October 9, 2009

Brick House

I have taken to the European method of building interior walls of brick and plaster. Where I was born and raised with 2x4's and sheetrock, I have seen the light, and I've gone towards it. It's part of an entire built ethos of durability, I think, the French regard a building as something which lasts for centuries, and therefore should be built solid enough to get them there. But even those times are changing and construction a-la-mode is just as often sheetrock and metal studs, and here I am, once again, learning a disappearing craft.

I've decided to document the brick-wall building on the top floor of our project house, it's typical of the system and there was a place to put the camera out of harms way. These pictures are taken looking towards an existing stone wall that we will re-point and leave as stone. The walls I am building will enclose a large closet on the left, with a bunch of winter storage, and the bathroom across to the right. The stairs descend in the foreground.

The first step is to move the bricks up two flights of stairs, then to erect some boards to define the ends and set them in plumb and level. These boards are temporary but eliminate the need to constantly be checking and correcting with a spirit level. They are clamped to a piece of wood which will support a rolling door in the oh so distant future.

The bricks are 1.5 inches thick and are terra cotta just like an american clay brick. They can be stacked with a cement mortar or with a plaster mortar. I prefer the plaster because it sets in about 10 minutes and is strong enough to build upon in about 20 minutes. I can build up three courses and in the time it takes to trim a few bricks and mix up another batch of mortar, the wall is set enough to continue the process.

The bricks are offset to each other to provide strength, and can be used either horizontally or vertically as the situation dictates. The bricks are hollow, with channels running through them to make them economical, lightweight and allow for electrical wires to run through them. Here you can see the outlet down low and the switch at waist height, the plastic conduit is threaded into the wall as you build each course.
Posted by PicasaThe center section completed, I remove the framework and continue to work on the small side wallsA keen eye will see that I had to move the electrical outlet to the left so the door wouldn't hit a plugged in cord as it slid open (oops!) and the yellow double switch box has been installed in the small wall on the right.Then the plaster. The rough coat of plaster (the 1st coat) is the same product as the mortar. It is a product that sets in about 15 minutes, so one needs to work fast. They used to sell slower setting plasters but they realized I was getting too comfortable and decide to change the rules. By the time I get good at this I suspect they will change the product again, and eventually we'll be using "buckets of mud" like in the U.S.. This first layer of plaster goes on quickly and rough, about 1/4" thick with plenty of high and low points. From here we will choose some colors and start applying tinted plaster heading towards the eventual finish. One more layer of rough plaster and then 3 layers of a fine plaster and eventually a soap and oil finish we call Venetian Plaster.I'll update this next month when we get around to the finishes.

September 4, 2009


Back to school 2009/10

That's Oscar on the left, and typical copain Francais, Alexi on the right.

This is from yesterday, the first morning of 7th grade (5eme en francais).

The summer felt long and deep, we stayed close to home and received cousins upon cousins, friends upon friends, and even a few strangers. By not traveling we seemed to stretch the 2 month pause into something that actually felt like a two month pause, we worked, watched movies, luxuriated in the gentle weather, drank our mint patch into submission (mojitos) and talked endlessly about the quality of home grown tomatoes.

By the time it was over, Oscar was ready for a return to the patterns of school, asking that we 'help him get back on schedule', asking for a few early nights and mornings to return to a scholastic rythm. After a summer of eating cereal out of the box at 11am, he's back to demanding his limited menu of hot cooked breakfasts "American Style". I need to get back in the practice myself:

San Fransisco Potatoes
Grilled Ham and Cheese
Scambled Eggs
or the favorite "Egg McOscar" (bacon, egg, cheese, lettuce on an english muffin).

His classes this year include: Physics, Math, History, Geography, English, Latin, French and Spanish (plus art, gym and music)! It sounds exhausting, but we'll see how many of those classes are real, how could an 11 year old take physics and latin??? All I remember from 7th grade is softball, machine shop and getting beaten up by Douglas Fairbanks! He'll continue to come home for lunch everyday, he's begging to stop playing the piano (we are discussing a horn of some shape or another). And he is hanging up his basketball shoes for a tennis racket! Change is good, right?

