#161 – Drunk In….. Greece (Skiathos Edition)

After our mid-pandemic trips to Santorini, Milos and Sifnos in 2020, David and I were hooked on Greece.  And in particular, Greek islands.  I’d always been mildly embarrassed that I had never explored the dazzling isles of my parents’ motherland, but COVID gave us an opportunity to rectify that problem, and in 2021 we added Skiathos, Zakynthos and Naxos to our list of Hellenic conquests.  Today I’ll be talking about our trip to the beautiful island of Skiathos, which I’m not afraid to say is my favourite Greek island (so far). 

David and I arrived on the island after overnighting in Athens, which is something that I just love to do as it’s one of the most vibrant, gritty, crazy and wonderful cities I’ve ever been to (standby for a suitably colourful Drunk In… Athens).  Still slightly hungover when we landed in Skiathos (see Athens, above) we picked up our rental car, a cute little Suzuki Jimny, and made our way to our villa.  I was a little nervous about what we’d find when we got there as I’d broken one of my own cardinal rules of Airbnb, which is to never rent a place that hasn’t already had its cherry popped by other guests.  I usually need to read at least one review.  Also, according to the listing there was no BBQ, which isn’t necessarily a deal breaker for me but it’s pretty fucking close.  I absolutely loved the property though, and during my search for the perfect place I just kept coming back to it.  Torn, I knuckled down and did some serious forensic holiday research, finally coming to the conclusion that being the first guests would be worth the risk.  After all, when I’d emailed the host, Laura, and asked her if the house did have a BBQ that perhaps they had forgotten to list, she told me that they didn’t have one, but she would happily buy one for us.  Now that’s Greek hospitality, people! 

Waiting for us at the villa was our host’s effervescent mother, Katerina, who showed us around the property.  And wow, what a beautiful property it was.  A two bedroom villa set amongst a lush, almost tropical, garden and surrounded by ancient olive groves and countless cicadas, chirping in the hot midday sun.  After the tour, Katerina sat us down and gave us the inside tea on all the cool, hidden places to visit on the island.  Tavernas, beaches and bars that most tourists wouldn’t have a clue about. 

Our beautiful Airbnb. ♥

After Katerina left, we headed out for a walk looking for a yummy lunch, and almost immediately stumbled upon a taverna just around the corner from our place called The Koutsavaki.  We weren’t sure whether it was open or not as it was very quiet.  Don’t forget, this was still in the depths of COVID, and unfortunately during our time on all the Greek islands, too many restaurants, bars and cafes were either closed or empty.  We felt bad whenever we were the only customers at a taverna, but we also felt good that we were supporting them during that difficult time.  We had a wonderful lunch at Koutsavaki, ordering all our favourite Greek dishes, including sardines, skorthalia and greens washed down with delicious white wine served in a half kilo jug.  What a fantastic way to start our island adventure. 

The beautiful midday sunlight at Koutsavaki Taverna.

The food was delicious, and the service was hospitable, but what made that first lunch on Skiathos truly special for me was the song that played half way through our meal.  I jerked up in my seat, wide-eyed and with a broad smile growing on my face as the lyrics rushed back to me.  I was instantly transported back to my childhood, bouncing on my father’s knee as he sang the song.  I used to squeal with delight when my Dad clucked his tongue to recreate the clip-clop sound of the horses trotting in the song (and which you can hear in the clip below).  I hadn’t heard that song in over forty years, and it was exhilarating to unearth it from the memory graveyard of my mind.  Hearing it brought up so many early memories of my beloved family and I got quite emotional, shedding a few tears over my food. 

The jauntiness of the song belies the dark lyrics which speak of two horses drawing a beautiful carriage. One horse is white, like the singer’s pure and innocent childhood dreams. The other horse is pitch-black, just like his bitter and wretched life.

Later that day we walked into town to get a drink before dinner, heading to a place called Borzoi Club.  I used to work with an Emirati guy called Salah who’s been to almost all the Greek islands coz he’s lucky enough to have a Greek girlfriend.  Salah’s a very cool dude, a Teflon-coated hotshot who can smooth talk his way into, and out, of any situation.  He’s also a massive party boy.  He was the one who recommended that we holiday in Skiathos in the first place, and for that I will be eternally grateful.  But he and I definitely have different criteria for what makes a good holiday.  He’s into partying, beach clubs and trendy venues.  David and I are into tavernas, homemade food and isolated beaches.  Cocktails at Borzoi Club, which Salah had recommended, just confirmed the contrast between us.  While the place was super fashionable and the cocktails were tasty, the service was disinterested and everyone in there was trying super hard to be cool.  It just wasn’t our kind of place. 

The next day, after a boozy lunch we walked along the small harbour, admiring the bazillion dollar yachts before climbing up the steps to Bourtzi, a small peninsula which was once an ancient fort.  Built in 1206 by the Venetians, who conquered Skiathos and ruled it for over three centuries, the fort has a turbulent history.  After the Venetians chewed the island up and spat it out, the Turks decided to take over, mercilessly bringing the Skiathians to their knees for another three hundred years.  In 1829, the beleaguered people of the island decided enough was enough and took up arms, fighting the Turks off from the secure stronghold of Bourtzi fort.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of hardship for Skiathos, which had the shit bombed out of it when the Germans invaded during World War 2.  After the war finished, Skiathos was finally left alone and permitted to flourish.  Not much remains of Bourtzi fort, save for a few walls and ruins.  David and I drunkenly frolicked up the hill, stopping to take several photos of the incredibly beautiful sea and to watch a couple of winsome, brown limbed boys on the rocks below, egging them to jump into the crystal clear waters.  They cheerfully obliged and we rewarded ourselves at the top of our climb with glasses of ouzo, refreshing frappés and the extraordinary view. 

Instruments of war in such a beautiful setting are difficult to compute, but the island has been through a lot and it’s good to have the historical artifacts to show for it, even if they are jarring to see.

So, what exactly is a frappé?  I’ll be so bold as to say, more than any other, it is the national drink of Greece.  When shaken with ice, the relatively unassuming ingredients of water and a couple of heaped teaspoons of Nescafé instant coffee produce a delicious iced coffee drink with a thick, glossy crema that will have you licking your fingers; and which is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.  The eagle-eyed among you will remember that I don’t normally drink coffee for coffee’s sake anymore (coffee naps are an exception), but when I’m in Greece I drink the hell out of frappés.  They are delicious, satisfying, extremely moreish and just one frappé will perk you up for hours. 

Look at that crema. LOOK AT IT!!!

The next morning after yoga and a leisurely swim in the glorious pool we decided to try out one of Katerina’s suggestions and drove to Kastro Beach Taverna on the northernmost point of the island.  From the parking lot, the beach is accessible only by foot down a somewhat treacherous rocky mountain path.  But the effort is totally worth it.  On the way down we had to make multiple stops just to soak in the breathtaking beauty of the sea below.  When we made it to the shore we discovered that the taverna wasn’t open yet, so we pitched camp on the hot sand and went for a dip while we waited.  Even before midday, the sun fiercely beat down on us, and we lamented that we were the only ones on the beach without an umbrella.  Mental note to self: get a beach umbrella.  Stat! 

Kastro beach. Wow! Just wow!

Keeping an eye on the taverna, we made a beeline for it as soon as it started showing signs of life, and claimed a table in the middle of the rustic porch.  Two cute boys with big smiles and bleached hair expertly weaved between the chairs and tables to take drink orders and serve the food.  Hot from the sun, we rehydrated with a couple of beers before ordering our usual ouzo and white wine.  And then, of course, we moved onto the delicious traditional fare.  We spent a couple of hours there, under the large driftwood shade, just chilling, reading, talking and enjoying the great vibe.  For real, Michelin can just suck it.  This is the good stuff, right here. 

Piss off Michelin, this is where it’s at. Kastro Beach Taverna.

So, David and I are weirdos (in case you didn’t know), and we like to celebrate not only our annual wedding anniversary on the 23rd September, but also the occasional monthly wedding anniversary.  Coz why not?  So, if we happen to be on holiday on the 23rd of any month, we’ll usually do something special to mark the occasion.  And since we were in Skiathos on the 23rd June we celebrated our 177th month wedding anniversary at a restaurant located in one the oldest buildings on the island, a windmill originally erected in 1880.  The view from the top balcony, which I’d booked for romance and privacy, was magnificent.  The setting was super intimate, the service was impeccable and the food was delicious.  But I needn’t have spent the extra cash on the honeymoon table as, once again, we were the only patrons there.  Sad face.   


