Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Back to Work

In late September and early October, after having had enjoyed some last family visitors for the year, the house was quiet and with Hank re-energized after his trip back to Maine, we knew it was time to begin the final push to finally finish the house.

First off, we needed a real central heating system installed as soon as possible as we could not suffer through a third arctic winter at Petit Clos. In fact, I could actually begin to feel the stress returning after experiencing a few early frosts, but our hands were tied until the land and Topanga house sale were wrapped up which both fortunately happened by the end of September. So the first thing we did was place our order on the first of October with a local contractor for the wood burning boiler/solar powered system to be installed by mid-November.

Then we did something sort of frivolous and after two years of depriving ourselves anything considered unnecessary, we bought a cute little, zippy, barely used Fiat 500 so we would finally have a second car. One with air-conditioning don't you know!

Hank finished our bedroom which was the last of the rooms to be completed. Under the new paint job exists all new electric including about 6 outlets (versus the one original, sometimes sparking outlet we had lived dangerously with for over a year), insulation and new drywall on every wall and ceiling which allows for a little more privacy (you used to be able to hear a pin drop upstairs) as well as keeps us much warmer.

This was it before:

And then, he started the downstairs bathroom. At first we had decided to just do a quick remodel of the three small existing rooms - Sink/Dog bath shower, WC  and very crowded washer dryer cave so we could get just it done quickly and economically, but soon after he began, it just didn't feel right not to make it as nice as possible. This was our master bath afterall (and will be shared with Caleigh of course who will have her own separate entrance).  After that 'change order' decision was made, Hank then demo-ed the entire space, making room for both a tub and shower and thankfully he did not kill me when I suggested bringing the beautiful, yet space stealing clawfoot tub downstairs and replace it with   a more practical shower for our guests. The laundry and mechanical room have also been extended beyond into a new, much more spacious room built into the barn that will be able to accomodate storage and a pantry as well. Not to be confused, the following pictures are BEFORE:

And During:

I'll have to add the after pictures once we're done, but, these are the fun kinds of things I have been finding at the brocantes while shopping to decorate it.

Estimates, decisions and scheduling also began on replacing those beautiful, problematic and energy inefficient windows and french door. Yes, as much as we wanted to keep them intact and add double glazed window panes in order to keep the original aesthetics, it was cost prohibitive and still would not solve the problems with the icy drafts and fact that many of the windows still have special instructions for opening and closing. So, we're biting the bullet and have ordered new, double-pane, french windows, plus new shutters AND having them installed by someone other than Hank whose hands are way too full as it is.

We had our initial meetings with Gites of France who came to look at both our Bed and Breakfast rooms and potential gite to be started over the winter. Of course, lots and lots more paperwork for moi, but I think the association with this organization will really open some doors to the French and European markets. We'll also get started with promoting Petit Clos in the U.S. and Canada for next season and updating our promotional materials, so January will be very busy getting ready for hopefully many new guests next season.

We spent our second Thanksgiving in France with two ex-pats and friends, Natalie and her daughter originally from Canada, and Australian-American, Anne, who we had met at the post office last winter. Because Ginny and my dad had shipped canned cranberry - fresh cranberries have yet to be found in our neck of the woods - and pumpkin pie mix in advance, I was determined to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and ordered a medium sized turkey at the large superstore, LeClerc well in advance which was confirmed  to be ready the day before Thanksgiving. When I arrived to pick it up, I was told that it actually would not be ready until the following Tuesday. "That actually won't work," I explained, "as I'm preparing the turkey for guests tomorrow." "Je suis desole Madame (I am sorry)," the butcher replied and I literally did not know what to do and just stood in the massive meat department with my mouth slightly agape I am sure, looking around all the isles filled with everything other than a medium-sized ButterBall as I could feel my eyes begin to well up. "Why can't things just be simple for a change?" I was literally in sort of in a daze trying to come up with a plan B but just couldn't seem to decide on what else I could prepare (I did not want chicken on Thanksgiving), but I also knew I could not continue standing there staring into space either. People were beginning to look at me funny. I decided to walk around the huge store to hopefully find some inspiration. As luck would have it, my walk took me past a kind woman offering winetasting with wines from her vineyard. At first, I declined, but seconds later I screeched on the brakes of my oversized cart and I thought, "why the hell not?" She filled my glass and began telling me about a few of her vintages and I immediately felt a little more relaxed and finally stopped my sniffling as I had now at least solved the problem of what wine to buy for dinner. Then, with my mood lightened and feeling slightly emboldened, I marched back to the butcher and settled on a large guinea fowl which ended up being just fine since we were surrounded by good friends this Thanksgiving. Only problem was it was hard not to miss our dear families back home of of course, la dinde (the turkey).

