November 9, 2013

The House that I Loved
This posts endorsement

I’m reading a book, ostensibly about the re-building of Paris in the 1800’s, when they destroyed vast swaths of the city to create the Paris we know today of wide boulevards and Haussmanian architecture.  But the book is a beautiful tale of a woman, and her family and her devotion to a house and the history that built that devotion, stone by stone.  It’s a sad book, with a few twists that I haven’t figured out yet.  Beautiful descriptions of a Paris that I never knew, and a fun prequel/sequel manner of foreshadowing and filling in the storyline. Mostly I like the tiny chapters which fit my limited attention span.  I recommend it!  She was in fact in love with the history in her house.

A book like this, which include a devoted and demented spouse and a truncated and sublime little boy, leave me in the mood to write ad nauseam about my own sublime life, my Patricia and my Oscar.  I could wax on about all the ways we compliment each other and are building lives which resemble a small jigsaw puzzle with a complicated heart and a fuzzy, no straight lines, no border, and a developing picture I haven’t figured out.  A landscape?  lots of color....images within images, it would remind me of that scene in Bladerunner, where Rick Deckard is analyzing a photo and he has the computer scan so deeply into its reflected images, that there is a story in there which solves his mystery. 
If you look really, really closely into the mirror in the middle, you can see the tatooed lady, or rent the movie!
I think of this often, its like a good book, where every detail can be exploded and mined, and as the reader we are kept wondering which details will be important. And life too...which details of today will become meme’s and then theme’s and in the end which one’s will become what my story was about?  I wish I could write in large circles, like the aforementioned book, like the arrondissements of paris, like the growth of a family. 
Col de Tourmalet in the Pyrenees

SO I said I could write about my O and P, taking notes to bury with me, and using this medium to try to understand myself, but I wont.  It would be indiscreet, self serving and might just leave me talking to myself, which I do too often anyhow, but thats another story.

The house I loved, not the book, and not yet loveborne, is the one I am working on now, and the subject that might keep your attention better than the exaggerated details of an ordinary life.

I think I will let this blog post fester for a while as I revisit it with the machinations of the renovations of 113 develop.

Demolition:   Demolition is usually a quick affair, and here we have prolonged it as we take the opportunity to listen to the building and divine what it wants to become.  So far, it has surprised me, the initial plan has been lost a few times and we are now moving the future stair to an opposite corner and the straight walls that became diagonal are now headed towards a gentle curve, and even the front door is retreating to its original location. It’s all more than the original that we had anticipated.  So as of late, I am lowering the window sill across the back of the building, where the windows looking into the garden will be lowered 50 cm.  So with drills, grinders and a small jack hammer, I am trying to dislodge stones which have sat there for 200 years. I thought they would give way easily, but they are stubborn.  The quality of the cement is impressive, and the stones are softer and less tailored than I had expected.  The sill stone is relenting in solid fragments, too heavy to slide, but the rest is pretty much surrendering as rubble.  I am saving these stone pieces and will rebuild a new wall 80 cm into the garden, creating the “well” that is enabling the lowered height of the windows.  Its slow, but it’s already great to see the added window height that we are gaining.  I’m working at a pace, using levers and dowels to move 200 pound stones, treating them with the respect they deserve. Soon I will cement them back into place and let them sleep for another few centuries!

There is another wall that we are planning to remove, its an interesting project.  It is a quasi bearing stone wall. On the lower level its about 22 cm (9”) thick, and above its a 13 cm (6”)thick stone wall, and then above that its a thin plaster wall (2.5”).  It is officially non bearing, but it does support the floor loads of the main floor and probably shares some responsibility for the next floor.  We need to remove a small section, which will open the wall to a nice 2.5 meter (10’) opening which currently divides the main bedroom into two areas, so its important. I would LOVE to build an arch here, but am yielding to my better wits and will probably let a professional insert a steel beam instead.  I may build a plaster arch to cover up the steel beam, it remains a dilemma for me.  Honesty v. Security:  round one: I will seek some outside advice!
Someday this view will be the master bed in an arched space!

