Monday, 7 August 2017

Wunderkammer - DIY Restoration for a Vintage Map Cabinet



Don’t you just love summer; sizzling in the sun, all the BBQ’s, hay fever, swimming, sitting out sipping adult themed drinks and complaining about the mozzies… the works?  It truly surprises me anything gets done during the summer months when the sun is shining and the beach is burning!  However, in chez nous, it’s business as usual and I have been continuing to get my atelier organised.

One of the big perks of my studio space, the old crèmerie on the grown floor, is a large built in cupboard where I keep my art materials.  In the absence of any other storage however, I have been forced to keep my stock, i.e. all of my finished paintings, drawings and prints, either propped up against the walls or in boxes and plastic bags which is obviously not ideal.  Wanting to get something more permanent sorted out for these fragile things cluttering up my workspace, I took on the long overdue restoration of a piece of furniture I and James bought nearly a year ago – an old map cabinet big enough to house my paintings and protect them from the hustle and bustle of the atelier.



Actually, these draws of mine are not map draws at all; the owner of the local Depot Vente who sold us the parts, said they used to house the robes of members of clergy working in a nearby church.  He in turn found the pieces in a skip as the chapel was being refurbished. 

And yes, the piece was in bits when we got it; two of the draws had lost their supports completely, the top was broken in three and the right side panel had been taken out and replaced with a piece of plywood.  Having studied the woodwork and the metal pulls, looks like it was custom made for this church in or around 1960’s and kept well for most of its life.  Seems like a great waste to through something as stunning in the bin, but their loss, my gain, I suppose.  Even in the condition it was in, the cabinet had so much potential it ended up in my studio where is stood patiently, waiting to be restored back to its former glory… until now of course.

The very first step in the restoration process was to replace the supports for two of the bottom draws which turned out to be easy as pie.  Using an existing piece as a template James cut two new runners out of new pine, dry fitted them in place to make sure they were the right size before attaching a strip of recycled wood on top of each to stop the draws sliding out of place.  Next up, I would attach the new runners permanently in situ with the help of a mallet and some wood glue. 



Our dog Rusty helped a lot too, mostly by wagging his tail and being in the way adorably. 

To complete the framework, I re-attached the top of the cabinet by using old nails still attached to the panels and glued in a few strips of wood that stuck out where the top-pieces had been torn apart in the past. The draws, although dirty, were in pretty good shape and only needed to be waxed to help them slide in and out with ease.  



After the structure was secured I begun the cosmetic side of the restoration.  To even out the tone of the piece and mask out a few old scratches and wood-worm marks, I stained the whole chest, including the new plywood side and the draws, by using a strong solution of Yorkshire tea.  A bit un-orthodox, I know, but I only wanted a thin coat of stain that would cover up some of the imperfections and damages without compromising the woods lovely patina.  I applied it with a microfiber cloth, in three coats, letting the wood dry thoroughly between each layer and sealed it with two coats of a furniture wax that gave the piece a lovely sheen.  The product I used contained 8% beeswax, giving it a slight orange tint.  It took an hour to be dry enough to touch (or re-apply) and around 12 hours to dry out completely.  




Beyond cleaning and polishing, I did nothing with the pulls and so they will remain brown for now.  As it stands I have not decided on whether I ought to get new ones, perhaps in brass or aged copper, or strip and restore the old steel ones.  The brown paint, which is a bit chipped around the edges, I believe, is original to the pulls.  The chest being a vintage piece rather than an antique one, I am not too bothered by changing the minor detailing like the pulls as long as the woodwork won’t be damaged in the process.  Not that I am fundamentally against painting woodwork anyhow, I’ve done it before, but here it is just too lovely to be covered up.  

For something that was ready for the skip, or actually already in a skip, this magnificent chest of draws is now perfectly rehabilitated and ready to serve in my atelier, with or without the retro-brown.  My precious artworks couldn’t be better protected in these priestly draws and I have one less project to worry about.  (Insert a sigh of relief!)  James is happy, the dog is happy and I am happy.  Having finished it all, I actually feel like I deserve the cheeky swim and an ice cold beer…

Meet you at the Lac de Montagnes... anybody up for that? 


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

They Wash Rugs Don't They?

The spring is a magical time in Finland; as the sun kisses the frosty land, slowly melting the snow and a layer of dog shit usually around two foot deep, and each of our thousands of lakes is suddenly freed of ice, shortly followed by millions of birds returning to their shores to nest… so the first Finn crawls out of their cave – and immediately seeks to start a fight for the best position at the local rug-washing station. 

