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.

Feb 20 2009

City Girls

Ours were prissy little girls escorted to the well-ordered park around the corner by the dutiful babysitter. A few spins on the rocking-rooster, two turns up the ladder and down the slide, a dozen special-order cakes from the sandbox and then it’s time to go back home. Our kids were city kids. They were even afraid of dirt.

Years ago we bought a farmhouse about an hour north of Bordeaux. It sounds extremely elegant if you say it the way Short-pants does, “our country house,” but rustic is a better adjective. The old stone house is attached to an empty barn that’s attached to a run-down stable. We own the parcel of land across the road, too, where there is a sheep barn, or a bergerie (pronounced behr-gehr-EE, which sounds plenty elegant, but with its rotted doors and dirt floors, isn’t). country_houseThere’s even a bread-oven, which actually works if you stoke it with enough wood. There are lots of cobwebs (and, of course, spiders) everywhere.

The house came with electricity, running water and plumbing, though all of it is a bit gerry-rigged and so damn old you’re never sure when it’s going to fall apart. We did some initial renovation: tore down one wall, stripped the others of their cement to reveal the original stones, put in new oak boards in a room where the floor had completely rotted. We’re adding insulation and wallboard in what could be called the “cold room” as we used it as our winter refrigerator before we had one. Let’s not even talk about the kitchen: basically a sink, a fridge, a 3-burner stove and a table. It’s one big backache.

As for heat – the word rustic comes to mind again – there’s a cylinder wood-stove and a few ancient space heaters (came with the house) that are way too scary to use. It’s a long way from luxurious. It’s more like camping indoors.

I spent my entire childhood in the country (but at least we had heat). Beyond the apple orchard, vineyard and hay field that bordered our property, there were woods
girls_see_horses with streams and magic paths and secret clearings. This was enough entertainment to last a whole summer. De-facto grew up in the ‘burbs, but the kind that bordered land that was undeveloped and basically rural. We both knew how sticks and rocks and moss could replace any plastic piece in our toy box and how the fresh smell of the outdoors stays on your clothes and your hair when you’re out in it all day.
Maybe we knew it when we bought this old house (if we didn’t, we know it now): it’s is the best thing we’ve ever done for the girls. Sure, it’s a lot of work, there’s always something to be fixed. It’s never really relaxing. We only get here five or six times a year, during school breaks and for about 6-weeks in the summer, but that’s enough to put some country in these city girls. It’s good to see some dirt under their pink-polished fingernails.