Trying to find the words to begin this article has been surprisingly difficult. There are so many things to say, incredible stories, memories, noises, smells and sounds that we could share in great detail... but when a photo like this pops up, we continue to find ourselves speechless. Stay with us, as we attempt to put this heritage restoration project into words.
Just over one year ago, we began the journey to this incredible barn. As a two 'man' business, handling hundreds of clients annually, organizing community outreach programs, public mental heath awareness events, countless volunteer hours with non profits in our community and raising two little girls, the program in Normandie eventually turned into a quick and thoughtless sentence "yeah, we go to France in the Spring." Over and over again we would hear the excitement in the voices of our family, friends and clients, however we were unable to process the thought or experience with having so much on the go at all times. Looking back now, we couldn't be more proud to have accomplished everything we did in the 10 months leading up to our departure, it was a true test of our ability to power through every aspect of life and shoot for the moon... ask us about the moon on the farm and we will tell you, we tied a rope around it. With the help, support and encouragement of everyone around us, the fundraising began. Gratitude towards those who stepped in, donated, purchased tickets for our work, and bought made creations from our daughter will never end. With the support we received, we were able to cover the cost of all four flights and begin the countdown to the experience of a lifetime. So, one last time, before we get into the dirty details, thank you, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your continued support.
Our arrival to the farm was wonderful, however we quickly began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. This barn was in rough shape, and had been hand built hundreds of years prior. Main support beams were cracked in half, no longer carrying the weight of the ceiling, the roof had caved and sunk in. Walls were falling inward, causing the doors to hang with inches of space between their frames. The stairs had collapsed and the torchis isolation walls were crumbling. The stone wall foundation was easily removable with a single finger, and in most places, non existent or rubble. We didn't get too much sleep that first night, wondering was all of this even possible? Had we just travelled over 6000 kilometres with two children under the age of 7 to get here? Are we sleeping in the home of a lovely stranger whom we'd assured we could assist in the rebuilding of this incredible structure that stood before us? YUP! All of the above! Needless to say, sleep was not had in that first night on the farm. Like most things, however, many nights followed with the window open, cool breeze blowing in and the most beautiful stars out, where we settled in and slept very sound.
So, here we are week one and over those initial worries, knowing that the only thing left to do was get to work and take it all one day at a time. After cleaning out the inside of the barn, home to some old belongings, debris and bails of straw, we were ready to tackle the outside. First things first, we needed to jack up the interior beams as well as the exterior walls so we could begin to remove all of the crumbling walls and foundation. We quickly learned that not only were we here to learn the ways of 14th Century barn building, but that we would be spending the next six weeks doing everything by hand. Thats right, a couple of hands and your grandad's old tool box, and so the fun began.
Once all the walls and beams were secure, we removed the crumbling foundation and dug a trench, removing large stone blocks well over 150lb each from over a foot down in solid clay and mud (by hand). It was a long and very hard day, where we found both of our new mottos that got us thought every challenge moving forward: 1. "would you dig a mud trench on your knees to live in France?" 2. "EASY!"
Did we mention that the foundation wall we rebuilt later, was made from the same original stones we dug out of the crumbling pile in week one? As we took down the breaking rock wall, we tossed them into piles of thickness, small, medium & large, not actually knowing that in just a few short weeks, we'd be cleaning them off and reusing them.
Once the trench was dug, levelled and ready to go, we mixed and poured concrete to support the wall we were rebuilding. We just couldn't resist the wet concrete (who can?!) and we left the second mark in history on this beautiful building. The date from the build of the cider press that was inside the barn intact, 1752. The second date, RPS 2019 A+K. We know, we know, not very creative, but its ours.
Time for the rebuilding to begin! We cleaned off those heavy stones we told you about, and shifted them back under the main beams that would support the barn once we lowered it off the posts. So, here we have our half standing, half crumbling barn, no side walls, doors or foundation, resting on a handful of posts and a couple of stone blocks! Here is our host, teaching us how to level our work with one nail and a piece of string, we are proud to say this barn is still standing today!
We rebuilt the foundation, stone by stone on our knees. It was during these days that we finally found the time to sit and talk with each other for hours on end. These moments are the ones we know we will rarely find back at home, if ever. Although we were hot and muddy and constantly wondering 'is this our life right now?' these were the best hours spent, creating together just like we do at home.
Once again we were faced with some wet mortar, and needed to sneak in that little something extra. So, we dug through our bags and found the perfect addition to the renovation of this 600+ year old barn... the great Canadian Loonie!
We are pretty happy that it will likely hold up for another 600 years in the fields of Saint Marten de Fresnay, France. Building the wall stone by stone together took quite a few days. Making sure the wall stayed within all of our string levels, and the stones from each row were the same thickness. It was like building a 600 year old puzzle, one piece at a time, we both found this section of the project fulfilling and pretty incredible.
When the foundation was complete, we were ready to rebuild the walls. We got new supporting beams and were taught how to make mortise & tenon by hand. These were long days, as we were reusing the old posts from the old broken walls, and had to create exact measurements... even where the posts had twisted or bent. We worked day in and day out getting everything perfect. Making adjustments with a hammer and chisel when needed, and putting the pieces of the old wall puzzles back together.
