une girouette - weather vane in French

prendre sur soi

A cozy abode in a fishing village at the end of Marseilles. This homeowner must enjoy the occasional foray at the home supply store - look at the brightly painted façade and the neat house number and the well-hung plaque. I've always been impressed by people who know how to drill! I can't even get the @#*! nail in the wall without making a crack in the wall... and then the nail just sits there, dangling (or sticking its tongue out?). More "home improvements" in today's story column.

prendre sur soi (prahndr-sur-swah)

There are several definitions of this term, such as se retenir (to hold oneself back) or even to se faire violence (to work hard at containing oneself) but I really like this extended definition:

une compréhension d'autrui et développant un fort sentiment d'empathie. An understanding of the other person and developping strong feeling of empathy.

...for this is exactly what we ask of each other, when we suggest that the other prend sur soi or have the kind of patience needed for a certain circumstance. (The above definition was taken from the book Football: Planification et l'entraînement  Par Philippe Lerou)

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse

Yesterday Jean-Marc and I managed to honor a self-imposed deadline for gathering all the materials needed to renovate the kids' rooms. The project has been looming for months and, left to me, would have been put off for another year or more... Then came the realization that Max is turning 18 in May. He could fly the coop at any moment. And if Max couldn't benefit long from the renovations--my Dad could (he and my belle-mère Marsha arrive in June, and will borrow Max's room)!

Jean-Marc was right, we needed to get this phase of the renovation completed assez vite! The kids' floors--no matter how much I loved the old, tomette tiles, were cracked or sunken, the showers were old and leaky, and the ceilings were warped here and there. 

Jean-Marc suggested we buy all materials in one place. If we went to Castorama, he explained, and opened an account, we could get 10 percent off the first purchase! The challenge was finding everything we would need in one efficient spree....

The idea of shopping for building supplies with my husband ranks at the top of the list of stress factors--somewhere between moving houses and giving birth. Each of us gets quickly worked up over the smallest detail and soon we are stomping off in opposite directions, Then YOU do it! echoing in our wakes. But there was no time for a meltdown yesterday; if we lacked patience we would just have to grin and bear it or, as the French say, prendre sur soi--restrain ourselves. (A quick prayer wouldn't hurt, either.)

Walking through the parking lot toward the giant building supply store I noticed the sign with the store's cutsy motto (echoing part of the store's name): C'est castoche! (castoche being a play on the argot term "fastoche" or "easy to do").

Entering the store, I thought of a motto of my own: not castoche but casse-tête! Renovation was nothing but a headache! But any cynical thoughts that traipsed across my mind quickly tripped and fell over the moment I saw the man in the wheelchair. 

Suddenly, the room before me came into focus. I noticed all sorts of people in the same boat as me, only some did not have the luxury of navigating the crowded store aisles on two feet.

After Jean-Marc and I had picked out the wood floors (and shared a look of relief and excitement for our progress) my back was so sore I had to sit down in the kitchen display aisle. Resting on a bar stool I watched a young lady carrying a squirming two-year-old. Her husband walked beside her, arms free. In another 15 years she'd feel like me if she didn't hand over her child and rest her own back! But it wasn't her posture that stole my attention, it was the calm expression on her face as she checked her supplies list. Yet another silent cheer, if she could do it so could I. I hopped up and searched for Jean-Marc, who had told me to meet him in the bathroom aisle.

In the salle de bains section our mission was to choose two shower units (base, doors, fixtures); I looked up at the giant display with yet another dozens of choices. Due to size limits, our options were quickly narrowed down to sample A or sample B. Easy-peasy! We were now on our way to choose bathroom tiles.

Again, the Great Wall of What To Pick? I stared at the range of colors and textures. We'd be stuck with our choice for a decade or more so we'd better choose wisely!  I remembered the elimination technique and went to work: No sparkly purple tiles, no pop-icon tiles (sorry, Marilyn!), no dated 80's dated tile ... Jean-Marc and I settled on a neutral color and took a small risk with the frieze, which included some industrial numbers stamped here and there. Kinda cool! we thought. (Then again, the couple choosing the psychedelic tile might have been exclaiming those same words. Maybe our taste was as bad as theirs? How could we know?)

I recognized some of the bathroom tiles I had chosen over the years, as my eyes perused the tile displays. Different life seasons, different tastes. Though I wouldn't go back to those tiles of yesteryear and in the future might wonder "what was I thinking?" (regarding this choice), it didn't matter.  Here is where we are today - the choice is ours. Get off the fence and choose.

Like this, and with the help of all the unknown shoppers who unknowingly spoke to me, we made it through our dredded shopping trip.

