I sat down to write this thinking that I haven’t really much to offer that’s new. We haven’t made any interesting excursions to places of fascination. No big events to report. If our family was a ship, it feels as though we’ve sailed into the doldrums, waiting for the wind to pick up. And waiting …
Much of this has to do with our house and the renovations we were hoping to achieve before we moved into it. The pace of progress is agonizingly slow. It has been frustrating and a real test of our patience. Yes, it’s true: we’re retired at a fairly young age and we’re living in France. What more could we want? A fair point. And one which, especially I, have to be mindful of. But no matter how exceptional the circumstances, living in a kind of limbo, not having a place which really feels like our home is unsettling. We’re finding it hard to really get comfortable and feel that we actually live here. I suppose we still feel as though we’re still just visiting this wonderful country. Temporary. Non-residents. The doldrums.
But, about four weeks ago, things suddenly began to move. Our sails began to luff a bit and our ship just started to make way. Our project manager was finally able to secure a general builder who can do nearly all tasks except plumbing, electricity and finish plastering. They have very strict qualification rules in France so it’s difficult for builders to be jacks of all trades. Even more prohibitive are the insurers of building trades. Licensed contractors are required by law to guarantee their work for 10 years. Which I think is pretty great. The downside of this is that insurers are very reluctant to insure builders for more than one area of work. They assume that one cannot be sufficiently competent in more than one specialization to be able to guarantee their work will hold up for at least a decade. So you tend to get a lot of specialization here.
Our guy, James, is British, but has lived and worked as a builder in Brittany for 19 years. We like him and he seems to be doing good work so far. I’m happy to report that our new kitchen now has a solid concrete floor on top of which James began to lay our stupidly-expensive new/old clay tiles today. We can’t wait to see how it looks when he’s finished laying the tiles. A finished kitchen floor – it will be a real milestone for us.
We had originally planned to keep the existing plaster ceiling in the kitchen and add false wood beams to it, mirroring those that are already in the adjoining séjour (living room). James had a hunch and wisely thought to first investigate what was under the plaster ceiling. He discovered the original thick wood joists and a further large wood beam. A bit of a surprise. Although it wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned, we decided that we should simply expose the original joists and beam and make a feature of them. This not only has the benefit of being more authentic to the house, but will also be less expensive than installing new false beams. We happened to be there on the day James planned to rip out the plaster ceiling so I joined him. Together, we made quick work of it. All we needed were ladders and claw hammers. Dust masks were handy too! After a couple of hours we had pulled all of the plaster, lath and cellulose insulation down. A quick trip to the town dump (la déchèterie) and it was job done. Later that week James installed the new plasterboard between the joists and beam and prepped the gaps at the tops of the walls so they can be filled in by the plasterer. So far, we like the look of it and we’re happy with the decision to keep the original woodwork.
In the old kitchen area things got a bit interesting. When we bought the house, we noticed a small hatch in the floor. There was no obvious way to lift it, so we were never able to see what was underneath it. It remained a minor curiosity. However, a couple of weeks ago James needed to see how deep the tiles were in that floor in order to ensure that our new tiles will fit. So he took the opportunity to also crack open the hatch. What he found was an oddity of plumbing: a meter and a half deep concrete-lined pit into which empties three pipes at various heights and a pipe opening in the bottom to drain it. We tested it out and found that the old kitchen sink drains directly into this pit, as well as a rainwater drain from the front courtyard. We’re still not sure what the other pipe drains. So weird, we couldn’t help but laugh. It’s still unclear what we’re going to do to remedy this avant-garde plumbing arrangement. But, clearly, something will have to be done.
After the hatch unveiling, James was able to jackhammer out most of the hideous tiling in the old kitchen in preparation for laying new stone flooring. That area will be subdivided into a guest bathroom and a passageway/laundry area. For now, we’re keeping the old cabinets and sink in place so that we will have them to use until our new kitchen is completed and ready for action.
