Oh that Oleander!

It all started when Tanja and I decided to replace an oleander shrub in our front garden that barely survived the freeze. With two hearty shrubs on either side, lush roses nearby, and a looming deadline for photos for our website, we bought a new young oleander shrub from the local Jardiland. I figured I had a two hour job of removing the old one and replacing it with the new one. I was soon to be disabused of that notion.

It turns out that oleander have deep, deep roots, including a major taproot. So I dug and dug and dug, hauling out the pick, axe and maddock to try to pull this thing out. I also had an alarmingly real conversation with it, in which I apologized for depriving it of its current life for aesthetics’ sake. My spade hit and I removed many rocks and think chunks of clay, but none of the blue mesh that is supposed to warn of drainage or sewer pipes. Then – CHUNK! A different sound. Something shiney began to emerge as my heart sank. I had hit a sewer line barely 16 inches below the surface.

The hole

It appeared to be a new rift, but who knew in an incredibly old farm house? Because I had reached adequate depth for the new shrub, I considered my options. There was no sewage flowing out of it so perhaps it was not active and I had been spared an encounter with big stinky. Perhaps some duct tape would suffice. Or I could buy a piece of plastic and glue it shut. Somehow my better nature intervened and I decided to uncover as much as I could to determine the extent of the damage. So I dug and dug for several more hours. I determined there were several areas over a 25 cm swath that I had managed to tear with my tools. So much for the easy fix.

I held my breath as I asked Tanja to flush a toilet. I could hear water flowing somewhere deep inside the pipe, but no liquid. That could be a good sign.

Cut apart.

So I spent another few hours exposing as much of the pipe as possible and eventually cutting out a section of the bad pipe. I thought I was doing pretty well, but by then day 1 was over and we needed to get to bed.

Day 2 dawned, wet and rainy, and we went to several home building supply stores before we could find pipe of the right diameter, apparently rarely used anymore. So I bought two sleeves, a 4 meter length of pipe (!) and glue. Rain prevented anything else from happening that day.

On Day 3, I started early, hoping to get my two hour job completed post haste. However, the collars would not fit over the pipe or the insert. Too tight!

Sanding and filing

The guys working at our site gave me some sandpaper, and I spent the better part of Day 3 sanding and sanding, to little effect. This was beginning to get frustrating! they promised to bring heavy duty files the next day, which would be day 4!

The filing never worked, so I had to cut slits in each collar before adding the glue, making a huge mess, and eventually, after getting everyone into the act, joining all pieces together. I think there was more glue on us than on the pipe. And it dried immediately. The bond was not good, so we tied rope around it to hold it overnight as I peeled glue from my fingers.


Finally the pipe appeared to be stable enough to slop more glue on it for good measure, and eventually to fill in all the dirt, this time placing the blue mesh for the poor guy digging this plant out in the future, and getting the new oleander into its proper place, completely oblivious to the massive effort that went into its new home!

For my part, I suppose it was a teaching moment. Be careful when you wield a pick. Get used to everything in France taking at least three times as long as expected. Be grateful for empty sewer pipes. And, of course, be mindful and enjoy every moment that life brings…..

The new oleander among friends.

Moving One Pile of Rocks to an other Pile of Rocks

Last week I started Karschering (the french word for pressure washing.  Really!)  the stones around the pool.  Jerry, our everything-is-a-possibility-and-there-are-no-problems real estate agent, had assured us that the dingy looking tiles and stones around the pool needed a good karschering and everything will look as good as new. Well, the moment I started kashering tiles, tiles, rocks and even a snake started jumping and slithering around me. I channeled my inner Jerry: No problem, this is a great opportunity to actually enlarge the terrasse around the pool.  It was all a bit cramped anyway.  I am just going to break down the whole wall.   In this day and age who needs walls anyway.  I got the Kascherer out, I bought a sledge hammer.  Of I go.   One bit of the wall came out easily, the others didn’t.  They got stuck  between a rock and a hard place.  And did NOT go down easily.  At the end of the day Eric, the Dad of the our Lancester threesome, took one look at me being covered in debris and soaked to the bones. “You need my lads to help you tomorrow.  They have some heavy machinery and they will loosen those stones for you in no-time.  So that is what they did this morning. It still took a whole day to get that damned wall down and move them to an other pile.  At one point the wall looked like the mouth of giant with really bad teeth.  At the end of the day, the lads had to do a few more root canals and finally all the rocks where moved from one pile to an other.  Now what?  Don’t want to think about that.  I need a stiff Gin and Tonic first.


