Category Archives: Getting Started

Chapter 22 – Renting

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Let me first say, renting your home is not for the faint of heart.  You have spent countless hours renovating, restoring, and refining a house to make it your own.  This is your retirement, your dream, and it’s filled with blood, sweat, tears – and probably more money than you ever thought you’d spend on something like this.  Now, you’re handing it over to strangers with the hope they will see the beauty in what you’ve accomplished as you hope and pray they will also respect it.  Some will, for certain, but then there are those who will use it like they stole it.  This was never far from my mind as I selected finishes and materials  that were most likely to withstand the rigors of abuse.

At this point, I have had one partial summer of rental and finding myself feeling a bit jaded.  Perhaps renting is not for me – but right now, it’s necessary.  We found this home much sooner than we anticipated, so until we are ‘retired’ and can spend more months out of the year here than we do, renting will help cover the monthly costs of owning this property.

Renting is a carefully choreographed process – especially when you live over 3600 miles away.  You will need a caretaker to greet guests, be a concierge of sorts and who will ensure the house is ready, be the person to contact with questions or issues and check the house after the guests have departed for any issues  and lock it up.  You will need a reliable housekeeper and you will need a list of reliable contractors who can intervene if necessary such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc.  If you have a courtyard and gardens, you will need a gardener on a regular schedule and if a pool, there will be someone to maintain the pool.  Basically, you need an A-Team.

Depending on where this house is will determine the difficulty with locating these people.  I happen to have a house near a tourist destination, Saint Emilion, and have been incredibly fortunate to have friends and allies surrounding me who will keep an eye on things.  Between friends, local contractors, neighbors, and a security system, I have the ability to monitor much but ultimately am at the mercy of the renter in the hopes they will be respectful.  Mostly they are…but occasionally they leave me wondering how they conduct themselves in their own homes.   There’s the renter who will open every door and window fully – 24/7 during 90-100 degree temperatures, then manually override my climatization unit on the second floor in a sure to fail effort to cool most of the house.  Anyone with common sense would know – if it’s that hot outside, you do not open the entire house up to the outside – especially in a stone house.  Once you’ve done that, you will not be able to cool it down until hours after the outside temperature cools.  That climatization unit was running all day and night and caused much stress for me because I needed to monitor it constantly, but with a 6 hour time difference between the US and France, I could re-set it to a reasonable temperature only to wake in the morning to see it had been manually re-set to its minimum (which is roughly 58-60 degrees Fahrenheit – yet the room and outside temperature was still very high.  Why?  Well because every window and door remained open!

When preparing to leave the house, I will remove any personal or valuable items I want to preserve and locate them in a locked storage room or cabinet.  I then live with only the items left for use to ensure there are adequate accommodations.  In our house, we have a ground floor (rez de chausse), a first floor (premiere Etage), and a second floor (deuxieme Etage).  The ground floor has a very large kitchen, dining room, entry, toilet room, and a living room.  The  first floor has three bedrooms, a large bathroom, one additional toilet room, and a central entry.   Then, there’s a second floor – which is the owners suite.  The stairs deliver you to a large salon/office area with a locked door to the left which contains the owners private master bedroom, bath and toilet.  Because the concierge I hired felt this second salon was essential to the rental, I conceded and allowed its use.  partly because it’s not separated by a wall, door or any defining barrier to make it simple to close off.

If you are renting a property that is also your home, it is vitally important you have a place that remains private – where you can really feel it is yours.  For me, having strangers in my private space is a challenge.  During the construction, we had the foresight to reclaim a whole room that was wasted behind a wall allowing us to have a wonderful storage room complete with a small refrigerator to store a few items to have on hand when we return so we don’t feel the immediate need to get to a grocery.  We also have a very large locked buffet cabinet in the dining room where I can store all sorts of kitchen items I want to keep separate.  Let’s just say, the last time I left it also contained every remaining good wine glass I had!  With only seven rentals I lost a total of twelve wine goblets to people using them outside on the terrace instead of the plastic goblets and glasses I had provided for outdoor use.

Never underestimate the callousness of a renter.  Most are highly respectful – but it only takes one or two who will shift your perspective.  Although I may have eyes and ears in the neighborhood who will keep me posted –  you’ll probably only find out after the fact when something is amiss – 

Case in point: During the course of construction we added a door where a window once existed in order to give us more direct access to the planned terraces, but due to the mason’s schedule, our budget, and just getting the property ready for our first rental, the stairs were not able to be built in time.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a perfectly good door and stairs exiting the kitchen – we were simply opting to add one.  My mistake was leaving the key available to this door when I left in the spring.  In hindsight, I should have locked the door, given the key to the concierge to allow her to open the shutters, thus allowing more natural light into the space, with the caveat to keep the door locked.  Guests took advantage of this door by opening it all the way, leaving it as such, and moving terrace furniture in front of it so they could bounce down and out of the house directly to the terrace.  No joke.  I returned to broken furniture that had been suffering the constant impact of human weight having been used as a launching pad to the terrace.

YOUR WELCOME… 

My husband and myself have rented many times in several places so marshaled that experience into what we found helpful as we prepared the house for rental.  The first thing is the “Welcome to our Home” notebook.  It should share a brief welcome, something about the house, the wifi password and anything in particular about the house such as the best settings for the kitchen appliances (should I have included ‘how not to burn my kitchen down?’)  In this notebook you should also list where the nearest markets are located, wineries, restaurants, shopping, places of interest, and emergency contact numbers.  Keep it simple, concise and well-organized – otherwise, it will not be useful.  Because this house is in France, we duplicated this in both English and French.  I made sure to include websites, hours of operation, phone numbers and each year I will update it as needed.  There is also a guestbook to give guests an opportunity to weigh in on what they liked and didn’t like.  We received very positive feedback and a few very nice suggestions we will keep in mind as we continue to add to the house.

We have left dozens of dvd’s and several games from backgammon and simple cards to murder mystery sets and wine tasting challenges.  There are maps and tourist guides – you will want to keep these current.  If you leave games – it is not likely you will find them intact when you return.  I spent the better part of a week re-assigning game pieces to their proper boxes!

You will also need to provide: toilet paper in all bathrooms, a roll of paper towels in the kitchen, garbage bags, and a few coffee pods as the bare minimum.  I have also left miscellaneous boxes of tea, basic spices and dried herbs, dish liquid and a small amount of dishwasher soap.  I no longer leave laundry soap and excess provisions.  All good wine goblets have now been stored away when we leave as well as our best cooking implements, good silverware, and knives.  (The set of knives we provided had clearly been used for more than cutting, so cross that off the list of nice things to leave…and this was just seven rentals.)  We only recommed dollar store glasses now after having multiple expensive goblets broken.  What was I thinking, right?  Here we are in wine country so I had wanted to provide a beautiful glass to drink wine – well, it was a thought.

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Having a linen and towel service is a good idea – while it is an expense, it allows you to keep your own sheets for you and your private guests and assures your rental guests will have beautifully clean and fresh linens that are taken offsite for cleaning.  This is not a ‘wear and tear’ you want on your small stacking washer and dryer.

Now, without being able to prove miscreants such as this beyond the evidence of damaged furniture (yes, this behavior was witnessed by a neighbor) – I was forced to replace these items.  Mind you, this had been new furniture used for only weeks, now damaged beyond repair.

KITCHEN PROVISIONS

It was advised I leave several provisions in the kitchen with the thought things were generally replaced to some extent by guests.  Well, it was a thought.  I had left the kitchen quite well stocked: paper products, plastic wrap, foil, storage bags, laundry, dish, hand, and dishwasher soaps, trash bags for all compartments, etc. When I returned four months later, after seven rentals the only remaining item was ahalf a roll of plastic wrap without the box – so no way to tear a piece without getting out the scissors.  This time, when I left, there was adequate dish soap, the same roll of plastic wrap, and garbage bags.  No longer shall I leave the kitchen fully or overly stocked.  Trust me – despite what my concierge suggested, they will use every last item and will not replace it.