Walls are forming at the project house, along with a few doors, some outlets and some plumbing.... We'll keep you posted.
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August 31, 2009

A New Window

Emboldened by the new doorway we built in, and countless niches, we decide to add a window in the main shower room of our project house. The stone wall is about two feet thick, and built in the standard practice of building two parallel walls and filling the middle in with rubble.
The window we wanted to add in was small so there was little threat of collapse and no great need for interim support. We built the window at eye level and in the form of an arrow slit for defending a medieval castle. The window is about 30" tall and about 6" wide at the exterior opening while being about 20" wide on the interior.

The process, which seems easy and obvious by now, is first to choose a location that makes use of the existing stones. Locate a large stone already in the wall to be the header and another for a sill, that sort of thing. Then with a large diamond blade, cut the inward tapering vertical lines to a depth of about 4".

With a hammer and a chisel (pneumatic in this image), you carefully remove stones cutting and chiseling deeper and deeper until you reach the exterior.

Here, the top stones are supported temporarily with wood, while the sides are cut and chiseled clean and straight.

Oscar, always ready to work, but quickly bored with the slow pace, got the glory job of removing the last stones and "creating" the window. I wonder if this kind of stuff will pay off when he's a famous architect?

I then lightly braced the two sides with plumb boards and cemented the edges and sides. I could have made these side stones perfect and left them exposed, but that would have turned a 1 day project into a 1 week project, and besides now I can plaster the sides in a white luminous plaster and reflect much more light inward than the stones ever would have allowed. These boards came down the next morning.This is the finished window, awaiting a tile wall on the interior and plaster on the insides of the opening....or maybe mirrored tiles...hmmm?

Here is the window from the exterior, hardly noticable from the street, yet a profound effect on the forming shower.

August 6, 2009


Our minds are in motion and are tending to stay that way.

Momentum is an interesting thing. I can change my mind like the wind, but put it in motion and I’m too often lost down that rabbit hole.

I ponder momentum as I start a renovation, searching for a straight line to measure off of. I have found I can spend as much time trying to find a worthy starting point as doing the job itself. The art of renovating a centuries old stone building is curious, the momentum of a half a centimeter can cause a drain to run backwards or a stair riser to become a trip hazard, and once a bad decision is made it can in fact be “cast in stone”. Spirit levels (the tool with the air bubble in a glass chamber) are relatively modern and levelity was not a great concern in the middle ages. Town planning was rare and buildings were built until they ran into an obstacle and were rarely square or plumb. I’m sure that ancient builders used plumb bobs or pendulums, but it didn’t seem to mater much that stuff was square. It all adds up to a conundrum of consequence. It helps that this latest project doesn’t even pretend to be square, it is an obvious trapezoid. The rez de chausse (street level) has a dirt floor and I suppose the animals that lived there never complained about the lack of right angles. Once you climb up to the etage (second level) the walls appear straight and the ceiling even appeared level, until I put my new laser level on the high corner and thought for certain I hadn’t set it incorrectly until I verified the degree of slope….8”! Once I had jacked up the beams so that the ends were all back in the same plane, I realized that century old oak beams develop a decent sag just from their own weight, so there was still more shimming to do. All along I’m questioning the value of “level”??? These buildings never had rolling office chairs to think about. So I am changing the momentum, and creating another of my own invention. But this is momentum with a small “m”.

An object at rest stays at rest…

Oscar selling his old books, boxes and bikes at the town flea market

Momentum is more important as we grope for a healthy trajectory in parenting. Once that line in the sand is drawn, it’s a difficult enterprise to cross it. I mean Oscar is smarter than I am in so many ways, but he’s looking to us for lessons and limits (even though he would never admit it). When those lessons dissolve between us, it’s a shift that sees the seawall eroded a measure. The problem is when the momentum of a poorly established limit is stronger than the lesson, and it’s a downhill slope. I often hear the echo of a yes or a no long into the cold dark night of a bad decision, and the puzzlement over changing one’s mind rings louder and louder as the decision moves further away. I favor the nurture argument over the nature, and that makes me even more anxious about the trajectory we are “responsible” for. There is plenty of momentum in the mind of a 47 year old parent, and it is often necessary to reverse a bit and find the flexibility of an 11 year old. It takes a lot longer to re-route a person going 47 than one going 11. Oscar can get over an over-zealous parent much quicker than we can let the same conflict pass.
Every relationship has it’s own momentum. I carry pieces of my parents and grandparents with me everywhere, little change, but a lot of inertia. I watch the patterns being established between Oscar and his parentals and wonder how far they will carry him?

An object in motion stays in motion…

Another momentum.

