Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis

I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

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From the moment my parents carried me home from the small country hospital where I was born until the day that I left that home 17 years later, my address was reliably static: 13 Buckland Street, Northam, Western Australia, 6401. (My Dad still lives in that house, as I’ve described, although the address, bizarrely, has changed.) My parents built 13 Buckland Street and mine is the only family ever to have lived there. So if the walls of the house could talk they would tell stories only of us.

My memories of the day that I moved out, in spite of all the many intervening years, are distinct. As I was packing up the last of my stuff, ready to get in the car and leave the only home I’d ever known, Terry Jacks’ song Seasons in the Sun came on the radio. Yes, yes, I know that the song is a travesty of Jacques Brel’s original Le Moribund and that it’s been described as one of the worst pop songs ever recorded. But on that day my interest in it was piqued only by the fact that some of the lyrics seemed heartbreakingly appropriate. “Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me, I was the black sheep of the family…” “You tried to teach me right from wrong, too much wine and too much song…” “Goodbye Michelle, my little one, you gave me love and helped me find the sun…” The song is about death and although the only death that day was that of my childhood, it still managed to imprint itself on my brain as a farewell to loves and places lost.

I think that goodbye was even more poignant than it might have been because of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to leave any trace of myself in the house. M is 50 next year and still has a few possessions stashed at his mother’s place. But as I was the tenth of the twelve children that Dad and his second wife had spawned between them (six belonging to his first family and six to hers), the two of them had had just about enough of children and their paraphernalia by the time I moved out, so I was promised that anything I left behind would immediately be thrown on a skip. My departure, therefore, was fairly definitive.

13 Buckland Street

(The house as seen now on Google Earth)

I’ve moved into and out of many places since then, the last one always, of course, feeling like the most significant. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been moving our stuff out of the Chateau de Collonges, that gorgeously enormous, beautifully decorated, sublimely situated mansion, and into a standard two-bedroom flat on the first floor of a modern apartment building. True to the pattern that was established when I was 17, I’ve left no trace of myself in the chateau. I’ve taken down our paintings and rehung those chosen by the owners. I’ve unstrung the fairy lights that I had trailing up the stairs. I’ve rolled up M’s Persian carpets and run a vacuum cleaner over the empty spaces they left beneath them.

But the older I get and the more houses I live in, the more I believe that it’s impossible to remove all traces of oneself from a place. I can’t imagine another family inhabiting 13 Buckland Street but it’s inevitable that one day they will. And I’m sure that when that family moves in, they’ll be subconsciously aware of the fact that the walls still somehow contain some of the love felt by the young couple who built the place. The fittings will still reverberate with the laughter and tears of the six children who were brought up there. The air will still be resonant with the stoic optimism of a man who shared his daily life with two remarkable women within those walls, and loved and lost them both.

For as long as M and I were living in the dependence of the Chateau de Collonges, every day felt like an event. It didn’t feel as though we had to do anything in particular while we were there; just being under that remarkable cathedral ceiling, or looking out of the window at the chateau next door, or sitting by the enormous fireplace, felt special. I’m not sure if that feeling was created by the remarkable architecture of the place or by the resonance of the lives that were lived there before ours, but every moment there seemed to be imbued with significance. The house itself was a paradise of sorts.

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I don’t have that feeling here in our new little modern apartment. But there is good news in that. While the chateau was a story in itself, our new home is no more or less than a safe and warm place from which to create stories of our own. We’ve only been here for ten days or so, but as each day passes it becomes more evident to me that while I don’t like to change the places that I live in, I very much like those places to change me. In the first week that we lived here, I attended my first photography club meeting, went to my first French class, swapped books with my friends at the end-of-year wrap-up meeting of the Geneva International Book Club, joined lovely friends to see the cinema release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as directed by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011, had lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva with another lovely friend and walked down the road to the gorgeous Divonne Sunday Markets.

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I was nervous about going to my first French class. The level of the group is a little above mine but I thought I might enjoy trying to rise to the challenge. After we finished my first ever exercise in the class, one which involved completing each written sentence with the correct form of the imperative, we went around the room taking turns at reading the sentences out loud. I counted the number of students around the table and the number of sentences left to read so that I could practice before I had to read to the others. It said, “Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis.”

You must make of this world a paradise.

There’s no place like homes

“This is your home. This isn’t nowhere. And it’s not dull.”

Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

It took some time for me to appreciate it but the truth is that the tiny corner of the world that I grew up in is rather beautiful. With a population density of one person per square kilometre, Western Australia has plenty of space to roam around in. And if Perth, the nearest metropolis to my hometown is arguably the most remote city on Earth, then Northam, where I spent my childhood is… Well, let’s just say a bit on the quiet side. Its isolation, gorgeous weather and easy security made it a great place to grow up and, so I thought when I was seventeen, an even better place to leave.

I was twenty years old when I graduated and had my first chance to do any independent travel and I was desperately keen to experience culture shock, a novel concept in a country whose landmass is a whopping 7,617,930 square kilometres. If you get in a car at my childhood home and drive for two hours (or even two days), the landscape might change (or possibility not, depending on which direction you’ve driven in), but the people, language and culture will be pretty much indistinguishable from the place where you started. There’s no shortage of beautiful things to see, but the vast distances between places means that you need a lot of time to see them.

Australia and Europe

(Thanks to mypostalcards.wordpress.com for this image.)

So one of the things that I love about where I live now, in the southeast of France, an hour’s drive from the Swiss border, is the proximity to any number of extraordinary places. If culture shock is your kick, you really don’t need to go too far for a fix, and there are concepts of language and nationality here that would have blown my tiny landlocked Australian country kid’s mind if someone had gazed into a crystal ball 30 years ago and told me where I’d be laying my hat at the age of 42. For example, when my partner and I drove down to the French Riviera for four days over Easter, the fastest way of getting there, from our starting point in France, was through Italy. And if that didn’t blow my mind surely the fact that we live in France but my partner works in Switzerland would have. And the thought that Switzerland has four national languages would have done for me.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in France and Switzerland (you know, the day when Jesus rose body and soul into heaven; anyone who wants to discuss secularism at this point should be reminded that we got a national holiday out of it), so, as ever, we seized the opportunity to point the car towards somewhere new. (Well, new for us, that is – the place that we ended up in was, according to the signs on the buildings, already rather well developed in the middle of the sixteenth century, another concept which is almost unfathomable to this child of the New World.)

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Biel/Bienne, a town so bilingual they named it twice, prides itself on its linguistic prowess. All of the street signs are in both French and German, six per cent of the population speaks Italian, and to cater for the tourists, many shop owners will also be sure to make themselves understood in English. The first place in which we tested the veracity of these claims to multilingualism left us unconvinced, as the waiter was dumb with incomprehension when we ordered café au lait and pain au chocolat. But the town earned its stripes when the waiter in the restaurant where we had lunch welcomed us in French, took our order in English, spoke to the customers at the next table in German and bid us a fond farewell in Italian, all without breaking a sweat.

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Biel/Bienne is a beautiful three-hour drive away but happily for us there are also sights of historical and natural significance much closer to our doorstep. On Saturday we had some visitors to Ruffieux (I’ve been told that Canadians are like Australians but with culture and this couple are the living proof!) and we decided to show them one or two of the sights around our current home. The four of us jumped into our Golf and drove the ten minutes down to the Lac du Bourget, which is the largest freshwater lake in France, and then around its shores to the Abbaye d’Hautecombe.

Churches are, of course, nothing new to me – my partner says that the years of church-going I endured as a child earned me a black belt in Catholicism, though I’ve long since rescinded my claims to the title – but the Abbaye is something pretty special. With its origins in a religious community that can be dated back to 1101 and its claim to fame as the burial place of the great and good of the House of Savoy, the Abbaye’s history is almost as impressive as its position right on the shores of the lake. It’s no wonder that, after being overwhelmed by the beauty and history of this place, we had to retreat for a drink at O’Lac, in the shadows of the Chateau de Chatillon, before heading back to our humble abode for drinks in the view of the setting sun.

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I’m so fantastically glad that this little piece of France is kind enough to welcome us as temporary residents. But home is, of course, a relative concept. These days I still have the privilege, whenever I go back to Australia, of being able to visit not just the town that I grew up in, but also the very same house, as Dad remains steadfastly in the abode that he and Mum built to accommodate their growing brood in the sixties. My nieces and nephews still swim in the pool that I practically lived in as a child, and when I sit in Dad’s study showing him how to navigate his way around the Internet, the passageway outside of the room is still dimly illuminated by the nightlight that used to quell my fear of the dark when I saw it from my childhood bed.

Dad objects these days when I refer to Northam as home; fair enough, I guess, as I haven’t lived there for 25 years. But for as long as that nightlight continues to burn outside of my old bedroom door, Dad’s driveway will always remain a place that I’ll set my satnav to return to.

 

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