Sunny days and stormy evenings in Normandy


Two massive cracks of thunder and suddenly the rain has started pelting down. I’m lucky to have just got in in time from gathering flowers for the vase on the table in the hall.

This time of year is particularly lovely in France and my peonies have chosen to flower plant by plant, one after another, the length of the month of May. And now the Lupins and the fragrant roses are also putting on a blousy show, but their scent is nevertheless having a hard time outdoing the Mock Orange.Beds that we’re uncultivated last year and were planted with flowers bought from a flower stall near my sister’s hospice at the time of each of my frequent visits are now growing strongly and producing their first blooms. I particularly love the white peony which has given four beautiful flowers in its first year.I have taken refuge in the conservatory which is a hive of activity, though not of the floral kind just yet. Husband ‘a la Maison’ is busy restoring all our windows and the conservatory is the ideal location to work from. One day soon we want to restore the conservatory itself, but it’s a large and daunting job.You can see the pane of glass carefully set aside and the frame being scraped back to its original wood. The deep reveals of our windows mean that the windows have been protected from the worst of the elements for over a hundred years and there’s not a trace of rot. So far the balcony french windows are all completed and this is this year’s second set of ordinary windows. Only two more sets to go after this and all the windows will have been restored and repainted.

I’m taking refuge from the rain and thanking it for doing the evening watering for us. The thunder is a constant rumble with frequent flashes of lightening. It must be nearly overhead. When it stops I will have to go out again and shake the Peonies heads as the rain has filled the blooms since I came inside and they’re drooping so low with the weight of the water that their heads are nearly touching the ground.But on dry days our new outdoor tap is doing a great job keeping everything watered.If it wasn’t raining I would be lounging in a hammock enjoying the garden, but the conservatory is the next best place and at least when the storm passes over we may have a cooler, less sticky night.Have a great week!

Brocante Finds and Wisteria.


A perfect day off involves a morning wandering through an old french market followed by a lazy lunch and afternoon in the garden. The month of May is perfect for indulging because there are so many state holidays that the french people have become experts at avoiding going to work where at all possible. This week the national holiday, which unlike in the UK where it always falls on a Monday, relies on its date, and has fallen not only on Tuesday, Victoire (victory day) the 8th of May, but also on Thursday, the 10th of May which is Ascension.

The idea of having a weekend and then returning to work for Monday only to have a national holiday on Tuesday is so ridiculous to any Frenchman, that a nationally recognized “pont”, or “bridge” is put into action. Monday becomes a bridge from Sunday to Tuesday and effectively no one works that day either. Since Thursday is also a national holiday, Friday becomes a bridge to the following weekend and no one works that day either. But of course we can’t stop there, because Wednesday also becomes a bridge from Tuesday to Thursday. Pretty impossible to work that day too, and before you know it there’s a 9 day holiday in the middle of May!

As the month of May comes round, everyone visibly relaxes. The first of May, the fête de travail, is also a national holiday as is the 20th and 21st of May for Pentecost. A fabulous month for everyone, made better still under sunny blue skies.

A few months ago at the far end of our local Sunday market we came across a stall holder packing up for his long anticipated lunch, and jumbled in amongst the bric à brac of his antique stall was an old tap, a decorative brass collar and the old over arch of a grand wrought iron gate. Perhaps the over arch was from an old Château, or an old manoir. We shall never know, but for a scant amount of money we heaved it onto our shoulders and carted it with the old tap and collar off to the car. They sat in a rather forlorn state over winter and this spring the tap was attached to the old brass decorative collar and mounted onto a piece of shaped stone against the conservatory wall. The old over arch was scraped clean and repainted and then modified in width to sit over our rather more diminutive gate.Two summers ago we had bought a small wisteria plant to grow up the side of the house where ivy used to grow. Last summer we knew that if we didn’t find a framework for it to grow over quickly, it would become very difficult to manage. While the stems of the Wisteria were still in hibernation we pushed them through the gate overarch and waited to see how it would look.It’s been wonderful coming in and out of the garden this month and breathing in the scent as we pass. Having an outside garden tap at last has made short work of the watering! Next year we may have to cut back yet more of the ivy as the wisteria vigorously winds it’s way the length of the garden railings. I can only anticipate how heavenly the scent will be next year, and hope there will be even more days off and “ponts” to look forward in which to enjoy it!Have a wonderful “end of week”!