The next morning we set out in our little Jimny intending to take her on an off-road adventure to a beautiful, isolated beach called Mantraki.  Unfortunately, shortly after turning off the main road, a big-ass van got bogged on the dirt track in front of us and we couldn’t get around them.  We waited half an hour to see if they could get out (they couldn’t), and then changed our plans and headed to another of Katerina’s beach recommendations called Kriffi Amos, which translates from Greek as Hidden Sands. 

The beach was beautiful and secluded, hidden away from the mountainous road by trees and brush and accessed by walking down a very steep, uneven dirt track.  We fell in love with the super chilled vibe of the beach taverna, not much more than a shack really, constructed of driftwood and dried palm leaves, and decorated with old fish nets and buoys.  The rambunctious owner of the taverna, Maria, took a particular liking to David (of course), doling out compliments, winks and raunchy jokes followed by rasping howls of laughter in between puffs of her cigarette.  After we’d ordered lunch, she suddenly reappeared at our table wielding a large tablespoon of tzatziki, giving us each a generous taste.  She explained that her chef was making up a new batch and he wanted our opinion on how it tasted.  Feeling a little sassy, we told her that it was perfect… for public consumption, but that we personally liked it with a little bit more garlic.  She took that information back to the kitchen and when our lunch came out, the tzatziki was garlicky as fuck!!!  Hell yeah!  We spent the whole day at Krifi Ammos beach, heading up to the taverna every now and again for a refreshing ouzaki, frappé or ice water.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is the goddamn life. 

The stunning beach from our happy place at Maria’s Taverna.

The next day we drove to a beautiful taverna at the top of the hill at Mega Gialos for lunch.  We were warmly welcomed by the lovely host and seated outside on the deck that wrapped around the restaurant, overlooking the stunning blue water and the neighbouring island of Skopelos, which you might remember from the movie Mamma Mia!  We had delicious food and delicious wine and we chatted with the friendly host, telling her we were planning to hike down to Mega Gialos beach after lunch.  She shook her head and said we should go to nearby Nikotsara instead.  Fine by us!  Anytime a local recommends something, we listen.  And we were handsomely rewarded for followed her advice because when we got to Nikotsara we discovered a stunning little secret cove that we never would have found by ourselves.  The only other people there were a couple of wrinkly, leathered German naturists on the other side of the beach, and they took off after a few minutes so we had the whole place to ourselves.  We set up our umbrella, took off our kit and splish splashed the afternoon away.  Happiness. 

Private beach! FTW!

A couple of days later, we went back to Mega Gialos, determined to check out the famous beach despite the waitress’ word to the wise.  From the taverna at the top of the mountain, it’s a difficult 20 minute trek down through thick brush, prickly shrubs and cobwebs, and you definitely need proper walking shoes to do it.  When we got to the gorgeous beach we were thrilled to find that once again we were the only ones there.  Unfortunately, we soon realised that the reason for that (apart from the horrendously difficult hike) was that the water, which was the most beautiful, most crystal clear water I have ever seen in my life, was full of bastard baby jellyfishes. 

Up the road to the right is the taverna, down the road to the left is the overgrown track to the beach. Across the sea is Skopelos.

We deliberated on it for a long time, and finally decided to risk a swim.  We carefully waded in, the sun glistening like diamonds on the salty water which felt like velvet on my skin.  I gazed up at the intense blue sky, and smiled at David.  I got comfortable.  I got complacent.  And I got stung.  I’ve never been stung by a jellyfish before and I did not handle it well.  Screaming like a banshee, and comically wind-milling my arms around, so as to thrash the water (and other jellyfishes) away from my body, I hightailed it onto the pebbly beach thinking I was going to die (don’t forget, I am Australian).  I melodramatically implored David to piss on my arm, and he fell over laughing (no, I had not been aware that was just an urban myth).  It stung like hell, but in the end it wasn’t actually that bad.  Certainly not as bad as I’d expected.  Sulking on the beach under our excellent umbrella, which was doing a phenomenal job of reflecting the powerfully strong sun, I felt pretty resentful looking at that beautiful water, knowing that it was infested with electric devil spawn.  There was no way I was going back in so we didn’t stick around much longer, and the hot and sweaty climb back up the mountain felt all the more gruelling for having been for naught.  When we got to the top we stopped off at the taverna to quench our hard-earned thirst with an ice-cold beer, which is when David told me that he had also been stung by the jellyfishes, multiple times.  And he’d never said a goddamn word.  My husband, the tough guy.

Stunning beach, but sadly unswimmable. Great umbrella though!

On our way home from the beach we decided, against our better judgement, to spend the rest of the afternoon at Koukounaries, apparently one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and one that my colleague Salah had raved about.  In Greece, beaches are classified as either organised or unorganised.  Organised beaches are maintained and have sun-loungers and umbrellas for rent, public toilets and usually a taverna or beach bar to buy food and drinks.  We prefer unorganised beaches, which are exactly what it says on the label.  There usually aren’t any facilities at all, though you can still find tavernas at some unorganised beaches

Knowing that Koukounaries was definitely not our style of beach, we turned into the carpark anyway and crawled around for 15 minutes looking for a spot amidst the hundreds of vehicles.  Not a good start.  We grabbed our stuff and shuffled unenthusiastically towards the busy beach.  As we approached the sand, the distant sound of muffled doof-doof music became louder and doofier, the number of tourists in a variety of shades of sunburn varying from light pink to deep lobster became greater, and the revving of jet-skis became even more obnoxious.  We saw signs for €30 (front row) lounge chairs, waitresses serving blue cocktails, kids running around screaming and what seemed like thousands of people crammed into a narrow strip of sand.  No thank you.  We turned around and legged it back to the car, deciding that an afternoon in our gorgeous pool was a much better proposition. 

Koukounaries. No. Just no.

We went out a lot for lunches and beach adventures while we were in Skiathos, but our villa was so beautiful, and the pool so inviting that we stayed in most evenings.  It was so lovely to just jump in the pool whenever we needed to cool off in the intense Greek summer heat.  Also, we did get a fantastic BBQ provided especially for us; it would have been a travesty not to use it.  Every day we’d go to the local supermarket and pick up whatever meat looked great, usually lamb but sometimes pork.  We’d also get some olives, dips, tomatoes, lemons, local cheese and fixin’s for David’s special tzatziki (yoghurt, cucumber and lots of garlic).  And wine, obvs.  David is a master chef on the BBQ so we ate like Greek gods.  Afterwards we would read or play backgammon and listen to music.  And we would always, always, finish the night with a midnight swim.  Always, always accompanied by shots of mastiha, a delicious sweet liqueur made from the resin of mastic trees.  This has become a tradition for us now, and we will always, always drink mastiha while skinny dipping in our pool late at night whenever we are in Greece.  You should try it sometime. 

We loved the villa so much, we bought it!  Actually we couldn’t afford it, but it’s nice to dream.

One night we did have dinner in town and afterwards walked along the harbour to a bar right on the water called Gin Fish, which was totally vibing and absolutely packed with tourists and locals alike.  I suspect that Salah would have loved it, but unfortunately, the service was spotty and the drinks were overpriced. Disappointed, David and I started walking home through the town when we discovered the much quieter Andersson’s Bar which was superior in every single way.  Tucked away in a quiet courtyard, it had amazing service and super delicious cocktails, in a very relaxed atmosphere.  We went there so many times after that first visit, that when we dropped by on our last night to say farewell, the owner Ullis Andersson gave us each a big hug goodbye. 

So Salah and I might have different ideas about what constitutes a fun holiday (remember Koukounaries), but there is definitely some overlap in our interests.  David and I wanted to get to Diamantis beach, another of Salah’s recommendations, but it’s only accessible from the sea, so we drove down to a local boat rental place to enquire about hiring a boat for half a day.  When the guy suggested that he take us there himself, we quickly took him up on his offer.  Being water-limousined was great because it meant that we could drink as much as we liked and didn’t have to worry about drunk driving a boat home.  We just called the guy up when we were done and he picked us up 15 minutes later.  This worked out perfectly and was a fraction of the cost of renting the boat ourselves. 

Diamantis beach was amazing.  Set in a tiny little cove, there were about ten lounge chairs for guests of the taverna and a cool upstairs beach bar built into the treetops, where we had beers and frappés and cocktails until the restaurant opened.  The food was trying a little too hard to be fancy (I mean, c’mon babes, don’t mess with perfection), but we had a really fun time, and finished the afternoon lounging around in the sunchairs and going for several swims in the gorgeous (jellyfish-free) water.  Bliss.  