On getting a French car and cell phone in the rain….

Thursday, 18 May, 2017

Well, it sure rained today! We were out at the chambre d’amis talking with Eric and his sons about the car we had bought, when out of nowhere came a blast of wind and cold rain. This was not like the huge droplets we get in Kentucky. It was a torrent of tiny droplets permeating every corner of our bodies. We were huddled under the porch roof, and it provided little refuge. It was an omen, not necessarily bad, but an omen nonetheless of the day that awaited us. We had big plans to drive first to Duras to open a business checking account then to Bergerac to pick up our new (d’occasion = used) Citroën Berlingo van for which we had signed the papers a week previously, have a nice lunch somewhere, then switch Tanja’s French phone to a regular contract instead of a month by month prepay. That was a lot to try to do in France on a nice day. In bad weather, well, we knew it would take longer. But we had no idea how long it would be.

So, wet from running through the rain to our little rental Peugot, we drove to Loubes Bernac first to the recycle bins. Lot-et-Garonne where we live does not have garbage collection, but they do have excellent recycling and garbage centers, the closest of which is in Loubes Bernac, our village. We drove there with lots of cardboard boxes that had contained stuff we mailed over here and that were mutilated by French customs, plastic, wine bottles and garbage. Then on to Duras to meet with the professional banker.

We had met with the personal banker a week previously to set up our personal bank account, but that person could not open our business account. Today we met a very nice young woman who tolerated our poor French and who proceeded to request the exact same documents we had provided the previous week. Luckily we have finally learned that to do any business in France, at least for the first time, one must have many pieces of paper and information to placate the bureaucrats. So we pulled out our passports, factures showing our address and proving our residence, articles of incorporation of our little gîte business, etc. After close to an hour, we left with papers documenting a new bank account in the name of La Busaneth.

We needed some cash with which to pay the workers at our house. We were told to go downstairs to the person who mans the “teller” window. It is actually a small desk with a computer, sitting to the side of the lobby with no protection whatsoever. That is because this person handles no cash. Instead, after looking into our accounts, worrying, and finally deciding she could help us, gave us a debit card for the amount we wanted for us to use in the ATM to get our cash. Very interesting! I guess it is their way of minimizing bank robberies.

Next stop back to the house to pay the workers, then off to Bergerac. By that time it was – you guessed it – the lunch hour (2 hours!), so we could not transact any business. We found a nice small hotel and restaurant manned by a Frenchman and his partner just outside Bergerac. Of course we each had a glass of wine, a plat, and we shared a dessert. Very civilized.

When it turned 2:00 we drove to pick up the new car. There are many steps to buying a car in France, well documented through numerous horror stories published on the web. For us, it was relatively easy because we went through a dealer who, although it took a week, did all the dirty work and administrative stuff. So picking up the car was fairly easy.

Our new little Berlingo, the workhorse of the family

The Citroën Berlingo is the French people mobile, used for families as well as tradesmen, ubiquitous. It has no frills, a manual transmission, diesel engine, and, most importantly, massive amounts of cargo space. With all the renovation we will be doing, we will have to purchase and transport lots of stuff here and there. Plus, when our kids come, we need a vehicle that can carry lots of people and their luggage. So it made perfect sense to us to get a utilitarian van. It is actually fun to drive, if a bit bumpy and slow.

The next part of our day we spent at Orange, the home of French Telecom, changing Tanja’s phone. The woman with whom we worked was very nice, but with the language issues it took an hour and a half. I think we got what we wanted, but she sent me home with a list of documents I need to mail to them, including – you guessed it – passport, a facture showing residence, etc. I kicked myself for leaving the large expending file with all our documents at home. Oh well, some lessons are hard to learn.

By that time we were soaked to the bone from all our outdoor walking in the rain, hungry and tired. We arrived to a cold house, quickly warmed by the woodburner. (And it was almost 90 degrees two days ago!) Tanja made a great French Asian Salmon dish, which we accompanied with G&Ts, saw a great sunset, and now, with no internet, we are each doing what we can to stay sane. She is looking at places to find stuff for the home and I am communicating with all our friends about our lovely day. It doesn’t get any better than this!

