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!

Continuing the Renovations -Attacking the Bedroom!


It occurred to me that I haven’t updated on the renovation process for a while. As with many projects, you take a huge leap forward, and then revelling in the new transformed state of things, it goes onto the back-burner, although really it isn’t finished at all. Such is the case with the master bedroom which I started a year ago and is now starting to cry for attention again. Here is the bedroom before the last owner, an elderly gentleman in his 90’s moved out.Annonce1-photo8 (1)

It’s not normal that I would seek to put my bedroom in front of those of the kids, but an unhappy chapter of events made it happen that way. Days before our moving date, on visiting the now empty house, it was immediately obvious that the house was filthy, and a quick run over with a hoover just wasn’t going to do the job. A fabulous friend of mine offered (in, I suppose, a momentary absence of sense) to help me wash the carpets with a hired machine. A back-breaking day of intense labour later, after several buckets of black water had been thrown out, the carpets were altgether a different colour, if smelling suspiciously of drying sheep!

That should have been the end of the story; only it wasn’t. By the day of arrival of all our furniture, a full week later, one carpet had stubbornly refused to dry and smelt so strongly that nothing short of leaving the door closed, and the windows wide open (it was december), night and day, protected the rest of the house from its awful stench. My bed was erected in the sitting-room, and stayed there for three months!

Then one day in march, I woke with  a spring in my step and decided that that would be the day that the carpet would be ripped up and thrown out. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the darn thing had been stuck down to the floorboards with a powerful glue.

Once the carpet was disposed of, the little old man in the ‘Bricolage’, (Do it yourself shop) recommended a glue solvant called ‘decapant’ and I set to work with a a paintbrush, spatula and the windows open as far as possible to let out the noxious fumes. A couple of days later I had finished the job, but left a few more before hiring a floor-sander (ponceuse) in case the friction of the sanding belt sparked the highly inflammable solvant residue!WP_20150217_002WP_20150217_001The sanding machine took a little getting used to, and I was thwarted early on by the fact that the sander had a miniscule cable of about half a metre, and clearly I should have an earthed extension cable (rallonge) to make the distance across the room in question to the power source. I might add that since the power supply to the house was not itself earthed, it was unsuprising that I didn’t actually have the appropriate cable, nor was I sure what good it would do, but was left to waste valuable hire time making a second journey to the bricolage.WP_20150222_001By the end of the evening, the main area of the room was transformed, and buzzing with the success of the day, heard myself eagerly agreeing with the hire company to hiring the ‘edge-sander’ to complete the job the next day when I took the drum sander back to them.

However, not all things carry on the way they are planned. Somewhere around 3am I woke with a pounding headache, and as the hours marched their way towards dawn, it occurred to me that I had succombed to the flu. Somehow I made it through the next day clinging onto a rather headstrong ‘edge-sander’, until finally, about the middle of the afternoon, I was no longer capable. The sander and I collapsed in a heap halfway across the ‘en-suite’ floor. The floor remains in the same state to this day, but thankfully I am back in one piece!

After the floor, the dismanteling of the corner cupboard, the filling of holes and the wallpapering of the walls was ease itself, although I did contend with a minor moment of anxiety and a bruise of two as my hand-sander exploded while I was at the top of the ladder smoothing down the uneven plasterwork, and I consequently went flying. I know, hand-sanders are not appropriate for plaster dust, the monsieur at the bricolage gave me quite a lecture on the subject…..after the event. My greatest find was a little ‘morceau’ of wall-paper with handpainted little birds on it. It was so pretty I wished there had been more of it to make a feature, but sadly it was so brittle that it fell apart in my hands.WP_20150128_009WP_20150128_001WP_20150222_005WP_20150128_004WP_20150222_004

Now, a few months on we have curtains, a pretty toile called ‘Charente Birds’, a little daringly in black and ‘white’. Our bed waits to be re-upholstered (whenever will I find the time!) and came from a ‘chateau sale’, my chair from the Rouen Puces (antiques fair) and upholstered by me before we moved (which was a very good idea in the circumstances considering the hefty list of things to do now we are in the house) and our wardrobe (photo to be added later) came from a wonderful organisation called Emmaus. Emmaus takes house-clearence furniture and sells it on using the unemployed and homeless as staff to create a profit and get those same people off benefits and back into employment. There are many great bargains to be found there, especially if you know what you are looking for.bedroom4

Now I’m just waiting for the motivation to tackle the windows, and  I know that they will be time-consuming and unpleasant, before finally finishing the final small area of electrical wiring and the skirings.

