A Special Kind of Love

This weekend was all that I wanted my last weekend in France to be.

My friend Dana has friends who live in a small town an hour from Toulouse, and they invited me to eat, swim, and explore the Midi-Pyrénées with them for two days and a night.

Here’s their backyard:

IMG_4243

As Philippe, the father of the family, was driving me toward his house on the first night, we stopped off along the way for some picture-worthy (obviously, since I took some) views:

IMG_4231

And, here’s one from our walk in the morning:

IMG_4261

In between the arrival and the walk, we ate two big meals on the terrace, made with the barbecue and the plancha, a Spanish appliance made for their method of grilling meat and vegetables. On the dinner menu was an entire jar of foie gras and champagne as an apéro, and then three varieties of saucisses de Toulouse. Although I’ve lived in France twice now and made a valiant effort, I’ve not yet acquired the taste of some of their stinkier cheeses. However, I can now proudly say that I have acquired the heck out of foie gras. It’s amazing. The sausages were also spicy, meaty, and especially tasty with semolina and grilled zucchini. And of course in the unbearable heat, Haagen-Dazs was the only possible dessert! For Sunday lunch we had a Spanish specialty, lomo a la plancha, which is marinated pork (in a special curry-cumin mix) grilled on la plancha. Needless to say I ate sooooo much. The customary coffee or tea after dinner became my only hope, digestion-wise.

Carbonne is, by U.S. standards, a village…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Philippe put it well when he said that you feel like you’re in the countryside, but it’s actually a town which has all of life’s necessities. And it’s on the banks of the river Garonne, which means it sufficiently meets all of the charmingly breathtaking French village criteria.

IMG_4245

And, through all that I did and talked about with the family and their friends, I noticed some special kinds of love.

The first and most present was Family Love. Being around this family made me realize what I forgot: there is a special atmosphere of love when I’m at home with my family. The bickering of siblings, the hushed parental conversations about their children’s success, the meals where everyone knows each other’s favorite foods — that taking-care-of-each-other spirit is one of the things I miss most.

I got to experience this new family thanks to another special kind of love — Hospitality. It takes an extended stint far away from home to be truly aware and appreciative of how hospitable people can be. I was invited for this weekend into their home only because I knew someone they knew. They fed me, they gave me a nice cozy bed, they took me to and from their place, and they showed me other parts of the Southwest, and all this, they assured me, was avec plaisir! It makes me want to write them a heartfelt thank-you note, send a lifetime supply of wine (who am I kidding, they have that, they’re in France…) and, when the time comes, to welcome them into my own home and return the favor. We’ll see if they make it to Seattle one day.

And there’s a third kind that I remembered. I think it’s in some places everywhere, but in France I think it’s in nearly every small town which has one church and one family-owned butcher: Community Love. France is truly the land of traditions, and most of these traditions celebrate the intense community of village life. Philippe showed me a series of photos of the yearly Fête de Carbonne, where the whole village gathers over a three-day weekend. There is orchestra music, a marching band, dancing, singing, and a huge meal in the town square. He showed me pictures of the table that he and his neighbors all get together, around which they talk, laugh, eat, and celebrate life until the early hours.

I wish I knew my neighbors. I wish there were a Fête de Redmond during which we all gathered at the Old Schoolhouse Community Center and ate our traditional dish and listened to a marching band until 4 AM with all of our neighbors, friends, and local shopkeepers. Even the scenario sounds absurd.

But if Redmond were just like small-town France, it wouldn’t be so interesting being here, would it?

And while we’re on the subject…confession:

I have a special kind of love for this place, this life, and these experiences. I’ll be back.

A Special Kind of Love

In the Pink City

7 AM wakeup. Breakfast. Coffee. Walk to school. Learn things. Get lunch. Sit in park. Plan things. Teach things. Walk home. Make dinner. Watch a show. Go to sleep. Repeat once per weekday.

Thus is the life of a TEFL student: 9 AM-7 PM school days, and very little me-time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

On the weekends, I explored the Pink City for myself.

First, here’s my fantastic flat! Probably the best lodging I ever had in France in terms of privacy, location, price, size, and facilities. Plus, my landlord was a gem. He would often throw parties in our courtyard/garden, so I met people.

IMG_4146

When I wasn’t in my flat, I was probably either in the TEFL center or in a park. There were several options.

The green space in front of La Garonne, the major river that runs through Toulouse:

IMG_4170 The Jardin des Plantes, right across the street from the TEFL centre: IMG_4153

IMG_4159

And the Grand Rond, which I walked through every day on my way to training:

IMG_4216

It made for a beautiful morning. I started meeting my new friend Imi on a bench in the Grand Rond in the mornings for a pre-work chat (and sometimes a croissant and coffee as well).

As you can see from the pictures, Toulouse was more often than not a sunny paradise. For the first two weeks, it rained a lot, and I experienced the mistral wind, famous in Toulouse for making people crazy. Then, it got really hot (like, in the 90s F/30s C) on our last week. It was even 28-30 C at 10 PM! Luckily, my apartment was in a basement, so I stayed cool while sleeping.

The weekends were a mix of routine and adventure. Each weekend, I spent Sunday at the Marché de St. Aubin, where I bought my produce and eye-feasted on all the pretty handmade jewelry & the cool Toulousain people.