Sunset after rainstorm, view from La Busaneth.

And today we have a three pronged technique

Tanja and I have been at La Busaneth for two weeks and we have been working on it every day. We have the salon painted, many rooms cleaned, the garden mowed and trimmed so it looks presentable, laundry sorted, washed, and back where it should be. We have been using the power sprayer on the stonework by the pool. But all that was pretty minimal compared with what happened today.

Today, Eric and his two sons, Nick and Mark, came to begin the more major work on the chambre d’amis. This is the small building by our pool that we have intended to use as a place for couples to stay, removed from the big house, with a bathroom, kitchenette and wood burner. Very romantic.

The chambre d’ami, before

So the threesome came to start the work, tearing out what is inside so we can start over. There was lots of banging and jack hammering, because the interior walls in France are made of building block. It took them all day, but they finally got all the stuff from that room, including the walls, out of the building and onto the back patio.

The offal from the chambre d’amis today

Such stuff you would not believe! they removed two tons of stone, concrete and tiles, as well as all the bathroom fixtures. They are now on the patio sorted for whatever awaits them in their next lives.

Except for one thing. There is a huge crack running down the back wall and down the floor of this building. The floor is not flat. We think it is from the two huge cypress trees that are immediately adjacent to it, with roots that probably have disturbed the foundation. So we are going back to the drawing board. When the guys return tomorrow, they will shore up the wall and fill in the floor. We will have to remove the two cypress trees that are damaging the foundation. And we will probably turn this into a simpler building, such as a game room for the kids.

The crack

Last week when we moved in we noticed lots of bee carcasses in our bedroom and we also saw lots of bees swarming around the roof of the main house in the vicinity of our bedroom. Concerned about a possible infestation, we called a new friend, David Evans, who among other things is an apiculteur and a member of the local beekeepers association. He came this morning, put on his regalia, and searched the suspect crawl space in the attic. Nothing! I am not sure which was stronger, my relief at there being nothing there or my embarrassment at calling him for nothing. At any rate, it was an adventure and we have made a new friend.

Meanwhile, Tanja decided to continue the power spraying of the pool stones. They were flying here and there as they were loosened by the spray, meaning they were not in there very well and will require a mason to repair properly. While she was spraying at one point there was a scream, causing all four of the rest of us to come hurrying out to see what was the problem. She had dislodged a meter-long snake from its lair, and it scurried over her feet into the surrounding hayfield. No harm done, just another reminder of whose place this is anyway.

Iris bed before weeding

I decided to tackle the iris bed in the back yard. It was totally overgrown with weeds, and as I discovered throughout the four hours it took me to clean it out, the weeds and irises had come to a state of symbiosis because they have been left to their own devices for the last several years. the weeds and the

Iris bed after weeding

irises were one! Not to mention all the escargot, sitting there, so happy in their lush terrain that had been untouched for many years, now to be cleaned up and made too dry for their comfortable habitation. I chose not to harvest them. Too much like eating Rover. You know, friend of the family and all. Anyway, four hours later found a much improved – to my mind if not to the snails – iris bed.

First Post from La Busaneth

Wed, 3 May, 2017 –

What I need to say tonight is that finally, after months and years of searching for a life in France, we are experiencing our first night in our house, La Busaneth, in Loubés Bernac, France. There is a fire in the wood burner, and we are finally able to start the process of warming up and drying the house that has been cold and empty all winter. The walls of the salon have been scraped by Tanja and still require attention from the wire brush before they can be painted. We have created a cozy arrangement of sofas, tables an lamps before the fire to make it feel like home. There are still dirty dishes in the kitchen after our first meal prepared in this house, but they can wait. It is time I started our blog about a journey that we together started six years ago, but that each of us started years before that.

I have hesitated to begin to write about what has been a deep, meaningful journey because the topic seemed way too busy and complex. I have dreamed of returning to live in Europe ever since I was a graduate student in England in the 1970s. Tanja has been itching to leave the U.S. as well, with her dream being to start a B&B.  We have visited France several times, the most recent this winter when we looked at many properties and eventually settled on the two property solution: one for a gîte business and the other for our dream home. We signed the compromis de vent in January and went back to Louisville to settle our affairs there.

