Then They Stay Dead: Reflections at the 15-Year Mark of my First Husband’s Death

My late husband Gary and our son at Giverny, Monet’s garden outside Paris

My first husband, Gary, died 15 years ago today in Sydney, Australia.

Many events have happened in my life since Gary’s death, including (not in chronological order) our son’s graduation from high school and college, my retirement from a long corporate career, my son’s wedding to his beautiful bride, my move from Australia to England, the deaths of both my parents and my wedding to Clive.

Last year I wrote about my reaction as a new widow to ‘In the Next Room’, the well-known words of Henry Scott Holland. In death’s immediate aftermath, the deceased may be in the next room of Heaven, but they most certainly are not the next room of our physical space.

And they never will be again. My faith is such that I believe the soul is eternal, and I pray I will be reunited with my loved ones one day. But they have left the life we knew with them on this earth.

‘Distressed Haiku’

Walkway to Sydney’s Shelly Beach, one of Gary’s favourite places

The following lines are included in Distressed Haiku, written by American poet Donald Hall after the death of his wife.

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

The husband and father – or, in my parents’ case, after the death of my brother Rob in an automobile accident, the son — stays dead while we raise children or attend graduations or weddings, when we gather year upon year for family birthdays or Christmas dinners, when we recall a special time and can’t share the memory with the person who made it so. And on every random day when something expected or unexpected causes us to think of them. They stay dead as we pass the one week mark, one month, two months, six months, one year, two years … fifteen years (or in my brother and uncle’s case, 45 years …).

I share Hall’s words not to be negative or bring anyone’s spirits down, but because they speak the truth to me. They capture the truth about the long-lasting impact of the death of a loved one, particularly when it’s an untimely death. If there’s a positive to this truth, it’s that some say grief is the flip side of love, and we experience grief because we were so blessed to love and be loved.

Love also endures

The first photo I took of Gary, a few weeks after we met

I’ve been doubly blessed with my two husbands, Gary and Clive. I’ve written about Gary before, about the night we met and how lucky I felt throughout our marriage; about the kind of person he was and the gifts he gave to the world as a devoted husband and father, son, brother, friend, gardener, coach, umpire, scuba diver, animal lover, photographer and DIY master; about the tradition I’ve developed to scatter red rose petals in his memory each August 2nd – at Shelly Beach near Manly, Sydney, his favourite place, or wherever I may be.

Gary loved to scuba dive around this Shelly Beach headland, where we scattered his ashes

Today I scattered rose petals in the Felixstowe seafront gardens. I came home to Clive and as I do each year gave him a red rose for his desk. Red roses for love, for Gary and Clive.

Thank you for reading and may all those who are grieving eventually find peace.

Allez les Bleus! A Paris Café, Football and World Cup Finals

World Cup weekend, Paris 1998

Clive and I are looking forward to watching France v. Croatia in Sunday’s World Cup final. We’re so disappointed England’s inspiring young team won’t be there, but they exceeded all expectations by making it to the semi-final. The country couldn’t be more proud of them.

With tomorrow being le quatorze juillet (the 14th of July or la Fête nationale, France’s national celebration day to mark the storming of the Bastille during its Revolution), followed by Sunday’s big game, we can imagine the overwhelming excitement and anticipation in Paris.

World Cup 1998

I happened to be in Paris 20 years ago this month, apartment-hunting with my late husband Gary and our son. The week we were there, France, as host nation, reached the World Cup final for the first time. The city was joyous with anticipation.

The game was played on Sunday night, July 12, at the Stade de France, the national stadium just north of Paris. A day or two before, while we were out viewing apartments, I snapped the photo at the top of this post. It’s a café in the 7th arrondissement, where several men were hanging the Tricolor, the French flag, one of thousands that appeared all over the city.

We watched the game on a small TV, cheering with everyone in the country every time France got the ball. France won, beating Brazil 3-0. The legendary Zinedine Zidane scored two of the goals, became a national hero and later received the French Légion d’honneur. The city went wild with joy. Celebrations (and noise!) filled the streets all night long and throughout the next day, 13 July, the day we miraculously found our apartment. The day after that, le 14 juillet, festivities continued with the traditional military parade on the Champs Elysées and evening fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. It was a magical, exciting time to be in the City of Light.

But as far as football went, it seemed a momentous one-off, a thrilling coincidence that our short time in Paris happened to be during that particular week.

Living with a Brit

Life changes, for most of us, in ways we can’t imagine. Never did I think I would one day find myself living with a Brit, or foresee how this particular Brit would somehow convert me into a person who enjoys following the sport of football – at least a couple of teams.

We support our local Suffolk team, Ipswich Town (go tractor boys!), in the Championship League and I’ve loved watching Arsenal in the Premier League, not least because their now-former manager, Arsène Wenger, is a distinguished, articulate Frenchman. We’ll give the new manager a chance (actually, both new managers as Ipswich also has a new one), but I can’t imagine anyone living up to Wenger.

My footy teams

At the European and global level, we also enjoy following various pan-European tournaments and, once every four years, the World Cup. On a trip to Paris in July 2013, I recounted to Clive the excitement there during the 1998 World Cup. I was retracing some of my 1998 apartment-hunting steps while working on my memoir (still-in-progress) chapter about the search, and showed Clive the photo of the men hanging the Tricolor.

Of course we had to find the café and see if any of the guys in the photo were still there. The photo doesn’t reveal the café’s name, but I thought it was near la Tour-Maubourg metro. We found it – called la Source – on the corner of rue de Grenelle and Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg.

Café la Source, Paris 2013

Café on the corner, la Source, Paris

After a cool drink under the awning, I made my way inside to the bar area with a print-out of the photo. The bartender called over several young waiters, but they didn’t recognise anyone. They urged us to return the next afternoon, when le patron, the owner, would be there. ‘He will remember,’ they said.

And so he did. Le patron said he’s the one standing with his back to the camera in the photo, supervising all the activity. He named the others in the photo, seemed pleased to have it (showing it around to all and sundry) and we had a lovely conversation about that special weekend. When Clive and I sat down to eat, he brought complimentary glasses of rosé to our table. After the meal, I couldn’t resist asking him for a photo, to which he graciously agreed.

moi (holding my 1998 photo) with le patron at la Source, 2013 Paris

This year’s weekend sequence is a little different than it was 20 years ago, with 14 juillet coming before the big final. Let’s hope the continuous celebrations will be the same.

If you happen to be in Paris and around la Tour-Maubourg, say hello to la Source and its patron for me. And maybe you could let me know in a comment: have they hung a Tricolor this year?

Wishing everyone a joyeux 14 juillet and spectacular Sunday. Along with millions of others, Clive and I will be watching the game on TV.

Allez les Bleus!

la Source, side view, across from la Tour-Maubourg metro, Paris 7e

Cheers and merci for reading. À bientôt, until next time.

Earthly Remains


Memorial Day 2013

May 23rd would have been my mother’s 94th birthday.

How strange it feels to be in England, instead of New Jersey, during these long, lovely late May days.

‘Your mom passed away’

My mother died peacefully in her sleep on Saturday morning, April 28.

Despite her recent frailty and deteriorating health, I was stunned by the nurse’s words over the phone, ‘Your mom passed away.’

Mom and her father, 1924

In late February, Mom had several falls. She had begun losing weight as her ability to use utensils and interest in eating decreased. I spent 16 days with her in late February and early March, during which time she was moved to her assisted living facility’s memory care unit.

Mom had also become confined to a wheelchair full-time. She seemed more comfortable there and no doubt felt safer than during the final weeks of using her walker. She still knew me and my son, but otherwise her memory was largely gone. We could at least page through her 90th birthday book and she recalled with deep love her wonderful parents.

