“The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”

Mary Offermann's Studio in California
Mary Offermann’s Santa Cruz Studio

It was more than twenty-five years ago that my mother-in-law, who lived next door, fell and broke her hip. I visited her in the hospital the next day. She was not in too much pain to talk.

“Now I’ll never go back to Italy,” she lamented. “I only went the one time; I loved it! But Lancelot (her husband) didn’t, so we never returned. Now I never will.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had hitchhiked through France in 1970, visited briefly in 1987, and had always wanted to return. I was waiting for my husband to feel the same way, but for him France was Old World, and he loves the new world…”the newer the better,” he liked to say.

I began then and there to figure out how I could get to France the next summer. My daughter was graduating from high school. What more classic time for her first trip to Europe? Our youngest child was ten: old enough, I thought, to enjoy such a trip.

 He had studied the Roman Empire that spring, and when asked to choose a topic for a report he had chosen architecture. I thought it would be a good idea for us to look at the Coliseum and the Pantheon together, and he enthusiastically agreed.

I found cheap tickets. Amy found a friend to travel with. I told everyone I knew that I was looking for a house in France. It really made me nervous, but I paid for the tickets before I even knew where I was going to stay.

I had dreamed about what kind of place I would like, but I also had thought about what my bare minimums were, and I had narrowed them down to three: beauty, quiet, and running water. I’d hauled water twenty eight years before, when I lived in East Africa. I could do that again.

“No,” I thought, “I must have running water, and I would like hot running water, but I will heat water on a stove, if necessary. I certainly don’t want to haul it from somewhere else.”

I told everyone that I was looking for a place in France where I could paint for two months. A friend (and former roommate ) of mine in Massachusetts had a friend who was a college roommate and had married a Frenchman. The roommate now lived in Paris. She didn’t have a house, but she had two friends who had houses I could use: one in the Ardeche, a mountainous area just west of the Rhone River, and one near Carcassonne, with a view of “…La Montagne Noire out the back windows.”

Entering Mas Cabardès

So I made a complicated itinerary, in which I would arrive, go to the house outside of Carcassonne, make some connections, leave my heavy art materials, and return to Amsterdam to meet Amy and Paul. Then Paul and I would visit my sister in England, meet Amy in Paris four days later, and travel south to Carcassonne, where we’d stay for several weeks, traveling from there to Rome and back before I would take Paul to Amsterdam to fly away home, I would return to the other house in the Ardeche, stay and paint for three weeks, and then come home with Amy.

It was a much more complicated and widespread itinerary than I would ever set for myself now, but that was the plan.

I rented a car for the Carcassonne area, a special deal pay-in-advance-no-refunds-car. The woman in Paris sent me the name of the hamlets where the houses were and put me in touch with the owners. I pored over the detailed maps of the regions until I found these tiny places. I was fascinated with the name “La Montagne Noire,” which means the Black Mountain, though it denotes a whole range of mountains.

The first work I did as a visual artist was in black and white, and I worked only in black and white for fifteen years, carving images in linoleum and wood and enjoying the reversal when they were printed.

I have been fascinated with the idea of the shadow for a long time, and I had learned that shadow in a painting fixes it in time and gives dimension.

I also am interested in what is called the human shadow, that which we regard as negative aspects of the personality…anger, sadness, grief, greed, envy….all the sins. Robert Bly says, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”As someone with volatile emotions I could relate to that. The idea of a range of black mountains brought these musings to mind and intrigued me.

Then the letter from Paris arrived: “so sorry, but the house outside of Carcassonne would be available in July, not in June as we thought.” Two houses for July, none for June, but the car for June was already paid for in Carcassonne. I decided I’d just drive up the wildest roads to the smallest villages I could find.

In one of them I would meet an old woman. We would look into one another’s eyes, and she would immediately offer me a room to rent in her house, which would just happen to be absolutely beautiful though not opulent and surrounded by a garden to die for: full of flowers and old trees. I would experience authentic village life in a beautiful corner of France.

I took the Michelin relief maps upstairs for bedtime reading. I traced small roads to their ends. I counted the houses in the hamlets. I figured out where the nearest historical monuments were, what direction each mountain settlement faced, whether the views might be beautiful, how long it would take to get anywhere, if there might be bus service. I went to sleep with fantasies of driving up into remote villages in the Black Mountains or in the Pyrenees. I would paint there before and after the kids arrived.

The Millhouse behind the bushes

What a spring full of big dreams! I was 52.

The time to leave came. On the way to the airport it finally hit me: a two month separation from my husband. We had never been apart for so long! I talked non-stop all the way to the airport and the whole time we were waiting in line to check my bags. We kissed goodbye, and I was off on my grand adventure.

