Let’s get ready to decorate PART 1

Let's get ready to decorate PART 1

Oh hi there.  I just burned my left index finger on a heat gun and thought it would make a great excuse for a spot of IRN BRU and blogging.  There’s this project I’ve been working on – you see, I got family coming over: my mum, bother and a Roger (who’s like family anyway), and only one bedroom to spare between them.  It’s not really a question of space, not really, as we got plenty of that here in chez nous… more so, the rooms we have available are sort of scary.  Picture this: forcing ma into the haunted attic while Roger takes the cellar of horrors.  Or have my bro sleep with the spiders in the abandoned toilet behind our kitchen.  As much as the idea of traumatising our houseguests for life attracts me, the time is ripe for some good old fashioned painting and decorating.

The chambre we chose to do up as the second spare room, is situated on the ground floor and has been largely disused due to an old leak in the ceiling.  Naturally, this was something we fixed straight away upon moving in, but the space remained somewhat of an afterthought until now.  Filled to the brim with tools, doggy stuff and disused furniture, it was not a part of the house I was particularly proud of.  In truth, my distain of this room runs much deeper than I would like to admit, largely because there is actually very little wrong with it.  Sure it’s hideous and dated, but everything is in such good nick!  The ceramic tiles, for example, as offensive as they are, have been laid by a skilled professional to be perfectly level and the revoltingly orange wood panelling is as good as the day it was installed.
A shoddy real estate picture versus how we left the place having removed some wallpaper and fixed a leaky roof.
And I hate that.  I detest the fact that there is nothing really wrong with this room and how that makes me feel like a wasteful idiot for wanting to change everything about it just because it is monstrously ugly.
But how do you deal with dated décor, in a way that utilises all available resources to their best potential?  Impossible dilemma.  This space was scrapped in the late seventies or early eighties, presumably to turn it into a granny flat for someone who was unable to get up the stairs.  As the renovations were done with care and good expense my guess would be it might have been commissioned by one of the past proprietors for themselves or for a relative of theirs.  Consequently, no part of the original floor remains, neither a trace of the old fireplace, but the built-in cupboard/wardrobe was left untouched as was the circa 1910 wooden framed window – the only one left in the whole house.  Even with the nauseating mix of retro finishes, I think this turd can be polished without ripping the place apart, hopefully, resulting in a beautifully layered mix of old and new.
 
