Yesterday morning I made myself a small pot of espresso, heated up some milk in the microwave, mixed it together and added a spoonful of what I thought was sugar. It was salt.
This is a pretty good way to describe what my first few days at La Muse, the writer’s/artist’s retreat in the south of France, have been like. I was here three years ago and some things- many things- are exactly the same. The village dates back to sometime around 1000 AD, and the house where I’m staying used to be the chateau of the village in the Middle Ages. So, things have been here a long, long time. Of course nothing has changed.
In some ways I imagined that I would walk back in here and slip straight to the past, to exactly how things used to be, to the same person that I was when I was last here. I could pick up wherever I left off: journaling in the mornings and gazing out at the mountains and marveling over my explorations while I hiked. I could access the same thoughts and excitement and spirit. It would be immediate, and seamless.
But instead, I walked back in and was hit with such a powerful sense of familiarity, but also of difference. The trees are taller, they change the view from the terrace. I walk up two sets of stairs to my room and not just one, I listen for the sounds of my friends but I only hear the voices of strangers. I go on a small hike and pace back and forth, searching for the turnoff of the trail. Eventually I find it; it is much further down the hill than I remember. I reach for sugar and I grab salt.
I don’t quite have the same sense of wonder that I did the first time, either. It reminds me of my experience with Paris: I entered the city and knew exactly where to go, and what to do. If Paris felt like some sort of temporary home, then La Muse and Labastide do, too. Returning to a place you love is a special kind of experience; it reminds you of where you’ve been, it reminds you of where you are now.
There are 14 residents here, it’s a big group. Many Americans, two Germans, two Australians, one Irish woman and one English woman. One is a film editor but all the rest are writers. This feels a bit daunting to me. I know I’m working on a book, but others are too. Without knowing all that much about their projects, I still have the sense that their books are these real, concrete, serious things. So different than my own, which just seems to be a bunch of words at the moment. Some of the residents have already published, I get the sense that many of them know what they are doing.
Or do they? Maybe we all give off that sense to each other. If I let myself see past my own doubts, I see that others have them, too. It’s a fascinating experience to be back, once again, with a large group of creative people. We’re all still feeling each other out, and as usual, I’m content to sit back and observe the group quietly. But already I can start to see where I fall within the mix: Vera and I have similar writing schedules, we often work and take breaks at the same time. Hilary is introverted, like me, and we take walks down to Le Fenial for coffee. I pour over a large hiking map with Will, pointing out my favorite trails.
I thought I might be able to jump right back into this experience, to hit the ground running with my writing, to feel at ease around the other residents, but (and really, this should come as no surprise to me), I’ve needed time to settle into this. And I’m getting there, I can feel myself beginning to sink in. My room is beautiful, and I’d forgotten how much I love watching and listening to the swallows swooping around outside my window. I’ve been wandering through the hills (a mild cold has stopped me from taking on big hikes, but it’s probably just as well in terms of getting into a good writing routine), and I’ve returned to Le Roc- my beautiful spot on top of the mountain with views that seem to stretch on forever. Homer, the resident dog, has accompanied me both times, and I love this. He runs fast and far ahead, but always circles back to make sure that I’m still coming. And when we get to Le Roc, he finds a cool spot in the shade while I write, and when I’m done, we walk back to the village together.
I love that I have three weeks here, that I can spend these first days adjusting and settling in and finding my routines- the routines of three years ago, but also the routines of today. I’ll mix them together and come away with a brand new experience, and I can’t wait to see what it will be like.