It seems as if I have lived here always and yesterday it was barely three months. Three months ago I left my apartment in Madrid for the last time, climbed into a car loaded with everything I thought I would need minus what had already gone with the movers, headed north for my usual drive to Salies in an unusual month, got a speeding ticket upon drawing near to San Sebastian practically at the French border (was I in a hurry to get here?) and finally drew up to the Hotel Parc Casino where I was to spend my first two nights as a resident of Salies.
Three months. My French has improved and I have extended my circle of acquaintances, both English and French. I have read three books in French and more or less come to manage simple interchanges (could hardly call them conversations) on the phone. I have been to the movies, to the one movie theater in the town, to see Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” in the original version (which means it wasn’t dubbed). I was disappointed. Not only with the film, but with the fact that the “original version” was half in French and must have been subtitled in English when shown in the U.S.A., but of course, here was not. However, I could figure out that there wasn’t much I missed.
Three months. They say –the locals- that if you can stand to stay through the winter you know you are a saliscienne. That means that you can take the cold when it hits, like the morning my sliding car doors got frozen tight and wouldn’t open; you’ve lived through the endless days of mist and drizzle; you’ve watched the sun peep through with hope, only to see it disappear behind black clouds thirty seconds later. I’ve survived a strong wind-rain storm, watched the Saleys river rise to threatening heights without actually flooding and then drop again to normal in less than three hours. And I have learned how easy it is to drive across the border to San Sebastian in Spain and find my way around the city with my GPS.
And in these three months, I have thought often of my grandmother. My grandmother lived in Westchester County in New York State. She lived for a while in Rye and then moved to Larchmont, but Westchester was her territory and she would often drive over to White Plains for shopping, or to Pelham to the butcher or to Rye for lunch. When she was widowed, it entered her head to move to Mexico with me. The arrangement didn’t last long. My grandmother knew no one in Mexico City and didn’t speak the language, but I am beginning to understand something she said while she was there that seemed so strange to me at the time.
“There’s nowhere to go” she’d complain. I would look at her as if she were crazy.
“There is a whole city out there, one of the largest in the world. What do you mean ‘there is nowhere to go’?” She would shake her head and simply repeat: “There is nowhere else to go.”
Now I think I understand. When I lived in Madrid, my “home” was actually in the neighborhood where my apartment was: the surrounding streets, the park, the cafés, the stores, my bank, the hairdressers, all in walking distance from my house just as everything is here in Salies, walking distance. But when I got in my car (which was not often), there was nowhere to go because all there was nearby was the rest of the big city, streets and cars and parking lots and stores and apartments and everything a big city holds but there was nowhere else to go. In contrast, when I get in my car here,two minutes later I am driving through rolling countryside, forests, valleys, the Pyrenees in the distance with whatever snow they have managed to gather and then the little towns: Sauveterre ten minutes away with its castle on the hill overlooking the river; the medieval town of Navarrenx, another ten minutes, where it takes all of two minutes to drive through its surrounding stone walls with their ramparts and its tiny streets and out the other side; the Gave de Oloron (gave is French for a river formed by the melting snow from the Pyrenees and the Bearn region is called Béarn des Gaves because it is filled with these beautiful runoffs) where it is possible to come for a refreshing swim in the summer months; ; the towns of Audaux, Puyoo, Peyhorade, Lass, Bellocq, Orthez, Lescar, Dax, Carresse, Baigts, Castagnade and so many more dotting the landscape with their handful of houses and church steeples, each different, each offering a small church, a chateau, a good restaurant, a good furniture store, your car’s garage, simply a drive through rustic cobblestone streets, the best butcher, a good osteopath or your favorite boutique. And if I feel more venturesome or have a lot of time, there are the coastal cities of Biarritz and Bayonne, there is the beach or the small port of Saint Jean de Luz; and further is San Sebastian in Spain. In other words, there is always somewhere else to go.
Three months and I have settled into all this now. I understand my grandmother’s wanderlust and wonder if I will ever want to live in a big city again. I love the feeling of freedom and spaciousness, I love the beauty of the countryside, I love the small-towness and the shifting seasons and being able to get in my car and drive just for the pleasure of it. Everything here has begun to be familiar and cozy, and the eye delights in the sight of rustic tiled roofs or flower boxes filled with pansies, newly painted shutters, the changing face of the river, the old bridge, the Sweet-Roll Hill, and the sky so extense and changing. Even the dandelions –which my mother taught me were weeds to be extracted from the smooth lawn out back- are incredibly beautiful: I love the dandelions.
And now that I am truly settled in, I am about to take my leave for a three week period during which I will spend a week in Madrid and the rest of the time visiting my daughter in Mexico City. My mind wonders: Will I miss Salies? Will coming back seem like coming home? Are the delicate roots I have put down here in these three months sufficient for me to really feel the relief of stepping once more through the door, or will I be set adrift on a sea of indistinct places with no one place to call home. Will where I am now begin to seem as intangible as where I was before has? It is an interesting question to contemplate as I pack up bags and ready Salomé for a visit to the family that always keeps her when I’m away. There is a tremor in my heart and a stirring in the stomach as the moment of parting approaches and I have no firm idea of what lies ahead.