If you have a washing machine – it may or may not be used…or it may be overused.  During the very first month of rental, I needed to contact the plumber because the washing machine had leaked all over my kitchen.  While I may never have the full story, I can say I lived there for six months with no issue, yet renter number one or two seemed to be doing an inordinate amount of laundry (possibly overfilled the small machine?) and the force caused a connection to rupture.  Again – you will not be there, so cannot determine whether misuse is responsible for failures.  Unless gross negligence is evident, you will be forced to pay for such repairs.  I do find it hard to understand how seven renters can make their way through two liters of concentrated laundry detergent.  Again – many will use it like there’s no tomorrow and unfortunately will color your view of renters as a whole because you will not know until they’ve been there if they’re prone to being abusive.  I’ve rented several homes myself and in most cases been a bit disappointed with the provisions available to me upon arrival, finding myself spending precious vacation time in a grocery store purchasing cleaning products, plastic or paper products or basic provisions such as salt and pepper.  With this understanding, I tried to be the consummate host and ensure all of these basics were stocked, and then some.  Funny how experience realigns your perspective.

It is also highly recommended you provide both mattress and pillowcase covers and have those stripped and cleaned periodically since they will greatly extend the life of your bedding!

DAMAGE WILL HAPPEN…

Keep a list.  If you have a renter who leaves the place very soiled or is abusive – do not let them re-book.  Of the seven, I have two.  I think that’s a fairly high percentage, but I have pictures to prove the damage if questioned.  One guest literally pulled my drapery hardware off the wall; when all was said and done, I needed a contractor to repair the broken hardware and my drapery contractor to repair three sets of curtains.

drapery damage

Then there’s the broken terrace furniture, the washing machine repair, and the last one – my brand new stainless steel, gas range.  Yeah – the pictures taken by my cleaning person would lead one to believe someone had set fire on top of the range because every component was blackened.

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Was it cleanable?  For the most part.  Is there permanent damage?  Yes, some that will always be a reminder of someones harsh use and surface scratches from the need to clean aggressively.  Will this person be invited back?  Not a chance!

 

LEARNING CURVES…

After the first season of rentals, we made the decision to close the owners suite completely.  We only rent to a maximum of 6 people, so if a huge kitchen, formal dining room, living room, three bedrooms, one full bathroom + 2 toilet rooms, entry’s and a very large courtyard with terraces and swimming pool isn’t enough, then maybe a different house is for you. On the now closed floor is the master en suite that is locked, and a second salon and office area.  This is also the floor with the climatisation units.  Because the stairwell deposits people directly into this space, we’ve given instructions to the concierge, placed a sign on the stairwell indicating the floor is closed to guests, and have installed a very thick drapery at the entrance to the space.  The hope is with the verbal instruction and the visual of the drapery guests will respect this space is off limits.

Problems on this floor with renters ranged from mis-use of the climatisation and permanent carvings etched in the new desk top where I work when at the house.  As I indicated before, we have climatisation on this floor because it is a very tall stone house and this top floor – that is technically in the roof lines gets inhabitably hot in the summer.  As air circulates, the stairwell provides a chimney of sorts and deposits additional heat into this space.  As you can imagine, keeping the temperature relatively cool in this space has proven to be a big challenge.  I have remote access to these climatisation units, so I can monitor the spaces on this floor and keep the temperatures reasonable, but found I had guests removing the cover and manually overriding my settings on a daily basis.  The second climatisation unit is locked in the master en suite – these two units need to be controlled carefully as they are on the same system.

Our hope is in addition to being a physical visual barrier, the heavy curtain will stop the flow of excess heat into this space and make it a bit easier to manage.

I’ll let you know if it worked…

 

Chapter 15 – The Salon

Upon first entering the salon of the house we were met with a small yet mighty space – original parquet, elegant mouldings, ceiling medallion, fireplace, and a beautiful window.  The space was tired and old, rich with potential, and small – barely ten feet wide!  The proportions were odd – not wide enough to seat around the fireplace, yet we knew it would be the perfect room for a couple of small seating areas for watching television or quietly reading a book or having a coffee near the window.

Below you see the room before renovation, starting with the wall to the right of the fireplace,  the next picture shows the end wall before the door was added to reclaim every possible inch of storage, and the last two frames show the remainder of the room and the double doors into the entrée.  The last frame shows the floor board added when the two rooms were made into one.  We needed to remove this floor board and replace it with one that would fit more cleanly.

As we were accessing the width, or lack thereof, we quickly noticed something did not add up – the length of the room seemed oddly short in contrast to the front to back dimensions of the house.  A bit of investigating revealed a wall that had been erected, presumably when the heating system was added.  Instead of working the ventilation of the cave for the furnace so that it would remain in the cave – a significant part of the room was removed, so in the place of what had been two rooms off of the entrée, the wall between the two rooms was removed and the remainder of the room at the rear side of the house was added to the room at the front.  Given the fact houses of this era were short on storage, we determined the cave could be contained in a smaller space and a door could be added to allow a good sized auxiliary storage room.

The photo on the left shows a view inside this space after the door opening was cut into the wall.  You can see the new floor beams added and the vent pipe that we had relocated.  Sadly, I had better photo’s of this process and they have been lost in the shuffle. The view on the right shows the finished wall with the elevated door.  It’s a step up, but still maintains an eight foot ceiling – plenty of room for storage shelves, wine storage, linens, and a additional refrigerator.  It is our intention to add a wall curtain to completely conceal the door so when we are away and the house is rented, no one will be the wiser there is another room.  (Unless they read this blog, I suppose!)

As you see here, there is a lovely ceiling medallion that is barely noticed – on the right, after restoration of the ceiling and a new chandelier, it now gets all the attention it deserves.  The chandelier selected is somewhat contemporary and ‘lighter’ scale so as not to overwhelm the space.  Additional recessed lighting was added near the walls to illuminate them, further enhancing the lighter feel of the room.

The after photo’s below show two seating areas – one for a cozy area to watch some television and the other at the beautiful window to either read or enjoy a glass of wine or cup of coffee.  We selected a rich grey tone for the walls in this room to render a cozy, quiet feel despite it’s already intimate scale.  Because the room is narrow, we opted for a couple of ottoman cushions in lieu of a sofa table that would have crowded the space between the sofa and television stand.

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Chapter 12 – The Ghost

As I eluded in ‘Chapter 2 – France Itinerary; October 4th – October 18th, 2013’, our house had a ghost.  While I am a Shaman and have had psychic tendencies all of my life, I do not always ‘see’ with my human eyes, so this was unusual for me – but then, nothing in this process thus far has been ‘normal’.  There is a part of me that also believes the searching and finding of this property has been years in the making – even long before I ‘knew’ it.

Everything about this has been on instinct from the years of interest in my ancestors, the research and searching for my husband’s genealogy, the sudden ‘knowing’ we needed to travel to France to continue this research, to the belief this country was a possibility for a retirement haven, followed by the deep-seeded sense the Bordeaux region would be the place above all others, and on to connecting with just the right people to assist with our search and subsequent renovation.  When I saw the ghost standing at the top of the stairs I was not only undeterred, but I was convinced he would somehow be instrumental.

After facilitating a distance clearing of the property we had just viewed, I focused my intention on learning what I could about this specter.  I introduced myself, stated our intentions, laid out plans, and began the dialog that would last the better part of the next ten months.  “You can call me Padre,” he said, and then the thing that surprised me, “and I’m going to help you with this.”  He further stated he would ensure the work was done as it should be and the right contractors for the job would be found.  In essence, he would be my general contractor.

Upon our return to the house two days later to begin photographing and measuring, we were all surprised, pleasantly so, that the house felt lighter and far less ominous.  It would be difficult to linger in any spot for more than a few minutes – especially on the second floor, but now the energy of the house felt receptive.  I didn’t fully have Padre’s approval, but we had definitely made great strides.  I will say, if you are intent to renovate a very old home, it is a good idea to clear the stuck or old energy before embarking on the work.  If you cannot facilitate this on your own, find a qualified expert.  House clearings can be done remotely as well, so don’t limit your sources to a person who can physically come to the house.  Basically, if you don’t clear out the old, you can’t make way for the new.