A beautiful day in February 2018

I was thankful for those weeks with my mother, despite the distress of seeing her in her weakened condition. One afternoon I sat in the local Barnes & Noble and wept on the phone to Clive, asking how long a person could live without eating.

working girl at the Jersey shore

Mom received highly-personalised care in the memory unit, including mealtime feeding. It was both upsetting and positive to see her letting an aide (and sometimes me) feed her. She could still sit up in her wheelchair, enjoy different programs and respond to questions and interactions. As ever, the staff who cared for her told me how kind and lovely she was, and what a wonderful mother I had.

with Mom in the memory unit, February 2018

In late March, Clive and I returned to NJ for another two weeks. We did our usual routines, attending programs with Mom, sitting with her and spending as much time as possible with her each day. While I couldn’t say Mom was doing ‘well’, I was thankful she was receiving excellent care and felt she was doing as well as possible in the difficult circumstances.

Mom at University of Michigan

I knew I lived far from my mother. But based on experience with my father, both of Clive’s parents and other elderly people we’ve known whose death occurred over a period of days or weeks, I always thought and hoped I’d have time to get to my mother before she took her last breath. I always wanted to sit with her at the end, to talk with her, hold her hand, stroke her hair, hug her and tell her how much I loved her and that she was the best mother in the world. This was not to be.

I’ve read and heard many stories about people who die when their loved ones just step away from the bedside or go out for a short while. In most cases, the moment when people leave their earthly life is not our choice.

‘It was very peaceful, with no pain,’ the kind nurse told me. ‘She was comfortable.’

Interesting word, that: comfort-able. In those first, shocked minutes and hours I was not able to be comforted.

last photo together, April 2018

Three things

In between phone calls with my son, who was ably handling immediate matters in NJ, and Clive contacting local friends and booking flights for early the next morning, three things crystallised in my mind about what would happen with my mother’s earthly remains:

(1) Cremation. Over the years Mom and I talked multiple times about her desire for cremation. She felt that in today’s world, environmental concern and physical space was one factor. She also had a deep-seated fear of being buried alive (which I assured her I understood). It was incredibly helpful that, thanks to her clear guidance while she was alive, I had absolutely no doubt about her wishes.

Mom on her 93rd birthday, 2017

That said, I also wanted to be certain – and worried about getting there in time — that before the cremation occurred, I would have …

(2) Time alone (meaning me and Clive only) with her body. And I wanted this before anyone else viewed it. I didn’t necessarily expect anyone would rush over to the funeral home for this purpose, but experience has taught me that when people die, you never know how others may react or what they might do.

(3) Cemetery burial. Years ago, at the time of my brother Rob’s death, my mother reserved a space for herself in the family plot where her son, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. I anticipated many phone calls and communications with the cemetery for the cremation and interment.

Mom with her mother and me

Thankful things about Mom (and a few about me)

At some point in the hours that followed the news of Mom’s death, I realised my wish to have been with her during her final days and hours — should her death have come that way – was mostly for my benefit, not necessarily for hers.

On our flight to the US, in an attempt to keep my focus on my mother instead of my own loss, I made a list of things I needed to remember and be thankful for.

Thankful about Mom

* she had kind aides and a nurse with her when she took her last breath

* she was ‘comfortable’ with no visible pain or distress

* she was fine the night before, and at 5am that morning when an aide checked on her and she awoke and said, ‘Thank you, dear.’

* she didn’t linger for weeks or months in any horrible ‘out of it’ state

* she died in bed, with dignity, not in a public space or falling out of her wheelchair

* she could still respond to people and say a few words, including ‘I love you’

* we visited her five times last year and had two two-week visits with her this year

* she still knew me and my son, and my voice on the phone

* we had a loving conversation on Thursday, two days before she died (and I will always regret not calling her on Friday)

with me and Clive, May 2012

I also couldn’t help listing more practical things about me (and Clive) that I was and am thankful for:

* our friends D&J offering to drive us to Heathrow and coming over Saturday evening

* D picking us up at 5:30am Sunday for that drive (and, though we didn’t know it then, that he would repeat this generous act of friendship in reverse ten days later)

* my son and belle-fille immediately offering to host a family memorial gathering the following weekend at their home, disrupting my belle-fille’s travel plans and taking all that pressure off me

* timing: my mother died on a Saturday morning. My son, who lives within an hour of her, arrived home from a business trip late Friday night. He handled local matters on Saturday and Sunday, until Clive and I arrived Sunday afternoon. That evening, he had to leave for a crucial five-day overseas business trip. It may be coincidence he was home the one day his grandmother died. Or maybe his grandmother had something to do with it.

Two of my favourite people

My mother’s body

We learned at our meeting with the funeral director that he would organise the cremation and burial of my mother’s ashes.

After going over the details, he left the room for a few minutes to contact the cemetery. When he returned, he said everything was confirmed as we wished and, ‘She’s going in with Robert.’

It’s hard to describe how much those five words meant to me, except to say they made me weep with relief and something much deeper, a meaning and significance I hadn’t anticipated but knew was the culmination of life coming full circle from the years that had passed since my brother’s death.

Mom with her children

In a calm, lovely room – like a large living room, with comfortable chairs and sofa and soft light from table lamps – I had the time I yearned for with my mother’s body.

Mom’s body was laid out on a bed, with a soft blanket pulled up to her chest. Because it was to be cremated, the funeral home had not done a full embalming (e.g. with make-up and a hair-do), but had made her look lovely with her eyes and mouth closed, beautiful as she always was. She looked utterly at peace, more as if she were sleeping than any other body I’ve viewed fully-embalmed in a casket. The dear staff of the memory unit had dressed her in a nice shirt, one I’d bought for her a few years ago, and slacks. Her hands were clasped over her abdomen.

Because the body wasn’t in a casket, I could get right next to it by dropping to my knees on the padded bench beside her. (This is called a kneeler, or a Prie-dieu according to the funeral director. Literally this means pray God, a perfect French word if there ever was one.)

I was able lay my head on my mother’s chest for long periods at a time, hold her shoulders and hug her as I cried and talked to her. I stroked her face and hair and lay my hand on top of her beautiful hands, so I could feel them all the time. Of course her body was cold-ish by then, but my hand on hers actually made them a little bit warm temporarily

holding hands, March 2017

For just a few moments, I thought maybe I should order a nice casket and leave my mother’s precious body as it was. But immediately I knew that would be wrong. She had made her wishes clear. I whispered, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. We will have the cremation.’

In a way, I guess I did get my wish, to be at her side and to touch and stroke her body – though all the time I was in that room, I knew her soul, the essence of her being, was elsewhere. That didn’t lessen the importance to me of having that time with her earthly shell.

Also briefly, I considered keeping Mom’s ashes myself, carrying them back to England so I would always have them with me. But equally quickly, I knew, without doubt, they belonged exactly where they were going.

The grave on the hill

I’m not a big fan of cemeteries for myself. Then again, I’ve written about them many times, especially in Paris (e.g. MontparnassePère LachaiseMontmartre  …) and on the Great Orme in Wales. Clive and I enjoy walking, contemplating and occasionally picnicking in these peaceful places.

On a tranquil New Jersey hillside, my cousins and I have watched the caskets of our grandfather, then our grandmother and then my brother and their father (killed in the same auto accident) lowered into the ground. We’ve visited the site regularly, though I hadn’t been back in several years.

Spending time at the cemetery, seeing the monument and freshly-planted grass seed where the earth had been dug up for my mother’s remains, and knowing they were right where they should be was a tremendous comfort. Clive and I spent a couple of blessed hours on and around that petite patch of the planet.

flowers for my mother at our family gravesite

At the end of the week, my son and belle-fille hosted the memorial gathering in their beautiful home. It was just what my mother would have loved, and I know she would have been as proud of them as I was. Mom always loved a family party.

