recap recap – where ARE we up to?

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Book em danno

So blog lovers, its time for a recap. We are now three Christmases into our French Home project and each year the tree gets bigger. This year we have plans for a Poseidon Adventure style tree that we’ll tip upside down at midnight and climb up the middle like Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman (younger blog readers – ask your parents!)

But what’s really going on with the house? How do we feel about it now? Now that the days of peeing in a bucket and not showering for days are over has it been worth it?

Truthfully the jury is still out. Sometimes when we’re in France and we’re cycling around in the sunshine it seems totally worth it. And just the idea that we actually OWN a lovely big house in France is so bonkers it makes me happy. But there are lots of days when I would like a)the money we’ve sunk into this project and b)the opportunity to visit other places. When friends regale us with tales of luxury resorts where they stick their kids in clubs where they learn to water ski or do macrame workshops I wonder if that’s what I should be doing. And it also means that I never truly relax. Like never. I work five days a week, I do housework at home in England in a house we’re renovating and as I live with three men/boys it is never clean. I barely keep on top of the kids increasingly busy lives and then when I go on holiday I’m cooking and cleaning there. We have no nannies to help with childcare (Peter and I do it all ourselves around our jobs), I have no parents nearby to babysit or do emergency pick ups and then I go on holiday where aside from the Landauers coming in to clean (and its about time to note that this is the beginning of our eventual breakdown in relations with the Landauers… more on this in a further blog) I’m then running a household of guests and families in France. In short – I’m exhausted. Brutally. Every fibre of my being is spent and emotionally it has started to take a toll.

But is this the fault of the house in France? Would a two week sunshine break alleviate all the above? If we lived in a wipe clean tiny new house in London would I still find week old pants under a bed and have to pick them up and move them to an overbulging wash basket? And if we had a nanny to give my children nutritious meals that involved some sort of green vegetable would Sebastian still refer to everyone he meets as ‘poo poo head’?

Can I really ‘blame’ my french house for all of the above? Who knows? So perhaps this is a good opportunity to really focus on the stuff that is great about having a house in France – especially as it is now fully habitable and we have in a sense realised ‘our dream’. The sense of achievement in that is second to none. Just the idea that you could go from this

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To this….

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Is such a major achievement I am metaphorically patting myself and Peter on the back on a daily basis. And I think, importantly as you grow older and your marriage becomes more mundane (sorry Pete but you know, I mean this with affection!) you need something that binds the two of you. For some that’s playing tennis together, for us, it’s talking about our French house. Planning our next bit of the project, sitting opposite each other at the dining table on our respective lap tops, me googling designer furniture sites, him sourcing broken tractor parts on eBay! And I am convinced that this sense of joint achievement and the fact that when we are in France we are able to experience a sense of actually living in a foreign country as opposed to ‘just visiting’ is a truly worthwhile experience. Sitting in our kitchen playing scrabble as a massive fire burns is a very gratifying feeling.
You just don’t get that if you’ve just done two weeks in Santorini do you?

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A very Candy Christmas

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Yep still not painted those sitting room walls…..

It can’t be time for Christmas again? Ooooh yes it can! This is our third Christmas at Maison Blanche and this year my parents had decided not to make the journey (Newcastle to SW France is a LONG way especially without budget airline assistance – be great if Easy Jet, Ryanair etc could sort a flight from Newcastle to Toulouse or Bordeaux – thanks in advance)

Christmas really should be the more the merrier and it doesn’t get any MORE than our friends the Candys. There are six of them (plus Duke the dog but he wasn’t going to be making the trip for Christmas – we got him a squeaky toy to be handed over once he got back from Grandma Pru’s) so we persuaded them to come and visit – there’d be kids, candles, crackers and champagne – yes this would be a christmas for Instagram to remember.

The plan was for us to perform an advance party arrival via road and for the Candys to arrive via air on Christmas Eve. We could take ALL the kids’ presents (er kids if you’re reading this we mean take the presents that Santa brought you all obvs!!!) in our car hidden under blankets etc. All kids had expressed concern about Santa’s ability to find them in rural SW France but we assured them that he just KNOWS – or for the elder, more curious children we explained that the elves have an online database that parents keep updated. There was also concern around ‘christmassyness’ of it all so we asked Serge our neighbour to get us a tree and a goose before we arrived. He then very kindly covered it in chocolate sweets and gaudy flashing fairy lights from Super U which I waited til he was out of sight and then switched for more tasteful white paper balls from cox and cox sorry Serge – he rarely comes into our dining room so would never know.