The first order of business would be to make an offer on the house – and though it was fraught with ups and downs, we never once believed it was not meant to be ours, so we persevered through whatever it was going to take.  By June, our offer had been accepted and we could get down to the business of planning, so between June of 2016 and September 2016, we worked on the plans.  The first was the demolition plan outlining any and all fixtures, finishes, walls (yes, there would be one wall) that needed to be removed to make way for an enlarged kitchen.  Our primary intent was to return this beautiful house back to its former glory.  We would modernize it, for certain with the kitchen and bathrooms, but the house as a whole would retain it’s vintage charm resplendent of its late 1800’s time.

Once the potential was outlined, the plans could begin and at every juncture I met with Padre to show him what we wanted to do.  Each and every time, he was in agreement.  The one time I worried about what we had planned was with the kitchen – which would be very modern. I nervously showed him the plans and told him it was quite different from the original but I was hoping he’d approve.  He looked at the plans and then stated, “Everything you have planned here has been with love…as long as it is with love, it will be good.”  The kitchen with all its changes would be done, and with his approval.

So what’s it like working with a ghost?  Well, it’s not much different than working with a flesh and bone person.  You approach with respect, keep it honest, develop a rapport – ask questions and listen for answers.  By the time the plans were completed, there was an excitement, an energy for their ultimate fruition.

This was his proposal to me: “I will remain with the house to ensure everything is done right and when the work is done and I am no longer needed, I will move on.”  Over the months I visited through Shamanic journeys, I would see him, but then began also to see my ancestors.  They had come to celebrate and watch over the house with Padre.  This was something I needed to address – while Padre was there to guard and care for the house, the last thing we needed would be additional ghosts taking up residence and each time I visited, there were more and more ancestors.  I respectfully spoke with them about the fact they had a place they belonged, and it was not here.  I would continue to honor and visit with them in the sacred places when I needed to.  I do know their hand was at work to facilitate this work, though, because each and every time we faced a challenge, I would meditate and ask for their wisdom, guidance and assistance, and every time I received an answer.  Never forget your ancestors are an unwavering source of strength and guidance.

We really believed we would return in September for the closing, meet with a general contractor and get the ball rolling, so to speak.  I had been given the name of a contractor who is Australian, but now living and working in France and thought this would be quite perfect.  Someone who speaks English, (well, sort of), yet with the ability to also communicate in French.  Despite my ever increasing French skills, I was still not at the point where I felt comfortable communicating clearly and fully our intent.  We had thoroughly detailed plans, elevations and details, had taken care to prepare them with metric measurements, and had numerous notes in French thinking, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.  Those were our best laid plans, but clearly, not the path we were destined to take.  The Aussie contractor was unavailable for a project the scope we had planned, so we moved on to plan B.

Our hosts and new friends in the adjacent town were insistent we could do this without a general contractor.  They would provide a list of names of contractors they felt were ‘serious’ – ones they themselves had used or knew of – and if a site visit was needed, they could simply run over and have a look.  In September, we started with these contractors, with a couple of them also introducing us to others we would also need.  At this point, we have our carpenter, electrician, painter, and need a plumber and tile contractor.  All contractors reviewed the plans with us with the assistance of our friends, but we would need to wait for the devis/proposals to review before the work would commence.  And yes, as expected, the proposals ranged from a bit more than we had planned, to a LOT more than we had planned.  There was one proposal in particular that was significantly higher than anticipated – so you do need to be careful of the opportunistic contractor who will gladly take advantage of the ‘rich American’.  It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or not – the fact you’re American is enough for some.  We would not find these plumber or tile contractors until my return trip late January 2017 – and I just knew the plumber was the one when Padre appeared to me as we were walking through the house and pointed to him and said, “Him, hire him – he’s the one!”  The tile contractor, it turns out was also the ‘right one’.  The quote from this plumber was half of the first quote – both a relief and a welcome respite from everything else being higher than anticipated.  I suspect this home, being built by French tradesmen, needed to be renovated by French tradesmen.

Serious is a word we would hear often, and have come to know as meaning “one who has integrity, takes pride in their work, shows up when they say they will, and does a good job”.  We hired several ‘serious’ contractors who I would not hesitate to use again or recommend.

Were there struggles?  Mais bien sur!  But each and every time, I would center myself, confer with Padre, and make the decisions needed.  I am a big believer we are all here to learn – so whether something is going as we expect or not, it is our responsibility to open our minds, expand our consciousness (however you frame this process for yourself), and review all possibilities – not only the ones you previously had in mind.  If the discussion is with a contractor or more, ask them for their insight – and listen because you might just learn something new.  Think opportunity rather than challenge.  It was not always easy and I will admit to having a few silent meltdowns before facing my crisis of the moment, but I truly did learn a lot I didn’t know before – both about construction in another country as well as construction practices in general.  We all have something to learn.

And Padre?  Well, at times I wondered if he was on vacation when crisis would come up, but then, it was also MY job to show up and learn.  The last time I saw him was in July, 2017, when final trim pieces were being installed, painting was well under way, and I was hanging the last big chandelier with the electrician.  As we’re placing the crystals, I saw him walk through the dining room/salle a manger as though he was accessing, pleased, and acknowledging to me he was no longer needed here.  From this point on it was in my capable hands.  That is the last time I saw him – true to his word, he said he would also leave after his work of supervising was done.  I’m sure he’s sharing a glass of fine wine with my ancestors and toasting a job well done.  And that stairwell?  Well, check it out for yourself – I think it came out pretty grand!

Chapter 11: Premiere Etage

The premiere Etage in a French home is the second floor in an American home, and generally speaking is where the bedrooms and bathroom will be located – or in France, the chambres and salle de bain.  LaRoseraie had three bedrooms on this floor and one bathroom – well, sort of…

Chambre One was a jewel from the start.  The walls were ensconced with beautiful mouldings and was a big part of stealing our hearts from the first day.  It was a large room with a big, beautiful window and a fireplace, but had a few issues.  The first was the two venetian glass doors that flanked the bed wall – one went to a passageway into chambre two and the other was a false door, which we assume was there to create symmetry with the other door.  There was also a third redundant door to the left of the entrance door that had presumably been a former means of exiting the room via a partition in the entrée to allow a former madam to make a quick exit to the bathroom across the entrée hall while still in bedclothes.  We opted to leave the latter in place, but affix it permanently shut and to remove the two venetian glass doors, along with the passageway, then refinished that wall – adding mouldings to match the existing.

Fear not! The two Venetian glass doors would not go to waste, as I had committed to saving every possible detail of this house.  They were repurposed as new doors to the two toilette rooms and have added a special charm in both locations.

What you will not notice is the extent of restoration needed to the wall mouldings – the original ones were in worse condition than we initially realized and then additional, extensive damage was caused when the ceilings were replaced, so roughly half of the wall mouldings are actually new – and once the painters were done with them they looked better than they likely looked even when they were new.  As I stated before – if you find a really good painter, they will be worth their weight in gold! After completion, chambre one is the most sought after room to stay –

The other major work needed on the premiere etage were the damaged ceilings from a roof leak that had been resolved when the roof was replaced 10-15 years ago.  What had not been resolved were the damaged ceilings.  The best solution here was to add a layer of steel framing studs, then attach a layer of plasterboard.  This would both support the structure and fully repair the ceilings’ integrity.  All carpets were removed, all wallpaper was removed, walls were repaired, then covered in a layer of textured fiberglass and painted.  The floors were repaired, sanded, stained, and then varnished.  New base trim was added throughout to add a touch of elegance and better proportion, and all electrical was replaced with the addition of recessed lighting and chandeliers in each chambre.  Though each chambre has a fireplace – only the ones in chambre 1 & 3 are potentially useful.  We intend to have each fireplace inspected and will consider gas inserts at a future time if possible.

