We don’t do things by half measures. We have two vacation rental apartments, and both have earned four-star ratings. We featured la Suite Barbès on Tuesday. Today is the turn of l’Ancienne Tannerie. On AirBnB, you can find la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here.
The apartment’s name comes from the fact that, back in medieval times, the inner courtyard was a tannery. The tiny alley behind the building is called ruelle des Tanneurs–Tanners’ Lane. Our apartments are in the “new” town of Carcassonne, which was built around 1260 under the orders of King Louis IX, aka St. Louis, to house the refugees expelled from la Cité after the Albigensian Crusade of 1209. Our building, however, must have replaced an older one (that likely burned down–fires were a big problem), because the high ceilings (13 feet) and large windows are in later architecture.
BTW, here’s a list of the residents in our building in 1624. You can see several were tanners, well into the Renaissance. (There’s also a captain, “called Captain Galaton of Pezens,” although Carcassonne isn’t on the coast.)
As with the other apartment, we preserved the historical details while adding modern conveniences (sauna, anyone?). And, to make sure visitors know they’re in France, it’s furnished with locally sourced antiques. Like this marvelous crystal chandelier that we drove to a little village to the south of here to buy.
We kept the old piano with ivory keys. I love the sconces on it, though I imagine that one would have had to play carefully if candles were burning.
What’s new: all the wiring, double-paned windows, plumbing…. plus the original terra-cotta tomettes were cleaned and treated.
The apartment sleeps up to five. There’s a spacious bedroom, a small bedroom, and a sofabed.
The kitchen is my favorite room. The fireplace is big enough to stand in. I love having the table in the middle.
Among the paintings we found was one of the kitchen. It shows the clock and the fireplace.Another painting we found in the apartment depicts Square Gambetta, which is two blocks away, before World War II. During the war, German troops destroyed the pool and its fountain, pictured.The square was redone a few years ago for construction of an underground parking garage. First, it was completely covered with gravel, and everybody hated it. So it was done over, with squares of formal gardens, a small restaurant, the old carousel and a fountain where kids can play in the water in summer. The same allée of plane trees still stands.
Visitors always ooh and ahh over the bathroom. It has a giant glass shower that doesn’t photograph well at all, being clear. The sauna always brings smiles, too.
It has been such a pleasure to hunt for pretty furnishings and accessories that establish an ambience of French tradition and authenticity. And it has been an even greater pleasure to meet people who appreciate it all as much as we do.A quick reminder of the main draw of Carcassonne, the majestic Cité, just a few minutes’ walk away from the apartments:We’d love to welcome you and your friends!
Our vacation rental apartments in Carcassonne received four stars in an official inspection recently.
We are doing everything strictly by the rules, from the renovation to the rental, and are focusing on the highest quality. The ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals set the criteria.
We’re very pleased with the results. Five stars weren’t possible—no possibility of a swimming pool in an apartment in the center of town, nor, for a historically classified building could we have an elevator or air conditioning. The renovation was under the supervision of the Bâtiments de France–our apartment is historically classed not just for the façade but also the interior.
Our apartments are listed on AirBnB, with la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here. Let’s take a look again at la Suite Barbès; the next post will look at l’Ancienne Tannerie.
Not to repeat previous posts too much, this one will zoom in on a few favorite details. You can find other posts with pictures and stories about the apartments and their renovation via the tab Our Vacation Apartments above. The post about being featured on Desire to Inspire shows broader shots of the rooms.
Each painting has a story.We bought this watercolor at the Toques et Clocher event in Cépie. The painter looked familiar–it turned out we had met at a dinner party some months before, plus she’s the sister of the apartment’s neighbor. Is that karma or what?
We found the other three paintings in a storage closet in the apartment. They all feature local scenes. You’ll see almost the exact shot of the one below in this post about the Canal du Midi (the photo captioned “Black Mountains in the background).
The stars are based on a long list of criteria, including the quality of furnishings and decor, modern conveniences like washing machine and hair dryer plus all the usuals in the kitchen, how well the kitchen is stocked with everything needed to prepare meals, the space, etc.
