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.


Apr 22 2011

Country Rhythm

She set up the chairs at the edge of the property, just as the sun bent low in the sky. The sunset was ahead and she wanted a front row seat. The invitation was so clear, so soft, and because it was issued without whining words or direct demand, all the more irresistible. The dishes could wait. The evening chores – scanning the lawn for tools left out, closing barn doors and latching the shutters – this could happen later. There’d be plenty of time before it got dark. There was a moment, there, waiting: Please sit with me, she said without words. Please sit with me and say goodbye to the sun and to this beautiful day.

The rhythm of the country house is a welcome break from the hectic pace at home in Paris and the creative chaos of last week at CREA. Here we slow down. There are fewer interruptions. We are alone as a family. We are focused on the basics, occupying ourselves with simpler concerns: What to eat? Are you warm enough? Shall we go for a walk? The kids are even freer here than last week, the country provides fields and forests for exploring and escaping. They run in and out of the house, down the road to see the sheep or the neighbor’s dog without the chaperone that is required in the city. This is freedom for De-facto and me, too; since we are not needed as escorts, we are left to finish that long chapter or nod off into a late afternoon nap.

Oh but if the country house were just that: long lunches and lazy afternoons, reading thick volumes and dozing off mid-sentence. That is the ideal country house, one that might be pictured in Homes & Gardens: replete with perfectly distressed tables and painted wicker chairs. But anyone who owns a country house – not just a second house or a vacation home – but a fixer-upper country house, knows that there’s little time to rest and repose. A country house is mostly work.

This morning, the blinding sun on the staircase reveals the fact that I have not swept since last October. The mice who’ve so kindly kept an eye on things since we were here in February left us many little presents on the shelves where we store the plates and glassware. All must be washed and replaced, I’ll clean it now but I know this task will be repeated in July. The lawn is knee-high and the lawnmower needs to be repaired. The garden is to be tilled and planted, the weeds plucked from the back stone terrace. The cobwebs cleared from every corner of every room in the house.

Then there’s the laundry. Several loads from the suitcases we brought from Italy. Three more loads of clothes and sheets we could not wash last winter because it was too cold and damp for them to dry. In the wash now, a load of blankets that smelled of fireplace smoke after the long, locked-in winter. If I had to choose my Sisyphean task, I know what it would be; in front of me all the laundry to do, and more laundry.

We have no dryer at the country house, so doing the wash requires meteorological knowledge. On a warm sunny day, it takes 3-4 hours for clothes to dry on the line, an hour less if there’s a brisk wind. When it rains, the drying time could be up to 3 days – and in the meantime the cumbersome and not particularly aesthetic drying rack becomes the centerpiece of the house. Some say make hay while the sun shines, I say wash clothes. Five loads yesterday. More today.

Buddy-roo runs into the kitchen, screeching with glee after making a trip to the neighbors to feed their chickens. In her outstretched hand, a large brown egg, hatched overnight, a gift that will become a fresh omelet. Short-pants returns after an hour in her forest; she’s been sitting on the discussion bench (she named it) knitting, and she returns to show me her work. She’s getting good, the rows of purple yarn are entirely uniform; I can’t see even one dropped stitch. It is the beginning of a hat, she says, and for the first time I see it could be something to wear.

I can hear De-facto in the loft of the “new room,” a hopeful room we’ve been renovating for years. He’s fashioning a windowsill out of an old slab of oak he found in the barn, telling the girls how reusing this piece of wood means we didn’t have to kill any more trees. They run to the barn to find more wood that might save a tree, but on the way they forget their mission, caught up instead in the chasing of dandelion fuzz that is dancing with the gusts of wind. The breeze is brisk, it stirs up the pollen and makes us all sneeze, but it sure to dry the laundry well and fast. This might even leave me some time to read and rest.

This post is about nothing, really. It has no point to make. It’s about the day-to-day of the country house. It’s about simple tasks and basic pleasures. It’s about being in nature. It’s about the kind of manual labor that frees the mind to wander. It’s about being away from the distractions of the world and folding into my family. It’s about no other moment than this one, this moment now, taking its place in the string of moments and memories that will always be part of our peaceful escapes to the country.

Or maybe that is the point.