We are often given credit for our decision to move from our comfortable lives in California to an unknown life in France, but that decision came easy, made like most of our big decisions, on the back of a napkin. The difficult part was the inertia of that life, it was like pulling a plant out of the sand, some of the roots went deep, drinking and sustaining, and others were already growing on the surface noticing the sunlight and searching for soil. The fact that our lives were “at rest” was something we could bluff our way around, by telling ourselves it was a five year “temporary” plan, we cheated Newton’s law and before we noticed it we were here and setting roots all over again, storing passive energy into inertia for another day, another move. We spend a lot of idle time talking about where our future is heading, we think we can direct it a little, and we are trying to define the issues. So far, trying to prove Newton wrong has worked well for us, we’ll see where that takes us!

Oscar’s wearing jewelry (a chain)
Daniel’s wearing glasses (reading)
And Pat’s wearing French fashion.
Summer is all around us, tourists, houseguests and open windows…

Good momentum!
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June 30, 2009


A friend told me the other day that we were “on his list”.
For good or bad!? I pressed on….apparently we were on his list in an inner circle sort of way. It was a pleasant surprise and it made me start to imagine what I would do if I were to “have a list”. He cleared matters up and expressed that he didn’t have a real list, and that admission to the list was comprised of being good enough friends that we wouldn’t ask each other “why we moved to France". I was proud to be on his list, but now I am dying to know “why he moved to France”??

I have been thinking about lists since then, lists of places I’d like to visit, places I’d like to live, people I’d like to invite for dinner. Fun to think about, and much easier than one’s “bucket-list”. Favorite movies, colors, books, foods….it’s a worm hole.

I made a list

I drew a pea pod on a sheet of paper and started writing names down of people we know here in France. The closer to the pea, the closer to pod. I erased a lot and moved some people in a ½ an inch and others out an inch, and then I started writing all the French speakers on the bottom and all the English speakers on the top. It was an exercise. It showed me that there was a halo around the pea pod, empty space, it made me think of the billboards with the word “available” advertising itself. But I’d rather think of the halo as the reserved area, the VIP lounge of our lives, the area that is already full with names, written in white, because they don’t need to be written, they are simply known.

I burned the list

I think I’ll start over with …

What I’d like for dinner:

I’m done with lists.

Today is the first day of summer vacation here in Martel. Oscar has been running rough-shod over Martel, water balloons, squirt guns, bicycles…. He plans to stay up late and eat only candy for the next 66 days!

Pat is in Carcassonne with her choir group singing and eating cassoulet for two days. Me, I’m trying to figure out how to make “summer” feel different from the rest of the year, besides the heat and the incredibly long days. I finished re-roofing our project house. I managed to do almost all of the work without ever having to climb ON the roof; my friend Ed and I worked from the attic floor on ladders as we moved up the slopes and then just a bit of monkey work as I climbed in from the peak on the last few tiles. I installed my first Velux skylight, built a new chimney (see the photo at the top) and did a bit of gutter work as well. I am left with a new appreciation of these systems which have evolved over hundreds of years. Born of necessity and performed in the beginning by farmers and itinerant craftsmen, they are now very compartmentalized professions. A roofer in France does not do gutters, and a framer does not build walls! They all seem to be impressed that I can touch upon several trades, what they don’t see is me scratching my head, looking over the rooftops to see how the neighbors did their ridges and valleys. At the end of the day I am hot, tired and wondering if THIS is why I went to college?

I made a roof.

I’m done with roofs!

Oscar finished the year with good grades, A’s and a couple of B’s. He moves onto the French equivalent of 7th grade next year. Moving to the next grade is a bit different here; everyone asks if Oscar ‘will be advancing of not?’ It seems a strange question, but they seem to handle it differently here. While being “held-back” is a terrible thing in the US, full of negative connotations and self esteem challenging hurdles, here in France it seems incredibly more common and while negative, it can have a positive spin. I suppose it is the opposite of that problem we seem to have in US public schools where everyone passes and becomes the next years problem, here, one just “re-doubles”, it sounds like a backgammon game! However I wonder how many kids are dis-proportionally older by the end of high school?

French schools are better than American schools.

