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Life in a Postcard: Escape to the French Pyrenees [Paperback]

Rosemary Bailey
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Amazon Review

Many of us share a daydream. In idle moments, we delight ourselves with the thought of leaving Britain's grey climate behind and making a go of it in some sultry foreign locale. And if we're really ambitious with our daydreams, we think about transforming some exotic ruin into a splendid place to live. Rosemary Bailey and her husband, however, did more than just daydream. The beguiling Life in a Postcard tells how the couple were travelling in the French Pyrenees in 1988 when they were smitten with a crumbling medieval monastery which they later bought. Surrounded by peach orchards and snow-capped peaks, the area was rich with traces of the long-vanished monks: the sunken crypt, the stone arches of the cloister, the frescoes in the 13th-century chapel. Whenever they could, the couple visited Corbiac over the next few years, until they finally summoned the courage to relocate from urban London to rural France with their young son. With only the earnings from their freelance writing careers to support them, they performed the Herculean task of restoring the monastery to its former glory.

Reading this utterly unputdownable account, it's easy to share the dream that drove the couple. But this isn't just aspirational wish-fulfilment; Bailey is mercilessly frank about the considerable strain put on their relationship, as well as the various horrors of living in a leaky, run-down property. But despite all that, the enjoyment of Life in a Postcard comes from our sharing this vivid evocation of the beauty of French Catalonia (with its famous cooking), and the tempting possibilities that (with the kind of determination that Bailey and her husband possessed) we too could be living a life like theirs. And if we can't, this book is a highly diverting substitute. --Barry Forshaw


"'Enchantingly told...I just couldn't put it down'" (France In Print)

"'Reading this utterly unputdownable account, it's easy to share the dream that drove the couple...We too could be living a life like theirs. And if we can't, this book is a highly diverting substitute'" (

"'Life in a Postcard is not just the author's account of the challenges of life in a small mountain community, but also a celebration of French Catalonia and the pleasures of Catalan cooking. I do not envy them one bit - but I did enjoy reading about life in the French Pyrenees in all its manifestations, in a comfortable armchair at I am sure you will'" (Living France)

"'Offers some real flavour of the beauty of Catalonia and may actually inspire others to follow her path'" (What's On In London)

"'More diverse than the usual Brit transplant to that ideal place in France, Rosemary Bailey's account takes in monastic history and a marital situation which might paint a grin on the faces of the hipper reader...Sweet book'" (Time Out)

Book Description

Rosemary Bailey's enthralling account of her quest to make a 21st century home out of a ruined French medieval monastery.

From the Publisher

Rosemary Bailey's enthralling account of her quest to make a 21st century home out of a ruined French medieval monastery.

From the Author

My book, Life in a Postcard is a true story about friends, family and a few foes. Writing about people you know has its challenges and drawbacks. Novelists do it all the time but they disguise their sources as fictional characters. Fay Weldon once said to me when I was struggling with research for an article, "Write fiction! Then you can just make it all up." Somehow to me though real life seems infinitely more interesting than creating an imaginary world.
I kept journals for many years about our experiences restoring the monastery, getting to know a small Pyrenean village and learning to live in a new country, but it was a long time before I consciously tried to craft the material into a book. I began the book at a very low point. I needed to make money and I wanted to try and figure out quite what I thought I was doing here. Why was I pursuing this romantic dream? Once I began consciously writing of course, everything, however traumatic, became good copy, from the leaking roof to the squabbles with the farmers and the regular invasions of horses and cows in the garden.
Nevertheless it is strange to write about events as they happen, and one is always conscious of the effect of the writing on events. The real challenge is how to be truthful without doing damage.
My previous book, Scarlet Ribbons: A priest with AIDS, about my brother, was the same - I was writing about my brother’s illness and death as it happened. Interviewing him on one occasion about his attitude to death as he lay in his hospital bed. He didn’t mind.
So in an odd way I was used to the writing being part of the living process. Sometimes then my family would say, "Are you going to write this down?" and with this book, I have sometimes had the same reaction. My son has occasionally been horrified at me noting down something he has said, and we had to negotiate what he thinks is appropriate for me to include. We had a long discussion over the colour of his eyes; "They’re not grey, Mum, they’re grey-green," which though accurate didn’t sound so poetic. When he finally came to read the book after it was published his editorial comments were trenchant. Of a chapter about the history of the village, entitled, "A cavern of bandits and thieves" he remarked, That’s not a very good title – only a policeman would want to read that."
My husband agreed to my writing about him and about our relationship, sorely tested by our French adventures. As a biographer of among others, American Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, whose whole philosophy was one of total openness in his poetry and his life, he could hardly do otherwise. And he too is about to publish a book about his experiences in Sixties London (In the Sixties by Barry Miles to be published by Jonathan Cape in October 2002) in which he has had to negotiate the delicate path of writing about friends and personal experiences. Miles indeed volunteered to be the fall guy,
"You can make me the old curmudgeon," he offered, complaining about his unwilling rustication, French farmers and the iniquities of the French Internet. Try as I might to caricature him he emerged as a sympathetic character nonetheless, what one reader has described as a "quiet hero."

