What a long, strange trip it’s been

Here we are, back in the land of the “free”. How surreal it seems.

Your school team is the Freedom Patriots? Methinks thou dost protest too much.

We’ve been in the US for almost 5 weeks. The Chicago area, more specifically. It’s been a trip. I’m trying and mostly failing to put the sensation into words. After 2 years, I’m coming back to a place that I once knew like the back of my hand, and in that fog of familiarity, hadn’t really looked at or truly seen for a damn long time. Now it’s at the same time familiar and utterly strange, like I’m walking around in a simulacrum of Chicago. I’m finding it in large part to be a bleak, tense, and sense-assaulting place. I doubt that Chicago has in fact changed, I’m simply updating my perceptions. I’m trying to go back on auto-pilot, or at least trying to imagine what the auto-pilot was like, when I wasn’t hyperaware of everything, but I keep getting tossed back into this strange surreality.

What is more interesting and encouraging is the changes we’ve noticed in a number of friends and family here. Happily, everyone survived the upheavals of the past year, and quite a number of them have found the “great reset” an enormous opportunity, if not a flat-out blessing. Which is to say people took this chink in the normal, solid fabric of their lives as a chance to grant themselves new freedoms and possibilities. Working from home. Downsizing. Early retirement. Grad school. One friend’s highly successful son took the advantage that telecommuting afforded him to go nomadic, despite the additional challenges of doing so in a pandemic. It’s been a great re-thinking and re-evaluating of paths.

The questions we heard most often: What do you miss about the US? Apart from you all, not a damn thing. Do you miss your stuff? How emphatically am I allowed to say NO in polite company? Did you go see your old houses? Nope. Then in response to people’s incredulity (I started feeling like I have some sort of attachment-deficit disorder), we did drive-bys. We said, yep, we once lived there. And kept going.

My favorite story of our time here comes from a backyard dinner party, where a friend brought her adult son Lenny, who we’d met before. They had come to visit us in Paris a few years ago, and I gave them the grand tour of the tiny flat. Even though we thought it was perfect for us, I was always a bit apologetic when showing it to Americans. (French people require no explanations.) Yes, we live here. Yes, on purpose. Yes, it’s 220 square feet. (Methinks I doth protest too much mayhaps.) Talking to Lenny in the backyard (it was he who went nomadic), he mentioned when he first saw our place. I geared up to hear his astonishment at how small it was, and perhaps I also geared up to protest, when he said, I remember walking into your apartment. It felt like freedom.

So here’s to you my friends, who are eking out new freedoms, who somehow in the face of all this mess have managed to give yourselves new ideas, new space, and new-found free time. We’ll soon be heading home to Paris and then on to our next adventure that I’ll tell you all about soon-ish.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I’m very happy to be going home!



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