A fork in the road of life brought Leesa Le May to a majestic 17th-century manoir in a small village in southwestern France…
What brought you to France?
After living for the past 25 years in the beautiful southwest of England with my partner Alistair and our daughter Cersei, I found myself reflecting on what I was going to do for the next 25 years. I fell in love with France when I holidayed in the Figeac area when I was 20, and thought that if I ever retired, it would be in this area.
We found Maison du Fort last January. Although the manoir was built in 1780, we’re only the second family to own it. The 97-year-old lady vendor was very specific in her choice of buyer because she wanted it to go to someone who would keep the configuration, including the furniture, and wouldn’t turn it into a hotel. So, among all the offers she chose ours, in particular when she learned that I was an artist, and was planning to hold exhibitions, art classes and retreats.
What attracted you to the area?
Lauzun is a bigger town, and our village is just a few minutes south. We are in the area between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers; it is absolutely beautiful for people to come and visit. One of the reasons we chose this area – originally I wanted to go further south to the Lot- was because Cersie is 13 and there’s this little window before the GCSEs so we needed an international school and here we have one just 10 minutes down the road in the next village. It’s remarkably lucky as she loves it.
What aspects of village life do you enjoy?
Everybody in Montignac-de- Lauzun, starting with our neighbours, is really friendly. The pace is a lot more chilled and relaxed. So even though the paperwork or getting things done can be a pain, it doesn’t matter because things are not running at a frantic speed. It forces you to slow down. The bells will go at noon and again at seven. Everything stops. You go and get your bread, have a chat with your neighbour, have a coffee, all the farmers say hello. The whole slowing down process has been a blessing for us because in the UK, we work so fast and everything is so immediate, that you end up constantly rushing.
We had a long summer this year so we’d be tiling and then we’d just stop for a break and jump in the pool. I think I’m also appreciating the changing of the seasons more.
What about work?
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I think that will wait until next year. The house is beautiful but needed a little refreshing, and for the painting holidays we are having to do some building work. I’m also jumping through Brexit hoops of paperwork to allow me to work, plus all the usual tax formalities and setting up. The idea is that I will teach art and hold exhibitions, that’s why I’ve rebaptised the property ‘Maison du Fort – The Art House’. I very much want to get the community back into the grounds, into the house, because it used to be quite a significant house for this area. We want to open it up for art lessons for the local community and the local schools.
At first we’ll rely on the accommodation available in the house, then for the third year the gîtes should be done so we will be able to welcome Brits and Americans as well as locals for art retreats.
How are you with the language?
I take lessons – it’s amazing how much you can remember from school. It’s important that I speak French because there are a lot of English here. The Dordogne is just a skip away, and I don’t want to fall into a situation of only relating to other English speakers. My partner Alistair is half-French, the family are still in Paris and he’s fluent. It would be easy for me to just let him do all the talking but I need to have my own voice. When I speak to people, at the butchers, in the supermarkets, if they know I’m trying, they will wait for me to find the words. I just have to use lots of facial expressions, but I get the message through.
Have you developed a taste for any particular local speciality?
Walnut tart. In this area it’s walnuts, prunes, and sunflowers. Every other field is sunflowers, which is glorious. My painting clients are going to love that. But back to walnut tart. It is gorgeous, I love it.
What surprised you the most about this part of France?
We probably all have this view of French people, a conception that the French are aloof. I found it’s absolutely the opposite. Literally within the first week our neighbours, local dignitaries, all came with gifts to welcome. I’m hoping to repay that with events that they can enjoy, as soon as we are ready. Of course, it’s probably different in Paris, as in London.
What’s your favourite French expression?
Toujours comme ça. Literally, it means ‘always like that’ but used in conversation it’s more like ‘go with the flow’. It’s an acceptance. So, say you are waiting for something, they’ll say it’ll come Monday and then you phone and they say it’s going to come Wednesday, and then you’ll get to Wednesday, and it’s actually going to be here… definitely on Friday. Toujours comme ça.
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Lead photo credit : Montignac de Lauzun Photo: caroline rushton photography
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By Leesa Le May
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