After years travelling the globe, Australian writer Sara Silm and her family felt it was time to put down roots. But where? Sara writes about how a chance conversation in a pub led to a new life in a château in southwest France
CHÂTEAU MONTFORT IN SPRING. IMAGE: SARA SILM
So many of life’s new chapters start with a profound event; a lifestyle epiphany where the clouds part and you step out of your conundrums into the clarity of a sparkly new way of life. Our move to the French countryside didn’t exactly begin like this. There was no chorus of angels singing ‘hallelujah’, nor did it involve heart palpitating visions of my liberated self, skipping through the hillsides of Provence herding goats, aka Emmanuelle Béart in Manon des Sources. It started, in a very un-French way, with a glass of Baltika beer and a curry in Mad Murphy’s Irish pub in downtown Almaty, Kazakhstan.
After years of expat life shuffling children from boarding school to hotel rooms and rented apartments, we’d reached the point when the age-old traveller’s predicament of ‘chicken or beef’ could only be resolved with a resounding, ‘neither’. What we needed was to stop and put down roots; a place for the children, then aged 15, 13 and nine to make memories in a home of their own. The only problem was where?
My husband was working on a project in Central Asia at the time and as we poured over our woes, a fellow expat in the pub politely cut in and declared he had the perfect solution. He’d bought an old château in the Béarn region of southwest France years prior and insisted we’d love it there. ‘In winter you can be out the front door, clicked into your bindings and skiing in less than an hour. In summer you can be at the beach surfing in the same amount of time. In between you can hike, river raft and generally just have a jolly good time drinking French wine in the sun,’ he enthused.
(LEFT) THE HALLWAY AT CHÂTEAU MONTFORT PAINTED IN FARROW & BALL ESTATE EMULSION ‘MOLE’S BREATH‘ AND ‘HIGH STREET ROUGE’ WALLPAPER BY LITTLE GREENE FROM THEIR ARCHIVE LONDON WALLPAPERS III COLLECTION. (RIGHT) THE LOUNGE ROOM PAINTED IN FARROW & BALL CASEIN DISTEMPER ‘MOLE’S BREATH‘. THE ANTIQUE KNOLE SOFA WAS REUPHOLSTERED IN A DUSTY MAUVE-PINK VELVET BY ATELIER MENDIKOA. IMAGES: SARA SILM
We were rather keen on Italy and Spain, and I’d also imagined myself wafting kaftan-clad through a colourful riad in Morocco but what wasn’t to love about this scenario? We finished our beer, trudged back through the snow to our soviet-style apartment building and booked a four-day whirlwind tour of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
When we arrived, we were shown the usual array of magnificent châteaux in need of ‘improvement’ but all clearly lacking the long-gone indentured labour that was necessary to keep their sizeable estates viable and the household logistics humming. Reassuringly, after just three days we realised the guy in the pub in Kazakhstan was onto something. We’d genuinely fallen in love with the region, we just hadn’t found anything we could imagine calling our own until…in the wee hours of our last night I stumbled across a listing that simply said, ‘Béarnaise country house with sweeping views and a large garden bordered by a stream and small orchard.’
With just an hour to spare before our flight back to Almaty we snaffled a viewing and before I’d even reached the first step of the staircase in the lobby, I knew we’d found our home. Château Montfort is actually a maison de maître, or ‘master’s house’, and was given the grander title of ‘château’ simply by virtue of the somewhat ostentatious addition of two towers, and because it is the largest house in a very modest village of just 184 inhabitants. In spite of its exaggerated title, what attracted me was its understated charm. It’s not boastful or proud and its rooms aren’t large – in fact they’re remarkably modest – and from the very first day I entered its darkened hallways, the walls hinted at a history of happier days.
