I sit with friends around a wobbly table at a rustic taverna in Eastern Crete. The waves slapping against the terrace tickle our bare toes, discouraging the cats prowling underfoot in hopes of a handout. My dining companions are a motley group: four local fishermen with foreign wives and several singles unstrung from relationships.
A roaring generator in a shed behind us keeps a string of red Christmas lights flickering overhead, drowning out our voices: we have to shout to be heard but no one minds that we are a bit noisy. We’re the only people dining here tonight. We’ve already drained one carafe of rosé and ordered another, as we eagerly exchange tales on how we stumbled upon this secluded village, almost as secret as Alex Garland’s beach.
A young French-Canadian woman tells me her story. “I hated the winters, hated my job and I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I opened a map, closed my eyes, and put my finger on a spot, saying to myself, ‘Whatever happens, I will go there!’” Luckily the destination picked by fate wasn’t a blank piece of the Pacific Ocean, but could be reached by a three-day trip from Montreal. She came here, met a man, stayed on, had two children, and settled down for good.
Many expats I have met in my journeys have confessed that they found their far flung homes or exotic partners by following intuition.
Take the Australian woman I met in a tiny Italian village carved in a canyon of volcanic rock near Rome, population: a dwindling 50 souls. Twenty years ago in Melbourne she had seen some pictures in a magazine of old stone houses, dizzying staircases and sundrenched terraces over a gorge. Images of sheep-dotted meadows and lush hazelnut groves haunted her imagination for months. At last, she hopped on a flight for Rome, rented a car and made her way there. Roaming medieval streets paved in peppered gray rock, she came across –almost by miracle — a house for sale that she could afford to buy and restore. Now she works as a guide, bringing Australian tourists to the area.
Detours, car breakdowns, casual invitations, or in earlier centuries, shipwrecks are common circumstances in which travelers get waylaid in places that hold the unsuspected spiraling of destiny.
Objects from childhood may beckon us to foreign quarters later in life. My father’s lucky Roman coin stamped with the worn face of Caesar exercised a magic of its own, leading me from Tennessee to the Eternal City where I have lived for over thirty years. My mother’s pale green Italian dictionary tucked away in her handkerchief drawer became a talisman for the language that would become my second tongue.
For travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, a hairy patch of “brontosaurus” skin on display in his aunt’s china cupboard inspired him to dream of and then travel to Patagonia. The book he wrote about that trip became a global best seller, a legend in itself. For some people, the mere name of a place “Montmartre,” “Innisfree,” “Congo,” “Sunset Boulevard,” has the power to summon us across oceans.
When we finally arrive, whole new life adventures sometimes unfold – a new self may be discovered or an old one recovered, fateful encounters or events may occur – we might happen upon our dream job or dream house, meet a partner or mentor, or maybe we just find a place where we finally feel at home, good in our skin. When that happens , we have been touched by the power of place.
In the ancient world, the power of place was believed to irradiate from a kind of intelligence operating in landscapes or buildings, called the genius loci. The term translates as “Soul” or “Spirit” of place, and today is often intended as the “atmosphere” or “charm” of a particular location. But to the ancient Romans, it referred to an indwelling entity which lent its energy and character to a site and interacted with all the beings present there.
The English novelist and travel writer, D.H. Lawrence, believed that places attracted kindred spirits to themselves by a form of magnetism, like the power that directs migrating birds. He also thought that the soul of place was compounded of biological, chemical, and cosmic influences which vary according to geographical location and affect the health and psychology of individuals and entire populations living in a place. It may be that some deep-seated but forgotten instinct would steer us to places where we might flourish if only we knew how to listen.
If you have wandered far from your hometown, looking back, do you see patterns in the places that attracted you? Are there cities or homes that nourished or depleted you? How do you feel in the setting where you are currently living? How can you enhance your awareness of your surroundings and of the genius loci operating there? What would it be like to find the place where you finally feel at home? And how might you set out to discover it?
By asking questions like these we can begin to listen for the constant conversation going on between ourselves and our environment which may have more impact on our health and well-being than we can possibly imagine. Places inhabit us just as we inhabit them. —