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MUNTING NAYON
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ECHOES FROM LA GARDE

Fe Mylene Thyssen-Sagra
Saint-Germain-de-Calberte-France
January, 2008



Saint-Germain-de-Calberte-France - August-1995
First published in Munting Nayon News Magazine-August 1995

When I said "I do" to a Dutch who lives in France...., it was a fullfilment of a beautiful dream. For as a child I was a dreamer and continued to be so till my adolescence and adulthood. The books that I read fed my imagination with unsually nice people and events, and I often switched from reader to leading character in my romantic flights of fancy.

 
In Barcelona
 
Even in my career I was quite a dreamer. I drifted from one job to another, resigning when better chances came my way. My first job was a reliever to one who went on leave. This job put me at odds with succeeding ones because it became a yardstick for employment. I could not settle for anything lesser than the Asian Development Bank Headquarters, which was a marvelous place of work. But I felt there was always something lacking. Using my hotel and restaurant course I landed at Manila Hilton International but my executive secretarial course paved the way to my being executive secretary at Sycip, Gorres, Velayo and Co., then the biggest in Asia. Because of the bright prospect of real estate marketing, I applied as sales associate at Fil-Estate Realty Corporation. I was accepted unit manager. In no time I formed my own sales force. The work was interesting and rewarding.

It was at this time "Mr. Right" came along and knocked at the door of my heart. Gradually, I felt his presence and since he was working in France, he had to overwhelm me with letters, enough to cover the walls of my room. He had reasons enough to do it because he was an accomplished writer in his own right. He said he lived in a medieval castle, partly ruined then, but which he had been renovating for the past years. Also that his being alone is not his lifestyle and he, therefore, needed preferably an Asian, to fill his life.

After a year we felt we knew and loved each other enough, so we decided to tie the knot. It was at this time too that I was to be promoted branch manager, a position I had been painstakingly working for. And would I fit in this outback region and continue a promising career?

Actually to me, it was no ordinary outback like what I read about Australia because the community even runs a hotel with twenty-five bungalows, swimming pool and other concievable amenities. It has a town hall and a police station (Gendarmerie), churches, grocery stores, etc.

My decision will of course bring me to 'La Garde', Felix Thyssen's home, high up in a mountain village south of France, framed in a rugged and beautiful landscape, and warmed by three hundred days of Mediterranean sun.

 
La Garde Castle, St. Germain de Calberte, France
 
When he finally came to Manila, the humid air was thick with pollution that almost suffocated him. Traffic and noise were among the usual repulsvie things that greet foreigners and balik-bayans. Emerging from a group, he was scanning a sea of faces which to him all look the same. The he saw me waving and we both hesitated for a few seconds, each sizing the other in computerized speed. I could not describe my feelings but there he was, confident and husky, sporting a warm smile and with teasing eyes which I found very attractive.

After three days at the Westin Philippine Plaza Hotel, he was whisked to Davao instead of General Santos because during semestral vacations all seats are booked in advance. We had to navigate some two hundred kilometers by bus. At Digos all passengers got off to take lunch. When we got back we discovered that the suitcase containing my wedding accessories was stolen. After looking at all big stores stores in the nearby town, we couldn't find anything similar to my (stolen) wedding shoes.

Our wedding took place October 5, 1991...with a borrowed wedding shoes from a friend.

Before the ceremony, dozens of well-wishers surrounded him, mostly from his thirty-four pairs of sponsors, each vying for his attentions. The church was filled to the brim with guests...a lot more than they had invited. With the Philippine's hot and humid air....Felix in his Barong Tagalog felt the trickles of perspiration down his spine.
Felix Thyssen and Mylene Sagra at their wedding, with Mylene's parents.
General Santos, Cotabato - October 5, 1991

When we reached the reception room, it was already filled to overflowing. All spaces had been occupied and dozens more were to be seated. This was (definitely) a reception-Philipppine style, where uninvited griends and relatives, out of curiosity, gatecrushed to the party. Since we overlooked giving instruction to the hotel regarding entry of guests, it was an experience we should have handled better. To make matters worse, the hotel was not ready to accept card to pay for extra heads. It was another experience he learned in Third World countries.

Felix noted some amusing things about our culture. Like the way we introduce people. "This is my cousin Jergen. She is a pharmacist. Her father is director of the Electric Company....." ; "And this is Daisy Avance, a Provinicial Senior Board Member....". Why not just "....my cousin Jergen..." , without the titles....??

Another notable thing he noticed was...a country "armed to the teeth." He couldn't board a jeepney for a carefree excursion without those militaries in camouflage fatigues sporting an AK-47 getting in next to him...apparently on order to protect him...by his father-in-law, a station commander.
The three sisters, (from left) Mylene, Yvette and Melissa, in Belgium.

