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.