Monday, September 2, 2013

On Home and Belongingness—And Why I Miss Paris

Okay, so it's been 92 days since I returned from my five-month stay in Paris. And I don't blame my friends who have repeatedly commented on the fact that I have often unconsciously vocalized differences between life in Paris and life here in the NJ/NYC area, or talked about how Paris simply does a lot of things better. I know hearing such remarks can be tiresome and annoying, and can make me sound arrogant and pretentious at worst. I'm sorry. But please, believe me when I say there is more to it than that. And if you don't believe me, well, then let me justify myself. I've had this post ready for a very long time now, but I wanted to give it some time before I delved into this.

...but bear with me, because this will take a while. 

The concept of home—and more generally, of belongingness—has always fascinated me. My parents have owned the same house here in New Jersey since they emigrated from Macedonia to the United States a few years before I was born. We never moved houses (though we did put ours on the market for a short few years hoping to find something more spacious, but the search ended in vain). The most residential change we ever underwent was to relocate a few years ago to the slightly bigger and better-lit second floor of our two-family house. But that involved nothing more than moving furniture up a flight of stairs. Not an easy feat—it's a narrow staircase that spirals at the top slightly—but regardless, my point remains that I have always called this same, small, humble abode "home" for the entirety of my twenty years of life.

Thus, my view on the meaning of home has always been slightly stagnant and more or less unexceptional. So when I moved into my dorm in New York City last year, everything I had always loved New York City. I would come into the city all the time, and even spent my freshmen year of college commuting to school there. Yet when it came to actually living there, I felt as if I had left a heavy part of me behind in New Jersey. There was a strange internal imbalance that arose, something inexplicable that made me think, "This doesn't feel right."

Of course, as with most changes, the uncomfortable feeling faded soon enough. The four months that I spent living in New York City ended up being some of the best months of my life. I had transformed part of a school dorm room into a home for four months, and when the time came to strip it of my identity and lug my belongings back to New Jersey, I felt as if once again, a piece of me had been left behind. That strange sentiment arose again, the sense of something being off. However, I did not have enough time to explore the intricate workings of this feeling, for three weeks after I returned to my permanent home in New Jersey, I was off on a flight to Paris to spend my spring semester abroad.

Paris came to be, undoubtedly, the biggest change, the biggest chamboulement, I would experience. I was over 3,000 miles away from home—both homes, that is, my permanent New Jersey residence and my newer, more youthful NYC home. Moreover, when I was living in New York City, I was still only a train ride away from my permanent home in Jersey. On the same day, I could have lunch on campus and dinner with my family in our kitchen. Not that this necessarily happened often, but nevertheless, the proximity masked my life-away-from-home with a kind of false separation. My parents still wanted me to come home on weekends as often as I could, and so the limits of my independence were always visible.

I arrived in Paris on a snowy, slushy, gloomy day, and once again, I was met with that strange feeling that I could never describe or name, that feeling that was both familiar and foreign, that feeling of things just not being right. Once again, though, after a week or so, this malaise subsided into a growing sense of understanding of my surroundings and a strengthening appreciation for them. Slowly, I fell in love with Paris.

Yes, Paris was obviously different—not just because of the distance, but because I was living entirely on my own. For five months, I had only myself within my small, small, small chambre de bonne (and I really mean small). This was not a problem in the fundamental sense of what living alone entails: I know how to cook, clean, maintain my financials, and generally take care of myself. It was not a challenge to support myself; if anything, it was a great liberation. Instead, the problem was found, once again, in what defined my sense of home. I quickly fell into the quotidian groove of boulangeries and I became a maître of the métro; picking up the morning paper became muscle memory, speaking and hearing French on the street, in cafés, and at the supermarket became not only second nature, but something I loved. Few things can enrich the mind so actively and so constantly as hearing and speaking a foreign language on a daily basis, and it truly changes the way you think about and perceive all that is around you. The French esprit is quite unlike the American counterpart, and so it was intriguing to blend the two together. (But that's another story.)

