Common Sense and Sensibility



By Francesco Bianchini




If it weren’t for Dan, we’d still be in Sarlat, in a house we bought ten years ago without reckoning with our hearts. Not because I lack a taste for adventure and change. During that period I kept on declining extravagant alternatives: a hacienda in the Argentine pampas, a 1920s chalet in Uttar Pradesh, or a turquoise-painted mansion adorned with azulejos in the heart of Pelourinho in Salvador de Bahia. From the height of the forty-odd moves in his life, Dan smiled without getting involved. For me, who didn’t put down roots anywhere, imagining Somewhere Else was like trying on a new dress, but for him, descendant of a lineage of authentic pioneers, maybe a little fanatical but ready to risk everything driving wagons on the trails of the West, moving is a fact of life to be faced with determination and pragmatism.


Gate houses and west side of the maison de maître


In my fantastic moves, I am the voyageur sans bagages, free of material and sentimental ballast, and so I am able to dematerialize here, to materialize there. Brute matter makes all the difference. We are heavy beings; we have needs, we accumulate things – and things, whether we like it or not, define and protect us.

A buyer for the house in Sarlat showed up, and from then on the matter took on the contours of inevitability, no return. Beginning with having to dismantle a house that had become encrusted with life, the fruit of frequenting antique stores and countless flea markets. As I see it, a move is not very romantic since it reveals our petty attachments. One begins on a fresh morning taking down a painting or filling a carton with books, full of energy and still far from day X. But as the fateful date approaches, the house vomits up all the indecent things that have filled its darkest recesses – even though one has neither the heart nor the discernment to throw them away – and one ends up taking down the last curtains, carrying an assortment of brooms, the miserable clothes hamper, not to mention the ironing board with a cover worn and strewn with burns.


A freezing fog, Christmas night, 2023


At some point we needed to make a serious decision about where to live. We knew what we didn’t like about Sarlat: our lack of outdoor space; the hustle and bustle of the passing tourists; the gap between the exuberance of the high season and the apathy of the rest of the year; an historic center emptied of its residents and reduced nearly to a necropolis. But defining what we wanted was a different kettle of fish: look locally? In Italy? Buy nothing and rent? Put the furniture in storage and wander about? The phenomenon is described in psychology as ‘choice overload.’ In practice, when the environment in which one moves is too rich in information, one finds oneself in a phase of inertia, unable to sift through and find the best path.

The kitchen and dining corner, two years on


Fortunately this was not the case. We found a property just thirty kilometers east of Sarlat, on a plateau sandwiched between the Dordogne and Lot river valleys, and we fell in love with it like the boy and/or girl next door. The dark vales of chestnut and oak forests, the sheer cliffs overhanging clear streams, the cottages with their brown, pointed roofs; that placid countryside dotted with walnut groves – less trumpeted than Val d’Orcia, Haute Provence or the Cotswolds, but more authentic and preserved – had paraded before our eyes, for years, and had been etched in the back of both our minds.


The cottage, and the big house beyond as we found them two years ago


We visited L’Oisellerie (The Aviary) for the first time on a March morning when the ensemble of light stone buildings appeared through the bare branches of linden and ash trees, behind a boundary wall bordering a lane in open country. One hundred-year-old trees can not be improvised, and fortunately they were there. The main house also had a passably battered air, one of hopeful anticipation of better times, that always has a remarkable hold on both of us; its genteel but rustic appearance made it look like a poor curate, quartered in damp and dim rooms, oblivious of everything except his musty books. 

We reasoned not only with sensibility, but also with common sense. After renovations we would live in the main house, but rent to holidaymakers the cottage – separated by a wall and an abandoned walking path – and too, the pair of small symmetrical buildings on either side of the entrance portal – a former bake house and gardening shed. So here we are, months after prolonged negotiations with the owners – ten mutually hostile brothers and sisters – immersed in a setting worthy of Jane Austen. In her novels, the heroines are often forced by abstruse testamentary provisions to depart their family homes in deference to step-brothers and distant cousins, decamping from great houses to mere appendages.


Our comfy quarters this winter 


Just like the Dashwood sisters, Dan and I have initially settled into our little cottage, more easily habitable, from where the main house can barely be seen, with its closed shutters and shabby roof marbled with lichen. It’s not worth the trouble to feel sorry for Austen’s heroines since, in addition to their being amply endowed with triumphant moral resources, the famous cottage provided by charitable relatives is invariably the most romantic little house imaginable. Leaving aside our absence of central heating, even our temporary home leaves nothing to be desired, starting with the lintel on the front door which bears the date 1811 and two stylized hearts.


The Dashwoods at home


Among the capital qualities of every pioneer is the spirit of adaptation and the ability to make the most of the situation. On the evening we moved in, I noticed a patch of knee-high nettles on the side of the house. Armed with a good pair of gloves, I picked the stinging leaves and cooked them together with potatoes to make a soup (the recipe is very simple and Sardinian). The wood stove crackled in the immense rustic fireplace, cartons crowded the center of the exposed stone room, and we, sitting exhausted at the oak table, were delighted by the smoky taste which ushered in the rest of our lives – which we hope will be less nomadic.