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.


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.


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).

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 2: Reluctant Realisations

Arrival at Gare du Nord, Paris

In mid-September, eleven months after the sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage) journey began, Clive and I returned to Paris for my birthday and to take the next steps for the bedroom ceiling and wall repairs.

A welcoming note from Bernard, our friend and neighbour, greeted us the evening we arrived, as is often the case. He said the building’s newest resident, Marc, had discarded two pairs of metal window shutters during his renovations. The shutters were in excellent condition, and Bernard and Berthe were planning to have one set installed for their bathroom window. They wondered if I’d like the other pair for my bathroom. He had temporarily stored the second set in my cave, the below-ground storage room.

Having a cave is considered a plus; some people use the dark, cool depths to store wine. My cave contains disused items; I loathe going down the curving steps and into the narrow hallway. Clive doesn’t mind; everything is wired for electricity so the stairwell, hall and caves can be illuminated, and it’s all high enough that you can comfortably stand up.

The cave some years ago — more like a prison cell to me

The next morning, I gathered my courage and followed Clive and Bernard down to the cave. I tried not to think about the claustrophobic space and instead complimented Bernard on his amazing determination and agility, having endured a serious illness on top of a recent hip replacement. At 85, he’s a remarkable person in so many ways.

Marc’s discarded shutters were indeed in excellent condition. I accepted Bernard’s offer to include my bathroom window when he gets estimates and decides to have the work done. Back upstairs, Bernard also confirmed he would accompany us the next morning to the building contractor whose estimates we were using for the bedroom repairs.

Not your typical stereotype

As it happened, it was on my birthday that Bernard led me and Clive on a mini-procession through our local streets.

No time to stop in the park

Even with a new hip, and walking with a cane, Bernard moves briskly along. He stopped only to point his cane upward to an ancient, faded but still-visible sign high on the side of a building, naming his grandfather’s business. I’d never noticed it before and was thrilled to discover another piece of local history. Bernard beamed when I wanted a photo.

A few short blocks later, he zipped into the side street where the building contractors’ firm is located. The firm, founded in Paris in 1876, has multiple offices and a long history of servicing residents and buildings in our quartier. I’d used them once myself, years ago, when they installed a new toilet. That may be a relatively straightforward task, but getting it done in Paris was very satisfying and felt like another step forward in my journey as an owner. I recalled the plumber finishing his work and saying, ‘Now I’m going up for a drink with Bernard.’

As in many other places, relationships are so important and highly-valued in Paris. Bernard has a decades-long (maybe lifelong, I’m not sure) relationship with the firm’s director, a distinguished-looking Frenchman I’ll call Big Boss. I’m not certain of Big Boss’s actual position but I think he’s an owner or partner of the firm. He’s clearly head of the office in our quartier.

At the meeting on my birthday, we met several of Big Boss’s staff, including his assistant, Elodie, who manages the office and speaks some English. Elodie sat down with me and walked me line-by-line through several forms and the contract for the work.

Of course I was with Bernard, who watched over the proceedings, and I was about to hand over a large deposit. But Elodie seems by nature helpful and she was even a teeny bit friendly – that is, along with my insurance agent Monique, completely unlike the negative images some seem to enjoy promoting about the French.

I’d never say all Parisians — or all residents of any city, even warm and friendly Sydney — are perfect. But my experience with Elodie (and Bernard and Berthe and Monsieur P and Monique) yet again put to shame those maddening French stereotypes.

Me with a positive Paris image

 The contractor’s estimate was for six days, though Clive thought three would be more like it. They wanted to begin on a Monday and work through Saturday, but we planned to arrive directly from the US and wouldn’t reach the apartment until mid-day on the Monday. They agreed to begin first thing Tuesday and potentially go over to the following Monday.

This was a slight concern: we had to leave no later than the following Tuesday to get back to an important early-November appointment in the UK. Despite the lack of any back-up days, I was pleased and relieved the plan worked with our schedule, because all along, Clive and I knew we wanted to be there.

Be there

‘It’s easier if you just give them the key,’ many said. We understood the point of view, but for us it was important to remain on-site.