Is this heaven on earth?

One of my favourite tavernas on the whole island was Taverna Ligaries located by the sea in a very remote part of the island.  But we almost didn’t make it there.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Google maps has been acting kinda loopy lately, sending us down roads that aren’t roads at all and choosing routes that are unnecessarily way off the beaten path.  This is what happened to us and our trusty Suzuki Jimny on the way to Ligaries, one dirt road in particular becoming steeper and steeper, until at one point we were almost vertical trying to crest a ridge and it felt like a minor miracle that we didn’t flip backwards.  We made it over the ridge but, instead of opening up, the track narrowed even more and the tree branches closed in around us, menacingly scratching the side of the car and threatening to completely envelope us.  There was no way we could go back, but it didn’t seem like we were able to keep going forward either.  According to google maps, we were on the right track, but the situation was fraught with danger.  Gripping the car handle with white knuckles, I actually thought we were going to get stuck and probably lose the Jimny in the overgrown jungle vegetation. 

I tried to keep my cool, but my heart felt like it was going to pound right out of my chest, and every now and then I’d burst into hysterical, nervous laughter.  Also occasional screams, which I attempted to stifle because I didn’t want David to feel as scared as I was.  I didn’t want to put him off his driving game which, incidentally, was magnificent.  I was in total awe of his skills behind the wheel, and of how cool he stayed, even when things got really hairy.  With my crappy navigation and David’s incredible driving we eventually popped out of the jungle and onto the paved road that we probably could have been on the whole time.  Thanks for nothing google maps.

With the adrenaline still coursing through our veins we eventually made it to Taverna Ligaries and gratefully sat at a table under the shady, vine-covered pergola.  We ordered a few of our favourite dishes, and before we knew it the place started filling up with big parties of local guests enjoying themselves and getting happily rowdy.  After drinking a kilo of white wine, we were getting happily rowdy ourselves.  The food was delicious, the service was friendly and relaxed, and the taverna was filled with laughter and shouting and backslapping and table banging.  All the wonderful Greek vibes.  Afterwards we walked to the beach where we paid €2 each for beach loungers and an umbrella, and sobered up by alternating between lolling in the shade and swimming in the beautiful, clear, warm water of the Mediterranean Sea.  

Good times at Taverna Ligaries.

I never expected to love Skiathos as much as I did.  I was taken aback by how at home I felt on the island.  At how seductive I found its extreme serenity, rugged beauty and spectacular, isolated beaches.  How charmed I was by the friendliness of the locals, their willingness to help and their quickness to smile.  And at how captivated I’d become by the technicolour palette of the island, the fresh salty air, the hypnotising thrum of cicadas, the rustic and easy way of life where nothing is really so important that you actually need to worry about it.  I could imagine living out my life here, just like this.  Yoga, nude swimming, delicious Greek food, wine served in ½ kilo carafes, siestas, cicadas, writing, living.  I left Skiathos a changed person.  I left a Skiathan. 

Ejo #160 – What Is An Artist?: The Orquevaux Diaries (Denouement)

My application to the Chateau Orquevaux artist residency programme

Continuing on from Part One

DAY #8 – FRIDAY, 20th MAY 2022
Today the newbies (yes, we’re still the newbies, we’ll always be the newbies) attended an Art & Business presentation in the salon, where Beulah talked about the necessity of understanding and taking control of that side of your career as an artist.  It wasn’t really geared towards writers, but as an avid art collector it was still very interesting to be in attendance and to learn about what goes on behind the scenes in galleries.  Beulah’s experiences in the art world brought home the reality that most artists will never exhibit, most artists will never make it big, and most artists will never be able to make a living from their art.  Afterwards I had a chat with Catherine about NFTs, and how they are a way of directly connecting artists and collectors, and doing away with the middle-people; the gatekeepers, the galleries, the dealers and the brokers.  NFTs allow artists to actually sell their works and have them be seen by a larger audience than the traditional art world allows.  I’ve been considering doing a presentation about NFTs for my Writer’s Open Studio in a few days, and Catherine’s enthusiasm during our conversation has cemented my decision. 

I had lunch in my room today, foregoing my usual glass of wine.  I’ve decided to skip the day drinking.  Not because of what anyone thinks, but because it’s making me sluggish.  While I was eating I received a message from David complimenting me on my new overalls.  I had no idea what he was talking about, and was a little bit confused until he referenced the picture of Marcie I’d sent to the family group chat yesterday.  OMG, even my own husband is mixing us up! 

After lunch, I ran upstairs to the studios and interviewed Catherine, a painter who primarily uses oil on canvas (and sometimes wood) to produce captivating small-scale works.  When I walked into her studio I was enthralled by all the beautiful pieces hanging up on the wall.  Each of them inspired by Orquevaux landscapes, architecture and colours.  Catherine lights up the whole room with her energy and I find her really engaging, spirited and fun to be around.  So of course I loved our chat.  She reminds me of my friend Ellen, who I love very much, so it makes me very happy to spend time with her.  After we finished the interview I hung around, and we gossiped about our perceptions of the Chateau.  Our expectations, our reasons for being here, and our experiences of it so far.  We learned that we’d both been promised self-contained guesthouse accommodation, but ultimately been assigned a room in the main house.  And, we’ve both come to the same conclusion that, even though we were initially disappointed, we’re actually much happier to be staying in the Chateau, the beating heart of the residency, rather than in the village.  We agreed that being so much closer to the action has elevated the experience for us.  Which is when Beulah, who was (apparently) in her office down the hall, and could (apparently) hear everything we were saying, shouted out, “You two are hilarious!!”  Oops!  Catherine and I looked at each other, as our jaws dropped in unison.  I mouthed, “Shit!” as Catherine mouthed, “Whaaat?” And we burst into laughter! Beulah came in to explain the reasons behind the accommodation swap, but we didn’t really care.  We’re exactly where we need to be.

I sheepishly excused myself to drop in on Avital in the studio next door, and luckily she was also free to do our interview.  Avital is an Israeli collagist, and it’s been so illuminating for me to learn exactly what collaging is.  I must admit I had kind of conflated it with scrapbooking before I met Avital.  I now know that it is a serious visual artform combining photos, pictures and objects to create something that is completely new, whether that be an idea, a message or a concept.  It felt great to have two more awesome interviews under my belt.  I feel very comfortable with both Catherine and Avital, and have from the beginning.  Is it because we started our residencies together?  Is it because we are the grande dames of the Chateau?  Or is it something else?  Maybe we just really like each other, and our friendship takes little effort.  Avital is really affectionate and maternal with me and I love that.  Whenever she plays with my hair or squeezes my arm, I feel like purring and curling up at her feet. 

My babes, Catherine and Avital.

Tonight was the Pomme Frites concert so I wanted to dazzle at dinner, but I’m running out of unique and interesting clothes to wear.  I scraped the bottom of my suitcase and decided to just fuck it, and wear a skimpy little silk robe as a dress.  Rock ‘n’ roll, baby!!  This thing is uber short but I’m no longer self-conscious about dressing up, and I’m actually having a lot of fun being a little bit daring.  Forcing myself to take risks has made me feel so much freer about what I’m wearing, and I’ve always promised myself that I’d be a more flamboyant dresser in my 50s, so now’s a great time to start. 

Before I left, I polled my friends about what sartorial vibe I should go for during my artist residency, and the overwhelming response was to stick to my usual palette of black, black, black. I decided to completely ignore this advice and packed a bunch of bright, whimsical, outlandish and swashbuckling clothes instead.

The Pomme Frites concert was a wild success.  Noah, Jad and Jonny performed a really fun 45 minute set for the rest of us on the steps of the Chateau.  We danced for ages on the front lawn, fuelled by rosé, joy and a beautiful sense of camaraderie, and when the party was over, we all walked down the hill to kick on at Charles and Jonny’s house in the village.  I was a little tired, so after a drink or two I hitched a ride back to the Chateau with a couple of the others on a commandeered golf cart.  Despite my best intentions, it was another late night.

DAY #9 – SATURDAY, 21ST MAY 2022
While everyone else went to the shops this morning, I stayed and interviewed Elissa, who is also a writer.  She’s a published novelist though, with a number of literary awards under her belt, so we’re not exactly in the same league.  She’s so passionate and knowledgeable about her craft, and very generously shared a number of sources and tips with me.  It’s been really great interviewing everybody because the very foundation of an interview is asking people to talk about themselves.  It’s not a real conversation but, still, the act of communication creates intimacy and closeness.  When I’m interviewing someone, I feel confident and sure of myself.  And so far everyone I’ve interviewed has been very generous and open with me.  I’m enjoying the process a lot, and I’m really proud that I pushed myself to do this project. 

