Un jardin parisien

Posted in Journal, La France at 23:28

New shovel

“Why is there a shovel on her tile balcony?” you may well be asking. Indeed, a shovel is one of the last things I thought I would be buying in Paris. More precisely, I did not even think about buying a shovel until today, when I went to my favorite furniture store for a fan. They had no fans, but they were having a blowout sale to empty the store for upcoming renovations. Among sale items were some fine heavy-duty steel rakes, hoes, and a single, lonely shovel.

I picked up said fine shovel, which shall no longer be lonely, because in just over a month, I’ll be moving into a new home in the Parisian suburbs! A 55sq.m (nearly 600sq.ft) one-bedroom apartment with a 25sq.m (270sq.ft) garden. Not a terrace nor a patio, though a small part of it is covered and could be considered one, but a genuine garden made of earth. It’s a long-term rental I found through what used to be called 1% logement, but is now ordained Participation des employeurs à l’effort de construction (PEEC). This is a tax paid by employers that funds rent-controlled housing as well as zero-interest loans for purchasing homes/apartments. It takes a bit of time to find a good rental, especially in Paris where housing is in high demand, and you have to go through a government-overseen commission for your application to be finalized.

I first applied in May, rejected three other apartments due to size and location considerations, then this one was offered at the end of June. I jumped at it before even knowing it had a garden. When I visited, it was something of a dream come true. Just one next-door neighbor, a retired woman who also has cats. The garden has a high fence and bushes that climb above it, and gives onto a low-traffic, dead-end street that only serves two apartment buildings. I plan to make sure the cats can’t get so adventurous they go into the street, but it’s reassuring to know that if ever they do, it’s not very dangerous.

The apartment is laid out like a rectangle, if you’ll allow for an old-school ASCII floor plan. Slashes are regular doors and brackets with tildes designate sliding French doors. There are three that give onto the garden, one from every main room:

|            garden                     |
|                                       |
|[ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ]-[ ~ ~ ]-[ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ]|
|                 |       |             |
|   living        |kitchen|   bedroom   |
|    room         |       |             |
|                 |       |             |
|                 |       |  / ---------|
|          |         /____   / _________|
|          | entry  |  WC |    bathroom |
 ------------  /  ----------------------

The commission that approved my application was held this Monday, so the news is recent! I feel a mix of emotions: relief at being able to live in a larger space, happiness at having a garden I’ll be able to work in (the owner lets renters take care of it), and excitement that the cats and I will be in a quiet, clean space near the Seine.

Because yes, on top of having a nice layout in a quiet area, I’m a hop, skip and a jump from the riverbank. I can hardly believe my luck. The only downsides – because every place has a downside, you just need to know what you’re willing to compromise on – are that the building isn’t terribly attractive, being a 2000s example of “concrete squares painted various shades of white” architecture and it’s a ten-minute walk to the nearest train station. But with the Seine so close by, I’ll also be able to ride my bike.

As for my Nice apartment, it still hasn’t sold. French people aren’t big fans of renovated spaces from more than about a decade ago, and my place isn’t in an area where non-French buyers look. It’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however. I’ve always been good at handling my budget, so have managed to keep my head above the water all this time (though occasionally just barely). I’m putting it up for a student rental now, and will fix it up as finances allow. Next summer it will likely be ready for holiday rentals, and I’ll probably put it up for another student rental afterwards. It’s perfect for a young couple, and near university facultés as well as the express bus to Sophia Antipolis for its technical colleges.

I was in Nice this last weekend to clean out more of it. Friends (who are also long-time readers! *waves*) kindly accompanied me to the beach so I could get in a bit of swimming. I hadn’t been in the Mediterranean for a year, so that was lovely.

Nice sunset panorama

Greetings from… sweet-aired Nice

Posted in Nice, Paris, Travel at 17:19

You may have been wondering why I haven’t posted in the last two weeks spent in Paris. The answer is simple: I changed my blog password before leaving, and, naturally, forgot it.

This weekend I’m briefly back home on the Riviera, picking up such necessities as hi-fi speakers and spring-weight blazers. As an unplanned bonus, I am also gulping up as much mimosa-and-sea-scented fresh air as possible.

This last week in Paris was quite literally suffocating. We had terrible air pollution; so bad that for the first time in the history of Paris, public transportation was made entirely free for three days, starting yesterday. This was nice timing for getting to and from my TGVs! This morning I popped into the RER A at La Défense and was at Gare de Lyon fourteen minutes later. For free. Walking through open stiles in Paris city center is an experience I’ll long remember, after years of wrassling with the things whenever visiting.

