And now, the kitchen

Posted in Home improvement at 18:18

This year will be my sixth in my apartment. It’s been slow going to fix it up, but every time I tackle a new project and photograph it, I’m reminded by my home improvement photoset that it has come a very long way. The bedroom, living room and entry are only recognizable by their shapes now. It’s also nice encouragement: whenever I feel like it’s just never going to be done, I can see proof that, with time and dedication, a place can change a great deal.

This was the dining and kitchen area (behind the corner on the left) from the 2006 real estate ad. (I purchased the apartment in 2007, after it had been on the market for a year.) If you look closely, you can also see a former feline resident:

Real estate photo of dining and kitchen area

I removed the yellow-brown tile in the living room, and restored the original tomettes, as well as having to remove an extra layer of linoleum in the entryway, where the original floor is marble aggregate. I stopped at the kitchen after two years of work on floors in the other rooms. After the kitchen water damage this autumn, and with holidays now, I finally started on it today.

I had removed a line of tile adhesive and uncovered what I thought were more tomettes, due to dark red I could see through it. As chance would have it, what I had actually uncovered was the dark red underside of a piece of laminate flooring. Yes, the previous owners laid tile over cheap laminate, without glue. It was held in place by filler between the pieces of laminate. Due being stuck between tile and a ground floor, the laminate had also rotted over time. It stank when I reached it.

The upside is that it made removing the tile much easier. I’m about a quarter of the way finished with my kitchen floor already, and discovered the original:


In the photo on the left, with Sir Furry-Britches, you can see the lone piece of laminate flooring turned upside down that fooled me into thinking I would find tomettes. In the photo on the right, I had removed more tile, taken out the rotten laminate, and uncovered a bit of the linoleum beneath the tile and laminate layers. The dark spot shows the original floor: marble aggregate, like the entryway! It’s relatively easy to restore, and should be a great kitchen floor. I just hope it’s undamaged.

Minimalist media center

Posted in Home improvement at 19:19

Minimalist media center

I do still geek around the house! After 13 years of mediocre sound systems, I finally treated myself to a new amplifier, a Pioneer A-20-S. As my apartment is rather small, I don’t need anything more powerful than 50W, and once I plugged it in – to the same old speakers I’d had for 6 years – the clarity and range brought tears to my eyes. I grew up with a nice old amp, and studied music for decades, so hearing detail I hadn’t in my favorite songs, was wonderful.

The only drawback was that with just an amp, I had to play music through my PC, which, as quiet as it is, is not silent. I started out trying to see if the multimedia element of my Freebox V5 would work as a media center, but it truly is meant as a TV receiver: sound would only go out one port, and it required the remote control to work via on-screen menus. In other words, if I had it hooked up to my monitor, sound would go out the HDMI port, not any others. If I hooked it up to my stereo, I wasn’t able to use the box, since I couldn’t see what the remote was doing. So I packed it back up and began pondering how I could create a small, silent, economical media center.

Finally I remembered the Raspberry Pi, a minimal, yet powerful, board built for educational purposes. Sure enough, there were a few options for turning one into a media center. All I needed was a USB external hard drive, which after all these years, I still hadn’t bought. As luck would have it, the Fnac (a big home electronics, photography and book store here) had a “flash” sale on a very nice LaCie drive, so I picked it up and started planning the media center.

In the end, I have the setup you see here! Elements I already had were:
– A monitor. Mine can use multiple inputs, so I have my PC hooked up to its DVI port and the Raspberry Pi to its HDMI port. (The graphics on the little Pi are very impressive.)
– The Pioneer amp, and speakers. Since the amp can also use multiple inputs, I have my PC hooked up to its AUX and the Pi hooked up to its Network inputs.
– An Archos 43 internet tablet running Android. I hoped to be able to use it as a network interface so that I could play music without necessarily having to turn on the monitor, for instance.
– The Freebox, which has a WiFi transmitter (my Archos could connect to that) and 4 Ethernet ports. My PC is hooked up to one, the Pi to another, my laptop uses a third, and the fourth is still free.
– The USB 3.0 external hard drive, to hold my music library (FLAC files ripped from my CDs)
– Ethernet, HDMI, USB and micro-USB cables