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Don’t show Serge!

We then searched the whole of the Tarbes/Lourdes area for a suitably large tree for our ‘salon’. It didn’t exist. We called Gamm Vert who said we were too late – trees were all gone. Peter finally tracked one down that was about an hour and a half drive away so we sent him off to bring back in a manly, trapper like fashion (tho all he was doing was driving to a garden centre miles away!) He arrived back with a corker coming in at just over 9ft. After all, what’s the point of a big, grand house without a big, grand Christmas tree. This is what we ended up with….

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The biggest tree in SW FRance

As you can see, our walls look pretty much the same as last Christmas. It’s all very ‘Kings Speech’ in the Salon but we did at least have a couch this year for us to sit on while the kids tore open their gifts. (Which we’d established a universal value for all to avoid any bickering on Christmas morning – most likely between Lorraine and I!) Santa had become an egalitarian for one year only. So we were ready. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, all good plans ….. Peter, Seb and I all came down with horrific colds the week before our journey. We were barely on the A2 when Sebastian vomited all over the car. And our usual plans to drive through the night while we take turns to sleep were thwarted by our illnesses. Neither Peter nor I could drive for more than twenty minutes without having to stop and rest. So our normal 14 hour door to door journey took us nearer twenty hours (and with the lingering air smell of vomit remaining in the car). The Candys were equally thwarted by illness and their youngest, Mabel was sniffly and not sleeping. So despite plans for adult all night drinking and Trivial Pursuit playing (cos THATs how Rock n Roll we are) we were all in bed on Christmas Eve by 9.30 and Mabel then woke up about four times in the night. Lorraine and I did manage to struggle gamely through a couple of these! But the reality was that Christmas morning could not come soon enough even for the grown ups among us.

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G&T if you dont mind

We left out carrots for Rudolph, red wine for Santa and stockings for each child (tho how he was going to fit an x box into one of these was a real worry for Arthur!) And we all went to bed dreaming of a host of gifts to open in the morning – or in the adults case the prospect of feeling less like death.

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Stocking fillers

And in the morning – HE’D BEEN! All the way to France – the elves had guided him in the right direction and it turned out that he’d had the presence of mind to bring all the children an Amazon gift card to the same value! Which meant they could order stuff online and have it delivered to their London home. How clever is Santa?

And then we did what any normal family do on Christmas Day, we ran around outside in our pyjamas, made Peter dress up as Father Christmas, ate our bodyweight in chocolate and started but didn’t finish about five games of Sherlock themed Cluedo (a gift for Lorraine which we made her leave behind we enjoyed it so much).

And then we ate a huge Christmas lunch in our newly renovated Dining Room (click here for before and after pics) with goose and pigs in blankets and the children all sat at one end of the table and the adults sat at the other and we suddenly felt a whole lot better.

Ta Da! Come Dine with me – part 2

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Mirror, mirror….

So this is part two of my dining room makeover post (its like an episode of 24 isn’t it? Fraught with tension and cliffhangers designed to make you watch the whole series in one go! if you missed part one click here)

I know I talk about food a lot on this blog. Food and Farrow and Ball seem to be recurring themes. If only you could get Clunch cupcakes or Mizzle meringues I’d be in heaven. But my food obsession while in France (when at home in London I eat like a bird – honestly!) meant that the Dining Room was a BIG DEAL. And as our friends the Candys were coming for Christmas I really wanted a proper Dining Room where we could all sit down to a medieval style banquet with Peter as the Sheriff of Nottingham at the head of the table ripping game from it’s bones. (What actually happened on Christmas Day is we spent a large part of the meal carrying out Bush Tucker style challenges to try and get the children to eat sprouts. “eat the sprout, eat the sprout, eat the sprout…” we chanted as Gracie struggled through it with a face like she was eating kangaroo anus)

And this was where I really got to shop. I’d love to say no expense was spared, but as usual with us, every expense was spared. I started out going to John Lewis with my mum to get some of their ‘own brand’ fabric for my chairs. I had no idea which way to go so my choice was largely informed by the price tag. This grey and blue floral was only Β£16 per metre so I got 5 metres of it.

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And Peter covered each chair one, by one with an upholstery gun we bought on eBay and a gazillion chrome studs. Each morning by the time we came down for breakfast he would have completed another chair. Its like a form of therapy for him and possibly what will stop him going off the rails and having affairs. Seriously, if Russell Brand took up upholstery his life might take a very different turn.

