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Take a seat…

La canicule has shifted and I am back on the chain gang; fixing little bits and bobs and trying to keep my mum and my nephew content in their holidaymaking.  They arrived from Finland a week ago and I am already running out of exiting things to do.  Thankfully, Les Fanfares Sans Frontieres-festival is almost here and it happens to be the best of Mazamets summer events, in my opinion anyway.  Having had a jolly good time swimming, barbecuing and burning every inch of my body in the sun, I am not quite finished taking photographs of my latest painting project so I thought I’d share another nifty chair restoration I finished yesterday.  This time around I revamped a relatively modern seat, not older than perhaps 15-20 years, and made out of aluminium.

Les Fanfares sans Frontieres, Mazamet, 2018, photo by Tiina Lilja

How I came by this piece mirrors a familiar tale:  Not a full day had passed since I wrote about finding a small Art-Deco-esque chair near our bins at Champs de la Ville when another appeared, deserted by the very same communal recycling point near our house.  It was a petite metal framed patio chair, in pretty good nick but repainted rather clumsily with a heavy-duty matte emulsion.  I needed a break from answering awkward questions from a nine year old so restoring a chair seemed like the perfect excuse for a bit of alone time as acetone based paint stripper and children don’t mix all that well.

old aluminium chair with its white paint job

Based on the thickness of the paint on this chair I expected to find several different colours, but there were only two distinct layers: heavy-handed white emulsion and the original teal & white powder coat enamel.  The latter turned out tricky to remove, but I enjoyed every minute of my time spent lurking under the guises of toxic fumes.  Three coats of paint stripper, some serious sanding and a quick steel wool polish later, I had managed to clean the chair down to bare aluminium.

The polished metal had next to no imperfections so I was happy to leave it as it was.  The seat, however, needed more work.  There was a bit of old rust and dinky scraps of enamel so I prepped these parts to be painted by giving them a quick once-over with medium grit sandpaper.  My chosen colour, blush pink, was largely dictated by what I had in the house, but it worked well with the dark brushed aluminium.  I’d bought the paint for our bathroom door two years ago and, based on the thick dried up layer of paint, it needed using up.

Although I am happy with the results, arguably this one was not entirely worth the effort.

You might be surprised by my sudden sensibility, but not all projects, no matter how satisfying they might be to execute, are cost effective.  Money spent on the paint-stripper, paint (although scraps) and other sundry potions and bits like sandpaper, not to mention my precious time, totals more than the chair is worth.  But I do appreciate a good up-cycling project.  Not to mention locking myself away from child-minding duties.

This seat will serve us well on our balcony, for years to come, but unlike the one I just upholstered, it perhaps falls under the vanity project-category.

Voilà.  Another wee task tasked.

Now, if you excuse me, I am off to read a story.  About an Alsatian dog called Roi, who catches crooks and stuff.  And I am pretty excited about that.

Tiina x

The Butchering Art

Here’s the summary of my blog so far:

Me: buys an old house crumbling to ruin
House: treat me right, will you
House: restore me with love
Me: I will try my hardest to do everything right and cherish you my love

Me: cheap building shite, though
House: !!!
Me: …though.

stripping paint

When I was in comprehensive school I had this Finnish-teacher who allowed her students to swear as much as they wanted during one lesson of their final year.  To get it out of their system.  This was known as vittu-tunti, roughly translating as the f*ck-it-hour.  As much as the teenage me needed an outlet for all those profanities, I feel the time is nigh for a confessional post, right here, chez nous!  I hereby come clean on all the restoration sins I have committed in the name of preservation of a status quo that is the reality of living in a century old property… and beyond.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the ultimate vittu-tunti – chez nous edition:  All the things I’ve done to this beautiful house that are against my principles, and the principles of good restoration and the civil taste, but needed doing regardless.

This will be a tale of creative problem-solving on a budget, but those of a strong conservatorial constitution might wish to sit this one out…

My story of cowboy building begins in December 2018.  Forgive me reader, for I have sinned.  There might have been a few slips of the old acrylate paint before, but this one is major! 

