About John Kocan

John & Cherie and their dog Saxon currently live in Brittany.

Sweet Sainte-Suzanne


Late spring is lovely in Bretagne. June has seen our little jardin leap into exuberant life. The bushes have been humming with several varieties of bees (bumble and honey) as well as hover flies and lots of songbirds. Martins are screaming overhead in daredevil acrobatics; we never cease to wonder at their flying skills. And the flowers are ornamenting the landscape, subtly perfuming the cool mornings with their calming scents, painting in broad strokes of reds, whites, yellows, purples and oranges. The sun is putting in extra hours now, rising early in the mornings and glowing long into the evenings when the long shadows trail away from the many trees that ring our tower. It’s my favorite time of year.


Puttering around in the jardin is my way of doing work around the house that I enjoy, while simultaneously avoiding the more pressing work that I should actually be doing instead. It’s easy to get sidetracked down there. Especially in the spring when it’s so lovely and there is so much to do. Today, I was surprised to find that the red current bush we inherited had produced quite a good crop of berries. Long strings of red pearls hung like Christmas ornaments within the green leafy covering which hides them from view. I picked them all and collected them in the straw hat I was wearing. Later on, I made a cake with them and it was delicious. But more than that, it was satisfying. For we had grown them ourselves. It’s a minor achievement, we know. But we find more and more that it’s the little things which give us so much joy. I would bet that it’s much the same for you.

Saxon Enjoying the Spring Weather in Fougères

As is often the case, the house projects were getting to be a bit of a chore. And we said to each other, “Hey, we live in France. There’s some pretty nice things to see here. Why don’t we go see some more of it?” Congratulating ourselves on some first-class reasoning, we hopped into the car (freshly topped up with electricity) and headed east over the border into the wilds of Mayenne.

So Beautiful! (The Town’s Not Bad Either). Cherie Exploring Sainte-Suzanne

This time, our target was the town of Sainte-Suzanne. About 60 kilometers west of Le Mans and 40 kilometers east of Laval, Sainte-Suzanne is in the region of Pays de la Loire. By car the trip takes around an hour and 20 minutes of pleasant driving. It’s another one of those many fortified hill-towns born in times long ago when living on a more easily defensible high point allowing you to see your enemies coming from miles away was an idea well worth considering. The small but energetic river Erve courses around the western side of the rise, through a steep-sided and green-wooded cleft in the rocky terrain where it once powered several mills.


This is a place of ancient history, going back to at least the pre-roman period. There is a small part of the town’s rampart walls which is thought to be of celtic origin. But the greater bits of visible architecture in Sainte-Suzanne range from the 11th through the 19th centuries. It’s a lovely little town, rightfully earning its place amongst the ranks of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. It’s a compact place. The cobbled streets wind through handsome and well-kept stone buildings. A few nice shops line the central area and a lovely square. Several cafés and bistros offer a satisfying selection of food and drink, all of them with pleasant outdoor seating. Sainte-Suzanne welcomes a fair amount of tourists, but it’s, thankfully, not touristy. You won’t find much in the way of kitschy souvenirs there. The town is clearly aware that it is a destination spot, but there is little in the way of overt exploitation of the fact. Instead, there is a quiet feeling of welcome and self-assurance. Nice.

Will We Ever Get Used to Such Views? Doubtful.

As soon as we parked the car, we wandered toward a chemin (a pathway) which follows the line of defensive walls encircling part of the town. Not only are the walls and houses which have been built into it over the centuries interesting to view from the outside, but walking the path also offers lovely views of the surrounding countryside laid out below. It’s quite a pretty landscape: verdant valleys and rolling hills with patchworks of grasses, wildflowers and deciduous trees through which run vigorous, sparkling streams. We found a strategically placed bench to eat some sandwiches we had brought with us and enjoyed the pastoral view.

Medlars Beginning to Take Shape in the Medieval Garden

The locals maintain a medieval garden on a terraced bit of land below the ramparts. There they cultivate an admirable number of plants: herbs (medicinal and culinary), flowers, vegetables, berries and nut and fruit trees. We were particularly impressed with the sheer variety of fruit trees which included apples, pears, apricots, cherries – they even had quince and medlar trees. I had never seen a medlar tree before, so I was especially glad to have checked out this garden. A special shout out to our friend Adam from Idaho who recommended an app (Seek) that was of tremendous help in identifying some of the more rare varieties to be found there.

