20 March 2010

Life as a resident alien

Part of the experience of living the life in Saint-Aignan is being so far from "home." Home is of course a place, but it's more. It's where I grew up, though the town has changed so much since the 1960s that it's really not the same place any more. It is, however, where what's left of my biological family lives.

In fact, once my mother inevitably passes on — she might of course outlive me — I'm not sure how much I will come back to North Carolina at all. I lived for nearly 20 years in California, and that was on the verge of becoming "home" for all that time. I lived there for nearly as long as I ever lived in North Carolina, which I left behind at the ripe old age of 22. And yet, I haven't returned to California since I left for France in 2003.

This is the line that attaches me to my home town, I think.
It's algae growing in clear waters, and the smell of low tide.

The fact is, France became my "home" de prédilection nearly four decades ago. I chose it, and I always say I had a second childhood when I was in my 20s — I learned a new language, a new way of cooking and eating, a different history and literature. I took on a new mental outlook and world view. I was living in Paris, after all — and I came to see that fantastic city as the true center of the world. I was (and am) living where I decided to live, not where I was born and grew up, or where societal trends and professional ambitions took me.

In a place where the label on a package of cheddar cheese says
"Allergy warning: contains milk", this sign really is pure nostalgia.

My home town in North Carolina is on the edge of the world. It's 100 miles from the nearest interstate highway! It's as close to — or far from — New York City as it is to Atlanta. The people speak, or used to speak, a dialect with an accent that other Americans found unusual, to say the least. I still hear it here. To some, the brogue sounds more English than American. And it threatens to be washed away, suddenly, in the next big hurricane. Or, gradually, by the rising oceans.

This is all that remains of a recently demolished landmark on the
town waterfront that was Ottis' Fishmarket. Because the all-wood
buildings here are so fragile, history moves on fast.

California is also on the edge of the world. It's an outpost, even though people there don't think so. They went — one goes — to California to escape — to escape the cold weather, the crowded eastern U.S. cities, the isolated small towns and farms, and provincial ideas. Out there, you can be somebody that they couldn't be at home, "back" East. You can make a fortune, and you get to be with all the other escapees. The problem is, California also threatens to disappear, or be unrecognizably changed, in the next big earthquake. Or fire. Or drought. Or financial crisis.

Old ways of life disappear. The seafood business has moved
to the Third World, killed off by coastal development
that has brought water pollution.

I guess France is also threatened. I'm not sure. It has sure changed, and is still changing. New ways of life — cars and commuting, suburban developments all around the towns, big shopping centers replacing small shops in villages and cities — mean France isn't at all the same place it was 40 years ago. Mais plus ça change, plus c'est... you know.

Can you imagine this house in Saint-Aignan?

I guess it's because France is so deeply anchored in history. Kings. Wars. Legends. Castles. Les vieilles pierres. France remains, despite Europe and globalization, self-contained. Language has much to do with it. I think Americans and the British can feel the "centeredness" of the place when they go to France. Along with the food and the climate, and the thrill of being a foreigner, maybe that's what is so attractive about France.

So here I am in North Carolina again. Far from home. Ha! Living on the edge, as it were, but anchored by my personal past. Enjoying it, but at moments feeling like an alien, or an impostor. It's fun.


  1. I like the algae one with the smell of low tide... I love the smell of ocean water and the sound of seagulls :)


  2. Interesting introspective post, Ken. I first went to France with 30 teenagers in the early 60s. I don't think everyone in my group felt the call of France like I did. Who knows why we like France so much? The language has to figure in there though.

    There are so many emotions when one goes home again, especially when a parent is getting older. Childhood memories plus one's own mortality are both happening. Plus you're dealing with jet lag.

    Great photos btw. The algae one is funny with the smell of low tide. I had the smell of manure on my dad's garden growing up.

  3. Bravo-well said!
    Our pasts seems similar..except my visit to Paris, 1976 at 18 was only for one month.
    I am from the edges of Louisiana and San Francisco...

    travel safely
    Tim in Arthenay

  4. Lovely thoughts.

    We *are* an outpost here in California, and I think most people are aware of it--even the natives. (I was born here, and Tony's family has been here since the 1920's.) Physically, politically, and seismically, we're on the edge.

    I'll bet that fish market was a trip in its day.

  5. California is on the edge alright and its people are too (that's why my name is Nadege but should be changed to Nedge). I am being silly. Ken, you are a wonderful story teller but I have to say that your blog might not have been my favorite if you didn't write it from France. Enjoy your time in the new world with your family and come back "home" safely.

  6. A very interesting post, Ken. Some people say you should never go back to the place of your "roots" as it can be too unsettling.
    Regarding the changes in France, no doubt it seems busier than when you first lived there but it very much still has a 1950's or 60's feel to it when we are there compared to where we live in England.
    As they say in France, regarding your holiday, "Bon continuation" !!

  7. Hello Nedge, you know, if I didn't live in France I most probably would not be doing a blog, so it all works out...

    Jean, you are right about France and going home again. A famous North Carolinian wrote the book on that (You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe).

  8. I can't imagine that house in France, but there is an almost exact copy of it in the little town in Delaware to which we were thinking of moving.

  9. Introspective indeed.

    Having chose North America over Europe myself, I can see how heartstrings are pulled when being "home".

    Funny. My wife wants to go Europe. She does not feel home here, though she was born and raised here.


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