The Ghost of Christmas Past

 

I’ve been neglecting you haven’t I.  But then again, I have been neglecting my family, my dog and my husband in particular so you’re in no way special position.

What can I say for my defence… it’s the holidays!  You are supposed to spend time together; quietly contemplate the meaning of Christmas and be merry in your togetherness with a glass of mulled wine whilst wearing a stupid post ironic statement jumper.  That sounds just lovely.  It really does.  Just don’t shit a brick when you find yourself swept away by the realities of hosting a Christmas: all that cleaning and cooking.  Keeping in mind that you are a capable adult is not going to help matters at all, not at Christmas, oh no, and especially when there are presents to be unwrapped and candy canes ready to be suckled into sharp shanks. You will pull through it, just like every Christmas before this one, just don’t let the existential dread set in.  Not too closely anyway.

I repeat: DO NOT LET IT SET IN.

We, James, Rusty and I, travelled home for the holidays.  Chez Nous in Mazamet that is.  Where, after a few variably chilly months in the good old West Riding Kindred Spirit, we were greeted by a warm and cosy house thanks to our wonderful friends who looked after her for us.  And boy, I tell you, it was great to be back.  Even the dog went a bit bonkers at first.  A rescue with abandonment issues on top of his abandonment issues, he couldn’t believe we were back at our regular old house and just kept running up and down the corridors and stairs.  I do like living on a boat, honestly, but nothing beats your own bed and a good central heating system.

Sleepy Rusty settling in for his first cruise in a cabin.

Oh, and just to mention, to get to France, we took the ferry as usual, but chose a dog friendly cabin for the first time.  Although he was not over the moon about needing to be muzzled on the short walk to our cabin, Rusty loved it.  He does not mind the car either, but certainly for overnights I’ll be keeping my eyes out for these in the future.  Brittany Ferries even gave us a little doggy-goodie bag with a collapsible wateterbowl, treats, poobags and a rope toy in it.  What’s not to like.

To our mutual surprise, the roof over our kitchen had only leaked a little bit.  Sounds very damning when you say it like that, but the alternative would have been a lot and I was incredibly happy the situation had not gone worse.  Due to dismal weather right before we left for UK in October we did not have an opportunity to set things right beforehand, but that roof was going to get it this time.  James had already purchased some felting so all we needed to do was to wait for the rain to stop to get cracking.

I never put down felt on a roof before, but it turned out to be easy as pie.  Good thing, as we quickly realised the damaged part of roof with an array of ancient terracotta tiles was not going to take the weight of a grown man and pretty much all of the grunt fell on my shoulders. The damaged area was roughly five meters times two meters in size and from start to finish it took me five to six hours to remove and relay the existing old tiles plus a few spanking new replacements.  Laying down the felt once the tiles were removed was not too bad, but clearing the thick layer of rubble that used to sit under the terracotta turned out to be a real time killer.  If we didn’t know this part of roof is to be ripped out, raised and replaced in a few years time, I would have replaced all of the woodwork as well, but in these circumstances that would have been a bit wasteful.  So, I merely replaced a few completely rotted planks and blocked a hole or two before covering it all with felt and tiles.

Out of sight, out of mind, they say.

And rock me sideways, there have been no leaks since and the only damaged party turned out to be James’ ego after he was told off for running errands and letting his wife work like a man.  There will be no photos of this expedition as I did not want my dad ever to come across pictorial evidence of me dangling on roof without safety gear. *

*Please for the love of God – always were the appropriate safety gear.  Do not do as I do, do as I say. 

But what I did manage to photograph was some pretty charming 1920’s wallpaper I uncovered while stripping the walls of our lounge.  I had seen little slivers of it before, but the steamer allowed me to uncover parts previously hidden by 1940’s, 70’s and 00’s wallpaper, revealing for the first time the complete pattern of this floral art nouveau gem.  The results of the strip, if you will, will be revealed later.  Not for any other reason that I forgot to snap a few photos.  Dang, there creeps the existential dread again..

DO NOT LET IT SET IN!

Decorating what is basically a building site for the holidays could be challenging.  We got a lovely little tree, (still in its pot and currently in our garden waiting for next Christmas) that immediately made everything look festive and James drove me to the mountains to nick few bits of evergreen to dump on the mantelpieces.  And it looked great, even if I say so myself.  We even got ourselves a little piece of mistletoe from the Mazamet market.  I put fairylights on everything and let me tell you, you could make Draculas grave look cosy with that stuff.

Perhaps it is because we are both blind to it already, James and I don’t mind the cracked plaster nor the half stripped wallpaper anymore.  It is our home regardless.  Even if our budget for this renovation was bottomless, I think we would still prefer to take things easy, live in our house and make the decisions regarding future finished and layout when it feels right rather than as soon as possible.  It would be so easy to fall into the same trap with the previous owners of our house and try to keep the ageing building liveable by cheap cosmetic fixes like wallpapering on top of damp or covering up tiles in vinyl rather than taking care of them.