Somewhat to my surprise, I feel a sense of peace about my mother’s death. It seems all is as it should be, especially with respect to her wishes and her earthly remains. She graced this earth with her presence for nearly 94 years. How can I feel anything but gratitude for her life and for the gift of having her as my mom?

The beauty parlour

The afternoon before she died, Mom participated in a music program and went to the beauty parlour. She always enjoyed these activities, and I enjoyed accompanying her to them when Clive and I visited.

On the afternoon of what would have been Mom’s 94th birthday, I went to the Felixstowe hair salon. This may become an annual tradition.

Mom and me (taking photo) in the beauty parlour, October 2017

My dear friend Sandy gifted me with a little book at our memorial gathering, Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief, Martha W Hickman’s wisdom-filled gem. The quotation at the top of the page for that day is a Bible verse that spoke to me then and now:

When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.   [Isaiah 43:2]

My mother’s earthly remains may rest in New Jersey, but I know she will always be with me, here in Felixstowe or wherever we may be. She lives forever in my heart.

with my beloved Mom, May 2008

Thank you for reading and blessings to all and our mothers.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris: An Epilogue; A Slow December Start and Jacquemart-André Art

View from the metro: Eiffel Tower & Australian Embassy

Paris glows in December with festive spirit, sparkling lights, Christmas markets, dazzlingly-decorated shops and boutiques and the lovely bright buzz of the season.

Clive and I arrived in the City of Light on Friday afternoon, the first day of the month. From the metro we viewed the Eiffel Tower and the Australian Embassy, currently featuring a koala on the side of the building.

We’ve had a slow start to December, following the 13-month sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage) saga and a non-stop November in Felixstowe. These events are described in my previous posts, Painting (and Pâtisseries) in Paris, an Introduction and 5-part series.

Painting (and patisseries) in Paris: An epilogue

When we arrived at the apartment on Friday, our main question was: Will the window open and close?

More accurately, my main concern was: Could I open and close the window on my own? After the final-days’ drama last time, I knew Clive could handle it.

He tried it first. It opened and closed smoothly. In fact, it seemed improved from when we left it.

Then I tried. Voilà! I was able to open and close it fairly easily, too. It was definitely better than when we left it.

We should have guessed: in November, our friend and neighbour, Bernard, had also tested the window. He decided it needed a little oil on its ancient locking mechanism. Merci beaucoup, Bernard!

Brightened by the window working well again, we set off on our usual arrival-evening errands via a stop at the café to say Bonsoir to Vlad and celebrate with a kir.

Kirs at the café

Where did the next three days go after that? We’ve managed a few more trips to the café, bien sûr, a bus ride to a favourite papeterie (stationery shop) and a relaxing rendez-vous with the delightful Kim B. for tea and coffee and pastries.

Un Dimanche à Paris (merci Kim for your company and your photo!)

We caught a bus by Saint-Sulpice church, outside the wonderful Georges Thuillier shop, the best place I know in Paris to find authentic santons (figurines) de Provence.

Santons in the window of G Thuillier

I’m slowly creating my own version of this French tradition, adding one or two santons each year.

Santons on my mantle

Il fait froid — it’s cold!

On a drizzly, freezing Sunday morning, the sight of a red awning warmed our hearts as we walked to a church service.

A grand sight when it’s cold outside

At midday, the atmosphere and warmth (if not the rather ordinary burger and fish & chips – not the best menu choice, we realise) were lovely inside, too.

Warm and cheerful inside

Back in the freezing cold, the line outside the Petit Palais was way too long for us to stand around waiting to see l’Art du Pastel, de Dégas à Redon (The Art of Pastel, from Degas to Redon). It runs until 8 April 2018 so we hope we’ll still be able to see it.

A thrilling collection

Today we were rewarded with an absolutely fabulous exhibit at the Musée Jacquemart-André, Le Jardin Secret des Hansen, La Collection Ordrupgaard  (The Hansen’s Secret Garden, the Ordrupgaard Collection).

This museum, housed in a former hôtel particulier, or grand Parisian mansion, contains the permanent collection of Édouard André and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, and also features many excellent temporary exhibitions (plus an elegant tearoom/lunchroom).

Clive on the ground floor of Musée Jacquemart-André

As with the museum itself, this temporary exhibit showcases the collection of a husband and wife, Wilhelm and Henny Hansen, a Danish couple from Ordrup, north of Copenhagen. Artists included are Corot, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Manet, Gauguin, Matisse, Redon, Degas, Courbet, Renoir, Cézanne and Morisot. Incroyable! Incredible!

Apologies the photos are at an angle or crooked; we were surrounded by several groups and I was unceremoniously elbowed a few times.

Claude Monet, Fontainebleu

I could have stood before Monet’s La Mer all day; this photo doesn’t do justice to the colours and movement of the sea.

Claude Monet, la Mer

Or you can fall in love with Pissarro’s snow:

Camille Pissarro, effet de neige à Eragny

or Berthe Morisot’s young girl on the grass:

Berthe Morisot, Young girl on the grass

and so many, many more.

I wish we’d had more time. I wish the groups weren’t there (at least those who stand in frozen hordes listening to their audioguides and blocking the view for the rest of us). I wish we could return again and again to view the works in the Hansens’ collection. Sometimes life and/or current events can seem dismal and dispiriting; viewing works like these reminds me of the world’s beauty and the talent used so positively to create and support the work.

This exhibit runs only until 22 January 2018; I can’t recommend it highly enough. (And just for good measure, opening March 9 thru July 23, 2018 is Mary Cassatt, Une Americaine à Paris.)

Bravo! Super!

This evening we hosted our neighbours, Bernard and Berthe, for champagne and a petit apéritif. I feel I can never thank them enough for their friendship and help over the years, but am grateful they seem to enjoy our time together.

We’re counting the days until my son and belle-fille arrive later this week. Until then we hope to get to a Christmas market or two and soak up more early-December in Paris.

I always say if you’re thinking about visiting Paris, every month is the best time to be here. If you’re thinking of December, by all means, it’s definitely one of the best.

Christmas market at Auteuil, Paris

Cheers and merci for reading. A bientôt, see you soon from Paris.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 5: Reflections on a Deeper Meaning

It was worthwhile


After the final seven days of repairs and painting, the work in the bedroom was complete. Thanks to Clive, the main furniture pieces were also repaired to near-new condition.

I’d always known that the more time passed, the closer the day would come when the painting would need to be redone. Monsieur P’s leaky tap unleashed months of new activities and experiences.

Despite the length of the posts in this 5-part series, I left out several sub-plots and issues we had to deal with to get everything done. None of the events of the past year are included in my Paris memoir-in-progress, though in a few chapters I plan to share more ‘before and after’ photos from when I first purchased my home away from home.

The repairs and painting

Perhaps our recent journey would have been faster if we’d been on site the entire time. Learning the process, being remote, relying on snail-mail letters from my neighbour and finding each step to be another ‘learn-as-you-go’ exercise all added to the total length of time.

The past 13 months have been a learning journey and one that yet again deepened my experience in Paris.

Going deeper. Paris, je t’aime

‘Why Paris?’ many have asked over the years.

One reason is that from my childhood days in suburban New Jersey, I developed a deep longing to know Paris and the French. I dreamed I might live there one day, and knew I wanted to get below the surface level, magnificent as it is, to more fully experience the city.

The pâtisseries

Another response, when I’m asked ‘Why Paris?’ is that I dreamed of stepping out the door into streets lined with cafes and boulangeries (bakeries) and fromageries (cheese shops) and fruiterers (fruit markets) and boucheries (butchers) and pâtisseries (pastry shops).

