Renovation recap

So where are we at with this house? We’re having people to stay so it must be quite close to being done right? Well. Here is the thing. Bits of it look nice. The bits I’ve shown you. The kitchen, one bathroom, two and a half bedrooms and the barn now has a floor. (Mr Landauer the gardner came with gallons of cement, tonnes of gravel and excitingly for the male members of the house – a digger/tractor thing *technical term)

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Le Tracteur thingy

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First put down ten tonnes of gravel

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Then pour on gallons of concrete…

And we have a table tennis table, swingball (another great 80s throwback – Pete and i dress up as John Lloyd and Chris Evert while playing for authentic feel) and a massive hammock for the garden. But inside? There is A LOT still to be done. And when friends come to visit we feel bad making them holiday and DIY, so work slows down. And if we have friends to stay then we feel bad going off and painting or plumbing, with a casual ‘help yourself to a slice of Brie’ so work slows down. So I must at this point thank Stuart for his Herculean efforts while technically ‘on holiday’ as he did spend an entire day, with Peter painting the ceiling in one of our dingiest rooms. And to our friend Mr Candy for his mini-break with Peter to install top floor windows in the early days. It was, and is, MUCH appreciated. And now that bits of the house are habitable, Peter can’t really justify heading over alone (or with Mr Candy) to ‘make essential advances in wiring’. So things have slowed. Considerably. And as this blog is being written in the past I thought it might be good to have a recap. Its roughly May 2011 and here is where we are at…

ROOMS THAT ARE FINISHED AND LOOK NICE

1.kitchen

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Vic began to wonder if her lamp choice made her a basket case?

2. Downstairs bathroom

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Wouldn’t you just die without the Metro tile?

3. Master Bedroom

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It was time to clear out the dead wood

4.boys bedroom

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La Carte SVP

5. Upstairs hallway

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ROOMS THAT STILL NEED A LOT OF LOVE
1. The top floor!

On our top floor are two massive attic rooms. My goal is to make one a master suite with freestanding bath. The other is to become a ‘dorm’ for our younger guests. But right now they both look like this

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Nice for bats!

2.The entrance hall

Not exactly Southfork is it? This is first thing you see if you enter via the enormous front door. Pete has done some plastering and some painting but there is still quite a bit of work needed.

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3.The downstairs bedroom

This is going to be a guest room. It has the finished bathroom attached to it and at the moment you have to walk through this to get to the bathroom. Note it DOES have a radiator. Not quite hooked up yet. I might let Pete explain the heating to you all – it is beyond me! This room once had a loo in the corner of it so at least that has gone to the dechetterie (french for tip) and it has had a coat of white paint by this stage – it WAS worse than this at one point!

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Its all white really

4. The grand ‘salon’

We rather pretentiously refer to this room as the ‘salon’ because sitting room just doesnt seem right. It is huge. It is grand. And one day it will be a salon. But right now it looks like this…. we did around this time have Mr Landauer come in and concrete the floor so we could at least walk through here without stepping on a mouse or rat or some such scurrier. But I thought I should give you the ‘basic’ picture.

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Its all gone a bit ‘kings speech’

5.The worst room in the world (indeterminate eventual usage)

Look at this! Truly the ugliest, dirtiest room in the world. This is pretty much the worst room we had to contend with with a horrid huge water tank that took hours of sawing and yanking just to get it off the wall. And incredibly when we first visited the house this is the only sink we had and we used to USE it! But reader – this room will in about a years time from now become awesome. Just wait!

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Cup of tea anyone?

6. The Dining Room

But not one you’d really want to eat in. All these not so nice rooms are connected to the nice rooms so even if you are sitting in the lovely kitchen having a glass of rose – if you need to wee in the lovely bathroom you have to walk through any two of the above to get there. Which is where flip flops have become essential items.

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Pink to make the boys wink

7.The Top Floor bathroom

Yep. Check this baby out? Holes in the ceiling. A bucket to collect the water that pours in up here and no floor whatsoever.

