When I moved to Paris in January of 2012, I left behind a life in New York I’d spent seven years building: my career, my friends, and the familiarity of American culture. I didn’t know how long my savings would last, and so, stupidly, I never applied for a proper visa. Naturally I ended up overstaying my three-month tourist visa by a good six months, and when I left for my best friend’s October wedding in New York, I was pulled aside and interrogated by airport border control before my connecting flight in Amsterdam. My visa was electronically flagged, ensuring that I would not be permitted to come back to France a week later as I’d expected. In fact, if I tried, I could be banned from Europe forever, according to some frightening websites.
With the exception of a week’s worth of clothes and my journal, all of my possessions remained in Paris. After a few days of panicking, I decided that I didn’t want my dream to be over, and nobody was going to tell me what to do or where I could live–not even the French government (typical American arrogance). I still had some savings left and I was going to go broke in Paris if it was the last thing I did. I would apply for a proper visa and kill some time in New York, spend Christmas with my family in Arizona, then go home to Paris in January. After all, New York was the place I’d called home for seven years, and Arizona was where I grew up. Once I’d formulated a plan, it wasn’t scary so much as annoying.
But expat life is something special and specific. While trying to build a life someplace new, you end up ripping yourself away from your home culture. In just ten months I’d gotten used to hearing French around me all the time, the rhythm and wandering mentality of a slower, un-gridded city, the fresh seasonal produce and strange French sitcoms. Immediately upon re-entering America, I longed for my beloved apartment in the 18th arrondissement, the rain and the cozy cafés, the cheap wine and the startling sight of the Eiffel Tower, which always seemed to appear before me when I least expected it. I wasn’t sure if I belonged to New York anymore, or if it belonged to me. Its trains were louder than I remembered, stuffed so full of people I felt like I couldn’t breathe. At restaurants I overheard hipsters having conversations like, “I know the most amazing organic egg farmer in Long Island City. I know you’ll just, like, connect so quickly, I mean you both have blogs.” I very quickly wished I could understand them as barely as I did the French.
I was extremely lucky to find a sublet with a good friend on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from where my old apartment was. As I readjusted to New York life, I was flooded with visceral reminders of the city I knew and still loved: autumnal New York had street musicians on every corner and Central Park drenched in a dozen brilliant colors. And Zabar’s. I listened to old people yelling at each other on the street, and I remembered why I loved this town. This was the city I swore I’d never leave, until I left it. Before long, I felt at home again.
I reunited with old friends and visited old haunts, both of which seemed startlingly the same. People evolve slowly, over time, and when you see each other often you change, or don’t change, together. But after having created a completely new life somewhere else, and having changed in every way I thought possible in a number of months, the stagnancy of what I held dear in New York ripped away an old luster, now lost to fond memories. Worse still, I realized that after a few catch-up sentences, nobody wanted to hear about Paris, so I stopped talking about it, almost ashamed to share my stories with friends and colleagues. I felt like I had grown a new arm that nobody wanted to acknowledge.
I found some work freelancing at my old job as a video editor, where I’d worked for seven years and deserted for an unsure life as a writer in Paris less than a year earlier. At work, that “reentry” feeling was put into even sharper relief. Nearly all of the same people were there, the office looked the same, the clients were the same. We ate lunch together in the kitchen and everyone made the same jokes, including me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used my time in New York to temporarily relive my previous life, but as I fell into a familiar rhythm, it was like I’d never left–like my time in Paris had only been a dream.
I made a joke at lunch one day and my former mentor looked at me curiously.
“Is it weird to see me here?” I asked.
“No,” he said, almost sadly. “That’s what’s weird.”
In December I flew to my hometown of Gilbert, Arizona, for Christmas. At first, the familiarity of home, my family and the warmth of the vast, open sky was comforting. I deeply enjoyed the free rent and free food. I went fishing with my dad and wore fancy hats while watching Downton Abbey with my mom.
But after the holidays, suburban ennui set in deep and I began taking long walks around the block for exercise I never needed to think about in pedestrian-friendly Paris and New York. I would walk for fifteen minutes and only reach the end of the cookie-cutter house-lined street. I leapt at the chance to run errands with my mom, and when I could borrow my parents’ car I found myself driving around aimlessly, to Target or World Market or the mall—not to buy anything but just to go, driving an extra mile around the neighborhood to sing along with the radio and feel like I was somehow moving.
By the time I was due to return to France in January, proper visa in hand, I was more ready than I’d ever been for anything in my life. The year before, I’d been excited but terrified, unsure of what lay ahead of me, but this time I knew what I wanted and I knew I could get it. I had strong plans for the year ahead and I couldn’t wait to get back to my life in Paris to put the wheels in motion. I packed my bags, again, and flew five thousand miles from home to home.
When I walked back into my apartment in Paris, a feeling of relief rushed over me. I could finally unpack for real. I went into my bedroom. Everything was as I’d left it: my writing desk was quietly waiting for me, though it looked taller than I remembered. Dresses I’d forgotten I loved were still hanging in the closet, and my crossword puzzle book was gathering dust beside my bed.
I walked into the kitchen, which seemed smaller than in my memory. Just as I’d felt in New York and Arizona, there was a kind of foreign familiarity to this home; everything was just as I remembered, yet somehow different. Nothing had changed since I’d left three months ago. It was the space that I, myself, occupied that felt different, as though I had different dimensions than the last time I breathed here, as though my eyes saw the light bouncing off the architecture from a different height.
And that’s what coming home feels like to an expat. It’s like trying to stuff your new self into a shell you no longer fit into. I’ve “come home” three times in three months, but as I tried to fall asleep my first night back in Paris, I wondered: do I belong anywhere anymore?
They say you can never go home again, but I think that’s only true if you expect it to feel exactly the way it did before, or for yourself to feel the same way in it. I couldn’t possibly have expected to have the same feeling in New York or Arizona as I’d had before living in Paris, just as I cannot expect my next year here to be the same after having returned to the U.S. But I’ve begun to realize that there are only two true homes we ever have in life: the entire world itself, and the body with which you traverse it. Everywhere in between is just the place you lay your head.
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Laura Baisden lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a printmaker and illustrator who specializes in relief printing and letterpress. She spends her workday designing posters at Hatch Show Print, and her evenings drawing and carving her own illustrations.