Let me set the scene for you: Our balcony was leaking downstairs and the winter storms were imminent.  The roofing would protect the cracked and leaky concrete, but a bit of the fibre-glass sheeting was lost and the replacements kept disappearing with the strong winds blowing off the Montagne Noire.  We cannot really afford the big works for the minute, but left untouched the floor was only going to get worse.  Driven by desperation I set out to investigate, peeling off broken bits of concrete and bitumen to reveal a gaping gash to the structure.  This thing is huge with a capital H.  I hesitated a moment before filling the hole with a wooden dowel and half a gallon of poly-filler before sealing the deal with a thick layer of moisture repellent paint. 

Out of sight, out of mind.  Blissfully.

Although the hole is now filled, I needed to think of something to cover the gap in the fibre glass sheeting.  As mentioned, we tried fitting a new panel, but the wooden supports were too rotted to house the screws tightly enough to withstand the strong winds.  I did not have a replacement panel, but what I did have was some thick black plastic and a staple gun.  Sin number two, but this “repair” if you can call it that, has lasted 6 months and counting. 

Forgive me, dear reader, but sometimes the flesh is weak. 

There was a small incident with a marble fireplace and super-glue, but I had been a very good girl until it came to replacing a panel on one of our doors.  Now, these things were hand made a century ago, but some arse with an anger management problem got to them a decade or two before we adopted this house and most of these stunning wooden panelled doors have holes punched and/or kicked through them.  I am no carpenter, but patching up a door with a bit of beech wood veneer and ready-made moulding is not a true crime against ones historical abode… is it?

Strike number three!

Summer is here and I have one last confession to make – the balcony I mangled for its own good in the winter was looking a bit sad and instead of getting on with proper repairs I simply covered up my butchery with a rug and a set of canopies made out of printed cotton.  I am unashamedly proud about this one.  The material first served in our wedding as table cloths, then I made curtains out of them to cover a gaping patch of raw concrete in our dining room… and now this! 

Adding a handy distraction has given us another year of living with the horrible fibre glass roof without needing to replace it with something equally cheap and nasty.  My plan is to source some pre-loved art deco metalwork and make this balcony a glazed conservatory, but we are at a dreaming-stage with that one, I am afraid, rather than ready to rumble.

There.  My conscience is clean.

Let the renovator without sin cast the first stone.   All I can say is that I did it for the greater good!




T xx


Absolute Beginners

This will be the first of my catch up posts from the past couple of months and I thought it best to begin the unloading gently with an easier-than-easy tutorial on upholstery.  Now, upholstery is a bit like cooking: you can make it as easy or as complicated as you want and I chose to go at with as little effort as possible.   It is not a skill I would say I have mastered, not yet anyway, but pulling off a little project like this was surprisingly straightforward.  No sewing and no specialist equipment needed: simply a piece of cloth you like and a staple gun, although a hammer and some tacks/small nails would do the same trick.

Yes, and a humble old chair.

I found mine discarded by municipal bins whilst walking the pupper.  In France, like in many places where I’d lived before, especially in bigger cities like Edinburgh, it is commonplace to leave unwanted furniture by the communal wheelie bins or in the street to be collected by those in need or want.  A rogue way of recycling perhaps, but in my view, better than taking your old things to the recycling centres that sort things to be burned or destroyed rather than working towards re-using them.  When I was a student trying to get furnishings on a budget, things left out to be re-used were a true godsend.  This chair that I picked out in Mazamet was certainly not the first one I have adopted from the rubbish and I have collected other ones since.