I remember Gary, my late husband, always said, ‘The first rule of renovation is Be There.’ When I met Clive, I learned he feels the same. Once more my most trusted DIY experts were in agreement so I was, too. It also matched my own instincts.

In our experience, even for small projects, questions often arise, unexpected events occur or changes are discussed and made as the work progresses. We also have personal technology and possessions in the apartment. I’ve always felt protective about the place that means so much to me, and I didn’t like the idea of strangers moving around freely or not taking sufficient care with the furniture. We also felt, rightly or wrongly, that our presence might encourage greater focus or productivity, perhaps fewer breaks. And of course I wanted to make sure they provided my chosen colour for the wall paint.

Luckily I chose the colour

With our focus directed to how long the work would take and finding dates we could be there, Clive and I had only one or two brief conversations about the contents of the bedroom.

Clive mentioned we’d probably need to remove ‘some’ furniture; certainly the bed would need to be tipped on its side and moved into the living room, and the large armoire (freestanding wardrobe) would at a minimum need to be moved to the centre of the bedroom. I said we could go to a hotel if there wasn’t enough space or the paint fumes became overpowering, but Clive thought we should still be able to pull out the living-room sofa bed.

Dates in place, we spent the next few days enjoying walks, museum visits and a few pâtisseries and chocolatiers.

A la Mère de Famille, Paris

It wasn’t until the end of the week, at an evening soirée chez moi (at my place) with Bernard and Berthe that we – or at least Clive — heard the distant ringing of alarm bells.

Reluctant realisations

As the four of us sipped champagne and ooh’d and aah’d over Berthe’s coconut custard delight (once again made especially for Clive, comme d’hab, as usual), we chatted about the upcoming work.

At some point, Bernard made an almost-offhand remark, along the lines of, ‘Of course, getting your kitchen and bathroom ceilings repaired will not be too big a deal. But the bedroom: that is très formidable (a very big deal)! Of course the whole room must be emptied.’

I may have replied, ‘Yes, the bedroom will be a big job.’ But only Clive really got it.

(Clive’s) wheels begin turning

That night, as we lay in bed getting to grips with Bernard’s comment, Clive said, ‘Bernard’s right. We’re going to have to empty the bedroom.’

Already I could feel his mental wheels turning, pondering this challenge and contemplating different ways we might approach it. Initially he thought that upon our arrival from the US the day before the work would begin, we could clear the room in one afternoon.

I wasn’t so sure. Not at all sure. My biggest concern was the beast armoire, which is tall, deep and wide. I remembered Gary and our son assembling it in the bedroom because it’s so humongous it had to be put together in the room where it would remain.

The armoire is one of those useful storage pieces that seems bottomless. Over the years we’ve gradually filled it with all of our hanging clothes and footwear, bags and backpacks, extra bedding including the ten-ton duvet (quilt) for the sofa bed, my carefully-boxed Christmas crèche and santons de Provence figurines, chair cushions, a large tube containing a to-be-framed art poster, a box of postcards saved by Bernard’s mother which I now own because they’re all in English (I was touched he gave them to me) and other random items.

The prospect of emptying and moving the beast was a daunting challenge on its own.

Santons de Provence, the only small items stored in the armoire

Beyond the size and weight of the furniture, I worried about jet lag, not to mention we’re no longer college students who can move a friend’s entire apartment in a few hours. Arriving in Europe from the US, Clive manages to stay awake but jet lag seems to hit me harder every year. I usually need to shower and sleep for at least a few hours.

In the day or two that followed Bernard’s comment, we assessed the size of the task and considered our options. Eventually Clive rather reluctantly agreed it wasn’t feasible or wise to leave it all to a few jet-lagged hours.

I wondered if we should hire someone but Clive saw no need for that. At some point, a ‘what if’ idea emerged: what if we made another, separate trip to Paris beforehand, for only a few days, with the sole purpose of emptying the room?

