Thursday, 29 October 2009

Stock taking

Just recently I've started to get emails of the 'when do you think you might be ready to open' variety. I suspect what they really mean is 'come on - you can't still be renovating after all this time'. Well, er, yes, we are. But just to prove to you sceptics out there that we are actually doing something, here's a bit of a taste of where we've got to.

L'Atelier's bedroom started like this: bare stone walls, sound but tired oak beams, no window sills, no lighting to speak of and sockets fed by surface cable.

The room was rewired, then the hemp and lime went on. This was the first stage:

I took these pictures a few days ago: the hemp and lime is thoroughly dry, all the beams have been cleaned, treated and oiled, and we have beautiful chestnut window sills and skirting boards. All that's left to do here is to strip, stain and oil the floor.

The bathroom was just a grenier, albeit with good windows and a wooden floor. Work quickly started to convert it:

It's by no means finished - I still have to finish tiling the shower and part of the floor, strip, stain and oil the rest of the floor, and fix a glass shower screen. But it's on the way:

The hallway of La Petite Maison was encumbered by the smallest shower room in the world, suitable only for those with waif like figures. So we knocked it down.

Now it looks like this, which is what it should have looked like to begin with ...

I know I said I wouldn't do this but ... see that wall with the radiator on? I plastered that.

Each floor had two bedrooms which were actually too small to photograph properly. Or do much else in. We've knocked each pair into one bigger room; the downstairs room will be the salon, while the double height room upstairs is the bedroom, shown in these two pictures. Here you can still see the join ...

The new stairway going up to the mezzanine:

We're all taking a few days breathing space this week, then we've got a couple of builder-less months to get on with kitchen fitting, flooring, painting, lime washing, tiling and all the rest before they come back and we all attack the new dining room. But as The Perfectionist said today, it's not half bad for a builder, two counsellors and a guy who drives a pink van.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Desert tiling discs

My memories of particular times or events tend to be linked to two things: food, and music. Much to John's bemusement, I can recall salivatingly accurate details of what I ate on a particular holiday or cooked for friends - admittedly perhaps not entirely predictable behaviour from one who sometimes can't remember her own name. In the same way, hearing a particular piece of music transports me emotionally back to a time when it was important for whatever reason: for instance, every time I hear Barbra Streisand singing Run Wild, I'm straight back to 1981, the Civil Service College, and my first encounter group, where we played it incessantly for two weeks in the early hours of the morning ...

Over the last few weeks we've all taken to working to music for much of the day. Tentatively at first: Is this all right? Not too much? And then, as we began to discover that we enjoyed much of the same music, in what-the-hell-let's-turn-the-volume-up mode. More and more of our CD collection migrated down to the work space; The Perfectionist brought in his iPod dock (and - oh joy - left it here every night; what he doesn't know- yet! - is that come 7 o'clock I took it down to the huge and so far blissfully unfurnished gite space, kicked off my shoes, turned up the volume again, and danced ...).

Inevitably some bits of music 'stick' more than others: they're the ones that stop me in mid-tile, and it's those - mostly mine, a couple of The P's - that I guess will come to characterise this era of my life in years to come. And so here, with apologies to the BBC*, are my desert tiling discs ....

1. Funkadelic - Maggot Brain. Best guitar solo ever?

2. Gary Moore - Parisienne Walkways. Heart stopping, that moment when he holds the guitar note for ever ...

3. India.Arie - Ready for Love. Soul with soul.

7. Archie Shepp, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) - Moniebah. Sensitive, intense, mellow sax and piano.

8. Geoffrey Oryema - Makambo. Close your eyes, play it loud.

and because I just can't leave this one out I'm awarding myself a bonus track:

9. Richard Wagner - Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde. As someone once wrote, listening to Tristan und Isolde without being grabbed by the throat and driven at least to the borders of insanity just ain't possible ...

* Desert Island Discs as been broadcast on the UK's BBC Radio 4 since 1942; guests are invited to choose eight pieces of music they would take with them to a desert island. The apalling pun is mine :-)

Monday, 19 October 2009

Red and white

I woke up again this morning to a white, white world. Although it's only October, the weather appears suddenly to think it's winter and is offering up crisp, cool days of impossibly blue skies and nights hovering below zero degrees. We're some 10 degrees down on the average temperatures for this time of year, and even though the sun is hot enough to strip off for a few hours in the afternoon, for the rest of the time long trousers have become the order of the day. We even closed the curtains for the first time last night.

As I drove towards Foix just before sunrise this morning (look, it's not that impressive. The sun doesn't come up here until nearly half past eight ...), the smell of wood smoke was in the air, the horses were wearing their blankets and even the cows looked cold. Although Grillou was, as usual, clear, there's a point a few kilometres to the east at Castelnau Durban where you always drive into early morning mist at this time of year; it always provokes the proverbial sharp intake of breath, and never more so than this morning. Note to self: must go out walking early one morning. After the réno, of course ...

The last of the summer plants in the potager have taken umbrage at being left out in below-freezing temperatures (who wouldn't?) and promptly died. Which meant that this weekend the réno just had to wait while we dealt with 11 aubergines, half a kilo of Scotch Bonnets, 2 kilos of cayenne peppers, half a kilo of green chili peppers, a good few sweet Basque peppers and another 2 kilos of Cornue des Andes tomatoes. I've come to the conclusion that anyone wanting to grow a cash crop here could do worse than go into the production of pimentos: from five cayenne plants, picked up at St Girons market for 60 centimes each, we've produced almost 5 kilos of peppers. Cayenne peppers sell here for up to 25 euros a kilo ...

