The five places that made me: Sarah Turnbull


Sydney is my home now but – to paraphrase the famous line from Casablanca – I'll always have Paris. My years there were life-changing: I married there, I began writing in Paris, I became a French citizen. There's so much more to the city than monuments and museums. Paris is a place of extremes: it's glorious and also scruffy, old and very modern; it can be staid yet playfully provocative. I miss that tension – along with my morning pain au chocolat.


We spent three years in Tahiti and of all the outer islands, Fakarava was our favourite. The first time I saw it from the air I wanted to cry: it's one of the world's largest atolls but on the ocean plain it looks like a smoke ring, so fragile and brave. The dimensions of the island are insane: while the lagoon is vast, the coral islets which enclose it are barely wider than a runway and many are under water. But my most treasured memory of Fakarava is drift diving through ocean passes. The colour, the magical light, the teeming sea life! The whole time I was thinking: 'Store this away, Sarah. You'll never see anything as beautiful again.'


My deep feeling for the place stems from my fascination with the Australian impressionist John Russell. The rugged island off the coast of Brittany was the artist's home for 20 years and the plunging cliffs of its ''Wild Coast'' inspired many of his paintings. Last year I went to Belle Ile again to take part in a documentary about the artist, whose works are currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW. I've always felt sad that he wasn't better known in Australia, so it's wonderful to see Russell – and Belle Ile – in the spotlight.


Twenty years ago, I stayed in Tallinn's Old Town, with its twisting streets, crooked stone buildings and Gothic spires. As well as history, the Estonian capital exuded creative energy. There were classical concerts in churches, crazy art installations in cobbled courtyards, everyone I met was composing or creating something. I found it exhilarating.


My first visit to the Bosnian capital was not long after the devastating 3½-year siege of Sarajevo. Despite the rubble and the ruins, the town was fascinating, a melting pot with shades of Istanbul and also Vienna. Hotels hadn't reopened so I rented a room in the home of a lovely Muslim family. With another foreign journalist, one day I went for a walk just behind the town. Locals started yelling at us. It turned out there were landmines all over the hill. The fraught walk back is something I'll never forget.

Sarah Turnbull is a freelance writer and author of Almost French and All Good Things. She is working on a novel based on the life of John Russell. Australia's Lost Impressionist: John Russell will screen on the ABC, 9.30pm on October 30. Turnbull will talk about her fascination with Russell at the Alliance Francaise, Sydney, 6.30pm on October 10. See