And even the kitchen sink!


I’ve decided, quite excitingly ( for me anyway) to give my blog a face-lift, and so next time I post you may find a few changes to the layout and header, but for today I’m going to tell you about the much needed face- lift for our very neglected kitchen!

Anyone that’s rented in France will know that the ‘oh so’ well known english expression, “taking everything but the kitchen sink” is not a figurative expression here when it comes to house moving, but a very big reality. It’s very common to arrive at a new rental or purchase property to find that in the kitchen there is only one item- quite literally a sink, often without even a cabinet below it.

Annonce1-photo4 (2)It was almost the case when we first moved into our house. The elderly Monsieur from whom we’d bought it had gaily lived his life using the top of his mini fridge as his work top, with a small wooden table in the centre of the room. The sink, on a very dilapidated cabinet in the corner was built for a very diminutive person, and washing up bent double to achieve the right height was not a pleasant experience. For three years we nevertheless continued with his tradition.WP_20150103_006I made a very half hearted attempt to paint the cupboard.WP_20160115_002It wasn’t strictly necessary to struggle on, but ‘husband a l’étranger ‘, as he was at the time , and I had come to an impasse over what would be the replacement sink. Husband ‘a l’étranger’ was very fond of the old battered ceramic sink, complete with chips, yellowing and scratches, and I was all for a modern but similar replacement. Gradually he begun to comment about the presence of some interminable flies which seem to appear from nowhere just after he had cleared the last lot through the door. For my part, I was anxious about the damp under the sink which turned out dishwasher salt into a nasty clump, and let’s not even mention the wet patch in the cellar which had convinced me that we had an major underground drain leak.

At the same time as we bought our island unit to give us a decent worktop, I bought a matching base unit for a future sink. I also searched around for quite some time, looking for a new ceramic sink. It took a lot of finding as I wanted 2 bowls, and Husband ‘a l’étranger ‘ wanted an integral draining board. It had to be as near to a metre long to fit into the space I calculated would be available after the base cupboard was modified. Eventually, at great cost I found one.When it arrived on the truck it took 2 strong men to lift it, and it was put in the corner of the dining room…where it stayed for nearly for two years! Husband ‘a l’étranger ‘ cocked a snook at the lovely new white ceramic sink declaring that my idea of converting the base unit cupboard, which was designed for a single Belfast sink, into a double Belfast sink was nigh on impossible. He went to Emmaus and bought a competing sink for 15 € in a style circa 1970, which would involve, yes you guessed it, modifying the base unit as his was a “sit- on”, rather than a “sit-in” style.

The stand off lasted longer than I bear to think about, but approximately two years! Half the trouble was that ripping out a kitchen sink completely handicaps the functioning of a kitchen and there wasn’t quite enough impetus to make it happen. At some point into the second year I disappeared into the garage, and only came back inside once the base unit had been completely painted, – except for the area which needed to be modified and cut away.

Husband ‘a l’étranger went into the garage and balanced his sit-on sink on top of the base unit, and gradually the whole turned into a new dumping ground for various bike helmets, tools and ‘odds and sods’!

And so the stand-off continued.

And then, in November, the mighty ‘hand of god’ intervened with his ‘acte de dieu’ and our dishwasher spontaneously went up in flames at five o’clock in the morning. And there’s nothing like being forced to wash up for a family of six at a very low sink to focus the mind.

The following Sunday, Husband ‘a l’étranger’ rose from his seat in the sitting room and disappeared into the garage and suddenly the sound of a saw could be heard. Within a couple of hours the offending piece of base unit was removed and a double sink size space was created in its place.

The following day the cupboard and sink from the kitchen saw their last.And from that moment we haven’t looked back!A support was made for the new heavy sink:You can see how we cut away the right-hand drawer to increase the space for the sink.The biggest detail issue was how to close of the space between the sides of the sink and the base unit, which we did with a thin piece of timber panel, slightly recessed and painted the same colour.We closed of the left hand end of the freestanding base unit with the wall with another piece of recessed painted panel, placed the new dishwasher in its position with a temporary door and laid on the oak worktop.

The next issue was how to deal with the small spaces either side of the cooker.

