First Impressions: Combourg

The Great Man and His Boyhood Home

Sunday, Sunday. What to do? Cherie wisely suggested that we commence with a round of visits to towns around Fougères which have earned the accolade: Petites Cités de Caractère (small towns with character). Good idea! Besides, we had been working all week on the stone flooring of the laundry passage (buanderie). And we were feeling a little burned out. A little break is just what we needed. Or course, given that the pandemic is still running wild and most touristy things are closed, we held no illusions that we would be able to engage in a fully functioning visit. But, so what? For now, we can get a good look from the outside. Later, when the world has resumed some semblance of normality, we can return to see the inside stuff. It beats sitting around reading email.

Art de Cuisine: A Still Life for Our Active Kitchen

Where to go? Cherie compiled a list of potential candidates and from that we chose Combourg. It’s a small town located to the west of Fougères, about a 50 minute drive from our house. After a quick breakfast [Editor’s note: breakfasts in the Kocan household are generally consumed between 11:00 and Noon. This might be part of the reason why progress on house projects is slow. A workday beginning anytime between Noon and 2:00 tends to produce rather limited results. Don’t judge us.] we piled on several layers of clothing and hit the road.

Often Your Only Choice on a Sunday Afternoon

It’s a nice drive through countryside dominated by farms linked by small hamlets and villages. Hardly a soul was about, so we felt like we pretty much had the roads to ourselves. Sundays are generally very quiet in France. Especially in rural France. Very few businesses are open for even part of the day and there is a kind of solemnity that pervades the air. Sure, this Sunday silence has deep religious roots, but it feels more like a cultural tradition – just part of being French. Rolling into Combourg, we nodded to each other in recognition that tradition was well-regarded in this small town too. One older lady walking her belligerent little dog was all we saw for the first ten minutes after parking the car in the middle of town. It was like visiting a movie set a week after the last catering truck creaked off the lot.

Combourg: Just Your Average 16th Century Building
What a Façade!

The primary attraction in Combourg is the medieval château. Its origins go back to the 11th century, when the town was given by the bishop of Dol to his illegitimate brother. Quite a progressive family, eh? Anyway, the current appearance of the castle is thanks to the famed french architect Viollet-le-Duc who, in the last half of the 19th century mastered the restoration of this château, amongst many other icons of french architecture (Mont St. Michel, Carcassonne, Notre-Dame – you may have heard of these). The other claim to fame for the castle is that it was the boyhood home of François-René de Chateaubriand, the politician, diplomat, and father of french romantic literature. He was a rock-star of early 19th century France and beyond. Chateaubriand even traveled extensively throughout eastern North America and wrote a couple of books about these experiences. Somehow, being a royalist and staunch defender of the Catholic Church, he survived the revolution, having been wounded during a siege and spending the next eight poverty-stricken years in exile in England. Quite a guy. I have to confess that neither Cherie nor I have ever read any of his works. But we should do so. Even a biography of his life must be riveting. If any of you have any recommendations as to which of his books we should read, please leave a comment.

Château Combourg
Monsieur Châteaubriand Looms Large in Combourg

Despite what detractors of Viollet-le-Duc may say, the château in Combourg is beautiful. At least the exterior is. This being the hell-year of Covid and many other catastrophic events, the castle is closed to visits right now. We will definitely return for an inside look once the pandemic situation has been reversed. But, for this visit, we were content gaze in wonder at her beautiful parapets, turrets, embrasures, chimneys and pepperpot roofs. Even after all of the magnificent ruins, châteaux, stately homes, chapels, cathedrals, and neolithic monuments, we are still astonished each time we see another. The sheer historical weight of human experience encapsulated in these buildings is breathtaking. I tell you, time travel is a real thing. Just squint your eyes at one of these amazing witnesses to history, block out the modern world, and employ a bit of educated imagination and, voila!, you can step back in time.

Still Serving After All These Years
Templars Get All the Best Real Estate
A Pretty Little Courtyard Passage

The town grew up around the castle. The old center is quite pretty and includes some lovely architecture. The old Relais des Princes still stands and serves weary travelers just as it has done since the 16th century; it stood at the crossing of two royal roads (Fougères-Dinan and St. Malo-Renne) and therefore also served as an important inn for officials. Just around the corner there is another 16th century building (now with extra kitsch) which once belonged to the Order of the Knights Templar – given that the Order of the Temple was suppressed in the 14th century, one assumes there was an earlier structure on this site. For medieval architecture geeks like us, it was a pleasure to see so many ancient buildings still standing and functioning in the 21st century. A surprising number of hotels in the old town would seem to signal a fairly robust tourist trade under normal circumstances. Two large old hotels stand between the château and a lake. When we visited, things were very quiet indeed. But one can see just how beautiful and lively it could be during the high season.

