Monday, May 31, 2010

Week 1: Introducing our village and the Maison Conti

Montmirail sits on the highest point of land in our department, the Sarthe, commanding a glorious view over miles of unspoiled countryside - farms, forest and pastures. The village is constructed like a wedding cake, with four layers. At the bottom, where roads head east to Paris, west to Le Mans, south to the Loire Valley and north to the heart of the Parc du Perche, you find the police and fire stations, a retirement home and the old school. On the second tier are most of the shops - a market, where you can also bring your dry cleaning, the bakery, pharmacy, two banks, hairdresser and doctor's office. There is also the salle des fêtes, the town meeting place for events and parties. On the third level there are two Places (pronounced with a soft a), like Piazzas in the Italian sense, where the buildings form a protective circle around an open space for people to congregate. On the Place du Château are the mayor's office, a post office and the Ancienne Forge restaurant, which most people just call Annette's. We live on the Place de l'Eglise, next to the church, which is a very lively one. Behind is the tourist office and exposition center that hosts artists' works, photographs or historical paraphernalia. Next to the church is the bar/tabac where you can not only get a smoke and drink, but also cash, as the banks do not have ATM machines and redirect you, via a hand-written note in the window, to Nathalie's place for all your liquid needs. At the top of the cake, like a corpulent bride, sits the castle of Montmirail.

The castle, (château in French), has an appealing history. The site has been inhabited continuously since well before Roman times. The winds of history have mostly blown warm and gently through the region. I have the sense here of enduring sweetness and calm. Relatively little blood has been violently shed in the fields or forests, yet we did find an ancient cannon ball in our front yard when we were digging our garden, and Richard the Lion Hearted razed the castle to the ground in the late 12th century. Currently the château is just one of several private residences of the current proprietors. It's been in Catherine's family for 300 years.

Nowadays a castle is more of a burden than a privilege. They were never efficiently constructed to guard the heat or provide cozy corners. Many castles are abandoned in France, or run as tourist attractions since they are expensive to maintain. It's not very convenient to live in a castle, but when your château has been the ancestral pearl down through several centuries, you're kind of stuck with it. Catherine, the chatelaine, (French has a word for the proprietress of a castle!) is a thoroughly modern aristocrat. She is often seen dressed in jeans and t-shirt and is generous and friendly. We met her our first summer here when she popped by to see if we had costumes prepared for the Medieval festival that takes place each summer. Since we were still in the middle of unpacking boxes, this was not much on our minds at the time. She offered to provide us with outfits that she herself would make. She took a few measurements, and a week or so later rang again to present us with our plebeian wardrobes; me in a shapeless gunny sack-like affair, tied at the middle with a leather sash, and Rick in tights, a too-short shirt and a little white bonnet that looked a lot like what a Victorian spinster might have worn to bed. She explained to us that at a certain moment of the day in question, there would be an historical reenactment. We, as part of the rabble, would follow her, dressed as queen, up to the castle and there we would bow down and pledge our allegiance. As kind an offer as all this was, I was most reluctant. Rick, who is much more game than I at playing the buffoon, did show himself in costume on the appointed day. His skinny legs in tights with his familiar face under the little white bonnet, is an image which will remain in the minds of his family! We did miss the procession and obeisance, however, due to a confusion about the timing of the thing. I think Catherine may have been a bit miffed with us. But if so, she's forgiven us since.

How we ended up in Montmirail is a long story that we ourselves don't entirely grasp. We certainly never imagined we'd live in a house such as this. It more or less reached out and grabbed us and wouldn't let us go. Many of our experiences in France have been like that, big surprises, new adventures, plans laid out, but not necessarily exclusively by ourselves. We stumble along. We knew nothing of Montmirail and only a little bit about the Perche when we began to explore the possibility of owning a small business in France. Maison Conti was not advertised for sale and was not a bed and breakfast, but an antique furniture boutique. By our description of what we were looking for, a place to live comfortably, room for our etching press and the possibility of developing a guest house, a local agent brought us here. It was ideally laid out and at the same time the prettiest house we visited.