Matching the feet of the freestanding unit we made a faux left-hand panel and a fixed right hand panel. The centre part of the left hand side panel opens with a narrow pull-out bottle drawer.On-line I had discovered a company who made paneled dishwasher doors in a shaker-style. Their excellent design with identical feet to our kitchen units would have been ideal but unfortunately theirs was designed for a higher worktop and an XXL dishwasher. Neither of which we had.

Husband ‘a l’étranger’ thought I was more than a little mad (and rather demanding) when I suggested copying the design and making it ourselves.The idea was to make the dishwasher door resemble a free-standing unit, and therefore a door within a frame. However the door and frame are actually just a door!Here it is with the leg part of the frame cut off, fixed to the dishwasher and with painting just underway.And here it is fully painted with the legs in place. If you look carefully you can see the horizontal cut across the legs which is where the dishwasher door opens at its hinges. Without the cut the dishwasher would never open!

The full width of the dishwasher door runs from washing machine on the right to sink unit on the left, but yet it looks like a freestanding unit in itself. I think you’ll agree it’s a great design, (and build), neither of which I can take credit for.

….and the flies, well they had made their nice home in the old overflow pipe of the old sink, and the old waste pipe had been silently dripping for years into the sink cupboard and down to the cellar below. Now both issues are something of the past.

There’s something about creating and building for oneself, I get a little bit of pleasure each time I have to open the dishwasher and load it up…

….and that’s got to be a first!

A Long Shower


Our bathroom is one of those horrors you hope never to come across, even after years in the wilderness, yet it has taunted us for three long years since moving into the house. In an attempt to protect the most sensitive amongst you, I spent a while cleaning before taking the photos, but even one of my dear friends conceded, after putting her back into the task that the bath was uncleanable and perhaps should be painted just to tide us over( excuse the pun)!

As you can see we have an interesting blocked-up window, rather outrageous pink tiles, and a glaringly pink cupboard..

..notwithstanding the terrible peeling paint issue..and let’s not mention the dirty bath again! The plumber told me that the silicone sealant should be redone every year, but if you knew about the water that insisted on finding it’s way between the bath and the wall, and positively wrecking the sitting room ceiling below, you’ll know why, now that we’ve managed to waterproof the joint, we have no intention of picking it all out and starting over again.

But when you only have one bathroom to share amongst six people, with four of them being adolescents, ripping it out the entire bathroom has simply never been an option.

Off the master-bedroom, however, was a tiny “coin lavabo” (basin corner), and just behind it, opening onto the landing was a large-ish cupboard, and though storage is very crucial, we decided to move the partition wall to create a larger space for a “coin douche” ( shower room) and a smaller cupboard instead.

This decision was made a year and a half ago, so you will be forgiven for thinking that we’ve made heavy weather of it. What’s held us back has been an annoying detail called ‘jobs’ and the need to seriously waterproof the space as directly below is our hallway. Living in Normandy we had no great desire to come inside from one shower straight into another one coming through the ceiling!

The first part of the construction process saw us full of enthusiasm. After all there is nothing more satisfying than knocking down walls! The next process, buying the products, was equally satisfying, but that’s when work pressures got too intense and the project ground down.

This summer with the prospect of using the bathroom becoming less and less appealing, I finally, and uncharacteristically turned to the professionals!

The first plumber who came to quote arrived in his shiny polished pointed shoes and impeccable suit. He enthusiastically declared anything was possible. His quote was so much lower than the others our confidence ebbed as his increased.

The second frowned for several minutes and then appeared reassuringly knowledgeable, batting away our more crazy ideas and coming up far more realistic alternatives. But on his way out declared that he couldn’t ‘insure’ leaks from the products we had already bought.

The third, jovial and encouraging plumber came up with an excellent idea to remove the necessity for a ‘trap-door’ to get to hidden piping by turning the entire shower through 90 degrees and having the pipe work accessible from the reduced sized landing cupboard. He was our first choice but he never sent us a quote.

In the end plumber number two was available with a space in his calendar to construct our shower the first week of September. He did a beautiful job, happily turning the shower through 90 degrees without argument, and left several days later having even tiled the rest of the shower-room floor which I’m sure we hadn’t even asked him to do in the first place!

So why, you might ask, am I only telling you about it now, at the end of November?