As jobs come, this one is right up my alley; being a painter by trade, I know how to spruce things up with a shade or two.  Here’s the plan – not only will I be treating the ceiling and walls, scraping, sanding and painting all the woodwork including the orangey tongue & groove panelling, but painting the tiled floor as well.  I already bought the paints, (more about those later) but before the fun begins every surface needs to be prepared.  My dearest James, who’s commuting back and forth between his job in the UK and Mazamet, was here to help me kick start it all.  He wielded the wallpaper kettle like a champion and managed to get rid of all wallpaper and their respected liners.  The more recent of the two layers from was already gone when we started – shoddily installed 90’s orange, but a thick layer of 80’s Miami Cool took for ever to steam off.  I took my trusted Mac Allister to the wood panelling and sanded away as much of the surface lacquer as I could. It was the first of many sanding jobs to come and, as I later discovered to my utter dismay, the easiest one by a streak.
Faded but still there – hand stencilled diamond pattern and remnants of florals
Underneath all that mouldy wallpaper, we discovered some interesting fragments from the past: a faded but clearly visible art deco paint job including a painted frame for a mirror or a picture (presumably of religious nature) and remnants of an older floral motif, both stencilled straight onto the walls.  All too far gone to be kept, sadly, but a lovely thing to uncover.  A weekend’s worth of serenity later, I continued the gig by patching up a few holes with plaster and skimming over anything uneven, followed by another run with the sander, this time leaving me, the dog and everything else in walking distance from us covered in plaster dust.
To continue with the theme of creating a huge mess, I started to prepare the tongue and groove ceiling for a lick of paint.  Beyond where the old leak had damaged the paint job, it was in decent nick and looked like an easy scrape and sand job.  No such thing.  It was, in fact, soul destroying and seemed to go on for days.  My dad would be proud to hear I was wearing my protective mask all the way through.  No goggles though, and listen up boys and girls, this is why you should always wear them: little sharps of paint can be really f*cking painful when they lodge themselves into your eyes.
But goggles steam up – it’s irritating.
It would make an interesting philosophical point to debate whether one gets more irritated with slashed eyes or blurred vision while sanding, but for everyone’s sanity, I won’t bother.  Do as I say, kiddos, not as I do.
Two sides of a door frame, one with layers upon layers of floss and the other stripped bare.  In the middle you see just a few of these lovely layers of paint.
And all this brings us back to the heat gun – the last instrument on my list of sorrows before the painting begins.  Well, I do actually love this part.  It is time consuming for sure, but isn’t it great to see the different layers of paint melting away before your eyes, revealing near-virginal woodwork?  Revealing traces of old paints, layer upon layer, decade after decade, makes me feel like Indiana Jones.  So you know, before everything got slathered with salmon pink, the woodwork in this room was cream white, yellow, light turquoise, teal, sage green, concrete grey and finally, deep chocolate brown, all brilliantly reflecting the changing fashions of different decades.
For those not too familiar with painting and decorating basics, removing layers of old paint does have benefits beyond getting to admire the tastes of previous decorators and burning various parts of your body while operating a heat gun.  Oil gloss in particular is thick stuff and a century’s worth of it can clog up the profile of your woodwork, making it less refined and less pretty. Tons of the stuff can also prevent doors and windows from opening and closing properly.  Likewise, there is a school of thought that believes in reducing the paint build-up of radiators for more efficient distribution of heat.  You can use a chemical paint stripper just as well, but I don’t want to risk our dog messing around with that stuff… and I love to watch the world burn.
Having gone back to bare wood there’s always the option of not re-painting it, but giving it a light sand and a protective coat of varnish, wax or oil of your liking.  But manage your expectations as not all wood you will uncover will look stunning straight off the bat.  In old as well as modern homes, inferior wood or knotty wood such as pine is often used on baseboards and trims instead of more expensive hard woods.  Most of our timber in this house, with the exception of our stunning oak staircase, is pine from the Montagne Noire.  Some like the look of it, some not and I will just have to take each case as it comes and see what bits might look great au naturel.  Like me, you might find evidence of old repairs and depending on the quality of the wood used, they can be treated to match the original woodwork.
Making everything ready for paint has taken me just about a week with the aid of a wallpaper kettle, electric sander and a heat gun – oh, and James.  His contribution was massive as it would have taken me twice as long to steam those walls on a ladder!  And material wise, I’ve used half a bag of patching plaster, so around a kilo of the stuff, as well as a bit of polyfilla that I found from the back of the cupboard.  The paint colours are picked, bought and ready to go as well as my rollers and a mystery stencil for the floor.
Yes, he is helping…


So, this is where I am at with my mission of eradicating forbidding spare rooms in our house: fingers full of burns, blisters and what have you, but very happy about the progress made.
AND, during my sabbatical in the UK, while I was neglecting this blog, I made chez nous an Instagram account!  Check us out and give me a shout out @cheznous21 – I’d love to hear what you guys think.
Next blog will be all about ‘dat paint, ‘dat paint.. no dribbles.



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!  

 

Inspiration, Now – painting and drawing Chez Nous

Welcome back to Chez Nous.


Good news – as the renovation of my atelier d’art is progressing slowly but steadily, I have managed to reclaim my number one metier, painting.  And for once I am not talking about painting walls, but painting as in fine art and illustration.  Although the emphasis of this blog has been on the renovation and restoration of our house here in Mazamet, I feel it is time to come clean about my artistic endeavours also, as I am currently embarking on a painting project about Chez Nous and more widely, the region I am lucky to live in.
 
Getting back on my vocation full time has been both weird and wonderful after focussing on other projects for nearly six months.  On top of that, the last time I set out to paint a coherent body of work to be exhibited together was for my degree show, back in Edinburgh College of Art in the Auld Reekie in 2014!  To best explain what I plan to establish by painting a series of pieces about my own dwelling, I better start from the beginning… of what my art is all about in the first place:
 
Some of my earlier paintings from 2006 to 2010
Some people see themselves as artists primarily, but I have always been a painter.  Working towards perfecting my trade through mastering different materials, repeated sketching or meticulous base-work such as priming my own canvasses is very important to me.  It has been a long road to find out what my preferred subjects are, from early works inspired by art nouveau and surrealismto brash portraits of objects commanding to be gazed at, but at this point of my career I am most inspired by different materials and patterns, iconic brands and cherished things.  Acknowledging the weight of the history of art so far, as well as the significance of colour in two dimensional art, I still want my pieces to be playful.  The concept of nostalgia, too, plays a huge part in my way of painting things and wanting to inspire the viewer to start paying attention to the beauty found in everyday: how we dress ourselves, the products we consume, advertisement, signage, décor…  I firmly believe most things around us deserve a second look and by elevating mundane subjects into art by painting them in larger than life scale on canvas, is my way of doing so.
 