La Suite Barbès has a large living room and a crazy big bedroom (35 square meters, or 375 square feet), plus two marble fireplaces, and elaborate moldings. The furniture is almost entirely antiques sourced from local brocantes or bought from the previous owner.
We have enjoyed meeting the people from all over the world who stay in our apartment. They like the décor–you know you’re in France. They also like the location, just a block from the central square, so it’s close but without the noise. La Cité is about a 10-minute walk away, making it easy to get to without actually staying all the time in the touristy area. The Canal du Midi is also about a 10-minute walk away, as is the train station.
We hope to welcome you and/or your friends in 2018!
Since the rentrée, the vide-grenier season has been in high gear. The mass garage sales are the excuse to visit a new village, to people-watch and above all, to find one-of-a-kind items for a song.This stand had an impressive collection of Ricard items. Ricard is a brand of pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif that’s very popular around here. It is clear and barely yellow but turns cloudy when water is added, and thus gets called un jaune–a yellow. Ricard brilliantly played on the name. The glasses have a line to show how much pastis to pour. I can only guess that the tray, with holders for the glasses and bottle, is designed to set down at the boulodrôme during pétanque.
The professionals have the greatest concentrations of good stuff, but at higher prices. Look at this collection of antique night clothes.The pants have a completely open crotch. Interesting. I would guess something to do with using a chamber pot in the dark but I could be wrong.I love the embroidery. Even when it’s just small initials.The képi blanc is the hat of the French Foreign Legion. It reminds me of the Colette story. Ageist double standards.
Another had old knives in a very scratched plexiglass case. Can you make out some of the elaborate decorations on the handles and even the blades?
I do wonder about who would collect figurines of pin-up girls. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. Ick.The regular folks getting rid of stuff from grandma’s attic are where you find the best gems. Look at that silver inkwell.
And how about a mantle clock with a cherub on top?
There also are plenty of less-antique offerings. Bowling, anyone?
The thrill of the hunt is what the vide-grenier is all about.
During the second weekend of September, France opens the doors on many buildings that normally are off-limits, in honor of les Journées de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. It is the perfect opportunity for the curious/nosy/antique-lovers to eyeball how the French really live and work.
For example, I found my dream office, pictured above and below.Don’t you agree it meets all the criteria? Awesome chandelier? Check. Amazing drapes on French doors that open to Juliette balconies? Check. High ceilings and moldings? Check. Mega mirrors, gilt? Check. Silver candlesticks (in case the lights go out, probably)? Check. Herringbone floors with carpets? Check.Gigantic Aubusson tapestry that coordinates with the Empire (?? feel free to correct me) seating.
Sigh. I could be very productive in an office like this. It’s at the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie, in the hôtel de Murat, an 18th century building. It was built by the family of a local judge, but the proprietors fled in 1792 during the Revolution and the property was confiscated. That includes their amazing library and its 13,206 books. In addition to the classics in French, Greek and Latin, there also are precious manuscripts dating back to the 14th century.
The smell of a library is a heavenly perfume.
Check out the jib door covered with fake books!
Today it’s a meeting room. With a very functional, not-of-the-époque folding table…and the typical French ingenuity for electrical wiring (look in the fireplace).
But that mantle! And the mantle clock!
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
The stairwell was a work of art.
We also visited the Palais de Justice. I didn’t get a shot of the biggest of the three courtrooms because a mock trial was under way. I got lost in the back and forth of the trial–dogs biting cows, a fight, a broken phone….my kid informed me afterward that the witnesses kept changing their stories. No wonder I was confused. The audience was full of nonchalantly chic French parents with their mostly teenage kids, everyone riveted by the proceedings. I have never seen such a concentration of good haircuts.
We also popped into the Musée des Beaux Arts. Most museums are free during the Heritage Days. I prefer to focus on the buildings that aren’t usually open to the public, rather than just avoiding a museum entry fee. Plus, we’ve been to the museum before. But we were walking in front of it, so we went inside.
The plate on the back of a massive fireplace in the museum entrance.