Maison Conti was constructed at the beginning of the eighteenth century in the geometric Italian style popular at the court of Louis XIV. Princess Conti, Louis' favorite illegitimate daughter, lived in the castle and had our house built for her attendant. It is basically a long rectangle with two Ls added on each end. On the ground floor is a sitting room with a large fireplace, a kitchen for preparing breakfasts and guest meals, a dining room on one L and our studio and boutique space on the other. There is a large two room space we call the cave or labo, where we have our acid baths, drying rack and aquatint box for our printmaking work, as well as tool storage, chimney wood pile, the tank for the fuel, heater, water pump and soft water system. The second floor has four guest bedrooms, one on each corner, a linen/utility closet and an extra room we use for our office. The top floor is our apartment with a large kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, modern bathroom and laundry room. It has views out one direction over the countryside and on the other over the castle park. We added five new bathrooms the first year, but the rest of the house was already suited to our project.

Montmirail has turned out to be a marvelous location in unanticipated ways. Since we're close to Paris, there are lots of weekend homes here, which brings both life and tolerance to the village. People are accepting of outsiders. The village is also prosperous, well-maintained and managed wisely so there is an air of well-being and pride of place. Marc and Jean-François, who we bought the property from, told us it was a happy house. They were right. In only a few years of living in Montmirail, we have been well-integrated and have made warm friendships.
Last night, sitting on the terrace at Annette's over pizza with our neighbors Anne and Christine, we watched the sun set behind the castle walls, listened to the swifts with their evocative cries as they swooped and glided above us, and made plans to take golfing lessons together at a nearby course. None of us have ever really tried it. At a nearby table a party of strangers encouraged our idea and added their opinions. Before leaving the restaurant, we stopped into the kitchen to greet Annette. There were cheek kisses all around and a conversation about the intensity of the sun these days (very dangerous), diets (it's no mystery, just eat lots of vegetables) and football (allez les bleus!). The four of us strolled home together under a starry sky. Standing outside the gates of our house, saying our good nights, we enjoyed together the extravagant production of a yellow climbing rose that covers the front of the house. The smell in the quiet darkness was delicious.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Identity Crisis!

Anyone who's followed my blog will know that I have been struggling to make this space just the right combination of writing, photography and art work. Stories and images, the things which interest me. I have wanted to keep both myself and you entertained. I've gone through quite a few face-lifts. My header and design have changed several times. My experiments have been a bit halting and tentative.

My new year's resolution (now 5 months ago!) was to be much more consistent about keeping a sketch book and a journal. It's challenging finding the time for all these private and public communications. I've wondered how to incorporate everything into just one place. Some of you were kind enough to give me your responses when I asked you how you find your own balance. I guess most of you are just wonder women! I've left all this to ruminate and percolate over the last few months.

Some of the blogs I especially admire have a theme, a raison d'être. Of course being a creative type, I am particularly attracted to artist's pages. There is a whole genre of blogs called A Painting a Day. If you Google the phrase you get a long list. They are quite impressive and what an excellent discipline for the painter. I follow Postcards from Provence since Julien Merrow-Smith is married to a musician who works with Emily occasionally. He auctions off a postcard size image every day and he's made quite a success of it. It's fun to follow his progress, and since its inception, he has become a very facile painter. My favorite drawing a day blog is Ornithoblogical, 365 days of birdies on my brain. Anna Raff is so clever and funny. It's a real pleasure to see what she's going to come up with day after day. My brother writes a daily blog named Two Worlds/365 where he mediates on the states of the natural and political worlds. Such dedication these people show to the quotidian communication!

I've been trying out the daily drawing and I enjoy your feedback. It's not really what I want to do, as I like the rambling narrative as well. It finally came to me in a flash this week, what could be the perfect marriage between all my divergent interests. I've decided to create a whole new face for the blog, a whole new reason for its existence. On Monday I will be beginning a series of posts called 52 weeks in a French village, making a home away from home. It's my intention to add a diary entry every Monday. It will be a cross between a weekly journal, a sketch book and a letter home.

Most well-organized people would begin such a project on the first of January. Clearly that's the logical starting point. But since we moved to France 6 years ago in June and opened our Bed & Breakfast 3 years ago in June, it's not without purpose that I begin my around-the-year writing adventure at this moment in the calendar. Our season is just underway now, so there's lots of stories to tell. The out-of-doors cries out to be sketched. It seems a great time to begin. I hope you'll follow along with me! I love to hear from you. It's the best part about blogging!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Little Bird

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

Quinn in the sand

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.