He was more amused by the shyness of his younger in-laws who felt inferior in their English. In going to the kitchen they had to circle around the house because Felix was seated in the sala. But my aunt and my gransfather's sister both fell instantly in love with him and struck up hour-long conversations despite their limited English. Mostly they resorted to sign language to supplement verbal shortcomings.

After the nine-day honeymoon at Boracay resort where I floated in his arms while watching the sunset, we returned to Manila and he took a plane for Schipol. Like most brides of foreigners, I was to follow after two months.

Living with Felix is like living in two worlds. In La Garde, I always have that marvelous feeling everytime I walk the grounds in my afternoon promenade, discovering each little new thing behind terraced walls in the meadows. It brings me at times to the old mill where people during the time of the Templar monks ground their grains. Further beyond is the cascading spring that breaks from the mountainside, part of which flows to a tub, beside the house, where the villagers used to launder their clothes and where now stands a grotto. At the eastern boundary of the property are centuries-old stone walls that line the riverbanks.... walls built by the Templars that function (to this day) as a protection against floods and erosion.

After the Templars, La Garde became the property of a family of noble lineage for about five hundred years. The nineteen heirs spread all over the world had difficulty deciding what to do with it and eventually agreed to sell it. It remains a significant monument of the past, together with the Catholic Church, a nearby castle at the adjacent mountain, and a chapel closeby.

Because we felt that we should join hands with the community in promoting tourism in this area, the restoration of the square and the round towers and other smaller ones becomes second priority. Instead, we will put up a three-star camping on our property, right below the roads bordering the small river. It is an old chestnutland that provides good cover for privacy. Hidden but near and very accessible to the village, it is near the main road and there are foot trails for hikers and mountain climbers.

We are lucky to live in this peaceful part of the country, where criminality is almost unheard of. Summer houses of many nationalities have never been looted.

Mylene removing seeds from hundreds of cherry from orchard year's harvest (for preservation)
Back home I was a passive gardener. I was only on the appreciating end of my mother's garden. Now I an an active gardener and make planting and landscaping designs to suit our place. In my nurssery I grow trees, bushes and other concievable flowering plants ready to be transplanted in the camping area.

Although I can manage simple French converstions, my tutor insists to teach me relevant aspects of the language. The village church choir to which I participate plus the daily contacts with the people who work for us provide me with good conversational practice. Felix and I converse in English. Occasionally, he gives me lessons in Dutch.

My other world is the world of travel which to me seems an extended honeyoom. Coming back from Holland could be a good detour to London and dine by the river Thames and returning always taking new routes for sightseeing purposes. Felix is and excellent teacher to me. I learned the deeper meaning of commitment., love and life. I can parrot out, at least, his ideas on history, politics, religion and other cultures. I grasped it well when discussed right where events happened. Our travels always bring me greater understanding and deeper insight on people and eents of yesterday and today.

Yes, all along I had been a dreamer. But I never regretted pursuing this dream and making this choice. It was the nicest decision I ever made in my life...?It was a dream come true.

Growing Roots


Looking up from tending a flowerbed, I see my Dutchman posed like a classic silhouette against the glowing afternoon sky, gazing pensively from the terrace overlooking a breathtaking panorama of tall mountains, winding roads below, terraced meadows and evergreens. What is he doing? Growing roots, probably. I hope. In the beginning he used to upbeat me with half joking proposals like: let's move to Italy. Or how do you think about Finland? Now I think we'll be here for a while. I love this place as much as he does.

It was another hectic day, like the previous ones. There was paperwork to rush, and the need to hire half a dozen builders and gardeners more, if work on the camping is to be finished before June. Word spreads fast in the village and youngsters apply one by one, happy enough to interrupt the boredom of unemployment and earn a few bucks.

 
River La Gardon
 
This morning he had to supervise the general flow of work. Camping La Garde is a pet project, to both of us. At the beginning he said: "Let's do this very well, or not at all." Of course this sort of philosophy is bound to carry you way over budget. We agreed that the amenities should blend with the rural ambiance, without spoiling it. I think we succeeded.

The swimming pool, in its frame of decks and flagstones and rocks, bushes and flowers, is becoming a real jewel. He added a fountain on the terrace next to the main building, and near the entrance a 'grotto' with flowing water from our mountainbrook, surrounded by a herb garden, from which the camping guests can spice their barbecue and lechon with thyme, rosemary, sage and chives. We commissioned an English sculptor for a 'grotto' statue of the late-medieval Dutch philosopher and christian humanist Erasmus, who preached tolerance in a time which had little use for that and gave Holland the spiritual climate in which later people like Spinoza, John Locke and Descartes found refuge. With residents coming from all over the world, a camp manager who is Spanish, with a husband from Guatemala whose native tongue is Maya Indian, the place is bound to become very international.

