When it comes down to it, what really makes a place a home….I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Almost two months actually. I began to write this entry in the middle of November. Then when I was back in Washington, DC for 3 weeks to get my French visa. Sidenote: For potential expats out there, if at all possible, get your visa before you leave for overseas and save yourself the confusion that is the subject of this post. From what I understand talking to other expats, a degree of it is normal. However, absolutely everyone I have talked to who had to pick up and return to get their visa a few weeks into the “settling in” process have experienced similar levels of angst. Anyway, the flurry of action items to tick through while in Washington made it almost impossible to think clearly so I put it off until I returned. Well, it’s been over 3 weeks since I have been back, Christmas is literally days away, my mother has arrived for a couple of days, and I am still grappling with what the term “home” really means. So, now, as I listen to the Motown’s takes on the holiday hits staring out at a fog wrapped Eiffel Tower, I am just writing whatever comes to mind. I suppose that is the purpose of a blog after all.
As I mentioned, I recently got back from spending three weeks back in DC. I struggled a lot during my trip, my life only beginning to take some shape in Paris while being so firmly identifiable and recognizable in Washington. I started to cry again. After a whopping 2 weeks in Paris of not crying, this took me by surprise and I didn’t understand why I was acting like this. People asked me a lot, with great amounts of excitement in their voice, what it was like living in Paris and all I could bring myself to say was, “It’s wonderful but hard.” They then followed up with the inevitable, “But why?” And I struggled to put my finger on what exactly made it hard so, oftentimes, all I could really say was, “Well, everything.” As I had more meetings / drinks / dinners where this came up, the only analogy I could think of to help them understand was, “If there was such a thing as being half pregnant, this is what it would feel like.” You see, my life still continues in many ways back in Washington. I still pay my mortgage and taxes there. I still bank there. I still receive mail there. However, I have the beginnings of a life – the future of which remains to be determined – here in Paris. I pay rent here. I now have a bank here (that only took 3 months and will be the subject of a future post, I am sure). And, thanks to the holiday season and coming from a city that still believes in the value of a paper Christmas card, I have received mail here. Sidenote: If you are an American who has a friend who has recently moved abroad, keep them on your holiday card list. I cannot tell you how much it has meant to me to receive similar holiday greetings and cannot express enough gratitude to those friends who kept me on their list and went through the pain that I know is involved in sending mail internationally. It kills me that I won’t be able to get mine out this year. But, each card that I have received here has truly helped me begin to think of Paris as my home. All of this is to say, the past several weeks have had me think a lot of what makes a home. Is it your past? The groundwork that you established and relationships that you built up over time? Or, is it your future? The risks that you take for the potential that can be realized.
When I was back in DC, I spent most of the first half of my trip running around my house like a whirling dervish, packing this, organizing that, and thinking through the various different plans I need to make for when and if I rent my house. For various different reasons (which I may or may not go into in future entries), I decided not to make this decision yet. To put it off until the end of March. In part, I feel the need to create a safety net for this move – a strong line, if you will, back into my old life. In part, I just haven’t had the mental or energetic capacity to get everything in a place where a total stranger can come in and take up residence for the next year (give hopefully a few years, take a couple of months). I have lived in this house for 9 years. It was my dream property. The first for me to buy and own on my own. And, I have had a hard time wrapping my head around someone else living there, especially amidst the decorations that I spent so much love, care, and time pulling together. (We all know that even the best renter of a fully furnished house will do things to it that will invariably irk the owner. I say this as a current renter of a fully furnished property who spent the first day in it moving the furniture and paintings around to meet my aesthetic.) Now, I can make a strong argument(s) for why this isn’t the best approach to take. But, as Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, I’m a safety girl. And, for a number of reasons, this is at least the safest course for me: to move to Europe and begin a new life, literally, one duffel bag at a time.
In thinking through what makes a home, the one thing that this unusual moving, or non-moving, or cross-Atlantic straddling process has taught me is that the attachment to home is less about things and more about people. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of attachments to things. My sweet mother spent days with me back in Washington as I catalogued literally everything in my house – what was to stay for a renter and what was to cross the Atlantic when I settled into a more permanent situation. What was so interesting about that process was how little in my house was put on “to move” list, mostly art that I had either been given or had purchased in my travels. I realized that the things in my house aren’t what made it felt like a home, but rather the memories that the house contained, either in the form of physical things but more abundantly the echos of the various dinners, gatherings, laughs, tears, and conversations that had taken place there over the years. That said, I knew I needed to let that go, at least for now if I was going to really give myself a shot of making a real life over here.
All of this said, I will fully admit, I am mentally and emotionally sitting in suspension. Probably more so than many who carve similar paths as I am. I can see a future laying out in front of me. However, for a number of different reasons, that future can’t begin to really unfold for several more weeks / month. So, already being an internally oriented person, this period of time has had me thinking a lot about where one should consider “home” when you are in the process of transitioning one life to another? As I have thought more and more about this, usually while walking the breathtakingly beautiful streets of Paris, I am coming to realize that home is truly where you decide to place your heart and hopes and, for now, that is right here in the City of Lights or the City of Love, depending on who you talk to. For the purpose of making this city my home, it is certainly becoming both.
This experience thus far has brought me to the belief that very rarely is a home found. Rather, more often, it is made after finding the place where you set your expectations about making it. There is a conscious decision to settle in and realize, as much as is possible, the hopes and dreams that you have for it. Your heart has to be really in it. Perhaps that is why I have struggled for so many of the past few weeks. Because for a variety of reasons (fear of failure, emotional and professional alike), I allowed my heart to not express its full desire to make this city and this country my home. The funny thing about that statement is that I am only just realizing that this is what I have done and how I, in many ways, set myself up for emotional turmoil. I allowed this fog to overshadow the gift that I have been given in life to have this time to explore – this country, this continent, the people and all they have to teach. A friend of mine recently told me not to expect to make too many European friends while I was here. Having lived for quite some time in Brussels herself, I was intrigued as to why she thought so. Her rationalization: “Europeans see Americans as transient visitors to their city / country, so why invest?” It made total sense to me at the time but only now coming to fully realize what that means. So, as I look into the new year and the potential that I truly believe it holds, it is with a new mind and heart-set to make Paris my home…for whatever period of time I am to be here (yes, I know, I know, I know….one step at a time!)