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.



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!  

 

Stairway to Heaven

Yeah, I know.  I had to.  I am a simple girl: our stairway was in a dire need of tender love and care and I had just the title!  Cheese or no cheese, I hope you will appreciate my next project that stands before you as a living-non-breathing-proof of the transformative power of paint:
It was dark.  It was dreary.  It was mahogany-tinted pine. 
 
I am of course talking about the tongue and groove panelling on the first flight of stairs leading from the entryway to our main living space floor above.  This particular section was poorly lit in the begin with, but the imposing hue of the pine was making the situation much worse by masking out the contour of our beautiful oak staircase as well as dating the space significantly.  Sure, we will be adding proper lighting to the landing area later, with the help of our trusted electricians, but in the meantime, replacing the whole panelling that was perfectly functional, just a bit depressing, felt like an overkill, hence James and I decided to give it a lick of fresh paint instead. 
 
The pine panelling was stained with a heavy hand and waxed to protect this lovely shade of drab.  It made the first flight of our stairs feel unwelcoming and dark and did no favours for the lovely oak stairs that blend straight into the dark background.
Having looked at a few colour charts we went with our usual: a tin of brilliant white.  With my pesky Nordic heritage and a taste for everything minimalist, it just felt like the right choice for this dark and narrow space.  As the panelling had been treated with both, stain and wax, I chose to use a Nuance Mono Créme multi-surface emulsion in matte finish.  Nuance is a French dupe for Dulux and this particular concoction is self-undercoating, thus sticks like shit to a blanket, fast drying and silly easy to use. 
 
As with any good paintjob, I started mine by sanding the panels.  One could use the good old sandpaper in medium grain, but I chose to fasten things up a little by cranking up my beloved electric sander.  To get rid of most of the old wax treatment, I needed to go over the area a few times before I was down to regular wood.  There was no need to bother getting rid of all the stain* as it sits much deeper than wax and my paint would cover it up easily with a few thorough coats.  Having cleaned the surface of all dust, I applied the paint with a brush.  A roller is certainly a more forgiving tool, especially for the beginner, but I do not like the way using one inevitably wastes paint.  The grooves of these panels and the fact I had to work with my hands behind the spindles of the staircase also made the brush a good pick for this job.   
 
*Stain is a generic term for (usually) water-based colouring that penetrates the wood highlighting the natural variation of wood-grain.  The more you apply, the darker or more vibrant your final colour will be.  It’s recommended you seal the wood after staining by waxing it or applying a coat of lacquer, oil, etc. to protect the finished surface and make it repel dust and dirt.
 
The tools of the trade: my beloved sander and wood, PVC and aluminum compatible paint – if these can’t beat the shit out of that faux mahogany, nothing will!
 I let my wall to dry overnight after the first coat, not because it would have needed it, but as it was getting a bit late.  Without my beauty sleep though, I could have been finished with the whole job in about three hours, including an extensive search for an extension lead my lovely husband had tidied away exactly where it belonged.  

Bastard. 

And here’s the results: Not bad I say!

 Having seen some photos of the new colour, he couldn’t believe how airy and open the corridor suddenly felt.  The fresh white paint is the best substitute for natural light in a space like this in my view and having erased the oddly red-ish mahogany tint, you can actually distinguish where our lovely staircase begins and the partition ends.  How clean it all looks certainly gives me hope when thinking about rehabilitating rest of our stairwell that is currently painted in varying shades of natural white with decades of dirty handprints and nicotine stains.  Yummy!

 

I’m not a great believer in art hung in narrow spaces, as normally I am too clumsy to risk it, but this little “home” sign felt appropriate here.  It was a housewarming present upon moving to France nearly three years ago now and will hopefully hang in our home, in this old house, for decades to come.

 
That’s it folks!  I think I can concur this was a small but transformative job – one that we would have tackled ages ago if only we had known how easy it was…  

Le Petit Jardin Vol. 1

It’s been a while huh?

As the temperature climbs from the high twenties to the mid-thirties here by the Montagne Noire, my motivation to function plummets exponentially.  And what would be a better project to tackle when the sun is hot than overhauling a garden full of concrete and dog poo?  It has been months in the making, but it seems that our outdoor space is finally taking shape despite of this heatwave holding Europe in its deadly grip. 
 
To say we had to start from scratch with this one would be an understatement; to even get to the concrete base covering the whole surface of our little gardenette, we had to clear away a decade’s worth of ivy and moss, dead leaves as well as heaps of general garden waste – all in varying stages of decomposition.  To utilise this half-putrefied mess, our first priority was to buy a composter unit.  As it stands, food waste is not currently collected in Mazamet, so having our own composter in the garden would help us recycle our scraps and provide compost for all our future needs.  
 
