Torn between her native Ireland and her adopted France, Trish Deseine learns to follow her heart
“I choose the rooms that I live in with care,” sang Leonard Cohen. And over the years my choices of homes have become more careful, too. Careful in that now I give equal importance to both sensible, practical considerations and the emotion that at times makes my heart race. It’s coming from somewhere reliable, that emotion. Hard-won, yet fundamentally sound.
And so it was when I fell in love with my perfect French house. A butter-coloured, rose-covered longère, on the edge of le Perche, a couple of hours west of Paris, with old, romantic windows and solid white shutters. In the garden there were elder, peach, cherry and walnut trees, a potager with blackcurrants and herbs, framed with old railway wood.
The floors throughout were cream and terracotta patinaed tomettes, the beams thick and white and, like the old doors, pleasingly wonky. There was a pretty, grey marble fireplace and pale pink walls in the sitting room which made the soft light falling upon them even more gentle. The kitchen was just right – roomy, unfitted, with the machines and pieces of furniture set either side of an old, ceramic double sink. But most of all, it had a door opening onto the potager and– my as yet unfulfilled kitchen dream – a large, open, white stone fireplace. I immediately made an offer, but as not much had gone my way for quite a while, deep down I believed that it was all too good to be true. Later that week, sure enough, the agent wrote to say that the house had been sold to someone else.
For the past few years I had been living in Ireland, in the wild yet welcoming paradise that is West Cork. I had more or less fled France after some harrowing times, longing for peace and emotional security. I had written a book about Irish food, presciently named Home. And home was what I hoped to find in Ireland, now that France had become an altogether too dangerous place to carry that name. I had fallen in love then, too. An inconvenient and ultimately doomed type of love, not with a house, but with an Irishman, a poet who looked like Hemingway, cooked me Irish stew on an wood-fired stove and called me girleen without a scrap of guile or irony. To complete the cliché, it turned out he was fonder of the Black Stuff (and all the other stuff) than he was of me – although he did not see it that way–and I tried to resist what that left of our relationship, changing villages, moving away from him, then back again.
I immersed myself in the food, which at once was deeply comforting, reminiscent of my County Antrim childhood, and an addiction of my own, of sorts. I spread soft, yellow Kerrygold butter thickly on toasted soda bread, melted it into the floury potatoes so prized in Ireland and spurned in France, and baked it into rich Victoria sponges, treacle scones and buttermilk pancakes. The lack of restraint and absence of sophistication in the way (normal, non-foodie) Irish folk ate and cooked was a balm, a hurt-numbing contrast to the more complex and sensual French habits I’d left behind, for now.
The West Cork landscape and its people soothed and healed, as my life slowed down and shrunk to a size which fitted the time-warp village I had chosen, on one of Europe’s farthest peninsulas. For a while I thought I might stay in Ireland for good. I visited houses, sensibly. There were no coups de foudre, just a resigned measuring of pros and cons. I made good offers which were refused, and bad ones which were accepted and then ignored for months – such is the nature of the infuriating Irish system. I wrote business plans (a sort of torture for me) and presented them to bemused rural bank managers who looked at my résumé with my French career all neatly laid out, and then asked me what on earth I was doing in West Cork. I felt that Ireland too, was resisting me. Perhaps they all realised already better than me, that as I grew strong again, the French chapter of my life was not yet over.
Little by little, as I wrote and shot new books for French publishers, France was coaxing me back, and I was slowly giving in. In Paris and Versailles before Christmas I ate a Paris-Brest chez Paul Bert, Mogador macarons chez Pierre Hermé, oysters and tartare au couteau at La Brasserie du Théàtre. I breakfasted on tartines with chilled, unsalted butter and un double noisette in La Palette, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with my children, and drank l’Initial de Selosse with an old friend, ice-cold, the way we used to. At the market I slipped easily back into the old delicious, flirtatious, conversations and realised how much I had missed the easy contact, the proximity to the produce, the mutual understanding of the pleasure ahead and the anticipative joy of making up a menu as I wandered through the stalls.
The houses in le Perche were pretty, affordable and abundant. There were no bad memories there, no one I knew, apart from a smattering of Parisian friends with country homes. I could start afresh. Then my poet died, and it was time to accept the inevitable.
After the dream-house disappointment, sensibly, I found a little house to do up in the prettiest Perche village of them all, la Perrière. I was to sign for the house chez le notaire in nearby Bellême at 9am on a Monday before catching an afternoon flight back to Cork. The night before, as I was looking online for images of the Perrière house online to send to friends, a picture of the house with the replace in the kitchen suddenly appeared. I supposed it was merely a cruel knife twist of algorithmical logic, but still, I clicked, just for old times’ sake. There it was, with a new set of pictures, and by the look of it, on sale at another agency.
Apologetically, I messaged the agent – it was Sunday evening after all – thinking there must be a mistake. But no, he told me the previous sale had fallen through just before the weekend. Was I interested?, he asked. My heart leapt in the way I now knew never to ignore.
“What’s for you won’t go by you,” Bridie, the postmistress from Ballydehob, West Cork, once said to me. Now the house with the walnut tree and the pink walls is mine, bought by text, at 8pm on a Sunday night. I miss West Cork – the butter, the potatoes, the cloud shadows chasing over Mount Gabriel’s bronze flanks and the wake-up shock of early summer morning swims on Ballyrisode Beach.
I won’t be able to stay away for long, I don’t think, but for now, sitting by the replace in my kitchen, not much in my life has ever felt quite so right.
From France Today magazine