Late on the first Monday afternoon the builders’ merchant lorry delivered the three Velux windows which we’d ordered as soon as permission was finally granted to install them. (It turned out that our application had got attached to someone else’s – in fact we have someone else’s land map attached to our documentation, but I don’t think that invalidates the permission as the mayor gave the documentation his essential signature!). The lorry also brought twenty-six additional rolls of insulation, to insulate the roof space from the arduous Vosgian winters. So John spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday of that week, when the weather was sure to stay fine, opening up the roof and installing the windows on the northern side (to ensure the light is suitable for any artists!) in the second storey of the conversion.
As I sat one morning in the light and airy L-shaped sitting room that is emerging from the first floor of the old barns, I looked with pleasure at the pale cream walls, white ceiling, pale sand coloured floor tiles, and the minimal furniture we hadn’t found room for in our “store” while decorating – two chairs, one TV, and a branched, upright candle holder. But I also had a twinge of guilt, prompted by one of our correspondents who may have assumed that we were doing a loving restoration rather than transformation. But then could we live in a barn?
A flashback: (Skip this if you’ve read it before!). Twelve years ago. A hot, hot August. We see the farmhouse for the first time. A serendipity – merely the attraction of the cool-sounding words “Entre-deux-Eaux”. The ground floor of the barns is so cool. A worn wooden ladder leads up from the first barn which would once have housed the high haywain. It’s irresistible. As we emerge onto the wooden floored upper storey of the barn, all we can see in the shafts of sunlight seeping through the gaps between the roof tiles, are mounds and mounds of dusty hay. Our photograph album shows Toby leaping, arms and legs spread wide, from the highest to the lowest piles. A wooden hay cart lies drunkenly against another pile.
Conversion v. restoration: We have destroyed all that. The wooden floor has been replaced by a strong concrete floor, overlaid with the coils of underfloor heating piping, concrete, and floor tiles. It occurs to me for the first time that the colour of the floor tiles approximates to the colour of those bleached, worn, wood floor boards. A poor recompense, you might say. The honey-coloured stones of the old walls (which seemed to be held together in places by mud and sand) have been covered over by insulation and plasterboard.
But is it a justification to say that we no longer have the insulation provided by layers of dry hay upstairs or the traditional winter central heating provided by the warm bodies of the beasts in the stalls in the second barn? Would we ever have indulged in the escapist dream of self-sufficiency with our two cows, four sheep, one or two pigs, some hens, and twenty rabbits? I, the ex-vegetarian, was the only one of our squeamish family to watch Mme Laine’s pig being slaughtered by the mobile butcher on her front drive. John went strangely quiet on the subject after a few days removing surplus teats when on his agricultural college course – although, as he also pointed out, one can’t take off travelling to India or China if one has a barnful of animals. As to the lean-to wooden wash-house, who would choose to return to washing the household linen and clothes in a crumbling cement trough of ice-cold water. The trough must have been long superseded, given the array of decrepit washing machines lining the old man’s atelier, potting shed and garage (though as he was an electrician, some machines might not have come from this house). We turned the wash house into an outdoor covered eating area, then the beams began to sag, and it finally folded and collapsed under the weight of falling roof tiles in the great tempest of Boxing Day 1999.
One day a car stopped outside the barn door, and I found a young man examining the façade intently. “This was my grandfather’s house”, he explained, “and I used to spend my holidays here”. He looked philosophical as I showed him the changes – the cement staircase leading up over the animals’ drinking trough to the former hayloft, the massive boiler in front of the cattle stalls. (But the underground water storage tanks are still intact beneath the barns, should drought return.) Could he see the cellar under the old house? He’d never been allowed down there. His grandfather always used to frighten him by saying there was a dead German buried there. We assured him we hadn’t found any bones there, during our various drainage diggings. But John told him about the skulls in the roof space above the old man’s workshop. He laughed, and agreed with his cousin, the council employee’s, opinion that they were probably skulls his grandfather had picked up when the churchyard was been cleared for the next layer of burials.
Now: So what remains? Well there is still long ramp up which the hay cart would have been dragged to the first floor using the pulley system (which still partly exists in the third barn). But instead of the ramp leading into a wooden extension to the hay loft, it leads onto a flat area – our future balcony for sunset meals (this wooden extension had been damaged, not by the storm, but by rot). A second storey has been created under the roof beams. For a fleeting moment on Tuesday, the original atmosphere of the barns was recaptured, as John lifted roof tiles for the first Velux window. As the sun streamed through and picked out the pattern of the beams, you could almost see the old mounds of hay and the cart! But it was indeed fleeting, as work has since begun on insulating the second story. And most of the beams will soon be submerged under glass fibre and plasterboard. However, one reminder remains – the only approach to the second floor at present is up a step ladder (through not such a rickety one as the original wooden one with missing or rotted rungs).
