What makes something — a place, a language, food — feel like home? And, perhaps conversely, in what ways do our assumed homes — that is, those sites or locations that bear a resemblance to our external appearances, our practices, or otherwise involuntary markers of (un)witting affiliation — continue to make us feel like outsiders? (And is home simply a utopic notion with no real expression in the world, as we are always necessarily searching and seeking homes?)
These were the questions on my mind as I awoke this morning, questions I’ve wondered about for quite some time, questions, I suspect, I have carried with me from mon enfance and into and through the strange landscapes of adolescence and adulthood. These questions also presuppose a certain privilege — that one has experienced glimpses, and in some instances long stretches, of home-ness despite brushes with the counter, that is a rootlessness, diconnection, a distinct lack of belonging. What amazes and amuses me about notions of home and belonging is that insofar as each word can open up a vast abyss of questions and seemingly endless inquiry, so, too, can one’s sense of home shift in the blink of an eye. Or, as in the case of last night’s Fete de Noel, with an easy grin.
The scene: the annual Christmas party (I’m assuming annual, although this was my first time attending) at the local Alliance Francaise where I am currently enrolled as une etudiante. I was on the fence about attending. While I can carry on conversation with relative strangers and find true delight in learning about the lives of others, I found myself momentarily hesitant as I approached the building. I could still go home, enjoy the brisk walk back and pick up some seemingly ubiquitous holiday popcorn on the way. But fate, in the form of my former teacher ML, intervened and once she said “Bonsoir!” to me, there was no turning back. So into the building we walked together and we rode the elevator to the 7th floor where the sounds of chatter (that my friend E might call “frenchified”) spilled out of the Alliance suite into the hallway as the elevators door opened. ML made her way to the restroom and left me to make my way into the crowded set of rooms, people numbering easily into the 30s and 40s. The lovely C instructed me as to where I could leave my jacket and bag — this would kill a couple of minutes. The open spot next to the water cooler seemed fine, and there was only one other bag in the near vicinity; most others had placed their items on the sofa. Better here, I thought, for easy retrieval and slipping away.
Ok, next: Locating the bar. I said hello to the woman who had conducted my placement test. Talk to me now, I wanted to exclaim! I remember the difference between the passe compose and passe simple! And I can almost remember all of my subjunctive conjugations! But instead I followed my Bonsoir with the most banal of small talk: “Ah, voici le vin!” And poured myself a half plastic cup worth of pinot noir. From there I made my way into one of the smaller classrooms, that I had used on a few occasions after class to Skype with my research team, where there sat one of three cheese platters, assorted breads, a pasta salad, haricot verts, and a large bowl of raw tomatoes — as a decoration, I suspected, when I saw similar formation of clementines in an adjacent classroom.
For several minutes I stood against a door jamb adjoining two rooms, content in my having made this outing, exchanged a few french pleasantries, and enjoyed the late autumn evening air. Having committed to taking an early departure after a quick rotation around the other rooms, I started across the main room whereupon I ran into my current teacher J who greeted me with a jubilant “Bonjour!” and, after introducing me to two other students to her right — Michel et Robert — she immediately instructed us to gather close for a photo and before any of us could protest, she had us raising our glasses with a toast of “Sante!” as the moment was captured in the form of digitized bits of pixelated information.
This moment — of introduction, of orchestrated camaraderie, of (likely somewhat) booze-induced socialization — transformed an otherwise tolerable evening into truly enjoyable one. For the next two and half hours conversation flowed easily and often in varying degrees of comfort with the French language. I heard a Southerner parler-ing from across the suite with great animated conviction; spoke with a Wharton MBA student who had spent a few years living in Switzerland as an adolescent and who was brushing up on her French in preparation for a move to Senegal because her husband, also a student at AF and who works for the State Department, is being transferred there; and the very lovely, positively magnetic Benjamin qui est un professeur de Francais, who somehow managed to convince even the reluctant amongst us to join in the caroling — another first: choral singing of Silent Night en francais.
The rest of the evening, conducted almost 90% in French, was as enjoyable as it was instructive; and in a strange way served as a book end to another mixed group gathering that I attended today, this time of old family friends (about which I’ll write more extensively later, but for now, suffice it to say that subtle differences even in how someone asks how you are doing — interestedly versus accusatorily — can invoke or supplant a sense of home!).
While peppered with instances of organized socializing, this sabbatical has been a model of the bliss of solitude. Parties, those strange artifacts in which people willingly (sometimes) participate, challenge this oath of solitude — challenge the fairly amiable individual to engage not merely in idle chatter for purposes of mindless, mutual adherence to social convention but to help construct an experience that does not make one yearn for a return to one’s solitude.
Happily, both occasions fell largely into the latter category, filled with laughter that binds new acquaintances and the kind that evokes shared past memories; and conversation motivated by genuine interest in another person. (I credit much of my fete de noel meaning-full talk to the very lovely Benjamin who posed questions with ease and seemed to instinctively understand these musings of home-ness and belonging; in contrast, la fete avec des familles was, at times, hampered by stifling interlocutors, despite the charming toddlers who proved to be quite able conversationalists.) To be fair, both fetes had moments of the former as well. In these moments of momentary displacement, I wished to be sitting alone, with a latte or pot of tea, a book near me and with implements of writing at the ready.
To wit, in both form and content and for its reflective as well as projective tone, I appreciate Rilke’s musings on the subject — as found in one of his letters to the young poet Kappus where he writes:
“We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”
I might add to Herr Rilke’s observations that while it is also good to be social, this too, is a difficult endeavor; and to be done well, one requires apt partners, a healthy curiosity, and perhaps a general expectation that there may be something marvelous yet to be discovered, a home to be found(ed) — where the sweets are sweeter, language is a site of openings, food more comforting, and an easy smile between friends and strangers opens up glimpses of home.