IMG_4205

I sometimes went for drinks with people from the course, making new friends as well! And I usually spent the day walking around exploring.

The Canal du Midi trail reminds me of the Sammamish River Trail, which is right by my house!

IMG_4212

La Garonne, the river! Here’s Toulouse’s Pont Neuf (every city has one):

IMG_4166 And La Garonne in the almost-rain:

IMG_5319

I also managed to find my BFF Cara‘s old haunt (and Ashley‘s, of course!), from when she was a TAPIF assistant near Toulouse and came into the city with her friends. It used to have a flirtatious waiter, but he seems to have disappeared, much to my chagrin. I had a delicious curry crêpe in honor of good memories.

IMG_4181

Toulouse is a “big city” compared to Valenciennes (even though it’s actually pretty small), and the atmosphere is totally different. There’s Spanish essence permeating the air of the pink city. People are out on the streets until midnight every night, dining from 8 PM on the many places filled with outdoor seating. The Southern accent is twangy, and I still have trouble catching everything people say down here. There are also Spanish speakers everywhere. I’ve met Cubans, Ecuadorans, Spaniards, and French people who are half Spanish or spend all their time in Spain.

There is an expat community, just like everywhere else in France that I’ve been, which could’ve been fun had I been in Toulouse for longer! I was talking with friends last night about why we internationals tend to mostly meet each other. Do we attract other internationals because we all have things in common? Do we put off the locals with our transitional nature? Or is who we meet where really just random chance?

I guess we’ll never know. In any case, Toulouse treated me so, so well. I’ve graduated TEFL with a teaching certificate and renewed confidence and teaching energy, and I’m leaving Toulouse with the intention of returning someday!

In a couple of days it’s off to Barcelona, then….HOME. More to come.

I’ll leave you with a cute photo:

IMG_4161

In the Pink City

Opening Up

Knowing I have only a month in a beautiful place has infected me with carpe-diem-itis.

I am by nature a gradual person. I dip a toe in the water, watching the ripples to make sure nothing creepy lurks at the bottom before I dive in. It extends back to my preschool years (as do nearly all psychological things, says Freud) : I watch before I leap. Apparently, when I was three and four years old, I’d sit and watch the other kids doing all the activities for ages. Then, I’d get the confidence up to go in and try it myself — and I knew how to do it.

My osmotic observation techniques have served me well since then. I’ve stayed out of trouble, I’ve avoided unnecessary risks. But, as I began my whirlwind life in Toulouse, I found myself adopting an attitude of Reckless Abandon.

This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly jumping off cliffs, crossing the street when oncoming traffic is racing toward me, or taking all the dark back alleys to get home at 3 in the morning (like I did once in Paris, oops). It means I am qualm-less about Opening Up.

Here’s what I’ve learned from numerous moments of alone-ness : strangers are only strangers until you say something to them.

That’s all it takes. You just have to say something.

After this saying of the something, I instantly know :

— if they’re interested in saying something back

That’s all it takes to make a friend. It shatters the illusion of aloneness instantaneously, in a burst of “interaction.” It pulls me out of the reality of Anne’s Head and into the reality of this other person, this new universe of human, this stranger who is suddenly less strange. There’s a constellation of life experiences and perspectives and feelings, of thoughts and opinions and fears and dreams and countless quirky weird things, just there to be discovered.

And, even more importantly: if I show them mine, they show me theirs.

Aren’t my best friends only best because they’ve seen all the weirds in my universe and not run away? Didn’t I have to show them my weirds as a test, to see whether or not they would run away? Aren’t they most comfortable around me when I’ve been weird, because it means they can be weird too?

In less interrogative language: If I open up to the world, I find the worlds who open up back. I find the worlds who appreciate my own constellation of life experiences and perspectives and feelings, of thoughts and opinions and fears and dreams and countless quirky weird things, and who want to discover me back.

Through this friend-making, opening up, and discovering new worlds… I’ve learned the secret to a happy life. That’s right, I discovered it.

It is thus:

Only let people into your world who think the world of you.

My new rule for continuing to be friends with someone is based entirely on how they make me feel. If they make me feel like I’m not a world worth discovering, goodbye. If they make me feel like my world is flat and uncomplicated, wrong, or inferior to theirs, they’re out. Basically, if they don’t respect me as a super cool other universe, then, even if I think they’re a super cool other universe, I should run away. Friendship needs to be reciprocal.

Opening Up takes a lot of courage. Once you show someone some part of your personal constellation, it’s out there, entirely at the mercy of their response. When they don’t respond with interest or respect, it hurts. But, if I don’t show it to them, I never know how they’d respond.

I’m learning: friendship should be selfish. I listened to a podcast the other day in which they talked about friendship, and how friendship is the only relationship in our lives which is entirely voluntary. There is no contract, there is no hidden agenda of sex or marriage, there is no legal obligation to terminate if all goes wrong. There is only what we choose to put in, and what we want to get out. I want to get out as much as I put in, and from here on out, I’m striving for balance in all of my friendships.

This means being as open and honest as possible. Right from the very beginning. If I’m not the real me, how will they get to know the real me? How will I get to know the real them?

So, for this month in Toulouse, I have one goal: BE ME, with reckless abandon. And see how many new friends I make.

Opening Up