16 July 2019

THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD (permission for a couple of rants, please)


The train was quiet on Saturday afternoon.
 
We are back chez nous after another brief spell in the UK.  The journeys lately have been much easier, traffic busy but behaving itself on the UK side, which is the part that is difficult to plan for.  We always leave home at least two hours earlier than the journey time to Folkestone should take in order to allow for hold ups on the UK motorways.  If there are no hold ups we arrive at the tunnel two hours early and recently we have been able to get straight on a train to France.  We have managed the whole journey easily in twelve hours door-to-door including a couple of breaks en route.
 
On our way to the south coast from home we usually listen to the radio, so that we can get the local traffic announcements that would alert us to hold ups ahead in each BBC area as we pass through.  Saturday lunchtime is fairly lean listening and last Saturday we found ourselves tuned in to BBC Question Time.  I hate that programme.  I usually end up shouting at the radio or stomping off to do some ironing and this edition was no exception.  (Except that I couldn't stomp off.)
 
We got up on Sunday morning to find that our farmer had left his company car in our back garden.

 
One of the panellists was one of our newly elected Brexit MEP's.  A female whose name I can't remember. No doubt one of those who turned their backs during the EU national anthem.  As it happens it was nothing to do with Brexit that made my blood boil (more about that later) but something she said about being a "millennial".
The topic was about the rise in the state pension age for women and she said that as a "millennial" she couldn't afford a pension or her own home.  The implication was that those of us who do have pensions and our own home have had it so easy and she actually said it was the "millennials" who would be paying for it.
 
Now hold on a minute!!!
Easy is not the way I would describe it!  
I would bet that she drinks her Costa coffee, whilst listening her Spotify playlist, on her mobile phone, before using her hub, to adjust her central heating, and set the washing machine, in time for her arrival home in her fairly new leased car, with a ready meal, to put in the microwave, or even an Italian take away, with a nice bottle of wine, to then catch up with a box set on Netflix.
The only way I could afford a mortgage in my twenties was because I made sacrifices.  If millennials were to give up all of the above luxuries and totally unnecessary expenses they could save up the deposit for a house and have a mortgage just like I did. 
Post war food rationing was still in place when I was born.  In my twenties I didn't eat out, own a car, or have central heating.  Phone calls were made by walking to the public phone box.  The weekly wash was done by hand in the bath and when I rented a spin drier from Radio Rentals to make the laundry dry quicker I thought myself very extravagant.  Entertainment was from a rented second hand TV.  A drink was a cup of instant coffee and in fact I remember standing in the supermarket choosing between soap powder and coffee because I couldn't afford both.  I could go on.  And on, and on.  Life was most definitely not easy.  I didn't have a decent standard of living until well into my thirties.  Even then I remember the panic when mortgage interest rates went from 5% to 15% virtually overnight.  Faced with having to find hundreds of extra pounds every month to pay the mortgage and keep my own home was not what I would call easy.
As for the "millennials" paying for our pensions, I can assure this woman that over my forty years plus of working flat out and paying tax and national insurance I have more than paid for every penny that the state will give me back in my measly state pension.
 
Waiting for the candlelit canoe display and fireworks at Descartes.
 
We kicked off our arrival chez nous, with my brother and his daughter for a holiday, with a bbq and an evening at the fireworks, it being the 14th July and a Big Night of celebration all over France.  Friends were invited to eat with us, along with their visitors, before we all went to Descartes to see the fireworks and, awkwardly, the conversation turned, almost without us realising it, to Brexit.
 
One of the things I hate most about what Brexit has done to the UK is that we are constantly treading on eggshells to avoid the subject in conversation.  The strength of feeling is such that what starts as an awkward discussion can turn to bitter resentment within a few sentences and things can be said that are hard to ignore or impossible to take back.  Especially when you assume that all gathered are of the same opinion but it turns out that they are not.
 
It all began when one of the visitors asked my niece what she would be doing now that she has her degree in biomedical science.  She would like to go on to more education and research but, sadly, much of the investment for research projects comes from the EU and much of it has already been put on hold if not cancelled.  Many of her friends are students in faculties where their future has already been compromised in just that way.
One of the visitors was baffled.  Surely the government, once we are no longer "giving massive sums of money to the EU" will "have to do something about it".  It was not something she had ever thought about before.
 
This led to a short verbal tussle that we managed to curtail before anyone said something untoward, the conversation moved on and the atmosphere relaxed.  The aftertaste lingered for a while as I pondered how entrenched people can be in their beliefs in spite of evidence to the opposite.  So many people seem to think that "no deal" means things stay the same as before and that it will all be alright in the end.  We are all doomed.
 
Don't start me on Boris Johnson!

