Missing Home when your Home is Missing

In the months before I came to Paris, each every-day experience was punctuated by thoughts of “I can’t do this in Paris!” or “I’m going to miss this sooo much”. I’m pretty sure it drove my friends and family insane. Quite often my exclamations would be met by: “you’ll be having so much fun you won’t even notice the lack of vegetarian burgers/proper West country cider/imaginative coin shapes”, or: “oh but in Paris, there’s [insert Other Thing which is nothing like English Thing]!”

Of course, there is never an easy substitution for those things which we hold so dear in our hearts, but that the French just don’t get (like the idea that vegetarians can have other things in sandwiches besides just cheese, or that spitting in the street is always disgusting and never okay).

Once I got to Paris, the list grew slightly, and I found myself missing things I hadn’t expected – having a one-stop shop for all your cosmetic needs (Boots, I love and miss you), always having housemates/siblings/pets to bother when you’re bored, or even just simply living in more than one room. In those early days, riddled by homesickness, it really is the smallest things that hit you hardest. I found myself suddenly overjoyed when spotting a British license plate on a car. I still can’t quite explain why it made me so excited, but that little glimpse of such an everyday detail, easily decipherable compared to the tangled mess of letters and digits on the French plates, instantly brought me back home.

But, without even realising, these things began to matter less to me, and the alternatives – despite not being perfect substitutions – became entirely acceptable. Who needs veggie burgers when you’ve got falafel? Okay, so there’s no proper vintage cheddar, but COMTÉ! [As you can tell, many of the things that characterised my England/Paris dichotomy were edible.]

Over the past month or so, however, I’ve noticed myself going through this process in reverse. Whilst one part of my body sings in joy at the prospect of once more sitting in a real English pub, another part is secretly thinking: but where will I get cheesy crepes for the walk home? When I’m back in that beer garden, I can’t help but think sure, I can see Canterbury Cathedral, but where’s the Eiffel Tower? At least give me the roof of the Panthéon, come on.

In the past ten months, my everyday life has been pulled from its roots, shuffled around a bit, and finally re-settled in this new city. There are new details that make it feel familiar, almost homely. Now, when I see a British license plate, I think of tourists, not home. I catch myself thinking of conversations in French. On my last trip to the UK, I had to suppress the urge to greet the cashier of every shop I entered. I still wouldn’t say I’m entirely settled here, which is probably because I always knew it would be temporary. But I’ve realised that the physical setting almost doesn’t matter, as long as you can find a few things that will comfort you.

It’s a very odd feeling, realising that Home is slipping away from you. Not the concept, of course: if I’m surrounded by my parents, my siblings (and their extensions) and all of my pets, you better believe that I’m at Home. But if there’s one thing I can take away from this year, it’s that Home doesn’t have to be a place. It doesn’t even have to stay the same. If you can accept that the world changes around you and the only constant is how you, yourself, relate to it, then home can be just about anywhere. For me, it’s with my family, my cats and of course, the perfect veggie burger.

Closing remarks

Travelling is a skill. It is something which must be practised and refined although it is probably never quite perfect. There will always be museums you miss, or free shows you don’t know about until they’ve already happened, and countless delicacies you never quite get round to tasting. It is impossible to do everything, and I find that this is especially true in Paris.

In a little under a week, I will be leaving Paris, and returning to Blighty. I always knew this day was coming, but as it suddenly leaps into the path in front of me, I’ve become increasingly reflective (no, not like a high vis jacket).

During this year I have learnt and discovered and realised so  many things about the world and my place within it. But whenever I’ve tried to start this blog, I find myself churning out horrific and hyperbolic Erasmus clichés: “It’s been the best time of my life”, “I’ve loved every minute”, “It was the best thing I have ever done”. Back in September, I believed that all these (and more) were possible. Now, however, I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong: I have definitely enjoyed this year. But I cannot deny the fact that whilst it was certainly a time in my life, and I truly did love certain, specific minutes, there have also been minutes where I have felt so overwhelmed by a nausea of homesickness and loneliness, wishing desperately that I could teleport back to safe, comfortable England, never to leave Ol’ Britannia again. As for the best thing I have ever done – I hope not. It’s certainly up there in the top five, but I never top this I’ll be pretty disappointed.

‘Erasmus’ seems to conjure up mad images in people’s heads, of tipsy sunrises and insanely colourful parades; the kind of stuff that pollutes tumblr tags and saturates your instagram feed. In reality, life here has been largely ordinary, with a few choice peaks of tumblr-worthy material. I won’t bore you with the details of either, but one of the main things I’ve realised this year is that the fairy tale, whilst wonderful to lose oneself in, can’t really spill into everyday life. Yes, some days you see incredible stained glass windows and take selfies in front of medieval churches, but there are also plenty of days when you have to do your laundry and wait in all afternoon for the repairman and go to the supermarket. Those in the latter are constants, whether you’re in Peterborough or Paris.

Like I said at the beginning: travelling is a skill. But it’s also a tool, which can be wielded with great effect, or with very little, depending on your style. It’s a tool for enabling confidence, in order to become as pretentious as possible (à la Sybil Fawlty: “Pretentious? Moi?”). But crucially, it is a tool for development. To soak up your surroundings, to process les environs effectively, and to come out a better person for it. For introspection, via extrospection. Like almost all things, travelling is what you make of it.

To finish, I choose a single cliché, but one that I find wholly justifiable: I would not be the same today if I had not done my Erasmus year.

Au revoir, Paris.

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