Bureaucracy, Indoor Heating, Memories

We’ve been back in France for a few days now.

You might remember this summer after my house burned down, we were temporarily housed in a neighboring apartment while the old place was gutted and rebuilt. You might also recall the ruthless efficiency and complete lack of bureaucracy with which the French attack these matters.

Ha ha! No, we actually just got the insurance check to replace our burned up clothes about three weeks ago (remember, the fire was in July) and construction has yet to begin on our gutted apartment, conveniently located next door, so I get a good eye-full of the broken window and smoke damage around the upstairs window every time we leave the house.

Some stereotypes are true, and the French love of paperwork is pretty well documented.(Probably well documented with ANOTHER load of forms filled out in triplicate, submitted, lost, found, diverted, processed and finally locked in a steel box in the basement.)

We were lucky to get the apartment next door…it was an unused property that our propriétaire had bought years ago intending to fix up but…(see above) these things apparently take time, with building permits and things. So we got tucked into here, a huge second floor flat. We had just gotten married (the fire happened while we were in the States finalizing the visa) and were exhausted…it was good we had a place to come back to in the end, whatever it was. And it also meant we didn’t need to go through the hokey pokey of paying for a new apartment, first-last-and-damage-deposit, and all the other crap, right after we’d just done the Immigration Paperwork Shuffle.

The New Apartment Hokey Pokey followed by the Immigration Paperwork Shuffle…sounds like a new dance craze, right? You’re not wrong, it IS a sort of craze.

Good things: FIREPLACE! A little veranda in the light well which is private and you can sip your morning coffee naked, if you want. I’ve loaded the veranda with basil and parsley and chives and flowers, stuck a couple of candles out there…it’s nice.

Bad things: most of the electrical sockets don’t work, so the few that do have stacks of power strips and extension cords pouring out of them like a bad accident waiting to happen. (I mentioned my house burned down, right? You get sensitive to these things. Plus, I worked on a cruise ship for THREE YEARS and had to rehearse complete evacuations up to twice a week, complete with emergency signals and life jackets and life boats, to prepare for a fire. So, I’m sensitive. I’m justified.) The paint is peeling in great draping sheets. Someone bashed in the drywall to install electricity and then never replaced the drywall (probably because you need a permit for that? But not wiring? I don’t know.)


The worst part is, there’s no heat. There are radiators installed, but the landlady ripped out the tanks and all the infrastructure years ago…I have no idea why…and so we have these conceptual radiators, silent and noble like contemporary sculptures, dotted around the apartment, with ice dripping off them.

My husband grabbed two little space heaters from the back of the wine cellar the other day, and so we huddled around them at night like we’re camping. It’s kind of festive.

When you picture moving to the Mediterranean, I don’t think that walking around with three baggy sweaters and UGGs and a scarf, huddling over the toaster oven as the wind howls down the chimney is exactly what you’re picturing. Are you thinking, maybe, drinking a glass of honey colored wine under a trellis of grapes surrounded by olive trees and red tile stucco farmhouses? 🙂 Yes. Me too. That happens too, until November. It turns out winter comes here too, and while snow is unusual, below zero is not unheard of.

The funny thing about living without heat – I swore I would never do this again. I lived for five years without heat already, and had firmly checked that off my bucket list.

Back when I lived in the North Cascade mountains in Washington state, I lived in a homemade hippie farmhouse on 20 acres, filled with murals and native grasses imbedded in the plaster, and high, vaulted, unheatable ceilings. This being very much a home made house, fueled more by sixties’ idealism, good-intentioned back-to-the-land-iness, and, I am guessing, just wheelbarrows full of marijuana, there was NO insulation. This is in an area that regularly gets down to negative 25 in the winter, and one year I saw negative 40, a temperature which was so cold that the sap in the apple trees expanded and made the TREES EXPLODE.

This is the front of the house.

This is actually the back. Believe it or not, I loved it when the snow came, because the snow gave us a little insulation…although then you had to worry about the roof collapsing, since, as I said, this house was fueled by Peace, Love, and Self Reliance, not Attention to Building Codes.

