“Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un long voyage”
“Happy who like Ulysses has had a long trip”
Many French people won’t know the end of this sentence, but I would hazard a guess that most have heard it some time. It’s the first line of a poem by Joachim du Bellay, a sixteenth century poet, who encapsulated forever his feeling of home-coming, after a long stay in Rome.
How underrated is the feeling of home-coming these days, when for many, their home is the only safe place in a risky world. Restrictions have turned homes into prison people long to leave, if only for a while.
But for those who, through war, flood, exile or divorce, have been ripped away from their home, this poem strums evey fibre of their being. It goes
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d’usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge !
Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m’est une province, et beaucoup davantage ?
Plus me plaît le séjour qu’ont bâti mes aïeux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux,
Plus que le marbre dur me plaît l’ardoise fine :
Plus mon Loir gaulois, que le Tibre latin,
Plus mon petit Liré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l’air marin la doulceur angevine.
Happy he who like Ulysses has had a long trip
Or like he who sought the Golden Fleece
And then returned, experienced and wise
to live amongst his family the remainder of his days!
When will I see again, alas, smoke the chimney
of my little village, and in which season
Will I see again the plot of my poor house
That is a province to me, and much more.
I prefer the house my forefathers have built
To the proud facades of Roman palaces;
to the hard marble, the fine slate;
my French Loir to the Latin Tiber;
My little Liré to Mount Palatine
And to the sea air, my soft Anjou.
Some home-comings are full or trials and tribulations. Ulysses, for one, had to slaughter his rivals to win back Penelope and his kingdom of Ithaca. Other home-comings are just a little unsettling. As space is abolished, time becomes more vivid. Suddenly, your parents have aged, your children have grown up, the roof needs repairs, and for a short while, you are not at home in your own house. But then the old comforts reappear, the familiar voices and noises, the bed, the books, the paths of the local patch, a memory around each corner.
Coming back from my own long stay abroad, I rediscovered with pleasure the joy of fresh bread, tasty cheese, the stylish buildings, the elegance of the French lifestyle. However, any tourist can enjoy them just as much (either side of a pandemic, that is).
But then I took the metro in Paris. My feet found the RATP steps exactly where they expected them to be; my knees remembered the exact pace needed to run down those steps quickly and smoothly. That’s when I felt truly home again. On the steps of the metro. Now that’s a thought.