Saturday, 8 August 2015

Living in the past

I've moved from a modern light-filled apartment in a town to a 36 year-old sombre house in the rural countryside and it's full of surprises from the long-gone past. Houses in France tend not to have any storage at all built in; no cupboards or wardrobes unless it's a very modern building, and even then...

My small personal items that I use each day need somewhere to sit and now they are sitting somewhere hundreds of years old. This week I was reminded that it's the 300th anniversary of the death of Louis XIV the Sun King (5 September 1638 – 1 September 1715); he who built Versailles, aqueducts, waged wars and certainly contributed to the grandeur and prestige France enjoyed for a while.

How odd that my binders and folders, cables and printing paper should find themselves housed in a wardrobe from the beginning of his era (or even the end of his father's - Louis XIII). The planks don't fit together now without cracks but it has all its original  hinges, key, doors. There's a crack in one front door where the Nazis tried to break into it looking for loot. The wardrobe sits beside my desk, oozing history, and I wish I could rewind its story and see all its experiences through the ages. It comes from JC's father's side of the family.

If I look across to the doorway I see something else of historical value. It's a Directorate chair. The Directory was the government of France during the penultimate stage of the French Revolution, administered by a collective leadership of five. It lasted from 2 November 1795 until 10 November 1799, a period commonly known as the "Directory era." It was overthrown by Napoleon. This chair is in good order and is often draped with my cell phone or computer bag.

My books and what's left of my Lord of the Rings figurines are tucked away in an old bibliotheque (bookcase).

The bedroom with my furniture in it contains a wardrobe from the era of King Louis-Philippe (6 October 1773 – 26 August 1850). During this era my French ancestors settled Akaroa, Banks Peninsula - the one and only French settlement of NZ. They arrived in 1840 but would not have been wealthy enough to have had a wardrobe of this quality. It's now full of DVDs and photo albums.

It's all a bit odd having my modern stuff juxtaposed with these historic, antique items. JC's used to having such items - things handed down, things he has bought. One of his ancestors fought in Napoleon's army - there's an ancient 'certificate' to prove it. His house is full of other stuff from the ages of Kings and Empires and I supposed this might still be common in French homes, at least the traditional ones. But no. JC says it's rare now. Most folks in the past had stuff of lesser quality that didn't last. Newer generations wanted belongings that were contemporary. French families are still relatively large and so goods get split between many inheritors.

It didn't take more than a day to get used to living amongst antiques. I enjoy history and it's cool to imagine the stories that could be behind each piece of furniture.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


Ever felt like you are being shunted from behind by a Terminator in a big rig? There you are on your motorbike, looking behind and seeing the behemoth bearing down on you. Suddenly you are hit from behind with such unstoppable force - pushed onto a trajectory you cannot control. That Terminator in the truck controls your fate but you can't make out its features. It's been after you for a long time, edging ever closer. Sounds melodramatic? Not for many people, including me. It's an apt analogy for what continues to happen. FATE; change of life, tighter restrictions, fewer options and no matter what I do I can't stop this process; it's driven by something exterior.

A little over three weeks ago I was obliged (through employment circumstances) to tell my landlord I had to move out. I gave the requisite three months notice thinking I might have at least a couple of months to sell my furniture, enjoy the last of my home and independence. Wrong! I had exactly three WEEKS. Yes, it's all over, done and dusted folks. Last weekend I moved into Jean-Claude's home. I have most of 1.5 rooms upstairs. I've been lucky; he decided to throw out his very old bedroom furniture upstairs which made space for mine. This is great because it has meant I can have a bit of my own surroundings and a place to work. From the rest of the house you wouldn't know I was there.

Why the rush? JC explained that otherwise I'd be moving during the long summer holidays and nothing 'moves' during that time. Everyone is off work so all of August would be impossible and I'd be back at work in September. If I wanted to hire a truck and some strong guys I'd have to do it now.

It's been distressing to be so rushed and JC kept trying to push me forward, saying I had no choice. He was very helpful of course in providing boxes and tape and carting stuff to our cars and putting my small stuff in his garage attic. The real problem was my furniture. I loved my modest furniture and worried about what might happen if I found myself without a roof over my head in the future and no money to buy stuff all over again. JC's attitude softened a bit over the weeks and he put in effort to find someone cheap to move me. He had to dismantle some things like my table and chairs and store them. It wasn't possible to sell them in time.

There are no garage sales in France. Le Bon Coin (internet site for second-hand stuff) seems to have prices worse than Trade Me and I didn't have time to manage that process, nor the language skills. I made flyers and put them in the letterboxes down my street. I got one 'bite'. Two ladies bought a china/book cabinet and my buffet. Hang on - not so easy!

As is often the case with furniture in France, it is not moved assembled so you have to break it all down into its component pieces and reassemble it at the other location. This meant JC had to spend time dismantling before the buyers could take it away. Furniture held together with nails is a nightmare - things inevitably become damaged. Screws are easier but it's fraught each time you move. With some items of furniture it is impossible to do this without several strong men to help, as in the case of an armoire (wardrobe). You have to have professional-type tools and plenty of experience with furniture - quite beyond my capabilities.

All these moves have taken a toll on some of my most fragile and precious items, especially my Lord of the Rings figurines, despite taking great care. Gimli had his pigtail broken off, Legolas's bow has two breaks and an arrow is broken off, Aragorn's ring finger is hanging by a thin wire, an orc has lost part of his skirt. Most upsetting.

JC's housekeeper found buyers for the fridge, microwave, clothes dryer and single bed. I needed money to pay for the move so I'm grateful that covered the costs. However, JC's loft and garage still contain some large items like the washing machine, dishwasher, another china cabinet/bookcase and we don't know what to do about that. My stuff was almost new. I was lucky to get 40% for any item so I've written the stuff off in my head.

I found this move the most distressing of any I've done (a great many) because it was so rushed, the furniture and appliances needed to go, the furniture needed dismantling and I'd lost my ability to have a life/environment of my own. I'm trying to adjust though I can't change my heart and my nature. I'm now busy wading through the government and private organisations I need to advise of my change of address. Some work well, for instance the site where you can change details for your car ownership, taxes, social security all in one go.

There's naturally the stress of switching to living as a couple though it's not strictly 'conventional'. There have been some sticky moments and there's lots of negotiation and compromise and tolerance required, especially in these senior years. JC has lived alone for 15 years at least (though always with women in his life)  and I'd adapted well to my independent lifestyle where no one told me how things had to be done or organised. The awkwardness will pass and we'll settle into a routine. It's only been a week. He's gone out of his way to help me settle in as fast as possible by setting up my desk, TV and stereo and I've made him a courgette and leek tart to help him feel at ease.

Photos of my old (modern) life in France before the steamroller arrived. 
Next post - my new antique environment.