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Can I have a pee please Bob?

So thats it. Nice right? Want to come for a visit yet? Maybe leave it another few months? And see what we get up to?

A french house for all

ImageWhat IS the point of having an 8 bedroom house in the middle of nowhereville France? Its a question I ask myself often. Despite being affordable to buy by London standards, and despite our total lack of budget for renovations, it does still suck out a considerable amount of cash every month. Our paint bill alone equates to the GDP of some smaller countries (maybe there actually IS a small island nation somewhere called Farrow and Ball and I am contributing to its healthcare provisions). So just in the spirit of open-ness and to give you a vague idea if you were thinking of buying your own slice of rural idyll here are just some of our expenses around this project. And while it is not Sarah Beeny renovating that place in the country and buying £100 a roll wallpaper extravagent, I will concede there are ways we might be more frugal. But as, when my husband points out every month if I went to Asda rather than ordering Ocado I could spend the differential on a handbag I am forced to admit – I have LIMITS.

Expenses

  • Vide grenier tat or what we could call essential furnishings like chairs to sit on etc…… £50-350 each visit to france. And we still have masses of empty spaces where furniture really should be. It took us two years to find a dining table and chairs.
  • Boring house stuff like flooring and insulation and pipes and wires to try and make progress £300-£1000 each time
  • Paint ….. roughly £150 per room (we have 13 rooms plus hallways – you do the math)
  • Drive down there ….. £100 petrol, £60 tolls, £80 tunnel crossing. If we flew and rented a car this would be more like £800 each time. So we set off after school on a Friday and drive through the night. The boys sleep and Peter and I take turns to drive. It is not so bad. It sounds bad. It honestly isn’t. The kids watch movies till they fall asleep. And we drink lots of french coffee and make lots of stops and grab sleep where we can. Then we arrive at our place at roughly 7am in the morning. Stop off for warm bread at a just-opening boulangerie. And we pre warn Serge our neighbour, who goes in before us to light the fires and leave us butter and milk (and sometimes home made cake). And when we get there we get our coffee machine going and breakfast like kings before even thinking about unpacking the car.
  • Super U shopping….. a lot – french food is EXPENSIVE. Don’t be fooled by thoughts of Wafting around markets with your basket filling it with mishapen cheap veg. It is more expensive to buy at local markets than it is to shop at the supermarket. Or indeed order Ocado. In fact it might even be cheaper to get ‘Dave in an Aubergine van to drive a veal shank down to SW france than buy a Jarret de Veau at our local market) BUT it does all taste delicious. See below…
  • housekeeper/gardner who keep eye on place and come in before we get there and make up beds, clean. Yes this is a total extravegance. I could make our own beds. I could clean. BUT its a holiday. And the Landauers are like Ray Krebbs used to be to the Ewings kind of living off our land (of course he eventually turned out to be Jock Ewing’s illigitimate son and I seriously hope this does not turn out to be the case with Mr Landauer!) We initially paid Mr Landauer to gravel our driveway. And then he came back and suggested he concrete floor the barn. We said yes. Then he suggested he concrete floor our sitting room and we said yes. Then he suggested he mow the lawns. And chop wood. And his wife could clean. And we liked them. One day he turned up with an enormous mirror he wanted to sell us and we bought it.
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    I suspect that they have us pegged as a slightly scruffier Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley cos we’ve got the biggest house in a three mile radius, and I am loathed to disappoint them. Yah – sometimes when they come over I sling on a pair of white jeans and some corky wedges! We trade Christmas gifts each year and Mrs Landauer once asked me if I could find her a english tea service. She dreamed of being able to serve visitors coffee in proper ‘english’ cups and saucers. I think she specified flowers on them. And it so happened I owned just such a tea service that had been my grandmother’s. And when I gave it to her she looked beside herself with joy. And I have visions of her sitting in her house daintily pouring coffee into each cup and drinking with her little finger sticking out which she may or may not have seen in an Richard Curtis film. I have no idea how old Mrs Landauer is. I treat her like my Mum as she has that sort of weary pity for me in her eyes – this poor feckless girl who can’t even clean her own home sort of look. And, unlike my mum I hasten to add – she has the weary face of a woman who works really really hard all week for not that much money and has four kids to feed one of whom is disabled and in a hospice permanently. So she looks very old. But she could actually be younger than me. I have no idea. And now we feel bad telling them that we can’t really afford to pay them escalating cleaning and concreting costs. So we keep paying them and they keep doing stuff. And giving us strange doiley lacey things she likes to drape over my modernist furniture.
  • IKEA – roughly £300 every six months just so we have beds and chairs and er stuff to fill the enormous empty rooms
  • Fun stuff – like going to visit spas, eating out, skiing, zip wiring cos you dont want to go on holiday and JUST play scrabble – approx £300 each visit