The museum was actually purpose-built, in 1836. It isn’t huge and it doesn’t have big-name artists. I find that’s a plus–no crowds jostling for a photo of a painting (I understand wanting to get close to examine, but why a photo? just buy one at the gift shop!) or a selfie with a sculpture. People actually look at all the works, rather than passing over the “nobodies” in search of the Famous Artists. The benefits of Carcassonne–small and civilized.
Tell us your stories about les Journées du Patrimoine! Last year’s visit is here.
You could call it shopping the closet. We bought much of the furniture along with the apartments we renovated in Carcassonne. And in closets and cupboards there have been lovely finds.
The embroidered screen now stands in front of a fireplace. It’s really exquisite. I suppose it was handmade–everything was, even just a couple of generations ago.
The wooden bowl, below, is big and heavy and certainly hand-carved. So much of the furniture has a grape motif. Appropriate for the region!
And this funny dish, shaped like a shell, very light, and painted by hand. What would such a dish have been used for? There’s a souffler for a fireplace.
And this delicate lamp.
We also found lots of books, mostly old school books of several generations. School back in the day must have been awfully rigorous. The pages of the history book below are half-consumed by footnotes. Enough to make the biggest history buff’s eyes glaze over.
Which is probably what led to notes like the ones below.
There were books for all ages. How about this one:
The title translates as “While Laughing: Reading Without Tears.” One would hope so! It’s from 1930 and does away with the “old analytical method” in favor of the new “global method.” As illustrated below:
I’m not sure it accomplished its goals. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute. And how confusing to have to learn letters as printed and in cursive at the same time as trying to figure out the code of what they say.
Another book has vocabulary for items I don’t even recognize. What ARE those clippers?
However, it gives some great pronunciation points. Here, you have a list showing which “o” sounds are alike. It’s similar to a book I had in a French class back in the day, “Exercises in French Phonics,” by Francis W. Nachtmann. Excellent book, although pronunciation can’t be learned by books alone. It helps to also have a native speaker around to say the words correctly and then to point out how one has failed miserably to repeat them.
We also found another trove of old newspapers. It seems madame (or monsieur? their kids would have been pretty young) was thrilled by the Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 24, 1969. The papers show the extent to which it was big news, even in France profonde.
Ted Kennedy’s woes also warranted saving for posterity.
I was intrigued by a note about the weather. Perpignan had a record high of 36.9 Celsius, which comes to 98.4 Fahrenheit, while Carcassonne was at 33.2 Celsius, or 91.8 Fahrenheit. The all-time record for Carcassonne was during the 2003 heat wave, with 41.9 Celsius, or 107.42. That is definitely hot, and shows that the records are getting higher. Usually the average high temperature in summer is 28.6 Celsius, or 83.5 Fahrenheit–very pleasant.The finds reminded me of the book “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable“A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable, which was based on the real story of a Parisian apartment that was left untouched for 70 years. Another book, in French, titled “Madeleine Project,” by Clara Beaudoux, is the true story of the author trying to figure out the life of the previous owner of the Parisian apartment she has bought–full of stuff.
We have found many small traces of the previous residents, some too personal too show. A torn bit of a photo. An electricity bill from 30 years ago. A Mary medal pinned to a mattress. I know the family endured tragedies, but I don’t know the details. In cleaning out a storage room, amid all manner of sports equipment, we found a wrapped present, itself wrapped up in sheets and stuffed into a box of clothes. I think it was too painful for them to go deal with, and too hard to let go. Even I was overwhelmed by emotion, their grief was so evident, despite decades of being shut away.
The brocante of Limoux, on the first Sunday of the month, holds plenty of treasures. (Alert: there’s one this weekend, on July 2.)
Paris, with its huge population, has the famous marchés aux puces, or flea markets, namely les Puces de Saint-Ouen, selling carefully curated antiques at carefully curated prices from stalls that have become fixed shops.In France profonde, the flea markets are called brocantesand may be single shops selling antiques and vintage items, or they may be itinerant gatherings of these kinds of professional vendors. These are a step up from the vide-grenier, which is like a group yard sale. Brocantes have better stuff, but vide-greniers are where you will find something amazing for a song, buried amid piles of cast-offs.
