Amanda is, unfortunately, not feeling well, so her guest post has been moved, hopefully till tomorrow, when she should be more human.
I should have done a post earlier, but I was dealing with administrivia this morning. So…
Have you ever thought about the places that are part of us? Some of those places don’t even exist.
I mean, sure, when I was really little I used to base all my imaginary places — hovels to palaces — on grandma’s house. Considering that by three or four I was imagining empires in other worlds (I have a defense. I was very sickly, and since I was just starting to read, and no one would tell me enough stories, I started telling myself stories) it was pretty weird to base all those buildings in what was basically an old-style Portuguese farmhouse. But I did. Kings received ambassadors in grandma’s large kitchen, with the throne placed about where the table was. The rest of it tended to stay the same in my brain, so there were the cabinets grandad made, the large dresser where we stored bread and flour, and the Franklyn stove in a corner. I just wish I’d written those early sagas because they made for interesting reading. (Combined with the fact that the Portuguese word for Grocer — Mercieiro — on first hearing was completely opaque to me — we called our Grocer Sr. Antonio and the general store he managed a “butcher’s” which is weird, as I think the only meat it sold was cured. I’ll have to assume it was an earlier building in the same place. They did, however, sell everything from almonds to tobacco, passing through clogs and school composition books — I thought Mercieiro meant “he who grants mercy” so I had a series of kings with the title. Yeah.)
But there are other places that stayed with me, some read, some I visited once or twice and I’m not even sure where they are. Some — who knows?
For example, there is this vivid memory I have of climbing pine stairs, in a small cottage, to a tiny room (basically a single bed under a sloping roof.) I remember it because the woodwork was flawless, stairs and all done and sanded and glowing, as if they were the finest piece of furniture, and also because some organization freak had designed them. The risers of the steps had drawers. The walls surrounding the stair case had shelves. The bed had drawers under it, and drawers were built in to the woodwork around the tiny bed, everywhere they fit, even if some had really weird shapes. And yes, the sloping ceiling was carefully fitted, sanded, etc. boards.
I’ve always had the idea that this was the upstairs of my great grandmother’s house, and have a vague idea that I slept there the night before her funeral, but I don’t know. It could as easily be the upstairs of some cottage we stayed in while we were driving through roadless/trackless wastes in the mountains of Northern Portugal in 68, trying to trace my Brazilian aunt’s ancestry while she was visiting. Her ancestors came from such tiny places that some of the villages, when they saw the car approach someone would run to ring the church bell, and everyone would come running from the fields, and it would be an impromptu holiday, even if it turned out she had no ancestors/relatives from there. They were isolated and loved the break in the monotony. And we stayed overnight in some of those places, so it could be there.
However, the beauty of the woodwork, the cunning of the storage stayed with me. Now I’m older, I suspect that thing was designed (and possibly built) by naval builders.
Then there is the sea. Lots of people reading my books assume I grew up by the sea. That’s not… precisely true.
Sure, my parents are maybe ten miles from the sea, which in the states would make it really close, and have a major influence over my life.
Other than the fact that fish was the almost-free food, only more expensive than when a hunter-friend donated his excess hunted animals, not so much.
Sure, the village had a fishmonger who came down the main street everyday with her basket of fish. Mind, she took the bus from the seaside where she bought the fish at 4 or 5 am, and got to our village around 10 or so. But I don’t know if she hit other villages first. It’s probable. She’d start either in Porto, or the villages at the outskirts, because people were wealthy there, and I suspect things were fairly picked over by the time she got to the village. Mostly we ate sardines and mackerel. The “good fish” was usually when mom went to the fair near the city where the big fishmongers sold their buys. This fish/seafood being really cheap created some odd features of my childhood. First, I don’t like fish (no really) second, my second-favorite treat was clams, which would be cooked on top of the hibachi. If I was good I’d be allowed to buy a half-dozen clams.
But other than that, going to the sea by bus (or car, because it was all twisty back roads) took about 2 hours.
Sure, we did this in summer, religiously, for at least a month (usually September, because the rental of a beach shelter was cheaper) because Portuguese believe that if you don’t spend at least a month at the beach every year as a kid, you’ll be stunted.