(LEFT) THE GREEN BEDROOM IN THE BARN, DECORATED IN ‘PARADISE BIRDS’ WALLPAPER BY BORÅSTAPETER DESIGNED BY SISSA SUNDLING. A SIMPLE IKEA SEAGRASS RUG OFFSETS THE ANTIQUE BED BOUGHT FROM AN OLD HOUSE NEARBY. (RIGHT) SARA CHOSE MOROCCAN CEMENT TILES IN ‘CAMELIA’ IN OLD PINK, DESIGNED BY MINI LABO FOR MAISON BAHYA. BURGUNDY COLOURED ZELLIGE TILES ARE A NOD TO THE BARN’S ORIGINS AS A SMALL WINERY. THE WALLS ARE PAINTED IN AUTENTICO VERSANTE MATT IN ‘BARI’, WITH THE TADELAKT WALLS OF THE WET ROOM COLOUR MATCHED. THE VANITY WAS FOUND AT A LOCAL BROCANTE. IMAGES: SARA SILM
There were ribbons of ancient wallpaper hanging from the walls like limp streamers after a party; a procession of swallows that darted in and out of the broken windows, and one room with a clear view of the sky via a sizeable hole in the roof, but there was an overwhelming warmth and intimacy that seemed to convince us that it was the family home we’d craved. After a brief negotiation, the house and contents and its numerous outbuildings were ours, and a month later I flew in to assume my new role of project manager.
Although I’d project managed builds before and had trained as an interior designer, I’d never done it in a language I didn’t speak…at all. Had the French decided to stay when they discovered Australia, I might have stood a better chance. To remedy the problem, I rather foolishly ticked the ‘student’ box on the French visa application for all three children and myself. I figured I needed to speak the language, so I enrolled in a full-time immersion language course at the local Pau University, not far from the children’s school.
What I hadn’t factored in was that it was only an annual visa that needed to be renewed with attendance records and exam results, so herein ensued a three-year blur of beige classrooms, migraines before 11am, homework at midnight, a daily two-hour commute and in between, countless hours of hands-on renovating in a paint-splattered boiler suit.
(LEFT) THE KITCHEN IN THE BARN WHICH SARA TRANSFORMED FROM A DIRT-FLOORED OUTBUILDING INTO A TWO-BEDROOM COTTAGE. THE CABINETS ARE PAINTED IN FARROW & BALL’S ‘AMMONITE’; THE LACANCHE CLUNY STOVE IS IN ‘MIST GREY’; THE WORKTOPS ARE CAESARSTONE IN ‘FROSTY CARRINA’. CROSS-BACK BISTRO CHAIRS AND AN OLD FARMHOUSE TABLE FROM A BASQUE WORD WORKER’S ATELIER COMPLETE THE FRENCH FARMHOUSE KITCHEN LOOK. (RIGHT) SARA SILM AT HOME, SITTING IN FRONT OF LITTLE GREENE’S ‘WHITEHALL’ WALLPAPER IN ‘PRUSSIAN’. IMAGES: SARA SILM
Looking back, the pain was certainly worth it. I could eventually converse with my team of artisans and after three to four years, the neighbours warmed to the idea of chatting with me rather than scampering into a nearby hedge to avoid contact with the alien that had landed from Mars. To be fair, I wasn’t the only foreigner in the village – there was also the lady at number 2 who’d moved from Sauveterre-de-Béarn, a village 20 minutes away, but the locals in these parts aren’t generally welcoming to those who don’t have a village cemetery plot dating back to the 13th century. Fortunately, they’re rather partial to cake so in the absence of any subterranean connections, I now seem to be winning their hearts through their stomachs.
With a growing list of useful French verbs and conjugations I led a team of local artisans, firstly on the big-ticket items like re-roofing, re-wiring and re-plumbing as well as installing a new septic system and boiler. There were rising damp issues that required new foundations on the ground floor and such a distinct lack of insulation in the roof that the burning of a 100 Euro note might have seemed more satisfying (and warming) compared to suffering an hour of sub-zero temperatures waiting for the internal thermostat to rise above ten degrees.
Seven years on, the bulk of the renovations are complete. The old barn has been transformed into a two-bedroom cottage and the garden now has a pool, hen house, a meadow complete with goats and a productive potager. There are still pieces of furniture waiting to be found in local brocantes, artwork yet to be purchased and curtains awaiting a hefty budget allocation, but it’s no longer a house, it’s a home. After so many years living as a guest in other people’s countries I’m finally starting to feel like France is home too. There’s something about the renovation process that intimately connects you to a place, not just in a bricks and mortar way but in a profoundly spiritual way. It anchors you. The drifting days are gone.
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