Winter of Discontent

All is not paradise perfect in Provence.  Last winter bordered on hell.  Disaster after disaster.  The cold days will be upon us before long.  Hopefully we will be better prepared.

Winters here are much more severe than we had imagined – and they get colder every year.  Last winter we had several major snowfalls, one with 20 inches of the white stuff, and months of temperatures in the low 20s. (Fahrenheit).

Our house is half way down a steep hill on a dirt road which is not snow-ploughed very often. After the big snow, Bob put chains on the car so we could get out.  The snow was so deep the chains broke.  We were snowed in, but fortunately the village center and a small grocery store are just a 25-minute walk.  And, with all the snow, the walk was beautiful.

We naively bought a house with no central heating.  We have electric space heaters on the walls, but they are old, expensive to use and not very effective.  So, our main source of heat has been the fireplace, which does have pipes distributing the heat to various parts of the house.  Nonetheless we froze.  At first heating with the fireplace was romantic, nostalgic, quaint. We felt like pioneers.  But we soon learned living like pioneers was no fun. Chopping wood. Stacking wood.  Hauling wood.  Our living quarters are on the second floor, so the wood has to be lugged up the steps.  That’s the easy part. 

Keeping a fire burning is anything but easy.  Much of the wood we initially purchased was too young.  It did not burn well.  Bob cursed and swore. He tried all sorts of tricks to get a fire going.  And, once going, the chore was to keep it burning.  It takes diligent surveillance.  If you go away and leave it for several hours, it will be out when you return, and the house will be like Antarctica. You need to start all over.  During the night Bob would get up several times to stoke the fire.   I offered to assist and take my turn.  He refused to let me.  I guess it’s a macho thing.

We coped, wearing many layers of clothing.  Sometimes I even wore gloves.

I did end up with a chronic sinus infection which plagued me much of the winter.

One brisk winter day, after noticing all the smoke from neighbors’ chimneys,   Bob decided to go outside and take a look at ours.  Not smoke, but flames were soaring out.  He yelled. I panicked.  I raced to call the volunteer fire department.  They nonchalantly gave me instructions to put the fire out.  I was shaking with fear, but we got the fire out, although the house was full of smoke.   The firemen eventually showed up, but if we had had to wait for them, the house would have been ashes.

They inspected our chimney and reported that it was not constructed properly.  No more fires until this could be rectified. Now, we would really shiver. The firemen went into the attic to further check the chimney.  More bad news.  All our insulation, which was much too thin, they said, had been installed upside down.  That was a major reason we were living in Siberia-like conditions, they told us.

One of the firemen just happened to be qualified to do the required chimney work.  He came back several days later and did the job.  Of course, it was a major expense.

From the fire to floods. It finally warmed up a bit outside, and the snow turned to rain.  Buckets of it.  All the mountains of snow piled up on our tile roof melted – right down into our living room, office, bedroom.  Leaks everywhere. We got out the buckets and called in a roofer.  We had serious problems which would require extensive repairs.  More money.

Then we noticed that the plot of grass above our septic tank was very green and swamp like. We called in the experts and were told we had a “bouchon,” a blockage somewhere. Two men came and dug to expose the tank.  It was overflowing, although we had just had it emptied about a year prior to this fiasco.  They came back and emptied it, then returned again, digging a trench to expose the pipes leading from the tank.  They forced water through the pipes.  The “bouchon” would not budge.  They said we would need to dig up the entire system and possibly replace it at great expense.  We were devastated.  We were expecting paying guests who would occupy our vacation  apartment on the first floor.  We couldn’t expect them to put up with an exposed septic tank and trenches and mountains of dirt everywhere.  I was depressed, nervous, and angry. This was not the Provence we had dreamed of.

It was all getting to be too much.  Bob talked of bailing out and moving to Costa Rica.  I nixed that idea.  We don’t speak Spanish, and the move would cost a fortune.  I was ready for an apartment on the coast, although I doubt we could have afforded it.

I pleaded with the septic tank company to try once again to de-bouchon the system.  They obliged, and this time, a miracle.  It worked.  We were saved.

Things seemed to be looking up, then one day our phone went out, and with it the Internet connection.  I called those wonderful folks at France Telekom who told me to unplug everything and restart.  We did this many times to no avail. I called  FT back.  They would send someone, but we would have to wait – two weeks.  I was furious.  In 2010, you have to wait two weeks for someone to come and check out your phone! Unbelievable. Another joy of French country living.  We were without phone and Internet for 17 days, all because the Mistral (yet another Provence pest) had blown the wires down.

Fortunately it’s been a summer without trial and tribulation.  The weather has been good – lots of hot sunshine. That’s what one expects in Provence, but it’s heat without that debilitating humidity, and the evenings and mornings are pleasant, sometimes even cool.

The roof has been repaired. All is bone dry above the septic tank.

And, soon we will have a heat pump installed and the insulation redone, so hopefully we’ll be a bit warmer  — and drier — this winter. 

One thought on “Winter of Discontent”

  1. Oh, Leah! A true expat horror tale. Ugh.
    We’re suffering on our island paradise as well. We also lack heating and shiver through long winters as we gather and chop wood.
    Most of June and July we had zero water. What next? Now it’s a heatwave. … One day I was so sizzling I went for a swim in the sea _in my clothes_.
    Let’s hope for happier times ahead!


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