Our three months in Louisville were very busy as we said good-bye to many friends and family many times and distributed our worldly goods to family, friends and complete strangers. We sold our house. We sold our cars. We managed to get many of our family heirlooms to our children while we are still living. We had a yard sale on a cold, rainy Saturday in late April, and we sold many of our earthly possessions to those who wanted them more than we did, and who were willing to part with small amounts of cash to own them.

We discovered that what we had thought would be easy, dismantling a life in Louisville, turned out to be much more difficult, emotional and complex than we had envisioned. Our family in Louisville especially, daughter Emily, son-in-law David and of course grandson Edwin, as well as Tanja’s son Marnix, all have broken generations of family wanderings and have returned home. We never thought we would be leaving them but expected the opposite. Fortunately they all have rich, full lives, so we don’t worry about them…too much. And we know they are keeping our Louisville alive by being there. Still the breaking away was more difficult than I had imagined. The others, Peter in New York, Saskia and Dan in Maryland, and Sebrand in San Francisco, have all separated from Louisville so it feels a bit easier with them.

So, what is happening here in Loubés Bernac? What happened today especially? We awoke at the B&B Petit Clos of our new friends, Cindy and Hank Petterman. They moved to Saint Jean de Duras seven years ago with their fourteen-year-old daughter to seek their new lives in rural France. They now have a B&B and Hank is spending most waking hours creating two gîtes for guests arriving this summer. Cindy is managing their website and keeping the place beautiful. And they both are exquisite hosts. We knew we needed to stay somewhere safe and friendly for the first few nights here. We had no idea how great it would be to stay with them. They have given us a warm welcome, have wined and dined us, and helped to create as seamless a transition as one could hope for.

So awoke to our fifth morning in France knowing we would be moving into la Busaneth. We had the usual delicious continental breakfast at Petit Clos and packed our things. I had discovered when mowing the lawn over the last two days that the ten-year-old Toro lawn mower’s transmission was not pulling its weight. So Hank offered to take it and me to the local repair shop of Ramon Miranda. We drove in his entirely functional ancient Land Rover to Señor Miranda’s establishment and left off the mower with this jovial, kind young man, who promised to have the belt replaced an the mower avancement functional by tomorrow morning. We drove back to Hank’s farm, and he gave me a bumpy tour of his hay fields and vineyard from the Land Rover.

Tanja and I packed up our car, said our good-byes to our new neighbors and friends, Cindy and Hank, and drove to our new home. We had several errands to run, so we dropped off our clothes in a pile by the front door and drove to Pineuilh. Unfortunately, the best place to shop is now a gigantic strip mall on the bypass around Sainte Foy la Grande, which runs right through Pineuilh. We found pillows at the bed store and lots of good stuff for the home. We got kicked out just after noon so the employees could go to lunch, a very cultured French custom, so we decided to drive into Sainte Foy for lunch.

Sainte Foy la Grande used to be a thriving market town on the Dordogne River, but is has seen better days. However, it has the region’s best Marché every Saturday. We had just been a few days ago, but we wanted to see it when the market was not present. The town was quiet. We found a small café for lunch and enjoyed the buffet. We walked through town and eventually back to the car.

Since we arrived a few days ago, we have been on a quest to ensure adequate internet service at la Busaneth. We drove to Bergerac and spent hours at the Orange Boutique to attempt set it up. Unfortunately, we discovered that internet is not provided to our area of Lot-et-Garonne. Being Americans and not taking no for an answer we decided to do some research. It took us to our new neighbors, Jean Louis and Thérèse and their daughter Marie Pierre. They have some sort of satellite arrangement, but it is not clear how effective it is. But Hank had told us of the helpful geeks at Expert, so we decided to pay them a call.

We were greeted by Nicolas, one of the owners, a gregarious, talkative young man who spoke fluent English (thank God for a change!) and who came up with some solutions. He recommended using the 3G cell signal as being a better solution than satellite, so off we went back home to try using our cell phones as WiFi hot spots for our computers. I spent an hour with poor download and upload speeds before I eventually gave up and started a fire in the wood burner as Tanja prepared dinner. By the time we ate we had a warm fire to set the mood for a lovely, quiet evening, where we are both typing away despite the late hour.