The public school system here is still strong and very democratic, there are private schools, but they are not very expensive and not worlds apart in quality like the majority of the schools in urban America. They have their faults, poor infrastructure, absent teachers with no money for substitutes, but where they shine is their cafeterias and their secondary education. France has a complicated system which has most High School students choosing a professional path as they enter the 10th grade. One can go to a culinary high school, or a furniture making high school, or even a circus high school (one of France’s most popular). There is a majority that continue onto a general college-prep high school and then toward university, but the system offers a plethora of choices for the students who want to do two or three year programs and move straight into a trade. This system seems to avoid the idea of “high school dropouts” because everyone continues through to some sort of certificate or diploma. I imagine that most of the people that continue onto low level jobs have completed two or three years of high school with some specific training for that job, and voila, a career is made!

Oscar continues to think he will be an historian with a second choice of architecture, I’ll keep you posted. Thankfully he has abandoned his aspirations to be a food critic reviewing different kinds of pasta. He is off to Camp for the first time in our lives. One week in the Pyrenees, swinging from trees, shooting arrows and hurtling down dry ski slopes in a go-kart!! Will we all survive? He’s growing up!

Summer rolls on, and us with it’s rhythms and rhymes.

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May 28, 2009

Speaking Frankly

I have been playing with pasting together images in my camera. There is a lot of distortion
but it let's me get close to capturing the size of our main room.

The last project in our second house was the entry courtyard. The door to thestret is through the arch to the right.
The recreated fountain is in the middle, firewood storage under the stair, and then up the stairs to the garden and the front door.
This area has been a work zone for all the years we have been here, so it's great to have it finished, it's a nice transition zone from the
street into the calm cool of the house.


I have hit one of those linguistic thresholds, talking to Pat in French. I mean I’ve always done this a little, the too sweet après vous mademoiselle from our courting days, the whispered oui-oui’s that followed and then the language students habitual practicing. But all of a sudden I have noticed a few lines worked into daily conversation. Words spoken without reflection or any special intent. Just responses on an unconscious level, which may demonstrate the occasional French thought in my very American head, maybe even a chain of thoughts!! It’s nice.

We are both getting better at our French. I am still speaking out of tense and seldom in plurals, but we are both carrying conversations and that feels wonderful. I’d say that a glass or two of wine helps loosen the tongue, but I think the reality is it dulls the senses and we just think we are models of fluency.

Oscar speaks so fluently, that he can read out-loud, something written in French and speak it in English. It’s like having built in subtitles! Strange it must be to be better at something than your parents at such an early age! We know he will someday bury us under some certain knowledge but to start passing us at 11!? He continues to devour his history, straight A’s and an unending appetite for anything about WW2. He seems headed for some future in the field, but he’s young and this will all ebb and flow with time, there’s still talk of becoming an architect which puts a smile on my face. At least I can still help him with math homework!

The French are free-er with their opinions than Americans. We continue to collect opinions from interested parties, how to trim a grape vine, what was the architectural purpose of some feature of our home, how to cook the mysterious white asparagus, when to get a haircut….Seldom do we, ambassadors of everything American, hazard such similar opinions towards the locals, but we are getting better at it. It’s really a social thing, much like talking of the weather or politics, and we need to grow into it. My father once explained to me that it can be polite to accept something offered, even if you don’t particularly want what’s being proffered, and I realize the opposite is true as well, that it might just be a social politeness to offer something for acceptance!? I was walking past a neighbor trying to prune a climbing rose, she gave me a plaintiff look begging support, so I stepped in it. Firstly it was too late in the season to be pruning a rose, so I was doomed, but I pressed on and the result was a haircut only a mother could love. The spindly spindle of a rose struggled for a month and just today I noticed it had been replaced by a fine and healthy specimen straight from the nursery, which already looks like a rose by another name. Point is I offered an opinion, and became a bit more French in the doing so.

Pat befriended a craftsman working on our church and the next thing we know were getting his opinion of some of the features in our living room. It seems this man is something of an “antiquities repairman” who has created a niche business repairing ancient stone and plasterwork. His opinion of ours was that we “must” stabilize and repair the 12th century plaster (which has been fine for the past 1000 years so why now??) and that the cabinet built into the wall was a “piscine” for storing the communion wafers, wine and incense. I wonder about all this too, but we know the room was at one point a chapel, so why not? Our research turned up a “piscine” as a baptismal font, but we still like the idea of a sacred strongbox as home to our computer.

