Our daily life here is definitely more of a grind than it was in the US, but it’s punctuated by almost magical moments that make me wonder if living in Europe might just be worth the hassle, the emotional trauma, and the reams of paperwork.
Our weekend in the Cevennes was one of those moments.
We’ve just started going to an English-language church, [iccp], the only church I know of with punctuation featured in its name. That’s not the only selling point—we’ve really enjoyed getting to know a whole group of other ex-pats. Plus, we showed up just in time to go along on their bi-annual castle trip. An elderly French nobleman, Monsieur de Cazenove, who still lives in his ancestral chateau, invites the entire church to come hang out at his place for a weekend twice a year. It started years back when he knew somebody who knew somebody, and it’s turned into a pretty clutch tradition. Apparently he likes it, too, and I had a good time chatting with him in his study about the history of the house and his family.
Turns out, the castle used to just be a rather large farmhouse, which his grandfather bought in the 1880s and reconstructed to look like a castle.
(Check out where M. de Cazenove stores his plastic lawn chairs.)
On first glance, the chateau seems like it’s from the 1400s, but inside its got all the amenities of an upper class residence from the late 19th century—complete with dumbwaiter in the dining room, connecting to the big kitchen/laundry area below.
The chateau felt both like a castle from a fairy tale, and like my grandma’s house. The palatial living room had medieval-style antiques alongside 1970s velour recliners with the newspaper and TV remote carefully placed within arm’s reach.
Usually when you visit a historical site, all that’s left is the shell—walls and ceilings, and maybe some paintings. If you’re lucky, there will be furniture that fits the time period, giving you some idea about what it used to look like. If you’re really lucky, there will be re-enacters, like the Chateau de la Barben, or even wax figures, like Warwick Castle in England, one of the best sightseeing events of my childhood.
Even the social hierarchy was like that in a castle. The older couples and families with children were assigned bedrooms, and all the single girls—maybe I should call them “damsels”—had quarters together.
I kindof wished I'd been in the damsel's chamber, but Josh and I had the distinction of being a married couple, so we had our own room. We got an air mattress in the octagonal “smoking room” off the great hall—a relic of the 19th and not the 15th century, but intriguing nonetheless with exotic Indian muslin on the walls. It was so cool to have a little corner of a castle that we could call “home,” even if just for a weekend!
It reminded me of what the tour guide had said at Versailles: that courtiers would do anything to get even a broom closet assigned to them, so that they could “live” in the king’s palace with him. I’ve gotta admit, even the broom closet here was bigger than the room I had in Manhattan.
I, being able-bodied, should have been hiking during the day, but I chose to stay back and explore the castle. I don’t think Monsieur de Cazenove has thrown out anything that was purchased since his great-grandparents moved in, and there were antique treasures around every corner.
I ventured up to the attic, where drips from a leaky roof were caught by old chamber pots, and a trunk held generations of hand-me-downs.
I felt a little guilty that I was there instead of my friend J.B., who would have had some kind of fit from the bliss of it all, but I tried to enjoy it enough for the two of us, and take lots of pictures.
But how do you adequately enjoy something that seems too magical to be real?
Coming back downstairs, the kids had given up their hunt for treasures outside in the castle grounds...
...and were playing cache-cache (hide-and-go-seek). I wondered if one of them would hide in a wardrobe and end up in Narnia. Then I wondered if we already were as close as we could get. This impression was heightened when one of the little girls asked if I wanted to go see the stone table.
How do you come back to reality after a weekend like that? Not that the rest of our life feels that much like reality...