24 April 2016

Bon Appétit en France!

Early evening on the terrasse

When we're in France, no matter how much we have on our daily schedule, there is never any question that taking time out to eat well is de rigueur. In fact, it is one of the things we love most about the French - they know how to relax over a good meal, and eating-on-the-run is not even in their vocabulary.

Most of the meals we've eaten on this trip have been at home because, hey, it's OUR house!! We have breakfast every morning in our kitchen on the rez-de-chaussez (called the first floor in America) and lunch and dinner most days on our terrasse tropezienne, (open terrace on the top floor of the house - third floor in France; fourth floor in America). We have a summer kitchen on the terrasse, so other than carrying food up, there is no inconvenience. Outdoor kitchens are quite common here. The French love to eat out of doors whenever weather permits.

An April sunset in Montagnac, at round 8:45 PM

The weather here has been fabulous. The sun stays up much later here than in Massachusetts, which I have never been able to figure out. It's early Spring and still light out at 9:00 PM (21:00 European time). Our terrasse faces southwest, so we get afternoon sun, and by evening it is quite warm, with a gentle breeze keeping the air fresh.

Jack grilling fresh sardines for lunch

Lunch with freshly grilled sardines and green zebra tomatoes

Bringing a bottle of pastis (anis-flavored liqueur) up to the terrasse, so Jack can use it to flambé the pork cheeks for dinner

After the addition of Pastis

Incredibly tender and divinely flavorful pork cheeks

Chopping garlic for salad dressing

So simple and absolutely delicious - fresh tomatoes and avocados, drizzled with a little walnut oil, salt & pepper - a perfect accompaniment for dried ham, sausage with walnuts and cheese

23 April 2016

Medieval to Comfortable with a Coat of Paint

The kitchen as it looked when we first saw it

It's always the same - you buy a new house thinking it's "perfect", then move in and find out that it doesn't feel perfect at all, if fact it's a bit depressing. We had planned on doing a lot of decorating to update our new house in Montagnac, but hadn't really noticed in our love-at-first-sight state, that she really needed a major facelift, as well.

It took us about two days in our new kitchen to realize that our slight malaise was not wholly attributable to jet lag, and that it would need to be lifted by a coat of white paint on all of the kitchen walls that were not made of stone. To preserve the medieval charm of the kitchen/living space, we wanted to show off the gorgeous vaulted stone ceiling, and the four columns that luckily still exist in the four corners of the room. The plaster walls, however, could only be described as dingy.

I think we've now made at least 25 trips to numerous hardware stores in various towns, but our first trip to the closest one was to buy white paint for old stone walls. Within the first few hours of painting, we realized that we should probably ask if there is a special mixture for crumbling medieval stone/plaster, so back to the store we went and learned the first of so many new French words that had never been necessary in our francophone lives before: rebouchage (filling for holes in the walls), premiere couche (first coat of paint), forets pour béton (drill bits for concrete), vises (screws), etc.

While it has not been all vocabulary fun and games, we have been amazed at how quickly the kitchen has been transformed from dark and somber to light and bright.
While I had packed painting pants, I had overlooked a painting shirt, so Jack kindly sacrificed one of his "Picasso" t-shirts for me.

What a breath of fresh air the kitchen now is - a joy to come down to in the morning, for a couple bowls of café au lait!

Jack hanging antique plates we bought in nearby Pézenas, over new curtains I had just made

More on the kitchen renovations (and our orgy of antique buying!!!) tomorrow...

Bonne journée, Kate

22 April 2016

Just do it!

A magnificent home for sale in France - just the kind we had always dreamed of, with enough rooms for visitors, a bit of land for eating al fresco and gardening, a swimming pool...

Sometimes we have dreams for years and years, but don't know if we'll ever realize those dreams...it is hope and faith that keeps us dreaming. Jack and I have had a dream of owning a charming house (a maison de charactere) in France for as long as we've been together (and for me, since I lived in Nice in 1977-8). A couple of years ago, I came to the realization that the dream itself was so much fun, it might be okay if we never actually got the house, but just kept thinking about it, about how we would live there, decorate, cook, entertain family and friends...

