Sometimes books just sit on a shelf. You dip into them, but the text never grabs you, and they return to their place. Such was the case with A House Somewhere a compendium of writing about life abroad with diverse contributors ranging from William Dalrymple to Peter Mayle. I’ve had the book for at least three years now. Recently I have been thinking more and more about why people live abroad and so I picked it up to see if it offered any insights. First I checked on Amazon for reviews. There was a damning chorus of disgust from English literature students forced to read the book as part of their syllabus. Could it possibly be that bad?
The stated purpose of A House Somewhere is to bring together the best (or according to Amazon’s vociferous students the most boring) writing of a genre, which is loosely grouped under travel, but which counter-intuitively is all about staying-put and making a new home in a foreign land. Organisationally, the book begins with excerpts about falling in love with a place, and then moves on to the challenges of learning a language, finding and building a home, and finally long-term life abroad. The assumption behind using excerpts from different books is that wherever we choose to live from the wilds of China to the chattering Chianti swigging hills of Italy, we are bound by common motivations.
In the introduction, penned by Lonely Planet editors, Don George and Antony Sattin, all life abroad tales are set within a historical context which begins with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It is correctly noted that Defoe’s fictional account is based upon oral histories received from the ship wrecked sailor Alexander Selkirk, but there the commentary stops.
It would for instance have been worth explaining that Selkirk’s tale of his time on a desert island was recorded, on his return, by various educated gentlemen. Depending on whose account you read Selkirk was fanned by shady breezes and lived at one with nature, or by the end of his period as a ship wreck was reduced to little more than a desperate animal. An important point which bears upon the collection of stories that follow is missed here – there is no such thing as a true life abroad story, only a partisan point of view.
Exaggeration is the stock in trade of the life abroad writer. Foreign climes must never be dull, life must be lived in technicolour. Hence we have Tim Parks writing about life in an apartment building in Italian Neighbours describing a lavatory flush in the dead of night as ‘an explosion, an act of terrorism.’ He goes on to compare drilling a hole in the wall as akin to an earthquake, as if one is caught inside a guitar. Here exaggeration is used to effect humour, but in James Hamilton Paterson’s account of living alone on a small Philippine island, an eclipse of the moon fortunately coincides with his first night on the island. Now, of course this may have actually happened, and I may just be a sceptic, but what a wonderfully dramatic background to cut and paste from another evening, to give the necessary romantic feel to that virgin night.
Such quibbles aside what the collection of stories in A House Somewhere demonstrates is an interesting universality of emotion which effects all the house hunters. Take the following passage: ‘we were newly conscious of cycles and rhythms and patterns. The wonderful closeness between earth and human.’ It could have been written by Mayle about Provence or Frances Mayes, about Italy, in fact it’s about Nial Williams and Christine May settling in Ireland. Living abroad for many people is a journey back to a simpler more natural life, a casting off of the modern world. Even in stories in the anthology about setting up home in great Metropolitan cities such as Mort Rosenblum’s At home on the Seine, the same motif of casting off is present. Nature is the pulsing river Seine, home is a houseboat, and Paris almost a forgotten memory in the other world of life on the river.
Although people don’t often admit it, re-invention is one of the great pleasures of life abroad. This idea is best expressed in Peter Hessler’s account of his life in China. Hessler comes to think of himself as two distinct people – Ho Wei, his given Chinese name at his workplace and Peter. He writes: ‘Ho Wei was completely different from my American self, he was friendlier, he was eager to talk with anybody and he took great pleasure in even the most inane conversations. In a simple way he was funny…also Ho Wei was stupid which was what I liked most about him.’
Just like Peter I have a French Jamie, he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself, and he’s incessantly curious. His command of French is not what it should be, but French Jamie has convinced himself that this is all part of his charm. All ‘house abroaders’ have a similar companion, and the insight of this anthology is that it is place rather than necessarily language that gives birth to this doppelganger.
Years ago an English pool man working in the Dordogne told me that every client of his was running away from something. At the time I paid no attention. Now I think that pool man, wise. We are all running from the past and this opportunity to be someone else, to start over again, is a universal pleasure afforded to all people with A House Somewhere. I suspect the adolescent critics on Amazon have yet to get to know themselves well enough, to find the idea of re-invention interesting. There day will come.
Our Provence living section is dedicated to people who live in Provence or would like to do so, read more here