One balmy black-sky night last autumn, at a stunning hotel in Laos, my partner of six years – to whom I’d been engaged for 18 months – took my hand and said: “I don’t think i might wish to marry you any more .”
Two facts about this exchange. One, it happened the day before my birthday. (I know.) the other – which mitigates somewhat the scorch of the first – is that I half knew it had been coming. it had been a neighborhood of an extended and complicated conversation. And, while it took my breath away (literally – because what percentage exact sentences are there among all the possible sentences on Earth that fall so squarely under the heading of belongings you Never, Ever Want to concentrate to Said To You?), it didn’t take me all of sudden .
We met in Southeast Asia , where he was, and remains , based. After quite year of long-distance commitment, I moved from London to Singapore to live with him. We had a shocking little flat, a glass-walled box in the sky overlooking the city’s arboretum , and a few of years of real happiness – the springtime of our together-ness, i feel we understood even then, vastly extended by the time we spent apart as a results of our work.
From the start , i wont to be indifferent, leaning to sceptical, about marriage. Why, in my mid-40s? When I’d gotten this far without doing it? We got engaged eventually, though, because I loved him and it had been important to him; and also, if I’m honest, because I feared he’d advance if I didn’t. But a 2019 crammed with challenges, including a disruptive move from Singapore to Bangkok, had seriously frayed a bond already worried away at for a couple of time by career demands, tricky family stuff and garden-variety familiarity.
Maria along side her parents at their house in Carmel, California | Image: Carlos Chavarría
Initially, the brutal birthday semantics aside, it had been a very gentle separation. We agreed to need time adjusting to our new uncoupled reality; i’d move after the New Year . When, a few of weeks later, circumstances came to light that instantly, explosively scuppered any possibility of continued gentleness (I’ll entrust the tiny print to the reader’s imagination), we were spared the misery of constant cohabitation by manic travel schedules.
I cried, and packed. I cried at 39,000 feet, in seat 44J. I cried buying tea at Mariage Frères in Paris. I cried within the queue at the Pret A Manger on Cannon Street, and within the ladies’ room at FT HQ in Bracken House. I felt less outrage than I’d expected to, and a far greater sense of failure. I still feel a messy alchemy of grief and relief that’s painful to untangle, and to possess .
I packed and unpacked (in our guest bedroom, which I’d moved into) around each long or short work trip. Then I’d sit at the kitchen bench with tea – or wine – and mentally pack up what had come to Asia with me. My Wishbone chairs, many books, vintage bedlinens from the Bridport market in Dorset. I catalogued the things whose significance preceded us, that were ineluctably mine – and intrinsically , like me, not belonged during this picture.
I had already danced around the question of where I’d move. Back to London? He wondered. No, I said: Italy. Yes, I know, everyone from Lord Byron to Liz Gilbert has gone to Italy to subsume their malaise in its beauty, I know, how banal. But Italy which I even have history. I studied there for a couple of of years in my early 20s, I speak the language fluently and have friends up and down the peninsula. And in an adult life that has taken on overly migratory qualities I’ve alighted there quite anywhere else.
My imagination was too overtaxed – sifting forensically through the half-knowns and he-saids of our fallout – to urge even an summary of what a replacement life there would seem as if . But I left anyway, in mid-January, with three suitcases. My things would wish to follow. “Home” would be temporary for some time; I’d handle it. I’m accustomed to being out and about, with bags.
Six weeks later, i wont to be packing again in Rome, for a fast work trip. I had an address, albeit a brief lived one. A permanent residency application was within the works. Throughout February coronavirus had pressed westward from Asia, bringing lockdown to cities within the north. Roman bars and restaurants were on curtailed hours; the streets were emptier a day . a neighborhood of me clearly saw the delicate outline of my future dissolving into a subfusc haze of uncertainty. But I had a bit trip to believe , and it had been the higher thing to specialize in .
On 6 March I left for Spain. Then things began happening in no time . Italy closed its borders to all or any or any non-citizens and permanent residents. With no long-term visa in place yet, i wont to be effectively locked out. Madrid imposed quarantines and a border closure in Spain seemed imminent. i assumed for about two minutes of going back to London, but I’d way back given up my flat, and it had been hardly the moment for short-term house-hunting.
