Yesterday we finally made it home, arriving into the muggy heat of a Sydney summer before a car trip home. Canberra is also unusually sticky. A summer storm is building as I sit and type at my desk by the window. Heavy raindrops are falling on our tin roof.
Alsace, Geishouse and the Vosges mountains already seem a lifetime away. A make believe world of fairy tale castles, cobblestoned roads and sun sparkling on a fresh fall of snow. A dream from which I’ve only just now awoken.
What was it all about?
I recall it started as an escape from the scorching summer heat. A way to avoid endless summer holiday afternoons of children frazzled by being too-long confined to the house by 40 degree heat. Then I conceived of it as a “living in France experience” and a way to keep Silas’ French up, a chance to improve my own and a way to expose Delphine to the language.
But when I actually got there, something else happened. It turned out that it was all about the people.
We’ve met so many wonderful people: Delphine’s pre-school teacher who greeted me with the warmth of an old friend the first time we met. So many times I arrived on a Monday morning to pour my parenting fatigue into her compassionate ear. Then there were the stall-holders I’d exchange news with on a Saturday and Wednesday morning as I’d select my pears and ask for advice on how to cook the unfamiliar cuts of meat lined up in her refrigerated van.
And how to express the warmth of our relationship with Monsieur le neighbour.
We shared an internal wall, and so much more. I hadn’t quite realised how much our sense of at-easeness in our Geishouse home was due to his presence next door until the day he wasn’t there.
It had been a day of big snow. I’d slipped on the small rise of the road that connects with the route down into the valley. I’d left a note at his door, asking for some advice on snow driving. But when I got home that night, his car still wasn’t in the driveway and the note sat untouched, the rock on top still holding it in place.
“You haven’t heard?” asked the neighbour from across the road.
“He’s had to go to the hospital in Mulhouse. It’s a heart problem.”
I felt a shaft of disquiet pass through me. How serious was it? With his relaxed bonhomie, he’d seemed like he’d last a lifetime, in the way we can’t conceive of our parents dying.
“Oh, it wasn’t unexpected,” said his girlfriend when she passed by the next day. “The doctor had said he’d need this treatment at some point, and when the symptoms started to get a bit worse. I encouraged him to go in a get it done.”
But he was still away for a few days. We all missed him. There was no crunch of spade on snow as he dug out the stairs in the pre-dawn light to assist our passage to school. There was no friendly chat at the door as he dropped off the newspaper for me. Smoke didn’t rise from the chimney on his side of the house. Our car sat friendless in the car park.
“When is Monsieur the neighbour coming back?” asked Silas, forlorn.
“In a couple of days, I think” I replied.
“I miss him.”
“I do too. It doesn’t feel quite like home without him.”
And there it was. The realisation that our sense of home in this borrowed land wasn’t founded in our quaint little chalet, or even its lived-in feel with pre-loved toys in the wooden chest and posters on the walls, but in the friendly face of the person who lived next door.
We wove a web of relationships around us in Alsace that held us in place. Safe and secure, surrounded by people with kind hearts, ready to help when we encountered trouble. We weren’t just tourists passing through. It really was home. And then, we pulled ourselves out. Ripping apart the fine threads of these human relations that we had lovingly woven through conversations, handwritten notes, meals eaten together and experiences shared.
Is it a waste? To have invested so much effort only to leave it all behind. Or is “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” as Tennyson believed. I’m really not sure. But what I do know is that when Delphine gives me a kiss on the nose and unexpectedly calls me “maman,” and when Silas, engaged in play distractedly says “merci” to his dad, that this trip has left a legacy that will appear in surprising places well into our future.