For the first time since I got here over four years ago, I waited 15 months before going home back to California for a visit. It was too long; a year’s about my limit, I discovered. Living in France can be exhausting after a while. It’s like attending an interminable lecture on some abstruse topic, while living in America is more like watching a Gilligan’s Island rerun…

Sometimes I need a break, and I crave the relative — and objective — simplicity of America, that all-American “That sucks, let’s get a beer, you like my new Spiderman t-shirt?” way of being. (The French version is “That sucks, let’s discuss what every philosopher in history has said on the subject and what happened in WWII and why capitalism is the root of all evil.”)

Plus I was really homesick. The homesickness starts to kick in around November, of course, and I usually plan my trip for February or March, when I’ve had just about all I can take of winter and Mexican food deprivation, and I can’t go without seeing my family, especially my son, any longer.

Every year I go there expecting my homesickness to be assuaged. My annual pilgrimage did the trick at first, but with time the treatment has become less and less effective. I would find myself coming back to France still homesick, thinking it was because I hadn’t stayed in California long enough. This year, though, standing outside, alone and barefooted in the California sun, I was astonished to realize that I was feeling homesick even though I was “home.”

Which is when I figured out what was wrong.

What I’ve taken for homesickness is actually nostalgia. (I know, duh, but sometimes the obvious escapes you.) And that can’t be treated. I’m homesick not for a place, but for states of mind I’ll never be in again. I’ve changed. I’ve been looking at America from the outside in for too long. That home is gone. When you leave, the place you knew ceases to exist.

I was ragging about France in some post a while ago and a (francophile) friend said in the comments “No whining allowed, you live in Paris!” This is the Paris he meant, of course, a place as mythical to him as California has become to me, the Paris I moved to over four years ago:

Of course, Paris doesn’t look quite like this to me anymore either… That’s gone forever too. When you go somewhere, the place you imagined ceases to exist. And I don’t know if Paris will ever feel like home the way home once felt. I got here late in life. Bizarre. I guess that makes me homeless. A little scary.

While in California I ate tacos, had a decent margarita (no better, unfortunately), hit my old shopping spots for cheaper Levis and things I can’t get here, hugged my people over and over. That was good.

I needed hand lotion. By chance (or more likely driven by my unconscious), I grabbed a tiny tube of Jergen’s at a giant American pharmacy. It was about the only lotion in America when I was a kid, and I hadn’t used it in decades. I remember hoping, as I reached for it, that they hadn’t changed the scent: my mother smelled like Jergens my entire early childhood. Back at her place, I rubbed it all over my arms and buried my nose in the crook of my elbow. It smelled the same to me, as far as I could tell. That moment was about as close as I got to feeling like I was home. It was a primal thing. Maybe I’ll just have to carry some Jergen’s around with me for the rest of my life…

So I don’t know what home is. Maybe I’ll just make my physical home a shrine to the feel and feelings of my concept of home. It’ll look something like this, but more specifically Mexico and France and Hawaii and California flavored. Ultimately, I guess, if  home exists, it’s in me and I am it.

…my house will speak for me. My house will tell them I am warm and rich. The house will tell them inside of me there are these rooms of flesh and Chinese lacquer, sea greens to walk through, inside of me there are lighted candles, live fires, shadows, spaces, open doors, shelters and air currents. Inside of me there is color and warmth.

My house will speak for me.

Anaïs Nin, Children of the Albatross