Spring 2013 - 'After' photos of newly renovated downstairs bath.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Le Vendange

As I lie lounging in bed just enjoying the kitties and pooches surrounding me on a lazy Sunday morning - Hank is still in Maine and Caleigh at a friends - I couldn't help but think how absolutely perfect this moment would be if only one of these little critters could bring me a large, creamy and sugar laden, Café American in bed. Fairly certain that my groggy wish was an impossibility, I stretched out my legs toward the side of the bed and as I began to stand up, they buckled and I probably would have fallen on my face if I had not lost my balance and teetered backwards, falling safely back on the bed, barely missing Ziggy the cat. "What the hell?" I wondered as the pain in my thighs returned. "Oh geez, right," as I remembered what I had done the day before and so embarrassed by how out of shape I was.

Yesterday was Sylvan's harvest (le vendange) of his few remaining acres of Sauvignon Blanc grapes that had not been destroyed in last Spring's frost. Rather than utilize the modern machinery that many large winemakers use to cultivate the grapes in minutes, many of the smaller and more organic vintners pick their grapes by hand, taking hours/days/weeks depending on the acreage. Since Sylvan has been invaluable in assisting Hank with the maintenance of our vines we eagerly offered to help when he invited us to join he and his family for the harvest that would be held some time in September. Unfortunately, it happened to hit on a weekend when Hank would be out of the country, but I decided what the hell, I would still help out because he's such a nice guy and plus, he once said that I looked like Lynette (Felicity Huffman) from 'Desperate Housewives.' Flattery will get you everywhere, including a free day laborer during harvest season.

So, the big day arrives and I'm up early and hoof it over to where I presume his Sauvignon Blanc vines are located. But, because it is me,  I actually go to the wrong Merlot field and cannot find anyone which elicits a fleeting hopeful thought that maybe the harvest has been cancelled and I will not have to go through the awkwardness of not knowing anyone and speaking french like a small child.

But, no, I decide not to quit quite yet and continue walking up the hill through more rows of vines when I see the cars and vans parked along the road and a few people hauling crates of grapes. "Great, I'm late," I cringe and imagine that they are all thinking I'm nothing but a lazy, city slacker, but when he sees me, Sylvan quickly greets and introduces to me to everyone, gives me a mini lesson on what to do and I jump right in: kneeling, picking, cutting, standing, picking out bad grapes and heaping the now perfect bunch into the nearby crates situated throughout the rows.  I immediately take to the rhythmic motion and slowly but surely, start working up my confidence until I'm actually keeping up with the 'pros' who have probably done this all their lives.
Temporary warning road sign commonly seen in September

