Graceful living in Italy and France...

The smell of jasmine winds its way down our 16th century cobblestone street in Umbria as I step outside to greet the day.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Finding Pascal

Enfin… Pascal!

Finding the best artisan for the job in France is a constant worry when you are working in a country with unique standards, a different language, and particular customs. Enter Pascal, our resident certified electrician, plumber, and carpenter… he was such a windfall! Not only did Pascal show up when he said he would but he went to great lengths to tidy up each mess and to use quality materials and craftmanship. On top of that, his prices were considerbly better than the other two bids received.  We have Christian and Cathy Vey, our friends near Uzes who will offer the painting workshop, to thank for this referral.

Backing up for a moment, initially we had decided that there were four or five key areas to tackle: 
1. Creating an opening between kitchen &  salon,

2. Finishing off the corner of the kitchen where the electric panel is housed,

3. Adding a squared and decorated chimney breast above the bedroom fireplace

4. Modifying the terrace bedroom to include a new closet and entry doors.

Are you wondering how on earth this can all take place in four week’s time? Good question!                                                          

As Dan indicated on April 5th, “We are having grave doubts about the feasibility of the kitchen wall plan. The problem remains the huge floor level difference between the two rooms. The effect would be more like the Pope’s balcony at St. Peter’s Square!” Thus we “nixed” project #1 in favor of a brilliant change which I’ll surprise you with by and by.

Not atypically, our plans soon began to “morph”, which is the way of the world, n’est-ce pas? After sitting on the sofa for a long time, sipping wine and considering things artistically, Dan and Francesco began brainstorming some new concepts.

Our hit list was eventually modified to begin by tidying up the electric tangles left here and there and relocating the salon radiator to the vaulted section just right of the chimney. Secondly, Pascal was hired to add copper gutters to the terrace roof terrace. The feeling here was that when the next big rainstorm arrived, we wanted to avoid a swimming pool up there! Pascal then moved on to the kitchen corner with another great creative solution. Lastly, our magnificent chimney breast plate came into being. The plan is to eventually add a wooden mantle.

Over and over, Dan reported how fastidious and quality conscious Pascal and his son were. If you take a look at the glorious improvements, I think you’ll surely agree!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sofas! Italian, English, French, or Swedish

April 1st, 2010

“Dear Dan and Francesco,

I think this may be a brilliant solution ( as the Brits say)- check out this website and click on sofabeds. They will deliver for only 120 Euros- next delivery is early May...
What thinkst thou?

Most of us have to make décor decisions based on need, availability, quality, harmony with our overall décor scheme, and price. Once we had decided that our home in southern France would ideally sleep 4-6 adults, it became necessary to seek out a new sofa bed. Oh la la! As the French would say…

We found the selection in France to be generally ghastly; overpriced, largely leather upholstery, a small selection, and so forth. Meanwhile we sought an item of quality which would blend well with our medieval decorating scheme. Dan and Francesco’s thoughts turned to a furniture maker near Todi, Italy where they had purchased just such an item for around 800 euros. Alas, delivery made this impossible.

I began searching online and came up with the Furniture for France site you see above-  A British sofa bed delivered to France.  In speaking with this firm, they shipped roughly 40-50 such items each month.

D & F came up with a French company introducing a line of Italian sofas (is anyone confused out there yet??) called but their selections were far too modern for our tastes.

Did I mention that a trip to the Swedish IKEA store had already been planned? In fact, it was here that we settled upon a beige-colored reasonably priced sofa bed in a traditional design which would blend well with the more medieval décor of the salon. It was soon bought, sealed and NOT delivered! No one ever said it would be easy. We finally received delivery confirmation for the day AFTER Dan and Francesco’s departure.

Ah well, they DO plan to return to finish up dangling details in mid-June. By then, my box of pots and pans, mailed from Canandaigua, NY should have arrived!

PS- I nearly mailed this tapestry wall hanging found in a NY antique store but was told that our wall space was pretty well used up!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

France is garage sale heaven!

From fine fabric to china and demi-lune tables, France is garage sale heaven!

It AMAZES me what Dan, Francesco and Arcadio have managed to orchestrate in merely three weeks at our house in Vers Pont du Gard. It takes a certain personality to see, feel, hear, and sense what changes need to happen in an architectural gem like le Muguet and THEN to pull it off. Wow… I believe one of tricks is to have a super organized spirit (not me!) and to dovetail a trip to bring Francesco to the airport with a morning jaunt to the Villeneuve d’Avignon market and finally, stop again at the Ikea store near Aix en Provence to search out a sofa bed solution.

I am 100% content to sing in the choir and let the maestro’s direct. I certainly have picked up some tips and in today’s email to Dan I said:

"I love getting your updates, dead tired that you are. Many thanks. Never again will I rush over to France to decorate a complete house in 10 days or less! Nor will I depend on Brico Marché when the real deals are at the flea markets."

