Ten years ago I had the unique experience of studying abroad in Normandy, France. Specifically at the Université de Caen – Normandie as part of the school for non-native speakers. In addition to the learning experience – there is no better way to learn culture, way of life, and language than living it – I met some amazing awesome (insert a ton of adjectives here) people. Some of them I am still in contact with today, no easy task when we are scattered across the globe.
But those awesome people aren’t the point of this little trip down memory lane. The point is that every spring, when the air is still cool so you need a coat but the sun makes you remember that summer is just around the bend, something takes me back to the streets of Caen. Maybe it is the feel of the cool air on now uncovered skin, the smell of earth in the air, the light, who knows. All I know is that when I am outside walking around I cannot help but feel a tug, a wish to have my feet on cobblestone streets instead of pavement.
I would like nothing better than to be able to take a stroll down to the local boulangerie or to the market on Sundays to get groceries. Farmer’s markets here simply do not compare to the street markets in France. There are so many more smells in the air from vendors cooking paella, warm bread, and spice stalls. The riotous colors of the fruits and vegetables lined every corridor you walk down are so vibrant, even on a cloudy day. The sheer mass of people, it seems like everyone in town comes out for the market, should make it too crowded to move but the French all seem to know how to make it work.
What I wouldn’t give to take my lunch to the ruin walls of the castle again and have an open air picnic in the middle of the city. It was a quiet refuge in the middle of the university, a little oasis if you will. Or to stop and get a chausson au pomme on my way to class to go with my espresso. On Tuesdays I would take an earlier tram into campus and get off one stop earlier to go to my favorite patisserie and walk the remainder of the way. You see Tuesdays my classes started half an hour later so I had a little extra time in the mornings.
Off the walking trip and onto another kind of trip, I miss being able to hop on the train and just leave. To go for the day or the weekend on a whim. I loved just going to the train station and purchasing a ticket for the next train out. It didn’t really matter what the destination was, it was all new to me. Sometimes I would see something along the way and just decide to stop there. Or I would bookmark it for a future pseudo-planned trip. It was all so spontaneous and free. I honestly do not think I have ever just gotten in my car on morning and picked a direction to drive. It seems so out of character back home, but in France it was simply my way of life.
When I am feeling particularly France-sick I grab my music and listen to a certain selection of songs. While there I had been on a music kick of listening to Pink Martini, Paris Combo, Green Day, and ABBA. The eclectic mix all makes sense in my head, I promise. If I close my eyes I can picture the streets I walked down with my headphones in. I can see the streets I took back from the tram to my dorm, the city center cafes I went to between classes, and the campus sidewalks I traversed.
Now I know it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, I did break my arm there after all but that is a whole separate post. There were protests blocking campus, the language barrier, studying for classes, finals, and figuring out how to live among different cultural norms (can we say faux pas in French?). But life is ups and downs, it is just a matter of what makes it worth it for you.
I miss the way of living, the flowering trees, the pace of it all. I suppose I left a little of my heart in France and with me took a little of the soul of France. The missing pieces seem to want to be whole again, pulling to across the ocean and half a continent. In a short four months, I learned to love Caen almost more than I love home. Certainly more than I have loved any other place I have ever lived.
Love and longing,