Strangely, my grandmother didn’t enter my thoughts on my first journey from London to Paris. Instead of having my face pressed against the window as I rolled into the city for the first time, I was consumed by the novel I was reading when the train pulled into Gare du Nord. When my husband and I exited terminal we had to rush to a nearby restaurant for a meeting he had scheduled. My husband’s Midwestern boss and an ebullient French salesman were waiting for us at a table that had been converted into a riotous range of files, product samples and wine glasses. The Frenchman launched into his pitch after our glasses had been filled, pausing first to advise me not to order bouillabaisse because Parisian chefs don’t understand the regional nuances of such a soup. I sat back and nibbled on my salad and listened to the salesman’s mixture of humor, self-deprecation, hard data, and bullshit, stricken as I realized how familiar his performance was to me. All around us there were tables full of businessmen conducting conversations in a similar manner, and I fully understood the world I was occupying.
This was my third attempt to visit France, but my first successful one. During the first attempt I’d been extremely diligent in planning it all out. I signed up for a semester in Tours, poured over options for classes and housing, spoke to my professors at length, and ended up deciding to rent an apartment so that I could bring my dog. My fiancé was studying in a small town in Germany, so he could take the train on Fridays to stay with us each weekend. I envisioned long walks through the romantic haze of the city and afternoons spent in outdoor cafes drinking Sancerre while the dog reclined near a bowl of shimmering water, every now and then shoving his snout in for a few slurps. The plan was perfect, and I was devastated when a couple of small, unfortunate details came together to tear a hole big enough for the trip to be called off.
The second attempt started to form almost fifteen years later, when my husband needed to spend extended time in Europe for work. I didn’t do any of the planning, and we ended up spending five weeks in London instead. But due to the warm glow of my memories of my half- or fully French grandmother (a story we hope to uncover one day), my husband refused to let us return to the United STates without having visited the country that has poured many of its tastes and habits into my genetic behavior. The only plans we made were a hotel reservation and a couple of work engagements, then two days to ourselves to do as we pleased.
I’d finally begun to get used to our temporary living situation in London. My children had introduced me to some nice parents whom we enjoyed and I’d finally found a grocery store that would take an American credit card for weekly delivery orders. The weight of the worst heat wave England had experienced in a decade persisted in its attempts to crush us, but Londoners continued to smile and insist upon my luck in arriving for the beautiful weather. I’d gone from thinking such comments were delusional to thinking them resiliently sweet. My 6-year-old had found a crew of similarly wiggly boys to run around with at the summer camp he was attending at King’s College School. Life was running along at a clip that felt so normal that I didn’t even notice the ease with which I’d crested down the other side of the hump that was my rocky adjustment period.
Then we arrived in Paris, and while it was a vacation rather than a living situation, there was a marked lack of jostling as I adjusted to the new setting. Typically, when visiting a new country people clumsily amble through, wide-eyed, as the central nervous system is submerged in strange sounds, shadows, and interactions. Instead, I slid into the daily rituals of interacting with Paris as if I’d been there for months. Once my husband, who had visited the city many times, bounced back from the shock of my immediate comfort he handed control of the trip to me. I was the one ordering our food, asking for WI-FI passwords, and chatting amicably with the shop owners he had found to be so rude on his previous visits. One morning, as he watched me start moving my hands before my face after tripping over a sentence in conversation with the hotel concierge, he blurted out “Oh my gosh. You’re a Parisian. It’s in you.” A smug self-satisfaction washed over me and remained on my skin until that evening, when we were getting ready for dinner.
“When we get home I need to call Primrose to set up lunch,” I said while rifling through a cosmetic bag.
“Home?” my husband cocked his head to the side.
I’d done it. I’d crossed the line. Not only had I just referred to London as home, but I realized that it wasn’t the first time it had happened that day. I’d said “I’m calling home,” as I picked up my phone to check in on the boys. When I realized I didn’t have an extra battery for my digital voice recorder, I’d said, “I left the extras at home.”
Home is supposed to be where the alliances remain while the body travels. Home is supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be the place where there’s no adjustment, but rather a subtle progression of days. Or is it simpler than that? My children were in London with our sitter. My clothes, recently purchased books, and allergy medication were in the London house, sitting in places that make sense to the paths of my day. A block away from the house a former Barclay’s trader was cheerfully greeting the mums, children and retirees who filed through the door of his coffee shop during each of its open hours. When I would return, he would present me with my daily caramel latte without me having to ask for it.
Perhaps home is where the routine lives, rather than “the heart.” Maybe it’s where the people we love lay their heads to sleep rather than the place our ancestors inhabited.
Perhaps home isn’t where we make it, but where our habits take hold and thrive.