Chambre Two was equal in size to chambre one but with no ornate wall details.  Instead, our obstacle in this room was concerning the passageway that had been used to traverse between chambers’ one and two and the fact the bulk of the water damage had been focused in this room.  Add to that, at some point in time this was the one section of the house that had settled a bit, so the fireplace had been cemented closed, presumably because it was rendered unsafe.  Since we do not plan to use the fireplaces with possible exception to one day retrofitting a few with gas inserts for ambiance and some supplemental heat, this was not a problem for us.  The first order of business, however, would be to remove the passageway and relocate the radiator, then repair the ceiling, walls, floor, windows, etc., add the base trim and ready it for final finishes.

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Chambre 2 had the greatest challenges with its ceiling and the fact it had an unnecessary passageway to chambre 1 – the first order of business was to restore the ceiling, then remove this passageway.  The floor was also in terrible condition from both water and insect damage.  Intent to maintain as much original material as possible, we needed to have several boards replaced.  Once all was sanded, stained and varnished, it looked just fine!

Chambre 2 has the flexibility to have either two single or one king sized bed.

Chambre Three had few obstacles – it was a simple means of  a new ceiling, fiberglass and paint on the walls, new electrical, new floor finish, and base trim.

 

Once completed, despite being the smallest of the three chambres on this floor, it carries a charm that is uniquely Parisian –

chambre 3.1chambre 3.2Chambre 3chambre 3.3

The Premiere Entrée before:

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As you can see – from the crumbling ceiling down to the worn floors, this once beautiful space had lost its luster – so it received the star treatment of new ceilings all the way down to refinished floors.

The Premiere Entrée After:

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It was our intent to not only retain as much original detail as possible, but to ensure the finishes and material in the entrees and stair were maintained in the style characteristic of its period.  I found the restored French vintage chandeliers online, the vintage mirror was sourced from Maison du Monde and the draperies were custom made with a vintage Berger fabric by a local artisan.

The final room on this floor would be the salle de bain.  Originally, it housed a bathtub with hand shower, a wall-mounted sink and a bidet.  All of the plumbing had been attached to the exterior wall of the house since the bathroom had been added a number of years after the house was built, so one of the tasks would be to bring this inside for future protection from the cold and potential freezing temperatures.

Salle de Bain Before:

Salle de Bain During:

Once the tile, fixtures and old plumbing and electrical were removed, the task could begin to repair and prepare the surfaces for new finishes.  One thing to note with a house of this construction – not only are all exterior walls stone block, but the primary interior walls will also be stone.  Any walls that were constructed thereafter would most likely be clay tile covered with plaster.  The difficulty occurs when blocking is required for fixtures, radiators, etc. since these substrates provide poor strength for anchoring weighty hardware.  We had one such case in this bathroom.  The electric radiator had been attached to the clay tile wall and after a few months, dislodged and fell off the wall.  The remedy was to add to the porcelain marble-look tile to cover the area behind where the radiator would attach to provide a stronger surface for the wall anchors.  In hindsight, we should have opened the wall, added blocking, then plastered over.

Salle de Bain After:

As you can see, our objective was to give this bathroom/SDB a more vintage feel than we designed for the second floor bathroom/SDB.  The primary components were the utilization of natural materials such as the white marble and charcoal slate floors, and vintage styling through the fixtures where we utilized porcelain and chrome.  The light fixtures also lend a vintage feel, although you’ll notice the ceiling fixture is, in fact, original to the house – it is the ceiling fixture that was in the ground floor entry, re-purposed to add the perfect finishing touch.

 

Now complete – this bathroom has a large walk-in shower, an oversized sink vanity and a toilette.

Chapter 10: Being Here – Visa’s, Phones & More

I think this is how it happens.  You go on holiday and visit a place for a few days or a week or two and it awakens something in you where you become inspired and think, “Gee, I feel so relaxed or at home here – I think I could live here and be very happy!”  You are then met with enthusiasm and positivity by those you speak with – “Oh, yes – you should do that!  It’s rather easy to purchase a place here.”  Well, it IS and it ISN’T.  If I told you right now that purchasing and then embarking on a major restoration while living in another country was going to be the easy part, you might run for the hills…unless you are still under the enchantment of the place you’ve fallen in love with, in which case, it matters not.

We found this place much sooner than we anticipated and undertook a restoration bigger than we planned.  At this point, I’m in the midst of my first winter here, spring is a promising glance away, and I can honestly say it is not the experience I had hoped for.  We thought with the interior renovation at 95% complete given we were down to draperies, artwork, and small finishing touches, it was decided it would be a wonderful time to have our first Christmas here with the entire Hays family.  This entailed flying my husband and myself, our two adult children and their significant others to France while my brother-in-law and his wife would arrange to bring themselves and their two adult daughters.  I would fly in ten days before Christmas and begin readying the house for family that would arrive on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th.  Fortunately, I had spent a month here between mid-October and mid-November sorting out where to find the necessary provisions for a holiday – trees, turkeys and all.  The plan was after everyone had returned to the States, I would remain for the winter since that had been our long-term plan anyway.  It was a solid plan.  Live in the house, see what works and what still needs work or attention, get it ready for its first rental season, maybe reach out and meet a few neighbors, and then return to the States in the spring.  During this time, I was to receive delivery on one of our vehicles from the States – that is a story that continues to unfold, so more on that later.  The other issue to address was the fact I would be staying in another country for greater than 90 days, meaning I would need a visa.  To obtain a visa, as an American traveling to France, I first needed to contact the French Consulate in Boston – which was the closest to where I live in the United States.

For this visa, you will first need to fill out a form online, submit it and select a date and time for an interview at the consulate.  You are then given the list of documents and procedures you will need to bring with you to this interview.  While I can only speak for my specific needs of American to France, I suspect it’s pretty much the same as an American traveling in all states of the EU.  This list includes:

  1. An active and valid U. S. passport, (must have a minimum of 6 full months remaining)
  2. Statements of income and employment,
  3. A notarized letter stating you will not seek employment,
  4. Something attesting where you intend to stay while you’re there – for us it was a notarized document from the notaire in France of our property ownership.
  5. Attestation of travelers insurance that includes repatriation and medical evacuation.  Our insurance company recommended IMG (www.imgpoc.com) Travelers insurance is not terribly expensive and because most U. S. insurance providers will not cover you when you are beyond the borders of the United States, it’s a good idea.  Add to that should you suffer an accident or major medical emergency or the unimaginable happen and you perish while abroad, the horrors of having to deal with this along with the cost of repatriation is enough peace mind to warrant it.  That said, it will be a requirement, not simply peace of mind. There is a broad spectrum of limits and deductible options – I chose the maximum coverage with a $250 deductible for a period of 6 months and all totaled it was just over $900. It also includes a prescription card.
  6. A criminal background check, which you will need to conduct yourself. That will be through the website of the state you reside and will cost $25.
  7. A passport photo separate from your passport – so when you have passport pictures done, do yourself a favor and have additional ones printed for this, an international drivers license, etc.  I’d recommend having at least 6 printed to save hassles later.
  8. A personal check or money order to pay for the visa.  Mine was $100.
  9. And last, but not least, a self-addressed express envelope they will use to send your visa. They will also keep your passport and return it with or without the visa.

On the appointed day and time, you must arrive on time and with all of the necessary paperwork where you will be signed in and seated across from an agent behind a glass wall.  You will pass all of the required documents through a slot in the glass and will answer a litany of question.  I was very nervous for my appointment because the rules seemed very daunting, but when we arrived, although we were early, we were taken right away, my husband was allowed to remain in the room with me, and the agent was very friendly and helpful – not at all what I anticipated.  As he was reviewing the documents, he stopped and exclaimed, “No…really…?”  (I’m getting nervous here…) “You have a house in Sainte Terre?!?” he exclaimed – to which I responded, “Yes…?”  “I’m from Sainte Terre!” he said.  This is the point I knew it wasn’t going to be so bad!