That said, brocantes here offer some amazing finds at bargain prices. Though you are free to negotiate the prices down further.Can you guess what the object above is? The Carnivore knew immediately, having been there, done that. Put your guesses in the comments.And what about the gold things above? I thought at first they were some kind of hook for handing a coat or something. But no, on turning them around, the shape wasn’t right. They’re about 10 inches high. There’s a little cup, but it’s very small. Maybe for visiting cards? Even the vendor didn’t know what they were. Just pretty. He wanted €50 for the pair, which seemed too high for something mysterious, even though I loved the faces. If you know what they are, do tell!We saw lots of rattan, which I have read is on trend. I’d rather buy it because it is beautiful, like those chairs at the top, and beautifully made, rather than because somebody declared rattan to be “in,” which means that cheaply made versions will be in stores everywhere.
I’m also a sucker for old portrait photos. Those girls look so sweet. I supposed they’ve died–you don’t throw out Grandma’s picture when she’s still around. My mom did genealogy research, very thoroughly I should add. My father referred to it as “your mother is busy digging up the dead.” Anyway, she managed to get photos of ancestors going back as far as photography was around. Not just direct linage, either, but all kinds of relatives. So it makes me a little sad to see these girls for sale.
There were lots of really nice pieces of furniture.After having hunted for decorations for our four fireplaces, they continue to catch my eye. I love these sphinxes.
And some old space heaters…If you are in Carcassonne, I can arrange personalized brocante tours. You can contact me at taste.france (at) yahoo.com.
A closet left untouched for over a decade, but probably filled long before that, is a kind of time capsule, full of clues about life in France years–sometimes many years–ago.
First, the closets themselves. They (both, I think) started as water closets–toilets. Folks used to have chamber pots, which they would empty out the window to the street below, passersby beware.
According to the genealogy blog Histoires d’Antan et d’à Présent, there were some public toilets, which were little stalls with holes in the floor, set above a pit. How difficult that must have been when women had to wear long dresses with big skirts!
People started to want more privacy and would put in a water closet as high as possible in the building–as far as possible from the main living quarters. The excrement would flow down a pipe into the street, while the odors would escape above. By 1553, the parliament of Paris required each house to have a septic pit.By the 18th century, most buildings had two WCs, one near the ground floor or near the stairs, and the other on the top floor. And indeed, in our apartments’ building, there are two closets on the landings between the floors.
When I first moved to Europe in the 1990s and looked for an apartment in Brussels, I was shown one with the toilet and bathroom (separate) on the landing; the facilities were shared with the other two apartments in the building! I passed on that one. Also, on a trip to Paris around the same time, I had chosen an “authentic” hotel from the Lonely Planet; it praised a “charming Turkish toilet.” If you don’t know what that means, see the photo below. And steer clear of “authentic” and “charming”!
Anyway, these water closets had been converted into just closets (the toilet was filled with concrete). And they were full. One had nothing interesting, but the other one, which had no traces of its former use, was full of stuff.
The lock box in the top photo, was an exciting find, but sadly it was empty. (Imagine the typical French gesture of swiping your forefinger under your nose–meaning out of luck.)
A plastic tote bag held architectural documents for city halls/schools from the late 1800s; I want to go around to the villages and get photos of the buildings today. With them was this document, which seems to be a handwriting/copying exercise: “Hommage to Our Lady of Angels. Extract of a letter from my Lord the Count of Massaïra (today brother Mary Joseph of Angels) to his sister, Madame the Countess of Weisemberg.”Look at how it was bound by sewing the three sheets together. Even a tear on the fold was repaired by sewing. The handwriting is beautiful. Not a single bit scratched out.
The content is odd; the writer says he was born in Naples and recounts his life, mentioning that he married off his sister to the count of Weisemberg. Wouldn’t his sister be on top of this info already?There were several pots à graisse (grease pots), used for making confit de canard (duck) or pork.
A few stray pieces of a set of Limoges china. I plan to use the surprisingly large sugar pot, above, as a vase.
In the lower closet–the one with the Turkish loo–we mostly encountered rubble and coal! The upstairs closet did harbor a charbonnière, or a kind of scoop/bucket for gathering coal from the heap to put into the furnace. Happily we don’t heat with that anymore.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever uncovered in cleaning out a closet?
Sunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.
Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.
It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.
The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.
We heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.
We didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.
That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.
This room faces a pretty courtyard full of flowers. It has evolved as we worked on it, and I’m so glad we didn’t rush. Plus, I procrastinated on sewing the curtains and only just finished them.We have two vacation rental apartments, both extremely elegant and spacious, yet they couldn’t be more different. The front apartment faces south, with balconies over the street. It has some of the most elaborate boiseries, or carved high-relief decorations, of Carcassonne.
The back apartment faces north, with the hidden courtyard, and somehow feels more intimate, despite having large rooms and ceilings just as soaring as the front.
The apartments started as one huge, unpractical labyrinth (who wants to wind through a couple of other people’s bedrooms to get to the bathroom?). We sealed the connecting doors with sound insulation and drywall to create two separate apartments, which had separate entrances anyway.
That is why this room used to be a bedroom.
The previous owner’s wallpaper aside, it has always felt like a blue room to me. The front apartment feels red, but this room feels blue. Does this happen to you, where a room seems to tell you what IT wants? And it’s up to you to find the right pieces to carry out the room’s vision of itself?
The tomettes were stripped to their original state. Painting tomettes was fashionable, the restorer explained, because often houses had many different kinds, from different makers in different periods, with different colors, even in the same room.
Because it faces north, we chose a bright white for the walls, and gray for the trim–the reverse of the other apartment. I like that the boiserie doves are white while the chimney is a contrasting dove gray (it’s true!).
We bought most of the furniture with the apartment, but the family kept some things, including the mirror that was here. But look at that trumeau mirror the Carnivore found. We were going to touch it up, but friend Ali advised leaving it alone, and I’m glad we listened to her. It’s perfectly imperfect. A place that’s 400 years old shouldn’t be too glossy, even if it’s grand.
The furniture went through several iterations. We had the daybed in here with the greenish gold armchairs. They were true to the cool blue feel and went very well with the silk carpets the Carnivore scored (he is a genius at shopping, especially for antiques), but I wasn’t happy with two carpets side by side, as gorgeous as they were, and identical, to boot. They were still a bit too small. We separated them for use elsewhere and moved that furniture to the front living room. This is what happens when you furnish with antiques: you discover something, then find something else. It takes time, not like walking into a store and getting everything at once. I am very happy about giving these beautiful, high-quality pieces a new life.
We found a bigger carpet, mostly cream tones, with a little blue-green and touches of salmon. And the salmon chairs, which had been in the front, worked here, despite not being blue. They actually are the exact same color as the tomettes. This wasn’t on purpose–they were upholstered before the tomettes were restored, when the floor was a dark red. Happy luck.
We managed to find a Louis XVI-style sofabed–not easy! I’m not a fan of sofabeds, but we wanted to give the option for more people; the front apartment is for two people max. The sofa (which has a matching armchair) has a dark teal-blue stripe. The curtains are a paler shade of the same color. They turned out great–out of all the curtains I made (for five very tall rooms), they were the least anguished.
The coffee table was hand-carved in Lamu, Kenya, by an artisan I first met in 1985. He was still in the same place when I was back in 2001. I bought a chair from him, and also wanted a coffee table. He didn’t have one but, not wanting to miss a sale, got one from his house to sell to me. Trust me, I gave him a good price. In our house, that table felt too small, but here, with the imposing sofa, it feels just right, and it’s easy to move if the sofa needs to turn into a bed.
Behind the sofa, the piano moved in from the other apartment’s entry. I hope to get it tuned, if that’s even still possible. A painting, strong on blues, by my mother will go above the piano as soon as it’s framed. We are looking for other little gems to decorate as well. I think it will never be “finished,” but will always be evolving based on our discoveries.
If you look closely, you’ll see how we repurposed furniture. The armoire originally was in the kitchen; husband cleverly installed rods for hanging clothes; it also holds pillows and extra blankets for the sofabed.
