Saturday 10 April 2021

Coming full circle

Not quite full circle.

The olive tree has produced for the first time and it feels momentous. It has survived years of overseas separation, a journey of its own (from Melbourne to Sydney when we returned from France) and neglect (left to thrive for way too long before I noticed it and gave it some attention). 

And the chair under the olive tree? Before France, it was rescued from a rubbish pile on the side of the road, taken home and treasured in all its imperfection. Now, stripped back and dilapidated, it is time for us to part.

Bearing fruit, growth, replenishment, reaching up and nurture are some of the words of the moment although, just as I am not sure how to turn my olives into something palatable, I am not entirely sure how best to approach our next adventure.

Yes, we do have news.

More on that, very soon.

PS I took this screen shot (above) from the Instagram account of @chateaugudanes. I do not know the owners of this castle. It was the photo itself that spoke to me. A collection of unassuming chairs  ... or the promise of joy, animation and togetherness?

PPS My writing journey has led me to many beautiful souls. If you have not yet had a chance to read my second memoir 'Weaving a French Life: An Australian story,' it would give me so much pleasure if you could do so through the affiliate links to Kristi and Mardi below. They take a couple more clicks to get to where you want to go, but they cost you nothing. Merci et à bientôt.

For print copies: Head to Kristi's blog at French Word-A-Day and scroll down until you see my book in her list of recommended reading on the RHS of the page. 

For digital copies: Head to Mardi's blog at eat. live. travel.write and scroll down until you hit the purchase link in her review.


Tuesday 16 March 2021

For these are a few of my favourite things.

The Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia

I couldn't sleep on Saturday night. It was a combination of being in an unknown place, in a strange bed and a lot on my mind. The insistent drumming was a soothing melody, I told myself, and not a strident get-up-now call. My mind game must have worked as when I woke several hours later, it was still raining but the cool, confident drummer had finished his act and stepped aside, replaced by a less heavy handed timpani scratcher. I lay in bed listening to the rhythm of the drops on the tin roof. 

The day before had been one of those rare days when I had been graced with multiple shining pearls of joy. The magpie, that oh-so-Australian bush warbler, was the first. He had watched me prepare my toast, but had remained on the balustrade and respectfully distant, as any good entertainer knows to do, singing - no, serenading me - as I spread first the butter and then, salivating in anticipation, the marmelade; thick, chunky, juicy.

I had already been for an early morning walk through the bush and although nature had done its trick and filled me with deep lungfuls of fresh air and a welcome calm, breakfast was a recompense of sorts.

Fast-forward to dinner and I was hungry. Fresh air, exercise and the mountains do that to me. Not eating much does it too. We had spoiled ourselves and eaten out. Uncharacteristically, I had selected both an entrée and a main course and wondered how the chef would interpret my order: home-made (not French) pâté followed by vegan pie.

Vegan pie

A difficult, quirky or confused client? Yes, I have been all of those things but, of all the menu items, those two from opposite ends of the meat-eating spectrum were what appealed. 

I devoured both courses with bursts of culinary commentary - reminiscing fondly about the first time that I had had pâté served to me. 

Then, years before, and in our BF (Before France) era, our little family unit had been special guests of a French family.

"May I take your jackets?" the most polite teenage boy of our hosts had asked the children when we arrived.

"Where?" Molly had asked, wrapping her cardigan more closely around herself.

My turn to try and exchange discomfort for delight came next when, after a heady pre-dinner Chambord and champagne, the adults sat down for dinner, peeking at each other through the flowers and over the placemats, napkins and formal dinnerware ... holding thick grey grainy slabs of something slightly unsettling, atop circles of dark bread and next to neatly cut cubes of butter and cute-as-a-button cornichons (pickles). Specially ordered from France, we were being treated to the finest of French starters and I consumed it; my pâté, smiling widely, nodding carefully and sipping frequently on my sparkling water.

How our tastes and outlook have changed. And, how grateful I am for each and every morsel. 

Of course, being in the Blue Mountains, there was a quick stop at The French Shoppe to sign books. 

And now, channeling my best Julie Andrews ...

'But you are in France, Madame' for sale
Rain drops on rooftops and thick, luscious marmelade 

Warbling minstrels and wind sighing escapades

Time to savour the delights on my plate

These are a few of my favourite states.

PS  'Sound of Music' another favourite thing.

PPS Not heading to the Blue Mountains near Sydney in Australia any time soon?

Here is a link to purchase the first of my books. Wherever you are in the world, it should take you to a purchase option in your country.

A bientôt.

Sunday 14 February 2021

My home. My castle.

