Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Year in review part two of three

I was waiting for Robert to arrive for our weekly game of cribbage, and then it dawned on me that maybe we agreed on 11:00 not 10:00. Robert is originally from Washington State, he and his wife bought a house in Saint Jean de Duras, and we met at one of the village functions, we were really lucky to meet he and his wife, I’m not sure how lucky they were to meet us. After a few dinners here and there we discovered that we each had played cribbage 30 or so years ago, so it’s now a weekly thing. My point being, while waiting for him to arrive, it allows me to finish the previous entry, “A year in review”.
We were settled into the house, and had semi functioning Kitchen (set up in the un-renovated living room), bathroom, and two bedrooms. We were given the name of a young man who did freelance electrical and plumbing work and who had done work for a friend of ours, so we called him and met with our friend and the young man to discuss the scope of work. At first, I think our project scared the hell out of Mathieu as he was concerned that he would never see his girlfriend again. Then I explained that I would do the grunt work…….The meeting was very productive, and to this day we realize that without him the house could have taken longer and cost a lot more. With our new Electrician / plumber on deck we began with the kitchen. Our plan was for me to do the grunt work, buy the materials, and pay him. He worked during the day for a building company and would spend a few hours a week helping me after hours. The kitchen was a mess, we would have to completely gut the kitchen and install a new mechanical system. (Electrical, plumbing, and heating) The first order of business was to remove the dropped ceiling and the tile covering the walls, medium sized white tiles with a grimy gray grout. With that four day demolition done I had to start laying out all the locations for the electrical plugs and switches, then chip into the stone walls all these one and a half inch deep trenches for the conduits. After a week of the most thankless dusty, dry work, the electrical preparation was done, it allowed me to then mix up plaster and “cement” in the conduits and flush out the walls. The new electrical service was to be in the barn adjacent to the house, it would be later renovated into guest suites, making it more convenient for the new construction. The existing electrical service was in the kitchen, what this all means is the we had to route twenty conduits from the kitchen to the barn, running them from the kitchen cabinet up and in the wall, in between the ceiling beams, down the wall across the entry hall and up into the barn. This work took about three weeks. It was at this point that we started working between six to seven days a week, eight to ten hours a day. It was invigorating, we could see progress on a weekly basis, but it was exhausting and over time I lost twenty pounds and Cindy lost fifteen. This schedule continued for about four months, it was when Cindy’s mother and step father were here for six weeks that we pulled out of that silliness. We were so driven to finish the work in order to have the rooms ready to rent for the tourist season. In three months we were done with the kitchens rough mechanicals and the hand applied tinted plaster walls were done. The plaster walls were backbreaking, after finishing about a third of the walls; the first coat started popping off the wall, while heartbreaking it was better at that point then after the cabinets were in. So the answer was to scrape off all the plaster and then scrape the walls down to the original stone and mortar and re-apply new tinted plaster. We spent another month installing the metal track system that would support the insulation and drywall for the ceiling. At about our fifth month we were ready to install the kitchen cabinets, final paint and clean out the construction debris. During all the physical work we were also scheduling meetings with the local Marie (mayor) for legal documents, and the local Notaire for agreements for the farming contracts, driving an hour and a half away with our new trailer to Brico Depot (their home depot) in order to get better savings from the largest building store in the region, setting up appointments with the various departments for residency, medical and administrative matters. I will say that spending an entire day at a French administrative office is fatiguing beyond belief, sure I lost twenty pounds through hard work, but the mental gymnastics required for non-stop conversations with the various offices in order to straighten out our birth certificates was Olympic gold metal worthy. In Europe the order recognized for writing your birthday is Day-Month-Year, whereas in the U.S. it’s Month-Day-Year, to straighten this out takes time, it was almost as though we were the first people over here that had to deal with delineating this difference.
Susan and Gary’s (Cindy’s mother and Stepfather) arrival was the turning of a few corners for our process. We were hell bent on completing the interior remodel, in order to allow for tourists to stay at our Chambre D’hôtes, (European Bed and Breakfast) and therefore start making income. Well Susan and Gary’s working vacation turned into a gulag vacation, they matched us step for step and turned out some incredible work. Gary and I installed the Kitchen cabinetry. It would have taken me half the time alone, but it would have needed to be reinstalled a month later, luckily Gary steadied me down. As we finished the kitchen, the film crew for the T.V. show arrived for the final three days of filming. I’m trying to summarize but it is turning out lengthier than planned, part two of three, I guess.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Pettersons build their dreamhouse

It was a year ago this week that Cindy and I flew to France, to sign the final papers and take possession of our French farm. We stayed for a week and cleaned up the house as best we could. I remember the aroma was the biggest obstacle; we could deal with bagging all the remnants that had accumulated for the twenty years the elderly lady lived here alone. Although maddening that they had sold all the houses furnishings, (which were agreed to be included in the sale) it was like rubbing salt in an open wound the fact that they hadn’t at least cleaned the house. You could walk into any room and there would be a minimum of six large plastic trash bags worth of junk, mind numbing random things. It is best described as the remains left after a pack rat was evicted and anything of worth was removed. I’m still working through this one issue; it is lessening with time and replaced with a growing pride of what we have accomplished.
