I Love You France, but I’m Not Moving Back

I had never felt visceral, all-consuming homesickness until I left France. It was nostalgia for the smell of morning viennoiseries and baguettes, and the maze of cobblestone streets, intersecting haphazardly. And the cafés peppered with scarf-clad retirees, morning espresso in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Or the evening clinks of oversized wine glasses, paired with the glow of heat lamps on a chilly fall terrace. France had infused itself into my very being, these images and sounds often superseding all other thoughts. I only lived there for eight months, and I know it sounds trite, but this romanticized country somehow became my proverbial home.

And yet, it isn’t my actual home.

Being in France was like living in a dreamland, a sentiment I imagine many American transplants can understand. For the same amount of money that would pay for half a drawer inside half a closet inside a New York studio apartment—in an undesirable neighborhood, mind you—I rented a beautiful apartment in the center of Toulouse. Instead of working 50 hours a week under fluorescent office lights with windows permanently sealed shut, I taught English part-time, taking vacations with alarming regularity. I spent my days squinting at the river’s ebb and flow, sipping tea and tasting cakes and meeting new people. It was perfect, but it was not reality.

Paris

As much as I pine after France and replay my days of afternoon picnics with foie gras and vin, I will not move back.

My life in France was like living inside a photoshopped image—idyllic but inauthentic. I spoke French, but not to point of linguistic or cultural fluency. I could ask, “Are you standing in line?” at Carrefour, but couldn’t pick up on the cashier’s witty one-liner to his friend, referencing a TV show I’d never heard of. Conversations became repetitive and rarely dug into the kinds of hard discussions and easy banter of true friendship. I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate why the vastness of the universe is so intriguing, or effectively argue how Neil Armstrong’s moon landing was not a government hoax (although, let the record show, I tried my best).

PARIS

France—with its historical buildings and unparalleled gastronomy and beautiful people who spoke with their lips pursed out just-so—was not mine, and never would be. While I was there, I could only grow in certain ways: I improved my language skills, and became slightly more discerning with wine selections, but I would always be “the American,” and France would remain elevated to a fantasy. As great as that might sound, it meant missing the true personal growth and emotions that come with the reality of living in a run-down apartment or fighting for a paltry raise or taking a much-needed weekend getaway.

In France, the laughs and parties and dates and apartments and jobs and everything were fun, but they existed in a box, cordoned off from who I really was without the limitations of language and culture.

brasserie

After much consideration, I left. Transitioning back to real life in New York has not been quite so idyllic. I miss my favorite cassoulet restaurant, where I ate so much that I truly feared for my heart’s functionality. I daydream about my afternoons in Toulouse, spent writing in warm cafés and ambling through marchés. I can perfectly envision the bright orange chairs in my favorite kebab stand, where I would chat with the workers almost every evening past midnight.

But the feeling of truly belonging counteracts the nostalgia.

I love being able to walk into a coffee shop and strike up a casual conversation with the cashier. It feels indulgent to exchange pleasantries without fearing the embarrassment of a mispronounced word, knowing that I am fully understood. I can commiserate with friends about our country’s political woes as an individual, rather than a representative. And when I want to wind my arms around somebody and hold them close in a tight hug, it’s good to be in the U.S.

I want to visit every corner of France and eat foie gras more than doctors recommend. I want to keep improving my French. I want to read French literature and watch French films. I love France, and I idealize France, but I won’t move back. It’s still picture-perfect in many ways, and I don’t want that to change.