Aug 29 2015

Plum Pickins

Two greengage trees, on the edge of our property, produce the sweetest plum-like fruit. Last month, the trees were flush with little round green plums, promising a bountiful harvest when they’d ripen, at the end of August. Knowing we’d return to the country house for the last week of summer, I envisioned the pies, tarts and marmalade that would result from such a robust yield.

I didn’t even know the trees produced fruit until the Pastry Ace paid us a visit and with her keen culinary eye, pointing out all sorts of fruit growing on or around our property that I’d never noticed. Since then, I’ve watched these plum trees fill out with little round fruit, but I don’t always get to harvest them because often we’re gone when they ripen. Last year our cross-America tour pulled us away for the last half of the summer. Who knows what it was the year before; we were moving to Barcelona and otherwise occupied. We tend to use the country house in July, and do other things in August, sometimes returning for the last week, sometimes not.

~ ~ ~

After my annual escape to Pamplona in early July, I returned to our country house just in time to make the neuron-cake that Short-pants requested for her birthday. (Try that with a hangover after a week-long party.) Soon after, neuron_cakeDe-facto and I flew to the states for work – a neighbor stayed here with the girls – returning to the country house for a week or so before a wedding in Italy called us to the Adriatic coast. We crawled back to Barcelona in heavy traffic, wanting only to stay put, quietly, which we did for a week or so before a return to the country house for the last week of summer, our last hurrah, and maybe finally some time to relax, before submerging again into the routine of work and school.

August is the height of the vacation period in Europe. The cities turn quiet – both Paris and Barcelona, like other European capitals, seem to lose half of their local population. Streets clear out and the energy of vacation covers the city like a heavy beach blanket. It’s still full-on summertime, warm and sunny and relaxed, but the moment the calendar clicks from July 31 to August 1, there’s a sense of melancholy. July is bright and bouncy with the youthful energy of summer fun. August comes with a big sigh, signaling that all good things must end, that summer is rolling by, rapidly, and fall is just a few footsteps away.

~ ~ ~

But I had the greengages to temper my August melancholy. On our drive north from Barcelona to the country house, I pictured those trees covered with juicy, yellow-green plums, and I promised Short-pants and Buddy-roo I’d make pies with top crusts bulging with fruit. Maybe I’d even freeze one and leave it for our return in October.

Minutes after our arrival, I sprinted out to the corner of our land where the two trees stand, ready to pluck a plum off a branch and savor its sweetness. The next day I’d fill up a big bowl and move the fruit directly from tree to pie, but I was impatient to appreciate the inventory. Winston galloped after me, not knowing why, but sensing my anticipation.

I ran down the road and jumped over the ditch and found my two trees, thick with green leaves fluttering in the late afternoon breeze – and not one single plum. tree_sin_mas

Gone. They were all gone.

I recall, now, a few summers ago, going out to inspect the trees in August to find them empty. But it had been a very wet spring and summer. I hadn’t gotten any grapes that season either. It was weird, but it was an anomaly, so I thought. But given that just a few weeks ago I’d seen both trees covered in fruit, something was very wrong.

I looked closer. This couldn’t be the work of birds. The tree had been cleaned, top to bottom. Not even one stray plum hung from any of the branches.

I’m bewildered that someone would clear out all the fruit from both of the trees. Though near the road, they are not obviously visible to a passing car. Somebody knows that the trees are there and possibly they’ve come every year – except the years we happened to be here in August – to help themselves. They must see our house locked tight without a car in front, and they stop and clear out our plum supply. But seriously, they must have had a ladder! There were plums all the way to the tops of those trees. This was a deliberate harvest. Not just let’s grab a few fruit while passing by. They took everything.

Grudgingly, I bought greengages (known as Reine-Claude in French) at the market. They are a precious fruit, coveted (apparently). I had my heart set on a plum pie. Buy it’s not the same, not the same as pruning the tree, weeding around it, watching the little beans turn into berries and into plump little plums, picking them yourself and knowing they came from your own land and your good effort. There’s that, plus the sheer cheekiness of the perpetrators and the feeling of violation that accompanies the loss of something you believed to be yours.

They must have been yummy. This summer has been hot and dry, and this is good for all the fruit on our property. The grapes that get morning sun are already ripe; I picked them yesterday and served them with our luncheon cheese plate. The grapes that see sun only in the afternoon are not quite ready for harvesting, but there have never been so many grapes hanging from my vines, in all the seasons I’ve been tending them.

The endrina (a.k.a. sloe berry) tree on our property is also bountiful. And another one at the end of the road, on our neighbor’s land, is covered in little blue fruit and far easier to reach. I’d been eyeballing it, thinking about the next batch of patxaran. I might not have thought much about helping myself to a few of those blue berries, until now. Yesterday, I walked down and private_propertychatted with the neighbor, asking if she minded if I took a few bowls of those berries before I left.

“Take them all,” she said, waving me off. “We can’t use them.”

I am reminded that my children and my man – and my mother-in-love, who is with us now – are all safe and healthy. And the fruit poachers did not break into our home and damage or remove anything. Not that our purposefully rustic country house contains any possessions of great value, but such theft or vandalism would disrupt the peaceful rhythm of our stay here. Still, it smarts, that somebody stole my plums and dashed my dreams of the perfect pie. Of course, there’s always next year’s crop. We’ll just have to come up with a strategy to keep those plum thieves away.


Apr 29 2015

In the Kitchen

It all happens in the kitchen. The heartbeat of a home, the source of our meals, the place where everyone ends up congregating at a party. The kitchen stands for warmth, nourishment and togetherness. The stove and oven cook food that gives us comfort and strength, its refrigerator and lil_kitchencupboards conveniently store everything we need for sustenance. A kitchen has a family connotation. Before I had children, I thought all a kitchen needed was a bottle of champagne in the fridge and a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Once we had a family, I realized – or remembered – what a kitchen really means.