Over and over, you just repeat the same actions, but there's usually someone on the other side of 'your' plant and you get into this kind of a groove of he cuts there, I cut here and hopefully no one cuts the other's fingers! I did hear "Attention de les doigts!" (careful of the fingers) quite a few times. At first, no one said much to me and I didn't really mind as it was nice not to have to think, but as the hours rolled on and the ice began to break, his wife or his mother would ask me a question in English, I would try answering in French and we continued chatting until another row was finished. Then we'd move over to the next one and I would find myself across from someone new and could thankfully use my same 'material' most likely covering the weather, where they lived, how many children we all had, who makes the best baguette, Karl Beyrand of course!). After about 5 hours, we broke for lunch and I decided to head back to the house so I could rest my weary body after a quick bite to eat. The problem with that decision was that I didn't awaken until many hours later and when I finally did, I could barely move my legs, let alone walk comfortably back to the fields. Since Sylvan had told me to feel free to stop working at anytime because he knew my father and Ginny were arriving later that day, my first time grape harvesting experience was now technically over. But, I will definitely do it again, especially next year when we will most likely harvest our very own grapes rather than hire an outside company as we had to do this year. And even though I know that we'll be lucky if we just come out even when you consider all of the manhours spent with the vines pruning (taille), tying (attaché), weaving (crochet), trimming (coupé), Hank would tell you otherwise, absolutely loving every moment spent with his grapes (even though they are not even his beloved red varietal)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

La Rentrée (or Back to School)

Back to school time and I could tell that Caleigh was really excited and looking forward to going to her first choice Lycée (high school) located in the ancient bustling river down of Bergerac of Cyrano fame even though he was only a fictional character. We had already shopped for school supplies as Caleigh has a very strong nerdy side to her when it comes to getting organized. She also had beaucoup new clothes thanks to her uber generous family who took her shopping when she was back in California.

Unfortunately, things did not go quite as smoothly as was hoped when 1) the school informed us the week the term began that she would not be admitted to the American section which would have been helpful in that some of her classes would be offered in English and 2) that she and her car pool buddy were not put in the same class as we had requested the previous June which pretty much made the carpool an impossibility because of the girls' completely different schedules on the drop off and pick up days each week. But, Caleigh was still so excited begin school and to live on campus, a pensionnaire during the week. We went all the way to IKEA in Bordeaux to buy her new twin bedding and cute little dormitory-like things and wondered if it might sort of be like the bright and cheery Pacific Coast Academy from the TV show 'Zoey 101' that she used to love watching as a pre-teen.

Well, not quite the same as she found out her first week when she was settling in. First of all, her dorm monitor did not seem to like her job very much and treated the girls on Caleigh's floor more like prison inmates, shouting orders, limiting shower and bathroom privileges and shutting out the lights a half hour  before everyone else in the building even though the times were clearly printed on a handout. When Caleigh had the nerve to ask her about the discrepancy, Madame used her marker to scratch out the :30 in 10:30pm and told Caleigh to NEVER address her as "tu" (the old tu vs. vous conundrum. Since all the dorm monitors were fairly young, most told the girls to use tutoyer, but apparently Caleigh's floor warden had not read the memo).

So, things did not start out so well and unfortunately, continued to get more difficult as Caleigh found herself overwhelmed by the large classes (35 - 40 students), some impersonal and very old-school french teachers (often feels like there is a sink or swim attitude and that many do not seem to care which way you go; very unlike most of the caring and wonderful teachers she had at her previous school), and again she felt alienated as she hardly knew a soul and it felt like everyone had already grouped up together, leaving her alone and miserable. Some of this easily could be blamed on the first week jitters and insecurity of being 15 years old, but as time went on, she began experiencing panic attacks and when depression set in, I knew that I could not force her to continue without looking into all of our options.

Since changing your mind of which school you would like to attend is not an simple matter in France (hell, changing your mind about anything academically is almost nonexistent so I cannot fathom what one would do should they want to change careers later in life), we tried two tacks. I first contacted a small private British school located about a half-hour away. Nice people, extremely small classes (6 students), prep for passing of A-levels for entry in a British University, and way, way to expensive for us. Next...