So I bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco , landing hours before the US closed its own borders. I rented a car and drove south to the Monterey Peninsula, where my mother and father sleep during a cottage shortly from the ocean. The plan, inasmuch as there was one, was to stay with them for 10 days approximately , then maybe wander north to my brother’s place in Marin County, or south to LA to determine friends. I’d be an unobtrusive guest, for the few weeks I still thought we were all talking about back then; all I had with me were my laptop and a smallish suitcase.
On the beach along side her mother, 1973
Six days later, my home state became the first within the US to issue a compulsory shelter-in-place ruling. Which is how I ended up where i’m now: in California, with my entire life distributed between a flat in Rome and another in Bangkok. Newly, quite harrowingly single. on the brink of turn 50. Living with my parents.
When I made a self-pact in January to confront whatever my future might hold with Zen equanimity, I don’t got to tell you a worldwide pandemic wasn’t within the catalogue of possibilities I’d entertained. Of course, nobody saw this coming (bar a few of vigilant epidemiologists to whom tons folks really wish our governments had been paying more attention). Countless lives are upheaved, many thousands of them far more severely than my very own . All folks are tossed alarmingly outside our comfort zones; now we are all fixed, alarmingly, in place.
Eight weeks in, here’s the interesting thing: my situation isn’t alarming. It’s not the Netflix tragicom-series pitch it probably half-reads as above. it’s comfortable, and it’s eminently comforting. this is often often partly because my late-seventysomething parents are genuinely lovely people, who met the prospect of their adult daughter – a possible virus carrier, it should be noted – landing on their doorstep from Europe along side her one suitcase (and plenty of hysteria about her eventual income stream, and no real idea of how long she would be in residence) pityingly , grace and generosity. It could even need to attempt to to with the actual fact i wont to be still in mid-air from the impact force of my very own personal upheaval when full global upheaval hit, which has left me during a more existentially bendy state – all the upper to abide what I could never have seen coming.
My parents bought their house in Carmel within the ’80s, and moved up full-time from l. a. once they retired several years ago. Though I grew up in LA, I even have deep sensory memories from childhood of the long drives north on Highway 1. I recall anticipating the changes in atmosphere, temperature and hues where the topography begins to buckle and shear skyward above Cambria at Big Sur‚ the place that to me demarcates the physical and deeply cultural northern-southern California divide. California’s central coast is one of the foremost spectacular landscapes within the US. (That’s not personal bias talking; Google it, or watch Big Little Lies again). It’s a locus of majestic Pacific vistas and counterculture lore in near-equal measure. Carmel, which sits where Big Sur peters out into the peninsula, is sufficiently exurban that I can walk its cypress-lined paths and lanes for miles without breaching either the shelter-in-place dictate or the social-distancing one. Half a kilometre from our house is a 34-acre nature preserve, a Middle Earth fairyland of redwoods and climbing vines and sinuous coastal oaks draped in Spanish moss.
A trail system runs through it, utilized within the 18th century by the Franciscan monks who founded California’s famous missions. Carmel State Beach could also be a shallow mile-long crescent of lime-white sand, a perfect running beach at low tide and an off-leash Valhalla for dogs. At the time of press, it’s one of the few within the state that hasn’t been closed. I miss Italy, often and sometimes acutely. But it feels slightly churlish, bemoaning the space between me and thus the saffron-amber-oxblood palette and old-stone smells of my truncated life there, when I’ve had the large privilege of this nature during which to roam.
Maria on Santa Monica Beach in 1977
It has been years since I’ve been in one place long enough to watch an entire season unfold (Singapore, one-and-a-half degrees north of the equator, has no seasons). I’m stunned by what a spectacle this spring is, though my mother and father insist it’s only moderately more extravagant than usual. Swaths of orange poppies have bloomed, festooning the shoulders of Highway 1 like bunting; the ice plant along the beach is stippled pink and yellow with blossoms; lupin runs riot in Carmel Valley, carpeting entire acres of hillside in blue.