As for me. I haven’t been sitting around all week musing on conversion v. restoration, despite the above reverie. I’ve been (slowly) starting to rub down and paint shutters. The year we moved in we and the Harts painted the old farmhouse shutters a cool, elegant white, and they have lasted well. But twelve summers of intense heat and twelve winters of frosts and snows have taken their toll, and by this summer they were peeling badly. After much consultation of colour charts, I picked the blue I’d envisaged all along. On the Dulux Valentine chart it is appropriately enough called Bleu de France. It looks a bit bright after white, but all the upstairs shutters had traces of blue paint under the white, so in fact it’s a bit of restoration rather than innovation!
All this activity followed a pleasant Sunday. We didn’t need to go far afield for our flea-marketing, as St Dié had a big street market, where all the shops on Rue Thiers and Rue d’Alsace (including Beatrice and Jean Robert’s patisserie) spilled out onto the streets to join all the visiting clothes stalls (including countless pullovers and panpipes from Ecuador), vegetable stalls (mounds of onions and garlic), sweet stalls (it was hard to taste the ginger in the samples of Vosgian ginger boiled sweets we tried), and ceramics stalls (wonderful dark blue heavy Alsace plates, casseroles and bowls with glazed white flowers and storks). In the market square and near the station there were lots of flea market stalls. We saw all kinds of interesting things, including wall lights, pictures, ancient wooden trays with carved pictures (done during the long winter evenings?), and lots of books. I bought a post-war book with interesting colour illustrations and a new (greatly reduced) book about Lorraine. By 3 o’clock it was getting very crowded on the streets and main bridge, and we were treading on small dogs and being rammed by large pushchairs. So we sat down for a coffee at one of the bars with tables outside. Refreshed, we went further and stopped to look at some wood burning stoves displayed on a lorry. This leads me on to a second diatribe, this time on how the French sell things.
French sales techniques: We have been wanting for some time to buy a wood burning stove for the new sitting room. Agreed, we already have the underfloor heating, but it would be so nice in a miserable and freezing weather to watch the flickering flames as well. And what would we have done without the old kitchen range during the week’s power failure following the great tempest of 1999? However it was very hard to ascertain prices of the elegant new models on the lorry, as the man by the lorry and then the girl inside the shop behind the lorry kept saying that they only had one price list from the manufacturer, so couldn’t give us a list of prices, and they couldn’t really quote us a fixed price as it would depend what we needed and they’d need to come out and see. This was exactly the response we got at the Nancy trade fair when we asked the price per metre of some shelving we fancied. John, who is used to taking his own measurements and making his own decision based on prices of components was so frustrated that he e-mailed the manufacturer when we got home; following a concerned phone call from the distributor early Monday, we got a visit on Wednesday from a director who was in the area. However the prices he was able to give us (“people don’t usually want a price list, they are happy for us to visit and assess their needs. It’s a very personal service”) were very high – although he did agree that perhaps a single sheet indicating whether stoves were 3000 euro or 10,000 euro could be a helpful complement to their glossy A3 catalogue! What a way to try to sell things, we fumed! But then I hadn’t yet read T.E. Carhart’s “The piano shop on the left bank”. It’s a delightful book. And I thoroughly believed the author’s account of how he was told for weeks by the elderly proprietor that he knew of no second hand pianos for sale until a young partner hinted that he first needed to gain an introduction from an existing client, after which he was allowed into the huge old showroom/workroom filled with second hand pianos (and did indeed have a very personal service in buying a beautiful second hand small grand piano).
This archaic sensation continued when I went out to pick raspberries in the evening, was aware of a sudden hissing, and watched a hot air balloon descending rapidly onto the field above the front door, avoiding the large bales of hay which Farmer Vozelle had been baled earlier that afternoon. The support vehicles came rushing up our narrow lane and parked outside our workshop. More balloon flights followed during the week in the evenings, targeting landing just the other side of the small stream at the bottom of our land, near enough to the Saulcy to Entre-deux-Eaux road for the support vehicles to retrieve and load the deflated balloon easily. It’s very picturesque to watch!