Elements I purchased, downloaded, and set up:
– Raspberry Pi model B + basic white case + SD card with the Pi Debian port on it, just in case.
– USB 3.0 hub with its own power supply, since the Pi isn’t powerful enough to run the hard drive. This cost nearly as much as the Pi, since it’s a newer standard. It’s much faster than USB 2.0, however, so I didn’t mind – and we’re only talking twenty-odd euros!
OpenELEC for the Raspberry Pi, on a separate SD card. This is the Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center that runs XBMC, a clean, UPnP-enabled (networked) media center. Free. Took ten minutes to install, another fifteen to set up. Works like a charm.
Yatse XBMC remote for my Android tablet.

You can see everything in the photo up at top! Clicking through to the Flickr photo will let you mouse over the photo and see specific notes, if curious. I’m delighted with it. The Yatse remote was as easy as knowing the XBMC instance’s IP address, and I can even turn my monitor off and view my music library from its interface. The Pi is completely silent, its sound very nearly as good as my PC’s. My PC has a nice Behringer USB interface that’s crystal clear, whereas the Pi is putting sound through its 3.5mm analog jack. I only have an old 3.5mm – RCA cable, so probably all I need to do is replace it with a better, gold-plated one and I’ll be fine. The Behringer interface doesn’t work on the Pi, unfortunately, but it’s nice to be able to switch sound inputs easily with the Pioneer amp’s remote, rather than having to plug in the PC or the Pi each time I change.

So there you have it! A minimalist media center, responsive and silent, as well as ecological since it uses very little power, all for 80-odd euros (Raspberry Pi + case + SD card + USB hub).


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 »

Spring in my bit of Nice

Posted in Gardening, Nice at 13:55

Patio, end of April

After an interminable winter of rain — and I say that as a native Oregonian who enjoys the rain! — the sun has finally begun to emerge from the clouds, and plants are finally growing. Ever since October we’ve had dark, windy, rainy, and even snowy weather the likes of which no one has seen in living memory. It was so dark that my daffodils and irises never bloomed; so much colder than usual that seeds that typically sprout in March have only begun to grow just now. And yet we’re still getting rain every day, with very rare exceptions. (Every. Single. Day.)

This winter I bought a few pumpkins to make pumpkin soup. With the last two, I realized that since they were organic, I could try planting their seeds. I figured that only some of them would sprout… well, all of them have! And I planted four! What am I going to do with four full-size pumpkin plants? For now I’ve repotted two of the seedlings in a planter; the other two are already in pots that should keep them happy for another month or so. Provençal pepper seeds I planted a month ago have just begun to sprout as well, and I’m looking forward to tasting them in autumn.

Renovation on my apartment is continuing too. I started pulling up linoleum in the entry last week, and have nearly finished. It will be nice to have an entry no longer in a state of flux.

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!”)

Creative down time

Posted in Crafts, La France at 17:58

Frame loom, with cat        Inkle loom in progress
I haven’t been feeling well lately. As often happens when I have time off, especially when ill, for some reason, I’ve been bitten by a creativity bug. In childhood I had a Brio loom with which I made a few weaving projects that are still around today. For a while now, I had wanted to try weaving again, but looms are rather expensive, so I set aside the idea. Nonetheless, the desire to weave kept returning, and as I’ve been resting these past few days, it hit me that I could always make my own simple looms to start out with.

Shown above, on the left is a frame loom I built yesterday. Frame looms are among the oldest type of loom, with their predecessor the back strap loom. Frame and back strap looms are still used to weave tapestries throughout the world. On the right is an inkle loom, still in progress. Inkle looms are used to create woven belts and other narrow bands. I had to make my own weaving tools as well — shown in that linked photo are heddle sticks, sheds, and a makeshift shuttle.

As you can see, there’s not much complexity to these! Here are the supplies I bought to make them:

  • One 2cm x 6cm piece of fir, 2m long (“stud” is tasseau in French)
  • One 2cm x 3.5cm piece of fir, 2m long
  • One 12mm-diameter beech dowel, 1m long, for the inkle loom dowels (“dowel” is tourillon)
  • One 15mm-diameter beech dowel, 1m long, for the heddle sticks
  • One 6mm x 3.5cm piece of simple pine molding with two rounded edges for the sheds, 2.4m long (this is a champlat)
  • 1/4 litre of clear wood varnish to finish the pieces
  • (I already had a hammer, handsaw, nails, and a chisel, so haven’t counted those in the total)

Total price: 38 euros, of which the varnish was 11, so 27 euros for the wood alone.