(I mentioned fires earlier. My first ever fire occured the second winter I was living in the house, when we had a bunch of chickens living in a shed on the side of the house. We had a heat lamp for them when it got cold, and one night as I was going to bed, I smelled something burning, put my hand against the wall and almost burned my hand – there was a fire, lit by the heat lamp’s radiant heat, INSIDE the stucco walls. I punched a hole in the stucco with an axe handle, cut the power, and stuck a hose in the wall to put it out. Later, I found that behind the stucco and a thin layer of chicken wire, my landlady had stuffed the walls with dry sheets of newspaper. I was literally living in a paper-maché pinata.)

Here’s the chickens:

My sole source of heat, as you may have worked out from the photos above, was a tiny wood burning stove in the main room, which also doubled as my cooking stove most of the time, since the gas hook up to the REAL stove ran off propane, which not only was expensive but in the winter, the truck had a hard time making it up to our house. So you wanted to make a tank fill last a year if you could. My cats loved the woodstove and made a sort of cat-tower, a cuddle puddle, in front of the fire from about November to March.

It was sort of cool, believe it or not. I learned incredible self-reliance while I lived out here, because I had to. I learned how to make pizza and soup on a woodstove, how to use a chainsaw and to cut and split and stack and burn firewood, and what kind of wood is good to burn. (My SECOND fire occured after a winter of burning lodgepole pine, which, SURPRISE, fills your chimney up with resin that can then ignite on a dark frozen winter night in December when the power is out. Neat.)

I learned how to can food, how to keep bees, how to shear sheep. I learned how to make a solar powered shower, and how to use a root cellar and make jam and dry fruit. I learned what it was like to live without power, and how you keep yourself entertained when the sun goes away for four or five months, and it’s freezing, and you don’t have TV to distract you. (Pro Tips: Skiing. Drawing. Knitting. Reading. And chess.)

And there were benefits. We had an old telescope and we could see the sky so clearly without any cities nearby. The moon when it rose over the hills behind our house on those clear winter nights was heartstopping.

The turbulent air coming over the Cascades carved the clouds into fleets of UFOs.

The inside of the house, for all its painted-up hippie happiness, was awfully nice.

I got to learn about, um, industrial artifacts? This car is a forties-era Dodge Brothers vehicle. It was parked in the field behind our house.

This was my view from my house.

I had a garden. A beautiful garden. With hops growing on the fence, and sunflowers.

I got to have animals. Eggs. Wool. Honey.

And even though the winters were long, in the spring, we got to experience THIS:

And I guess that’s the biggest thing with putting up with winter (or anything bad, maybe): make the best of it. It’s not going to last forever. 🙂 For me too, for maybe anyone like me who, for better or worse, has focused more on having an interesting life than on stability or money: at least now, when I’m cold and sore and pregnant, when my boobs hurt and I’m scared and the floor freezes my feet, when the hot water doesn’t work, when I have bad days when I don’t understand any French or feel homesick or alone – the nice thing about having an interesting life is I have amazing memories to dream over and smile as I wait for the spring to come back. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Bureaucracy, Indoor Heating, Memories

  1. OK, now that’s our LAURIE! Great piece! We knew lots of that about your time in Twisp, but it was like listening to you tell it, sitting in the Molecular Bar on Equinox! Your description of both WA and France is fantastic. I have a great image of your place in my mind. I have a minor version of your Twisp time in my past, when I lived up in the valley above Honolulu in a “home-built” house with Very Drafty walls. Nothing like your issues East of the Cascades, but abnormal for Hawaii. I hope your heating issues loosen up somehow. Please be careful about the overload on the few outlets! Thank You for the delicious writing and descriptions. One of your MANY talents! Thank you, thank you and also thank you!!! I hope your husband appreciates what a treasure he has married! Oh yes, we are ready for the next episode of “Laurie, the World Traveler and Experiencer”

  2. Ditto what Mike said! LOVE your writing, and it is almost like we’re back at Molecular, chatting while taking photos of you and our murrini bowl. Thanks Laurie!

    I can even relate to your fire-in-the-wall story, having learned the hard way one winter night of my first year in Oregon after burning fir in the woodstove. Seasoned oak or alder after that!

    But that was all Before Mike (I call that BM) and the time of my winter before my springtime. I’ve decided winters are for reminding us how lovely our world will be again in the spring!

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