Savings

  • Cubivin – a 25l box of wine from the local vineyard that costs €1 a litre!
  • Not going on fancy skiing holidays – saving approx £3000 a year (we’d def go somewhere nice right)
  • Not going on fancy foreign holidays to Maldives with kids clubs etc – savings £7000 a year
  • Summer childcare – well techinically nothing as Peter would just do it but there’d be clubs right? And they are all about £250 per week

Stuff that makes having a french house TOTES priceless..

Having all our friends to stay. Sitting around our giant wooden kitchen table (cost of £500 from friend who sells Brocante) with a mess of adults and kids all leaning int to help themselves to roast pork, jamie oliver’s courgette rice and drinking vast quantities of our red wine cubivin. With candles lit around us, cheesy tunes on Spotify and an evening finale of dancing in the kitchen, videoing it on our iphones and then dying the next day when we play it back.

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a table for 8 please…

Like when my BFF Petra came to stay with her two children (including my goddaughter Cara) i looked around one eve as we all feasted on duck and thought ‘yes. this is why we bought this house.’ And when the two four year old boys (mine and hers) played in a paddling pool in an inch of water for four hours leaving us to sit in deck chairs drinking wine, we realised we don’t need kids clubs. We ate huge meals outdoors cooked by Petra’s gourmand husband Stuart and we laughed. And we had the time to have those conversations that sometimes London living just doesn’t allow. Petra and I shared a house together with four others back in the early nineties – like ‘This Life’ (young people reading this – it was a TV show like Skins but with professionals sharing a flat back in the nineties. Think, a show like Friends but with sex and drugs) and we’ve been best friends ever since, twenty years in fact. But as she has a very big important job (she has proper career in finance and is v successful at it – eye wateringly so) and I have a sort of big important job but doing slightly dafter things like meeting One Direction, we don’t see each other as much as we should. France gives us days to catch up. And she and her family came back the following Easter as Cara couldn’t wait to go back to “the big dirty house” as I say – priceless.

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Sew WHAT?

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sew not difficult to do!

I don’t DO sewing. I barely do washing. In fact when my children were recently taught a mother’s day song at school that went along the lines of ‘she does the washing, the cleaning and the shopping too..’ apart from being so cross at the implication and using it as an excuse to rant at my two sons about a hundred years of female emancipation, I needn’t have worried as they both spotted the error in the lyrics announcing ‘but you don’t do ANY of those things mummy.’ Exactly. I go to work. I work hard. I can afford to pay someone else to do that stuff. Or imagine this, I share this workload with my MALE partner (and does ordering Ocado on your ipad count?) Anyway, suffice to say I am a modern woman who is thrilled to be able to go online and order things. However, as having a house in France meant yet more opportunities to search the Rockket St George website for soft furnishings my husband grew increasingly frustrated with what he describes as an ‘almost compulsive cushion habit’. He’s right. I am to cushions what Hunter S Thompson is to illegal substances. Why stop at one when you could buy THEM ALL? And so, I decided I would see if I could make my own. I would stop spending insane amounts of money on bits of square fabric sewn around the edges and I would teach myself to sew.

