I wrote this article for House and Garden, But sadly the magazine folded before it could be published!
This may sound a bit odd, but whenever I think of my home in upstate New York, I think of how much I admire the French.
Not just because they wouldn’t go to war with Iraq, or their healthy attitude towards sex, or white burgundy, or Johnny Hallyday or Jeanne Moreau, or crème fraiche, but because of how they think about missing.
You see, I love my Catskills eyrie. Every time I go there I take a deep breath of the clean, woody air and look up though the trees to the star-spangled sky and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have something this beautiful in my life.
And so when I’m away, as I am often, I miss that feeling. I miss the peace and the view and the fact that there’s a gate at the bottom of the hill that you need to know a code to make open. I miss the weekends when I have friends up and I feel I am really seeing them, because we’re doing things we never do in the city: we’re cooking and swimming and trampolining and laughing together, and at the end of the night they stumble down the hill to their cabins and sleep a sleep so deep and thick that by the time they climb back up the hill for a very late breakfast, they look younger and feel more rested than they have in years, and, best of all, they don’t mind there is no signal for theirPDAs.
It’s so hard to be away from all that. But here’s where the French come in, and their missing. You see, we make missing all about ourselves: I miss you. They - yes, perhaps rather dramatically and with a little soupcon of passive aggression - say 'tu me manque' (you, to me, are missing). So, the missing is not done by us, but by the person or thing that we miss.
I really like that.
It makes the missing not so painful somehow, and yet at the same time it expresses much more yearning and gallic angst than our way.
I miss my house in the Catskills. It is missing to me. I think maybe it even misses me.
I am one of those people who, when I moved to New York City, suddenly saw everything in my life making sense: the overwhelming welcome, the relief of no longer being an outsider, that amazing feeling that the energy on the streets wasn’t just something I was entering into but more something long dormant that was actually gurgling up from deep within me, so powerfully I wanted to perpetually hiccup.
Once I had experienced it, I only left the city when I absolutely had to, for work almost always. And whilst the drive from any of the airports back onto the island of Manhattan is for me as exciting and magical as Dorothy and co’s advance towards the Emerald City, conversely, the journey out to JFK is the most dreary- emotionally as well as aesthetically- that I know.
Even on the hottest, sweatiest, slowest, beastliest of nights when no ceiling fan or clanky air conditioner could bring succour, I still couldn’t imagine anywhere on earth I’d rather be, and thought the complaints of my acquaintances who yearned ‘to get our of this city’ were just a phase, a fad, no doubt influenced by the seemingly endless media coverage of the haute polloi’s life in the Hamptons.
I went to the Hamptons once for a party. It was full of all the people I tried to avoid in New York at parties. They stay in houses all crushed together and - worse in my eyes, considering the whole idea of going to the beach is to get away from it all - they are in traffic jams all the way there, all the way back AND at any time they try to venture out of their little picket houses (with their redundant widows’ walks, unless you’re looking for your husband’s helicopter coming through the fog after a late meeting in Manhattan)) to go to a nearby toney hostelry full of people they don’t want to see, if theycan even get a table. I’d so much rather stay in New York.
But I suppose the newness of something, whether a person or a city, is always romantic. Not that I have ever doubted my passion for Manhattan, but as time goes on and circumstances change and we get a little older, we naturally start to take our love a little for granted. It’s a given. And sometimes things happen that jolt us into a new way of thinking.
Like so many others, for me that was September 11th, 2001.
Now don’t get me wrong. My love affair with NYC has only increased since that horrible day. The way the city bounced back, the way it rallied and blossomed and lived (Aunite Mame would be so proud) only increased my desire to be a citizen of that weird little island floating off the coast of America, and even, more weirdly, proud to have been there when the awfulness happened.
But the change for me came a few days later, the Saturday after the Tuesday, when the bridges and tunnels were all open again, and my friend Grant invited me to drive with him to his place upstate. I jumped at the chance. Suddenly, not being allowed to leave Manhattan had made me want to scream to get out of it. (I am an Aquarian after all).
We set off, knocked sideways and dazed, amazed at the ever increasing number of signs the further we got out of the city proclaiming revenge and death to those who had dared to shake America from its slumber. Maybe because we’d been there when it happened, maybe because we were still in shock, we hadn’t worked out our feelings yet. But anyway, these public declarations of violence outside churches and fire stations and schools just didn’t tally with what was going on inside our heads and hearts. We just wanted some peace.
And we got it. I had never been to Grant’s place before. My crazy schedule combined with my lack of desire to leave the city had prevented me. So this was my first time, and, lucky for me, I couldn’t have lost my virginity at a better time or in a better place.
First of all it was the silence. I hadn’t realised how insanely noisy New York had been. Post 9/11 there were endless bomb scares and the streets ranged from being utterly empty to being full of people screaming and running in every direction. The Empire State building is about to be blown up! There’s a chemical attack on the subway! Don’t drink the water! Get a gas mask before stocks run out!
To be away from it all - in this quiet, balmy, beautiful, leafy wilderness - was shocking, and forced me to deal with everything I’d been merely experiencing for the last five days. A tidal wave of feeling rose up and drenched me. I wept and grieved. I looked around me and for the first time understood what those people meant when they said they had to get out of my beloved city.
And guess what? The land next to Grant’s was for sale! Yep, just as quickly as my love affair with NYC had begun, the ease with which I slipped into being a town and country man did too. 12 acres in the middle of a forest with a little wooden hunting lodge was mine by Tuesday morning, one week after the twin towers fell.
A couple of years later I had a housewarming party for the new cabins I’d built. (Years of visiting friends in their country piles had taught me some good lessons and I had arranged my guest houses around the forest to ensure my visiting friends’ and my own privacy.)
I stood on the spanking new deck looking out across the Catskills. It was a beautiful warm evening. I could hear laughter and splashing coming from the spanking new pool. Someone had started grilling the fish we’d bought at the farmers’ market on the spanking new barbeque. As I turned to raise my glass in a toast to my new home, I felt the glow you only feel when you’re truly happy. And then I looked into the eyes of a friend and something magical happened. He is now my husband.
I write this alone on a train going from Glasgow to London. He’s back in America. I miss him. I miss our country haven. Both he and it are missing to me.
But in a month we’ll be together: him, me, the dogs, a group of friends old and new, all sitting on the deck or round the fire pit or lying in hammocks, drinking and laughing and looking up at the stars. And knowing how good that feels will tide me over till then.