I then contacted one of my favorite people in France (as well as habitual life-saver) and asked if she thought there would be any chance of Caleigh switching schools over to the Lycée in nearby St. Foy where two of her children attended. This was actually my personal favorite after we visited it last year and met with some of the teachers. Plus it was much closer and I was no longer keen for Caleigh to live away from home this year. Anyway, Yvonne is an active parent and if anyone could help us, it would be her. And help us, she did. She phoned me back almost immediately. Said she had spoken to the vice principal about Caleigh and he said that they would be thrilled to have her and that there was plenty of room. All we had to do was make an appointment with the headmaster and get the paperwork started which was no small task. I think it took me 2 days to read, translate, fill out, and replace the printer cartridges for all the copies I had to make!

So, I phoned the school, but am unable to successfully make an appointment due to what I am now calling my strong Parisienne accent...the accent in Southwest France is quite different from the accent in your typical formal french course so I've decided to use this as my latest excuse of why I am not always being understood!  Anyway, I have to resort to asking Caleigh to make the appointment over her lunch break, which she does. But, rather than the receptionist making the appointment for us, she transferred Caleigh directly to the headmaster who proceeded to question her whimsical judgement in changing schools and compared her desire to do so like changing a style of clothing. He then told her that he thought she should just stay where she was and then hung up on her. Caleigh calls me sobbing, probably on the verge of another panic attack and I am pissed. Oh, how pissed, I can barely contain myself and want to drive immediately to this school, pull the headmaster outside by his collar, slap him a few times and kick him where he'll never forget messing with Caleigh and yes, chew him out in perfect french. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? Maybe not perfect french per se, but definitely some perfect f-bombed-laced English that I am certain he would still understand. But after my brief fantasy, right now I had a inconsolable child on the other line and I have got to be smart. I tell her this has to be some kind of a mistake and I contact Yvonne again. She is absolutely shocked and phones the school in disbelief until the apologetic receptionist says she accidentally transferred the call to the unprepared headmaster who had no idea who Caleigh was and he thought that she was probably just some spoiled child trying to go behind her parents back in order to change schools.

So, we start again. We meet with the assistant principal the following morning and sign her up. Then go to the old school and fill out her exit paperwork, grab all her personal belongings, including dragging her brand new IKEA bedding towards the smokers hanging out in front of campus where Hank is waving animatedly to us to show us where he has parked the car much to Caleigh's complete mortification. But it's over. We've changed schools in France and from the first day at the new school, she loves it. It's difficult as Lycée is much more challenging than College. She's still a foreigner (l'étranger), but she says that the students quickly welcomed her and the teachers and atmosphere are all so much nicer and of course, we love it because she back home with us for a few more years at least.

Speaking of school, Hank and I signed up for french classes this fall at La Passerelle in Monsegur and found ourselves in this quirky little group of about 8 and a super nice and patient teacher named, of course, Pierre. We had one little mishap during one of the early sessions when the different class levels were still being sorted out and we found ourselves being asked to translate and interpret classic french philosophers in french rather than recite what we did last week in past tense (passeé compose) which had been our homework assignment. I just about moaned aloud, "You have got to be kidding me," when my turn came. Between the complexity of the meaning of life quotes and fact that my most recent 'literary' endeavor thanks to a new dear friend's recommendation for a light read has been dubbed "mommy porn," you could say I was ill-prepared for this latest assignment. But since that time, we have been placed with a nice group of people and although the process is still slow, I do feel that we are improving a little day by day.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Open for Business

As I take a break between guests coming and going - yes, that is plural as in, we're booked solid! Well, solid being relative since we only have two B&B rooms, but still...we have guests in them and have for the past month. And unlike the fears and real nightmare I had of Hank and I behaving more like the American equivalent of the Faulty Towers innkeepers dealing with irritable guests, we found that we were really enjoying ourselves because our guests have been  absolutely amazing. They have entertained us with their life stories as well as brought us gifts (who knew?!) and even invited us out to dinner. On our part, we have offered aperitifs by the pool, last minute barbeque dinners and chatted the evenings away - both in French, English and more typically, Franglish and I fear that the once reluctant innkeepers are going to miss their clients after the season is over.