As if it were meant to be, our diary was unusually clear for a few days in early October. Clive wasn’t completely convinced, but it was too late to extend our existing trip. After I reluctantly promised to remember ‘sole purpose’ (ie I wouldn’t make sly attempts to distract us from the task at hand and go out and about in Paris — well, maybe a visit to Vlad would be OK), he agreed an additional trip would be the best solution.

We emailed our updated October plans to our friends D&J in Felixstowe. D replied, ‘Good that you have managed to fix a schedule with the painters. You will effectively be living in Paris with the odd commute to Felixstowe!’

On the Eurostar to Paris

My two heroes — but only one can be in charge

By the time we shared our new schedule with Bernard and Berthe, I knew Clive’s brain had fully engaged and he already had a plan in his head.

Bernard also had ideas. With customary energy and directness, he offered advice about moving the furniture and packing up and storing our things — mostly in my cave. I’d already gone down there once with him this trip to see Marc’s shutters and had no intention of trekking up and down those stairs lugging boxes or lifting bedside tables in my arms.

As Bernard continued with his firm suggestions, I sensed Clive’s silent but growing frustration (which he later told me was accurate), ‘Only one of us can be in charge here.’

My dear, well-intentioned neighbour also had ideas about where we might sleep during the repairs. He talked about contacting one of their friends, or someone they knew (it was never clear) who for some reason might be able to offer us a bed but no toilet. We’d have to return to my place for that. We did not encourage this idea.

I felt I was treading a very fine line: my gratitude and affection and respect for Bernard (and Berthe) run deep, but Clive was the right one to be ‘in charge’ of our multi-day project. We listened to all of Bernard’s input, and told him we didn’t think we’d need to pack up any boxes for the cave.

Stay cool

I admit I was at this point freaking out a little (or maybe a lot). Despite my mother’s timeless wisdom, ‘Don’t look for trouble,’ I worried about offending Bernard or hurting his feelings, and about Clive’s and my ability physically to handle the armoire and the bed, desperately wanting to avoid the additional ordeal of taking them apart.

I reminded Clive we know a couple of nice young Frenchmen who both live or work nearby. I knew if we needed extra muscle, we had only to ask and they would willingly assist.

But Clive had it all figured out. He had mentally sized up everything, developed a sequence of steps and even designated a location in the other rooms for each item from the bedroom. With the additional trip, he said, we’d have more than enough time to get the job done. He assured me he’d moved so many times on his own over the years that doing it with my help would be a breeze – or a nightmare.

Back in England, St Pancras station, London

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come: Part 3, A Giant Jigsaw.

Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 1: The Journey Begins

My version of the famous quote by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is: A journey of unfamiliar processes in a second language begins with a single step … up to the third floor to see my neighbour, Bernard.

[note: for privacy purposes, throughout this series of posts, I’ve changed the name or given a nickname to every French person. The previous post contains an introduction to this 5-part series.]

Bernard is un vrai parisien, a true Parisian. He and his family’s history are intertwined with the history of our building and the quartier; his great-grandfather once operated a business on the site where our building now stands. Bernard and his wife, Berthe, were the first neighbours I met, the day after taking ownership of the apartment.

I trust Bernard and Berthe implicitly; they have a key to my apartment. Over the years, Bernard has done countless, unasked-for favours such as gas and electric meter-reading. He keeps a watchful eye not only on my place but also on everything that goes on; he may even know more than our concierge, though of this I cannot be sure.

Berthe assures me her husband enjoys his ‘involvement’ with my apartment, but I worry as he’s now in his 80s and his health is deteriorating. Still, when Clive and I saw the hideous splotches on my bedroom ceiling, we agreed the first person to talk with was Bernard.

Bedroom ceiling

Bernard and Berthe don’t speak English, nor do they use email. No matter: we communicate well via letters across the Channel.

After Clive and I left Paris, Bernard checked out the bedroom. Then I received a letter from him, with a few enclosures. He wrote that the leak originated in a third-floor apartment owned by Monsieur P. I’m on the first floor; the leak had reached my apartment and I wondered if my neighbours above and below were also affected. I knew Bernard would find out.