Just for the fun of it, here’s some weaving vocabulary in French:
to weave (verb): tisser
weaving (noun): tissage
loom: métier à tisser
frame loom: métier à tapisserie (tapisserie means “tapestry”)
inkle loom: métier à ceintures (ceinture means “belt”)
heddle: lisse
shed: foule
shuttle: navette
beater: battoir
warp: chaîne
weft: trame, which gave the French saying “j’ai perdu la trame”, meaning someone’s “lost the thread of thought”.

Repainted entry

Posted in Home improvement at 20:07

Entry, after
After the preparation mentioned in my previous post, today I was finally able to tackle painting my entry. Above is the nearly-finished product!

There is still more to do. The entry was done oddly by the previous owners, leaving a strange section to fill in above the WC door. I also need to get better-quality paint brushes in order to finish smaller areas where a roller won’t work. The cheap brushes I had worked all right for the primer, but left enough marks that I’d rather wait to buy nicer ones before putting on the finishing blue coat.

I’m very happy with how the main wall looks now. To think, it used to look like this: entry in May 2009, before I’d started removing tile and the textured paint. The main wall looked like this with the textured paint off.

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.

Table restoration

Posted in Home improvement, La France at 20:38

Louis XV table, in progress
A year and a half ago, I fell in love with an antique oak dining table in a secondhand store. Originally it was too expensive, but a month later, the price had fallen to one I could afford — no one wanted its black patina and slight damage. When I cheerily told the secondhand store owner I wanted to buy it, he sighed and said he was sorry about the damage, but that I could always paint over it. I said “oh non, jamais je la peindrais ! Ce n’est pas profond, je vais la poncer.” (“Oh no, I’d never paint it! It’s not deep, I’ll sand it.”) The owner looked at me and smiled, “c’est bien, c’est mieux comme ça.” (“That’s good, it’s better that way.”)

Thanks to a short visit by building management yesterday that required me to take the day off (to document the water damage from two months ago), I had plenty of extra time to do a project. Off to the home improvement store I went, to buy sandpaper and beeswax to redo my dining table. I’d long been ruminating how to restore it, and decided that sanding it by hand would be better than mechanically, since I only wanted to take the patina off and keep some of the table’s history, rather than erase all trace of previous usage. I’d settled on a beeswax finish for several reasons, mainly that oils don’t age well — indeed, linseed oil, which was used often in France (and still is), turns black with age, so it’s quite possible my oak table had been treated with it. Beeswax brings out the natural color of wood, doesn’t cause a patina, and still protects well. Paint and colored varnish were entirely out of the question, since I wanted to keep the table’s character.

Once home I started sanding with nothing more than sandpaper and my hands. The oak’s natural coloring, as shown above, was beautiful, and I was delighted at how the artisan had chosen the different grains for the border and Versailles-style top. It made me feel much better about taking off the patina, since once sanded, it was clear that this was a table whose woodwork was a work of art in and of itself, meant to be seen.

I applied two coats of beeswax (waiting two hours between them), let the table sit all night, then photographed it the next morning. The finished table: from the damaged end (showing how I didn’t sand out damage entirely), a photo with better lighting, and finally, with both extensions out. The beeswax really brought out the oak’s gorgeous coloring.

In a stroke of synchronicity, on my way home from work this evening, I passed an antique store with old books on sale. One of them was a 1967 home improvement book that I picked up as soon as I saw its instructions for reupholstering Louis XIV chairs. It also described some French furniture styles, which finally helped me ID my table, thanks in large part to the very typical legs for its style: it’s a Louis XV, also known as rococo. At home, I made my usual visit to the ApartmentTherapy site, where they had… a retrospect on Louis XV / rococo! I see rococo-style couches all the time in secondhand stores here, and now that I realize they’re from the same period as my dining table, I may well get one!

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.