A sense of place

William Kittredge quoted in Dana Snyman: “A sense of place is bound up to some degree with the way people are in that place and with the history of the people, and it’s bound up even more with physical and natural details, with trees and grass and soil; weather, water, sky, the way some weeds smell when you walk on them. These are the details of place, and an awareness of them is what I call a sense of place” Dana Snyman, On the Back Roads

On the way back from the Ski Trip, we were chatting in the bus about the things we are looking forward to when we go home. Simple things, most of them. Like carpets. And cheese. And tumble dryers. But there are things from here that I will miss, too. Again, not necessarily huge, monumental things. But every place has a sense, a feeling, an identity. And when you’ve lived in a place for a while, it starts to get under your skin.

I have a strong sense of every place I’ve ever lived in. Some of them I didn’t even like that much. But there are moments and things about each place that stay with me. Climbing Bowkers Kop in Queenstown. Sunsets in Grahamstown and sitting on the couch outside 46D. The forest in Stutt. Walking to work on a crisp, frosty morning along Katherine Street in Sandton. Emmerentia Dam and ice-creams on random Sunday afternoons. Fat Cactus in Little Mowbray. Baby Egyptian geese falling out of the huge monkey puzzle tree outside my window in Rondebosch.

Even a short visit to a place can be enough to form a sense of the place in your mind. The sense is never objective and out there. It is always your own, unique experience, a subjective impression of where you’ve been. Flamingos from a hotel room in Kimberly. Cuppacino under winter grapevines while looking out at the mountains in Colesburg. Often, for me at least, the sense of a place is stronger if you leave and return to it often. Stepping out of Cape Town airport and breathing the Cape Town air and seeing the table-cloth on the mountain always feels like coming home. But once you start to be aware of ‘sense of place’ you start to form those opinions and impressions even without the regular contrast of other places.

My sense of Daegu is of a place that is temporary for me. It doesn’t feel like home the way Grahamstown always will. But there are definitely things that will always remind me of this place. Of course, this impression of place will continue to develop and become richer and deeper over the next few months, but sometimes it’s good to try capture it as it is now.

The strangest and most foreign part of this place for me is the smells. The food is different and the plants are different and the way of living is different. I can’t describe all the scents that make up the way that Daegu smells. I just know that it is a unique and completely alien smell that will always remind me of here.

Daegu is also the neon signs. A jungle of huge signs and billboards on every building, mostly in Korean and completely unintelligible, until you learn to read Hangeul just a little and discover that at least some of them are dotted with Korean-izations of English words like ‘school’. The sounds of Korea are different. The blaring of the loudspeakers on a roaming vegetable trucks, driving up and down suburban streets selling fresh fruit and vegetables at all hours of the day and night. The squeaky birds. The strange, whining, complaining noise that Korean girls make. The incessant thump, thump, thump of basketballs on the court across the road from my flat. The military planes flying over. The noise of the traffic. The Korean radio on the bus and in the taxis. K-pop blaring in every shop and restaurant. Horrible Korean versions of already annoying English songs, like the Titanic Theme, spilling from speakers in every park.

Daegu has an opera house. It is the place I first got to start watching operas regularly. And foreign-style restaurants with beautiful food and atmosphere. Korean food, each dish a side-dish to something else. And the sticky, white rice which is eaten all by itself or soaked in one or other of the many, many spicy soups. The scent of sweet-bean-and-dough treats that follows you down the winter streets. Galbi sizzling on a little grill, strangely nothing like the smell of meat on the braai but pleasant nonetheless. Fish on ice looking dead and a little gruesome right there on the pavement outside shops and at street stalls. Fruit and vegetable sellers crouching behind their wares on every busy streetcorner. Steam billowing from the outside cookers at the mandoo shop down the road from work.

Downtown on a Saturday night, standing in the street with cocktails over ice in plastic bags. Or Communes full of foreigners, rock music blaring and sport playing on the big screen. Bubbles floating down as you walk along the street and sometimes people handing out sparklers. The taste of Hite and Cass and Soju and strange bar-snacks.

Groups of ajummas sitting on a blanket in a park or at the lake. Groups of old men gathered under whisteria-roofed platforms playing boardgames on a Saturday afternoon. Little children calling to their parents – ‘ouma’, ‘oupa’ – and me turning around, taken a little by surprise every time. Shop workers who follow you around everywhere. Pre-cooked rice and instant (just add milk) pancake mix. Making sure you buy bottled water because the tap-water isn’t good for drinking. Fruit juices entirely unrelated to the flavour of the fruit. Syrupy-sweet tomato juice.

Children still walking the streets or playing or on the buses at 10 o’clock at night. On a school-night. Every school-night. The city moves and rushes and crowds all day, from about 8 in the morning until 11pm. Except downtown, which seems to be crowded and busy 24 hours a day. There is no peace and quiet. There is no space. No-one seems to notice. People walking down the road past my flat from the hills above in full mountain climbing gear (all correct and branded and expensive) at all hours of the day.

And so many other things. The three clearest, most typical moments of Daegu life? Watching the day-light fade, over the heads of small children bent to their books, from the window of my classroom; walking in parks in summer, autumn, winter, filled with other people walking and children playing and couples or groups of friends sitting together and nights at the hut with dongdongju, fellow foreigners and salty, fried eggs.

2 thoughts on “A sense of place

  1. I think so. Being away allows the sense of place to settle and makes it so much easier to be aware of the place when you return.

  2. I love the images so much. You paint such a human portrait of the place.

    I wonder whether sense of place might be strengthened in losing it, even if just for a time. It lets you polish the memories up to a fine gloss, so that returning can be all the sweeter.

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