The 11th Century Donjon

Integral to the town is the château. Begun in the first half of the eleventh century as a donjon (a single large square tower), it was expanded in the 12th, 13th and 15th centuries to form a stone fortified enclosure. It is now a ruin, but substantial parts of the castle remain standing. They have cleverly built a set of metal walkways and stairways within the shell of the donjon which allow visitors to climb up the several levels of the Norman-period building. Just think, this structure was here when William (Guillaume) duke of Normandy and king of England (i.e., The Conqueror) laid siege to Sainte-Suzanne. He tried for three years (1083-1086) to take the town, but never succeeded. It was the only time he had ever failed in such an endeavor. There is still a place outside of town which is called Le Camp des Anglais, recalling the memory of the site where William’s forces established their base. The château should not be missed. Particularly because entry is free!


Touristing is thirsty work! So we stopped in at a nice little épicerie which also happened to have table service right on the square. Cherie had tea and I had an excellent local beer. Yes, France is justly famed for its wine. And I take full advantage of that happy circumstance. But I must also observe that they produce some very fine beer as well. We both shared slices of rhubarb tarte. Made in-house, it was a custardy, yummy treat which we enjoyed as the weekday afternoon quietly meandered on. Probably much as it has in Sainte-Suzanne’s square for centuries on end. It was pretty great.

An Ancient Wonder of the World (I’m Only 56)

Not more than a couple of kilometers from town is a prehistoric site called Le Dolmen des Erves. Always keen to see a very old pile of rocks, we stopped by on our way out of town. This neolithic stone monument is literally plonked down in the middle of several animal pens. A narrow path between the pens of nonplussed chickens and goats leads you to a tremendous sight: huge slabs of stone laid horizontally on top of equally huge slabs sunk vertically into the ground to form a sort of covered corridor. When built, it would likely have been covered by smaller stones or earth to form a mound with an enclosed chamber inside in order to contain burials. The remains of fourteen individuals (9 adults and 5 children) have been found within. It is amazing to us how many of these prehistoric megalithic monuments are still to be found in This part of France. They are everywhere. And so impressive to see in person. Truly, the photographs do not do them justice.


Sainte-Suzanne is indeed a plus beau village. And we really enjoyed our visit there. Every time we go somewhere like this we learn so much about French history and culture. We can’t get enough of it. And there is so much to see. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Luckily for us, we’ll be living here for a very, very long time. Thanks again, dear reader, for taking time out of your busy lives and allowing us to share our lives and travels in France with you. It’s a real privilege to have you along with us. Talk to you soon!

French Farmyard Chill by the Dolmen

Prose and Persistence: Madame Sévigné and Château des Rochers

At Last We See It! – Or Did We?

In 2018, while wrapping up our first visit to Bretagne, we stumbled upon a château out in the countryside between Rennes and Vitré. Looking it up in our guidebook, we discovered that this was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, who, well … we didn’t really know who that was. But the house looked like it was very much worth a visit. So, we pulled up at 5:00, only to discover that we had missed the last tour. Disappointing.

French Bluebells in the Spring – Our Only View in 2018

Fast forward to April, 2022 and we decided that we were long overdue to make good on our previously failed attempt. On the way, we thought, we can stop in the nearby town of Vitré for a quick lunch. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! A quick lunch. In France. That’s a good one. You’d think we would know better by now. But, as if we were rank amateur visitors to this country, we thought we could dash into a restaurant for a speedy bite before making it to the château for the tour time. Three hours on and we had long-since surrendered to the realization that our schedule had been blown. Yet another failed attempt to visit Château des Rochers Sévigné.

Touring the Lovely Countryside – On the Road Between Fougères and Vitré

One month later, and we were on the road again. This time with no detours for lunch. At least we had learned that lesson. Still, we were running it very close and we arrived at the ticket office with only a minute to spare. Unfortunately, the lone tour guide working at the château had already locked the ticket office door and commenced her opening tour talk. Failure number three. But this time we had enough of the afternoon left to wait for the last scheduled tour. So, on our fourth attempt, with some patient waiting in the hot afternoon sun, we finally made it in.