Some of my most recent, pattern based pieces
But leaving my artists manifesto aside, by choosing to paint my house, my home,and exhibit the pieces for all the world to see, is my way of documenting what is here and paying tribute to the people who built this lovely house as their home over a century ago.  This house is a treasure chest of ideas for a pattern-obsessed painter and a history buff:  The wallpapers alone would keep me busy for years in the studio, not to mention the intricate tilework and the plaster details with their hidden symbols.  And there are many homes just like mine on this street alone, some occupied, but many waiting for a fool of a renovator to take them on and love them again. 
 
Mazamet used to be one of the richest regional towns in France with more gold stored in its banks than in the branches of Paris.  The textile, leather and pelt-industries created a steady stream of wealth making it possible for merchants of all classes, including the cheesemongers who set up shop in Chez Nous, to build beautiful houses, using the most fashionable materials and decorating them stylishly following the latest trends.  It looked like the economic growth was never ending; even the wars did not stop the production in the Montagne Noire – if anything the war effort meant more business for the local mills producing textiles and gear for the military.  But come 1970’s and the rules of commerce had changed:  The local producers could no longer keep up with the competition once the cheap imports started flooding in from Asia, China in particular.  Today hardly anything is left from the glory days of the industrial dominance of this region, except the hollow shells of the factories scattered along the waterways tricking down from the mountain. 
 
 
Old postcards of Mazamet showing the town centre, processing of pelts – a key industry for the region and one of the now abandoned factories.
With no work and mounting social problems, people that grew up here were forced to look for their fortunes elsewhere, leaving homes built by their ancestors behind.  These properties soon lost their value and small townhouses as well as the grand villas of the factory owners were left to decay.  Investment and with it, new residents, are returning to Mazamet, though, have been for some time now.  The agreeable climate together with affordable properties and its authentic small town-feel makes this a popular spot for the English expats.  I have hear Tarn, our department, being describes as the best value for money in the whole of France by friends who invest in property here.  Due to spectacularly cheap rents for businesses, manufacturing and commerce are making a comeback too.  Just the other week I read about somebody setting up an artisanal sake distillery nearby and the town centre is been re-fitted as we speak to attract more shopkeepers and restaurateurs.  Our mayor has a real interest in encouraging all kinds of businesses and under his schemes especially young entrepreneurs have had a change to start-up businesses in Mazamet.
 
Not quite the renaissance of the Montagne Noire just yet, but things are improving.  People’s attitudes towards historic homes on the other hand, not so much.  We have been able to buy and re-claim so many materials such as tiles so easily because there seems to be very little interest in preserving the old.  From every one person I know who is interested in respectful renovation of their old house, there seems to be dozens who would rather skip the painstaking restoration process and cover everything with plasterboard and laminate.  Their home and their rules, of course, but surely there is no harm in giving the old another change? 
 
Small watercolour and pencil sketches inspired by the patterns of our wonderful encaustic cement tiles
By choosing to paint my tiles, the weather beaten front door of ours or 60’s floral wallpaper is not to say this is art – it is to encourage the viewer, you, to look again after something has been elevated into art.  What people take from my work is of course subjective, but if it inspires at least one person to start looking for the beauty of the everyday in their own lives, job well jobbed.
Tile sketches in blush pink, carmine and burgundy
Art does not need to be this monster that only lurks in museums, knobby galleries and hipster bars – it is all around us, where we choose to see beauty. 
 
Painting is my way to engage with the world around me.  It is a way to document my life and my feelings, but also a way to make a living, thus curated for an audience.  My work at its most truthful lies somewhere between these parameters.  By creating art inspired by my own home I am turning something very private into something professional, but in a way, this is what I am already doing by writing this blog.  These little watercolours illustrating my thoughts in this post will serve as a template to start working on canvas – canvasses that may one day be hung in somebody else’s home.  The idea of that is both thought provoking as well as bizarre. 
 
