Category Archives: home & garden

A Beautiful Day for a Stroll in the Garden

I’m just going to post pics of the lovely Jardin des Martels. We spent hours wandering the many gardens, including water gardens and an animal farm.

Welcomed by dancing water.

Welcomed by dancing water.

Yellow fall color is strong against fading purple blooms.

Yellow fall color is strong against fading purple blooms.

Purple surviving in the shade. This palette really seems French to me!

Purple surviving in the shade. This palette really seems French to me!

I offer more garden photos here, to reduce the homepage load time, a little anyway:

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Permanent Decor?

When you move and leave a home, what do you remove from the home and take with you? Furniture, obviously. But curtains? Curtain fixtures? I’ve moved in to homes where previous residents had left one or both of these, or neither. Appliances are another variable. But anything more, let’s say, affixed? What do you expect to find already in a home before you move in?

How about light fixtures?

The lonely bare bulb found in most rooms, although some do protrude from the wall.

I confess this surprised me…that most folks take ceiling light fixtures with them when they go, just like most curtains. At the stores, you can buy ceiling light fixtures like you would expect in the states, that have to be seriously attached to the ceiling, right? But you can also buy these, well, ceiling light SHADES  of sorts, that are a much less permanent feature. But either way, you can always wire a fixture in: kits to do so abound. We went with that semi-permanent option in the bedroom:

Where once dangled a single naked bulb, now hangs a neatly dressed one!

Of course, we have no reason to take this fixture with us, so as long as the next residents don’t opt for a different style choice, it will continue to grace this ceiling. The window treatment will go with me, though. (wink) These are sheets from a daily calendar of art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, pieces that really connect with me. I will also take the French-acquired quilt set.

Our American quilt proved to be much too big for a French bed.

I confess to having bought this quilt at our ville’s Sunday market. I paid more than if I had gotten one from IKEA or eLeclerc, but the smiling French woman with almost no English with her booth beside the vegetables and the sausages and the rotisserie chickens was too delightful to pass up. This ensemble made my day! (And WAS cheaper than the one I had been eyeing at Maisons du Monde.) Even if I don’t use it on a bed in Kansas, I will still wrap up in it in all those awful winters!


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Fall Tradeoffs

Back in Kansas, we had become accustomed to some pretty dramatic fall displays. Sure, it was no New England, but especially compared to mild Texas, the colors were dramatic. (Georgia actually gave us the best of both worlds: striking color and mild winters).

Here, fall has arrived, but more like central California. I am hoping this temperate autumn and mostly green surroundings will mean winter isn’t bad at all. And you can still find signs of fall…

The scene from my living room window. The warm yellow of that neighbor makes my day on sunny mornings!

A typical French cyclist along the avenue.

These are the most abundant fall color.

There’s a little yellow out there, too. See how all the tips are turning yellow?

The flowers planted along the streets are actually doing better now that it’s fall, also reminiscent of central California.

It’s the cloudy season, apparently. I’m getting juuuuust enough sunshine to get me through each week. If I don’t have to hibernate away my winter with blue extremities, I’ll call it a good trade.


Filed under France, home & garden

Baking American-style in France

Folks, the French know how to bake. They make melt-in-your-mouth croissants, and these beautiful tarts, and chocolate cakes with barely enough flour to keep them standing up, and sponge-like cakes with airy stiffness. I have no shortage of desserts to tempt me. Strangely enough, though, sometimes I get homesick for American baked goods. Chocolate chip cookies with tender insides, cupcakes with a certain moist denseness, and frosting. And pie; not tarts, but real pie.

It’s at these times I feel led to try baking at home. I say “try,” because some seriously fundamental differences in ingredients lead to constant surprises in the kitchen. I’m learning, though! My best tutor has been this gentleman, David Lebovitz, who has done much of the experimenting on ingredients for me. This post alone solved my problem with cookies that spread way too thin, and turn out crispy and bubbly whatever I do (I know what flour to buy, now!).

This time I wanted to try for chocolate chip cookies. I haven’t found the sticky brown sugar David talks about, so I creamed the granular brown that I found. It seemed to work ok.

