Sunday, June 28, 2009

In the Garden, Part II

If you walk out our front gate, pass in front of the church and follow the small route to the left, you come to the Bar/Tabac. From there, you will mount the little street to the left that leads steeply up a narrow route with small cottages on either side. Francis, the former mayor and his wife Catherine are just to the left. When he was a younger man, his butcher shop was there too, but now the store front has become their living room windows. The cat lady, the one without teeth, lives on the right. Soon enough you will pass Mr. Theil's house. It's the one with the stone wall around it, enclosing a large garden and three-story house. As you pass, you'll notice the locked wooden door just below the level of the road; It leads into Mr. Theil's wine cave, reputed to be the best for miles around. One can only dream about what it holds! On the right is the big vine covered house which belongs to the Parisian family. They come during the summer. They set up a big table on the large lawn in front and eat their mid day meals, looking out across the old walls to the valley below, verdant the year through. After you've passed their house you're at the top of the hill and there the jardins ouvriers begin, the workmen's gardens. There are several of them lined up on the right, bounded by the ancient walls of the city on the downhill side and by the road and castle walls on the uphill side. One of the first belongs to the very nice man who gives us gardening advice. He warns against planting during the wrong phase of the moon and tells us that we must respect the Sts. Glaces, the saints of the frost. They don't pass until mid-May, so don't be tempted to plant your tomatoes before then, never mind if the weather is warm and the sky is clear. His garden is absolutely weed-free. When I comment about it, he shrugs it off. "You just remove them when they're still small" he says. It sounds so easy. The next garden belongs to Mr. Villette. His daughter lives half time in Paris and half time in New Jersey, but she visits her parents in Montmirail several times a year. Her friend Gerard is often a guest at Maison Conti. He lives in Singapore. When he visit's Martine's family, there's no room for him to stay, so we've had the fun of getting to know him. Mr. Villette represents what I think of as the miracle of French genetics. I am always so bemused when I meet the children of some of the simple French country folk. Mr. Villette and his wife are short and stout, part of the hearty rural stock who have worked the land for generations. Their daughter, who is a sophisticated and very well-educated business woman, towers above them and is willowy like many Parisian women. How can the one generation produce the other? It remains one of the deep mysteries of la vie française! Mr. Theil, even though he has his house and walled garden just a few steps away, has the next jardin ouvrier. Patrice works for him, creating new structures for the beans to grow up on or designing new methods of watering. A little road between Mr Theil's garden and the librarian's garden leads downhill to the village's medieval medicinal herb garden. It's next to the cemetery. The librarian has a flower garden. Her father-in-law once ripped all her plants out and replaced them with rows of radishes, beans, potatoes and lettuce. He couldn't understand the point of growing flowers. After all, you can't eat them! Patiently she explained to him that she liked flowers and anyway it was her garden! Back came the flowers and meandering little pathways, even some garden sculpture. What a rebellion! Jonathan's small garden comes next. His rows of vegetables are perfectly straight and maintained to perfection. Finally, the last garden along the road, is ours. We share it with Michel. He had been using it when it was owned by Jean-François and Marc before us and we didn't need to have the whole thing, so we offered to let him keep the one half while we redesigned the other to our own purposes. Like the librarian, we wanted flowers and straight utilitarian rows were not what we had in mind. In March we dug up everything and laid out a rectangle, bisected it with paths running from corner to corner and sowed them with grass seed. We defined each of the four quarters to be one color family: red, orange and yellow in the back, blue on the side next to the shed, rose and purple on the street quadrant and white on the part facing Michel's vegetable plot. We've been planting this and that for the last two months and things are beginning to grow up. Next year will be better, of course, but even this year it has a lot of charm. We have a secret understanding with the librarian. She knows we're her kind of people. And the other villagers, they wouldn't expect anything else from us étrangers! They can appreciate us, even as they find it a bit mad to be using perfectly good earth to grow flowers. The boulanger said our garden was "trop beau", which is a very high compliment. Gil said it was "super chouette", and he's the village gardener, so who wouldn't feel proud? One of the tourists passing by remarked that we had a "jardin model!" Merci beaucoup!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In the Garden, Part I

