My desk is out of the way of guests, up in the loft of the main office at our little resort, so I rarely see the people who are staying in one of our five chalets. Last week, though, a handsome, slightly tentative guy climbed the stairs behind our office manager and sat opposite me on one of the mahogany chiavari chairs I have there as samples of the most expensive kind of wedding seating known to man. He pulled a ring out of his pocket, spun it around a few times and held it up for me to see. Our office manager — a young, sparkly-eyed woman — half-whispered to me, He’s going to propose to his girlfriend tonight! Here! He gave off several vibes at once: pride, nervousness, and a sweet seriousness surrounding the question he was working himself up to ask. He wanted to know if I could help him find a good place to get the ring polished.
When my now-husband proposed to me, we were also far from home, in Bordeaux, France. After he slipped the ring on my finger, and after we drank two good bottles of wine, we took the train to San Sebastian, Spain, where we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast flat in a stone building. Though we couldn’t see much from our room — the windows obstructed by construction scaffolding — we could smell the ocean. I felt like our engagement was an inadvertent secret: we knew no one, and so had no one to celebrate with but each other — which was insanely romantic and a bit lonely all at once.
After showing ourselves around San Sebastian and returning to the flat, Carl announced, in front of our sweet hostess, Amalia, that he wanted to buy a few bottles of local wine, ‘to celebrate.’ Amalia gave him directions and, as soon as he left, turned to me and asked expectantly, ‘What are you celebrating?’ Almost immediately after I spoke the word, ‘engaged,’ she called her friend to come over (Luz! Luz! Ven!), tied an apron around her waist and set about preparing an engagement party. When Carl came back with a bottle of wine in each hand, she danced him around the kitchen, and Luz kissed his cheeks. Over a dinner of seafood paella, during which Luz taught us how to properly pour Basque wine and the two other guests of the flat explained the difference between an Australian accent and their own New Zealander inflections, Amalia offered us a toast, and with it, her best advice for a happy marriage: No dejes de beber. Don’t forget to drink.
For the remainder of our trip, Carl mentioned our engagement to more than one waiter, bartender, stranger. Maybe he also felt that our somewhat anonymous engagement, surrounded by people we did not know, was both romantic and lonely, and that by telling our waiter that we had just gotten engaged, we could have a little taste of the kind of shared celebration that we would want from our own community.
I thought of all of these things after I sent that young guy away from my desk with advice on how to polish his already shiny diamond ring with a toothbrush. Later that night, when our staff went out to a local bar to watch a friend’s band play, we all took note when our to-be-engaged chalet guests walked in and took a seat at a table behind ours. Our office manager and I turned around to assess the situation, and the guy caught our eyes and shot us a quick thumbs-up. We cheered. They laughed. We had the band dedicate a song to them, and they slow-danced around the little bar, surrounded by the smiles of strangers. The night turned into an engagement party of sorts, with lots of congratulations and cheap cans of beer.
What fascinates me about all this is the way we gravitate toward people, especially in big moments in their lives, even when we have absolutely no idea who they are. Think of the way everyone in a restaurant claps when one table sings Happy Birthday, or the way we’ll feel completely comfortable talking to a new mom about the wee babe in her shopping cart, or the way traffic politely stops for a funeral procession. (Or is this just me?) We have a primal need, it would seem, for a village.
Bitter en Zoet’s post on the matter last week, along with my recent conversation with another dear-and-abroad friend about the trials of being surrounded by strangers in a new place, got me thinking (again, as it’s one of my favorite topics) about my obsession with community. Almost every surface in my house is covered in framed photographs of the people I love. When I imagine what it will be like to have children, I mostly imagine what kind of aunties and uncles my children will have, what kind of village they’ll grow up in. For so many reasons, I pour a particularly substantial amount of energy into building — a fortress? — of sturdy relationships around me. But what happens when those people are spread out across the continent, across the Pacific and Atlantic? Where is the village if I can’t go to it, live in it? (I very much like Bitter en Zoet’s point about how social media, nasty as it can be, helps with this.) How do I keep myself from being too easily hurt by a villager who seems not to want to be relied on, who seems not to share my sense of community? I can’t watch her house burn down, even as she might let mine go up in flames — so what, then, does the village mean? What are the responsibilities and expectations of its members? How does it work? I pose these questions honestly and not at all rhetorically. (And I suppose I might look for answers in libraries’ worth of books, in generations’ worth of life, and not know.)
The other night, when I left the local bar and our freshly-engaged guests on the dance floor, I stopped at their chalet on my drive home and set a cold bottle of champagne on their front step. I attached a little note to the neck, tied in red bakery twine, that said, We’re so honored to be a part of your big moment. Come visit us again soon.