Work continues on the project house, we are both working hard at it, sneaking back home trying to avoid the social aspects of a stroll across town looking like miners, covered with cobwebs and dirt, looking very unlike the people we usually are. Next week, weather permitting, we will replace the roof. That is to say we will remove the 200 year old terra cotta tiles, straighten out the wood charpentes (heavy timber trusses) and then put the same tiles back on. This will let us add some insulation and in the end we’ll have a roof good for another 100 years. I have never done this before, but I’ve been watching the locals at it and I hope I’ve absorbed enough of their methodology to not make too much of a mess of it.. I’ll report how it goes….

Springtime in Martel!

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May 3, 2009

A String of Saturdays

We are changing gears, the last few details of house number 2 are coming into focus.

is done!

Our attention is moving up the street to number 3.
The house currently known as Maison Louise

At RD2 We have installed the remaining pieces of trim, the storage areas have been addressed.

The courtyard cleaned up, repointed and the old fountain recreated (awaiting fish or plants).

Number 2 will soon officially be for sale and we will see what it feels like to live in a house that is “finished” for a while….

Serial Dwelling…for all it’s charms and discomforts.

It’s difficult to imagine living in number 3, it’s small, less than half the size of our current palace, less than a quarter the size if you include the storage areas. But I have always believed that one expands or contracts their lives to fit their space. I don’t expect it to be easy, but once done I look forward to the simplicity of 750 square feet. In our minds we are already working out the left behinds:
Ping-pong table
Half our clothes
Dining room table
Half our books
Half our chairs
Guest Room! (you have been warned!)
Clothes Dryer
Lawn Mower
All the crap in the attic!
Sort of a global meltdown of spring cleaning…

It is perhaps a bit harder to move each time. As we get better with renovating homes, each one is a bit more comfortable, a bit more in-tune with us, and a bit more quality. It is hard to imagine ever outdoing this one, with it’s stone history, warm floors, and plaster walls, but I’m optimistic. It makes me wonder what my “last house” will be like, not to mention the where and the when??? Hopping around Martel is one thing, but anything else will require Styrofoam.

Incredulous that we ever thought ourselves “country mice”, we thrive on what little urban lifestyle we get here. The days that we walk to market or stumble home from a two bottle dinner, the occasional movie in the town hall and the slow-to-change art exhibits, all please us in reducing our carbon footprint as we can “live local”. However we continue to ponder life in a bigger city, the likes of Bordeaux or Montpelier or perennially Oakland. Change will happen, but slowly. It is certainly the wrong time in the economy to be selling a project, but we shouldn’t let the market dictate our paths…right?

Meanwhile, we continue.

Oscar excels in a school we are growing tired of. He enjoys it but we sense the limitations of a small town school. But he gets good grades and he is stimulated, and that is everything.

Patricia teaches English to those who care, and runs our simple lives (made complicated by living in a foreign country).

I am usually up to my elbows in mortar, saw dust, or just plain dirt.

Somehow everyone around us seems to think we are always hard at work!? Since we ignore the local customs of not working during the traditional lunch hour, or on weekends, we are assumed to always be working! Everyday is in fact a workday, I don’t start early and I often go late, fortunately I love the work, so everyday is like a Saturday. The joke in the family is that I never know what day it is, because they are all the same for me, luckily they more resemble a Saturday than a Monday.

The village is filling with tourists, the garden is filling with flowers, and our lives continue to overflow in a great way.
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April 26, 2009

April in Paris...

We recently returned from spring break. One week in Paris chasing 2 eleven year olds and a second week storming the beaches of Normandie.

It may not sound like the ideal way to celebrate 14 years of marriage, but we took Oscar and his friend Tony to Paris to tour the parks and children’s museums and to cross paths with Oscar’s cousins from California. It was a change of method for us, as we have spent our lives mainly as adult tourists, doing whatever we wanted and recently dragging an only child around wherever we wanted to go. Traveling with two boys however was a different story, which involved a faster pace, more snacks, and much less time for reflection and it seemed everywhere we went a ball was involved.
It was Tony’s first time to Paris, so we hit a bunch of A-list sites, Tour Eiffel, Louvre, Versailles, Pont Neuf, Notre Dame, and the Arc de Triumph. For Pat and I, it was a new view of each of these, always welcome, but the attention span of an 11 year old is truly a thing of wonder, incredibly long on one hand and a mere figment on the other.

The silver lining was that they entertained each other much of the time and we could stroll like young lovers in a new Paris, forgetting about them entirely for minutes at a time….

