French Restoration Comedy

Avoriaz 1800

This June I spent 1 month and 3 days 1800metres/6000 feet up renovating 3 bathrooms, one kitchen, covering over a hole in a  floor, buying entirely new furniture and furnishings and generally pretending I was in one of those awful reality TV shows.

The result is at

Below is some correspondence with supportive mammas back in the ‘Hood’ who I kept fed with the peculiarities of my days.

Sent: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 5:04 PM

Subject: re European update?

Oh lord… there are tons, such as my attempt to find a loo in a bathroom shop on my second day here. I used the US expression “I would like to use your bathroom”. The poor sales man got horribly confused and assumed a concerned expression he said he had many bathrooms. With my legs crossed I continued in desperation “user…utiliser”… and he looked even more upset and said that they did not sell used bathrooms. Finally I resorted to the desperate squeak of one who has had three babies and finds themself in dire straights and winced “Je voudrais faire la pipi”  I have been to the shop repeatedly to buy tiling and poor Xavier and I manage to avoid eye contact as much as possible.

As of the age of four I knew how to say “ou est la toilette” so I am wondering where and when I short circuited.  I also went queasy at the knees being sold an 800 Euro lavatory by a sexy and utterly bad type of guy. I had to go and take deep breath by the lac Leman and bought the same lavatory for a heck of a lot less from an older lady with badly dyed red hair… who described the intricate mechanism inside the loo as “making soup”. I am still not sure it was worth the discount.


Sent: Sunday, June 13, 2010 2:57 PM

Subject: Lovely to skype

Dear xyz,

lovely to skype… got my parents afterwards who had been to a hunters’ feast on the edge of a wood. They made a little less sense having been fed and wined for many several hrs by a band of local wild boar hunters. Why? because they had given the hunters wood from some old trees, ostensibly with which to cook food for their hunting dogs? Can you imagine anything less Bethesda? Their dogs don’t look like they get cooked meals.

France is unbelievably Green. I am currently scouring and they give you all the environmental details regarding disposing of your item right alongside the dimensions and sales price. I cannot imagine marketing an item by advertising how disposable it is but I am assuming it must be working. Yesterday, I passed a car wash that was advertising itself as eco-friendly as they recycle the water. I suppose if you are lucky you can get your Ford washed in old Maserati water.

Just wanted to say it really is NOT a chalet in Switzerland – would that it were. It is a tiny apartment in the French Alps, with a fine view… when there is no cloud and when they have cut down the trees that we have been complaining about for 15yrs. Still it’s a tiny apartment apparently in some demand – at least it had better be or that 500 Euro loo is going to be the ruin of me.


Sent: Monday, June 14, 2010 4:05 PM

Subject: French kissing

Forward by all means, cannot imagine to presume that it is sufficiently interesting but you are too kind or too bored. This morning was glorious – the upper pastures coming alive after tons of rain and fleshing out with wild flowers and grasses. I was up very early and driving down the mountain to change the smashed loo (not the 500 Euro one) and saw some cows sleeping in a meadow, creamy white with their heads turned back and resting elegantly on their bodies. Next to them lay a pile of calves, far more haphazard, just spread eagled.  Having watched a horrible documentary about the US meat industry Food Inc I have not eaten beef for many months and I could not help thinking “now as a steak you would be just delicious”.

When I got to Gedimat, the equivalent of the Home Depot, it was just opening and was full of French employees all kissing each other abundantly and affectionately and handing round coffee. At first I thought I was observing an amorous tryst until the tryst became so wildly universal as to be either some hardware orgy or simply a regular start to the day.

They are doing a special on Radio Haute Savoie which is all about the French, love and sex. It is interspersed with people such as Marie-Therese calling in with her recipe for wild blueberry sorbet or Jean Michel who has developed a way of grilling camembert. Beatrice then called in with details of her snail farm – but sex, snails, camembert, are all given equal weight in the daily scheme of things and the only thing that is treated at all seriously is the plight of the French speaking Belgians.


Sent: Friday, June 18, 2010 at 12:51 PM

Subject: Modesty and plumbing parts

Dearest All,

Am sitting with my plate propped up on a tube of soldering primer, something to do with an artichoke and no bloody space to put anything. Life would be truly and utterly miserable were it not for several glasses of French wine, my ipod and the chance to bore you all senseless. I cannot even begin to describe the living conditions up here. A view of cotton wool has shrouded the place for more than a week, some miserable cows that were moved up to higher pastures earlier today stare forlornly and realise that it was much nicer in the barn down in the valley. The South of France is flooded and old ladies are being air-lifted by helicopters. The only advantage of being at 1800 metres is that we are unlikely to be affected.

