For the past five years, I've become a bit of a nomad, alternating between moving to France, then back to the place where I grew up, then back to France. As each day passes in my life in France, I am reminded of how much of a foreigner I truly am, language mishaps and differences aside.
However, with time, I've begun to slowly acclimate myself to the spoken and unspoken social cues the French have: always greeting store clerks and cashiers with a "Bonjour," acquiescing an agreement with a wispy, gasp-like "ouais" or a small "mhn" accompanied by a quick nod, always stopping to have the mid-morning "pause café," always respecting mealtimes and eating meals in small courses, hardly ever raising one's voice mid-conversation. The small things that used to trip me up and target me with some invisible bulls-eye have since become ingrained into my very being. I don't feel so out of place anymore.
Every once in a while, though, I find myself longing for a slightly more comfortable and familiar existence, one which makes a little more sense to me. I find myself missing "home."
Then arises the complex question that all expats face with discomfort: what is home, exactly? For those who have never traveled or lived elsewhere, that question is answered rather easily. It is not the case for someone like me.
(Should a French person or foreigner inquire about my origins, I answer that I come from Miami. It's a quicker response and leads to the inevitable awestruck observation of wonderment in which the person in question cannot understand why I ever left Miami.)
Is "home" the anchor of one's childhood and adolescence? It is the current mailing address where telephone bills and bank statements arrive? Is "home" the place where all of my stuff is located? Is "home" tangible, or is it a state of mind?
Thinking to my own mother, a Colombian who grew up in Cartagena, Colombia, "home" for her was Cartagena. Except she left "home" at the age of sixteen only to move to Venezuela, Puerto Rico and then the United States. Throughout her adult life, she had not gone "home" for over thirty-two years, and by the time she did, the Cartagena of her youth was replaced by a more modern Cartagena that felt at once familiar and foreign to her. Things were the same and at once...unspeakably different.
I decided that I needed to pay a visit to Miami to see for myself.
I got the window seat. As the 10-hour flight neared the end, gliding over the sparkling turquoise and teal waters of the Bahamian islands, the pilot announced that we would arrive in Miami International Airport in approximately twenty minutes. It was then that after a seven-month hiatus I caught my first aerial glimpse of the land where I was raised. Flat lands intermingled by a series of dark, murky canals and of complex gray highways snaking in every direction, its streams of rapid transit zooming in quick fashion, various tidy sections of housing developments and coral gabled houses with pristine swimming pools in the backyard and, way in the distance, the unconquered swamps and marshes of the Everglades. This was South Florida. This was my old home.
So what is "home" to me? Home is familiar. Home is where I can relax and breathe a little more easily. That can be in the comfort of my bedroom in Miami or in Sablé-sur-Sarthe.
Home can be the place where people still refer to me as "La Niña" (the girl) rather than Madame. Home can be the place where people refer to me as Madame rather than "La Niña."
Home is where I can have palitroques, pastelitos de queso and croquetas de jamón for breakfast.
|Palitroque: crunchy Cuban breadsticks|
Pastelitos: Cuban pastries
(This is also as close as I am going to get to 'Instagramming' my food. Enjoy)
It can be the place where I have a café au lait with tartines or un croissant au beurre if I so choose.
Home, for me, is both France and the United States.
However, as my current physical location is in South Florida, I will elaborate on what "home" is like in the United States.
Home is multi-colored Surinam cherries dangling off branches like early Christmas ornaments.
Home is bright, cloudless skies during "dry" season*.
|*Should you choose to visit Florida during "wet" season (mid-April to mid-November), I highly advise that you bring an umbrella and a hair straightener.|
Home is the large bougainvillea with magenta petals in the backyard.
Home is where I find spiders relaxing among their gossamer threads.
Home is the canal where I would spend many an afternoon in my youth throwing pebbles to observe the expanding ripple effect on the water, gingerly tiptoeing on its edge and risking falling in just to peer at its length in the distance, and waiting, waiting ever so patiently for that one second to spot a fish breaking the tranquil surface to emancipate itself towards the sky.
Home is seeing a mother Muskovy duck leading her cheeping brood of fluffy ducklings and they make me remember fondly the Muskovy duckling that my family raised when I was ten years old.
But then, I start to notice things that are indeed different about home:
The mango tree's growth is considerably stunted, much smaller than I had anticipated. (Mom had had its branches trimmed to strengthen its growth).
The remnants of former trees are depicted by lone stumps.
The hole which was used as a shelter by brooding Muskovy ducks as their nesting ground has since been covered in dirt.
I find the people loud, boisterous. They cut each others' sentences to state their point. The driving is erratic. Repetitive chain stores dot the landscape.
Then, I realized amid my nostalgia that I was no longer even "home": the mundane details which escaped my daily existence and which I would have otherwise not even appreciated have been captured in photographs, as if I were another tourist visiting Florida.
Then, as further proof that things are indeed different, I took a good look at myself. How was I dressed? I had opted to go outside sporting not flip-flops (or, as I was accustomed to occasionally, barefoot) but rain boots because I couldn't bear the thought of having my feet being tickled by the blades of grass and its cold, morning dew.
|Living in the muddy French countryside has instilled an aversion to having wet feet.|
My obtained paleness provided further evidence that something was off about myself in correlation to my surroundings. Even indoor-dwelling Floridians who make it a habit to remain living comfortably in the air conditioning have a darker complexion.
Bumbling about my first home, where I vaguely remember the locations of various items in the kitchen, makes me start to miss my second home (and the knowledge of having enough rosemary and black pepper).
But I know the drill now: by the time I do make it back to my second home and settle into my daily routines, I will start to miss the first one with nostalgic familiarity. As an expat, I am in a perpetual home limbo, which I have since resigned to accept.
I wouldn't have it any other way.
Barb the French Bean