There comes a moment during every remodel when you need to make a concrete decision. No more flapping your hand into space saying, “I know we can’t re-create Coco Chanel’s suite at the Ritz, but what about a tribute room?” or, “Let’s just have a loft — crumbling Catalan abode on the outside, dynamic international live/work space on the inside!” or, “Why not a fireman’s pole?” All that scheming and dreaming is over, and you’ve got to decide on stuff that will never change until you either sell the house or kick the bucket.

For a mad moment I envisioned doing a Coco Chanel tribute room. Pourquoi pas? This one’s nice, from her suite at the Ritz in Paris.

I won’t say I’m paralyzed by indecisiveness, but it’s complicated. I’m a prisoner of my own decision-making habits. It usually goes like this: I overthink something until I weep with brain fatigue, then disregard all that hard, exhausting overthinking in favor of a snap decision, then regret that decision. When I do make what appears to be a good decision, neither over-thought nor impulsive, it’s purely reactionary. I lack vision. I have no opinions about anything except the success or failure of the thing I put up with the last time.

For example, we had no trouble deciding on the showers. After living for fifteen years in Portland, Oregon, with a claw-foot bathtub outfitted with an overhead shower ring, we had become virulent anti-tub-and-shower- combo people. That olde tyme-y set-up is charming only on Pinterest. Especially if you live in the rainy, damp Pacific Northwest, where a shower curtain begins breeding mold and mildew the moment its sprung from its plastic envelope. When you take a shower the slimy curtain sticks to your legs. When you take a bath, you’re treated to a closer view of black mold and orange fungus creeping up the inside of the curtain. And there is always that lingering petrochemical smell. We were unhappy with this arrangement, yet aside from springing for a new curtain every so often we did nothing about it but complain (possibly why we fit in so well in France).

That concrete decision was easy. What’s the opposite of the quaint, not terribly-functional-claw-foot tub-with-shower ring presentation? An Italian shower. An Italian shower is essentially a very small locker-room shower, where you just walk in and take a shower. There are no doors, no slimy curtains, and nothing remotely Italian about it, other than the name.

Half-finished Italian travertine shower in the master bath, awaiting its fixtures and glass panels that will sit atop the low walls. Mildewy shower curtains begone!

But now, Pascal told us it was time to select the all-important flooring. It was the end of June, and almost a matter of urgency. In Collioure, construction ceases during July and August. Drilling, sawing, banging, and all other sounds of work harshen the mellow of the vacationing French. All exterior work halts on July 1, but interior work hums along under the radar until August, when no one in his right mind lifts a finger. If we wanted to keep moving forward at a reasonable pace, we needed to choose the floor and choose it now.

The existing flooring on the premier étage was a gray faux-wood laminate that came right up, exposing nice pine planks that needed only to be sanded and finished. As Americans with boho leanings, we are devoted to our wood floors, and that decision made itself. Voilà!

The bathrooms were a bit trickier. They would require tile, but we had an idea. At the time our house was built (1947ish) middle-class Catalans couldn’t afford the more expensive marble preferred by the upper class, and so they settled for so-called hydraulic tile — cement tile squares created using hydraulic presses. The tiles were imprinted with bright, swirling patterns. No color or shape was overlooked. “The Tile Hunter” Joel Cánovas has made a very twenty-first century career digging through the rubble of construction sites in Barcelona, sharing the hunt and the outcome on Instagram at i_rescue_tiles. Currently, he’s rescued over 2,800 different designs, and boasts a collection of 35,000 tiles. He sees his mission as preserving part of Catalan architectural history.

So Catalan! So 50s!

We liked the idea of being tile rescuers too. We have our own small collection of vintage hydraulic tiles. We’d found two small stacks in the crawl space beneath the exterior staircase. A few dozen more tiles had been used as a make shift weed barrier in the small flower bed on one side of the courtyard. As a result, we have two sets of two different designs, but at least half of them have been discolored by the French sun. I can live with that. Sign me up for some funky authentic + rustic Catalan charm!

But it wasn’t that easy.  There wasn’t enough tile to cover the floor of even the small bathroom. No problem, I thought. Why not buy some new cream-colored tiles and do a checkerboard pattern? A good idea, except . . . these are not virgin tiles. The underside of each tile possesses its own bumpy terrain, evidence of an early life as part of another floor. These hunks and chunks of cement can be painstakingly ground off, but the tiles are often brittle and crack. Furthermore, if a tile does survive the grinding of the extraneous cement on the back, it’s still got to lie perfectly flat and meet its neighbor in a straight seam.

Desmond is considerably less enthusiastic about the tile than we are

It can be done, of course. Anything can be done. For a price. The question becomes, how much is it worth? From the planet’s point of view, recycling and repurposing is worth a lot. But of course, the planet isn’t paying for it. Choices must be made.  Isn’t it better to buy new tiles and spend the money saved on a more energy-efficient refrigerator? And there’s this — I like our found tiles in theory, but let’s face it, not every mid-century color combo needs to be celebrated in perpetuity. Avocado shag carpet went out of style for a reason. However, if we decided to opt for new tile, what would we do with the vintage tile? As I was typing this, a new solution has presented itself: DM the Tile Hunter and tell him to come and get ’em.

We made a decision! New tile in the old style. Je l’adore.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Connie McDowell says:

    I love every word of this! Not that I like the visual of you wringing your hands and weeping in frustration but remodeling woes are so Universal! You are Every Couple. Something we all can agree on is that Remodeling is a trial. Be brave, dear teacher!

    • Karen Karbo says:

      It takes so much longer than you ever imagine, doesn’t it? And who ever thought I would be making all these appliance decisions! The world is a wild and wacky place. Thank you for the confidence! And I hope you come visit when the coast is clear!

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