It is with both joy and trepidation that the Flophouse is ringing in the new year. What a wild (and emotionally difficult) month it has been filled with sorting, packing and attending the usual end of the year pots (cocktails) and dinners.
After a bit of trouble with the Japanese landlord in Osaka which was ably managed by the Japanese team at my spouse's new office, we were finally granted a lease for that small but lovely apartment on the 14th floor in the heart of the city. That accomplished we went about the business of getting a minimum of things ordered and ready for delivery - important things like a refrigerator and a washing machine. Yep, the apartment is entirely without appliances (like most French apartments).
And then there were the usual formalities at the Japanese embassy; the Certificate of Eligibility was applied for and granted which meant that we could go down to Avenue Hoche and apply for our visas. Turnaround time was a mere 3 days. Very efficient and gracious service.
Lastly, there has been the entire business of deciding what to take and what to leave at the house in Porchefontaine. While we were at it it seemed a propitious moment to do a bit of sorting and throwing out. As I pulled things out of forgotten boxes in the basement, I simply asked myself if I could live without the items for three years and if I would care (or need them) when we came back. The result of that exercise was many many bags of junk thrown out in the trash (and thanks goodness Versailles has garbage pickup 4 times a week) and a large load that went to the local dump just a few days ago.
As we went about this business of closing out one life in one country and starting another on another continent 13 hours away by plane, I thought a great deal about the differences between migration and expatriation.
The commonality is, of course, that one is physically picking up, packing up, and moving to another place. The differences start, I propose, with one's mentality and intentions. When I left the US for France so long ago as a young bride, I left only my family and friends behind me and my intention was to arrive and to build a new life in a new land with no definitive date of return - just the possibility which one might think of as a kind of personal myth of return - not entirely magical thinking but very very close to it.
This is absolutely not the case with our expatriation to Japan. This departure and arrival has boundaries: around three years which is the term of the contract. So return is almost certain and the question of course is how much to invest personally in that new place, that new life, knowing that it has an expiration date. How much of the language to learn? To what extent do I wish to integrate? And what are the limits to integration in this new place since this process always involves a delicate dance between the foreigner and the native? From my experience (and I have that in spades), it takes me about two years to become acclimated and from that point that leaves only one short year to enjoy being bien dans mes baskets in Japan and then....
Back to Versailles and my house, my garden, and a basement filled with the things I truly care about and have kept for years? An old painting by a Scottish water colourist given to me by my mother that hung on the wall of the Thackeray Street Hotel, my daughters' baby clothes, the quilts I made for them and for my spouse, and an entire box of beautiful love letters that were sent to me by my spouse long ago when I was still in Seattle and he was living in Paris in the 1980's. (And as we sorted, it turns out that he kept the letters I sent him as well from that time.) These are the precious irreplaceable things and they will stay here in Versailles.
Like my move to France from the US so many years ago I will be leaving friends and family behind and that is a great sadness. More than that, it is psychologically destabilizing. While I am gone for those three years, the river and rhythm of life will continue to flow in France and when I come back perhaps some things will be the same but it is dead certain that many many more things will change.
That, mes amis, is the price to being global and mobile. And I find that this bothers me much more at 50 than it did at 20. It also raises another question in my mind: since we are already leaving this life for another, why stop there? This has been a topic of discussion at the Flophouse these past few weeks provoked by the presence of the Frenchlings who flew in from Seattle and Montreal for Christmas. It is hard to live oceans away from one's children (and future grandchildren) and so where my children choose to settle becomes a factor in the old old question that we have been asking and answering for over 25 years: "Where shall we live?"
A question that will not be answered today or tomorrow, but there is some consolation and much wisdom, I think, in the words of Boethius:
"My wings are swift, able to soar beyond the heavens. The quick mind which wears them scorns the hateful earth and climbs beyond the globe of the immense sky, leaving the clouds below. It soars beyond the point of fire caused by the swift motion of the upper air until it reaches the house of stars... There the Lord of Kings holds his scepter, governing the reins of the world. With sure control He drives the swift chariot, the shining judge of all things. If the road which you have forgotten, but now search for, brings you here, you will cry out: 'This I remember, this is my own country, here I was born and here I shall hold my place.' Then if you wish to look down upon the night of earthly things which you have left, you will see those much feared tyrants dwelling in exile here."