9 July 2019

AS GOOD AS IT GETS continued.

 
We have recently had a "canicule" - a heatwave - in France.  Day after day the thermometer hovered between 37° and 38°C in the afternoons, which is pretty hot.  Fortunately the ground floor of the house largely remains a comfortable temperature due to the thick stone walls and blinds at the windows.
 
 
These old houses are not that easy to make completely comfortable.  When we have been away for a while in winter it can take several days for the house to warm up and let go of the chill, even with the heating chugging away in the background and the log burners going full blast.  It's difficult to imagine that now, in a heatwave, as we struggle to stay cool!
  
 

 
We're thrilled with the kitchen.  It works well when we're both in there cooking and feels light, airy and spacious, even when visitors are hovering and Hugo and Daisy are doing what they do best - getting in the way to attract attention.
 
The staircase was well worth the investment.  We were somewhat alarmed when our former neighbour, Mme André, told us that the last French owner died after falling down the rickety old staircase.  (Amazing that she knew that.)  The previous English owners had replaced it with an industrial style spiral staircase but we found that awkward, so commissioned a solid oak one.
 
 
The buanderie (utility room) has changed completely since we bought the house, there is now loads of extra storage and the loo is enclosed in an actual room rather than just open plan!  We also fitted a back door so that we could go straight out to the woodshed to fetch logs, or bring a muddy dog in, without having to go via the front door.
 
The buanderie stays quite cool even in hot weather.  This is because it has the thick walls and tiny windows.  Old photos of the house show that it was at one time used as a bedroom, which would have been very handy in summer.  The same set of photos also show that there used to be traditional wooden shutters at all the doors and windows but these were removed at some stage and replaced with full length double glazed glass doors and windows.  This is good from the point of view of letting in plenty of light - a real issue with houses of this kind.  Not so good in terms of keeping the house cool.
 

 
The main bedroom is what sold us the house.  We love its vast airy space and original oak beams.
 
Unfortunately its very charm is also its downfall in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.  There is no ceiling so a good deal of heat comes in directly through the roof because the insulation is not very thick.  The reverse is true in winter.  Heating the room to a comfortable temperature is not easy and a lot of the heat is then lost through the roof.
 
In order to improve things we would either have to remove all the boarding on the inside of the roof tiles and cram in more insulating materials, or a better solution would be to take off the roof, add insulation and put the roof back.  Both of these options would be hugely disruptive and expensive so we make do.  For three quarters of the year it's fine.  In a heatwave we use fans and a portable air con unit so that we glow rather than swelter!
 
 
The curtains at this end of the room disguise/hide the open plan en suite bathroom.
 

 
Neither of us liked the open plan effect and we have pondered endlessly how we can make it into a proper separate bathroom without spending a small fortune.  The curtains were a temporary measure for when we loaned the room to guests last year, enabling them to use the bathroom with a degree of modesty.  Like so many temporary measures it has stayed and we quite like it.  Even so, one day we might bite the bullet and refit the whole bathroom, creating walls around it.
 
 
There is of course a separate bathroom on the landing, with a bath.  I was rather enamoured with the idea of the bath but in actual fact we have never used it.  The shower over it is used by guests so one day we may also bite this bullet and refit this room, taking out the bath and installing a bigger shower cubicle.
 
 

 
This is the view along the landing from each end of the house.  The second picture shows the new wall we have built on the right to divide the "room with no name" into two.  That's the project we have just completed, taking weeks of work.  We now have a new single bedroom and a good sized office space created from the other half of the room.
 
 
The new wall has a door leading into the new bedroom.  There is also a door into the original guest room where there was previously just an opening in the wall.  The space above the door is now also boxed in instead of open which gives the two rooms complete privacy.  It was a lot of work but is a major improvement, making the space much more practical from the point of view of visitors and also anyone who might in future want to buy the house.  It now has three proper bedrooms.
 
 
One of the jobs that took a lot of time was to replace the shelves over the walls in the two bedrooms.  The roof is perched on top of the walls and is panelled on the inside with plasterboard with insulation in between.  There is panelling covering the inside of the walls and where the top of the wall ends there is a shelf filling the gap between the two sets of plasterboard, creating a triangular shaped space as in the picture above.
Previously the shelves on top of the plasterboard were made from pieces of thin contiboard that didn't quite meet.  The gaps allowed drafts and critters to enter the house.  We were plagued by ants in this room as they crawled up the outside walls and into the room via the gaps.  In windy weather there was literally a howling draught through some of the gaps.
 

 
Removing the contiboard shelves revealed the top of the wall and millions of mice droppings.  A good clean up, the addition of more insulating material and new shelves made of wood with well sealed joints has brought an end to the draughts and the ants.  It's good to know that the mice and ants can no longer get into the house - well not here, anyway!  Living in the countryside has its challenges!
 