Waiting to Buy Our Golden Tickets in the Former Orangery
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné

So, what is this place? Château des Rochers was the country seat of the Sévigné family, breton nobility of ancient lineage. The existing edifice was primarily built in the latter 15th century. After our first attempt to visit in 2018, we came to learn that the house’s most notable occupant was Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, having married into the family in 1644 at the age of eighteen. Even in her own time, she was, and continues to be, lauded for her witty and insightful prose. Madame de Sévigné was a prolific letter-writer. Six years after her marriage, her spendthrift, philandering husband was killed in a duel over his mistress. I’m assuming her only reaction to this was: “Good riddance!” In fact, she never married again. Left with two young children, servants, and a lot of free time on her hands, the letter-writing really kicked into high gear. She is known to have written, apparently, hundreds of letters. Just think if she would have had a Twitter account.


You may have noticed that I haven’t said much about the house itself. Because: reasons. Firstly, one doesn’t get to see much of it. The tour guide – a lovely woman who very generously slowed down her french presentation for our benefit – leads the group around, frankly, tired and sparse gardens while dishing racy stories about the former inhabitants. At (great) length, we were taken in to view the nicely restored late 17th century chapel – a lovely octagonal tower which stands separate from the main house. Then the group ducked into the main tower of the house to view two rooms. No more, no less.


And that’s it. The house is beautiful and has a rich history. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed with the whole thing. Mostly because very little of the house and property is open for viewing. In all likelihood, some of my disappointment stems from the heightened expectation built up by our several foiled attempts to visit over the preceding couple of years. Also, I’m not a big fan of guided tours. Still, it would have been nice to see more. Notwithstanding my complaints, we had a nice time and felt privileged to see yet another outstanding bit of french history. Even better, we could finally relax in the knowledge that we had finally overcome what we had come to regard as the “Sévigné Challenge”. Job done!

Entering the Main Tower
Gardens With the Château in the Background
Tour’s Over: Marching Back to the Handsome Orangerie

Housekeeping

Our Happy Home in the Afternoon Glow

The thing with old houses is, well, they’re old. Which is to say that they are in a perpetual state of falling apart. Our centuries-old tour is no exception to this rule. Add to this our ongoing mania for renovation and you end up with a fairly steady slate of housework. So, we’ve been busy over the winter: small jobs, big jobs, and everything in between. Here’s an update on all things La Tour Desnos – winter edition!

A Soggy Atelier

We get a fair amount of rain in Bretagne. And all of that water has to go somewhere. At times, it feels like all of that precipitation is channeled through our property. You may recall that last summer we had some work done on our sun terrace: closing off a stairway opening at the top; removal of raised planters along the periphery; and laying down a new coat of sealant; along with placement of some added steel structural supports in the ateliers underneath. We were hoping that this would make for nice and dry workshop spaces below. As you can see in the photo above, it did not go entirely to plan. Yes, the workshops are drier now, but we still have water ingress problems. I may have to wait a while longer before I start moving my workshop stuff out of the chapel and into the ateliers. No further progress yet, but we’re working on a Plan B. Or is it C? We’ll get back to you on this one.


One big-ish job we took on this winter was another push for progress in the office. This space was used by the former owners as a utility and storage room. And there was a small toilet room at the end. Last year we tore everything out, our contractor friends replastered the walls and ceiling, and our electrician put in new lighting, outlets and switches. I then built and installed a new office cabinet in one corner. Even with all of that, we still had the floor to deal with. It was, umnnn … not to our taste.


So, Cherie patiently waited for months while I screwed up the courage to tackle this beast. I finally realized that my courage was taking an extended vacation somewhere so I just went ahead and did it anyway. Trusty hammer-drill in hand (seriously, this had become my most useful power tool), I chiseled away at the concrete-set tiles while Cherie hauled bucketsful of rubble to the déchèterie (garbage dump). It made a godawful mess, but we finally got it all cleared out. We hired our builder buddies to lay down a level of screed because it was frankly much simpler to just have them do it.