We left Paris after a week and went of to explore Normandie. Oscar had researched the 26 WW2 D-Day museums, and selected the 22 he wanted to go to! Incredibly, he stuck to it and would have gone to all of them if I hadn’t used my parental veto and insisted on a few hours for sitting in a cafe or playing in the sand!?!? The history of the landings in Normandie is amazing, and the sacrifice of so many to give their lives for a foreign land and cause is inspiring to say the least. The endless rows of headstones perfectly aligned in the war cemeteries is a sobering sight, as poignant for our past as it is concerning for our future.

Every beach, battle and bunker needs to be remembered for what passed there, and almost each one has a memorial or museum to guard that memory. For me, each was another personal mission, commemorating a cog in the war machine with someone’s collection of the tools of war. The message is neither hopeful nor subtle but rather humiliating proof of our baser instincts as a species, which we have proved over and over again yesterday and today. I was done after about 5 of these museums and took to sitting on the beach reading while I waited for the historians in the family to read and re-read a history I feel I know well enough. Pat read every plaque (I think in English and then in French) and Oscar and Tony ran from diorama to diorama and tank to landing craft with incredible speed and absorption. We continually got frustrated at the speed with which they coursed through these expensive museums, only to be amazed at the knowledge they picked up and the observations they made, smashing the rules of quality v. quantity as we went.

It was fun to travel with Oscar's friend along and change the dynamic, but I think it left us all wanting for the consolidated POD again, just a glimpse of the inevitable future as friends replace parents and our boy grows up.

Normandie was lovely, we had nice weather, really enjoyed the architecture, and were happiest upon returning to our peaceful existence in Martel!
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March 19, 2009

Arch building 101

This should have been a class in architecture school, it seems somehow that to call yourself an “Architect” you should have to build an arch, no? But then there are so many things we must master virtually in our lives, and now we have I-Beams, so why would one need ever to build an arch? Why indeed? I have just worded my way into a corner….hmmm? now I’m wondering why I am living the life of a 15th century mason, and blogging about it too?

We have started to work on our third French project, a very small house, again in the center of this tiny town of Martel that we call home. We have named this project “Maison Louise” and we laugh as we go about trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This house was probably built in the 15th century (still checking) and probably had a sow living on the ground floor. There was probably a single room on the next floor, and an attic for drying tobacco. It has a small garden with a larger public area surrounding it, and has some beautiful, but simple, stonework. There are windows on 3 sides, and it’s location is close to the town center, yet hidden on a dead end alley, the Impasse du Pourtanel.

We are planning to make the ground floor (pigs room) the kitchen and living room, and then a bedroom and bathroom on each of the next two floors. The top floor is currently an attic, but a spacious one which will have skylights on the North, East and South sides. The challenges of this project will be the efficiency of space, finding room for storage, coats, water heaters, and trash cans, this one may satisfy my constant desire to live on a boat.
This is a progression showing the evolution of the new doorway we have been working on. It was a small window when we started, we opened it roughly to have a way to get dit out of the inside where we lowered the floor by one step. Then I created the arch, then the sides and just yesterday installed the new doors. Today I put the shutters on.

You can click on these images to get a larger clearer version.

The first order of business is the “gros travaux”, the large works, demolishing the interior walls, removing plaster from a few stone walls, and creating whatever openings we want in the 70cm (2.5 ft) thick walls. We wanted to open an existing window on the East wall to access the garden and bring light into the home, but there were 3 tons of stone in the way. I scratched my head for weeks and lost enough sleep to trying to figure out the method for creating such an opening, until I asked for help. There is a deep wealth of knowledge around us in the traditions of the local craftspeople, as long as what you are looking for is a traditional solution. It seems that the same two roads have been taken for centuries, mostly one employs an expert, someone who does one thing well, and that’s all they do. The mason makes the arch, and the menusier makes the door, I suppose they argue over who is supposed to install the door… until it’s time to have an apero’. The other approach is what the English call DIY (do it yourself) and I’m not too certain if this happened too often in France. I wonder what the peasant farmer did in the 15th century when he needed an arch built? I think they probably did without, until the mason needed a pig??