Washing of the rugs is an important task for the Finn, the alpha and omega of good housekeeping.  Although wearing shoes is strictly forbidden inside Finnish homes as to keep our rugs clean, allowing only a rare exception: a baptism, birthday or a funeral, those jolly summer parties we all love and cherish and whip out the good china for.  The rugs must be washed annually.  

Dirty or not. 


Finnish rug washing in Tervo and mangling in Pirkkala - images borrowed from their sites respectfully.


Before moving to Scotland and later to France, I too engaged in this national sport.  And why not - it is made very easy for you as even the smallest villages would have a station, usually outdoors and near a lake, where you can take your carpets, (handmade by grandmothers if you’re a traditionalist or bought if you’re city scum) scrub them clean with pine soap, mangle and hung them to dry.  Like most decent people with an acute sense of good housekeeping, I like my rugs cleaned annually. 

No exceptions.

As we joined our lives and possessions, James, who is to thank for most of our furniture, contributed three stunning carpets to our shared home.  My inner Finn roared and rumbled as I discovered these rugs have never been washed.  Gross.  So unhygienic.  So English!  Three years and a dog later, the carpets remained unwashed and my Finnish needs unsatisfied.  There was nowhere to go, no mangle and they were too heavy.  Then my mother came for a visit and gears started to turn…

Conveniently, I was feeling under the weather on strong antibiotics, having just hurt my face and rendered one of my hands temporarily unusable in an incident involving a stray feline, so it was up to James and ma to get the washing started.  As the nearest rug station is around two thousand kilometres away, we made our own from two architect’s tables, a pressure washer and a few bars of Marseille-soap.  My mum scrubbed as James wielded the pressure washer, starting from the dirtiest rug as I napped upstairs.  It took a bit of grunt, I was told, but the results were truly stunning.  This blond rug with red, white and pale blue accents had gotten so dirty it was nearly all grey to the point where you could hardly distinguish the pattern.  After the wash, Finnish mum-style, it was like brand new. 



James, seduced by the power of his beloved pressure washer, also cleaned up parts of our exterior walls that had gotten mossy over the years, again, with a glorious effect.  I woke up from my nap just in time to capture few snaps of the action and take credit for the job in the eyes of our elderly neighbour who probably thought we were barking mad as the French, together with the Brits, hardly wash their rugs.  Perhaps they just really love shake and vac? 

Bof - Je ne sais pas.

And speaking of our neighbour, although she sneaks us greetings from Jehova every now and then, I really like her and often practise my gardening vocabulary on her as she has the most beautiful jardin I have ever seen.  It has got the perfect balance between a traditional potager with an addition of tomatoes, salads, pumpkin etc. and a flower garden with roses and perennials.  We have a few pots of cherry tomatoes, patisson-squash, strawberries and herbs ourselves and they do give us a good crop but wouldn’t sustain us for the nuclear-winter if you know what I mean.  Anyhow, I like my gardening like I like my men: easy and low maintenance.  Having said that, it is also great to see some of my gladioli finally starting to flower.  The bulbs were planted a tad bit late this spring and my expectations for a flower-show this summer were pretty non-existent.


Fresh from the garden... 


As it stands we are waiting for a hot and sunny weekend to finish up the last of our rugs.  The woollen ones take a day or two to dry completely, but it’s worth it – if not for anything else other than my peace of mind.  I had this funny moment when I caught a glimpse of our freshly scrubbed piece of carpet drying in the garden as the sun slipped behind a wispy cloud: just in that moment there, somewhere far away, my old granny looked down and smirked.  The dirty skank washed hers never

Friday, 14 July 2017

Wonderwall



Wonderwall (Noun) 
“A barrier which separates the mundane from the Transcendent Reality. A true Wonderwall will always have a crack, or a slit or an opening which allows anyone a glimpse of what lies beyond the Wonderwall.”


Do you ever catch yourself staring at a project, an unfinished wall perhaps or a gargantuan pile of ironing and say to yourself will this job ever be finished?  I love my old house with its rough edges and all its imperfections, but living inside a project does take its toll:  I get fed up of clearing up fallen plaster, let it collect in the skewed corners around the house and I tire of fighting the armies of spiders we share this house with, allow them to conquer the contours of our stairwell and erect their flags in the ceiling.  The work never ends.  Priming a wall can take a week when the moral is low.