As for the half finished floor in the ‘en-suite’? Well the bath leaked into the sittingroom a few days ago, so it looks like that project is now on the urgent list, and it may be done sooner than we think!

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Everything but the kitchen sink!


Until the new year life rushed along in a frenetic whirl relentlesly moving us from one event to the next; and what a time with friends and far-distant family, good food, wine and merry-making! But December slid into January and for one small instant of time I sensed the “down” of that doldrum period that always comes just after Christmas. But it was one moment, a tiny glitch of time and then the building materials and tools called from where we had left them and we got stuck back in.

In a fit of whimsy months ago I had ordered a large cupboard and a new sink unit for my kitchen to replace the ones that have been serving us poorly since we bought the house. The ordering period was so long that by the time they arrived, only days before Christmas I had all but forgotten about them.

The night before they were due to be delivered the kitchen company rang apologetically – “ah, Madame, ..p’tit problème…” and went on to explain how they had written the wrong item number on the order sheet. The sink unit was very definitely not a sink unit but a bed!

Overnight we smashed out the existing corner cupboard (with handy mouse entry zone) and then of course once it was out, the kitchen was in a sorry state of decrepid walls and missing plaster – not to mention all the entire contents of my groceries spread on every available surface. “Lovely Daughter” and I spent many moments of hilarity reading the ‘best before dates’ on the backs of the backs of the packets and realising that I could practically match the can of chicken fillets relentlessly in my mother’s cupboard after 20 years (or so) before throwing a not inconsiderable amount out! Be warned everyone who has a triangular corner cupboard. That far corner of the shelf is the true location for all that disappears into the Bermuda Triangle.WP_20150103_007Of course when a new cupboard is about to arrive it’s always a good idea to paint the walls above where it will go, and then with paint still in the tray, before I knew it I had started on the ceiling, and then the rest of the walls and finally several hours later it was all, quite shockingly, complete, and I wondered why on earth I hadn’t removed the horrible orangey gloss wall paint months and months ago!WP_20160108_013

The old french chimney took the most amount of work. The old tiles were broken, and filthy when I first moved into the house, and in a fit of passion I had smashed half of them off the walls leaving a terrible mess in my wake just days after my arrival and then lived with it like that ever since. It’s amazing what a small amount of plasterboard, fibreboard and paint can do.

 

Our Christmas jaunt to get paint (at half the price of french) from an english DIY centre left us with empty hands. Only I can take months to reach a decision on paint colour only to arrive in the UK to find that isn’t in stock!

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But in the end I found myself relieved at the lack of new the kitchen sink unit, because now we get a pause to enjoy what we’ve accomplished so far before tackling the plumbing!

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So far it’s been a piece of cake!

 

 

Junk Shop “Finds” – And Restoring a Table.


Husband à l’Etranger has been home on gardening leave for over a month now, awaiting his next “mission”, and has quite definitely been leading me astray! Not more than two days can pass before he’s chomping at the bit to get to a local brocante and have a rummage through all that’s out on display. There are several antique fairs and junk shops within a few short minutes of our house, and this morning, after both of us had dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am to get our 14 year old to his “stage” or work experience placement, and then i’d been kindly allowed to get back to sleep again while he did the car trip to the boulangerie at the centre of the “stage”, it seemed only moments before bacon sandwiches and freshly squeezed orange juice appeared at my bedside. Clearly Husband à l’Etranger was keen to get “antiquing” before the best things were gone!

Every time we get in the car we say firmly to one another “You’re not allowed to buy anything” – knowing full well that December the fifteenth is nearly upon us and represents the awful day when the council take our “Taxe d’Habitation”(resident’s tax), and our “Taxe Foncière”(home owner’s tax) out of our bank accounts in one enormous, and impoverishing chunk, leaving us destitute moments before Christmas. We always look at each other, our faces a picture of hardfast committment to the “no spending” rule, and then spend the morning hoping the other will crack the first.

Last week, Husband à l’Etranger had come home with two brass “fire-dogs” under his arm, which drew some chuntering on my part about promises and too much junk in the garage until he declared that they cost the grand total of 4€, and would so improve the burning capacity of our fireplace and consumption of logs, that he was let off.

