Happy New Year to you all! We wish you a year full of happy surprises, joyful contentment, and progress on projects dear to your own hearts. Let us each be a messenger of goodwill to each other and to the world.
Domfront is just a few miles from our renovation project in Lonlay l'Abbaye. We visited the remains of the ancient chateau there for the first time together. I'm not sure how old this particular standing wall is, but there has been a chateau on this spot since the 11th century, a site which changed hands several times in the middle ages as the French and English clashed during the Hundred Years War. In 1169, King Henry II of England received papal legates here who wished to reconcile him with Thomas Becket. One feels that ghosts abound.
The chateau in the town of Flers is considerably younger, and has interesting domed rooftops.
Au Bout de la Rue is a great little restaurant in Flers where we had a splendid fish dish for lunch with a half bottle of Chablis.
The five pictures above are of the B&B I mentioned in my last post, Le Presbytère in St. Bomer les Forges, and part of its back garden. This beautiful place has been tastefully restored by its present owners, Tom and Antoinette (Toinette) Jack, who are delightful people, and Tom is an excellent chef as well. The delicious breakfast includes very fine fresh-brewed Italian (don't tell the French!) coffee. Our several days' stay there was a highlight of our trip, and we hope to stay with them again this coming year.
The church in St. Bomer les Forges is a characterful structure and is lit up at night, which helps lead you back to Le Presbytère, just behind it. Across the street is the Relais de St. Bomer, where we ran into Jim and Nicola, our builders, on our first afternoon. Even though they planned on meeting us at our Lonlay l'Abbaye house the next day, it was a bit of a shock for them to see us, I think - as it sometimes is when you run into someone in an unexpected place.
We had fine weather our first few days in Normandy, and got to take a few more pictures of our half-house, inside and out. The last day we went for lunch at the Relais de l'Abbaye, where we ran into the Mayor, Monsieur Derouet. As we were leaving, a cloudburst hit, so we offered the Mayor and his friends a ride down to the Mairie. He was so nice, and insisted that instead of just going back to the office, we should go to his house for coffee! His home is in the countryside, about 10 minutes outside of Lonlay. Along the way, he pointed out the fields that his parents owned for raising dairy cows. His home is a lovely stone house, recently restored, with a monumental fireplace. He told us that he had had to replace the main overhead beams, which must have been quite an undertaking!
Meanwhile, we were able to see more signs of progress at our place. The walls are being finished, and we have a new electrical box downstairs. As it resembles a hydra, and we did not know which wires were live, we gave it a wide berth. The staircase walls are not going to be covered with wallboard, just relimed. Our next step is to choose the hardwood flooring we want installed in the ground floor and the upstairs middle level, but we have yet to find the right combination of color and durability in flooring at the main French supply stores.
Imagine this as an old master painting: "Homeowner Supplicating the Builder." I don't know what I was talking with Jim about here, but I'm sure I was asking for advice about something! Nicola and Jim were good enough to spend over two hours with us discussing the overall project, and giving us an estimate of total costs to tile and kit out the small bathroom, still a gaping hole to my right in the painting (er, photo). To Jim's right is a large stack of wall board waiting to be installed in the middle level and to finish out the attic, eventually! He ordered it in advance so it could be pulled up between the floor beams before the ceiling closed them off. Jim also told us about a great garage in St. Bomer les Forges, where we were able to get air for the tires of our rental car. Every visit we feel more well oriented.
I did not step into the main level on the beams at all, as I was too afraid I would lose my balance and step right through the new ceiling below. Joseph was bolder, and stepped out onto the beams to take the two short videos above - the first of the unfinished bedroom and bathroom (hole!), and the second which shows some of the attic area yet to be insulated and finished.
Happy New Year to you all! We wish you a year full of happy surprises, joyful contentment, and progress on projects dear to your own hearts. Let us each be a messenger of goodwill to each other and to the world.
Our Christmas present to each other this year was a visit to Paris and to Lonlay l'Abbaye last month. Paris was already glittering for the holidays on rue Royale and its passages.
