Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid

May 2015

It’s such an exciting time for us. Despite a few delays along the way, mainly due to bad weather and a lack of money, we are slowly but surely making progress Chez TêteBlanche. We were perhaps a little optimistic in our plans to begin with and we have now accepted that after only four months here, we can’t possibly do everything at once. Hence, we still haven’t got any chickens, the vegetable beds are not finished and the grass is knee-high, despite it being cut by our neighbour only last month. Rome might not have been built in a day, but the French version has a nicer ring to it: “Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid” (Little by little, the bird makes its nest). We are well aware that it may take us years to get where we want to be, but nonetheless, it is immensely satisfying seeing things starting to come together.

While I have been off making friends with other permaculture enthusiasts in the village (and there’s not that many of them, I can tell you), Pete recently joined the Privezac veteran football team. While heading to the changing rooms for what he thought was his first training session, he was instead, whisked off in a car and taken to a flood-lit stadium in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, where it was the last match of the season. Thinking he would be spectating, he was quite surprised to find a bright green football shirt coming his way in the second half. Soon after, he went on as sub and ended up scoring one goal and setting up another two. Unfortunately, victory was not on the cards and they lost 7-3, but Pete seemed to have a good time and is particularly fond of his new ‘Rooney’ nickname, especially when its pronounced with a strong French accent.

As his final day of agency work drew near, Pete’s efforts were rewarded with the proposal of a CDI (a permanent year-round contract), which he accepted, of course, without hesitation. A full time job is not easy to come by round here and he is now in charge of his own workshop, making terraces and wooden frames for leisure chalets. It also means he gets all weekends and bank holidays off, plus the entire month of August, when the company closes for annual holiday. It certainly takes the pressure of us, knowing that we can meet the mortgage repayments and buy all the necessities we need.

The big ‘necessity’ of this month is a ride-on lawnmower. Kind though he is, we couldn’t possibly ask Gérard to manually mow our land again. The first and last time he offered to do it, it took him three days, and even then, he had to strim the last bit because the grass was so dense. We were so grateful, but we don’t want him to feel he has to do it again. So, after quite a bit of online research, we’ve gone with a ride-on McCulloch cross-mower with mulching kit. You can already guess what my brother’s going to be doing when he comes out to stay in a couple of weeks! It certainly beats turning the compost pile anyway.mcculloch cross

The first of five French bank holidays this month meant that Pete has made great progress on the composting toilet. Here are a few photos of it so far:

Now while we’re on the subject of composting toilets, I thought I might as well tell you about our plans for the new sewage system. When we bought the house, we were aware that the old septic tank next to the house was not up to ‘the norm’ and that tightened individual sewage regulations mean we have twelve months to get it replaced. I contacted the local SPANC (Service Public d’Assainissement Non Collectif), who gave me these three conventional sewage solutions for our needs:

1) An all-water septic tank and a sand filter (Fosse toutes eaux + filtre à sable)
Cheapest of the three options to install but not very eco-friendly, the large sand filter bed means it requires a lot of space.

2) A sewage treatment plant  (Microstation d’épuration)
Requires the least space but the all-water septic tank compartment requires more frequent emptying and it requires electricity for the pump.

3) An all-water septic tank and a compact filter system (Filtre compact)
The most eco-friendly of the three, using cocunut fibre filters, but expensive to install and maintain.

Funnily enough, our ideal ‘unconventional’ solution was not even mentioned by the nice gentleman at SPANC. The problem with the above solutions is that they all involve having an all-water septic tank or compartment, which relies on us having to pay a company to come and empty it every four years or so. We want to have an eco-friendly, sustainable system that we can maintain ourselves. The most obvious and only solution therefore, is PHYTOEPURATION: the treatment of domestic water waste by the use of plants, WITHOUT a septic tank. You might be more familiar with the idea of reed beds. Here are some examples:

The overall cost for this type of system (with the use of classic running water toilets) is only slightly more than your average all-water septic tank and even less with composting toilets, and what’s more, both the French Ministry of Health and Environment and the SPANC now approve it through these two registered companies: Aquatiris and Recycl’eau, which means there is hope for us yet. Auto-construction is another possibility, which again lowers the installation costs, but it’s whether Pete would have the time to do it now he’s a full time working man! I could help him with the planting at least, in fact gardening is becoming quite a hobby of mine.

A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t even touch the soil without my gardening gloves on, but now, not a day goes by without my nails turning black with dirt and grit. I’ve transferred all my seedlings to the herb spiral and things are starting to happen in the vegetable garden! So far, we have potatoes, onions, swiss chard, dill, radishes, lettuce, carrots and celery. In the hügelkultur, the raspberry, red and black currant bushes are well-established and there are figs starting to appear next to the house. I’ve even downloaded some landscape gardening software so I can design our entire garden from scratch. Pete often tells me I should spend less time planning things and just get on with it, but I always like to have a plan and I thoroughly enjoy making ‘to do’ lists. It’s no wonder he despises these task lists of mine, which should really be called ‘Pete’s to do lists’!

As I’m the one writing this blog, it might often come across like I’m the brains behind all our ideas, but it really is a joint partnership. We are lucky that we share similar ideals and goals for the future…for our future, Chez TêteBlanche. Here’s a little peek of what it’s all about…

With regards to wildlife, it is mating season for the frogs who keep us awake with their frog chorus all night long and a couple of dairy cows seem to have found their way into the field next door, bringing with them swarms of flies. What can I say? Living in the country not only brings its pleasures, but its nuisances too.

Last week, a huge lorry turned up at 7.30am and two guys came to do the loft insulation, which involved them blowing loose mineral wool into the unused loft space, covering a total of 60m². IMG_2782They were gone within the hour, which to me, means that they were either extremely competent at their job, or that they had something better to do and rushed it. When I questioned them, they told me that the easy access via our front window as well as the efficiency of the powerful machine in the lorry meant that the job was quick and straightforward. I offered them a coffee, but they politely refused, telling me they did indeed have another appointment to keep, and swiftly went on their way. When I inspected the work upstairs, despite a bit of sweeping up to do, I can’t grumble. The house already seems warmer and after receiving the bill today, I can confirm that the cost of it all, as inititially proposed, came in at a whopping 1€ including tax, which has to be paid by cheque within a month! So, if you are a house owner in France and earn less than 37,000€ a year, you too, might be able to get your loft insulated for 1€ with the current Pacte Energie Solidarité campaign! Feel free to contact me for further details. I can assure you, it’s not a scam.


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