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.
The weather is fine and spring cleaning is under way. Time to purge with a vide grenier (empty the attic), a kind of communal garage sale.
While some purge, others acquire. One man’s junk is another’s gold.
Antique shops and brocantes (lower-end antique shops) are fun to visit, but the real bargains are to be had at the vide grenier, where gems are truffled among masses of consumer mistakes, but prices for the two are about the same.
Guess that didn’t work out
We scored a pair of bronze candlesticks that had been converted into lamps…and must be rewired completely. But the holes have been drilled, which is the hardest part.
Did you know that a wooden shoe is a sabot, worn by the working class, probably because they are nearly indestructible? And that saboter at first meant to bungle or be clumsy or noisy, because it’s hard to be elegant in wooden clogs. Then sabotage, or the act of saboter, came to mean deliberately introducing errors in one’s work or destroying industrial machinery. According to my Larousse dictionary.
More than antiques are on offer.
But old stuff rules. Maybe because it was built to last.
History can be cruel. One is great enough to be commemorated in a bust, only to end up in a red plastic bin at a mass yard sale.
But the best part is the attention paid to lunch. While numerous stands hawk grilled sausage sandwiches, crêpes and churros, most vendors come well-equipped.
Lunch is served at a table, with a tablecloth, real dishes and silverware, wine served in wine glasses, everybody seated on real chairs. Just because it’s a picnic doesn’t mean one must be uncomfortable.
We saw one table–a sturdy round one, covered by a neatly ironed tablecloth–that seated eight, and they were enjoying their lunch fully. It was fine to inquire about prices of their wares, but wait a minute while the seller swallows.
This joie de vivre is irrepressible in the French. Being reminded of it, at stall after stall, was the best gem I took away from the vide grenier.
First, I was remiss in not wishing everyone a happy new year, and above all, good health–meilleurs voeux pour 2017, surtout la santé. It’s the first thing everybody says here at the moment, even strangers.
This kitchen is possibly my favorite room in our renovation. It’s huge. It has plenty of counter space, plenty of storage, seating and a fireplace big enough to stand in.
We didn’t get to buy all the cool copper pans, but as we installed an induction stovetop, they wouldn’t have worked anyway. Let me just say again that induction is the greatest!
We took a leaf out of the table–it’s already big with one–and changed out the benches for chairs. Benches are useful for squeezing in crowds but they are never comfortable. Pointless in a two-bedroom apartment.
I loved the idea of black and white checkerboard–damier in French–but what was there was nasty, cracked linoleum. Replacing it with tile or stone wasn’t historically accurate enough, especially since we found the original tomettes under the linoleum.
Some of the hardest work came from things that are unseen, namely completely rewiring the place. We LOVE our electrician. And our painter. Here are links to the work along the way: changing the windows (the one with wind blowing is the kitchen) and the sink.
I think this is the only vacation rental in Carcassonne–and possibly beyond–with such a nice kitchen. It’s perfect for somebody who wants to go to the market and cook, and we plan to arrange cooking lessons as well. The other apartment is even grander but has a small but complete kitchen. Updated photos of it coming soon.
The apartments will be listed soon–we’re just finalizing the official paperwork. Hope you’ll come!
Look what we found in the attic at the apartments. A little trip to 1975!
The Independant is a regional paper that still operates. The top story is the boarding of a U.S. merchant ship by the Cambodians. The second lead is the acquisition of Compagnie International pour l’Informatique (aka CII–it means International Computing Co.) by Honeywell-Bull, a French-U.S. computer maker.
The first visit to France by Deng Xiaoping (spelled Teng Hsiao-Ping in French) got several stories, including an explanation by the Carcassonne committee of the French-Chinese Friendship Association.
The article begins: “First travel to France, since the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in ’49, by a leader of the Chinese government, the voyage of vice-premier minister Deng Xiaoping is an important event for reinforcing the friendship between the French and Chinese peoples.”
The front-page cartoon about Jackie O. remarrying came two days before the death of Aristotle Onassis at a Paris hospital. Tasteless, eh?
Meanwhile, the pound sterling beat all its records of falling, with a devaluation of 24.9%, though the article doesn’t make clear from what starting point and besides it wasn’t a devaluation (when the government does it on purpose) but a depreciation (the markets drive the currency down).The simple, direct cri de coeur “Pas pour mini-car!” refers to a law passed in 1975 allowing the voiture san permis—cars without a license. Actually these ultra-small two-seaters do have licenses; it’s the drivers who don’t. In fact, I showed a photo of one here. They can’t go faster than 45 kph, and the lack of a license requirement makes them popular with retirees who can’t see. Can’t get autonomous vehicles fast enough!
The renovation is wrapping up. We still have a few things to do, like hang the chandeliers and curtains and reupholster a few pieces. And add some decoration, though that will always be a work in progress.
Welcome to the salon of what we are calling la Suite Barbès, because it faces rue Barbès in the Bastide of Carcassonne.