Kanoko, Susu, and I spent our first week and a half in a cheap apartment-hotel in Courbevoie, at the northwest corner of La Défense. Thanks to friends, I quickly found a furnished apartment nearby! We moved in on Wednesday. The cats took to the new place right away. Both of them had a rough time with the hotel; the tiny, dirty window (grimy even after I tried to sponge it off) drove them a bit stir-crazy, and they huddled under the covers every day. Once in the new apartment, however, they took to their old habits of pigeon-gazing from the French balcony doors, and dozing tummy-up on the vintage couch.

As for me, I spent the first week focused on work, and the second desperately trying to stay healthy while losing my voice, throat, and sinuses to toxic air pollution (100 microns per cubic metre). I didn’t get much sightseeing done – as a result, readers haven’t missed much of my Paris adventure so far!

Before the smog settled in, I took this photo on my morning “commute”, a 15-minute walk to the offices I’m at. You can find a few more photos in my Flickr stream – more will come soon, and now that I have my blog password, they’ll be posted here.

Grande Arche de la Defense

June patio garden

Posted in Gardening at 13:45

Spider nestling in succulent

Entering my fifth year in this apartment, there has been a lot of trial and error discovering which plants are happy to grow on my patio and which aren’t. Facing north, I get a good deal of indirect sunlight, and Nice has a Mediterranean climate, which translates to a lot of humidity, hot summers, and mild winters. Regular shade plants get a bit overwhelmed by the muggy heat, while plants native to the area don’t get enough direct sunlight. Succulents like the one above are quite happy, however, and they have been my steadfast garden companions for years now.

This spring I bought some Asian lily bulbs, since they like tropical sorts of weather and indirect sunlight, and just over a week ago, I decided to risk a storebought orchid, as the plants also do well in this type of climate. My first lily – I planted three bulbs, each has buds now – finally bloomed yesterday, and I’m tickled pink with how beautiful my patio is already. To think, several more blossoms will be coming soon!

Asian Lily


Panther preparing to pounce

Lily and orchid

Living room metamorphoses

Posted in Home improvement, Journal at 11:33

Four years ago, the living room in my newly-purchased apartment was empty and floored with cheap tile.
Living room looking south (before)

I set up what little furniture I had.
Living room, couch nook, after organizing

In December, I was delighted to discover traditional terracotta tomettes beneath the tiles, and started the long floor restoration project.
Uncovering the living room

Once finished with the living room the following June, I had a little more furniture.
Living room looking towards sofa nook

Early 2010, I created a reading nook, repainting the recessed area.
Reading nook, mostly finished

Near the end of 2010 I had finished repainting the main wall, and had the lovely Art Deco couch and chairs set.
Living room from kitchen (1)

I never photographed the PC area, planning for it to be temporary. I wanted to find a nice, good-quality, yet affordable multimedia center that could bring disparate elements together. I browsed every store I could think of, but nothing worked. So it was that I ended up living with a multimedia area looking like this for almost three years.

Then, this April, one of my favorite stores, Habitat, had a big sale on furniture. As always, I checked it out… and this time, found two pieces I liked. The first was a long black multimedia center with three drawers. I put it in the shopping cart, went to check out, and was told it was out of stock. So I went for my second choice, a similarly wide, but taller and, I thought, somewhat clunkier, solid oak piece with straight, squared lines, two doors, and an open shelf. It was half off, making it less expensive than similarly-sized Ikea pieces. Once I had finished putting it together and settled on the best reorganization of elements (I had wanted to put my PC on the shelf, but it was just too large, so I stood it to the side), I could hardly believe how well its color and simple styling went with the rest of the living room. It looks like it was meant to be there.
Living room, May 2012

No more need to hide this side of the living room! You may have noticed that these two recent photos have different coloring than all the previous pictures – before, I used a flash with the kit lens on my Nikon D40 camera. Recently I started using my 30-year-old prime lenses, without flash. Thus the colors are warmer, since there’s no blue flash to override the yellower ambient light.
Living room with new cabinet


Posted in Home improvement at 15:54

Living room from kitchen
It’s taken me two and a half years, but as of today, thanks in part to the long Toussaint (All Saints Day) weekend, my living room is finally in a presentable, almost finished state. The ceiling could definitely use a coat of white paint, and two small walls still need scraped, primed and repainted, but with the main wall done, I was able to move furniture and redecorate as I’ve wanted for a while.

Following is a photo timeline of my living room’s metamorphosis (each small photo is linked to its larger size):

Read the rest of this entry »

Reading nook

Posted in Home improvement, La France at 17:53

Reading nook, mostly finished
I’ve been working on my living room for a year and a half, since finding tomettes beneath the cheap brownish-yellow tile that the previous owners had put down. Not long after I finished renovating the floor, my upstairs neighbor’s pipes burst and flooded my couch nook in July last year. Ever since then, I’ve been working around the damaged nook, painstakingly scraping off the textured paint, something I had wanted to do anyway.

