The fantasy had been with me for almost as long as I could remember. I lived and relived our European experience in my mind’s eye for over 30 years. The vision first took shape when I was a young adult returning from studying abroad, clarified somewhat and merited its very own file folder as it remained in my heart as I became a young mother, career ladder climber and dual college tuition payer and then blossomed into an actual, concrete plan accompanied by spreadsheets, maps and piles of references as I matured into a middle-aged empty nester. My idée fixe of a Gap Year in Europe with Joe sustained me through many a professional trial, boring weekend, humid Washington summer and fleeting vacation.
But now I find myself asking, what will get me through those hurdles now that the vision has been realized? What escapist imaginings will consume my idle hours? Will life be hard on us, now members of the “those whose dreams have actually come true” club? I was overcome with difficult-to-articulate feelings as we prepared to go home.
As a child I watched a Hayley mills movie, The Moon Spinners, in which she and her friends get into mischievous escapades on Greek hillsides dotted with windmills and the seed for seeing the world was sown. I read Rebecca, The Sun also Rises, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Sheltering Sky and The Drifters. They filled me with longing for adventure in other countries and the reverie of some day living abroad.
At every opportunity – when pinching pennies, the family budget and work schedules allowed – Joe and I took off for Europe, visiting my beloved France, but also venturing to England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Greece. We visited my sister Peggy who lived in London with her husband for several years. We took the kids backpacking through Italy and Greece, starting in Rome and heading all the way south to Crete. We traveled with each other for international business conferences and made special anniversary trips for our 15th, 20th and 25th celebrations. But as lovely and exciting as these voyages were, they were short-lived and temporary. But we were determined not to relegate living in Europe to the outer reefs of “someday isle” along with all those other resolutions: someday I’ll lose weight, start exercising, change jobs, visit friends more often, read Anna Karenina, take dancing lessons.
I vividly recall Joe holding my hand, leaning over to me as our jet took off in 2001 for our 20th anniversary trip to France and saying, “Just imagine that those are one-way tickets in our backpacks and we’re leaving to live for a full year abroad – how exciting will that be?”
So there we were in Paris, after our long-awaited year abroad, poised for a ceremonial burning of clothes: Joe’s black sport coat worn to the point of translucence, my limp, green hiking pants devoid of any life they’d once had and white t-shirts stained, gray and ragged from too many ineffective washings in the sink. Perhaps it was time to go home, time to allow a bit more routine back into our lives, time to find a place to nest.
We would soon be back to the daily grind, in the clutches of the Washington Beltway bourgeoisie, subject to the incessant drumbeat of our modern world. I could see the stresses lurking just beyond the horizon back in the States, ready to pounce the moment we arrived. Anything related to finding new employment and heading back to the frenzied reality of daily life made me anxious and prone to procrastination. We were resolute, however, about doing our best to resist the pressures and remain dispassionate about the day-to-day exigencies of life in the nation’s capital.
Thirty-one years after initially setting up housekeeping together, I thought about what a gift we’d been handed: to once again start our lives anew. World-weary travelers, I knew we would delight in settling down, being rooted in the comfortable and mundane and anxious to loose ourselves in new routines, untested and pregnant with possibility. Yes, we would get to begin again with no idea of where we would work or where we would live. We would have the ability to reinvent ourselves and our lives and play a whole new hand of cards. Life doesn’t get much luckier than that.
I’m going to miss being surrounded by languages other than our own every day, and French most of all – at the Monoprix grocery store, listening to the news on la télé, on the metro and on the bus. I’ll have to suffer through withdrawal, like an addict going cold turkey, as I distance myself from the pleasure that is France, the pleasure that is Europe, the pleasure that is traveling.
Will we experience a bit of reverse culture shock on returning to the US? Will the frenetic pace of American life surprise us?” Will we ask: “Why are these people walking so fast?” “How is it that we understand everything that’s being said and don’t have to frantically search for words to make ourselves clear?” “Why do toilets flush with handles on the side and not buttons on the top?” And last, but hardly least, “Why are these portions so huge?”
After being foreigners for so long, we’re certain to feel somewhat foreign ourselves despite being back in our own country. We’ll have to get used to reading signs in English and adjust to the daily visual parade of the morbidly obese, chronically loud and badly tattooed. And while I do love my country and our life in America, I do fear that in an acclimating fit of pique I may one day scream at my fellow citizens, ”Why can’t you be more like Europeans?”
Is there a new person who has emerged from her exploits across Europe, wiping off the dust of magical places discovered? Perhaps I won’t know the answer until we’re back in the melee and I see how I deal with the everyday. But I experienced some revelations while we were away and chief among them is the reinforcement of the virtues of simplicity and kindness. There were times while traveling when we had an acute need for a kind gesture -- just a little one. And when it materialized in the form of a clerk’s smile or a pedestrian who helped direct us, it made all the difference in the world.
I want my days to be filled with kind gestures – both those I offer and those I receive. At this time in my life, I’m not interested in being with people I don’t care for, who aren’t kind and I’m embarrassed to be at a table with in a restaurant because of how they treat the staff. The most important thing in human life is to be kind and I find I now have no tolerance for anyone who cannot be so.
One the eve of our departure, if someone had knocked on our apartment door and told us we were required to stay for another few months, smiles would have overwritten our leave-taking frowns. A few more months among the wonders of Europe would have suited us just fine.
But knowing we would be back on US turf and seeing our children, friends and family soon was not a bad thing either. Going home is hard when you love where you've been but being in the same country as our kids will make our hard landing a bit softer. It was hard on Chris and Caroline at times to have us so far away and while we’re used to living apart, the wide Atlantic Ocean between us was a very real gulf that made the separation more acute.
It’s difficult to admit, but after 12 months of being on the road, my contentment pendulum had swung to the side of longing for a comfortable home base and the desire to settle down. Moving into a place we can call our own, where we can unpack knowing that in a few days we will not have to repack yet again and where we can become reacquainted with those favorite things we left behind (our bed, my coffee mug, the C&O Canal and morning TV).
But I know myself well and the cozy complaisance of life in the familiar will only last for so long. My craving for novelty will once again wrestle with my very real desire for security. On some undetermined evening in the not-too-distant future over a glass wine in the corner of an evocative bistro, my always persistent wanderlust will poke through the fabric of our daily lives, and I will declare my need for some adventure, some movement, some discovery. And the determined planning for more travel will begin yet again.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com