Months ago, while strolling through a bookstore in Paris, I heard someone call my name. It was my friend Thibault, and he seemed as delighted as I was to discover that we were in the same spot. We kissed on the cheeks and chatted, and then made plans to meet up for drinks in a nearby garden.
And just like that, one of my Parisian fantasies – to be recognized by a French friend! in public! – was realized. It felt like an accomplishment to have made a mark – in my tiny way – on that fabulous city. I imagined that people nearby thought we were old friends, and that I was a local, and that I knew what I was doing.
It reminded me of a situation years ago, when I ran into one of my closest friends, one of my college roommates, on the Metro in DC. It was something I’d imagined many times, for what are the chances? There are so many trains running at rush hour, and so many cars on each one of those trains: surely to run into my friend would be a miracle. And when it happened, it felt like one. We sat together and talked like we didn’t talk frequently already. I was happy for the rest of the day, and the memory itself brightens me even now.
Fast-forward to today, when I went for a walk around my new town, as a way of alleviating a descending feeling of loneliness. I called a friend and we spoke about her upcoming travels, and her new man. As I walked, I stumbled into a grove of redwoods in a park I’d not yet found, and when we said goodbye, I texted her the picture so that she could see the trees that had provided my phone-call canopy.
Here’s the thing about moving to a new town in my mid-30s: the loneliness, despite the social gatherings with delightful new people, is stunning. It’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced, and among many things which have humbled me in these months, this is one of the most startling. I do not feel alone, for the people in my life have been so supportive that I know they are close by in spirit, but the loneliness is still like a koala riding along for the good time of it. It’s always there. Sometimes, I just look at it and think, oh: you again. Other times, it eats through me, and I imagine I know how the eucalyptus feels.
So today, recognizing that the koala was threatening to climb aboard for the night, I took myself out, made the effort to walk through this beautiful little city for an hour, talked to my dear friend and found my redwoods. All of it helped. But then I walked into a local spot to listen to jazz, and was about to order a glass of wine, when I heard my name.
I turned, and standing there was a woman I’d met while on the farm earlier this summer. She was fresh-faced and beaming, having just come out of the ocean, and gave me a hug so welcoming that I marveled that I barely knew her. We made plans to go diving, and to celebrate her birthday next month, and then after we said goodbye, I ran into her again – this time with more people I knew – at a nearby ice cream shop. Hugs all around, we toasted our ice cream cones and fell into easy conversation.
When we parted ways, they gave me an abalone shell they’d just found. It still smelled like the ocean, thick with salt and rigor, and I carried it closely in one hand. On the way home, I stopped in a drugstore, and while in line, the cashier commented on the smell. I apologized.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the customer behind me said. “All of us locals know to be used to it by now.”
The cashier nodded in agreement. “That’s right. If you were a tourist,” – she said, looking at me – “we’d be having a different conversation altogether.”
It is the first abalone shell I’ve ever owned, much less smelled, and the odor is potent. I agreed, though, careful to keep the secret of my recent move to myself. After all, I know people here. They may, for the time being, fall somewhere in between knowing people in Paris and knowing people in DC, but they are sweet, and kind, and it made my night to run into them.
I’m not sure that I’ve crossed the line from being a tourist to being a local, despite the license plates I bolted on to my car this very afternoon, but tonight has to count for something, and something good, at that.