On the drive home Jean-Marc smiled at me. "5 hours later and we are still married!" he pointed out.

Had we really spent that long at the home supply store? Without arguing? Wow. We'd come a long way! Now to keep our cool when our home is buzzing with workers and dust and drilling next month.... 


French Vocabulary

assez vite
= quite quickly

la tomette
= kind of rustic country tile, often octagonal in shape

c'est fastoshe
= it's easy

la salle de bains (or bain)= bathroom


  Cat and trunk

Hanging pots... Remember macramé? It must have been all the rage in France, too. This delightful scene took place several years back, when my friend Barbara took me to visit a cheese farm in Tarradeau. I thought the farmer had such style and a nack for decorating. The chèvre cheese was good, too!

Pronounce It Perfectly in French - with exercises in sound discrimination and accurate sound creation. Order your copy here.


Steps (c) Kristin Espinasse
"Steps". Some people have such a knack for bricolage or do-it-yourself home projects. These whimsical steps were spotted in the town of Nyons, during a stroll with my mom or my mother-in-law. Memory fails me, and so does bricolage. But one can always exercise--both memory and creativity!

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I get overwhelmed in the cereal isle, the choices are stupefying. If I make a mistake it is not a big deal. But chosing building materials would definitely be a big deal. I'm glad you two chose wisely and remained friends through it all.


Ugh! I felt my BP rising as I read this! Here's you DIY tip of the day on nails; blunt the end of the nail (use the hammer) before nailing. Then it won't split the wood. Easy peasy!

Debbie Poulin

Another wonderful story that so many can relate to. I know my husband and I lose it when we go anywhere near a Home Depot. I'm curious about the phrase "prendre sur soi"---how would you use it in a sentence? as in try to restrain yourself honey.

Bill in St. Paul

I've always loved the French phrase "faire du bricolage" which one of my French books translates as "to putter around". My wife also never wants to go to our local building supply store whereas I have to go at least once a week or else I get withdrawal pains! We don't do "home improvement" projects together - the one time we tried to wallpaper the bathroom together almost ended our marriage (well, not really). Today, if I need help beyond someone holding a board or something for more than 10 minutes, I'll enlist my son-in-law who's always willing to garner a few pay-back points. ("Remember macramé?" I have macramé-held plants hanging over my head at every breakfast!)


Good luck on the projects. Glad that you are still married.

Kristin Espinasse

Debbie, glad you asked. Maybe these lyrics from Shym will help:
Je prends sur moi
Les jours où rien ne va

I hold myself together
On bad days


Hi, Kristi,

I have a question about the term belle-mere. (sorry, no accents on this keyboard). If your dad and belle-mere are coming, does that mean you dad is coming at one time, and Jean-Marc's mother is coming at another time, and each will use Max's room?

Or does belle-mere also mean stepmother? Or...?

Have "fun" with your project! Better you than me!!!


Pat Cargill

Having been down the renovation road before, it sounds as if time and experience have tempered the process of home reno for you. Continued good luck--as in workers showing up when they say they will, which was a common occurence for us! Awareness of others really does put life in a different context and you reveal that tendency often. Big heart ~ sweet, just what this krazeee old world needs more of. Thanks for the reminder, Kristin.

Pat Cargill

...and, "how would you use it in a sentence? as in try to restrain yourself honey."

Debbie Poulin: too funny!!

Eileen - Charlottesville, VA

Hi Kristin,
Sounds like a productive trip to the building supply store! I always dread it when my husband asks me to go to Lowes or Home Depot. We end up in there forever and I get bored and head to the plants or the home decorating center. He usually finds me in the magazine section where I am looking through all the garden and DIY books. They make it look so easy! One day I timed our trip and when we finally left, it was three hours later!

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane

Fixing up or renovating get most people unglued. I enjoyed reading your post!

We just tiled a bathroom floor, having never done it before. Worked beautifully, except we couldn't get the toilet back on. Had to call a plumber. Wrote it off as education for the next bathroom. Glad we didn't have a bidet as well. And this reminds me of the house we lived in in Moldova last year, which had 3 bidets, one in the guest bathroom downstairs (not serving a bedroom).

Yes, I am always amused at what we used to think was cool or stylish. What is the expression in French for: What was I thinking! ?

Sue in WI

It's interesting that your topic is home improvement. While checking email this morning I was discussing with my son what we have to do in our 138 year old field stone basement that none of us are looking forward to. Apparently there is a special lime based mortar we have to apply after scrubbing down the walls and chipping off what is peeling away from other, older layers. I found where someone had written the date of 1891 with their finger in the stucco next to the broken out cistern- possibly the last time that wall had been treated. I wonder what past home owners had stored down there; baskets of potatoes, onions, beets, canned goods. Now it is a mishmash of light bulbs, paint cans, a deep freezer, decorating stuff for holidays, a treadmill, and bottles of wine. If the walls could talk.....


