Once upon a time, I had a grand and beautiful dream. It probably was planted in high school French class as I sat at the back and lovingly caressed the colorful, cartoon-filled pages of my textbook, falling in love with le Français for the first time. I said to myself: Someday, I will be in a café. I will have to order a pain au chocolat and a limonade and I will have to ask for l’addition, s’il vous plaît.
I chased the dream to college French classes, and it evolved with my language proficiency. Someday, I then said, I will not only go to a café, but it will be the one where my authorial and artistic predecessors sat and thought their great thoughts, spoke and wrote their great words. I will live in the birthplace of this fabulous literature, and by osmosis I will become equally as world-wise and articulate as they were.
So, I went to Paris for my studies. I studied literature inside my classes and pilgrimed it up outside my classes. I visited my favorite author’s graves, journaled beneath La Tour Eiffel, and ate plenty of pain au chocolat, although I paired it with café. I got lost, and sought, and found inspiration in the labyrinthian streets and time-worn gothic churches. And when I left it, it left me wanting more.
The dream became: Someday, I will live in France for longer. This time, I’ll insert myself into a community. I’ll start a book club. I’ll make best French friends who I can have 5-hour dinner parties with, and I’ll have French housemates. I will acquire the taste of even the stinkiest of cheeses, and I will finally be able to eschew peanut butter in favor of Nutella. I will speak French with a perfect accent, no trace of twangy vowels and every liaison in its precise place. I’ll find a sexy French boyfriend and seduce him with my linguistic capabilities and intimate knowledge of his country’s artistic canon. Eventually, I’ll figure out the secret to “being French,” and be it.
That was the dream for this year. Instead of a mid-life crisis (I’m hoping to live past my forties, after all), I had a mid-January crisis: I realized that my dream would not come true. I had visited my French friends over break and seen their lives. I’d partied with their friends and eaten traditional meals with their families. I’d seen a new region of France, which reminded me of home in all the best ways and France in all the best ways. And then I came back, and realized that it wasn’t my reality, and maybe it never would be. That type of crash was totally new to me. I haven’t had my dreams collapse around me very often, and if one did I’d been able to see around the obstacle and get it back again. This time, the obstacle was circumstance. I can’t make friends just based on nationality, I realized. I can’t control where I am (aka, not in a place where it’s particularly easy to “make french friends”), I can’t control how much time I have (because work), and, ultimately, I can never be French anyway.
It was then that I realized that my dream was to have grown up here, to have been a native speaker, to have family and friends and roots around me because it was their place too. I wanted both a past and a future in this foreign place. Basically, I had been setting myself up for Personal Disaster. An Identity Crisis. I had also been grossly undervaluing my own origins and upbringing and my own present and future, which was the most shameful of shames.
And then I asked myself as I sat there, raw and naked, stripped of this absurdist dream:
…then what the heck am I doing here?
This is a crisis of the highest order. I realized I just “was” somewhere: completely without purpose. It became a waste of time, I was a waste of space.
What the #$!* is the point of it all?
I figured it out again. I did it right this time: I thought about my experiences, I thought about my feelings, I thought about how much I’d already changed and grown in 4 months (plus the 5 ones in the past), and I thought about the relationships and community I’d cultivated, at home and abroad. I decided, once and for all, that I’ll never give up peanut butter (you literally could not pay me to do so). I laid out all that I had lived.
And I decided:
I may not be living my specific, absurd dream of the past…but I sometimes feel like I’m living “the dream,” even with all the ups and downs of rootless expat life.
So I reshaped my dream to match reality, and I discovered that my reality this year has been mostly a dream come true.
Valenciennes: where dreams come true. 😉