Behind the Villas
Behind the Villas
“Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.” Marcel Duchamp
By Cameron Johnson
Somewhere around 2004, I met Monique and Didier Pignet on a deserted beach in St. Barts. If that seems a tiresome cliché on its face, it gives away nothing about what followed, as this French couple is anything but conventional–or even “luxurious” in the way that this Caribbean idyll conjures.
It was January, and my girlfriend and I were trying to escape Toronto’s slate grey winter brutality. We had rented one of those fantasy villas high on a cliff in the Lurin section of the island, only to find when we arrived that we were located adjacent to a non-stop party house rather legendary for St. Barts. An inconvenient truth, to be sure. Within a day or two, our sleep and nerves evaporated like the $25 margaritas we sipped on to cope. In retrospect, it was just the cosmic setup needed to meet two sympathetic strangers who would make everything right. Life always surprises.
So the next day, we drove to the quiet side of the island, wandered around, and ended up in Domaine Du Levant, with its mostly unoccupied beach. We exhaled a touch. A single couple was sunning themselves in the sand, and like camels needing water, we introduced ourselves.
My lazy French on display, and frazzled by a lack of sleep, I was relieved when Monique replied back to me in English. I told them our dilemma, to which they were both immediately sympathetic, and after five minutes of small talk, Didier, waved his hands and motioned behind us to five villas stacked on a hill. “Those are ours. I built all of them! Come and have a look.”
And so up the hill we went, like two people silently ascending tax brackets to the magic palaces above. In a stage whisper I turned to my girlfriend, “This could either go really well or we just politely say thank you and go on about our day.”
Not a chance of that: The villas were spectacular, of course, (most everything is spectacular in St. Barts) but what was much more interesting was just how much fun these two people were, and how utterly disinterested they were in either self-flagellation or aggrandizement of any kind. They seemed to inhabit a rarefied world, but it included some variable ingredients like salt, grit, potent sarcasm and lots of caustic mirth. Which is to say, there were entirely down-to-earth.
Naturallement, we adored them immediately and returned with our luggage an hour later, and for five successive days lived in a kind of womb of pleasure and civilizational retreat. Monique and Didier left us to our beach languor during the day, while at night we would assemble at their table, look out over the expanse of ocean, drink wine, and listen to Didier’s playful sarcasm and Monique’s energetic soliloquies. It was divine, and it wasn’t lost on my girlfriend and I that this couple’s snap generosity had quite literally rescued our vacation from dread.
And so began a decade long friendship of a different sort. I have since stayed in their pied à terre in Paris, taken the train to their castle in The Loire Valley, and generally zig-zagged around the world to visit them in various fantasy zones. However, what is essential about our friendship is that we share a seasoned and rustic view of how to live simply and in the moment in a world gone dizzy with distractions. These are people who could care less about their wealth, but approach both life and business with the zest and zeal of people half their age, and with feet firmly planted on the ground.
When Monique stopped replying to my emails some years ago for a stretch, it was no surprise when she resurfaced and told me she had decided to tour rural China in a VW bus with her fire-juggling son and his Chinese girlfriend. “Only intermittent wifi, then?” I joked back to her. If this story sounds apocryphal, I can assure you it is not. “You can drop me in any city in the world and I can get along with anyone,” she tells me.
I saw this first hand some years ago when I stayed in her tiny apartment on Rue Descartes, in one of Paris’ liveliest and most storied neighborhoods. She decided to throw a party one night, either for me, or for the world, or both, it seemed. After instructing me to go down the street and stock up on Champagne for her tiny fridge, a steady stream of artists, philosophers, comedians and people mostly in their 20’s and 30’s arrived, with perhaps thirty people crammed into barely 300 square feet. In the corner, Monique was laughing and doing handstands on the bed. I remember thinking to myself: If I ever need a master class in how to stay young ‘till I’m old, Monique is the teacher.
Didier‘s Zen is slightly different. All artists need protection in some way, so when you first meet Didier he plays the sentry to Monique’s dreamy, expansive side: His big voice and quick wit will empty you of any insincerity or pomposity you might have stored up. Once that’s taken care of, and he’s figured out your angle, he’s enormously fun, funny and generous. Most refreshingly, in the luxe world he inhabits, this man doesn’t have an ounce of pretension: his bullshit meter is tuned to alpha 9, and he’ll shake the fake right out of you.