200 year old cement tiles
Once we removed the newer walls, we found the suspected cement tile floor throughout the space. Red and white 15cm tiles, very fun, if a bit utilitarian.  I have found this a few times and it is always surprising. Not the tiles, but flooring in general, they tend to install the floors all the way across any given space and then build the walls on top of the floors. So when you remove a wall, the flooring is still there. In America, we do this with plywood, then the walls, and then the finished floors on either side of the walls.  I don’t know if they did this for simplicity, or with a long range view: interior walls will come and go, and we should build to accommodate the change.  It would resemble the french attitude towards plumbing and electrics and phone lines: technologies and functionality change, let’s leave the systems visible, so that they can be changed too.  A few years ago I stopped putting phone jacks in every room, as most homes used cordless phones. Now we don’t even have a wired phone line, so it has swiftly become a concession to provide even one phone connection, and the technology for cable lines is changing even faster.

We are still planing a new stair, as the current location is senseless. When is was installed they did the standard craziness of cutting major joists and providing poor supports in their place. SO I will remedy all that, and relocate the stairs. The insult here, is that the space between the flooring and the ceiling below is considered to be “owned in common by the building” and to alter the current stair requires approval and architects supervision, and they don’t mean me!  The problem here, was that I asked for permission....duh!  SO a complicated process is now shrouded within a complicated process!   The endgame will be the same, and I’ve learned once again, to let sleeping dogs sleep!  And I’ve learned that a joist is called a “soleve” and a headers are called “chevettres”. So there is the silver vocabulary I wish I didn’t know!

We have found some new doors from a salvage yard. We will replace the minor door with it’s clumsy entry, with a 3.2 meter (11’) tall pair of doors that came out of a mansion here in the city which is being transformed into a hotel, I guess they had to replace all thier doors? So our new door and entry hall will match the splendor of the rest of our building. The  original door opening is still intact, hidden inside of a new wall, awaiting its liberation by a pair of well meaning Americans.

More as it happens...

October 1, 2013

Tracks in the sunset

Another sunset in France..TGV towards Bordeaux, a picturesque and contrasted sky, layers of clouds quickly moving past each other and each with a silver lining.  Like the northern lights of previous mention, the sunset may never end.  But it will...... strangely a cloud burst as I type..... with clear skies all around, perhaps it's the grey lining on every silver cloud?  It's really a remarkable sunset, and drawn across kilometers.

We are returning to Bordeaux, as we are wont to do, from Paris. A Paris of now familiar sights and streets and friends and flavors, it's become a history with one drop of our lives in it.... We were there to talk to american universities, to attend a college fair which brought us face to face with GW, UCD, SJSC, and a handful of Boston Bound institutions of higher learning.  They cheerfully answered our questions, encouraged our interests and poked at our pocket books.  So many schools, so many students! It's impressive that they all make such an effort to diversify their student body. UCDavis for example, will recruit applicants in England, France, Brussels, and 40 different fairs in  India & China and those are just the ones I read about! For us it was a chance to dip our toe into the Nile of undergraduate education. It seems as different from our experiences as ours were different from our parents...somehow. It's time for us to start thinking about a college choice, next year we will be full-in with applications and personal statements. Next year we will be back on this train and a clearer sense of its destination. And a sun further set!

Oscars future is, of course, a moving target. I had no notion of my trajectory at his age, and a year later it was cast in stone, or sand, perhaps cement turning to stone... The idea today is towards a life of diplomacy, a career in the foreign service, perhaps the UN.  The path seems to be a 4 year undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts followed by two years at the likes of Georgetown University.  The schools that interest him, and us, today are George Washington University, UC Davis and Northeastern.  Davis is close to what will be “home” for the next few years, and a great state school. George Washington is in the Nations capital and would be a head-start into a career in Diplomacy and Northeastern is a strong school with a Co-Op education system which I think would work well for Mr. O.  There are so many other schools which we haven't discovered yet, and we still have some time, so it will be interesting to see where else this bus stops?
Dead on the tracks?? Stopped moving?? This will cut our average light speed down to a reasonable crawl, "for our security". I digress....