All of the preparation completed, Cherie and I fitted and laid stone pavers (dallage), then finished the joints. I’d say it was easy – but it never seems to be. At least for us, anyway. Still, we’re happy with the result and it resulted in a big leap forward for this room. It also allowed us to start using the space for its intended purpose. After four years, Cherie finally had an office again. With a desk and everything! We may be slow, but we’re … just, slow. It’s a good thing we retired early.

The Red Menace

We finally got back to that stone wall which I had begun to pick away at a couple of years ago. You know, the one in the buanderie (utility room/passage). It used to be the south half of an old kitchen before we partitioned off a portion in order to create a guest bathroom. Now, it’s not so much a room as it is a wide-ish passage through to the rampart terrace. Anyway, there was one stone wall in this area that had remained exposed. Except that it was covered in patches of plaster and several different coats of paint. Red paint. Ugh! I had earlier been able to remove most of the offending paint and plaster, but then got distracted by other projects. Cherie, patient as ever, quietly waited, although I’m quite sure she was dying a little inside every time she walked by this ugly, half-finished mess.

Removing the Offending Cement Mortar

This would not do. After sighing and shaking my head a lot in despair, I reluctantly returned to my nemesis. Removing the remains of the paint and plaster, I then cleaned out the joints. We’d never done any repointing before. It was a bit daunting. But YouTube is my master. Several videos later, we went at it, methodically replacing the old cement pointing (bad, very bad) with the correct lime mortar. For those one or two of you who haven’t watched a lot of YouTube advice from experts on historic masonry, lime mortar was the traditional material of choice until Portland cement became readily available in the later 19th century and thereafter. But, whereas cement is much too impermeable, too hard and too inflexible for most traditional wall materials, lime mortar is softer, more flexible. And the lime allows the wall to “breathe”. Which is to say, it allows the stone to move and for water vapor which naturally collects in the stone to escape.


Cherie and I pointed away, listening to audiobooks of M.C. Beaton’s series of Agatha Raisin murder mysteries as we worked. We found a nice rhythm: I mixed buckets of mortar while she prepared things for a later lunch break; then we both worked away on the wall for a few hours; and finished for lunch. By then it would be time for Saxon’s 4 o’clock walk (he’s very insistent and punctual, you know). Cherie would take the dog out while I returned to the wall to finish off the now leather-hard joints with brushes. And so we went for a few days until we finally finished our very first repointing project. We’re quite proud of it, actually. And it’s really helped to bring space up a few notches. There is, obviously, more work to do in this area, but we cleared yet another major hurdle and feel pretty good about it. At some point, I will have to install a bench and some paneling. But that’s for another day. Or year. You can’t rush these things.

Death Trap

Let’s see. Oh, yes. In our little garage there is a large square recess [That’s a generous description; it’s really more of a hole, if I’m honest.] in the floor where the old oil tank filler cap and our main water shut-off valve are located. Don’t ask me why those two things are adjacent to each other. I have no idea. French building standards in the past were, well, more of a shoulder-shrug kind of thing than actual rules to be enforced. I’m happy to say that it’s much more strict and regulated now. At any rate, when we bought the house, this square aperture in the floor was covered by a very loosely connected collection of rotting boards that could be kindly described as a hatch cover. If you were less kindly-inclined, you might have called it a menace, an accident waiting to happen, a filthy mess – pick your poison.

Much Safer Now: The Garage Floor

After repeated forays through this mess of oil-soaked, rotting boards, I finally had had enough and decided to make a new one. We have the old oak floorboards that came out of the old bedroom which is now our kitchen. I scrounged and cleaned a few of these pieces to make a new cover with some handles I had hanging around to make it easier to lift off. It worked a treat. Now we can walk on top of it without fear of falling through into the hole. Life’s exciting enough as it is. As projects go, it was a small one. But it’s just one of those little quality-of-life things which is nice to cross off the ginormous list haunting my dreams.


Speaking of oil tanks, we found that we were able to make a change to our noisy, dirty, costly and all-around despised heating system. Neither we nor our suffering planet could take it any longer. So Cherie braved a bewildering web of French energy companies and government regulators to secure the installation of an air source heat pump heating system for our hot water and heating. First, we had our chaufferie (mechanical room) reduced and reconfigured by our go-to contractor guys, with a new slate roof over it and a gutter for good measure. Next, the old oil-fired boiler was taken out. And then our new heat pump was installed and hooked up to our existing piping system. The heat pump only took three days to install and it works quite nicely. We feel much better about it from an environmental point of view – even though a good portion of the electricity it uses is likely generated by nuclear energy. France has always been rather keen on nuclear power plants for generating the country’s electricity needs. We, however, are not. Nevertheless, the electricity route is much cleaner than oil and the system much more efficient, so we feel like we’ve made a positive stride toward reducing our carbon footprint.