‘Where do they buy their baguettes?’ was my constant refrain 20 years ago when we searched all over the city for an apartment. I wanted to get to know ‘my’ local merchants and walk home carrying a warm baguette or a shiny white box tied with a string and containing a little bit of magic inside.

Paris patisserie

Here’s the funny thing about pâtisseries: as beautiful as the creations are, I don’t actually like eating many of them. Often I find them too sweet, or too fruity, or the patissier’s ‘creative’ use of unusual – sometimes, to my taste, downright strange — fruit and flavour combinations strikes me as over-the-top and simply doesn’t appeal. Caviar. Matcha. Popcorn. Cinnamon-blackberry. Truffle.

Then there are the colours: neon green, pink, yellow, red, turquoise (the last being an ‘Oreo’ macaron).Clive is especially dubious, saying he wonders what exactly was added to make such unnatural colours, and wondering whether he wants to eat it.

I go for pastries of traditional, pure flavours. There’s always a wealth to choose from in dark chocolate, vanilla, coffee, caramel and lemon. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but the ever-changing flavours-of-the-season (especially with respect to macarons) sometimes seem nothing more than an ego competition between pastry chefs trying to outdo each other with increasingly far-fetched combinations (cep-mushroom chocolates or wasabi-horseradish macarons, anyone?).

Pure chocolate artistry at a favourite destination, Paris

Quality of life

Nevertheless, I adore pâtisseries. They’re about so much more than the beauty of the creations (except the neon ones), the way they’re displayed and the fact you can eat them.

For me, the deeper meaning is that beneath the surface splendour and sensual appeal to the eye and the palate, pâtisseries are physical manifestations of a country and culture that values a certain way, and a certain quality, of life.

It’s a quality of life that, to be sure, venerates beauty and sensual pleasures. But it’s also a culture that values the time and care and artistry that go into making the creations (well, at least those that aren’t industrially-produced; some top brands manufacture their macarons in large factories, some not even in France).

The culture esteems not only the creations but equally those who create. Skills and qualifications are achieved; honours and titles bestowed to great public fanfare and respect, such as Meilleur Ouvrier de France (M.O.F. Best Craftsman of France) and M.O.F. pâtissier, often shortened simply to Meilleur Ouvrier. I admire and respect them, too, even if some of their flavours are too much for me.

Pâtisseries represent a way of life in which we take time to appreciate foods that nourish not only the body and our physical senses but also our hearts and souls.

Paris patisserie

The value of relationships

I’ve learned so much through this recent sinistre dégâts des eaux saga, about the French insurance process (and ‘friendly’ forms), managers and office workers, contractors and tradesmen, neighbours and friends. Thankfully each step progressed in due course, though not always quickly and with plenty of ups and downs.

The French are so much about courtesy and relationships, and this aspect of the culture was repeatedly demonstrated and never meant more to me than during the past 13 months. I’ll always have lasting gratitude for everyone who helped, above all my friend and neighbour Bernard. Nor could I have done it without Clive’s physical and emotional support, and I like to think my late husband, Gary, was cheering us on from above. Vlad’s early-morning ‘Bon Courage!’ helped, too.

Vlad, our favourite Paris waiter, and Clive

Layers of meaning

In the end, what some may deem a simple task of ‘repairing and repainting the bedroom’ was for me so much more.

Engaging in the process and being present as the room Gary painted was repaired and repainted by someone else proved to be a good and right thing to do.

Despite my ongoing desire and appreciation of when I can increase my experience in Paris, I never would have asked for Monsieur P’s kitchen tap to leak and cause the damage it did. But maybe every renovation or DIY project has the potential to uncover hidden depths. Whether a private bedroom or a global city like Paris itself, places contain layers of history and memory and meaning. As places change and grow, we do, too.

Writing helps me understand and reflect upon some of my life’s experiences. The past 13 months, for better or worse, have certainly helped me feel more Parisian, if only part-time. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-memoir, or petite histoire (little story), of sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage), people and pâtisseries in Paris.

A happy place

Looking ahead for Christmas

Clive and I have been enjoying November in Felixstowe, the only month this year we’ve been here for a full calendar month. In addition to celebrating Clive’s birthday and our seventh wedding anniversary, we’ve been aiming to end the month with most of those seemingly-endless, pre-Christmas tasks completed. Thanks to Spreadsheet Man, we’re more or less on track.

Why all the end-of-November focus? Anticipation has been building for December, when we’ll return to the City of Light for an early Christmas with my son and belle-fille, then welcome Clive’s Aussie gang for a family Christmas in Felixstowe. As part of their traditional English Christmas, tickets for a panto have been booked.

Meanwhile, I’ve been dreaming of a clean, peaceful room quietly awaiting our return.

Standing under the repaired corner: reflections in a clean and peaceful room

Cheers and thanks for reading. Wishing everyone a joyful festive season.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 4: The Final Seven Days (I Hope)

On the bus from Orly airport – this trip’s only view of the Eiffel Tower


On this trip, we arrived in Paris mid-morning on a Monday, directly from visiting my mother in New Jersey. The envelope of Felixstowe screws tucked in my shoulder bag had not set off security alarms in the UK, USA or France.

While in the US, I had exchanged emails with Elodie, the contractor’s assistant, confirming work on my bedroom repairs would begin at 8am the day after we arrived.

Sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage)

Clive and I were, as always, jet-lagged from the US-to-Europe time change. I was deeply happy we’d completed Clive’s giant jigsaw a couple of weeks before.

Our friend Bernard left his usual welcome note on my kitchen counter. That afternoon, we somehow managed to stay awake. We moved the remaining small pieces out of the bedroom and made our usual jaunts to the market and Monoprix. Our purchases included ingredients (except parsnips, because our parsnip man is closed on Monday) for Clive’s famous vegetable beef stew.

After stopping by Otilia, our helpful concierge, to keep her updated on our plans, I hit the jet lag wall and we checked into a nearby hotel.

All was well until we settled into our room to find – or to search for and NOT find – a kettle. Oh la la. We really didn’t want to carry a kettle back and forth from the apartment every day.

I stumbled back down to reception and asked if we could borrow one. The young Frenchman on duty disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a kettle set out on a tray containing a small selection of tea and coffee (though we had Clive’s ample supply), a bowl of wrapped sugar cubes, teaspoons and two glass mugs. ‘Merci, monsieur!’ I said. ‘Merci beaucoup!’

Tony Carter teapot pottery, Suffolk UK

The days that followed took on a pattern of overseeing the repair and painting from early morning to mid-afternoon, then going out on errands or for a walk. For some reason, on this trip we seemed to pass more pâtisseries than ever, whether lèche-vitrine (perfect French expression for window-shopping, literally ‘licking the window’) or buying.

DAY 1 (Tuesday) – Prepping and painful cracks

After wake-up cups of tea in bed, I believe Clive’s last words as we left the hotel were, ‘I hope Housekeeping leaves the kettle in the room.’ We had strategically placed it on my bedside table, instead of the desk, in an attempt to signify it was a Very Important Item.

At 8am, an older man, Middle Boss, arrived at the apartment with a Young Guy and their equipment – buckets, a ladder, plastic sheeting and cans of sealer. Before Middle Boss left, he told us Young Guy would take only a few hours prepping the room that day.

Young Guy spread the plastic sheeting over the bedroom floor and mantle and made a path through the furniture-filled living room to the front door. He stuck a scraper into the cracks in the bedroom wall; it pained me to see them becoming even worse. I began taking photos and emailing a few to my son and our friends in Felixstowe. 

