The French word, dépaysement, has no English translation. I know; I’ve looked in a number of French-English dictionary and online sites. It’s not homesickness, which translates literally as mal du pays, and neither is it a garden variety of loneliness or solitude or, as the app on my phone tells me, a change of scenery. No. Dépaysement’s closest meaning may be what Wolfe referred to when he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again yet did not quite manage to describe adequately.
My mother, after we came to the States, used the word often when confronted with the sudden realization that things were not quite right, that a given situation she faced in this new and very strange land was just beyond her understanding, and that though she might handle it passably well, whatever she essayed would not be entirely correct. Her American acquaintances, she knew, would smile because they always smiled at the little French woman with the horrible accent. But deep down, she feared, they would also judge. Le dépaysement, then, was the realization that no matter what, and no matter how long one stayed in a country not of one’s birth, there would always be a hint of not meshing properly, of knowing the rules but not fully understanding why they existed, when they should be applied, and to whom.
Dépaysement is wearing a shirt that’s too tight with a pair of trousers in need of a belt. It is brown shoes and blue pants; a suit and white athletic socks. Most people might not notice, but many will. Dépaysement, simply put, is not fitting in properly; it is a disorientation just big enough to make you lose your way.
I came to the US as a kid. I spoke five words of English and was, as far as I can remember, the only foreign-born child in my class. This was not dépaysement as there was nothing subtle about it. I got beat up some because kids from other countries were not popular. I learned the language as a matter of survival, and I managed to ape others’ behaviors to fit in rather clumsily. I never got the subtleties, but became used to that. I tried hard as hell to be popular and never quite succeeded. Dépaysement. The mid-60s to mid-70s were great, since these were the times when one was not supposed to fit in. That decade was also ideal whenever I returned to France. Most of my native country truly loved everything American then, and being Franco-American was the apotheosis of cool; one could do no wrong, no matter how out-of-synch one might be.
But that period, both here and overseas, ended amid the rout in Vietnam and the emergence in the Western world of a new form of all-encompassing capitalism largely empty of humanity or goodness. France, the country I left as a child, became another nation altogether. The streets and names and topography remained the same, but the soul of the culture changed radically, espousing the same values found in Texas or Delaware or Indiana and buying into the same shortcomings. I remember feeling dépaysement as I sat at a café in Paris near the Parc Monceau in the neighborhood where I’d been raised. And lately, I’ve been hit with massive waves of dépaysement right here in my adopted home.
Nowadays I often feel my comprehension of an event is just short of complete, or that though I might get the gist of a conversation, the minor points will elude me. More and more I’m confounded by the behaviors of others, by reactions that appear overblown or not entirely appropriate to the mildest provocation. Increasingly, I just don’t quite get it. I am told things have changed and are now a certain way that they were not before, and I fear a look of confusion settles on my face. This frustrates my friends and acquaintances, I know.
But I am not reaching my dotage.
It is dépaysement.
I am becoming my mother.