I'm sitting on a terrace drinking French wine with a Swedish romance writer, a New York journalist, an Australian novelist, a Spanish playwright and photographer and a Belgian short-story writer. It's an eclectic group I would be unlikely to meet in my everyday life back in New Zealand
I've travelled to the tiny village of Labastide-Esparbairenque in the Languedoc region of southern France. Here in this mountain village the town bell chimes on the hour and half-hour. My destination is La Muse Artists and Writers Retreat, where people from all over the world come to work on their creative projects and find some inspiration. The accommodation is a large 12th-century maison de maître (manor house) that overlooks the mountains. The retreat is owned and run by two writers, Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, who met at a cafe in New York, fell in love within two weeks, and moved to France to set up the retreat in 2001.
The village is home to about 60 people but that's hard to believe. I sometimes walk through the small, narrow streets and don't see anybody. Until Wednesday afternoons, when the food truck visits, and some of the locals emerge.
It arrives with a triumphant toot-toot and the villagers line up to shop and, more
importantly, catch up with their neighbours. It's an occasion.
I select fruit, vegetables and cheese and the man from the food truck wraps it for me. I tell him "merci beaucoup" and wish again that my French was better. I feel a little boring while my friend Julia, an Australian writer whom I met at the retreat, chats fluently with the old women of the village and gets to find out the local gossip.
Once a week, we visit nearby Carcassonne for some city time and do our shopping. There is also the chance to visit the "old city". Carcassonne is known for its impressive castle and fortified city, which has made the list of Unesco's World Heritage Sites.
The medieval city is in good condition after a huge restoration project in the 19th century that rescued the crumbling site. From a distance, the castle looks like something out of a fairy tale.
I spend a day looking around the city, trying to imagine what it was like before tourists took over. Then I find a little restaurant tucked away in what feels like someone's private garden. It's a perfect place to escape the crowds.
After everyone has settled into the retreat, we meet for "crepes and books". Everyone has brought two books to donate to the library at La Muse. I've brought Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and Katherine Mansfield's short stories. (Mansfield died of tuberculosis in France in 1923.) Over crepes, everyone talks about the books they've brought and the project they're working on. I walk away with a long list of books I want to read.
Most days, I visit the library, which is a cosy room with hundreds of books donated by previous visitors. I spy volumes I've always been curious about but have never picked up, such as Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.
One Saturday, La Muse guests are invited to attend a village wedding reception. We drink champagne outside the old stone church and chat with the locals in the fading light of the evening. It feels like a chick-lit novel come to life . . . although most of the men in the village are getting into their twilight years, like old Mr Garcia, who is in his 90s, and still works in his garden every day.
Another night, we attend a village paella evening. The mayor kisses everyone on the cheek and greets them enthusiastically. I walk over to see the paella cooking in a giant pan the size of a round kitchen table. By the time the village has eaten, there is nothing left except some mussel shells.
A musical duo plays until midnight. My French has not improved and all I can throw into conversation is the odd "C'est formidable!" or "C'est bon!"
Between the socialising and writing, I also work as a "barter" (the retreat also offers fellowships and residencies). By doing a few days of work exchange a week, I'm able to stay for a discounted rate, and at the end of every three-week retreat, the barters help with the guest turnover. We can also arrange a work exchange that includes our own specific skill set, such as web design, social media, gardening, or sewing. One of the barters here is helping La Muse with their curtains. Mostly though, it's making up beds and cleaning, getting ready for the next set of retreat guests. It's physical work but strangely satisfying after spending hours at a desk trying to write.
As I stay on, the nights start to get colder and the seasons change. Chestnuts start falling from the trees. I tell myself it's time to go - I've stayed far longer than I had originally planned. But I know I'll be back one day for more inspiration.
Emirates flies daily A380 services from Auckland to Paris, via Dubai, with return Economy Class fares starting from $1939. lamuseretreat.com