Comments from Dan on 4/5: Flea market purchases

“We have made more WONDERFUL purchases for you at flea markets. We have been going, going, going... Made it to Barjac - the 'mother of all flea markets' locally. It took us about three hours just to make a quick tour. Very pricey, however, so we contented ourselves with two more lamps to fix (lovely 19th century brass oil lamp base, and a Chinese porcelain –

You now have a used 'coffee table' book about chateaux of France that has inspirational photos for us and will be left here as we are slowly filling up your book shelves. (You are inheriting about 20 or so of our cd's that we brought from home - it is always nice, we think, to find a little selection of music and reading when you stay at a house that is not your own home...)Total cost of all of the above was about 80 euros.

Also found a 4-drawer antique walnut with marble top dresser for the bedroom (we are painting and moving the red one up to the terrace bedroom); a beautiful and stylish Voltaire chair with lovely green velvet upholstery for the salon; an old wrought iron floor lamp - very heavy and looking great for the same; a large round dining table - the type that can have two sides folded down for compactness when wanted; six cane seated chairs; an old gilt mirror for the bathroom and two heavy brass sconces for the same –

Plus we have a really cute marble wash stand with two drawers for against the stone wall where the wicker hamper has been located. There’s also a host of much needed kitchen items - practical stuff , but with proper 'flair' that is creating an old 'family' feeling there."

Remember the lovely Limoges china of Asparagus Festival fame?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

la Fete d'asparges- Vers Pont du Gard

Does it sometimes sound like I’m “ga -ga” over life in France? It’s true. In so many small ways, undoubtedly taken for granted by the natives, la vie quotedienne (daily life) in the south of France, has an irresistible pull on my heartstrings.

Take, for instance, the asparagus festival that is happening in Vers Pont du Gard today-Dan mentioned that the local planners had set up a table and chairs in the center of the petanque square, laden with food and drink. Presumably the mayor and his cohorts were discussing the lively Saturday and Sunday festival about to unroll.

These simple and simply delicious events are a feature of nearly every small village in France. Those of us fractional home owners in Quarante, France can recall the lively running of the bulls each May. North of us, the beautiful yellow mimosa festival is honored by the hilltop town of Roquebrun. I’ve not yet enjoyed this, but Uzes has a January truffle festival festival (see blog link) as well as a donkey festival in September, around the time of our first Provence Painting class with Christian Vey.

For any of you wanting to either visit le Muguet or simply and deliciously enjoy this land’s bounty, I encourage you to stay at Maison de Martin in Vers Pont du Gard. Martin and Monique will greet you at their B&B and are some of the most gracious hosts in our village of Vers Pont du Gard. Why not give them a call? See

For a  twist on serving asparagus try this recipe: Fresh spring asparagus sauté-ed with ginger, almonds, and garlic- yum!


Sweating the details- communication in France

Last Friday, I called Dan (who was in a cybercafé in Uzes) on the le Muguet French cell phone.  Poor guy- Francesco had returned to Italy where he teaches French at the University of Todi and Dan was left holding the fort, mortally afraid that the phone call was from a French speaking artisan and that he would “mangle” the conversation with his Year Two Level French. I’ll bet some of you can relate…

ON that subject of communication (or lack thereof) we continue to be stymied and rather aghast at the ‘backwardness’ of the French Telecom system. In Dan’s words “It’s a blazing nightmare!” I concur. Several times over the course of creating a new home share in France, I’ve found myself at wit’s end without internet, telephone or cell phone access, often for weeks at a time. For those who may be considering buying your own whole home in France, buyer beware!

When you are trying to shop, furnish, and refurbish a home, with deadlines and time frames to consider, it truly is beyond frustrating. I vividly remember the year our family moved to the south of France with a stopover for 4 weeks at La Bruyere, a farmhouse in the Lot. We had carefully forwarded all of our US business calls to our French cell phone, believing this would work out swell. The only issue was that the phone would only get reception in the middle of the sunflower field outside of our property!

Back to le Muguet and telephone/internet installation- It turns out that the promised paperwork had been delivered to a mailbox “sans clef”- without a key! Meanwhile they thought that it would be delivered via courier and so were not even on the look out for a mailbox delivery. This delayed the installation by another 5 days. When the Orange internet technician did arrive yesterday, it was to find that that telephone line was dead (duh…) and so he departed to contact yet another agency to deal with this.

In the meantime, Dan had to drive to the Uzes café in order to stay in touch with the world, research house solutions, and eventually send me photos of the goodies we’ve acquired. Remember when we simply put photos in the post?? 

Details of treasures to follow: le ciel de lit (ANYONE guess what this is ??) a clever solution to our imposing wall separating cuisine from salon and so forth,  oo-la-la!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Our “lady” is being lovingly restored.

