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.


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 31 2011

Shelving Matters

“But why did we need to redo our bathroom?” said Buddy-roo. She waved her hand like a game-show host’s assistant, pointing out all the clutter in our living room. Boxes of tiles, equipment yet to be installed – sinks, toilets, mirrors, a new towel heater – all sprawled across the floor. Our hallway is covered with dust from two different kinds of saws, each one set up on wide, sturdy sawhorses in the middle of our entry foyer. Pieces of particleboard, soon to be cupboards, are stacked against the wall making it nearly impassable.

I ran through the litany of complaints about our old bathrooms: the aging toilets, lack of counter space, lack of shelf space and inefficient storage – let alone the aesthetic problem of a sickening color of green tile not quite olive but not quite forest, the kind of green that neither soothes nor pleases the eye. Constructed in the early 1970s – and I doubt there was any renovation bestowed upon them before I started living here in the mid-90s – those bathrooms are owed a re-look.

There isn’t a renovation project that’s easy to live through, but perhaps kitchens and bathrooms – the two most plumbing intensive rooms in a home – are the most difficult to endure, which is why we scheduled the work to be done in July while we were out of town. But an appointment in Paris required our presence and we also felt the need for a few consecutive days of full-time internet connection to keep up with our on-line lives, so we trekked back to the city for a mid-summer’s pause in our what is usually a nearly-full-summer vacation.

Not that it hurt to be home to peek at the work in progress and surely there were a few decisions better made after seeing things first hand. There is the clear promise of a 4-star hotel bathroom in the making, but still much work ahead before anyone can luxuriate in that bathtub.

Maybe one of you readers could kindly enlighten me as to why De-facto would distract our contractor by asking for his attention on another project, at a little studio we rent out, in the middle of our double bathroom renovation? That “little” job turned out to be much more complicated than the few days originally forecast. Since our contractor is meticulous – and for this I hired him – that small-job-gone-awry put him at least a week behind on our bathrooms. You might imagine that his keen attention to detail might anyway contribute to what was already his propensity to run behind schedule. De-facto’s quick little job-on-the-side didn’t help.

Luckily our next-door neighbors were gone last week, so we borrowed their bathroom. But after 6 days of sawing and pounding and tile-dust, and knowing that there’s at least another week (or more) of it ahead, we’d had enough of cohabiting with the renovation. Our summer-in-the-city days were numbered. It’d be much easier to get out of town, though we picked one of the most heavily trafficked weekends in France to be on the road again.

Buddy-roo motioned for me to follow her into the bathroom. The contractor had been building customized shelves, fitting them around an old beam that cuts diagonally from the ceiling to the floor along one of the walls.

“Look at all the shelves,” she said.

“Yes,” I marveled with her. The shelves glistened like jewels, each cubbyhole waiting to harbor my creams and powders.

“Do I get a shelf of my own?”

I had considered, in the design, that the girls might grow into teenagers in this bathroom, requiring a designated place to store their own toiletries. I nodded my head.

“Which one?” she asked, with the same enthusiasm she exhibits on Christmas morning.

“We have to see, when it’s all done, what makes sense.”

“What about Papa?” she asked, “Does he get a shelf?”

I eyed the cardboard, plastic pieces and old plaster piled in the bathtub, the electrical wires jutting out of the wall, the open pipes waiting for fixtures to be attached.

“Over there,” I pointed to the small triangular shelf in the corner, at the furthest point from where the sink will be, just behind the door.

“That little one?” she said.

I nodded. I waved my hand around the room, like Vanna White, showcasing all the work that was taking longer than expected.

“Yes,” she said, conspiratorially, “That’ll be just right.”