One of several long cracks it hurt me to look at

I kept asking Clive: is everything going okay? He said it was. He waited until Young Guy really got going, then disappeared into the kitchen and made his delicious stew. Bernard and Berthe stopped by, too; everyone was pleased the work was finally happening.

Bank fail – comme d’hab, c’est Paris!

Late that afternoon, I wanted to cash a check. We waited on the long, slow line for the teller and when it finally became my turn, he told me I’d have to come back the next day. They had no cash. (The conversation was actually much longer, all in French of course, about their system and the cash machine and how something had broken earlier that day.)

I was philosophical about our unsuccessful quest; as with sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage), when it comes to les banques (banks), everyone in Paris has a story, or two or three.

Clive was distinctly unimpressed, especially since we’d trekked up to a main branch because the smaller, closer branch recently ‘stopped having money’ and now only does loans. As we walked back down the street Clive kept shaking his head and saying, ‘A bank with no money is like a fish and chip shop with no chips.’

All I could do was give my best Gallic shrug and say, ‘Comme d’habitude, c’est Paris!’ As usual, it happens, it’s Paris!

An autumn window display at a nearby chocolatier drew us into the shop, which somewhat countered the bank drama. We had a nice browse, then settled on a few treats for ourselves and a gift package for our wonderful friends who collect our post and keep an eye on our home in Felixstowe.

Autumn leaves and artistry in chocolate, Paris

After a nourishing dinner of Clive’s stew accompanied by a few slices of baguette, we headed back to our hotel room. The only question on our minds seemed to be: Will the kettle still be there?

It was, and on the desk were two sparkling clean mugs.

Day 2 (Wednesday) – Plaster smooth as glass

Middle Boss arrived with Jean, an older worker. They hauled in bags of Prestonett, rolls of fibreglass netting and other supplies. Clive jumped on the Internet, found the product description and said it looked exactly right.

Jean got to work, putting on multiple coats of plaster.

As for my envisioned ‘hours free to clean or read and write’, I spent much of that day (and every other day) jumping up and down, getting coffee or a can of Coke for Jean, taking photos and emailing them to my son and our friends, doing my own emails and paperwork and that afternoon, pulling out a space heater at Jean’s request to hasten the plaster-drying process.

Working on the most-damaged area

We could see Jean was working hard, but still I checked regularly with Clive about what he was doing. Clive said ‘he’s good’ and ‘he knows what he’s doing,’ much to my happiness and relief. Though Clive says he doesn’t know much French, when it comes to DIY projects (not to mention technology matters), he communicates way better than I do. He understood most if not all of Jean’s comments and gestures and from what I observed, they communicated very well (in two different languages) with each other.

The plaster was so smooth; after it dried it felt like glass. It was exciting to think painting would begin the next morning.

Day 3 (Thursday) – Ceiling and mouldings and trim, oh my

Jean arrived on his own and spent hour upon hour painting first the ceiling, then the mouldings, the mirror trim, the baseboards (aka skirting boards or plinthes), the window and the door. We admired his work and he seemed to appreciate our interest.

What a joy it was, to see the restored corner where the sinistre dégâts des eaux had caused the most damage.

Repaired ceiling corner and moulding

On our afternoon walkabout, we paused outside the window of a Merveilleux de Fred shop, where you can watch pastry-makers form their airy concoctions of meringue, cream and shaved chocolate toppings. Just looking at these ethereal creations makes my teeth hurt.

Aux Merveilleux de Fred, Paris

 Day 4 (Friday) – Colour!

Jean showed me the vert pastel (pastel green) paint and asked for approval before he got to work. (‘Smart lad,’ Clive said.) I loved the colour, a close match to the original.

Vert pastel, ready to go on the walls

That afternoon, Big Boss paid a visit with Bernard. I wasn’t expecting them but was pleased Big Boss stopped by. He looked the bedroom over from floor to ceiling, chatted with Jean and asked me if I was satisfied. Yes, I said, very satisfied.

Jean worked hard, as he had done each day, and finished by mid-afternoon. I loved the way the vert pastel looked on the walls. He said he would return Saturday morning for the final clean-up. When he left, he told us to leave the window open so it could fully dry, as it had a different kind of paint on it.

Vert pastel on the walls

Clive and I were delighted the job was basically complete on Friday afternoon. We felt our strategy of being there had been worthwhile; the workers may have followed their own pace regardless, but we were pleased at how steadily they worked each day. Or maybe they just wanted to get away from us as soon as possible.

That afternoon, floating on cloud nine, we took a long walk, talking about how we’d start moving furniture back into the bedroom as soon as Jean left on Saturday. We’d have Sunday and Monday free to relax and enjoy Paris.

And, as you do in Paris, we couldn’t avoid passing a few pâtisseries.

Sadaharu Aoki bamboo pastry – not my favourite taste but one of my all-time favourites to look at

Day 5 (Saturday) – Just when we thought everything was okay

Jean arrived in the morning, as he said he would. He carted his ladder, buckets, bags and brooms to the courtyard, removed all the plastic Young Guy had taped down on the first day, and gave the room a final sweep.

The finished bedroom thrilled me: the fresh white ceiling and trim, the soft vert pastel (pastel green) walls and the contrast with the parquet floorboards. I thanked Jean once again for his work.

The pile of equipment he left in the courtyard wasn’t ideal for my neighbours, but he did a fairly neat job and I’d let Otilia, the concierge, know it would be only for a short while. Jean told us someone was coming with a truck before noon.

Mid-morning I went out on a few errands. The window display at Aux Merveilleux de Fred featured freshly-made meringues of, among others, white chocolate, pistachio and Speculoos (a favourite word and tasty, mildly-spiced Belgian biscuit).

Still on cloud nine about the bedroom, I ducked inside and purchased a few to celebrate. We wondered how something that weighs nothing and feels like eating a little cloud puff can taste so good.

Saturday morning at Aux Merveilleux de Fred

Noon came and went. Despite the pick-up guys being late, and my concern about the pile in the courtyard, I still thought all was well.

We were eager to start moving furniture back to the bedroom, and we also had our eye on the clock, looking forward to dinner with my dear belle-fille’s (daughter-in-law’s) parents, who had recently arrived in Paris.

In preparation for moving the Monster bed back into the room, Clive decided to close the window (still open from the night before), to give us more space.

Un petit problème – we have a problem

The window would not close.

He tried several times, and was careful not to force it. It simply would not close. There was just too much paint, especially in the curved indentation where the two tall panels meet.

While Clive was examining the window, I spotted Bernard and our neighbour, Marc, chatting in the courtyard. I hurried down to join them.

This was the first time I’d seen Marc on this trip (and heard his lovely French-accented ‘Hi Carolyn’). As much as I was dying to blurt out, ‘THE WINDOW WON’T CLOSE!’ it wasn’t a life-and-death situation, so French courtesy – which I love and admire – required that we first exchange polite greetings.

We progressed through the necessary Bonjours and Ca va? and Oui, ca va bien, et vous? Oui, ca va, onto how long Clive and I were in Paris and other pleasantries. Berthe happened to come through the courtyard with her wheeled shopping trolley; she and Bernard chimed in with their comments. I apologised to all for the pile of equipment and told them the guys were two hours late picking it up. Then, finally, I pointed up and said we had a petit problème: ‘The window won’t close!’ Bernard, Berthe and Marc all looked up, too.

Clive in the balcony

Clive, who had been watching from the first-floor window, took his cue and gave a most excellent demonstration to the four of us below. He opened and closed the window (of course not all the way), then stood in the open window behind the wrought-iron balcony with his palms up, lifting his shoulders in a perfect Gallic shrug and shaking his head, as if to say, ‘Non, la fenêtre ne se ferme pas.’ No, the window will not close.