It turns out, you see, that turning a shower tray through 90 degrees is not a very good idea. Now the slope of the shower to the drain is exactly where we need to put our shower screen. And I defy you to find me a shower screen manufacturer who makes shower screens that slope by 28mm from left to right along their bottom edge!

There’s a Do it Yourself store in France called Leroy Merlin, it’s a bit of a play on words actually. When pronounced correctly it really says Le Roi Merlin, ( king Merlin) and old Merlin was allegedly a bit of a magical chap. So this seemed the ideal place to find a shower screen solution. I fell upon a very nice assistant at Leroy Merlin, let’s call her ‘Madame’, because that’s what she also calls me. My initial conversation with all the bathroom staff, and believe me, shop staff in places like this really are pretty knowledgeable, if occasionally a bit rigid in their viewpoints, involved a lot of sucking teeth. They had a made ‘sur mesure’ service but their computer programme was only set up to register modifications of glass sizes to the sides and the top of the shower screens. Definitely not to the bottoms! To complicate matters the fabricators were based in Germany, but at least on the same time zone, although some of the delays to respond might have had us thinking otherwise!

However Madame asked me to go home and measure millimeter by millimeter the fall across my shower tray. After that she seemed to decide that she was going to resolve the conundrum by hell or high water. The only trouble is that Madame is only available on a Friday.

It seems that Madame and I are more switched on than the German company, as we kept getting back quotes for shower screens with doors that had to open against the slope. As much as I might wish it, i cannot squeeze my body through a 2cm gap once the door grinds to a halt against the slope of the shower tray, no matter how much I wish otherwise.

Madame and I have been sending each other many encouraging emails – once a week!

On Friday she was just emailing me when I physically entered the store. In the excitement at the latest development we entirely forgot to shake hands and greet each other before getting down to business. She realized about 5 minutes into the conversation, and stopped, a little shocked by her lack of manners ( and presumably mine as well), paused, and vigorously shook my hand with a “bonjour Madame” before resuming the partially completed sentence of moments before.

It appears we might be nearly there. The German contact has realised that the hinges have to go on the lower side of the door. Madame has advised me that it would be worth measuring everything again as a final check because once it finally does arrive there’s no recourse for errors.

But while we are waiting, we can at least admire the handiwork, and use the basin, carefully constructed and installed by ‘husband a la maison’ which has no awkward slopes except for where they’re meant to be. The marble to support the basin was found in our attic, broken in two and we glued it back together. The little basin table was found in a brocante and modified to incorporate the basin itself.

Not only that, but I am very excited to present the long searched for mirror. ‘Husband a la maison’ picked it up for 20€ at Emauus, which he is especially pleased about since I gave him the “do you really need to go there again speech ” a few minutes before he departed. And as if to add the cherry to the cake, it even has birds carved onto it which mirrors my curtains perfectly!

Now all that there is left to do is to decide which lights to use above the sink – but perhaps you can help us with that!

If we are all really lucky I may have a shower before Christmas!

Shower screen willing!

Chatou Brocante and Antiques


We’ve been doing a bit of work on the house again, and this time the shower-room is taking shape. There just the physical water connection, a shower screen and a mirror left to do, and when it comes to mirrors, there’s nothing better than trying to pick up an antique one, especially when the antiques faire at Chatou is on.

We’d never been to this particular fair before and so didn’t know what to expect. The brocante is laid out on a small island in the middle of the river Seine, just outside of Paris. It was mid-week so not too many people were there, but it was huge and fabulous, and there were plenty of makeshift restaurants to choose from in the middle of the day.img_1325-2

What I liked best was the artistry of some of the stands, and there was plenty that I would have loved to buy, though the mirror remained elusive!img_1310img_1311img_1326

There were so many amazing urns and cloches, but our bartering didn’t manage to get us any bargains!img_1327I so nearly went for the pineapple, but “husband chez nous” didn’t look away for long enough.. it was after all “mission mirror”!img_1316I loved this one, a grey and gilt trumeau mirror….the price was to die for too!

And after all, why have one when you can have three!img_1318-1img_1322img_1330

So many lovely things that it was hard to head home.img_1309img_1319

But since the great mirror hunt continues, there’s still the excuse to come back for more. The basin is very lonely all by itself.

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!

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!