Chez Moi

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!)

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

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