Chez Moi

There are places on the planet we belong - if we're lucky, we find them

| March/April 2001

In the country where I live, there is no word for home. You can express the idea at a slant, but you cannot say home. For a long time this disconcerted me, and I kept running up against the lack as if it were a rock in my path, worse than a pothole, worse than nothing. But with time I have habituated myself and can step around it, using variants such as 'the hearth' or 'the house where I live' when I mean to say home. More often, chez moi is the phrase I substitute to indicate not only physical location and the sense of family, but also my comportment, even my point of view. However, if I wish to speak of 'going home to Canada,' I can say 'my country' or 'the place of my birth,' but I can’t say I am going chez moi when I am not, for as long as I reside in France—most likely the rest of my life—this is where I will be chez moi, making my home in a country and a language not my own. I am both home and not home, one of those trick syllogisms I must solve by homemaking, at an age when I should have finished with all that bother.

Sometimes I wake in the early morning before it is light, the still, dark hours of contemplation: How have I come to be here? I wonder. But there is nothing mysterious. The reason is mundane: It is the will not of God but of the Scottish-born man to whom I have been married since 1970. We agreed that when he retired we would settle here, after the first time we came hiking in these mountains nearly a decade ago and he knew he was at home here in this landscape, chez soi dans le Cévennes. When it happens, this carnal knowledge of landscape, it is very like falling in love without knowing why: the plunge into desire and longing made all the more intense by being so utterly irrational, inexplicable. The feel of the air, the lay of the land, the color and shape of the horizon, who knows? There are places on the planet we belong and they are not necessarily where we are born. If we are lucky—if fate wills it, if the gods are in a good mood—we find them, for whatever length of time is necessary for us to know that yes, we belong to the earth and it to us. Even if we cannot articulate this physical sensation, even if language fails us, we know then what home is, in our very bones.

I say jokingly that I am a wtgw—a whither-thou-goest wife, an almost extinct species, but one with which I have become familiar in the 13 years my husband and I have lived abroad. I have met many other women who have done the same as I have done: One weighs the choices, and then one follows. And so it follows that I shall make this house home and attempt to put down roots, find out how to grow in and be nourished by this rocky foreign soil.

I early learned the phrase je m’enracine ici, 'I put my roots down here,' as if to convince myself I can really do it. Besides our house, we have a stone barn and a couple of hectares of land—a few olive trees, a small field that will be an orchard someday, part of a hillside and the bank of a stream that separates our land from that of the nearby monastery where Charlemagne is said to have taken mass. No doubt one of those 'X slept here' tales, nevertheless the fact that it could possibly be true is enough to cloak the entire area in the rich sauce of history. Why should this make living here more palatable? It does.

There’s a cream-colored brick above the doorway of our barn on which is carved 1853, the year a boatload of my poor Scottish forebears settled themselves down on the shores of Lake Huron, thrown off their heathery land for the sake of sheep back home in the Hebrides. Seemed a long time ago, 1853, when I was growing up in Canada; seems yesterday, here. The barn is considered relatively new, and even our house, built a hundred years before that, is not considered old; old is reserved for the ruins of the local 12th-century chateau or the Romanesque church we can see across the vineyards. Time passes unevenly from place to place, has different weight and value. Here, I think, it seems to have collapsed, folding in and compressing itself into something deep and dense, a richer, thicker brew than I, a child of the New World, am accustomed to. Walking in the woods in Canada, the childish game in my head was always 'explorer,' playing at discovery, making it seem new; now, hiking in the Cévennes, there are different games of retrieval, understanding one’s place in the context of others. Just a few meters from the path, a ruined stone wall emerges, moss-covered and beautiful, in the midst of forest that, until that moment, seemed like wilderness. There have been so many other people here before me, and the tangible evidence of that raises questions, gives me pause, thrills me to my boots.

Yolande, one of five elderly local women who recently came for tea, recalls being in this house as a child—she was born around the corner in the monastery that has long been divided among several local families—and when I took her and the others on a tour of the house to see our renovations, she threw up her hands in astonishment as we entered the bedroom, recalling how it had looked when la vieille dame, the old lady Augustine, lived here. 'Quelle différence!' she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

The ladies came to tea with my friend the widow Arlette, as I’d suggested she bring the companions with whom she walks for exercise on Tuesdays. When they arrived at the door they were buzzing with curiosity, as if an electric current were lighting up their lovely old faces: unheard of in this rural community to be invited in and allowed to look through someone’s house. What a grand opportunity! How amazing is this Canadian! I heard in the village the week after that it was said, in tones not of censure but delight: Elle est très ouverte! (She is very open!)

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