This particular chair looks to me to have been made in the late 1930’s or 1940’s with an art deco-esque steel frame and a wood veneer seat, upholstered in cream coloured vinyl.  The metal was covered with a bit of rust, but otherwise the chair was in pretty good nick – the perfect upcycling project really!  Better yet, I had just the fabric.  Ideally you’d have something quite hefty and tightly woven so that it won’t fray too badly with use – thinking canvas rather than sheet with a bit of elasticity but nothing too bouncy like jersey.  The one I chose is a Finlayson fabric meant for table cloths, cushions, aprons and things that need to stand a bit of wear, made of pure cotton.

metal frame of a 1930's chair

Before I could start with the seat, I wanted to make sure the frame was looking its best.  First I removed the seat and began getting rid of most of the surface rust using an orbital sander.  Regular old sand paper with a fine grit would work, too, and one designed to be used with water on metal specifically would have been a stellar choice.  To finish it off, I added a bit of multipurpose furniture polish to protect the frame and moved on to the next and final step of this little project: upholstering the seat.

I could have removed and replaced the original vinyl, but as it was not damaged in any great way I simply stapled my new fabric on top of it.  By using the seat as a template I cut out a piece of cloth, about 10 cm bigger than the base and made little indents alongside the edge of it, every 3 cm or so as you can see on the photos below.  This was to insure the best possible “fit” without wrinkles.  Having done this, I used my staple gun to tack the fabric tightly in place, one flap after another until the cloth was completely stapled in.  Having checked everything looked smooth on the top, I fastened the seat back onto the frame using new, stainless steel screws and… voilà!

I just upholstered a seat in less than 15 minutes.

And so could you.

Here comes the best part… ok, the preachy part:  By re-using an old piece of furniture rather than buying new is one step away from the single-usage-discard culture of today.  If the eco-aspect does not float your boat, how about saving cold hard cash?  That usually gets people listening.  When I get new things, I try to favour local producers and things that are made to last.  Unfortunately, quality seldom comes cheap.  By skimping on cheaply made goods such as chairs for my balcony (which is where this newly upholstered one is going) means that next time when I really need something, I can afford to pay that little bit more for it.

Working towards a more sustainable consumer culture is not just a nice thing to aim for, it should be a given thing.  I am not trying to lecture you about how to buy – maybe you want new stuff and that is fine.  However, when you buy things to replace your old items, think of ways to put them back into the circulation.  There are clothes banks, charity shops, apps to buy and sell surplus food (too good to go-app being a recent favourite of mine), facebook groups to donate stuff… or the curb.  Chances are there is someone willing to take on your pre-loved goods, even if they need a bit of TLC.

Rant OVER.

See you in a bit with a new blog!


T xx

Toy Story 5

You are more used to reading my dear wife’s amusing and engaging anecdotes of our life in France.  We are sat here chez nous No. 21, in our exceptionally warm house, and probably out of sympathy Tiina has given me permission to break into her site and write my first ever blog.

My beloved spouse has previously regaled you with tales of renovation, of puppy love, of a near-continuous whirlwind of travel, work, art, relationships and history, all bespattered with the plaster dust and sugar soap of our magnum opus.  I’m not going to tell you about all that.  At least not really.

I hold the reins of the chariot that is our lifestyle. I am the only one with a drivers’ licence.  I currently have three vehicles to my name, and have had five at one point, and this extraordinary behaviour needs explanation.  Spoiler alert – I am no petrolhead – I choose cars based on how I want to use them.  This led me to purchase the very utilitarian Renault Laguna I have in France – I’ve had it 4 years and have doubled the mileage to 280,000, and it has served us well in transporting a tonne of tiles from Arles, getting us across Central Europe to Finland the back way (Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) on our epic road trip to collect local foods for our wedding feast, then returning via Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium.  A true workhorse.  Vehicle count 1.

As regular vingt-et-uners will know, our home is in Mazamet, yet I work in the UK.  If you’ve ever tried to circumvent the traffic queuing at the confluence of the M5 and M6, chances are you have driven past my current workplace in Tipton.  About 13 months ago, I decided, as we could afford it, that rather than keep paying for hire cars, I would buy a car to keep in the UK.  And I thought I’d spoil myself, by going for a soft-top.  Now I should explain something.  Whereas my much-loved elder brother has few qualms about spending plenty on achieving the right level of engine throatiness, I work to budgets that are probably a twentieth of his outlay.  So I trawled the West Midlands budget car ads and security-fenced compounds, and found Hazy.  And fell in love.  A beautiful, slightly worn, high mileage Saab 9-3 convertible.  Not much money.  Sold. Vehicle count 3, of which more later.

