Every Spring, or late Spring, if you like, I make my annual sabbatical to France. I spend three months,well, maybe a few days over the limit but France has never complained. Last year I spent time working on my house and helping a friend tear down a couple of stone walls that had, at one time, been a bakery. These village histories are more myth than fact but sometimes you find the evidence. Del, my English friend, broke a vertebra in his neck and can no longer engage in heavy work. For you young people, let me tell you that us old people often still believe we are only twenty five. The hard part is convincing our bodies that we have not grown old. That little demolition job took almost three weeks and we happened to start during one of the hottest weather periods in May. The walls were made of sandstone of varying sizes and the wall itself was about twenty inches thick, perhaps thirty inches in some parts. Of course I have all manner of tools at my disposal. Del is a retired teacher of industrial arts and I have had various jobs in construction as well as high tech. So we are the normal tool junkies. He has a planner/joiner and I don’t, shame on me. Of course here in the US I can hold my own. I have something one rarely sees in Europe, a contractor grade radial arm saw, 3 HP worth. Sears in the old days made some very good tools. I also have an old pedestal table saw that needs a larger motor, one rated at least 1 HP and 11/2 HP would be better. So much for tool talk/
Most American and even most Brits don’t deal with stone buildings. Now we tend to think of stone buildings in the same way we think of brick buildings. You know, the bricks are all the same size and maybe there are two courses laid down for a wall. In the more modern construction, at least since the 1850’s, we see a wood frame erected and a single course of brick placed as the outside wall covering. If one were using stone then the stone would be of uniform size and if not, at least dressed stone. Dressed stone means that all six sides have been faced squarely with regards to one another. I say six sides because the stone is a three dimensional object. But when only one or two sides are dressed at, whether at the quarry or on site, then the fitting of the stone is more like a picture puzzle, except the pieces are not uniformly die cut. And the walls in France, Italy, and even other countries may have been build the old way. An inside course and an outside course with fill and mortar in the middle. Very often the mortar for the interior was composed of far more sand content as it was more for fill and not strength. The old Roman wall construction, and to some extent, the greek wall construction, did not use an interior fill. Instead, stones were dressed and cross stones placed every meter of height. The interior was hollow, an air space that added to the insulation. But put fill in the middle and over time it acts as a conduit for water, both up from the ground and down from the roof. While the Romans created a foundation rather than place stone directly upon the ground and let the fill conduct water inside the walls, the French were a bit lazy and liked to cut corners. The English stopped that practice about one hundred years prior to the French.
One of the problems with these stone walls is that the mortar is made from cement, sand, and lime. Lime acts to make the mortar more plastic. It holds to the stone better and is far less brittle than regular mortar. But it comes at a cost, for dealing with the lime means that one needs to wear rubber gloves to protect the shin. Also breathing the lime dust in not exactly healthy. The mortar used by brick masons does not have lime in it and you can see that after five to ten years the mortar has pulled away from the brick surface. Of course another consideration is the thickness of any layer of mortar. If the layer is too thick then the mortar tends to recede and fail to properly adhere. But mortar has a useful life and it needs to be removed to a depth of two or three inches. I would venture that once every fifty years the mortar needs to be replaced, at least on the surface. To do this one needs a cold chisel with a point or blade. I like to use both depending on the particular mortar course. And a two pound mason’s or mechanic’s hammer, one with a short handle, is best to use with the cold chisels. Now like many novices I tended to want to chisel out one or two square meters, or yards, of surface at one time. But the best way is to pay attention to what needs to be replace first and what needs to hold the stone in place. So rather than simply whack away and expose all around any particular stone, I look to see what needs to come out first, replace the mortar, and then gouge out the remaining. I want to keep the stones stable and sometimes that means wandering across the face of the wall and taking two or three passes at the gouging and repacking of the mortar. It all takes a bit of time but the results is quite wonderful when you see the new mortar one the wall.
But that is not the only work I do over there. I have a couple of doors and windows that need to be replace and I think I may make a couple of new doors this year. I have the tools and anything I buy at the big box Home Depot type stores is too high in price. This is why so many of the French do not keep their houses in good repair. Carpenters, masons, roofers, plumbers, electricians, all these workers demand excessive compensation. I think they hate me because I am willing to teach myself how to do these crafts. Sure, I may make a mistake, but I learn and improve the process. And yes, I curse the French idiots who did such a lousy job in the first place. Imbeciles, all of them.
The other activity I indulge myself is writing. I have plans for a new novel. I have written two prior novels, not quite up to the quality I expect from myself and not a third attempt. Writing is a learning experience and they say the third attempt is a charm. So I will wake up in the morning, the sun comes up a little after five, and spend some time with a pencil or pen and paper and write. The windows in my bedroom have really great vistas, but I love the jasmine bushes in the yard. Open the windows and let that scent in. Put on a pot of coffee and write. I will have a couple of typewriters this year. I should have two different Olympias, a SM 4 and a SM 3. I may have a couple more since I can afford to collect them cheaply. Eventually the extras come back to the US where I might clean them up and sell them to aspiring writers. But I like using a typewriter since it keeps me off the laptop and off the internet. You know what I mean? Three or four hours at the most in the morning for writing, editing, and typing the revisions should be enough for one day. Then some breakfast or lunch, some work on the house for a few hours, and then time for a shower. Del has a pool table and once or twice a week we will get together and play a few games of eightball. Not a bad way to spend three months. And if I feel the urge, take a short trip into Champagne or Burgundy. I’ll have good wines to drink and cheeses to eat. Now that is a good life. I should get myself a year long visa and then a residence card so that I can stay the summer. The village house didn’t cost much to buy and it is far cheaper as an investment that paying for a hotel or resort booking. Think of it, it’s like owning your own hotel room, only better. Yeah, it is a money pit but I really don’t need to bring it up to American standards. A place to sleep, take a shower, cook a meal or two, store my stuff, and some friends I can visit. Now that is a dream worth making come true.