My approach in our life here is to do it myself. I have always enjoyed working alone, the pursuit of the solution to something I didn’t understand and the particular thrill of mastering a new skill. In the beginning, it was easier to do it myself than to figure out how to ask for help, but it has evolved into a keen desire to find competency down new roads. SO, back to the local craftspeople. I was given the advice that the best way to create an opening in a “Pierre Seche” (dry stone) wall (no cement, just mud), was to allez delicatment (do it delicately). I created a

This is the interior half of the arch under construction, double click on the image to see it more clearly. You can see here the far left and right sides have been re-built, the horizontal stones in the center are still in place supporting the wall above and there is a void to the left of center waiting to be filled in with arching stones.

plywood template, with the form of the arch on it, and attached it to the inside of the wall in the location of the eventual opening. I then proceeded to remove the stones above the template creating a hole about 60 x 30cm (24” x 12”) and about 40cm (18”) deep, half the thickness of the wall. I then made an arching bed of sand and started to layout 5 or 6 of the stones in the arch. Once I had the stones selected, I removed them and then put them back in with a lime mortar. “Rinse and Repeat”. The next day I would do the same procedure until the entire arch was built on the inside half of the wall, some 25 or so stones. Then the same procedure on the exterior, lining the exterior arch up with the interior arch to create one single structure. I let this all dry for a week, then I removed the stones underneath. That was the fun part…..I had built an arch! Now I had to do what turned out to be the more exacting work of building the two sides of the arch. This part had to be cut stones, with a door frame and an angle cut into the stones, plumb, and level despite nothing else being plumb nor level. I learned this as I went, and if one looks closely, they’ll see the progression of my (lack of) skill.

I wore out a few tools, smashed a few fingers, but it’s done and looks great. The arch was inspiring enough to lead to creating a few elements inside in the thickness of the wall, a niche for keys and mail, another for firewood, and another closing the centuries, a niche planned for a book shelf (flat screen t.v.). It’s fun creating these elements and adding character to an otherwise simple building, but I need to stop and move on.

This is a niche we created in the corner to the left of the new door. It is intended for firewood storage for the small woodstove we are planning to install immediately to the right of this niche. I was so pleased with the big arch I decided to echo it here. This is about 30" tall, 24" wide and 16" deep.

Again, if you click on the image it will open in a new window and be easier to see.

Soon we’ll put some shutter’s on the new doors, close them and return to house number two to finish out the punch-list there.

It has been such a wonderful experience living in this amazing thousand year old home, the spaces are gracious, the in-floor heating incredibly comfortable, a fun kitchen and my best bathroom so far. I do wonder what the next chapter will be? We would all happily stay, but my feet are getting itchy, and Oscar needs a new pair of shoes!
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February 12, 2009

Dog days of winter

It's amazing what can come up on a gentle winter morning.... We are in a frustrating weather pattern, every morning dawns sunny and full of hope. We spring (OK... grown and limp) out of bed with great expectations only to find that after a cup of coffee the sky has turned somber and checking email is all I have the energy to do. But then Oscar is off to school and Pat takes the excuse to head out into the crisp (cold) morning to accompany him on bike, until Oscar catches sight of other kids and then he pleads for the autonomy we are waiting for to continue on alone. He pedals off to school, and Pat pedals off to do laps around the country side for her exercise regime. Back home, on my third cup of coffee (small cups), I am dressed for labor and tuning up the internet to watch yesterdays Daily Show with John Stewart. I stretch for 10 minutes while laughing at yesterdays headlines and try to get out of the house before Pat gets home.

But not monday...

Instead I get a phone call from Pat asking for a ride as her brakes have broken and she has been bitten by a dog!!! She is fine. She was out on her normal route, and for the first time a large Rottweiler was there too. She kept her cool, didn't fall, but the wound was ugly enough. A large bruise and two small holes! She's on antibiotics and the dog is being "observed" by the vet.

There is a saying that "French people like their children and they love their dogs", so you can imagine the original conclusion that everyone comes to when they hear this story. It usually starts with "he's such a gentle dog" and after a few minutes might approach concern or apology in the dog owners case. They get over it, we get over it, and now everyone's on good terms, but it was a process.

It's a narrow road we bike down with our lives in France, never quite certain how any French habitue might interpret our actions. We have been approved for our ten year residency permits, which doesn't mean we are here for ten more years, but rather that we no longer need to plead for the right to stay here every year. And we got our latest building permit approved in record time, allowing us to add a few skylights and replace a few windows.

So for the week we are up, two acceptances of our existence and one reminder of whose territory we are on anyway.

February 7, 2009


One Word * 25 Things * Compare * Hot or Not ???

What is the value of Facebook in our lives?

