What a blur it’s been.
Smiling faces and hugs and kisses at the airport then whammo: into the car and back onto the left hand side of the road, heading north past Mangere Mountain, onto the bridge across the harbour, taking the Hillsborough Rd exit, passing through Epsom, past the rubbish bin I threw up in in 2008, past the café that does the baguettes, past Dog Mountain, up the hill to Mt Eden village, past the family doctor on the left, the family dentist on the right, the chemist, the favourite deli, turning right at the fruit shop, right again and there you are.
Step out of the car, jet-lagged and squinting in the bright, really bright, New Zealand light and there’s a sight for scratchy airplane eyes. The cherry, the clivias and the camellias in full bloom. Beautiful.
Say a silent hello to Bella, the dog buried next to the cherry tree.
Inside, run your hands over the cards and fresh flowers and home-baked cake, the wine in the fridge.
A huge box of 10 different kinds of fruit appears on the doorstep (“Sorry, no raspberries!” my lovely friend apologised later).
Over the coming days there are family and visitors and welcome messages and a tin of chocolate chip cookies and frequent checking-in from friends – most of whom have themselves come back from long periods overseas.
“Back in the shire,” grins Small, bless him. And he’s right about that Hobbiton glow. It’s instantly, warmly, easy and familiar and a pure pleasure to see everyone again.
The kids are absorbed back into the ‘hood and school as if they’ve never been away. The two oldest roam the streets with a freedom they have not known before.
“Why are you wearing sandals? It’s freezing!” I said to Medium on his first day back at school.
“It doesn’t matter – I’m taking my shoes off as soon as I get there,” he said.
Funny. After his first, bruising experience at taking his shoes off at school in France (the kids laughed), he never did it again. His barefoot self burst out at the first opportunity. I smiled to see the shoes lined up outside so many classrooms here.
Yet Medium was also teased in his first week back in New Zealand, for his hair – a mad thatch trying to head south. Long hair was common among his friends at that pretty little French country school with a forest for a playground, cabins for classrooms and a disdain for school uniforms.
“Stupid boy,” Medium told me. “He asked me if I was a girl or a boy. I said : ‘do I look like a girl?”
My timid middle child has come back with a much clearer idea of who he is – he will not be cutting his hair to fit in.
A procession of gorgeous, gangly, grinning 12 and 13-year-old boys have been wandering in and out of the house and garden for two weeks, suffering my hugs and squeezes and blahing on because I didn’t realise until I saw them again how much I love these kids. I really do.
I have known many of them since they were a few months old and almost all of them since they were five or six. They’re funny and smart and a wee bit smelly. They tease Large and tell him to kiss his mother goodbye and he can’t seem to get cross with them.
We adored the old farmhouse we rented in France but it was lovely to come back to a house where the lights work, the knives are sharp, the shelves are not filled with someone else’s clutter. The cellphone works inside as well as outside the house and you can download a movie in minutes instead of hours.
It took me two weeks to take a walk up the little volcano next door.
That was the test, I guess. Lifting my eyes above the laundry and boxes and bustle to look out from my favourite spot and ask myself the question everyone else had been asking: “What’s it like to be home? ”
It may be too soon to say. I am in a similar mindset to when we first arrived in France – fidgety and tired, happy and stunned, unable to settle to anything.
Unpacking boxes, finding bed sheets, tea towels, pillow cases, school uniforms. Tracking down the teapot. Cleaning. Losing things. Sorting the internet. Updating software. Backing up photos. Losing things again. Stocking the pantry. Remembering how to fill lunch-boxes.
Back in my office, my treasures are all around me again: my books, my typewriter, the photos, the kids’ artworks, my lovely view of the mountain.
It’s Sabbatical Man’s first day back at work today. I guess I need to find another name for him.
He’s had a productive couple of weeks, catching up with friends, getting back to pub quiz, replacing lightbulbs, fixing locks, organising cupboards, browsing puppy porn, tidying the garage, trying to find a butter dish in the shops (no luck)…
I got a text from him earlier.
I am resisting his urge to have another fur-child. I’ll probably give in.
What’s it like to be back? People often wince when they ask. We’ve all heard people fresh from overseas adventures snarking on about everything that is wrong with New Zealand.
Happily I don’t feel critical of my home and country. Well, no more than usual. Liking things there is not at the expense of liking things here.
They’re two entirely different things and it’s the difference I like.
I don’t get to keep my life in France.
I set about doing my online supermarket shopping here for the first time and a wave of bleurk passed over me as the website helpfully suggested all my “favourite” brands of milk, eggs, yoghurt, cereal… I had not seen a single one of these brands for 19 months. I liked having to figure out what to buy. Everything was different.
Hanging out the washing in a nut orchard with squirrel action out the corner of your eye was different. Asking for information in French was different. School runs past durum wheat fields and hunters carrying guns and a billboard advertising €199 flights to Moscow were different.
Not better. Just different.
I don’t want to live in the city in France. I don’t want to live in the countryside in New Zealand. You see?
We have stepped off the plane straight back into our old life – a full life, a wonderful life. And you know when something is full? There’s not much room for anything else.
Going away made space to create a wholly different life without sacrificing the one we love.
It was great to get to know French people (we always feared that they wouldn’t bother investing in a friendship with us because we were leaving so soon) but the bonus of that very international town was that we also met people from Spain and Finland, Holland, Canada, Greece, England, the United States, Israel, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Latvia. Latvia! Who knew?
Our list of countries to visit has lurched off in unexpected directions not just because of the countries these people came from, but the ones they had travelled to and told us about.
There were so many days and nights that our brains were fizzing with the new – a tiny cultural difference, a trick of language, a quirky belief. We soaked it up. Is there any better way to find out about a country than by talking to its people?
Travelling helped us to connect the dots between random pockets of knowledge.
It always made us hungry to know more so I’d be back in France trying to track down a book on the Great Fire of London, or the origins of the Great War or the Viking history of Iceland.
Who would have thought that Large could have impressed an Istanbul tour guide with knowledge gleaned from a computer game – and how lovely for him to see that two-dimensional world explode into life in the relics of an ancient city.
Our boys may have yawned at cobblestoned villages and cathedrals but they tuned in to tales of empires and richesse, wars and vengeance.
“Is Bangkok getting richer like Bruges because of tourists?” Small sprung on us a couple of weeks ago during a canal boat tour of Bangkok. He is seven.
I never saw a connection between Bangkok and Bruges but Small was looking at canals and tumbledown shacks alongside flash hotels and remembering a walking tour of Bruges when we heard about the city’s Golden Age, its decline, its centuries of poverty and eventual renaissance thanks to tourism.
What an opportunity for our boys to get a taste of all the world has to offer. I imagine they’ll appreciate it one day.
I do already miss living in France.
I miss the motorway signs to Marseille and Barcelone and Nice and Lyon and Montpellier.
I miss those tiny, perfect restaurants where nothing is fancy but everything is delicious, hand-made and served with warmth and good humour.
I miss Monday morning runs and Thursday hikes and Friday French class.
I miss my friends.
So that’s about the truth of it.
It’s surprisingly good to be back.
It’s surprisingly hard to be gone.
Fortunately, a few people from that part of the world are already booking their visits out here, we have a couple of trips in the pipeline and I know that we will carry threads of our French life with us forever.
And the good news is…I’ve given up on unpacking boxes and have started writing something. A book at best. A series of blogs at worst. There are so many things I started to write about and didn’t have time to finish over there. It is a lovely project and one way to keep my other life close while I settle back into this one.
Wish me luck!