The week before he managed to unearth 12 wineglasses that I had completely overlooked that matched EXACTLY our other 6 wineglasses that I had bought in an antique shop two years earlier. We both decided that this was a special occasion because now we could invite more than 6 people to dinner, and they were only 20€. You can imagine the conversation that ensued – Clearly they were meant for us and no-one in their right minds could turn down a bargain like that…could they? Even after the stall owner took 10 minutes to locate, having gone for a coffee, and with such a “cooling off period”, the glasses left with us. A dinner party is in the cooking.

But the largest item that has come home, is one that I bought without his “say-so”. About a month ago I came home with a dining-room table. It was in quite a state, and no-one in their right minds could say that it was pretty. But I had got fed up with the kids arguing about who could put their feet on the bar running under the centre of our old table, and squeaks about squashed feet, and then I discovered this one in a junk shop with no central bar and I knew that with a bit of t.l.c it was a keeper.

It sat in the garage while I blew hot and cold about it, and then finally a fortnight ago I got to work.

So here it is , all orangey red varnish, looking very forlorn:

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and a day later, sanded clean:WP_20151103_002

I’m not a big fan of varnish, so when I discovered our local DIY shop sold “invisible” varnish I decided to give it a try. Afterwards I painted the legs with a white primer, followed by a pale grey/taupe matt paint and rubbed them lightly to distress them, and here is the end product:

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It has a neat table extension system (rallonges) where the end pieces slide under the main table to shorten it.WP_20151108_002But for now we’re just getting used to where we put our feet…

Perhaps in front of the fire next to the “dogs” suggests Husband à l’Etranger.

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Picnic at the Chateau


Husband à l’etranger had barely stepped of the plane, nor had a moment to sleep off the ‘decalage horaire’ (jet-lag) before I whisked him off to our lovely friends for an “Apéro Dinatoire” at their mini-chateau. This lovely evening out is a wonderful way to spend time with friends whilst trying a myriad of “amuse bouches”, or canapés acompanied by a glass or two of carefuly selected wines. The idea behind the “apéro dinatoire” is to eat gradually through the evening without ever sitting formally at the dinner table, nor eatening anything that we would generally consider a full blown meal. Nevertheless, by the end of the evening the stomach is pleasantly full and the tastebuds tantalisingly tested! The “apéro”, and the “apéro dinatoire” are very much part of the french culture and way of life, and a seemingly effortless way to entertain without the stress of a sit-down dinner, the former being an invitataion to drinks, whilst the latter, an invitation to stay the whole evening.

Limesy Chateau

should you dream of owning your own perfect mini-chateau look no further than this one!

Somewhere about half-way through the evening one of the gathered company thanked “Husband à l’etranger” for our generous invitation to “picnic at the ruin” the following day, and he acknowleged the event mindful to ask me what I had planned when we got back into the car at the end of the evening. It was only a lot later that he discovered that the ruin was not our own, but one destined to make us feel that ours was merely in need of a quick flick of a paint-brush. There are ruins, and then there are RUINS!

Sunday saw us bumping down a pot-holed and grassy track in the balmy sunshine before coming to a halt beside a gathering of scattered cars and knee-high grass. In front of us a beautiful, and down-at-heel chateau and the distinct smell of a wood-fired barbecue. In the distance laughter and shouts from children gone wild, and the distant hubub of adults from somewhere deep in the bowels of the cellars of the house.

WP_20150614_015This is France at its best. For as we penetrated the gloom of the chateau listening for the direction of voices, we stumbled out onto a long terrace where, table cloth billowing in the gentle breeze, a table for twenty lay ready and waiting it’s lunch guests, china, cutlery and silver jugs laden with garden flowers. A little bit of perfection amongst the dust and debris of the chateau itself.

Minutes later the party from the night before took to their seats, and from the embers of the woodfire, a “côte de boeuf” (side of beef) and sizzled potatoes, accompanied by a full bodied red. No sooner finished than the best of Normandy, oozing ripe cheeses were passed around the table with hunks of fresh baguette; then as always in a typical french meal, the salad with a rich nutty dressing; followed by two gorgeous patisseries, the Framboisier, fresh raspberries engulfed in rich crème patissière and light gateau, and a chocolat moelleux, a gooey molten-centred chocolate cake.