A flurry of French erupted around me. Bless Bernard. He jumped into action (with his new hip and walking cane), went up to his apartment and returned with a large sign, which he tied with string to the workers’ ladder. It wouldn’t blow away and they couldn’t miss seeing it. He instructed me to let him know as soon as they arrived, so he could come down and talk with them.

Clive and I resumed waiting, rather tensely since now one of us had to keep a lookout on the courtyard every minute.

Face to face

Ninety minutes later, at 4pm, two men showed up. One was new to us, Aggressive Guy; the other was Young Guy, who prepped the bedroom on the first day.

Clive called down to them, repeating his gestures. I duly raced up two flights to tell Bernard and a few minutes later, we all faced each other in the bedroom.

As Bernard admonished them in rapid-fire French, Aggressive Guy tried unsuccessfully to close the window. He then made the mistake of trying to lecture Bernard (and us) about 100 year-old windows.

Bernard would have none of it. He waved his cane around and correctly reminded them the window had closed just fine before the work began.

Aggressive Guy really wanted that window to close. His superior, bullying attitude offended and disheartened me (and offered proof all Parisians are not perfect); he seemed the kind of person who is used to intimidating others.

Still, I almost, but not quite, felt empathy for him. No doubt he thought he had a five-minute job (but he was more than four hours late) to pick up equipment in someone’s courtyard, but instead found himself confronted by Bernard, me, Clive and a window that wouldn’t close. Young Guy never said a word. Perhaps he was intimidated by Aggressive Guy. Bernard was not.

After more exchanges of rapid-fire French and more failed attempts, Aggressive Guy admitted the window needed work. He wasn’t happy. Bernard wasn’t happy. Clive and I weren’t happy. I kept interjecting with, ‘lundi matin, lundi matin,’ (Monday morning), conscious we had Eurostar tickets for early Tuesday and an important appointment to get back for.

FInally, Aggressive Guy said, ‘OK, lundi matin.’ Bernard informed them he would walk to the building firm when they opened at 8am Monday and let Big Boss know the job was not finished properly.

Evening à Paris

Everyone left and the courtyard was once again clear. We hadn’t moved any furniture back into the bedroom, but we did have a wonderful evening with my belle-fille’s parents. It was such a treat to see them that night and we enjoyed a wonderful, leisurely meal together.

Later, Clive and I strolled back to the metro at Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s city hall.

Saturday night at Hôtel de Ville, Paris city hall and metro entrance

Day 6 (Sunday) – An unplanned expedition

After attending a morning church service, we walked back past several boulangerie/pâtisseries decked out in their Sunday finest, in anticipation of families and friends shopping for the midday meal.

Sunday best at the patisserie

Having lost so much time on Saturday, we reluctantly ditched our plan to enjoy a leisurely Sunday afternoon outing and decided to move at least the Monster bed and the Beast armoire back into the bedroom – despite the window not yet being fixed.

The first step was to move the Monster from the living room to the bedroom, keeping it on its side. This cleared space in the living room so we could push the sofa back to the wall and move the Beast.

With the Monster out of the way, we pushed and pulled the Beast into the centre of the room. As promised on the day I had the meltdown (see Part 3, A Giant Jigsaw), Clive strengthened the back of the Beast, fixing the panels into place with small screws. It’s never been more sturdy.

Clive once again moving the Beast; this time the back stayed on

Once the Beast was back in place in the bedroom, we tipped the Monster bed down and Clive untied the slats.

He screwed one of the Felixstowe screws into the metal ‘X’ frame; it fit, but he said it was too long and the pointy tip could slice someone’s hand if they reached under the bed. Then the ominous words: ‘We might need a trip to BHV.’ A quick Internet search told us the store was open Sunday until 7pm.

As much as I love BHV, facing the basement hardware section on a weekend afternoon was the very last thing we wanted to do. After much back and forth and asking each other, ‘Do we have to?’ we agreed it was best just to go and get it over with.

So we wearily took the metro to Hôtel de Ville (where we’d been less than 24 hours before). From that station, you can conveniently proceed directly into the BHV basement. It was, as expected, a madhouse.

Despite the hordes, Clive radared directly through the melee to the wall of a million small parts and immediately zoomed in on what was needed. Then he radared us fairly painlessly to a cashier.

Amid zillions of choices Clive instantly zooms in on the necessary item

Expedition successful and back in the apartment, Clive fixed the Monster one hundred per cent. Repaired and strengthened by a master, both the Monster and the Beast had a new lease of life. I covered the Monster with plastic sheeting, in anticipation of the window-sanding that would be done the next day.

Day 7 (Monday) – What a mess

Once again, we waited. And waited.

In an early-morning email exchange with Elodie, she confirmed the guys would return ‘early afternoon’ to fix the window. She also said Bernard, true to his word, had already appeared in person to discuss the problem with her and Big Boss.

Early afternoon came and went. Aggressive Guy and Young Guy finally showed up at 2:45pm. (‘lundi matin’ meant about as much to Aggressive Guy as ‘before noon on Saturday’.) They carried sanders and scrapers and got straight to work. With our focus on the window, it didn’t register immediately that they failed to spread plastic sheeting on the floor.

As previously agreed or, more accurately instructed, I ran upstairs and told Bernard they had arrived. He hastened down to my place and began another round of animated discussion as Aggressive Guy was sanding. I couldn’t follow all the details of their exchange, but it was around this time I realised they hadn’t put plastic on the floor. It didn’t seem wise to interrupt and there was only a little dust at that point.

The sanding continued. I’m still furious with myself for being too focused on the window and/or too wimpy to insist they put down plastic. Of course they should have, and definitely one of us should have insisted, from the minute Aggressive Guy started sanding and clouds of dust began billowing onto the floor. At least I had covered the Monster with plastic.

After more sanding, and more dust, the window closed to Clive’s satisfaction – but he had to push hard. I’m still concerned about whether I’ll be able to do it next time; we’ll find out soon enough. Bernard also watched and confirmed the window would close, albeit with extra strength required.

With an ‘OK’ from Clive (and Bernard), the guys offered to clean up but we declined. I just wanted them to leave. I felt like weeping when I surveyed the layers of dust on the floor, mainly in front of the window, but still.

Clive and I swept and vacuumed and finally I spent a good deal of time polishing every inch of the floor (except under the Beast armoire) on my hands and knees. One knee is still sore, which feels like my body is punishing me for not insisting about the plastic.

WIth the floor once again gleaming, we pushed and slid and carried the rest of the furniture back into the room: the Monster’s mattress, the dresser, bedside tables, lamps and chair all returned to their rightful positions. I made up the bed so it would be fresh and ready for next time. We did most of the closing-down tasks and ate cereal for dinner at 9pm, before dragging ourselves back to the hotel.

Gratitude

A friend asked why we didn’t sleep at the apartment on that last night. I’m not exactly sure, but I think it was something about leaving the apartment clean and pristine for next time. The hotel was already booked, we had an early Eurostar and we’d only have to pop back briefly in the morning.

So, on the last morning of October, we did the final closing-down tasks. I lingered in the bedroom for a few minutes by myself, soaking it up and thinking of all the people who helped me get to that point. I was and am especially thankful for Bernard and Berthe’s treasured friendship and Clive’s heroic help every step of the way. I felt Gary’s presence with me, too. I took a few final photos, sending up a prayer of gratitude and another that when we return, the window will open and close.

Before turning off the light, I kissed the walls of my Paris home. We made our way to Gare du Nord and rode the Eurostar back to England.