I'm getting a low grade of melancholy, watching this glorious slow motion sunset, and thinking about our life in France. (The sharpness has left the sky, but it is still on fire with corals and deep blues). It's a sunset of sorts, still a long evening and riotous night to fill in the blanks, but looking at colleges, a weekend themed on the next chapter of this adventure, makes me notice the late hour.  We have declared our intentions to return to the US in two years, to be enrolled in an American life 23 months from now, and I hear the faint ticking of a bucket list.  It sharpens the senses, making Paris even more sublime, the wine tasting even better and the French steaks to appear tender!

We are planning on digging our toes into the terroir and staying close to European soil. Our next trip to the mother ship planned to be a long, long one.  It is fitting that the first of the last "European Vacations"  would be Paris, it was the first of the first as well, almost exactly ten years ago, we had our first vacation inside of this vacation in Paris. I celebrated my 40th birthday atop the Tour Eiffel, and now I'm looking back at this rich decade and the changed person inside me, the sun setting on that, and so much time to reinvent in front of me.

We start on our next project house soon, a 1000sf duplex on the edge of the Public Garden. After a long search, It satisfied the criteria: a good address, a "Bordeaux style" apartment with high ceilings and deep moulding, some architectural splendor with a stained glass window wall, a 600sf garden, and enough work to keep me busy for the year.   I know the top half of this post talks about two years, but we will simply take it as it comes. This project, "Cent Trieze", will be a fun project,  some demolition, some stone work, enlarging some windows, electrical, plumbing, a new kitchen, and perhaps it's time to learn how to repair stained glass as well.

Still a sunset, our train is rolling 18 minutes late, on a three hour trip, but still there is a sunset to draw  me home, and still it is always in the West.

June 4, 2013


As we see the closing brackets on our French adventure (July 2015) we have started to apply ourselves. After the initial years where everything was an adventure,  the middle years where adventures required a change in zip code, and a couple of complacent years where we were just too happy to explore Bordeaux, we are endeavoring now to create and execute our liste de seau.

The long glow of a North sea sunset

Well we just took Norway off the list!  A week in Copenhagen, Kobenhaven, followed by an arduous week in the fjords.  Arduous?  Well we walked and hiked a lot, but there were hot tubs and midnight buffets and dancing and shuffleboard..... We took a Royal Caribean cruise in the land of Kong Oscar.  In the footsteps of Vikings, we climbed above the snow line, into and over frozen waterfalls, across chèvre, llama and brebis paddocks, and fortunately chose the South side for one climb, where we watched a massive avalanche slide down the North side and into the already icy North sea Geiranger Fjord.  That was a highlight, not just the avalanche, but the entire "randonee", high and far, and sunny with non stop views back upon our fjord and our anchored Vision of the Seas!

We enjoyed the nature, the exploration factor and the cruise. We mused that we were in fact not the typical cruising enthusiast, and wondered what we would think of it all when we did arrive at that golden age, I'm guessing 68 on average for the typical cruiser. As we lapped up the luxury and excess, which defines a cruise, we tried to think who we should convince that this lifestyle matches their own??? It was difficult, and we realized that we wouldn't even recommend a cruise to ourselves, it's a strange thing.  I'm not saying that  we don't like them, and  I'm not saying that we won't continue to enjoy them, but they are a strange combination of travel and social and lazy and new and stupid and fun.
Formal night
This particular trip was on a very nice 5 star ship and included five stops in the fjords and was our excuse to revisit Copenhagen after a 30 year absence.  We walked both sides of the street, being French some of the time and being American when it suited us. It was the first time I had really appreciated having the second language as there were a lot of French people on the boat and I'll state the obvious, French cruisers are more my type than the American variety.  We made some friends, some of which we'll keep, some of which simply made good dance partners.  Oscar was a bit more adventurous and made new friends from Denmark, France and the Ukraine. He won a gold medal for the fastest rock wall climb and I came in second, due to the fact that there were only two of us.  But I did win a medal for bean bag toss, a GOLD medal!
That's Oscar in the roght corner

Copenhagen was wonderful, most impressive was the bike culture, the fresh food and the open spirit of the people. The city has not so much created bike lanes, as bike roads. All the major roads have two sidewalks, two bike roads and finally two car roads. The bikes have their own traffic signals, and the Norweigien cyclists and pedestrians respect the rules even better than the cars. No one runs red lights and only the tourists J-walk.  At rush hour, the rush of bikes is formidable!    Copenhagen also has wonderful bread with which they make crazy sandwiches, towering combinations of fresh vegetables, meats, fish products and cheeses. There is also an alternative community where the worlds unwashed can dip in for their choice of hashish from competing merchants!  Who knew?