A shaded terrace in Provence, on another realtor's site - the perfect place for a leisurely lunch

Through it all, though, we (especially Jack) kept looking at real estate in France, via the internet. And every time we have visited France, our semi-joking catchphrase has been, "C'est a vendre?" ("Is that for sale?") While Jack found so many amazing places for sale - old water mills, barns that would be perfect as renovated art studios, gardens and swimming pools overlooking hilly vistas, outdoor and indoor stone bread/pizza ovens to bake in...so many incredible choices - these all still seemed to be just dreams.

One day last Fall, we decided to go to a basic French real estate site (not one with glamorous properties for foreigners) and start at the bottom of the price scale. Working my way up from completely rundown places with no possibility of water and electricity, to abodes that seemed to offer a few possibilities, I finally got to some places with real potential (although Jack had his doubts about most of them...)

Then one day, it appeared - newly listed, a house that was absolutely charming, in Montagnac (in the Languedoc, just west of Provence), the area of France we wanted to live...and at a nice price. I just happened to be going to Marseille for several days to meet a needlepoint customer from the States, so we booked a ticket for Jack to come too, and made an appointment with the realtor to look at the house the following week.

Everything that happened in the next two weeks flew by like we were in fast forward, but yet it all seemed to be happening just as it should. I don't believe in fate, but I do believe in opportunity, and when an opportunity that feels so right presents itself, one has to be able to jump right in and "just do it". That's what we did.

A combination of luck, passion and "just-do-it" mentality led us to this house and to our new, dear friends in Montagnac. Having made our appointment to see the house, we had to change course for the week I had planned in Provence (turns out my Texas customer was unable to make it to Marseille, anyway), and so we ended up booking a single night at the Domaine des Augustins, a bed & breakfast in the Montagnac that we found on Booking.com. Our thinking was that we would like to get to the town, explore a bit and find the house on our own before meeting with the realtor the following morning. Little did we know that we would fall in love with the wonderful proprietors of the Domaine - Muriel & Olivier Fury - and that they would so happily help us with all of the events that quickly took place in the week to come.

Muriel et Olivier Fury, at the Domaine des Augustins, Montagnac

Magnificent entrance to La Domaine des Augustins

At breakfast the next morning, Olivier, who has done lots of renovations on several old homes they have owned (including their current home, an 18th c. former Augustinian wine-making monastery and its attached church dating to the 15th c. - more on that gem in another post), generously suggested he would be happy to come with us to see the house, since as Americans, we know very little about stone buildings from the Middle Ages (!)

It was love a first sight. We felt that the house was meant for us, as soon as we walked through the front door.
Looking at our front door from the Rue des Amours (Street of Loves)

The events that followed literally happened within three days, while we continued to stay at the Domaine des Augustins, enjoying dinner every night and breakfast each morning with our lovely new friends. We made an offer on the house; our offer was accepted; Muriel called her friend, Marie-Juliette, who is manager of the local branch of a French bank, and immediately we had an appointment to meet her and open our own French bank account; Olivier called their local notaire (similar to a lawyer in France, for handling transactions like buying a house) and made an appointment for us to go there; we met with the notaire, Anne-Catherine, and she drew up a purchase & sale agreement, which we later signed; we discussed renovation ideas with Olivier and spoke with our realtor, a friendly Dutch man named Reinier, about local insurance providers, etc.; we had a couple of follow-up inspections to double-check some questions we had, and found that all had gone well.
Reinier, our realtor - Midi Languedoc Propriétés

I cannot stress enough how friendly and efficient everyone was!!! The process happened so quickly, and yet we were totally confident that everything was moving along just as it should, and with less red tape than one would normally encounter in the United States. Our trust in the people and institutions we were dealing with was not misplaced. Everything did work out just as it should, with no problems other than the former owners of the house stalling for several months (no, they were not French).

Our street - the Rue du Commerce, so-named because many of the houses on it were built and owned by the merchants who lived and sold their wares here in the 15th century

That all was last November and the house literally became ours, officially, the day before we were planning to leave for France again, to spend the next five weeks in our new house - March 28, 2016.

We have named the house "Le Bijou", meaning the little gem. While this house, situated as it is right in the middle of a small town, is not the house we had always dreamed of (in the countryside, but near a town) it somehow felt like the perfect French house for us right now. Follow our adventures in my next posts, as we have been making this old house our own.
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