This week marks an important milestone on our little estate. After many months of debate, planning, getting quotes, and of course actual labor, the refurbishment of our swimming pool is nearly complete.
That word “nearly” might trouble some people. I can sympathize. Milestones should be about actually finishing something, about achieving a sense of closure. I mean, how inspiring is it to hear “Just do it, eventually?” Who brags about giving a job their 85%?
Ah, but this is France.
To say that things here move at a slower pace would, I think, be missing the point. Yes, it’s southern Europe as opposed to northern Europe, and it’s countryside rather than city, and each of the respective stereotypes of general slowness have some ring of truth to them. But it’s not so much the slowness of pace here as the intermittency of work that leaves us in so constant a state of almost-arrival. Anyone we hire to do anything seems to be perpetually coming and going, starting and stopping. There are always extra parts on order, or extra machinery needed, or additional experts to be consulted. Any process here seems to acquire extra steps, like the random baritone vowel sounds that characteristically insert themselves into the sentences of the southern French. Behn, euh, c’est preque euh, finit euh.
I’d love to say that after living here for four years I’d figured out a reason for all this. I’ve trotted out a few theories, and I think I might well be onto something with the idea that it all relates to the French capacity for appreciating nuance. In this slow quiet corner of an already introspective, abstract nation, people accomplish things in fits and starts because at every step they perceive issues that might simply be ignored in a more straightforward culture. Our nearly finished pool, like our half-repaired boiler or the perpetually about-to-be-overhauled transmission on my Renault 4, is in fact a Gallic form of celebrating the bedazzling multifariousness of life. Maybe.
The problem is, I’m finding myself doing the same damn thing. Our house and land is generously peppered with nearly-completed projects, half-hearted attempts and partly-realized ambitions. The most colorful of these can be traced back to that most dangerous of books, the great lexicon of country-living ambitions, John Seymour’s Compete Guide to Self-Sufficiency. The wreckage of Mr. Seymour’s well-intentioned encouragement is all around me.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, including and especially my back, the drystone wall I dreamed of building has yet to evolve beyond the accumulation of a large pile of rocks at the edge of the upper field. Our yearly stab at a vegetable patch has seen more success. We have managed to acquire a collection of tomato, courgette and pumpkin seedlings, and have staked off a new patch of earth for this year’s potager. It is promising, at least, and the years have proved it more realistic than my early-aborted plans of bee-keeping.
But my favorite project, and the one that best illustrates just how these things get slowed down, is my farm gate. The field that separates our house from our rental cottages borders on a small road. This isn’t such a problem – it’s a narrow country lane that ends at the next farm, the sort of road where two cars couldn’t pass without one pulling off the side, the sort of road where two cars rarely pass anyway. But that field bordering on that road spoke to me. A vision rose in my head, a Seymouresque vision of that field separated from that road by an old fashioned hedgerow, á l’Anglaise. I’d seen many of them during our years in England, read about them in Winnie the Pooh and the Wind in the Willows. I wanted one, and the good Mr. Seymour was telling me that with a little work it could be mine. A hedgerow, with an old-timey farm gate (important to allow access for my beloved jaunty blue tractor) was within my reach.
That was three years ago, and I’ve been reaching for that gate ever since. I started with the hedge itself, each winter setting aside a bit of time among other projects to carefully gather saplings in the surrounding forest – hawthorn, hornbeam, maple and broom – and slowly planted two staggered rows of rustic bushes that will one day, I’m certain of it, grow large enough for me to interweave them as befits a proper hedgerow. In the meantime, I put in two sturdy fenceposts – thick chestnut, also from our woods – and set about planning the gate.
Enough care and planning went into this gate to make it worthy of St. Peter himself. Two years ago I settled upon a design, measured, cut good long chestnut poles for the top and bottom and shorter ones for the sides and crossbeams, and bought all the metal parts (hinges, bolts, screws). It would be a double gate, one half large enough to allow access for the beloved JBT, the other small and easier to open for foot traffic. It had taken a while, my priorities were always elsewhere, but I had just about everything gathered together and ready to go.
And then, that spring, one of the guests in our cottages had the idea of building a little hut for the kids. He asked if that would be alright and if he could use some wood from the pile at the edge of the field. It seemed like a fun project, something our various guests could enjoy all summer, so I said okay and went about my business. He was a builder by trade, and he put together a wonderful little pyramid. The kids loved it. And I did too, until I noticed that its frame was composed of all the posts I had so carefully cut to size for my gate.
So my gate spent the next two years entombed in the traditional Egyptian manner, as honored and useless as any dead pharaoh. Other priorities reasserted themselves. Life went on and my hedge slowly grew. My fenceposts stood silently, watching that pyramid like two great sphinxes, waiting, waiting.
But this spring, the mummy awakes. The pyramid was becoming unstable, so I took it down, excavating the lost pieces of my gate and with them a renewed determination to complete this long dreamed-of project. I have replaced the pieces that could not be salvaged, gathered my tools, found the hinges that had been gathering dust in a corner of my shed, and started building.
And it’s nearly finished.