All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

French Country Style

French country house VarenImage by ahisgett via Flickr
I was at a second hand book sale with a friend when she pointed one out to me....

'That would interest you...French country interiors...'

I took it from her. It was a coffee table book written in American English with colour photographs on every page and text in the interstices designed, it appeared, to encourage the reader to recreate the romantic world of  the tradtional French interior.

Gauzy curtains shimmered in front of open windows with the glimpse of a rose garden beyond.....

Batteries of shining copper pans hung from the beams.....

Chandeliers hung low over dining tables clad in whte damask....

The jewel colours of Provencal tiles reflected in kitchen worktops....

I gave it her back.

I don't have a coffee table stout enough to support its weight.....and I've seen it all before.

But not in real life. Only in the pages of glossy magazines.

French style as I first met it in small hotels and in country B and Bs was strong on wallpaper.
Not only on the walls but on the doors, the cupboards and the ceiling. Not just flowery wallpaper either, but shag pile carpet wallpaper in electric blue and bright orange, that had a certain Edgar Allan Poe feel to it when you wanted to get to the bathroom down the corridor...and couldn't find the door, let alone the handle.

The absence of sofas and armchairs surprised me; the only place to sit was on a high backed chair at the table, or on benches at either side of it.....but as Edith told me, in her young day the women did not sit down at all. The men were served at the table and the women ate what was left standing at the chimney breast.
And for white damask tablecloths substitute oilcloth. I hadn't seen it for years before moving to France...which must be the oilcloth capital of the known world.

Copper pans were for professional kitchens....more common were the earthenware cooking vessels with concave lids, for putting into the ashes in the morning, loading more hot ash on the lid and being assured of a good hot soup or stew when you came in from the outdoor work at lunchtime.
These days, such items sit snugly on shelves as the photographs in glossy magazines.

Even these days, kitchen equipment can be limited...indispensable is the microwave for reheating the coffee that is made first thing in the morning and will have to last all day and the frying pan, the combination of both items being quite adequate to cope with the staple cooking of the French provinces...defrosting the frozen food delivered by the men from Agrigel.

There are any number of these companies....their vans thread the countryside putting everything from fish fillets to homard a l'armoricaine in the freezer of the rural housewife.
I see that one of the firms is currently promoting

'Tripe!' as 'Just the thing!'

So, as you can see, their range is comprehensive.

Should you wish to become a customer you will generally find that Wednesday afternoon is a good time to ask for a delivery.....the kids are home from school and the average housewife thus does not have the time to devote to discussing her needs and desires with the man from Agrigel.
She prefers Thursdays for the contemplation of her cuisses de nymphe.

Is it that I am too down market?

But in the houses of the provincial bourgeoisie I didn't find 'style' as portrayed in the glossies.
I found old furniture, good china and glass, but no 'arty' arrangements of items, while the one time I was inside the country house of an ex Very Important Politician I noted that there was  a distinct odour of not-let-out-in-time dog around the bottoms of the curtains and that the paintwork was the same grey blue army surplus that featured so prominently on the shutters and doors of the little farms around.

I've seen some beautiful interiors French owned and foreign owned houses in the French countryside...but none of them could be said to conform the the image promoted in the glossies.
Each was individual, each house had had the luck to have had an owner with the sense to 'listen' to it, understand its layout and make the most of it...colour, light, comfort more important than conformity to an imposed image.

I remember an acquaintance, long ago now, who had bought a dilapidated cottage and restored it painstakingly, until the day it was complete and he asked the neighbours in for a drink.
One chap kept looking attentively at the ceiling, where our hero had painted the beams and the plaster between them a becoming shade of pale grey so my acquaintance asked him what he thought of it.

'Well,' came the reply 'I was just trying to remember which beam it was that Joel hanged himself from....'

Perhaps if I'd mixed with different people.....
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  1. I don't know anyone with a glossy magazine interior either. To start with I don't know anyone who lives in a French country house and all my friends have children ready to muck up whatever attempt at gracious living their parents display.

    Actually, I know a woman who used to live in country houses, doing each one up as she bought it, but since I've known her she's lived in tiny little modern houses... with impeccable interiors natch.

    To me it's all fluff and while I like my home to look decent, I really can't be fagged to spend money on stuff. One thing's for sure, no one from a glossy will ever come to my house to take photographs. I couldn't create an interior if it slapped me on the face with a wet fish. :)

  2. Sarah, all these photographs seem so sterile...where are the people who supposedly live in these places?
    And, as you say there can't be any children about!

    It strikes me that there is a whole industry dedicated to extracting money from pockets in the search for validation of taste...very unsavoury.

    No way would we be in the glossies...Mr. Fly's habit of filling up one table with things which must not be moved and then proceeding to another would give any House Beautiful stylist the heeby jeebies...