Because I wanted the convenience of not revisiting this entire process every year, the decision was made to apply for a visitors long sejour visa that would give me up to 7 consecutive months per year.  This added a step to this process.  After my arrival in France, I would need to mail a document that was returned with my visa announcing to the OFII (which is the office of immigration in France) I had arrived to the state of France.  Within 30 days of your arrival, you need to mail it from the same region you are staying.  Within a few weeks, you will receive an attestation/confirmation they have received this and then you wait for them to contact you for a medical exam and interview.  There are several locations throughout France, but yours will be with the location that is closest to where you are residing.  Mine was Bordeaux.

The tricky thing about this is you have no idea when you will be scheduled so making plans to travel around or set appointments becomes challenged.  I arrived on December 15th.  I mailed my document the first week of January after the holiday commotion was over.  I received my attestation within two weeks of that, but my appointment did not get scheduled until March 16.  I was notified by email on March 2nd.  I had one appointment at 10:15 at a radiology facility for x-rays, then another appointment at 1:30 for a medical exam at a separate location in the city of Bordeaux.  Sounds like a fun day, right?  Think again.  The good part is I finally knew when it was going to be and could plan accordingly. You are further instructed to go online and pre-pay for your stamp in accordance to the type of visa you are applying for.  Since mine is considered a “Titre de Sejour Visitors” visa, mine is the maximum of $250.  You will also be asked to bring:

  • your passport,
  • an additional head shot photo (can be the same as is on your passport and visa)
  • proof of residence – whether it’s rental or ownership
  • an electric bill, tax bill or notaire attestation to further verify your status
  • the stamp from the OFII website validating your payment of the stamp
  • the x-ray and radiology report

Now, let me first say, I absolutely love Bordeaux; its architecture and monuments, it’s grandeur, the shops, and of course, the wine.  What I do not love is getting in or out of Bordeaux.  The streets are best described as chaotic with little rhyme or reason. (yes, I believe even worse than Boston)  I suspect it’s the way in big cities who follow the path of the river they encompass.  Streets are narrow, many are one way, several are closed to pedestrian only, and I suppose if you live and drive there often, you get to know the landscape, which may make it ‘plus facile’.  But here’s where it gets more complex; not only are the streets narrow and often times curved, but here’s a city struggling with the choke-hold of becoming filled with too much with no easy way to remedy it.  Too many people, too many cars, a decent public transportation system and not nearly enough infrastructure to accommodate.  So what does a city like this do?  Well, for starters, they have perhaps more underground parking than above ground, they block major arteries and bridges to bus and/or pedestrian traffic only, and in order to keep up with the constantly overtaxed roads and transportation systems, they have seemingly constant road construction.  Inconvenient you think?  Worse.  Let me paint you a picture.  You are on your way to Bordeaux – a city you’ve driven in and out of perhaps 6 or 8 times EVER.  Each time you have been met with differing construction and road blockage issues  – but none like you were about to experience.  Your GPS, which is installed in a car less than a year old does not seem to be aware there is road construction or that there are now bus lanes only where car traffic used to exist – across the major bridge to the city.  And the traffic lights?  I estimate there is one every 200 meters and each one is longer than you can imagine.

I glance at the GPS and it tells me my fifteen minute lead time has been reduced to ten – not bad.  Still time to park, right?  Then, I encounter ‘the bridge’.  One I’ve driven across numerous times last year when I was traveling to Bordeaux to work out my kitchen plans.  It’s perhaps one of the most beautiful and stately gateways to any city and it is now open only to buses and pedestrian traffic.  In disbelief, I allow the GPS to re-route me, but it is insistent it will bring me across this bridge.  GPS says I will be there five minutes before my appointment. Getting nervous… After the second re-route, I realize my only option is to ignore the GPS and continue following the river until I reach another bridge – which eventually I do.  Maybe I’ll only be a few minutes late… I just need to get across this bridge.  As I watch my appointment time come and go, I am faced with not only road construction – but entire streets intended to get me to my destination blocked and completely devoid of pavement.  I am left with no other option than to follow my instincts and try to loop around this city I do not know until I am beyond the reaches of this unrelenting construction to see if there is any possible way to selvedge this day.

Finally, I arrive at the Radiology center a full forty minutes late, but there is parking available (YES!) and when I’m inside, though horrendously flustered, heart pounding, hands shaking and all, the two women at the check-in desk are not.  They cheerfully check me in, I take a seat, and within ten minutes I am called for my appointment.  I’m not sure if that’s when I would have originally been called or if I just got really lucky.  My appointment was to be at 10:15, and by 11:25 I was done.  The next appointment at the OFII facility was an 8 minute walk, so I headed there.  One of the women at the desk kindly googled and printed me a map.

I arrive at the OFII location and enter but am instantly met by the person I will refer to as the ‘guard dog’.  He informs me my appointment is not until ‘apres midi’ and I must leave and return as he ushers me out by firmly pushing on the back of my arm.  Well alrighty, then.  I now have two hours to wander to my hearts content, and wander I did.  I realized this was quite close to the whole shopping and tourist district in Bordeaux, so wandered up and down streets, trying to not to lose my bearings since I had no phone to assist me with finding my way back.  Ahhh yes, the phone.

I’m not sure what the statistics are for the numbers of people owning and using cellular phones might be, but I suspect the population among developed countries is significant – perhaps 80% of those over age 12.  That fact alone is fairly staggering to me considering I’m not that old and it doesn’t seem that long ago if you needed to make a call and you were not at home you needed to find a public pay phone.  And for the record, the phone at home was still firmly attached to the wall.

In this state of perpetual connectivity, most of us still seek the assurance of anything we need being a phone call, text or email away and as technology evolves with the speed of light we are also frequently seeking newer and flashier devices.

I was lucky.  I had a friend here who freely offered up the use of her phone number for the various accounts and deliveries I was in constant need of but also knew those days would need to be limited.  The thought, however, of standing in the line for the queue at the Orange store and the even longer line waiting for an agent was daunting.  Most of us would just bite the bullet and do it, but after months of procrastinating, a new solution suddenly came clear to me so I wanted to offer it here.

I was long overdue for an upgrade on my current U. S. cell phone.  It still worked well, it just didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the newer models and its battery was getting a bit tired.  But it was mine.  No contract, no obligations – mine.  I purchased a new U. S. phone, then upon my return to France, took my old phone to the Orange store (I needed a decoder box for my television anyway), bought a sim card, added a modest plan to my home Wi-Fi/TV package and voila – a French phone number and all the freedom and independence it offers.

On the morning of my OFII appointment, both my sister, who is visiting, and my phones were running exceptionally slow while we were trying to check the weather app – so she suggested turning it off and letting them re-boot to clear the sluggishness.  Good idea!  Nope, not a good idea – not on this particular day.  You see, the problem with a phone that was previously locked and has now been unlocked and on a new provider in another country is that it re-locks each and every time you power it off and turn it back on.  On a typical day, I would have calmly remembered where that puk number and password were located, but on this day I tried from memory because I was in a rush.  After three failed attempts, I am completely locked out of my phone and the additional 15 minutes I planned into my morning is lost.  I leave the house with no phone, no GPS backup, no contact with anyone for the day.  I do have my U.S. phone, but know if I use it I will need to pay for the day, which I am reticent to do.

