Thursday, July 8, 2010

Friendship in a Foreign Land - the most recent installment

When you live in a land far from your family, friends count for a lot. So do memories -- perhaps relatively recent for others, but strong and present for yourself. The occasion will arrive (oft repeatedly) when you realize that you've put certain people into the box of 'dear friends' and they barely remember your name. No, it is rarely as bad as that, but it comes as a surprise to both parties when these different feelings and sense of importance come to the fore.

The other evening I was invited to a friend's house with my two guests. A seemingly simple evening became very complex. This friend is someone I've known for over thirteen years, since I was pregnant with Leo. She was present at the creation of Erick's and my first business, the Association Cuisine and Tradition. In fact, I do believe she was the president of our little association. She came often to our house for meetings, and joined us at the dinner table.

Later, as lives became more complex, we saw less of her, but we were still on the list of invites for her wedding to a fellow dear friend. And so life goes on.

Since I've lived in Avignon, her husband has become a major player in my existence. He is my plumber, aka my guardian angel. When I call, he comes. I pay him faithfully and immediately upon work done -- anxious to not abuse the friendship. And oh what a relief it is for me to have at least one person I can count on. I'm afraid when it comes to doing work around the house and garden, my car, etc., I've not a full hand of these people.

I was particularly touched that these friends can still be such even though I've divorced their much-loved friend, the father of my boys.

In my mind, I'd built up these two. The former a woman with Jewish roots, a mover and shaker, a smart and sassy lady who got things done, armed with a legal degree and a will of iron. In her I saw many women I'd known and loved in New York. Many colleagues of my mother's whom I admired and hoped to emulate. Not just hot air, but intelligence and focus and generosity all wrapped up in a great package.

In fact, I've seen very little of this woman I so admire. She briefly helped mediate between Erick and I, but I thought it best not to mix friendship and divorce. So, I've run into her here and there, but mostly worked with her husband whom I always feed when he works for me, chat with, share news about Erick with, etc.,

And so, here we are, on our second night of dining together in the same week. Once at my place, once at her's. And, this is the last night my friends from the States will be with us, and the only evening another friend might meet them. And so, it seemed possible to add two to the mix, with salad, wine and bread as offerings, for our dinner party. I of course called to check. But all seemed well on the phone.

And then we arrived -- Filou in tow (hard to leave him back at the camper van)-- and as the proverbial saying states, all Hell broke loose. When she saw Filou she flipped. So I put him back in the car. And then she disappeared having had a row with her husband over the banishment of the dog. I assured her Filou was fine in the car and apologized for having foolishly brought him. But, the event was not over.

When I'd arrived, the gate to the house was open, so I pushed it further and called out, Allô, and walked in with my now four friends - two American and two Avignonais. And it came across as an invasion of the most rude and dramatic sort. A major whoops occurred as my friend expressed her dismay and confusion and I felt horribly out of my depth and confused and tried to figure out where I'd so over-stepped the bounds of our friendship.

And here we are at the crossroads of very different shared memories and experiences. Thirteen years is a lot in my life -- it goes back to my arrival in Arles. And here was one of the first people I met, someone who was there while I was nursing Leo, someone who had been so instrumental in our professional lives, and also personal. One of the first to invite me to a marriage, etc., etc., Not to mention she resembled so many loved ones from home. And then, her husband was a savior in my eyes (which she actually found quite distasteful, as he is so for many a client and thus she finds his work bleeds into their home life, so I clearly touched a very sore point on that one), and, and, and... I felt so close to her, down right cuddly and grateful. But for she, I was simply that little American wife (now ex) of her dear friend, and well, a client of her husband.

Yes, whoops. However, where it is painful and rather frightening to hear how you've upset someone, it does permit you to try to right the wrong. And so I considered and reflected and then went to help her in the kitchen and try to explain myself.

In the meantime, my Avignonnais friend was doing a masterful job of smoothing things over, helping, discussing the situation, sharing notes on friends, imposition, expectations, etc.,

In the end, we came to a new understanding of our relationship and both of us are desirous of deepening it and getting to know each other better. How could a lady from Avignon have any idea that her simple Jewishness meant so much to me? Her spunk and her smarts, her education and her general energy? And, how startling for myself to have the foreignness of my being yet again thrust into the light. The relative importance of years lived, years shared, thoughts conveyed.

When you lived cut off from your family and childhood friends -- not the common experience here for the locals -- it is quite normal to give a supreme importance to friends. As the cliche goes, you can't pick your family but you can pick your friends. And so, I've often described to these friends their importance in my life, que je construit ma famille française, that I've sought to know and surround myself with marvelous beings. That I revel in them, that they are tremendously important to me.

I do not make the distinction between family and friends when it comes to being needed or called upon. I'm there for them both as I am able. And, a gifted juggler and a master of Plans B, C, D, and onward to infinity, I will do my damned best to respond.

Yes, I think of a certain person and his clear limits and distinctions between these two worlds. And I know, I never crossed the line into his box for family. I stayed outside. And thus no, he would not be there for me as he would for his mother or his daughter or his brother.

It's strange for me to confront such a way of thinking. But, I'm a traveler, I'm a recent arrival, I'm trying to dig my own roots and create a sense of belonging in a world onto which I might be permitted to graft, and in which I often struggle and flail.

Yet more lessons in humility.


Gillian said...

Oh! We are all such complex entities struggling to understand one another - and yet, beyond culture, beyond the neurosis of our Me-centred universes, we all essentially want the same things. I know this post resonates with me, I've been in each of those positions, the perceived impinger and impinged upon! C'est la vie, we live and learn. Brava for working to deepen your relationship.

Anonymous said...

I give you lots of credit for staying and straightening it out. I probably would've run away! Good for you! I guess no matter how long one lives in a foreign country, there's always the possibility of culture shock!

Madeleine Vedel said...

Thank you Gillian, and Sue. No, I don't run away, but I was startled. It was one of those moments I would have avoided had I been in the other position. Goodness, to put someone on the spot like that? And yet, what a blessing in disguise. She allowed me to make reparations, and it looks like we both want to learn more about each other. I've come out from under whatever title I had in her mind, and she's willing to be more present to me. But yes, cultural mixups may very likely continue to occur for years to come. Just when you let down your guard thinking it's all smooth and easy...

Nathalie said...

A very thorough and accurate account of a perilous exercise! It appears it gave you both a chance to express yourselves, for the common good I believe. You are both wonderful people and you were able to make the most of the crisis. Well done !

Mary said...

I am a new reader to your blog and find it refreshing. I went to Provence on my own this past June, working with a tutor who was actually a friend of my current French instructor. I am fluent in French but totally in need of updating and practicing my French. I did so for two weeks and am now reluctantly back in my hometown. I will certainly keep reading the blog and would like to return to Provence; I only spent a short afternoon and evening in Avignon but found it charming. I would still be interested in perhaps a trip to Provence for your cooking school. I had looked into it briefly before choosing to do one independently. But in the meantime- I would love more info about the Avignon rental. I can send my email address to get more specifics.