Despite a Yin and Yang quality to their relationship, where the couple merge is around attitude and work ethic. Monique confesses to me that any success she and Didier have had, either in life or business, has been a potent mix of hard work and curiosity. In fact, she repeats the two words bolded for emphasis: hard work and curiosity. The twin propulsion power of these two essential qualities has helped them produce more than 25 luxury properties around the world, as a simple hand-in-glove team of “builder” and “designer.” To me, Didier is solid to Monique’s liquid, and obstacles seem to bend in their path.
Typically, they are both suitably humble about the portfolio of properties they’ve managed to create. “What does it mean to be a ‘professional?’” Monique asks me. “Everyone is a ‘professional.’ Didier and I have just managed to be ‘lifestyle professionals’ by working hard and being curious about life. We are a good team.”
To understand their chemistry, it’s necessary to look in the rear-view mirror: The two met in college in Paris, completed their degrees in short order–she in teaching, he in finance and management–and then went off to backpack through Asia in 1973, with the ubiquitous copy of “Asia on a Dollar a Day.” In their journeys they visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and managed to collect thousands of photographs, which sit in an attic somewhere mostly untouched since the 70’s and 80’s. “I never look back,” Monique confesses. “I’m always about right now.”
When they returned from Asia, they set about working and family-making, both in France and then England, but as Monique tells it, they still felt like “two countries was just too small for us.” They had two young children to think about, though, and so devised their version of a creative compromise: They bought a sailboat and set off with their young family compact in tow. Monique recalls the first time they came upon St. Barts’ harbor of Gustavia in 1980: “It was like a mirage. We realized we had landed somewhere very special, as there are very few harbors in The Caribbean.”
Of course Gustavia’s harbor is today filled with billionaire yachts, and to most this is St. Barts as it’s portrayed in gossip magazines and on TMZ–as a gilded luxury capital for the rich and sparkling–but in 1980, it was a much different place: While the Rockefellers, Rothschilds, and Onassises had already arrived in successive waves in the 60’s and 70’s, the island still had a fascinating undertow of eccentric and outsized characters, who felt at home on this pirate island with its long and often bloody history. There was some peaceable coexistence with the rich, and perhaps mutual fascination.
Still, it’s perhaps no surprise to me that Monique and Didier fell in love with this place, where the luxe calm of the island manages to co-exist with a continual crush of monster yachts and high-end libertines. There is the blank-slate, fantasy-making that the celebrities and ultra-rich bring, but there is also a deep thread of soulfulness that manages to penetrate the thick wall of money and power that roosts here. It’s hard to explain or quantify, but of course, that’s part of its charm.
It was also during their sailing days that the couple would meet Didier’s eventual business partner, with whom he and Didier would end up building more than 1000 hotel rooms on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. They would also buy two hotels in Paris, with Didier focused on the development, and Monique moving rather effortlessly from school teacher to Mom who manages hotels.
I ask her about being a super Mom before it was fashionable. “I can do any occupation,” she tells me. “What is essential for me is human relationships. I don’t even like the word ‘work.’ What is important to me is the way I go about something. I’m just curious about so much.”
The Château, as featured in a NY Times article about fairy tale weddings.
Curiosity led them to purchase a 15th Century rustic castle in The Loire Valley in 2007, and in the years that followed they used dozens of local craftsmen to renovate the property and make something remarkable: a place that has echoes of French dynasty and aristocratic intrigue, but is also steeped in utilitarian comfort. The visitor suites are polished and yet charmingly rustic, and even though you are aware you’re breathing some rare air when you’re there, you are never meant to feel stuffy. It’s such a fine balance.
Of course the purchase of the castle also came with the couple’s customary creative twist: The artist and ceramicist Francis Katchatouroff, son of the previous owner, would remain on the property as a kind of artist-in-residence and bon vivant. It’s a stroke of genius, as Francis has become a gentle and calming presence, bathing guests in his caramel voice and wizened smile. He’s an enormously charming guy, and seems right out of central casting–if you were casting a Jim Jarmusch movie at a French castle. He’s smart, kind and dramatic by turns. Not surprisingly, he even did a star turn as a ghost on Simon Cowell’s X Factor when it filmed on the property in 2015.