I feel I must give you the low down on the experience. Wine Mammas could actually happily convene there for a session.  They sell wine by the glass, bottle and of course pitcher. Amazing plates of carpaccio adorn their counters along with cheeses that are scrutinized for true quality by beady eyed old ladies – and selected with satisfaction. All children’s menus are organic and there is an organic meal on offer for all and sundry – their loos run on rain water and the hot water is all solar generated, their parking lot is fit to park a Boeing in, or rather several. But this is still IKEA – which means they don’t happen to have enough kitchen handles so I still have to go back to Ikea next week, a 500km drive all in all.

It turns out that kissing at the DIY outift is not reserved for early morning. At at 11am the nice lady behind the counter with a middle aged and matronly presence became quite coquettish, proffering her cheek to some man who I thought was a co-worker but he could have been a visiting builder. She held her cheek out for a peck for so long that I became embarrassed and began staring at my wiring, finally the guy covered in paint realised and responded appropriately. She then settled the bill for several packs of screws, I jest not.

I swear it is the plumbing though that does it, not the screws. I have spent more on female and male connections of copper piping than I have ever spent on a hand bag. I refuse to resort to the female/male terms which makes my attempts at being understood even more complicated but there is just no way that I am going to start discussing such things at 8.30 am in the morning with the ‘still seriously bad guy’. The result is that to preserve my modesty I am buying all the wrong parts and I am afraid you guys will see me in my copper jacket for yet another five years to make up for the difference. Copper of one sort or another seems to be the pivotal point here.

My personal penchant is for Emeric who works at the very local DIY (only half an hour down the mountain as opposed to 1 hour) – I leave him notes before the start of business requesting bits of wood to be cut up of different sizes. He then leaves them for me on a window ledge and it is all very companionable, particularly when I discover that I have made a mistake for the second time and have to order them all over again. I have told Emile he cannot ruin my street cred by ever visiting this shop where I am regarded as female and helpless and clearly a total joke.  Dear Emeric, he is tanned and weathered with an affable expression and what makes him all the more reassuring is that he is clearly one of those amazing guys who brings you down the mountain when you have broken your leg. No show, just utter competence. I may be entirely wrong, he may run a late night strip bar in the winter but I hope not.

So now I am absolutely sure I have bored the hell out of all of you so I will decamp and hope to get some kip before visiting Emeric at 7.30am for some more bits of wood.  I plan to quiz him about the French work week which is meant to be 35 hrs but he and his pals work something like 50. He looked upset and abashed when I said that the lack of choice on keyhole covers was too socialist by half so this is likely to be an interesting one.

That said re work weeks – they start early but all stop at 12.00 sharp and go and buy a baguette and head home to lunch. After lunch you see fathers pushing their infants along by the side of the lake. Everyone leaves school and is back by 2pm accompanied by the lollipop ladies in fluorescent vests and perfect makeup.  It is infuriating but beautiful.


Sent: Saturday, Jun 19, 2010 at 1:02 PM

Subject: Builders announce they are “Bears”

Dear xyz,

It is “sleeting” at the moment – which could make me miserable as I stare at the back of the dishwasher in all its glorious polystyrene but as it happens I have spent the day cutting wood at 45 degree angles with an amazing saw and so feel incredibly productive and proud of myself. I took some doors off their hinges and applied mirrors after meticulous calculations and serious whiffs of mirror glue.

The bears

At around eleven o’clock the builders announced “Francesca we are like bears today”. I hesitated, fearing the worst, Had they lost all patience with the project and were on the verge of attacking the garbage can or were they about to tear me apart with great claws but it turns out that in Polish this means that they are sleepy and ready for hibernation and this was an oblique way of asking for coffee.

The cows are still miserable and there are some new ones with black with black circles over their eyes.

Dear Emeric was on fine form and cut me some more pieces of wood whilst imparting his own travails doing up a 200yr old chalet in the endless mist.

His boss, a venerable older man was delighted to know I lived in DC – clearly one notch up on being just British. He had been to New York, climbed the twin towers and otherwise his major remark was about US electrical cables and transformer boxes hanging over the street which he simply could not get enough of. I assured him that were he to visit DC not only would he receive a warm welcome but there were plenty more pendulous transformer boxes. He was thrilled.