Just after Short-pants was born, we tore down a wall in our Paris apartment to make our kitchen, dining and living spaces into one big room. In her bouncy chair on the table, or on her play-blanket on the floor, she could remain in line of sight while I warmed her milk or made a vegetable puree. During those early years when she and Buddy-roo could too easily walk into trouble, we could keep a safe eye on them. As they grew, the girls would stand on chairs on the other side of the kitchen island and help me chop vegetables or decorate Christmas cookies while De-facto watched from the couch behind them.

That open-styled kitchen – an “American kitchen” in French real estate terms – hosted many dinners, Thanksgivings and spontaneous pop-up parties (after school meeting and performances) just because it was easy to host a gang in such a big open space. Everyone would stand around the kitchen island and keep the cook company. And when I was the cook, I still got to be at the party.

Our Barcelona apartment has many fine features: a larger space than we inhabited in Paris, more rooms, enough for the girls to have their own bedrooms and both De-facto and I to have separate offices. The in-suite bathroom in the master bedroom is a boon and the girls have two sinks in their bathroom; no fighting for mirror time in the morning. But when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a disappointment. At first glance, it seems nice enough: marble countertops, light wood cupboards that reach all the way to the ceiling (no need to stand on a stool to scrub away grease that collects on top). But it’s too small: 6 X 9 square feet. Look closer and it’s a bit worn. The appliances are tired, not particularly energy efficient. But my big grievance: this kitchen has a door. oh_no_pasta

It’s a wide door that slides open to a small dining area that’s open to the main living room, so at first glance I thought it would be fine. But in fact, when in the kitchen I am entirely separated from the rest of the apartment. I find myself cooking dinner, alone, because even if the girls are on the couch, they’re in another room. I can’t see them and I can hardly hear them. I can’t participate in their conversation unless I keep stepping out of the kitchen. And when we entertain, I’m in there all alone, checking on the hors d’oeuvres in the oven, or else four people have planted themselves in the kitchen with me and I am constantly grabbing my guests by the shoulders and moving them from side one side to the other in this tiny room, to get into a cupboard or access the sink. Inevitably, somebody is standing exactly where I need to get to.

We rent this apartment, so there’s nothing to do about what is clearly a first world problem. But it’s raised my awareness about the impact of a kitchen on the life of a family.

~ ~ ~

A kitchen is a store of fertile childhood memories. I remember, in my mother’s kitchen, pacing around and around the stove and counters and table that together made an enormous island. I remember the drawers, one above the other, that I could pull out to create a short set of stairs to reach the top shelf on the snack cupboard. I remember my mother shifting her weight from foot to foot while standing at her kitchen sink, washing the dishes by hand and putting them in the drainer for me to dry with a dish towel. I remember the wide wooden board that she’d pull out from a slot between the drawers and cupboards to create extra workspace, and how at Christmas, it’d be covered with wax paper and cookies freshly frosted, waiting to be decorated with colored sugar.

I remember my father standing at the stove making Welsh Rarebit on Saturday afternoon, pressing the tiny square buttons to raise or lower the heat on the burners. I remember the bar he’d set up on the the kitchen counter whenever they entertained, and his law partner and best friend chastising my sister and me for putting an ice tray back in the freezer without heart_in_a_boxre-filling it. Like it was yesterday, I can remember my father leaning against that same counter, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral, mystified at his own grief.

I can tell you the color of every floor we ever had in that room, the linoleum of my early childhood and the carpets of two renovations that followed. I remember the decorative carving on the shelves that held my mother’s delicate demitasse teacup collection, shelves my high-school friends and I emptied and filled with beer bottles when my parents were out of town, the cups carefully replaced in exact order prior to their return. I remember standing in the kitchen looking out the window at the sheets on the clothesline the day my mother died, and feeling her absence so fiercely, that this was her kitchen and always would be and she will be standing in it forever, in my memory.

A kitchen like that, a room with so many stories, that’s what home is all about.

~ ~ ~

When De-facto and I bought our country house, in 2006, it didn’t have much of a kitchen. Some formica-topped furniture that didn’t attach to anything, a wood cooking stove, a sink. We brought down an old 3-burner electric stove – the one we’d replaced when we’d renovated in Paris – and a fridge we inherited from who-knows-where. The house, that first summer, required massive attention so we focused on fixing walls and floors. We slept in a tent outside while we made the inside livable. There were enough kitchen pieces to cobble together a meal, and we manage to function in that make-shift kitchen, kind of like camping inside. Not just that first summer, but year after year. Each time I’d suggest that it should be the next project on our list, I’d be persuaded that creating another bedroom or insulating a wall and finishing the side room was more critical. I succumbed in part because De-facto (and his brother who owns the house with us) had good arguments. The kitchen was workable, after all.

Last year I finally put my spatula down and fronted the cash to turn the skeletal cooking space we’d been enduring into a real kitchen. A workable kitchen, with plenty of counter space, mice-proof (mostly) cupboards, a light and fan above the stove, an eye-level oven, a cupboard with vertical shelf just for cutting boards, cookie sheets and long casserole dishes. A local contractor took his time – because he could, we were gone all winter – building and fitting the cupboards, giving us a new kitchen that matches the rustic feel of an old country house. I even persuaded De-facto, usually parsimonious farmer_sinkabout such acquisitions, that we should invest in a Cadillac sink, a mammoth porcelain farmer’s sink that matches the original one. I like an auxiliary sink, for cleaning vegetables, or putting champagne on ice. I even shipped over a stool from my mother’s kitchen, and it tucks just under the lip of a big square island, a centerpiece for people to stand around and lean on while preparing a meal, together, in a room that’s not only functional, but hospitable.