Simon Cowell shooting The X Factor at The Chateau
When speaking of what Monique and Didier have done with the castle, Francis softens and speaks almost reverentially: “I love this château because it exists on a human scale.”
(And so does Francis, of course. For a glimpse into his unique character, have a look at this youtube video where Francis gets posy-posy as a nude model encased in mud as part of some sort of artistic endeavor. As I write this, Monique emails me to tell me that we should FaceTime, as she and Francis have been working out a proper definition of what “work” is. God love the French, I think to myself.)
Since the purchase of the castle, Monique and Didier have renovated the now more than 15 suites, all of which fan out from the near-constant hub of activity at the center that is the grand kitchen and adjacent food and herb gardens. To be in this kitchen nibbling on good cheese, sipping a Chenin blanc, and eating local white asparagus, is to feel entirely at home, even if your home doesn’t quite resemble this. It’s perhaps an idealized version of home: grand but convivial, practical but dreamy.
As well, if you end up staying there more than a day or two, you’ll discover that there is also a never-ending stream of interesting characters who arrive if only to offer intellectual and artistic sustenance to Monique and Didier. No phony air kisses here: there’s warmth, laughter and fresh ideas always swirling around. It’s truly intoxicating, and it demands–and rewards–more of you than what you paid to get there.
Last summer, when I arrived with my friend at the castle for a visit, Monique immediately challenged to me to cook for whoever was due to sit at the table that night. Without hesitation, I opened the kitchen door, put my companion to work, poured us some wine, and began to harvest all the delicious bounty growing outside the kitchen’s reach (they have a full vegetable and herb garden on-site). It reminded me of the soft exhortation of novelist Jim Harrison’s food columns I used to read in college: have simple ingredients at hand, some good friends, and try to create a mise en scène that generates human connection. Life both suspends itself and elongates under those conditions, and delays mortality in the most emphatic way.
I emailed Monique recently to lament the passing of the great French actress Jean Moreau. She shoots back an email across the ocean seconds later: “It’s sad. We are just here for some time! I don’t know if it is good to keep that in mind or not? I think I prefer to live as if I am here forever.”
Remarkably, I was sitting at a cafe in Toronto thinking something identical within moments of receiving her email, and it occurred to me that this sentiment typifies our relationship, and this couple’s magnetic appeal to me: They live in the moment, as I do. In a world where people constantly delay the experience of beauty or pleasure as a hedge against the manifold fears that animate their daily lives, these two have made a very healthy accommodation between doing and being. They are always in motion on the wings of some curiosity, but they trust life enough to stop and celebrate this moment before it passes. Unlike far too many of us, they don’t save life for a rainy day.
Ultimately in this world of ours, there are just so many generic luxury properties that are conceived and rendered with paint-by-number trend sets, and then sit cold with remove when you’re actually in them. What they too often lack is, plainly put, soul. It’s no small thing to say that Monique and Didier have managed to make very pretty places that have at their root an attempt at soul-making and connection. They want to pamper you and comfort you for the time you’re staying in their places, but they also seem to whisper through the walls: “Human beings are what matters. Love life and love one another. This will all be gone one day.”
To meet this couple and pass time with them is a blessing. You feel much more alive in their presence. To stay in their properties is perhaps to experience them second hand, and feel some complex mix of aestethics, beauty, pleasure and grace that is the result of their incredible journey through time together.
As I write, the phone rings, and it’s Monique on Facetime from Paris. It’s late where she is, and she is telling me of her plans to see a movie tomorrow, about the renowned art collector Peggy Guggenheim. “I should go back to the castle, but I need a little artistic reward for myself.” On Facetime, she makes a frenetic gesture of motion. I recognize this as her mime of herself always being in motion, and so I let her hang up on me first so she can get on with things. Knowing her, she’ll be up for a few more hours finding something else to be curious about.
Cameron Johnson is a Toronto-based writer, designer and entrepreneur. You can read more about him here.
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