In the adjoining guest room we have continued to paint. Progress has been a little bit slowed by the bare plaster walls which suck up the paint and therefore required several coats. We intend to adorn the walls with framed wallpaper panels. Hence the bare rectangles you see in the photo. Cherie has been doing most of this work while I fiddle around with other tasks. James tends to rope me into helping him when we are there, but we’re happy to have me doing this as it saves us a good deal of money. I also took the opportunity to try out our new pressure washer. I have never used one before. But after having used it to remove a slick layer of algae from our sun terrace, I am a believer. There is nothing like having the right tool for the job and this electric wonder proved to be perfect for it. I can’t wait to clean more things – even if they don’t need it.
Lastly, we finally received delivery of our new kitchen fittings. Now there is a big pile of cabinets and appliances crowding our séjour. Unfortunately we had to postpone the installation date yet again (for the fourth time) because the kitchen space was just not going to be far enough along to allow it. Things got a bit heated between our project manager and the kitchen fittings company representative over this last delay and there were some very exasperated emails flying around for a couple of days. For a while there, it was looking like we would not be able to get the installation rescheduled until January. But, thankfully, a détente was reached and a date is now set for December 4th and 5th. Placement of the countertops will be done in the week following that. It has been such a long road to get this kitchen completed. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there will not be any further complications.
So, while the pace of our house renovation has been nearly imperceptible since last February, now there is finally some actual, visible progress. When will we be able to move in? That’s a question which is still seriously up in the air at this point. But at least now we feel like we are moving steadily towards it. We’ll keep you posted.
In other news, we somehow convinced the French government to allow us to stay in their beautiful part of the world for yet another year. Hooray! A couple of weeks ago we were notified by text that our Titres de Séjour were ready to pick up. A quick and surprisingly painless trip to the Préfecture offices in Rennes (conjure in your minds a very large Department of Motor Vehicles – and all that entails) resulted in us skipping merrily back home with our official identity cards. It felt like a real milestone. And a big relief. We will have to reapply again next year before we can then request permanent resident status. But, still, it’s good to know that we have reached a certain level of acceptance here in what we hope will be our forever home.
Oh, and we made a couple of new friends. Noël and Guylen are a french couple who moved to Bretagne from Marseille a couple of years ago. We met them while out on a walk one day and they invited us to their home for a visit. Amazingly, given what we consider to be our still rudimentary french, we are able to converse pretty well with them. They speak even less English than we do French, so we feel like this is a real accomplishment. Noël and Guylen are our age and have a nice older home in Plumelec, a small town just 20 minutes west of Malestroit. They have renovated quite a bit of it and made it a nice home with a zen-like garden. We shared crêpes and hot chocolate and discussed music, politics, regional differences, food, etc. It was a good time and we hope to spend some more time with them in the near future.
Speaking of friends, we had the pleasure of welcoming some old friends from Seattle for a visit to Bretagne. Larry and Shereen spent a week with us in October and we enjoyed showing them a few of the highlights of our corner of France. We have known them both for a long time, having met and worked alongside Shereen for 20 years. They are such great people and so fun to hang out with that we felt really honored that they would come all of this way to spend a good portion of their vacation in France with us. We strolled around Malestroit; took them to Fougères, of course; visited the historic towns of Vitré, Rochefort en Terre, Auray, and Josselin; and walked amongst the evocative neolithic stones at Carnac. Overall we were fortunate with really good weather and it was really good to see them again. Hopefully they left with fond memories as they continued onward to Le Mans for some racetrack adventures, then to the south of France and, finally, Paris.
That’s all of the news for now. Work on the house in Fougères is not as exciting as trips to Paris, for sure. But this has been our lives of late and we thought we should give you an update as to what we have been doing. We’re hoping that we can resume more interesting travels as things progress on the house and we find ourselves relaxing a bit more. There’s so much to see and do here. We’re eager to do it all! When we do, we’ll keep you posted. Promise. With fair winds and a following sea, we’ll get there soon.