On Not Living Where You Live
American Michael Paterniti lived in a tiny, remote Spanish village for 13 years, and tried to become one of the villagers. From his wonderful essay about what he learned:
And suddenly: tiny Guzmán on its hill, its skyline a cubist jumble but for the bell tower of the church and the square turrets of the palacio, as the 17th-century manor house is known. Some of the houses were so decrepit they appeared split open, as if by the fist of a giant. You could see a strewn book, someone’s bloomers, artifacts of a lost life. Let there be no doubt, time had had its way here. You might have looked upon this place — and its detritus — and moved right along.
But something happened to me. Even now, I’m not exactly sure what. I have a friend who once told me about the first time he ever took a ferry to an island off the coast of North Carolina, and how he knew, right there on the ferry — with the salt spray and the light off the ocean — that he’d come back to this same spot every year. He’d come to relive that feeling of leaving his old self behind. That annual renewal, the reacquaintance with the person he felt himself to be on that island, was something he wanted to organize his life around. Similarly, Guzmán instantly and improbably became my place. It made no sense, practically speaking. Even if I didn’t live 3,000 miles away, or if I spoke Spanish, or didn’t have a baby at home, it wouldn’t have made sense. And that was part of its tug too. I was certain this town had secrets to tell — and that maybe my best self was there to be found. Sometimes, travel is this elemental: the desire to replace the old molecules with new ones, familiarity with its opposite. To find the kingdom on the hill and stand in awe in its gold-paved streets, even if those streets are strewn, as Guzmán’s were, with sheep poo.
Paterniti was onto something. But what? Why the quest? It started when he, an employee at a deli, tasted Paramo de Guzman, a rare cheese that he couldn’t quit thinking about. The cheese was made by a farmer in the remote Spanish town of Guzman, pop. 80. The cheese had enchanted him. He had to go there, and so he did. He met Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, and began to learn about the village, mostly in the “telling room,” as the locals call it, a room in a cheese cave that served as a sort of storytelling parlor. More:
I couldn’t get enough of this. I returned to Guzmán again — and again — making excuses at home, cashing in frequent-flier miles or using work as a way to jump the Atlantic, with a side trip to the village. And there I sat for any cluster of days I could get, up in the telling room, like a toadstool, passively absorbing every conversation. The more Ambrosio talked, the more I realized that perhaps I hadn’t ever known what I really yearned for. He was sunk into the here and now, while I seemed to spend a great deal of time in my deadline life racing through airports, a processed cream-cheese bagel in hand, trying to reach the future. But here in the telling room, I sat noticing everything, infused with mindfulness: the pallor of light, the still life of the smooth glass porrón — the device from which wine was drunk here — on the grooved wooden table, the oversize man sitting in his shadow, occasionally revealed at angles or by the rumble or ragged passion in his voice.
… If Ambrosio’s story was a Slow Food tale gone awry, then what I was doing was Slow Reporting, Slow Thinking, Slow Storytelling, Slow Living. I was doing, I believed, what we all want to do, which is find a way to capture things before they dissolve, to not lose our lives to the relentless pace that keeps us from knowing who we are and what we want.
Paterniti saw in Guzman and its people the exotic Other. Everything that dissatisfied him in his fast-paced American life did not exist in Guzman. As poor and as simple as it was, Guzman was a kind of paradise for the young American. Haven’t you felt that about some place too? Maybe it’s not a place overseas; maybe it’s somewhere in this country. Wherever it is, you feel like you’re a different person there. The things that distress you and make you feel bad about where you actually live don’t exist there, and you feel like you are a better self in the other place. For me, you won’t be surprised to know, Paris more or less serves that role. I don’t think I idealize Paris as Paterniti idealized Guzman, but I still recognize the feeling he describes. I think that one reason (but not the only reason!) I love travel is that I see it as a possibility that I will discover something in the new place that discloses a truth that I had not known before, either about myself or the world into which I’ve been thrown — something that helps me to feel more at home in the world, which I so often do not do.
