‘Here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth.’
― Alexander McCall Smith, Love over Scotland
Stories are often prefaced with the conventional ‘once upon a time,’ when in fact, like people and life, they begin ‘once upon a place.’ Existentialism began in Paris, in the alleyway between the Café de Flore and the Café des Deux Magots. Dadaism, in Zurich, around the narrow wooden tables of Le Voltaire. The croissant, in Vienna, inside an insomniac baker’s oven. Sinatra’s career, in the Peacock room at the Ritz. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, on the terrace of La Closerie des Lilas. My love affair with the man now snoring next to me, in Washington, at a round communal table with an empty seat chez Mon Ami Gabi.
Every story, man, and pastry starts in a place drawn at random from a celestial hat. Mine was 1989 Beirut. I did not choose my origin - no one does- but it determined the God I would speak to, the passport I would hold, the language I would speak, the lullabies I would hear, the traditions I would learn, the hummus I would be force fed.
The eternally wobbly kitchen table, the corner shelf where the shortbread cookies were hidden, the vacant two centimeters in the middle of my parents’ bed, the most comfortable armchair in the apartment, the hiding place at the back of the coat closet, the window sill wide enough for a nap or read. With all its quirks, my origin was my own, and it was a beautiful place. A safe, familiar one in a wild, wide world.
But origins are not roots, and we are not trees. They are forever condemned to a place; we are meant to find ours.
Long before the world was scribbled on by frontiers, most indigenous people were nomads. They followed wind, stars, and water wells, in search of pasture, prey, or opportunities for trade. Never setting up camp too long, constantly searching for another place.
‘Wandering & wandering, What place to rest the search
The mighty arms of Atlas, Hold the heavens from the earth.’
- Led Zeppelin, Achilles’ Last Stand
Centuries, empires, and nations later, we are still searching for our place. Marco Polo went all the way to Beijing. Christopher Columbus, to Santo Domingo. The first Lebanese immigrants reached Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and Phileas Fogg journeyed around the world in a record eighty days to wind up where he started. J.M. Barrie flew to Neverland. A little prince I know did too.
And I, I went to Toronto to study ballet, and to Changsha to teach it. To Montalcino to sip a rich, red Brunello, and to Pienza to nibble on an aged pecorino. To every boulangerie in Paris to find the best baguette, and every confiserie in Geneva to find the darkest chocolate. To the top of the Rocher de Naye, just for the view. To Barcelona to butcher the Spanish language in a hotel lobby, and to Champaign, Illinois, to read poetry in the overnight bus. To many a conference, and an opera, to nap, and to parties, receptions, and dive bars, to end the night, like Holly Golightly, eating a croissant in front of a Tiffany’s storefront.
- It’s Uncle Arn. He’s always telling me, “Cluny Brown, you don’t know your place. Think of your place. Cluny Brown, you ought to learn your place.”
- Where does Uncle Arn think your place is?
- He didn’t say.
- Because he doesn’t know. Nobody can tell you where your place is. Where is my place? Where is anybody’s place? I’ll tell you where it is. Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place.’
Cluny Brown (1946)
I own two sets of keys to two different apartments on two separate continents. In them, I have two libraries of my favorite books, two pairs of slippers, two bottles of the same perfume. Two kitchens, with two sets of coffee cups, for two different types of coffee. Two boxes of letter paper, stamps, and postcards, and a world of addresses to send them to.
I understand the nomads now. The gypsies, the travelers, the wanderers. They are not searching for their place. They, and I, already know it.
My place is a multitude of experiences that began once upon a wobbly kitchen table, a corner shelf, an armchair, a window sill. It is wherever I laugh, wherever I love and am loved. Where ‘sensations are always new, where art pours out of daily life, where everything exists in a dream of endless beautiful flow.’
For my family, who has always been my place.