After lunch I took off in my car and drove 15 minutes down the road to see my friends Nat and Andy, the ones who’d told me about the Chateau and the artist residency in the first place.  It was so wonderful to be with people who know me and love me.  It was so wonderful to leave behind, for a couple of hours anyway, the constant worry of how I’m being perceived and where I fit in.  It was a respite, and a salve for my soul.  We sat outside drinking wine and eating charcuterie and chatting for hours, and it felt like home.  I was a new woman on the drive back to the Chateau because I’d remembered who I was.  Carefully navigating the winding roads, I rolled the windows down, turned the music up and joyfully sang at the top of my lungs. 

Everyone was tired from the night before so they went to bed early, but Otto and I stayed up quite late, drunkenly chatting and getting to know each other better.  Otto, my fellow big drinker.  Otto, a beautiful and gentle soul from El Salvador who came to the Chateau to volunteer his time as a general hand, in exchange for a room and the chance to paint.  Otto who is learning how to speak French beautifully, but English not so much.  Which doesn’t really matter when you’re in the countryside, sitting under the stars next to a fire and sharing whiskey from the bottle.  I was thrilled to learn that Otto’s paintings had recently been accepted to an exhibition being held in Paris at the end of the month.  He’s so incredibly talented and I’m so happy for him and this amazing achievement.  He’s such a sweet, humble man and he deserves great success. 

DAY #10 – SUNDAY, 22ND MAY 2022
I am finally at ease now, on day 10 of 14.  My jaw no longer locks and clicks when I’m talking to people.  And today I talked a lot, racking up five interviews!!  First up was Charles, who creates wonderful street installations from reclaimed wood.  I chatted to him in his studio at The Stables, where he was putting together a large scale piece.  I love the organic nature of his work, and that he creates art for public spaces.  A few minutes into our interview, Charles became quite emotional as he recounted the connections he’s made with people that he’s met on the streets and on his travels.  When I saw him wipe away some tears, I jumped up and gave him a big hug.  I love a man who’s in touch with his emotions and is unafraid to express them, and Charles is all heart. 

Afterwards I walked back to the Chateau, and interviewed Jad in the upstairs studio he shares with Noah.  Jad is a Canadian singer-songwriter who was accepted into the residency as a musician but has been inspired to try his hand at painting after spending time with so many talented artists.  And that’s the beauty of this place.  There are no rules.  Everything is possible.  I love being here because I’m surrounded by creative people who are actively and passionately pursuing their art.  My creativity was always something that I kept close to my chest because I was never around creative people for any significant length of time.  The environment in the Chateau fosters an understanding and an acceptance of the creative process, which has been such a luxury for me to be around, and which will change the way I live my life. 

Jad and I talked about how being here has reawakened his desire to paint, something that he hasn’t done since high school.  He opened up to me during our interview, and once again I felt a growing sense of ease and closeness with my confrère.  We finished our interview with a beautiful long hug.  Hugs all day!!  Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing. 

On a roll, I went searching for Christine, who was painting in her studio.  I really wanted to try and connect with her during our interview because we’ve kind of kept each other at arm’s length so far, and I desperately wanted to bridge that gap.  During the next thirty minutes I was surprised to discover a side to Christine that I’d hadn’t seen before.  She revealed herself to be a serious person and a very deep thinker, taking the time to carefully consider each question before answering.  It was enlightening to learn about how seriously she takes her work, pouring her entire being into every brush stroke.  I enjoyed spending a little one-on-one time with Christine, and as she spoke about her life and her work, I got an even clearer understanding of who she really was.  I realised that her aloofness doesn’t mean that she doesn’t like me, and it doesn’t mean that she’s judging me.  It doesn’t mean anything.  Thinking that I’m the only one with shit going on is so self-centred.  Everyone is conquering unseen mountains, and everyone is navigating unseen depths.  Just as Christine couldn’t possibly know about the turmoil hidden behind my smile, there’s no way for me to know what’s hidden behind hers.  We didn’t hug after our chat, but I did feel like the heaviness between us had lifted. 

Later in the day, I grabbed a few minutes to interview Andrew in his room, and when we were done he offered to show me some of his work.  His beautiful, reverent photographs of men’s bodies absolutely blew me away.  And gave me an idea.  I’ve long dreamt of posing nude for a Helmut Newton or an Annie Leibovitz.  I don’t really love my body, but I’ve always thought that it would be wonderful to have a beautiful snapshot of what it looks like now, knowing that I’m not getting any younger (or thinner, or firmer).  Knowing that one day I’ll look back and admire my relative youth (and relative perkiness).  Quickly determining that I may never again have 24/7 access to a photographer of his caliber, I blurted out to Andrew that I would love for him to take some photos of me sometime?  Maybe in the woods?  Maybe topless?  He said he would be honoured.  OMG!

After dinner, while everyone else watched the comedy special Nanette in the adjacent salon, I notched up my fifth and final interview of the day, spending 90 minutes quietly whispering with Viktoria in her darkened studio, so as not to disturb the movie-goers next door.  It was the longest interview I’ve done by far, easily outlasting Hannah Gadsby’s stand up show.  I’ve enjoyed a few long conversations with Viktoria in the last couple of days, and this one was no exception.  I find her a little bit mysterious, and a little bit enigmatic.  She fascinates me.  Everyone here does. 

DAY #11 – MONDAY, 23RD MAY 2022
Just as I’ve been interviewing all the artists here, Andrew’s been photographing them, and today it was my turn to be snapped.  For my photo shoot Andrew and I went downstairs to the spooky basement and took some very cool pictures, playing around with lighting, props and poses.  He makes me feel really comfortable, so hopefully I do get the courage to actually go through with a semi-nude shoot.  It would truly be a once in a lifetime experience, especially with such a talented photographer. 

Photo © Andrew Putschoegl

Tonight was Literature Night.  I finally decided to just go for it and read my essay about not wanting to have children, and my decision to have abortions.  I was super nervous about speaking in front of everyone, but I made the executive decision to just be bold.  Bold in what I chose to read, and bold in what I chose to wear.  Earlier that day I’d found a very fancy, over-the-top, dusky pink dress in the basement costume room which was absolutely perfect for my reading.  After dinner I got changed into it, twisting my hair into space buns, and creating a persona. An alter ego.  Cruelly, I was selected to speak first, and as I approached the lectern I looked around at all the familiar faces looking back at me, as my heart pounded in my chest.  I’m a writer, I’m not a performer.  But this was my chance to show everyone why I am here.  To prove to them, and maybe even to myself, that I am an artist after all.  I looked down at the words on the page, words that I had written, and as I read them out loud I could see that everyone in the room was in my thrall.  No-one was listening out of politeness.  No-one’s eyes were glazed over.  And when I was finished, I had a truly raw and authentic response from the audience, my peers. 

Performance art (Photo © Avital Baron Izackov)

I feel so, so good about exposing my true self, and allowing myself to be so vulnerable in front of everyone.  We’re all artists here, but the art that I create is words on a computer, or on pieces of paper.  It’s been impossible for anyone to see the work that I’ve created the last ten days, or to know what I’m even capable of creating.  Tonight, I showed everyone what I can do, and so many people approached me afterwards, and congratulated me or told me how much I’d touched them with my story.  For the first time, I feel seen as a real artist.  I feel validated.  I’m floating, and I love this feeling. 

DAY #12 – TUESDAY, 24th MAY 2022
This morning I walked to The Stables to sit for Jonny.  I was a bit nervous but, as always, my boy effortlessly put me at ease.  He played me some of his favourite hip hop music and we made each other laugh while he painted my portrait.  I love the way he sees the world; with a beguiling combination of childlike innocence and refined sensitivity, and when he showed me the finished canvas after a couple of hours, it took my breath away.  I absolutely love it.  I love the way he sees me, and I love the way he’s painted me.  Is it wrong that I really want to buy it and put it up on a wall in my house?  Vain, much?  I am really going outside of my comfort zone during my residency and feel so good about doing things that I normally wouldn’t have the courage to try.  I’m so glad I was brave enough to ask Jonny to paint me, and that he said yes.  Working up the nerve to actually disrobe for Andrew is going to take a lot more guts.  And I’m not sure that there’s enough rosé in all of France.

