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in a quiet little village less than three hours away from Paris, a small group of writers, some published, some not, gather with spiral notebooks and laptops, voltage converters and dreams in hand.
They have come from near and far—from Paris and Nantes, from California, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania—for a few days, to withdraw from their everyday lives and “write from the heart…in the heart of Champagne.”
A newly retired professor, an 80-something Francophile, a “trailing” corporate expat spouse, a short-story writer are among those who have attended. With a rich variety of life stories behind them and diverse agendas for the road ahead, all share a desire to “write from the heart.” In coming to this workshop they have given themselves the opportunity to do so with great concentration, for a few days, in a little town called Essoyes (ESS—wah).
There could hardly be a better place to do so. Essoyes, situated about halfway between Reims and Dijon, is both an ordinary little French village and an extraordinary one. Once home to Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir and his filmmaker son, Jean, today Essoyes continues to provide its citizens with a life that is culturally and intellectually nurturing, rich in the everyday manifestations of the famous French art de vivre.
Yet a not-insignificant part of Essoyes’s charm lies in the fact that this is not a self-conscious “arts center,” nor is it on the main touristic routes. This means that people who make it to Essoyes are able to enjoy the kind of quiet, peaceful atmosphere that nurtures and sustains artists in the years before their little towns become overrun with tourists.
In nearby Loches, a Roman bridge spans the Ource River at a spot where Renoir loved to paint. Less than an hour away in one direction, Troyes, a thriving center of commerce, culture, and education from medieval times to the present, and in the other, Dijon, capital of Burgundy, with its beautiful tiled roofs and fine cuisine, exert their call. And of course, everywhere there is Champagne: for miles around, there are countless small caves located in beautiful little villages, each with its own unique charms and attractions. The vignerons invite visitors to taste their bubbly treasures before deciding on their purchases and are almost always equally generous in sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm for the complicated science and art of making champagne, and its fascinating history as well.
In Essoyes, workshop participants have the opportunity to live for a few days in a place where life unfolds quietly day after day, not removed from the rest of the world, exactly, but not overwhelmed by it either. From their hotel, situated halfway up a ridge at one end of the town, they can gaze onto the beautiful vista offered by the green, vine-covered hills of Champagne, and the rooftops of the village below as they enjoy the hotel’s excellent cuisine. In the village they are met with a combination of curiosity, enthusiasm, and bon accueil by the locals, who nevertheless maintain the distance deemed appropriate by their culture’s respect for privacy and discretion.
As the week goes by, guided by in-class “prompts” and homework assignments, workshop participants write about whatever moves them. Often it is about their own experiences and feelings, from nearly forgotten childhood memories to present observations, to thoughts about the future. Some of them write about Essoyes. “This is the heart of France…” writes one. “Essoyes is home…where the stews are fragrant, the cheeses ripe, the bread crusty…For a brief spell we are a part of Essoyes, whose stones are warmed by friendship and welcome… …” The feelings are equally warm on the other side of the equation. “We had a very pleasant and rich encounter,” wrote one villager who welcomed the writers into her home and baked them an unforgettable tarte aux pommes. “They were so interested in our village. We were happy to answer their questions!”
When asked what a writer needs in order to write, Mary McCarthy once said, “A nice peaceful place with some good light.” There are many places in the world, of course, where such simple requirements can be met. But I find it hard to imagine anywhere more lovely, peaceful, and inspiring than this little town in Champagne.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She created and teaches “Writing from the Heart…in Champagne.” The next session of Writing from the Heart in Essoyes will be held October 11-17, 2011 and participants are now being gathered. Learn more at http://wingedword.wordpress.com and http://essoyeschool.com/id2.html
Beep! Beep! Can’t you just see yourself zipping around Champagne country in this adorable mini car? That is, when you’re not writing, of course. The best way to truly see France or any place in Europe is a driving tour in a well-maintained car for a solo traveler…a van for a large group…or any size you like from Auto Europe .