Many hours later I arrived in Amsterdam. The train ride from the airport to the city revealed a landscape utterly unlike anything one sees in California: rows of poplar trees describing boundaries of fields; small canals intersecting. I was excited to be in Europe again. I checked into my hotel, and against the common wisdom to avoid jet lag by immediately adhering to local schedules, I fell asleep. When I awoke it was late afternoon.

Jet lag sounds too benign for what I felt. I walked the streets of Amsterdam, looking at the sights, but my body felt old and heavy and horrible, I had a headache, and I was quite sure I’d made an awful mistake.

I was immediately homesick. The next morning I took the train to Paris. There I changed to an overnight train to Carcassonne. I had reserved a berth; European movies and novels had fed my fantasies of sleeping to the clickety-clack of a nighttime voyage. It wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be to sleep–I hadn’t realized that the train would lurch around, make a lot of other noises that aren’t as soothing as the rhythm I’d dreamed of, that we’d stop now and then and the station lights would come through the shades. But it WAS very exciting.

I arrived in Carcassonne at 6 AM, long before the rental car place was open. The station cafe wasn’t even open. I waited and I waited.

Finally I was able to order a coffee and a croissant. My expectations of a terrific French breakfast were shattered; the coffee was sour and the croissant limp.

Hardly refreshed, I walked to the rental car place and, with the help of a small dictionary and a lot of mime, got my car and good directions to the wild places I’d dreamed of all spring. Apprehensive about driving for the first time in France, I kept to the right and followed the signs which matched the names on my map. I wanted to get out of town, and I did–much sooner than I expected.

Suddenly I found myself driving on a two-lane tree-lined road alongside a canal which was also shaded by trees, planted on both sides just outside the narrow paths that flanked it.

I felt like I was in a dream–better, really, than any dream or fantasy I had ever imagined. Deep inside I knew that this was where I wanted to be.

Thrilled, excited, apprehensive, shy, desirous, I nervously made my way onto ever-smaller roads, until I found myself climbing out of the verdant valley and its vast vineyards and began to climb the steep road that followed the gorge and the river deep below.

Right where the first hillsides meet the valley the river had formed a small delta of topsoil. It was intensely cultivated into those tiny vegetable gardens Europeans are famous for. All the plants were in neat rows with espaliered fruit trees along the back; there were little sheds, homemade wheelbarrows, and narrow paths, and everything was green and well-tended.

The road quickly climbed away from the river, and the vegetation changed. At first it resembled the hills along the sea here in Santa Cruz–scrub oaks, grey-green and olive-green foliage. The rock was a purpley-grey that sometimes looked brown and sometimes black.

Kitchen table in Autumn

I stopped at a bakery in the first little mountain town and bought a piece of quiche and a small loaf of bread. Just down the street was a woman sitting against a stone wall selling cherries. Everything was an adventure–the names of what I wanted to buy, the proper etiquette of greeting and purchasing, the unfamiliar money, the packaging. How awake I felt!

I bought some cherries and was glad I still had a bottle of water from the train station. Although the village did have a bakery, I’d not seen any houses that attracted me. I wanted to go higher up where I would find that ancient woman and her still-more-ancient house.

It was a day of extremes. For a few minutes the clouds would cover the sun and a cold grey rain would come splattering down on my car and the road ahead. The gusty wind would break up the clouds and a brilliant sunshine would transform them into bright white billows scooting across a blue sky you can only find in the mountains of the South of France.

I was stunned by the drama and the beauty of it all. I drove up to a small place where I could pull off the road, and during a squall, sitting in the car, I ate my lunch. It was delicious!

I passed through several more villages. They seemed dark and not at all welcoming. Hardly anyone was in the streets, and those who were were not friendly-looking at all. I knew I’d find my spot, but it wasn’t proving as easy as I had thought it would be. I pulled over and consulted my map again. There were no more villages on the road along the gorge.

It looked as though I would soon reach the top of the mountain range. There I could either turn west and make a big loop back to Carcassonne, or go northeast for awhile longer. It seemed prudent to make Carcassonne the center of my explorations, since I could take the train from there and would have to return my rental car too, so I decided to turn left when I reached the little road marked only by a small sign at the intersection. As I drove along this byway my mind was racing. The fairy tale wasn’t coming true.