Ever since July, with the main work on the house finished and guests scheduled to arrive, Hank was forced to relax a bit. Oh, he still had his little green babies to attend - the vines still required spraying, crocheting, trimming, weeding and mowing between rows - but that did not feel like work for him even though it was backbreaking at times. He has also had to master the pool maintenance which is no small task especially when a lot of the local little critters decide to take a dip in the middle of the night. I don't know how many times we have saved a curious toad or lizard and relocated them back to their natural water habitat (vs. a saline pool one). But the pool does require regular cleaning and maintenance, and I must say that the results have been stunning to say the least:

hubba, hubba Hank :)

oh, and here's the pool!

So, we've been enjoying life a bit more this summer. Because we are members of our local tourist organization and participate in promoting our local businesses and activities in the area which are often too numerous to keep up with, we have by necessity become much more active in our community and as a result have befriended many more locals in the process. When I say befriended, I truly think we have turned the corner of not just being invited over as the American curiosity as I often felt we were last year. With Caleigh to guide us with our french language skills (although I have learned that she often corrects me with youthful slang which can be insulting if used with adults you are not familiar with), we have jumped in hook, line and sinker and can actually make it through an entire evening in french and even go beyond the basics of how every one is doing, what they did today and how nice the weather has been.

Most recently, our local boulanger ( invited us to his house for a BBQ where we were reintroduced to a few of our neighbors, including a few local winemakers, and had a wonderful meal under the stars. He grilled the standard french faire served in these parts during the summer - sausage, lamb and chicken - which was all delicious, especially with the wonderful salads he made to accompany the meat dishes. But then Hank opened his big mouth and asked if anyone here every prepared spareribs since we have found them difficult to locate at the market and figured they might be considered just a lowly, non edible cut of beef for humans (sort of like the corn on the cob here that is mainly produced for animal consumption). Both our host and neighbor winemaker piped up that yes, they both prepared the BEST ribs ever..."Oh, do you?" Hank asked and before you knew it, we had committed to compete in a french bbq competition to be held at each of our places over the course of the next month. I say, bring it on!

Making award winning, organic and tasty wines with her husband at the family run Malrome vineyard (, Genievieve had all the confidence to be the first to host the competition and her husband drove over the following week to personally invite us (in order to avoid passing along 'lost in translation' information, all invitations, including changes, are delivered in person to the Americans). I must say, she was good and prepared both a pre-cooked and non on her large, industrial barbeque and the ribs were tender and fell off the bone. She also went over-the-top and prepared fresh, homemade potato chips and a the most beautiful and tasty tomato and cucumber salad with homemade vinegrette. And what I learned over dinner conversation at the table was invaluable about how to shop, pick and purchase tomatoes and cheese. 1) coeur de beouf being the best tomato that fortunately I have an overabundance of at the moment and 2) never buy cheese from one of those noisy cheese vendors...go for the quite guy who will not be as likely to rip you off according to Genevieve's sons. Good to know as Hank and I had stopped buying cheese at the markets because we found paying 30 euros for a few slices a bit excessive.  Hank was also on that night (as any of you who really know him know how that can be!) and he and Karl managed to have the table roaring with laughter over inappropriate jokes in both english and french. We have planned to schedule our next two competitions after everyone is back from vacation in September and Hank and I are busy testing out some of our favorite cooking methods, including Jil and Mark Benson's precooked balsamic marinade and Uncle Steve's dry rub. Please pass along your favorites for us to try out because you know we better kick ass in this competition.