We just spent ten days at our country house over the school spring break. After a few initial rainy days, we were graced with sun and spring temperatures. We opened all the windows and aired out the house. I washed all the laundry that had piled up over our winter visits. De-facto mowed the lawn and planted the garden while I pruned the hedges and liberated the rose-bushes that I neglected last year. And every evening, when it was time to make dinner, I could spread out all the ingredients in front of me, with ample workspace to chop onions, slice vegetables, marinate chicken, roll out a pie crust – whatever we needed to prepare the family dinner, all of this in the spirited company of my daughters, in a kitchen I hope they’ll always remember.


Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
winston_on_the_road
In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.


Oct 29 2013

A Fall Fix

It was strange to be driving north, away from the sunny skies into cloudier cover and cooler temperatures. When the windshield wipers were required, De-facto and I glanced sideways at each other in the front seat, no doubt thinking the same thing: why are we driving away from the better weather? balloon_bcn_buildingUsually, for the Toussaint fall half-term break, it gets a little warmer and a little sunnier as we drive south toward our country house. This will take some getting used to, going the other way.

The drive is almost twice as long from Barcelona as it is from Paris, though we are a family for which time in a car is not a burden. Our children have been weaned on long car drives, so if they do ask, “are we there yet?” it’s only to mimic a conversation between Donkey and Shrek on their journey to Far Far Away. De-facto’s sister made us a few playlists, years ago, and these have become our standard driving music. We all know the words to the songs, and the order of the tracks, by heart.

We stopped at the Supermarket just off the highway and picked up some staples we’d need for meals for the few days we plan to stay in the country, and still made it to our old stone house before dusk closed in. It’s always easier to open the house in the daylight, though it hadn’t been officially closed yet. De-facto was here for an overnight in September; he couldn’t remember if he’d left the electricity on or not. If it had been shut off, we didn’t know if we might arrive to a mold-ridden refrigerator. It’s happened before, when the last people out forgot to leave fridge door open before cutting the electricity and closing the house. It took hours of cleaning with a scouring pad and a lot of cursing, not even under my breath.

The fridge had been left closed, but it was nice and chilly inside, thanks to a steady flow of electricity. I removed the inedible food that had been languishing for weeks and restocked it with the groceries just purchased. We’d cleared our most of the furniture from the main room of the house before leaving in August – if moving to a new city weren’t enough, we’re also in the process of renovating the country house kitchen, a project that after many years I’d finally convinced De-facto to support so I wasn’t about to give it up no matter how bad the timing – so the room was empty but for the ancient appliances. We’d have to move the table and chairs back into the kitchen so we could function for a few days.

“Quick, everybody,” De-facto shouted from upstairs, “Bring cups!”

I had no idea why he wanted us to bring him cups, but his appeal was urgent, so I scrambled around, trying to remember where I’d stored all the cups when we’d dismantled the kitchen at the end of the summer. After opening three ladder_up_to_walldifferent boxes, I remembered we stashed them on the shelves in a back room. I grabbed three, and the girls and I ran upstairs.

A large paint bucket, placed on top of the wardrobe in our bedroom to catch the drips from a minor leak that emerged last year, was filled to the brim with rain water that had leaked in and accumulated over two months. It was too full for him to move it. Cup by cup, in assembly line form, we emptied enough of the water until he could lift it without spilling the contents and carry the bucket to the bathroom to dump it out. The wall behind the leak was soaked, as was the floor and the carpet beneath the wardrobe. The ceiling between the skylight and the wet wall was covered with black splotches of mold. When it rains, it pours. In our case, inside.

The leak was no longer a minor one. We wondered if the kitchen renovation project would be stalled while we replaced the roof instead. But our neighbor, who’s prepping the walls and ceiling for the new kitchen cabinets, stopped by and peeked upstairs at the at the skylight and the ceiling. He returned minutes later with a ladder and some tools and found the problem that had eluded De-facto on his roof-top romps over the summer. Within an hour, he declared the leak repaired. Since his proclamation, a few days ago, it’s rained with significant force, and the bucket remains dry. The fix, at least for now, is a good one.

~ ~ ~

I was missing the autumn. It’s my instinct, about now, to put on a sweater. Barcelona’s warmer weather hasn’t required it. I’m not complaining – I’m looking forward to the milder winter ahead – but it wasn’t until Short-pants and I went out for a walk down the lane and into the woods that I remembered how much I relish these few October weeks, just after Indian summer and before the gray, windy November days settle in. The leaves, though not as vibrant as in New England where I grew up, are still a colorful range of yellow and gold hues. The air is crisp, the wind not yet cool, but brisk, gusty. All of a sudden I’m somewhere else: raking in the yard of my childhood home, under that old split-leaf maple, and then jumping into the pile of leaves; or climbing up the bleachers at a home-team high-school football game; or walking up the brick sidewalk near my college campus, smelling and feeling the end and the beginning of something, all at once. Autumn is for me the most nostalgic season of the year. Each season has its good memories, but the fall conjures my favorite ones.
grapes
Not just from my childhood, from this country house, too. Though this fall’s busy schedule didn’t permit it, in previous years we’ve made mid September weekend trips to harvest the grapes and take advantage of the last days of Indian summer. (A few stray bunches grapes remained on the vines this year, it would have been a good harvest. But instead the birds enjoyed the fruits of my labor.) We make it a point to come every October, taking advantage of the school break to enjoy a few more country days before we close the house for winter (when we leave the fridge door wide open). When the kids were little we constructed some very frightening Halloweens here, and it was by far better to trick or treat down the dark and spooky country road then to make stops the places we’d planted candy in our Paris neighborhood. It’s not fancy, our country house, but it’s a (mostly dry) roof over our heads near open fields and wild forests. It’s the source of good, strong memories from every season, but the ones in the making right now – a leaky roof and a leafy walk – gave me just what I needed: a quick fix of fall.


May 5 2013

In our Nature

I stuck my head out the bathroom window to see the girls playing in front of the house. Buddy-roo was prancing in the grass as Short-pants paced in a circle with her hands up in the air. They talked to each other in exaggerated voices, though occasionally Buddy-roo would assume her normal tone to bark an order at her sister, directing the theater of their play. Or the other way around, as each took turns in and out of role, suggesting the next step of their game, pure improvisation as children do best.