From the Grande Roue, an enormous Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde, we could see all the way up the Champs-Élysées to La Défense, which has grown to resemble Oz just beyond the city limits:
Inside a café on the Champs-Élysées afterward, we had scotch and hot chocolate while we watched the world rush past us.
Then we stepped outside to capture some of the boulevard's lights and traffic.
Our first night in Paris, we stayed at the Hotel du Quai Voltaire. 40 years ago it was the first hotel I stayed in in Paris - in 1976! The view out the window of the Louvre and the Seine is incomparable.
We had bought tickets months before on the internet for a modern ballet performance at the Garnier Opéra house. Always a memorable experience, but Kylián's choreography was a revelation to us.
Compared to the holiday glitz of Paris, the Norman countryside was peaceful and quiet. We were very happy to be there too, and most especially to discover the charms of Le Presbytère, a bed and breakfast run by an amazing couple in St. Bomer les Forges, just a few miles from our work in progress at Lonlay l'Abbaye. www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g1232081-d2199957-Reviews-Le_Presbytere-Saint_Bomer_les_Forges_Orne_Basse_Normandie_Normandy.html
More to come soon... Happy Holidays and a festive New Year to all!
"Petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid." Little by little, the bird makes its nest. This French proverb is akin to "Slow and steady wins the race" or "Rome wasn't built in a day." The idea is to encourage you to continue to persevere when it seems that you are only making a little progress at a time toward your goal.
Over the past couple of months, our tiny house in Lonlay l'Abbaye has been gradually renovated with all those essential elements that do not necessarily photograph well or provide the immense satisfaction of a big "reveal." The first outside job was to protect the building from the elements by replacing the rain gutters and pipes. Meanwhile, the inside was gutted, the remaining wood was treated against bugs and mold, and our ground floor was recreated and leveled. Framing and insulation came next. Now the electrical wiring has been done, the basic plumbing is in, and we even have some walls there too!
Here are photos of some of the "petit à petit" transformation that help me appreciate all the hard work and planning that goes into making a livable space:
In just a few days, we will return to Lonlay l'Abbaye and to Paris. This weekend, we are remembering the tragic terrorist attacks of last year, and the dignity and strength shown by all in the aftermath. We look forward to being a part of the new France - forgiving, embracing, and renewing - but fiercely protective as well.
This month Joseph and I (along with our Cairn Terrier "Bullet") are on vacation in Washington, D.C. It's something of a homecoming for us as we met here in Georgetown years ago. In keeping with my "tiny house" obsession, we were fortunate to be able to rent the small white brick carriage house you see on the left in the photo above. The carriage house is probably about 150 years old. Because it is so nicely renovated and well laid out, it's providing us with some good ideas for our tiny house in Normandy too. Thought I would share a few photos of the interior with you all too.
The front door entrance is on the right around this wood-burning fireplace. The fireplace is on a diagonal, and was probably added on at some point, but is a great feature for the small living room.
We have been reacquainting ourselves with Washington's wonderful museums - like the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Air and Space Museum. We had a great night at the symphony and out on the balcony at the Kennedy Center. More monuments and new museums await, and we have tickets for the Danish ballet. There is a lot to do in D.C. But all in all, it is hard to tear ourselves away from Georgetown. Strolling these red brick sidewalks is a distinct pleasure all its own, and inspiration is everywhere. But for the parked cars, you could easily imagine sleek dark carriages with bay horses pulling up and down the gentle slopes.
We even bought some mums and gourds for the front entrance to our temporary tiny residence!
The ground floor of our village house will have a small kitchen as you enter from the square. The kitchen will be approximately 10 x 10 feet (about 300 cm x 300 cm), with some of the space taken up by the staircase. The rest of the ground floor will be a narrow living room/dining room of approximately 10 x 14 feet (about 300 cm x 425 cm). You will pass into it from the kitchen. Needless to say, we do not want to waste a lot of floor or air space installing doors that would swing into either the kitchen or the living room each time they were opened. Doing so would greatly limit the amount of floor space we'd have for furniture – and for us!