My front door.
Once the day comes to exhibit my creations out in the big wide world, I will naturally be starting local.  During my time here I have noticed it is often those that are the closest that can truly be the blindest when it comes to valuing our surroundings.  And as it is everywhere else, it often takes an appreciative stranger to convince the locals that it’s not all just doom and gloom here.  Mazamet really deserves to be loved again and through my work, I want to be the one carrying her torch. 

Le Grand Balcon – Setting up outdoor space for the summer

It all started with a catalogue.  You know, one of those supermarket add-magazines soliciting variety packs of Walkers and the best deals on Birds Eye frozen macaroni bites.  We get a fair bit of those here in France, in fact they drop semiregularly into our mailbox, once or twice a week, from all of the major supermarkets in the area.  First I thought about putting a stop to it by attaching a small “pas de pub” note on the door like before, but as a homeowner, I thought why not give the catalogues a try.

Who knows, they may even have coupons, I remember thinking.
 
Little did I know that a mag from Casino was going to change the way we would use our balcony, a leaky, smelly and callous place, which at that juncture mostly served as a place to dump smelly bin bags.  Like a good little wife I browsed through each leaflet full of special offers and multi-buys, occasionally setting a few aside featuring decent beer offerings or a tasty coupon.  From this pile of domestic misery, James spotted a set of patio furniture, a modular sofa, armchair and a tea-table-combo, for a price too good to miss.  As the weather was warming up, we wanted somewhere nice to sit outside with our G&T’s and made a trip to the Géant Casino in Castres the very next weekend.

The near impossible-to-assemble patio set with our riggity old table and chairs.

As you would expect, the furniture was a real bitch to put together.  Made of composite plastic in charcoal-black and casted to look woven in, these sets are fairly commonplace.  We were attracted to this particular combination, not just for its price, but because of the modular nature of it.  The furniture is lightweight and can be made to suit various situations: it’s not ridiculously opulent for the two of us and in the fair occasions we have company, you can seat up to five people comfortably.  The detail I was not expecting to be pleased about were the cushions, which turned out to be nice and fluffy, machine washable and moisture repellent.

 
While James was putting the pieces together in a drunken rage, I contributed by removing the cushions from their protective film and complained about certain men’s inability to read instructions.  Happy times.
 
Having sorted out the seating as well as a pesky hole in the fugly-but-functional fiberglass roofing, our little terrace was coming together nicely.  We chose to prioritise other projects for the summer to come, therefore it made sense to repair rather than remove the corrugated fiberglass sheets keeping the balcony dry from the rain.  You see, the water had previously found its way through the concrete base of the terrace, all the way to downstairs and the only way to start managing this was to make sure the floor was staying dry.  Installed sometime over ten years ago, the fiberglass sheets were in a proper state, but seemed to be holding on fine enough.  After James replaced a missing sheet and bolted it in place, this issue was solved. 
 
 
This corrigated fiberglass had weathered so badly that on the first glimpse James and I both thought it was asbestos.
With relatively little direct sunlight filtering thought the dirty fiberglass into this north facing sitting area, we get to enjoy our stunning view without being burned to crisp – something I truly appreciate as a perma-pale Finn.  Sure, the roofing will go as early as we have the time and the money to replace it properly, but in the meantime, the situation could be a lot grimmer.
Our current collection of herbs and flowers.

The concrete base will also get dug up and replaced.  For the time being we are thinking about terracotta tiles, perhaps re-using some already in this house, but in the interim the cracked concrete was covered up with a “rug” of synthetic grass.  We used to have this stuff covering a few problem areas in our old gallery-rental and we both liked the playful nature of the material.  Our garden, still a bit of a project, as is everything else in this house, does not have any grass and likely never will, so putting down a piece of artificial lawn felt like a fun thing to do.

 
Rest of the apparent décor, the little table and chairs, the herbs and the accessories migrated into this place almost on their own.  A north facing balcony is not the best place to grow herbs, I know, but so far so good.  They add a certain je ne sais quoi to the place and grow close to the kitchen where they are needed.  My favourite of all things in the balcony is probably the large ceramic statue of a stork, given to us as a wedding present by a friend and made by her elderly mother who was quite of an artist back in her day.  The garland of LEF-bulbs is also wedding related: it was bought from a Scandinavian household-all-rounder Class Uhlson to light up the stage in our wedding venue.