Saab 9-3 Cabriolet. Dream car

One sunny June day last year, I took Hazy on our maiden voyage into beautiful Gloucestershire to a team-building event in a brewery.  What could possibly go wrong?  We did the worky bit, then had a trip around the brewery, before all jumping into our cars to get to the laser wargaming that had been planned.  Top off, early summer sunshine, gorgeous.   20 minutes in to the first war game, having just scored a palpable hit on Rupert (the Boss), I moved forward to establish a better position.  One innocuous slip later, and I’m flat on my back, my left ankle at right angle to a severely broken leg.  War game over.  My dear colleagues, robbed of their chance to shoot each other and not go to jail, went to the pub instead.  I was placed in a ketamine-induced trance whilst emergency doctors put my limb pieces broadly into the right place.  Hazy stayed put, until returned to the office car park by persons unknown.

Hospital teaches you to be thankful for small mercies – there is always someone worse off than you.  Good job it was my left foot, so I could still potentially drive an automatic.  After rehab at aforementioned brother’s house, where my only transport was an electric scooter hired to protect my mobility and sanity (still managed to pull a wheelie mind!), my workplace, evidently feeling some manner of guilt over my injury, found me a small Lexus automatic.  This was a perfect runabout for a couple of months, but I needed more.  That summer we were due to undertake another trip to Finland, and it would have been rude to take the company vehicle on such a jaunt.  I once more set about the small ads to find a car capable of lasting 6 months until my leg was fixed, and making the journey from UK to France to Finland and back.  Tiny budget, so I went for a high spec wreck – an S-Class Mercedes with all the bells and whistles you could imagine.  No name this time, as the emotional connection was non-existent.  A good cruiser, less than £1500.  Car count peaks at 5.   By the way, how can annual insurance premiums for a middle-aged man with a sensible driving history possibly be a third of the value of the car he drives?  Disgraceful. 

Anyway the Merc served its purpose – plenty of room for my plaster-encased leg, a whole back seat for Rusty and a vast expanse of heated heaven for my tiny wife.  Got us to France.  Then got us to Finland, with a few engine coolant changes. 

Rusty and his daddy taking a nap in the merc

And back to the South of France.  Finally, as I left Paris, something went in the suspension, and the front end sat down, giving us a profile as tough as the toughest Thunder Road combatants without the flames.  We limped up to and across the Channel, where after 100 or so more miles, she died on the side of the M42.  Her final days were spent being repatriated to my office car park (growing collection now) before being hauled to hear the final verdict from a Mercedes specialist, who wrote off his bill in exchange for the vehicle for parts. Felt a bit like recycling.  At this point I tried to drive my Hazy Lady again, only to find my foot simply wasn’t up to it.  A further prognosis of at least 6 months, and probably another operation or two.  Back to the ad sites. 

This time I needed to work quickly – the courtesy car from my insurers was time-limited to 3 days.  A trawl round the used car websites a bit further afield, and I found Festy, a lower mileage Saab 9-5 Automatic, with a few home comforts in Smethwick (the car, not Smethwick).  I am insistent on cruise control these days, as the French motorways offer the joyous luxury of low traffic density over really long distances.  Seat warmers are a distinct advantage on cold mornings.  This was last August, since when we’ve enjoyed a period of relative calm – most things on the car work perfectly, it combines comfort with enough utility to really not have to worry about life too much.  She is my 4th Saab, and I have to declare that there is a “hygge” element to our love affair – I look after the car, the car looks after me.  Or maybe I’m just becoming a bit more Scandi by dint of a weird osmosis from my Finnish family.  Vehicle count 4.

