French Lessons in Love, Openness, and Genuine Communication

A long time ago in a land that seems so far away now, I lived on the fifth floor of a brick apartment building with red shutters about 5 blocks from the Champs Elysees.  The building had a pebbled courtyard that gave way to a garden and large wooden doors beyond which lied a daily bazaar: a small open market with fresh, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and finely sewn goods.  There were brasseries, and bars, restaurants, international travelers, and the distinct smell of freshly cooked baguettes and spiced meats. 

It was enchanting, but very lonely.  I went to a small school with elite university scholars, who strived to be something greater even during the summer months.  I was there because I loved French people; because an arrogant professor told me that I would never learn French; and because my mother spoke so often about it during my childhood that I wanted to know what it was like for myself.  Before I befriended classmates, and somehow became a regular at the most frequented café in Paris and a dear friend to the head garcon, I had no one.  My Iranian landlord and his family had me over for dinner a couple times.  Their son Gambiz took me out on the town, and introduced me to a beer with tequila in it called Desperado, and I received 3am phone calls from someone looking for Veronique.  I have yet to meet Veronique, but she must have been pretty special to get so many phone calls.

Many nights, I would toss and turn on a bed with square pillows and my first duvet cover, and I would get up and wander to the large French windows to smoke a cigarette (I hadn’t yet quit).  My window looked out to the courtyard, which, at that time of night, was completely quiet.  I had but my thoughts, a terrible DVD I bought from some man on the street starring Angelina Jolie and David Duchovny, and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  I have never been able to memorize song lyrics, but I am pretty confident that I could do the lines of every character in both of those movies. 

While this time was difficult, it provided me with two pieces of invaluable wisdom.  First, great joy is in the company you keep not where it is kept.  Second, if you are only able to communicate a few things, communicate what counts.  I had heard the phrase the grass is greener, but I always assumed that was for other people.  You know the ones who like grass, and are doing very little to change dreadful situations by changing venues.  I never considered that I was expecting too much to think it would be even better to have friends in a place full of so many new things and mystery.  It took me time to realize that the most important things are: who you are with, and communicating to them what is most important to you.

My English language skills were strong then, and I could finesse a million conversations without having to bluntly establish my needs or my intentions, but when gifted with the French speaking level of a child, I could no longer hide.  So, I learned to communicate clearly.  I gave up all facades.  I no longer pretended to be someone that I wasn’t, nor did I cling to nationally accepted viewpoints for acceptance.  I couldn’t.  Who I was in the United States did not exist in France, and the nationally accepted viewpoints I held were foreign in this new land (well new to me).  In giving up this well developed armor, I began to let French culture, their values, and their pure love of people, food, wine, and life in.  It changed me.  I can’t say exactly how.  You will have to go, and find out for yourself.

I can tell you that each culture develops values, beliefs, and traditions according to their history.  The good parts of these come from equally good people, and give you lenses from which to view the world, which makes it absolutely different and brand new in many ways.  It is not difficult to say that within each culture is literally a different world.  My growth as a person, and my openness did not go unnoticed.  My landlady who had only given me cursory greetings invited me into her home.  She told me about her job at the bank, and how lonely she too would become, when her husband was away.  It turns out that she was also a curious person, who rooted for others to find love by spying on them through a pair of pretty high tech binoculars from her apartment on the top floor.

Self-compassionate practice asks us to let go of our ideologies, labels, and clever ways of hiding our true intentions, and experience our moments exactly as they are.  Our access points are our bodies because it is hard to spin the ways in which the body responds.  We allow our thoughts and beliefs to come up and pass away because they don’t actually define us and are subject to change. 

Because the world is confusing and stress makes it difficult to live well, we need guiding principles that are unaffected by socio-politico-economic means.  With self-compassion, these principles are the desire to acknowledge suffering and the full range of genuine experience with acceptance.  Because this process deserves such a great reward, we give it kindness.  Self-compassion works because instead of promising rewards later, we give them right away! 

Be present to those who love you.  Share your genuine experience as it arises.   Don’t wait for your France.  Let go of your facades, and engage the world in a way that allows you and others to appreciate you for who you are.  In my life, I have had the good fortune to be on many adventures, but my favorite times have always been sharing a low-key moment with the people I love best.  May all your adventures be filled with loved ones and genuine communication, even if those adventures only take you as far as the living room or your local coffee shop.

356 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 59.  In the Books.