When I came to write about the community here, I was anxious not to create a cast of caricatures. I tried to ensure that people knew I was writing a book. In some cases where I had written a lot about them; Gerard the Dutch gardener, Hans the donkey man, Paul the stone mason, I gave them sections to read before it was published. They also corrected some of my worst faux pas; Vosges cattle that were black and white not brown, as I had written, the colour of Californian poppies and the correct recipe for lime mortar. Thus far no-one has reacted negatively, though one of the gay grandfathers in the village (there are two) objected to the sobriquet. "You make me sound old," he grumbled.
In some ways Scarlet Ribbons "told the tale of the tribe" articulating the experience of the people of Dinnington as they lived through my brother’s illness and death. In a way I wanted this book to do that, to "tell the tale of the tribe of Mosset," and record a period of time when the village changed from an inward looking rural enclave to a community which welcomed outsiders and foreigners, artists, potters, elderly English ladies and punk hermits with equal relish. I wanted to cherish and celebrate the real depth of community I found. In particular the occasion when one young couple, a "true" Mossetan and her "foreign" husband, a cow herder from the Vosges in the North of France, who had tried to establish a dairy enterprise, lost all their cows, and the village held a benefit for them. This was the chapter we translated and read aloud to present the book to the village.

Perhaps the best thing about writing the book was that the process of writing helped me resolve many of the issues with which we were confronted and learn more about what I really wanted. Indeed the process has changed my feelings and helped me understand the compromises and conflicts we have all experienced.

Oddly the lovely building which first brought us here is no longer the most important thing, though I cherish it and would dearly like to complete the restoration. I treasure even more the rugged beauty of the Pyrenean landscape in which it is set and the community I have found.
Somehow by writing about it all I have arrived at a place where the experience itself is of such value it will always be a part of me. Whether or not I am physically here I can carry it in my heart.

From the Back Cover

'I wake to the sun striking gold on a stone wall. If I lean out of the window I can see Mount Canigou newly iced with snow. It is wonderful to live in a building with windows all around, to see both sunrise and sunset, to be constantly aware of the passage of the sun and moon.'

In 1988, Rosemary Bailey and her husband were travelling in the French Pyrenees when they fell in love with, and subsequently bought, a ruined medieval monastery, surrounded by peach orchards and snow-capped peaks. Traces of the monks were everywhere, in the frescoed 13th century chapel, the buried crypt, the stone arches of the cloister. Gradually, these fragments revealed the spirit of the place.

For the next few years the couple visited Corbiac whenever they could, until in 1997, they took the plunge and moved from central London to rural France with their six-year-old son. Entirely reliant on their earnings as freelance writers, they put their Apple Macs in the room with the fewest leaks and sent Theo to the village school. With vision and determination they have restored the monastery to its former glory, testing their relationship and resolve to the limit, and finding inspiration in a small mountain community that welcomed them.

Life in a Postcard is not just Rosemary Bailey's enthralling account of the challenges of a new life. It is also an exploration of the rugged beauty of French Catalonia, the southernmost corner of France, the pleasures of Catalan cooking, and an exploration of an alternative, often magical world.

About the Author

Rosemary Bailey has written two further books about the Pyrenees. The Man who Married a Mountain (Bantam Books 2005) followed the romantic 19th century mountaineer. Sir Henry Russell-Killough, in his quest for the sublime. Her most recent book, Love and War in the Pyrenees, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2008) is an investigation of the Second World War, combining her own travels with contemporary interviews, documents andletters, described by the Jewish Chronicle as, 'a quiet triumph of historical reconstruction'.