I watched for several minutes, looking down on them from the second floor of our country house, observing the choreography of their make-believe, catching pieces of dialogue.

“…and now my wings are growing back.”

“Penelope’s mechant attempts to block your entry to the sacred circle have failed, thanks to my powers.”
country_house_gate
I could not contain a pollen-induced sneeze – spring in the country – and both their dirty blonde heads turned upwards toward the upstairs window in which I was perched.

“Mama!” This shout came in tandem, with glee. Even after just 45 minutes, it’s like they haven’t seen me in days.

“We’re playing fairies!”

“Look at my wings!”

I listened to the convoluted explanation of their play, which to be honest wasn’t that interesting but their animated exuberance deserved my attention. It was impressive, this lengthy and specific scenario, conjured up from nothing except the wildflowers bloomed in the tall wet grass on a partly sunny morning. That’s one of the reasons I love coming to the country house; there is no better stimulant for their imagination then a little bit of nature.

Not that they don’t tumble into their imagined skits and games at home in Paris, but here in the country it happens more often, for longer and with greater detail and depth. They disappear for hours in the fields and forest, running back into the house and throwing themselves against me, their clothes and hair cold and fresh from being out in the springtime air.

~ ~ ~

There are lilacs across the road, in full bloom this week. The bush is tall and unruly; we never quite get to pedicuring the trees and bushes on that part of our property. The dark lavender flowers look like a fireworks display gone awry. I stand at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes and smiling at the purple blooms. My mother had a lilac bush, pruned regularly and evenly, that tickled the posts of the front porch of her house. It was, along with a bed of daffodils near the road and row of peonies on the side yard,lilacs_up the announcer of spring. These early flowers preening in their finest glory on that first sunny May morning, when we’d step outside and see and smell that spring was fully upon us and the summer was at its heels.

Just looking at the sloppy lilac tree across the road puts me instantly on my mother’s porch and back into my own childhood, when I would run off beyond the farms and the woods behind our house, out of her sight, into my own world of fairies and forest friends, conjured up by the best playmate in the world, mother nature.

Many years ago, I took one of my elegant Parisian friends to visit my mother. She was charmed by the country surroundings and wanted to know what my childhood was like. Instead of telling her, I showed her the circuit that used to occupy me for hours: from the back porch, crossing the side yard, beyond the pond, through an apple orchard and a vineyard, into the forest and back out into a clearing around a large pillbox-shaped water reservoir, against which you could throw stones to simulate the sound effects from Star Trek. Then back into the woods and down a steep slope to cross the creek and climb up again to Wagon Wheel Springs, named so by my neighbors and I because of a wooden-spoked wheel they lay in the debris nearby, through a field of tall grain, arriving on the other side of our house and landing, happily, on the stoop of our front porch. Last month, after reading one of my posts about walking alone on the Camino, this same friend wrote me a message remembering that visit and our hike through my childhood.

“It must be in your nature,” she said.

~ ~ ~

“I’m not going to be back for a while,” Short-pants ran into the kitchen, breathless, spitting the words out quickly. “I heard a bird calling my name.”

She dashed out the door and disappeared. I had my hands in mozzerella and ricotta so I couldn’t move to the window to see which way she’d run to answer the call of her avian suitor. I realized I didn’t need to know. In Paris, I like knowing which direction she’s gone. In the city, she has destinations. She walks to school, she walks home. She walks to the boulangerie to get a baguette and back. There’s a start and a finish, and she’s still young enough that I need to monitor both points. Here in the country she has her own forest and several fields, a big lane to run down and baby sheep to visit and birds to answer to. I don’t need to know which direction she’s run because they’re all good.

~ ~ ~
table_out_back
Yesterday friends visited for lunch. They came with a pack of kids. We were eleven around the tables set up out back, on the terrace of stones, in the sun. Four adults were outnumbered by kids of ages ranging from 5 to 12, the youngest among them a set of twins. In Paris this would be an uncomfortable guest list. At the country house, you just pull out another table, add another place and make an extra quiche. After the meal, the kids escaped from the table and disappeared into field and forest. The only time we had to involve ourselves in their play was to caution them, when all seven were at the same time swinging, climbing or perched on our rickety old swing-set. From the table where we lingered with a bottle of rosé – an announcer of summer here in France – we could see that the metal structure might topple at any moment. A word of warning and the children scattered themselves to other places in the yard and beyond, the swing-set only one of a dozen places for them to run and play.

Yet another reason why we have a country house: so I can take another wedge of cheese and refill my glass of wine, in the company of good friends, with my feet in the grass and the sun on my back, while my children occupy themselves, elsewhere. This, I guess, is in my nature, too.


Nov 3 2012

Chair Stories

After dinner, we huddle around the wood stove to keep warm. “Tell the one about the Pepper-chaser,” Buddy-roo begs. De-facto has told so many stories about this childhood pet, a daschund named Pepper, loved and tortured by the four siblings in his family, it’s as if Short-pants and Buddy-roo have a memory of the dog themselves. De-facto falls into the story, like a musician answering the audience’s call for a tired hit song, and Buddy-roo squeals and claps her hands. She knows how the story ends, but she loves to hear it again, and again, anyway.

This is what happens at the country house, especially now, as autumn bleeds into winter. The after-dinner routines of summer – foraging for blackberries, a badminton match or running down the road to see the lambs – cease to be viable. Darkness drapes around us before dinner is even on the stove. Our reflections in the windows accompany the meal and the cleanup that follows. It’s chilly in this old stone house, so we hover around the cylindrical stove, warming our legs until they’re too hot to touch, pushing our chairs back away from the fire until we’re too cold, then hustling close to the fire again to keep warm.