At the Louisiana Museum in Danmark
Noir Hiking

We exchanged our apartment for one in Copenhagen, it was our first foray into the interesting world of We found a kindred spirit with a similar desire to voyage and we swapped beds, bath towels and  refrigerators for a week. Strange? But no different from staying in a hotel, in fact more reasonable when you start to think about how many people have slept in any Marriott bed by the time you get your chance.  And with the comforts of a stocked kitchen, a washing machine, and someone else's DVD library (We watched Breakfast at Tiffany's in Danish!), it quickly feels like home!  We will do it again! 

As always, it felt good to return home. We dined on our ritual comfort food of chicken pesto pasta, and spent days trying to remember where we hid the important stuff from our houseguest.  Bordeaux continues to please us and it's a nice place to come home to.

Oscar's stage debut in Poor Beck
We are trying to buy a new project, we have found a house in front of the city's public gardens and we are trying to turn our verbal deal into a written one. It's going fine, but painfully slow, but we have gotten used to the slow pace of real estate in France.  If this one comes together, we will own it as of October and we can start by landscaping the 600 sf garden that it opens on to.  Very exciting prospect, and something to show you when you come to visit!

April 13, 2013

In the news

Its been an interesting week with a new window into what is France.

We have had a problem on our street for the past decade, its been OUR problem for only a year, and  its been entertaining in a strange way.  It seems that the neighboorhood we moved into is "transitional". It has for the past ten years been a place where one could procure drugs.
The scene is an urban one, there are retail level drug dealers that like our block. They are discreet to a point, but they are always there, from 10 am till 2 am, which means they live on less sleep than I do. The problem is that as the night rolls along, they get more and more inebriated, loud, and often start arguments amongst themselves and their clientele, which is great theater, except when you are trying to sleep or trying to get to your front door.  We have all called the police from time to time, and they come and check id's and frisk for contraband, but in France one has the right to drink and to loiter, as long as they are not drunk or holding drugs.  So the police can't do much. So we in the hood, formed an association, and put up posters that stated that we are watching the dealers and that we are taking pictures and that the clients photos will end up on our new Facebook page "deal Safari", all as a threat. We never did put up pictures of individuals, although we have them and intended to, but what happened next, was the local paper, SudOuest, got the story, and within 24 hours everyone else had it too.  There were film crews from 4 national news outlets, 2 national radio shows, Figaro and LeMonde and tomorrow we will be on the 60 minutes of France, creatively called 66 minutes!  Patricia is the "secretary" of our association. Yesterday, we had three camera crews in our home, interviewing her and filming the photos that Oscar had taken.  These have all gone National, Oscar thinks he's famous and that he should have been paid. And today I was at a meeting with the chief of police, the Southwest France Drug Brigadeer, and several others from brass to narcs.  I was actually introduced as "Mr McBain, whos wife speaks french very well"  (I was being too quiet).  Plenty of friends have called us and even my barber saw the news.
It seems that the story is of national interest because we are taking the problem into our own hands and we are using social media (Facebook).  There have been surveys taken and 76% of the respondants seem to support us, but there is a vocal minority that is complaining that we are "denouncing" innocent people and that we should leave this to the (overburdened) authorities.

Its been a whirlwind of activity, but at least the dealers have stayed awayfor a week, we will see how long this quiet lasts.

February 21, 2013

The Audacity to Try

When I was a kid, I took apart toasters. The repairs didn’t last long. I remember lots of re-repairs. I was rewarded for my efforts with a few more grilled cheeses and enough praise that I kept trying. It turns out that toasters are incredibly simple machines, and either a spring breaks or a wire burns out and a few simple tools can turn a surly adolescent into that days hero. Toasters too are more complicated in this century but there are still simple solutions to stumble over.