We've already got a huge stash of whole cayennes in the freezer (thanks to the friend who introduced me to this particular astuce) and have given away as much again; this bit of the harvest was destined for drying. I've always wanted to string up my peppers (along with a few other - er - things. And I don't mean the builders.), so last night, when another friend phoned, I told him that I was sewing up my chillis. Sigh. Another credibility point lost ...

Anyway, I now know that strings of chillis are called ristras, and that apparently hanging one up in your house will not only bring you good luck, but is a symbol of welcome for visitors. Well, I've got three. Bring it on ...

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sticking plaster

There's a lot of it about. Plaster, that is. It's

in every room.
on the floors.
on the stairs.
in the cupboards.
on the furniture.
wafting out of the windows.
on me.
on the grass.
in the car.
in the bed.
on my laptop.
in my wardrobe.
in my dinner.
and (fortunately) on the walls.

And there's nothing to be done about it. Zilch. You clean it up; it comes back. You clean it up again; it comes back again. (Where does it go in between times?). So there's only one thing to do. You shrug your shoulders, and let it be. Eventually (and you may have to take my word for this) you just laugh.

The Perfectionist was as good as his word and did teach me to plaster. On Day One, my brief was to plaster three walls of a former loo, now cupboard, clearly so that my hap-handed efforts would only ever be seen by me. No, I know you didn't say that, dear Perfectionist. You wouldn't. Dare. It was a true bastard of a job: not enough room to swing an edible dormouse, let alone manipulate a hawk and trowel in a meaningful fashion. But, in spite of my best efforts, the plaster went onto the walls, and actually it's not half bad. As in smooth and strokeable, with not too many dings or rough bits. On Day Two, I graduated to the hallway of La Petite Maison, and, well, let me just say that in England I once paid good money for worse work than that ...

It's all in the teaching, of course :-). But I also found that once the initial omigodimgoingtof*^!thisup terror was past, it was something I really enjoyed doing. While tiling is more of an intellectual exercise - a bit like a builders' sudoko - plastering is actually a very tactile, sensual experience. You can't plaster with your head. You need to feel the movement of the trowel across the wall; it's your body that knows when you've got it just right, and as with all such bodily experiences, when it flows it's a great sensation. And I discovered that, in the same way as cutting in when painting, trowelling the plaster on the out breath rather than the in breath is a Good Thing and much more likely to succeed.

And the best thing? Having to put all the plates down for two days. Now where did I put them?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Above all don't wobble

What do you do when there's not enough of you to go round?

project manager accountant cook therapist designer tiler gardener marketing manager sander personal shopper quantity surveyor budget bod decorator webmaster furniture restorer purchaser cleaner upper special effects coordinator networker hacker outer (infrequent) blogger .....

I'm plate spinning. And the last few weeks have been a bit difficult, to be honest. As usual at this kind of point in this kind of project, everything needs doing/buying/deciding at once: x can't be done until I've done y, y can't be done until I've sourced w, w can't be sourced until p has been done. And so on, ad infinitum. Each day begins, and ends, with a juggling of priorities, in a vain attempt to fit in with the needs of The Perfectionist's work, my work, and the bigger long term needs of the project itself. It's a bit like trying to cut a path with a machete through a jungle of competing demands; inevitably compromises have to be made, and nobody gets everything they want. At the same time, Life has to go on: eating, sleeping, washing clothes, dealing with potager gluts, maintaining something of a clear space to live in. Emails and blogs get written at midnight, other work gets fitted in somewhere between midnight and morning. Time with friends, out walking, in the garden ... mañana.


Real progress is being made, day after day. What was just a twinkle in my eye (and on my plans) has been given shape, and life, and it works. A new timetable has been thrashed out with The Perfectionist for the last stage of the project, which gives us a bit more space - two whole months, in fact - to finish our work in the guest accommodation before he starts knocking a big hole in the library to connect it, finally, to the main house hallway.

We've started the finitions in L'Atelier d'Artiste: I'm ankle deep in tadelakt, paint, natural pigments, linseed oil, lime wash, tiles. Colours are appearing; the place is becoming a home.

I'm beginning to dare to believe that we might make our target of being ready to open by late spring next year.

Three peoples' shared hysteria about toomanythingstodoandnotenoughtime is often hysterically funny.

The potager seems to have thrived on the neglect we've thrown at it this year and has thrown more food at us than we've had any right to expect: there are kilos and kilos of sugo di tomate in the freezer and still 11 aubergines on the plants, we could open a shop to sell all the chilli peppers that we're getting, we're already eating parsnips and cavalo nero, we have 24 potimarron stored away for the winter and the same number of beetroot in the ground. Plus there's my pasteque - water melon; my first ever. I've grown it to make jam, a speciality of southern France. But I'm so attached to its round perfection that it hasn't so far graduated beyond its role as table decoration. (You think that's weird? When I was a girl, I could never, ever bring myself to eat chocolate rabbits, or bears, or ducks. Still can't, since you ask ...).

And then there's the weather. Summer here is just going on and on this year; today was hot (29 in the shade) and immaculate, with awesome clear golden light. Tonight we've eaten outside, in tee shirts.

And at the end of this week The Perfectionist is going to teach me to plaster. Can life really get any better?