Monsieur P and his leak

Monsieur P is an elderly Frenchman, somewhere around Bernard’s age or maybe a few years younger. I’d met him briefly at one or two of the building’s assemblée générale (annual general meetings); my impression was that of a gentleman who personifies French courtesy and politesse. After 19 years, we still address each other as Madame Barnabo and Monsieur P.

(Clive and I have only been on first-name terms with Bernard and Berthe for about five years. Berthe adores Clive, which I think has something to do with it!)

Bernard’s letter included an insurance form called a constat amiable, which translates literally to ‘friendly report’. I find this extremely amusing, since the form requires often-opposing parties each to provide details of their residence and insurance policies. I wonder if any insurance report, by definition, would ever be considered ‘friendly’.

Perhaps I’d read too many ‘renovation disasters’ and ‘horrible neighbours’ memoirs, well-written and enjoyable as many are, at least for the reader. I was thrilled to discover Monsieur P had already completed his half of the constat amiable form. He also attached a handwritten note, expressing apologies and his hope the form would be satisfactory to me. He thanked Bernard for forwarding them.

Friendly insurance form

In his letter, Bernard also offered to get estimates, if I would like him to do so?

Filled with gratitude to both him and Monsieur P, I replied, ‘Oui! Merci!’

A new year

Thanks to Bernard, eventually I received the estimates. I nearly fainted over the high amounts. Once I got my breath back, I completed my half of the constat amiable and tucked it in my bag to take to Paris over the New Year period. I wanted to go over the paperwork with Bernard before sending everything to the insurance company.

Over New Year’s Eve champagne and Berthe’s famous coconut custard concoction, which she makes especially for Clive (or Cleeve, as she and many others call him in French), in-house expert Bernard OK’d everything. He urged me to send the forms to my insurance agent as soon as possible. Clive had examined the ceiling; it looked like the stains had stopped spreading, but he asked Bernard if he was sure Monsieur P had definitely fixed his leak.

Bernard, as always, jumped to assist. A day or two later, he rang our doorbell and presented us with a copy of Monsieur P’s plumbing bill, evidence the work had been done.

The culprit: a kitchen tap. Oh la la. It seemed inconceivable a tap leak could cause so much damage. But given a turn-of-the-(last)-century building and ancient plumbing … when it comes to leaks and water damage, it seems everyone in Paris has a story.

I sent up a silent prayer of thanks for Monsieur P’s responsive, courteous and responsible handling of the leak and even bigger thanks the damage into my bedroom hadn’t been worse.

Also at our New Year’s Eve soirée, Bernard and Berthe told us a new owner had purchased the apartment above mine and below theirs – and planned major renovations in early 2017. I pointed up and said I feared for my ceilings. I felt I had enough to worry about with the bedroom ceiling, but tried to practice my mother’s oft-proffered wisdom, ‘Don’t look for trouble.’ Oh la la.

Insurance matters

I packaged everything together and sent it via snail mail and email to my insurance agent. The office is located in a city 250 miles from Paris; other than mailing an annual policy renewal check, this was my first claim since buying the apartment.

A reply arrived from someone named Monique; the subject line was Sinistre Dégâts des Eaux.

This phrase I loved, because the damage was most definitely sinister.

Monique’s in charge of Service Sinistres, ‘sinister services’! In the months that would follow, our communications did take time, but she always replied within a few days, answered my questions and provided knowledgeable guidance on each next step. There were a couple of complications with one of the estimates, but in due course, she sorted everything out.

In all of our communications, Monique wasn’t exactly friendly, but I wasn’t looking for friendly; we both had questions and concerns and a job to do. She was unfailingly professional and business-like, which I liked and appreciated very much.

Maybe Monique was (and continues to be) helpful because I wasn’t pushing her for a date or seeking exceptions to the process or complaining about how long everything took. I had no reason to; the leak had been repaired and the water damage had stopped spreading, which for me were the important things. I just wanted to understand the process, do what I needed to do and get my ceiling fixed. Experience in other countries and bureaucracies has taught me that sometimes this is the most effective and least stress-inducing approach.