There is no Internet – even though it would make it easier to stay here for longer stretches – it’s hard to justify the expense. We’re here no more than 15 weeks out of the year; the obligatory two-year contract seems like a waste. But that’s not the real reason. If we had the Internet, we’d spend our evenings on it. Since we don’t, the evenings are spent with laptops closed, face-to-face around a fire, playing cards, laughing, adding to the collection of family stories that Short-pants and Buddy-roo will tell, someday, when their children say to them tell us a story about your childhood.

~ ~ ~

The shipment of things from my mother’s house, designated for our country house, arrived in September. We couldn’t be here, so a helpful neighbor met the movers and let them in. Not knowing where things ought to go, everything was left in the middle of the main room, which is where we found them when we arrived this week. We spent two days sorting through the boxes and re-arranging furniture to accommodate the new possessions.

A wooden table, with leaves folded like arms at its side, now stands against the fieldstone wall. I see it instead as it used to be, in her living room, beneath the portrait of an old Dutch man in a brown cape, smoking a pipe. A long, shallow dish filled with gold-painted gourds rests on top of the table, with two gold-colored candles in gold-plated candleholders on each side. I think no matter where we end up putting the table here in this house, when I look at it, I will see it there, as it was, all those years, in her house.

Two enormous fauteuils made the trip from upstate New York to the southwest of France as well. We didn’t really need them here, but I couldn’t bear to give them away. The shipping cost was a bit extraordinary, but now that they are here I am certain the indulgence was a good one. They, too, have a place in my memory, when I sit in them I am transported back to other rooms and other parts of my life.

~ ~ ~

You tell a story, Mama,” says Buddy-roo, after the Pepper-Chaser story is finished. I am slow to think of one. It’s as though I get lost in my past when I go digging for a story to tell. Buddy-roo gets impatient. “Tell us one about the big chairs.” She points to one of the fauteuils, its huge cushions flattened unevenly from the last person who sat on them.

“The chairs,” I say, “they used to be red.” I picture the chairs as they once were, in a room with wood floors and a faded blue rug. I get stuck in the details. Was there a couch? What color were the walls? There was that coffee table with the gold border, what ever happened to it? And the piano in the next room, it was painted white…

“They used to be red…” Buddy-roo repeats, nudging me out of my reverie.

“Red velvet, with a row of thick golden tassels all along the bottom, a skirt tickling the floor, like the fringe of a flapper’s dress.”

Her eyes widen.

“The chairs belonged to my grandparents before they gave them to my parents. There’s an old photograph of me sitting on the living room floor, and my grandfather is behind me, sitting in one of the chairs. His half-moon-shaped eyes smiling at me, like he was utterly amused.”

This isn’t really a story, but rather a chain of memories unleashed. One scene after another, how the chairs were moved upstairs to the room next to my parents’ bedroom, next to a table with a telephone – a green rotary phone – where I used to sit and talk to my friends for hours. How I sat in one of those big chairs and called my friends to tell them I had to miss the sleepover party to go my grandfather’s funeral. I have a video of my mother sitting in one of the chairs, telling me about her great aunts and uncles, sketching out for me a branch of the family tree.

After a big renovation project the chairs were reupholstered in green velvet. They looked beautiful, like brand new. Except nobody sat in them any more. After my father died, they were placeholders in his empty dressing room. They seemed a bit sad, two lonely armchairs in an unused room, their cushions always plump, never sat upon.

~ ~ ~

I have just finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes a book that wraps you up in the lives of the people in it. The book chronicles first the collection of a family’s heirlooms and then the dismantling of its grandest household. The circumstances in the story are more severe and turbulent than that of the disassembly of my mother’s house – the possessions, too, much more valuable – but reading it made me think of those disheartening days when we watched her belongings get carried out the door. Even when it is voluntary, the separation of beloved things that have belonged together in a room is heartbreaking. It’s not so much about the things as it is the loss of what those things coupled together represent. As I wept for the family in the book, I wept for my own childhood home, its details still entirely intact in my mind, like golden gourds on a golden plate or puffed-up cushions longing for someone to sit on them.

A consolation, at least: I’ve read this book while curled up in a fat and familiar green armchair. The girls play at my feet, on the floor with the Fisher Price castle – one of the last of my childhood toys also included in the shipment – acting out stories that they make up as they go along. They are debating who should be rescued, the prince or the princess. The rain is steady outside. De-facto has just stoked the fire in the wood stove; the house is finally getting warm. I close the book, lay it on my lap and let the tears roll down my cheeks, happy for all my family’s stories, lucky to have had such good things to grieve.


Aug 25 2012

Close to the Ground

At the country house we are always close to the ground. Nature is prominently adjacent, in every direction. Walk out the door and there is grass. Behind the house a forest. Dust and dirt find a way inside, blowing in through the cracks and crevasses of old doors and windows, tracked in on little and big sized shoes. We are constantly touching the earth: tilling the garden, weeding, picking up vines and branches that have fallen or been pruned to the ground. Each day I walk to the edge of our property to contribute to the compost, grabbing with my hands piles of dirt to cover the empty vegetable peels, cantaloupe rinds and egg shells I’ve thrown on top of the pile of organic garbage. It is the opposite of our city life, where the earth is covered by pavement and half the time we are meters above the soil and the earth, where other people remove our garbage and clean our streets. In the country, we’re working all the time, our fingernails are constantly dirty, our feet always close to the ground.

This is in part due to the rustic quality of our country house, an early twentieth-century edifice, inhabited for the forty years before we purchased it by an eccentric bachelor and his pack of dogs. The price was very reasonable, though we probably still overpaid, and like all old houses it came with surprises, the kind that make you keep paying. A full septic tank needed to be emptied the first week we were here and must be replaced, according to the inspector, within the next two years. The roof leaks, floors are rotted. We knew it was a fixer-upper, but you never know how much fixing up there really is until you’re in it.