While speaking with Dan on our new Muguet landline, he casually mentioned how many weekend visitors walk by the petanque court (where games of boules or "petanque" are played in the square below le M ) and then stop and glance up to our imposing terrace. They stand, they admire, and they gawk. Rightfully so- this is an amazing house. With that in mind, prepare to be dazzled when you enter the completed “le Muguet.”

In spite of the blazing nightmare of getting the telephone and internet hooked up so that garage sales could be “googled" and telephone numbers accessed, Dan and Francesco have accomplished an amazing amount of transformation in the last 2 ½ weeks. From the irresistible baby crib from the 1870’s for only 60 euros (currently painted in 1970’s psychedelic fuschia ) to the neutral colored Ikea sofa bed, our “lady” is being lovingly restored. As our remodelers had earlier remarked ”We are having difficulty finding a good sofa bed in less-than-horrendous styles and sky-high prices.”

An interesting factor most of us would not anticipate came from vendor who delivered the queen-sized iron bed frame for the master bedroom suite. “You do realize, don’t you, that no queen-sized mattress will fit up this spiral staircase.” It is this variety of interesting challenge that spice up our days.

With a plethora of wonderful flea markets, Dan and Francesco continued to find (and bargain ruthlessly for) wonderful bits and pieces like the antique round dining table, six cane-seated chairs, a small bureau, a tole lamp, an alabaster lamp, a gilt mirror and, our piece de resistance- a WONDERFUL Comptoise style grandfather clock which is the first thing you see when you enter the house.

Some of the markets they visited include Villeneuve, L’Ile su la Sorgue, Beaucaire and Carpentras- nirvana!

PS- The Alabaster lamp was negotiated down to 12 euros but they had to buy the shade and replace the plastic cord with silk. The Comptoise clock (in running condition) was bargained down to half its stated price of 720 euros by Francesco and that included delivery too! No wonder we are high five-ing!

PSS- I had to look up the definition of a Comptoise clock which I will include below. In so doing, eBay had three circa 1800 models for sale for a mere … $2875.

Comtoise Clocks

Comtoise clocks, also known as Morbier clocks or Morez clocks, are a style of longcase clock made in the French region Franche-Comté (whence their name). Production of these clocks began in 1680 and continued for a period of about 230 years. During the peak production years (1850-1890) over 60,000 clocks were made each year. Features distinguishing this style are a curving "potbellied" case and a greater use of curved lines. Often a heavy, elongated, highly ornamented pendulum bob extends up the case (see photo)

Many Comtoise clocks can be found in France but they are also frequently found in Spain, Germany, and other parts of Europe, less in the USA. These clocks were very popular across the generations; they kept the time on farms throughout France. Many Comtoise clocks were also exported to other countries in Europe and even further, to the Ottoman Empire and as far as Thailand. The metal mechanism was usually protected by a wooden sheath.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Can I whine for just a minute??

Man oh man! This long-distance relationship is killing me-one giant step forward, two back and so forth. With Francesco back in Todi at his teaching post, Dan is at the helm, high school French and all, bless his heart. We received 3 new bids to complete the structural work and Pascal, our preferred artisan, arrived to discuss the details with Dan (when to begin, cost of materials, how much time it would take, etc).

In the meantime, emails have been flying across the Atlantic desperately trying to find solutions to our money situation. Namely: our remodeling funds are in a euro-based Credit Agricole bank, our project managers have Italian checks which the French merchants will not accept, and Dan is left with using an American debit card with strict daily cash limitations. Are we in the 21st century here??

Back in Canandaigua, NY, you may think this is silly, but last summer I stumbled upon an incredible garage sale where someone was selling a set of 18 calphalon pots and pans in pristine condition (only $120!) . I snatched them up for use at le Muguet and now I'm preparing to box and ship them to Vers. But to what address? How long will it take?

Solution #1: Around 9:30AM New York time, I phoned Dan and by happenstance, Pascal had just arrived to talk about when to begin the job. I listened on my end while I heard Dan say in his perfectly sweet French "Un moment Pascal. Voulez-vous parler avec la proprietaire?" As Pascal explained that he would like to be paid up front in order to purchase his materials for the job and I said that we, umm…, had the money and we just trying to locate carrier pigeons to bring it from Credit Agricole to Dan. Somehow Pascal agreed to go ahead anyway, realizing that a cash in hand solution would be forthcoming.

Solution #2: Racking my brain, I phoned our solicitor Rachel for solutions to the cash issues. We could start all over and ask Credit Agricole to send euros back to New York and then resend them to Uzes via Western Union. I'm thinking: "And pay all those transfer fees, exchange rates, and so forth- no way!" I next phoned my notaire from Uzes who is never available by phone. Again I skyped Dan and said perhaps we could wire the money from my French bank to Francesco's brother in Montpellier and 3 hours of driving later, Dan could collect the needed cash. One way or another, we will succeed!

