*In less than a week, I am leaving for Evreux, France to begin my stint in the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF).
“Are you excited?” my co-worker asks me.
I cannot answer, confused. “About what?” It’s nine in the morning and I only have eight hours of work to look forward to.
“…Leaving the country…”she inflects as her voice trails off, bewilderment buried in her question.
It occurs to me that it is something worth noting, my leaving.
Every time I think about going, I find myself back on a thin twin mattress looking at the calendar I brought from home. Under the Niçoissun, everything is in shades of orange and pink. Mediterranean air infuses the wooden floors, the plastered walls. Even with the floor-to-almost-ceiling windows shuttered, it is inescapable.
To fill in the time after X-ing out the previous day, I count how many weeks, then how many days, until I board a plane back to the U.S. Even after all the math, it is still Thursday. I count how many weekends are left. A minute has passed. Three minutes go by as I work over the two weeks until I my perilous personal vacation to the British Isles, the five days before final exams after that, the 72 hours between my last exam and my last 23 Saint-Laurent-du-Var Gare bus to the airport. The tightness I feel staring at the Xs is, I hope, the closest I will ever know to being buried alive. There is no way out but time.
There are many English words I am uncomfortable using—envy, regret, nostalgia—they tie together too simply labyrinths of emotions and events. “Culture shock” in my experience is not so much a sudden sensation as it is the steady discovery of detached realities at the macro level (as opposed to the micro, individual realities that one encounters every day). Wanderlust, though, I think the Germans got right.
After coming home from a semester abroad I barely thought of leaving again. But even as I took in home, I felt…off. The calendar days had passed just as much as on this side of the Atlantic as on the other. As I had made memories without friends and family, they had made memories without me.
Once home, they gathered around me with smiles and hugs and inside jokes I could only laugh outside of. My answers to their questions were empty. How could I use only words to describe the heat of the Riviera sun, the scent of palm trees and boulangeries and dog shit and moped exhaust, the ache from climbing winding streets spun on long hills? Their visions of my trip flowed through their eyes and I could only fill in the holes.
Over the next few months, two things consistently occurred in our conversations. The more alert would catch themselves at the beginning of a story, and turn to me with sympathy, “Oh, you weren’t here,” before launching into a story I could never feel the context of. It was no better or worse than them reaching the end of a tale and realizing—at my prompting or theirs—their error, “Oh yeah, you weren’t here.”
Like a Zoloft commercial, the things that once made me happy no longer did. While I had been steadily sliding down the scale of depression since before I left, my sudden ejection from and reintroduction to this world put in stark relief how far I had fallen. I could no longer tolerate anything that hurt, no matter how big or small. The pain of yearning for home no longer seemed so terrible.
In turn, the people who might have understood, my fellow study abroaders, had returned to their own lives. It was no longer us against the world. We were the world. And so they fell away.
I graduated college and turned a year older in the same week, the same way. Lonely.
The two tectonic plates of my two lives pushed against each other through three and a half seasons. On the surface, nothing moved. As I had been taught to keep waters still, so they remained. But as nature must take its course, something had to give. In the middle of winter, I found myself tremoring, opening up the depth of my loneliness to my friends. It was either that (I told myself), or abandon them all.
And so, the two trajectories rockily reconciled themselves.
Through it all it seemed no one had understood or tried to understand how dramatically everything had shifted within me. I myself had not wanted to realize it half the time.
Such is the constant state of wanderer.
I could not forget all that I had been through in France, but I no longer wanted to be home. I was also starkly aware that simply leaving would not solve my problems. In going back, in going anywhere, I would be lonely and alone once again rather than just one or the other.
It was not accidental that I wound up submitting an application to teach in France almost exactly a year after I had left. That does not mean, though, it was a well-thought-out decision, considering the past.
I had been almost arrested and raped in Nice. I was actually stranded several times, in several countries.
It is not the fact that I came face-to-face with the darker shades of life so many times that haunts me, but how stupid I was about it. My parents have protected me much more than other children are, yes, but not so much that I don’t know how to avoid danger when it approaches. I know better.
And yet I yearn for that recklessness. I don’t want to be insulated by a good job and good family and good friends. It is an easy life to live comfortably.
Which is why this doesn’t make sense; to want to live without or with very little abandon. Why go about looking for something when I know how much suffering the search can cause? Why leave hoping to discover some better part of me that I might find around the corner?
Now that I am closer to departure, much closer, the tightness is returning. Already I am ramping up the internal calculator, trying to plan distractions for when isolation hits hard. Even then I know that I cannot avoid the pain.
The fundamental parts of me won’t change across the ocean. Even if I traveled to Pluto, the same thoughts that arrest me from properly conducting casual conversation or push me farther into my pillow on a Friday night would be at my side. And I don’t want them to leave. They are an inherent part of me, of my failures as much as of my successes—the latter of which there are many more.
Aside from them though, the only thing that never wavers within me is that I cannot—I refuse to live with regrets. Amongst all the traumas I endured last time, there were as many hallmarks. Even though I projectile vomited in front of one of them, I found multiple guys in multiple bars who talked to me as a fellow human being. I saw all three Godfathers in an actual theater. I prayed with the Pope.
I am not happy to be clouded by my traumas in Nice. While I am better prepared, I am also more apprehensive. I believe and hope that that apprehension will not ultimately stop me from pushing new limits, but it is another tightness to endure.
And so, I am preparing myself as much to live smarter just as I am preparing to not have too much stop me from living; from pushing the limits of my strength and happiness. Even when it is much harder without ignorance to dream of what could be.
My first night in Nice ended with me climbing over a 8-foot wrought-iron gate guarding a marble vine-covered stairway. At the top was the house, my bed, a toilet. I was drunk and high and had given up trying to figure out which key to use and how. “What a story,” I thought as I pulled my leg over the top, looking out for wary neighbors.
Missed buses, wasted money, wrong turns ; these are things I’ll find on the other side. But there are also old key holes in giant mahogany doors that I have to open and close with a full inebriated bladder.
My co-worker watches me expectantly, Are you excited?
I shrug, “Sure.”