If you zoom into the coffee cup, Jonny has inscribed it with, “I only drink coffee for coffee naps”. ♥

While I was at the Stables I ran into Charles and, feeling kinda sassy, I asked him if I could take one of his pieces back to Dubai with me, with the intention of putting it up in a public place.  He said he would make something small for me to take back in my suitcase.  And that’s one more item ticked off my residency bucket list. 

In the afternoon I saw Noah chilling under the big tree overlooking the lake, and I approached him about doing our interview there.  Noah is a self-taught artist, which makes his work all the more amazing.  He’s a versatile and multi-talented threat who seems to excel at everything he does!  Noah is an absolute powerhouse of a personality.  Happy, confident, loud and always the life of the party.  It was nice to get to know the man behind moustache.  

After dinner Jonny mentioned that he had a studio session scheduled with Ziggy to paint his portrait and I thought that would be the perfect opportunity for me to interview the man responsible for all of this.  I was so happy when Ziggy agreed, and we had a nice half hour chat while Jonny did his thing.  When we were done, I took advantage of the fact that Alonso was right next door, and checked off his interview as well.  A Mexican architect turned multidisciplinary artist, Alonso is so fucking beautiful that it sometimes hurts to look at him.  He’s warm natured, charismatic, and has a dazzling smile.  Oh, and the peachiest butt you ever did see.  If you watch Andrew’s video below, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.  You are so very welcome!

During my bedtime shower I discovered another tick, under my right breast.  I initially thought it might be a mole, but it felt a little flicky, just like the first tick that I found under my knee a few days ago.  On closer inspection, yep, it was a little bloodsucking tick.  Unbelievable.  It was after midnight, so I couldn’t ask anyone for help to remove it this time.  I’d have to do it on my own.  Google helped me out with instructions on how to extract the nasty parasite using tweezers, making sure to pull straight up, so as not to crush it or detach the body from the head.  Apparently crushing it, or detaching the body from the head is very bad.  Contorting my naked limbs by dim lamplight, I anxiously placed the tweezers around the body of the tick and pulled up, but the little cunt held on for dear life.  I kept pulling, nervously, and eventually the freeloader’s face let go of my boob, making quite a horrible, loud “pop” sound when his head came out.  I grabbed that fucker and I squeezed him, I squeezed him until he was dead.  No mercy.   

DAY #13 – WEDNESDAY, 25TH MAY 2022

Open Studio Day

Today was Open Studios.  Exhibition day.  We started in the morning, all of us going on a walking tour of the estate to check out Marcie’s botanical sculptures and Charles’ wood installations that he’d put up all around the village of Orquevaux.  Seriously spectacular works of art from both of them.  We then took a fabulous group photo at the village entrance.  We’ve all been through so much together the last couple of weeks.  Even if we never see each other again, right now it truly feels like we’re a family. 

Photo © Andrew Putschoegl

We headed back to the Chateau and were treated to a slide show of Andrew’s beautiful photos as well as an incredible video, composed of footage of all of us throughout the two weeks that we’ve been here.  Andrew’s movie is a priceless memento of our collective experience and I will always cherish it.  I’ve already watched it about a hundred times.  How lucky are we that we got such an accomplished photographer and videographer in our residency group.  Talk about winning. 


Suddenly it was time for my talk on NFTs from the artist’s perspective.  This is a topic that I’m super passionate about, and I feel like I got a really good reception to it.  I received a lot of thoughtful questions, and a few of the artists approached me afterwards to tell me that they wanted to learn more.  I’m not 100% sure how to go about it, but I would love to help facilitate the transition of artists from the traditional art world into NFTs.  Watch this space. 

After my talk, Charles asked me to meet him in the foyer, where he presented me with the piece that he’d custom made for me.  It’s an absolute masterpiece, and I fell in love with it instantly.  I honestly think it’s one of his best works.  I asked him how much I owed him and he said that he wanted me to have it for free, since the plan is for it to go up on a public wall in Dubai.  But as I held it in my hands, I knew that I would not part with it.  That it was too beautiful, and that I selfishly wanted it for myself.  We settled on $200.    

Isn’t it beautiful. I look at, and touch it, every single day and it takes me back to Orquevaux.

At 5pm we all marched up the creaky stairs to the studios to check out everyone’s work.  I was so proud of all my friends for the beautiful art that they have created during their time here.  I am in total awe of every single one of them, and their incredible work ethic and their drive to just produce, produce, produce.  That’s something that I would like to take away with me.  I particularly loved Christine’s paintings and arranged with her to buy one of the medium sized ones.  I’m splashing the cash today, but it feels so good to support the artists that I’ve met here, and I love that I’ll have a couple of beautiful and lasting reminders of my time at Chateau Orquevaux. 

A Little More Growth #3 by Christine Olmstead.

Later in the evening most of us walked down to The Stables to do a burn of one of Charles’ wooden sculptures, called Dead Man.  It was a beautiful night and everyone who was gathered around the installation made an offering to the piece that was being sacrificed.  I wrote a haiku about the Chateau, and pinned the piece of paper to the sculpture, watching the flames lick at it until it floated away in ashes.  It was beautiful and cathartic to watch, and reminded me of the impermanence of life. 

Jonny left earlier today, and I miss him already. 

DAY #14 – THURSDAY, 26TH MAY 2022
Avital left yesterday and I miss her too.  She was always the first person I saw in the mornings, and my morning ritual doesn’t feel the same in her absence.

After my shower I finally caught up with Beulah, for her interview.  I still have Otto to do but he’s been too busy this morning.  Even though we have one day left, it kind of feels like the end already.  The energy feels different, and everyone is running around cleaning up their studio spaces and preparing for their early trains in the morning.  I’m not leaving until midday tomorrow so I have the luxury of packing later.  So I’m just chilling, and writing this.  It’s kind of crazy that I came to Chateau Orquevaux to write, but haven’t written nearly as much as I thought I would.  Which is OK, because, even more significantly, I’ve been creatively activated.  And I think that will manifest more fully when I leave this place and re-enter the real world.  The Chateau’s mission statement declares: The Chateau d’Orquevaux Artist Residency emphasises the human experience and the creative process.  The residency creates an environment for the artist in their quest for personal growth and artistic expression – while reinforcing that the end product is not necessarily the principal focus.  Well, I’ve certainly been on one helluva quest.  And I am hoping that the body of work I create when I collate everyone’s interviews will result in a beautiful piece of art. 

Before dinner I sought out Andrew and asked him if he would photograph me.  Like, now or never!  He said yes, and I took him on a short walk to my special place near the swimming hole, the little copse of trees that I walk through every day after my morning skinny dip.  With my two buddies at the entrance of the grove keeping watch for me, I slipped off my bra and flung it into the trees, baring myself.  I took a deep breath and tried to relax, knowing that I was in the capable hands of a world class photographer.  It wasn’t easy, but I stopped focussing on Andrew and his camera, and started focussing on where I was; in my secret garden.  Chateau Orquevaux.  France. In my own skin. Right here, right now.  The poses that I’d practised in front of the mirror felt wooden and contrived, so I softened and just allowed myself to be.  I was still awkward as fuck, but it felt more natural to just be myself.  The timing was just right, and the golden hour light was absolutely perfect.  And at that very moment, magic happened.  

At our final dinner, everyone took a turn to say a few words to the group.  It was super emotional and by the end, we were all in tears.  I haven’t had an easy time of it but Chateau Orquevaux, and the people I’ve shared this experience with, will course through my veins for the rest of my life.  I know this.  And, as cliché as it sounds, I’ve learned so many lessons about myself along the way.  I’ve grown, not just as an artist, but as a person.  I’ve learned to look at the world around me, and not just focus on the world inside of me.  I’ve learned to be vulnerable.  I’ve learned to be courageous and bold.  I’ve learned to bare my body, and my soul.  I’ve learned to ask for the things that I want.  I’ve learned that being an artist means doing it, and not just talking about it.  And I’ve learned to say yes, fuck it, why not!!  And I have developed real friendships with my fellow artists.  Friendships that I know will last a lifetime. 

As the night came to a close, there was a flurry of individual goodbyes, and farewells.  So many emotions, tears and hugs.  So many promises to meet up in other parts of the world.  I genuinely love every single person here, but from day one, Marcie has been my le plus aimé, and I absolutely hated saying goodbye to her.  It physically hurt.  We hugged a lot, and when we couldn’t hug anymore, we said goodnight and went to bed. 

