As an undergraduate student, I remember being bored by the descriptions of bougainvillea in French novels. I had never seen one. Then, when I was 19, I went to France to study for a year. Once there, I realized that the authors’ descriptions I had been reading were based on a different landscape than that of my childhood. The writers were depicting their own sense of place, so as a reader unfamiliar with it, it had been obscure to me. Within weeks, I fell in love with France. I loved the gardens. The architecture was beautiful. The professors were brilliant. I fell in love with the landscape. My ways of thinking became so French that I went on to earn three academic degrees in French Literature.
The Geography of Place
After a year studying French culture, history, art, and French language in the southwest of France, I developed a deep appreciation for my new home. I escaped the city every weekend for a jaunt through the green, well-tended countryside. One day we were driving south from Bordeaux through the Forêt des Landes along highway N10. I realized that the forest, which continued for miles, had been planted in straight rows so that a vehicle could drive down the tracks. Because the forests I had grown up with in the mountains of Colorado are natural, I had never seen trees manicured to such an extent. After doing some research, I discovered that this beautiful maritime pine forest had been planted in the 18th century, as a source of pine sap for industry. It was essentially a field of pines, as opposed to my idea of a forest.
The Aesthetics of Place
Human beings experience a sense of place as their bodies move through space. As their eyes view the scenery. As their ears pick up the rhythms of new kinds of music. This physicality of place became clear to me one evening when I was sitting in a 13th-century cathedral listening to an organ concert. The vibrations created as the keys of the organ moved the sound through the huge pipes literally shook my liver. I remember looking down at my stomach to place my hand on my abdomen. It was the strangest sensation I ever experienced!
As I moved through the city walking my regular 5 to 7 miles a day, I absorbed my new home’s aesthetics. Along the smaller streets, I observed different kinds of shops. In some spaces, sculptors were carving large blocks of marble. Through the windows of others, I could watch weavers creating exquisite tapestries. Pastry shops were exquisite, with delicate, colorful delicacies tempting the walkers-by. One of my favorites was a seamstress’s small shop where I could have my nylon hose perfectly repaired for the equivalent of 20 cents. It saved me a fortune.
The Economics of Place
Naturally, since I was a student in France, I was on a small budget. I lived in a woman’s boarding house with about 40 other students. The shower was open only once a week for two hours. My friends and I decided to take advantage of the public baths so we could bathe more often. Walking into a French public bath was a dramatic experience. We bathed that day, but we did not return. Instead, we registered to take a weekly swimming class, where we could shower afterward.
As study abroad students, we ate mostly in the student restaurant. The most common meal served was soggy green lentils that had turned a soupy grey color. On Friday evenings, we went out for steak-frites accompanied by a glass of house red. Once a month we made a reservation to order paella for a group at a tiny Spanish restaurant that was frequented by Spanish workers from the docks on the Dordogne. The paella was delicious. After dinner, a guy would grab his guitar. The waitress would untie her apron, jump up on a table, and perform a flamenco. As she danced, the workers would snap and clap to the rhythm she pounded out on the table top. It remains one of my favorite memories.
The French call Bordeaux a rich bourgeois city. It is a transatlantic shipping port, surrounded by some of the most famous French vineyards. Thus, it is home to incredible economic diversity. On occasion, we were invited as guests by our host families or professors who lived in chateaux surrounded by trimmed vines. Maids in black dresses with white lace aprons served our seven-course meals. It was an eye-opening experience to view such a breadth of economic conditions in one short year.
Social Aspects of Space
In France, it rains 300 days a year (unlike Colorado where we have 300 days of sunshine). I learned to peek out my window at the street below in the morning before I left the building where I lived. If all the older Frenchwomen walking on the street were carrying umbrellas, I took mine. If they were not, I left mine at home. They were much more accurate than the weather report.
French college students spent a lot of time in cafés. We drank coffee. We discussed politics, art, literature, and most of all the cinema. Because at the time, practically none of my French friends spoke English, my French became very fluent during these regular afternoon discussions. Because none of us had a phone where we lived, over coffee or after class we would plan ahead when and where to meet for our next get together. Once we set a date, everyone showed up. No one ever canceled or changed their plans. There was no way to connect other than walking for 30 minutes to the nearest friend’s place.
One’s Sense of Place Can Shift
When I returned home after a full year of study abroad, I was shocked by the width of the main street of my hometown. I kept banging my knuckles on the doors of the house I had grown up in when I reached to open the door. I was so unaware that I was the one whose reality had been altered that I asked my mother why she had changed the doorknobs. The bright sunshine almost blinded me. It seemed tediously hot. I longed for a cool rainy day. I dreamed of sipping a steaming café au lait in a French café where I could sit quietly, read a book, and watch the passersby.
When I returned to France three years later to teach at the University of Bordeaux, everything seemed normal. I fit right in. I knew what to do. I knew where to live. I knew where to shop. The best pastry shops were imprinted in my memory. I was glad to be home.
When I returned to Colorado after a year of teaching at the University of Bordeaux, I did not experience the strange disjuncture I had that year when I was 20. The light did seem bright, the mountains stark, the climate dry. But the doorknobs were now simply “American doorknobs.” My body readjusted to my environment without my thinking about it.
On the other hand, as I sat studying for my master’s comprehensives in French, everything I read made more sense. I had been there. I loved the descriptions. The characters I was reading about matched individuals I had met in France. My sense of place paralleled that of the authors I was reading.
Choosing a Sense of Place as a Writer
Now that I am writing a novel, the setting I have chosen is one familiar to me as a young adult. It is not the landscape of my childhood, but one in which I have lived for many years. The physical presence of the mountains encircling me, the clear blue skies that sometimes fill with enormous stacks of thunderheads, the soft whisper of the pine trees constantly surprise me with their beauty. I recognize the roar of a Chinook, the unexpected warm wind that sweeps down from the mountains and melts the snow in a few hours, or that of a 120 MPH cold wind that chills not only the bones but the soul. The sensation of running on the Mesa Trail is fused in my bones.
I know the music and artistic venues. The economic status of the citizens is familiar. I am accustomed to the different groups of people who live here, although because they have changed over the years, it is a challenge to keep descriptions accurate for the time I am writing about. When I was young all the houses around the University were the homes of professors. Now faculty cannot afford to live here. I know what it feels like to walk all over town because there is no public bus service and I have no car.
Now my task is to find the words to paint this landscape onto a page filled with words to create a fictional world that makes my sense of place come alive for the reader.
Update on My Goal Setting:
- I have finished seven months of writing. I am glad I set my goal at an achievable level because life simply happens. This month my daughter’s family (husband and four children) visited from France and stayed at our house for three weeks. Time flew by.
- Since July 7, 2018, I have continued to make progress on my chapters. On August 7th, my page counter should stand at 212. Right now, it stands at 190. I am 22 pages short. However, this month I have spent a lot of time reworking my outline, rearranging chapters, and rewriting to make sure the transitions are clearer. I also took a break from this novel and worked on another piece I started years ago. It keeps rattling around in my brain, so I decided to give it some time. I did write five pages for it. Sometimes, I just need a change of focus to renew my energy. But I am going to have to knuckle down to catch up on my page count!
- Today, August 8, 2018, I am posting my eighth blog. Blogging about writing has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences in order to make important writing decisions.
- My writing network was on hiatus in July, so I spent some time reading for a sense of place in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tostaya, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I also listened to several recorded interviews with novelists on YouTube.