Before heading abroad, I thought I knew what it took to make a life: friends, family, a daily activity like school or work and hobbies. I never thought about the everyday, mundane acts like walking and cooking and simply seeing. I also thought I knew the components of the self: personality, soul, passion and connections. I had never thought of the other, secret self that I would be left with when I was alone–the person who I was in constant conversation with while made mute by an empty apartment during the day.
After leaving the places where I had a life and a person thrust upon me (where I had school and friends in St. Louis and family and history Chicago to tell me who I was), I realized I knew very little about what it was really like to make myself up. I realized how much of my life in the US had been invented for me, and how much of that invented life and personality I had come to think of as essential.
So, throughout my time here, I’ve begun to pick up little pieces of what I believe are my life. As the proverb suggests, I attempted to make my nest, my “nid,” in Toulouse. I never questioned the need to make Toulouse feel like home–everywhere I’ve ever stayed for an extended period of time (St. Louis, Villanova, here), I have tried to find family figures to have dinner with, postcards to decorate my room and favorite spots that I could return to and call “mine.” I can’t even imagine what the alternative to building a nest is: white walls? Flings? Ambivalence? Though I claim to have wanderlust, I could never be a true wanderer. I love having a home. I love the idea of home.
In Toulouse, I have my hostess, an array of postcards over my desk and a few Spanish friends who live around the corner. I can find my favorite boulangerie, bar, coffee shop and salon de thé on a map. I like to run along the canal next to my apartment and take naps on the bank of the river. I go to school, work at a bar and travel. Bit by bit, I’ve built a temporary nest that has kept me sane and safe while away from my other homes.
Naturally, I began to wonder if I could ever move to France. My concept of home isn’t so concrete as to be restricted to the 70’s style split-level I’ve lived in since kindergarten, but I do find myself thinking more and more that I will live within a mile of my mother for the rest of my life, as my mother does with her own. That idea used to scare me (The monotony! The familiarity!), but it now seems so logical that I sense some weird Freudian complex at play.
However, my mother did leave home for college and lived in the exotic land of Florida for a few years, so I suppose that I, too, have the ability to make nests elsewhere.
Over the past few months, I’ve traveled quite a bit around Southwest France: Bordeaux, Estarvielle, Carcassonne, Collioure and Albi. In each city (or, more often than not, village), I’ve enjoyed food, wine, nature, sights and best of all, conversations with locals. I have never loved a region so much, perhaps because it has everything I could want in the way of land, people and culture.
You are expected to learn wine here. The terrain switches between lush rolling hills and rocky, limestone soil, so you get the best of the fermented world: essentially, Italian whites and Bordeaux reds. You can ski, or descend the Pyrenees and swim in the Mediterranean. You are expected to eat well, whether it be hearty cassoulet or les fruits de mer. The cheese is always different and always incredible. Markets. The most enamored teenagers you’ve ever seen. Of the street performers, there is always an accordionist to make you feel very, very French. You are confronted with the strange coexisting remnants of Visigoths, Romans and the slave trade (that you had surprisingly failed to comprehend was a catastrophe that extended beyond your home country and had lasted even longer in the french colonies than it had in America). Trilled Rs and hard consonants and accents that sound like horse hooves on cobblestone.
But, as I’ve explained, these pieces don’t make up an entire life; there is always walking and seeing and breathing that fills the spaces between moments and circumstances. “This is real life,” my hostess has explained to me at dinner. “When you are living and not thinking about it.”
I think of the life that I’ve spent in transition in France: on the metro, walking in the rain, climbing strange hillsides with a belly full of wine. Sometimes I was headed to a specific destination: school, the safety of a café. Most often, I was simply living without thinking about it, which is easier to do, I realize, when you are not scared of where you are, but you are curious to see more. When you know the language and the land, but not yet how long you want to stay. In this life, these transitions, I imagine little nests dotting the terrain. I don’t imagine building the nests (no one ever does), but I feel, for a small second, what it would be like to settle in one.