The following is a sequel to my last post on our recent trip to America. In that article, I shared how we all went through some adjusting, after being gone just one year and a half. If our picture of belonging were to take on the form of a jigsaw puzzle, at least one piece would be missing. That piece would be our return to life in France. Because it also took a little adjusting to return home. The landing was a little shaky on both sides because we are a cross-cultural family living life in the in-betweens.
After our long journey back, we arrived to our frigid stone house. Attempting to warm the body and feed the soul, we adorned heads with winter hats as we sipped on warm soup my mum had thoughtfully prepared for us. It was our first meal back home. Technically, it was dinner, but it felt more like a hangover breakfast.
“It’s all a bit lower on the creature comforts in this part of the world, don’t you think?” I said to Tall Mountain, thinking back to the thick carpeted stairs, lovely walk-in refrigerators and pumpkin spice candles of our friends’ homes. I’m not entirely sure he heard me above the noise of three giggly-crying children. We’d gone through this jet lagged state exactly two weeks ago. I proceeded to unpack some prized possessions: Framed photos of the family for cheap from Michaels. 70 or so date-nut Lärabars. Books! Corn tortillas. And inexpensive-for-France almond butter that I slathered on toast for some weary kids. “You’re already going through our precious almond butter from America?” TM wondered. “Yup, I sure am.” I said.
Stores were closed on Sunday. As they are. So we planned our family grocery shop for the following week. We worked our way through the store aiming to stock up after our trip. I eyed the sales, all of which are phony sales. 5 cent discounts to entice the consumer. I already missed America. Wow, with the exchange rate, and after Target, everything felt so expensive. We reached the glorious fish counter with all of the yellow-red promotion signs hanging above head. I had missed fish in America. So, I chose a large filet of salmon that looked like it was alive that morning. Ahhh, back to fresh fish. TM was the first to notice that the per kilo numbers didn’t match the fish sale. “Sir, the promotion claims it’s 9 euros a kilo, and this price makes it about 15 euros a kilo” I told the fish monger. “Oh yeah. Old promotion.” he said as he ripped one of the sale signs off. “Alright, how about the sea bream, or the trout? Which fish in this counter are actually on sale” I challenged him. “Hmmm, let me see… nope, they are all expired promotion signs.” he said matter of factly, as he ripped all of the sale signs off the swinging rod above head. By this time, I was incensed: “Well, then this is all false advertising, since every pre-portioned package has a yellow SALE sign on it with the normal per kilo price! What can you do for me?” And then, like a car salesman, he made it up on the spot: “Well, we often sell this stuff for 25 a kilo”. Furious, I left with our fish, still sweet by North American pricing standards but terribly bitter in terms of the experience. We were no longer kings sitting on our American customer service throne, but most definitely back in France.
We left the store with three kids in one shopping cart, and one cart for purchased items. The cashier was ‘over’ her job. She was over our family and over being asked if she had applied the discount stickers to the bill, all of which she conveniently forgot to remove. She was over the hassle of beeping through so many items. We wished her a “great evening” and she responded with the evil eye. As for us, we left wondering how on earth these groceries could cost so blooming much. Welcome home, fam’.
The next day, my husband got laughed at for his lunch. An African woman in this office elevator wanted to know if he had an African wife, or why did he bring a chicken cashew stir-fry and rice to work in a glass tupperware? Why didn’t he have a baguette sandwich or a carrot salad like the other French white people? As she laughed hysterically, she made it clear that he didn’t quite fit in here either.
By the time we had left America after 16 days, we were used to doing life there again. Looking at the calendar, I see it took exactly two weeks to get back into the groove of life here as well. Prior to that, three children were upside down. School mornings were brutal and nobody slept well. We were groggy and ticked off by an absurd number of bills that had arrived in our absence or rude encounters with “servicemen”. And then, after two weeks, we started to experience things that grounded us again.
About exactly at that two week mark, one of our kids blurted out some hysterical local saying picked up from school, wearing a classic white and navy striped marine sweater. “Oh my word, that kid is so French.” I told TM. “Of course they’re French babe. They’re little French TCKs.” he responded. And still, my husband’s affirmation totally surprised me.
Belonging is a place where we are expected and we are known. Where we recognize the sights, the sounds, the smells. Where we know the people and the habits and all those unspoken rules.
Wine and cheese Thursdays with our neighbors. A dance class. A playdate with a little friend. Running in the great outdoors. Being known by the postman. A warm baguette broken open. An invitation to a bird song concert from a teacher. Anticipating ski season.
I enjoy writing about these small, silly cultural encounters and I hope they don’t come across as critical. We treasure those small incidents that remind us of our rich, multi-faceted cultural identity. This is how our cross-cultural family experiences the dance between our home cultures.