You can’t see it, of course, but air is one of the defining ingredients of a place. It can inspire as much longing or nostalgia as a certain type of bread or the view from a window in a room that used to be yours and no one else’s.
I remember with a pang that can only be called “heartache,” even though my heart is fine, flying back to Atlanta after I’d moved to Amsterdam, and exiting the airport into an obstinate wall of humidity. I wept, on the spot: I was getting close to “home.” Driving to Chattanooga—the town where I was born—in my rental car, the humidity grew. Approaching the initial curves that take you up Signal Mountain, I opened the windows and let the hot moisture in. A pudding of air, too dense to breathe. But I sucked it in joyfully. Tears again. Now I was all the way home.
I don’t love humidity; in fact I hate it. But that air was the air I grew up on, was nurtured on. It fed the cells of my brain and my heart and my guts. I miss it, the way one misses—in the most profound existential sense—the womb. Breathing that air even though I would no longer want to live in that place is the very essence of “going back.”
Since then, I have breathed the air of various adopted homes. The air of Virginia (very similar). The air of Oregon. The air of Amsterdam. Milan, Italy. And Burgundy, France. I have a complex relationship with all of them. The air of Milan, heavy like that of Chattanooga, is even weightier: it contains within it all the challenges of adulthood, second chances, leaps of faith and abiding love. Mountains bound the plain on which the city lies so that air moves in and out of it unwillingly. Gray skies tend to sulk and stay, loiter and linger. This is air that will eventually make a philosopher out of you, regardless of how frivolous you may be. You have no choice but to come to intellectual terms with “the way things are.”
Burgundy air, like Oregon air, is somehow fresh and alive. Moods shift. Change is afoot. Paradoxes exist easily. We are small under the sky that contains all this air and at its mercy, but this reality is a liberation. It’s comforting to know that you are just a speck on a cloud-raked, rain-washed, sun-drenched stage. The moisture isn’t cloying, it’s cleansing. Wet/dry. Cold/hot. Sun/rain. The grapes love it, and so do I. I’m a moody person, myself (apologies to the patient people who love me), and these shifts in the air around me suit me fine.
Early in the morning here, as the first light of day creeps into the sky, the air moves into the window and around the room like the chilly ghost of a cat. It wafts and insinuates, curving around your exposed arm and the nape of your neck—a cool current of life or the life-after. Or maybe it’s the life that came before, from whence we came. Who knows? It is a spirit, this air. A good spirit. It settles unsettling dreams, calms nerves, refreshes brain cells and sends you back to sleep—back to one more wordless, infantile vision—before it is really time to face another day on this Earth.
Which air is mine? Which do I claim? I can’t answer. It is comfort, in my confusion, to know that around this spinning ball we call home, they all mix and mingle and become one.
[If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy “The all important far niente” as well.]