Every fourth or fifth day until mid-April, rains rolled in, imparting slightly of cinematic bombast to the skies above the Santa Lucia mountains, which ripple with grass so green they could be in Cork. The smells are ur-California, a Proustian barrage that pulls me back to my childhood on every morning run: the loamy black soil of pine forest, the acrid new sagebrush of the flats. The storms ruin huge ropes of kelp; the fug of it mixes with the brine of the ocean in my nostrils and thus the rear of my throat. Each day, the shape of the beach is minutely altered. I’m deeply out of practice at stasis; eight weeks is as long as I’ve gone in ages without travelling. Spring’s progression is an example in temporality, and in being where i’m .
Bloom where you’re planted, I read on a bumper sticker a few of weeks ago as I drove to the village’s lone pharmacy. The pharmacy could also be alittle , mom-and-pop business, but its high-low merchandise mix could also be a window on the demographics of the peninsula – $24 Marvis toothpaste and Claus Porto soaps alongside the nappies and antacids. The Monterey Peninsula is its own unique iteration of America. It’s a well-off, educated catchment during a state with the world’s fifth largest economy; the gated community of Pebble Beach, with its exclusive golf clubs and annual vintage-auto concours, testifies to this . But much of the rest of it’s deep coastal-California blue. It punches above its weight culturally; Carmel, population but 4,000, has an annual Bach festival, and a movie festival, and three performance theatres. David Sedaris regularly reads from his work on the community centre, where Willie Nelson is additionally known to headline. a neighborhood highschool broadcasts the BBC World Service each day on its student station . There are half a dozen weekly farmers’ markets within an eight-kilometre radius of each other, and doubtless as many vertically integrated cannabis boutiques.
The houses tend toward cottages and California bungalows; variety of them, like my parents’, are creeping au courant a century old. Some are given silly names; some have gorgeous gardens. Some have sprawling new additions and Tesla Model S’s parked in their drives (Carmel has become a popular second-home destination with the newly minted wealthy from the Bay Area). For the foremost part, everyone grooves along. The singsong “Hi-iii”s issue from behind masks or bandanas lately , but aren’t any less friendly. They still startle me, who left California, and greeting everyone I see on the road , 26 years ago.
With her brother and father on the family boat, Iona, in 1977
I love this place, which is and isn’t my home. l. a. is where i wont to change state , but nobody in my family lives there any more . In my adult life, this cottage in Carmel is that the address that corresponds most closely to the thought of where I come from. I’ve slept these last eight weeks during a downstairs bedroom that has been “mine” since i wont to be at university, though there are years of my life once I didn’t come here within the least . i do know the knots and grain of its ceiling beams. I dwell bed now, basically a middle-aged woman, and remember staring up at them at 20, cataloguing the places on the map of the earth i assumed i’d wish to call home.
Because I did always want to live everywhere. And succeeded, to some degree; within the past 15 years I’ve had addresses in five countries, and travelled to dozens of others. But it transpires there’s an hazard of itinerant life, one I wish I could have warned that 20-year-old about: a kind of free-floating homesickness. It’s been the privilege of a lifetime to immerse in parts of the earth so far away from the one i wont to change state in. But to live in many elsewheres is to feel slightly displaced everywhere; even the place that’s putatively home.
As I reconcile my increasingly frail parents during a landscape I haven’t been so intimate since i wont to be a toddler , I’m homesick for the days once they roamed it tall and young and smiling. once I inhale the Pacific, I touch the wild joy of my five-year-old self; then I hold my mother’s hand, small and dry and fragile as a wren, and know it’s true that time does go much faster when we’re older.
And now we’re all preparing to re-enter the earth , which we hope is returning to some semblance of normality. Soon, probably within a few of months, variety folks are getting to be travelling again. I’ll revisit to Rome eventually, and my wonky little flat, where I expect to hunt out all thing I own furred with centimetres of ancient dust. I’ll get to work rebooting my life there – though I’ll never precisely resume the one I’d started, because i feel the entire world has shifted slightly, and thus the longer-term with it.
I am making something of a pact with myself: plan to travel slightly less, plan to stay tons longer. to hunt out the way to form that employment with work. But i actually just like the elsewheres of this world, and getting to them, and writing about them. I’m fairly sure my future will still include living out of a suitcase once during a short time (though I hope fervently to avoid ever again having to parlay one originally packed for a five-day trip into a two-month sojourn). within the meantime, i might wish to concentrate to what, and who, is around me now, here where I’ve been sheltering, and sheltered.