The last three days, once we left Paris and got settled in Nancy, have been full of unexpected turns — one of the things that we should expect on trips, I guess.
Fifty years ago, in 1964, I left this ducal city with its proud and independent heritage only firmly allied with France for the last 300 years or so. I left a piece of my heart here. I 've often reflected on the heartbreak of leaving, and of the pleasure it would bring to see it again. The leaving was of my own accord. I had a teaching job and a small apartment that I loved. I had a community and friends I loved and who loved me. I was just at the brink of settling down and starting to build my life as a foreign resident of France. But when I looked around at other foreigners I knew, people from the UK or from Eastern Europe who had done the same thing, I could see that they had made a serious trade-off of identity in choosing to live here in the place they adored, as did I. They were, even 20 or 25 years later, still foreigners, stlll standing uncomfortably astride two languages, cultures, allegiances, identities, and never fitting into an easy category. It's the fate of the expatriate.
I don't think I ever really expected to see Nancy again, but I'm glad I have. I've come back into touch with a part of myself that I'd forgotten about– the 20-something, blissfully unaware of the lifelong impact of the choices she was making, seeking to make decisions that would lead to a productive and engaged life,little realizing that she would need to confront the same issues wherever she chose to live. My heart was breaking as I left behind the place that I loved, and the friends I loved, some very deeply. I had thought it prudent to detach before I couldn't, and go back to what I thought of as “home.” As it turned out, I was as much a foreigner in my home country as I was in my adopted one. And it was already too late to detach as commpletely as I thought I could.
Yesterday, we made a trip into the countryside near Nancy, to visit a friend with whom I'd been very close when here, named Francoise. Francoise still lives, as her mother did, in the house where she was born, and where her mother had been born before her. It's a proud old 19th century farmhouse, with an attached barn where the cows and horses once wintered, with its own self-contained smokehouse, and with several bedroom wings to house the different branches of a large extended family. For decades now, Francoise has lived there alone. She has maintained and updated this house beautifully so it retains its historic integrity and yet is comfortable in terms of modern amenities such as central heat and up to date bathrooms. The kitchen, though it now has hot and cold running water and a modern gas range, retains and still uses the original sink made of a large slab of limestone, the old walnut kneading table big enough for a very tall adult to lie flat along its length, and the huge cooking fireplace taking up one whole wall of the kitchen. In the living room, though it's now purely decorative, stands the tiled wood stove that was the source of heat for the family during the winter. Behind the house is the strip of land that still contains vegetable and flower gardens, berry bushes, and fruit trees — pretty much all the land a large family needed to be self-sufficient in feeding itself, with vegetables and fruit along with the chickens, cows, and pigs it raised. The cows and horses grazed outside the village, which is composed of row houses lined up along a single road, a stone barn separating each dwelling from the next. When I was here 50 years ago, the farmers still raised livestock and piled up manure from the animals in front of the barns. The village then was pungent with composting manure. Now it has more of a suburban feeling, with cars parked in front of houses where the manure had once slowly transformed itself into fertilizer.
As we descended from the train at the tiny station of Vezelise, there was Francoise waiting, tears in her eyes. She is now 82, but still strong and alert. She led us to her auto, and we rode with her the mile and a half to her little village. She had made a wonderful lunch for us — out of all proportion to the three hours we would spend with her, almost all of which was occupied by the leisurely lunch, one course after the next. After the coffee, she showed Nancy and me around the wonderful old four story house built around a small cenral courtard — totally amazing to see this place in the 21st century! I had been a guest of their family fairly often while I lived in Nancy, and I remembered most of the house — much of which is the same now in every way as it was then.
We ended our tour in the large garden with its several fields one in back of the other. This village is laid out in the same way as the Village of Old Mines in Missouri was laid out for the land grants given to French settlers in the Louisiana territory of America in the early 1700s — strips of land stretching back a quarter mile or so from contiguous attached houses that abutted each other along both sides of a road.
The time to leave came all too soon — Just 3 hours to catch up on 50 years of busy lives well lived. Nancy and I both saw the depth of affection that Francoise had kept alive for me all these years, and we were deeply touched.
This morning, there was something about not really wanting to leave Nancy. Nancy (my spouse, not the city) first read the tickets wrong, so that we arrrived at the station to leave at the time the train was supposed to arrive at our next destination, Colmar. That's easy enough to do, and wasn't terribly upsetting. It seemed to mean that we would have to take a train to Strasbourg and then transfer to the Colmar train, instead of being able to ride directly between Nancyy and Colmar, and we'd arrive in Colmar a couple of hours later than we'd expected. No big deal. I checked with one of the station agents, who said no problem, we could use the same tickets on the next train.
Here's where things got strange She wrote down for me that the next train left at 12:45. So we bought some bottled water and prepared to wait. During this time, I became acutely aware, probably for the first time since it had occurred, what a wrenching experience it had been 50 years ago to leave Nancy, and the life I had built for myself there. I realized that this was the origin of a recurring dream I'd experienced for many years, of leaving a place where I'd lived for a while, and not being able to take everything with me. No matter how hard I tried to get all my stuff packed and ready to leave, there was always something that went back into the closet after I thought I had packed it. This dream, when it happens, goes on interminably. I never do manage to really leave the place (which is represented in my dream by an open armoire with a few garrments or a bag or a series of books and papers returning stubbornly to their place instead of staying in the bag where I've packed them. Nancy was the place I couldn't leave! I never realized that before.
The oddity was that the railroad clerk had written the wrong departure time for the next train, so that we ended up missing that train, too,, and were again left behind in the station at Nancy! Just as in my recurrent dream, we appeared unable to leave Nancy this time too, through a bizarrre coincidence.
My companion Nancy asked me did I think there was some spiritual block against being able to leave, and I had to admit she was probably correct. It was time, right now, to take care of that and let go my subconscious regrets about my decision to leave. Retroactively, I had to Let Go my remaining attachment to my life there, and to the love that I'd never really left behind for friends and for the place where I for the first time had found myself as an adult and started to build a successful life. Saying goodbyes are always hard, and this one has remained with me, unfinished, for the last 50 years. Finally getting to come back has allowed me to finish this previously unfinished business, and I actuallly feel a little lighter as the train (finally — we did make the third train) forges east through the Vosges Mountains toward Strasbourg.
And as I think about it, I'm happy in my present life. I don't need to regret that I decided to leave Nancy.