This is usually when my husband strolls in with a new gismo and I rediscover my enthusiasm of painting and decorating.  To battle my growing apathy towards home improvement, last Monday he adopted a wallpaper kettle and come Friday, I have already given it a name and a place around our dinner table – that’s how much I love it. 

Our new wallpaper kettle and my mum in action...




For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing one of these babies in action, a wallpaper kettle is a simple gadget that makes stripping wallpaper a joy.  It looks roughly like a petrol canister fitted with a hose and a plastic tray.  James told me it was around thirty euros in our local Bricomarche - money well spent I thought.  As water boils in the tank, stream is directed through the hose and into the shallow tray that is kept pressed against the section of a wall ready to be stripped.  Unlike my fingernails, the steam will penetrate several layers of paper at once.  The old adhesive is melted away, allowing big sheets of wallpaper simply to fall off with a gentle pull or a scrape – all in a matter of seconds.  On top of all this, the device is fairly light weight and using one is easy as pie. 

If only it made tea, I would elope to Spain and marry it. 

Conveniently, the purchase of our latest toy coincided with the visit of my mother, who, when faced with a choice between a relaxing trip to Benidorm or being sent to a Gulag, would choose the Gulag every time.  Like a good daughter, I thought, if working like a beast is how she likes to spend her vacation, who am I to stop her.   




So now, in five days, she has managed to be done with Mount Everest’s worth of washing and ironing, pickled enough cucumber for an army and walked the dog around the globe. Twice.  Last but not least, it was she who picked up the spanking new kettle and stripped, single handed, the walls of our entryway that were grotty and unfinished after past half-hearted attempts of wallpaper-removal, going back to the days when we first moved in.  Embarrassed to see how easily she had turned one of our biggest failures into a success, I may need to step up my mother’s day game for next year… 

Despite of my personal feelings of inadequacy, the results are superb: plaster that was hiding under the stained 90’s wallpaper turned out to be painted light green and in surprisingly good condition.  It was always evident that whole sections will need to be replaced, especially from around the front door and in the back where previous occupants had tried to half-arsedly cover up old damages with floppy sheets particleboard, but the rest is pretty solid.  To see these walls for the first time without scraps of paper was both weird and wonderful.  Although the old paint job is in a dire nick, you get a good feel how the space could look like once fully restored. 




Having a partner-in-reno, or a fabulous mum, to share the workload with every once in a while, is helping me to stay motivated.  When I find myself lacking in energy, nothing feels as good as a helping hand and some hearty progress.  My mum will spend a total of three weeks here, this being her whole holiday allowance for the summer, and I must admit, I was dreading it.  No matter how much I love my mother, three weeks is a long time to cater for any guests, including family, on a building site.  Luckily we seem to work very well together and she loves our house as well as Mazamet.  With her help and whirlwind like enthusiasm, I even found myself with a bit of free time for the first time this summer.  In a week I have managed to catch up on work, make a pretty summer dress and see attractions and events all around Mazamet and La Montagne Noire.  To summarise, I have managed to relax.

I can concur,  la vie est belle!  Seeing my mum adore the pace of life by the foot of the Montagne Noire is making me incredibly happy.  And as she happens to be dead afraid of spiders, I have a new reason to brake truce with the cobwebs brigade.  God knows, it's about damn time!  
 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Stairway to Heaven






Yeah, I know.  I had to.  I am a simple girl: our stairway was in a dire need of tender love and care and I had just the title!  Cheese or no cheese, I hope you will appreciate my next project that stands before you as a living-non-breathing-proof of the transformative power of paint: 

It was dark.  It was dreary.  It was mahogany-tinted pine. 

I am of course talking about the tongue and groove panelling on the first flight of stairs leading from the entryway to our main living space floor above.  This particular section was poorly lit in the begin with, but the imposing hue of the pine was making the situation much worse by masking out the contour of our beautiful oak staircase as well as dating the space significantly.  Sure, we will be adding proper lighting to the landing area later, with the help of our trusted electricians, but in the meantime, replacing the whole panelling that was perfectly functional, just a bit depressing, felt like an overkill, hence James and I decided to give it a lick of fresh paint instead. 


The pine panelling was stained with a heavy hand and waxed to protect this lovely shade of drab.  It made the first flight of our stairs feel unwelcoming and dark and did no favours for the lovely oak stairs that blend straight into the dark background.


