I just booked my flight home. 9th of February. A few weeks ago, in the midst of homesickness, that would have seemed like a life time to wait. But now it feels just around the corner, and the homesickness has disappeared. Vanished. Gone. I can’t tell you how weird that is, because homesickness is one of the most consuming feelings I have ever felt; it exhausts you. It’s a feeling of constant displacement and nostalgia. It’s a kind of yearning that comes right from the bottom of your gut, an invisible string tugging in the direction of home; a physical presence even though homesickness is almost purely mental. It’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up and it hovers over your thoughts all day, so that you are walking around in a dream-like haze. Yeah I know what you’re thinking. She’s nuts! She’s in France, how can someone be homesick in France? Well that’s another reason why being homesick is so exhausting: because when you are in a country like France, and on one of the biggest adventures of your life, it feels like a sin to be missing home. So not only are you walking around with a constant yearning for the comforts of the familiar, but you are also kicking yourself at the same time for being so stupid, when you have all these new and fabulous experiences to replace everything that you left behind.
It’s only now that I all of a sudden don’t feel homesick anymore, that I can actually reflect on this and put it into writing that seems remotely coherent. Because when you are in it, you can’t describe it. You can only feel it. And it’s different for everyone.
I didn’t think I’d get it. I was never that kid in primary school that had to be picked up from sleepovers because I was ‘homesick.’ I’ve been away from my friends and family for lengths of time before and – no offence to them – have coped fine. I like to think that I’m pretty independent. I left New Zealand unpatriotic, focussed only in the direction of Europe. I didn’t even cry at the airport!
But I got it. Right around the time when I started up this blog; when I needed something to do, something to connect me with back home, something to start organising all of the million different ideas floating around in my head every day. I think it’s worked. I love writing, and I can explain things so much better this way, rather than trying to on the phone, where I end up jumping around and using my hands and trying desperately to make people understand what the latest crazy theory is that has popped into my head. It’s virtually impossible because unless I sit down and write it out. By putting my thoughts in words, I can write, rewrite, backspace, edit until I’ve finally figured out how to say what I’m thinking in a way that isn’t going to encourage blank looks (or concerned confusion) from the people I talk to.
Homesickness. Its funny, whenever I write that word, I always associate it with flat whites. Coffee. Ha, how much of a snobby Devonport café kid am I? No but seriously, I really miss being able to order a strong, creamy but not too creamy, milky but not too milky, frothy but not too frothy, silky smooth flat white in winter, from a café with booths and heaters, a variety of quiet conversations humming around me, where I can take a seat by the window and enjoy the sensations (yes, sensations!) of an AMAZING coffee, by myself, with a good book. That was me time. When I needed a pause, a moment to reflect, to write a to-do-list, to just take a break; that is what I’d do. Usually in the window seat of Sierra in Devonport, or almost every day in the back corner of the Arts Café at uni. It was my thing.
And I remember distinctly the day I realised I didn’t have a local café here in France. It was a wet, windy, freezing – horrible – day. You know, the kind of day where you wish you’d just stayed inside, because nothing is going your way. I was overtired, angry at the weather gods, rushing around like a crazy woman, and all I wanted was to sit in a quiet-but-not-too-quiet café and take five minutes to myself. Long story short, of course I couldn’t find a café. France’s café culture is a little different to NZ’s. And in my particular area they were non-existent, the only alternative being these weird diner slash restaurants that often have overweight old French men at the counters and that I have never dared to enter because they seem like the only place you’d go if you were, well, a local. Which I’m not.
I ended up at a McCafé ordering a cappuccino because they are closest thing I have found to a real milky coffee since being here. A McCafé! They put the same freaking chocolate sauce as they put on their sundaes on top of my cappuccino! On top of my coffee! I will never forget miserably sitting in McDonalds, drinking my cappuccino (aka warm milk with chocolate sauce) and thinking to myself; what the hell am I doing here, in France, halfway across the world, by myself, in a McDonald’s café?
Ok so you are probably back to thinking I’m crazy. It’s just coffee right?