The lyre-back chair was originally in this room (you can just make it out in the shot with the bed), and now accompanies a little desk.The pièce de la résistance, though, is the chandelier. Not only is it dripping with crystals (called pampilles), it is gigantic. The room is so large and the ceiling so high that you don’t realize just how huge it is.We bought it via the French version of craigslist, driving at night into the foothills of the Pyrénées to a house on the edge of a little village without cellphone reception. Yes, it totally felt like a horror movie. But the sellers were lovely and their house was beautiful. It was more like an oversize cottage, rustic, with low, beamed ceilings, and its new owners said their old chandelier didn’t work at all–it was too big and anybody kind of tall would bump their head on it. We barely squeezed it into the car. The Carnivore had spotted the ad only about an hour after it was posted, and we were there about two hours later to buy it, otherwise it surely would have been snapped up by an antiquaire and resold for many times more.
This entry is fairly small: just a coatrack in there. Previously it had been used as a closet. In the first before photo, you can see the linoleum that had covered the tomettes. There’s another small bedroom off the entry; I’ll show it later.
The apartment is for rent via AirBnB or VRBO (which is the same as Homeaway and Abritel). Or contact us at email@example.com.
One of those serendipitous moments happened recently as I wiped down a new old sofa and otherwise puttered in the apartment that overlooks the courtyard.
In order to not lose my mind–actually to lose myself inside my mind–while doing uninteresting or unpleasant tasks, I listen to podcasts. No amount of mindfulness is going to make me all zen about mopping the floor or sorting laundry or running (or sewing!). I want to get the job done with minimal pain, and the best analgesic is one that makes me think about something else, the more esoteric, the better. Sometimes I do not want to focus on what I am doing. At all.
The first to entertain me was Lauren Bastide, with the most wonderful, we’re-there-in-the-room conversation with Amandine Gay (“La Poudre“). I was riveted by pieces about the new movie “Tower” and the decline of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (both on “Fresh Air,” which has the greatest interviewer ever, Terry Gross). I discovered Lady Lamb (thanks to “On Point”). People talked about medical mysteries (TED Radio Hour). But then I had no more podcasts left in my feed.
So I switched to the NPR One app, which is like a slot machine for podcasts, except that you never lose. They themselves call it Pandora for public radio–more PG-rated than a slot machine. First I got the founders of Kate Spade talking about how they got started (on “How I Built This“)–a logical progression because both Ted Radio Hour and How I Built This are hosted by Guy Raz, who has the most unbelievable name ever. Then the app decided I needed to hear a show I was unfamiliar with, called “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” WTF? HOW DID THEY KNOW????
I was mostly an A+ student, but I have no idea how I pulled it off in history (my only non-A’s were in gym class–C. “She never makes trouble” was the only nice thing the gym teacher found to say about me, year after year. Yes, I saw my old report cards not long ago). Those dates…they just wouldn’t adhere to my brain cells, even though I am a math lover and have no trouble memorizing zip codes and country dialing codes. However, it didn’t work with history. And it’s too bad, because I have come to love history, though I still don’t remember the dates. I treat dates in history the way I treat recipes–approximations are good enough. Freudian analysis would probably figure it out, but that would take too much time and effort. And anyway, all I really care about are the stories.
The history podcast was about another momentous women’s march–on Versailles! And there I was, on my knees, rubbing an ammonia solution into a Louis XVI sofa to strip it of all traces of its very charming former owner. Louis XVI! The one getting marched on in that very podcast!
An aside here to discuss the fine lady who was getting rid of her sofa. She was suffering from back pain and was going for an operation any day now, though that didn’t stop her from grabbing the coffee table and rolling up the carpet in front of the sofa–the Carnivore and I were going nuts trying to stop her but she was as quick as butter on a hot skillet. She stood about to my shoulder, which, considering I’m short, is nothing. I bet she didn’t weigh 40 kilos. A wisp of a woman.
