In 1991 Judy left her job as a senior executive in the USA for a sabbatical year with her husband Mike, who had taken early retirement at 51 to fulfill a lifelong dream to become an artist. They made a bucket list and one of the items on it was to spend time in Europe and learn another language. After several false starts, they found themselves in the south of France in the Haut Languedoc on a touring holiday and fell in love with a village on the Tarn river.
Back in the states and ready to go back to work, Judy discovered that her sister Linda was critically ill following a cardiac arrest. She had sustained significant brain damage. ‘Linda’s courage and struggle to recover gave me the guts to get off the treadmill of my high-pressure career,’ Judy writes. The book is written as a series of letters and emails to Linda as well as extracts from Judy’s personal journal.
Driven by a new sense that time was running out, Judy and her husband retired to France and bought a derelict water mill on the Tarn river - totally uninhabitable - and began to restore it and live their dream.
The memoir reminds me a little of ‘A Year in Provence’ - I could taste the cheese and the wine and share the drama of every catastrophe. Living without mod-cons stretched Judy to the limit - ‘I learned I can pee in positions unknown to womanhood’. They had a backhoe in the living room, no bathroom, rising and falling damp, rats, and incompetent builders, but they were reassured by their neighbour that ‘Avec l’argent tout est possible’ (with money anything is possible). And so it proves.
I got involved with the fortunes of the Blanc family, where Judy goes to learn how to kill a sheep and make duck au confit. I learned about the process of making Roquefort, the marital difficulties of the local restaurateur, and the plight of Christelle - a mail-order bride from Madagascar imported by one of their workmen - who consults Judy about his lack of personal hygiene (how do you tell a large Frenchman that he needs a bath?)
Judy learns carpentry, stone masonry and the art of paper-making and discovers her own creativity as well as her husbands. Before long she is being asked to take part in exhibitions in France and the United States and is setting up fascinating installations. It’s an amazing achievement. How much personal creativity is wasted in corporate culture?
I enjoyed the glimpse into someone else’s life - the book is honest and well-written. But it is also, for someone whose views are well to the left, an illustration of what has happened all over Spain, Italy and France, where wealthy colonisers have moved in from outside - Russians, Germans, Scandinavians, English, Americans - and driven prices up beyond the threshold for the local population. It’s a dilemma - ruinous buildings are rescued and restored, but it often has a negative impact on the local community. There are both pros and cons. Judy’s book gave me much food for thought.