We demolished every wall in the house except a stone wall that had been the end of the original house before an addition in the 1800s. Our contractor’s assistant discovered it when he was removing loose plaster. The wall emerged in three days of grueling work, Joe’s jackhammer chipping out cement and plaster around the rocks. It is beautiful. Fieldstones in all colors: light ochre, rose, rust red, grey and brown, the colors of the Périgord. It ends in a wonderful Périgordian corner construction, a chamfered limestone block surround. I scrubbed the stones before the wall was pointed, paying special attention to the rose and red ones that I liked the most. A few will be in front of my kitchen sink and I imagined peeling vegetables there in the fall.
John was cutting tobacco-drying wires in his studio in the barn, 20 feet up on scaffolding. He came in to inspect the wall’s progress, covered in dirt-black spider webs so strong they were like fabric. Sheets of them hung from the rafters and in the windows. No wonder the attic and barn were festooned with bouquets of laurel leaves to repel spiders, otherwise our farm might have been like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, hidden in dark webs.
Dale, our contractor, is British, as is Joe. We were lucky to find them after getting several estimates (devis) from French artisans – they are emphatically not “workers.” Communicating about the devis was hard enough and we soon realized our limitations. The artisans’ estimates ranged from astonishingly high to amazingly low, almost in proportion to their English. Dale offered a good price, one we could afford. We were on our way.
They work long, hard hours, Dale and Joe — a traditional French work schedule: six days a week, 8:30 to 12, two and a half hours for lunch, and then 2:30 to 6 pm. At the nearby Relais de Compostelle, they get a hearty four-course meal with wine for only 11 euros, Dominque’s special price for local artisans. John and I start our day at 11, work through lunch, stopping for a bite mid-afternoon and work until sunset – which has been getting later every day. We have to watch ourselves now or we’d work past nine. Often, we are too exhausted to do anything but drive back to the Beaucour, drink wine and fall into bed.
The dreary bead board ceilings are down. Nasty work. We finished looking like coal miners. The debris that fell was astonishing — hundreds of corn husks and mountains of seeds, walnut shells, dirt and sawdust. Mice at work, and, we’re told, a ferret-like animal that inhabits houses in rural France. I hope they’re all gone. Among the things we found from their nests were shredded pieces of black, plaid and white cloth. John and I chuckle thinking about the person who lost his black shirt. “I know I left it on the chair last night… .”
The living room ceiling is also down, revealing three enormous suspended beam constructions that hang from the roof beam. They are stunning! It, too, was brutal work. This time, old fiberglass insulation – 19 gigantic bags worth. Dale and Joe did it; they are heroes. They don’t shirk at anything.
I built a fire in the field to burn the beadboard. France is just beginning to have problems with wood-eating bugs because all the houses are stone. You’re not supposed to take wood away from your property because you might spread your bugs. It had been raining for days and we felt it was safe. I fed the fire for hours and as I did one of Marie-Christine and Jean-Pierre’s many pregnant cows bellowed, low and loud. It seemed that every time I heaved more wood, she answered my labor with hers. The fire burned so hot I thought it would fall through the earth. It consumed everything efficiently, without much smoke. I’ll move the ashes to our compost heap. I didn’t ask about the calf because after one was born in our barn not long ago, we went to visit it. It was chained to the barn wall with other newborns, separated from their mothers, wobbly-legged, confused. It broke my heart. No picturesque scenes of calves and their mothers in green grass on this farm. It would be slaughtered soon, pour le veau.
For weeks we worked to ready the house for its rebuilding, the plumbing, electricity, plastering. The renovation in the 1960s was done with the sole objective of warmth – lowered ceilings, small tight rooms. Walls were covered with non-porous “insulating” material (styrofoam or fiberboard). When I took it off, the plaster underneath was slick with moisture. Several artisans told me to leave it. An architect-builder told me to remove it; a stone wall has to breathe. The plaster there is still damp, weeks later.
I encountered a serious problem with some of the beams. When I was removing hanging nails, I found a beam eaten through, a shell filled with sawdust. Then two or three more. We feared termites, but the house had passed inspection. Dale noticed a bee buzzing around one of the ruined beams. Sure enough, the bee slipped into a hole with a load of nectar, exited and came back with more. Then we noticed other bees. They are a species of solitary bees that bore into wood and lay one egg. Over the years, hundreds of bees and their holes destroyed enough of our beams that we have to sheetrock the kitchen and bedroom ceilings. Disappointing, but the clean white surface will show off the dramatic exposed beams in the living room.
The demolition work is finished. Jacques came to see us on Sunday. He said we had transformed our dark sectioned house into a large luminous space. I think we have, too.