I left for France when I was 19 years old. The summer before, I had a series of recurrent nightmares in which someone, some hand on my shoulder, pulled me back just as I was about to board the plane. I’m sure there’s a simple, true Freudian explanation for it but there’s an even older, Ancient Greek one which is that ‘you never step into the same river twice’. There was something in leaving the United States, leaving friends, family and everything I knew at that particular moment, that I understood was time-dependent. If I didn’t get on that plane on September whatever it was in 19__, I would never do it or by the time I did, it wouldn’t mean the same thing.
Time is relative, a human construct, and so forth and so on, but some days, some moments are a line in the sand that once you cross it, you can never cross back. Maybe all moments are like that, but this one stood out.
I left San Francisco and the United States at a time when students just like me, protesting the war in Vietnam just like I did, had been shot to death at Kent State College a few months before. My boyfriend Marc was never going to be nicer to me than he was and I was incapable of breaking up with him. By the time he came to stay with me the following summer, twelve months of Provencal wine, fun and very sexy French boys had come between us. I still liked Marc, still admired him, loved him, but his cold rejecting act was no longer even marginally amusant and he started to behave a little better. Not better enough, however, for me to regret his leaving to return home a few weeks later.
In France I finally got what most people don’t even know they need, a break. From everything. People say that when you travel you take your problems with you. Maybe, but it takes a while, several months at least and during those several months I discovered that I had genuine intellectual curiosity. College wasn’t what-I-was-supposed-to-be-doing anymore, all of a sudden it was fascinating. It was hard because my French was okay but not stellar and I was studying in French. It was hard because I started to develop a baby standard of excellence for myself not because of what the teacher thought but because there was so much to explore and to learn and I finally realized that I had only one tiny lifetime in which to try and learn it. It was hard but it was crazy fulfilling. I had a male friend who I wanted to sleep with, older than me and Brazilian, who taught me that it was possible to have a respectable friendship with a heterosexual male without sleeping with him. That I had other things to offer. I had a friendship with another American woman who I would never have even met in the States. She was beautiful, conservative, Catholic and pro-military but we became like sisters and when I got married some years later, she did all the boutonnieres and my nosegay.
I did eventually come ‘home’ although by the time I did, I understood home to be a much bigger place. My French has gotten worse over the years, I’m now on duolingo trying to reclaim it. I still make a mean vinaigrette even if I do now prefer cheap California red to cheap French red wine. Prosecco over champagne. Pate over liverwurst.
None of that matters, I probably could have gone anywhere, Latin America, the moon, Norway, Zimbabwe. What matters is that one-way ticket out of the ordinary, the comfortable, the usual, and it really doesn’t matter how or even if you ever get back.