And once the chairs were done, the wall colour chose itself. We had to use specialist paint as the walls were so damp, the paint company in question is called Earthborn and specialises in paint for clay. The colour we chose was called Bandstand as we both liked the idea of a dark, wintery dining room (as in summer we eat outdoors anyway) and this has a sort of hunting lodge feel – perfect for that leg of venison, Pete was going to be chowing down on in my Sherwood analogy.

So that just left lighting and a fortuitous meeting via my job with the PR for BHS. Now if you haven’t checked out BHS lighting dept, you really should. The thing I love most about it, is that you don’t see your lights in everyone else’s houses. It’s like a secret find – everyone who sees your light fittings will assume they were VERY expensive. And they are in fact, VERY cheap.

The lovely PR encouraged me to take a look so I bought three of these blue tinged glass lanterns to hang over my table..

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The blue lanterns

And for the first time, I had stuff to add into this room. Pictures and sconces we had bought at vide greniers, a massive mirror that our gardners had sold us as it was old and rubbish and they like new and shiny, plus lamps and candlesticks from Graham and Green

And I love this room. It makes me so happy to be in it. We’ve hosted dinners for 20, New Year’s Eve and of course our Candy Xmas.

And this summer the gardners came back with yet more enormous furniture for us to put in it as we are the only people they know with a room big enough. And so we have a games cupboard bigger than Sebastian!

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A cupboard bigger than Seb

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Game on

So here is a gallery of my favourite room ever. Hope you like it too

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Ta da

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Flowery

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Christmas!!

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Come dine with us

Renovating homes is a tedious business. There’s always so much to do before the fun bits arrive (the bits when Peter goes on about PVA on walls and caulking etc before I get to choose paint colours and furniture). And as so many of our rooms have been done, bit by bit, often there isn’t a truly ‘Ta Da’ moment where I’ve been able to go from derelict, walls falling down to fully dressing a room and instagramming it safe in the knowledge it’s really properly ‘finished’. Usually there are several, slow stages in between which I’ve edited out for the purposes of the blog and a lot of my rooms are still not truly finished. But the Dining Room is probably the room that really did go from revolting to fabulous and although it was still done in stages, it is in real life now a really, truly, lovely room. That in photographs looks like a proper stunner straight out of a homes mag (even if I do say so myslef!)

So, blog lovers, here is the before….

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pink – very this season!

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Not quite Claridges

When we have guests to visit these days, we describe to them just how bad the house was before. And as, for most of them renovation ‘stress’ involves the arduous process of finding a rental house to move into while their architect draws up plans for a side return extension, I know their imaginations could NEVER create the pictures above. Even I sometimes forget just how awful our French house was. And even looking back at these pics now I’m not sure how or WHY we did this. It is horrible. Charmless. And we lived with our dining room like this for almost two years give or take. (I think the horrid white plastic table stacked with loo rolls was removed quite quickly)

But lets not dwell on it. Lets talk progress. Mr White did a LOT of plastering. You can see patches on the top pic of where he had started patching bits up but there was a lot more besides. And he would get up early while the rest of us were still asleep and paint large stretches of ceiling and wall with white emulsion to try and alleviate the gloom. And when he had finished, phase 1 he did what any man of a certain age would do. He bought a table tennis table to go in it.

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But where do we put our knives and forks?

And then there began the long process of restoring the marble fireplace and buying a wood burning stove which you can see in the picture. I may in fact direct you to Mr White’s blog about this as its really his thing and although I love having central heating via a wood burning stove – I must admit to glazing over as he tried to explain the actual technicalities behind it. But here it is if you want to know and I’ll get back to talking about curtains!

Our trusty chandelier that once hung in Peter’s Los Angeles Dining room was temporarily put up just for the want of somewhere for it to live. Since Peter and I moved back to London in 1999 it had languished in my Aunt Moira’s garage in Beverly Hills until a work trip a year or so ago. Somehow Moira persuaded me to carry it back as hand luggage as a surprise for Peter. The surprise for him was that I hadn’t ditched it at LAX as I never really liked it even when we lived there – it certainly wasn’t worth the painful stares from fellow flyers as I took up the majority of the overhead lockers with it on the flight from LAX to Terminal 5! But it lived on, in our half way done dining room in France. And although I don’t particularly like the chandelier itself, I did like the fact that we could sit underneath it and pretend we were back in Harratt St, West Hollywood where we first met.

