Paraza: A French Global Village
Some 19 Nations Among 565 Inhabitants
By: Astrid Hiemer - Jan 26, 2010
From our winter perch in North Adams, Massachusetts, we are reflecting on a ten day visit during last September to a global village in southern France. We were invited to participate and report on the 12th International Symposium of Contemporary Art, which was organized by Dorothea Fleiss & East West Artists of Stuttgart, Germany, with Maison Endriss, Gallery/Association, Le C.L.A.P., and Le Pont, all of Paraza.
We arrived at Paraza, while driving south from Toulouse. On the highway, we passed Carcassonne in the direction of Narbonne and Montpellier. As the towns were getting smaller, we finally reached our destination approximately 8 km outside of Lezignan-Corbieres on a spectacular winding and sandy country road.
Many villages and small towns in southern France have been repopulated by French citizens from the North, who have come to retire here or have a second home as well as from other European countries. But Paraza must be an anomaly with full- or part-time inhabitants from around the world. The mostly year-round sunny climate and vicinity to the Pyrenees and Spain, other mountain ranges, the Mediterranean Sea, and exquisite landscapes of Langedoc-Roussillon, draw so many people south.
One can already peruse three articles with many photographs on BerkshireFineArts.com, which we published in October and November, 2009. We reported different aspects of our 10 days in the village, as participants of the symposium, where the following artists from five nations and two continents painted for a long week: Lyudmila Dakhova, Ukraine - Dorothea Fleiss, Germany - Padungsak Kochsomrong, Thailand - Istvan Korbely, Hungary - Kalman Maklary, Hungary - Mate Rainer, Hungary - and the conceptual and installation artist Takata Yoshiki, Japan. The people of the region were invited to a fine exhibition and a lively and wonderful vernissage after an intense week-long workshop.
We were curious to learn more about some of the French and international population, who were drawn to settle in the village for a variety of reasons. We interviewed some with whom we became acquainted:
Ursula Kara from Germany helped me name all the different countries that are represented in Paraza: Of course France, then Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, USA, Laos, and Pakistan. We actually met a father and son at the opening, who were speaking Hungarian to the painter Kalman Maklary. There, we discovered a family from one more nation, because they had recently settled in Paraza.
Werner and Christine Endriss have been living part-time in Paraza for nearly 16 years. They make their year-round home in Scharndorf, 30 km outside of Stuttgart, Germany. Werner is a retired banker; he had spent his career with Deutsche Bank nationally and internationally. For the last few years he has been working with wood sculptures and nude drawings. Christine still maintains her 'spa and cosmetics salon' and is serious about continuing education in her profession. A week after the symposium ended, she participated in a new applications workshop in Paris, France.
The couple has known each other since their teen years. They are the parents of two daughters, Inga and Janina, now in their twenties. Inga, who works as a therapist and art-therapist, has been sharing Dorothea Fleiss' studio in Stuttgart. She had participated in a symposium in Carei, Romania, which Fleiss & East West Artists have held for many years. Through that connection, Maison Endriss became reality and co-sponsors of the symposium in France. Christine conveyed that they have wanted to have an active vacation, rather than passively spending their time in Paraza. Both spoke glowingly about the many emotional and psychic returns they have gained from the experience. Not planned was a car accident Christine and Dorothea mostly experienced, when a driver from behind tried to cut her off at a left turn. It was not Christine's fault, but has become a lengthy and costly affair.
Their home in Paraza was gutted before they moved in, as many old houses in the village have been updated. The contractor built open spaces, on three floors, in a Mediterranean style, with a large roof deck and a magnificent one hundred mile long view. Therefore, many people in Paraza spend much of the time at home on their decks. As the village houses are built wall to wall along small and smaller streets, the first impression for an outsider is not inviting. Why would foreigners want to move here? The smallest trees and plants are craving soil. Later, of course, we discovered houses with gated court yards and luscious gardens, as we walked down fifty steps to the Canal du Midi. In front of many houses one can find small and large potted plants that grow so well in the sunny climate. Long lasting and heavenly colorful flowers bloom all summer and into the fall. The plants embellish the brown and grayish facades.
Christine and Werner were marvelous hosts of the symposium and tirelessly assisted us all during our stay. Delicious French and Romanian meals were served three times daily for 12 or more people around the welcoming dinner table. Babi, our cook from Romania, made beautiful meals time and again.
Christine had wanted to study art and become an art teacher, but circumstances did not allow for it. So the Endriss family 'has come full (art-) circle in their lives.'
Mireille Schellaert and her husband Dirk van der Elst had offered their guest house and lap pool to us on the edge of Paraza. Charles and I had our daily swim and walked to Maison Endriss and the studio. The family had moved into a stark white and comfortable contemporary house on the outskirts of Paraza in 2004. Dirk is a painter and moved permanently from Aalsi, Belgium, before Mireille gave up her profession as a travel agent in Belgium. Both had joined a hiking group early on, which was a mostly French affair, and since they are both fluent in French, they had an easier time than many others to assimilate.