My husband is an outdoor man, a lover of nature. He always divides his time. At sunrise fowls and animals are fed, vegetables and flowers are tended, fences repaired, walls rebuild, and at times a lamb entangled in brambles is rescued. In the afternoon he changes into a writer and dreams up his evergoing flow of stories to be turned into books, feature films or TV-series. Work is his passport for staying young, healthy and strong.

He always had this restless nature, which sent him living in many countries, in cities, by the sea, near riverbanks, in little towns, for never more than five years each. Tracking down his past intinerary of dozens of different addresses is almost impossible. But this time, after he discovered La Garde already eight years ago, he really found a place where he is growing roots, like I do, which is more or less a miracle. I, coming from the other half of the planet, he the eternal wanderer. This is the perfect place for us.
 
From Murano Island museum back to Venice.
 

La Garde snugly nestles against the village of Saint-Germain-de-Calberte. It's a farm-castle, the original stronghold built by the Templars around 1129, the same warrior-monks who carved their niche in history during the Crusades. Its towers has been razed during the Revolution two hundred years ago, and a garrison of soldiers of the King defended here the village in the War of the Religions long before that. The last five hundred years, before it became our property, it was owned by a family of French country-nobility. Nineteen heirs, scattered all over the world, had to co-sign the salescontract.

In the beginning, I was very much aware of La Garde's awesome history of life and death, happiness, laughter and tragedy. I did not want to disturb the spirits of the past, which you could almost feel lingering around the old stones and stairways. Sometimes I found myself talking to them, explaining why I would remove this old relic, or that dusty remainder, a big rusty key from the fireplace or somebody's owl-like spectacles:

"This was once your happy place, now it is mine, I want to do this my way, I hope you will agree and please...don't ever ever show yourself to me or make me hear strange noises, as I could easily get frightened."
 
Diamond Bullet in Antwerp
 

I hope we came to terms, the spirits and I, as ever since we live here, I feel very much at ease and content. I understand the experience of Robert Louis Stevenson, the English writer who wandered long time ago with his donkey through the Cevennes and wrote a novel about it (Travels with a Donkey). After he stayed for the night in Saint Germain, he ventured the next morning out of the village towards the river and took a rest on the exact spot where now our camping is situated. There he wrote:
"I took refuge on the terraces...Looking up, I could see the brown chestnuts peering through the husk, and between the stems the eyes embraced an amphitheater of hill, sunlit and green with leaves. I moved in an atmosphere of pleasure, and felt light and content, I have not often enjoyed a place more deeply..."

My dear learned mother, a former school principal in Surallah, Mindanao, researched immediately the history of the surrounding during her's and my father's vacation in Europe last year. She discovered the origins of Calberte, in the old days probably Cale Berte. "Cale" means exposed, and 'Berte' means greenery, a perfect description for a village site. Its forests give birth to springs and tributaries that flow down the Gardon river at the rim of La Garde, just below the camping. The harsh and rough terrain prevented the growth of commerce and big scale industries, but the abundant presence of flowers and lush vegetation resulted in bee culture, goat raising, duckery, fish farms, nursery and floricultura. Chestnut culture had been introduced during the 10th and 11th century, changing the area into vast chestnutlands.

People come here during all seasons, for hunting, fishing, and trekking. With all conceivable boulders around, it is fun to experiment dambuilding and swimming in our river below, or just laze on bed-sized rocks under the morning sun. The preservation of this landscape is simply assured by the well-spaced craggy heights, steep walls and small terraces. Houses are built on rocky grounds, mostly by hand. This land will stay like it is, simply because there is no use here, and no access, for big machines. It is one of the reasons why we fell in love with it. It never can be spoiled.

Chance meeting in Barcelona with kabayan Rudy and his Jordanian wife Najat from Dubai.
Hunters roam our surroundings during fall and winter. This year the hunting season was prolonged to ensure that at least five thousand wild boars would be shot down to trim their number. They can become a real nuisance, plowing our grounds and demolishing our fences. But we're also wary of roaming hunting dogs. One morning, those of the mayor's crashed into our property, killed two of our lambs. The mayor was very upset about it. He made sure everything was covered by the insurance and even went for a two-hour drive with Felix and the deadly wounded ewe to the vet, to see if the animal could be saved, which of course was only wishful thinking. After that we stayed until midnight to help butcher the sheep. That's another reason why we like it here; people are kind, solicitous, warm and friendly. And honest.