 



Setting all things and furnishings aside, I am in love with that view.  How could you not!  In a clear day you can see the rooftops of Mazamet, over the valley and all the way to the forests of Sidobre.  You can sit comfortably under a blanket and spy how the weather here changes in seconds and when the night comes, you may sit back and admire the stars.  It never stops to amaze me how one view alone can be so engaging.  Hopefully we will manage to extend this panorama even further by opening up the left side of the patio by reducing the height of the concrete wall that luckily is not part of the supporting structure for the roof. 

 
 
A room with a view…
Having a balcony that functions as it should has improved our social life too as here in France, it seems, everybody smokes.  Now, even when it rains, our friends can enjoy their fag-brakes without having to trek downstairs to the garden.  And of course, eating out in our place really means eating out now.  Even with the occasional bats, wasps and ants, it’s a great place so sit down and relax with a hearty G&T.
 
There is a one last person in the family that is yet to embrace the transformation of our terrace: Rusty the pupper.  He seems to find the confined outdoors a bit of a drag and much prefers the comfort of his own bed.  Well, you can’t please everyone they say… but at least the humans of our unit love the transformation. 

  

Series of unfortunate events: FLOOR EDITION

I talked previously about the history of our walls and thought it is time to kick off the grand saga that is the ongoing restoration and cleaning of our floor tiles.  After all, it was those gorgeous antique tiles that sold us this house last autumn.  And boy there’s a bit to talk about: some of the floors were already beautiful beyond belief and only needed a deep clean – but some… well, had been considered to be beyond repair.  SPOILER ALERT – THEY WERE NOT.*
*So suck a fat one, the previous owners of my house from the 1960’s who thought so!
Starting from the most labour intensive job, this is a story of me and my hubby discovering, cleaning and sealing a bunch of terracotta tiles that were hidden under ghastly sheets of linoleum.
Over all, the tile work in our little old house is in pretty good nick:  The trend of erasing history of old dwellings swooped by our place, not once or twice, but every generation or so and where the walls with their decorative strips of crown molding took a bit of a hit each time, the floors were left pretty much as they were – with the exception of these 20x20cm terracotta tiles.  We discovered them on our first visit to the property, hiding under some pretty fragile linoleum and in a desperate need of tender love and care.
In fact, only one of the rooms of this house has had a complete floor change since the house was built in 1910, not counting in the bathrooms that would have been retrofitted by the 1940’s-1950’s.  Tile-wise, on that ground floor salon that was refurbished as a bedsit, perhaps to accommodate an aging proprietor in the early 80’s, they did a pretty good job, ignoring the complete lack of taste exhibited by their choice of a patterned porcelain tile.  I am normally against replacing something that is perfectly good and functional, but these tiles are just so god-awful that I am willing to make an expensive exception.

Having needed some space to live, our first task upon moving in was to clean enough floors to fix ourselves a temporary living room, a bedroom and a kitchen.  The house had been derelict for just over ten years and everything was, understandably, dirtier than a blind mans toilet.  Cleaning the kitchen floor, rocking the beautifully moody encaustic tiles shown above, was a piece of cake:  It turned out, most of the tiles cleaned up well with just a drop of PH neutral dish soap and were, rather surprisingly, not in a desperate need of resealing.

The case of terracotta tiles found hiding in our bedroom and the lounge, however, was a different matter entirely.  Having been in a need of a sealant and re-grouting, somebody in the 60’s (curse these people to hell) thought, either, that repairs were too much work or just preferred more of a contemporary no-maintenance material.  Luckily, instead of lifting the tiles and the sand-cement they were laid on, the homeowners leveled the floor by covering it entirely in lime and installed a carpet of linoleum straight on top of the compacted lime dust.

 Of course, a no-maintenance material does not exist – except in the dreams of salesmen and lazy homeowners.  Easy to install, easy to care materials such as linoleum, vinyl or laminate do not need maintenance at first and clean with ease, but after a decade or two, depending variables such as the quality of the product, general wear and exposure to the sun and moisture, even the toughest of these materials will age ungracefully and will need to be replaced.  The wood imitation-linoleum, laid on top of our century old terracotta tiles, had faded, bubbled and cracked so badly under the blazing sun of Mazamet that it was taken straight to the tip.  It did not adhere to the floor at all, implying that it was never properly fastened to it’s base or the glue holding it had dissolved a long time ago.

