There are places on the planet we belong - if we're lucky, we find them
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!)
During these years spent outside Canada, I’ve lived by something I read in an interview with surgeon Chris Giannou: 'Home is not a physical, geographic entity. Home is a moral state. The real home is one’s friends. I like to think of that as a higher form of social organization than the nation state.' With my parents dead and no home to return to (my father’s second wife does not allow me in the family house she inherited from my father; my only sister lives in England), this gave me great comfort, especially in our years as expatriates in Kenya or the Philippines, for I figured that even if we were 'temporary renters' in those countries, no matter. My real home was somewhere else, invisible but enduring and permanent. I could never be in exile in my heart, in the place where love resides, chez moi.
But something in me is changing. I am burrowing down into an actual place now, my hands in the dirt, planting tulip and narcissus bulbs under the wild nettle tree by the barn. It is the feel of the earth I desire, this most primitive need finding expression in an act as simple as digging holes and plunking in bulbs. Has this to do with growing older, approaching the earth itself on new terms? Perhaps. Bent on one knee, I let the leafy humus run through my fingers, thinking: Maybe I will be buried here someday. We are told there are already three dead Protestants under the barn, interred 200 years ago according to local ordinance, which allows home burial for non-Catholics. This does not strike me as a particularly morbid thought, but I do not dwell on it long; I am too busy.
When I am in Toronto in the summer, sitting in a subway car amused and amazed at the wonderful way the faces of the city have changed since I lived on St. George Street in 1965, I think of how hard it is to learn another language, to get it right, to make yourself fit to the shape of different sounds in your mouth. I want to tell the women beside me—Cambodian, Peruvian, Ethiopian, Croatian—I know how you feel. It’s not easy. It’s lonely and tough. But trust me, start with little things: flowers, trees, birds. Make a little garden, if only in your head. Get to know your neighbors. Dream of home and it will come to you.
But then I think how incredibly presumptuous of me to offer platitudes, and I do not reach out, I stay silent. What can I possibly know of their plight? Why should they care that I, appearing to belong in this city, also know what it’s like to be an outsider? What earthly good might it do? What works for me may work for no one else.
Does this sound charming, a middle-aged Canadian settling into the rhythms of rural France? I suppose I am seeking to convince myself, and so I choose my words and images to achieve effect, so determined am I to chase ambivalence into the shadows. A line comes into my head; it must be from an old song: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Easier said than done, of course—I know all about homesickness, sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping. Yes, I’ve been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can blind you to everything else. And so you learn to live with mal de pays, with homesickness, as with a chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie . . . and you compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world, refugees who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed, and you stop.
You go for a walk in the hills and watch a hawk unwinding on an updraft. You know this hawk; he has a certain territory and he is part of the landscape you now know, as they say, like the back of your hand. Or you put on your gardening gloves, and take your trowel, and another bag of daffodil bulbs, and work hard at making a garden. At night you fall into bed content that you are doing it, you are creating whatever it is that is chez. You can sleep without interruption except for the hourly tolling of the bell at the village across the fields. It always rings the hour twice, as if to ensure that its message is heard: Listen, it says.
Pay attention. This is where you are.
Adapted from the literary journal Brick (Fall 2000). Subscriptions: $41/two yrs. (4 issues) from Box 537, Station Q, Toronto, ON M4T 2 M5, Canada