I’ve just come back from a few weeks overseas, mainly in France, where my family originally comes from. It was great being back there, seeing everyone, spending time in both Paris and the South (where the family hails from). It was lucky too that my stay coincided with some particularly beautiful spring weather, with the countryside looking spectacular, full of the scent of warm grass and masses of flowers. France is such a beautiful place, which satisfies all the senses so well-including, of course, its marvellous food! and I always feel a great sense of well-being when I’m there.
But the trip wasn’t just about seeing family or even indulging in the sensual pleasures of a French spring; it was also about filling the treasure-chest. The writer’s treasure-chest of ideas and images and inspiration, that is. I was not only thoroughly relishing all the myriad beauties of the country; I was also writing them all down, attempting to capture them in words, to see and feel everything strongly, to file it away for use later. Trying to capture the exact way the sunlight fell on leaves; or the divine smell of lilacs by the side of the road; or the sudden plop of a frog as it jumped into a pond, the quick movement of the first grass-snake of the season just a few steps away; the bright Van Gogh yellow of fields of canola; the slightly cracked sound of the bell around the neck of a Pyrenean cow; the smell of fresh cheese in the markets; the saucissons hanging up in the butcher’s shops, the delicate beauties of cakes in the patisseries; the delight of a name like boutons d’or, as the French poetically call buttercups(the name means buttons of gold); the ancient Roman theatrical mask embedded in the very wall of a very old church, and the way the floor of that church ressembled a river bed, studded with pebbles.
In Paris, it was the shop windows that really got me, each of them works of art, even in the most modest and down to earth shops, there is such a flair and style to the window displays, everything is so beautifully, appetisingly arranged, colour, pattern, form, harmoniously and often unusually presented. Then there’s the people: the chic ladies with their little dogs, the young black guy flying a remote-control toy plane in the Luxembourg Gardens; the salty-tongued train conductor with his cap pushed back on his head; the bent old lady at her market stall, doggedly selling bunches of herbs and vegetables; the demure little girl in the gingham dress, fiercely defending herself against an overbearing older brother, the cafe-owner with a strong ressemblance to Asterix, leaning on his counter…All these vignettes, these flashes of colour, of light, of movement, and more, much more, go into the treasure-chest, to be taken out later.
It wasn’t only in France that I magpied little gems for the treasure-chest: in London, too, and in Dubai, I was on the alert, every sense on stalks, gathering up scraps, glimpses, bits and pieces. Walking around, seeing, feeling, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling everything, I thought again just how much I need this, as a writer. How much I need the experience of travel—the jerking out of homely routine and habit. Away from the pleasant but sometimes humdrum rounds of the everyday, you tend to notice more, in every way. Each experience, however small, each impression, however modest, gets attention in a way you might well ignore, at home. It recharges the writerly batteries! It happens especially like that in places you don’t know, but even in places you do know (and I’ve been back to France heaps of times) the very fact of having been away somehow rinses your eye, makes you see the place more clearly. And because you’re in a receptive frame of mind, you notice the unusual about the usual, the strange about the familiar, in a way that people who live there all the time take for granted.
Yes, you can write a book without going to the place you’re writing about: but to have been there sharpens everything immeasurably. At least, it does for me. There are some things you just can’t get from guide-books and videos and photos, no matter how useful and wonderful these can be. Nothing beats actually being there. And nothing quite fills the treasure-chest as richly and as rewardingly.