A Sense of Place

You think if you change location, your problems will vanish, so you move somewhere or change something radically in you life and then, well, there you are again. Jennifer Vandever

Over the holidays I moved to a small village in the south of France, not far from the coast. There are two small bookstores a block away. Next to each one is a small, family run bistro where I can take my meal each night. Down the way a bit is a market with fresh fish, vegetables and fruits.

There is a cinema in the next block that I often frequent and across the street a coffeehouse where I feel welcome to linger for a while. There is a university two blocks away where I sometimes audit classes and make ample use of its exceptional library. It is a delight to be among students once again.

The village has become my querencia. Querencia is a Spanish word that refers to the place one calls home and the sense of well being and belonging that it gives rise to. You are glad to be there. It nourishes and informs you. You are at peace in your querencia and feel a deep affection for it.

How I wish all this was true. I’ve been searching for such a place all my life. The search itself, I suppose, has become my querencia. While the quest is never far from my thoughts, I was reminded of it once again by a special issue of a journal, “The Writer’s Sense of Place,” that a friend sent to me recently.

The journal consists of a number of author’s responses to questions about the importance of place in their work. The authors are not well known, at least to me and they vary widely in their views about place. One poses the following hypothetical question:

…what kind of books do you think Marcel Proust would have written had he been born in Sundance, Wyoming, and what kind of books would Mark Twain have written had he been born in Paris?

Elsewhere I wrote: In her "Reminiscences" Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna, records how thrilled Dostoevsky was to be back in Florence once again and was working productively on The Idiot. Yet, it did not take him long to realize there is more to writing than being in this benign place, even Florence in the summer. He soon began to miss his friends or any form of congenial company.

During a summer in Florence, Dostoevsky wrote to his niece: I cannot write here. For that I must be in Russia without fail, must see, hear and take a direct part in Russian life; where’s here I am losing even the possibility of writing, since I lack both the essential material, namely Russian reality…and the Russian people.

Some of the authors in the volume describe a similar sentiment. They were largely from the South or from a western state where they lived in rural areas of open spaces, not isolated but far from a city.

Most days I don’t feel at home or that I’ve found my querencia, regardless of where I am. No doubt I am one of those doomed to chronic dissatisfaction and restlessness. If anything my desk has become my home.

As long as I have a few books around me, a bookstore and library nearby and nimble fingers to hit the keyboard, I am relatively content. It isn’t a grand sense of happiness or overwhelming pleasure. But if the sun is out and the days are warm, I can manage just fine and continue to feel grateful to be here on this island in the middle of the Pacific.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Bob Dylan