I met some 20 year olds last year that explained that they don’t email anymore, they just I.M. on Facebook. I dismissed it as weird and generational, but as the page turns I have just sent my mother a video message via facebook!! What’s up? It was easier than typing and I got to show her my new haircut. But now here’s the obvious problem….can anyone now go and watch my clumsy 15 second ‘letter to mom’ and then comment on my haircut?? Is there any privacy on Facebook? How many of us turn our webcams away when we aren’t positive they aren’t beaming our quiet moments to the world??

Today it’s all the rage, perhaps I am a year (or generation) late in arriving, but all of a sudden I am considering making Facebook my home page. Everyday I’m learning 25 things I didn’t know about people I didn’t know. Once in a while there is something insightful, something I’m embarrassed to know, or an item worth repeating, but for the most part it’s drivel, but we’d all freeze up when asked for just three things, wouldn’t we? What about One Word? At least that one only takes a few minutes.

This is all the chain mail of our times, less postage, but oh so more prevalent, at least we are all equipped with an “ignore” option.

I am nonetheless enjoying Facebook, but I still don’t understand it. I don’t know what is front porch and what is bedroom. I’m not sure I can have a private conversation anywhere, if you are my “friend” do you have the backstage pass? It feels like an email until someone you barely know comments on it. As a replacement to email, it solves a problem that we never had, it let’s the message become even shorter. Do you know what Twitter is? I tried it during the inauguration but my post was too long, on Twitter you are limited to grammatically incorrect phrases of less than 140 words?!? The idea is a potent substance to character ratio, but I was challenged to find any substance there. WTF, is about as efficient as I can get. I’m not sure that we, as a literary people, need the less is more approach to communication; it certainly hasn’t done much for the past 8 years.

I think of myself as one of few words (as I ramble on about fewer words) and remember being taught by my dad to reduce each idea and sentence to as few words as possible. He was teaching me to write, efficiently and to captivate. Keeping sentences “short enough” is an interesting challenge and the virtual stationary of Facebook and Twitter is helping reduce our vocabulary to grunts and groans that can be hammered out on the incredibly un-clumsy face of an iphone.

But you (as Max Tivoli would say) dear reader, if you are still with me, enjoy this shrinking world as much as I do. We don’t wait for the postman to ring twice, we just check email, several times a day in my case. Time zones are crushed into the ether, I love you’s and what am I doing right now’s, thrown around the world in the time it takes to ‘right-click’. We all speak some sort of shorthand, lol’s, IMHO, and smiley faces, intending to communicate complicated emotions.

I don’t imagine “emoticon” is in the dictionary yet, but we all know one when we see one, and we all save keystrokes by speaking in the rhythm of our times. I’m not complaining exactly, and I just might make my home page Facebook yet. I feel a self imposed lack of privacy, but I live on another continent than most of you, so a lack of privacy is OK for now. “Social Networking” is a wonderful tool. I have found lost friends, buried within my “contacts” folder, I have been reconnected with people truly dear to me, I have missed heartbeats at being contacted by friends I remember only from darkened rooms, and foreign climes. Instantly I have access to every public thought they have shared, every picture posted, and I now know who their friends are. I have pictures of their children and I know what movies they like…ROTF….profoundly reconnected…who could complain? These are distant voices from previous lives, residing in evolved bodies… new datelines….so much spilt milk…so much lemonade…so many apps to reconnect us without postage…or lost regrets.

Suddenly we’ve been provided a tool which excuses the missed connections and unintentional absences we used to think of as inevitable. Like so much else, I’m glad I am old enough to have missed this in my turbulent adolescence, imagine the intensity of high school with Facebook!? Compare would have killed me! Perhaps we could explain this as “efficient socializing” but I’m happy to belong to an époque of slow food and proper sentence structure. Blogging is barely an old fashioned medium, only when compared to tweeting and poking, and it’s archival value is unknown. We try to find a place for each level of communication, we seldom call, we almost never write, emails have, however, drawn us all closer. I.M. and Facebook therefore have put us into the same room. I wonder if it’s all a fleeting thing. By the time I figure out how to make it my homepage, it’ll be yesterdays tech and we’ll all be marveling at the next tulip craze!

In the meantime… if I send you anything you wish you didn’t know, poke me!

Today's links:

The funny truth about Facebook: Click Here

Travel: 36 hours

Fantasy travel: Click here and Scroll to page 3


Efficient surfing: