Where is the village?

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.

San Sebastian, where we celebrated anonymously — via Holiday Goddess.

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.

How to pour basque wine, by a Spaniard less beautiful than Luz — via Vintelligence.

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.

The village, as it were. Painting by F.N. Souza.

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.

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14 thoughts on “Where is the village?

    • Indeed– and useful, I think, to acknowledge our need for community as a primal, almost biological one. Thanks so for reading!

  1. Yes, I love this! You’ve put a finger on something I’ve been trying to define this summer. Getting married – everyone is happy for you and wants to participate in a way. And what you say makes sense – that somehow in these moments, these life events, there’s a little window of time where we commune with others.

    Thank you!

    • BH, that was my most favorite part of the entire wedding/newly-married ordeal! It must be the reason we continue to have these kinds of ceremonies and rituals– we need that feeling.

  2. Both engagement stories are lovely. Beautiful actually. I have been really thinking about these issues of community lately too. It’s a huge topic. A different life event brought some of this into focus for me lately. There was a death in my family two weeks ago. As is with all life’s major events, everyone comes together and in that space of time our community is so clearly defined. For me that community is all about family. I would do anything for my family and I know sentiment is reciprocated. We spend an immense amount of time together. But this comes at the expense of my other relationships. At some point we only have energy for so much. I mean, I love my friends and am even grateful for the casual relationships I have with neighbors, co-workers, ext. But I think that if you asked, many of these people would describe me as aloof or even a bit cool and I definitely have a history of being MIA on the communication front. Having a very tight knit family takes up my time and limits the amount of time I can and am willing to commit to my broader community. Would I let a neighbor’s house burn down? No, but if it was their house or my sister’s there would be no question.
    I know that other people are not like me. I am pretty sure that in today’s world I am a bit of an abnormality. Most of my friends have found their villages through their friendships.
    One other thought here. I am wondering about the cultural differences. In Canada, when Happy Birthday is sung at a restaurant everyone just seems embarrassed about it – I have rarely heard people join in. Outward displays of joy for any event are subdued to say the least. And it is unusual for strangers to talk on the street let alone say ‘Hi’. I’m married to an American and when we go to visit his family I am always struck by how much friendlier people are south of the boarder. I wonder if there is a greater sense of community in the US than in Canada (in the broad sense).

    • Ooh, I couldn’t help but pick up on the cultural differences. At least in Canada people smile. Up here in Northern Europe, you don’t get that! South Europe, where LaZ got engaged, is so much more relaxed and open. I always think Canada is more like Northern Europe, more conservative, more closed. I don’t think it’s a matter of friendliness, just willingness to be open. I say that because ask a European and they will tell you that Canadians are so nice and friendly (possibly in preference to Americans). I think what they mean is more polite, because we ARE polite. The US has always seemed more open, more expressive to me, both in it’s positive (happy birthday!!!) and negatives. When I used to work in tourism, the Americans were so nice until you upset them, and then, well, let’s just say there was no ambiguity that they were pissed off at you. In Canada, a polite tight lipped grimace is all you get to know you screwed up. I always found in Southern Europe and the US (who are somewhat similar in temperament, maybe it’s the weather?) everyone was friendly and your friend right away, but they could just as easily forget you a little later. But in north europe and in canada, you have to earn those friends a bit more. But when you make them they are your friends. For Always.

      But I do think you’re right. That the US is very good at this idea of community. As a country and then maybe further than that. I go and think back to LaZ’s patriot post. I think Canada has community too (certainly when compared to what I see here in Belgium), but it’s less forward, it’s more apologetic. And in general, I think community is getting harder to find everywhere, at least in that ‘block party’ kind of way. ’tis they way of the world, it seems. But then again, maybe it’s just that community is no longer the people on the street where you live, but the people you connect with wherever they may be. I’m not sure that’s worse. But It is too bad that physical community and virtual community seem to be increasingly mutually exclusive.

      One last thought, I think it is special to have your family as your village. And whatever I might say, my family (all the crazies) are my village too. It’s just they are so often burning their own houses down!!! I need a wider suburban area to cover me! 🙂

      • Fascinating to think about the cultural differences here– and even those in the US. In Hawai`i we kiss on the cheek when we meet for the first time, in Montana we shake hands, and when I lived in Connecticut, no one seemed to want to meet someone new, so it was rather a moot point. I love hearing what both of you have to say about Canadians, their politeness and embarrassment at the singing of Happy Birthday and ‘apologetic’ sense of community. I think there are places in the US — and people everywhere — that are the same way.

        I think I find my village less in my family than I used to, because, as BeZ so exactly puts it, they are so often burning their own houses down. I do agree that we only have so much to give to real, substantial relationships– and I can completely understand how a strong, sustaining family could use up that energy. The point is, I think, that in whatever way we can manage it, we have to feel like we’re not alone.

