March 30, 2008


3 years and counting. We have been working on our house since April 2005, sometimes really hard, but mostly at a slow and steady tortoisional pace. Some days we certainly feel like we have earned our callouses and compliments, others it seems more like we bounce from school vacation to school vacation, always trying to take advantage of our European adventure by traveling when we should be working. We should be traveling. Perhaps this confused raison d'etre explains why this project has taken 3 years deja'. But there is progress. We live in a home 90% complete and I think that might be a record for us. The last 10% are large things that an untrained eye would never notice, like the stoned in arch on the street that we will soon de-stone and create a new front door. This is the next project and has many components, I'm really looking forward to it and I'll try to drag it out through the spring and into the summer, if not the Autumn.

The milestone achieved on this third anniversary of the work is the plaster and it's close to our hearts. This week saw the conclusion of the plastering, the last coat of finish on the last wall! For years we have admired and talked about "Venetian plastering". We have tried various effects simulating the mottled finish but always avoided the gilded chalice itself as too difficult for non-Venetians to attempt. Then we happened upon Jerome. Jerome is a Frenchman, living in London, with family here in Martel and a reputation for high end plaster finishes. We became friends and he gave me the missing information to make the jump into the superflat plaster technique akin to venetian plaster, and a star was born! We got pretty good at the technique over the past year and couldn't stop. We gave away our paint and decided every available wall deserved this multi layered technique. Each successive wall turned out better than the previous and now I wonder what I can plaster next? Oscar's room sports a grass green wall and another cabernet colored, the bathroom has a stone colored plaster wall and the guest room a deep red. The master bedroom has one denim blue and another sea green wall and everything else is various warm shades of yellow. There is definitely too much yellow, but we are good at yellow, and it's a vast improvement over the past 20 years of painting everything Atrium White!

The technique:
Dry pigments
No sand paper
8" plastering spatula
Soap and oil finish

This method works on any material, we have used it on brick, Sheetrock, wood and even the 300 year old torchi (dirt) walls.
You mix dry plaster with a small amount of powdered tints
from Ocres de France and then mix, with an electric plaster mixing tool, enough water to achieve a peanut butter consistency. Apply 2 or 3 thick coats (1/8") of plaster, then 2 or 3 thin coats (1/64"). Between each coat of plaster you scrape the dried plaster smooth with an 8" plaster knife. In the beginning you are simply knocking down the high points, then by the end you are really grinding the smooth finish even smoother with each coat, scraping off any defects and then filling in any defects with the successive coats. The plaster knife needs to be maintained immaculately. Sharpen it between successive coats with a stone and an emery cloth and store it in your underwear drawer between coats! The sharp knife is the only thing that matters. Use a carbon steel knife, not a stainless steel knife, as they are too soft.

Once you have achieved an acceptably flat finish (think babies bottom) then you are ready for the soap and oil finish. This part is the magic. Each coat of plaster fades as it dries and looses any vibrancy present in the wet plaster, but the oil in the finish brings the color back and the soap creates a glossy finish that hardens over time.

45% Savon de Marseille hard soap (available online and at Williams Sonoma)
45% Linseed Oil
10% Water

Heat the above in a microwave then mix thoroughly (I use a handheld food processor but even vigorous shaking in a glass jar works)

It's magic because once in a while it doesn't work, and sometimes it makes a mess out of your microwave and sometimes Pat's soup tastes like soap, but persevere and it will find you.

This soap mixture is as well the consistency of stiff peanut butter, and applies even better if it is still warm. Use the same 8" plaster knife and apply in consistent semi-arch swirls.

Let it dry for a few days and buff with a clean lint free towel.

The finished product is sublime. Maybe it's peculiar, but I get goosebumps just typing about it! When I'm applying the multiple coats, truthfully, life sucks, it's hard and repetitive, I wear gloves and a wrist brace and drink heavily, but at the end of the week the "touch" of the finished product raises the tiny hairs on the back of my neck every time!

If you double-click on the photo above it will open larger and maybe you can see the finish. The picture is a detail of the very last wall, another Cabernet color, in the hallway outside of the bedrooms on the upper floor. The door to the bathroom is on the right and the door in the picture leads into Oscar's room with a transom window above it. The shiny wall on the right is the sheen of the plaster wall.

This is not Venetian plaster, more of Martelaise plaster, and if you come visit I'll teach you how to do it!

Posted by Picasa

March 23, 2008

A New View

A small project:

We have a huge grenier, or attic, on top of our house. It serves as a playground for Oscar and a rainy day workshop for Daniel as well as storage for the amazing amount of extra stuff we have already accumulated. It is an amazing place, incredibly open, the roofing system typical in a medieval town like ours is 100's years old beams, called charpentes (the root of the English word carpenter I suppose) and thousands of terra cotta tiles that simply hang onto the structure by grace of their weight and form. The tiles overlap like any shingle system, but their uneven forms creates spaces between each tile where the light leaks in, along with the wind and occasional wind driven snow. The daytime effect is like a starry night sky with spots of light everywhere, it's amazing, and dark. One of the strangest things has been these dark winter evenings when the kids play in the attic on a rainy evening and due to the open eaves and porous tile system, their giggling voices carry into the streets making the Martelaise wonder what kind of parents we Americans must be to let our children play outdoors in the rain. While all the time they are safe from the rain creating mazes of forts in the limits of the attic with only the sound betraying their presence.