She is a fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and teaches writing for the Arvon Writers' Foundation and runs her own writers' retreats in the Pyrenees.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

A day in the hours of a monk
I wake to the sun striking gold on a stone wall. If I lean out of the window I can see Mount Canigou newly iced with snow. The rays of sun from the east illuminate the peak like a strong spotlight and light up the upper half of the valley. Below, all is still in deep-green shadow. When I look out of the other window, which faces west, I see that the sun has gilded the hilltops there too, peaks that rise up from the Mediterranean and stretch the length of the Pyrenees to the Atlantic coast. For a moment the whole monastery is bathed in the glow of the sun and I can almost feel the tilt of the earth as it greets the light. It is as if I am standing on a high mountain and not barefoot in my red dressing gown in the bedroom.
It is wonderful to live in a building with windows all round, to see both sunrise and sunset, to be constantly aware of the passage of the sun and moon. It was the way the monastery was built for the sun that first kindled my interest in the monks who once lived here. How cleverly they planned it. In winter when the sun is low it beams through the cloister arches and the upper-floor windows and heats the rooms. The high summer sun passes overhead, leaving the rooms as cool as the stones of which they are built. But the chapel with its high windows on the north side of the monastery remains bitterly cold in the winter months, and I imagine the monks chanting the nightly vigil in the chill, candlelit darkness.
We have restored enough of the building so that again it feels like a monastery; we have rebuilt stone arches, rendered walls in ochre lime mortar, pleasingly rough to the touch, and laid handmade terracotta tiles on floors of solid rock that were buried under centuries of cow shit and cement. It is as if we have recaptured some of the spirit of the place, and it is since we have started to live in the renovated west end that I have most felt the presence of the monks, been able to imagine their daily rhythm of work and prayer, more palpable among cool restored arches than picturesque ruins.
The battered but beautiful thirteenth-century Romanesque chapel was abandoned by the monks at the Revolution and has been used as a barn and cowshed ever since. Once after going in for firewood stored there we forgot to turn off the light and it shone all night, the only light in the darkness of the valley, just as it would have done seven centuries ago when the chapel was built and there was a hermit in residence to keep a candle burning day and night. He would have been alone here, looking up at the mountains, watching the clouds scudding past and hearing the wind in the trees. The first monastery was built at some time in the sixteenth century, so for at least two centuries the monks chanted their daily offices in the barrel-vaulted chapel, cooked their simple meals in the great arched fireplace of the old kitchen and paced the cloister in silent meditation.
After the Revolution the farmers filled in the arches of the cloisters, blocked the windows and widened the stone archways for cows, goats and sheep. Sometimes there is still an animal whiff about the place, though now the air smells of linseed oil and turpentine since only yesterday I treated the final patch of terracotta tiles we brought from Spain; on my knees rubbing the oil into the porous clay, admiring the variegated colours from ochre to orange. The Catalan artisan, Christian, who laid the tiles told me he had seen the very same ones in a thirteenth-century church in Arles-sur-Tech, a village in the next valley. I like to think the monks would have oiled their tiles too. Perhaps they had a field of flax from which to make their own linen, and pressed the seeds for linseed oil.
From the open stairwell I can see three stone Romanesque arches below, leading off the hallway, two of them newly restored. One curved stone has the faded remains of a fresco, a few arabesque strokes of pinkish lettering, their meaning no longer discernible. This arch leads down into our new kitchen, once, we figured, the abbot’s quarters because the rotten old beams were embellished with carving. The kitchen too is terracotta tiled, with off-the-peg beechwood cupboards and worktops, built in but dwarfed into submission by the sheer height of the room, the exposed stones and the arches.
There are so many arches – perhaps the one architectural component that now I could not live without. They have an organic sensuality which makes the regular angles and straight lines of ordinary doors seem lifeless and dull. The whole building is comprised of curves and round Romanesque arches, with only one inexplicable pointed Gothic arch in the south side of the church. It is only in northern Europe that the architecture needs the sharply articulated angles and needle points of Gothic to give it definition in the grey light. In the south the sunlight is so bright that the forms can be less precise, more rounded, more natural somehow. I admire the triumphs of Gothic architecture but with diminishing affection. Romanesque increasingly seems more human, easier to inhabit. Just like living in a southern climate; not for nothing was the Mediterranean the birthplace of Western civilization.
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