This fall, for the first time, I've caught myself thinking of France as home.
This may be hard to explain, because France has been home in a certain way from the moment we unpacked our first moving boxes in the living room. I've moved a fair amount in my life, and I've found that the moment the nest is rebuilt and I'm once again surrounded by all my things, I've been successfully transplanted. Afterward, there are ups and downs, of course; there's a period when everything is new and perfect, a period a little later when everything is tedious and disconnected, and then finally the peaks even out.
A friend of mine who was born abroad but has lived in the US for the last three decades told me, and wisely, that this process would take three years.
The first year is elation. The second is comparison with everything you knew before. The third is integration and synthesis, as you finally reconcile the old with the new.
All this happened for me much as she described. Moving was my idea as much as my husband's, and at the beginning of 2003, I couldn't leave quickly enough. We both had jobs with companies with no future (mine duly went under three months after we left), and though we had a number of good friends in Boston, we had no family ties in the US closer than a five-hour flight west. When my husband finally got the job offer he had been hoping for that would take us to Paris, I remember the months sped by as we nervously but excitedly planned the move.
I came up with a new version of Azavour, "Il me semble que la misère serait moins penible à Paris." Misery will be less painful in Paris! I hummed it to myself at my desk at work.
By the summer of 2004 the elation was gone. I wasn't sure I wanted to move back to the US, so it wasn't homesickness in the traditional sense. Instead, I wanted to find some idea of home in Paris that I had imagined but never found. I began to convince myself that if I lived in some kind of Parisian fairy-tale apartment, with tall Haussmanian glass-paned doors and a view of the Eiffel Tower, I'd somehow feel better. I moped, I whined, and I dragged my husband around Paris neighborhoods on the weekends, ruining otherwise nice walks by pointing out apartment buildings and saying, "If only we lived there!"
I was depressed, and I wasn't sure why, and I was rapidly making anyone willing to listen to me miserable as well. It was that summer that we went back to the US and I caught up with my friend who explained her three-year theory. I remember the evening clearly: were were at a Thai restaurant in suburban San Francisco, and I pushed coconut rice around my plate while trying to explain, delicately since my husband was with us, just how unhappy I was. I confided that I had started thinking of moving back, not immediately but eventually, and the idea of a life in France was seeming less and less sustainable. I didn't even know what had happened.
Her remark made me consider for the first time that my unhappiness was temporary: it wasn't about France, or who I was, but rather where I was in a process. So by la rentrée 2004, as schoolchildren across France were headed back to class, I resolved to keep at my homework, doing what I needed to finally fit in. I signed up for gym and art classes. I started preparing for some road races. As providence would have it, I made friends with a colleague and running buddy, who ended up keeping me company for hours as we trained together for the Paris Marathon. Her good humor and warm conversation pulled me out of my rut as much as anything else.
Two years of routine followed that difficult summer, without turmoil, but with such constant activity that I hadn't time to worry so much about my emotional state. I ran a marathon. We bought an apartment. My company changed offices. My life settled into simple day-to-day questions, and I largely stopped la prise de tête.
Three months ago I celebrated my third anniversary in France. I was no longer unhappy to be here, although I wasn't exactly ecstatic, either. I was simply happy, content, at peace. At home.
Now, this fall, I've started thinking of France as home in an entirely different way than I had ever expected. I simply and suddenly, for just a few seconds, forget that France was anything other than home. It sounds strange, but it has happened to me several times recently: I'll be looking at something or thinking about something entirely unrelated, and the idea of France as where I live and have always lived will settle into my brain, and I'll accept it. Then I stop: wait a second, that's not right...
It happened to me this weekend as my husband and I were taking a walk at lake near Troyes, home of his father's family. It was dusk, we were headed back to the car, and the landscape was covered with a fine mist that was just dense enough for us to try and blink it away as if we were waking from sleep. The sky was otherwise clear, and even before sunset everything had seemed just touched with gold: not the brilliant oranges and reds that I remember from New England, but a subtle yellow caught amongst the leaves, or a line of afternoon sunlight on the outline of a bare branch. We we walked along, the gravel road crunching under our feet, and I remember looking down at the ground and feeling a kind of familiarity that I thought only came when you returned to a place you knew as a child. "I am from here," I thought, "How nice it is to be back." Then I stopped myself and remembered it wasn't strictly true.
It felt as familiar to me as any landscape I'd ever known.