How hard could it be? I bought myself a sewing machine and sat down and read the instruction book. I learnt how to thread spools, do back stitch and forward stitch and not much more besides. And then I went on ebay and bought scraps of Cath Kidston fabric. If you could be bothered you could make a fortune selling old bits of rubbish that any normal sane person would throw out. There I was paying £3.50 for a 50cm square piece of spotty fabric. The kind of thing I would chuck in the bin if I had it left over from something. This is probably how Alan Sugar started and why I will never be a millionaire. I am the person buying up other people’s rubbish rather than seeing the money spinning potential in raggedy old bits of material. Truthfully, when you take into account postage and the time I spent fashioning these scraps into cushions I could have just gone to John Lewis and bought them for less. But, NOT THE POINT. I felt a massive sense of achievement when my cushion mountain was complete. And then I cheated and bought some White Company bunting on ebay.

But the fact was, my god daughter Cara was coming to stay and I wanted to make a room for her to sleep in that would get out all my ‘mother of sons’ frustrations. Boys do not appreciated hand made cushions. Or bunting. Or the lovely quilt I also got at the White Company. Oh or the lovely IKEA Minnen, white metal bed frame. But I hoped, that Cara would. And so I also went on ebay and sourced a wall of flower paintings. I bought up loads of cheap paintings that others were trying to get rid of and then painted the frames white and hung them in a group on the wall over her bed. And when she came to stay with her mum, my BFF, Petra, she LOVED it. And I cried with joy when I saw how much she loved it. My boys don’t get that kind of ‘really? all for me?’ look on their faces, other than maybe if I order them a dominoes stuffed crust meat feast pizza. But when Cara was shown the flowery room in France that was to be hers for four days, it made all the sewing and ebay sourcing worthwhile as her little face quite literally lit up. And I was bitten by the sewing bug. And taught myself how to make curtains! But that’s for another room on another day…..

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Kirsty Allsop whatevs! Vic’s homemade bedroom

It’s all gone downhill

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the smiles did NOT last long

We had eaten a goose who we had looked in the beak. Spent Xmas morning in our onesies. But there were to be yet more ‘firsts’ to come this Christmas. Christmas 2011 was the Christmas we went skiing. As a family. Together. A magical first where we could discover the joys of heading on piste together, laughing, falling over but dusting ourselves down and getting back up, heading off for chocolat chaud with contented grins on our faces and a sense of joint achievement. Except that wasn’t what happened. The real version involved us dragging our less than enthusiastic two boys to a resort about an hour and a half drive away called Cauterets. We excitedly rented our skis in the village and then joined a queue for a lift to take us up to the slopes. And then we queued. And our skis were heavy and cumbersome. And we queued. And it was cold. And we queued. And we were BORED! Two hours later we finally got on a lift. And we were at a packed, less than charming resort to find all ski lessons booked, neither child nor I able to go two feet without falling over and our only attempt to get onto the nursery slope prevented by grumpy French people stepping over us or pushing us out of the way as we fell over en route to the magic carpet. Arthur declared it ‘the WORST day ever’ and I’m inclined to agree with him. Was THIS the fun people wax lyrical about?

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For facebook purposes Arthur raised a smile

Peter was a seasoned skier (with a Prince Charles style all in one ski suit to prove just how long he’d been skiing. His skiing dates back to a time when people went to C&A for ski gear and thought they were sophisticated!) so I think he had hoped his family could join him in his love of the white stuff. As we trudged back down the mountain having paid hundreds of pounds in gear hire and lift passes and having skied NOT AN INCH Peter looked like a broken man. He is a patient man and as you can see from the photo below he is ordinarily a happy man (note photos were taken BEFORE we even got in lift!) But Peter had never experienced skiing with people who couldn’t even get the skis on and then proceeded to throw insults at each other like a family on Jeremy Kyle who’ve just found out their uncle is really their dad.

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Thank god for that trip to Decathlon!