What would I do? I composed myself. I would rent a room in a hotel and set off for the Pyrenees tomorrow. The clouds blew away and I looked around me. The road was a glistening blue-black, and the forest around me appeared to be growing in rows. Finally I noticed that for some time I had been driving through a forest of pine trees, planted long enough before to have grown to thirty or forty feet. Although there was no underbrush, the lower branches grew so densely that passage among them would be nearly impossible. I wondered for how many centuries Frenchmen had tended these mountainsides of trees.

I thought about the travels of the Hobbits, which I had been reading to my son (and would read some more, when he arrived in a week). I felt the age of the civilization that surrounded me, and just then, the forest cleared, and the road hair-pinned around a tiny settlement. I could look over some of the houses from above, and the roofs were made of great thin pieces of slate instead of the tile I had seen on houses in the villages lower down the mountain.

This place had more moisture than below; the stone walls were host to lichens and mosses. A few people were outside, tending animals, hoeing gardens. My car crawled along as I gazed at them. One woman was hanging up laundry; her house didn’t seem large enough for two. Another was coming out of a gate with a larger house behind her. Perhaps she would be the one!

She was wearing a navy blue house dress with a small white print on it; black shoes and stockings, a black sweater and a scarf. She was carrying a wicker basket with onions . I looked at her and she scowled at me and turned her back.

So I drove on. I passed another hamlet where I saw no one, and after awhile I reconciled myself to a good meal (I hoped) and a night in a hotel. I pulled over and consulted my map. The road from Mazamet, which descended to Carcassonne relatively parallel to the one I had climbed, would be the one I’d take. First I had to go along the plateau at the top for about 20 kilometers. So I drove along, enjoying the mountain grasses blowing in the wind, the creamy white cattle grazing, the skinny road with flowering weeds on either side, and always the blue blue sky with clouds racing above me on the wind.

There was an intersection. A small road I hadn’t noticed on the map ran down the mountain parallel to the way I’d come up. There was a sign that I couldn’t completely make out, but it said “traversee difficile,” among other things, which I figured meant “difficult passage.”

“Well,” I thought to myself, “I have plenty of time to get to Carcassonne before dark, and this road connects to the one I already took out of that city. It’s marked as ‘scenic’ on the map, and there are two little villages along the way. Looks interesting. I’ve never made a worthwhile passage that wasn’t also difficult somewhere along the way.”

So I turned left and began to descend. To my right was a picture-perfect farm, situated below the shoulder of the plateau from which sprang the peaks of La Montagne Noire. Bordering the road was a field of grain, green in the brightness of May and surrounded with a windrow of tall trees. The farmhouse and outbuildings were tucked into the hill behind the fields and trees. Everything was well-kept. I imagined that it would have looked just like that a hundred years ago.

The road was narrow and torturous, but I wasn’t in any hurry. I’ve driven that road a hundred times since, at least, but that first time I went slowly: jet lag, wonder, and unfamiliarity combined to make me a very cautious driver.

I drove through a forest of tall green broad-leafed trees with deeply textured umber trunks. Their branches made amazing twists and turns, reaching for the light, shaking in the wind. Everything seemed fresh and alive and simultaneously ancient. The road descended steeply with many blind curves. Luckily, no one came up behind me, as there are few turn-outs to let anyone pass.

After maybe ten minutes of creeping down the road, I came around a particularly sharp hairpin curve which obscured the view of the village straight ahead until the turn was complete . A road sign on the right announced that this was Labastide Esparbairenque, and then the road veered sharply left to avoid hitting the village.

Several hundred yards farther along, a narrow parking lot revealed itself on the right, blocked by a low stone wall of the native schist from the precipice that dropped to the gardens below.

I have since been told that this stone is the original stone, the ancient of stones. In fact, some residents say these mountains are the oldest on earth. The rock, as I’ve said, is dark, and it ranges in color from a grey that is almost mars violet, through charcoal greys, and muted siennas, and includes umbers from a pale coffee-with cream color to darkest of chocolate browns.

And there, with an arrow pointing into the village down the hill to the right, was a sign saying “chambres d’hote,” the French equivalent of bed and breakfast. The village was perched in a southwest elbow of the mountain and meandered down and out of sight. I parked my car, got out, stretched, and followed the sign. The road dropped steeply before it turned and passed between several houses built of the dark native stone, and then a chapel.

There it turned right, and just after that I saw a large house with a sign indicating that here was the chambre d’hote. I walked to the large brown front door and announced my arrival with the heavy knocker.

After a brief pause a beautiful woman about ten years my junior opened it up, wild curly hair tied back with a wisp of scarf, broom in one hand, and (since her threshold was lower than the street) her face tilted up the better to see me. I was dumbfounded as I looked at what she was wearing; it was precisely what I had on: black leggings, a matching printed large shirt, and identical sandals.