Because our building, inside and out, is historically protected, the color scheme was dictated by the Bâtiments de France. They decided our window frames and shutters would be RAL 3075, a light gray. The shutters are unusual because they’re on the inside, rather than the outside. Once they were regulation gray, the previous ecru tones just looked dirty rather than off-white. So we decided to roll with Gustavian, which is fine with me.
It was perfectly nice before, except that there was too much furniture–what happens when a family is in the same place for several generations. And the wiring was a fire hazard. And the windows all had to be replaced. And the floors redone.
The dining table is on the other side, in the same spot as before. For closeups, see here.
Between the windows, the beautiful cupboard was a family heirloom so alas we didn’t get to buy it.
We expect them to be ready for rental by Jan. 1 on AirBnB.
Vide-grenier season is in full swing. A vide-grenier, or “empty the attic,” is a kind of flea market or mass garage sale. It isn’t like the famous flea markets of Paris, with established vendors and quaint shops. It’s for non-professionals, mostly.
You pack up your no-longer-loved possessions into your car and then try to unload them on somebody willing to pay a couple of euros. The biggest segment by far is kids’ clothes and toys.
Followed by adult clothes. Then kitchen stuff, decorating stuff, tools and books/records/CDs etc.
Sometimes you find treasures. We got a couple of crystal sconces. Some interesting pictures. A cheese cloche. That’s over about a dozen vide-greniers in a couple of months.
A vide-grenier is an interesting picture into the French culture. You see what people collect.
There’s always someone with military stuff.
You’re reminded of a time when France wasn’t as rich, when it was picking up after war and one had to make do.
There are métiers no longer as common as they once were.
And, it being France, there is always food.
Sorry for the blurry photos. The sun was so bright I couldn’t see a thing on the camera screen.
What’s the best treasure you’ve found at a vide-grenier or garage sale?
Do you listen to other people’s conversations? Do you look in open windows as you walk down the street or do you avert your gaze?
I definitely look. One thing I enjoy in the fall is that people leave their windows open for the warm air, but have to turn on the lights, giving us a “Rear Window” style stage for the dramas within.
Americans are fascinated with French entertaining and dinner parties, and the French are admittedly different. So here’s a peek into one we went to recently.
Scene: Belle Epoque home of friends who don’t live actually there. It’s the ancestral family home, recently inherited, under renovation.
The hosts currently live in another village, about half an hour away, and the guests all live there, too. It’s funny that people who are a short walk from each others’ homes have driven through the sunny countryside to gather.
We get a tour of the house. The old, dark, striped wallpaper has been stripped, the walls smoothed and left white. It is bright, with the sun streaming through the tall windows. The living room furniture is modern and spare, but the rest of the house uses the bounty of antiques that have built up, along with layers of wallpaper, over generations of the same family in one stately village house. This layering of history is rare in the U.S., but I’ve seen it numerous times in France, including with the apartment we bought.
The hostess points out details, like the Roman numerals on each spoke of the forged iron ramp swirling up the three-story staircase. The spokes aren’t identical and had to be placed in order. See the rams’ heads and the woman’s profile that adorn the bottom of each spoke? Little works of art everywhere.
She led us up to the attic. Our friends spied things I didn’t even recognize, like the kneelers (THREE!!!!) for praying (we have one at our apartment in Carcassonne but I wasn’t familiar with them in so many forms), or the different kinds of school desks, or the ancient wheelchair.
There was an entire room of dishes.
Back downstairs, we got to the main event: the meal. Delicious, as always. Plus, these guys know how to feed a crowd. This house is being renovated with the idea of having lots of friends around. The dining room easily seated 21.
A recently acquired habit among our crowd is for the women to congregate at one end and the men at the other. This is partly the result of certain men losing their hearing and yelling instead of talking, plus yelling about stuff nobody with an X chromosome cares about (rugby, for example).
However, Guest 21, who, by dint of being the youngest person present by decades, migrated back and forth between the two ends and testified that the conversations were almost identical, just off by a few beats (“décalé”).
Topics of conversation for a French dinner party:
At one end: Recipes, weather, sauces, Eurovision, antiques, renovation, food, seasonings.
At the other end: Recipes, weather, sauces, the difference between crème fraîche and crème chantilly, rugby, renovation, food, seasonings.
Many years ago, I went on a hiking trip in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières–I was the only non-French trekker. Every meal would begin with soup. We sat in a circle, and the cook would dish up the bowls, and hand them to the closest person, who passed them around. The first person to receive a bowl would sniff it appreciatively while waiting for everyone to be served, and without fail would make a comment about how wonderfully it had been seasoned. One day, I was at the far end of the circle and got my bowl first. I sniffed it appreciatively (it did smell amazingly delicious), and I said, partly sincerely but mostly mocking my fellow hikers, “Quelles épices?” It took them a while to realize I was joking with them. But then the conversation devolved into its usual topics: which region of France had the best butter, whether you really can eat moules in months that don’t end in -re, and similar heated disputes.
When in France, you can’t go wrong talking about food.