As the Carnivore manipulated our neighbor’s camionette (a kind of enclosed pickup that’s very common in France) into her driveway, I chatted with Madame about life. The conversation quickly turned to death. She explained that she was keeping one of the armchairs that matched the sofa because it had been her mother’s, who had lived with her before dying. She then segued to her husband, who died suddenly, in his sleep, not long ago (which might have been a few years, I wasn’t sure). Trying to comfort her, I told her that my parents had died recently, relatively quickly, and in light of what I’d seen, I think the quicker the better. I am not alone in this. When I was leaving my post as a teacher in Africa, my students collected messages for me, and one sweet student wished me “a happy family, a happy life and a quick death!”
Madame grasped my arm and said, “Chut!” (Shush!) But then she went on anyway, and we talked about how a slow death does prepare the survivors for the idea that the loved one would be no longer, while a quick death is probably nicer for the person dying but a shock for the family.
This lady was selling some things in her finely furnished (“j’étais décoratrice!”) little house in order to move in with or near to her daughter, who had married an Italian and had followed him to Milan (she contorted her small, thin face at this, as if she had bitten into a spoiled fruit). First an operation on her back in France, then a new life in Italy. I felt sorry for her, abandoning all the stuff that reminded her of happier times–for some people, stuff is an end unto itself, a way to achieve some kind of status, but for others it is a totem of people or memories of happy times, and, though I knew her but for less than an hour, I think that, even if years ago she was in the former category, she now was in the latter). Plus, the weather in Milan is pretty crappy, compared with Aude.
Back to the furniture. The sofa is, obviously, a reproduction of Louis XVI. He’s better known as the husband of Marie Antoinette. I say “obviously” because it’s a sofa-bed, a technology that came somewhat later than the late 1700s. Madame said she bought it in Revel, which is a hub for marquetry and fine furniture making. Considering how heavy it is, I believe her.
Louis XVI came after 15 other Louis (Louises?), the first of whom appeared in 814 A.D. The first Louis had a tough act to follow: Charlemagne. There were LOTS of other kings before the first Louis (who was known as both “the pious” AND “the debonaire”!!!!! How did he manage that?), but they had names like Chilperic and Childeric and Chlothar and Dagobert. (You should know that in some places–like Belgium–a dagobert is not unlike a Dagwood sandwich, giving the mitraillet a run for the money.)
The later Louis (Louises?) became known for their interior décors. We won’t spend time on the earliest ones. Louis II, aka “the stutterer”!! Too bad he didn’t see “The King’s Speech.” There also were Louis the Fat (they really weren’t politically correct in those times) and Louis the Young and Louis the Lion and St. Louis (the IX–9th–who built the “new” town of Carcassonne around 1260). Then Louis X, aka the Quarreler; Louis XI, aka “the prudent, the cunning, the universal spider.” Sorry, but that one is The Best!!! Being Prudent, Cunning AND a Universal Spider? OMG. What a MAN! Or was he a superhero? But that was from 1461-1483. They don’t make them like they used to. Or maybe they do, except for the prudent part, and we are like flies stuck in a trap.
Louis XII was the “father of the people,” followed by a number of other-named monarchs, including Henri II, whose style was much-copied later.
Louis XIII (13th), aka “the Just,” was in the first half of the 1600s. We know that our apartments existed in 1624, though they might have been there earlier. (I will try to get to the bottom of this one day.) His style is known for lots of twists (torsades) and straight lines, which seems like a contradiction, eh?
Louis XIV was known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. Hard to beat that (though his great-grandson, Louis XV–“the Beloved”–seems to have). Fourteen ruled from 1643-1715 and built Versailles. Think glam.
And then we get to Louis XVI (we’re up to 16 here–seize in French, pronounced “says”), the “restorer of French liberty,” who ruled from 1774 to 1792. Note those dates! What happened just two years after 1774? Hmmm! An era of foment all over the place.
Having read “A Tale of Two Cities” (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sidney Carton: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Did you, too, have to memorize that in high school?) and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”), I had an impression of the French Revolution as having been a bloody affair directed by perhaps well-meaning but vicious people like Madame Lafarge, Javert, Rousseau and Robespierre and that the revolution was at full swing from the moment the people stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, until the day Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lost their heads on the guillotine in 1792. But in fact, the revolution started earlier and the king hung on for several years. Talks happened, spiced up by marches, including by nasty women.