Luckily, our daughter had the very good idea to put "pocket doors" in the dividing wall between the kitchen and living room. This would let us close off the kitchen or living room area without interfering with the floor/air space. You can see where the dividing wall will be placed between the two rooms in these pictures. It's where the metal frame juts out from the wall:
Pocket doors slide away into the walls and are thus concealed when open. They are known in France as "portes coulissantes à galandage." The concept is a good one that has been around since at least the mid-19th century. My grandmother's house in New York had heavy pocket doors of oak between her writing room and her living room that we almost never closed.
In order to let maximum natural light in to the living room from the kitchen, even when we close the doors, we were hoping to find a set of sliding narrow "French doors" like the ones in the two photos below. What could be easier we thought, than buying glass pane french pocket doors in France? After all, isn't that where they came from?
Quelle surprise! Our builders went on a search for something similar, yet oddly enough, discovered that the main building supply companies had none! It appears they only carry modern looking doors for installation as a "portes à galandage." How could this be? Even in Los Angeles, glass pane pocket doors are about as common as McDonalds! From Castorama, they sent this photo as a likely suspect:
Hmmm. Like Ikea noir. But this door is so modern, and the frosted glass looks like it belongs more with a bathroom (as it is used in the photo above). So I decided to scour Castorama and Leroy Merlin online and also search for French brands specializing in well, French doors. French doors as we imagine them in the U.S. usually means white frames with clear glass. Once again, I was shocked that they seemed so difficult to find!
Lepeyre, Scrigno, Eclisse - lots of brands have high end sliding doors that can be hung on rails or made to disappear into your wall - but none of them look like French doors. Many are quite futuristic and made of glass, with designs etched or embedded into them. So much choice, but none of it looked like what we had envisioned. Some of it rather scary...
Should we consider solid doors after all, as perhaps the
only traditional alternative, or would these be too staid?
We would paint them white or ivory - not aqua.
These are from Castorama. Too provincial, even for the
Then there is this look, which the stores call
"atelier," that seems more appropriate for a
small Paris apartment with post-industrial reclaimed everything. The door is painted aluminum.
A possible solution suggested by someone in the DIY community chat at Leroy Merlin would be to try to find regular interior French doors - yes, they do still make those with hinges - and substitute them for the ones that are specially designed to slide into the walls. After all, as you can see near the end of the video below from Leroy Merlin, the doors are only attached at the top to the sliding mechanism. Of course, we would have to be sure that the regular doors are not too thick to fit into the mechanism in the walls!
Very excited this week to have photos from our builders of the transformation of our tiny shell of a stone house into some semblance of actual rooms! Let's begin with a "before" photo of the kitchen corner.
And now, with the insulation and metal rails in for the walls... All the beams above have been replaced with new solid wood.
Oh yes, the underfloor has been laid and leveled. This "contiboard" you see is a kind of plywood base the builders will walk about on while they do more renovation. Later we will add hardwood flooring once all the walls are up. You can see some of the electric lines overhead.
We are deciding on the composition of the wall/door between the kitchen and the living room area. Right now you can see some metal rails sticking out where the dividing wall will be. The question is whether we will leave a wide opening, or put in French doors, or put in "pocket doors" that could slide away into the small wall space on the sides. Our daughter's preference is for pocket French doors, and after all, it is meant to be her own little house. Will discuss the feasibility of these with Jim, our builder, on Thursday.
In the photo above we are looking straight from the front door area to what will be the back wall of the kitchen. We will have about nine feet of wall space to fit everything in, including a clothes washer. I suppose the refrigerator could always squeeze in closer to the stairs. Now let's look at the living room/lounge in 2015:
The old floor was decrepit and had to be pulled up and destroyed, leaving us with an exposed "vide sanitaire" (underfloor airspace) that was full of rubble. You can see the waste pipe that leads to the mains drains running along the bottom of the floor on the left in the photo below:
Now the floor has been relaid on concrete pontoons to retain the airspace, and should allow the building to "breathe" from underneath. Water vapor will evaporate up toward the roof. We are leaving an airspace behind the insulation to allow for this, and to avoid damp in the old stone walls. Our heated living areas will be boxed in once the drywall is affixed to the metal studs. Electric lines have already been laid and should be invisible behind the drywall.
