Here’s something about living abroad: it offers the gift of perspective. You start to see most things not as the default way, but as one option among many. Time away creates room for inspection, the chance to hold each culture up to the light.
For a few years I had one foot in France and the other in the United States, with the wobbly balance only natural in such a position. The glimmer of my adopted surroundings quickly wore off and I spent enough time in the States to never feel like I completely left. Frankly, I pined for home. I missed the ease, convenience, and comfort. I missed people who understood–quite literally–where I was coming from.
It took one entire year away, my usual trips home all cancelled, for this to sink in: I live in France. It’s visiting Missouri that has made this point so strongly. Since being back, I’ve had the strange sensation of being a visitor in my own town, my own country, of no longer quite knowing how things work.
In past years, I’ve described my life in France as slightly off, comparing it to the practical joke where someone moves all the living room furniture a few inches from where it usually sits. The victim bruises a hip, stubs her toe on the coffee table, and wonders at her sudden clumsiness. So too with living in a foreign culture that on first glance resembles your own. Walk around long enough and you’ll keep stubbing your toe, without any obvious clue to what’s wrong.
Jokes don’t translate. Assumptions prove incorrect. Beliefs about the world go challenged. Text messages get analyzed. You acquire a squint of suspicion, always wondering if you’re missing something or doing it wrong, in realms as varied as errand-running and relationships.
You want to trade places with tourists–you want to return to guidebook French, ignorance and bliss. You want to taste the best of the place and return with a memory like a found treasure. Instead, you stew in the waters of an inscrutable, adopted culture, becoming bitter and tough.
Here’s what I think now, on the other side of this process. These emotions are normal. Many of them are necessary to work through and wrestle with. It is unavoidably complicated–leaving one home, making another. The culture we grow up in leaves an indelible stamp, not something to be washed away one summer in the salty waves of the Mediterranean. We bring a lifetime of accrued, implicit beliefs with us wherever we go. Attitudes and assumptions about liberty, money, privacy, politics, relationships, food, and much more have all been influenced to some degree by our culture, so of course there are going to be clashes should we settle down in a new one.
Some of these clashes merely puzzle, some of them really hurt. Acquiring French fluency didn’t remove this tendency, nor did marrying a French citizen, nor having a French baby, nor the stamps in my passport securing continued legal presence in France.
What did help is neither glamorous nor surprising, but it is worth remembering: time. Just that. At some point in the past year, I gave up. I stopped trying to bring the US to France. I stopped expecting these two places with different pasts, people, and politics to feel the same. There were no big epiphanies–rather, I ran out of energy and stopped fighting. I let French culture change me. Slowly.
I’ve made peace with my accent and the aggressive rules of politesse. I never drive, but walk or take the train. I shop local–at the open-air market when I can–and only buy what I can carry in my arms or stuff in a stroller. And it turns out, I like it that way. As a family, we’ve taken up the national sport of picnicking and we soak up the slower paced, closed-on-Sunday culture. We live in the center of town in an apartment (so different from the acres of land I played on as a child). We spend weekends looking for treasures at the huge open-air antiques market, rifling through copper madeleine molds and vintage escargot platters. We observe the sacred hour of apero, and I finally have a Carrefour store card–if that doesn’t say “settled,” nothing does.
It is being back in Missouri that has me thinking about all these new rituals and routines, for in Missouri, I keep stubbing my toe. The knowledge that was in my bones, the things I did for a decade with my eyes closed, reappear as mystifying puzzles. I have, to my surprise, new second-nature knowledge. The old is nearly atrophied. I fumble with money and gas pumps, I barely remember to tip, I drive with the caution of the elderly. In conversation, I search for the English translation of a French word I like and come up short, settle for a cousin. Politics, prices, portion sizes. All these things (and many more, surely, that I haven’t identified) are little jolts, evidence of how the familiar can become the foreign and vice-versa.
Everything seems new to me.
Costco quantities. Cultural Christianity. Roadside hay bales painted in red, white, and blue Trump support.
Delicate white fans of Queen Anne’s Lace. Darting hummingbirds. Cicada exoskeletons poised in a frozen march along tree branches.
Everything outside these windows moves if you look at it long enough. There are garden spiders, groundhogs, sunsets that streak the sky violet. Violent thunderstorms strike with operatic drama and then slink off like nothing happened, leaving behind blistering sunshine and a thick cloud of humidity.
Yes, these are gifts: to see what was once home through the eyes of a traveler. To make a home in a place I once studied in textbooks.
It’s good to be back. It will be good to go back. Both are true.