As a young girl, I fell in love with Prague. My mother took me on a trip to visit relatives, and while skipping down the castle steps, holding her hand, I told myself that one day I would move there.
I was enchanted by Prague – the bridges, the narrow cobblestone streets, the doors too big to be practical, the golden tipped statues, the baroque palaces, and churches, the art nouveau and deco buildings – all open and free to wander in an out of. Even as a child it left an impression on me. That such beautiful places were so accessible and a part of everyday life. Many years later I returned and spent 7 years there.
Before I moved to Prague, I had lived in Edinburgh and now I live in Istanbul.
While living in Prague and in Edinburgh, I wasn’t curious about my relationship to the city. I photographed them. I worked and studied. I sat in the cafes. Did theatre and then went home. I basically lived in those cities and was fairly oblivious as to any deeper meaning beyond that. Everything was where it was supposed to be and I merely navigated my way through it.
I moved to Istanbul with a purpose. My main intent was to use it as a catalyst for my interest in place writing. But on a more personal level, it was the place where I would start my life again on my own terms.
Prior to my move to Istanbul, I had spent the past year and a half dealing with the aftermath of an abusive marriage and I was finally free. Psychologically, spiritually and emotionally free. I was also a different person and I wanted more from life than I had ever wanted before and most of all, I wanted to write. This was trauma’s gift to me – I learned to trust myself.
Istanbul is home now and I feel settled enough to start my own personal writing project which I have entitled ‘Place’. I have decided to use a book called ‘The Soul of Place,” by Linda Lappin as a guide to gaining a deeper sense of what she calls ‘place consciousness’. In it, she gives a series of writing exercises to help the writer develop their awareness of place and explore their relationship to it.
I bought the book a while ago and I put it in my secret suitcase, saving it for if and when I returned to Istanbul. I wasn’t sure at that point if it would be possible to return but now I am here. And it’s time to start…
The first step in place writing is to become aware of the genius loci.
What is the genius loci? Some say it is the atmosphere or ambiance of a locality or the emotions or sensations a place evokes in us. To the ancient Romans, it referred to an entity that resided in a site and energized it; a mix of climate, landscape and the cultural markings left by both the current and past residents. It is also described as a form of intelligence operating within the environment in synergy with human beings as co-creators of place.
In short – it makes up the magic of a place.
The magic that manifests in both the foreign and the familiar, the sublime and the mundane. The magic that sparks the emotions we feel when we enter a place – the fear we feel walking down a dark street, the freedom we feel in an open field or the awe that is inspired when looking up at the soaring heights of a cathedral.
If we are going to write about place we need to develop our own relationship to the genius loci of that place. And this relationship begins with developing an awareness of it.
We already do have an intuitive relationship to place. I am sure that you at some point in your life sensed that you belonged somewhere so strongly that you wanted to move there. You may not have understood why. You just felt it. I had this feeling towards Prague, Edinburgh, and Istanbul.
Anthropologists suggest that our attraction to or repulsion for certain places derives from a deep, unconscious attunement to our environment, harking back to when we were all nomads. These visceral responses to the environment were important because they allowed us to sense where we were likely to thrive and where we were not.
Even though we no longer need to rely on these responses for finding fertile fields and water sources we can use them as intuitive guides to explore our own relationship to place.
Our relationship to place is a mirror of our relationship with ourselves.
Welcome to my new writing project. If you would like to share with me your own work on place or have useful links to share, please leave them in the comment section below.