A month ago, I stepped off the plane in Paris. I withdrew euros from the ATM, boarded the Metro, and headed toward the city center. I had wanted to visit France since I was 11 years old, before I even knew what that meant to go to France. I studied the language, the culture, the music, the art. I watched movies with subtitles. I read Colette, The Little Prince, Balzac, A Tale of Two Cities. France seemed so beautiful and magical, like the fanciest fairy dust-covered place. La Belle Époque transcended time and space to exist in my heart. I believed that some day, I would become one of those delicate ladies with the big layered skirts and lithe frame that have been painted with vague strokes in a vintage French poster.
So I roamed Paris with my friends. Bicycled along the Lac d'Annecy near the Alps. Bought a baguette and fresh chèvre at the market in Lyon. I roamed the countryside, drank pastis in the city that inspired Van Gogh, and sat topless on the beach in Marseille. I knew the language but couldn't quite understand it, and it filled my ears uncomfortably until I gave up trying to speak it and just ignored it all around me. I had no appetite for fancy wine and food. It was hot and humid, every day was full of tourism, I was woefully alone, and I found myself yearning for the wily ways of us silly Americans. I flowed through the country, taking in all I saw and heard, having some magical moments in unexpected places, without ever touching the real surface. I left France 10 days later, in the same form as I had arrived, unchanged except for the fact that something I had yearned for over so much of my life no longer tugged at me. I had built up France so much in my mind that even though much of it was just as beautiful and dreamy as I had imagined, I didn't feel like the same person who had been imagining it for so long. France didn't change me. I had changed long ago but never left that dream behind. I no longer need to feel dainty and glamorous. I spend my time on the rivers or in the mountains. I run half marathons and cook barbecue pork in my slow cooker and shop at Whole Foods and mow my lawn and have water gun fights with my boyfriend and his kids. I do still like gorgeous shoes with tall wedges, and sparkly earrings, and flower clips in my hair, but I don't lament the fact that I'm not chic and sophisticated. I'm living the real life I always wanted, so I no longer dream of someone else's life in a faraway place.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed France and I hope to return some day to see more of the things I loved. But it wasn't at all the trip that I was hoping for, and I didn't float back home on a cloud. Instead, I came home understanding my country better, loving the things that make my life what it is, and finally feeling like I actually fit in here in this land.