One funny thing about how much I adore Les Baux, is that the Provencal are not actually known for being very warm to outsiders.
As my British neighbor here said, “Unless your family has got three generations in the local cemetery, you will never really be one of them.”
When I arrived here in late March I was wide-eyed and white knuckled and the virus was new and freshly terrifying.
So I brazenly went about introducing myself to as many of the neighbors as I could.
Usually, introducing myself cold to strangers makes me cringe. But this time, it seemed necessary for survival. In case I got sick, and needed their help. In case they got sick, and needed my help.
At first, when I said to them “ Je suis Sara.” a lot of them just blinked and looked uncomfortable. They did not offer their names back.
Normally, I’d let that deflate me. I’d back way, way off and go hide in my cave. Like I hid in Berlin.
But in Covid times in a tiny French agricultural town, I could simply not do some things alone.
When the engine of my car wouldn’t start under lockdown, I had to knock and ask for jumper cables.
And when no nursery was open, I had to knock and ask whether they had any old planters.
And they helped.
I brought Francoise and Bertrand and Marie-Claude cake and pastries and strawberries as a thank you, and maybe some of that sugar wore them down, and then Ruth and I sang songs to the full moon one night, and they all came out of their houses to join us, and one of them wept, and then we did Ave Maria at the chapel and invited them to come listen, and more of them wept, and then we all drank a socially-distanced glass of rosee together outside my front stoop.
So when the one café in Les Baux, had its official re-opening last night, of course I went. Cause this is my neighborhood now.
“We are going down at around 6:30” Georgette, texted. “Come join us.”
When I arrived she and her husband were there, plus several neighbors I know, Berthilde, who own Whiskey, the other Jack Russel terrier in the village, then the charming young Olivieri brothers, who run the gardening business, then Guillaume, the silver-haired, friendly owner of the café, then Claire and Tia and Vanessa, Jacques family.
“Salut Sara!” they all said. “Come, pull up a chair.”
“ My you know everyone here!” said Georgette.
And I beamed.
And, oh, the café at that moment was such a happy tableaux of the French countryside!
The sun was setting in that buttery way over the green grape vines, and the clouds were smoky and purple and pink, with light bursting from behind, a thin perfect line of silver, like the clouds were a lady expertly applied her eyeliner.
The wait staff was in the best of spirits, greeting everyone by name.
Young parents laughing, pattering about, trying to wrangle their toddlers. Older, wizened folks smoking, and laughing uproariously in their gravelly smokers voices. A couple of young teens bouncing a ball, and skulking around, eyeing each other with faux-indifference.
And there I was with my big hair and big glasses, somehow a part of it, somehow at home amidst the clank of glasses, the sipping of punch through paper straws, the sound of knife and fork eating pizza, and toddlers squealing and French being spoken with that southern Provencal twang where demain sounds like demang and matin sounds like matang.
“Can I pay with card?” I asked Guillaume, the owner.
“Mais non, just come pay another time he said.” Waving me away.
This: the sweetness of a small time. Shop owners knowing where to find you.
Pay another day. They know you’re good for it.
When I went home, I thought of my years in Berlin. Of how badly I wanted to reach out to the neighbors in my Kreuzberg building, but instead let myself be intimidated by what I thought I read as coldness, indifference. I thought they might laugh at me if I brought them treats, or invited them over. Or think I was a freak. Maybe neighbors didn’t do that in Kreuzberg.
I let that inform me, rather then choosing to be the leader with my own warmth.
And maybe if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s exactly that: the importance of being the leader with your own warmth.