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_.
The photos above were taken at approximately the same spot in the village of Lonlay l'Abbaye, but seventy-one years apart. I took the color shot as I wandered, punchdrunk with jet lag, on my first day in Lonlay l'Abbaye. I had just arrived a few minutes before - concluding a four hour drive from Charles de Gaulle airport, on the heels of a long flight to Paris from Los Angeles. It would be months before I would see that World War II photo of American soldiers on this very same street. But I feel as if they were with me from the very first day.
Before I talked to a living soul, I felt welcomed and at home in this village - and as if someone was looking after me here. In fact, it was partly the experiences of two other American soldiers from WW II that led me to believe that Lonlay l'Abbaye was exactly the right place to buy a French house.
Just about two years ago, in early April of 2014, as soon as I had spotted the listing of this house in Lonlay l'Abbaye, I started looking up information about the town on the internet. A mysterious pdf file came up under this url: https://nara-media-001.s3.amazonaws.com/arcmedia/nw/305270/EE-891.pdf. Someone had copied a previously classified report from World War II, written by Sgt. Joseph Porter and Lt. "Duffy" Kalbfleisch.
Why was this previously secret WW II report coming up in a search for Lonlay l'Abbaye? I was intrigued and read it all. It seems that Sgt. Porter and Lt. Kalbfleisch had survived the crash of their aircraft which was shot down near midnight in an area not too far from Lonlay l'Abbaye. The whole area was controlled by Germans at the time. It was the 5th of April, 1944. Sgt. Joe Porter was 28 years old. Lt. Kalbfleisch was only 24. After hiding separately, they were each helped by some courageous French people who later brought them together again.
For weeks, they sheltered at different places, and were introduced to a variety of persons. It was hard for them to know who to trust. One lady in Beauchêne let them sleep in her chicken coop to hide from the Gestapo, and fed them well during the day. Then they were on the move again.
At one point, two men from Lonlay l'Abbaye, Alexander Gueston and Rene Leray, bravely led the two soldiers with a group of French citizens who were also evading the Germans. Sgt. Porter was helping to carry a baby. Germans were approaching, so they had to hide. Sgt. Porter hid in a ditch under a bush near the road with the baby. Had the baby cried, that would have meant discovery and perhaps imminent death. You can read the relief in the report as Kalbfleisch writes "the baby never made a whimper."
There was a happy ending for both Lt. Kalbfleisch and Sgt. Porter. They were reunited with American troops and returned to England, and then to the States. From what little I could glean from searching their names, they each lived long and productive lives after the war. Porter was a photographer who worked as a consultant for the 1962 D-Day movie "The Longest Day", and Kalbfleisch became an inventor of some note. I feel privileged to have been able to read their war reports.
Someday perhaps I or my family members will encounter the descendants of Alexander Gueston and Rene Leray, the men of Lonlay l'Abbaye who aided these Americans so long ago. Or meet someone related to Yvette Dubocq, the educated woman from Beauchêne, who hid them from the Gestapo. I am glad to know their stories. The bond between the French and the Americans is one we cherish, and for good reason.
"The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart."
From time to time you see renovations of older houses, barns or even chateaux where the original aspect of the building has been preserved on the outside, but the interior is completely gutted and then remade into an ultra modern interior. This can be done with taste. Too often though, the new interior is jazzed up with some trendy color scheme or filled with hard edged furniture that is uncomfortable even to look at. In those instances, the dissonance is overwhelming.
The same thing happens when a designer (or perhaps a budget conscious owner) fits out an open kitchen in high-gloss green or red lacquer in a classic Parisian apartment. "Okay," I want to say to them, "I understand that you don't want to live in a museum, or with your grandmother's decor, but honestly, bright green?"
So I guess my philosophy of renovation is that while improvements must be made in the name of comfort and the health of the building, any original features with character should certainly be respected and retained - and they should not be painted in a color that would only be found in science fiction.
Of necessity, our builders have had to gut most of the Lonlay l'Abbaye house. We are hoping to rebuild it with hardwood floors and sympathetic fixtures that won't seem too modern, even if we do bring in a few pieces of Ikea furniture. We are trying hard to keep the character pieces that conjure up for us the kind of village house this is. The narrow winding stairs that lead up from the kitchen are not very practical. You can't get a big piece of furniture, or even a large painting, up those stairs. But the staircase is charming, and if it can be saved, it deserves to stay. We will make accommodations around it.
Likewise, the cupboard pictured above. It must be made out of some sort of wonderful hardwood like mahogany, because it seems impervious to the all of the wood munching beetles that so damaged the old wood floors. It has a regal aspect, as if it knows it was a point of pride for past owners, who carefully placed their ironed linens on its shelves. Maybe there was room for a few toys near the bottom.
We have not decided yet what to do about the second built-in cupboard. That one is downstairs in the living room. Its door may once have been the same magnificent dark wood color, but it has been painted white. And the inside - you guessed it - is a bright yellow green!