~Isaac Newton




Sunday, May 23, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Atelier Conti Opens for the Season

When the leaves on the vines (which cover the walls of the house) leaf out, when the birds return and begin building their nests in the branches and hold loud conferences below our windows, when the phone starts ringing with wanderers looking for lodging along their rambling way, and the tourists line up by the castle gates to take the tour, we know it's time to open our boutique to the public again.

Our press room, with its little corner for displaying cards and prints, has been shut up tightly all winter long. The village always has a few visitors on weekends, even in the off-season, but lately the Place outside the house is filled with cars and people come and go with much more frequency. We don't really have any regular hours in the shop, but when we're there, which is frequently, we open our doors and make ourselves available to the curious.

Of course Montmirail is not a big commercial center! And more frequently than customers for our products, we get those who are just interested in our processes. My husband Rick is very patient about explaining how it all works, and when people arrive during a moment when the press is running, he shares the outcome with them.

Our B&B clients also like the atelier tour, and frequently we have people staying with us who love printmaking and have some experience with it themselves. 

Last year we were commissioned by the mayor to make photo-etchings of the castle, which were awarded as prizes to the winners of our local horse trotting races.

We do get the occassional walk-in customer, but more often than not, when people arrive, it's just another opportunity to speak some French. Everyone genuinely seems interested in hearing about what we do. I was asked this year to give a two hour long demonstration/class to the public during our Medieval festival. That will be in August. I'll wait until July to get nervous about it. Standing in front of a room of French people, talking for two hours, is a really intimidating idea.

Rick is framing a lot of my prints to make a kind of studio gallery. He does such a nice job and he's become quite skilled and fast. Before this spring, my wall was filled with scraps of paper with images; ones I had created myself and ones that I'd cut out of magazines or scanned and printed from books. Things to inspire me. I liked the way it looked, and I found it nice to have.

 But everything began to fade and I needed a place for the gallery, so I've replaced it with the framed prints. There are more to do, but it's a good start.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Meet Pulguinha

Helena Ribeiro lives in Portugal and is the proprietor of Pulguinha a wonderful handmade jewelry shop on Etsy. She is one of my new friends from the European Street Team. Please visit her shop, her blog and her Flickr page. She works with all kinds of materials and has some really unique products available.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nothing but Blue Skies

View from the Atelier door

I love the way weather changes so fast in northern France. Last week the temperature was like summer and there was not a cloud in the sky. This week the St. Glace is visiting us. He is the saint who brings one last moment of cold weather at the very beginning of May. After you've cleaned out all your chimneys for the season, turned off the central heating and bought your tender tomato plants, the Saint of Frost comes along to remind you that you can't second guess Mother Nature.

The skies are blue and clear and the air is crisp. There's a little breeze that sends the clouds scuttling across the skies.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Who says dandelions are weeds?

Spring wild flowers are so extravagant! I count dandelions among them, as one person's weed is another one's flower. Some people may go to extremes to try to remove dandelions from their lawns and flower borders, but I revel in their adaptability and cleverness in spreading themselves everywhere. Is there a place in the world where they can't be found? It's when they are allowed to become profuse that they are able to express their true charm. Yellow, as in YELLOW! is the color of spring in northern France. If it's not the dandelions, then it's the fields of safflower.

I have lately been able to get back into the woods below our house. It's not worth the trouble in winter when the trails are muddy, but once the new bright green leaves begin, once again, to cover the trees and they form that sort of tunnel leading into the magical forest land, I eagerly follow the pathway almost every afternoon.

The birds raucously discuss which trees to choose for their nests and the woodland flowers run rampant.

I took a photo of the spot which inspired my "A Walk in the Woods" created in the studio last summer. The light is quite different in the springtime, but still filters through the branches making that dappled effect I was so struck by.

The cows seemed to have some kind of a grudge against us. Maybe they wished they could come in under the trees too. They seemed to give us dirty looks from there enclosure, where we joined the forest path. They certainly can't complain for lack of nice green grass to munch. The fields are lush this time of year.

I have just finished working on another landscape print inspired by our area. It's about 12 X 24" and is created using four separate plates. All the color is added at the same time and it is run through the press just once. Inking up takes about 20 minutes! It's available for sale in my Etsy store.