Having looked at a few colour charts we went with our usual: a tin of brilliant white.  With my pesky Nordic heritage and a taste for everything minimalist, it just felt like the right choice for this dark and narrow space.  As the panelling had been treated with both, stain and wax, I chose to use a Nuance Mono Créme multi-surface emulsion in matte finish.  Nuance is a French dupe for Dulux and this particular concoction is self-undercoating, thus sticks like shit to a blanket, fast drying and silly easy to use. 

As with any good paintjob, I started mine by sanding the panels.  One could use the good old sandpaper in medium grain, but I chose to fasten things up a little by cranking up my beloved electric sander.  To get rid of most of the old wax treatment, I needed to go over the area a few times before I was down to regular wood.  There was no need to bother getting rid of all the stain* as it sits much deeper than wax and my paint would cover it up easily with a few thorough coats.  Having cleaned the surface of all dust, I applied the paint with a brush.  A roller is certainly a more forgiving tool, especially for the beginner, but I do not like the way using one inevitably wastes paint.  The grooves of these panels and the fact I had to work with my hands behind the spindles of the staircase also made the brush a good pick for this job.   

*Stain is a generic term for (usually) water-based colouring that penetrates the wood highlighting the natural variation of wood-grain.  The more you apply, the darker or more vibrant your final colour will be.  It’s recommended you seal the wood after staining by waxing it or applying a coat of lacquer, oil, etc. to protect the finished surface and make it repel dust and dirt.


The tools of the trade: my beloved sander and wood, PVC and aluminum compatible paint - if these can't beat the shit out of that faux mahogany, nothing will!


I let my wall to dry overnight after the first coat, not because it would have needed it, but as it was getting a bit late.  Without my beauty sleep though, I could have been finished with the whole job in about three hours, including an extensive search for an extension lead my lovely husband had tidied away exactly where it belonged.  

Bastard. 

And here's the results: Not bad I say! 


Having seen some photos of the new colour, he couldn’t believe how airy and open the corridor suddenly felt.  The fresh white paint is the best substitute for natural light in a space like this in my view and having erased the oddly red-ish mahogany tint, you can actually distinguish where our lovely staircase begins and the partition ends.  How clean it all looks certainly gives me hope when thinking about rehabilitating rest of our stairwell that is currently painted in varying shades of natural white with decades of dirty handprints and nicotine stains.  Yummy!

I'm not a great believer in art hung in narrow spaces, as normally I am too clumsy to risk it, but this little "home" sign felt appropriate here.  It was a housewarming present upon moving to France nearly three years ago now and will hopefully hang in our home, in this old house, for decades to come.

That’s it folks!  I think I can concur this was a small but transformative job – one that we would have tackled ages ago if only we had known how easy it was…  

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Le Petit Jardin Vol. 1


It’s been a while huh?

As the temperature climbs from the high twenties to the mid-thirties here by the Montagne Noire, my motivation to function plummets exponentially.  And what would be a better project to tackle when the sun is hot than overhauling a garden full of concrete and dog poo?  It has been months in the making, but it seems that our outdoor space is finally taking shape despite of this heatwave holding Europe in its deadly grip. 

To say we had to start from scratch with this one would be an understatement; to even get to the concrete base covering the whole surface of our little gardenette, we had to clear away a decade’s worth of ivy and moss, dead leaves as well as heaps of general garden waste – all in varying stages of decomposition.  To utilise this half-putrefied mess, our first priority was to buy a composter unit.  As it stands, food waste is not currently collected in Mazamet, so having our own composter in the garden would help us recycle our scraps and provide compost for all our future needs.  






We also needed to get rid of a few pesky trees, including a London Plane that was mere inches away from the garden wall and destined to grow huge.  Another had already damaged the surface of the old concrete patio with its roots and thus it was getting on my tits.  In fact, I hated it so much that I took a dull saw to the bastard and spent almost an hour cussing and sawing through blood, sweat and tears until the tree was no more.  A bush, a shrub and odd patch of completely tasteless wild strawberries soon met the same faith.
Having gotten rid of it all, seemed that we had managed to eradicate every single piece of greenery from our garden either by chopping, scraping or pressure washing it…

…until the roses appeared from under the rubble.  Two old but beautiful varieties in fact, planted by our current neighbour who used to reside in our house in the 60’s with her family.  These were the only original elements from the old garden that we saw worth keeping – and to what results!  With a little pruning here and there, are these not two of the most beautiful roses you have ever seen? 