Arrival at St Pancras station, London

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come (a shorter, I promise, final post of this series): Part 5, Reflections on a Deeper Meaning of painting and pâttisseries (including why I don’t actually like eating most of the sweet treats) in Paris.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 3: A Giant Jigsaw

Exactly two weeks after our previous trip (Part 2, Reluctant Realisations), Clive and I arrived at Gare du Nord on a Monday afternoon in the first week of October.

We were giving ourselves three days — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — to move furniture and ready the apartment for the upcoming repairs, before returning to the UK on an early Friday morning Eurostar, hoping to beat the weekend hordes.

From Gare du Nord, we hopped on a metro to the final hours of a Japanese landscape exhibit at the Musée Guimet. I claimed this cultural outing did not violate our ‘sole purpose’ agreement since we had not yet arrived at the apartment.

A mountainous challenge, Musée Guimet, Paris

During the two weeks we’d been back in Felixstowe, Clive’s subconscious had continued to work on the challenge we faced.

It’s Physical

The problem — and the reason our friend and neighbour, Bernard, was so sure we needed to store things in my cave — was lack of physical space.

Altogether, the space of the living (and dining) room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and entry totals 42 precious square metres, about 450 square feet. The living room and bedroom are similar in size but not in shape, thanks to one wall of the apartment not being parallel to the other.

The living room, with a sofa, two lamp tables (end tables), a drop-leaf dining table, small TV/DVD unit, desk, bookcase, chair and several folding chairs, has virtually no free space.

During our time in the UK, when Clive was working on other tasks, he would come out with random comments like, ‘The bed and mattress can go behind the sofa,’ or, ‘The bins under the bed should fit in the bathroom, if we push the dresser against the bathtub.’

When I expressed amazement at his percolating ideas, he said, ‘It’s like doing a giant jigsaw – without a picture on the box.’ I started referring to the project that way, telling people we were ‘going to Paris for three days to do the giant jigsaw.’

En route to the apartment – Eiffel Tower peeking through the trees

After the landscapes exhibit, we arrived to Bernard’s customary welcome note on my kitchen counter. He said he had stored proper moving cartons in my cave, for our use. Clive remained confident they wouldn’t be needed and neither of us fancied lugging boxes up and down the curving steps. Nor had I changed my desire to avoid the subterranean depths.

That night I wrote Bernard and Berthe a note, thanking them and saying we would keep the boxes in mind and looked forward to seeing them during the week. Bernard had had a medical procedure a few days before, and box-pushing aside, we were eager to see how he was doing.

Beginning the jigsaw

Clive woke early on our first morning, keen to get started on the jigsaw. While I fueled up with coffee, he went over a few design points: in addition to keeping the sofa and desk clear and accessible, it would be nice to have the TV/DVD and wireless printer usable. The first and most important priority was the armoire, aka the Beast.

I was still on my second cup of coffee but Clive got to work preparing the living room. He moved the end tables temporarily into the entry and pushed the sofa down so he could move the TV cabinet into the not-square corner. He measured the space where the TV had been to reconfirm there was enough room for the Beast (he’d already done this in September, thinking ahead as he does).

By this time I was helping. He hauled the bins from under the bed; I wiped off the dust and stacked them in the bathroom, once we pushed the dresser against the bathtub. The space was just right, as he’d envisioned from Felixstowe.

The Beast — first project-within-a-project

Back in the bedroom, it was time to empty the Beast. We couldn’t put anything on the bed; it would need to be tipped on its side to make space to move the Beast out. (Once the Beast was resettled in the living room, we would put all the contents back in.)

As I began pulling things out, I noticed the back panels seemed a little loose. Clive said he’d have a look at them once the Beast was empty.

I’m not sure Clive was thrilled when I had the idea that instead of just piling up the contents, we had the perfect opportunity to do some serious sorting and purging and setting items aside for recycling. Thus I held up every item of clothing and footwear, we made decisions and Spreadsheet Man updated our Paris inventory as we went along.

Gradually we found places for all the Beast’s contents, mostly mountainous piles on the chairs and sofa, leaving one end of the sofa free for the bedding.

I knew Clive wanted to get back to the jigsaw (aka ‘sole purpose’), but the Beast-decluttering project-within-a-project was so satisfying for me I told him that since we planned to be at the apartment while the repairs were being done, it would be a perfect time for a similar exercise (without the spreadsheet) with the kitchen cupboards.

Finally the Beast was empty and we paused for a break. Regular readers of this blog may recall Clive the Englishman, years ago, educated me on the soothing, restorative power of a nice cup of tea.

Tony Carter teapot pottery, Suffolk UK

The Monster – second project-within-a-project

Then it was time to get the bed out of the way. It has heavy slats and a heavy headboard and footboard. Basically it’s a Monster.

I piled all the bedding, including the ten-ton French duvet (quilt) on the sofa and we slid and shoved the Monster’s queen-size mattress into the living room. I couldn’t remember the last time I actually moved furniture. But so far, so good.

Then we noticed a large X-shaped metal piece underneath the bed, designed to keep the bed square. For the day’s second project-within-a-project, or expect-the-unexpected, Clive discovered not only had the metal structure come undone, but a number of screws were loose or missing.

Clive working on the Monster

He tightened a few screws and fixed what he could, but my apartment toolbox didn’t have the right sizes for the missing ones. We made a note to bring a selection back from Clive’s extensive Felixstowe collection.

After tying up the bottom slats (which were not fixed as the top were), he said it was time to tip the Monster. I tried not to be nervous but am afraid our conversation went something like:

Me: Wow! It’s really heavy! We need someone to help us.

Clive: It’s not that bad. Don’t worry. I’ll take most of the weight.

Me: It will come down too hard! It could wreck the floorboards.

Clive: It won’t wreck the floorboards. It will be fine.

Me: I don’t want it to hurt either one of us.

Clive (more than once): Will you please just trust me?

With great trepidation, I positioned myself where he told me to and followed his instructions as we lifted the Monster. Taking most of the weight, he raised it higher and higher and, as promised, it gently (sort of, for a Monster) came down on its side. It did not crash. It did not wreck the floorboards.

I emailed a few photos to my son and our friends D&J in Felixstowe, sharing our progress.

The Monster and the innocent-looking Beast

The Beast returns — third project-within-a-project

The moment we moved the Beast away from the wall, the back fell off. It made a terrible bang as the two pieces clattered to the floor. I could feel myself getting a bit emotional over the unsightly spectacle.

Clive said the back was the weakest part of the Beast’s design. He managed to slide the huge panels back together and said he’d fix it properly before we moved it back.

Thankfully the Beast’s depth wasn’t too wide (by an inch or two) for the doorway. But its height meant it had to be tipped to get it through.

We removed the heavy shelves. It was still a Beast, but Clive wasn’t worried – at least until I started ‘helping’ and we pushed, pulled and slid the Beast across the room. More than one exchange went something like:

Clive: OK, go sideways a little.

Me: [pushes in one direction]

Clive: Not that way!

Me: Well, I don’t know! You need to tell me.

Clive: I thought it was obvious.

Somehow we – mostly Clive – got the Beast positioned sideways in front of the door. With minimal help from me, he tipped it and took its entire weight as he manoeuvred through the bedroom door and into the living room –without a scratch.

A humongous accomplishment — Clive moves the Beast through the bedroom door

The only problem: the minute he set the Beast upright, the back fell out again, slamming down to the floor.

My face must have revealed my feelings.

‘It’s OK. I’ll fix it again temporarily for now and nail it properly before we move it back,’ my dear husband said.

Meltdown

It was all too much: the physical labours, the furniture falling apart and, also, the memories.

My logical mind knew we were doing what had to be done. But the day’s events also took me back to another time, when my late husband, Gary, our son and I set up the apartment. And now because of a STUPID LEAK FROM SOMEONE ELSE’S KITCHEN TAP, the ceiling and walls were damaged, the whole place was upside-down and Gary’s beautiful, careful work was about to be painted over.