With the new floor, insulation and railings up, the living room looks very different now:
Upstairs, brand new beams have been fitted for the bedroom floor. They had to stop at the main supporting beam. Beyond that beam there is older flooring that we have had thoroughly treated (as with the beam) to be sure there are no wood-eating insects within, but we cannot pull that flooring up as it is the ceiling over our adjoining neighbor's living area! A new hardwood floor will be laid over both. The main beam is very old, but solid.
The view below is looking into the study and bedroom area from inside the bathroom on the middle level of the house. We are going to be sure that the flue from this upstairs fireplace is properly filled in, and will have it walled over. Downstairs we do want to have a wood stove installed, but we'll only have electric heat upstairs.
The photo below is a view from the bedroom on this second level (which is the French "first" floor) looking back toward the stairs and the now empty shell of a bathroom. Below that is a photo of the bathroom in its "heyday." Yes, I'm being sarcastic. It was pretty sad, I'm afraid. The floor was covered with plastic contact paper with a fake wood grain.
We were worried that some of this bathroom area might also be built over part of an adjoining property, but once the fixtures were removed and the floor was taken up, it appeared that the placement was entirely over our kitchen.
It is a very small space to work with for a bathroom, and a challenge for our builders, but they have already replaced the beams, and I'm sure they will have some good suggestions. I will be happy if we can fit a basic toilet, sink and shower in there. Photo below is taken looking up from the kitchen at the fresh beams and reinforcements. You can see the waste pipe in the corner.
Here are two more views of the middle level and the fresh beams. You can see the windows of both floors. The house faces roughly southwest, so it gets good light most of the day.
All of the windows and the front door are scheduled to be removed and restored by a fellow who specializes in such work. Meanwhile, we are very pleased to see such progress in the rebuilding of the interior. We hope the house is happy too.
The past days and weeks have been so full of sorrow and pain. Shootings and destruction, hate and madness. Let's take a moment to reflect and gather our thoughts at one of my favorite spots in Lonlay l'Abbaye, the bridge over the river Egrenne behind the Mairie. Below is a short video of the narrow river near this spot, with the old cider press and the 11th century Abbey on either side. Nature heals what man destroys.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
― Albert Einstein
While I wait for further pictures of the progress on our tiny house, I've been looking more closely at some of the photos I took last summer when I first visited the village. Which reminded me of this very curious artifact - a head attached to the side of the ancient abbey itself!
The photos below will demonstrate that it appears to be at about the same level as some other nondescript stumps in the walls - this one being the only one with a personality.
As you can see, this head protrudes high above eye level, about 15 feet off the ground. Who is he? And what is his purpose? He has an odd expression: showing teeth as if in a forced smile. But maybe he is meant to look fierce and frightening.
He is definitely not a gargoyle, not in the traditional sense of those fearsome waterspouts, as his mouth has no real opening. The head might be that of a decapitated saint. That would explain his pained look.
Could he have been one of the abbots from centuries ago? Or one of the original builders or architects? As is so often the case, the answer may remain a mystery, which is one of the most endearing aspects of French history.
The abbey dates back to the 11th century, but I do not know how old the wall is that holds the head, nor if the head is older than that wall. These are the kinds of questions one never needs to ask oneself in Los Angeles.
Come to think of it, if I saw this on a wall in Los Angeles, I'd think it was somebody's idea of a super Chia pet. You don't expect that kind of nonsense in France. Next time we're there, I'll ask the mayor.