Sent: Wed, Jun 23, 2010 at 4:17 PM

Subject: A new plumbing part ‘the mamelle’

Dearest xyz – back in saner climes,

It is with relief that I can confirm that the radio is back to normal. Not only did we have a host of cheese aficionados calling in with their recipes but a whole half hour discussion on how to catch rats. All this is punctuated by adverts where a person feigns the s/he would like to give up smoking and is advised that they should call the help line and speak to a dedicated / designated “tobaccologist”.

The guys here do everything with a fag hanging out of one corner of their mouth and an evil grin out of the other – especially when it comes to plumbing parts. Today I saw a new and uncharted plumbing part called a Mamelle – and I don’t think I dare go there. Clearly for their more mother-obsessed moments. Fortunately, despite the fact the flat now has copper intestines fit to sink a ship, I don’t think we will need a mamelle.

Bisoux – or kisses – yes loads of em… whatever the time of day and whether you be a builder or not.


Sent: Sunday, Jun 27, 2010 at 5.51 PM

Subject: Kissing in church and the local brass band

Last week was a serious nightmare and by the end of tomorrow (all things according to plan) I will have driven 1500 km to get the oven of my choosing. This is so seriously ridiculous and un-“ecologique” that I vow never to use the darned thing. I sat this pm watching the setting sun with a glass of wine, some local cheese and the most amazing chutney I have ever tasted.

Again I made my weekly descent down to the valley, hair washed and gleaming, nails scrubbed, J Crew necklace threatening to throttle me, in the expectation of the social event of church and of course my squished eclaire boulangerie “Celine”. I seriously know how it must have felt to have been a goat herd at the turn of the century. The babbling stream, the people, the cafes and bells ringing… little did I expect the town’s regular 5 yr celebration of the parish. A well known local mountaineer had mounted a slide projector on the altar and was making comparisons between earthly and heavenly ascents ending with a very unconvincing picture of a star atop the Matterhorn. The irony is that it must have been a real one. The church was packed – I think everyone was keen to see the mountaineer. We had reached a key and poignant moment about a fellow mountaineer ascending to the light when an enormous fanfare broke out somewhere outside. An older parish dignitary, who paradoxically seemed to have a thick white pony tail, dashed out to stop the local band (Edelweiss – founded in 1950) from playing the Marseillaise – the pretty vocal French national anthem. The whole thing was too much for the band though, they were raring to go so at almost 5 minute intervals it would get going again and someone would go and hush them.

My neighbour in the pew was an older gentleman, with an extraordinarily elegant nose which I could not help observing. He confounded me at the sign of peace by saying that he would not take my hand “je vais vous donnez un bisoux” I was kissed in church by an unknown man who made me feel as though my offer of a hand shake had been positively unseemly. I was immensely relieved when he left early to check out the brass band outside.

Descending to the valley

They were simply great. There were at least 20 big brass instruments, they wore britches with huge mountain socks that contained some certifiable ski legs. They had clearly been working on their routine and had it all choreographed. The mountain river babbled behind. The local Sheriff was there in full regalia looking every bit the part along with the mayor and some older guys with all their WWII pins. A small girl in a muslin pinafore held her rabbit and swayed to the music and in the end was invited to bang each player on the head and they blew their trumpet, trombone, clarinet as though she were playing the piano. They went on to play the Macarena and some other outrageous pop songs about Rasputin and the Russian Queen and then to round things off a rather tall and jester-like character started hopping about flapping his arms and looking at the band with ever increasingly grumpy looks. His band comrades feigned total ignorance as to his meaning.. but at last… I knew this had to come.. I don’t think one can have a French occasion without it – they played the Duck dance. Half the band, with trumpets in full throttle dashed through the crowd waddling like ducks. The crowd, a full compliment of grandmothers holding grandchildren and surreptitious couples, parted gaily. They were then followed in hot pursuit by the other members of the band who gave a very convincing impression of attempting to catch a duck. Now how do I know that it was a good impression? I wondered this as I drove back up the mountain past the grazing cows with bells and the occasional chalet suddenly alive with wood smoke from a Sunday grillade. I think it must be stuck somewhere in my Jungian collective unconscious. I think that is what is called from when I still used the grey matter aloft or maybe the Jungian collective unconscious is stuck in my subconscious and the duck within that. This is beginning to sound like a terrine. Maybe enough for tonight. I listened to Wait Wait dont Tell Me to remind me of home. Intrigued as to recent article in Rock and Roll Mag… not on sale up here.

Cows and bells, solitude and cheese and not a little loneliness,



About InkQuillibrium

Writing for life.
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