May 29, 2008

A is for Arch

One might suppose to have started with a project like this, but we are closer to finishing with it. When we bought this house 3 years ago, we quickly realized that the stoned in arch should become the front door. We applied for permission to "re-open" the arch and it is now the last project on our building permit.

The arch was filled with 2 feet of stone 6 feet high and 7 feet wide, I'm figuring 7 tons, supported by the ache in my back and the sore spot on my hand from missing the chisel too many times. Strangely all the stones in the arch had been destroyed by repeated freezing, moisture settled into the stone and, over the centuries, the occasional deep freezes would split the stones into rubble which stayed intact, like so many things in medieval France, by gravity alone.

Tomorrow I will start rerouting the water main and then I can start rebuilding the doors.

May 24, 2008

New projects

We have started into one of our single largest
details, opening the new entrance onto the street. Three years we got permission to reopen the 13th century arch on the street.

In the 17th century (give or take a hundred years), they started taxing property
owners on the size and nature of the openings in their buildings. Openings = Wealth.
A street-arch meant business and the high tax led to the majority of the arches being filled in to avoid the taxes. Centuries later, with new tax methods, we are rediscovering our past, and reopening the arch. This Arch, long ago, was the interface between the merchant who owned our house and the customers in the streets.

For us it will become the front door and relegate the walnut doors I had made with my dad 3 years ago, to the "garage" doors they were meant to be. We are looking forward to finally taking this step. It involves re-routing the drain line, the water main, electrical switches, doorbells, mailbox, and about 2 tons of stone. Oscar was very excited to participate, tearing apart an old stone wall is lots of fun, he even wrote out a schedule:

practice guitar --- 10 minutes
Work - Work - Work!

The whole work/play thing is still unfolding. For me there is little difference (perhaps having to do only with whether I drink my wine during or after). My work is play, it is still what I want to do on my weekends and a sore back or smashed finger is the smudge on my apron that marks my accomplishment. For Oscar this is still forming. "Play" is a game, it comes in a box or employs a toy. When he is in his fort however that is "work", things are being made, mostly defensive structures for my eventual attack! but it's work. I remember well my father trying to instill a joy of such work in me. We would spend summers in the "family fort", an actual log cabin in the Connecticut woods. What I remember first is the lists he would make before he left for work. Only years later did I realize that he thought he was leaving a menu of fun things to do all day, at the time I saw it as an unrealistic challenge to my summer vacation!

You rebel against your parents
and then...... you become them.

Now I am trying to remember whatever was coursing through my ten year old mind and take heed. I want Oscar to find that Joy of Work, to find pleasure in craft but I'm not entirely certain of how to affect it.

We installed a marquis over our front door, a glass canopy to
keep the rain out. I used a piece of 1/2" tempered glass which appropriately disappears on
the exterior and does an amazing reappearing act every sunny day around 5 pm, with a shifting
prismatic effect that brings life to the white stone walls and anyone who happens into our home.
Somehow it's such a new-age touch in such an old place that it boggles the mind.

To un-boggle the mind, I wanted to share a radio program, This American Life, which is one of the most heralded programs on NPR, with a reputation for "stories about why everyone else is so interesting". I have been listening for 10 years and it just gets better. Last weeks (1 hour) program was a very entertaining, and illuminating set of stories that go a long way towards describing the boggling loan cum credit crisis story gripping the planet. This is easy listening! Funny, entertaining and like the shifting prism in our home, illuminating in a spectral manner!

Click HERE for the show and let me know if you like it.

May 18, 2008


I was noticing today how other people end a conversation, with a lilt, or crescendo. And as I thought about it I realized that I do as well, and that the French do just like the Americans, and the British! It's perhaps cross cultural, the desire to wrap it up, to make a definition, a verbal period (.). This seems even more keen at the end of a phone conversation, when we aren't in each others presence and the only body language we have is to speak faster and with a higher pitch, a crescendo, to indicate the conclusion.
Phone calls are difficult for me. While I can run on and on in person, on the phone there is a time element that doesn't exist otherwise and perhaps the silence is more difficult to endure. Some people can talk endlessly on the phone, or when they meet on the streets, but almost always there is this strange, up-tempo finish to every conversation. It makes me as uncomfortable as the silence. We have just gotten a webcam....I wonder if it'll make a difference?
It's all about the transitions, the beginnings and the endings. The first impressions and the last; did I shake hands with enough force? did I kiss the cheek with too much lip? did I seem earnest?
The transitions here in France are occupying much of our thoughts. The question of when to end this adventure, and why, is on our minds presently. Our original schedule was 5 years, which will come to pass in 3 weeks! Now we are planning on 3 more years so as to finish this house at a leisurely pace and transition Oscar back into the life of an American kid with the start of high school.
But these are all arbitrary milestones. We are looking for the rhyme to the plan, the force majeur for our trajectory. We are often asked by others why we want to return to the US?, why would we leave this lifestyle? and the answers are often foggy and distant... family, friends, work, zinfandel and certainly to live where things are more familiar! It remains as hard to imagine leaving as it does to imagine staying. We're wondering what will be our crescendo?
"Chateau Crescendo"?
Oscar and Daniel in front of the (ruined) stair tower
Meanwhile we wonder what would we do if we stayed? We came across a chateau that's for sale. OK more of a ruin of a chateau, but it's sort of like nature has already done the demolition work for us and now it's ready for us to come in and rebuild! The stone is in great condition and the building is full of wonderful architectural details (not to mention trees) that one doesn't find too often, even around here in this medieval land. We are only half serious about it but it has caused all sorts of other questions to bubble up around the subject of why, when and what if???
Large windows, three huge fireplaces, did I mention no floors? No roofs?
This would be the living room, with plenty of house plants.

Mother's day

We spent Mother's Day with friends in their vacation house in Les Cevennes, a national park region southeast of us by 5 hours. Incredibly remote, and incredibly beautiful! Oscar cooked a pasta carbonara dinner and made ginkgo leaf earrings to suitably decorate her for Mother's Day. She kept them in all day, and she climbed waterfalls, built forts, and earned her motherly stripes!

Spending four days with good friends in the middle of nowhere is a special opportunity. Once you remove the distractions we think are our lives, it is wonderful what you are left with. In our case it was mostly food and lot's of red wine!

We are back to basics now, Oscar back in school, Pat back to learning French and teaching English and Daniel playing with stones. Er, I mean working with stones. We are finally getting started on the entry at the street level, building walls, repointing stone, building doors, then we get to remove the stones from the arch on the street and reclaim the entry to this chateau!

Come help!