Do I get lost?  Yes, several times, but with getting lost is the silver lining of rediscovering the gut, innate instincts that have kept us and our forefathers alive for generation.  If I had a working phone to ‘babysit’ me, I might not have discovered all of the city that I did on that day.  I was grateful for a sunny day on one that promised to be rainy with clouds only at best.  I made it back to the OFII facility fifteen minutes before my appointment and a line was now forming, so I took my place behind several people and watched as several more lined up behind me.  1:30 came and went (where is this French punctuality today?).  At 1:35 the security gate went up and the guard dog came out to the street to check credentials as we were finally allowed in a few minutes later.  Evidently, all fifteen people standing in line had 1:30 appointment times.  You are taken in the order you manage to get to the check-in desk – I was third, although the first in line was a whole family.  Merde.  (by the way – the French rarely actually say ‘merde’)

After checking in, you sit in the waiting area of a room that can only be described as sadness and oppression with a dash of hope, complete with fluorescent lights, shiny, over-polished vinyl floor, hard plastic ganging seats (the kind even airports or bus terminals no longer use).  There seem to be a prescribed number of seats to immigrants so you are forced to sit as close as possible to your fellow immigrant.  The room literally smelled like curry, onions, too much cologne, mixed with despondent sadness and all the while the guard dog paced back and forth in the event anyone without an appointment tries to breach the door or one of us gets out of line.  There is nothing you can do but sit and wait.  This is the point I really wished I had either a book or my phone to pass the time.  Eventually, I was called for the first of three phases of my exams.  The first interview was what I’d liken to the ‘intake’ where you will have your weight and height recorded, you will be given an eye exam that would not even qualify at the DMV, and then you are asked a series of question aimed at determining whether you have or are at risk for tuberculosis.  You will then be sent back to the waiting area until the doctor is available.  When the doctor is available, you will present your x-rays given to you at the radiology office and ask another series of questions:  Do you have any diseases?  Are you on any medications?  Do you have a doctor here yet?  Do you have high blood pressure?  Are you healthy? (seriously) The doctor will glance at your x-rays and ask, “have you ever had TB?”  She or he will then fill out and stamp your official OFII ‘Certificat de Controle Medical’ and you will be sent back to the waiting room.  Wait a minute?  That was the medical exam?!?!  Not that I’m complaining, but calling this a medical exam in any form of the definition seems just wrong.  Look, I get that countries need to screen anyone coming here to live for any extended amount of time, but this in no way would prevent transmission of communicable disease should someone be contagious.

The next and last person you will meet is the one who has all of your documents you’ve submitted through your consulate.  These questions are pertaining to how long you will be here, etc. and this is where you get the actual stamp that formally validates your visa.  Mine is good for seven months and I’m told I can get a two month extension on this if I need but will need to go to the prefecture to request this.

By 3:20 I am finally done and head back to my car in the hope I can get out of Bordeaux before ‘rush hour’, but once again, I am bewitched by construction and street use changes.  The drama of the visa is over for now, my head is pounding, I’ve yet to eat today, and I’ve got a terrible cup of Starbucks coffee because it was the only coffee place I passed on the walk back to my car. Rush hour in France is quite a bit earlier so I met my fair share of traffic returning to my hamlet of Lavagnac, but by 4:55 I was home.  Normally, this is a 45 minute drive – today it was an hour and twenty five minutes. After a quick snack, good cup of espresso and an Aleve for that monster of a headache I headed to yoga to reclaim my zen.

I have to say, this whole experience has given me a renewed perspective toward immigrants – especially those who are following similar protocols in my home country of the United States.  It is a difficult and intimidating experience fraught with significant hurdles and the knowing you can be denied at any point of the process which is compounded if you either do not know the language or are just not proficient yet.  Not for the faint of heart. I may be a citizen of the United States of America, but in France, I am an immigrant, making this whole experience a very sobering one for me.

There’s really nothing about the experience of being in another country you were not born to that’s easy, but when you’re doing it on your own because the timing has not worked out for you to be accompanied by your spouse or significant other, it’s harder still.  If you’ve been by yourself for some time, it may be a bit easier but will still likely be outside your comfort zone.  It also seems to me the notion of living alone in another country is highly romanticized.  Don’t get me wrong – it does have its advantages.  If you are an artist, a writer, or someone who just prefers to be alone it’s a dream come true.  If you are a person who has rarely been alone it has challenging moments.  I, had never been alone.  I went from living in my parents’ house to college with roommates, to married, then shortly thereafter into motherhood.  Never alone with exception of the few weekends either myself or my husband would need to travel for work.  Here I am in my late fifties finding myself not only alone for weeks, months at a time, but alone in a foreign country.  It’s a sobering experience.  I have much to keep myself occupied with settling our house, and I know every move I make is for the ultimate good for all who visit here – yet this ‘alone’ part feels different than I anticipated.  I do write – so that’s definitely supported, but there are things I never thought about that now occupy my thoughts from time to time.  What if I fall down the stairs or off a ladder or do something where I become injured?  What if I had a medical emergency? I likely wouldn’t be found for days.  How am I going to move that giant metal table top onto the base?  If I’m using a knife to open a package – what if I cut myself?  What if I choke?  These are all safety issues that don’t even enter your mind until you’re by yourself.  I know several women who live alone and have most of their lives.  My respect for their fortitude has grown exponentially through this process and for me, I know this is somehow a missing piece of the puzzle of my life I needed to experience.  As my husband and I make this slow transition toward retirement, with me spending most winters here and he, unfortunately remaining in the states to look after business matters, I realize this is my new reality.  And I’m learning to embrace it as best I can.

Chapter 9: Poubelles

“What the heck is a poubelle?” you might be wondering.  Well, it’s French for trash or garbage bins.  And yes, you need them, but who’d have thought getting a trash bin would be a big deal, but such is the way of things in France where one simple detail can consume more of your life than you can imagine.  You think, “I need to get my trash bins”, which you are told you will need to request at the office of the Maire. (this is the Mayor’s office, a town office of sorts)  Next, you go to the Maire (armed with your tax and electric bills to prove you own this house), who says you need to go to the decheterie.  What’s a decheterie you ask?  Well, it’s a big dump/recycling location where you take all your trash.  You show up at the decheterie and they want your numbers.  Numbers?  Evidently, the trash bins (and there are two – one for kitchen garbage and one for paper, plastic & metal), have a serial number.  That tells the trucks doing the pick-up who you are, that you legally can have your trash picked up, and who to invoice for the pick-ups.  Two bins, two trucks arriving roughly at 10-20 minutes apart.  These pick-ups will occur in the early AM of a particular morning depending on where you live.  Ours is Monday and the trucks can come as early as 5:30 in the morning, so everyone puts their bins out the night before.  If you have glass or plastic bottles, you are encouraged to drop those in one of the conveniently located receptacles located throughout the various towns and cities.

At the decheterie we’re told until we have our card, we at least need a picture of the numbers from our bins to dump there.  We tell them we have no bins.  We explain further we have just moved and the house formerly had no occupants for a few years, albeit, no bins.  They seem reluctant to believe us, but because we have valid electric and tax bills, they let us bring our trash – but no garbage.  And we bring A LOT of trash since with the many deliveries a new houseful of items entails we have enough cardboard and plastic wrappings to choke a horse.  The kitchen garbage?  Well that’s another thing.  Suffice it to say, by the time we got our bins we had six weeks worth of very fetid garbage given this was during one of the hottest summers in a long while.  Good for the grapes, for the garbage…not so much. Without offering too many grisly details, here’s how it works.  First, if there are bins at the house, please take a picture of the serial numbers on the side.  Second, take those numbers to the Maire and they will register them to your name.  Third, with this same picture of the bins go to your nearest decheterie and apply for a card that you will show each and every time you need to take items to the decheterie.  And, if you need to go to the decheterie before you have this card, take this picture of the serial number and show it to them.  You’ll still need to get the card from them, but at least you’ll be following the rules.  If you buy a property that has no bins, as ours did not, then you will need to apply for the bins at the Maire, but will need to pick them up at the decheterie – and you will have to just keep checking because no one will notify you to let you know they are there.  They simply don’t.

Poubelles

Took us six weeks to get these – one of the happiest days of my life! LOL!

Took us six weeks to get these – one of the happiest days of my life! LOL! Once at the decheterie, there are sorting bins for everything: One for cardboard, one for plastic and Styrofoam, one for paper, one for metal, one for landscape clippings, a place for electronics, a place for hazardous liquids, and so on.  There’s pretty much a sorting bin for everything you can think of.