Yesterday I finally finished painting the nook, and was able to move in furniture today, shown above. I chose this blue because it has some depth to it, and it goes well with the burgundy tomettes floor and red touches. I also wanted it to be darker than the rest of the living room, in order to bring it closer visually. For comparison, the nook two years ago, when I bought the apartment. As you can see, the blue also helps the lighting immensely: before, everything had a yellowish tinge to it, but now the area has “truer” colors. Eventually, once I scrape the textured paint off the rest of the living room walls (ugh!), I’ll paint them in a nearly neutral lavender (it’s closer to grey than to purple/pink).

I’m delighted with my art deco chairs and this color scheme. I had considered reupholstering the chairs, but their deep brown goes beautifully with everything. As they say in France, le hasard fait bien les choses ! (“Chance does things well!”)

Priorities, priorities

Posted in Home improvement at 16:28

Almost finished
My apartment has been giving me all sorts of opportunities to work on it lately. After the latest water damage (upstairs neighbor’s bathroom leaking into my living room), I discovered that the textured paint in my apartment could be removed by using a wallpaper glue dissolver. I started removing paint in my entry, since its walls have the least surface area of the rooms in my place. The paint removal went quickly and easily, but I discovered that a floorboard was hiding a shallow but long hole in the wall.

This had several implications: I’d also been removing tile in the entry. With the floorboard out and the wall needing repaired, I realized it would be best to finish taking tile off the floor before patching and painting the wall, in case I ran into any other areas that needed patched. I finally finished that difficult undertaking today, as shown in the photo above! Here it is “finished” (all tile removed). I’m glad to say that only the one floorboard area needs fixed, so I should be able to do that and repaint soon.

As for the entry flooring, I may try to remove the old, grey linoleum and restore the original floor beneath it. Easier, though, would be to find some nice-looking carpet tiles. My main criteria for replacement flooring are removability — no more adhesive! — and ease of trimming to my entry’s odd shapes. A floating parquet could do the job too, but would be harder to trim with the limited tools I have. Carpet tiles would be great since they would do double duty as an entry rug, and would be easily replaceable if/when they get too dirty. After all, my feet aren’t the only ones running around on it — my cats love to sleep in the entry, since the building’s heating pipes run under it before reaching my radiators and going to the rest of the building.

Then there’s still the living room! I started removing paint in the damaged nook first, since I’d like to paint it a darker, complementary color to the one I’ll be using for my living room. That way I can finish it first, then move furniture into it to make repainting the ceiling easier. Then I get to tackle painting the ceiling, removing paint from the rest of the walls in my place, then repainting those! And I still have to finish removing tile from the kitchen area. It’s nice to be making progress in the entry though, since it feels better to come home to a tidy entry.

More fun with water

Posted in La France at 12:32

Water damage (living room)
Yesterday I went to Nice’s city center to shop our summer sales, then buy groceries for the week. After finding some clothes and DVDs, I went home. As I walked into our building entry, my upstairs neighbor’s middle son asked me whether I knew how to turn off the building’s water, since they had a leak. “You should have a cutoff for your apartment,” I offered helpfully, “I have one in mine.” “We don’t, or we can’t find it,” he said worriedly. “Where’s your leak?” I asked. “In our bathroom… a pipe beneath the bathtub blew out…” Suddenly I realized I was probably being inundated. I ran downstairs, opened my door, and sure enough, there was water streaming down my walls, as you can see here. I moved the stereo and computer away — luckily the wood table over my PC had protected it, and only my stereo and the tabletop were wet. Then I took the photo you see here.

The neighbor’s son and I went into the building’s plumbing and heating room, but couldn’t find which valve to turn; there were nearly a dozen. I shoved the Pages Jaunes (French Yellow Pages) into his hands, since he didn’t know any plumbers, and told him to find one and call them. Then I ran back into my apartment to save more things and strategically place buckets to catch the rainfall from the ceiling.

Thankfully, my neighbor across the hall got home a few minutes later. “Bonsoir !” I said quickly, then “do you know where the building’s water supply cutoff is?? A pipe burst and we can’t find the valve, meanwhile my apartment’s turning into a lake!!” He showed me which valve to turn. It was in a small back chamber of the plumbing room, which was black with age and entirely dark. Once the building’s pipes had emptied most of their remaining water, the rainfall in my apartment subsided to intermittent dripping. Mission accomplished — and now our whole building was without running water.