Other new plants include stunning bush of lavender, rhubarb, thyme and rosemary.  I also planted a selection of bulbs, none of which have shown any interest in blooming so far, but such is gardening: constant investment for the next season.  We chose purple slate as the filler for these beds, hoping it would slow down the snails and keep the area as weed-free as possible.




The old patio, completely broken up by a web of roots, was dug up and replaced with the help of Rusty the dog who loves digging.  We levelled the base with a few bags of sand, laid down the law some factory off-cuts of engineered slate in light beige and filled the gaps with specs of subtly rose-tinted marble that works well with the purple slate.  In time, this is where we’ll set up a table and chairs once the right set comes along, but for now, it’s a steady base for Rustys paddling pool when he gets too hot in his furs, a bbq or a set of planters.

Parts of the shallow wall separating the gravel from concrete was too damaged so it had to be replaced.  I made my builder-dad proud by fixing up my own from mortar and broken up specs of colourful cement tiles.  Small boulders of natural stone we had previously found were used to line the flowerbeds around the ring of the patio and as a dinky rockery.  Small details, but they add a little bit of cosiness to the otherwise plain concrete base. 



With all this talk about stone, you might wonder why we did not go for grass in the end.  I would have really wanted to, not least for the dog to use as his latrine, but in this climate it needs constant maintenance to look good in the summer.  Even with the diligence of the local gardeners tending the public spaces in Mazamet, the grass is yielding under the sun and there’s only so much watering I want to do on day to day basis.

So if the experts can’t keep it alive…  I’ll just stick to pot-plants myself, thanks.

Here you have it: even with most of the base work now completed, there is plenty to be done – we have a few more flowerbeds to construct and an old antique trough to be repurposed as a vegetable batch, but more about that later.  It’s simply too hot to even write about hard work!


Hey– and if you have tips on how to kill slugs without heavy poisons, drop me a line – the cherry tomatoes and our dog will thank you.

Happy gardening y'all!  


Monday, 22 May 2017

Inspiration, Now - painting and drawing Chez Nous




Welcome back to Chez Nous.

Good news - as the renovation of my atelier d’art is progressing slowly but steadily, I have managed to reclaim my number one metier, painting.  And for once I am not talking about painting walls, but painting as in fine art and illustration.  Although the emphasis of this blog has been on the renovation and restoration of our house here in Mazamet, I feel it is time to come clean about my artistic endeavours also, as I am currently embarking on a painting project about Chez Nous and more widely, the region I am lucky to live in.

Getting back on my vocation full time has been both weird and wonderful after focussing on other projects for nearly six months.  On top of that, the last time I set out to paint a coherent body of work to be exhibited together was for my degree show, back in Edinburgh College of Art in the Auld Reekie in 2014!  To best explain what I plan to establish by painting a series of pieces about my own dwelling, I better start from the beginning… of what my art is all about in the first place:


Some of my earlier paintings from 2006 to 2010


Some people see themselves as artists primarily, but I have always been a painter.  Working towards perfecting my trade through mastering different materials, repeated sketching or meticulous base-work such as priming my own canvasses is very important to me.  It has been a long road to find out what my preferred subjects are, from early works inspired by art nouveau and surrealism to brash portraits of objects commanding to be gazed at, but at this point of my career I am most inspired by different materials and patterns, iconic brands and cherished things.  Acknowledging the weight of the history of art so far, as well as the significance of colour in two dimensional art, I still want my pieces to be playful.  The concept of nostalgia, too, plays a huge part in my way of painting things and wanting to inspire the viewer to start paying attention to the beauty found in everyday: how we dress ourselves, the products we consume, advertisement, signage, décor…  I firmly believe most things around us deserve a second look and by elevating mundane subjects into art by painting them in larger than life scale on canvas, is my way of doing so.


Some of my most recent, pattern based pieces


But leaving my artists manifesto aside, by choosing to paint my house, my home, and exhibit the pieces for all the world to see, is my way of documenting what is here and paying tribute to the people who built this lovely house as their home over a century ago.  This house is a treasure chest of ideas for a pattern-obsessed painter and a history buff:  The wallpapers alone would keep me busy for years in the studio, not to mention the intricate tilework and the plaster details with their hidden symbols.  And there are many homes just like mine on this street alone, some occupied, but many waiting for a fool of a renovator to take them on and love them again. 

