally recompose and  prepare the brain for how to present the next historical story and describe the architecture. Sometimes this was knocked a little off kilter by a ‘out of the box’ question from the group, but generally things had begun to fall into place.

Nothing could have prepared me for last Monday, when just as my general confidence and nonchalance was building, I turned to face the cathedral, and realised, in a moment of utter horror that the most important word in the architectural arsenal had ‘hopped it’, fled, ‘disparued’, leaving me with a vocabulary void in its place.

The first three monuments in the tour of Rouen are Gothic, and Gothic had gone awol. It wasn’t just that having learnt the whole tour at the outset in the French language, I had lost its translation – oh no! Gothic and Gothique are very much the same word. Quite simply, I had fallen victim to a very unwelcome verbal dyslexia.

The tour continued, as it should, and since my brain was no longer capable of annotating the windows, archways or delicate stone tracery with their historical references of primitive gothic or gothic rayonnant and gothic flamboyant, the lucky tourists were assailed with a veritable overload of dates as I struggled to get the details across. Fear was once more edging in around the edges as I wondered what other catastrophes my brain may have in wait for me. Whether the tourists noticed, I will never know.

Look at all those wonderful………..details!

But one thing is for certain, terror may indeed be preferable to nonchalance. Whilst fear may leave you expectant of memory loss, that loss creeps up unannounced to the nonchalant, a devastating blow for the unwary. And what worst place than mid performance with no prompt in the wings. As I went to bed that night, those dates were firmly engraved in my brain and my dreams were peppered with pinacles and gargoyles with imaginary labels, 1147, 1245 and 1477.  But the biggest label of all, in bright red letters, the word

GOTHIC.

Far too late of course…

but let’s hope it stays there until next time!