Marcie & Chryss (Photo © Andrew Putschoegl)

DAY #15 – FRIDAY, 27th MAY 2022
It’s time for me to leave.  I woke up early enough to fit in one final yoga session by the lake, and one final skinny dip in my swimming hole (yes, it’s mine now and they should just name it after me already).  I wanted to stay in the water forever, but I had a lot to do.  Having to pack away everything in my room (my room!) into a suitcase hammered home the reality that it was all over.  And most of the others have already gone.  I shook off the shroud of melancholy threatening to engulf me and lugged my suitcases downstairs.  In a mad rush, about fifteen minutes before I had to go, I cornered Otto and we finally did a quickie interview in the dining room.  It wasn’t an easy one, as we were unable to communicate in a common language (where’s that bottle of rosé when you really need it?)!  Despite that, it felt really wonderful that I had this last minute chance to talk to Otto, because it meant that I actually achieved my goal of interviewing every single artist at Chateau Orquevaux.  High five to me!!

Once the interview was done and the car was packed, I did that thing I’m prone to doing; of already checking out mentally, already looking ahead to what is coming and no longer seeing what is in front of me.  Even if it’s important.  Which is why I was almost startled to see Noah, Christine and Charles waiting to say goodbye. I almost cried!  And in my mentally frazzled state I totally would have just taken off without saying farewell to Andrew.  I’m so grateful that he came out to wish me happy travels because I would have really regretted not saying goodbye to him.  He’s one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met, and I adore him.  Also, he’s seen my tits, so we’re practically married now. 

I took one last look at the Chateau, knowing that I wasn’t taking any of it in, but also knowing, in my heart, that one day I would be back.  And then I drove away. 

What Is An Artist?

Header photo © Andrew Putschoegl

Ejo #159 – What Is An Artist?: The Orquevaux Diaries (Part One)

In May of last year I spent two weeks in Chateau Orquevaux in the French countryside, taking part in an artist’s residency programme designed to give artists a “respite from real world energy”, immersing them in a natural, beautiful environment surrounded by other creative people and the opportunity to find inspiration.  I’m not even kidding bitches, I actually did that!!!  As you all know, I’m a writer, and I’ve always been a writer.  But am I an artist?  I’ve never really allowed myself to identify as that.  Calling myself an artist in the past has always felt inauthentic and ostentatious.  So when David and I visited our friends, Nat and Andy, in rural France about four years ago, and they suggested I apply to a local artist residency run by a friend of theirs,  I was flattered that they saw me in that way, but never imagined, in a million years, that I would actually do it. 

And then a pandemic happened.  I don’t know if you guys remember, but everything kind of… changed.  I changed.  And in March 2021, during a global lockdown, I decided that I would apply to the Chateau’s artist residency programme after all.  Plot twist: I was accepted!!  This both thrilled and terrified me.  I would now have to come up with the goods, and I would have to justify my acceptance.  I would have to be an artist.  Following is Part One of the diary/immersion therapy notes I kept during my two weeks in the Chateau.

DAY #1 – FRIDAY, 13TH MAY 2022
I’m not superstitious so I wasn’t worried about having to travel from Amsterdam to the French countryside on Friday the 13th.  Perhaps I should have been a little more wary.  Or at the very least I should have been a little more sensible about it.  Foolishly, David and I stayed up stupidly late last night, not getting to bed until 3.30am.  Listen, when you’re on holiday in your favourite city in the world, being sensible can sometimes be a little too much to ask.  Anyway, 45 minutes after I closed my eyes, the alarm clock went off and I had to get up and pack for my 8am flight to Lyon.  Ouch.  David’s travelling to Australia to spend some time with his parents while I’m in France, but he’s not flying until tomorrow.  Saying goodbye to him this morning was really tough.  Maybe because I was still hammered, maybe because I was running on empty, or maybe because I love him very much, saying goodbye was absolutely gut-wrenching.  Part of me was genuinely tempted to say, “Fuck France!” and cancel my trip, so that I could stay with my boo.  But the grownup part of me forced myself to go through the motions of saying farewell, getting into my Uber and waving goodbye.  My adventure had begun. 

Being fatigued while you’re travelling is pretty damn unpleasant.  But at least I could steal a few zzz’s during the flight.  The really hard part started when I had to find my rental car at Lyon airport (which is no mean feat, as the office is located away from the terminal and reachable only by shuttle).  After seeing an orange Sixt sign whiz past us in the bus, I got up to ask the driver if we’d be returning to it, just as she executed one of her more violent manoeuvres, throwing me around the bus like a rag doll.  None of the other passengers seemed to mind that I was sprawled on the bus floor, arms and legs akimbo.  C’est bon bitches, don’t worry about me, I’m absolutely fine. 

I got to the car rental office and, in my vulnerable state, allowed myself to be talked into spending an extra half a million euros for full insurance coverage.  I might be exaggerating, but fuck me, I might not.  I was in a fugue state, so who the hell knows.  I found my car and spent about 45 minutes figuring out how to change the language settings from French to English, and another half an hour programming the navigation system to take me where I needed to go.  If only the car could drive me there too.  But alas, I had to drive myself.  And I really had to focus on staying awake. 

Four and a half hours (and a few rest stops, including a coffee nap) later, I texted David, “I MADE IT!!”  It felt wonderful to drive through the gates that finally announced my arrival at Chateau Orquevaux.  I followed the road up to the house and felt a sense of elation at the iconic building that I’d grown so accustomed to seeing in my Instagram feed.  It was even more wonderful and beautiful and awe-inspiring in real life.  I parked the car and walked up the road towards the chateau, crossing paths with a lovely young woman holding a flower walking the other way.  We stopped to introduce ourselves and have a chat.  Her name was Marcie and she’d also arrived today for a two week residency.  We waved goodbye to each other as I carried on to the kitchen where I met Otto, the general hand, and Quentin, the assistant chef.  They helped carry my heavy (oh, so heavy) bags up the stairs and showed me to my room on the first floor of the chateau. 

Chateau Orquevaux, in all it’s springtime glory

My room is, of course, absolutely beautiful, but I have to admit it’s not what I was hoping for.  I’d requested my own accommodation in the village and been told that I could expect that.  But it’s OK, I’m here now.  Sure there’s no lock on the door (eek!). And sure, I have to share a bathroom.  But I’m not going to make a fuss about it.  I’m going to Go With The Flow™.

My gorgeous room. Home for the next two weeks.

Welcome drinks were followed by dinner, and we all ate family style around the large dining table, introducing ourselves and getting to know each other.  A couple of people confused me with Marcie, which I took as a great compliment.  I guess we do look kind of similar.  Everyone is super lovely, but it does seem difficult to make one-on-one connections because most of them have already been here for two weeks of a four week residency. I had hoped that I would very easily feel like I belonged in this group, like we were all in it together, but instead I feel a little bit like an interloper, like someone who’s gatecrashing and doesn’t belong.  Maybe it’s just because I’m so exhausted.  And so drunk.  Hopefully I’ll feel differently tomorrow.

DAY #2 – SATURDAY, 14TH MAY 2022
Today was the group shopping trip to Chaumont, a large town about 45 minutes drive away.  Beulah, the Chateau’s Artist Residency Director, drove us in her minivan, and on the way there Marcie and I bonded some more in the back seat, talking about the trauma of our mothers recently dying.  I was grateful to her for sharing her story with me, and for wanting to listen to mine, and it made me feel even closer to her.

I didn’t buy anything at the art store, but it was fun to look around.  Afterwards, we drove to the huge LeClerc supermarket in town where we stocked up on provisions, snacks and booze.  The chateau has an amazing kitchen crew, headed by Chef Marie, and they cook dinner for us most nights, so I stuck to the necessities.  Rosé and sparkling water. 

Super cute on the outside, but very rock’n’roll on the inside, the magnificent Chef Marie. 🤘

When we got home I accidentally nodded off in my armchair for half an hour, and I dreamt that I kept passing out but was unable to alert anyone in the chateau that I was about to faint.  In my dream, I couldn’t speak or make a sound, so I silently fell to the floor, losing consciousness as people left the room, or walked around me.  I mean, c’mon, Freud would blow his fucking load with that shit.

Along with most of the others, I’ve been assigned a studio on the second floor of the chateau, but my room has a perfectly lovely desk in it and I prefer writing here. After my disquieting nap I decided to move my desk, which had been placed against a wall, turning it to face the window instead. The feng shui of the room was instantly improved, and I settled down to an afternoon of writing.