Friday, 5 May 17 –

Good Lord, two more days have passed and it has now been one week since we arrived. We have had to get so involved so quickly that it seems a distant memory when we had tables piled high with stuff for the yard sale and turned the keys of 621 Wataga over to the new owners. Now we are on our new quest of getting La Busaneth ready just to live in, let alone rent out. We have found it to be a much bigger job than we anticipated, so we are trying to be patient and to take our time. We met with Eric and his two sons, Mark and Nick, who will be doing the renovation work in the maison d’amis and the big house. We found huge cracks in the floor of the maison d’amis running up the back wall, so the job is going to be a bit bigger than we thought. They are going to have to shore up the back wall with steel and we will use wood on the floor instead of travertine stone. It was really nice to have some people who know what they are doing planning to start in a week or so.

To save money we will be purchasing much of the supplies, and that means buying some sort of transport vehicle. The best and hopefully most reasonable option will be to buy a small van such as a Citroën Berlingo or a Renault Kangoo. There are a few used ones advertised (les voitures d’occupations) on the French website leboncoin.com, so we have to start looking. We have also been told we have to have a small trailer, so as soon as we get the van we will get a trailer too. I can learn how to back up a trailer as well as how to get around in French. New skills are very interesting at my age. Although I approach them with great zeal, it just takes longer to acquire the skills than thirty years ago. That’s OK. I really think it is good for the brain and good for the soul. Plus that is part of why we are here, to keep life from getting dull.

Today I managed to reclaim the lawn mower from the shop all by myself, navigating the French quite well if I do say so myself. Of course I didn’t understand all of the extremely rapid run-on sentences that Ramon hurled my way, but I got enough to have a two-sided conversation. I also traversed the French countryside without the GPS. Small victories! I met Hank on my way out as he came to pick up a sprayer he ordered for his vines. He was bemoaning the fact that while downshifting his Land Rover he bent eight valve lifters and shoed me one. He has ordered new ones from England. We both chuckled about the life we have chosen, full of twists and turns.

We restarted the process of looking for our dream home with Jerry this week. So far there has been a major deal breaker with each of them. One has been populated by an inebriated young caretaker who knocked holes in the walls and ceilings looking for leaks in the sewer drains. I don’t think he has mowed the lawn at all this spring either, for the grass was knee high and felt like an overgrown meadow.  Another was on a busy highway. One was on a steep cliff and had been renovated by a young man to his eclectic tastes. We found what he had done interesting, but when we mentioned to him what it must be like living in the middle of the mess, he told us no, indeed, he was at the end. The last one was a house beautifully renovated from a structural standpoint, but on the middle of vineyards for miles around. We found anothr house closer to us in the varied geography of fields and forests as well as vineyards, so the vineyards alone are a bit monotonous. Besides, we are growing fond of La Busaneth, and if it takes awhile to to find our dream home, we actually like it here more than we anticipated and we have plenty of work to keep us busy. So we have discovered it is better to accommodate the turns life brings rather than tenaciously clinging to preconceptions that just aren’t working out as we had thought. Welcome to France!

Tomorrow is Saturday, the beginning of another three day weekend. That means all stores will be closed Sunday and Monday. So when we go to the Marché in Sainte Foy La Grande tomorrow, we need to be sure to have enough food for a few days. It is a huge Marché covering the streets of several square blocks with vendors of all stripes, from fish to clothing cheese to beds. It is fun to be part of the swirling mass of humanity stuffing their baskets full of good things. I can’t wait to show it to each of you when you come to visit. It is so much fun!

We also hope to finish spackling and painting the walls of the living room this weekend so we can put the furniture back where is belongs and make it feel like our room. Who knows what or who will stop by to alter our plans? We don’t know, but chances are it will be great fun.

So we are having a blast, full of highs and lows, successes and set-backs, but over-all enjoying ourselves immensely. We miss you as our thoughts continually return to our fantastic children and grandchild. We send you lots of love and will send more news as it develops.  I am developing a blog, and if we ever get enough bandwidth I will blog all this. Until then, we have threatened each other to spend a couple hours with a cup of coffee at MacDonald’s the only place with reliable internet. Go figure!

Thunder rolling. Our first night at La Busaneth in a rainstorm. Oh boy!