Someone has given you a château in France. Sounds like a laughable problem, right? Come with me behind the scenes for the inner workings of what happens when someone receives a gift of such largess.
It all started when I was visiting my local second-hand dealer, Pascal Mokwinski. He mentioned an American family had moved into the neighborhood. They were given charge of a château with a magnificent garden. Everyone in the shop chatted about how this entrepreneur would save the place from deterioration, evidently because Americans have such a pioneering spirit, they reassured me.
The best part was that he had acquired the château in France for free. Must be nice, they mused. I kept my personal thoughts to myself.
As the owner of a 500-year old building, I figured that such a property is a bit like an antique car – it is not always an easy ride.
‘Parle lui américain‘
Fast-forward a year or so. We’re back at the antique shop, in walks Ziggy Attias and his trusty sidekick, Remy Gingembre. The owner proclaimed: “Voici, cet Américain qui ne parle pas français. Parle lui américain.” Basically, “Look someone who speaks only English … talk to him in American.”
So, I did.
In his no-nonsense New Yorker style, Attias informed me of his project, all the while loading furniture onto his vehicle. Remy punctuated the conversation with his amiable French telling me about how much fun it is to work with Attias. “Pass by to check it out.” Ziggy handed me his card. It read Chateau d’Orquevaux. “You didn’t say it’s a château.” He just shrugged and drove off. Remy smiled and waved.
In the Champagne-Ardenne, about two-and-a-half hours southeast of Paris is the village of Orquevaux. Although the quaint hamlet has only about 80 residents, it has two magnificent private chateaux. The one with the magnificent garden was given to Attias.
Even a gold bar gets heavy
As he walked us around the property, he explained, “I came to visit in 2015 and realized my parents visited less and less; the place needed work. I just couldn’t turn my back on it, so my father agreed to let me take it on.”
I didn’t have tons of money. Even if I had wanted just to flip it, I had to make it presentable. Everything needed maintenance: the stables, gatehouse, kennel, boathouse, bridges – the landscaping, the lake with its hydro electric system and the chateau itself (with stairs, water infiltration, busted pipes) ….
I thought, “Man, even a bar of gold starts feeling heavy after you have to carry it around for awhile.”
I looked around at the 40-acre estate and quickly surmised that behind the amazing exterior, there was a man working relentlessly to pull it all together. Attias stood by stoically. The adage: “Don’t buy problems with your money,” came to mind. “If you don’t want to deal with problems, you can always go work at the post office,” Attias deadpanned, admitting that his father had coined the phrase, smiling reflectively.
The first was the gatehouse:
“Where did I start?” Attias responded to my question. “You just start.” If you are going to buy something, spend a little more money up front so you can live in it and enjoy it immediately.
It had potential and I needed a place to stay. I also needed help, so I hired Remy, which was a bit scary since French employment regulations are undoubtedly different from those in the United States. All of it was a lesson in overcoming obstacles with foreign circumstances.
Dreams into action
I suppose he is right, after all: The key to turning dreams into reality is action.
Don’t get me wrong; Attias does more than just work. When he has fun, he really knows how to throw down, especially when his children are visiting. “One year, I installed a long strip of plastic on the hillside to make a slide that ran to the water’s edge. My three girls loved it.” He demonstrates by sweeping his arm in a gesture down the hillside from the château to the lake.
Now that his project has launched successfully, he has come up with a way to entertain his family and improve the infrastructure at the same time. He recently installed a natural space by reopening a blocked cascade. The waterfall purifies the area and simultaneously creates a stunning visual effect for those driving past the property.
Perhaps the guys at the antique shop are right. Attias does have a pioneer spirit, mixed with a lot of tenacity, creativity and engineering.
In the beginning, Attias spent time painting, landscaping and calling in professionals for the bigger jobs. It did not take him long to realize he needed to find a way for the château to pay for itself. He started a social media account to let people know what he was doing. His idea was to create a place for artists in hopes that the residency would create enough cash flow to cover the overhead.
The most difficult aspect of the business was to get the word out there to let it grow organically. Word of mouth is much stronger than advertising. Once artists starting coming they referred folks. Stop and think about that for a minute. All infrastructure that he worked on tirelessly was easier than launching the business.
That speaks volumes.
Nobody wants to see problems
Here is where you should take notice. Attias’s ability to do what others fail at was to get the business rolling. “I knew nobody wanted to see problems, so I avoided posting before and after shots.” He also had the foresight to realize the value in what Orquevaux does not have. It lacks visual pollution: billboards, fast food joints or any other eyesores. His approach was to simply show the pristine beauty of the place.
His savvy paid off. In 2017, after two years establishing a presence on Instagram, he opened applications for his first artist residency program. Attias says when the first round of artists arrived, he earned just enough to keep the business going until the following year. Then the numbers of attendees started doubling.
He thought: “This might work. We were scheduled to have 230 artists from around the world in 2020. We have delayed sessions until after the pandemic is over, but even so, there is a waiting list to apply.”
Attias says he loves France and he’s looking to the future. He wanted to fix up the place to, hopefully, pass it on to his own children. “That was basically the idea – it was definitely a dream, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it a reality.”
Well, he did.
In the words of Francis Farmer, “There comes a point when a dream becomes reality and reality becomes a dream.” And for Attias, every morning, he has two choices: to continue sleeping with his dreams or to wake up and chase them.
About the author:
Alice Verberne is a freelance artist and writer who purchased the École des Vatelottes in 1999. The historic building is located three hours southeast of Paris in the rural hilltop village of Bourmont, France. Her mission is to create an atelier as a meeting point to connect visitors to local artisans. She works as a consultant for GB Marketing Research Solutions writing feasibility studies for entrepreneurs.
See all of Alice’s posts here including an earlier post about Château d’Orquevaux.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.