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Sense of Place, Sense of Self

When Ward's employer sent us to the South of France, I enjoyed getting to know the place as no tourist could have: learning plants of another climate, discovering a different attitude toward landscaping, and every day gazing around me at most strikingly beautiful place I'd ever lived.

But I also enjoyed our annual trip back to the U.S. for "home leave." Keeping us temporary relocatees in touch with home, the company had found, was good for our morale.

We had left in August; it was May when I arrived back the first time. I looked at the color of the spring woods, the shape of the tall New England trees. I felt the thick mulch of leaves and needles springing underfoot; I smell led the hemlocks—and my body reacted with a sigh, a feeling of being cradled in familiarity, of being in my place.

My awareness of my own self was different, in different surroundings: to be "back home" felt like returning to myself. "Ah, yes," said a part of my mind, "this is reality, this is the real me." Suddenly it seemed like I had been cramped for room by the short ceiling of the trees on the Côte d'Azur. Now I could breathe freely again, stretch out ... have elbow room. Under the taller trees, I felt taller....

But in the next few weeks, even as I enjoyed being back, I started to miss our new home midway between the Mediterranean and the Alps: the flowerbeds in every corner of the towns; the steep, terraced hills overlooking the sea, with their ancient, gnarled olive trees still producing. And when I returned, I felt that deep recognition again, this time to see the scarlet wild poppies in bloom—along the roadside, in hedgerows, along the terraces of the hillsides, even whole fields of them in unmown meadows. Coming back to the poppies, made me feel—again—"home."

My mind was torn. I felt disoriented, with a very physical sensation that my sense of identity, my sense of rootedness and relation to the earth, was flipflopping back and forth between the two very separate geographic positions.

Finally the discomfort forced me to take a mental step back, or up, somehow—so that I could relocate "me" in a sense of place that encompassed the two "homes." New England and les Alpes Maritimes became two parts of a much larger neighborhood.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 9 January 2004

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  • A photo of two of the old towns near our house in France: Chateauneuf, and a little bit of Opio in the foreground.