In my first semester of my exchange to the State University of New York I took a class called travel writing, where we had to write about a foreign land and how we had come to understand the nature of that place’s culture and lifestyle. Since I had arrived some 8 weeks or so before, I felt it quite appropriate to write about my experience of moving to the USA from Australia and that period of transition and “culture shock” that can be so devastating in some instances. It’s written in a personal essay style.
Plattsburgh: A foreign land
Many people exaggerate the perils and dwell on a single woman’s vulnerability when she is travelling alone. Often, I find, this doom-ridden response is just an excuse for the speaker’s own timid spirit. Travelling alone does require a certain amount of courage, and nearly all the people I spoke with found that at one point on a long journey they have hit a roadblock where you want to turn around and go home. However, soon after this you come across another realization – you are not going home, you are going somewhere new, undiscovered and unseen by your eyes. So you push on.
I smile now when I recall the pictures I drew in my mind of Plattsburgh before I arrived. I was so overcome with the anxiety of leaving all I knew that I forgot the pleasure and adventure of travel. After three days of planes, hotels and homesickness, Plattsburgh felt like an old friend you’ve not seen in a while: somewhat awkward at first until you re-learn how to fit in with each other.
It was so green, misty from rain, somehow already comforting – no doubt a reminiscence of England. Plattsburgh is what I imagine as “classic”, north-country America, where people know each other in the corner store and give strangers lifts home from Wal-Mart.
Now I watch the leaves turn red all around me, and feel that chill like I’ve not felt in a long time, yet somehow I am warm because I’m in my new home. I never imagined I would feel at home, but as I smile at people on the street and sit in my usual spot in the park, I do.
I suppose to the untrained eye, Plattsburgh might appear unremarkable. “Why is it here? What is the point of Plattsburgh?” asked a friend of mine. I pondered this for some time; why is anything anywhere? The answer to this opens up numerous philosophical and theological discussions that perhaps I cannot explore here. I concluded, though, that there are things in all places that make them unique, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, and these things in turn affect people’s lives in small or tremendous ways.
In Plattsburgh, for example, unique French culture and history has remained over the years in ways that are still visible today. There is no “Main Street” here, a common mark of English colonies, whereas in a distinctive tradition major streets and thoroughfares were named after the daughters of prominent businessman and politicians like Cathérine, Marguerite, and Cornélie. While these names are now presented in English, a trace of French uniqueness lives on.
In a similar fashion, residents named local streets after renowned Frenchmen including Samuel de Champlain, the original founder of the region, and General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm – the French general who gained fame defeating incredible numerical odds in battles throughout both the Oswego and Hudson River Valley areas. The oldest monument within the city limits is dedicated to Samuel de Champlain, who still watches in statue form over the lake he founded 400 years ago.
Lake Champlain is a personal favorite place of mine, in fact, a group of friends and I spent almost an entire weekend lying on its shores and soaking up the sunlight and heat while it lasted. We went there as a group of people tossed together by circumstance, and came away with exceptional bonds; that lake gave me friends who I will cherish for a long time. The cold has ushered people away from its chilled waters now; I wonder if it will freeze in the coldest months. Different parts of Plattsburgh will always remind me of different days I have spent with the people I know here, a little bit of my life irrevocably tied to a piece of this town. I can remember a moment that sticks out in my memory when two of my new friends and I went to New York City. We were, as English people are wont to do, discussing the weather. “It’s not nearly this warm at home,” said Hannah. “Home?” I asked, and she responded, “I mean Plattsburgh.” Lindsay added, “I call it home too.”
I found myself asking, what makes a place feel like home? Essentially, as I am discovering, a group of people you love, and with whom you do things that connect you to the uniqueness of a place. My days at the lake and downtown, or our first evening here when we ate huge slices of New York Pizza on Margaret Street, all tie me to this place called Plattsburgh. A place where, for the moment, I call home.