We’ve removed plaster and pointed our fieldstone walls, reconstructed floors and replaced windows – all by ourselves. Given the nature of our professions – plenty of talking, thinking, writing and planning – the chance to build or rebuild something with our hands is gratifying, if not humbling. It is hard and dirty work, digging in the ground and laying cement and molding plaster around stone. It is backbreaking work to remove beams and old boards and to mount insulation and wallboard. Though I help, and so do the girls, it is De-facto who does the bulk of this work, and mostly alone, during the weeks we are here. This is why it takes years to finish one room.

I know someday we’ll have a real kitchen, but for now ours is barely functional: a long, bare room with a narrow stove, a sink, a table and one cupboard. There is no place to put a Cuisinart or an electric milk frother. The toaster we have, inherited from a friend who left town, burns all toast unless closely observed. Our hand-me-down fridge has an interior freezer without a door, so De-facto fashioned one out of Styrofoam and packing tape. I refuse to invest in new appliances until we renovate the kitchen, so we manage somehow to function with what we have, a hodgepodge of furniture, dishes and cooking gear that remarkably turns out edible, and even occasionally delectable, meals.

I didn’t realize how valuable this was until a few summers had passed, when it became apparent to me that the renovation would not happen swiftly, when I found myself putting MacGuyveresque solutions in place for storage and other basic household functions, when I noticed that Short-pants and Buddy-roo were being equally creative. In the absence of their familiar toys and the playtime props of home, they make up games, create costumes out of leaves and ferns, toys out of sticks and stones, amusing themselves with things found in the house and outside in the fields and forest. They have the freedom to run about, of more value than most possessions, and they are connected to the ground.

An internet connection is harder to come by. Since we’re only here 10 weeks or so a year, we haven’t installed it. We walk down the lane and pilfer (with permission) from our neighbor, or ride a kilometer into the nearest village to jump on an open wifi network. Thanks to 3G, the news of the world still reaches us, but it seems more absurd than ever. We chop wood and carry water while slick politicians rant about moral issues that have little to do with how they might turn an economy around, widen the narrowing middle-class or govern a nation fairly. The rhetoric seems so far removed from anything that’s real or important. Forget Mr. Romney’s tax returns. I’d like to see him use a little elbow grease on my bathroom bowl as a measure of his character. I think every candidate should have to scrub a toilet to get on a ballot. It couldn’t hurt to remind what it’s like, close to the ground.

In a previous, potential life of mine – the one imagined in those what-if-I’d-kept-that-job or what-if-I’d-stayed-with-him moments – the second home would probably have had every comfort. Or if charmed by a house as needy as this one, architects and contractors would have been called in to complete their deeds before attempting to inhabit it. I don’t mean to assert that De-facto and I are impoverished or that our life is a trial. That’s not the case, we live comfortably. But we have made choices that prohibit a lavish life; opting to do things rather than have things. Though occasionally the longing for an ever-clean, semi-luxurious, well-appointed country house, the one where I’d lounge against plump cushions on a plush divan all afternoon before cooking up something on my La Cornue 6-burner stove is real and fierce.

In Paris, a cleaning woman comes weekly and our babysitter helps with ironing, but here, I sweep and clean and scrub and weed and patch and paint. The chores that earn the girls allowance at home are lightweight compared to the country house: here they do dishes, clean toilets, remove brush from the lawn and help with construction projects. They are expected to do their share, because there is much to be done and everyone has to pitch in. They are learning something that I think many in our generation of parents are forgetting to transmit to our kids – and I probably wouldn’t have thought to emphasize it if we didn’t have this broken-down house – how to be happy with less stuff, and how to do the dirty work that nobody likes to do. I hope that Short-pants and Buddy-roo grow up to fly high and far, but it can’t hurt them to know what it’s like to be close to the ground.


Jul 22 2012

All His Hard Work

A second after he heard the scratching in the ceiling, the light flipped on. De-facto bolted out of bed and grabbed the empty paint container in one hand, the lid in the other, and with the concentration of a hunter after its prey, closed in on the small barn squirrel frozen in its tracks, tiny claws gripping the stone wall.

We’ve lived with the glis-glis for years. The room that is our bedroom, like many things here at the country house, is not finished, nor is it sealed from the attached barn. This means more breezes in the winter, extra dust all year long, and a few visiting creatures who, no doubt, consider us to be the interlopers. We tried, once, to seal the hole that the critter uses to enter the room, but the scratching and screeching noises lasted until dawn and inspired us to unplaster the hole in the morning rather than endure that kind of a racket for a second night. Re-opening his passageway was our olive branch and we came to a truce with the glis-glis. He’d appear once each night, just at bedtime, squeaking a little before making his nightly run – our bedroom beams seem to be a nocturnal obstacle course – then he’d leave us alone for the rest of the night, except for an occasional scratch or screech, which we learned to sleep through.

But this year, there wasn’t just one glis-glis scurrying through our walls and over our beams. There were three.

De-facto refused to kill the creatures. This means no traps and no poison. His plan, to catch them in the paint bucket and drive several miles away to release them, was foiled twice last week when the glis-glis escaped immediately after capture. He seethed as he reported the escapes. The nightly tussle between De-facto and his barn squirrels had escalated into a war.

~ ~ ~

The truth is that our visits to the country house are never very restful for De-facto. I downshift easily into lazy pace. I have my country house projects: tending the grapevines and the roses – though I haven’t gotten to them yet this summer – and organizing an occasional cupboard, and of course the never ending stream of laundry. But I manage to spend a lot of my time here in a horizontal position, and not necessarily with my eyes open.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo spend their days running in and out of the house, into the forest and up and down the road. Their list of things to do – Short-pants voluntarily documented their choices in writing, as pictured here – includes marvelous tasks like observe blackberries, hang out in tent, story reading and, my favorite, funny time. These are exactly the kinds of things children should be doing on long, hot summer days.