I once had a frightful encounter with a khaki-clad, black hooded man in full combat gear. A gun and a strap of ammunition were slung on his shoulders. In the Philippines he would be the perfect picture of an NPA or MNLF rebel, a pirate, a holdupper or what have you. When he sauntered towards our door, I panicked to Felix' amusement. He was only a friendly hunter, who presented us with a choice piece of freshly butchered boar, shot on our grounds. From September to January we get now and then samples of their catch, and they are delicious.

All this is a world apart from where I came from. A world apart from Mindanao, with its cockfights, rebels, beauty contests, the high school where I even won a prize for dismantling and assembling a Garand rifle faster than anybody in the competition; or from Manila with its pollution, the noise and the jeepneys, the hurricanes and the ashes from Mount Pinatubo.

But then, aren't we Filipinos known for our capacity of adapting?

Hope to see you in Camping La Garde!!



Mylene in La Garde, Today


Saint-Germain-de-Calberte-France - January 2008

Time flies, and the first time I reported, on Munting Nayon's request, about being the wife of a Dutch writer and living in southern France, is almost thirteen years ago. Now Kuya Eddie and Ate Orquid ask for a follow up. The suggested title, Mylene's World, sounds somewhat like Alice in Wonderland or a fairy tale about Julia Roberts. The thing is, I am no celebrity, my husband is neither, at least not of the food-for-paparazzi type, although upon typing his name into the Googlemachine he scores more hits than you can read in a lifetime, because he writes beautiful novels.

Of course, I am proud of him.

 
Cruise on the Nile: Belly-dancer on Egyptian Night
 
We are married for sixteen years now and it always remains a marvel to be surrounded by the spectacular Cévenne-mountains, and to live in the delicious Mediterranean climate without the extremes of floodings, hurricanes or Siberian winters. What we rarely have though, are rocks and debris of mountain collapsing onto an access road -- the upside being that we get to know and admire other villages, while making the forced detour to reach the outer world.

I'm probably the only Filipina within fifty kilometers, but I don't feel lonely and life is good to me. I couldn't possibly be alone with my husband around, and Munting Nayon every month to keep me posted on the doings of other Filipinos in Europe. There are my sisters, Yvette in Germany and Melissa in Belgium. We visit each other with our husbands for birthdays or baptisms and first communions. Yvette and I make yearly little trips to our chosen European locations, like last fall to Barcelona and Venice. Melissa has a tight working schedule; she seldom finds time to travel with us, but the three of us fly now and then to the Philippines, the last time on the sad occasion of my father's passing away.

My daily life?



We have spacious grounds and lawns, sheep and gardens, and household chores and guests, all this is a great conspiracy to keep me from getting lazy. There are hundred things to do. I try to find time to read, and I continue to study.... languages, and now French history and literature. I have many friends here, from my yoga-sessions and painting classes and the choir. I practise my Dutch and German during the barbecues with our summer guests in our 'gîtes', rented out through an agency ( www.bureau-vaf.nl ; ref.numbers 4801, 4802 and 4803). Many of those guests are contented repeaters and we established close friendship with quite a few.

Music is important in both our lives, I'm in my fifth year of piano lessons, I sing in the choir and my husband is organist in our village church. A special event in that context was our trip last november to Lourdes, with a bus full of choir members from our diocese, to rehearse and sing during three days, together with about ten thousand other chorists from all over France, in the enormous underground basilica there. This is a very impressive happening, once every three years somewhere in France. It was a rich spiritual experience, wonderfully overwhelming. You don't know how singing can sound or what it can be, until you are standing in the middle of the biggest liturgical choir in the world.

Now and then, quite often actually, we interrupt our village activities and the daily work schedules, because we both like to travel. At least twice a year it's 'business' in Holland, -Felix meets his publishers, scouts locations and does research for his latest novel (see www.felixthijssen.com -a site made by his fans) and of course we go out and visit friends. Sometimes there are special events, nominations, or receiving the Diamond Bullet in Belgium for The Deep Water, or lectures and readings in Germany and Brussels.
 
Christmas at La Garde
 

Better even are our holiday trips, just the two of us and usually outside the tourist season. I love being with him, in the car to every corner and seacoast of France, by plane or boat to a variety of destinations farther away, quite a list, after all these years. This summer a small group of friends and family even plans to go to Siberia for the solar eclipse, that means the classic Trans Siberian Express from Moscow and onwards, to Mongolia and China. Maybe.

Yes, I'm lucky. Not everyday is roses. It's like in a marriage, people quarrel and make up. What we have promised, and usually manage to do, is not going to sleep while mad at each other.

That works splendidly fine.

Next report? Sometime in 2020.

    Write a Comment
    linda nietes-little
    Sun 23rd November 2014
    California, USA
    Lovely story. A marriage of two cultures, of two hearts and two minds working as one.
    Wish you both many, many more years of happiness!
     
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