  3. Wallpaper? On everything? Even in the bathroom?!

  4. Steve, this was before the days of the ensuite in French hotels or B and Bs...what you generally got when you had beaten the four minute mile along the corridor to beat the time switch on the lighting was a turkish hole in the ground and a washbasin.
    I was in no condition by then to notice the wall covering, but I know it wasn't shag pile carpet.

  5. I'll go with wallpaper everywhere Fly. And bidets too. We've looked at bathroom stuff in the shops recently and no-one even suggests bidets??

  6. Rosie, you could write a book on the rise and fall of the bidet...they do seem to have gone out of fashion again.

  7. There's an image that foreigners have of wonderful Turkish interior design...lots of Ottoman antiques and priceless carpets and fabrics. The only people in Turkey who live in houses like this are foreigners who renovate and "restore" old houses and copy what they have seen in the glossie mags...there are a fair number in Cappadocia...and when the locals pop in to have a look (as they do because they are nosy!) they are amazed...they've never seen anything like it!

    And the little old men who used to go round collecting up all the old pots, pans, porcelain, wooden tools etc...are doing a roaring trade as "antique dealers" now that they've cottoned on to the demand of these ex-pat design gurus! Haha good luck to them I say.

  8. Ayak, yes, good luck to the little old men!
    It seems a similar phenomenon...I just wonder that people don't have confidence in their own ideas and need to have 'validation' for what they do...

  9. Fluorescent lights, everywhere. When we first came to this village I'd walk by windows at 6 or 7 or 8 at night, before the shutters came down and think it was an office, "wow these people are always working!" Eventually I realized it was the lighting of choice for kitchens and living areas. You really made me laugh with this post - I was one of those gullible Americans who kept expecting to see chic French country style. Now I know it's mostly bad lighting, wallpaper on doors and cold tile floors.

  10. Amy, comes as a bit of a shock, doesn't it!

  11. Either dingy beyond belief or so bright they make your eyes hurt would describe most of the French properties I have ever looked around.
    We are still in the process of renovating our French hovel, but it suprised me when some French friends of ours said 'How English!!' when they entered our kitchen that we THOUGHT had been carefully restored!!
    I didn't know whether to laugh or be horrified at the beam comment!

  12. Roz, they probably meant you hadn't formica'd it!

    The beam incident was one of quite a few.
    Chaps living on their own in the country would commit suicide...usually by hanging themselves from one of the hooks in the beams...and the house would be for sale.
    Obviously it wouldn't cross a buyer's mind, but the neighbours knew all about it and some would be tactless enough to mention it.

    I've just been adding up and I can think of six houses I've known where there has been a suicide.

  13. There you go again Fly, bashing the Bourgeoisie. I mean, what ever have our chambermaids done to look down on you? Perhaps it’s because we continue to symbolise the ‘shallow end of the pool’ with such inspired taste and pazazz.

    And anyway, those ‘publications’ you keep besmirching are essential to our daily existence and responsibilities. How else are we supposed to seek new ideas & validity for our continual monthly remodelling’s? Think for ourselves I suppose? ‘Imagine’ even!?...

    Perish the thought! That’s why we employ ‘Personal Interior Designers’ or ‘Pid’s’ if you want to sound hip. I just get all my Pid’s flown in together on the same day of every month, open the latest hand delivered copy of ‘Elitist Homes’ and say “I want that one, that one, that one, that one and…that one”. And then I dismiss them all again, so I can recline and re-energise.

    And as for ‘Tripe’, we have ours hand reared in Andorra these days. It’s an altitude thing. The air’s purer, or so they tell me. Which is why all my kitchens just have to be fully equipped with a selection of at least four different models of ‘Sous-Viding’ machines, of course.

    An extended lunch without Sous-Vided poached eggs and freshly snow blown; Andorran tripe would be unthinkable. It’s all the rage in my circles this month. Simply divine. You should try it Fly! I have a few spare Sous-Viders I could donate to you if it would help.

    And don’t forget, If there’s ever any left over’s, you can always do the decent thing nowadays and have one of your chefs rustle it up, into a little ‘Andouille’ sausage. Waste not want not. Isn’t that what you all chant these days? And they make such great sport for us all when thrown for the dogs to chase. Almost amusing.

    We like your image of that little hut thingy at the top of your post. Celia just said it looks like the perfect solution for a ‘Pissoir’. Do you supply them by any chance? Presuming you do - We’d like to have five to begin with. Our workmen really need more updated and illustrious facilities to carry out there ablutions on the estates.

    I’ll send one of my more junior ‘Pid’s’ over to choose the colours and make all the tiresome arrangements. Tootle Pip for now.

    “Not-let-out-in-time dog” – Laughed out loud Fly. Highly entertaining post again. Just love your acerbic wit. Have a good afternoon. P.

  14. Phil...only five pissoires?
    How can I take you seriously?
    Suggest you read Clochemerle for pissoires and their prominence in the rural scene.