Hi, Kristin!

Having grown up with handy parents who insisted I devote myself fully to my studies, it was a shock to realize how little I really understood about construction, plumbing and electricity. If it didn't involve paint, it seemed I always had to hire someone so I could avoid the anxiety of DIY projects.

HOWEVER, all that fear evaporated when I discovered this blog: Young House Love, written by two (you guessed it) young and frugal homeowners who write about their home renovation experiences. They are learn-as-they-go do it yourselfers, who write about their experiments, successes and failures with TONS of pictures and videos, so even lifetime scaredy-cats like me can successfully tackle projects. They even include supply lists and cost breakdowns!  I'm already thinking about adding crown moulding, now that I understand how the tools help me eliminate the guess work from figuring the angles.

( And,no, I'm not related to the authors, nor do I get any sort of discount.) I just love the clarity and humor these two write with. It makes even the most daunting job seem doable to this old dog who's joyfully learning some new tricks. Here's a link to some of their projects. http://www.younghouselove.com/how-to/home-improvement/

Have fun with it. Really. Some of this stuff is so easy and makes such a huge difference that I'm kicking myself for not having done it before!

All the best,


After renovating three homes and building two, I still think the best part of doing it is the design and picking out materials.I choose the colors and patterns after asking my wonderfully handy husband which materials he thinks would be best to use.

I confess that I prefer to go away until the construction is finished. Oh if only I could! There are always questions that come up and things that need to be held, or my worst fear, painting to be done.

My husband and I have been able to avoid the arguments by pre-planning as you and Jean-Marc did and realizing our place in each decision. If it is his office, he has final decision, but I advise on set-up and matching patterns, he selects colors, furniture to use, etc. When it comes to the rest of the house, it is all mine!!!! No arguments for us.


Mugwump = one who sits on the fence!

Elizabeth Lincoln

One small correction : "dreaded", not "dredded". Otherwise- a perfect summation of what we all go through when trying to plan, much less execute, home decor projects! When we built our house 22 years ago my husband said he learned that when I gave him a choice of options, I really only had one acceptable choice and it was his challenge to figure out what that really was! As in "Really? You like THAT one (tile, color, etc.)"!


To "honor a self-imposed deadline" it takes a lot of effort and a real commitment. My congratulations !

Carly Lacombe

@Marika You reminded me of a scene from The Hurt Locker where the main soldier returns home and is grocery shopping with his wife. He's asked to go get cereal. This 30 second clip (cut and paste in your browser) shows him overwhelmed with the number of choices: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PgbNQU3cYo
Maybe this relates to tile choices as well?

Jan Rogozinski

prendre sur soi

This seems to be one of the expressions that don't exist in English. But should.

Can it be conjugated through all tenses? I.e., il a pris sur soi.

But I think it has to be used to express the sense of empathy you mention. one would not use it just to say shut up.

Another word whose meaning takes a sentence in English is sournois. Also the German schlamperei (which seems to be getting worse in the US).

Nancy,                     Cambridge

Ah!!! I've spent a lifetime living in renovation projects, as owner of an old wooden house in NE (what were they thinking building in wood, and painting it, in this weather?). Still have a project going on at the moment, for which I have lost all patience, or empathy (and am trying to figure out how to say that in French). Two good tools are essential: a drill (not too heavy) with a good rechargeable battery, and a power saw. Love to hear about other's projects which get finished!

Lana, Omaha Nebraska

I would have been in hog heaven at the home store with you. I love doing renovation work now but I didn't always. I had to learn it when I bought a house, 20 years ago, that needed more work than I realized. Now I can do tile, dry wall, electircal, plumbing, wall paper - you name it. My favorite stores in Paris are Leroy Merlin and the basement of BHV. They are similar to Castorama, Lowes, Home Depot. I spent many happy hours there while renovating my Paris apartment. My best tip to you it to watch Youtube. You can learn any thing you need to on Youtube. Just type in your project - like dry wall or how to tile a tub surround and Voila!! You will find more how-to videos than you ever imagined. Good luck - you may turn into a Handy Mandy after all.

Kathleen from Connecticut


I love picking out tile, fixtures and everything for renovations. I can't wait to do our upstairs bedrooms and bathroom. I have been looking at sinks for 2 years and will continue to look until we can afford to do the renovation. We added an in- law apartment 7 years ago and it was fun to pick out all of the appliances ( but we gave mom some choices ...I don't like what she picked out....but it is hers). My husband is still upset..not as much now...that we put tile in what was to be the dining room and turned out to be the living room, but I love it. It is a bit of France for me!
Of course, we didn't do it ourselves...we had an architect and builder. And for the upstairs we'll need a builder again as well as a plumber.

