It’s been nearly a year since I returned to the US from France and during that time this blog has been put aside for other things, but to the excitement of everybody it is now revived. Although I think the grand total of five people who read this are already well aware of where we’re at, both literally and chronologically, let’s recapitulate for the benefit of future lost wanderers of the internet who stumble across this site.
A few years ago I happened across a picture in a book of the 12th-century cathedral in Amiens, France. That is the somewhat arbitrary moment where the story began that we are still writing about today. It seemed clear to me then that a life lived without seeing that pile of stones would have been a life incomplete, so on the first of December 2019 this utterly clueless American moved to Amiens. Where he promptly fell in love with a pile of stones.
Other than seeing the cathedral I had no real plan of action. I ended up spending three months in Amiens, six months in lockdown in Scotland, and returned to France for a further three months in the fall of 2020, that time to the village of Annecy. That year of travel was documented in these pages.
Ultimately coronavirus and passport limitations necessitated a return to the US. But experiences were had, sights were seen, lessons were learned, languages were butchered, shoes were shredded, friends were made; hearts were broken – and thoughts of the future were pondered some more. And when I thought of the future, I thought that I would like to spend more of it in France.
Obviously the current moment in history is not the greatest for international travel, but the French government was eventually convinced to grant me a visa and I prepared to return – not as a tourist, but as a resident. (If you are interested in the visa application process I recommend reading The American In Paris blog for invaluable information.)
So begins a second journey, but the story of the journey always starts with the story of the leaving. And even though parting only ever takes a brief moment, the leaving is a long process with many dolorous chapters.
It is only ever an idea that starts the whole affair, theoretical at first and powerless; pregnant maybe, but invisible and unreal for all the difference it makes around you. Maybe the idea is planted by a picture in a book; what could be more harmless? If the idea doesn’t die, get forgotten, or find itself shot down by the world, it might grow into an intention, a plan, and eventually preparations. Then starts the visible journey of departure, and the first of many increasingly troublesome disruptions to the habitual routines of what will later be known as “that other lifetime ago.”
There is a stage early on where it is entirely possible to announce “Hey guys, I’m moving overseas!” and yet your apartment still looks the same, nothing has changed, everything is where it should be, there is even a car in the driveway for when you want to go buy Pringles. But when you start preparing for the move all the familiar things become disordered and the comfortable environment of home itself starts to look foreign, long before we have arrived in a foreign country.
Instead of storing a lifetime’s worth of possessions I decided this time to dispose of it all. Since that is a surprisingly time-consuming process that can’t be put off to the last minute, I spent months in an apartment that did not look like home and certainly wasn’t tidy. The general tendency in life is to accumulate more stuff over time, not to become possession-less in middle age. The psychological impact of becoming devoid of all things was itself a foreign experience, disconcerting to say the least, and left me feeling as if my self identity had undergone major surgery.
Somewhere along the path of preparation trivial things and routines become tinged with melancholy, even advance-nostalgia. It began with brief flashes long ahead of time: “This is the last bottle of laundry soap I will buy here,” was the stupid thought I had months ago. But these flashes become more frequent until they are no longer passing thoughts so much as a constant affliction, and the trivial things become the profound: “This is the last time I will drive my car with the windows down on a Kansas summer evening,” or “this is the last Monday I will spend in America,” or “this is the last time I will turn off the lights in my apartment.” Anxiety about the future and the countless details of the transition grow to an almost unbearable strain which nothing but the final doing will alleviate, and mixed into everything surfaces perhaps no small amount of self-doubt and second-guessing.
For a long while the Big Day looks to be so far off and approaching so slowly as to be immaterial. This phase can last for what seems like forever during the time you are living it, but inevitably the moment of panic arrives when you look up to see it directly ahead and rushing towards you at breathtaking speed. This is when you would trade large sums of money if it would buy you even another 24 hours – but really, time isn’t the problem. If you do not feel prepared it is because you aren’t. And you won’t be, not until after you have gone through the changes that you are not prepared to go through.
The final weeks and days are filled with last meetings and farewells. I feel these are always unsatisfying for everyone: the person leaving is too stressed and those remaining too sad for anyone to relax. These get-togethers are burdened by significances they can’t possibly support or contain, no matter how dearly we try to gild them with consequence. In truth the real goodbyes and all we wanted to go along with them were said in the ordinary small moments long before the words were ever spoken. We realize, too late, how important those times were that seemed so unexceptional when we lived them. But in the small moments are found all the big things.
Finally with a silent sweep all that is today suddenly becomes the irretrievable past. The person who embarks on the journey is instantly caught up with a million concerns and challenges, and grapples at last directly with his nameless apprehensions. In fact this comes almost as a relief – even though it is likely the most difficult period in terms of effort, at least he is too preoccupied, overwhelmed and sleep-deprived to reflect on what was lost or left behind. For those who remain at home life goes on as before except for the empty hole that has opened up besides them. Up to this point it was for them maybe easier to forget the future, but now the decisions of others have caught them up and for them there will be no distractions or novelties to soften the blow.
Eventually a new equilibrium is established for everyone and all the acute agonies of the disruption fade back into the concerns of the every-day, however different the every day may now be. But the journey to start the journey is always painful, bittersweet, and maybe excruciating. One wonders why anyone does it. I suppose it comes down to a simple hope for something better.
Will it be better? The answer to that question only comes much later, often at the end of the story when we look back in hindsight and with greater wisdom. But for the story of the leaving the answer to this question doesn’t matter. The leaving happened, and so long as hopes arise leavings will continue.
And so on the first day of October the final woeful goodbyes were pronounced and I left the US once more. Landing many hours later in complete darkness I felt I could have ended up anywhere, but the proliferation of scarves and broken escalators gave proof through the night that France was still there. Ultimately we made our way back to Annecy, and that is where we have settled, and that is where we wait to see what small moments the future will bring us.
And that is where our family and friends are not, who we miss dearly.