 
 
We're hoping that our next guests will enjoy having a proper bedroom each instead of having to go through one bedroom to get to the other.  The new single bedroom is small but has a lovely view through the window over the front garden.
 

 
The original guest room is spacious and has a large window overlooking the fields and woods at the side of the house.
 
So that's it.  As good as it gets.  Apart from the possible upgrade of the two bathrooms the work is finished.  It's taken us nearly five years to get to this point, bit by bit, and we're very pleased. 
There are always things to do to a house like this - it's probably over three hundred years old and has been altered over and over again.  There are clues all over the place hinting where bits were changed and the previous owners left us a folder of photos taken during the last renovation.  I would dearly love to be able to step back in time and see what was going on over the centuries.  I expect life was hard for all who lived here, people and animals, for most of the time the house has been in existence.
 
At last we feel we can just sit back, relax and enjoy living here.  It almost feels like the rest of our lives starts now.

6 June 2019

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

 
The upstairs work is finished.  You never really finish with a house like this as there is always something else to change or improve.  There are still things that we would like to do but we have run out of steam for the time being.  We have downed tools and decided enough is enough, for this year anyway.  Having spent two months working on the house we have called it a day and from now on we are just living our lives.  Getting on with the routine stuff, gardening, shopping, cooking and just enjoying being here.
 
 
Spending so much time working on indoors means that the outdoors is not quite as summer ready as we would have liked by now.  Nick has managed to do some crisis gardening while I have been restoring the inside to normality, tidying, cleaning, putting away and finding a permanent home for the stuff in boxes that landed in our bedroom to make way for the work at the other end of the house.
 

 
We have not yet made full use of our picnic shelter.  All we have done is a quick tidy up so that we could have a few meals outside in the fine weather.  A little more time spent will restore it to its full glory, always ready for a relaxing meal - lunch, dinner or a cup of tea with a slice of cake.
 

 
While I have been busy sprucing up the inside Nick has been wrestling our garden furniture out of the barn and cleaning it up for summer use.  Washing bird poo off the chairs, dusting off the cobwebs and oiling the wood.  There is somewhere to sit in shade or in the sunshine all around the house whatever the time of day, according to the weather. 
 
 
The crop around the house is coming on and the views are stunning.  If you don't mind a few pylons of course.
 

 
 
So this is as good as it gets.  The house is more or less as we want it.  We have ironed out its wrinkles and changed things to our taste.  It has taken us over four years but we can now begin the rest of our lives and just enjoy living here instead of doing it up.  The garden is full of roses, which is how we like it. 
 
More later.

8 May 2019

WINE TASTING AND BRIC A BRAC


Last month, while busy with the alterations to the bedrooms, we took the weekends off.  There are plenty of things going on at the weekends to keep us entertained.  One of which, at this time of year, is that many of the region's wine makers have their "portes ouvertes", open days which include wine tastings and which are usually free.

 
This one was at Domaine de la Bonnelière which is in a village called Varrains near Saumur.  They make a wine called Saumur-Champigny and we first tasted it at the wine fair in Le Petit-Pressigny last summer.  That in itself was a day to remember and we like the wine so much that we went in search of the winery to buy some more.  Sadly I hear rumour that the wine fair is not being held this year, I hope that it's not true.
 
 
This events are one of the things I absolutely love most about France.  You pay nothing for admission or parking, you get to taste lovely wines for free and get to buy them at discount prices.  In the UK we would have parted with twenty quid for parking and admission before we got to see or buy anything. 
Sometimes there is a small charge for a tasting glass which you can either keep or return for a refund on leaving.  In this case they were free and you just handed them in as you left.  No doubt a few did not make it back to the owners but all the people that left at the same time as us left them on the welcome desk on their way out. 
 
 
We took our friend Lisa with us.  It was a beautiful cool but sunny day and the event was very much a family affair with entertainment for children as well as adults.  There were food stalls where you could buy local delicacies or a snack and the caves were open to visit freely.
 

 
It was a really relaxed, non stuffy, unpretentious event.  There were certainly plenty of friendly staff on hand to give advice, provide tastings of anything you liked and sell the wine.  Whilst there were obviously plenty of serious, well heeled customers around, the rest of us, the enthusiasts, were made very welcome. 
 

 
Saumur-Champigny is a wine that we had forgotten about until last summer.  We used to drink it often when we spent holidays in and around Chinon but in recent years we have bought more wine from the vineyards that are more east and north of us.  Now that we have rediscovered it, it has become one of our favourites again and this winemaker makes some really delicious wines.  You can read all about them here.
 

