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Belongingby Isabel Huggan
There Is No Word For Home
In the country where I now live, there is no word for home. You can express the idea at a slant, but you cannot say home. For a long time this disconcerted me, and I kept running up against the lack as if it were a rock in my path, worse than a pothole, worse than nothing. But at last I have habituated myself and can step around it, using variants such as notre foyer (our hearth) or notre maison (our house) when I mean to say home. More often, I use the concept chez to indicate physical location and the place where family resides, or the notion of a comfortable domestic space. However, if I wish to speak of “going home to Canada,” I can use mon pays (my country) but I cant say I am going chez moi when I am not: for as long as I reside in France — the rest of my life — this is where I will be chez moi, making a home in a country and a language not my own. I am both home and not-home, one of those trick syllogisms I must solve by homemaking, at an age when I should have finished with all that bother.
In the foothills of the Cévennes I live in a stone house that was, until only a few decades ago, home to silkworms, hundreds upon hundreds of them, squirming in flat reed baskets laid on layered frames along the walls in what was then the magnanerie, a place for feeding silkworms, and is now a bedroom. For the duration of their brief lives, these slippery dun-coloured creatures munched mulberry leaves, fattening themselves sufficiently to shed their skins four times before theyd stop eating and attach themselves to twigs or sprigs of heather on racks above the baskets. With a sense of purpose sprung from genetic necessity, theyd then spin themselves cocoons in which theyd sleep until they were plucked from their branches and dunked in huge kettles of hot water. Perhaps some luckier ones were allowed to waken and complete the magic of metamorphosis — there must be moths, after all, to furnish next seasons eggs — but silk manufacturers preferred the longer filament, which comes from whole cocoons. There are sacrifices to be made for beauty, and if the life of a lowly and not very attractive segmented grub has to be that sacrifice, perhaps that is the Lords will.
The Lords will rests heavy on the high blue hills of the Cévennes, for here God has been imagined in Calvinist clothes, a moral master whose plans for man and beast alike are stern. This little-inhabited part of southern France (the mountainous northern corner of Languedoc, much of it now a national park) has long been the heart of Protestant opposition to Roman Catholicism. From the mid-1500s, revolt against Paris and the Church continued with appropriate bloodshed on all sides until the Édit de Tolérance in 1787 finally allowed those few Huguenots who remained the right to practise their religion.
The rugged terrain, hidden valleys and craggy cliffs are geologically congenial to the Protestant mind — in the back reaches of the Cévennes there have always existed stubborn pockets of religious and political resistance. This is an austere landscape where, even now, life is not taken lightly and where pleasure and ease are distrusted. The puritanical harshness of Reform doctrine seems also to show itself in the fortress-like architecture of Huguenot houses such as mine: angular, stiff-necked buildings, tall and narrow with small windows shuttered against the blasts of winter or the blaze of summer. Nevertheless, graceless and severe though it may appear from outside, the cool, dark interior of the house is a blessing when you step in from the painful dazzle of an August day. It is not for nothing that the stone walls are well over half a metre thick, or that the floors are laid with glazed clay tiles.
Sometimes I wake in the early morning before it is light, the still, dark hours of silent contemplation: how have I come to be here? But there is nothing mysterious, the reason is mundane-it is not the will of God, but the wish of the Scottish-born man to whom I have been married since 1970. The first time we came hiking in these mountains — more than a decade ago, while we were living in Montpellier — he said, immediately, that he knew he was chez lui dans les Cévennes. His experience was profound, affecting him in some deeply atavistic way I did not understand until later, when I felt the same inexpressible, magnetic, and nearly hormonal pull the moment I first set foot in Tasmania and knew myself to be home.
When it happens, this carnal knowledge of landscape, it is very like falling in love without knowing why, the plunge into desire and longing made all the more intense by being so utterly irrational, inexplicable. The feel of the air, the lay of the land, the colour and shape of the horizon, who knows? There are places on the planet we belong and they are not necessarily where we are born. If we are lucky — if the gods are in a good mood — we find them, for whatever length of time is necessary for us to know that, yes, we belong to the earth and it to us. Even if we cannot articulate this intense physical sensation, even if language fails us, we know what home is then, in our very bones.
I sometimes say jokingly that I have become a WTGW — a whither-thou-goest-wife, an almost extinct species, but one with which I have become intimately familiar in the years we have lived abroad because of Bobs work in development. I have met many other spouses — men, as well as women — who have done the same as I: we have weighed the choices, and we have followed our partners. Our reasons for doing so are as diverse as our marriages and our aspirations and the work that we do. In my case, writing is a portable occupation: I can do what I do anywhere.
And so it follows that I shall learn, as I have learned in other places, to make this house home. Over time, I shall find out how to grow in and be nourished by this rocky foreign soil. I early learn the phrase je menracine ici, which means “I am putting down roots here,” in order to convince myself — for this time, we are not moving on. We are here to stay, définitivement.
From the Hardcover edition.
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