From our first arrival in the village acquaintances and friendships seemed to be extended almost effortlessly, some almost spontaneously. In moments of reflection we admit that, unbelievable as it sounds, we have acquired an ever-growing circle of friends, a circle larger and a social life infinitely more active than anything we had back in the States.
It sounds like overstatement, but it is true. We never know when our phone will ring, we will get a text, or someone will show up at the door with an invitation to do something: play pétanque now in the park, meet in half an hour at the café for a beer or coffee, meet at the guinguette for drinks, be at such and such a house for dinner on Saturday.
One day last December we found ourselves needing a passport photo for another bit of paperwork for the beast that is French bureaucracy. Reflexively, I suggested going into La Flèche to the big grocery store where they have a photo booth. Karen suggested going to the little photography studio just off the town square, about fifty steps from our front door. I resisted. It never occurred to me, even though we routinely stop to look at the window displays that change with the seasons.
Entering the shop we were greeted by a smiling bearded Frenchman right out of central casting. We launched Standard Operating Procedure for a conversation in a business establishment–apologizing for our French.
“Bonjour, monsieur. Je suis desolé. je suis Americain, et…”
“It’s OK. We speak English!”
To our left was a woman we had not seen when we entered, speaking English all right, fluent East Coast English. This was how we met Alexandra and Christophe.
Alexandra…she often goes by “Alex”…is extraordinary. She is multilingual. Born in London, having lived in Venezuela, Spain, the US, and France, she speaks fluent English, Spanish, and French (and probably more). She spent one year as a teen in Massachusetts, and speaks impeccable English with a Mid-Atlantic accent. She writes and reports for the regional newspaper. She is embedded in the local political scene, is on the village council, and if there is anyone in the entire village and environs that YOU want to know, it is Alex. She is wired into the community. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. She is generous, caring, and funny as hell.
Meeting Alex was like grabbing the brass ring. She and Christophe have been a blessing.
Alex cooks; she loves food and cooking. Karen cooks and loves food and cooking. Alex and Karen are readers and they share many interests. In fact they share many remarkably similar interests. They like each other. They clicked from their first meeting, and that is a beautiful thing. What began as a tentative request by Karen for someone to tutor her in French (turned out to be Alex), quickly became friendship.
Alex is Karen’s missing link. The biggest thing missing for her in France is a soul-deep friend, a woman she can talk to, connect with, and feel kinship to. From the beginning I have had that with Anthony. Call it a male bonding thing, a deep connection. Karen has missed that kind of relationship all this time, and suddenly, with Alex, she has a completeness that was missing. She has a buddy. She has a playmate just as I have a playmate in Anthony.
Anthony has always fancied himself the guy who knows everybody in the two villages of Thorée les Pins and Luché-Pringé, but he didn’t know Alexandra and Christophe, and was mildly rattled when we told him about socializing with them and some of their friends. Somehow it didn’t seem right that these Americans knew people he didn’t. At one point he said to me, only half-joking, I suspect, “I wanted to keep you for myself.”
He kept telling me I had to introduce him to them and I kept telling him yeah, some day. They want to meet you, too. Then I’d go on and tell him about something else we did with them, just to give him the business.
Next gathering at Alex and Christophe’s place Anthony and Cèline were invited, and it was interesting to watch the initial interaction. It took a few minutes of cautious eyeing up of each other, and by the end of the first glass of wine they were all old friends, comparing notes on who knows who. The connection was made.
The two wings of our friendships have connected, and they are now friends as well. They have all been absorbed into our circle that never seems to stop growing. I have the added bonus of being able to needle Anthony that if he needs help meeting people in Luché, I can probably arrange an introduction.
Along the way, something extraordinary happened, something that struck Karen and me almost simultaneously. It was one of those moments when we realized with astonishment that we were experiencing the same thing.
The weather turned warm, flowers were blooming, and the village was stirring from the end of winter, the confinement, and the simultaneous arrival of Spring. Signs were posted that the park facilities along the river would soon open; bikes would be available for rental, along with canoes and paddle boats. The camping area along the river would open, after months of fear that the season would be lost. Luché-Pringé, a small quiet village most of the year, is a destination for camping vacationers, and normally the excellent campground fills up in summer, with “campers” drawn by the recreation area on the river bank, the pool, and the poolside bar.
Then it happened. One day, seeing all the signs of approaching summer, I felt it. For the first time in my life, I thought, “Oh hell, it’s going to be tourist season.”
I thought, “Damn. There will be more traffic in the village. Hell, I’ll have to get up earlier to get to the boulangerie in the morning, because they’ll sell out sooner because of the tourists. I’ll have to stand in line because of the tourists.”
Karen admitted she had been struck with the same thought. For the first time we had instinctively thought and felt we were on the other side of the fence. We now felt part of the us, and no longer one of them. We had that sense of mild intrusion on our normal routine the presence of tourists brings, and at the same time a kind of confirmation of being local, no longer an outsider.
It feels good!