Thank goodness for email and the ability to communicate from anywhere, whether at home in the UK or on our family travels to New Jersey and Australia. And thank goodness for Google Translate, though (no doubt showing my age) I always feel a pang of nostalgia, or that I’ve lost something important, when a translation instantly appears. It’s a terrific timesaver but so different from the ‘old days’ and the satisfaction of searching the dictionary and finding just the right French word.

My file grew thicker and thicker as the weeks passed, bulging with insurance forms, estimates, hardcopy letters from Bernard and occasional email print-outs.

A new neighbour

Meanwhile, during this same time period, I received an introductory email from our new upstairs neighbour, Marc. He’s a lovely young Frenchman who writes and speaks excellent English.

Marc confirmed he was beginning work on his renovations. He mentioned his bedroom ceiling had also been damaged by Monsieur P’s leak. Marc’s insurance expert had assessed the damage, with the estimate apparently taken into account during the negotiations of his purchase contract.

We exchanged pleasantries and agreed we looked forward to meeting in person the next time we were in Paris.

So far, so good.

For about a week.

Then another email arrived from Marc. His renovations were underway and there seemed to be a few problems. The email contained an attachment with alarming images: not only my bedroom ceiling, but also my kitchen and bathroom ceilings, both badly cracked.

The photos showed Bernard in the kitchen (he would have had to let them in); I was relieved he was there. To my eye, the ceiling cracks looked beyond horrifying. I thought the ceiling might fall down any minute. But in the photos Bernard didn’t look unduly concerned, and when Clive examined the photos, he said the cracks didn’t look too serious (for an old building), though of course we needed to see them in person.

Kitchen ceiling

If the new ceiling cracks weren’t bad enough, Marc also reported a water pipe that runs the length of the building had burst, flooding my bathroom, kitchen and entry.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Once again, Bernard wrote and offered to get estimates. Once again, I gratefully agreed. Thus began a parallel universe of more reports and insurance forms and letters and communications.

I now had two growing files and tried to keep my wits about me with respect to what forms and communications went in the bedroom sinister water damage file and which into the kitchen and bathroom cracked-ceilings file.

March madness

We arrived in March to the cracked ceilings and a shiny new copper pipe running down the bathroom wall. My bathroom storage bins had been moved from their high shelf and stacked onto the white dresser; the ceiling above the shelf was and is undamaged; the reason the bins were moved remains a small but puzzling mystery.

Bernard gave us a dramatic recounting of the day of the flood, describing how Marc’s workers, the concierge and the building’s syndic manager (property manager), along with Bernard himself, had all crowded into my little entry space to witness the spectacle. I’m still not exactly sure who cleaned up the mess.

With estimates and insurance forms in progress for the cracked ceilings, there wasn’t much Clive and I could do. We returned the bathroom bins to their shelf and ran off to see Vlad and process the latest events over a kir.

A restorative kir

Several days later, we met Marc in person. A stylish, professional Parisien, he readily and easily calls us by our first names. I’d introduced us that way in my reply to his first email, and we’d been using first names electronically since then.

After so many years of ‘Bonjour, Madame Barnabo,’ from one and all, it feels both good and startling when Marc says, ‘Hi Carolyn’—which actually sounds like, ‘Hi, Caroleen,’ in his beautiful, fluid French accent.

Marc gave us a tour of his renovations-in-progress: living room walls down, bathroom and kitchen locations swapped, bedroom wall and door changed and everything completely redesigned to open plan. As impressed as I was with the changes, I found them all a bit overwhelming when I thought of my poor ceilings below.

We complimented Marc on the work and thanked him for the tour. I felt another visit to see Vlad was in order.

Comforting café visit (Vlad in photo background)

That same week, just to add to the noise and mess and billowing dust, our building’s courtyard was torn up and repaved, a project previously approved by the residents.

Summer sizzle

Summer brought more appointments and experts and a new batch of letters and emails. Thus ensued another round of clarifying questions from me and responses and explanations from Monique.

I learned the insurance company would, after approving their expert’s report, mail me a check for a partial but significant amount of the bedroom ceiling repairs. The remainder would be paid upon the work’s completion.