A group of newcomers complained about little cultural activity in Paraza and after months of discussions, they started with a 'Dinner and Art Evening,' where the host would also exhibit his or her artwork for a day. This led to the creation of 'Le Pont' (the Bridge), a cultural organization, where it was decided that the board members would be equally French and from other nations. The organization won the support of the Mayor's Office first and later the Mayor, Monsieur Francis Garcia, also favored creating art and cultural activities in Paraza. Our group was invited to a lively reception at City Hall! Le Pont has ended its second season and has presented art, music, poetry and book readings from around the region, each time to 150 guests or more.
In Dirk and Mireille's garden grow beautiful bushes and trees, grape vines, and they also own an adjacent scrubby plot. Mireille had originally hoped to keep her horse on the land, but growth on the open space was difficult to maintain. Summers in the region are hot. The climate is dry, which is good for growing grapes and olives, as well as orchards for apples and peaches. Yet, a mistral like wind can wreak havoc over the land and the sea shore. Mireille spent 20 years as an equestrian, traveling and competing with her horses. They had owned and maintained a working farm in Aalsi for many years, as well as professional careers, before moving South.
In their living room two large canvases of Dirk's early abstract work are displayed and one of them is owned by Mireille. She had bought it from the artist - then they met later and eventually married.
Le C.L.A.P. (Centre local d'art parazanals) has had its first season of exhibitions in 2009. The buildings and property are owned by Francois and Nicole Carriere, who invited the artists of the Symposium to install their exhibition. The inhabitants of Paraza and the region helped to create a wonderful evening of celebration and fellowship. Next to a regular exhibition room are converted formerly wine-making spaces, which encourage imaginative installations. The week-long hard work by the artists paid off. They presented their new work in a stunning exhibition. (For more details about the exhibition, please read the highlighted articles.)
The day after the opening, we met with the four principles of Le CLAP, Mme. et M. Carriere, and the couple, Maryse Roumengous, an art historian and Jean-Marie Delverdie, the webmaster for the gallery. There, we learned more about the development of the non profit organization, which has about one hundred members, artists and non artists alike. Nicole manages the gallery, while her husband travels the region during the week as a representative of an insurance company. They are a lovely couple and we wish that we could have communicated with them more deeply.
Jean M., the web-master, is a retired High School teacher, whose subject was German and so we were able to fully converse. We are still in contact, particularly with him, and have occasionally lively email exchanges in German. Maryse was the curator at Espace Gilbert, an art complex in Lezignan, for more than twenty years and now offers her expertise to the people of Paraza and the region. The couple shares their time between Lezignan and Toulouse. (We recently learned that Roumengous and Delverdie have resigned from Le CLAP.)
The Carriere's bought the property four years ago, rebuilt living quarters adjacent to a spacious terrace, full of magnificent plants and trees, as well as the gallery. And so we hope, that the gallery will continue to thrive in the region.
Sandy Mendes Da Silva, her husband Ricardo Da Silva, and their two girls Mailys and Jade, are next door neighbors to Maison Endriss. They are still renovating, in great details, while attempting to restore a 'Master House' to its former glory. One day they hosted a wonderful party for our group, where we learned more about wine and wine barrel making amidst lively conversations.
Sandy, a yoga teacher, and Ricardo are both from Portuguese families, but lived and met in London 15 years ago. Ricardo owns an international video game company, which does not require a fixed location and so they had then moved close to Lisbon, Portugal, for several years. Neither of them felt at home there and Sandy, who was raised in Strasbourg in northern France, wanted to return to speaking her native language. While the family was living in Portugal, she traveled the region and found a farm house in a village nearby, where they lived for a couple of years. Through friends they discovered their Paraza property. But now, Sandy is dreaming of a home surrounded by open space and a garden.
Anneben Ogier and Hilde Boonstra will insist, that Paraza found them ! They had visited the region and when, by chance, a piece of land along the canal became available, they purchased it and built a new house in the Mediterranean style. They became hosts to our Asian participants and active members of our group.
Anneben had owned a Funeral Home in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for 38 years and Hilde, formerly a social worker, eventually joined her in the work. Their philosophy had been to allow the grieving family members to come to the Home as often and for as long as they needed to visit the quiet and reflective environment. Hilde also initiated recently a project, where they invite women from Holland to Paraza for a week at a time. These are women in crisis and they hope to empower them through their stay in Paraza. Ogier and Boonstra still live part-time in Rotterdam, where they also own a house.
One day, while visiting the collective studio of our artists, we met a German couple, Johannes and Helga Horn, who are both in their 70's. Proudly Johannes recounted his time as an officer in the French Foreign Legion. He still stands as straight as a soldier. Because of their French Connection, they intended to settle in France eventually. The fabled foreign legionnaires are held in high regard and have special privileges in France. The Horns purchased their home in one of the old gated compounds, which underscore the privacy aspects of certain properties in the village.