Turned out, taking off the lino was the easy part…

It took the both of us, me and my husband that is, two days to scrape off the packed lime dust on each floor.  Sometimes the stuff came off in big sheets, but more often than not, it needed to be chiseled off one tiny chip at a time.  To save our little Henry the Hoover from clogging up, we swept the dust by hand before revving up the vacuum – in hind sight, I firmly recommend wearing a mask for these types of jobs… safety first boys and girls!  You don’t want to be digging out dust from your nose like I had to.

We followed up by a couple turns of serious moppin’ before getting down and dirty armed with a sponge and a bucket.  Where the scrubbing was not quite as back-braking as the chiseling of the lime, it took it’s time; a full working day in each case.  I finished the job with two coats of sealant that was specifically designed for porous terracotta tiles.  This stuff was pretty easy to use and dried up in about half an hour per coat.  If only the tiles had never been covered in the first place!  Where we spent four days on each room restoring the look and function of our antique tiling, cleaning and sealing them in the 60’s, instead of paying for linoleum, would have taken less than 4 hours per floor.  Cheesus Christ!

 

But all said and done – I’d say the results were well worth it!  These tiles don’t look new, but why should they?  They got holes, residual lime stuck between the grout lines as well as wear and tear worth a century, but that’s what we like about them.  Replacing these tiles with new ones would have cost us a big penny – even if I would have chosen to go with new linoleum.  And that would have, in turn, needed to be replaced after a few decades under our burning sun.  Terracotta is hard wearing, extremely easy to clean and maintain, as well as pretty trendy for the time being, just in case you need a reason or two to start giving your elderly tiles some love.
I hope ours will be good for another 100+ years.

 

 

 

 

News from the 1920’s

Our house was built before the first World War, but so far the most fascinating insight to the early history of our dwelling came in the form of a few sheets of L’Express du Midi, found under the wallpaper on our built-in wardrobes.  These newspapers date between 1918 and 1924, thus giving us valuable information of when these cupboards were constructed, but beyond learning about our home, the brittle pages open a window to a world long gone: the everyday life after World War I in regional France.

People talk about the roaring twenties, but the idea of a golden, carefree era between the end of the 1914-1918 war and the stock market crash of 1929 did not really exist.  In reality, most people took their time to recover after the war, emotionally, as well as economically:  The war machine that ate away the sons, occasionally spitting away nothing but bones; worse yet, broken men had grown quiet, but the lives lost left behind a sizable hole in the young male population, shaking small rural communities to the core.  People displaced by the fighting and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 were struggling to return to a normal rhythm of life – and what was normal anyway?  It could have been said the Great War marked the beginning of modern times – in both good and in bad.  Things that contributed to the myth of the 1920’s: the café culture of Paris, the bohemians and the flappers, the Great Gatsby, Josephine Baker and all that jazz… that was not most peoples reality living through the decade.

 

 

The First World War memorial in Mazamet.

 

 

Mazamet, my hometown, was a thriving industrial hub built on the textile and leather trade. A quick look at the development of population in Mazamet reveals that it had dropped during the war, but grew steadily throughout the twenties: an indication of an abundance of jobs available and economic stability.  The Montagne Noire with its mountain streams provided a steady supply of clean water for the industry and there was plenty of unskilled labour available to take on the jobs the factories provided.

Our house was originally built as a crèmerie and this must have been a prosperous time for them, as we know they embarked on a hefty renovation program remodeling two of the grandest rooms of this house in a trendy Art Deco-style.  The rest of the town was booming too: great big townhouses and villas were being erected to house the families of the wealthy factory owners, some of them being the oldest steel framed houses in the South of France. These grandiose homes were decorated with marble and hardwood, whereas my cheesemongers settled for the next best thing: wallpaper.  And this is where the L’Express du Midi comes in: the makers of the new built-in units used sheets of newspaper to line the exteriors of their new wardrobe doors.

Sheet of newspaper used as a wallpaper liner where I found it – covering a door of a built in wardrobe.

 

I found these pages hiding under what felt like a million layers of wallpaper and they are pressed as full of text as it is possible to read, broken up only by regular and beautifully illustrated adverts for products such as fortified apéritif wines, ladies garments and pseudo-medicines, basically all the goods that were again openly available after the war.