So I loved the beach, sure, but as a vacation thing. Later, when we had the money to rent places by the sea, dad and I would spend days climbing cliffs, exploring ruins, and/or finding picturesque little villages. I suspect most of my seaside locations come from those days, which I did love.
Every writer should have experience of some weird places too, though I was lucky to be born in one. This is because reality is not only weirder than you think it could be, but weirder than you could imagine if you tried.
Take my childhood. First favorite treat was olives, which came once a week, brought by the oil-and-olives-and-lupini-beans man. The olive-oil man worked from a donkey pulled cart. The donkey wore a hat and was very patient. IF I’d been very very good? I could give the donkey a carrot.
Third favorite treat? Peanuts and orange soda, the treat of Sunday afternoons when I was really small. The man who sold the soda came down the street on Sunday selling his wares. Also the seller of waffle…. rolls. Think waffle cones without the cone. They were called lingua da sogra (Mother in law’s tongue.) Other vendors did the same route and sold potato chips. They carried their wares in these metal cylinders with lids which looked like small water heaters, with two straps they put over their shoulders.
Imagine a village where everyone sits on their stoop (Mediterranean, so no porches. The house door is RIGHT on the street, but it has a stoop made of stone. The cleaning and bleaching of those stoops was a MAJOR source of neurotic obsession to the women of the village.) except the elders might be in chairs, the back against the wall of the house (the look/cleanliness of those chairs was another form of obsession and social signaling.) The women crochet. They might visit a door or two away, to gossip or exchange patterns. Ditto the men, who mostly have the radio nearby and are listening to the soccer game. Anyone who walks up or down that street (my family when mom dragged us to the trolley to go visit her family two villages away, or courting couples, or people who got bored and went for a walk) is dissected with the fervor that political wonks dissected soviet podiums at may day parade. So you’d best be wearing your best, and if courting, you’d best be following the rules for the stage you’re at. (I think holding hands was when you’d been dating for a year. Arm over shoulder only if you were engaged.)
And then down that street come sellers of soda (mostly orange. Might have been homemade) potato chips and waffle cookies. And the kids swarmed them.
Then there was the Earl’s manor house across the street. My mom was friends with the housekeeper, so I spent a lot of time there when the owner wasn’t.
I loved the kitchen, with its massive, spotless work table, the shelves of polished copper pots and pans, and the shelf upon shelf of jams and jellies (I was always given some jelly or jam on a cracker, too.) It was sunny and looked out over endless fields.
The other room I loved was the “Chinese room.” Yeah, it was decorated exactly as you expect. Eighteenth century chinoiserie. And it had the TV, which we were very often invited to come watch.
Then there were those amazing gardens, ornamented with statues and filled with fountains and carefully hemmed-in ponds and mini-rivers. I loved those gardens. Not for me, unless I become an incredibly wealthy person (like win big in lottery wealthy) because I’m sure it took an army of gardeners, but heavens, they were beautiful. Maybe that’s why I love the Denver botanic gardens so much. The conservatory is very like.
The place is now a b&b, btw, and very reasonable in price. About what embassy suites costs in Denver, in the US. Mind you those endless fields were sold and are full of skyscrapers, but part of me still wants to spend a night or two there when next I visit, and see what remains. I know part of the garden does.
There are other places that are part of me, that I’ve never even lived in. Don’t ask me how since they weren’t heavy on description, but not only did I get a second hand love for rural Wisconsin (which I’ve never even visited) from Simak’s books, but years later, when I got to see pictures of the English countryside, it looked exactly as I imagined. There are places, like Miss Marple’s village (St. Mary’s Mead.) I’m sure I’d not only recognize it on sight, but also the name of the various inhabitants would come back to me as though I were a long-lost-prodigal daughter.
It’s weird the effect places have on you, and how you often are not even aware of what history they had, but as a kid whatever you experienced becomes “the way things should be.”
My kids both love small mountain towns, because when they were very little we lived in Manitou Springs, in a funny house perched on the slope of a hill.
Those places become part of our souls, and — if you write or create — they live again in your work and may go on to be favorite places of people who never saw them.
What are some of yours?