So what’s been done in a year? Well technically it’s only been nine months as we returned for good on December 27th of 2010. Our first order of business was to get the bedrooms up and running, the bathroom had been acid dipped to disinfect it as much as possible, and the kitchen had been arranged for basic cooking. Our first week included everything from the process of getting Caleigh into her new school in Duras, shopping for school supplies, buying and arranging for delivery of new mattresses, buying a small refrigerator, getting electrical service, phone service to the house, cell phones. Obviously this was all accomplished in the still daunting language of France. Grocery shopping is always fun, now that we’re seasoned veterans, shopping is second nature, but our first few weeks were bizarre, a simple task like buying half a kilo of apples included weighing them on a computerized scale where you have to identify the fruit or vegetable. There are roughly twelve options for apples, in French, needless to say initially we bought easy to identify fruits and vegetables. Then you print out the price sticker based on the weight and type of fruit, bag it and off you go, we were typically sent back to the scales once a shopping trip for screwing up the process. And of course you need to bring your own grocery bags, or buy new ones each trip, and always have a one euro coin to insert in the grocery cart lock that releases it from the row of carts. It is a pretty good system as it ensures that everyone returns their cart to the cart corral to retrieve their coin.
The car we rented had a diesel engine, so naturally I hunted for diesel; wrong what I should have been looking for is Gazole (gas mixed with oil). Looking back it seems so basic, but at that point I was mortified of filling the tank with the wrong fuel. Each morning I would drive Caleigh to the school bus or to school and then start with the most pressing of priorities. The weather was freezing and we had these cheesy electrical heaters plugged into our few outlets, I could literally see ten euro notes disappear in front of my eyes. We had a month of house cleanup, including weather-stripping doors and windows, painting, waiting for our furniture to arrive in the container. The furniture set up we had was abysmal, a little depressing, I remember just trying to sit comfortably on a wooden side chair. The kitchen set up was laughable, but knowing it was temporary made it less frustrating, there were our small dormitory fridge, our one burner electrical stove, and our 1960’s ceramic sink in a dark kitchen. The only saving grace in the kitchen was the wood burning fireplace.
It was around that time that I noticed a post on one of the English forums, about living in France, regarding any American family’s moving to France and planning to renovate a room or two. So I sent a reply, and after a few exchanges with the production company, Cindy, Caleigh and I made a five minute video as an introduction of us, our situation, and our house. It turns out our timing was impeccable, what they wanted, when they wanted it, and where they wanted it. For us it was an interesting experience, process, and a lot of stress. It was stressful, because the 3-three day groupings of filming required us to erase any work we wanted to get done on any of those time slots and work with the dialog they were envisioning. Sure they were telling our story but through their eyes, it seemed. We met some really nice people during the process and look forward to seeing a DVD of it as we don’t get the HGTV shows over here. When we find out when it is to air I will post that information should any of you desire to see a family out of their element.
Incorporated into this initial timeslot we were also dealing with the farm itself everything from setting up legal farming contracts for the farmer who was leasing the land, to having “inherited” two Belgian draft horses and an ass, plus one of the Belgian’s was with filly. One hears horror stories about people buying a house in France and adjacent farmers having fights to see who gets to take the land away from the new foreign owners. This land stealing is accomplished by working the land then declaring the revenue gained from the farming is now needed to support the farmers family, the land is then able to handed down through generations, while still being “owned” by the person who bought it, but not being able to sell it in the future. Cindy researched the bejesus out of this and the short answer is to set up a “Commodat” (contract or lease) through the Notaire, who ensures that no such behavior is allowed, one learns quickly over here, the last thing you want to do is mess with the Notaire.
At about this time we have been here six weeks, and I had been researching for a good stable daily driver. We choose a 2001 Peugeot 406 sedan, diesel, not anything flashy but really dependable. The process of buying a car is a little different over here, we bought it through a garage, we test drove it and agreed on a price and were told “O.K. see you next week”. In the states you drive in drive out with the new car , here they do all the paper work; put new tires on it, check it all out to ensure that the car is in perfect working order, or near to it, then you get it completely ready to go. We added a tow hitch and electrical requirements for the trailer, a couple hundred euro’s as quoted. We had to extend our car rental a week because of not knowing the car buying process.
We were settled in and were now ready to start the remodeling of the house, starting with the kitchen; the film crew arrived for their first three days of shooting. After they filmed the squalor that was our temporary life, they focused on the kitchen remodel, each detail was scrutinized, whether to tear down the ceiling or not, where to put the new window, buying the new window, was Cindy happy about this or that, Caleigh’s reaction to her new surroundings, how well had I thought things through, was I fucking bonkers moving my sweet family to the frozen southwest of France in the middle of the coldest winter on record, did Cindy have access to a shotgun, did the French health plan supply me with Prozac. Ah! We were living the dream, and the best thing about it was our trials and tribulations were being filmed in glorious High Definition, and it was going to be aired for all to see!!!!!!
My next posting will get into when the hammer hits the nail on the head, and we increase our work output considerably.