Every time I visit home - aka California, USA - I wonder why I have made the choice to emotionally torture myself by living in and loving two different countries.
As I pack my bags in Paris, anticipating the long-awaited reunion with my famille, I am uneasy, stressed, sad to leave Copain and nostalgic for anything and everything French. As much as I love my family to death, I don't want to leave my home.
Then I arrive in the states and everything is familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. I am a foreigner in my own homeland but I still get the privilege of going through the US citizens line at customs. I speak the language, I know the culture, yet it all seems a bit strange, off, contrived. Everyone is friendly - and it's weird. Why are people smiling at me...I don't know them.
Then I'm hugging my Mom and Dad, suddenly the sadness and stress of leaving Paris is gone and I am driving on a traffic-filled freeway to the house that I grew up in, Suburbia, USA. My family and I learn to live together again (not without some adjustments), my Dad makes us breakfast, my Mom has made me a cozy bed with a bedside lamp for reading - just how I like it. My sister and I stay up late watching Friends, my Dad and I take walks and talk about my future - he tells me he wishes I lived closer. My Mom, knowing I can't handle any planning while on vacation, becomes my social event manager and makes things happen - dinner with my cousins, a trip to Santa Barbara, reminders of the things I wanted to get or do or see while at home.
My sister and I revel in the amazingness that is Target and we treat ourselves to iced coffees at Starbucks - she asks me if I know about their new oatmeal but of course, I don't. Just like I don't know about Justin Bieber when my six-year-old cousin asks to watch "the JB movie" once we're out of the pool. I learn about the new pretzel M&Ms and notice all of the antibacterial hand-wipe stations near the shopping carts at almost every major grocery store. I barely sweat at all since there is air-conditioning everywhere and I make a mental note to eat less since I am definitely cutting down on my daily walking quota.
We all prepare for my little brother's wedding and I get to see my extended family for the first time in a very long time. I have roots here. Love is all around us. We laugh when my brother wipes the lipstick off his mouth after you may kiss the bride and we cry as we watch him and his new wife sway to their first dance. The ceremony is American - the reception is American - the food is American. Copain doesn't believe me when I tell him that dinner lasted only 45 minutes - max. In France it would have taken on massive proportions...2 hours at the very least.
We fill the dance floor and sing along to American songs until our voices are hoarse and our feet are sore. Then we head to a family restaurant in the middle of the teeny tiny town for our own after-party complete with fried chicken and the best fries of my life. Back at our hotel, our family stays up late talking about my Dad's tearful speech, the fun night, our dancing aunts and uncles, the fact that my brother is now a married man.
After a groggy morning we go to Flapjacks for a much-needed greasy spoon. Bottomless coffee, water, pancakes and butter, butter, butter. My Belle-Mère would just die here. My brother gets the biscuits and gravy with a plate of bacon on the side. My new sister-in-law gets a breakfast quesadilla that takes up her entire plate. We talk about my cousin who may have had way too much to drink and I quietly appreciate this shared weekend that we will all look back on one day. Remember when Aunt D did the fist pump? Remember when the littlest cousin stole the show with her breakdancing? Remember when...
Then it's time to say goodbye. My eyes well up with tears as I give my brother a hug and wish him a wonderful honeymoon. The drive back to Suburbia is long. I pack my bags, save all the photos of my time here - precious memories that I will share back in Paris. I tell myself that this is my last night at home and I am uneasy, stressed, sad to leave my family and nostalgic for anything and everything American. As much as I love Copain to death, I don't want to leave my family.
I tell my family that we shouldn't cry at the airport, but I am the first one to let the tears fall. I try to remember my expat friends who have also chosen to live this torn life, consoling myself - I am not alone. We tell each other that we'll see each other soon and remind ourselves how quickly time flies. One final hug, one final kiss, one final hand squeeze and I force myself away and into the security line. We send air kisses, waves and I love you signs until I hand my passport over and we can no longer see each other. I say a silent prayer that I will see them again. See you soon, I whisper, sending my cosmic wish into the universe.
Waiting to board is long. I'm physically here but mentally I try to travel all the way back to Paris lest I abandon my French life completely, unable to manage the pain of leaving everyone I love. I send them texts, reminding them that I will see them soon, of how much I love them. I know the texts are mostly for me, but their responses help ease the down-in-my-guts feeling that this is not right.
The air in Paris is thick with humidity, people push to the front of the baggage line making it hard to see the orange bow I have purposefully tied to my suitcase. No one is smiling, everyone is tired. Despite my nausea, I experience a tiny moment of joy when I get in the line for French citizens and use my French passport for the very first time. Bonjour, I say, and I walk right on through into my other life.
Copain is happy to see me and I feel instantly better to feel his hug and a welcome-home bisou.
Paris takes me back with open arms. The boucher sells his roasted chickens, the buttery croissant smell wafts from my favorite bakery and as I walk to work, I remember all of the reasons why I love it here.
I confide in my friend and colleague, another American expat who has made a full life for himself here. He puts it perfectly when he says, the longer I make Paris my home, the less I feel at home anywhere.