Johanna van Dyke, a spry 78 year old citizen of Paraza, has lived there for the last fifteen years. Her husband, a physicist, died at age 44 and left her to raise four children by herself. She now has six grand children and her extended families live in Holland. She insists that they come and visit her, since her preference is to stay put. Johanna invited Lyudmila Dakhova into her home and she became a very helpful participant of our group. She is also a member of the board for Le Pont. Johanna recently moved to a beautifully renovated house along the canal, where she has a perfect view of all the activities in and out of the village, as well as watching the boats coming by or mooring along the canal for the night.
Natalie and John O'Neill run the Cafe du Port, which is situated at the Canal and very inviting. John is a fine chef and Natalie manages the rest of the business with much charm. They have lived in Paraza for ten years now. The owner Â– we understand Â– is a graphic artist from New York. The Café is a seasonal business; they close in October and for the winter. Before coming to Paraza, they lived five years in the region of Cognac, and we wonder, where they spend the rest of the year. Natalie grew up in Greater Yarmouth and her husband came from northern England.
At the Café we met a German couple, Cornelia Koch and Andre Maier, from Berlin. The best friends, Cornelia and Barbara Thuillier, both journalists, had wanted to buy a house in France for twenty years and so all three became part-time citizens of Paraza in 2008. It was an 'accidental find' and Barbara had not seen the house before spending vacation time in Paraza and loved it. The Koch-Maier family, with a combination of five children at the ages of 10 to 26, feels very much at home here.
Dr. Ursula Kara purchased her home in a side alley in 2005, but could not spend much time in Paraza until last year. It also has a roof deck, which gives her a great view into the Aude region. She is a demanding and fascinating conversationalist, with a love for France, since her High School Years. Informed by her extensive biography, it appears that she still is a world-wide traveler and worker and still questions, where she will settle: In Europe, Asia, or the USA.
She received her PhD in Chemistry in 1981, from the University of Marburg, including extensive studies in Biochemistry, Parasitology, and Immunology, which led to appointments at Research Laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya; Karlsruhe, Germany; Brisbane, Australia; and Washington, DC, USA. She received an appointment as a researcher and professor at the University of Heidelberg, then the University of Singapore, where she worked much of the 1990s. She is still connected to Veredus Laboratories in Singapore. She also holds three shared patents. Her world-wide view, of course, also gave her access or necessity to various languages and she is more or less comfortable communicating in eight languages.
Research and Medicine are not her only passions; others are archaeology, art and design. She has a collection of masks from many of her travels and ethnic art and abstract works from Asia. She did the interior design for homes and with a friend from Laos has started to produce carpets and textiles. She still is an avid sports woman Â– with a second address in Hagen, Germany, where her family resides.
Organizations there should tap into Ursula Kara's wealth of activities, knowledge, and passions - if she would only stay a while longer.
Paraza has a medieval castle, where the builder of the Canal du Midi lived during construction of the 150 miles long canal. Today, the castle is owned by a reclusive family. We tasted a fine wine from the 'Chateau de Paraza' at dinner at the Cafe du Port.
It was on our last day that Dorothea urged us to visit the village church. We had tried to enter before, but found the church door closed on a couple of occasions. We did not know that Maria McLaughlin was the keeper of the key. She and her husband, Philip Donnison, who owns a bicycle rental for the region, Mellow Velos have been living in Paraza just across from the 'Church of the Assumption' for five years.
The church, a 17th Century structure, had been recently renovated. It is a re-sited village church. Originally, 'Notre Dame de Clottes,' had been mentioned in archive documents as early as 1175. The first church was moved from its position, where the Canal du Midi was built from 1666 to 1681. The nave, choir and vaulted ceiling have beautiful stenciled designs. It is a magnificent country church.
Maria was actually the person, who helped us find our destination when we first drove into Paraza. She is a very friendly and energetic woman and works as a counselor for English speaking couples, adults, and children. Maria is Scottish and her husband English. "To live abroad is a wonderful adventure," she said to me.
At the Town Hall we noted on a plaque the succession of mayors, 34 in all, since 1790 to date. M. Francis Garcia, the current mayor, has been in office since 1995. Paraza has just under 600 inhabitants, and it is noted that in 1830 the population was around 400. But, as already reported, the earliest documented mention of 'Parazano' goes back to the 12th Century.
It is wine country, and we were there during harvest time. As we walked the streets, we took in the smells of harvest season. Once the grapes were juiced, soon a pungent smell hung over the two wineries still in operation, a privately owned and a cooperative business. Drivers just whizzed by us as we were walking through the village and every one always returned our friendly: "Bon jour." By the end of the week even a mangy dog on our way to Maison Endriss stopped barking at us. He did not even lift his head any longer as we passed his fence. We had been accepted into the village.
Paraza still floats in our winter dreams, a tiny spot on Google Earth. It has made a big impression on both of us. The village, now in its winter lull, will come alive again in the spring time, when the part-time population returns and perhaps the 13th International Symposium of Contemporary Art as well.