This surprised me; it seemed quite trusting to send the client a check for such a large amount before the work was even scheduled. I had incorrectly thought the contractor would bill the insurance firm directly. I’m not sure how the process works in other countries, but the French approach makes sense to me from the standpoint that it puts clear responsibility on the client to get the work organised and paid for.

I kept the paperwork going for the bathroom and kitchen ceilings, but deferred planning the repairs until 2018. The bedroom ceiling was enough to worry about and I wanted to get that finished first.

Clive and I spent a week in Paris during the June heat wave, when temperatures soared to 39C/102F. We managed to get out and about in the cooler mornings and spent most afternoons lying on the bed with the shutters closed and the fan on, staring up at the splotchy ceiling.

Heat wave in Paris 39C

By the end of August, I had in hand the necessary expert approvals and the first check from the insurance company.

It was time to schedule the work.

I’m afraid it is

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come: Part 2, Reluctant Realisations.

November Reflections: Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Introduction to a Five-Part Series

Reflection in a room in Paris

One morning in October 2016, when Clive and I were lying in bed in Paris, he looked up and said, ‘That’s not good.’

I followed his gaze to the ceiling. Brown stains, watermarks and spreading cracks revealed that most dreaded of old-building problems: a leak. The photo below was taken a couple of months later, after it stopped spreading.

Just what you do NOT want to see on your ceiling

Though I don’t recall the exact date we first noticed the leak, I do remember the rush of emotion and that mysterious, time-bending thing that happens when, in only a split-second of real time, an entire sequence of images plays out in your mind.

In that instant, I foresaw weeks and months of practical challenges: unfamiliar processes, new French vocabulary, insurance, estimates, forms, experts, contractors, workers and, depending on where the leak originated, my neighbours. I dreaded what I knew would involve significant cost and disruption.

At the same time, I acknowledged to myself that one of many reasons I’d always wanted to have my own place in Paris was to go deeper, to make a commitment to the city and my relationship with it. I wanted to learn and experience Paris beyond the tourist surface (wonderful as it is) and beyond renting or staying in other people’s places (which I also loved doing). Whether positive or negative, I wanted a deeper immersion into all aspects of the culture.

Beneath the practical challenges, many thoughts and feelings flooded my mind and heart about my late husband, Gary. Nearly twenty years ago, he painted the room with his customary care and precision.

My late husband, Gary, painting in Paris

How it hurt to see Gary’s beautiful work stained by the unsightly dégâts d’eau, or water damage. When I bought the apartment, the rooms were uniformly beige, filthy and coated with layers of grease and grime. We saw the apartment’s bones and character and transformed it (more about this in my memoir-in-progress, which thankfully is *not* a ‘renovation disaster’ story). With only occasional assistance from me and our son, Gary did every bit of painting himself.

Of course I had to deal with the leak. I knew as much as it would pain me to have someone else ‘paint over’ Gary’s work, he would be the first, along with Clive, to encourage me, especially after nearly 20 years, to face the problem and do what was required to get it taken care of. Gary never let anything slide. Like Clive, he’d say it needs to be done, and done properly. Properly: a revealing, favourite word of both my highly-experienced, DIY-expert husbands.

The past 13 months have been a long journey, and a learning one — mostly in French, of course. During what I hope were the final days (there was a late problème which still worries me, but more of that later), our routine took on a pattern of overseeing work at the apartment, then doing errands in the late afternoon. For some reason, those afternoons seemed to take us past and/or into a lot of pâtisseries.

Liébaux chocolats et macarons, Paris

If I were to share all the details of each phase, the characters involved, the steps and the mis-steps, I suppose these recent adventures could form a separate memoir on their own. But I already have a Paris memoir I’m determined to finish.

Instead, I offer here a condensed five-part series. The quality of the photos is not always great; I took them only for myself and my son. It now seems appropriate to share a few as part of this petite histoire, or little story, about painting (and pâtisseries) in Paris.

Clive finding a problem with the bed

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come: Part 1, The Journey Begins.