We have visited the D Day beaches several times over the years, drawn by the sacrifice and stunning success of the Allies there. The longest day began with British gliders in secret midnight landings near Pegasus Bridge, and planes dropping hundreds of paratroopers over the land, their white chutes like wings of angels suspended over death. Americans, Australians, English, Canadians, Welsh, Scots and others fought and died that day, struggling on the beaches and across the fields, up cliffs and into the woods and villages. They defeated the German army. They changed the world. And the French have not forgotten.
Nevertheless, we were astonished to see what awaited us on June 6 several years ago, when we took our then teenaged daughter and her friend to the Norman coast. Almost everywhere we looked, World War II vintage American jeeps passed us as we drove the local roads. Some were full of soldiers in WWII battle gear! When we arrived at the farmhouse B&B we were staying in, one of the same jeeps was sitting right in front of the old stone building. Were we time travelers?
As it turned out, the jeep was owned by a nice British family. They are part of a subculture of WWII history buffs who take great satisfaction in collecting, preserving and restoring the old machinery, uniforms and kit of the WWII soldiers. After posing with their stern war faces for us, they let our daughter take the wheel (but not the keys!).
While I was familiar with Civil War reenactments in the United States, I was unaware of the full scope of the WWII reenactments in France around D-Day. Nor did I foresee the massive interest in American G.I. equipment I saw there. At the American cemetery, dozens of olive drab jeeps were parked, surrounded by reincarnations of mid-century American soldiers (not surprisingly mostly French, but some from all over Europe, it seemed). Later in the day, they would be taking part in the reenactments of some of the intense battles of D-Day. Our hearts were full as we watched them stand solemnly during the morning ceremonies.
Afterwards, we went to see the remains of a German gun battery in an area the French call "Le Chaos." The guns seem so futuristic still. Capped in reinforced concrete that withstood so much bombing, they stand like indestructible Art Deco clockworks facing the English channel with mute malevolence.
Once these skies were filled with Allied bombers attacking the German positions along the green coast of Normandy.
Ok, not that soon. Not until close to the end of the year, actually, but we are going back to France - to Paris and to Lonlay l'Abbaye. So I am very happy. I have Norwegian Air to thank for it. Opening the U.S. air routes to this low cost carrier was quite controversial, for reasons I don't fully understand, but Norwegian has a good safety record and mostly brand new Dreamliners from Boeing, so I was pleased to see the carrier begin non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Paris - the best part being that our tickets were less than $700/person!
While Norwegian splurged on new aircraft, they must have saved a lot on the budget designer who came up with their flight attendant uniforms. Wow, blue plaid! Now, I've read that the staff is incredibly nice and friendly, so no reflection on you guys, but I have to say it looks like they are dressing you for the supergeek prom night here. The women, meanwhile, are sporting those tight caps like the kind they put on babies with misshapen skulls, and must wear Boston Strangler red leather gloves. Interesting. Hope I don't fall asleep on the plane. But really, maybe they just have a good sense of humor.
So, what's happening with the house? We spoke last week with Jim D., our builder, who has been very busy on other projects. He assures us that with the better weather arriving, he and Nicola will begin laying the underfloor on the ground level which is the prerequisite for all the other work. Once that is done and they have something to walk about on, their team can begin to rewire the house and extend the plumbing where we need it. Then will come wall framing and other exciting stuff. For now, it's mainly a shell, although the delightful original plumbing fixtures are still in place.
Here you can see that the old outside wall and door to the small bathroom have been removed. The space is tiny, about 2 meters by 2 meters, but we can't expand into the neighbor's area behind here, so we will keep it simple. I'm so anxious to see it all torn out and redone, but I know that we have to be patient and see to the utilities first. If all of the electrical wiring and plumbing can go in before the walls, we will avoid having unsightly pipes and cables running along the ceiling and floors, as they do in many renovated French homes.
We will have to keep the toilet in the same location, maybe switching to a wall mounted type. Would love to see suggestions as to how others have configured the necessities in such a small space. But no links to photos of airplane lavatories, please, especially if they are done in blue plaid! If you must be amused, enjoy "Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style" by the outrageous artist Nina Katchadourian at http://www.ninakatchadourian.com/photography/sa-flemish.php_.