The familiar automated voice of the SNCF, France’s train system, comes over the loudspeaker and my heartbeat quickens to an embarrassingly fast pace. “Prochain arrêt, Gare de Rennes.” I squirm in my seat, nose pressed against the window, like a six-year-old on a road trip, anxious for the first glimpse of the French city I once called home.
At age 16, I moved to Brittany’s capital to live with a French family for nine months. Mesmerized by its quaint European charm—so different from the Massachusetts suburbs where I had been raised—I wasn’t even affected by jet lag when I arrived. There was too much to be excited about to waste any time being tired. I followed my French family around like a loyal puppy, eyes wide as I absorbed my surroundings, dutifully sampling every new food they placed in front of me, identifiable or not.
Five years later, I can still describe in great detail the quiche lorraine that my French mother made for dinner the day I arrived. I can see the shades of red and green paint on the half-timbered houses that line historic Place Saint Anne in the old city. I can picture the face of the woman who owned the boulangerie, the one with the yellow awning, just minutes from my schoolhouse. There, I would trade euros for sweet brioche after lunch. My memories of holidays in Rennes are more clear than the details of most holidays I’ve celebrated since. I can better explain the plot of the first French film I fully understood than a movie I saw in theaters a month ago.
Each time the chance to share stories of my time there arises, the corners of my mouth curl into a joyful smile. It seems obvious, then, that I jumped at the first opportunity to return to Rennes, years later. The days leading up to my trip, I could hardly wipe the giddy grin off of my face. I got lost in daydreams about the No. 11 bus that would deliver me to my french family’s door from the train station; about the sweet—but not too sweet—homemade raspberry jam that my maman, Laurence, always had on hand; and about the garden near the old schoolhouse that filled with flowers remarkably early in January.
To my surprise, excitement faded as I boarded the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Rennes, leaving my stomach in a mess of nervous knots. My father’s familiar warning—manage your expectations—rang in my head, and I wondered if I had set myself up for failure. What if the owner of the tea salon I had frequented didn’t remember me? What if I could no longer find my way around the city by heart? What if my favorite spot for galettes, savory buckwheat crêpes, had shuttered? Would my beloved memories tarnish?
When the train pulled into the station, I spotted the familiar chopstick-held chignon of Laurence. I artfully weaved through the passengers on the platform, moving somewhere between a walk and a run, until I was wrapped in her arms. As we pulled apart, we laughed in unison, realizing neither was the only one crying. Our Skype calls over the previous few years had been sporadic, and other than occasional letters and postcards, we hadn’t shared much more than an unspoken love for one another. And though I had been panicking just minutes earlier about a loss of familiarity, relief washed over me as I effortlessly rediscovered the comfort of my French family.
The next morning, I set off into the city center to reacquaint myself with the cobblestone streets I loved so much. The views from the window during my short bus ride sent me straight to nostalgia. I silently reminisced about the days when this same bus route took me to school each morning.
Familiarity presented itself again as I wandered the streets of Rennes. Several restaurants had changed, and some boutiques had disappeared, leaving new ones in their place, but I could still navigate from one part of the old city to another, passing by some of my favorite squares, bakeries, and storefronts. It took me two passes to work up the courage to enter the tea salon I loved so much, but when I finally did, I was met with cheek kisses and served a big mug of tea. The petite, blonde owner, Céline, remembered not only my name, but how I liked my earl grey—without milk or sugar.
I still knew this place despite fears that I would not.
But as I sat on the bus among children on their way to school and adults headed to work, as I ordered an early-afternoon éclair in a quiet pâtisserie, as I made smalltalk with shopkeepers in their near-empty boutiques (apparently I was the only one who had the time to browse slouchy turtlenecks on a Tuesday afternoon), something became very clear to me. I was a visitor. My purpose in this place had changed.
I found myself clinging to the French language as a means to prove my belonging, to distinguish myself from typical American tourists. Rennes’s character still seeped from the cracks of its old stone buildings. The people were still warm. Their buttery cooking still provided comfort. Rennes wasn’t mine in the same way it had been before, though. We still shared a connection, a love, and an understanding of one another, but I was just passing through.
Since the first time I returned to Rennes, I’ve been back a handful of times. It feels like going to visit your mom after you’ve moved out and live in your own adult world. Her lemon bars still taste as good as they always have, but your rapport is different than when you were a child. My memories of my time living in Rennes will always be mine and mine to cherish, but subsequent visits are different chapters. My relationship with the city will continue to change each time. What will stay the same? The pastries that always send my taste buds into a state of euphoria, the sing-songy nature of the French language that sounds so sweet in my ear, and the charming façades of buildings that are hundreds of years old. Whether or not I’m the wide-eyed 16-year-old who once called that city my home, Rennes will always welcome me back.