The French don’t really do Valentine’s Day. For them it’s half “Feast of Saint Valentine,” some mostly-forgotten Christian tradition and half some imported, commercial American thing. Personally, I’ve had my share of lamentable coupledom V-days that don’t bear revisiting. Despite this, the kitsch and sweetness of the idea of Valentine’s Day never gets old. Every year when February rolls around, I have a deep urge to make all things pink and heart-shaped and tell everyone I know just how much I love them. The French, in my experience, are also not huge on open displays of affection, but a Californian’s gotta do what she can in terms of cultural exchange.
Lately, I’ve been noticing a thing, about culture and personality. I grew up in a culture that I will massively generalize as open and bright–effusive, if you will. It’s flip-flop culture, invite-you-for-a-beer-and-barbecue culture, bear hugs and back slaps and complicated high five culture. It’s open collar, short shorts, Technicolor t-shirt or just no shirt culture. Bikinis, bicycles, sun tans, and long tangled hair. It’s all those simple stereotypes you see in movies, plus all the layers of nuance that reality and one person’s individual experience of the world add.
It’s a culture I was never comfortable in growing up. I was quiet and dark, physically self-conscious, naturally introverted and preoccupied with being deeply intellectual, imperatively creative, and also just a nerd. Over the course of my teenage years and early adulthood, I learned my own culture. I practiced having a sense of humor and starting friendly conversations with strangers. I trained in the art of high-fives, fist bumps, and bracing hugs. I developed a style of dress that lets me feel expressed and that connects to the society that I come from.
But I’m not in that society any more. All of the modes of communication and habits and needs that I developed to live and love in a certain kind of American culture suddenly don’t apply. Here, my colorful clothes say extrovert instead of artist. A certain kind of friendliness can be misinterpreted for allure, and all of the tricks and tools I learned to get over my shyness no longer work because, um, they’re in English, and my life is now in French.
I want to connect with the people around me, but I don’t always know how. I bake a lot of cake, and that’s not a joke. It’s a way to offer a part of myself to show that I care. Fortunately, food love transcends culture, even if the French aren’t as fond of peanut butter in their baked goods as we are in the States. At the same time, it’s just one way. It’s a way that connects and a way that comes naturally to me. But I admit, I feel a little stuck.
I feel like I’m back to being fifteen years old, finally lifting my head from the pages of my book and realizing that there’s a whole world around me, a whole universe of brilliant, genuine, tender human beings to share with and love if I can just learn to speak their language and understand their ways. I asked a friend yesterday if it shows that I feel a bit out of sorts. He laughed and said, “We can tell that when you say something, you’ve been thinking about it for three hours…or three days.”
It’s funny to be seen. For so many years, I deliberately hid in the pages of my books and colors of my paints, and when I finally chose to be brave and go into the wide world and share and trust and be a person with other people, I tried to learn fast and not mess up too obviously. I’ve always been afraid I’d get kicked out. From where, to where, by whom…it’s not so clear, but the fear is present all the same. On my own, I’ve always felt like an alien, a small woodland creature, or a wildling spirit mistakenly left in the world of humans. I think we are many to feel this way. We try to keep our strangeness inside, and we think of others as being united and not strange.
The gift of Dhagpo, of community in general, and this one in specific, is both the inevitability and the ability to be seen. We are all together all the time. We work and eat and live and study and love and suffer and grow together. It’s impossible to be here without eventually both discovering and revealing all the bizarreness we generally do our best to hide. And I’m beginning to see, it’s not so bizarre as that. It’s just the way we are in this life, the things we have yet to understand, the trust we have yet to develop, but that grows, day by day, in others and ourselves.
I don’t really understand how the French show love as a culture. And I don’t yet understand very well the particular kinds of love that speak to each brilliant and bizarre individual with whom I live and love and grow. But to realize that this is what I am seeking—how to love, and also how to be loved—this is a good beginning. And for now, there is cake, and cookies too.