I don’t have even a handmixer at the moment, so I try creaming the butter and sugar with a pastry cutter. Works for cookies.

Like most eggs in the US are white, most eggs in France are brown, and with rich yellow centers.

The chocolate chips here are pepites, and quite small, and shiny, and not really like Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips. So we go for chocolate chunk cookies instead. France has long aisles of chocolate bars, many of which are not unlike a thin bar of baking chocolate in the States.

Chopping our own chunks of chocolate.

Hand-mixed cookie dough…looks good, but…

I learned from David that I need to be using the bio type 65 flour, and it definitely helps. But I think it is still lighter than US flour, and I think my butter choice was wetter than US butter (there are as many choices on butter here as there are on flour–trés confusing), so the first batch needed some tweaking.

Still too thin and spread-y. However, there is none of that bubbly-crisp thing the cookies had been doing.

The tweak here was merely the addition of more flour. The results:

Note the greater puff in this batch.

Voila! Finally a passably American batch of chocolate chunk cookies! The best ones had pecans added. They were lightly crisp on the outside, but soft-crumbliness on the inside, without being fall-apart crumbly. YUM!

My most recent experimenting was with molasses bran muffins. You open the molasses here (a challenging treasure to find as it is) and go WHOA! Now there is some stiff molasses, blacker than blackstrap. Next time, we will mix with a little honey. They turned out tasty, though, with both a chocolate chip AND a chocolate chip pumpkin version. This flour is definitely more workable for me!

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This is my living room, or salon.

Flexibility is so important in small homes. The bench can also be moved to the dining table if we add the leaf, or move in front of the tv to accommodate a larger conversation group. In this location it serves as a side table. I have plans for the future here, too. For fun, I’d love to echo some of the Van Gogh in acrylic on the cabinet doors of the secretary. It would be fun to play with that space! I also plan to paint a Scripture verse on some large format mid-weight paper I have,  to hang on the fireplace.

The sofa makes into a double bed, for those who would like to come stay awhile. The extra bedroom upstairs, with a window looking out onto the sunrise each morning, will eventually have a single bed and a trundle for my daughters’ visits, but until then I can still put up guests here. I wanted a yellow pillow to echo the moon in the Starry Night, but inexplicably, there is just NO living room yellow in all my part of France. Yellow must not be an “in” color at all. I found these plaid dinner napkins and made my own pillow, but they wrinkle terribly. Other than that, it makes a perfect pillow.

Stoney’s chair is SO red. Someday I may grab some fabric paint, and if it tests soft and flexible enough, add some blue and tan stripes to this cushion. A little red goes a long way.

So, friends and family, who would like to make reservations?


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With walls all block and plaster, and ceramic tile floors, much of our home is an echo chamber. The acoustics really are terrible, even if the light when the sun pours in is heaven itself. So I am doing whatever I can to break up the hard surfaces with soft, sound-absorbent ANYthings.

When I opened the IKEA table box and found two large cardboard panels, I snagged them for the walls.

Big blank “canvas”

They are in the process of becoming art large and lightweight enough to break up the wall, but cheap enough I can toss them in the trash when we go home. I decided to go all O’Keefe and paint big flowers. But first I had to get the cardboard surface prepped for painting. This turned out to be tougher than you’d think. While the big supermarchés here have art supplies, they are basic. No gesso. And I cannot for my LIFE locate an art supply store in Toulouse. There must be one, but so far it eludes me. But I decided that much gesso for cheap cardboard is probably overkill on the expense anyway. It only has to last a few years, right?

spray paint to the rescue…sort of

The next step was to sketch in my flower. I had a photo reference for a poppy that I used. I also blocked in the highlights, even though in acrylic you would normally work dark to light. The white spray paint had given me a ground to work on and greatly lightened the cardboard, but it still wasn’t white.

The flower takes shape.

I then blocked in the background in a medium yellow wash, and painted myself a poppy. However, I lost sight of how jarring the crimson’s complement, green,  would be right up against it. It became an electric green at the center of the flower, so I washed it with the pale terra cotta I had used to wash the background.

disposable wall art

So my question to you all is, is the poppy’s center still too jarring? I’ll show it on the wall in its intended home, but please let me know if you think I should neutralize the center green still more. Does it grab your eye more than the red poppy, pulling it away from the petals?