A plumber, drunk, finally showed up two hours later. Diagnosis: the pipe that had burst in my upstairs neighbors’ apartment was part of the building’s main line. We don’t know when it will be able to be repaired; it’s made of copper, which erodes with age and hard water. Probably all of the building’s pipes need to be replaced — as a matter of fact, two weeks ago I had noticed micro-leaks in pipes that run through my WC, which I’d reported to our building management and my insurance. (French homeowner rule #1: never trust a syndic — building management.) We told the drunk plumber to go home for the evening since he could do no more, and I called another plumber, the one who looked at my shower last year. He doesn’t work weekends, so I had to leave a message, and we won’t know anything more until tomorrow. My living room looks like this, and my bedroom was affected too. The good news being that nothing else was damaged, and I’ll likely have both rooms repainted by my homeowner’s insurance.

I did get to see my upstairs neighbors’ apartment. It’s about 60 square meters (645 square feet), two bedrooms, one bath, separate WC, living room, and separate kitchen. Six people live in it. Two adults, their three sons, and their eldest son’s daughter. It’s not unheard of here, since real estate prices are so high, but it was the first time I’d ever witnessed such living arrangements myself. It humbled me, having 45 square meters (480 square feet) all to myself. I certainly don’t look at my place with the same eyes as before.

On a related note, this MetaFilter post led me to a wonderful site about communal living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life. Once you’ve chosen your language, you may need to set your video options, which can be done with the “Options” tab on the right there. It’s fascinating. Apartment buildings in France weren’t too different up until the mid-20th century. Although apartments themselves were private, not many had their own toilets, which were shared, one on each floor depending on the building’s size. This is why my own WC is so small — originally, there was only the bathroom; the WC was put in later, its size minimized to save space.

New building interior

Posted in Home improvement, Journal at 15:10

My front door, after
In January, we copropriétaires (owners of apartments in our building) voted to redo our building’s sad interior. The exterior had been redone just before I moved in, which was a major selling point for me — un ravalement de façade (façade cleaning, renovation and repainting) is very expensive, but doesn’t need to be done often. As for bargaining points, I was able to lower the price thanks to the electrical hiccups along with the downright ugly state of my entrance and the rest of the building’s interior.

It looks so much better now, it’s incredible. I’ve done a couple other small DIY projects inside my place too, putting a glass shelf in my bathroom and, today, getting a new light fixture for the kitchen. With our big summer sales on now, it was half off at Habitat, which always has nice quality light fixtures. I was very glad to replace the flimsy old wood fixture when I took it out and realized that the previous owners — them again — had bolted the fixture directly into the electrical wire hole. As in, they had drilled a metal screw into the same hole as the electrical wires, using a wood light fixture.

I admit I’m increasingly tempted to call them up and tell them never to touch anything electrical ever again in their lives, because every single electrical fixture they’ve done has been a fire hazard. Not to mention the shower (they built a tile-bottomed shower without waterproofing the bottom) and water heater. Water heaters are supposed to be hung on load-bearing walls. The previous owners hung it on a cheap partition wall. And only used one bracket instead of two. Brilliant. I noticed the water heater issue when I first visited; it will be fixed along with the shower once I can afford all that in a few months, which I’m really looking forward to.

Progress on tomettes

Posted in Home improvement, La France, Nice at 09:49

Living room looking towards sofa nook

I’ve continued restoring the original tomettes, traditional southern French terracotta tiles I discovered (and uncovered) in December. As a reminder, this is what the living room looked like before, while this photo shows the tile adhesive I had to remove.

The photo above, tomettes now clean, shows how the sofa nook looks now, and here’s the other half of the living room. Last Sunday I decided to test my theory about a heavy-duty cleaner (décapant in French) that I had used before and that didn’t work so well. Instead of diluting it as recommended, I added only half the amount of water prescribed, making it more concentrated. This worked nicely, and I was able to scrape off tile adhesive residue very quickly. About two-thirds of the living room still needed adhesive scoured off — I finished it all that same day!

What most surprises me is that the floor is in such good shape. The apartment building dates from 1953, so the tomettes are 56 years old, and yet only one of them has serious damage. The rest were so well cared-for that even after being tiled over, then having that tile removed, and being scoured, scraped and treated with a chemical cleaner, they still shine! My apartment has only had two owners before me, with the previous owners having bought four years ago and putting in the tile when they arrived, so it would seem that the original owner truly cared for the terracotta floor.

Some thin spots of residue still need to be scrubbed off with a regular scouring pad, but that should go quickly. After that, all that remains is to seal and wax the floor. Easier said than done since with the furniture, I’ll only be able to do half at a time. And will need to keep kitties from exploring the floor while it’s worked on. They behaved surprisingly well with the ammonia-based cleaner, never once touching it — I’m assuming because it smelled bad.