I wait in the station for my train to Perpignan, the languid, humid buzz of Barcelona present in the low-swung shuffle of sandaled feet and ballooning fabric. I people-watch. Backpackers, the elderly, chic white-clad youth, confused women with high-pitched voices. The duration of my wait makes me pensive. I wonder at the clashing ethos of stillness and urgency reflected in the conflicting pieces of my life and in those all around me. I think every time I come to this continent, I come half-expecting to find some lost sense of myself, and either the expectation or the place delivers it. I find smothered, ill-formed inspiration. I ask myself what I am doing and what I will do next. I belong wherever I go and I belong nowhere. Either I find some sense of myself here, or I discover that I am the cat that walks by himself and that all places are alike to me.
But all places are not alike to me. As I sit on the train as it crosses into France, listening to music from days gone by through my headphones, I feel as if I am time-traveling. The very air touches my skin in a way that calls me to remember things I have forgotten. There’s a word for this: nostalgia. The rattle from the train, sounds of a hundred people, maybe more. The sea dips off to my right, behind the red-tiled houses like others I knew once. The sight of vineyards brings to mind the days I spent cutting grapes not far from here.
I travel back into the past, and into the future. Funny how the past is always sharper than the future, more certain, though the future is the only choice you have between the two.
I speak in French the rest of the day, and for the days after that, words tripping over themselves in their haste to get out after being locked up in another culture for six years. I have fallen in with a group of French couchsurfers, and I explore the hills with them, swim in the sea with them, picnic with them, eat their bread. I wonder why I don’t still live here. I try to wax philosophical about life, the human race. That is more difficult than talking about food and climbing and where I’ve been. My vocabulary limits me and I feel vaguely like a cretin. Going beyond small talk seems all the more personal when the words don’t come as naturally.
And, then, inexplicably, it is difficult to go back even to small talk in English. I miss the structure of French, the ritual. How do you greet someone when you’re speaking English? How do you say, yes, I would like that, without being awkward? How do you contradict someone without being impolite? How do you ask for what you want, exclaim over how much you like something, express your appreciation for people you know only slightly without being it weird?
I think I’m experiencing reverse culture shock. Yet I love my own country as well, and in the plane above the mountains, in the cooler shades of warmth that is this northern summer, I tell myself that almost nowhere I have been is as beautiful as my own home.