Over the Holidays (I have now switched officially to the American expression), I travelled back to France for the well-celebrated Christmas (as in Europe we are not afraid of being non-politically-correct).

When coming back, especially as it has been 2 years since my last trip to Motherland, I inevitably got the question: How was it? 

When I was in the plane to Paris, I finished a book called 'Limonov' by Emmanuel Carrère (excellent book by the way that I unfortunately cannot find in English on Amazon). Limonov happens to be a real person, Russian-born writer (amongst many other things) who has travelled across the world. At some stage during his biography, the German term 'Unheimlich' comes in. I remember thinking about it for a while afterwards and then forgot. But when I was first asked after landing back in NYC - How was it? - 'Unheimlich' was then the first word that came to my mind. 

Quick explanation on the linguistic aspect of this word: first off, like many other words such as 'Sehnsucht', this term does not have an equivalent in French, and the English version 'uncanny' does not sound quiet accurate to me.

Un- like in English negates the terms that follow.

Heim itselt means 'place', like in 'home' and implies the notion of familiarity, something one knows. It can also be related to the word 'Geheimnis' which means secrecy.

Heimlich then is everything that can be related to either something familiar or something secret as stated above. Funnily enough, both can be linked as familiarity relates to intimacy, which to me seems to be the bridge between something 'homey' and yet secretive. A Heimlich room for instance corresponds in a household to the bathroom, while a Heimlich art is closed to magic. You get the picture.

Unheimlich describes what is strangely enough something neither familiar but nor secretive so by definition something that is in between. When asking a German speaker, it applies to dreams, something eery and potentially nightmarish - perfect contradiction that only the German language and its agglutinative structure can convey in one single word.

And to get back to the question - How was it? - precisely Unheimlich - in my understanding of the term.

Living in a foreign country for nearly 9 years now, I think I am very comfortable with the fact to be different and hardly ever having the feeling of belonging somewhere. When landing in Paris, I immediately smelled the fresh baguette (yes, in the airport terminal, the smell of fresh bread is everywhere in France ;) and it immediately felt familiar. I was instantly exhilarated by the idea of being in a city I know and surrounded by people to whom I can relate to. This feeling lasted for quiet some time until a form of reality check happened, when the Unheimlich aspect kicked in.

Freud  actually used that term to describe the complex concept of reflection of oneself and various states of obsessional behavior (to dig in further, I advise to read Freud's books as I am no one to make an interpretation of the complexity of human psychic). Precisely: I got eventually scared of what the reflection of familiarity was sending back. Don't get me wrong, I deeply love my country and culture, and highly cherish my mother language that I find rather beautiful to say the very least. But the mentality I observed, the general sense of negativity, the obsession over beauty, the constant judgement over everything was rather difficult to see, live with and ultimately see in myself. I can at times criticize the lack of questioning from my American counterparts and easy-going attitude towards things that could be/work better or simply be more pleasant to the eye without much of a hassle. Now I realize this is purely (and somewhat sadly) coming from the culture I was brought up with. Yes France is beautiful, its language is pretty and overall any food you may get out there is by far better than anywhere else. But what is the price of it? A general sense of dissatisfaction and the pitfall of never having enough while what you already have is way better than average. One recent example I found in a magazine: while in the USA, French woman are considered as being slim, over 60% of French women consider themselves as too fat. This simple anecdotes tells a lot about the place I come from. 

When in the cab taking me from JFK to Brooklyn, and thinking of the Unheimlich feeling - I realized that if there is something I have learnt from living in the USA is actually rather the opposite that what I stated above: things can always change and get better indeed but if not, you may as well get over it. As long as there is no control you can gain to change a situation, no need to get angry, upset and complain: look forward and move on. So here is my New Year resolution: giving my own self the chance to change and not focus on what frustrates me - look into 2014, and beyond, and move on, and live a Merry Happy New Year! 

Aurelie DesmasComment