On another note....it is snowing again and I thought that Spring was HERE!...ugh! We have 6" - 8" and it's still snowing!


Kristin Espinasse

Cyndy, that would be my stepmother, Marsha. But belle-mere, as you wrote, also refers to my mother -in-law, Michele-France.

Elizabeth, thanks for the correction.

It is fun to read your DIY stories and more :-)

Kristin Espinasse

Jan, re maybe not using the term to say shut up: i sometimes use it suggestively, and strongly, when I say ( in Frenglish): You are just going to have to prendre sur toi! This always makes my husband pause in the heat of discussion :-)


Hi Kristi,

This was a great post - I laughed out loud!
I have the same 'problem' with my Husband - only he's not so handy as Jean Marc!
Imagine THAT added stress!
And making decisions - every time we moved I would wait until he was at work and THEN re-arrange the furniture MY way. When he would come back - he would then grudging admit that I was right!
You are right - we should practice 'prendre sur soi'!
Glad it all worked out and I love reading your posts, you are very 'gifted'!



I am so impressed with you two...my husband and I cannot even hang a picture on the wall together without drama....you had a great idea to rest and you rock xx

Bill Facker

Kristin, this post was excellent ... In addition to your always awesome writing and subject matter, I was doubly impressed today by the "construction" of the post itself. Really, really nicely put together ... great job! Aloha, Bill

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you Marie and Mona and Bill F (and all of you!) i was frustrated writing this post as there were so many details to fit in (l left out the entire part about choosing the toilets! ...on second thought, maybe that was a blessing to readers :-)

Bill Facker

Oh Poop ... we missed the toilets! :-)

Anne - Music and Markets

Oh I can so relate to this - I am always overwhelmed whenever we enter the doors of Bricoman, Castorama, Home Depot... and want to leave the choices to Kirk in one part of my mind, but know I have to see some of them for myself. Glad that the shopping/choosing job's done for you... exciting that the work is really beginning on the upstairs - congrats!

Stacy ~ Sweet Life Farm ~ Applegate, Oregon

I am cheering you on from where I sit, on the fence with all those dreaded decisions for renovating my kitchen and bathroom! Way to go, tackling hurdles with (your usual) grace, compassion and style!

joie blair

Hmm. Am I wrong on this assumption? Jean-Marc will be doing his wine tour in March and all this construction is going to start when????? Will it wait until he gets back or are you going to take control and do it your way? It could be a fun challenge.
My mother taught my sister and I all about tools and and repurposing, remodeling and the like. I love stores like that because the possibilities are endless. And because I don't have to read labels like in the grocery store. Picking out tile is difficult. Do you go with the neutral, or do you have fun with it and try something totally different that sparks your interest. The one thing I hate picking out is paint. It is never quite the right color and paint is not cheap. For awhile all the colors I chose had the names of food or drink. Creamy Mushroom, Chianti, Swiss Coffee(which is a white), Toffee, Cappacino. What a fun job it would be to name paints. I finally started buying the "oops" or "mistake" gallons then mixing with some I already had and would finally come up with the color I wanted. Now days you can just take some of that color back to the store and the magic computer will figure out how to duplicate it if you should need more.
Anyway, have fun with it. At least you are not tearing out a kitchen. Oh, but sound like you will be down a bathroom for awhile...but at least you have more than one.

Lin Powell

We were just like you when we were renovating. Now that we are older, we leave things a lot longer and travel instead. Renos definitely bring out the worst in our marriage. Your story brought back a lot of memories.


May the Force be with you. "Reno's" are difficult and one thing always leads to another!


Our dear Kristi,
Another wonderful post and beautiful pictures!
Your descriptions really made me laugh out loud(!) and took me back to when we renovated our house (which does NOT make me laugh out loud!) If getting there is half the fun,well, I think I'll just stay home! :) LOL
You WILL get through all of it--and with flying colors--and be thrilled with the results.
So enjoyed sharing this--and your life!-- with you.
THANK YOU!! What a wonderful way to start the weekend!
Love, Natalia XO

Edie Schmidt


We live in a Victorian house that's over 100 years old, not so old by French standards but still a challenge. We have done a lot to it over the years and have finally reached the shabby chic stage. I have spent many hours in big box home improvement stores so I know how intimidating they can be. Good luck on your home improvements and do keep your readers posted on your progress.

