I thought it was oddly appropriate that the first post for the blog about my sabbatical in France be about home. It gives you an idea of where I am from, and the perspective through which I view France. I live in a town called Alameda in California. As you can see from the photos, it is near the beach. It is a small island in the San Francisco Bay, near Oakland. I love living there, since it feels like a small town in the middle of all the bustle of the Bay Area.
I am a professor of biology at Saint Mary’s College of California. We are a small campus about 45 minutes east of San Francisco. I am on sabbatical in France working with the INRA (Institut National de le Recherche Agronomique) research station in Colmar, France. This blog will tell the tales of that experience.
There…that is the post I would have written, had I written it before I left home, like I originally planned. In retrospect, I might even call it a little bland. In reality, I was so pressed for time because I had to figure out how to get everything I would need (for both a summer season of traveling and a fall season of work in a research lab) over to Europe in two suitcases that I never had time to write that post. I think I packed (and re-packed) 3 or 4 times. I will try to write a blog post with some of the helpful things I learned about packing for a sabbatical. For this post, I think I want to focus on how my ideas about home have changed after having been gone for 4 months already.
I have to be honest, leaving felt more like being carried away by a wave or a moving current than going on a trip usually feels. Maybe it is because all of my travel plans made over the last year were finally getting underway. The first part of the trip, we moved around a lot. I think we spent two nights (at most) in our destinations in Scotland and the UK. It is hard to settle when you move like that…and it is hard to get to know a country this way. I am glad I am returning to Scotland in November, so I can get to know it better.
In July, I visited the lab where I would spend my sabbatical in order to have an orientation and handle the organizational details early. I also had a chance to see the apartment where I would be staying. Since I knew the majority of my sabbatical time would be on my own in this apartment, it helped a lot to get a sense of “home” here in Colmar. The sense of displacement I sometimes felt in Paris, being alone with your bags in transit through a big city, went away when I stepped off the train here in Colmar. It helps to have a place that feels like it is yours here. You can go inside, put your bags down, and relax. It is a luxury that a lot of travelers do not get when they stay in hotels. It is one reason why I think even vacationers in Europe should look into renting apartments. You get to have a place that feels like home.
After being away from home for almost 4 months and here in Colmar for a month, there are a few things I love about being here. The food and wine are incredible, as you would expect in France. The crème fraiche is so thick it forms peaks and sticks to your spoon. There really is more foie gras than you can eat…and I never thought I would say that. It is great when the lady who runs the bakery stand in the covered market in town smiles and slips a croissant for Saturday morning breakfast into the bag with my Friday baguette. My colleagues here have made me feel really welcome. When I was at the orientation in Paris for all the American recipients of our grant, I talked about the sights of the Alsace region almost with the pride of a local. The hills and Vosges mountains and vineyards are breathtakingly beautiful in the fall. I love the fact that I can sometimes understand an entire conversation in French. It really does make Colmar almost seem like home.
At the same time, I miss my family and my friends profoundly. I miss talking without having to think so much about it. I miss sushi and Mexican food. I think you can get good sushi in Colmar. I will avoid going into detail about what I have seen described as Mexican food, though. Is this homesickness? I guess so…
I am not really a tourist, but I am not a local either. I do not have the chance to enjoy Sunday dinner in the same way as everyone else, when France takes its weekly pause to spend time with family and friends. There are a lot of clichés that come to mind, but I will avoid repeating them. Suffice it to say that the traveler’s idea of home is a temporary comfort, but it cannot replace the profound sense of belonging that you have when you are really home. On the good days, I can feel a part of this place. On the tougher days, I feel apart, and the difficult separation that the difference in language and culture brings. If anything, traveling has helped me appreciate what I take for granted in the place I call home…wherever that is these days.
To learn more about Keith’s research and life in Colmar, please check out his blog: https://dulaboauvignoble.wordpress.com/