“This is your home. This isn’t nowhere. And it’s not dull.”
Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
It took some time for me to appreciate it but the truth is that the tiny corner of the world that I grew up in is rather beautiful. With a population density of one person per square kilometre, Western Australia has plenty of space to roam around in. And if Perth, the nearest metropolis to my hometown is arguably the most remote city on Earth, then Northam, where I spent my childhood is… Well, let’s just say a bit on the quiet side. Its isolation, gorgeous weather and easy security made it a great place to grow up and, so I thought when I was seventeen, an even better place to leave.
I was twenty years old when I graduated and had my first chance to do any independent travel and I was desperately keen to experience culture shock, a novel concept in a country whose landmass is a whopping 7,617,930 square kilometres. If you get in a car at my childhood home and drive for two hours (or even two days), the landscape might change (or possibility not, depending on which direction you’ve driven in), but the people, language and culture will be pretty much indistinguishable from the place where you started. There’s no shortage of beautiful things to see, but the vast distances between places means that you need a lot of time to see them.
(Thanks to mypostalcards.wordpress.com for this image.)
So one of the things that I love about where I live now, in the southeast of France, an hour’s drive from the Swiss border, is the proximity to any number of extraordinary places. If culture shock is your kick, you really don’t need to go too far for a fix, and there are concepts of language and nationality here that would have blown my tiny landlocked Australian country kid’s mind if someone had gazed into a crystal ball 30 years ago and told me where I’d be laying my hat at the age of 42. For example, when my partner and I drove down to the French Riviera for four days over Easter, the fastest way of getting there, from our starting point in France, was through Italy. And if that didn’t blow my mind surely the fact that we live in France but my partner works in Switzerland would have. And the thought that Switzerland has four national languages would have done for me.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day in France and Switzerland (you know, the day when Jesus rose body and soul into heaven; anyone who wants to discuss secularism at this point should be reminded that we got a national holiday out of it), so, as ever, we seized the opportunity to point the car towards somewhere new. (Well, new for us, that is – the place that we ended up in was, according to the signs on the buildings, already rather well developed in the middle of the sixteenth century, another concept which is almost unfathomable to this child of the New World.)
Biel/Bienne, a town so bilingual they named it twice, prides itself on its linguistic prowess. All of the street signs are in both French and German, six per cent of the population speaks Italian, and to cater for the tourists, many shop owners will also be sure to make themselves understood in English. The first place in which we tested the veracity of these claims to multilingualism left us unconvinced, as the waiter was dumb with incomprehension when we ordered café au lait and pain au chocolat. But the town earned its stripes when the waiter in the restaurant where we had lunch welcomed us in French, took our order in English, spoke to the customers at the next table in German and bid us a fond farewell in Italian, all without breaking a sweat.
Biel/Bienne is a beautiful three-hour drive away but happily for us there are also sights of historical and natural significance much closer to our doorstep. On Saturday we had some visitors to Ruffieux (I’ve been told that Canadians are like Australians but with culture and this couple are the living proof!) and we decided to show them one or two of the sights around our current home. The four of us jumped into our Golf and drove the ten minutes down to the Lac du Bourget, which is the largest freshwater lake in France, and then around its shores to the Abbaye d’Hautecombe.
Churches are, of course, nothing new to me – my partner says that the years of church-going I endured as a child earned me a black belt in Catholicism, though I’ve long since rescinded my claims to the title – but the Abbaye is something pretty special. With its origins in a religious community that can be dated back to 1101 and its claim to fame as the burial place of the great and good of the House of Savoy, the Abbaye’s history is almost as impressive as its position right on the shores of the lake. It’s no wonder that, after being overwhelmed by the beauty and history of this place, we had to retreat for a drink at O’Lac, in the shadows of the Chateau de Chatillon, before heading back to our humble abode for drinks in the view of the setting sun.
I’m so fantastically glad that this little piece of France is kind enough to welcome us as temporary residents. But home is, of course, a relative concept. These days I still have the privilege, whenever I go back to Australia, of being able to visit not just the town that I grew up in, but also the very same house, as Dad remains steadfastly in the abode that he and Mum built to accommodate their growing brood in the sixties. My nieces and nephews still swim in the pool that I practically lived in as a child, and when I sit in Dad’s study showing him how to navigate his way around the Internet, the passageway outside of the room is still dimly illuminated by the nightlight that used to quell my fear of the dark when I saw it from my childhood bed.
Dad objects these days when I refer to Northam as home; fair enough, I guess, as I haven’t lived there for 25 years. But for as long as that nightlight continues to burn outside of my old bedroom door, Dad’s driveway will always remain a place that I’ll set my satnav to return to.