The more observant of you will have noticed that there is a phantom vehicle lurking in the Stygian gloom behind my vehicle counts.  Let me introduce Colin. 

Campervan, Camping Car
Colin the Camper

Another budget purchase, We picked Colin up in Spring 2017, for Tiina to use as additional studio space whilst we were living on a narrowboat.  He is the same age as Tiina, considerably larger and in need of substantially more maintenance.  He has also beaten my record for the least driven vehicle of any that I have owned.  Whereas my one true love convertible Saab has had me sit on her once.  Aside from a test-drive, I have never, no never, driven Colin.  He is currently being prepared for repatriation to the South West as we will use him! Someday!

After a period of calm, I have had further car-tharses.  A dear friend of long standing needed an emergency replacement for her car, and I offered her my Hazy Lady.  She too fell in love, so my caramour now sits on her drive overlooking the Mendip Hills.  We shall stay in touch, meeting as we do to walk the dogs or drink wine.  I’ve also had two further operations – one to remove the diseased metalwork from my lower leg, and a second to replace the internal stiffeners with an exoskeleton designed to adjust and stretch the leg bones whilst they reform and strengthen.  It’s like Robocop’s leg without the hydraulics.  And I’ve tried to drive with it.  And I have.  And it hurts.  Because although I can drive, getting RoboLeg under the wheel to the far side of the cockpit, requiring Elastagirl-style contortions without the actual superpower, there’s something else.  When turning a sharp corner, and without remembering, you catch your fingers between the wheel and the sharp edge of the upper frame sitting just below the knee.

So I’m now on the lookout for a left-hand drive automatic with Headroom and Cruise control – the Laguna’s in intensive care and we’re not sure if she’ll pull through.  Vehicle count 3 and rising…..

boys are back in town banner image

Boys are back in town…

Little did I know that spring would be sprung and long gone before my next post, but here we are!  My husband and I decided to spend a few months in the UK: my (soul)mate had his leg operated on and the best place to be was surprisingly not by the foot of the Montagne Noire, in a house consisting mostly of stairs.  However, we are back Chez Nous for the summer and I’ve got so many things to write about!  There will be more projects executed in varying degree of success by yours truly, Cowboy Builders – Mazamet edition (spoiler alert, I become the restoration charlatan) and so much whinging about la canicule.  Yesterday the record for the highest temperature in France was broken twice, finishing at a scorching 45.9 °C, observed just outside Nîmes.  Our region has enjoyed sunny days of around 35-39°C and quite frankly, that is hot enough for me.  I blistered my bum on a car seat the other day and the poor dog is boiling in his furs.  If you know a witchdoctor specialising in weather magic, have a word.

Anyhow, before I start to unload the latest from our hellishly warm building site, here’s a wee tongue-in-cheek picture post of the top 3 reasons why I have been too busy to blog.  Enjoy!

  1. We are now living on the outskirts of Wells, the smallest city in England. Population density ’round these parts is measured by cows per person and everyone drives a combine harvester. Posh people hire chauffeurs for their combines and they have gold-alloy wheels.  Pip pip! The social calendar revolves mostly around the Royal Bath and West Show and consuming copious quantities of cider.If you don’t know who this man is we cannot be friends.

    Roger Wilkins, the maker of the worlds best cider

  2. There are too many great walks in the West Country…I left the house to take the dog on a quick piss and got lost once on the footpaths near our house.  Three hours and around 17k later we ended up home.  My alsatian loved it all, but I still have flashbacks to being chased by a herd of cows.  For my fellow townies out there, cows are much bigger than you would expect.West Country Cows

    Much, much bigger.

    About half a tractor, I’d say the official unit of measurement in Somerset.

    Another funny thing about walking…  Watch your step!  I made the mistake of letting Rusty off the lead once without checking my surroundings properly.  He took off like a rat down a drainpipe, towards a field in the distance.  There was a waft in the warm evening breeze – a familiar scent of the countryside.  The time stood still when my pup took a leap toward the stinking ground.  I let out a shriek, but it was too late: Not a day had passed when I observed a farmer spraying these field with something that stank suspiciously like fermented cow shite.