At 5pm, Ziggy, the founder of the residency and owner of the chateau held an oral history presentation of the property and its metamorphosis into an artist’s retreat.  This remarkable man inherited a dilapidated, 19th century chateau and in the last seven years has transformed it into a place that invites artists from all over the world to gather, create, collaborate, explore, learn, grow, stretch, and to just be.  Hearing about how Ziggy made that happen only increased my awe at the Chateau, and how he’s managed to turn his lofty dream into a reality.  I feel inspired and invigorated.  I love being here.

DAY #3 – SUNDAY, 15TH MAY 2022
Today we went for a walk.  Quite a long walk, through the fields and forests of the surrounding area.  It was beautiful.  We were looking for The Source.  The birthplace of the fount of water that flows from the ground, and which has moulded and shaped this part of the world for centuries.  It started off quite easy, strolling through grasslands, and later became a little more challenging, as we traversed steep, angled inclines, jumped over slippery, mossy logs, crisscrossed rocky river beds and even, at one point, balanced over a thin beam as we navigated across a wide stream.  It was a lot of fun, and despite a couple of wrong turns we eventually made it to The Source, sadly already dried up for the season. 

From left: Andrew, Marcie, Jad, Charles, Elissa, Jonny, me, Christine, Noah and Avital. Missing are Catherine, Viktoria and Alonso.

When we got back to the chateau, all hot and sweaty, most of us headed down to the swimming hole to jump into the icy cold water.  Afterwards, the sun glistening on our wet bodies, we lay on the grass and talked. It was such a carefree scene, and I basked in the tranquility of the idyllic surrounds.  I allowed myself to nurse a very tiny and tentative sense of belonging, quietly holding it close.  I wish I could feel this way all the time.  All I have to do is stay out of my own head. 

Despite having a really lovely day, I had a terrible time at dinner tonight, feeling isolated, and on the outs.  Definitely very much in my head.  One of the group commented that I was always drinking wine.  Yeah, so what?  I also caught a couple of the younger kids just staring at me every now and again, like they were examining a specimen on a petri-dish.  Was I imagining that?  I couldn’t tell, but it made me uncomfortable.  And that made me even more awkward, which made everything worse.  I silently berated myself for not being able to just relax and fit in with everyone else.  What the hell is wrong with me?  Am I really suddenly incapable of conducting a one-on-one conversation?  Whenever I spoke, eyes glazed over.  People listened out of politeness.  They were uninterested, because I wasn’t being interesting.  I was being inauthentic.  Why couldn’t I just be myself?  I was sucking the energy out of the room.  I’ve never sucked the energy out of the room in my life, but thinking that I was, made it so.  I was not having a good time.  I was spiralling.  So, I drank more.  Even if it didn’t make things any better, I noticed it less, so it was better for me. 

Tonight I didn’t stay up with the gang.  I wanted to be alone.  I needed to figure out what was happening to me, and more importantly, how to stop it.  I sat in my room, in the fading light, nursing a whiskey, listening to the hubbub of lively conversation floating up from the fire pit below my window.  I didn’t begrudge their easy friendship, their breezy closeness.  I just had to figure out why I needed so badly to be part of it.

I haven’t always been like this.  Way back in the day I used to be gregarious, outgoing, extroverted, sociable and confident.  And then in 2008 I moved from Melbourne to Dubai, leaving my entire family and all of my friends behind.  In the time it took to fly 15,000km, I completely lost my entire support system.  My tribe back home was so close-knit, so accepting, so reinforcing, so supportive and so loving, that I’d foolishly expected to easily find friends in Dubai.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t connect with anybody.  I developed social anxiety, and I started thinking that something was terribly wrong with me.  It took a lot of therapy to accept that I was OK.  But I’ve been having major flashbacks of those feelings the last couple of days. 

I sipped my whiskey, and I ruminated.  And I travelled even further back, to the eighties.  Back to high school.  Even though I was always a weird kid, I never felt bad about myself.  I just didn’t make friends easily.  I spent most of high school on the outside looking in.  And I had some really difficult experiences.  Rejections.  Bullying.  Name calling.  Even by the people who I thought were my friends.  One pivotal moment for me, when I was 14, was being on a school excursion and being abandoned on an escalator going down, as my “friends” ran back up.  At first I thought it was a game and I started running up too.  But I stopped when I saw them running away.  Something inside of me broke when I realised that they were running away from me.  They didn’t want to be my friend.  They had just pretended to like me.  And that hurt.  I felt bewildered, humiliated and betrayed.  This was high school for me.  I learned to be fine with it, but it left a scar.  Guess what Chryss, it looks like the scar might still be there.  And I’ve been picking at the scab. 

Finally, sitting in the dark, my whiskey glass empty, it started to become clear to me that I’ve let myself down these first few days of my residency.  I brought fifty years worth of baggage and an almost pathological need for approval to the Chateau, and ended up having some kind of mid-life crisis in a place of artistry, creation and beauty.  I’ve been imploding inwards, instead of blossoming outwards.  All my feelings of not belonging, of being too weird, of being the odd one out, of people not getting me, are ancient feelings that no longer belong to me.  They belong to that young girl on the escalator.  I didn’t come here to make friends.  I came to write, and I’ve allowed myself to get sidetracked by feeling that I need to become BFFs with everyone here.  Realising my mistake will hopefully make it easier to just let it go, and refocus my attention towards my work.  I don’t need to stumble my way through any more awkward conversations.  I’ll work during the day, eat with the others at night and keep to myself the rest of the time.

DAY #4 – MONDAY, 16TH MAY 2022
While selected artists beat out hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of applicants, you still have to pay to attend Chateau Orquevaux’ artist residency.  Nineteenth century buildings don’t look after themselves you know.  They require a lot of maintenance, especially if left in disrepair for a couple hundred years.  The first few residency intakes functioned almost as working bees, helping to slowly bring the chateau back to life.  It’s been beautifully restored but still needs a lot of work.  Luckily, each artist is generously awarded the Denis Diderot Artist-in-Residency Grant, which goes some way towards paying for our room, board and studio space while in residency.  In return for the grant, artists are requested to bequeath one of their works to the chateau. A charming pact. 

As a writer, I wondered what I could possibly leave behind as my contribution.  I pondered the question for months, before being struck by inspiration.  I decided that I would interview everyone, gather all the interviews into a printed compendium and gift a copy to the Chateau.  Fucking brilliant, if I do say so myself.  The only problem?  I would have to interview everyone.  I am painfully aware of my inclination towards shyness in large groups of unfamiliar people, so a few weeks before we arrived I’d brashly announced my intention to interview all the artists in a group email, as a way of forcing myself out of my shell.  It seemed like a great idea at the time, but so far I’m not really feeling it, and I kind of wish that I had never made such an audacious declaration. 

I did have an amazing breakthrough last night, but I’m still feeling a little vulnerable and withdrawn.  To counter that, I have decided to artistically express myself sartorially, by dressing up for dinnertime.  I brought a couple of dress-up costumes with me, so why not?!  Tonight I wore a very short, very low cut black velvet dress with sparkles on it.  I was initially very uncomfortable with how short the dress was but I gained confidence during the night, and by the time midnight came around I was absolutely rocking it.  Did alcohol help?  A little.  Did my newfound confidence also help?  Definitely. 

And of course (of course!!!), once I stopped caring so very much about making these young artists like me, we all seemed to click more easily.  Our conversations weren’t as laboured.  I didn’t feel like a total social leper.  Had I been creating drama where there was none?  I’m certain that everyone here would be shocked to learn what I’ve been putting myself through.  There’s no way they could know that I’ve been torturing myself about our interactions.  I think it’s time to let it all go.  It’s day four and I am fully focussed now on being here, being present, and getting down to the business of creating beautifully written work. 

DAY #5 – TUESDAY, 17TH MAY 2022
Today I figured out my daily morning routine.  Yoga on the small platform jutting out over the lake, followed by a dip in the nearby swimming hole.  I took my bikini with me, but decided at the last minute to swim in the nude, shedding my clothes and slipping into the freezing cold water in just my birthday suit.  There’s something primeval and visceral about swimming naked, communing with nature as nature intended.  It evokes a sense of oneness with the environment, stripping away the formality and structure of modern existence.  I gazed up at the early morning sky as my feet brushed against the reeds.  I swam deeper, floating away, luxuriating in the feeling of playfulness and freedom as my skin prickled with the cold and the feeling slowly drained from my fingers and toes.  Afterwards, while drying myself with a towel, I wondered if a prudish neighbour might complain to Ziggy or Beulah about the chubby Aussie chick prancing around the grounds naked, but I figured if you can’t skinny dip at an artist’s residency, where the hell can you skinny dip. 

