Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Winter Blues

We've been feeling a bit down lately, probably because of the short gray days and cold temperatures we've been experiencing this past month or so. We're not out outside much, except to walk the dog and go to the grocery store. I wrote what follows in 2004, during our first winter in France, and it kind of sums up the way we're feeling now. We know it's only temporary.

January 20, 2004

Winter is a bit depressing right now. The weather has been cold, then warm, then cold again. It’s not that harsh bitter cold that makes your breath freeze on your mustache and makes you feel as though your nostrils are freezing shut every time you inhale. No, it’s just cold enough to make it uncomfortable to be outside. It snowed a little and it rains frequently. We feel house-bound.

The electric bill arrived, finally, after months of practically paying nothing due to the estimation-based billing process that EDF uses. The electric company reads the meter only twice a year. They estimated our monthly consumption based on the first bill when we hadn’t lived here very long and didn’t have any appliances. Then, at the end of December, the big bill hit based on the meter reading. It was over 350 euros. I was expecting it, thanks to the electricity-estimating spreadsheet I had built, and I’ve now signed up for self-meter reading via the internet. But still, our consumption of kilowatt hours was a bit higher than we’d like. Now, in the new year, we’re keeping lights off, not keeping the water heater on in the daytime, and trying not to run the washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher except on overnight cycles. Electricity is about half price between midnight and six in the morning and the appliances are equipped with delayed starting features. We run out of hot water sometimes in the afternoon. Our damp clothes are hanging in the utility room. I skip showers every other day to save hot water.

The heat is working well, but we’re using about 12 liters of fuel oil a day. We’ve also got the furnace on a timer, so the heat comes on at 7:30 am and goes off at 8:00 pm. Since neither one of us likes the heat on at night, that’s a good thing. We also have it go off for 2 hours mid-day. On cold days, those 2 hours are enough for the house to cool down significantly. The furnace keeps the water hot while it’s “off,” it’s just that the hot water doesn’t circulate to the radiators and cool down. This shortens the time that the furnace needs to burn. We have about 2 weeks of fuel left before we need to order another 1,000 liters.

On Saturday, I noticed that when I flushed the toilet, the water was taking a long time to drain out. Of course, this made me a bit suspicious. I checked the level in the holding tank, and naturally, it was full. This came as quite a surprise since it’s only been one month since it was emptied and we had been getting it emptied every two months. We’ve concluded that the heavy rains we had in the past week (a month’s worth of rain in one week, according to the weather channel) leaked into the tank and filled it up. For three days, while waiting through the weekend and then for the pumping company to fit us in, we have not had use of the toilet. We’ve been peeing outside and in the bidet, and have used a bucket and shovel (to dig burial holes) for the more serious waste issues.

The hard rains of the past week brought another revelation: the windows on the western side of the house leak. This is the only time they’ve leaked in six months (we had a hot, dry summer), but the wind-driven rain came right into the house through the window joints and spilled down the walls. We cleaned up and shut the shutters, which did the job of keeping the water out, but which also had the unpleasant effect of making the house feel even darker on dark, rainy days. The wood-framed windows are old and have warped. They need to be replaced. This is where I hear that cash register ringing sound in my head – KA-CHING! Actually, all of the windows in the house are single-paned and leak air, so replacing them over time is something that we’ve talked about doing. And the western windows are in the two bedrooms and the bathroom, they take the brunt of the weather, and it seems to make sense to change them first. So I suppose that’s what we’ll do.

News from the states is not all that uplifting. The dollar, while regaining some ground last week, has fallen against the euro to depressing levels, and the U.S. seems content to keep it that way. Europeans are starting to get nervous about the situation, but it’s not clear what, if anything, they can do. The current national political discourse does not bode well for reasoned thinking on social issues. A right-wing member of congress has introduced a bill to ban seven words from television (someone, please bring George Carlin back). An action-movie star as been installed as governor of California. San Francisco narrowly escaped a mayor who comes from so far left of center that he’s nearly on the right. Starbucks coffee is not content to be an international mega-corporation without expanding in to Paris. The U.S. looks like a culture out of control from the outside.

On the bright side… the days are starting to get longer, there are buds on the trees, and bulbs are coming up all over. Hunting season ends in a week or so; meaning no more gunshots out in the vineyards on Sundays. And, our good friend, Sue, will arrive in Spain next week and we’re starting the planning process for a trip down to see her, perhaps as early as the end of February.

Spring will be most welcome. I’m looking forward to opening up the house and letting the air flow through it. I’m looking forward to shorts and tee shirts. I’m looking forward to hearing the leaves on the trees rustle in the wind. I’m looking forward to digging in the garden and planting vegetables. I’m looking forward to light until nearly ten at night, and the bats feeding on insects at twilight. I’m looking forward to being able to sit outside at night and watch the stars.

PS. By the way, we did get the windows replaced and it made a great difference. We've also painted most of the rooms in the house and it feels much more like home that it did that first year. Still, the cabin fever sets in for about a month between mid January and mid February; and we had more snow this winter than in the last two - it even stayed on the ground for a while, accentuating that closed-in feeling. Still, we know spring is near now.


  1. On the way to buy wine in Saint-Romain this morning, I listened to a radio show on France Inter in the car. It was about how people are leaving Paris to live in the French countryside. They are buying old ruins and fixing them up. They want freedom from the city, even if it means giving up their income sources.

    The paradox is that life in the city used to be seen as liberating. There you could feel free. I think that's how you feel when you are young. As you get older, freedom is not having deal with all the people in the city, especially bosses, co-workers, and customers.

    What are people looking for in the countryside? Beauty, the man on the radio said. They don't want to become peasants and live the old-fashioned country life. They want to enjoy the beauty of France. The French countryside is changing radically now, and the peasant existence is disappearing.

    Still, two-thirds of the people in France live within 2½ hours of Paris. That's 40 million people. I don't know if that includes people who can only get to Paris that fast by TGV.

    It sure is a different life from the one we led in San Francisco.

  2. So sorry about the winter blues. However, I cannot help but think that we, your loyal readers, are the beneficiaries of your malaise since you have time to create such interesting blog entries. It won't be long before it's time to start the garden and your friend, Sue, arrives with the springtime!



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