Lake. Hotel. Château. Sky. Freezing Cold!

Did I mention that it was a very cold and breezy day in Combourg? Well, it was. And by the time we had explored the area, we were quite chilled. And hungry. Normally, as I’ve mentioned, finding anything open after the 12 to 2 lunch hour(s) – on a Sunday – is impossible. But this town kindly offered the services of both a kebab restaurant and a boulangerie. Thank you François-René! – I’m sure the old romantic traveler’s spirit had some kind of influence on this exceptional surfeit of dining choices. In order not to play favorites, we purchased two kebabs (with sauce blanche et frites, for those interested) and then desert at the boulangerie. In very un-french manner, we ate our kebabs in the car. They were tasty but massive, as were the portions of fries. With a bravura worthy of James Beard, we charged our meals and took no prisoners. No, we’re not proud of it, but we’ll just a likely do it again some time. Soon, if I’m honest.

Immaculate Ochre
Quiet Square on a Winter’s Sunday Afternoon

The visit was short. And it was really just a bit of a walk around the town. But it was a nice break. A validation of why we came to live here. With all of our energy being poured into the house, it’s good to be reminded that there is so much we want to see and experience in France. And Europe too. We’re eager to go everywhere and see as much as we can. Sometimes we get so caught up in our house that we forget. So, here’s to more travel, be it near or far. We will endeavor to do more of it in the coming months. When we do, you’ll see it reported here on: Finding our France (how’s that for marketing?).

Finding Our France – With Lots of Layers

Minus Two

Rime in the Jardin du Nançon

The New Year has begun at a low point. On the thermometer. In fact, two degrees below 0 (celsius). We awoke [Well, to be precise, only Saxon and I awoke; Cherie tends to sleep through such inconveniences as breakfasts and, umnn … mornings in general.] on the first day of 2021 to a very frosty but sunlit morning in Fougères. It was beautiful. Serene. Saxon and I took a bracing walk in the park below the tower, crunching through the crystalline grass. This weather made Saxon frisky and he was bounding around with the kind of pure joy only displayed by dogs, children, and a certain demographic of nerdy adults who have just found out that there will be a new season of Downton Abbey coming soon. I was just cold. Like, really cold. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but smile. It was that familiar “I can’t believe we’re actually living in France” feeling that continues to grip us on a regular basis. Pretty great. I don’t think we’ll ever truly get used to the fact that we live here.

Twinkly Lights on Rue Nationale

On New Year’s Eve we were treated to our next-door neighbors’ outdoor celebrations, consisting of very loud and frenetic music, combined with a barbecue (as one does in freezing weather) and fireworks. One of these light-filled celebrations – a large chinese lantern – caught my eye as it descended from their terrace above, wafting downward into our garden. But just as it was touching down, it began to gather heat and floated upward, lofting directly toward the roof of our upstairs neighbor’s apartment where it snagged onto her TV antenna and burst into flame. The Montgolfier brothers would have hung their heads in shame, but I was panicking as I watched what amounted to a large tube of paper with flames leaping out of it threaten to burn down our neighbor’s house. Since hers is directly on top – ours would likely be next. I stared helplessly at the conflagration lighting up the sky, praying that it wouldn’t spread to the roof while at the same time cursing our careless neighbors. Neighbors whom, incidentally, I could hear, whooping it up on the other side of the garden wall, apparently unknowing or uncaring that they may have started a house fire next door. Thankfully, the paper lantern burned out as quickly as it had started and the roof was none the worse for its close encounter with a firebomb.

This brief episode rattled me, though. How easily things can take a turn for the worse. How fragile are our lives and all that we depend upon. It seemed to me to be the disturbing but apt exclamation point on a year that has been so difficult for so many around the globe. My family had experienced several unfortunate events in 2020 – forest fires, impacts to business, illness (Covid-19 and others), injury, and even, most heartbreaking of all, death. Not to be too morose about it, but it’s been a pretty awful year on planet Earth. I hope you’ll all join us in resolving to make this year a better year for our neighbors, our countrymen, our fellow human beings everywhere, and our planet.

The Séjour Finally Taking Shape

So, what have we been up to? Why, working on our house, of course. What else would we be doing in the age of Covid? To be fair, even without a global pandemic, we would still be spending most of our energies (and money) working on the tower. But we would hopefully have engaged in more travel and sightseeing. Admittedly, the blog posts would be more varied and interesting too. At least with the beginning of the New Year, we can proudly say that the first phase of our major works has now been completed. All of the primary demolition, plumbing, electrics, build-outs, and plastering has been done. Which is not to say that our main living areas are looking nearly finished. There is still a lot of finish work to do – by us. Cherie and I are the finishing crew. And we are methodical. Deliberate? Careful? Perfectionists? Okay, we’re slow. But, in our defense, we don’t really know what we are doing. So each little project comes with its own, rather precipitous learning curve. At least we have positivity on our side. That’s all Cherie’s doing. She firmly believes we can do almost anything. I, on the other hand, am the voice of doom. I have no confidence in my ability to do anything well and I feel like most things are beyond my skill. Nevertheless, we soldier on. Between the two of us, we manage to get most tasks done. Eventually.

