Thursday, 5 November 2009

Hat laying

We've been AWOL. Overcome by the sheer and unremitting amount of plaster dust in every crevice, we took off for a few days on the Atlantic coast, to Le Teich on the Bassin d'Arcachon. No, I'd never heard of it either, though I've wanted to get to know the Bassin for a long time. We stayed, courtesy of a Good Deal with, in a fairly new residence de tourisme that just happened to be a couple of minutes walk from one of France's major bird reserves; unlike most of its concrete counterparts on the Med coast, this one had real character, being built in traditional Arcachon style - several 'villas' on stilts, wooden framed and faced with wood in different colours, each comprising four apartments and built in a circle around a pool. We felt at home from the moment we arrived. Life for a week was oh-so-simple: we walked, we cycled, we ate, we swam, we read, we chatted with people we met here and there. And there was no plaster dust.

The weather was kind - more than kind in fact: six days of sun and balmy temperatures up in the late twenties ensured that everyone spent the week in hastily-packed shorts and tee shirts. The bird reserve - Le Parc Ornithologique du Teich - was up with our old favourites of Cley Marshes, Titchwell and Minsmere (if I'm honest I could be pressed to say it even outclassed them). The landscape was stunningly photogenic, especially for a died-in-the-wool Light on Water fanatic like me; not unlike north Norfolk in many ways, though the quality of the light makes it into something quite other.

Early morning mist over Le Teich's bird reserve

The puzzle is to work out where the stick emerges from the water ...

Dusk over the Bassin d'Arcachon on Cap Ferret

We twiddled our way home on the back roads through Lot et Garonne and Gers, which got me to thinking about what it is that draws people to want to lay their hats in particular places. When we first decided to live in France, we put Gers on the 'possibles' list, because it's stuffed full of seriously attractive and substantial farmhouses, and because it has attractive rolling countryside, not unlike Tuscany, with villages perched on top of ridges and lots of mellow stone. But I just couldn't take to it; in fact two days into a week long house hunting trip I was in full blown 'get me out of here' mode. I haven't been back since, until now. This time it took just a couple of hours. We explored a bit of Armagnac country and a few bastide towns before staying overnight in Auch, which so should be a great place ... but - and I'm sorry if you live in Gers and love it, I really am - it just doesn't do it for me. Any of it. I can't feel its heart beating or its soul singing. I simply don't get it.

It's such a strange thing, this energy of place. Being basically a nomad at heart I've lived in (I just counted) 19 different places between leaving my parents' house and moving to Grillou, each one not just a different house but an altogether different location. Most of them I've enjoyed, to a greater or lesser degree; the odd few I've not; and a couple I've felt such a strong connection with that I miss them even now. One is Scarborough, the other - can you believe this? - Acton in west London. I suspect Ariège will be another, should I ever leave it. But why? What is it that makes a place call out to one person while repelling another?

It's clearly not just about natural beauty, as anyone who knows Acton will readily concede. I spent a year living in west Wales, which is as stunning a part of the British Isles as you could wish for - and yet much as I might have appreciated it, I never felt connected to it or welcomed by it. Nor is it just about people: some of the closest and most extraordinary personal connections I've known came when I was living in Norwich, but I'm not mad keen on Norwich either. And it's certainly about about tick lists of what makes a place right.

No, it's clearly something other, something bigger, something more mysterious. As Michael Polanyi wrote in The Tacit Dimension, we know more than we can tell.

1 comment:

Sandee said...

I'm just wondering why you didn't come to the Oregon coast! We are hosting our annual quilt show this weekend and you would have enjoyed the display completely. 'glad that you got away from the dust.