I mentioned several months ago that Paris has an undeniable charm that is nearly impossible to channel into words, and once again I find myself needing to reiterate this fact—if not even more so, since this feeling only amplifies with time. When I say that I miss Paris, I don't mean to be annoying. I don't say it as a means of boasting that I spent part of my life there. Let me be immodest and say that I actually am very modest when it comes to talking about how hard I work in school and generally in life, so spare me this moment to shed this humility and say that I worked really damn hard for everything that has brought me to where I am right now in life. I worked really hard to get good grades, to receive financial aid, to receive extra financial aid, to save money by commuting to school every morning and night for my freshman year, to eventually move on-campus, and now, to work on campus as a Resident Assistant. I work hard to achieve what I want, and I worked really hard to make studying abroad in Paris a feasible goal, both financially and academically. So when I say "I miss Paris," please don't roll your eyes and think, "Ugh, he's just some privileged rich kid who should shut up." Maybe I should shut up, but know that I am neither privileged nor rich. The other day, my father randomly sighed and said, "Never in my dreams did I imagine I would be able to send one of my kids to Paris to study for a semester." I couldn't help but smile. My parents emigrated from the seventh poorest country in Europe in the hopes of raising a family under better conditions. It is one of the most flattering things to be viewed as a symbol of their success: my sister and I are essentially the incarnations of what the American dream has meant to my parents. It can be a burden to be viewed as such, but I will never stop working toward my dreams with every ounce I have, because I truly do believe in the value of hard work and earning what you want. 

I apologize for that personal and dramatic digression, but my point is that I spent five months living in a place that was only ever a vague, distant dream for me. I couldn't help but grow appreciative of life in Paris and become so grateful for the experience—and nostalgic for it when it was over. Many of my friends in my school were dissatisfied with their experiences abroad, simply because they awaited the same kind of treatment and availabilities as back in the United States. So some restaurants close from 3-7; so we don't have cellular data, and have to rely on the occasional WiFi network found while roaming around; so bagels aren't really a "thing" in Paris (or in most of Europe, really). These are things I could and did deal perfectly well without, in part because I knew I would eventually be returning to a place that had such amenities, but more so because I knew there would be countless things to which I had grown accustomed in Paris that I would no longer have when I returned to the United States. Things that I had learned to love without even realizing it, simply because they were everyday items that of which many took advantage.

So when I say that I miss Paris, I can't help it. Paris was my home for five months, and when I departed, I felt, once again, that I was leaving a piece of myself behind. Only this time, it was a very different piece, a piece assimilated into an entirely different culture, language, gastronomy, music and film scene—a different everything. A different city, a different country, a different continent, and a different and new layer to what I think about when I think about home. Of course, the culture shock I experienced when I landed in Paris was one to be expected: I had been plopped in a new place for first time and expected to figure life out there. That was a normal part of the challenge. However, it was strange to experience the same kind of culture shock when returning to the United States, my home-home. Things should not have felt foreign; yes, I spoke English immediately, I knew how to navigate JFK Airport, I hadn't forgotten how to drive a car, I hadn't forgotten the road home, I hadn't forgotten most things. But it still felt foreign, weird, different. In a way, I remembered America in a mechanical sense: I knew how to do things, where to go, etc. but mentally and emotionally, there was still a sense of foreignness, a detachment from a social fabric that had continued to grow for the five months that I had been gone. Yet I was no longer a part of France's fabric either, for I was thousands of miles away again. 

And so, I felt as if any trace of my grounded existence had been effaced. I was met with a curious feeling of limbo when I realized that I then had more than one kind of home. Yes, America will always be my more permanent home, but I do consider Paris as home now too. Between these two realms, there is a feeling of nearly impossible reconciliation. I miss hearing French, but when I am in Paris, I sometimes miss the luxury of English fluency. I miss the Paris métro, but when in Paris, I miss not having 24-hour subway service. I miss the calming beauty of Parisian streets, but when walking to class in Paris, I hated the uncurbed dog merde that scatters the sidewalks.