Out Go the Old Stairs
New and Improved – At Least We Think So

We replaced the stairs leading from the main floor to our master bedroom and we’re really happy with the results. A local menuisière (carpenter) and his team completed it in their shop over the summer and installed it in two days. Pretty impressive. When we first started this whole renovation thing we were hoping to continue the stairway down to the “Chapel” (the tower chamber below the main floor). But that will be another several thousand euros, so we’ll have to put that project on the back burner for now. Seriously, I may have to sell a few organs before we can get the chapel done.

Chapel Hole, the Remains of the Old Trap Door on the Floor Below
That’s Better!

For now, the chapel will serve as my temporary workshop. When we bought the tower, the floor of this chamber had quite a large trap door of wood in the center. We surmise that it was put in during the time the tower was part of a large shoe factory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For what purpose, we have no idea. Somewhat ominously, the former owners had placed a sandwich of three large sheets of particle board on top of it. Something told us that we probably shouldn’t walk on it, lest we fall through to the room at the bottom of the tower. It turns out that we were right to be concerned. Our trusty builders, Kelson and Stuart, poked around a bit and found that the trap door was entirely rotten. They merely tapped it and the whole thing collapsed and crashed to the floor below. Needless to say, we spent the money to have them span the opening with concrete. A fine job they did, and now the floor is whole. Our electrician, Mark, routed some temporary power outlets as well, so now I am in the process of rearranging our many storage boxes (the majority of which contain books – Oh! How I miss my books!) so I can cobble together a functioning workshop.

The Petit-Salon: Still Unfinished, but Miles Closer
The Guest Bathroom: Now Fully Functional (Though Still a Work in Progress)
The Future Office, Featuring a “Beautiful” Floor – Yuck!
(To Be Removed/Replaced Later)

Back up in the main floor, the guys finished all of the electrics, plumbing and plastering for the entry, the petit salon, the laundry passage, the hallway, stairwell, and Cherie’s office. It was a long sequence of messes that kept us constantly cleaning. When we purchased the house, there was a door separating the séjour (living room) from the rest of the main floor. Unlike American houses, it’s very typical in French houses to have a door closing off a living room. I wanted to get rid of it right away. Wisely, Cherie thought we should keep it until the main construction was finished. She was right. It has sure helped to keep out the worst of the mess. Also the noise. We would seek refuge from the construction zone, all three of us huddling in our séjour and kitchen throughout the day. I’d say that we’ll look back on that time fondly some day. But I doubt it.

The Hallway, Ready and Waiting for Wallpaper
View of the Séjour from the Kitchen – Parquet Flooring Coming Soon
The Wrong Color Flooring, Ready for Exchange

There are still a couple of projects that we’ve attempted to get completed, but have been thwarted by some circumstances that we’ll just say are, different, here than we were accustomed to in the U.S. As you saw in an earlier post, we chiseled out all of the old tile and concrete screed underlaying it this summer. The builders then poured some self-leveling concrete and topped that with ABS chip board. Excitedly, we ordered new parquet flooring from a company near Lille in the north of France. Cherie and I plan to lay it ourselves. It took some time, but the pallet was finally delivered in September. We hauled it in, box by box, and then opened one up. Only to find that they sent the right parquet, but in the wrong finish. Ugh!

That’s when the Machiavellian maneuvering really began. The company offers two finishes: natural, and a darker tone they call “cognac”. Before we ordered we had confirmed with them that we wanted cognac. They of course assured us that they would send the cognac. What we got was natural. Well, we thought, a simple mistake. We’ll just email them and they will make it right. Not so. It took a couple of emails to even establish that we had actually ordered cognac. Once that was ironed out by sending them copies of our original order (surely, they must have their own copy, right?), they then tried to claim that there is virtually no difference between the natural and cognac finishes. Classic. We actually had to send them photos from their own website to prove that there is clearly quite an obvious difference between the two. After several more phone calls – a couple of which they simply abandoned because we do not speak perfect French, they agreed that they had made a mistake.