Solution #3: Pots and pans all packed and ready to go. I'll ask Sophie to do us a favor and allow me to ship to her address in case they arrive after D & F have returned to Italy.

PS. By the way, I PROMISE to be upbeat tomorrow AND share some photos of our progress at le M

Thursday, April 8, 2010

These are some serious bargain hunters!!

Our magical transformation is in that lovely stage where the yeast is working, the bread has been crafted using carefully considered ingredients, and we can only imagine the smell and taste after it bakes in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. 

Now, picture yourself arriving at our lovely le Muguet, roughly 10 days ago, with instructions to Arcardio, le chat, to stay out of gutter pipes and to behave property whilst in Vers Pont du Gard!  Faced with about two weeks to craft the needed structural work and locate the essential furniture pieces, what happens first?

I  offered Dan and Francesco  a pretty good list of local resources to call upon near Uzes; my painter friend Christian and his wife Cathy, nearby Sophie who lives around the corner from our house, the name of a reliable cleaning woman, and a referral to Elizabeth Lallemand, the proprietor of Maison de la Bourgade and a person with an exquisite eye for decor.

Deep breath... first we dealt with a fridge on the blink and a vacumn with a broken part. Then Francesco (a native French speaker) located a local plumber and carpenter to carry forth. Meanwhile the word on the street was that Easter season was THE flea market season of the year! Dan had come prepared with a list of all VIDE GRENIERS (day long garage sales with folks emptying their attics) and BROCANTES (similar to an antique store but with lesser value items) and MARCHE AUX PUCES (French flea markets) located within 100 km of our Vers house. These are some serious bargain hunters!!

In the January issue of French Property News:

"There are numerous markets, or marché des puces, across France but the largest is the Marche aux Puces de St Ouen on the outskirts of Paris. Referred to as ‘the attic of the world’ by Anne Gregg in her book Tarragon & Truffles, this marché is full of treasures from Meissen porcelain to antique textiles, a real must for the serious collector and for those passionate about creating interiors that are true to the principles of bringing past into present. The second largest flea market in France is in the picturesque town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue just south of Avignon. Designers and collectors alike visit this antique market to source for clients and private collections as well as a large number of tourists hoping to pick up a little gem for just a few euros."

Isle sur la Sorgue

Next: Within 3 days of landing, they were "High-five-ing" the treasures found for le Muguet

Friday, April 2, 2010

Part 1- overcoming structural issues

With a target start date of March 27th I knew that we had to scramble to come up with some qualified workers to tackle our first 3 jobs which involved some minor plumbing work, the creation of a small “broom closet” in the kitchen corner (which would house the washing machine and refrigerator) and opening up a clever new clothes closet in a portion of the bathroom adjoining our terrace bedroom.

I tend to use word of mouth and referrals and even some online inquiries when seeking labor in France. All of this is hugely complicated by the long distance management- New York to France. Am I nuts or what??

Fortunately, I felt ten times more comfortable with this remodeling venture knowing that Dan and Francesco would be my “stand ins” fairly early in the remodeling process. Our first bid was from a Brit who knew someone who knew someone I knew. He admitted to prefer the stone work end of things but could refer on to carpenters and plumbers. It took about 10 days to hear back and in the end, his bid was astronomically higher than our budget- to the tune of roughly 50 euros per hour. At almost 1200 euros to create the opening between kitchen and salon, I quickly pondered our options as time was running short. Our goal was to have Part 1 done prior to the 27th and to move on to the critical opening of the stone wall between kitchen and salon done during Part 2.

A flurry of emails resulted in my friends Jill, Ron (and a buddy of their, Miles) coming to the rescue. They made a dash over to Vers from the l’Herault area and put forth a bid to complete all the work for far less than Mr. Brit. Additionally, I had every confidence that these folks would do everything they possibly could to complete our jobs at a fair price.

With the best of intentions, life isn’t always easy or fair. From the 23rd to the 25th, my “crew” worked long and hard and problem after problem surfaced. This was all complicated by the fact that two English speaking gents were working on French soil, trying to communicate to supervisors in Italy who then communicated with me in the states. Long story short- the materials we desired for the job were not used & after many frustrating hours  spent driving from one do-it-yourself store to the next, and when D &  F arrived on the 27th,  the results were not what we were hoping for.

Dan explained that  “The good news is that the upstairs bathroom changes are well under way and we’re fairly handy ourselves. We will have a go at the rest of it.” Thus assured, I settled in to hear what bric a brac treasures my Italian/American duo would find over the Easter holidays.

Next: Treasurers for our Transformation of le Muguet