 


We also needed to get rid of a few pesky trees, including a London Plane that was mere inches away from the garden wall and destined to grow huge.  Another had already damaged the surface of the old concrete patio with its roots and thus it was getting on my tits.  In fact, I hated it so much that I took a dull saw to the bastard and spent almost an hour cussing and sawing through blood, sweat and tears until the tree was no more.  A bush, a shrub and odd patch of completely tasteless wild strawberries soon met the same faith.

Having gotten rid of it all, seemed that we had managed to eradicate every single piece of greenery from our garden either by chopping, scraping or pressure washing it…
 
…until the roses appeared from under the rubble.  Two old but beautiful varieties in fact, planted by our current neighbour who used to reside in our house in the 60’s with her family.  These were the only original elements from the old garden that we saw worth keeping – and to what results!  With a little pruning here and there, are these not two of the most beautiful roses you have ever seen? 
 

Other new plants include stunning bush of lavender, rhubarb, thyme and rosemary.  I also planted a selection of bulbs, none of which have shown any interest in blooming so far, but such is gardening: constant investment for the next season.  We chose purple slate as the filler for these beds, hoping it would slow down the snails and keep the area as weed-free as possible.


 

 


The old patio, completely broken up by a web of roots, was dug up and replaced with the help of Rusty the dog who loves digging.  We levelled the base with a few bags of sand, laid down the law some factory off-cuts of engineered slate in light beige and filled the gaps with specs of subtly rose-tinted marble that works well with the purple slate.  In time, this is where we’ll set up a table and chairs once the right set comes along, but for now, it’s a steady base for Rustys paddling pool when he gets too hot in his furs, a bbq or a set of planters.

 
Parts of the shallow wall separating the gravel from concrete was too damaged so it had to be replaced.  I made my builder-dad proud by fixing up my own from mortar and broken up specs of colourful cement tiles.  Small boulders of natural stone we had previously found were used to line the flowerbeds around the ring of the patio and as a dinky rockery.  Small details, but they add a little bit of cosiness to the otherwise plain concrete base. 

With all this talk about stone, you might wonder why we did not go for grass in the end. I would have really wanted to, not least for the dog to use as his latrine, but in this climate it needs constant maintenance to look good in the summer.  Even with the diligence of the local gardeners tending the public spaces in Mazamet, the grass is yielding under the sun and there’s only so much watering I want to do on day to day basis.

 
So if the experts can’t keep it alive…  I’ll just stick to pot-plants myself, thanks.
 
Here you have it: even with most of the base work now completed, there is plenty to be done – we have a few more flowerbeds to construct and an old antique trough to be repurposed as a vegetable batch, but more about that later.  It’s simply too hot to even write about hard work!

 

Hey– and if you have tips on how to kill slugs without heavy poisons, drop me a line – the cherry tomatoes and our dog will thank you.

 

Happy gardening y’all!

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. 

Raiders of the Lost Tiles

As some of you might know, I had a summary of my modular kitchen-post published by ApartmentTherapy and as a direct result, the traffic on Chez Nous N° 21 has increased a fair bit.  It has been amazing to read AT community’s comments on our temporary kitchen solution, but it was our century old cement tiles, a detail that really sold us on this old house, that stole the show on the discussion-forum.  Having engaged in a conversation with one tile-connoisseur in particular, I was tipped of about the endless possibilities of Le Bon Coin, a local flea market site, with links to a couple of offers for antique cement tiles.  One of these happened to be advertising a lump of reclaimed tiles, not similar but identical to ours, and mere three hours away from Mazamet. 
 
Long story short, we went and got them.  We had to.
 
I was going to write about pictures and framing this week, but as this kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the best possible tiles for our future kitchen, you are getting Raiders of the Lost Tiles instead – a story about road tripping to an old Roman settlement and the perilous journey back with a boot full of cement tiles.
 
This was supposed to be a weekend of 6 Nations rugby and some serious gardening, but my husband wasted no time contacting the seller and organising a rendez-vous.  Until now every material we considered for the floor of our future kitchen had felt like a compromise.  This was really a once in a life time opportunity to replace the current 80’s porcelain tiles with something more courteous to the age and style of this house.  As we were already travelling over 200 kilometres to see these tiles, we decided to make a night of it and stay in a nearby city of Arles, an ancient Roman settlement on the river Rhône.  James hunted down a nice pet-friendly hotel close to the centre so we were able to take our dog Rusty with us too.   
 
 
Shut-Up Rusty, or just Rusty for short, is our third family member, adopted in January.  To fill you in, he is an Alsatian-cross who likes long walks on the beach, ham and plenty of belly rubs.  This was quite likely his first ever stay in a hotel and oh boy he was ever so well behaved.  Lucky us, he also loves riding in the car.  And speaking of cars… here’s a word of caution for any of those looking to pick up over 15m² of cement tiles.  They are heavy as hell; heavy enough to seriously damage your vehicles suspension or the axel if not balanced properly.  You’d be a proper bell-end not to hire a van. 
 