Then there are some people who feel slightly insulted when I say I miss Paris. They think that I would rather live there forever, alone, separated from everything and everyone who shaped the past 20 years of my life here in America. This is not what I mean when I say I miss Paris. Of course, coming back to America was a wonderful thing on many levels. Getting to see my family and friends again—that kind of joy is unparalleled. Not to mention, there is a feeling of connectedness that is resumed when I am here. I no longer feel the disconcerting effect of being 6 hours ahead, of going to sleep when my loved ones, thousands of miles away, are just beginning to enjoy each other's company at night. I missed all of this, for sure.

But when I say I miss Paris, it is hard to explain unless you too have ever missed a place that you once called home, a place that is long gone now—at least, relative to you. I miss Paris, but that does not mean I could do without everything and everyone I have here in America. Missing a place is not the same as missing a person; it is much more complex than that. (Yet I would venture to say that Paris is, in its own way, a person, fully equipped with moods and feelings and personality and character.)

I said earlier that when leaving Paris, it felt as if a part of me had been left behind on the French soil. I think that perhaps it is more so the reverse—that the place, in this case Paris, imparted to me a piece of itself when I left. To say that we shed a piece of ourselves behind when we leave a place is to be somewhat egocentric, for this idea suggests that a piece of us will have some kind of effect on the soil from which it was left. Not that it couldn't; I just mean that for many of us, it isn't the case.

I know, I know—what the hell am I actually talking about here? Well, I am talking about the simple, somewhat depressing fact that we try to ignore sometimes: you can miss a place all you want, but that place won't necessarily miss you. In fact, it doesn't even know of your existence.

That sounds dramatic, but let me explain. After a year of constantly shifting my idea of home, I have come to understand that feeling that kept coming back when I moved from one place to another, that feeling of things not being right, that feeling I experienced when I moved to NYC and when I moved to Paris and even when I moved back to NYC two weeks ago. It is an inherent discomfort with the feeling of not being connected to our personal sense of "home"—more specifically, the intricate network of thoughts and memories and people that constitute that concept. That's how I felt when I left for Paris, and that's how I felt when I came back from Paris. Disconnection. Things will continue in Paris without me, just as things in America continued without me being here. Things will continue without me, because technically, they don't need me to function. They don't even know who I am. By "they", I refer to some kind of personified embodiment of all the inner and outer workings, the cogs and gears, that fuel Paris every day. I am not even a ripple in the ocean, and it is that feeling that hurts the most, no matter where you go. That is the feeling I felt when I moved to NYC, when I moved to Paris, and now most recently when I left Paris to move back to America. That is the feeling I kept experiencing each time my concept of "home" was threatened once more, and yet I could never understand it or put a name to it—the feeling of disconnection, of having severed my belongingness. Why do we feel anxious when our phone dies while we are out? Why do we consider things like an Internet connection a right more so than a privilege? Why do we sometimes leave TVs on in the background? It is because of a fear of being disconnected from—from what? Friends? Family? The world? All of it, really. We like to be a part of something larger, and the lack of such a connection ultimately boils down to the disconcerting, uncomfortable, and frightening feeling of not belonging. You feel lost and lonely and when this concern is vocalized, you are reassured by your surrounding friends with the "you are not alone, you have us" mantra. But being alone is not synonymous with being lonely.

So when I left the United States to live in Paris, I felt disconnected. But then, five months later, when I left Paris, that feeling was reversed; now, whenever I read French news (ugh, I know I sound pretentious, but it really does help with practicing the language), I feel the gentle hum in my heart that signals a sense of connectedness—a deep resonance that makes everything in France as relevant to me as if I were still there. It is like hearing news about a distant relative; when it is bad news, you are upset; when it's good news, you are happy. But even when you are happy, there is a tinge of sharp somberness around the edges that makes the happiness painful, because you are not among those for whom the news is truly relevant. You are a distant island that gets messages from the mainland who knows little to nothing about your existence, and yet you still feel so deeply connected, like an ex who simply can't get over the breakup.

When I was in Paris, I felt like I was missing out. What was happening in the United States during the five months I was away? What did I miss? In fact, I missed a lot. Joyous occasions made me smile, tragedies resonated in me with a heavy sorrow and mourning, yet at the same time, I was detached by the force of nature, separated by thousands of miles of salt water from the source of joy and pain and everything that came out of my homeland, the United States.

