What’s the old adage? “You can never go home again”? I’ve decided that as an American living in France, it is my duty to put this theory to the test to find out if it’s just an old wives’ tale or somehow based in truth. It’s been one year and 10 months since I’ve seen the other side of the Atlantic and I feel surprisingly unhinged about my impending trip home.
The much-loved cliché originates from novelist Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 You Can’t Go Home Again. In the book, Wolfe discusses the themes of a changing America and the passing of time, within the context of a series of events that inhibit his main character George Webber of ever being able to return home again. The title of the book refers to Webber’s realization that “you can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…. Back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” Basically, looking back, much less going there, is emotional suicide.
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So, here I am, in my parents’ house in Minneapolis, with remnants of my youth all around me. The first thing that returns is my pre-cell phone memory. I can’t pass a house within a ten-block radius without some long lost childhood recollection crossing my mind. Names I haven’t thought about for years pop back into my head. Old faces trigger experiences long passed. Seeing a former teacher reminds me of who I once was and who I once wanted to be. It’s painful, confusing, gut wrenching, glorious and enlightening. Who knew going back home would be so similar to schizophrenia?
Some things are the same, like good friends. The not-so-good ones show their shadows early and so, like Punxsutawney Phil, retreat into their holes, too deep to dig up ever again. The clothing people wear in the Midwest certainly is blasphemous, but I guess it always was. And the food. Don’t even get me started. If I don’t die of high fructose corn syrup poisoning by the time these five weeks are up, I’ll probably become an addict instead, requiring a drip of the stuff to slowly wean me off when I head back to France.
What I do know is that something has undeniably changed. People have changed. And it’s not because of 9 to 5 jobs or weddings or babies. It’s more than that. Life here has moved on and I am no longer a part of it. Of course, most would say that I left first, that I escaped my life to create a new one with different and more exciting memories – which is perhaps true. But can’t dualism hold a place in life? Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? In other words, can I leave home for good, but still keep a part of it back in Paris?
Whether or not I’m allowed to take a piece of my Minnesota self back to France, I know that I undoubtedly will. My twenty-some years in the U.S. won’t disappear just because I have acquired a certain fondness for buttery pastries, high fashion and the language of love. Being American has never felt so intrinsic to me than it has in these past few weeks – when I was eating my Uncle Allan’s barbecued hamburgers or putting ice in my water glass or laughing about Sarah Palin with my friend Jenny. Call them the small things, but they’re part of what makes me unique over there on the European side.
I hope that after five, or even ten more years in France, I’ll still be able to recognize those so-very American qualities in myself. I also hope that all the amazing French habits I have adopted will be wedged in there alongside. Maybe then, every time I visit home, I won’t have to worry about whether or not I’ve left it too long, whether the life I left behind me is too far back to retrieve. I’ll just know in that intangible sort of way that home is inside of me forever.
First published in Brit’mag, November/December 2010