France has also taught me about loneliness. And honestly, this is one of the lessons I am most grateful for. My life for the past 4+ decades has been many things, but it hasn’t really been lonely. In fact, more often than not, I was starved for alone time with far too many demands on my attention.
And the thing about loneliness is that if you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to see it.
In France, however, things are different. I don’t have a built-in social network. My French is pretty terrible so it’s hard to connect with people in conversation. Covid makes everything harder because it further limits social opportunities (plus there are masks and plexiglass creating additional barriers). We’ve been so busy exploring that we haven’t really been settled enough to build friendships. So, some degree of loneliness has been a part of this experience for all of us.
In December, we were invited to the south of France to stay at the home of the family of one of Matt’s colleagues. We understood that they had a large property with several guest houses, and that we were welcome to enjoy one of them. We are always up for exploring new places, so off we went!
What we didn’t expect was the way in which we would be welcomed by our new friends, Bernard and Brigitte. I have never in my life experienced such wonderful hospitality. In addition to providing us a beautiful space to stay, they served us many lovely meals, spent hours taking us on a tour of the area, told us dozens of wonderful stories, and sent us off with a bag full of gifts. They immediately treated us with abundant warmth, like we were family. After so many months feeling like a stranger, it was a balm to my soul.
At one point along the way, Brigitte, who was the more soft-spoken of the duo, quietly asked me if I had made any friends in France. I answered honestly that while I had met lots of lovely people, there was probably only one person who would consider me a friend. She nodded, knowingly.
Bernard and Brigitte had spent many years living abroad, largely in the U.S., while raising their family. Bernard had a lot of responsibility with his job as an executive of a big tech company, while Brigitte focused on caring for their children at home. She was still learning English at the time, and it was difficult for her to find people to connect with socially. In one of our conversations, Bernard shared with me how lonely and isolated Brigitte had felt during this time, especially early on.
And that’s when I realized that Bernard and Brigitte knew how to love us so well because they too had been wanderers in a strange land. They understood what that felt like. Our need for human connection was seen by them in a way that no one else had been able to see it. They saw our loneliness because they had once been lonely.
I saw that the bit of loneliness that I had experienced was a precious gift because it will (hopefully!) enable me to love in the way we were loved by Bernard and Brigitte. I hope to see that the people sitting alone at church who don’t speak English very well are probably starved for a kind word, a friend, and an invitation to join in on something socially. Instead of having blinders on and talking only to my group of friends, I hope I will look up and notice the people around me who are being left out. I have a new appreciation for the healing power of a warm welcome and a home-cooked meal. And I will certainly be on the lookout for lonely wanderers who may, just for a while, need a soft place to land.
For me, check out 25 Reflections: Civility.