(Aka: Provence part one)
I painted this picture many many years ago, sometime in the months after I first lived in southern France and, whenever I see it, I am back there, aged 18, trying to work out exactly who I am.
I’m walking up the steep village street with a group of new friends, our footfall soft on the cobbles. I do know them, but only just. We look like a gang, chatting and joking, but it is all so new.
We’re heading for the remains of Château de la Reine Jeanne which sits at the top of the village of Ventabren. On quiet Sundays and ‘jours congés’ when I couldn’t afford the bus fare to Aix, I would again wander up that steep and narrow cobbled street flanked with bright flowers and pretty Provençal cottages, through the village and beyond the tiny square to these ruins.
The image of them stirs up such memories and mixed feelings. Even now, I can’t look at this view without a blend of sheer delight and hollow loss. It was my first time living away from home and while finding my way around was relatively easy, finding out who I was when everything familiar had been stripped away was a little harder.
In the afternoons, I would lay out ‘le goûter’ on large trays for the team. Then I would stand in the large tiled kitchen, breathing in the aroma of fresh coffee while I chopped vegetables and wondered what I was doing there.
It’s difficult to put into words how much I fell headlong in love with this place - the constant cobalt of the skies, the heady scent of sun-scorched rosemary and thyme - but how I also felt lost and lonely, away from my deep friendships of old. Feeling misunderstood is a particularly painful breed of loneliness. It wasn’t just the language. Sometimes it felt like there was no one there ‘like’ me. No one who really ‘got’ me.
I can’t trace the exact quote, but during one of the Covid lockdowns, Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote how she didn’t just miss her friends, she missed the person she was when she was with them. There is such truth in this. Without my lifelong soul-mates, I was no longer sure who I was. Without my belly-laugh confidants I felt like a completely different person. Like I’d lost a chunk of myself.
After the happy buzz of summer visitors passed, there was just a handful of us working over the winter, keeping the centre going. Of course, there were some incredible people there, but hardly any my age and the ones I really clicked with were often taken away by other things – student life or responsibilities elsewhere. Circumstances seemed to simply dig that well of loneliness a little deeper.
But when a well of loneliness is dug within us, for whatever reason, eventually it will be filled. Rain will come, often in friendships and small kindnesses, but mostly it will be filled from sources so deep we didn’t even realise they were there. That feeling of not being known and understood is hard, but gradually I realised that actually, I was deeply known. God knew me completely and was holding me through that time when I barely knew myself.
And it wasn’t just the God thing. In time, I realised that others there saw me too, somehow knew me despite my quietness, despite my conviction that my very essence had been lost.
Perhaps I felt like I had become nothing, emptied of all character, stripped of everything that made me ‘me’; like I’d become an unknown quantity, even to myself. But when everything else was stripped away, I was still there. A slightly different me perhaps, but I was still there, underneath it all.
Gradually I uncovered new parts of myself that had been a little buried in the person I thought I was, the person I had perhaps become in order to survive the teenage years.
Because while I thought I knew who I was in my cosy bubble of close friendships back home, the fact was, it was more that I had never really had to question it. It is painful at first, but when you look beyond what you thought was your normal, your reality, sometimes you find something extraordinary.
So, despite that initial lostness, I will always feel deep gratitude for my time there. Because, who would I actually be now if I hadn’t had that experience? Through it, I found parts of myself that I may have forever kept hidden. I found a new compassion for others and, eventually a way forward.
I found my place there.
And went back.
Again and again and again.
Image: Château de la Reine Jeanne, Ventabren, Clare O'Driscoll (found, very dustily, in the attic)