It was, to quote, Craig Revel Horwood, a dee-sas-ter. We drove home feeling depressed. Cold and depressed. And our house was a mess. And it was cold. And once again I began to wonder why the hell our holidays have to be so hard. Even a skiing trip was a little off piste. No package hol with ECF lessons booked in for the kids and free time for Peter and I to spend together. Instead just a fraught, cold waste of time day where I still couldn’t ski and neither could either child. Though the pics DID look impressive on Facebook! Our friends would never know the truth.

But like cyclist Tom Simpson who mythically said ‘put me back on my bike’ (after a bad fall and he went on to die so really should have said ‘let me go for a lie down’) we decided to give skiiing one last go. This time we visited a resort nearer to us called Hautacam. Our neighbours had suggested we visit as it was very close but VERY basic. Just a couple of runs, a cafe and a ski hire shop. Which it turned out was just what we needed. It also had a mountain luge which the kids loved and although we weren’t exactly Frans Klammer we did at least get on a mountain. And go down a slope. And Peter got to scratch his ski itch and I was utterly rubbish which made everyone laugh. I did however get to debut a fantastic all in one ski suit I’d found. Maybe Pete was a bit previous in throwing his out. It ALL comes back round you know.

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Joyeux noël

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Our first french christmas tree

Probably one of the best things I have ever done is spend that first Christmas in our French house. Freezing cold? Yes. No Christmas Downton? Sadly. Hand picked baubles from The White Company? Nope. Instead we had a goose with its head and gubbins still in place, a tree decorated with paper chains and some borrowed flashing fairy lights from serge. And we had Pere Noel. And he came, he came!

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pere noel il arrive!

I LOVE Christmas. Always have. Family Christmas for me has always been a special day of eating, game playing, Xmas TV watching and more eating. My grandad would rally us all into a game which involved kneeling on a chair an throwing cards into his upturned, felt, trilby hat which always had a thick layer of Brylcream on the inner rim that was residue from his heavily brylcreamed hair. I think you scored points for getting the cards on the brim, in the hat or on a newspaper the hat was placed on. Sadly I can’t remember exactly. Which is one of the problems with family traditions – you’ve got to keep them going. My grandad died almost thirty years ago and I don’t think we played the trilby game ever again without him so now I can’t remember it.
So you make new traditions – and for us, the winter of 2011 meant all new FRENCH Christmas traditions. Starting with Lucy, our goose. At home we always had turkey despite Peters pleas for goose for the best part of a decade.

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Lucy’s goose was about to be cooked

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please note our 7 letter words!

I wasn’t sure I’d like it. My father with his limited food palette was absolutely sure he wouldn’t like it, and besides we ALWAYS have turkey I argued. So Peter was overruled. Until this year. My parents had decided it was too far and would be too cold (they were right) so elected to stay home which meant I was the lone voice of dissent against the goose. Peter’s gain was Lucy’s loss. As I had to work all the way up to Xmas eve, Peter and the boys went on ahead and I did the very civilised London to Pau flight from City Airport later on. This meant it was up to them to ‘get everything ready’….. A goose was bought from Leclerc and a tree procured with some help from Serge. The boys made paper chains to put on it and by the time I arrived there wasn’t much to do except get into a onsie (no photos!) and sit in front of the fire with our trusty scrabble board.

In France children leave their shoes out for Pere Noel to fill with chocolates. They also eat chocolate logs. In fact it is small miracle that French children aren’t all enormous given the vast array of chocolate options open to them. Some mornings I wake to find my kids eating pain chocolat, drinking chocolat chaud and about to top it all up with some bread and Nutella. If we lived here permanently I would have to treat chocolate with same strict quota rules I have I place for playing Minecraft.

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logging on

And on Christmas Eve we made fondu and I added too much kirsch and the children said it tasted like ‘wine’ (let’s not phone Esther rant zen to report the fact my kids seem to know what wine tastes like – I’m guessing they recognise the smell) but I declared fondu and all it’s stomach filling, artery hardening properties a new White family christmas tradition.

