Wendy Coad, born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and traveled the world with her older sister when she was 19 years old, is an incredible artist and writer for over 50+ years. Married to Steve, she currently lives in Philadelphia by way of NYC and Miami, Florida, doing art along with many artistic endeavors and way more!
Wendy and I met during WIC2 in 2020 (Writing in Community), and besides her writing beautiful prose, she painted over 3000 "masterpieces" during Covid from 2020-2023. Lately, we've been meeting up for lunch halfway between Philly and Crofton, Maryland.
In addition to Zoom meetups with various groups we both belong to over the last couple of years, Wendy was a part of the 18 strong who descended on the Cevennes, France, writing retreat this past April. When I read her eloquent recap of our trip, I knew I couldn't articulate our experience better than her. Wendy was delighted when I asked her to guest blog for this Friday's post, highlighted below:
I'm not a mug person. I like 'em, but I don't ascribe meaning so that any vessel will do, or so I thought. Now, all that's changed, so let me explain. Last month I was fortunate enough to go to a retreat in the sunny mountainsides of southern France, the Cevennes. It was for writers, and I found myself amongst a group of amazing people, all of whom I'd been in proximity to before, albeit via a Zoom writing community. The location and accommodations were surreal. Unimposing and not classically impressive from the outside, the Chateau de Saint-Felix was tucked into the landscape where goats and sheep roam, tended by the farmers who husband them. The setting alone made up for any turrets this castle lacked.
The Chateau doubled as a wedding venue and, like the well-dressed French, its' style was not showy, but the fabric; was luxurious, and its' structural tailoring; was an art form unto itself. The feeling was one of being pampered, but with no rush, at your leisure. The entrance was simple, with a staircase leading to the main floor, which opened out into a formal drawing room and dining room. The kitchen, which stayed off-limits while the chef was in house, was the last room on the floor. A wall of French doors opened out to the back and onto a glorious terrace just starting to bloom with lush vines and flowers.
This was just the beginning because beyond the terrace was a courtyard surrounded by a phalanx of additional buildings constructed at various times over the last 900 years, complete with a tower in one corner of the yard. Trellises draped in wisteria and shrubbery abound, offering shade in the bright spring daylight. The weather stayed wonderfully cool in the shade and warm in the sun for the entire week. But it didn't end there. On the ground level were the spa caves, where grand stone arches held the multiple stone structures above. In one, there was a refreshing pool, just warm enough to soothe bones that ached from happily walking a bit too far that day. There was a great hall, empty under ancient, cavernous arches, cool for the summer events and large enough to hold any future party that might spill out into its courtyard to dance under the starry night sky. Apart from a few other utility spaces, there were a couple of sauna rooms, one offering dry heat and the other one wet.
While on the subject of water features, a few hundred steps from the main house and beyond a pasture where docile farm animals sometimes grazed was a freshwater pool sourced from a mountain stream of deliciously and refreshingly cool water. During my first dip there, I swear there were Koi sharing the space with me, but they disappeared after a visit from the caretaker. I assume he moved them to one of the still ponds where frogs would make noises loud enough to simulate the sounds of a crowd haggling at one of the outdoor markets nearby. It was heaven to be there.
I'll get back to the mug, but just let me tell you about the glorious room that was mine for the week. On the second floor, it was large and spacious with two windows that let in the uniquely south-of-France light, a slight amber hue due to the winds that blow across from the sea, maybe from as far away as Africa. Through it, I could see the terrace below, as well as the courtyard and curved-tile roofs of the small town nestled into the arm of the property, complete with its own gothic chapel. I would stand there and look out every morning, enchanted, and then turn to face the serenity of the well-appointed, spacious room that lay before me; the large, fluffy bed with its' crisp white linen, the red tile floor, punctuated by an enormous and ancient armoire, the hallmark of domiciles old enough to have never seen a closet. A small writing desk was nestled into one corner, and along the wall under a large ornate mirror, was a small table, one in the style of Louis XIV. All of these were brought together as if in crescendo by a huge crystal chandelier, which anchored all the elements in a grand, sweeping way.
Life as art.
Each morning, after gazing out the window and admiring the artifacts that so tastefully decorated my room, I'd descend down to the sunlight-soaked dining room for a breakfast of impossibly fresh yogurt, cheese, and eggs. The bread smelled divine, but sadly, I was on a gluten-free diet and didn't indulge in it or the homemade jams that were offered next to the fresh butter. The morning and lunchtime chef was a beloved character in the region, a young man with a joie-de-vie that was both endearing and infectious. And the meals were sumptuous, locally sourced, and simply delicious. Dinner was prepared by a more senior chef, equal parts artist and cook, and she gave us a sampling of the bountiful herbs, vegetables, and meats that all came from not more than a few miles away. Ambrosia.
Now to the mug, which was offered on our first day there as both a souvenir and as a practical way of keeping dishes and clutter from ensuing with a gathering of eighteen. The people who attended the writing retreat were all very special, but none more so than Diane and Cindy, our coordinators and fellow artists. Cindy held the writing groups with a passion for both craft and community, while Diane poured her heart and soul into showing us the bounty that the Cevennes region held; the farms, the wineries, the markets, and the wonderous neighboring villages, each with its own uniqueness and specialty. We visited towns where art or music or museums, and contemporary crafts preserve long ago times, including the nearby Roman built aqueduct, truly a world wonder. The French have a penchant for honoring what they love in a special way and that was manifested for us, which made the whole experience feel like we were also a part of the beauty of the community and its pride of place.
At first, I didn't really notice the design on the mug; we each were given a different one, decorated by local artisans, displaying the subtle sense of humor that's the driving force of all the goodwill we experienced during our stay. I almost left it there, not wanting to add one more thing to my already overcrowded bag as I continued to travel, but changed my mind and stuffed a couple of socks inside for its own protection. Not noticing when I got home, I took it out of my bag, but each day since, it's taken on a particular glow; as if by magic, this simple artifact has managed to embody all of the positive energy I felt during my stay at the Chateau. It's like a talisman now, a condensation of the life force that could not follow me in any other form. It positively glows, or maybe it's me who glows whenever I bring its tea-filled warmth up to my lips, and for a moment, I'm back in time with all the history of not just one experience but the collection of everything that I saw and felt and let go of during my beautiful week in the Cevennes.
Now, like Charlamagne's sword, Joyeuse, I hold it fast in my hand as I begin, with a smile, to conquer each day.
In a place some might think of as the middle of nowhere, in reality, it's the beginning of everywhere.
Thank you, Wendy! My hope is that your words will inspire others to explore the "unflashy" place of the Cenvennes because, as you say, it's the beginning of everywhere!
Photos 1) Wendy in Sauve, France; 2) with me in Havre de Grace, Maryland 3) with Katy Dalgleish and me at the Chagall Museum in Nice, France 4) with Steve, Katy, and me in Nice, France 5) Wendy at the Koi pool at the Chateau 6) on the Susquehanna River in Havre de Grace