“How can there be a woman in this remote village halfway around the world who has chosen to wear exactly what I have today, and how was I led to her door?”

Mind whirling, I struggled with my high school French, inquiring about the availability of a room and the price. I looked over her shoulder to see a dining room with a grandfather clock, a large table and deep-silled windows crowded with house plants. She was back lit by strong light pouring through those windows and past those plants. It looked just like my friend Laurie’s house.

What’s more, I noticed that this lovely woman’s French sounded like music, her voice rising and falling with a charming expressive cadence which I now know is particular to the Midi, the Mediterranean region of France. She had to repeat each answer over and over before I could move on to the next question. Her smile was irrepressible; I think we both found it so unbelievable that we were dressed as twins that we couldn’t even mention it.

I finally understood what the price of the room was, and I found it agreeably low. She told me however that it wasn’t yet ready; I must wait until eight o’clock that evening, when I could have dinner too. Even though I was completely exhausted, I didn’t argue. I walked a bit around the steep village paths and returned to my car.

Consulting my map, I found more tiny roads which were denoted as “scenic,” and which, when connected, would bring me back to this village and my bed. I got back on the road down and admired a church built on the hill to my left as I drove out of town. Down I went, passing through the tiny village of Roquefere, which had tubs and baskets of flowering plants on every imaginable flat surface.

Works in progress in Mary’s Studio

The road was still edged with a stone wall where the valley to the right had been carved out by a stream occasionally spanned by stone bridges. In Roquefere these walls and bridges were adorned with petunias, geraniums, lobelia, impatiens, and marigolds: a painter’s dream!

A couple of kilometers downstream I crossed the confluence of the small creek and a larger one and missed my turn. A bit further down the road was a turnout. I turned around so I was facing a stone building that was seemingly empty and then succumbed to my fatigue. The river was ten or fifteen feet below to my left, and the spot was well shaded by chestnut trees.

Now, I have never in these United States felt safe enough to pull off the road in a deserted area and fall asleep. I didn’t feel endangered there, but neither did I feel exactly safe breaking the cautious habits of a lifetime. Had I been less tired, I certainly would have driven until 8 o’clock, exploring all the little byways that offered themselves on my way.

But I was tired, too tired to go anywhere else, so I locked the doors, rolled up the windows, lowered the back of the seat and relaxed, looking at the stone construction of the building in front of me, at the stone walls above the river, at the terraced grounds on the sharply inclined bank to my left.

Down below, where the creeks met, was an intensely cultivated area. I admired it and the steep slopes of scrub which surrounded it, fascinated by what has since become a theme in my work, the meeting of the wild with the cultivated, the meeting of nature and human endeavor. And I fell deeply asleep.

More than an hour went by. I awoke slowly, wiping the drool from my relaxed cheek, stretching my neck to get the kinks out. I looked at the stone building in front of me and the river below. I had no idea where I was. None.

Not only that, neither did I have any idea who I was. That really got me scared. I knew that it wasn’t that unusual to awaken not knowing where one was, and I also knew I was never supposed to forget who I was. I felt a jolt of fear when I tried hard to remember and failed.

“Okay,” I told myself. “Forcing and straining isn’t improving your memory, so you might as well relax,” and even before I took a deep breath, I remembered who and where I was: Mary Offermann in La Montagne Noire. I drank some water and finished the cherries and then drove up and turned to my left. The road passed through a bigger village, back and forth across the very small river, and up another narrow valley.

I passed the ruins of a Gothic church. I passed a big garden of roses, other small gardens of fruit trees and vegetables wherever the bottom land had settled. I passed several mills, several houses, and arrived at another tiny village, Miraval-Cabardes, built in the bend of the road. After Miraval, the road got narrower and proceeded to climb the gorge, which narrowed as I ascended. Water poured in the tiniest of waterfalls over the bank adjacent to the road, and it ran down a gutter and was drained at every curve into the rushing stream below.

It was scary driving because the road was so narrow and because I just wanted to feast my eyes and forget about steering. I climbed and climbed. Finally my tiny track met a busy two lane road that was red on the map–the road to Mazamet by which I had planned to descend to Carcassonne before I found Labastide and the chambre d’hote with the beautiful woman wearing my clothes.

At least I was no longer crazy with fatigue. I turned right, climbed to the plateau again, and took the tiniest turn-off I could find in order to complete the loop. This was great! This was the France I had been looking for, far off the beaten tourist track.

