My Odd Little Maison Ouvrière

Now that I am home full-time and working on my house and garden, I thought it would be timely to share this post from 2013 about my odd little abode which a friend here has christened la maison des sept nains (the house of the seven dwarves).

A topic that I am tenaciously investigating right now is my house.  It is a weird little house. Though there are many detached houses (pavillons) in Porchefontaine, mine does not resemble any other in the immediate neighborhood old or new.  The front facade is covered with a funny yellowish brick and each individual brick has “EBD” stamped on it.  I have seen exactly the same bricks used for early 20th century apartment buildings in other parts of Versailles.

Around the front porch are wood railings and decorative woodwork.  There is a small niche carved into a corner where two outside walls meet.  Decorative ironwork can be found around just one window (a garde-corps) and on the old door which has an opaque glass window that opens behind a grille like this one.

In the back and on the sides I can’t tell what’s there because it’s covered with what is commonly called crépi, a kind of cement/mortar that forms a protective layer on the exterior of many houses and apartment buildings (sometimes walls too).  The house itself  is elevated about one meter from ground-level and there are steps going up/down front and back.

The roof reminds me of old houses I saw in Tokyo and is, I think, a pyramid hip roof  because it has a peak sloping off into four corners covered with tile, not slate. And there is not enough room under the roof for an attic and there is no access from inside the house so it’s pretty much wasted space. To get under the roof you have to get a ladder, climb up, carefully lift off a section of tile and drop in.

What the fireplaces might have looked like

Inside the house the floor plan is interesting:  3 small rooms, a tiny kitchen, a closet with a toilet and a bathroom.   Smack in the middle of the house is a long corridor and there are doors off the hallway to each room with oval porcelain door knobs.  Once upon a time there were corner fireplaces (wood or coal) in at least three of the rooms and there was flat panel wainscoting (still visible behind one of the radiators) and crown molding around the 3 feet high ceilings.

What we call in the U.S. “French doors” with 8 clear glass panes separate the two largest rooms (living and dining) which means there is a lot of light – the sun rises on the living room side through the tall windows/doors that open onto the front porch, and sets on the dining room side (east-west orientation).

Here is the floor plan from my files and to give you an idea of the size, the biggest room in the house, what is shown here as the salon,  measures roughly 3 x 3 meters (about 10 x 10 feet).

The house is basically a 55 square meter (592 square feet) box plunked in the middle of a lot with a front courtyard and a big back garden.

Who built this house?  Why did they build it here?  What did it look like when it was first built?

I’ve been looking for answers to those questions and this is what I have unearthed so far.

From the documents the notaire gave us during the sale, I have a few names and a few crumbs of information that he passed along after his due diligence on the property.  The property was sold at a public auction in 1876 or 1877.  There were some interesting conditions to the sale:   the right to access the property with a horse or a car, for example.  And that owners assumed full responsibility for the “conduire des eaux de toute nature” from the property to the street at their own cost, risk, and peril. The owners were also responsible for a creek, called the ru de Marivel, that ran adjacent to the property.

The property finally passed to a Madame Wynhaut who sold it on September 3, 1929 to Madame Seitz who was, I presume, the builder of this house.

The city architect in a telephone conversation said that he knew the house well as an example of a maison ouvrière (working-class housing).  It is, he said, one of the last of its type remaining in Versailles – a style of architecture common in the late 19th/early 20th century in working-class neighborhoods like Porchefontaine, a quartier populaire on the other side of town about as far away from the Château de Versailles as you could get.  In the early years of the 20th century it even had its own slum called le Camp du Maroc.  The year this house was built, the city of Versailles was just beginning to put  in water, sewer and gas services.

People had wells in their back yards and outhouses.  Almost all the roads were dirt roads with the exception of my street and that was only paved up to the train station.  There is a very good site here that has pictures of the area in the 1930’s.  Scroll down to the section entitled Le Halte and the photo right after the postcard  4. Avenue de Porchefontaine – Rue de la Ferme is an old picture of my street.  My house is on the right hand side (I think I see a corner of the roof).  The architect has no old photos of the house in his files but the day we decide to repaint, he said, he wants to come by so he can know what color the woodwork was when it was first built.

So looking back at the house as it is today what might we be able to deduce from the information presented so far?  Let’s have some fun speculating.

Madame Seitz might have been a person of modest means, perhaps a widow (this is the period after the sanguinary First World War).  She had some money because she could buy property and build a house but not enough to do so in the nicer parts of town.  She might have been a shopkeeper in the area or a rentier with a small income.

Or (and this idea came from a craftsman who passed by the other day) it was associated with the Truffaut gardens and housed a worker (and his family)  who was employed either in the show gardens or in the fertilizer factory.  The craftsman was very insistent that this house would not have been suitable for cadre (management) but he could see it being offered to a working-class family as part of a company policy of paternalisme industriel.

“But it’s so small,” I said. “How could you fit a family in this little one-bedroom house?”  He just looked at me and then patiently explained a little about the living conditions of the French working class in the early 20th century.  Even a very small house like this one, a single-family dwelling with room for a vegetable garden, he said, would have been a dream come true for a family in that era.

