France lockdown travelogue: Australian view of a room

More than two centuries ago, Xavier de Maistre was placed under house arrest for 42 days - and wrote Voyage autour de ma chambre, a six-week 'voyage of discovery' around his room. Some 230 years later, we challenged our coronavirus confined readers to write their own Voyage round my Room. Here is one of the three winners...

29 April 2020
By Laraine Toms

I don’t need a madeleine or a pain au raisin. In this year of living fearfully, memories come unbidden. Covid-19 has enlarged, sharpened and coloured my memory better than any app.

At a distance in time and space I remember my little house in France.

I sit, isolated in my garden in Australia, and remember my medieval home in the Bastide of Monpazier.

I see our narrow, cobbled street leading to the Place des Cornieres with its ancient buildings and memories of medieval markets, knights, and public executions. Plague memories, too. How many villagers over the centuries have cowered in these homes, my home, in medieval gloom, waiting for plague death?

I see my house, one of a row built soon after the village was established in 1284 by the English in their determination to maintain a presence in the region.

I see its huge, honey-coloured stone blocks supporting the three narrow stories that have sheltered families since 1308. What happened to the family in this house when the plague struck Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon in 1348? We don’t have records about the impact of the plague in Monpazier but the walls of this house remember.

In my mind I stand inside the entrance to my house and look through the small, oval space built into the front wall overlooking the channel which runs down the middle of the sloping cobblestones.

This oval space is directly above the original deep, square stone sink, so essential for the 14th-century woman for throwing out slops, dish water and human waste to run down the hill, through the narrow gate in the village wall (the Porte du Paradis) and into the fields and valley below.

Now the sink is filled with my essentials:­ a box of boules, ready for a game with friends in the boules pit overlooking the valley, a blue baseball cap, a red scarf, an umbrella, a shopping bag.

I look up at the ceiling with its immense, dark beams running the length of this first floor of the house. It’s just one long room, living, dining and a clever little kitchen tucked into one corner.

The walls of square hewn blocks of golden stone are mostly original with some deft fill in work to replace blocks too cracked and crumbly to hold up the floors above. There are two crevices built in the right hand wall now, holding books, a sound system and a lamp.

The medieval gloom has been remedied by the installation of lights shining down from the corners of the room over the sofa and dining table.

Memories of friends and family cooking, watching the French Open on the TV, reading, eating together around the table, planning the next day’s walk or bike ride, writing in a diary to capture the day’s experiences flood my mind. Harmonious. No fear of tomorrow, or war, or plague. Not then.

On the table is a jug of roses, a welcome back to the village gift left for us by a local friend. Roses. Monpazier is famous for its roses. They climb over stone walls and medieval arches and the huge entrance gates, or portes, to the village; they droop over fences, scent the carreyrous. I can smell them now.

Next to the roses is a small green glass bowl, delicately fluted, hand made by the local glass maker. The village has been renowned for its artisans for centuries – glass blowers, carpenters, artists, potters.

Above the table are two framed prints of medieval designs – scandalously torn from an ancient book of designs and sold at the flea market in Paris. I couldn’t resist them. They were framed by the local framer, so skilled that she takes commissions from all over the world.

What did the families who lived here in past centuries do in this room in the summer days and short daylight hours of winter? I spent hours staring at the wooden beams, the walls and imagined the lives that have been lived in this house.

To my left is a door opening into the most curious and scary laundry ever – a washing machine with drier atop sits on top of the steep stairs leading down to the cave. My safety conscious husband has installed hand grips on the wall to hold on to while using the machines.

The cave with its stone aggregate floor no longer shelters animals or stores grain but 21st-century flotsam and jetsam.

Beside me rises the wooden staircase, not the original which was terrifyingly perpendicular, but a more gently rising one with a clever turn suited to 21st-century bodies. Clever local craftsmen built this wonder. My memory takes me up the stairs to our bedroom with its floor-to-ceiling windows, French shutters and ensuite bathroom.

Medieval charm is wonderful but modern plumbing and wiring are essential!

I think of the times I have lain in bed wondering who has slept here before me, given birth here, died here.

In my mind, I hear the trucks at dawn rumbling up the too-narrow street for the Thursday morning market in the Place.

The staircase winds its way up to the top floor, once an attic, now a spacious bedroom and bathroom with a skylight. The beams slope with the roof making the street side of the room suitable only for very short or bent over people!

The house is empty now. My family is in isolation in Australia. The house waits, as it always has, for whatever is to come. Having stood since the 14th century it can withstand this latest plague.

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