Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where there's smoke...

Having grown up in LA, I have very fond memories of childhood winters. After summer’s unbearable heat and autumn’s furious winds and wildfires, I found myself yearning for cool cloudy days, for nights that closed in well before dinnertime, for the occasional rainy afternoon by the fire. I remember making popcorn to snack on while I watched the rain fall, wrapped in a warm sweatshirt and listening to the occasional sizzle of the reliable three-hour-burn Duraflame log. Mom would bake cookies while I, always the romantic, imagined our late-60’s Spanish-style house to be an ancient thatched cottage tucked away in the English countryside. In a land of endless freeways and almost no rainfall, I appreciated all things cozy.

These days I’m up to mes oreilles in cozy, and it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Cozy, in the context of a picturesque medieval farmhouse nestled among the hills and dales of the Quercy countryside, turns out to be hard work. We all picture the obvious: outside are crumbling stone walls and magnificent old trees dripping with November rain, inside it’s all hand-knit sweaters, warm cups of tea and a roaring fire comfortable filling the enormous open hearth. All great stuff, for which we are grateful every single day. But that fire…

For a start, let’s get it out in the open, fireplaces do not heat your house. Eighty percent of all the heat that’s produced goes right up the chimney, bounces off the stratosphere, and returns to Earth somewhere in the Arctic where it feebly conspires with the oil industry to discomfort polar bears. Our enormous medieval cantou, the local rendition of the Inglenook hearth, is big enough to climb into because that’s precisely what they used to do before central heating. The cantou traditionally would have had a cooking pot suspended in the middle and a chair to either side in which the grandparents could sit to keep warm. The rest of the family kept warm by working hard in the fields until they reached old age, probably at forty, and earned their turn by the fire.

Given that its nominal heat production renders it essentially ornamental, the fireplace is awfully high maintenance. We don’t need to sit by it; we can keep perfectly warm all day by ferrying in the enormous logs that it consumes like potato chips. It makes me wistful for those Duraflames.

Better, on that score, is the lovely old Godin wood-burning stove in the dining room. This quaint green-enameled piece of 19th century technology gives off much more heat with much less wood. But that wood must be cut into 45 cm sections and not be too thick; the hours I spend with a chainsaw every week sculpting little logs to fit into the Godin’s narrow jaws are gratifying to my sense of machismo and affinity for country life, but quite frankly I could do without them. At least the Godin is happy when I feed it; it thanks me by belching large quantities of smoke into the dining room.

Nonetheless here I sit, my laptop warming my legs, my clothing reeking of smoke, happily entering what will be our fourth French winter by the fire. Like every year, Sophia and I are discussing the option of using our magnificent medieval fireplace to frame a modern wood-burner that would actually keep us warm. But despite the absurdity of all this chopping, carrying and choking in homage of a romantic ideal, we won’t do it. Sitting here by the fire, sooty and reeking of smoke, watching the logs disappear as fast as the raindrops hit the drafty single-glazed window, it’s just too damned cozy.

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