The poppy, drawing on the colors in the room.


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The Genesis of a Craving Satisfied

Lately I’ve been craving…scones. Not biscuits, mind you, which are certainly wonderful in their flakey, fluffy soda-y-ness. Scones. I think it may be the result of the infusion of British accents several times a week: English, Irish, and New Zealanders.

So anyway, Theo and I gave in yesterday and baked up a batch, but kind of like my grandmother would have made, had she ever made scones, which I doubt. It’s the French ingredients, see. We started with my basic scone recipe, American-style, which means the measurements are by volume, not weight. European recipes mostly don’t use cups and teaspoons, but I brought my own kitchen measuring devices.

Whipped cream melting off my fresh-from-the-oven scone.

So…we mixed three cups flour (and I finally found some I am SURE is the equivalent of all-purpose), some salt, 5 teaspoons of baking powder (lavure chimique), and 1/2 cup of sugar together, and cut in my best guess of a 1/2 cup of butter. I can’t eyeball a stick, because butter comes in these rectangular slabs. And they are marked by the gram, not the tablespoon, not the fraction of a cup. I felt I was totally channeling my grandma, watching the texture of the dough, trying to get something almost like coarse sand, rather than tapoica, like I would for pie. Theo beat an egg into a cup of cream (the tiny little bottle of cream is actually creme entiere, which is one of several kinds of little bottles with the word creme on them, and was my best guess to be heavy cream), and we barely worked that into our dough.

We had decided on cinnamon scones, so I shook a pile of, I dunno, maybe a half teaspoon of cinnamon on the dough, then barely worked that in as well. This dough was turned onto a floured surface, and we put another half teaspoonful on the dough, floured the top, and folded the dough about four times. You really do NOT want to work the dough too much; the scones lose their tenderness. Also, the goal with the cinnamon is that some works through the whole dough, but some kind of clusters through it in ribbons.

We cut this dough pile in half, shaped the two halves into circles, then cut each into quarters. These were placed on an oiled cookie sheet and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar. We baked them at 400 degrees F, which turns out to be 200 degrees C. I’m slowly adjusting to that French oven! I watched them closely, and it took about 10 minutes. I think they may be the best I’ve ever made.

I’m actually drooling again just looking!

It was amazing with a double cafe from my Senseo. And this morning Stoney and I chopped ripe French peaches (which are always amazing) and topped the scones with those. Crisp on the outside, tender inside, and just sweet enough. It’s enough to give you a British accent of your own!


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Making Your Happy Place

Anytime I set up digs in a new place, I have to find ways to make a physical house feel like a home, a place where I and my family belong, as quickly as possible. While this, of course, happens naturally with time, it is better if you can begin to feel that sense of connectedness to a place, that “home-iness,” soon after moving in. It helps overcome the strangeness of everywhere else.

For me, it is a very visual thing. I have nooks now where my heart feels lighter just seeing them. Before these places were established, I really had no sense of comfort here, but now I have heart touchstones in my home.

Happy Place #1:

Happy daughters! happy me!

Obviously, seeing my beautiful daughters every day lights up my heart, but it doesn’t hurt that I did. not. have to build one STICK of this piece of furniture! Woohoo!

Happy Place #2:

My little workspot here enjoys prime morning light, on another piece of furniture I didn’t build. Well, mostly. The little bear is Theo bringing me a daisy. Awww….. It’s a place of my own. It needs light at night, though. I am looking for a lamp, which I will probably place on something I put on the floor to the left. I want the height to highlight, not obstruct, my Starry Night.

There you go…home! What are your home’s happy places?

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First Things First

So if you were setting up a home from scratch, which room would you make your first priority? When we were building furniture, beds came first, followed by dining table and chairs. But what makes our home functional is the kitchen. And ta-dah! She is finally complete (as much as a house’s room ever is) except for microwave, and ready to show. Click on the photos if the images are too small for you.

Yes, those are Stoney’s Speed Racer magnets on the fridge. Racer X is on the side you can’t see. The microwave (should Stoney ever make up his mind which one to get) goes on the counter next to the fridge.

I love my little chicken doorstop!

I would love to hang my mother’s sunflower painting above the sink. However, hanging anything on the walls here is a major undertaking, and of course all walls will have to be restored to the original condition when we leave. Why so hard, you ask? Well, the walls of this house (just about all of them, and this is normal for France) are solid baked red clay blocks. Not bricks: blocks. Over these is plaster, which is either painted or, more often, wallpapered with a texture. The kitchen is painted, but to get through the blocks, you must drill a hole, insert a plastic doohickie and then screw in your holder. Or use one of these stone/masonry nail-thingies that I am unconvinced will really stay up there with any weight on it. We are currently testing it with a Starry Night framed poster in the living room, so if it sticks, maybe I will trust it with Mom’s watercolor.

a  Please ignore my recycling container…an old IKEA shopping bag.

Once the microwave takes its place, my work surfaces will be quite limited, so we built this cart here. It is my produce pantry, too, and the wall behind it boasts our first attempts to get a picture on the wall: plaster will need to be repaired. The basket on the floor contains our shopping bags, which we have to furnish ourselves, or purchase at the store should we forget ours. (The IKEA sack was ,20 euros. Live and learn.)

The view from my kitchen door.

I include the laundry room in my kitchen tour. It turns out it is in constant use, too, because every day is laundry day here. For some reason, laundry cycles are really, REALLY long on the machines. A load will take anywhere between an hour and a half to two hours to wash. Drying is a whole nother animal. Yesterday was so hot I hung the bright-cold wash I had finished on the pole to dry, and in a couple of hours, inside my house, it was. It takes two to three hours to dry it in my dryer!

So the breakfast part of the Smith B&B is ready to serve you! So far, I have successfully made pancakes, biscuits, scrambled eggs, and what looks to me like Canadian bacon. Still working on making some of my other recipes work here, though. Of course, I could always send Theo up to the little artisan pastisserie for croissants. Taking reservations now!


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IKEA: for the Bob the Builder in Every Adult

or teen, for that matter. Pretty much most of our interior furnishing will be from a flat-pack box.

More than a room’s worth here.

Thus far, we have seen nothing to match IKEA for their quality/price-value ratio, even among the u-assemble crowd. The local runners-up would be Alinéa, who won a spot on our patio with table and chairs. These were easy enough for a 12-year-old to assemble with nearly no adult direction. As witness:

Yes he can!!

The chairs, sturdily assembled by Theo, awaiting their mate, the table.

IKEA, on the other hand, can be a little more complicated. The furniture assembly has (for the most part) extraordinarily clear directions made almost entirely of illustrations. Still, it is very well designed and put together, even if I am the final assembly technician. Bolts and screws are often threaded into metal receptors inserted into pre-drilled holes and locked into place with these little metal spiral-like discs you half-turn over the bolt or screw, and which probably have a well-known carpentry-ish designation, but which I had never encountered before. IKEA having all-illustration directions, I remain ignorant of the term, but NOT of the need for 24 of these sweet babies on my one piece of furniture.

Theo has been helping with our IKEA construction, (and since I do occasionally bite into virgin wood with these screws, I feel justified in using the term), but I don’t try to turn him loose with these. They can get a little complicated.

Some vigorous pushing had to occur here. Honest, there is no headbanger music playing.

I built these lovely things. Really, with a little help from my son. And some prep work by some IKEA factory workers. But other than that, I built these.

OK, I confess: I am pretty limited in my construction skills. I’m only willing to try so much without fear of some really unfortunate mistake, so the rest of our furniture will have to have Stoney’s help this weekend. I figure, directions that seem a little complicated and maybe ambiguous should be quite clear to a structural design engineer. Right? So I expect by the end of the weekend to have all the furniture basics assembled to show you, and more importantly, ready for our 900 pounds of worldly goods, which arrive Monday. (Not that you’re not important.)


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