Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Making Myself at Home in the Chateau de Lavigny

Odd Memories of the Family
I suppose I should be thankful to my family that I find myself feeling very quickly at home at Lavigny. The chateau’s completely arbitrary combination of high art, antiques and kitsch reminds me of my parents’ home where random plastic souvenirs rub shoulders with whimsically personal art from Latin America, extraordinary wood and copper works from Africa and just stuff we seemed to have inherited from some eccentric ancestor.

Through out my stay, I feel a constant sense of homesickness, mingled with nostalgia and familiarity. The emotions come in waves: I want to run right back home in the evenings; my morning cup of tea, taken always on the steps of the French windows to the garden, is oddly comforting; working in the living room is a favourite, partly because it makes me feel like a child again.

Perhaps I am most off-kilter in my assigned bedroom, originally that of Jane Rowohlt herself. This is vast, all in pale pistachio and peach and gold; a wide swathe of frills and lace and silks, so hyper-feminine that it unnerves me. Then I figure out, typical desi-style, or perhaps like that urchin my mother had often accused me of becoming, that I can sit on the floor to work, with the low platform for the bed serving as my own little seat. In making myself at home, I throw off the silken covers, pile up the lacy pillows on the sofa, and drag the heavy down duvet down to the floor. Each tiny gesture of making myself at home feels vaguely like a desecration, like a secret intrusion into someone else’s bedroom, but I plough ahead regardless.

The bedroom leads to the dressing-room, a room lined entirely with built in, lit closets. Apparently, they were once filled with numbered haute couture dresses by Yves Saint Laurent; my handful of t-shirts seems just a bit bedraggled and desolate in their depths.

There is a desk against the window, nominally designating it as my work space. But the boudoir chair in the corner reminds me that even this manageable space is really meant for a woman far more glamorous than me, that it is really the domain of a woman who is an artist of the body instead of the mind. It is a slightly mysterious place, reminding me inexorably of my mother and the teak panelled, mirrored dressing room I always associate with her.

The space is simultaneously unfamiliar and comforting, and on long days, I find myself sitting at the desk not to work but to stare out the window and daydream. Perhaps for the same reason, I have strange dreams, often about my mother. Joyous dreams, including one where we are caught in a rain-storm. My mother has always been supremely elegant, and thus slightly intimidating. Enjoying being caught in the rain seems a bit beneath her. And yet she does so, with abandon and laughter in my dream.

The bathroom is what feels most familiar in the suite. It is huge like the ones in old Himalayan bungalows where I grew up, and equally draughty. I keep expecting the separate toilet to have a hidden door to allow waste removal in the mornings. It is not nearly as simple as the ones I remember from my childhood: one wall is lined with grand built-in mirrors, with golden ornate fittings, a faucet shaped like a golden swan’s neck in the bathtub. I find myself wishing my sister could have a go at this wonderful space! I remember that when we moved into a house full of bathtubs many years ago, she was only six and yet she was the one who enjoyed it most, like some amphibious being finally finding her own element.

The entire chateau feels terrifically feminine, which is why I am not immediately reminded of the men in my life. The items that I know my brother would appreciate with his finely honed sense of the social ridiculous are the animal-shaped knife-rests at dinner. Slightly deformed, oddly expressioned, barely recognizable pig, rabbit, dachshund, ram, squirrel and fox rotate through the table over the days. These are items almost forgotten in our ruder, more casual era but provide a touch of magical silliness to the table, and one can never be sure if one ought to take them seriously or as a ridiculous bourgeois conceit.

It is the garden that reminds me of my father. When I walk on the vast lawn, apparently emerald and well-groomed, I still see the weeds that need removing. Often I am tempted to find myself a little seat and set myself to cleaning up the lawns, as we do at home. Sometimes I find myself looking over my shoulder, slightly bemused, convinced that he is lavishing care on the roses, the lavender, the hibiscus even as I type away on the laptop. Exactly like at home!

But even indoors, there are little things that I know my father would appreciate: the Chinese peg tables with detachable tray tops; a hidden music room with an extraordinary LP collection and a strangely anachronistic sound system; a wine cellar that must truly hold enough for the best of parties. My father always gets a mischievous, wild glint in his eyes, a wide happy grin, when he finds a place or person or thing that amuses him. I can imagine him enjoying an entire house dedicated to secrets and amusement and parties.

Finally, it is these links to my family that help me feel at home at Lavigny: the fantasy that I am once again in another of the strangely decorated houses that my family would occupy with each move. That I am a child again, moving into yet another ‘diplomatic residence,’ once again with the familiar, weird and wonderful mix of luxury and kitsch, whimsy and formality. And that is really what gets me through my weeks at Lavigny (what my sister very aptly qualified as “voluntary house-arrest”): an imaginary half-sense that one day soon, we will just rip off all we don’t like from the walls and table-tops to store it in the garage or the attic, and make this space our own. After all, haven’t we done it over and over again?


  1. Wow, you write really well. A sense of Le Chateau and the nostalgia you feel comes through very strongly. I wish I had time to just be in house arrest and sit and ponder things, but life keeps me very busy: 'the moving finger writes'. I also wish I had that something in me that allowed me to write creatively like you do as opposed to writing on technical things, though dare I say my grant applications come close sometimes? *cough*

  2. Thanks. For me, writing is about finding that time to sit in "house arrest" as most of the time my life tends to be madly hectic. I do have as Woolf suggested a "room of my own" which I think makes a huge difference.