Slowly, by twists and turns and stretches of gravel road that meandered through forests and fields, I made my way back to the road labeled “traversee difficile.” I turned down it and eagerly returned to the inn. My state of my was transformed from what it had been; the nap, the brief but intense amnesia, the beauty of the drive up the gorge, green and moist, and across the plateau, drier and windy. I was just a few minutes early.

I hoped my hostess wouldn’t mind. I didn’t know if it were more polite to be late or early. I knew nothing of manners in France. She greeted me with her inimitable smile and showed me the way down the corridor to the stairs.

When she noticed how heavy my bag was (pastels are, after all, pure dirt, and I had a lot of them with me), she grabbed one of the handles of my valise and helped me lug it up the stairs. She opened the first door off the landing and I walked into a dream French country bedroom.

I have a painting of that bedroom, called “La Chambre Bleue,” which shows the canopied bed and the marble-topped dresser with a bouquet of wildflowers I picked the next day alongside the road up on the windy plateau. It captures only a small part of the charm of that room. Not included in the painting are the marble fireplace and the picture above it, the small table and chair, the armoire, the two deep-silled windows with real shutters that closed and opened to a view across the valley: slopes thickly wooded with chestnut trees and one immense conifer which I couldn’t identify.

Apéros on warm stone steps

“Wash up,” she told me (and mimed, as she opened the door to the tiny bathroom). “Dinner is ready immediately,” and she went out of the room.

I obeyed, descended to the dining room, and sat down, only slightly surprised to find myself the only guest in a family scene–three kids and their beautiful mama. We were introduced. Pierre, the oldest, was a year older than Paul, my youngest. He was eleven. His sister Marion was a year younger than Paul. And there was a finger-sucking little brother with a cherubic smile.

Pierre had the face of an angel and his fair hair curled up and around it like a halo. He wore t shirts, shorts, and red leather hightop shoes. Nicolas, the baby, had the temperament and smile of the Buddha. And Marion made her way immediately into my heart with her engaging conversation and her direct gaze. It didn’t take long for me to feel completely comfortable with all of them.

Marion, especially, reminded me of my girlhood predicament. She proved to be inquisitive, enthusiastic, expressive, and generally wild. A rowdy tomboy, she didn’t seem capable of keeping her dresses neat and in order.

She wore glasses which kept sliding down her nose. I could tell that she was a bit of a misfit, and I was completely charmed. The word “hoyden” comes to mind when I remember that young Marion.

She informed me that her father was a professor of English. She had to tell me repeatedly, and she had the patience to slow herself down with each repetition; she also increased the volume each time.

I’ve only told you the beginnings of my very first trip. The wonder went on. My children loved the place: Amy looked out the window of La Chambre Rose and exclaimed, “Mommy! You’ve found Paradise!” Paul did a double-take out that same window, dropped his bags, and ran down the stairs to play in the back yard with the children and the chickens. The English professor turned out to be a farmer and a fabulous cook who raised black pigs and sheep and would discuss history or language or philosophy in impeccable English and a charming accent each evening at dinner. Gisele, for that is the beautiful woman’s name, included me in kitchen and garden work, took drawing lessons as trade for housing, and helped keep the energy going with amusements for the children and walks up to the church and cemetery with me.

Paul was invited to stay for the time while I was in the Ardeche painting. When I came back to pick him up, after three unbelievable weeks which would make another story, I stayed a few days and worked again with the family. I began to love Gisele as a French sister. I felt I had found my family abroad when she told me I was welcome to return as help the next summer. I could work in the mornings and paint in the afternoons.

I’ve been back to La Montagne Noire twice every year since, except for the year we stayed there for nine months while Paul went to school. Every trip revealed new facets of France and new understandings for me. Some trips were just as marvelous as the first, others were mixed. I’ve had two completely horrible trips where more than I could ever imagine went “wrong.”

My life has been transformed.I have learned the importance of taking time at the table, especially at midday. I have learned a new language, and concurrently, a new way of looking at life, a new paradigm. And I get to paint for my livelihood.

Twenty summers ago we bought a house: St Pierre-le-Rouge. It’s only ten minutes from Labastide, that first village I stayed in, and just 500 meters up the road from the gothic ruins I drove by after I awoke from my amnesia.

When it first became apparent to me that my life was changed to an annual pattern of painting in France autumn and spring, I was incredulous. Since the purchase of St Pierre, I have spent every summer there, and I’ve also gone to paint other seasons too. It is a great honor.

Last year I went to see the vast poppy fields way to the south of our mountains. I also walked some hills in the Gers. When I am let back in to France, I hope to paint in those places again. I’m still working on those sketches…

I invite you to enter my France. Welcome.