I wandered for many years. Home, then, was the place that my parents lived in and the boxes (stumbling blocks, literally and figuratively) that I lugged with me from one rental abode to the next remained unpacked, unsightly; signposting unremittingly the fact that I was not at home. Having my own children changed that. Slightly. But my devotion was to them, their happiness and their safety. Home became the place that our little unit gathered and grew. It was never a masterpiece of style or sophistication. Something changed when we lived in Francein the shadow of a 1000-year-old castle, in a hamlet beside a rivulet, with mountains above, stone cottages to our sides and unfamiliarity our constant companion. I positively loved my house then. I revelled in it, I delighted in welcoming people to it, I looked forward to going back to it, I searched for knickknacks to add to mantlepieces, the dinner table, the stairwells and walls of the bedrooms ... I even cooked in it.

I'm pretty sure that Jules, my guest on today's blog, feels the same way about her home in France (above). Granted, it is not just in the shadows of one, it is the castle. We met online, with my books and Instagram as our intermediaries and it has been a pleasure, both to watch her story unfold and to chat behind the scenes.

Let me introduce you to Jules:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself.  

Most people call me Jules, always have. I’m 55 years old, divorced but have been together with my partner for 13 years now. I have 2 amazing daughters with whom I am very close. I have an 18-month-old grandson and another grandchild on the way. I also have 2 grown-up stepchildren.

I lost my mother from breast cancer when I was in my 20s. She was my best friend and I’ve never stopped missing her but what losing her taught me was to go for it in life; not be afraid to take a chance (albeit fairly calculated) and to live and appreciate life to the full.

And so, with that mindset, I bought a dilapidated Chateau in France. This was particularly ‘chance worthy’ because at the time I had a full-on business in the UK, which we had built up from nothing and, at the time of embarking on the chateau idea, we employed over 35 staff. So splitting my time between France and the UK and taking on such a huge project, some might say was slightly bonkers.

Can you tell us about how you settled on Cognac, the style of home that you were looking for and your buying journey?  Do you live in France or spend only some of the year there?

The inn garden

I had bought a similar property in the UK 6 years previously, except it was a pub. I set about fully restoring this listed pub from a very dated place with  mouldy carpets and tumbleweeds blowing around into a 12-guest-roomed, 5-star-awarded country inn with a separate detached cottage, a Michelin award-winning restaurant employing 5 chefs and extensive kitchen gardens. 

The inn garden
I was looking for my next challenge and wanted a change. With lots of previous experience in property development in the UK, we set about looking online and talking to agents about property in France. Whatever we chose had to be easily commutable from Bristol airport as the inn was near Bath in Somerset and 20 mins from the airport. Then I drew a circle on the map of France, marking a one-and-a half-hour drive from Bordeaux airport, as that was pretty much the only airport in France you could fly to from Bristol 12 months of the year, which was paramount. We set up a string of viewings over a couple of days and hopped on a flight to France.

January 2017...

We viewed about 8 properties and at this point I started to think we weren’t going to find what I was looking for. I didn’t know what it was specifically that I wanted but knew that I would know when I found it. Just before we were about to return home, the agent said he did have one other place he could possibly show us but it was a huge restoration project. I was expecting a complete wreck but, as we turned the corner into the pigeonnier-gated entrance, I was instantly sold.

From that moment, those rose-tinted specs were firmly on. Less than 3 months later, we were the proud owners of a slightly crumbling chateau.

We spent the next 3 years travelling between France and the UK, spending as much time as we could in France and working remotely with a building team who were living on site in France. It was tough because we had to keep switching between one and the other and very soon my heart was in France. Each time we went, I didn’t want to leave.

Might there be a renovation story, or two, that you’d be willing to share? 

I think the reason the agent was a little reluctant to show us this particular property was because part of it had never really been lived in; it was like it was built but then many rooms not made habitable. The two towers at each end of the building were not really part of the living accommodation, some areas having no access to them. There was a roughly built set of steps up to the south tower which just felt like a big loft space and to get to the north tower on the other side, we had to climb through a small hatch, walk along a gully on top of the roof and through another hatch.

I instantly saw the beauty of these spaces and wanted to make them into living accommodation but we had to find a way to access them and that was not an easy challenge. After an awful lot of head scratching, the only way was to create a staircase up to that level and a passage through the central roof structure to each tower. The central roof was impassable internally, with beams and trusses crossing in all directions, therefore, this had to be completely redesigned whilst retaining the exact same look from the outside. The central roof was removed and rebuilt and, believe me, there were some heart-stopping moments during that process.