Oh, and that card?  You will first need to fill out a form in triplicate and will be told it will take a couple of weeks for your card.  Does this card get mailed to you?  No.  You return to the decheterie and pick it up – and no, no one will call you.  When nearly three weeks had passed, I thought it would be safe to return and retrieve my card so I drive to the decheterie, wait in line, explain I am only there to pick up my card and show them my copy of the form I filled out.  They indicate I am to park and go into the office.  Once in the office, there is a man there who has just filled out my name and address onto the back of a plastic card.  This confuses me because if the cards were there all along, why was he just filling out my name onto it now?  Did they have to wait for the card and just waited until I returned before finishing it?  I have no idea – maybe they do some sort of checking to verify you’re who you say you are?  It does have numbers, and no, they don’t match the serial numbers on the bin.  The card they gave me looks old and used – or at least like it’s been lying around for some time which leads me to believe it and many others are lying around in the decheterie office for some time.  This is one I file in the bin labeled, “may never know or understand,” but truly, sometimes I just feel like they’re messing with me because they can.

access denied. Decheterie.

This long awaited card gives me access to bring my trash to the dump. It took eight months to get this card.

And lastly, as with most places in rural France, the decheterie will be open Tuesday through Saturday; 9am – 5:45pm but closed from 12:15 – 1:30.

Chapter 8 – Living Through It…

Our goal was to get the renovation to the point where we could participate in the finishing, painting, etc.  We are accustomed to living in chaos if need be and had just spent six months being displaced in our own home in the United States while dealing with our water damage disaster.  Thankfully, we have one of those FROGS (Family Room Over the Garage) that was a finished space, and completely removed from the damaged sections of the house.  We had a place to sleep, a bathroom, and had set up a 6’ folding table where we were able to have a coffee maker, toaster oven, Vitamix, and had purchased a small refrigerator.  I’m not saying we were doing any gourmet cookery there – but I did manage to master making scrambled eggs in a toaster oven, so…

As we reviewed all of the contractor proposals (Devis) we were struck with the reality of what we’d taken on and especially with the cost of the painting contracts.  These contracts were triple what we would have paid in the US, so why were these numbers so high?  And why did everyone in France seem to feel the numbers were in line with normal?  Our thought is we would have the paint contractor do the items that were, shall we say, beyond our skill set and we would paint the bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, salon, bathrooms, and the entire second floor.  This would leave the main entry, ceilings, stairwell, first floor entry, windows, grilles, gates, and floors for the paint contractor.  It certainly cut the quote down to a manageable number for us.  We’d go over and spend two weeks painting.  Sounds doable.  Problem was, as I explained before, no one told us why the painter is so vital to your project.

One of the items we had taken out of the proposal was removal of all old wallpaper – since we had been told it could be painted over and commonly was.  Not long into the construction I received an urgent call from France – this was the second call.  The first one was to tell me the ceilings on the first floor needed to be re-plastered.  The ground floor ceilings would be fine with smooth fiberglass, but now, the wallpaper must be removed everywhere.  Because the house had sat unheated for what was now its third winter, the cold and damp conditions had caused the wallpaper to begin to separate from the limestone walls.  There really was not option other than to remove it.  Ok, so let’s add that also back into the contract…  Painter is now happy.  I would come to fully understand later how important it is to make your painter happy.  He is an artisan, and as such takes a tremendous amount of pride in his work, so you want him to be proud of what he’s doing.  Asking him to paint over a very imperfect substrate would be criminal.

About one month prior to my visit beginning the end of May, I received a picture of the new ceiling work in the main entry – the new ceilings were beautiful and things appeared to really be shaping up.

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Then, the painter visited the house to access the progress to know when he could begin his work and the following pictures were sent to me –

Our beautiful ceilings had fallen down in the entry and we were in danger of losing the mouldings if they were not repaired immediately – not to mention the fact this was a scheduling delay and more expense.  Bottom line – they needed to be repaired and they needed it done quickly before additional damage would be done.

I contacted the carpenter who was responsible for hiring the plaster man and he was dispatched immediately.  There was much discussion about the ceiling and my stressing the impetus of preserving the mouldings which I feared would be destroyed in the process.  They explained to me the medallions would be detached, then the loose plaster removed, new plaster board attached and then the decorative medallions reattached.  I held my breath, but everything went as promised and the ceilings were repaired just before my arrival.

I arrived May 29th, 2017, Memorial Day in the US –  two weeks before my husband to sort things out and after my first visit to the house – I returned to the Chateau and wanted to cry.  So many things were a long way from being painted.  And several things were not where they were supposed to be.  Evidently, to some, blueprints are, well…a suggestion.  My husband was due on June 10th, and although I was to be here for just over two months, he would only be here to help me for two weeks.  We were met with walls that were so far from ready to paint it was ridiculous.

Well, let me tell you why – and I really wish someone had explained this to me beforehand.  You will have contractors for the demolition and construction of new surfaces, you will have plaster men (not being sexist here, that’s what they’re called and no, I never saw a female plasterer here), electrical contractors, plumbers, kitchen contractors, masons, etc., and THEN the painters.  Most of these contractors do exactly as they would in the US – except the painters.  In France, your painter will insist they be the last contractor on site.  They want everyone else to be done with their work.  They are the ones who will not only paint your doors, but they will strip, sand, repair, and then paint.  If there is glass in the door, it will likely be completely repointed before finishing.  Your plaster?  The plaster man doesn’t sand and finish it – your painter does.  Walls not perfect?  The painter will smooth and cover every surface of wall with fiberglass paper.  Those beautiful mouldings at the crown or ceiling – those ceiling medallions?  Completely repaired, primed and painted.  If your ceilings are old (as were ours), then they will also get a layer of smooth fiberglass before painting.  Perfection – that is the goal of a good and ‘serious’ painter, and ours was SERIOUS!  Your painter is going to be your best friend.  They work from top to bottom, so they will start with the ceilings to get them perfect, then move on to windows, doors, walls, and finally, the floors.  In our case, they also cleaned and repainted our window grilles and gates.

This team shows up bright and early, (whistling) have their espressos and cigarettes (yes, they have brought their own little espresso machine), set up their brushes and buckets for the day and all the while listening to American music and singing the entire day!  Lunch break is at noon when they sit together and relax, eat and talk amongst themselves, then an hour later, they’re all back to work.  Depending on the crew, the job, etc., they work either four eight-hour days or five seven-hour days.  Our crew worked mostly five-day weeks – and on one occasion they were even there on a Saturday which is unheard of in most instances.  If they leave on Friday and tell you they will see you on Monday, then they will be there on Monday.

This is the crew who will be responsible for not simply ‘renovating’ your house – they will be responsible for ‘restoring’ your house.  As I watched them work, I realized I was witnessing the greatest artistry in home finishing.  I learned A LOT and even thought I should call a couple of my favorite paint contractors from the US and encourage them to come and just watch because it would have been worth the price of a plane ticket to see them work.

So, hubby arrives on the 10th of June and with nary a day to recover, we set about doing what we can.  Our logical thinking is we will begin with the second floor and get our suite squared away first, so we have a place to hang our hat at the end of the day.  All we need is a place to sleep, coffee maker, a refrigerator, and perhaps a microwave.  He thought we would drive directly to the house from the airport and move in.  Didn’t happen that way.  We ended up staying at the chateau for another week before finally sleeping at our house.  We’d get up, have coffee and a bit to eat before checking office email, then with work clothes on, head straight to the house to sand, spackle, prime, paint, clean, clean, clean….I had the beds delivered on the 9th, before my husband arrived so they were all in the centers of the rooms, still in plastic and drop clothed as well.

For the next six days, we worked 12-14 hours a day to get the second-floor suite finished (well, all exposed beams scrubbed, and the walls and ceilings painted at least), and on the 16th of June, we spent our first night sleeping in the house! This gave us the weekend alone, without contractors so we could sleep a bit more and fully assess the mess we had gotten ourselves into.  At this point, we were becoming fully enlightened as to the depths of work the painter is responsible on a project and began re-appropriating more work.  We decided the painter must do ALL ceilings, then trim (by the way, this is not finished either.  It will be of poor-quality wood that will need to be puttied, smoothed, etc. before even considering primer) And yes, at this point we have given the painter the green light to apply fiberglass to ALL walls.  Before we were done, the painter had roughly 70% of his original contract and not the 35% we had begun with and we were feeling he had more than earned every euro he received.  Merde!