The recurring theme to my tinkering was luck, or dust, or perhaps both. I took apart so many things as a kid, before processors and microchips, that I was bound to fix a few. The strange thing was that so often I would take something apart, find no obvious breakage, reassemble it, usually with a leftover something, and it would work!?  The dust principle?, I would usually not admit that it wasn’t me who “fixed” it, but rather mere providence, perhaps it had in fact been designed with one screw-thingy too many! Perhaps it too simply wanted to be trespassed!?

The Audacity to try is a meme I see this often in my life, today it was installing printer software. Is it the clicking “accept” with reckless abandon?, as if I understood what I was up to?  After trying , in so many ways, to connect my wifi printer to my wifi computer, so my wife could use her ancient macbook, I don’t understand why it works, even a little, but it does. I remember in the 90’s, the first time I said “sure, I’m a plumber”, It was a job in Oakland and I was the architect and general contractor and why, I reasoned, should I invite a plumber in to have all the fun.  I learned a lot about plumbing on that job, and threw away enough plastic plumbing pipe to increase my as yet unknown carbon footprint into the reaches of a polar bear or two, but I tried, and eventually succeeded, despite a tough building inspector (heartless to my memory) out to teach me a lesson.  Even today, I have a client who hired me to install radiators here in Bordeaux.  Well, I have the time and not enough brains to say “er, ummm, radiateurs?”  But they are simple enough, and now I know radiators!  I feel like Neo. 

Here at home, where its easier to try, and try again... we had an electrical problem in the name of not-enough-ness, and after months of searching solutions with the electric company (think French Bureaucracy) I stumbled upon the advice to install a “delesteur”.  I had the electrician write it down, then I looked it up, then I found a friend with an idle one and set to installing it.  Several “sessions” later, and several mail order parts to complete the configuration (I felt like I was sourcing “overthrusters” for John BigBotte), I had everything installed, but it wasn’t working.  I was set to call the electrician, the one that said he’d have fired me if I worked for him, and have him come in and fix my mess, and Voila, it was working, we were de-listing, it all made sense!  The dust motes had flown off to gum up some other part of my life....

We made a kid, that was a cliff,  and he’s 15 today, a great kid, and I hope somehow he sees this spirit and it rubs off just enough to kindle a can-do lifestyle.  We tried a new restaurant this week, Fernand’s, it was excellent and authentic and while I wouldnt sign up for the local lamprioe (fish) in red wine sauce, I did tuck into the snails of the sea!  Perhaps they were tiny bulots? I never found out, but they were close enough to a few things I did recognize, so why not eat the funny mollusk?  Does that rhyme with audacity?  No, I suppose not.  We did replace our windows with double vitrage, insulated glass. It was against my better judgement, I was told it couldn’t be done, but I divined a way to rout out the existing old windows and replace the warped and liquid glass with a new compromise to sound waves and cold temperatures.  It does seem snugger in the house, and it didn’t take too long, but my system worked, and we are the only house on the block with old AND insulated windows

It’s kind of the Jump-Off-a-Cliff scenario, one which has served me well/poorly all my life. If I don’t jump, then I’ll regret it.  If I don’t rise to the challenge, then I’ll have been defeated and someone else will jump in my place. Did I mention there is deep water at the bottom of the cliff?  I’m not simply stupid.  I feel like its not always necessary to know what one is doing, that there is value in the unknown, and pretty quickly the unknown becomes the known.  I rebuilt the engine of my Volkswagen van, all the bolts and springs and pistons and gaskets...WTF...and put it back together, and it ran! It ran me from Providence to Frisco!  That was a big TRY.

My Audacity to try, is rooted in a cocktail of simplicity, intuition, and ability.  I have often thought that I know just enough to get myself in trouble. To a fault I seek the simple solution, and while it works with toasters and architecture and occasionally cocktails (clementine  cosmos), efficiency is found faster from people and plastics, I should hire people to do what I am not expert at and replace old instead of repairing it. But my life is not about efficiency, as I said, its more about being simple. Fortunately, the older I get, the easier it is.