from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

neon future: thoughts on life in the liminal stage

Hello from the other side of the ocean. I’m back in Columbia, Missouri, beloved little college town, experiencing less culture shock than I expected to.

There was the initial whoa of the Baltimore airport: large people clutching super-large fountain drinks, families dressed in matching tee-shirts, the informality with which strangers spoke to each other.

But it’s not exactly difficult to acclimate myself to all this comfort, a lifestyle as squishy as my dream foam mattress topper. There is water everywhere. Bathrooms. Late-night food, clothing dryers, Wi-Fi. The strangest and best change is having my car back. I no longer have to plan my day around how far my tired feet or broken bike will be able to carry me.

I appreciate things more. Driving makes me giddy. Libraries a wealth of stories and information, all free and in English. Baths the perfect cure to a long day. Friendsimg_5168

My friend Josephine came to visit for a few days, and it was so much fun to see Kansas City again, on my own, as an adult with a car. While she went to a wedding, I explored the Power and Light District, went to the art museum, took some pictures and took the free tram around town. We went to my parents’ house in Clinton and hung out with them and the new puppy for awhile, lingering over long meals, making failed macarons, reading the Atlantic, talking law and politics and life choices.

On that end, it’s really good to be back.

But there’s a certain strangeness, too. The path I’m currently on, a path of uncertainty and last-minute decisions, doesn’t exactly invite stress-free living.

I keep thinking about my English Capstone course the last semester of college, The Black Bildungsroman. It was my first experience considering the coming-of-age genre as a form. We talked about Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” then focused on African literature (Camara Laye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…). We talked about the advent of the teenager and about the elements of growing up: leaving the parents, embarking on a quest, taking an apprenticeship. We talked about liminal stages: the limbo transition period between childhood and adulthood. They can also exist between countries or cultures, and it’s a good place to get lost.

Maybe it’s a little silly, but my stint in France has me thinking liminal stage all the time. Here (the States, Missouri, the anglophone world, whatever) doesn’t feel completely like home anymore. It’s lovely and it’s comforting, but it’s missing something now. Some people assume that my time there has been just for fun, that I’ll come back to the States and stay and be a French teacher. But I don’t think I want that. I’ve worked so hard to integrate to a new culture, new life, new language. I don’t want to just forget that. But France certainly isn’t completely home either. Is that what you give up when you leave, ever having a home?

When I think of my future, my actual future, I see static, the black fuzzing of an old TV screen. The best I can do is conjure a vision of myself as I’d like to be: elegant and glamorous with great hair and a classic trench coat, working at a successful career in Paris, Chicago, or NYC, something somehow both stable and creative. In my free time, I’m going to shows and working on a cookbook and talking to interesting people from all over the world in two languages. Writing.

How do I get there, and where is it I want to go? I don’t have a real clue. My choices are endless, and that’s both a blessing and a curse.

I think that’s the mal du siècle of my generation in this century. We are paralyzed with possibility.

Already, I feel old. Laughable: I’m 23. But half of my peers (or so it seems) are marrying, moving, having children. The other half are working on careers. I am scrounging for a job at a sandwich chain.

I’m eager to start work on my own elusive career, but…I have decided to return to France in the fall. I have a contract renewal for the same crazy, fun, stressful, organizational nightmare of a job, this time somewhere in the south of France. That was what did it, the promise of so much sun. And I’m young enough and career-less enough and unattached enough to just go.

But sometimes here, lounging on a pool chair where I’m crashing at my brother’s place for a month, filling out applications for temporary jobs that fill me with dread, I feel like I’m hiding out from real life.

I have to remember, though, that this is real life. Mine. It’s just a bit different from what I ever expected. Messy. But it’s not like I’ve been wasting my time. My dad said something that helped me.

“I’m going to bet you learned more during your time in France than you could possibly learn in a year of college,” he said.

He was right. I thought out loud.

I learned how to teach. That was no small thing.

I read about 45 books, from classic thriller Silence of the Lambs to Gatsby to a nonfiction exploration of French cheese.

I learned how to stand up for myself, argue, and solve my own problems…en français.

I started learning Turkish, visited dozens of French cities, and mastered the metro.

I gave my cooking skills a real workout, talked to hundreds of strangers, applied and was accepted to a Masters program, and learned how to ride a bike in busy city traffic. The list goes on.

Now I’m spending the summer chasing around a toddler and a little boy (they are both so big now; it’s amazing) and I’m looking for another job. Fingers crossed it has some character. Like the coffee shop I’m in right now, Tom Petty on the radio and crowds of old men and hipsters smoking outside. I could be making Greek omelets and lattés and saving for that unknowable and glorious future.

rainy day reading

A cozy rainy afternoon, and I’ve spent it reading TAPIF blogs. There’s the Canadian assistant who was placed in a town of only 3,000 people for her year abroad. Alone without other assistants or a train station nearby, she acknowledged how hard it had been but also found a lot of things to miss. An American assistant from last year had a French Tinder date a few days after her arrival…she’s now engaged.

A lot can happen in a year abroad…or not. You might meet the love of your life, decide to attend graduate school in Europe, launch a new career. You might have a dreamy year in exactly the city you wanted to live in. Or maybe none of those things will happen. You might experience problems at your schools, get your purse stolen, feel extremely lonely for a month with only Netflix as company. You might quit and go back home. Some people do.

In any case, the community involved in the program is really strong. “Alumni” want to help current assistants, and it’s easy to make friends with others in the same situation, kind of like how summer camp helps foster quick connections.

It’s all so unknown, which makes it exciting and scary both. When being here–alone, in France–was all hypothetical to me (as recent as like, a month ago), I didn’t even want to think about it.

Now that I’m here, and happy, there’s something simultaneously weird and comforting about living such a similar life as so many who have done this before. And I mean similar…the other day I talked with an English girl who lived in Montluçon last year…in the same house where I am now, also teaching in primary schools, and probably experiencing the same transportation headaches and visiting the same bars.

Though we’ve had and will have so many individual experiences, I feel like I’m repeating her life. Many people’s lives. When I read these blogs I realize my time here will go so quickly! In summer I was apprehensive, not sure I was capable. But now that I’m here, no matter what happens, time passes, and I’ll teach my last class in April and that will be that.

I’ve only been here a few weeks, and yet as I’m reading these blogs, I’m tearing up. I know this year won’t always be easy or fun, but when I read the stories of other assistants, read the posts where they say goodbye to their French lives and go back home, it just confirms what I already know: this opportunity is difficult and special and wonderful and over in a flash.