Naturally, we headed on our way in our humble Laguna estate.
 
The seller of these tiles was asking a “fair offer” for his reclaimed tiles and he accepted ours after a little haggle.  Each deal made on Le Bon Coin is different, but so far we had nothing but great luck with the things we bought and the people we have dealt with.  I kid you not, we found our house on Le Bon Coin!  The guy who showed us the tiles on behalf of his wife was very professional and really helpful to the point of coming to meet us in a traffic stop after their address turned out not to be on the navigator.  He even helped us loading up the Laguna.  Without trying to be disrespectful, (our offer was pretty damn close to what they were thinking about anyway)  I have seen these types of tiles go for nearly ten times that on dedicated salvage websites.  Driving three hours to view something you saw online may seem excessive, but for a deal like this, we would have done twice miles. 
 
 
And besides, Arles turned out to be beautiful!  We had the weather on our side, a high of 25 that day and not a single cloud on the sky.  Having packed up our new purchase we checked in to the Hôtel Le Rodin, a tidy little place that was more than happy to accept dogs as big as our Rusty.  The service was wonderful and the hotel was situated within walking distance of the city centre – our next stop as by the time we had fed our pupper it was pretty much beer a clock.  So we had a pit stop of dark craft beer and local cheese + a small plate of charcuterie, seated at the terrace of Picador, a bar with their own deli, near the old amphitheatre.
 
 
After checking out few of the main attractions, being hurried along by Rusty who was frantically looking for a grassy spot to do his business, we found a little restaurant called l’Autruche – the ostrich, which had just re-opened.  They, like most businesses in France to be honest, were happy to have a dog lounging in our feet as we tucked into their daily-changing set menu of locally sourced produce.  James and I both chose fresh asparagus, served with a soft boiled egg, a small salad and pureed greens.  A superb starter to go with our chosen bottle of organic wine, which James followed up with a combo of a lamb chop & tatties, and I with flaky white fish, steamed and seasoned, on a bed of green lentils.  Not normally a huge fan of the bio wines, I enjoyed this red – it was a lot lighter than expected, almost like the new season’s stuff, apparently due to the lack of sulphites that help to preserve the flavour in wine produced using the traditional methods.  The tipple came warmly recommended by the owner, who was really damn nice.  For a Friday night, it was pretty quiet everywhere.  We felt a bit like crashing a private party – everyone here was clearly pretty well acquainted…
 
 
 But hey-ho.  We did stay for a second plate of cheese that day to end the evening. 
 
In the morning we were faced with a task of redistributing yesterday’s loot in a manner that our Laguna wouldn’t brake in half during the hard drive home.  That meant fitting as many tiles as it was safely possible into the front passenger seat, thus seating myself in the back with Rusty.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, folks.  Just because we and our vehicle survived, it doesn’t mean it was a good idea.  As the bottom of our estate was nearly scraping ground all the way to Mazamet, we chose to favour the motorway.  Pity, as otherwise we would have taken a detour to see where the couple that built our house came from.
 
Based on the details they left behind, we have a reason to believe the original owners had a connection to a village called Blauvac an hour and half away from Arles.  Down to the design and colour, the tiles of our kitchen and the ones we just purchased are identical indicating they came from the same factory.  These types of encaustic cement tiles are still being manufactured by hand, using the traditional colours and patterns, most prominently in Marocco.  Our motif is pretty rare and typical to these parts of the South of France, so it is reasonable to assume there might have been a factory manufacturing them in the region. 
 
 
 
I couldn’t resist digging around online and it seems, indeed, that the biggest cement works producing encaustic cement tiles, Cimenterie Lafarge, was based in the village of Viviers in the department of Ardèche since 1850.  Their tiles were initially reserved for the bourgeoisie but soon became popular everywhere.  Sadly the production was ceased in France by the 1970’s; colourful cement tiles featuring intricate geometric- or stylised floral motifs, had fallen out of vogue in favour of ceramic tiles which were a lot cheaper to manufacture.  In 1910, however, when our house was built, encaustic designs were still all the rage.  It may be relevant to mention that Viviers, the centre of cement works in the South of France, is situated an hour and a bit from Blauvac as well as hour and a half away from Arles. 
 
I present my case: our tiles are made in France, not so far from where the builders of my house might have come from. 
 
They rest safely in out cellar now, waiting to be cleaned and re-sealed before being installed into the room downstairs that is to be our new kitchen.  It will not be any time soon – perhaps the summer next year, but I am glad we did not let this opportunity to slip through our fingers.
 
Random stranger from the Apartment Therapy forum – thank you a million times for finding out about this seller and his wonderful tiles!  We couldn’t have done it without you.  And an honourable mention for our Renault Laguna, you are the best.