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The children began to realise how cheesy their parents were

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yes we fon – DO!

I once read that children like traditions. They love it when as a family you do the same thing every year. Like my Grandad and his trilby. Well so it shall be with fondu even though no one seems to like it but me. And in years to come we even inflict it upon guests who don’t like it. I care not because ITS TRADITION!
And Pere Noel came. And he had had presence of mind to get English books like a Lego annual not in French. And he filled the shoes with chocolate (cos we needed a bit MORE chocolate) and he filled the Christmas sacks with presents. And Lucy was cooked the night before and reheated on Christmas Day (Jamie Oliver’s best day ahead goose recipe) and we all loved it. Even me. And we huddled around our tiny table in the kitchen (the only warm room) and we pulled crackers brought from England and put on silly paper hats. Sebastian even ate a sprout. A tradition he was not keen to continue but which we have made an annual ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here bush tucker trial’ style experience.

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Sebastian went crackers

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Is that green stuff on my plate???

And there was no pressure to even get out of our pyjamas (tho we did) and there was no timetable. if we wanted to eat at 4 o’clock or 9 o’clock we could. And once we’d packed the children off to bed we got the scrabble set out again and didnt even mind that we were missing Christmas Day Corrie (well I minded a bit but I’d sky plused it back home anyway) And we wished it could be Christmas every day. Just like this one.

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Happy Christmas!!!!

La Vida vide….

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Ah yes this looks old and broken enough….

My husband loves old stuff. I hope this will be a good thing when I am in my 80s. He will have his very own living, breathing ‘relic’. What he really loves, is broken, old, stuff. When we first met, he lived in a wooden house with a porch in west Hollywood. You could sit on the veranda like a 1950s American prom girl waiting for her date. He’d rented the house when it was falling down and no one else would touch it. And then, he’d fixed it up. As a result, while most of our friends lived in small apartments in weho or Venice, Peter had an enormous house just off Sunset where we all threw parties and he could listen to his Motörhead vinyl so loudly that once, some nearby dwelling Hells Angels came by to ask him to turn it down.
And so buying a house in France equals peter’s dream. But one of the best things about trying to furnish this house is our weekly visits to vide greniers. Like car boot sales only much much better as each one holds prospect of hidden gems. Held on sunday mornings and publicised in the local areas as if Justin Beiber was playing a one off gig there with posters EVERYWHERE in the weeks beforhand. or you can visit http://www.vide-greniers.org And our kids LOVE them. Maybe in the way some boys inherit their father’s sporting prowess or love of a particular football team, peters legacy to his sons will be a love of broken, old tat.

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what’s french for plastic tat?

We give them five euros each and some basic French ( enough to bargain someone down for old Pokemon cards – far more useful than a level French right?) and send them off. Meanwhile, Peter and I trawl these aladdin’s caves of wonder hoping to find stuff to fill our home that isn’t from ikea!
We’ve introduced all friends who come and stay to the joy of the vide grenier (some more impressed than others – my friend lorraine remains thrilled with her olive server complete with toothpick holder shaped like lily pad, her husband James, less thrilled with the fourteen pony club trophies their kids bought)
We have over the years bought everything from our dining chairs to tennis racquets. Plates shaped like fish (never used) to fire irons to hold our logs (used every day). And Now I’m going to share with you a selection of vide grenier jewels. Vintage finds or other people’s rubbish? Tat or treasure? To us, always the latter.

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She really did have life on a plate

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Knew that learing french for police hat would come in useful one day – un kepee s’il vous plait

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we are the champions

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Hall chandelier. Bought, painted, rewired and lit

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smashed painting – bought some new glass and is good as old

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Nobody puts cupboard in the corner!

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Nothing to do with TV show of same name. No one knew why in the 70s. Still don’t today.

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An armchair by the fire ours for 30 euros

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NOTHING to do with Walford?

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Tell me about it….stud