Winter has now well and truly arrived. I am not quite sure how this happened exactly. I seemed to blink and without a doubt all the other seasons had indeed taken their turn. Days, months and seasons have passed since I have written to you and I feel like when you fall out of touch with a dear friend. You think of them so very often but put off writing. Sometimes, we do this because we have so much to say and so much to share and are not sure where to start and then keep putting it off. For so many months I have wanted to share with you all the news from the Château, both good and bad, but have been unsure of how to start.
How do I begin to confide this past year with you - what have been the most joyful and the most sorrowful moments? Time has moved so fast it's as if they arrived together and inseparable. As if happiness and sadness had been stirred, shaken and melted together over a château sized cauldron in a way that made it possible to feel so brave and so broken at the same time. And so, it is with both a heavy and a happy heart that I share a little of the series of unfortunate and fortunate events which have taken place throughout the year.
First, there was the Château fire. One evening in the season of spring my son Ben and his beautiful Serena arrived, and for their arrival I decided to warm their room with a cozy fire. Once the fire had been stoked, the room began to quickly warm. The fireplace was in original though (we had been assured) sound condition - the chimney had been swept and cleared for use only a few weeks earlier. But in the early hours of the morning, Ben awoke to the sound of the smoke detector - the entire room was filled with thick heavy smoke. He managed to wake Serena and then crawling down low they escaped and ran to my room where we called the Pompiers. The entire Château quickly began to fill with smoke. But I looked everywhere and couldn't find any flames! I raced up into the attic and there was nothing. Back into their room and there was nothing. Finally, I ran downstairs to the room below and found the dining room ceiling was on fire. Soon after that the Pompiers arrived. It wasn't until four hours later that the fire was finally put out. This has been the only recorded fire at the Château for the last 300 years.
What we discovered afterward is that when the steel beams and concrete floor were installed in this particular bedroom during the consolidation phase, as the floor had long fallen in, is that a protective layer of thick plastic was also laid between them. There is a photo of this above on the left. It was this plastic that had begun to melt and then caught on fire from the heat from the nearby hearth. And it was only the little smoke detector on the bedside table which saved Ben and Serena from the smoke and fire.
That same week one of the ancient Château trees along the old carriageway fell onto the village road. Fortunately, this occurred in the quiet hours of the night and so no one was hurt. Nevertheless, it fell onto the neighbouring trout farm and destroyed their pumping system. Suddenly, I found myself in a very difficult position with the local Mayors, the department, insurance companies and with the gendarmes - I was being held accountable for an accident that is normally deemed an act of god! Eventually it was sorted out but it took some time.
But in the middle of this, talking with the owner of the trout farm, Gerard, I actually discovered that the trout farm had once upon a time been the site of the vegetable gardens for the Château dating back to the medieval days. He gave me a tour of his farm, which sits beside the Aston River. There are lots of old stone bridges and massive ancient stone ponds, which now hold all the trout. This parcel of land, which sits behind the Château, is also surrounded by all sorts of very old fruit trees. In the end, Gerard even gave us a tour of his farm and its history during the Cooking In The Cuisine Château Experience which we all loved! And it was something that wouldn't have happened had it not been for that burdensome tree...!
Then later (still) in the same week, I opened a formally addressed letter sent by the local mayor which stated that any activities and tours to be held at the Château in the summer months could land me in jail! With the support of a local friend who speaks excellent French and English, I was able to make sense of how I had found myself quite unexpectedly in this confronting and threatening situation. I quickly found out that ownership of a historical monument in France does not necessarily entitle the owner to pursue activities to assist in its restoration! And that even though the local tourist bureau has encouraged and asked us several times to open the Château for tours, that our local mayor was in fact very opposed to this! We weren't expecting this as everyone in the village has been very supportive and we often welcome people from our local villages for tours and afternoon tea.
So, we decided it was time to invite everyone from the village, including the mayor, together to share dinner with us at the Château. To share our vision and to share the Château story and her ongoing restoration with those that hadn't visited yet. That evening just before we sat down on the front terrace for dinner, everyone stood up and with the utmost pride and respect sung the old village song in Occitan to celebrate and commemorate the occasion. Later that evening we all gathered together again in the glow of candlelight in the Salon de Musique for a buffet of home-made desserts. Upon reflection, we should have welcomed the whole village together and done this much earlier. But turns out misunderstandings really can lead to something good! Thankfully, after that everything with the mayor seemed to sort itself out...
Tragically, very soon after we lost our beloved Château cat Antoinette.
For me personally she was the heart and the soul of the Château and the Queen. Antoinette had roamed the Château for over ten years all alone, though over the time she has had numerous litters of kittens. Her litter of three sons - who we named Tom Kitten, Sir Meowington and Tinkerbell - was the last before we were able to catch her and have her sterilised. One winter when I was on my own I tediously tamed Antoinette and her three sons and they all became my family.
There is something reassuring in the middle of the night when you are all alone in a darkest place to have a cat asleep at the end of your bed. Antoinette kept me safe - her ears picking up on any unusual noises. If she slept unaware, I did too. In March my daughter, Jas, introduced me to the Netflix series Stranger Things. Not the best choice to watch alone in bed in the middle of the night in a dark and empty Château! It was only Antoinette purring in thankfulness at the end of the bed who settled my fear and goosebumps.
