Escape to the French Pyrenees
In Life in a Postcard, Rosemary Bailey transcends the by now familiar ”location memoir” giving personal depth and a philosophical twist to her celebration of life in the French Pyrenees. She and her husband buy and slowly attempt to restore a medieval Romanesque monastery, and then not content with summer visits, dive in at the deep end, move to live there, dependent on their earnings as freelance writers. Their 6 year old son starts the village school with no French at all and Bailey details the struggles they have to adapt to rural mountain life, not least the contrast between her city husband’s marked reluctance to embrace a life of vegetable growing, wood chopping and donkey trekking with her own precipitate enthusiasm. Her wry honesty and self deprecating humour makes this more Bridget Jones goes to the Pyrenees than Frances Mayes or Peter Mayle.
They not only find a home they also find a supportive community- not traditional hoary French peasants and braying ex-pats, but a microcosm of Europe, a village which boasts 12 different nationalities and calls itself Village d’Europe et du Monde. Bailey paints amusing and sympathetic portraits of the characters she meets; dairymaids, potters, opera singers, gardeners and painters. Gerard, the heavenly gardener who plants a secret patch of poppies to appear on a green hillside, Albert, the opera director who lost his hearing and turned sculptor, Hans the Dutch careers advisor who advised himself to move to Mosset and run a donkey trekking enterprise, Rose, niece of Sir Anthony Eden, a photographer again at 75, riding camels in Morocco, and revisiting the slums of Jamaica to photograph them after 20 years, Sylvie, the transplanted Parisian horsewoman so devoted to her tranquil life she needs a steak to revive her if she ever has to drive a car, the lesbian olive growers, the Swiss analyst, the Chilean refugees, and the nouveaux paysans carving out simple self-sufficient lives in mountain shacks, growing their own food, and dancing by the light of the moon. There are the traditional peasants too of course, planting by the moon, squabbling over fences and water rights, barbecueing snails, and guarding their secret mushroom locations. Bailey finds her feminist principles get her into serious trouble when she tries to assert herself with Catalan farmers. But she finds an alternative life, the possibility of a quieter, healthier, safer environment, enjoying simple, frugal pleasures, people who have turned their backs on material comforts in favour of living close to nature and animals, treading lightly on the earth.
Woven into the story is the history of the village, the harsh realities of peasant life in the past, the experience of war, the informer priest hung by the maquis. most of all though it is the monastery itself which dominates the book, and Bailey describes the monks, bringing to life their daily rituals and worship, the prayers and chants which filled the building for centuries, the herbs and plants they grew. Through the monks she finds a way to respond to the place, finding in their ability to focus on the moment a way to see beyond her own daily trials and enter fully into the experience. A bittersweet quality overhangs the book as she remembers her brother, the Yorkshire priest who died of AIDS , the subject of her previous book, and in the stones and forgotten prayers of Corbiac she finds a way to resolve his death. She discovers, as he did, that to retreat from the world can mean you engage more fully and more profoundly with it.