We've had our creative phases at Maison Conti. We bought the house in 2007 and even if it was in pretty good shape, it took us a full year to add the bathrooms, make a few changes, repaint everything and decorate. The terrace garden in front was one of the original projects. Marc and Jean-François who lived here before us, wanted privacy above all. The terrace, when we bought the house was a veritable jungle. The paving was an unlikely mixture of wobbly stones and gravel. It did have a bit of charm, but it was not practical for us. Besides we wanted to offer a place outside for breakfast and dinner. It had to be completely redone. We cut everything down, which seemed so radical at the time and laid a very nice new terrace with the help of our friend Jonathan. Our planting area, which amounts to a little raised border around the perimeter of the terrace, was thrown together quickly for our first year, as the outdoor space was one of the last things to be finished in June of last year, just before we opened. Our first year in business didn't allow us the time to do much about it. The creative projects for year two have been getting the studio together and getting our gardens organized. Yes, we have two gardens. As well as the terrace in front of the house, we have a little plot about a five minute's walk, up behind the castle. We purchased this separately from the house. Several of these charming gardens exist side-by-side by the old city walls. The locals are ardent vegetable gardeners. Our main objective for the garden up above, was to grow flowers for the house and salad fixings for our dinners. We had every good intention of planting a few vegetables and flowers last year. Most of what we did plant, however, became lost in a tangle of weeds and there just wasn't the time to organize it. This spring, inbetween the projects in the studio and the guests in the house, we managed to completely replant both the terrace garden and the garden up above. My next posting will be about the flower garden, but first about the terrace: We brought out the umbrellas last weekend. Although our clients have been eating on the terrace for the last month, last weekend was the first time it was so bright that the shades needed to be deployed. Of course that could have been because most of them slept until noon! They had been at a wedding until 5AM. Wedding parties in France are a serious affair! Our friend Marta helped rearrange our pretty planters way back in November. She tucked in the white pansies then too, and they're still thriving, although now they've been surrounded with thyme as well. On the terrace we have very sweet smelling plants and lots of flowering ones, mostly in white, pink and violet. We have climbing roses, jasmine, herbs, irises, pinks and lavender plants. We've planted star jasmine on the fence in front. It's really starting to grow, but will still take a year or more to provide a completely private space again. One thing we did plant in 2007 were sweet peas, because they are, without any doubt, my favorite flowers. The variety I bought are perennial, which I have never heard of in the U.S. This year they were definitely not part of the plan, since we were going for a bit more formal look, or at least not the rag-tag look that sweet peas bring. I had no idea, after several really cold months, frost and snow and unusually low temperatures this last winter, that those sweet peas would really raise from the dead. When they arrived, and took over the jasmine trellis, I just didn't have the heart of pull them out. Every garden deserves its rogue element! It was Marta who suggested we paint our planters the same green as the new trim on the house and fill them with seasonal flowers. We found these petunias a few weeks ago and they seemed perfect. They were, at the time of purchase, baby pink and white. Jonathan brought us back some Miracle Grow from England when he went to visit his family, since we had mentioned that it was a product we used often in the U.S. and just can't find in France. After one treatment, all the pink flowers turned a gaudy bright magenta and the white ones all but vanished. Quel mystère! Rick finds them a bit offensive but I rather like their happy way of saying "Look at me!"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Le Mans

We live in the Pays-de-la-Loire region of France. Regions are a bit like states in the U.S. Each region is comprised of several departments. Our department is known as the Sarthe. I guess a department is a bit like a county, although bigger, and each department has its own individual character. The capital of our department is Le Mans, famous for the world's oldest endurance car race. So our area is very well-known for driving, beautiful cars and racing. We have some of the nicest roads in all of France. It's not unusual to see the Place in front of our house filled with old classic cars like the ones pictured above. Many car clubs breeze into town for the day, have lunch in our local restaurant and leave their gorgeous vehicles outside our front door. For me it's the old cars that have the most charm. But of course for the 24h race, it's all about modern. Once a year, on the second weekend in June over 250,000 people flock to Le Mans and watch while about 50 drivers race around a circuit of closed public roads for 24 hours straight, going, in that time, the distance of about a drive between San Francisco and New York City. A few of those 250,000 people stay at Maison Conti. It is one of our busiest times of the year and always filled with lots of adventures and an international variety of fascinating people. Race fans are a passionate and hearty bunch. We get the vicarious excitement of the race without actually having to take the trouble to brave the huge crowds! This is a much different kind of race than one that just requires a car to be fast. If a car is to survive intact after 24 hours of the grueling pace required, it can not spend too much time in the pits for the refueling and tire-changing and all the mechanical tweaking. The car must be aerodynamic, fuel efficient and very well-designed. For years and years the German Audi has won the race but this year the French Peugeot took both first and second place. Of course this is a national victory and the French are really thrilled. Le Mans is a beautiful city which has history going back thousands of years. It has always been a cross-roads, even in prehistoric times, between the east and the west and the north and the south. It was an important Roman outpost. The old town section of Le Mans has one of the best preserved Roman walls in Europe. On top of the walls populations built consecutively so that the old town is like a layer-cake of history with examples of beautifully-maintained architecture from various epochs. The town was the movie set for the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac staring Gérard Depardieu.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Visit to Bellême

Wikipedia describes Bellême as: At the heart of the Parc Naturel Régional du Perche, two hours from Paris, Bellême, situated in the Department of the Orne, is a paradise for lovers of nature and tranquil countryside. Bellême is on a hill that dominates the Perche area. Wikipedia also notes that: Nearly all French Canadians have some ancestors who came from the villages of Perche. Bellême is considered one of the "capitals of the Perche". It is one of the hoppiest towns in our region and it is also the home of our friends Jean-Fançois and Marc, from whom we purchased our home. Last week, while the weather was particularly fine, we took a day-off to visit Jean-François and Marc and have lunch with them in Bellême. J-F & M are antique dealers. Maison Conti was an antique shop when we purchased it two years ago. This house was in a somewhat raggedy condition, but had a lot of charm and potential, thanks to the work they had done while they lived here. They had pulled down all the tatty wall-paper and replaced it with soft pastel-colored plaster. They had trompe l'oeil painted on the walls and stair-well. When we first met them and saw the house, it certainly was easy to imagine how the house could be a really splendid Bed & Breakfast. J-F and M moved to Bellême because the clientele there is more affluent and abundant. In Montmirail, we are on the far southern boundary of the Perche National Park. Bellême is right in the center of it. They purchased a home there which predates our 300 year old house and it has a huge garden. Of course they fixed it up, added all their antique furniture, and turned it into a real show-piece. We very much enjoy seeing them, and they are splendid hosts. Bellême has one of the best golf courses in all of France, as well as some really wonderful shops. One of my very favorite places to purchase gifts is a boutique there which sells exclusively handmade items by local artisans. The quality of the goods is exceptional. In general, the Perche is a region where many artists and craftsmen live.