It was unseasonably cold that winter in France. I’d been told it rarely snowed in Lyon, but we had several inches on several occasions–and the day I left for Dijon was one of them. The city felt out of sorts that morning, straining to accommodate its third bout of uncommonly inclement weather. The snow followed me most of the way north, dotting fields and obscuring my view out the window of the TER train I had taken from gritty Perrache Station in Lyon to the quaint Dijon terminal. I was wiry with excitement the entire way, the book on my lap a frustration rather than comfort as I counted down the minutes until my arrival. I pulled my pastel pink trench coat around me, aware that its hue marked me as an outsider amidst the shades of black, beige, and gray worn by the French.
Once in Dijon, I made my way through the city, a flash of pink in a sea of obsidian, to the address written on one of the pages of my pocket-sized Moleskine, where I kept all itinerary details when I traveled — reservation numbers, hand-sketched maps, cross-streets, timetables.
A porter nodded to me, opened the door.
“Mademoiselle,” he said.
“Merci,” I replied absently, scanning the lobby. Empty. I paused at the reception desk, an elegant wood writing desk behind which sat a tall, graceful-looking gentleman in a suit shuffling papers. Once he saw me, he rose.
“Bonjour, bienvenue, mademoiselle,” he said, bowing at the waist, and then sat again and looked up at me expectantly.
“Bonjour. Em, j’attends quelqu’un, et puis on va –” I said, and then gestured vaguely at his desk, not knowing the right word for “check in” in French. (“I’m waiting for someone, and then we will…”) Even a few months into my semester abroad, there were gaps in conversational French I couldn’t paper over.
“Ah yes. Of course,” he replied in deeply accented English, the “course” sounding more like “ceh-rrrrrrhhhhh-su.” The transition between languages was normally an insult coming from a Frenchman, but this time, I accepted it as a gesture of goodwill. “Please wait here, comfortably. Can I get you anything?” I shook my head, thanked him again, and retreated to a couch that faced the glass front door of the hotel.
With every passerby, my heart rose into my throat and then dropped precipitously back into my stomach. I leaned forward, squinting at the figure of a woman across the street, then sat back with a sigh. I looked at my watch. I looked at the clock on the wall. I ran my fingers through my hair. I rifled through my bag aimlessly. I checked the watch, then the clock. I fussed with the papers of my book. I sighed. I squinted. I leaned back.
“Qu’elque chose a lire?” offered the concierge, extending a stack of magazines my way. I realized he had probably been observing my spectacle of disquietude; I was a caricature of anticipation.
“Oh, merci, mais non,” I declined. He nodded once, politely and impassively (had I just insulted him?), and returned to his desk.
Ten agonizing minutes later, I saw her emerge from a taxi wearing a full-length mink coat that had belonged to my grandmother. The familiarity of that coat — I could smell it without smelling it, perfumed by the Quelquefleurs scent my grandmother had worn all her life — and my mother’s shape in it, the distinctive way she trotted across the sleet-marked street to the door of the hotel, her head slightly ducked, her elegant hands clasping the top of the coat closed.
She was the dearest sight. Hers was the first familiar face I had seen in this foreign land I’d lived in for months, and her visage, her silhouette, her scent were the very essence of home.
“Mommy!” I wanted to shout, though I’d shed that term of endearment for the cooler abbreviation “mom” when I was about ten, though my throat was too thick to speak. Instead, I stood and sprinted across the lobby and buried my face in her coat. My father followed shortly behind —
“Well, hello,” he said with a smile, and then, noticing the tears streaming down my face, nodded solemnly — “oh, sweetie” — and encircled both my mother and I with his own arms. I was crying like a child, my face red and puffy, unseemly sobs and gulps escaping occasionally in spite of myself. We stood there in the lobby like a couple of basket cases before my mother put her arms on my shoulders and pushed me away to look at me, tilting her head to the side. Her eyes were red, but she had arranged her face into a smile.
Wordlessly, the concierge appeared with a box of kleenex, bowed deeply, and retreated without saying a word. We tripped over ourselves to thank him, but he held up his hand and kept his eyes on the ground as he backed away.
“Well, well,” said my mom, dabbing at the inner corner of her eye and offering me a smile. “How’s that for a bienvenue?”
My parents and I relive this moment at least once a year, including over this past weekend while eating at Bar Boulud around the corner from my apartment in New York, after my father commented on the restaurant’s stylish design: “This is so French.”
It occurred to me then that all three of us cling to that tender memory of reunion in Dijon as a kind of shorthand for our closeness as a parent-child trio. But I also realized that Frenchness is in large part why we linger upon that particular memory: the vision of the very American us and our outsized American emotions versus the silent politesse of that very French concierge. After feeling like an interloper for months, I was temporarily home in my parents’ embrace — and yet that concierge’s kind gesture, so French in its simultaneous awareness of what was going on and respect for our privacy, had built a bridge. It endeared us to the country as it reinforced the deep bonds between us as a family.
There is something alchemical about travel, even more so about living in an alien country for a stretch of weeks. Much of the magic, I think, hovers around how we understand ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. I remember a kind of uncoordinated ballooning in and out of myself as I went from feeling like a Somebody (capital S) within my family, among my ring of friends, at my school, across the various clubs and social groups with which I consorted prior to France — to a nobody (lowercase n), an insignificant speck in an expansive universe, when I first arrived there. With time, I knitted myself into the nuances of my new locality: I spoke better French, I wore more muted colors, I cut my hair into a chic French style (with bangs!), I learned to interact with the world around me with more subtlety and less eye contact, au style Francaise. By the end of my semester in France, I felt like a somebody (lowercase s). And then it was time to shuttle back to the U.S., where I saw my country with fresh eyes — the street signs looked broad and squat and, if I may, inelegant in a way I’d never noticed; the handwriting on average was bolder and more rushed; the grocery stores remained blissfully open for 24 hours a day, with ice always on offer. Americans were louder, but warmer. These awarenesses sophisticated and humbled me. They reminded me of the plurality of the world and my alternate significance and insignificance within it. My anonymity in Lyon and on that northbound train to Dijon and then the centrifuge of that lobby in Dijon where my home and heart came back to me.
(If you are thinking about traveling or living abroad, let this post serve as your clarion call.)
Post Scripts: Travel Backpack + Other Things.
+At long last, I’ve found a suitable backpack for traipsing around the city with mini and — more urgently — for a few upcoming trips to with mini in tow. (One traveling by myself! More on that later.) I was searching for months and I think I found it: the MZ Wallace quilted Metro. I’ve known peripherally about this brand for awhile but never really looked into it, and then I saw a SUPER chic mom wearing one at the playground in jet black and knew it had to be mine. I have been debating between the dove gray and the black but opted for the latter — pretty much copycatting that mamacita. (Thank you, whoever you are! Shopping quandary sorted.) This backpack is genius: lightweight, stows a ton, and includes interior compartments perfect for keeping a bottle and various miscellaneous must-haves easy to reach. This will be a life-saver!
+Now THIS would be a super festive dress for the holiday party circuit. LOVE that geranium red color.
+Already own this dress in a different colorway, but might need it in the new “rust” hue…
+Into the dramatic sleeves and rugby stripes on this sweater.
+Can I pull this off?! I love it!