Mazamet used to be one of the richest regional towns in France with more gold stored in its banks than in the branches of Paris.  The textile, leather and pelt-industries created a steady stream of wealth making it possible for merchants of all classes, including the cheesemongers who set up shop in Chez Nous, to build beautiful houses, using the most fashionable materials and decorating them stylishly following the latest trends.  It looked like the economic growth was never ending; even the wars did not stop the production in the Montagne Noire - if anything the war effort meant more business for the local mills producing textiles and gear for the military.  But come 1970’s and the rules of commerce had changed:  The local producers could no longer keep up with the competition once the cheap imports started flooding in from Asia, China in particular.  Today hardly anything is left from the glory days of the industrial dominance of this region, except the hollow shells of the factories scattered along the waterways tricking down from the mountain. 



Old postcards of Mazamet showing the town centre, processing of pelts - a key industry for the region and one of the now abandoned factories.  



With no work and mounting social problems, people that grew up here were forced to look for their fortunes elsewhere, leaving homes built by their ancestors behind.  These properties soon lost their value and small townhouses as well as the grand villas of the factory owners were left to decay.  Investment and with it, new residents, are returning to Mazamet, though, have been for some time now.  The agreeable climate together with affordable properties and its authentic small town-feel makes this a popular spot for the English expats.  I have hear Tarn, our department, being describes as the best value for money in the whole of France by friends who invest in property here.  Due to spectacularly cheap rents for businesses, manufacturing and commerce are making a comeback too.  Just the other week I read about somebody setting up an artisanal sake distillery nearby and the town centre is been re-fitted as we speak to attract more shopkeepers and restaurateurs.  Our mayor has a real interest in encouraging all kinds of businesses and under his schemes especially young entrepreneurs have had a change to start-up businesses in Mazamet.

Not quite the renaissance of the Montagne Noire just yet, but things are improving.  People’s attitudes towards historic homes on the other hand, not so much.  We have been able to buy and re-claim so many materials such as tiles so easily because there seems to be very little interest in preserving the old.  From every one person I know who is interested in respectful renovation of their old house, there seems to be dozens who would rather skip the painstaking restoration process and cover everything with plasterboard and laminate.  Their home and their rules, of course, but surely there is no harm in giving the old another change? 


Small watercolour and pencil sketches inspired by the patterns of our wonderful encaustic cement tiles


By choosing to paint my tiles, the weather beaten front door of ours or 60’s floral wallpaper is not to say this is art – it is to encourage the viewer, you, to look again after something has been elevated into art.  What people take from my work is of course subjective, but if it inspires at least one person to start looking for the beauty of the everyday in their own lives, job well jobbed.


Tile sketches in blush pink, carmine and burgundy


Art does not need to be this monster that only lurks in museums, knobby galleries and hipster bars – it is all around us, where we choose to see beauty. 

Painting is my way to engage with the world around me.  It is a way to document my life and my feelings, but also a way to make a living, thus curated for an audience.  My work at its most truthful lies somewhere between these parameters.  By creating art inspired by my own home I am turning something very private into something professional, but in a way, this is what I am already doing by writing this blog.  These little watercolours illustrating my thoughts in this post will serve as a template to start working on canvas – canvasses that may one day be hung in somebody else’s home.  The idea of that is both thought provoking as well as bizarre. 


My front door.


Once the day comes to exhibit my creations out in the big wide world, I will naturally be starting local.  During my time here I have noticed it is often those that are the closest that can truly be the blindest when it comes to valuing our surroundings.  And as it is everywhere else, it often takes an appreciative stranger to convince the locals that it’s not all just doom and gloom here.  Mazamet really deserves to be loved again and through my work, I want to be the one carrying her torch. 


Monday, 15 May 2017

Le Grand Balcon - Setting up outdoor space for the summer

It all started with a catalogue.  You know, one of those supermarket add-magazines soliciting variety packs of Walkers and the best deals on Birds Eye frozen macaroni bites.  We get a fair bit of those here in France, in fact they drop semiregularly into our mailbox, once or twice a week, from all of the major supermarkets in the area.  First I thought about putting a stop to it by attaching a small “pas de pub” note on the door like before, but as a homeowner, I thought why not give the catalogues a try.

Who knows, they may even have coupons, I remember thinking.