The day finally came, we had removed all the damage, we had rebuilt the foundation and it was time to see if all the pieces of this incredible puzzle would fit together as we had worked days on end perfecting. This was a moment we will never forget, not the sound, not the feeling, not the way it all came together. So here is our best description of what it's like to take support jacks off the entire inside and outside of a barn by hand, one slight twist at a time, in hopes that weeks of hard work and 600+ years of structure don't come crashing down at your feet. Three people standing at the foot of this incredible building, nervous, worried and excited all at the same time. We mapped out what jacks needed to be adjusted first, we started at one end and moved across the building. Two of us will hold the old tenon, and fit them into the new mortise, while the other lowers the jack one centimetre at a time. If anything was slightly off, one of us had to free a hand for a mallet, and give a post a solid strong hit to fit it into place.
Of all the words we have (in French & English) to describe the things we experience in life, we truly believe there are zero to explain the sound of this barn shifting. Knowing each move we had made up until this very moment had been with our bare hands, the desperate hope that when we take out these jacks we aren't going to have completely destroyed this incredible building. So take the most eerie creek, the loudest boom of thunder, the beating of your heart, the screaming of your conscious and the rushing of the strongest wind, bottle them all up and turn them into one single sound. Now unleash that sound into the countryside of Normandie on a sunny, peaceful and otherwise silent day at the exact moment that you take the deepest breath you've ever taken and hold it in... Stay as steady and as strong as you've ever been and put that puzzle together... It takes the breath from our lungs just thinking about it. As you may have already guessed... every second of all our weeks of hard work paid off in those nerve-racking moments. This barn was put back together, new, strong, and ready to take on hundreds of more years. We even managed to rebuild it all, and not touch the blackened beams that were burned during an evening stove fire, 75 years ago when German soldiers lived inside it's walls.
Check out those fresh beams, straight doors and happy crew!! Time to learn how to build these walls just like they had been done before! It was back to the hand saw, as we cut strips to form the backing of the walls that would soon hold the insulation. Off to a local brick maker, we gathered a load of mud & straw mixture and learned how to perfect the age old art of Torchis! When we had pulled into the farm over a month prior, this was the number one thing Kelly was excited to learn. We were told that with only having 6 weeks to rebuild, we likely wouldn't have enough time to see the torchis, or even the walls. Little did they know, that the RPS duo is more than strong & capable and weren't leaving without a job complete.
So, to much surprise, here we were 5 weeks in and ready to complete this beauty! The mud goes in about one handful at a time, if you have the strength to gather a single handful, about 15lbs a mit we'd say. It then gets pushed, squished and thrown between the posts until you've created about a 4" thick wall on the front, and another 2" on the backside. Did we mention it's messy?
As you can see, one of us had the time of their life getting muddy and building these walls, the other was thinking 'I'm not even supposed to have made it this far' We must say, adding this part of the job to our timeline really was something to see. Not only did we have fun and learn all about making these walls, once the entire job was complete, we couldn't have imagined leaving part way through. The brand new walls really made everything so beautiful and come together. In fact, we even did this part so well, we decided in our final week that we would take down the upstairs wall, rebuild it and mud it before going home... EASY!
Now, that pretty much brings us to the end of this beyond-words experience. We had crossed every boundary, overcome every obstacle, stormed passed all doubt and fear, and answered 100% of the boss' "can you do this next" with a strong "YES, We Can!" A few days of clean up, and some final touches and it was all over but the crying... literally, what an emotional ending to what was supposed to be our RPS Abroad work exchange program.
Vincent Morel, born and raised in the fields and farms of Normandie, his wonderful mother at the farm across the street, his brother beside and up the hill. His incredible wife Polly, their four children Eliane, Nina, Leonie & Antina, their acres of rose bushes, duck pond, horses, sheep. Their friends and neighbours always in the garden for a glass of wine, and the rare beeping car that goes by as Vincent raises his cap off his head and waves it in the air and says "my neighbour!". The family dinners around a 10 person harvest table in the home he completely rebuild by hand, just as we had this barn. The vegetable garden he worked on until 11pm when the sun would finally start to set. The laughter, the giggling children and arguing teenagers. The cows across the gate that moo if you moo. The first Sunday we arrived when the rally race was on and cars flew through the country roads with a roar. Every smell, every taste of food, every word that was shared... this experience became a part of who we are now, and who we will always be. This all started so long ago, with that simple statement "yeah, we go to France in the Spring". It was a work project, a volunteer program, nothing more than a business exchange... now that couldn't be further from the truth. This turned from work to life experience, from volunteer program to our family helping your family and eventually becoming what felt like one big family, and from business exchange to no business at all.
We weren't sure we would ever find the words to truly share and explain what this has meant to us, our daughters and our company, and after finally being able to complete it, we know we have missed thousands of more words and details. For now and forever, at least we were able to share some of the gift that was our RPS Abroad 2019 experience. Once again our deepest thanks to everyone who had part in this project from beginning to end, and to the Watt-Morel family for bringing us into your home, your life and your family's story, and most of all, for changing ours.
We have begun the process of a new simple statement for our RPS Abroad 2020 Program, and we can't wait to share that "yeah, next spring we go to............" Kelly, Andy, Emjay & Georgia @ Rock Paper Scissors Company.