This weekend I’m visiting Decatur, Georgia, speaking Sept. 2 at the literary festival about my new retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” If you’re in the area, come on by!
I don’t expect to find it hard to leave, but you never know.
There are, I’ve discovered a few times, places in the world that sear your soul, where you unexpectedly feel so at home you can’t bear to leave, plotting your return even as you reluctantly pack your bags.
I rarely cry, especially not in public. But three places, (so far), left me in tears of regret and longing as departed: Corsica, northern Thailand and Ireland.
I had one week between the end of one job and the start of another. I was single and craved something absolutely amazing.
I love France and speak French and friends had raved to me for many years about this island, known for its rugged interior — and fierce desire to separate from France.
I flew from New York to Nice, Nice to Bastia and rented a mo-ped at the port, while the hotel owner in Bastia helped me plot out a five-day circle tour of La Balagne, all in the north. It still remains one of the best holidays of my entire life, (and I’ve been to 37 countries, so far.)
Imagine buzzing along empty, winding country roads in brilliant sunshine, with the maquis, the island’s thick scrubby undergrowth filled with herbs, sending its rich, delicious sun-warmed fragrance into your nostrils. Meander down a series of hairpin turns to a hotel at the ocean’s edge, so close you’ll hear the surf from your bedroom window. It’s a lovely old house from the 1850s or so. You eat dinner, alone, on the terrace at dusk.
One day it poured so heavily I couldn’t wear my glasses, (which I really do need for driving), nor did my helmet have a visor. I got a black trash bag from a restaurant to cover me, and kept on going, whizzing past 1,000-foot drop-offs into the sea. People invited me into their homes for a meal. I chatted with a handsome young mason in a bar, who gave me several CDs, still some of my favorite music ever, the polyphonal a capella group I Muvrini.
The landscape is wild, untamed, primal, timeless. When my plane took off for Nice, I cried so hard the flight attendant came to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak for grief, watching the island disappear into the clouds.
I’d found, as I did in every place that has seared my soul so deeply: beauty, peace, scent, kindness, history, adventure.
Here’s the story I wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal.
I visited in January 1994 with my husband, our new marriage already in tatters and soon to blow apart.
We’d visited Bangkok and Chang Mai, both standard tourist destinations, and decided, spur of the moment, to fly further north to Mae Hong Son, which one guidebook called the most beautiful town in Thailand. I’ve only seen one other airport — in Bastia — so rural and tiny that sheep grazed a few meters from the runways. As we walked (!) into town, the only sound was that of bells from the temple across the unpaved street.
Guesthouses, then $15 a night, ringed a lake. We rented mo-peds, (clearly, my favorite mode of transport), for a day-trip even further north to the Burmese border. Madness! The road, quite literally, was under construction, with huge machines grading the land, their quizzical drivers gazing down at us in pity and wonder.
We went with Roy, an Englishman we’d met at our guesthouse, who’d worked in developing countries delivering vaccines. When the road forked, with a sign we couldn’t read, what next? “Follow the power lines,” Roy said.
The road dust was a thick, silky red, so deep I put my feet out on both sides and used them as pontoons to steady the bike. As we pulled into town for lunch, men wearing extremely large rifles across their chest stared at us — we were now in the Golden Triangle, then the world’s largest suppliers of opium.
We ate lunch, then turned south in the golden late afternoon light, back down the insanely steep hills we’d so eagerly climbed. On one turn, (no guardrails), I got off the bike and had my husband walk it down, too terrified of flying off the road and over the treetops to my certain death. I’d already fallen and shattered the bike’s side mirror, giving me a tiny scar on the inside of my right wrist as a permanent souvenir of the day.
When our plane took off a few days later, having witnessed the town’s legendary three mists, I cried hard. I knew I wouldn’t be back any time soon. And I knew I’d never be there again with that man.
As in Corsica, I’d been transported by the emerald-green landscapes, silence, the kindness and wisdom of strangers. Another deliriously crazy, ill-advised, adrenaline-pumping adventure.
I’ve since returned four times, but this was my first visit — in the days just before Christmas of 1985 — visiting a friend, a fellow journalist, in Dublin.
With a surname of Kelly, you’d think I’d identify heavily as Irish, but I don’t and never had. Like me, my father was born in Canada.
But, there, everywhere, were people who looked like me. Who loved to chat, and prized witty, intelligent conversation. Who liked a good glass of beer. Who valued the ability to burst into song.
I felt at home in a way that hit me hard, that I’d never felt in my native land or my home city, Toronto.
Stores and restaurants and passing delivery vans had my name on them!
As I filed into the small aircraft that flew me to Bristol to visit my mother, I found myself blinking back tears.
And every visit back to Ireland since then seems to touch a sort of sense memory, a “me” that maybe existed 100 or 1,000 years ago. Maybe I was Grainne, the 16th. century pirate queen!
Here’s a beautiful post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed,by a female American professor about how living in Afghanistan at the age of 10 so deeply affected her.
Has this sort of geographic coup de foudre happened to you?
When and where?