De-facto grows industrious as soon as he steps into his green wellies. He dons his tool belt and begins construction. His work is paying off; the side room of the house has been insulated, wired, wall-boarded and its ceiling painted. During the last two weeks, he removed the rotted floorboards, dug out the space beneath them and, this weekend he borrowed a cement mixer from a neighbor and laid down a new floor. That Big Doll even deigned to descend from the loft, where the mess of mattresses and sleeping bags serve as a place for the kids to play and sleep – or used to sleep until this summer, when the noise from the glis-glis proved too much for them – and offered a sultry hand.

De-facto does all this hard work diligently, teaching himself as he goes along, dutifully promising me, each and every time I give him the look, that a new kitchen will be next.

“This is the best mistake we ever made,” he says of our decision to buy this beat up old house and barn. Despite the dirt and dust and everything unfinished about it, the rustic kitchen that breaks my back to cook in it, the mice droppings that must be cleared from every cupboard every season, I must agree with him. This house stores and feeds the memories of our children’s summers. Years from now I hope they’ll look back and remember the happy moments we’ve had here, happy not only in spite of the lack of luxury, but perhaps because of it.

~ ~ ~

The glis-glis, its four legs spread wide, clutching the stone wall, waited, motionless, as De-facto raised the plastic bucket and swept it toward him. Just as the open container scraped against the wall, the creature scrambled up to the beam and across it. De-facto followed, using the lid of the paint can to prevent the glis-glis from reaching the opening on the other side of the ceiling, forcing him to run around the room. De-facto bounded in pursuit over the bed and to the opposite corner where the glis-glis took cover behind a bag of golf clubs, unused for years and who knows why they’re there. A minute-long standoff, De-facto’s breathing ramped up with adrenalin, until the creature ran up the wall and behind the wardrobe. De-facto grabbed a shirt from the floor and snapped it at the glis-glis, catching him in it and quickly dropping the bundle – shirt and animal – into the bucket and, then, on his knees on the floor, he grabbed the lid and snapped it on tight.

“Now, the drive,” he said, panting. The previous escapes, attributed to his decision to wait until morning to dispose of the glis-glis, would not be repeated. De-facto slipped on his shorts and ran down the stairs. I heard the engine start and the car speed away.

Ten minutes later, De-facto returned, climbing the stairs to our bedroom with the sound of defeat.

“A successful catch and release?” I asked.

He shook his head. In his fury to get those few miles away where he left the living glis-glis to find a new home, he didn’t see the badger in the road until too late. He swerved, but heard a discouraging thump. On his way back, the badger lay dead in the center of the road. De-facto had to stop and move the animal out of the way.

“So much for being a Buddhist,” he said.

He slipped back into bed and pulled the covers up over this head. I curled up behind him, spooning close and wrapping my arms around him, grateful for all the hard work he does here at the country house.


Feb 22 2012

When it Spills, it Pours

Getting out of Paris was brutal. With only one day on the ground after a trans-Atlantic overnight flight, kicking into get-the-car-packed-high-gear took a tremendous effort. Loading the car took the right blend of brute force and spatial strategy. Buddy-roo’s old bureau, now replaced by a new grown-up chest of drawers, had been earmarked for the country house. We had to wind it down the stairwell and cram it into the trunk of the car. De-facto secured it with our collection of orphan bungee cords. We were one of those cars on the highway, stuffed to the gills and precariously secured.

Dusk was about to turn dark as we pulled in front of the stone house, the car headlights catching the little eyes of some creature in the grass. I crawled out of the front passenger seat, stepping over my computer case, handbag and another bag of something that wouldn’t fit in the trunk – crowding my feet for the entire drive – and stretched my stiff body before starting the ritual of opening the house. Electricity on. Close the refrigerator door and plug it in. Start the fire. I set about breaking the kindling while De-facto ventured out to the side yard with a flashlight to turn on the water. Short-pants and Buddy-roo paced around the cold room, not unbearably freezing like it was earlier this winter, but still too chilly to remove their coats, while I crushed up pieces of newspaper and piled the broken sticks on top.

When the water flow is restored – we drain the whole system whenever we leave during the winter – there is always a surge and sound of water forcing its way again through the pipes and you have to make a tour to every tap in the bathrooms and kitchen to shut off the faucets which were left open to avoid a freeze. De-facto had done the tour, and went out to finish unloading the car and I was swearing at the kindling that wouldn’t catch. The girls were walking circles around the kitchen table singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” (this year’s school theater production, but that’s another post) when a rush of water spewed out of one of the pipes leading to the kitchen sink. A connection had split. The water sprayed out in two directions, at full force, gushing out on to the floor.

“Turn it off!” I shouted to De-facto, unable in that split second to recall the most critical words of this command: the water. I dropped the iron fire poker to the ground and ran toward the sink. Several plastic buckets, used to collect water when we closed the house at the end of our last visit, were stacked in the corner of the room. I grabbed them and ran to the broken pipe, holding one under each jet of water. I was stunned at how quickly they filled up.

“Turn it off! The water! The pipe is broken!” I managed to inject more information into this second appeal. De-facto sprinted out to the yard while I filled and dumped the buckets, not without spilling more on the already flooded floor, until the spewing water trickled into a slow stream and finally stopped.

I turned around to see the girls frozen in place, standing exactly where they’d been the moment it started. Short-pants was all deer-in-the-headlights. Buddy-roo was on the verge of tears, “This is the most horrible country house in the world!”

“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”

“We have to toughen them up,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

The real crisis, I determined, was that while attending to the water surge, the kindling had burned and cooled before any larger logs could be added to their flames. The fire was dead. We were 0 for 2 on the way to any kind of dinner.

While De-facto traced the origin of the broken pipe to figure how to shut off the right valves so that at least some of our taps functioned, I phoned the plumber, his name preserved on a post-it in a moldy notebook in a dusty drawer. We had no expectation that he would come immediately – this he was relieved to learn – but I wanted to alert him to our situation and plead for a visit the next morning.