Edie from Savannah


You are truly an excellent writer, and you have the eye of a truly excellent photographer.
Just thought I'd tell you so.

Leslie in Portland, Oregon

Our house has had no renovations during the 27 years we have lived in it, and some are very long overdue. The decisions involved feel overwhelming, as does the work (which we will do much of ourselves). Thank you for the encouragement of your example, which I will keep firmly in mind!

P.S. We are trying to change our spring vacation schedule so that we can join Jean-Marc when he is here later this month. Will he have any free time in Portland?

Marianne Rankin

I am a veteran painter, and at other times have had to do drywall and other types of home-improvement work, although it's really more maintenance than upgrades. I find that four elements are needed to really "do" things in a home: time, money, skill, and space. I work full-time, so can't do a lot of projects because they would never get done in my limited off hours; I don't have the training for many things, and wouldn't touch electrical work or plumbing; I don't have enough spare cash to "renovate" (recently had to buy a new furnace, so that's all I can spend on the house for at least a year). But
even if you can manage these three, what I can't provide is more space. The rooms and closets are the size they are, an no amount of wishing can make them bigger. So I regularly recycle to keep from drowning in the stuff we inevitably accumulate.

Although I don't do too many large-scale projects, I like going to Home Depot and similar stores. I hired people to do tile entries at our exterior doors, but was able to replace small tiles in the bathroom (why are bathroom tiles always tiny? And why don't they make plain white ones any more?). I can certainly sympathize with the disruption created during renovation.

Max could "fly the coop" at 18? Doesn't he have another year of school, so as to earn the bac? Or is there a chance he could be drafted? I hope he will have some more time with you. If he does, and his room is occupied by guests, where will he sleep?

We would be interested in seeing the renovations when they are complete. Bonne chance!


This is so so funny to me. I cannot last 5 minutes in Casto with my husband before divorce court starts looming before us!


I really enjoyed this account of your expedition to the home improvement store. It gives me hope and courage. We have been edging around arguments about some things we need to do, maybe I can ease the issues when we finally get there, by utilizing your type of perspective.

Kristin Espinasse

Thank you, Rick. And, Meredith, your note, along with the other stories that have been shared, proves that it is common to feel this way at the home improvement store. Now to catch the DIY or bricolage bug, as Bill in St Paul or Marianne have--and actually enjoy these projects :-)

Audrey Wilson

Hi! Kristin,
18 years ago we turned an old barn into a home Yes, after 18 month's hard work & living in a caravan (trailer) we were still together !!
Your story brought back so many memories of Leroy Merlin ,Castorama, Point P etc etc and agonizing over choices of tiles ,flooring,etc
I was allowed to stain the doors ,staircase,& bannisters,and to put the sous-couche on the walls
However, we finally made a great home !!
Bonne chance with your renovations .


Great advice from many experts here! I like to do things a bit differently sometimes - thinking outside the (big) box. I live in a house originally built in 1890 and though I don't necessarily want the heavy curtains and wallpapers from back then, some elements of the times are fun and also fun to integrate with completely different ones. Salvage yards might provide some exciting finds - for example, if not all the tile for a project, maybe enough for some interesting accents. A wine cork makes a great tool for some fun painting accents. Check out Pinterest for ideas, too. Have fun and BREATHE! Thanks for all your lovely posts. P.S. My 23 "flew off" a while ago, but she pops in semi-regularly and we play Words with Friends daily. I love our times "together"!

Diane Young

Wow!You really hit a hot topic with this one. My memories of trying to pick colors for the walls of our first home were too dreadful for words. And we were still engaged at the time. After many years of despising the salmony pink (supposed to have been dusty rose) LR and DR, we made a very good move and painted the entire house white. We repeated the all white process when we built our second house, where I still live.
The other mistake we never repeated was wallpaper. After papering both bathrooms, we vowed never to touch another piece and were happy years later to strip it off and paint the walls.

I don't know how people survive frequent moves and redecorating. I had to replace the carpeting in the current house but it wasn't so bad since it was wall to wall except for the kitchen and bathrooms. I must admit I've been postponing the retiling in the kitchen. It's only 20 years old after all. Congratulations on getting through that shopping experience with smiling faces. Life is good, n'est-ce pas?

Lee Isbell

As we speak, there are people on the other side of a piece of plywood in my house hammering, power sawing, and doing something that sounds like a jack hammer (can't imagine what that is inside a house). New rooms are being added and it has required evacuation of the "attached-to" rooms. I could pretend I'm living in a small Paris apartment at the moment.

My sister, sister-in-law and I all love browsing the home improvement and hardware stores, even (or maybe especially) when we're not really shopping.

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