  15. Our house, when we bought it, didn't even have wallpaper, just assorted fungi and peeling lime green paint on the walls, and thick brown shiny paint on the beams. The thick brown paint has proved impossible to remove over the last 16 years.

    We're in the process of painting our rather large two-storey dining room in bright fuchsia pink. With not a single polished log nor a single pierre apparente apparent, an IKEA kitchen, and bathroom with loo, we eagerly await contact from publications seeking examples of gracious and tasteful French renovations. We call it home. :)

  16. Hi Fly, I have always maintained that 'French Style' is something that Anglo Saxons invented. Although I must admit being rather bourgeois I am taken in by the whole thing. The local brocante vendors cotton on fast they can spot an Anglo Saxon, looking for that quintessential French style item from fifty paces, and thus bump up the price accordingly.

    I love my oilcloth, it's so practical and easy to clean!

  17. Phil, it's done it again!
    I have your comment on my e mail...and you're quite right I shouldn't mix the languages...but the comment itself is somewhere in the bowels of Blogger.
    It has happened Blogger never answers cries for help I've decided just to let it take its course and wait...with some trepidation...for it to regurgitate the missing comments.

    nodamnblog, I was led to believe that the shiny brown paint was 'surplus to requirements'...whether they knew it or not...of SNCF. There had been a big railway depot in the nearby town where I first lived in France and everything was painted in shiny brown paint.
    How is it that the French lost the formula?
    Every pot of paint I bought in France seemed to made to a 'non stick' specification...
    A bit further afield, everything was painted in a sort of blue surplus from the 1950s camp in that area....
    I wonder whose surplus was lime green?

    Dash, I'm sure you're right! I can remember buying those gorgeous embroidered sheets at a vide grenier and the price going up...before my very eyes..once the seller had sussed the foreign accent!
    The thing is, you're confident in what you do...the photographs of your house make that quite clear!
    I just wish people would give their own creativity a chance rather than slavishly following some style magazine without a clue as to the culture behind the style.
    There's a French chap who lived in the next village who took three cottages and a pigsty and made an absolutely fairytale palace of them...but no vestige of anyone's style but his own either in the building or the decor!
    Odd how childhood prohibitions can father would not have oilcloth in the house as being 'cheap and nasty'...neither would he allow my mother to buy corned beef, as being dog food....a prejudice shared by mother in law who fed it to her dogs in the Congo...
    I have overcome the corned beef prohibition...but not the oilcloth one!

  18. That was good ending to the story - at least good in writerly sense.

    Nobody really believes all these interior books and magazines do they?

    Country Living Magazine sells almost exclusively in the cities - a dream, an aspiration; not real life.

  19. Mark, I too think that these magazines and books sell a dream...and one that inhibits people from forming their own views as to what is good.
    'Copy this room and gain status' seems to be the message...

    I can imagine that living out in the sticks 'Country Living' must seem impossibly twee....

    As to the suicide, the renovator said he couldn't keep himself from looking at the beams after that...

  20. Is that the French take on "beam" me up, Scottie?

    We got given a book very like the one you describe, on French Country Living by American friends. Yep, no basis in reality at all.

  21. I'm totally with you on French country style, or the lack thereof. Of the many, many houses we looked at, not one resembled these coffee table books. Most would require years of dedication just to remove the wallpaper from the ceiling, doors, sides of bath, wardrobe doors, etc, etc. French style today is IKEA, IKEA with a bit of Conforama thrown in for good measure. It's the same as French chic which only exists on the pages of French Vogue and in the larger cities and cafe society which a la campagne usually means sitting on a knackered plastic chair at a formica table inhaling traffic fumes! The only houses I met that vaguely resembled these books belonged to foreigners who had bought the stuff from the UK!

  22. Mark in Mayenne, that was so evil I'm still laughing!
    Do you think it was the same publication?

    Wylye Girl, what got me was that when I was first there, they were busy chucking out their old furniture and covering everything in formica!

  23. We once stayed in a room in a chateau in the Loire Valley where the walls, bathroom door and, I think, the ceiling had been wall paper in a floral design. By the way we weren't paying, we won the holiday from The Times. So somebody does win these holiday competitions. It was horrendously expensive. Somewhere that we could never have afforded ourselves.

  24. Thank you for setting the record straight. There is always the assumption that those rich enough to live in such places also have wonderful taste. Not so, in my experience.
    Speaking of wallpaper, my ex and I once stayed in a rather funky little B&B in Ripon, Yorkshire. The woman who ran the place was a close friend of Laura Ashley. Consequently absolutely everything was festooned with Ashley wallpaper to an almost awful degree.

  25. cheshire wife, a French friend used to have a theory that these chateau B and Bs lived off the competition in the newspaper and the prize draw market...

    mr writeon, the few rich that I have known employ people to install 'taste' for them and then to publicise it.
    Always looks more like tat than taste to me.
    Crumbs, yes, I remember the Laura Ashley could go mad counting the knots of flowers...