The past months also found me addressing the gaping space left between our new stairs and the wall of the stairwell. I had long promised Cherie a paneled wall of cabinets to close off this gap. It was time to face the music, although I had come to feel that the project was beyond my skills. Despite my considerable misgivings, I began to work. It was a struggle. Truly, I had no idea what I was doing. But, in the end, I managed to work it out. Now we have some additional and much needed storage space, and the staircase feels more complete. Most importantly, Cherie is happy.

Almost Finished Coaster – Erase Those Pencil Marks, John!

From the big to the little projects. We had some stone dallage left over from the floor of the office. So, I made a thing. Three things, to be exact. Coasters. Some of the stone scraps were just big enough for some coasters, so I cut them into squares with the cutting wheel and then refined the final shapes and details with files. A few rubber dot pads on the bottoms and, voila! This was one of the more enjoyable projects I’ve done. And useful too. Stone makes for practical and handsome coasters.


Work in the jardin continues. Bit by bit. It’s still crude and entirely underwhelming. But I’ve managed to beat back the majority of jungle vegetation and establish a semblance of order. If I squint, I can convince myself that it’s an actual garden. Still, there are stacks of stones everywhere and piles of cuttings which still need to pass through the chipper. Essentially, I’m only trying to keep the jardin area reasonably civilized until such time as we are able to execute a new design for the area. Someday, we hope to create a parterre garden in the French style. But that will be a large undertaking in terms of both labor and money. It’s a few years away, I’m afraid. But something we definitely want to accomplish. For now, I keep the weeds down, try to maintain a basic shape to what we inherited from the previous owners, and prepare it for the work which we hope to do in the future.

Old and Knackered – Our Drippy Chimney

Finally, we had an unplanned repair. One evening, Cherie and I were sitting on the couch in the séjour and I suddenly felt something wet on my forehead. It was water. I looked up to see that another drip was accumulating on the beam in the ceiling above me. In a panic, a dozen scenarios flashed through my mind – all of them disturbingly disastrous and in brilliant ultra-high definition. After quickly moving the couch and placing a bucket underneath the drips, we raced about the house, checking all of the usual suspects (radiators, water lines, toilets, etc.) but everything looked solid. After that we realized that it was raining outside, and the wind was driving quite hard from an unusual direction. We decided that it had to be a leak in the roof. And so it was. Right along our chimney. The render had weakened and failed in several places. Not suddenly, but over time. However, the unusual wind direction had forced the rain into these areas, allowing the water to run down into the ceiling – and onto my head.

Climbing Mt. Desnos – Fearless Repair Work

Always on the lookout for services which we feel might come in handy at some point in the future, we had a year earlier taken a photo of a van which advertised their specialty in building repairs of areas which are particularly difficult to access. That’s us, we thought. That area of our roof is precipitously high. Quite beyond ladder access. And scaffolding up to that height would cost a fortune. The company we called came out and assessed the situation, using a drone which they used to view all around the chimney and roof. They agreed to tackle the job (unfortunately, not for free) and a crew of three men secured with climbing gear worked away at the repair for three days. They went about their work calmly and with a casual indifference to the circumstance I found amazing, suspended as they were at a death-defying distance above the ground. Then again, I am terrified of heights, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. They finished the job without any fuss and the repair has been successful. No more drips!

And now you’re up to date. We’ve accomplished a lot. But we have so much more to do. The list is almost infinitely long. There are days when I wake up, ready for action, but quickly become paralyzed by the sheer number of tasks that need doing. Cherie is much more methodical and she is undaunted by any job. But I am powered primarily by inspiration and I’m easily distracted. Like a young golden retriever. As you can see, I eventually summon the nerve to tackle these projects. At this point the significant interior jobs on the main floors are nearly at an end. The waves of dust, dirt and rubble inside the house are finally beginning to diminish. Thank goodness!