Little did I know that a mag from Casino was going to change the way we would use our balcony, a leaky, smelly and callous place, which at that juncture mostly served as a place to dump smelly bin bags.  Like a good little wife I browsed through each leaflet full of special offers and multi-buys, occasionally setting a few aside featuring decent beer offerings or a tasty coupon.  From this pile of domestic misery, James spotted a set of patio furniture, a modular sofa, armchair and a tea-table-combo, for a price too good to miss.  As the weather was warming up, we wanted somewhere nice to sit outside with our G&T’s and made a trip to the Géant Casino in Castres the very next weekend.


The near impossible-to-assemble patio set with our riggity old table and chairs.
    


As you would expect, the furniture was a real bitch to put together.  Made of composite plastic in charcoal-black and casted to look woven in, these sets are fairly commonplace.  We were attracted to this particular combination, not just for its price, but because of the modular nature of it.  The furniture is lightweight and can be made to suit various situations: it’s not ridiculously opulent for the two of us and in the fair occasions we have company, you can seat up to five people comfortably.  The detail I was not expecting to be pleased about were the cushions, which turned out to be nice and fluffy, machine washable and moisture repellent. 

While James was putting the pieces together in a drunken rage, I contributed by removing the cushions from their protective film and complained about certain men’s inability to read instructions.  Happy times.

Having sorted out the seating as well as a pesky hole in the fugly-but-functional fiberglass roofing, our little terrace was coming together nicely.  We chose to prioritise other projects for the summer to come, therefore it made sense to repair rather than remove the corrugated fiberglass sheets keeping the balcony dry from the rain.  You see, the water had previously found its way through the concrete base of the terrace, all the way to downstairs and the only way to start managing this was to make sure the floor was staying dry.  Installed sometime over ten years ago, the fiberglass sheets were in a proper state, but seemed to be holding on fine enough.  After James replaced a missing sheet and bolted it in place, this issue was solved. 




This corrigated fiberglass had weathered so badly that on the first glimpse James and I both thought it was asbestos.


With relatively little direct sunlight filtering thought the dirty fiberglass into this north facing sitting area, we get to enjoy our stunning view without being burned to crisp - something I truly appreciate as a perma-pale Finn.  Sure, the roofing will go as early as we have the time and the money to replace it properly, but in the meantime, the situation could be a lot grimmer.


Our current collection of herbs and flowers.


The concrete base will also get dug up and replaced.  For the time being we are thinking about terracotta tiles, perhaps re-using some already in this house, but in the interim the cracked concrete was covered up with a “rug” of synthetic grass.  We used to have this stuff covering a few problem areas in our old gallery-rental and we both liked the playful nature of the material.  Our garden, still a bit of a project, as is everything else in this house, does not have any grass and likely never will, so putting down a piece of artificial lawn felt like a fun thing to do.

Rest of the apparent décor, the little table and chairs, the herbs and the accessories migrated into this place almost on their own.  A north facing balcony is not the best place to grow herbs, I know, but so far so good.  They add a certain je ne sais quoi to the place and grow close to the kitchen where they are needed.  My favourite of all things in the balcony is probably the large ceramic statue of a stork, given to us as a wedding present by a friend and made by her elderly mother who was quite of an artist back in her day.  The garland of LEF-bulbs is also wedding related: it was bought from a Scandinavian household-all-rounder Class Uhlson to light up the stage in our wedding venue.








Setting all things and furnishings aside, I am in love with that view.  How could you not!  In a clear day you can see the rooftops of Mazamet, over the valley and all the way to the forests of Sidobre.  You can sit comfortably under a blanket and spy how the weather here changes in seconds and when the night comes, you may sit back and admire the stars.  It never stops to amaze me how one view alone can be so engaging.  Hopefully we will manage to extend this panorama even further by opening up the left side of the patio by reducing the height of the concrete wall that luckily is not part of the supporting structure for the roof. 




A room with a view...


Having a balcony that functions as it should has improved our social life too as here in France, it seems, everybody smokes.  Now, even when it rains, our friends can enjoy their fag-brakes without having to trek downstairs to the garden.  And of course, eating out in our place really means eating out now.  Even with the occasional bats, wasps and ants, it’s a great place so sit down and relax with a hearty G&T.

There is a one last person in the family that is yet to embrace the transformation of our terrace: Rusty the pupper.  He seems to find the confined outdoors a bit of a drag and much prefers the comfort of his own bed.  Well, you can’t please everyone they say… but at least the humans of our unit love the transformation.