Walking barefoot back to the chateau after my swim, I came upon a copse of trees and noticed a path, guarded by two deer sentries carved from stone.  Giving them each a light boop on the nose, I followed the path and entered their woodland paradise.  Motes of dappled light shone through the canopy, shimmering on the green foliage. I looked around in wonder, feeling my heartbeat slow down in the enveloping serenity.  Were these woods infested with ticks?  Probably.  Was the path latticed with spider webs?  I can confirm that it was.  But I had discovered a perfect, tiny, natural wonderland, within a wonderland.  And for now, this place was my secret.    

My secret garden.

Later that day, I took a break from writing to have lunch in the shade under a big tree, overlooking the lake.  It was a simple meal of boiled eggs, cheese and a glass of white wine.  Afterwards I went for a walk down the hill to the waterfall, and looking down at the water I was reminded of the meditation exercise I sometimes do to calm myself when I’m anxious.  I tell myself to soften, and allow.  To just let things be, and to allow my troubles to flow around me.  I could see the water flowing over rocks and moss, into the lake below and I softened, and I allowed myself to become the water.  And in doing so, a torrent of tears welled up from deep inside of me and cascaded down my face. 

In the gorgeous French countryside, surrounded as I was by beauty and peace and serenity, I wept.  I lifted my gaze towards the chateau, in all its majesty.  Were my tears precipitated by the previous few days of mangled self-perception and anxiety?  No, I don’t think so.  I was simply overcome with emotion at the sheer beauty of the place I find myself in.  And, despite my self-inflicted emotional rollercoaster ride, I still feel completely at home here.  As though a small part of me was born in this house, and was being welcomed back with loving arms.  What Ziggy has created here is a truly special place on earth.  It is a veritable paradise, and the artist within me feels small, but real for the very first time.  I could imagine myself living out the rest of my days here.  Writing at my desk, overlooking the vast, and glorious expanse of natural beauty.  Serenaded by the breeze murmuring through the trees, the distant, babbling waterfall and the lazy twittering of the birds.  Stopping every now and again to have some wine and cheese, and then writing some more.  Every single day from now until I die.  I could imagine this.   

I softened, and allowed it all to flow out, and the flowing brought with it a sense of being swept clean, followed by a feeling of peace and catharsis.  It’s OK to cry.  I am in a magical world, and it’s taken me a few days, but I finally do feel that I’m in the right place.  I know that I was embraced from the moment I arrived.  I just had to allow myself to be embraced.  I had to allow myself to feel that I deserved it and that I belonged here.

Walking back to my spot under the big tree, I heard footsteps coming up the hill, and I turned to see Marcie approaching with a plate of food.  She asked if it was OK to sit with me while she ate her lunch, and I said yes.  If it had been anyone else, I think I would have made my excuses and left, embarrassed by the evidence of tears in my eyes.  Instead, I found myself telling Marcie about my experience.  She sympathetically recounted her own feelings of heaviness from the day before, and we cried together.  We shared our stories and our pains, and our burgeoning bond was strengthened even more.

Tonight was kind of quiet after dinner.  Most of the regular night owls went to bed early after their big day trip to Dijon.  But Marcie and I stayed up and shared a bottle of rosé with Jonny and Jad, following them up to their studios on the second floor of the chateau to check out their work, where I was absolutely blown away by Jonny’s portraits.  He’s got such an interesting and unique style, very distinctive.  Very Jonny.  He uses his old, handwritten rap lyrics as an element of découpage, incorporating the paper and words into the background, and sometimes even into the portrait itself.  I absolutely love it. 

Once we were finished in his studio, Jonny jokingly asked me to walk him home to his cottage in the village, and I said fuck yeah, why not?  We poured ourselves a dram of whiskey each, and ambled back to his beautiful village house, arm in arm.  Along the way I mustered up the courage to ask him if he would paint my portrait, and he said he’d love to.  Squee!  After I’d made sure he was home safe and sound, I immensely enjoyed the stroll home by myself in the dark, under a canopy of bright stars.  Everyone else was asleep, and as I meandered around the Chateau, drinking in the night sky and savouring the cool air, I lovingly kept watch over them all.

Today, I quietly snuck out and drove to the supermarket in Chaumont to stock up on more rosé, snacks and sparkling water.  I felt a little guilty about not asking if anyone else wanted to come with me, but it felt fantastic to get out by myself, and I enjoyed the freedom of having the rental car.  Later that afternoon, I had a lovely video chat with David who is in Adelaide with his family.  We are missing each other a lot, but I imagine that it’s much harder for him because I am so busy and engaged with everything that is happening here.  It was nice to have a chat and to see his beautiful face. 

And then, despite my cold feet, I just bit the bullet and went upstairs to interview Jonny in his studio.  And I am absolutely thrilled with the way it turned out.  He is such a wonderful subject, and such a cool, easygoing guy.  He really put me at ease and answered all my questions so beautifully.  I adore this young man.  He’s a delight to be around and we really connected in his studio.  I’m so grateful to him for making my first interview so easy, and now I’m actually looking forward to interviewing everyone else too.  I feel like it’s going to produce something really special. 

Afterwards I looked for Catherine’s studio, as we had talked about doing an interview in the afternoon, but she wasn’t there.  I wandered around and accidentally stumbled upon Beulah’s office, and she invited me in to chat for a bit.  We ended up talking for nearly an hour, and she told me all about her career in Australia and then Hong Kong, and what led her to the Chateau (and to Ziggy, wink wink).  She is so fun, so nice, so engaging, so encouraging, so lovely, so kind, so empathetic and so compassionate.  Yes, I know I’m gushing.  It’s on purpose. Beulah is perfect in the role she plays at the chateau, of making sure that all the artists are taken care of and are feeling OK.  I told her about the anxiety I’ve been experiencing, and she assured me that it was not unusual at all for people to feel like that coming into the residency, especially when arriving mid-way through a month long programme (which is something they’re working on avoiding in the future). It really made me feel a lot better.  We chatted lots, had some laughs and took some selfies. And I walked away feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Just two Aussie chicks in a chateau in the French countryside.

Before arriving at the chateau, all the artists had been introduced to each other on social media, and Christine was the person I’d instantly clicked with, and was most keen to meet.  She’s kind of like the perfect person, which can be a little bit intimidating.  She’s extremely beautiful, and a very talented artist.  But she’s also witty, and funny and charismatic.  She’s just very fucking cool.  I had really hoped that we would hit it off, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.  She seems quite aloof towards me, which isn’t really surprising considering the shitty vibe that I’ve been putting out.  For some reason I really feel the need to connect with her, but I just get so nervous around her.  So when Christine complimented me on my dress at dinner tonight, saying that she likes the way I’m making an effort to do something special every evening, it absolutely made my day. 

DAY #7 – THURSDAY, 19th MAY 2022
I woke up early today, with the beautiful morning light streaming through my window.  I’m already fantasising about buying one of the rundown cottages in the village and moving here when David and I retire. 

The big news today is that I found a tick in the crook of my knee, leisurely sucking away at my life force.  I was sitting down chatting with Marcie and just happened to touch my leg, feeling a protrusion behind my knee.  I thought it might be a zit or something and tried to scratch it away, but it wasn’t budging.  I looked down and saw a horrible, chunky brown thing sticking out of my skin, like something growing out of me.  Being a country girl, Marcie knew exactly what was up.  “It’s a tick,” she said, matter-of-factly.  And so it was.  I freaked out and ran upstairs trying to keep cool.  This was my first tick situation, and being Australian I can’t help but assume that all animals wish to do me harm, especially the ones that attach themselves to my body by burrowing their heads into my skin.  Beulah popped her head out to see what all the screaming was about and jumped into action as soon as I told her I had a tick.  She just squeezed that little fucker out, right then and there.  She’s my goddamn hero. 

After the excitement, Marcie and I spent some more time together, just chatting, checking out her latest installation down by the swimming hole, and then moving another of her pieces to the stables to photograph it in some beautiful light against a shabby chic background.  It turned out absolutely perfect.  I then interviewed her in her studio.  I could sense that she was a little bit nervous during the interview, but I think (hope) that I was able to put her at ease.  As always, it was really lovely to spend time with her.  She’s so easygoing and self-possessed, and I really enjoy being around her a lot.  I have a feeling that we’ll be friends long after this is over.

Standby for Part Two of my Chateau Orquevaux adventure.

Who’s that girl?

Header photo © Andrew Putschoegl