Among the problems at the time, as “What You Missed in History Class” explains for us, were bad harvests, government deficits, over-taxation and illiquidity. It boiled down to the masses starving.
You must listen to the podcast to get all the details, but basically, people were fed up with not being fed. Call it a minimum wage issue. The podcasters express doubts that Louis XVI was actually evil incarnate or even just callous but instead suspect that he was way over his head and incompetent. In any case, a revolution was born.
Despite all that bad blood, Louis XVI’s style remains much-coveted today. OK, coveted among people who think that IKEA is great if you are 20 years old and on a small budget but then you should buy furniture that will last more than three years, and that proves it by having lasted already more than 100. Coveted by people who do not want to sit on backless benches at dinner. Who do not think that plastic chairs, even Eames, are chic or comfortable.
But how to keep your Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis straight? (And Louis is pronounced like Louie, not Lewis.) First of all, FirstDibs has a great explainer of the different Louis (Louises?). If you are just starting out, start here. Another great resource is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with essays on French chairs and 18th century French furniture more generally.
As the Louvre explains (and they should know), you have Louis XIV and the Regency from 1660-1725, then Rococo from 1725-1755, then classicism and the reign of Louis XVI from 1755-1790.
When I lived in Brussels and Paris was much closer than from where I am now in the deepest corner of rural France (which actually used to be Spain), I always partook of Les Journées de Patrimoine, in which many buildings of historical significance are opened to the public. Sometimes they are museums that drop their usual ticket charges, but the best are government or private buildings that otherwise are strictly off-limits. Once, I toured the Banc de France–like the Federal Reserve, especially because I visited before the euro–and was in a group of very well-dressed, impeccably coiffed, middle-aged Parisians. The kind of people known as bourgeois, or if younger as BCBG—bon chic, bon genre. I saw a couple, in nearly matching tweed suits (her in a skirt, him in trousers whose crease up until that moment had been razor-sharp), on their hands and knees looking at the underbelly of an antique gilded demi-lune console. It’s true there were amazing antiques in every direction, with computers and papers plonked on top.
The Carnivore is very sensitive about Louis (Louises?), and is partial to No. 16. He searched high and low for a toilet-paper holder that was in the style of Louis XVI. Even though according to this, toilet paper didn’t get cheap enough for the masses until much later. Far more impressive is the history given by ToiletPaperWorld, which mingles Stephen Crane, money and defecation. “French royalty used lace.” No wonder there was a revolution! (The delicacy of the terms the sites uses is an impressive exercise in euphemisms.)
I have seen references around the Internet to “Louis chairs,” to which I think, WHICH Louis? This alone should qualify me for French citizenship. But which Louis matters only if you’re paying top euro for what’s supposed to be the real thing, in which case, you had better know better. For everything else, “Louis” means something sorta French-antique-looking, probably Louis XVI.
All the same, I have seen how the French teach their young to know their Louis (Louises?). From the time our kid was in the equivalent of second grade, the whole memorize-your-kings thing started. Which is probably why, on a different tour during les Journées de Patrimoine, the docent told us the story of a beautifully painted stucco ceiling in the Marais of Paris, and several of the tour-goers objected vociferously to the dates and kings cited. I was dumbstruck to be in the middle of a heated argument about something that had happened 400 years earlier. At the same time, I was full of admiration, because I absolutely cannot remember such dates.
As for serendipity, what is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language (in French, it’s “happy luck,” not nearly as fun a word as serendipity), algorithms and artificial intelligence are snatching it away from us. Serendipity is opening a newspaper and happening to spy something interesting and relevant. Serendipity is walking into a shop and finding just what you need on sale. Serendipity is running into a friend you haven’t seen in ages someplace unexpected (I once bumped into an old dance buddy from NY in the line for the opera in Rome). Now our news is filtered based on what we like, we shop online for things that are pushed to us, and we know where everybody we’ve ever met is at any moment.
Some of my greatest “aha” moments have been when I have read or listened to things that on the surface didn’t interest me in the least. But they were in publications or on programs that I knew did good work, so I gave them my time. And I was rarely disappointed. I never would have sought out “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” But it came to me, with a story that touched exactly on what I was doing.