Two years ago I bought a cast iron and glass skylight at an antique sale and have spent the intervening time thinking about how to install such a simple beast. This week, with the spare half a day and warming sunny skies waiting to get in, I started removing tiles, from the inside! After half an hour I had 20 tiles on the floor and a 2x3 foot hole in the roof. The rest was easier than could be expected and soon the new roof window was in and done.

No leaks!

Here's the view.... the added few meters of height let me look over the neighbors roof and see an uninterrupted countryside. It all makes me certain that I need to find a way to build out a room up there and maybe even construct a dormer to capitalize on the view. The church is on the left and the view is due South.

Please note that you can click on most of the photos in this blog and open them much larger.

Further, since I have started blogging instead of journaling, I am only periodically sending alerts to new material, so scroll down and click through to the older posts and see if you have missed anything. And try to subscribe so you get notified instantly to any new posts.

BY the way, our newly restored guest room is empty the month of August!

in fact September and October too!
Posted by Picasa

March 20, 2008

Youth is wasted on the young.

I’m not talking about Oscar, I am talking about my own wasted youth. The horse is still in the barn for him, mine is out to pasture. There is no blaming my poor choices on “youth” anymore. We wonder what part of this adventure in Europe will ever rise to the surface in Oscar?? Tangible stuff like, will he remember that he visited Strasbourg?, and less so (more so) will he remember the slow walk around an Alsatian townhouse and the mindless musing of his parents on the architectural idiosyncrasies and patterns of the art nouveau movement. What French patterns will be etched into Oscars being? When he longs for “home” what language will they be speaking there?


When we were twice Oscar’s age we spun through the same circles we spin through today, and I’m not certain we were ready for it even then. Those were the salad days of youth and we wandered around Europe with still other priorities, unable to spend more on a meal than on a place to sleep, weighing the value of entrance to a museum against a train ticket. In Strasbourg there were young adults in the town square, milling about holding small signs that said “colin gratuit” (free hugs). My French aunt took/gave a hearty hug and explained that this is a new thing in France and that it originated in America, unbeknownst to us. This is apparently an effort to share something positive, something easy, something of no and incredible value. An energy of youth, focused, and a wonderful lesson.

Older, wiser and with considerably greater baggage, our adventures now take us to new corners of France, or the old corners cast in a new light. We discovered a new Paris, with friends we lived among the Royals, in a rental apartment in the Palais Royal, one block from the Louvre in the 1st arrondisment, a treasure around each corner. Then we went on to Nancy to visit our ‘French Family’ Francine and Ann Marie, and the expanding cote francaise as we come to know the extended family. We toured Corbusier’s incredible church at Ronchamp, then the hillside villages along the “wine route” of Alsace and then back home and back to school. What gets remembered??? Fortunately Oscar comes up with gems, like “remember that funny door in Venice?” or “this is just like that street in Mont St Michel” just to prove he was paying attention. And like any child, when they seem otherwise engaged, there is always an ear open to what the grown-ups around him are saying, and it usually comes back to haunt us…. “well you said…” but it all makes for absorption and gives greater value to each kilometer and every new roadshow.


Every 6 years France holds local elections, so we got to watch if not participate in this spectacle. Martel has 1300 registered voters and 80% showed up to seat 15 town council members from the four political parties that are the strongest of the 18 parties (ranging from Workers' Struggle to Hunt, Fish, Nature, Traditions parties). Everyone gets to vote for their choice of 15 to run the town and the greater sub-county. Once the 15 are chosen they select among themselves who should be the Mayor. The four parties that fielded candidates could be summed up as the “leftists”, the “left of leftists”, “the very left” and the “too left”. This is a wonderful corner of France! Our mayor of 24 years was re-elected, along with the baker, the butcher’s wife, the realtor and the candle stick maker, local politics are wonderful and everyone genuinely expects change (sound familiar). We attended the vote count, along with about 200 locals, where the town officials read aloud every ballot and a tally is taken until victors were announced at 2 am. Everyone asked us if we voted for Hillary or Obama as we expressed frustration at being kept out of the Martel process (only EU citizens can vote and we are EU residents). The level of political knowledge and participation here is a thing of beauty, everyone seems informed and interested, everyone is an historian and a pundit, and there are no “un-decideds”. We had several friends running for office, some made it, most didn’t but it does make the process interesting, we will watch to see what happens next.
Posted by Picasa