Then the negotiations as to how to get them to pick up the wrong flooring and deliver the correct order began. They simply could not conceive of completing both transactions at the same time. Pick up AND deliver? You mean, with the same truck? Bah non! Right. Reluctantly, we turned to our guardian angel, Kelson’s wife Patricia. She is French. She is a force of nature. And she is on a personal crusade to see justice done. Patricia is very kind and generous with her time. She also speaks English very well. We knew that, with her on the case, these guys from Lille would rue the day they messed with us. We’d seen her in action before. She’s frankly terrifying. Predictably, after a couple of phone calls, the company agreed to swap the merchandise and they set a date for the exchange. Amateurs. The arrangement was so carefully choreographed, you’d think we were exchanging spies with the Soviets on a lonely bridge in Budapest. Actually, it turns out that Patricia told the company representative that Cherie and I were attorneys and suggested that we were preparing a very expensive lawsuit. See? I told you. Terrifying. She’s the best. As far as we’re concerned, she has a lifetime of chocolates coming her way. We are happy to report that we finally received delivery of the correct flooring just before Christmas. Now all we have to do is install it.

Who Knew I Would Become a Stonecutter?
Dry-Fitting the Floor
Preparing to Bed the First Stone

But before we tackle that, we needed to get the stone flooring laid in our laundry passage. Just before Christmas, Mark laid the underfloor heating mat (electric) and secured it with a thin layer of latex. We wanted to protect the wires of the mat as soon as possible, so we’ve already begun to lay down the stone flooring. It’s the same stone we used in our guest and master bathrooms, but we paid another builder to do that. With funds getting low, we decided to save some cash and do this one ourselves. Armed with Cherie’s confidence, a grinder with a diamond wheel, a long level, some string, and copious amounts of tea, we embarked on our first attempt to lay stone flooring. Thus far, we’ve cut and dry-fitted the entire floor, and bedded in the first few stones. To us, it looks like a pretty good start. My habitual pessimism won’t allow me to claim victory yet. So I’m reserving judgment until the job is completed. We’ll let you know how it turns out.

Happy 50th!
A Very Cake-y Cake

Cherie had a special birthday this year. In December, she turned 50. Annoyingly, she doesn’t look anywhere near that age. We had been hoping to have a nice party to celebrate. But Covid laughed and said “no!”. So we baked her favorite cake (Germans’ chocolate cake) and ate it all. Don’t judge us.

The Bane of Bats Everywhere

A couple of weeks ago we had an interesting brush with a neighbor. We had just come in from our last dog-walk of the day. It was evening. Cherie was putting away Saxon’s leash and taking her coat off while I strode into the kitchen by way of the séjour. Suddenly, a large shadow momentarily dimmed the lights. I looked up just as a monstrous bat strafed over my head. I’m pretty sure I didn’t squeal like a little girl. Well, at least as far as you know. But I did raise my voice to a higher register as I loudly warned Cherie that a dragon was loose in the house. With immediate presence of mind, Cherie bravely closed the door to the séjour – locking me in with the beast. Right. It was just me and the shadowy monster now. Mano a guano. I donned some protective gear and grabbed the time-tested weapon beloved of husbands for time immemorial: a broom. The bat and I locked horns in a grim battle that seemed to last for hours [Editor’s note: It was ten minutes – tops.]. To be fair, the thing was huge. I’m not kidding. It’s wingspan was easily two feet (60 cm) wide. I don’t know how it got in. Probably the fireplace, but we also had an open vent hole in our pantry off the kitchen (which was duly closed up the next day). The bat was actually rather handsome. Cute, even, It would fly slowly around the room for a bit and then alight on a beam, looking down at me, the clueless idiot ineffectually holding a broom while assuring my wife that I had everything under control. I had opened all of the windows, thinking that the bat would be happy to escape into the night, away from the stupid human maniacally swinging a broom about the place. But he seemed to like it in our house, preferring to fly by the open windows and toy with my emotions. After a while, he tired of his amusement and let me off the hook, lazily flying out the window. No doubt he had other husbands to humiliate that night.

Christmas Lights Adorning Place Aristide Briand

Last, but not least, I should mention that we also spent our first Christmas in Fougères. To be sure, the pandemic had a significant effect on holiday celebrations and events in the old town this year. Nevertheless, the ville put on a brave face and decked the halls with all kinds of sparkly things. We found it to be quite pretty and we’ve been enjoying our evening walks with Saxon through the lighted streets. Like so many other places in the world, the shop and café owners were desperately trying to make up for lost trade. Despite the necessary restrictions and safeguards, there seemed to us to be quite a bit of shopping. The streets were fairly busy, especially on the weekends. And there was a definite air of good cheer and hope throughout the town. As for myself, I managed to consume at least one cup of vin chaud (hot mulled wine). Since moving to France, it has become a personal goal to drink vin chaud whenever I can get it. I’ll have to do much better next year. We enjoyed a quiet Christmas in our new home. Just the three of us, cozy in our half-finished 15th century tower, stuffing ourselves with Cherie’s legendary turkey, and trying to to think about the hundreds of tasks we’ve yet to finish. But, hey! We’re in France, right? Not a bad way to spend the holidays. We feel very fortunate indeed.

Santa rockin’ it Breton style!