A Californian at Heart

December 5, 2017
USA, USA living abroad
A Californian at Heart

This morning, without paying attention to what I was doing, I listened to Joni Mitchell singing “California” and The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” on repeat for 20 minutes. When I snapped out of the longing-for-sunshine spell I remembered that I have to book my flight home for the holidays.

In recent years I’ve spent more time in my hometown than I’d ever expected. From a very young age I imagined my life elsewhere. Where that would be was uncertain, but it wouldn’t be where I was born.

Don’t get me wrong. I come from “The most beautiful city in the U.S.A.,” according to many tourism pamphlets. San Diego is the idea of paradise in the U.S. I grew up on a peninsula with a gorgeous bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. I cut class in high school to hang out at the frozen yoghurt shop on the beach. The Beach Boys were the soundtrack of my school years and yet… I wanted out. I wanted to see the world and, most of all, I wanted culture.

I looked down my nose at the U.S. Its role on the international political stage wasn’t making it easy to be an American abroad. I also felt the need to discard my previous self and to become as French as I possibly could.

My first move took me to Northern California for college. I marched in demonstrations, nurtured my artistic soul and sowed my wild oats in the Bay Area. But, I was still too close to home and the big city was beckoning.

Next stop: NYC and the plethora of experiences that only the Big Apple can offer. It couldn’t have been more different than my birthplace, and I was certainly getting the culture fix that I required. Living abroad was something I’d never even considered.

Then romance and curiosity brought me to Paris and here I’ve stayed. A 15-hour flight and a 9-hour time difference from home. That seemed to be far enough.

For the first decade or so, I went home for a week in the winter and two during the summer. I spent Christmas in Paris the first year. Hearing my mother’s tearful voice on the other end of the phone line, however, convinced me that holiday travel would be my future plight. After all, there are worse things than being in balmy weather under palm trees in December. During those years I looked down my nose at the U.S., in general. Its role on the international political stage wasn’t making it easy to be an American abroad. I also felt the need to discard my previous self and to become as French as I possibly could.

As the generations preceding mine slip away, my attachment to place has become stronger. Shared memories have become precious as I witness the ravages of dementia in elderly friends and relatives.

As my parents aged and my sense of responsibility grew, I began returning more often and staying longer. When I got divorced I realised that there’s nothing like the unconditional love of my very large family to heal the heart.

Being the only member of my clan to have left the U.S.–let alone California, let alone the 5-mile radius around my parents’ house–I’ve always been the odd one out. No one, including complete strangers who ask where I’m from, can understand why I ever left. One of the things that I love about San Diego is that it is a large city with a small town mentality. It is also one of the things that I fled. The part of town where I was born tends to be on the conservative side and, let’s just say, my folks and I haven’t seen eye-to-eye on most issues since before I could vote. Living in a socialist country didn’t make me any more comprehensible to them either. However, age has mellowed us all and, realising that world peace begins at home, we’ve become excellent diplomates and avoid conversations that could lead to raised voices… most of the time.

When I got divorced I realised that there’s nothing like the unconditional love of my very large family to heal the heart.

Many of my friends from my life in NYC left when the time came to “settle down”. They went back to Iowa, Alabama, Louisiana and some moved to California. Not so with my expatriate crowd. We all talk about going home, usually when we can’t take the random rudeness of the Parisians in the metro any longer and just before going on vacation. Inevitably, we come back well rested and congratulating ourselves for having chosen to live in France, where the cheese and wine are so much better than anywhere else in world. We no longer understand the jokes and popular culture from where we came and we don’t dress like the locals anymore. I spend the first few days in San Diego every time I visit wondering why everyone is smiling and saying, “Have a nice day!” Do they want something from me? I’m used to the judgemental, suspicious glare of the French and have lost the reflex to respond to SoCal niceties.

In spite of my successful integration into bah-humbug land, I still consider myself a Californian. I now spend close to two months a year there and I enjoy it. The walks along the water, the yoga, the smoothies, the Mexican food, the built-in social life with family and old friends make the culture shock easy to accept. I can’t say exactly when my attitude changed. Over the past ten years, instead of rejecting my roots, I began to think about how much they participate in my persona, and how lucky I am that they are so solid.

As the generations preceding mine slip away, my attachment to place has become stronger. Shared memories have become precious as I witness the ravages of dementia in elderly friends and relatives. My home history defines me just as much as my choice to make my life in a country far away. I’ve started to unify parts of myself, which, for a long time, I thought to be at odds.

My ancestors kept moving west until they couldn’t go any further. I felt the need to go in the opposite direction. Could it be that I’ve instinctively gone on a one-woman expedition into our past? We look Irish, but who knows… Wherever we came from, I am grateful that they chose to settle in a sunny spot for me to spend the holidays.

About Susan Hamlin

Susan HamlinSusan Hamlin has been an American in Paris for 30 years. During that time she has worked as a teacher, choreographer and arts administrator in France and the U.S. Since her first flight over the Atlantic she has been experiencing the symptoms of extreme restlessness and needs to travel on a regular basis in order to maintain a semblance of mental health. Most recently she is preoccupied with the question, “Where to next?”

One thought on “A Californian at Heart

  1. Jack
    December 6, 2017
    Reply

    A beautifully reminiscent missive. It reminds me of extended travel, but always returning to a home of comfort. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong; just maybe you can go home again…and again.

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