Saint Rémy de Provence, France
We slept in and then spent our afternoon relaxing, swimming (floating, actually) in the pool, and eating fresh baguettes. The day was rounded off with a meal in town, followed by watching part of a decisive international soccer (football) match. St. Rémy de Provence was the chosen destination for our two families to meet—us originating from New York, they from London. This was our first vacation together since we had both added children to the world. Two sets of recently minted parents taking advantage of time off at a villa in a beautiful little town in France. It sounds idyllic, and it was.
Rather than blabber on about the gorgeous villa, beautiful weather, wonderful food, locally sourced wine, etcetera, etcetera, a much simpler and less self-congratulatory (“Look at us! We went to France!”) interaction occurred on that warm, peaceful evening. The long and short of it is, after dinner and the football, I wanted some time to myself. Not one that feels comfortable spending large stretches with even the closest of friends and family, solitude grounds me.
What solitude means to me
For me, solitude comes in many forms, including walking, reading books and paradoxically, during short, friendly interactions with new people. Sharing smiles with passersby, a politely tendered purchase at a shop, or chatting with someone at a lounge or cafe all do the trick. It is not my desire to be completely alone in the world—which I have heard described by solo backpackers, fisherman, avid readers, and the like—but rather a craving for the option of being alone. Feeling a bit boxed in, the option needed to be exercised that night. It was also the night I realized that not sharing a common language can actually create connection.
We humans are strange. Constantly seeking more from life, we read self-help books, look for the trendiest restaurants and travel destinations, join online groups, and generally do whatever we can to discover whatever it is that we feel we are missing. Not always satisfied with our personal lives or our jobs, we are encouraged, most recently by social media, to ‘find your best self‘, ‘live life to its fullest,’ ‘grow your net worth,’ or ‘achieve financial freedom.’ This is especially true in the Western world. I would argue that this is also pervasive in the Far East and other parts of the world as we become more and more globalized.
An Unlikely Connection
As the others made the short trek back to our temporary home, I opted for a walk around the small village center. Everything was surprisingly different at night. The bustling daytime, with locals and tourists joyfully interacting at markets and restaurants, was replaced by almost complete silence after the sun had gone down. It was even more obvious that this was the town where Van Gogh’s A Starry Night was painted. Strolling around St. Rémy’s inner loop provided me time to smell the fresh air, snap a couple of pseudo-artsy photos, and breathe in the stillness. I also passed the same clothing store at least five times, but that’s beside the point.
A quirky little place caught my eye that I hadn’t noticed during the day. “Le Bar Americain.” To give perspective on how out of place this bar was, a quick search of The Lonely Planet travel guide, under the ‘nightlife’ section, had one sentence: “The nightlife in St-Rémy is pretty low-key, but the town’s restaurants have plenty of local wines to try.” Apparently, the American bar did not last long—attempts to find an online photo came up empty. My memory is that it looked like a darker, more kitschy version of the place in the photo above, but with far fewer people.
Curious about this little town’s take on ‘Americain,’ I had to check it out. Clumsily ordering in quasi-French, I enjoyed my successfully sought solitude. The bartender spoke a little bit of English and I spoke a little bit of French. He recognized my accent as American; not from the UK or elsewhere. A few shortly worded niceties led to a full-on conversation in broken French and English, accompanied by helpful hand gestures and the appropriate facial expressions. Simply put, we connected.
It made sense that we were mutually curious about each other’s lives, with him working in an American-themed bar and me visiting France. He even made a passing reference to problems with his girlfriend and that they would quickly pass, a sentiment to which people from all countries can relate. After my new acquaintance proudly showed me a unique whisky the restaurant had recently acquired, I finished my champagne—it was France, after all—and happily wandered home.
Disdainful of large, planned ‘networking’ events, these small, seemingly insignificant interactions with strangers are much more my speed. Being male certainly makes it safer. When speaking with people who have no expectation of follow-up, you are simply sharing a moment in time. Generally, you don’t know anyone in their world, and they don’t know anyone in yours. The connections are short, but in my opinion, very human. Most times, I learn something interesting about topics or cultures of which I was previously unaware. My knowledge base grows and there is no interruption in my ‘alone’ time. It is very freeing and often leads to more growth than any self-help book or advice column offers. From time to time, lasting friendships can even develop.
What made this night in France unique was that although the bartender at Le Bar Americain spoke French and I spoke English, human connection was the commonality, because connection IS our common language.
In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I will share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
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