She was the most beautiful calico coloured cat. Working or walking through the Château, or at other times taking tours, Antoinette was always close-by my side.
For the past two years we have always had someone at the Château year round to care for Antoinette and her boys. Making sure they were kept warm, fed and loved when we weren't onsite. They no longer had to fend for themselves in the harsh winter with foxes and hunting dogs roaming close-by.
Late last year we also decided to take in two rescue dogs - Alfie and Winston. We knew little about them, as they had been abandoned, except that they had been declared fit to live with cats. And so, we brought them into our home too, and for nine months didn't have an ounce of concern.
Until one evening we returned from a quick bite to eat at the local restaurant to find that Winston had taken the life of Antoinette inside the Château. The very place she had felt safe and after all those years of struggling to survive. She was still warm and soft when I knelt down to pick her up, but it was too late to protect her. I just wrapped her in my arms and held her close.
I am so sorry I couldn't save you...
We buried Antoinette at the Château gates, just inside on the left as you look down the old carriageway. It was where she liked to wait for us to come home. I chose the softest pink petalled rose I could find to grow above - a symbol of grace and a symbol of love. And also the colour of her little nose. I went to bed that night and didn't get up for three days. As I type this six months later, my eyes fill with tears. I loved her so much. I lost my friend, my way, and my heart was completely broken.
"Sometimes memories sneak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks"
Always added into this mélange is the loneliness of living apart from my family for much of the year. This has been the second longest stretch apart where the hours in a day can feel like the days in a year...
But, in spite of all this what felt like the end of everything turned out to be a beginning... In summer, the Château opened her gates and her heart to let the world in again. And over the following months, life returned.
First, students from a technical college in the USA graciously planted and painted coming in to help with the restoration for experience. It was a truly transformative week for the Château! And we feel, and would like to extend, the greatest of thank-you's to all who participated!
Later, the Compassionate Sisters of Notre Dame, coming from all around the world, gathered in both June and July at the Château to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of their foundation. Fitting, as their founder Père Garrigou was born in 1817 at the Château!
Then, amongst the restoration which continued, over 100 people from all around the world came to "stay and play" taking part in our Château Experiences. Suddenly, the Château was filled to the brim with love, kindred spirits and happiness. It was also at this time that two of the most adventurous little kittens arrived on the front doorstep. Someone in the village had heard we had lost our beloved Antoinette. Shortly after, we discovered the cutest and fluffiest cat living in a drainpipe close-by and took him home with us. Bienvenue Claude, his brother Monsieur Fluffy and Pompidou!
This year the snow came early... And now, the season to be Jolly is upon us!
Christmas means many things. It is a season which combines reverence and merriment, glory and gift-giving, solemnity and song. Always though, it has a magical way of making us feel nostalgic and reflective.
With everything that has happened over the past year I have deeply deliberated my desire to dream and verily questioned why there are so many songs about rainbows and what's on the other side. Could our own thoughts and dreams instead become our downfall and demise? Could the price of our dreams be far too high to pay? Could they wear us down so much that they could lead us to question their entire validity? In all honesty, it has been hard to not feel some regret and repent upon this constant rollercoaster ride.
But, in the happiest moments of togetherness that we experienced this year, with the Château filled with kindred spirits, friendship and love, the challenges and despair which I felt so deeply melted away. These are gentle reminders from the Château that life is rich and beauty is everywhere, and that every connection has meaning, and, most important of all, that laughter and love are life's sweetest creations.
What it boils down to is that in this land of Châteaux, and for all of us in our lives, dreams and fairytales are not simply about beautiful beginnings and happily ever afters. Rather, true love is about overcoming obstacles and challenges and holding on tightly even when you are spiralling down into the depths of the darkest well where there are no wishes to be found. For it is in these moments of rise and fall, where we are suspended like scales, that to standstill and be unbroken would be to live a life empty and unable to feel. We all experience happiness and sadness in our lives, both great and small. But to feel these things is how we know we are alive, and what makes us human.
And so, as each year passes our Christmas celebrations may be woven with joy, as well as sadness for those no longer with us or for the few or many difficult things that we have had to deal with throughout the year. But wherever we are, and whomever we share Christmas with, it is celebrating the happy times, acknowledging the sad ones, and believing in happy moments in the future that truly matters.
This Christmas, we would like to thank our Château family for all the amazing things that have been created and accomplished together this year - Helen, Pete, Max, Simon, Marianne, Julie, Sarolta, Francesco, Claudia, Victoria, Will and Molly. And thank you also for the gifts of your love and everlasting friendship. And thank you to Coline too, who lives in a nearby village, and is currently illustrating the Château book! The book will appropriately be called "A True Love Story Never Ends..."
Finally, there is no time more fitting to say thank you always for your encouragement and friendship throughout the year, and for believing in and inspiring the Château project. To show our thanks we have created a small Château Christmas video for you below.
On behalf of the Château, we wish you a very merry Christmas season and a safe and healthy 2018.
Karina, Craig, Jasmine, Ben and Serena xxxxx