But once I found my perfect dining table, the table tennis table was removed to the barn – where it still lives happily today, often covered in bat poo but nothing that a jiffy cloth and some Ajax can’t fix.
The table came from our friend Steve Cutts who has been selling his chateau nearby (see blog post here )
On a visit to his home, I admired both his big farmhouse kitchen and dining tables – both large enough to fill our space and perfect in terms of style. So I persuaded him to sell me both even though it left him and his kids crowded around much smaller ones until he found some to replace them. We then found some unfinished chairs at a vide grenier – all six for €100. Un bargain.

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So we were starting to look like a finished room…. In fact I may leave the final phase for another post!

La Rentree

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what do you mean you can’t wear that hat to work??

It might be time for a post about my London life. I’ve kept these to a minimum as I wanted to paint a picture of bucolic, shabby chic life in France. But its important to show the dichotomy I think every now and then. If only to underline why I love being at my French home so much. It really is an escape from a slightly bonkers London life I have inadvertently created for myself and my family. A life that on paper/instagram/facebook looks quite, well, glamorous. With not that normal stuff happening involving celebrities and fancy clothes. But the truth of the matter is – its really just stuff. Normal stuff to me and my boys, maybe not normal to others but no better for it. My happiest times, hand on heart are hanging out in France where the most exciting person I run into is Madame Bertini next door with the news that her hens have laid fresh eggs – whoo hoo pain perdu all round!!

The French have an expression ‘La Rentree’ which is that time in September that we would call ‘back to school’. And the end of my summers really do feel like that. Flip flops are abandoned in favour of uncomfortable heels, I make a trip to Hershesons to get my roots done, nails re shellaced, and I try and remember what the hell I wear to work (cos it isn’t denim cut offs and a silly straw hat – that much I do know – there is an entire gallery devoted to what I wear to work here on company.co.uk should anyone care!)

You can’t cycle to the river in those heels!

So first up this Rentree was London Fashion Week which passes in a blur of shows, parties and stressing about where you’re sitting and what you’re wearing. And for the Top Shop Unique show Seb came along…..

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Seb takes to the FROW

And then to Arthur and I went to X Factor and as, over the years I’ve got to know the lovely presenter of Xtra Factor, Caroline Flack pretty well, she swept us off to the dressing room area to meet Olly Murs – see, I told you this is no normal back to school September for the White Family….

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Olly where’s your shirt??

But the thing that meant this year was to be probably our most exciting London Rentree yet was the still, arm pinchingly ‘really?’ fact that Uncle Richard landed a place as a celebrity dancer on Strictly Come Dancing. He was in talks quite early on, so we had all been sworn to secrecy and pledged not to tell the children as they might then blurt it out at school. But in our first weekend back in London we went over for lunch and it was confirmed. Uncle Richard would be donning sequins and walking down those stairs to dance under a glitterball on primetime Saturday night TV.

What would Serge have to say about THIS?

It may sound silly as we are all used to Uncle Richard being on TV – he’s been a fixture on the GMTV then Daybreak sofa for over a decade. Arthur has even made his own GMTV appearance several years ago where he played on his Nintendo on the sofa only looking up to say ‘Hi Mum, Dad and Sebastian” while Ben Sheppard tried to talk him away from Super Mario Bros – unsuccessfully. But we sort of forget that Uncle Richard is actually, well, famous. But now it was unavoidable. This is Saturday night TV – that families huddle around their TV to watch and Ladbrokes take bets on. Once the boys could tell people at school their teachers were excited, dinner ladies over the moon and my various god-daughters and all our friends pledged to wave goodbye to Saturday nights out and instead sit on the phone voting for Uncle Rich!

As it turned out he did much better than any of us expected (sorry Rich… but you know we figured three or four weeks tops) and was still there sparring with Craig Revel Horwood by the time the dancers and their celeb partners get to go to Wembley and so I went too. You can see me on TV sitting behind Lee Mead, Denise Van Outen’s husband. And as luck would have it, this also became the week Richard was voted out. Luck because he had done so well and it was lovely that I was there for his final week and a huge glitterball last dance. In fact, there was nothing to do but celebrate.

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Just the three of us

He’d done amazingly well, but the end of his Strictly run meant we had our Uncle Richard back for Sunday lunching and Friday nighting (as his training schedule had pretty much taken him out of our lives for the best part of six weeks) and so, along with his other godson and his family who luckily we’re super close to (hi Vicky!!!) we went out for a big, long, slightly drunken Sunday lunch to celebrate our own familial Rentree.

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Strictly back with the godsons!

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