In August 2019 something huge happened. Without advertising it for sale, I accepted an offer for the UK business: one I couldn’t refuse, nor did I want to. I wanted to be in France permanently. On November 12  2019 we drove to our chateau to live. It was, and is, a dream come true. In the last year, we have been able, even through the pandemic, to push forward and achieve a level of finish here that, at times, I doubted would ever be possible. This year, we have turned the barn alongside the pool from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, installed our gorgeous pool, created a garden, finished most of the bedroom and bathroom suites, created a cinema room, a bar, a display wine cave, a hobby utility room, an office and pool changing rooms. We’ve also had scaffolding up for most of the summer restoring the rear façade. The distillery is ready for finishing touches and we are well on the way with the chai barn and toilets, giving us some great events spaces... 

Is your long-term plan to welcome guests?

There was no plan in the beginning. It was just a project, a holiday home for us, but as life has evolved for us and now that we are fortunate enough to be here permanently with no other ties, we are able to do something more. I would like to have a variety of activities here⏤retreats, experiences, events, possibly some weddings, and just having people to stay on a B&B basis. Watch this space!

How have you adapted to your French village and your village to you?

January 2021...

The son of the family who had owned the chateau through many generations, he himself having grown up here, came to have a look around at the work we have done. He was very emotional and so happy and thankful to us for saving it and making it so beautiful; a really lovely moment for us.

People stop, if walking by, to look. They want to speak to us to tell us what a grand job we have done, which is very important to us, to have the approval of the village we now live in.

What is your favourite thing about French living?

My favourite thing about my life in France is the Charente weather, renowned for having one of the most wonderful micro climates in France. We see so much sunshine here and the wonderful long summers mean outdoor living is heavenly. The pace of life, the space and countryside, the variety of food & wine are just some of the other pleasures of living here.

You embody the idea of dreaming big, Jules. You've done so much already but you are not one to sit idle so I'm guessing that 'watch this space' really does mean that more is to come. 

Thanks so much for sharing your story. 

If you would like to follow Jules in 'real time,' the best place to do this for the moment is via her Instagram account @restore_the_chateau.

Wednesday 27 January 2021

Ah. There you are. Got you.

Tug, bundle, scoop up and in. 

"Hmm. Efficiently done. Nicely done," I mused. 

I reached for the washing liquid, gave the product drawer a jaunty hip bump, leant down to close the machine door and pressed 'start.' Hublot, porthole ... washing machine door. And with a nod and another self-reflective "hmm,'' I listened to the first whooshes, signalling the arrival of the water in the cavity. 

So much more romantic to do the washing in French, I thought, and watched as my bed linen swirled out to sea.

I turned to go upstairs, scrabbling around on the bench for my phone.

Odd. Not there. 

Not on my bedside table. Not .... oh, no. Had I inadvertently sent it on a little watery escape?

I ran back to the laundry and willed the machine to return immediately to port. Obligingly, it began its slow twenty-five point, child-lock-release turn, before spewing out its heavy, drenched contents into the basket at my feet. No red phone case jumped into view. Had it already joined forces with the odd socks to play hide-and-seek in the corners of the fitted sheet? Nope. Mmm. Be more methodical, Catherine. Take everything out ... piece ... by .... dripping piece. Rien. Not there. Good, good.

I called for my husband to ring me. 

"Not being lazy. Looking for my phone," I hastened to yell back.

"Won't it still be on silent from the night?"

Of course. Mmm. 'Silent Night. Holy Night,' I hummed as I rifled through the random stacks of motivation clutter on my desk.

Not there. 

Not under the bed.

'All is calm. All is bright.' I waved my conductor's baton at the image in the bedroom mirror.

Calm. Bright ... bright red ... Ah. Got you. There you are. On the floor. Peeking out from under the quilt, courtesy of my magician-like removal of the sheets from the bed, no doubt.

Tout est bien qui finit bien. All's well that ends well. 

And that indeed is my most fervent wish for you all. To be well. In France, the declaration of good wishes in the New Year is real. It is sincere. Necessary. And it must be done before the end of January. Timewise, I am just sneaking in, albeit a bit hesitantly after the year that we have just had, to send my good, best wishes to you. 

Purchase page for 'But you are in France, Madame' and 'Weaving a French Life' here

Monday 14 December 2020

Weaving a French Life: An Australian story

 Weaving a French Life: An Australian story is out.

I broke all the rules. There was no cover reveal, I set up no pre-orders, didn't alert my mailing list (you'd have to have one to do that), I had no launch party ... just heaved one big sigh that it is done.

In the end, discretion suited me best. Contradictory? Probably, given that I blog, advertise, post to FaceBook and Instagram. But, as I am reminded constantly, there is more than one way up a mountain and right here, right now, a no-fuss quiet release was what I needed. You'll decide whether 'Weaving a French Life' is for you, and if it is not, then, hey, no hard feelings - there are plenty of other books out there to choose from.

Happy end of year to you all and thanks so much for sharing my journey to date.

A bientôt.


Purchase page for both books here