As I spend a long weekend writing, feverishly beavering to complete my first book draft while the boys adventure in the snow in Andorra, I am reminded that loneliness is a major challenge we face when uprooting ourselves from our regular lives, wider family, friends, colleagues and connections to move to the other side of the world.
As an extrovert and a fairly social person, who likes to spend time with people, it is unexpected and unsettling for me to discover it is possible to be lonely, while surrounded by people; living in a sizable town, even while having good ‘friends’ and neighbours and knowing others in the wider community.
In the early days of our arrival, we do our best to prepare for the approaching isolation of winter by building as many relationships as possible – people we can call on for company and good cheer behind closed doors and shutters when the time comes. In those first autumn days of October and November that now feel a lifetime ago, Tom and I are squirrels, hoarding nuts for the dark days to come. Now, those dark days have come, and I am alone and, at times, lonely. I needed to hoard more nuts, sooner, and faster.
We have now been here twice, and feel as much a part of the community as we can, while still being only temporary visitors. We are known and welcomed at the local cafés, there are plenty of people for us to talk to and have coffee with while out and about, and people are generous with their time in passing conversation, but greater connection inevitably takes time, and that is not something we have at our disposal. Four months is simply not enough to build and sustain meaningful relationships – why would people bother when we are leaving soon, and unsure when we will be back.
In this community of communities, we are neither local nor expatriate; we are not permanent or part-time residents. We just keep popping up from time time time – more than tourists, but less than regulars. We are ‘other’.
The sort of connection I am craving is the ability to drop in on others freely, without offence or burden. I am hoping, in the time we are here, to earn the sense of closer companionship that comes with that, particularly with the encroaching winter in mind. I am looking for friends, as well as acquaintances to keep us company in the cold and dark when everything closes. It would be nice to know we have people we can call on, even if we are only here temporarily. Realistically, I think this is not possible as ‘other’.
By virtue of morning coffees at the Fleuve, chatting to those who drop by, meeting parents outside school, talking to anyone I meet, and actively joining as many groups and activities as I can, I quickly acquire plenty of acquaintances. My network of people I recognise is extensive, which is a good feeling. It’s nice to pop out and know that you have a good chance of bumping into someone you know, even when far from ‘home’. I know that if I look out the window and spy people I know at the Fleuve or the Palace, I can join them at a moment’s notice.
Converting acquaintances to friends is harder though, and I haven’t yet cracked that, despite trying different approaches.
Despite wanting to meet and make French friends in the longer term, I figure the expatriate community, particularly the Australians will be a good bet as a starting point. Like me, they are ‘foreigners’ here, needing to fit in, and I think, like me, they will welcome more contacts.
There’s some truth in that – the expats we know and meet are quick to make us welcome and connect us to others. But I find they are no more likely than others to go further. Although we meet often for a coffee or a drink, it’s always spontaneous, and never more than fleeting. It feels somehow superficial.
We issue invitations to people we know and like to come over to ours for a drink, or to meet out. These invitations are always accepted, but, with a few exceptions, generally not reciprocated. In the four months we are here, we do not receive a single invitation to a meal or a drink at anyone else’s place. This is not a complaint, but more of an observation – something that I have come to realise over time and reflect on.
I don’t think this is because people don’t like us. I think it’s more likely people have their own busy lives, their own agendas, their well-established circles of friends and it simply doesn’t occur to them to go out of their way to add more by including us. To be fair, I have experienced this same situation myself in Wellington, and it troubled me as much there. It doesn’t feel like a particularly French issue, or just something about the people in Quillan.
That said, I do wonder if there’s something cultural about it. We kiwis (cue wild generalisation) are prone to gregariousness. We seek connections. We are unafraid to ask for favours without fear of causing offence. We think nothing of asking if we can spend a night on someone’s floor for free, in the knowledge that we will happily return the favour. We allow strangers into our houses for open homes and garage sales, and most of the people I know are happy to just drop in for a coffee with friends unannounced, in the knowledge they’ll be welcome. I like that.
In contrast, a friend who lives in Barcelona observes that, despite living there several years, and having plenty of friends, she rarely if ever is invited to their houses. They meet up regularly, but always at a bar or restaurant. It’s like there’s a different view here of your house and home as your private domain. I expect I could get used to that.
And it’s not like we are the model of behaviour either. I like to think if a French person arrived in our suburb in New Zealand, we would invite them over and make them welcome, get to know them better, help make them feel at home. But then I examine my own conscience. Have I done that recently in my own community? Probably not.
Inevitably, in a short time period, real friendships and more closeness is not possible, no matter how hard we try and how much we would like it. I am looking forward to our return, whenever that is, for the chance to pick up, and further the many connections we have made. I fancy some of them might just become lifelong friendships, given time.