 
The next day, a Sunday, we went to a nearby Brocante.  I'm never sure what the difference is between a Brocante and a Vide-Grenier but whichever this was, at Azay-le-Ferron, it was, as always, a good one.  It's the right kind of size, not too huge but big enough to make it worth going, and the streets are closed to traffic so that there's no dodging of cars between the stalls.
There was the usual selection of toys, clothes and household stuff, much of which you can't imagine why anyone would have bought it in the first place.  I did find some bargains though - a glass cake stand, some small dessert dishes and a ceramic soufflé dish which is an ideal size to use as an outdoor water bowl for Hugo.  Total spent so far - five euros.
 
 
I also bought this three strand necklace.  It's made of beautiful glass beads and is perfect for taking apart to remodel into something different.  Just as I took its picture, Daisy jumped up onto the worktop to remind me that it was Dreamy Time.  To us it's Apéro Time when we sit outdoors in the evening sunshine to enjoy a drink.  Hugo and Daisy join us for a game of ball (him) and a few Dreamies from the tin (her).  It's a routine that we are only able to ignore at our peril!

5 May 2019

A NEW HOT WATER TANK

 
When we bought the house there was an electric hot water heater and tank already installed, in a cupboard upstairs.  It worked but there were several annoying things about it.
 
Firstly, it appeared not to have a thermostat.  Numerous friends have said "of course, it MUST have a thermostat" and crawled all around underneath it to try to find one.  There was no thermostat to be found.  We considered installing a timer switch but this was a very complicated business, so we continued to manage our hot water supply in exactly the same way as the previous owners of the house, by switching the thing on at the fuse board for an hour or so every morning, which would provide enough hot water for our needs all day.  If we forgot to switch it on the water was barely warm and if we forgot to switch it off it was almost boiling, dangerously so, with a risk of scalding, suggesting that the tank had been set to near maximum temperature when it was installed.
 
Secondly, the drain that pipes away the small amounts of expansion water that are produced continually was not connected and instead there was a bucket underneath the tank to collect the drips and that we had to remember to empty regularly.  The absence of a pipe also meant that emptying the tank would be a tricky job.
 

 
Arriving in late March, our tulips were in full bloom, much earlier than they would have been in the UK, which is a total joy as they are my favourite flower.
 

 
And of course you may well wonder why I have jumped from hot water tank to tulips but that's because however busy we were, we took time out to admire the tulips.  There was a lot to do but life is too short to let a whole year's tulips pass us by.
 

 
Changing the hot water tank is a big job and we decided to do it as part of the improvements upstairs.  Apart from anything else, working upstairs would be very uncomfortable later in the year due to the heat so early spring was definitely the time to get on with it.  However, we still enjoyed eating outdoors (English sausages and baked beans, French eggs and oven chips on this occasion) and spending some quality time with Hugo.  All work and no play make Jack a dull boy and all that.
 

 
Thirdly, we guessed that the tank was probably getting on for twenty years old and therefore full of limescale, so that was another good reason for changing it - a new one would be more controllable and more efficient.  But, more than anything, I was heartily sick of faffing about with the switch on the fuse board every single day!
 
Because of the lack of drain it took one and a half hours to empty it, bucket by bucket.  Getting it out and down the stairs was quite a feat and not without causing some damage along the way - scratches on the wood Nick has so carefully fitted to box in the gap around the stairs.  But never mind, that can be fixed (grrrr…..) and at last the damn thing was outside.
 
Close inspection revealed that there WAS a thermostat, it WAS set to almost maximum AND was mounted in such a way that it was indeed totally impossible to find it, never mind adjust it.  Also, the tank rattled as it rolled on the floor, confirming that it probably had a thick coating of limescale inside.
 

 
And so here is our brand new, pristine, gloriously efficient hot water tank.
 
We can switch it on when we arrive and switch it off when we leave, weeks or months later, enjoying constant hot water as we need it in between.  Nick has rearranged the plumbing inside the cupboard that it lives in to make better use of the space, has connected up the drain so that we don't have to worry about a bucket overflowing and we can drain it easily when we like.
 
The only down side is that the new tank is a bit taller than the old one so that the cupboard will have to be rebuilt but that's just another job......and we will have more useful storage inside the cupboard than before.  A win, win situation.
 
Mind you, Daisy will not be pleased.  She was in the habit of jumping up onto the top of the cupboard to one of her secret hiding/sleeping places but now she won't be able to get up there.  Sorry Daisy - progress always comes at a cost.
 

 
The tulips are all finished by now, which is more than I can say for the work.  As always, it has taken much longer than we thought.  The finishing off has required numerous trips back to the Brico shop as snags and complications cropped up and in fact is not altogether done yet.  But for lovely, constant, effortless hot water - it will have been worth the effort!