And there we have it – I’m looking at my house through late 20th/early 21st middle-class American eyes and I’m trying to put myself in the context of another world that had very different rules and conditions from the one I grew up in and the one I live in now.

Today’s world where we take for granted things like running water (hot and cold), where we can turn up the thermostat if we don’t feel like firing up the purely optional wood stove, where there is a minimum wage and standards for decent housing, and where a sick women recovering from a life-threatening illness can sit at a computer and type these words knowing that she is warm, doesn’t have to spend 70% of her non-existent income on food, and won’t end up sleeping in a tent in a bidonville.

Damn.  Kinda looks like progress, doesn’t it?


Garden Bones

122cd-msesmal252812529“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hand and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away.”

The Glory of the Garden by Rudyard Kipling

If you walk along the Avenue de Paris toward Viroflay and away from the gaudy monstrosity that is the “castle” you will pass a long building with ochre walls and shuttered windows.  There will be a gate at the end with a little road that winds to the right.  Impossible to see where it goes; you have to go in and walk a ways to discover the very charming house and magnificent garden park which reminds me very much of another park I know well in Brussels.

Continue reading Garden Bones

The American Diaspora: Outreach and Organization

It’s been awhile since I wrote about what I call the American Diaspora Tax War. Yes, I took some time off to think and observe and to get some distance from a cause that I feel very strongly about.  As a recovering alcoholic, I have to be very careful about things like “justified anger,” resentment, and frustration.  When the world isn’t going my way, is the answer to become angrier and more outraged? Or is it to calm down, think, and try to determine the best way to move forward?

What was particularly helpful was spending time in countries other than my adopted country, France.  Over the past few years when an occasion presented itself I asked my fellow Americans about what they thought about it all.  Their answers gave me new insights and a greater appreciation for the difficulties we face in organizing around the issue of citizenship-based taxation and FATCA.

Today, I thought I’d share with you some of my observations.  They are in no particular order and you may not agree with all or any of them.  Feel free to make this a conversation in the comments section.  Here goes:

The Triangle:  It’s useful to think of the relationship triangle that diasporas/migrant communities are in when they seek to act politically and transnationally.  There are three sides:  the home country government, the homeland citizens and media, and organizations that could be allies or enemies;   the host country governments, local citizens and media; and finally the migrant/expatriate communities themselves which could be organized in various ways, both locally (in the host country) and transnationally (with the home country or with other migrant communities in other countries.)

For Americans abroad fighting CBT/FATCA keeping this triangle in mind is vitally important. On the one hand we have possibilities that are not available to our fellow citizens in the home and the host countries; there are two places we can act and not just one.  On the other hand we are, I think it’s fair to say, the weakest side. In neither the home or the host country are Americans abroad any more than a small minority.  Our issues are generally not very high on anyone’s political agenda.

So a first step for all of us is to acknowledge the complexity of the triangle relationship and our relative lack of power within it. Does this mean we should just throw up our hands and give up? I don’t think so.  I just think we need to be a lot savvier about where we sit, and a lot more knowledgable about the local and home country political arenas.

Not to mention that, in my opinion, we still have not reached a level of organization and solidarity that would allow us to be taken seriously.  There is work to be done on our side of the triangle – to make it stronger and more credible:  international organization and outreach.

Spreading the word:  Want to know how many Americans I encountered in my travels who were not aware of FATCA or had only a hazy notion of the implications of citizenship-based taxation?  A lot.  Most even.  For those of you who are living and breathing the nightmare this may come as a surprise to you.  And I only met one person in Japan who was aware of the Japan/US FATCA agreement.  For those of you who belong to an American Abroad organization, you might be even more surprised how many people have never heard of AARO or ACA.  None of this is on their radar.  Our task is to get it there and we have not done a good enough job of finding them so we can make our argument and earn their support.

American communities have very different circumstance depending on the host country. In some places there are so few Americans and they are so scattered about the country that finding them (presuming they wish to be found) is hard.  But it’s not impossible.  They can be located, for example, in trade or professional organizations or in migrant groups that call themselves “international XXXX.”  One way to go about making contact is “snowballing.”  Find a few Americans locally with a lot of time in the country and good networks.  Get their support and ask them to go out and convince others and so on and so forth.

This is important because even though we may share a nationality local people are almost always more credible than outsiders.  The Americans I met in Japan were very pleasant people but I was an American abroad from France and how could I possibly understand the American in Japan perspective?

Organization:  We have a cause but we don’t, in my opinion, have a satisfactory organization.  What we have is a lot of committed people doing what they can individually or through different organizations like AARO, ACA, RO, DA, Brock and many others. Why is this not enough?

Not enough people for one thing.  We just can’t get huge numbers of people to sign petitions, write letters and so on. When the word goes out to support some initiative, it goes out to a relatively small number of people in the know  (or on the mailing or FB list) and doesn’t spread beyond that.

Some Americans abroad are fearful and don’t want to hand over their names and contact information to any organization lest the US government get that information for their own purposes.  Others are put off by the location, perspective or affiliations of some groups:  they don’t like the commentary at Brock; they wouldn’t join any organization with Republican or Democrat in the name; they look and see that one organization is based in France and the other in the US and they live in India.  Membership dues are also an issue for many.