    Funny that, I thought to myself when on closer inspection my sweet dog turned out covered from the tip of the nose to the end of his waggily tail in exactly that, – fermented cow shite.  Despite two baths Rusty smelled like a thousand burning landfills for at least a week.

    Clothes were burned, lessons learned etc.

  3. We were busy hunting essentials in the UK.The place we rent was unfurnished and having moved our stuff to France we had very little in the UK.  The houseboat we used as a base had built-in furniture so beyond cooking stuff and bedding we had very little to set up home with.Luckily family stepped in and helped us out and we were able to get some good deals on gumtree and carboot sales.  A daunting task, but an interesting one.  Put in that situation, what would you buy first?

    We got a baby grand piano.

    He is called Graeme – free to a good home so we only paid for the delivery and he’s the centerpiece of our front room.  A logical purchase, really.  Oh, and did I mention, I when we got him I could not play to save my life.  Few months later I am learning Beatles and stuff, but mostly Graeme the Baby Grand serves as a three-poster-bed for Rusty.


Here we are – a little catch up before the work begins.

I’m off to find some rosé now – gotta keep hydrated during a heatwave!  Keep cool and see you later – à plus tard!

T xx

faux wallpaper tutorial

Faux Wallpaper

Salut, ça va ? 

The arrival of Yule is imminent and the same is true for family that will spend it with us by the Montagne Noire.  This means a lot of interrupted projects and very little blogging, but I did manage to finish one thing: a faux wallpaper wall to cover up a discoloured corner in our new spare room.

We finished painting up that room in the summer, but even my strongest stain blocker could not stop one smear from reappearing coat after coat.  Instead of lining and painting this pesky section again, I thought I might as well experiment with a bit of pattern and wallpaper it instead.  Here’s the deal though; wallpaper, especially if you got an expensive taste like I do, is really bloody expensive!  To get the look for less, I hatched a cunning DIY plan and voilà – a trip to my local papeterie and less than two euros later, my cover up is looking fantastic.

My secret?  You must have figured it out by now that it was certainly not wallpaper, but humble wrapping paper that did the trick.

faux wallpaper diy

Never would I attempt to cover up a whole wall with it, let us be clear on that, but for a small area this technique worked wonders.  You simply cut your paper to size and attach it with wallpaper paste or (like me) PVA glue cut with a bit of water.  When choosing a paper to suit your DIY venture, remember not all wrappers are created equal.  In my experience, thicker the better.  A hefty recycled type such as craft paper, printed or not, is one of the easiest to use.  Thinner and finer stuff such as any bleached, glossy or foiled paper will tear easier but can be used with patience.  My chosen wrapper fell in the latter category, but I simply could not resist the pattern.

faux wallpaper diy

The scalloped motif I ended up choosing came from Action, a discounter store with Dutch origins.  A roll of five metres cost me 1.49 euros in total and I figured for that kind of money I can afford to cock this up a few times before blowing my budget.  Luckily though, I did not need to.  Having measured and cut my pieces, I applied glue straight onto the wall and pressed the paper on top, smoothing it gently by hand.  This was my whole process in its entirety and took me just about half and hour.  It is dead simple, but you do need to pay attention on the pattern alignment, just like when wallpapering.

This is basically découpage, just on a larger scale.  

Minus a wrinkle or two, you can’t tell a difference between my faux wallpaper and the real deal.  The size is naturally of the essence, as is the surface you wish to cover, but I could see this working brilliantly in other small nooks, insides of cupboards and on furniture.  The best part is, for me anyway, that if you get bored with a pattern it is dirt cheap to replace it with a new one, semi sustainably.

So in conclusion, before you can afford your favourite wallpapers (William Morris & Co, I am looking at you) FAKE IT ‘TILL YOU MAKE IT.

Happy Christmas y’all.