On the flight over to Paris a couple of weeks ago, I had a single preoccupation: what if someone needed medical attention and there were no doctors on board and I had to raise my hand and chirp “but I’m just a medical student”? Terrifying. Thankfully, more terrifying things distracted me: Ice Age 2 and Wrath of the Titans on ancient overhead video screens – why, Liam, why?
Now on the flight back, I see a pack of childhood-favorite La Barquette de Lu a la fraise in the seat pocket of the older elegant man and his partner sat in front of me while listening to the full of sorrow end credits of The Words – a mild improvement from Wrath of the Titans.
Queuing up to check in at the airport this morning, mother + father waited with me for a good chunk of the line. We were mostly quiet, although my mom and I talked about my brother. She wanted to know if we had talked during my stay. We did in fact. Only a mother worried about her monosyllabic son would intuit that. I was torn between satisfying her need to know her son is ok and respecting my brother’s privacy. Thankfully there was great distraction behind us in the form of an American family. They were loud and full of luggage. The teenage son was carrying a guitar on his back. He was rather fond of leaning back to stretch, thereby gently conking my mother on the head with his instrument each time. At one point, their many haphazardly arranged suitcases fell off their cart and slammed into my ankles. My mom and I chuckled. Americans. It can’t be explained but only Americans could have composed that scene. When we got to the proper part of the queue where ticketed passengers were allowed, I kissed my parents goodbye and they walked away. They turned once, maybe twice. They waived.
“Your parents” the American woman behind me asked.
“It must be hard. Every Christmas break? Must be hard.”
“We’ve been doing this for twelve years. They’re ok. I think.”
She watched along with me as my parents disappeared into an elevator. She said something else I can’t quite remember. I was pleased with the distraction yet annoyed that she was robbing me of that lingering moment after important goodbyes when time is suspended and I tell myself that it will be different this time. I will call more, they will call more, we will have in depth discussions even after a few months of not seeing each other. The American was a lovely woman, a psychiatrist who had trained as an ob/gyn before finding her calling and we had plenty to talk about as she offered well wishes with my ongoing job interviews.
“We’ve been doing this for twelve years. They’re ok.” Are they? Am I? The twelfth anniversary of my moving to the US was just a few days ago. So yes, we have been doing this for twelve years, some years more than once per year. I was too young, too stubborn, and too aloof back then to grasp what it must have meant to my parents to watch me ship off thousands of miles away. In the last twelve years, I have spent maybe a year’s worth of time in France when adding all of my vacation time, if that. Am I still French? Yes. But is France still home? I always anticipated answering no some day. When I was younger I thought it would happen after a specific number of years, about five. After five years, I would feel American, whatever that meant. Poetic, but misguided. I also thought it might happen whenever persistent homesickness kicked in, or whenever I would not feel like leaving after a given vacation. But I never got home sick. I have always enjoyed going back to Paris, seeing my best of best friends, picking up the conversation right where we left it a year ago. I have always savored the indescribable pleasure of buttering a baguette in the morning and dunking it in a cup of tea, the smell of my mother’s laundry soap, the view when reaching the top of the steps at the Place de l’Opera metro stop, the crisper taste of a Diet Coke in a 12oz glass bottle, and the elegance of French men in their perfectly tailored suits best observed while waiting for the metro. And I left every time.
On this particular trip, I got lost in Paris three times, twice with a map in my purse. Three times. After the cursing and the subsequent laughing, it all was very obvious: Paris was no longer home. It’s not so much that I got lost or that I needed a map, but simply the fact that I was content to use the map. There was no sadness or doubt or joy in that moment, but instead a quiet peace from having settled a long-standing dilemma. Not having ever felt the desire to move back does not make me any less French. I will always bemoan the fact that I only get an annual date with friends of fifteen years, that I missed my 10-year reunion and my grandfather’s funeral, and that maybe if I had stayed I would weigh 10 lbs less. But I have never regretted my decision to move and find a home of my own.
I am ok.
I hope my parents are too.