The other highlight of the week for me was a patchwork convention on Friday at Ste Marie aux Mines. I’d always thought it was a long way over the mountains (the road tunnel is closed at present for maintenance), and allowed plenty of time for the journey through heavy cloud. However, it was very quick, so I looked round one of the many exhibitions, this one in an old church, filled with Amish plain patchwork quilts (no garish patterned material!). it was fascinating. The streets were seething with patchworkers (a very recognizable species, it turned out), all attending lectures, courses and exhibitions. I’d hoped to do a crazy patchwork session, but it was over-subscribed, so I struggled with the unfamiliar art of quilting, but thoroughly enjoyed it – not least the companionship of the other quilters, all lending materials, exchanging techniques and picking up tips. At lunch time I looked at an exhibition in the theatre of textiles from India on the theme of “the good earth”. And at the end of the course I saw a spectacular Italian patchwork exhibition at another church. I particularly liked a dark blue and cream patchwork featuring Escher interlocking horses made out of silk tie pieces (guard your silk ties, John!).
The start of week 20. The official end of summer. And how accurate that dating is. The very evening that Autumn began, Monday September 23, the French weather forecasters were ruefully predicting snow in the Vosges and Alps between 1000 and 1400 metres. We didn’t set out for the high peaks the next day to test their accuracy, but we did wrap up extremely warmly as it was very cold, well 8ºC. John was indoors combating final UK tax forms and pension application and eventually lit the wood-burning kitchen range, which took the chill off the whole house.
Do we exist, medically speaking? The miserable weather, the aching bones (Helen’s poorly neck, John’s nascent kidney stone), and a calculation that it was over 3 months since we started trying to get documentation for our reciprocal rights as EU citizens to treatment under the French health system (as residents rather than visitors) led to a few impatient phone calls. Mme Poirier, the harassed only person in the Vosges who could process our documents had not yet done so, due to more important dossiers and a current change over of computer systems (how often do they unfairly take the blame? We’ve all been part of systems that have managed the changeover relatively efficiently). On Monday she said we wouldn’t get the number for another couple of weeks. “But you can still get treated, without a number, and I’ll process your bills”, Mme Poirier assured me. But, as the Social Security only reimburse up to 70% of a fixed standard rate (and one might get charged considerably more than the fixed rate by individual practitioners) one needs to consider taking out supplementary (complimentaire) health insurance, but for that have to first obtain the official state health number. But I can’t get my complimentaire, I grumbled. Oh yes you can, Mme Poirier said, loosing impatience and put the phone down once I’d extracted the name of her director.
So in the end I phoned our house and car insurer broker, where we are well known (thanks to an introduction from our former neighbour who works there, not to mention protracted dealings when our roof blew off in the great tempest!). Well, you’ll definitely need your health number, said M. Regnier, when I went in to see him. I decided to let him and Mme Poirier fight it out by phone. Trust me, said Mme Poirier, they will soon have a number, just go ahead. And, surprise, surprise, the provisional number arrived on Thursday. So we are currently wading through the literature trying to decide which degrees of protection we are most likely to need in future. Which reminds me, I’d better phone that nice M. Regnier, who is most helpful (could it be, perish the thought, that we look quite profitable – but we are talking of annual insurance costing around 1000 euro?), and make another appointment. Lets hope we’re soon covered before all the winter ailments kick in. Apparently if you don’t take out supplementary insurance before you are 60, French retirement age, the premiums rocket.
Tractor: When John sold our twelve-year old Passat to a dealer on our trip back in August he first swapped the two-year old battery for the original Passat battery we taken back to the UK from Entre-deux-Eaux. The “new” battery was to go in our 1954 750cc single cylinder diesel Deutz tractor which we found in the atelier when we bought the farmhouse. Around 1995 John had rewired the tractor and got it going again, much to the surprise of our neighbours, but we haven’t had need of it and it had been unused for five years. With a charged battery (and still with the original diesel in the tank from fifteen or more years ago) it started first time – once John had remembered the necessary procedures. Following our visit to the Hattstat tractor festival in August, the tractor will be subject to restoration sometime in the future when there is time
Another possible sign of approaching winter is the apparent return of our barn owl. John had only spotted it once before, a couple of years ago, in what is now the attic/second storey, but owls had left signs of visits, including many regurgitated pellets of fur and bone, for several years. In the last week John has seen it twice in the attic when he has gone up to start work. So, unfortunately, the small open arched window (above the old farmhouse door for those that know the building) will have to be blocked to stop further visits, but plans are in hand for a possible nest box just outside in the hope the owl doesn’t leave us completely.
Also the first autumn crocuses (colchicums) have started to bloom in our meadows but it will probably be a few weeks before some of the nearby meadows turn completely purple with their flowers.
A final slice of French life: It’s happened! There are now advertisements on French television at prime viewing time for cheese and ham sandwiches made with sliced bread and sold in triangular plastic packs which would easily get lost in a railway buffet bar.