I had a little cry in the bedroom, while staring at the Monster. As I dried my eyes, contemplating the tipped-up Monster and the need to put it back down, haul the mattress back into the bedroom, unfurl the pile of bedding and remake the bed, I came up with a plan: Go to a hotel. Go NOW.

Once Clive and I realised we had to move out all the bedroom furniture, not just a few pieces (see Part 2, Reluctant Realisations), we knew that when the living room became full, opening the sofa bed would be impossible. We had decided we’d go to a hotel on the last night, but we’d made good progress and now I wanted to go sooner.

For us staying at a hotel was a necessary move. We agreed we’re beyond the stage (okay, and beyond the age) of crashing on a friend’s sofa or floor. Nor did we accept Bernard’s well-intentioned offer of someone with a bed but no toilet. At this stage, we prefer the privacy, and comfort, of a hotel room.

Clive thought it was too soon to move to a hotel. But the Monster was tipped up and, perhaps because I was a bit fragile, he agreed.

I jumped on the Internet and began searching. And searching.

The hotel closest to us had nothing. Absolutely nothing remotely affordable was available within a reasonable metro ride. We were out of luck for Tuesday night. Finally I found a hotel a few metro stops away for Wednesday, and another within walking distance for Thursday.

After dinner at the apartment, we summoned what was left of our energy and put the Monster back down; at least I knew we could tip it up again without too much drama. We dragged the mattress back in, remade the bed and collapsed into it.

Not a one-day project

Having slept the sound sleep of older-people-who-moved-furniture, we awoke on the second day, downed a quick breakfast and multiple cups of coffee and repeated the sequence: pile up the bedding, push the mattress into the living room and tip the Monster on its side.

Clive lifted each end while I slipped towels underneath, so we could slide it across the floor. He had to angle the too-wide headboard a few times to get it through the door, but he knew what to do and we managed with only one or two, ‘No, not that way, the other way’ exchanges.

Eventually we got the Monster and its mattress stored behind the sofa.

The Monster and mattress in the living room

This warranted a lunch pause, so I ran out to the boulangerie/pâtisserie for baguette sandwiches and pains au chocolats. We spent the afternoon completing the jigsaw. The dresser and bedside tables fitted against the wall opposite the sofa without blocking the bedroom door; the dining table had to go in front of the dresser but we could pull it out to access the drawers. The bedroom chair squeezed between the living room chair and the bookcase.

Berthe came down for a visit and told us Bernard was still in bed, recovering from his medical procedure. She profusely praised the near-complete jigsaw and said he would have a look when he felt better.

I was impressed, too. The jigsaw looked much as Clive had envisioned it. Everything fit. The sofa – and the desk – were clear, most of the TV was visible in the corner and the wireless printer was usable on top of the dresser.

Clive said, ‘We really could have done it in a day.’ I just looked at him as if he were crazy.

By 5pm we were completely worn out. We threw essentials into our backpacks, rode the metro a few stops and stumbled to our hotel.

Clive, as always, had packed a supply of regular and decaf tea and coffee bags. The crucial question: would the room have a kettle?

Tony Carter teapot pottery, Suffolk UK

I’m pleased to say it did. We found a local restaurant for an early meal and returned to the room for a nice cup of tea.

Colour matters

In an email exchange about choosing the paint, Elodie, the contractor’s assistant, said it would be helpful if I provided references for the desired colour.

From the beginning, I always wanted colour in the apartment. Gary wasn’t sure, but we chose warm, creamy pastels – yellow for the kitchen and bathroom, blue for the entry and living room and green for the bedroom. How happy and grateful I was when, after he finished each room, he said, ‘I’m really glad you wanted colours.’

Nearly 20 years later, I still love the colours. There was no doubt in my mind I wanted the bedroom to remain its soft and peaceful vert (green) pastel. Clive lifted small pieces of paint from where it was coming off the cracks in the wall.

On the morning of our third and final full day, we rode the metro to the BHV department store and its basement hardware section – aka DIY heaven or hell, depending on who’s talking and what day of the week it is. Just trying to find a cashier can get my blood boiling as we circle endlessly like figures in an Escher painting, through and around the maze of hardware aisles. Thankfully, this particular morning it wasn’t too bad.

We found a good paint match, and celebrated with a stop in the café and, for me a short detour (from ‘sole purpose’) to the excellent stationery and book section, bien sûr.

Une bonne référence: a good reference for the desired paint colour

That afternoon, I emailed Elodie photos of the paint sample and said I’d drop hardcopies at the office, in case for any reason she was away. We took down the bedroom curtains and packaged them up for the dry cleaner’s. I filled out another insurance form for my kitchen and bathroom ceiling damage (2018 project).

Later I strolled around the quartier on a few errands. Elodie was in the office and I enjoyed seeing her. I was tickled the firm was close enough to walk. Elodie greeted me warmly, and I felt I had accomplished an important task with respect to the paint.

After an early dinner in the apartment, Clive and I walked to our second hotel in as many nights. It had rained earlier, and the cobblestones gleamed in front of our favourite café. The warm lights inside tugged at me but we were weary and it was too late for Vlad to be on duty. I regretted we hadn’t made time to stop in even once during that trip.

Cobblestones gleaming after the rain

At the hotel, the all-important question was answered when we entered the room: it *did* have a kettle.

Bon Courage!

It was still dark outside when we left the hotel Friday morning at 6:45am. Only a garbage truck and a few pedestrians scurried down the street.

We trudged along. It was so early, and so dark, and we were so tired, heads down and minds focused on the final closing-down tasks and making our way to Gare du Nord.

‘Hello!’ a man’s voice called, but it came out with a French accent and two distinct syllables: ‘Hel-lo!’

It was Vlad, hurrying to the boulangeriefor the café’s morning supply of croissants and pains au chocolat. We hadn’t noticed him in the dark; he easily could have avoided us.

He darted across the cobblestones and shook our hands. We teased him about speaking English with his greeting; he smilingly denied knowing any other English words. Clive thinks Vlad’s feelings about English may mirror Clives’s about French: he knows enough to understand and speak a little, but doesn’t want the other person to launch into a full-on conversation.

After exchanging the usual Bonjours and pleasantries ‘Ça va?’ ‘Oui, ça va, et vous?’ ‘Eh oui, ça va,’ (how are you, everyhing OK? yes, and you?), I briefly told him what was happening and that we’d be back in a couple of weeks.

Très bien,’ he said. ‘Bon courage!’ Very good, good luck. Have courage!

We walked on with a lighter step. That pre-dawn rendez-vous with Vlad made our day, if not our week. For some reason, Clive and I just kept smiling and smiling, especially when we recalled his cheerful ‘Hel-lo!’ ringing out in the darkness.

At the apartment we dropped our backpacks and had a final look at the bedroom, all but empty save for a little table and folding chair.

‘What are you going to do all day when the workers are there, other than watch the paint dry?’ various friends had asked. I think more than a few still thought we were nuts that we wanted to be there.

I had no worries at all. I envisioned long hours of ‘free’ time — sorting and cleaning the kitchen cupboards, reading and writing. Clive even bought an interesting-looking book about world history because we’d have so much down time. Or so we thought.

After a year of watching the sinistre dégâts des eaux water damage spread and finally dry out, learning about the French insurance process and paperwork, scheduling the repairs and completing the giant jigsaw, we were ready for the work to begin.

My hero, on the Eurostar to London — a well-deserved catch-up on the English news

À bientôt Paris — we’ll see you again soon.

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come: Part 4, The Final Seven Days (I Hope).