 

Selection of 1920’s advertisement from L’Express du Midi

L’Express du Midi, (1891-1938) produced by Le Nouvelliste de Lyon-group was a catholic newspaper based in Toulouse.  One of the leading voices of the conservative opposition in the region and the main competitor for the left leaning La Dépêche du Midi, it defined itself as “the publication of the social and religious defense”.  Mazamet, at the time, was a town divided by religion and class: the vast, catholic working classes led very separate lives from the predominantly protestant upper class.  I had been trying to guess the beliefs of the family that built my house and by finding out about the politics of their chosen newspaper, I can be certain they would have been devout Catholics.  As merchants, though, they must have worked with all walks of life, serving cheese right beside a grand protestant church.

Catholic sacraments of marriage and confirmation as illustrated by these photos taken in Tarn in the 20’s and 30’s.

But what created headlines in the early 1920’s?  Aftermath of the war and signing the treaty of Versailles, sure.  Everyday political upheaval between the left and right, strikes, general elections… and refugees flooding Europe.  After the end of the war – surely that can’t be right?

Once the guns had been lowered between the Allies and the Central Powers, the killing had only started in the newly formed Soviet Union and the supporters of the old régime were fleeing the bloody civil war that was raging between the Bolsheviks and anti-communist “Whites”.  The ones that managed to escape were seeking a passage to mainland Europe via Odessa, desperate for a ship to carry them and their families to safety.  An estimation of 400 thousand of the refugees chose France.  The influx of these strangers would have been strongly felt and the L’Express du Midi paints a powerful portrait of people, displaced and waiting for rescue – or certain destruction.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is harrowing to think how little the world has changed in nearly a century.

Russian refugees fleeing after the civil war that was raging after the revolution.

 

Another little article talks about “the wives of (coal) miners opposing the imminent strike action” in the United Kingdom, referring to activity that would ultimately culminate in the 1926 general strike that lasted for nine days.  The low consumption of coal, decreasing export market and the artificially strong position of the pound had driven the price of coal to a record low, nearly halving the miners wages.  To stir up the mess that was forming, Germany, whose industry had been heavily sanctioned following the defeat to the allied forces, was allowed to re-join the coal market in 1924 and provided coal for Italy and France practically free as a part of their post defeat reparations.  In the end the miners were to achieve nothing.  They held their ground at first, but had to return to the pits to work even longer hours with less pay – those who still had their jobs anyway.

Mr. Clavier fixed hernias in Mazamet as the delegates of newly independent Finland finished negotiating peace with the Soviet Union.

 

In addition, both my native country of Finland and my current hometown of Mazamet get a mention in 1920:  The delegates of the newly independent Finland and the Soviet Union were involved in negotiating what would be know as the “Treaty of Tartu” in Estonia.  This peace treaty was to draw a new border between the two countries and cause bitterness and friction on both sides, notably affecting the decision in Finland to try and reclaim the lost areas during the Continuation War (25/06/1941-19/09/1944).  This decision was to turn sour for the Finns: They avoided being occupied by the Soviet forces but ultimately lost further areas, including massive chunks of the Finnish heartland, Karelia.

Mazamet achieved prominence this week thanks to the visit of M. Claverie, an esteemed authority on the treatment of hernias and other displacements of internal organs, offering immediate and long-lasting relief.

Reading through these pages of yesterday’s news has been an eye opening experience.  As a keen student of history, war history in particular, I always found the Great War distant and hard to feel largely due to the focus on numbers and statistics over the real human experience in mainstream history telling.  It is also a conflict largely overshadowed by the Second World War.  It’s easy to forget the Average Jacques when reading about the undying personalities such as the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, but these articles dating from the last days of the war made it all feel eerily real for me.  The memorial with rows upon rows of names carved in cold, hard stone, could not evoke as deep of a sense of sorrow as the last advert I’ll post here for you to see: a notification of a free service for locating lost soldiers, two years into peace, for families that were still looking for their loved ones.

For the families of soldiers disappeared during the war…

 

 

Portrait of a young man in WWI uniform, identified as Caporal Caffarecca in the back of the picture. According to the inscription, he lost his life on the 21st of August in Alsace.

The estimated casualties of the First World War were more than 38 million, including a total of 17 million military and civilian deaths, 20 million wounded and numerous who simply vanished.  For the many thousands of families that had to bury a loved one, thousands more never got to know what happened to their nearest and dearest.

I am lucky enough never to have known war.  Let us not forget the horrors these people lived through and those who lost their lives for others to exist in a world without war, after all, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars.