They Wash Rugs Don’t They?

The spring is a magical time in Finland; as the sun kisses the frosty land, slowly melting the snow and a layer of dog shit usually around two foot deep, and each of our thousands of lakes is suddenly freed of ice, shortly followed by millions of birds returning to their shores to nest… so the first Finn crawls out of their cave – and immediately seeks to start a fight for the best position at the local rug-washing station. 
 
Washing of the rugs is an important task for the Finn, the alpha and omega of good housekeeping.  Although wearing shoes is strictly forbidden inside Finnish homes as to keep our rugs clean, allowing only a rare exception: a baptism, birthday or a funeral, those jolly summer parties we all love and cherish and whip out the good china for.  The rugs mustbe washed annually.  
 
Dirty or not. 
 
Finnish rug washing in Tervo and mangling in Pirkkala – images borrowed from their sites respectfully

Before moving to Scotland and later to France, I too engaged in this national sport.  And why not – it is made very easy for you as even the smallest villages would have a station, usually outdoors and near a lake, where you can take your carpets, (handmade by grandmothers if you’re a traditionalist or bought if you’re city scum) scrub them clean with pine soap, mangle and hung them to dry.  Like most decent people with an acute sense of good housekeeping, I like my rugs cleaned annually. 
 
No exceptions.
 
As we joined our lives and possessions, James, who is to thank for most of our furniture, contributed three stunning carpets to our shared home.  My inner Finn roared and rumbled as I discovered these rugs have never been washed.  Gross.  So unhygienic.  So English!  Three years and a dog later, the carpets remained unwashed and my Finnish needs unsatisfied.  There was nowhere to go, no mangle and they were too heavy.  Then my mother came for a visit and gears started to turn…
 
Conveniently, I was feeling under the weather on strong antibiotics, having just hurt my face and rendered one of my hands temporarily unusable in an incident involving a stray feline, so it was up to James and ma to get the washing started.  As the nearest rug station is around two thousand kilometres away, we made our own from two architect’s tables, a pressure washer and a few bars of Marseille-soap.  My mum scrubbed as James wielded the pressure washer, starting from the dirtiest rug as I napped upstairs.  It took a bit of grunt, I was told, but the results were truly stunning.  This blond rug with red, white and pale blue accents had gotten so dirty it was nearly all grey to the point where you could hardly distinguish the pattern.  After the wash, Finnish mum-style, it was like brand new. 
 
 
James, seduced by the power of his beloved pressure washer, also cleaned up parts of our exterior walls that had gotten mossy over the years, again, with a glorious effect.  I woke up from my nap just in time to capture few snaps of the action and take credit for the job in the eyes of our elderly neighbour who probably thought we were barking mad as the French, together with the Brits, hardly wash their rugs.  Perhaps they just really love shake and vac? 
Bof – Je ne sais pas.
 
And speaking of our neighbour, although she sneaks us greetings from Jehova every now and then, I really like her and often practise my gardening vocabulary on her as she has the most beautiful jardin I have ever seen.  It has got the perfect balance between a traditional potager with an addition of tomatoes, salads, pumpkin etc. and a flower garden with roses and perennials.  We have a few pots of cherry tomatoes, patisson-squash, strawberries and herbs ourselves and they do give us a good crop but wouldn’t sustain us for the nuclear-winter if you know what I mean.  Anyhow, I like my gardening like I like my men: easy and low maintenance.  Having said that, it is also great to see some of my gladioli finally starting to flower.  The bulbs were planted a tad bit late this spring and my expectations for a flower-show this summer were pretty non-existent.
 
Fresh from the garden…
 
As it stands we are waiting for a hot and sunny weekend to finish up the last of our rugs.  The woollen ones take a day or two to dry completely, but it’s worth it – if not for anything else other than my peace of mind.  I had this funny moment when I caught a glimpse of our freshly scrubbed piece of carpet drying in the garden as the sun slipped behind a wispy cloud: just in that moment there, somewhere far away, my old granny looked down and smirked.  The dirty skank washed hers never.

Wonderwall

 

Wonderwall (Noun) 

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

 

 
Do you ever catch yourself staring at a project, an unfinished wall perhaps or a gargantuan pile of ironing and say to yourself will this job ever be finished?  I love my old house with its rough edges and all its imperfections, but living inside a project does take its toll:  I get fed up of clearing up fallen plaster, let it collect in the skewed corners around the house and I tire of fighting the armies of spiders we share this house with, allow them to conquer the contours of our stairwell and erect their flags in the ceiling.  The work never ends.  Priming a wall can take a week when the moral is low.
 
This is usually when my husband strolls in with a new gismo and I rediscover my enthusiasm of painting and decorating.  To battle my growing apathy towards home improvement, last Monday he adopted a wallpaper kettle and come Friday, I have already given it a name and a place around our dinner table – that’s how much I love it.
Our new wallpaper kettle and my mum in action…
For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing one of these babies in action, a wallpaper kettle is a simple gadget that makes stripping wallpaper a joy.  It looks roughly like a petrol canister fitted with a hose and a plastic tray.  James told me it was around thirty euros in our local Bricomarche – money well spent I thought.  As water boils in the tank, stream is directed through the hose and into the shallow tray that is kept pressed against the section of a wall ready to be stripped.  Unlike my fingernails, the steam will penetrate several layers of paper at once.  The old adhesive is melted away, allowing big sheets of wallpaper simply to fall off with a gentle pull or a scrape – all in a matter of seconds.  On top of all this, the device is fairly light weight and using one is easy as pie.
If only it made tea, I would elope to Spain and marry it.

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

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

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

Having a partner-in-reno, or a fabulous mum, to share the workload with every once in a while, is helping me to stay motivated.  When I find myself lacking in energy, nothing feels as good as a helping hand and some hearty progress.  My mum will spend a total of three weeks here, this being her whole holiday allowance for the summer, and I must admit, I was dreading it.  No matter how much I love my mother, three weeks is a long time to cater for any guests, including family, on a building site.  Luckily we seem to work very well together and she loves our house as well as Mazamet.  With her help and whirlwind like enthusiasm, I even found myself with a bit of free time for the first time this summer.  In a week I have managed to catch up on work, make a pretty summer dress and see attractions and events all around Mazamet and La Montagne Noire.  To summarise, I have managed to relax.
I can concur,  la vie est belle!  Seeing my mum adore the pace of life by the foot of the Montagne Noire is making me incredibly happy.  And as she happens to be dead afraid of spiders, I have a new reason to brake truce with the cobwebs brigade.  God knows, it’s about damn time!  

 

Making of.. L’Atelier d’Art Part 1 – The Floor

With all this pesky home improvement I have seriously neglected my awesome day job: being an artist.  I don’t normally take time off my work like this, but we needed to get this old house liveable, move our gallery into new premises Chez Nous, and get married in Finland.  The house is in order now, somewhat, and we are hitched, so it was about time to get the studio sorted out.
Luckily, as most of you know by now, N°21 used to be a crèmerie and has a neat little boutique downstairs, just itching to be turned into an atelier d’art.  We loved our old rental atelier artichoc which had enough space for a big studio space and a huge gallery but those premises had serious downfalls: even after we got proper lighting installed, there were never enough wall sockets, no heating nor hot water.  All rather essential for an all-year-round event- and work space.  Even with a great landlord and good visibility, we felt like it was time to move on.
Before setting up shop Chez Nous, there was this teeny-tiny little detail to fix: a floor full of gorgeous turn of the century cement tiles dirtier than a loo at a lorry stop.  Dominantly white cement tiles.  Oh boy.  After the closure of the crèmerie, sometime in the late 50’s to early 60’s, the shop front was used as a garage.  Neglected and barely sealed, the porous tiles absorbed all the grease, grime and dirt for decades and were in a pretty grim condition when we got here.  
We came to view this house on a warm autumn day and the light filtering though the frosted glass was just amazing.  Even under a layer of dirt and grime, these century old encaustic tiles steal the show. 
Normally, antique cement tiles would not be my material of choice for an artist studio for an array of reasons: they stain easily, are incredibly expensive to replace if damaged and difficult to keep clean if not sealed properly.  But frankly, they were here before me, and if restoring and keeping these tiles would mean needing to take better care while working… so be it.  Paint spills and drips are a daily occurrence in a working studio, but with a proper sealant and a never ending supply of wet-wipes, I should be able to manage any destructive bursts of creativity. 
Having had next to no bother cleaning and sealing the other encaustic tiles in this house, I thought sorting this room would be a piece of cake.
Remind me never to be so naïve again.
These types of cement tiles do not really loose colour due to wear and tear as the pigment sits in the cement itself, but they do, however, loose their protective finish.  After the sealant is lost, the porous cement is receptive to dirt that can be incredibly difficult to lift by using your regular household products.  Take my word for it, Mr. Propre was a complete waste of time.  In fact, any off-the-shelf cleaning product, no matter how specialised, had little to no effect on the greasy marks embedded deep in the pores of these concrete tiles.
Heck, even the old de-greasing agent made no visible progress, although it clearly got rid of something as all I was left after a good couple hours of serious scrubbin’ was a pair of matching blisters on both palms and water as dirty as a sailors smile.  The clearest results were visible on the border tiles that still had their original sealant.  The centre tiles with a nice burgundy and grey pattern on cream white background remained stained and dull. 
The tiles after a somewhat unsuccessful attempt in de-greasing them: the border tiles on the left cleaned out a bit whereas the tiles on the right did not react much at all to the scrubbing nor the de-greasing cleaner. 
 This is where a lesser (to be read: smart) home improver would call the professionals, but not me.  No.  I did, however, bully James to call a few friends for advice and soon had another product to try: a professional grade cleaner for cement tiles and marble.  This stuff was PH neutral, smelled like lemons and came in a reassuringly boring plastic jug.  By design, you were to brush the product on with water, creating a soapy foam that would sit on the tiles without drying for 10-20 minutes.  In that time the foam would penetrate the pores of the tiles and lift up any dirt and grease before being brushed up and rinsed with plenty of water.
 
In reality this meant half an hour of intense brushing, letting the stuff sink in from anything between 30 to 60 minutes, followed by more rage-brushing, tears, and some more brushing and rinsing.  I repeated the treatment twice and hated every single second of it.  Although I could see the foam turn into a satisfying shade of Yuk! on each rinse, the achieved difference was near invisible to the naked eye after each wash.  Needless to say, I may have been a bit underwhelmed.
I did spy some results once the floor had dried.  The weather, although nice and mild for most parts of the year was not quite so warm and dry as it is now, thus prolonging the time it took for everything to stabilise.  It seemed I had managed to remove some of the worst stains as well as parts of the old sealant that had yellowed over time.  And this is where I decided to call it.  More brushing was only going to start damaging these tiles and the dirty ones were clearly beyond rescuing, so I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a big bad roll of wood-effect vinyl.
Kidding.  God… just kidding!  
 

 

I decided to live with it.  These tiles have been in place since 1910 and I don’t really need them to look now.  A few are cracked slightly and others still bare the marks of the space being used as a garage… but that is fine.  I never wanted this floor to look new, just less grotty and this is exactly what I think I have achieved here.  After three coats of fresh sealant, my studio tiles certainly have got their mojo back, and in a way, so have I.  After all, what is a cowboy without their horse, an artist without a studio?
 
These tiles are not new but they got a century’s worth of character to compensate.
 
TO BE CONTINUED… Next time on the same atelier time, on the same atelier channel, I’ll be ranting on about painting ceilings as a shorty, French neighbours and dog hair.