Years later, Paterniti came to recognize that what he sought in Guzman was a fortress against the relentless change in his America. He thought he found it because the rate of change was so much slower in the Castilian village, but it turned out that Guzman had not conquered time, or the human condition:
Part of coming to the end, then, was allowing it. And coming to an admission: Where the village of Guzmán had been disintegrating on its rise of land that surveyed the meseta, I had harked upon it, Quixote-like, and saw a lush paradise on its witness hill. Where its inhabitants were all dying their own slow deaths — lung cancer from smoking, failed livers from drinking, bodies beaten by farm labor, psyches weighted with sin and grudges — I’d seen a compelling tableau: kindly old men wearing black berets, women cane-clomping with dignity, all concealing light-filled truths within their secret hearts. If someone coughed up half a lung, graphically cursed the creator and spit out some foamy substance at the side of the road, I conceived of it as a sentimental gesture full of hidden meaning. In this world I’d found dusty-booted Ambrosio and fallen in love with the ideal for which he — and his cheese — stood.
I was happy to believe in it, for this is what travel is too: a kind of childlike wonder — and this sort of woozy love that doesn’t contemplate loss — that, when pushed further, becomes life again.
Read the whole beautiful thing. One of the lessons the admiring American writer learned from his experience was that a traveler, which is to say an outsider, experiences the beauty of a place without having to deal with the pain of the everyday, because he can always leave. Paterniti did live in Guzman with his family for a time, so he was no mere tourist. But the vantage point his status as outsider gave him allowed him to see only what he wanted to see about life in Guzman, to project his own hopes and desires onto the little village. I think of myself, having lunch with a friend in Paris, praising his city as a form of Arcadia, and having him say no, no, no, you don’t know what it’s like to live here. It’s not what you think, he said, then told me about the hardships that I, of course, could not see, because I was an outsider who wanted to see it as Arcadia.
Don’t you think the opposite is often true, though? That people who live in a place and a situation don’t appreciate the good things about their place until an outsider comes to reveal it to them? We sometimes operate from a default position that tells us that the real truth about a place is what’s wrong with it. That is, if you only knew what life was really like in X., you wouldn’t love it so much. But I think it’s at least possible that the people who live in X. may have gotten so caught up in everydayness that they have lost the ability to perceive the worth of their own place.
A funny thing about people: we often do not live where we live.
I’m the sort of person who would do exactly as Paterniti would do if given the chance, or at least I would have done before I got to be middle-aged with kids (though for me, it would have been not Spain, but France, and not cheese, but bread, or oysters). His essay raises for me a philosophical question that is on my mind constantly since I wrote my memoir about my sister and me. There was no question that Ruthie fully inhabited her place. She inhabited it so fully that she could not or would not imagine that there was anything beyond it. West Feliciana was the world to her. It was not the world to me, as you know, and this was the source of our conflict. The thing is, by virtue of her wholehearted subjective commitment, Ruthie was able to experience this particular place in a way that is closed to me. More philosophically, the intense subjectivity of her experience taught her something about what it means to live in this world in a certain way. If I ever write a novel, I would love to contrast these two ways of being in the world, mine and hers. I want to live in the mind of someone like her, and contemplate the value of her deep experience, versus my broad experience.
I think about religious seekers who come into the Catholic or Orthodox churches, thinking they will find in these churches what they lack in their own tradition, especially regarding permanence, solidity, beauty, and romance. They will find these things to a certain degree, and those things may blind the seeker to the bad things that co-exist in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, right along with the good. The thing is too that you cannot know what it is to live as a Catholic or an Orthodox as long as you remain a visitor. You have to commit subjectively to living within the tradition in order to experience it like a native, so to speak. But once you do that, you have to learn to take the bad with the good, because that is in its nature, and in our nature.