We sanded, we painted, and we did so during one of the most brutal summers in a while.  Some days it was 110◦ with no rain and no reprieve.  My only saving grace was the bathtub I had installed in our bathroom that I had taken to keeping cool water in.  This would allow me to get my core body temperature down when it was all just too much.  My husband pushed himself too hard one day and ended up with heat exhaustion.  After that, I monitored him closely and made certain he was getting enough fluids, rest and just plain taking a break before allowing himself to get overheated.  If you don’t know anything about heat exhaustion – it’s serious and can lead to heat stroke if left unchecked.  And once you get it, you are more susceptible to it, so be careful!

By the time he departed at the end of his two weeks, I had a manageable amount of work remaining.  The kitchen, dining room, and salon, on the ground floor were painted, as was the entire second floor, plus bedroom two and bathroom one on the first floor.  I needed to paint bedrooms three and one, touch up at the ceilings on all rooms, and paint trim.  Doable.  Yet that bedroom one, with all the fancy wall moulding and trim seemed to be taking on a life of its own.  The painter was putting such painstaking energy into getting all that trim just so…and asking periodically if I was still planning to paint it.  Finally, I surmised this was a room he really wanted to complete on his own so asked him, “C’est combine pour finir cette piece?”  The amount was staggeringly low so I simply said, “Oui, si’l vous plait – merci!”.  Now my work was down to a manageable level.

I can state with confidence I had the best of the best.  My electrician was awesome – not only did he follow my blueprints, but was what I like to call a forward thinking professional.  He cut no corners and took the initiative to lay any additional lines needed for any and all potential ongoing renovation.  If there was a hole to be filled or a light fixture he felt lacking – he installed it.  I can honestly say I’ve never, in all my years in construction ever worked with such proficiency. His motto/mantra was “No problem!”  Loved it!  My plumbers work was also impeccable, and he will continue to work with me to ensure my ongoing boiler maintenance.  He even assisted me more than once with securing fuel deliveries and making sure they were completed.

The carpenter who was responsible for demolition and new construction was also excellent – but took a bit more babysitting.  The phrase that comes to mind when I think over the work of this contractor was, “You want fries with that too?”  Let me explain.  (and this is but one example) We had a window with an ice box beneath it in the kitchen we intended to have removed and replaced with a door.  Perhaps I misread their quote but, I got the door.  I did not get a finished opening, nor trimmed, not a handle for the door.  After seeing the numerous areas of incompletion and meeting with the carpenter – I did get these items resolved, but not without a good deal of negotiating.  By the last phase of work, they had clearly placed their best man on the job and all was completed to my satisfaction.

Old limestone, new door, walls to be restored.

In the kitchen, a new door was placed in the opening where a window and old ice box previously occupied. You can see the surround and adjacent walls are still awaiting refinishing.

plaster work

Unfinished plaster work

 

One of the first issues to arise during my January/February visit was with the floors on the ground level.  In France, there is a code that stipulates you must have approximately 6 cm of concrete under any floor receiving tile.  This was something I was unaware and unfortunately for us, there was an existing concrete slab in the kitchen.  For us to install the cement tiles we desired would have required breaking the entire slab in the kitchen to make this possible because traditional cement tiles are already a few centimeters thick.  (roughly ¾”) We had intended to lay this tile in the entry and run it into the kitchen.  Given the code with the concrete, we needed to not only remove the floor boards in the entry (which were also astoundingly thick), but to accommodate the concrete slab, we needed to cut down the supporting beams.  The resolution was to remove the floor boards, cut down the beams, then in the adjoining kitchen, remove the existing tile and install a much thinner tile so the two floors would align.  I originally had planned to run the cement tile into the kitchen and have a center patterned tile as a decorative ‘carpet’.  Instead, I used this decorative patterned tile throughout the entire kitchen.  This was not only the best decision, but the smartest since I later discovered these cement tiles take a bit of maintenance that would be less suited to a kitchen environment.

Another issue was with the remainder of the wood floors.  The bedrooms on the first floor had been previously covered in carpet.  With the carpet now removed, the painter was pointing out all of the problems that we had not seen before.  These floors were riddled with insect damage and there were many areas where the gaps between boards or the boards were so out of line that they would be impossible to sand and finish as they were.  This necessitated removal of many boards and piecing in new ones while filling smaller insect holes with a wood putty.  Not a perfect solution but in the end we have floors that are original and full of character.  And those boards where we filled in?  If I didn’t point it out to you, you wouldn’t notice.  For the finishing, I had opted to have them all sanded, then stained to match the color of the front door and stairs, then varnished.  The result are floors that look as they should in my opinion.

Some additional things I’ve learned:

  1. Do not assume because it’s clearly marked on a blueprint it’s going to get done – or even that’s what they priced or included in their quote.
  2. Do not assume they don’t have good advice.  This is their country and they know their codes as well as what works and what does not work.
  3. You will not need a building permit for a renovation – even an extensive one.  The state will render their compensation with the 10-20% TVA on everything you do.
  4. If your house is beyond a certain age, which I believe is 50+ years, you will only pay 10% TVA and not 20%.  This, however, does not apply to items such as kitchen cabinets, appliances, swimming pools, or landscaping.
  5. Depending on where your house is can make a huge difference in finding contractors and building materials.  If you are in a very remote area it’s going to be much harder than if you are relatively close to a large city center.
  6. Use local contractors.  While it may be appealing to use an American or British contractor, it can be problematic.  Do yourself a favor and learn enough French to communicate.  I did the best I could, and when I couldn’t I used my cell phone with Microsoft translator software.  It was a bonus for us because we had made friends with a couple of local people who were French and could assist in the beginning – but for day to day interactions, you may find yourself on your own.
  7. If you are not intimately familiar with the process of renovation, hire a general contractor and don’t try to do this yourself.  We managed because we could not find one available and since it was in our wheel house, it was not as intimidating.  In hindsight, I probably would have hired a general contractor because we were not able to be here as much as we should have to oversee.  If there is a question, work will and does stop.  If the work stops, you have no idea when it will resume.
  8. Your best sources of information initially are the people who live here.  I would keep a list of items I was looking for or places for services I needed and when given the opportunity I would ask for recommendations.  Once I was out and about I would spend a bit of time just looking at what was available close to me.
  9. During the discovery period when the house is being inspected for everything from hazardous materials to insect damage, remember – they only look at what they can see.  If, per se, there is insect damage under carpet or linoleum – it will not be seen nor reported.  If they check for termites, but there has been another insect burrowing into your wood floors or beams, you are only protected by their insurance if it were termites.  The damage to our floors was not termite, so it was our responsibility to mitigate it ourselves.  This applies to all items inspected during this discovery period.
  10. Do NOT expect local contractors – or anyone here, for that matter, to understand the American way.  It is a different pace here and once you accept that you will have far less frustration.  After all, isn’t that part of the reason you wanted to move here?

During my last two weeks of the summer here, my adult daughter joined me to see the house, enjoy a bit of France, and to assist in any way she could.  She traveled first to Paris for a few days of shopping, then took the train to Bordeaux where I picked her up and spent the remainder of the day in that city before driving to the house.  For the first week, we alternated work days with days that included an activity such as a wine tasting and cave tour, enjoying a gastronomic meal, or a bit of shopping.  Her big job while here was to take care of meals, scrub and polish all the windows, and clean where she could.  By the end of these last two weeks, we could safely say we could return and live in the house and enjoy it!

Would we do it all over again and participate in the renovation?  Probably not, but we can proudly say we came, we conquered, and we successfully assisted in bringing this lovely lady of a house back to her former glory!