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WP_20150614_010Words cannot describe the camaraderie of the afternoon, nor the romance of the setting. A chateau commandeered during the second world war and left ravaged and pillaged over the subsequent years, only to be bought back by its rightful owners several generations later with dreams to restore it to its former glory. No running water nor electricity, and much immagination needed when it came to bathrooms! WP_20150614_028As dusk began to fall, the china, and glasses were stacked into the boots of many cars, as tired, happy, and ever so slightly dusty the friends parted company and made their way home again.WP_20150614_006

Fagots and Ficelles


What every garden needs is a fit gardener, and as much as I love gardening, there were a couple of jobs in my garden that needed the brute force and muscles of a guy! Having not been maintained for forty odd years, it had become something of a winderness with a tree canopy to rival the best of any tropical rainforest. We have had a stream of “garden” types knocking in the door over the last few months, some of whom were surely more the genre of burglers on a reconnaissance tour but one amongst them clearly knew his trees, despite the absence of leaves, and I decided to put him to work.

Having tackled the “lawn” on his first visit,  the visual impact of which was so positive, I decided to rope him in for the major task of removing two trees. One of the trees effectively blocked the view of the garden from  the conservatory, a Thuja, which had fallen over some time in the distant past and was growing horizontally across the garden, and the second, a large Hawthorn tree which effectively dominated the rest.

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“Fit Gardener”, as we like to call him, on account of his chic french gardening attire and cheery disposition made short work of the two trees and used what remained of his allotted time frame to start gathering up the overwhelming quantity of branches into small bundles. He came into the kitchen and asked if I had any “ficelle”, and I looked at him a bit non-plussed until it dawned on me that he was looking for natural twine.

When it comes to rubbish, recycling and refuse removal, the french are at the top of the game. Every dechetterie (dump) in France has a stock of bags for different purposes, including yellow for paper and recycling of packaging and white for garden waste, along with each house having a green bin for bottles and a black bin for general waste. When I visited the dechetterie I explained to the man in charge that my garden hadn’t been touched for years and he handed over 25 reuseable garden sacs to fill with garden debris.WP_20150510_005“Fit Gardener” had made a massive inroad into the branches from the Thuja in my absence, gathering and roping them into bundles with the twine. The rules on the recycling website are that the bundles or “fagots” as the French call them must be no greater than 15cm thick, but ours were at least double that, and well tied with bio-degradeable twine. I stared in astonishment at the twenty or so fagots left at my gateway, expecting them to be carted away, but “Fit Gardener” assured me that the recycling truck would pass on the monday morning, having expected all house owners to have been gardening over the weekend, and would take it all away. I was unconvinced.

When I woke at 7 the following morning the pavement outside my house was empty, and all the fagots gone.

Time hadn’t been on “Fit Gardener’s” side, and the nasty thorny Hawthorn lay still spread across the garden. I didn’t believe that the guys driving the recycling truck would look on kindly to fagots of Hawthorn, some of the thorny spikes being a finger-length long, and so I took out my secateurs to chop each branch into metre-long lengths before filling the large recycling garden bags.

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It took several days of back breaking labour before all the branches were safely removed from the lawn and the bags stacked in a row ready to be put out onto the street on sunday night.WP_20150510_008

On sunday, pleased with my progress I headed off to work as usual, a full day of tours of the city for an ocean-going cruise-liner that was moored up at the Port of Rouen.WP_20150510_001

WP_20150510_002Not even having time for a pause for lunch,( which suggests the day had not been organised by a Frenchman), by the time I arrived home in the early evening exhaustion was setting in, dinner was still to cook, and the kids had very kindly left the remains of breakfast out on the table (apparently for me to tidy up when I got in as they had been very busy during the day – playing computer games!) So you can imagine the groan when the evening came to an end and I was locking up, only to spot the gardening bags still waiting to be moved out onto the street!

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You can see that I got more daring as time went on – filling the bags with ever greater quantities of thorny branches!

Once I had lined them up I had severe doubts that the recycling van would take them all. I looked at my neighbours little pile of greenery waiting to go and conceded that his waste was much more reasonable and crossed my fingers that the van-driver would take pity on me!

WP_20150510_006My neighbours bundle
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My bags!

When I left for work on monday morning I was astonished to see that the pavement outside my house was competely clear, and that my neighbours little pile was still resolutely lying on the ground where he had left them. And then I went for a closer look….WP_20150511_002

…only to find that my neighour had made one serious omission. In the land of “red-tape” and regulation, rules and obligations he had failed to put any ficelle around his bundle of greenery; whilst my back-breakingly bagged monsters had all disappeared!WP_20150511_001

Which just goes to show that a bundle of greenery without “ficelle” is simply not, and never will be a “fagot”  – nor will it ever be good to go!WP_20150510_004Don’t say you haven’t been warned!