After recovering from what I would consider one of our most stressful and difficult years, these recent rewards of enjoying our new line of work and appreciating our french lifestyle and development of new and hopefully lasting friendships, I feel like we have truly turned the corner in the contentment department. I know that we had never given up hope, but living in the construction zone for the second year in a row, experiencing the winter from hell and continuing to have to deal with less than scrupulous people (see Hank's recent blog: in a language we were still learning, had begun to take its toll. But, now, we were beginning to build our confidence back and maybe even becoming a little 'more french' in the process. For one thing, we have learned the importance of slowing down a bit and to do what the french do best - appreciate good friends, good food, fine wine and to enjoy the fete of life.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Chauffeur d'autobus...bougez ce bus!"

or as we say back home, "Bus driver, move that bus!" while awaiting the final reveal of the completed house. Hank, Caleigh and I are chomping at the bit for that glorious day after living a year and a half in a bit of petit hell in our Petit Clos construction zone. At times, nearly freezing to death within our stone walls, sharing one room huddled together with all our pets, rationing hot water (hell, water period when our well dried up last year), rationing flushes due to an ancient "septic system" (in quotes because it was no more than a holding tank we later found out and needed to be pumped on a regular basis), maxing out electrical extensions until our new service finally replaced the ancient one and living under a fine layer of plaster or drywall powder throughout the entire process. Most of the time we actually laughed about our dire conditions; they were just so bad at times that it seemed kind of funny especially seeing that we had intentionally left our comfy, warm home in Southern California. But with summer just around the corner, we are now eager to move forward, free to focus on running and growing our businesses and mapping out Caleigh's continuing eduction as she moves up to Lycee (high school) next year.

Following are a few pictures of what we've been up do.

This is our front entry when we moved in

 Here it is now. Still needing some touch ups and paint and loads of potted flowers i think. Notice the beautiful stone on the back wall that we discovered?

Here is the front entrance hallway that housed our clothes dryer until just recently. It's funny the things you don't appreciate until you have no choice but to put your dryer in the hallway entrance of your home (oh, and constantly try to locate the extension cord that someone snagged so they could use it for something else in the house). And only use the damn thing "when" it's not going to cost you a fortune which is between the convenient hours of 11:30pm and 7:30am.

 Here it is now. The walls are just skim-coated at this point and will be painted next week.

Here's the hallway looking the opposite direction before:

same viewpoint, now:

The kitchen before:
 The kitchen today:

Living Room before:

And after:

The picture hanging wire on our antique mirror above the fireplace broke and the mirror with it out of the blue. Fortunately, Mom and Gary were visiting and found a beautiful painting from a local french artist to replace the empty space.

Of course, they did not stop there and helped us paint our new gates, refinished furniture, gardened,  shopped and even hauled our new shower rod and lace curtains for the clawfoot tub as well as nice sheets for the rooms all the way from the States.

Caleigh's Room avant:

et apres:

And just a pretty picture of Caleigh for the hell of it:

We changed our room names. "The Blue Room" is now "La Chambre des Lavandes" (Lavender Room)



And it has an en suite bathroom with shower.

This is the landing before where this bathroom was built.

Here's the same landing now. Note the new walls where the chairs used to be.

"The Green Room" is now called "La Chambre des Tournesols" (Sunflower Room)



This is the location of the private bath for Les Tournesols before:

And here it is today:

We redid the floors and staircase...well actually, this was my little baby and I think I did a pretty good job.

When this little guy just wasn't doing the trick anymore...

We had the new septic (micro system) installed.

And last, but not least, a digging project we could all get excited about..

About a week from now, we should be able to put our cosy's on (brit speak for swimming costume I believe) and take a dip in our brand new swimming pool thanks to a generous loan from a dear friend and mentor of Hank's.

Just in time for guests to arrive thanks to our wonderful new promotional materials created yet again by dear friend, Megan Welsh at Spring Creative.

Megan also provided the logo art she designed to friend of the family and artist extraordinaire, Harvey McMeekin of Dana Point, California, who has created our signage thanks to my dad and Ginny.

So, we should be ready to go this season thanks to the generosity, support and help of so many. We never could not have come this far without you.