And finally all these organizations don’t necessarily agree with each other on how to go about fighting CBT/FATCA.  The different proposals can be very confusing and to someone who is already leery about joining any movement, the arguing itself is a reason for some to pass on the whole business.

Something I became aware of in my travel is that quite a few people are DIYing their own personal strategies for dealing with FATCA/CBT which may be imperfect but still makes them feel that they aren’t compelled to join anything or participate in anything.  Those folks are a tough sell and all of the above things tip them to the side of hunkering down and staying out of sight.

I think the time has come for us to think about alliances and federation.  I think we need an organization devoted to the fight against FATCA/CBT which has no dues, no political affiliations, and is organized at the country level or below.  All Americans abroad would have the option of joining anonymously.  This organization would not take a stand on any particular FATCA/CBT proposal but could include the work of all organizations working on the issue and their efforts at outreach.  A single website would gather together all the links to different initiatives, news reports and perspectives.  It could include country reports by local American communities so that we can all better understand what is going on outside our own little corner of the world.  Hopefully, this would encourage different organizers in different countries to form their own alliances.   Ideally, it would promote the broadest circulation of ideas.

And above all, no forums.  Look, there are plenty of places out there where we can write to our heart’s content about how we feel about all of this.  The focus here would be different:  outreach, alliance, information exchange.  Think of it as a simple federation where we are united by the fight against FATCA/CBT and the devilish details and disagreements can be taken to email.

The ultimate goal of this umbrella organization would be to strengthen our side of the triangle, no more no less.   I think that’s something worth doing.  I can’t see how we will achieve anything without it.

Your thoughts?




Some Great Photos of East Asia

A few days ago I received an email with holiday greetings from an old friend in Japan. I first met him in the aughts at a now defunct bookstore in Tokyo that had a reading group.  We have stayed in touch over the years and his emails and East Asia newsletters are always welcome in my inbox.

It turns out that he’s been putting part of that newsletter and some photos up on a website. I asked him if I could link to it on the Flophouse and he was fine with that.

So check out the East Asia News Online Edition.  My friend is a retired dentist and he has done volunteer work in places like Burma, and he travels for pleasure (and adventure) as well.

His latest upload Lost in Time is about a trip he took to Hachijo Island, Japan.  In addition to admiring the photos I really liked his comments about what he was doing and seeing.  I suspect he would be as fine a tour guide as he was a dentist.



Up on the Vox website is a series about borders by Johnny Harris.  There are six videos in the collection and the two I have watched already are Japan/North Korea and Spain/Morocco.

Living in Japan (especially in Osaka) one can not help but be aware of the large Korean community which has been the subject of many academic studies and receives a fair amount of media attention inside and outside of Japan. In fact when I told people I was studying migration in Japan they assumed that I was looking into the Koreans, or the Philipinos and Brazilians.  For the record, I wasn’t and perhaps that can be my excuse for not knowing that there was a connection between the Korean Community in Japan and North Korea.  For those readers who have lived in Japan far longer than I did, I would be very interested in what you think of Harris’ report.

As for the Spain/Morocco video  I was frankly astounded to see the level of border security around Melilla.  I had no idea and those walls were quite a shock.  I note that however impressive they appear, they are not entirely effective.  I know there are some readers from Spain here on the Flophouse and I would be grateful for your thoughts.

The other videos looks just as intriguing:  the Arctic, Haiti, Nepal/China and Mexico/Guatemala which should be of interest to North Americans because the sub-title of the piece is How the US outsources border security.

I hope you find this series interesting (the link is below) and I’ll let you watch while I make Christmas cookies and ponder Johnny Harris’ notion that “if you want to know a country’s deepest fears, look at its border.”

Vox Borders:  life at the edge of nations


True Tales and Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was in elementary school I read and re-read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder so many times that my paperback copies were tattered and torn.  These tales were a delight and what she wrote echoed the stories told by my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

This was a world of mobility – moving and moving again to find cheap, productive land and then spending years scratching out a living on a small farm.  Old pictures of faces worn by adversity and poverty.  Tales of lost children, disease, infirmities, tragedies. But also family get-togethers in beautiful places like the Nile Valley in Eastern Washington.  And a world of wood stoves, butter churns, and patchwork quilts.   In my living room in my home in France are two quilt-tops made by my great-grandmothers  and I am hand quilting them, finishing work that began long before I was born.

Continue reading True Tales and Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Ebbs and Flows of Mobility

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

When taken at its flood, leads on to fortune.

Omitted, all the voyage of their life,

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat.

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

Brutus in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (d. 1616)

A few months ago I was reading a New York Time’s opinion piece which extolled the virtues of emigration for Americans.  No time like the present to go abroad, he/she said.  But as I was reading it I could think of all sorts of reasons why now is not necessarily the best time for an American (or any other nationality) to leave her country of origin.  The decision to go or to stay depends on so much and we are not always aware of the things that anchor people to a place.

Continue reading The Ebbs and Flows of Mobility