Now, such is the case with Paris. Is there a protest going on today? A concert? I wonder who is sitting right now in the seat I sat in at the café Les Éditeurs a few nights before my departure from Paris? I wonder what the reflection of the sun looks like right now on the Canal St. Martin? What the hell am I missing?

And so, I always knew I would miss Paris, and I do. I miss feeling the cool nighttime breeze that would whoosh through my open window and put me back to sleep when I couldn't fall asleep in the middle of the night. I miss sitting outside in cafés, even during the winter when the warm overhead heating lamps allowed for comfortable conversations with friends and customary people-watching. I miss the métro system, which is far faster and more efficient, frequent, and understandable than the New York subway system. (Why hasn't NYC hopped on the tap-and-go bandwagon yet, instead of swiping a stupid, flimsy metro card that takes 14 tries to work?) I miss the fluffy, choux-praline paradise that is Paris-Brest, or the soft, buttery, flakiness of  a pain au chocolat that is so simple and inexpensive yet full of a humble, surprisingly complex, melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. I miss being asked directions by passerby. I miss reading the free daily newspaper provided in metro stations. I miss hearing French conversations on the street and learning new slang. I miss the countless parks and squares that have their own particular vibes, atmospheres, crowds. I miss being able to watch French music videos on YouTube without being told that they are not available in my country. I miss the way the orange glow of streetlights is reflected on the cobblestone streets when they are coated in rain. I miss strolling aimlessly through the book stands that line the Seine River. I even miss mundane tasks like grocery-shopping at Monoprix. I miss this time a drunk man pirouetted through the aisle of a metro car, blatantly singing in French "give me some money to eat, to eat, to eat, and drink" as he took a swig from a bottle of some kind of alcohol (an act strongly frowned upon in a country where wine is a religion and drinking from a bottle constitutes a blasphemy more sacrilegious than murder (for it is, in a way, a murder itself—the murder of an honor bestowed upon the righteous drink)). I miss seeing the Eiffel Tower slide into view from the window of the 6 métro train as the sounds from the dexterous accordion players resound in a cinematically Paname way (even though when I was actually in Paris, I quickly started to roll my eyes and sigh in unison along with the irritated French commuters at the sight of an accordion player walking into the car).

This is the Paris one imagines and sees and hears about in films, and so when a sudden, unexpected moment becomes the real incarnation of such an imagined image, it is a surreal experience that makes you realize—holyshit, I'm in Paris. That is how it was every day, and when it came to a seemingly abrupt end, I felt like I had been stolen of a beauty and wonder that was too short-lived.

I imagine myself, years from now, visiting Paris and retracing the routes I would take to go to my apartment or to go to school or to go to a museum or to go to a park. Everything will be more or less the same, of course—the same as when I had been there in the past. And therein lies a simultaneously happy and sad feeling, a paradox of change and stagnation that coexist in a way that could never coexist within myself, a growing and changing and shifting human being. I miss Paris; I miss being a part of a new community, a new city, a new country. But I miss it without being missed in return. 

I feel lucky to have something so beautiful to even miss in the first place. It comes in random pangs: I will see a photograph of a Parisian street, or a gust of wind will suddenly remind me of the springtime breeze blowing in the Luxembourg gardens, or I close my eyes while on the NYC subway and suddenly the rumble brings me back to the Paris métro. All at once, I feel Paris: I feel it alive again within me, yet this lasts for only a second or two, and I am left with the gnawing, stomach-twisting reality of nostalgia.

That's why the nostalgia hurts, that's why the longing feels bitter more than sweet, that's why the feeling of missing something is never satisfied, exhausted, depleted. It is a one-way street, and you are met with a mixed sense of belongingness. I belong in New Jersey, I belong in New York City, and now I belong in Paris too. I am split into three channels; none of them care for the other, none of them cross paths, none of them need me to function. But I need all of them, and it is impossible to have them all at once.

And so they must take turns.