“Water Paper Stone: Letters from a Mill in France is an entirely satisfying French feast of a book, essential fare for anyone who has contemplated a mid-life adventure in another country and culture. The beautifully written, hilarious, and sometimes heart-wrenching details of the O’Sheas’ seventeen years in Southwest France—who they met, what they ate, how they achieved the daunting renovation of an ancient mill and created art along the way—are related both in journal entries and delightful but unsparing letters to Judy O’Shea’s sister back home in the States.”
—Mary-Rose Hayes, author of What She Had to Do
“In the early nineties, two American artists fell in love with an abandoned old mill in Southwest France. They bought it, restored it, and became part of the little rural community of Plaisance, in the Aveyron. Their adventure is related over a period of seventeen years in Water Paper Stone. This book, full of humor and emotion, is the moving story of how “les Californiens“ found a home among the Aveyronnais, and it is a gift to us all.”
—Catherine Choron-Baix, anthropologist, Paris, France
Water Paper Stone
This handsome book, illustrated with line drawings and black and white photographs, is another entry in the Americans/Brits-making-a-home-in-Europe genre, but with some important exceptions. For one, Judy and Mike O’Shea don’t move to France full-time; instead, they spend six months of the year in Northern California, near their large family, and six months in France. This adds a story line that compares and contrasts life in the two countries, along with the logistics and difficulties of transitioning from one distinct way of life to another. For another, they don’t buy a house in a beautiful small town in Provence or Italy, surrounded by other expats, but instead they invest vast amounts of time and effort restoring an old water mill in the middle of nowhere, in the tourist-free department of the Aveyron. In doing so, they live out a mutual dream: to become part of a community in a foreign country, which in their case means not just learning the language, but becoming friends with their neighbors in the nearby villages and hamlets. Their dream is even more ambitious, though, because it includes not just making the mill livable but restoring it so that the millstones turn again, and eventually grinding their own flour and pressing their own walnut oil. In restoring the mill, they are also restoring a piece of history and embedding themselves in the history of this corner of France. And in pursuing their other dream of living their post-business-world lives as artists, they not only become part of the arts community of the Aveyron but invite visiting artists from the States to join them as artists in residence at the mill, which adds another engrossing layer to this book. Judy O’Shea’s descriptions of creating site-specific installations will be fascinating to anyone interested in the artistic process and in historic sites in France; spot drawings and photos of her work accompany this text.
But the most important gift of this book is the manner in which the story is told, for it was written not for the market, but in the form of letters and e-mails to Judy O’Shea’s invalid sister back in the States, interspersed with journal entries. This means that the story of the mill is told in what are essentially two voices: a larky, colloquial, and sometimes bawdy voice (which O’Shea describes as “valley girl”) that deliberately attempts to entertain with often hilarious stories of the highs and lows of this French adventure, balanced by reflective and sometimes poetic descriptions of the mill, the countryside, and the darker side of La France Profonde. The two voices allow the story of the O’Sheas’ life at the mill to be seen in all its facets, and takes us deeper and deeper into their story.
This engaging and multilayered book is recommended to anyone who has ever dreamed of living in France, restoring an old building, and/or pursuing the life of an artist. Oh, and delving into the mysteries of French cuisine by cooking and eating wonderful food, another delicious thread that winds through this real-life narrative.
–– Carolyn Miller – Poet