What followed next: a new wheelbarrow full of wood and a second go at the fire, this time with more kindling and more success. Potatoes and onions and carrots chopped and in the pot. Cheese grated. A smug self-satisfaction at the ample wine supply acquired during our last visit, the sound of a cork popping which eases any country house catastrophe.

“So,” I said at dinner, “what if I hadn’t been in the room when the pipe burst. What would you have done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call Papa.”

It makes me wonder: how and when do you learn how to react in an emergency? At what age does the hop-to kick in? Maybe they need to go to Girl Scouts. Something. Our children stood there absolutely paralyzed, unable to move or think of a response. This shouldn’t surprise me: a cup of milk (or juice or water) gets knocked over on table at home, and they freeze up and scream for me.

“You know what do to,” I’ve told them. “Run to the kitchen, grab a towel and a sponge, run back before it spills off the table and onto the carpet.

I know they’re good kids, bright kids, doing their best, learning how to live in the world. But next time, if I can possibly turn off my own hop-to I’m going to stand there with them and gawk whatever’s spilling over the edge of the table. Then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do?” And wait.

On the bright side, it’s one way to get a new carpet.


Dec 31 2011

Nothing Doing

We hover around the wood stove. Its cylinder drum radiates a fierce heat if you stand too close, but still it’s not enough to warm the entire room. We live mostly in this room, the main room of our country house, venturing outside only to acquire more firewood or to go the neighbor’s bench to tap into their wi-fi network. Unless you’re near the fire, you might as well be upstairs, or outside. It’s cold, and raw.

De-facto installed an electric heater in the new room in the back of the house – the guest room – so that the girls could have a warm place to sleep. The first night we were here they gutted it out in sleeping bags in the loft. I didn’t like the fact that I could see my breath when I was tucking them in, but that loft is the kid’s world and Short-pants especially was determined to sleep there.

At the country house our sleep is sound and heavy. We wake naturally, without any alarm, a luxurious break from the get-them-off-to-school morning grind. I rise and make my way downstairs to stoke the stove. De-facto has made a science of stuffing it full and closing the vents for a slow burn all night long. I have been chastised to save the thickest logs for these overnights. In the daytime, we burn smaller wood and the floorboards we removed to create the loft in the room that’s now too cold to sleep in.

The coffee press produces its black elixir, mixed with milk steamed in a dented saucepan on our beat-up three-burner cooking stove. The mug warms my hands as I sip from it, staring out the window at the wet trees. If it weren’t raining, if the sky were blue and the ground dry, I’d go out and prune the grapes and cut back the rose bushes. De-facto could climb up on the roof and reorder the misplaced tiles that are causing the gentle drip-drop in our bedroom. But it is raining, and I don’t even mind. The rain quiets us and turns us inward, the right spirit for the end of the year reflection and assessment.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo stumble out of their slumber, rubbing their eyes and scratching their bed-heads. Their pajamas reveal knobby ankles and long, thin forearms; their country house clothes are all just a bit too small for them. Things gets dirty and ruined so easily here, it’s become the stopping-off place between their good “city clothes” and the good will. They look like urchins, or something out of a bleak Dicken’s story.

I make them a tartine with butter and honey, and heat up some pain au raisin from the bakery. More milk is warmed, this time to make hot chocolate. The futon couch has been moved so it’s right next to the wood stove. We sit on it together. We don’t talk: it’s too early for words or it’s too quiet for words or else they just aren’t necessary. We stare at the stove, listening to it pop and crackle, listening to the rain against the glass panes, the dripping faucet, the creaking and groaning of the house. We sit like this for a long time, doing nothing but staring and listening.

It’s a lost art, the art of doing nothing, ill-practiced these days in our world filled with 24/7 news sweeps, iPhones that ding in the night and a constant stream of feeds and posts we’re supposed to like or not. People sleep less, rush more. We are compelled always to be busy at something. To do nothing is to stand still against the rush of activity in which the world is so seriously engaged. Productivity and efficiency and impact – these are the measures of success. But are they the best measures of contentment?

At home, it’s hard to do nothing. There’s always something calling: things that need to be straightened, organized, fixed, cleaned, started or finished. Not that there aren’t plenty of projects at this country house, but when it’s cold and rainy, most of them can’t be tackled. And since (up until now) we haven’t installed an internet connection, the distractions of email, social networking and other web activity disappear. There’s empty time and space, with no urgency to fill it.

Eventually there were words. A description of last night’s dream. A question about the smoke from the fireplace. A remark about how nice it is to have nothing to do. De-facto stirred upstairs – there is no insulation between the floors so you can hear every word, every footstep – we listened to him groan out of bed and run through his morning yoga poses before he trampled down the stairs and turned the corner into the kitchen to catch the three of us there, cuddled up on the couch, by the fire, doing nothing.

“What are we doing?” he said, grinning at us.
“Nothing,” said Buddy-roo.
“Are we happy?”
“Yes,” said Short-pants.

The country house isn’t my favorite winter destination. In the spring when the days lengthen and the sun is warm, it is much more pleasant. In the summer, there are soft grassy lawns and swings and blackberries to harvest. We leave the doors open and run in and out of the house in flip-flops. In the autumn, the temperature is still gentle and the crisp smell of leaves and the promise of Halloween summon a unique country house mood. But in winter, it’s damp and raw, rainy and windy. The house takes days to heat up. It always feels like the stones begin to retain the enough heat to go without double sweaters just as we’re about to close the house to head home.

Yet it is in this condition that perhaps we learn the most from this old stone homestead, when it draws us in and requires us to wait and watch the weather, when it offers us nothing but a few moments to slow down our thoughts and hear them without the clutter and hurry-up of our day-to-day routines. What I love about the country house is how it asks us to do nothing, and, when that’s what we do, there’s nothing else like it.