Point is; it’s not the coffee, it’s what it represents. And to me, coffee represents comfort. Home. Familiarity. Mum has worked on and off in cafés since I was a little girl. I grew up in cafés. Literally, my mum was a single mum so we spent a lot of time hanging around her workplaces, whether it was in the back rooms of Ice It or watching the goldfish in the pond outside Devonport’s old Watermark, cafés are comforting to me. I can even smell these places right now; the ground coffee, slightly damp in the rubbish bags. Food packed away in the fridge, having slightly lost its smell and appeal, after the end of a long day. The weird mix of baking and cleaning products, as everything is being wiped spotless while the next batch is in the oven, ready to make the same mess.
I never feel out of place in a café, ever. But here I do. Because they aren’t the same. And the French don’t really do food and drink by themselves. Eating and drinking is more of a ritual over here, which is great, but sometimes you just want to drink a coffee by yourself without being judged for it, you know? Whoops, I steered back to the coffee.
Anyway. What I’m trying to say, is that for me, coffee represents just one of the little things that I miss about home. And it’s the little things that seem to get to you the most. Because they are the things you don’t really take into consideration before leaving life in one place, and starting fresh in another. You expect to miss your friends and your family; that’s just a given. But to physically yearn for cafés? The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I can call, Skype, Facebook my family and friends every day, but I can’t transport myself to a Sierra coffee booth for five minutes to really feel at home.
That’s why homesickness is so displacing. Because you are the same you, but somewhere TOTALLY different. You are the same you without all the little things that make up home. You are the same you without all the people who know and love you best.
New connections take time, effort and an open mind. Being on exchange means you are constantly meeting people of different cultures and different backgrounds. You’ve got to try a bit harder. EFFORT. Being away from home, from everything and everyone you know, takes effort.
So that’s my experience of homesickness. Missing my daily comforts and routine. Missing not having to try. Missing not feeling like an outsider.
But I’ve realised that it’s okay to get a bit upset, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to miss home. Giving in to homesickness is often the best way to cope. Lock yourself away with a good book, stay in and watch your favourite TV show, do whatever you need to do to mentally recharge, so you can get back out there and face the fireworks again. So that when you need to put in the hard yards, you have the energy to do so.
Funnily enough, it’s that trying, it’s that effort, that simultaneously makes being on exchange so worthwhile, so soul-forming. Go on, gag, I know you want to – this is about to get cheesy. But it’s true. Being away from home takes effort, takes work, takes risks, takes tears, takes guts, takes determination. But that’s the sort of stuff that makes you grow as a person, man! Sometimes it seems like I can feel my brain expanding, with all the new stuff that gets shovelled into it every day, all of the new experiences. I’m growing up. Learning about myself, all that exciting stuff. Growing as a person. That freaky thing is happening to me, where I’m recalling my parents saying to me – well, Dave, actually, my step-dad – “one day you’ll understand,” in that awful condescending way that makes you yell ferociously “no I won’t!” in your teenage angst purely because you want to disagree with them – well I’m recalling that and going, oh shit, I understand now. Weird. Doesn’t mean I still agree with everything my parents and I have argued about, but I do understand. And now that is one freaaaaaky feeling! (Dave, smile away to yourself, but if you bring this up with me in person with a smug grin I will probably deny ever saying it).
After all that, the homesickness has kind of evaporated into thin air. Or maybe I’m just used to the feeling of constant nostalgia. Nevertheless, this has been a good week. And I felt like sharing all that, partly so you don’t just all think I am a crazy woman for missing little old New Zealand while I’m Europe, but mostly because the whole growing-as-a-person-thing is one of the biggest experiences I’m having over here. In between all the partying and travelling and living the high life, there is a little bit of seriousness going on too.
It’s funny how if you trust a little bit, if you push through the hard times, things all seem to fall into place. You just got to ride it out. But it’s having that trust, turning blindly towards the future, closing your eyes, jumping in and hoping for the best, that is one of the hardest things to do. Sticking with what you know is so much easier. But just think of the rewards. Look at the life I’m living! It’s exhilarating, baby!
But don’t worry, I’m not going to come back all smug, worldly, condescending. One thing I’m learning over here is that every single person has their own story, their own experience. And as much as it is sometimes so frustrating that no one can quite understand exactly what’s going on with me right now, at the same time who am I to expect you to? If I can get on that plane home in 3 months time, with a heart full of good memories and content to keep them forever, without feeling the need to force them onto everyone else, then I know coming home will be beautiful, not reverse-culture shock or depressing. Bring on that flat white!