We have been privileged to call the N°21 our home for over a year now and it’s been tough at times.  The little time we had to spend in Mazamet during the holidays wasn’t nearly enough and every bit of me just wants to go back home.  To my own bed, my central heating and my bath.  Yet I recognise time spent away is temporary and necessary, for me and James to be together a bit more, but also to raise enough capital to afford the next face of our renovation – and that will be something to look forward to.

Stay tuned and remember, DO NOT LET THE EXISTENTIAL DREAD SET IN.

DON’T LET IT SET IN.

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!  

 

A Brief History of Our Walls Part 1- Wallpaper

We fell in love with our house from the bottom up: the century old cement tiles just aching to be polished and the parquet, dusty, but mostly in excellent condition.  From there on, unfortunately, it was a different story.  Our walls, plaster on lath as you might expect in a house built in the beginning of the 20th century, have all seen better days.  Some were painted, but more often than not, they were covered in layers upon layers of wallpaper dating back to the construction of our house in 1910.  In this first part of A Brief History of Our Walls I’ll be focusing on the latter: all the wallpaper I have managed to uncover so far.
And boy there’s a bit of it!

 

Peeling back the layers of time was one of our first priorities as to inspect what was going on below, after all, this house had been uninhabited for ten years.  And sure enough, we did come across few signs of moisture damage caused by a previous leaks in the roof, ranging from minor to severe and several smaller spots to where the plaster had been damaged and had came loose from the lath.  On top of all the damages and the ass-about-a-face patchwork of repairs, our house, was covered in an array of ghastly 90’s vinyl coated wallpapers that quite frankly would have seen the bottom of a bin sooner rather than later.  

 

During the stripping process that followed, it turned out, I am not the only lady of the house* who has had her say regarding suitable wall coverings, in fact, some rooms had been wallpapered up 6 times since this old house was built in 1910.
*I will milk this stereotype dry – despite of currently holding evidence of the male of the species having had their say in decorating this house too: Well, at least my darling James and the previous proprietor, who kicks ass not only in chemistry class, but in wielding a trowel as well. 

We we able to found mere fragments of the original wallpapers that graced the freshly plastered walls over a hundred years ago, and they feature an array of small and detailed floral motifs in bright, airy colours with intervals of light stripes, accented by a narrow floral boarder.  Popular at the time, these wallpapers are typical late-term art nouveau: more subdued and sporting a nodge or two towards old classicism where as early art nouveau, with their swan-neck arches, favoured highly stylised flora and fauna. These motifs were widely reproduced, relatively inexpensive and remained popular for decades.

Excamples of 1910’s wallpapers – what’s left of them anyway.

First of the re-decorators, perhaps the original owners of the house, had a change of heart around 1924 when they repositioned some of the internal partitions in two of the grandest rooms to make way for a set of built-in wardrobes, new plaster medallions and stone mantelpieces.  Perhaps inspired by the grandiose paneling found in the luxurious townhouses of what then would have been one of the richest industrial towns in France, they chose a faux wooden finish with vertical borders in light sage, accentuating the lines of the built-in cupboards and the fireplaces, then finished with a narrow trim in beige and dark navy blue.  This labour intensive job must have cost them an arm and a leg at the time and it would have been a spectacular example of early Art Deco wallpaper.  Sadly – mere scraps remain today, hidden away by the efforts of later decorators.

Dating this early job was made easy by the discovery of their chosen liner – sheets of Express du Midi-newspaper, contemporary to the renovations and dating between 1918 and 1924.

Selection of Art Deco wallpapers with sheets of the newspaper-liner showing through.

 

After the Second World War, a new generation wanted to brighten up the space and updated the whole house, including the electrical work, in the mid to late 1940’s.  Their choices were much more subdued, featuring floral motifs typical of the day in hues of muted greens and browns, blue and sage.  Shortages of dyes and other materials after the grueling war and the general shift towards functionalism, the wallpapers in the 40’s tended to be reproductions of old motifs, often without decorative borders.  Formalist rather than dainty, these wall flowers couldn’t have been more different from the cheerful bouquets of the 20’s.
40’s limited palette reproductions and formalist florals.

 

The limited post-war palette was evidently not groovy enough for the folks taking over the decorating duties in the 60’s as they went and covered nearly every single surface of this house, including the insides of the built-ins, with psychedelic flower patterns in the brightest colours available.  My personal favourites include a crazy pattern of waterlilies, chosen to decorate several of the rooms in the shades of electric blue, bright green and olive.