  3. So, the other day, I told the make up woman behind the counter at the Heathrow duty free the gender of our baby. Up to that point, I hadn’t told anyone. Not my family, not my friends. But for some reason, to tell a stranger was okay, in fact kind of delightful to let the info slip. She was thrilled, and I knew that while I’d let the cat out of the bag, it was still a secret. I was reminded of this when i read your engagement story. Similarly, husband told complete strangers in business meetings that we were expecting. He’d casually say, “no kids, but one on the way.” Part of it was strategic, connecting at work, but i think it was also about being/wanting to connect and tell, but to still have that joyful secret. That no matter how solitary we might be, we want community (an accepting one that reacts in an uncomplicated way) too.

    My village is also global and dispersed. When we got married, that was the only time i could make that village come together physically. I wish there were more forces in the world where I could compel that group to gather again.

    You say something about how can we ensure you and your fellow villager have the same understanding of one another, how can you maintain that in a virtual space. I guess its the same as in a real village, it takes time, and communication. But it is harder, the gestures have to be more overt. And we’re kind of invisible from one another. So, for example, you might be able to see when your neighbor’s house is burning, to know when to run over. But if you and I live where we do, I won’t know your house is burning unless you tell me. And people are proud, we don’t all like to say – hey, my house is burning. I find that a lot. That a really bad day, when I want a villager to step up, sometimes they don’t. Because I don’t ask. And how are they supposed to know? So, we have to reach out more, I guess. We have to ask how to get that ring polished, as a way of saying ‘uh, I need some community here”. It’s humbling, but necessary. I’m a proud villager but if I want my village I have offer a little more.

    On the other hand, sometimes we don’t want our neighbors to know our house is burning. Sometimes we want that secret. Having just come from Bahrain, a small island where everyone knows what your business is, there is solace in the distance, in the freedom to be able to shout- hey my house is burning. Or not.

    such a great post, La Z. sorry for the ramble.

    • Yes! Yes, yes. You’re so right. I am not always good at saying ‘hey, my house is burning down over here.’ And I can expect too much. Like psychic insight, for example. Perhaps I worry (for lots of old reasons that may, someday, be teased out here) that my village is more delicate, more fragile than it really is.

      I wish so often to be able to have another wedding-like celebration (same husband, of course), so that I could get all my people — old & new– together in one space again. Maybe we need to begin brainstorming about other life moments to be celebrated with mass gatherings. In Hawai`i there is a luau on a baby’s first birthday. Keep that one in mind.

      (And goodness, that was hardly a ramble.)

  4. This was beautiful! I understand what it is to crave personal human contact and the difficulty of setting the boundaries for it and reaching out for it when you need to. It’s when you need your tribe that you truly appreciate its existence, although at times it can feel really intrusive or hesitant depending on where you are.

    • Precisely. Such a strange organism, with so many people in so many different (emotional, psychological, physical) places, needing and not needing different things…

  5. I enjoyed both of your very romantic stories, LZ. Real life is better, or at least as good, as any fiction.

    I was reminded of two stories of my own. Last Thursday I spent the morning in the registry renewing my driver’s license. It became clear, as we all stood around in a cramped, worn-out office, that the couple at the counter are applying for a marriage licence. The registry agent was positively bored. It actually made me wonder if she had been trained to be intimidating – she reminded me of an immigration agent. I kept looking around, wondering if someone would congratulate this couple but (perhaps in a Canadian way) no one wanted to disturb their privacy by shouting out, “Congratulations!!!” In retrospect, I wish I had said something. Instead, I caught the 50-something groom’s eye as the couple left and tried my best to convey congratulations wordlessly.

    In contrast, my friend’s sister and brother-in-law became pregnant while they were living in Amsterdam. Said sister hold her friends back home first and was met by a barrage of intimidating birth stories and warnings of the trials of parenting. Back in Amsterdam, the local bakery owner was so overwhelmed with joy at the news of her pregnancy he came out from behind the counter to embrace her. His wife threw her arms in the air, gave her customer a hug, and they all enjoyed the moment together.

    I like the idea of sharing those moments of humanity together. I really like how Saffron Twist summed it up, “what it is to crave personal human contact and the difficulty of setting the boundaries for it and reaching out for it when you need to.” As much as I love the idea of the village, I definitely feel that tension. I need and love the company of others but as an introvert I also need both privacy and time to not engage with others. Maintaining the family, friendships and community I need while still finding time to recharge the other half of my battery can be a bit of a balancing act!

    This is different though than acknowledging unexpected moments of shared human experience – love, marriage, children, or even grief. I can’t help wondering that if the community at large knew more about my private joys and sorrows whether I would find it intolerable or whether I would need less from my family and friends. I read somewhere once that researchers speculated that the failure rate of marriages was due, in part, to a lack of extended community. That marriages were imploding under the pressure of having to provide, well… everything. Whereas in the past, the community at large would meet more of an individual’s need for social connection and security.

    Beautiful and thought provoking post, LZ. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you for such a lovely and thought-provoking reply, LT! I love your two stories. Perhaps Europeans, with their deeper and longer roots than us North Americans, have a bit more figured out in terms of what a community means. I could not get enough of that sense of strangers celebrating our moment with us.

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