Out with the old, in with the new – this was the motto of the day, in politics and fashion as well as decor.  The home owners of the 60’s did no longer look up to the grand old homes of the bourgeoisie, but created their own aesthetic with the materials of the modern world: cement and plastic.  An array of fashionable choices was opening up to them as the archaic imitation of classical motifs gave way to a generation of bold designers not afraid to answer to the demand of everything fresh, new and modern.  It was bye bye subtlety in favour of statement motifs, printed as loud and as big as possible.

In an effort to modernise old buildings and inspirited by the minimal detail and clean lines of the new pre-fabricated apartments, many people living in older homes chose to get rid off the excess decoration, such as ornate ceiling medallions and the crown molding, that was seen as old fashioned and difficult to maintain.  And sure enough, this is what happened here: upon removing the numerous layers of wallpaper, we discovered a ghost line of raw plaster underneath the 60’s florals where a wide crown molding used to be fixed to the top of our walls.

Many old buildings still bear similar scars of sins committed in the 60’s and 70’s, but sometimes the damage done extends beyond a missing detail: the historic infrastructure was being destroyed and replaced with modern construction so fast, the manufacturers couldn’t always keep up with the demand.  Town centres were forever changed, communities  with roots reaching back centuries were run to the grown and packed one on top of one another, one block of flats at the time, just for it to fall out of fashion and in cases, then neglected and knocked down within a few short decades. What is worse yet, we still continue to live in a culture where new is automatically associated in being better, and the tendency to replace rather than repair triumphs.

Groovy, baby: examples of 60’s wallpaper. (Check the middle picture for a speck of early 20th century pattern peaking through.)

 

Next few decades came with minor changes to the general wallpapering of this house, with the exception of the downstairs chambre sporting the most 1980’s wallpaper I have ever seen, sitting on top of a moody Art Deco diamond pattern and a layer of post war blandness. Talking about Miami Cool-vibes with this tropical pastel number! It had it’s brief moment to shine before being covered up with latex-coated salmon orange, mere ten or so years later.

In general the 80’s wallpapers were light and subdued. Pastels and smaller patterns were preferred over the 60’s and 70’s extravagant designs and borders were starting to make a big comeback, often paired with painted walls or a wallpaper in a neutral shade and/or texture.  Wallpapering had become more and more affordable, thus allowing people to redecorate their homes regularly to reflect the current trends.

The tropival 80’s. At this point, allow me to blurt out what the fuck were they thinking. On the right: An earlier take on the jungle fever, found inside a build-in wardrobe.  

 

The 1990’s streching to the millenium gives us the most recent and by far the most boring layers present.  It is evident that the level of craftsmanship and the quality of goods deteriorates the further long we travel in time from the expertly installed and hand finished Art Deco coverings to the off-the-shelf, stain repellent modern papers that were, in most cases, just slapped in on top of antiquated electrical fittings, plumbing and the hastily repaired aging plaster work.

At this point my house, an old crèmerie, nearly celebrating it’s first century, was divided into rental flats.  This had an effect on our walls as the new coverings chosen during the conversion process were picked to cover up blemishes, ward off stains and to stand as a neutral backdrop to any decor.  They were mostly cheap, bland and plasticky – unceremoniously slapped on top of holes, bent nails and trims as a quick fix for what could only be described as a need for maintenance typical in any old dwelling.

Late 1990’s and early 2000’s renter-friendly wallpapers.

 

Two wallpapers from a late 90’s children’s room with adorable teddies and a vibrant blue and white check-pattern, originally separated by a decorative border.

Further advances in both printing technology and development of polymer-based household products for homeowners to use, and sometimes, to abuse have evolved to be more durable, stronger and again, more affordable.  Wallpaper, printed using the traditional methods of the trade, has become somewhat of a luxury these days and a quick tour around any home improvement store quickly reveals that the cost-effective and the most common options are vinyl coated, if not made completely from fiberglass.  These products are great as they are tough, durable and water resistant, but beyond problematic in older buildings.  The polymer-based products do not breath like paper does, thus trapping moisture inside the walls and leading to damp and, in the worst cases, rot.

Vinyl coated wallpapers in salmon pink and bright orange.

The ugly truth is that it’s more affordable to replace rather than restore any hand made damaged or endangered details.  Adding a coat of fresh paint on a cracked piece of molding or wallpapering over a damp patch of plaster will cover a multitude of sins, for a moment or two, but once the cover up fails, it might be too late to start dealing with the underlining problems that puts the structural safety of old buildings in jeopardy.

I feel a slight sense of melancholy in exposing and subsequently removing all these layers of history from my lovely old house.  They tell a story of the people who once lived and loved here.  But change is paramount, as we cannot just keep threading water with the repairs that need to take place here.  It’s impossible to promise whether I will make the right turns along this road of renovation, but I will try my best not to make the future owners of this lovely house, in another hundred years or so, cringe at my choices.