I recently wrote about the regret I feel over France. The eight months we spent there felt wasted to me, because of the cultural whiplash I inflicted upon our daughter; because of the resulting need to homeschool her for half our time in Lille; and because that homeshooling robbed me of the chance to write a junky TYA fantasy novel about killer muses, or something.
Regret was the word I used, but I confess I don’t have much experience with that emotion. It’s not as if I haven’t made mistakes; I just don’t dwell on them much. Whether due to privilege or blithe ignorance, or because I’m authentically awesome, I don’t believe it’s worthwhile to stop everything to agonize over mistakes made in the past.
Nor do I necessarily think of the sabbatical as a “mistake” per se – it’s more like an experiment that was (a) poorly planned out and (b) compromised by unforeseen circumstances, and which had to be aborted before it came to any discernible fruition. If I were a scientist, I’d be able to shrug and move ahead with the next experiment. But then, scientists don’t usually put their families into the petri dish.
But something shifted today in my thinking about France. I don’t even know why, since the circumstances had nothing to do with France directly. I was at the Fortress, standing up on the fortifications in the rain, looking pathetic despite my dashing costume. For the first time since the rain had started half an hour ago, some people came up the ramp towards me. The woman in the lead said, “You looked so lonely up here.”
I laughed – but then I felt a strange pang. It rang true. Not that I felt lonely up on the barbette, nor indeed at Louisbourg in general. In fact, just the night before, I’d driven out to the Fortress on my day off, just to hang out with my fellow interpreters during a BBQ and song night. I feel a straightforward sense of belonging here, wherein I can see that I’m compatible with some of my co-workers, and not with others, and I’m okay with it all.
And I don’t feel lonely in Cape Breton. I’m back among my friends, and although my summer job has maybe kept me from spending quite as much time with them as I’d like, there’s still been plenty of opportunities for geeky get-togethers. I’m also back on the same island as my girlfriend, whose affection goes a long way towards making me feel at home.
Even so, when the visitor called me “lonely,” I felt as if it were true. And it didn’t take much time or reflection for me to figure out what I was missing. I’m lonely for Lille – the new friends I made there, the experiences we shared and the potential we had for more. And there’s a reason I was able to zero in on the cause so quickly; I’ve been here before.
Twenty years ago, I had another eight-month sojourn in a francophone city. In 1997, I moved to Montreal, to attend the National Theatre School. And like my recent sabbatical in Lille, it didn’t go exactly as planned. In that case, my studies were disrupted by an Ice Storm, of all things. I’ve written about it a few times, and even in the context of an explicit comparison to my “failure” in France. In that post, I insist that I don’t regret going, or leaving; rather, I regret the narrative I invented for myself afterwards. In a sense, I regretted the regret.
But I left out another source of regret and loss – something I was feeling acutely 20 years ago, even before I boarded the plane from Montreal back to Edmonton, where I would rapidly pick up the pieces of my frustrated ambitions and self-start a successful theatre career. As I grappled cautiously with the loss of Montreal, I was reeling from a much greater loss: the friends I’d made at NTS. I knew I had friends back home in Edmonton, but these guys – Calvin, Kevin, Rafal, Adam, and Allan – I had bonded with them more intensely, more profoundly, because we had been through a crucible together.
I suppose I had forgotten that pain, because it’s so far in the past. But it was acute, and I know I wasn’t the only one among us who felt it. Losing that circle of friends hurt so badly that, for many years, I couldn’t bare to keep in touch with them (besides which, this was 1998; the internet was still something of an oddity). When Kevin came back to Alberta after graduation, I worked with him on a couple of shows, but we never felt tight in the same way. The context was gone. It’s the same, now, with Allan – who was, and is, Allan Hawko, the star of Republic of Doyle and Frontier. He lives in Newfoundland, just a ferry trip away, but I’ve never felt the urge to visit. I know it wouldn’t be the same.
I didn’t make as many friends in Lille, partly because I wasn’t enrolled in a school full of fellow artsy misfits. But I did find Thibaut, the French D&D nerd – or rather he found me. And I found Una, French by way of Scotland by way of the Czech Republic. She was a translator, and by all rights we shouldn’t have had much in common, but I think we bonded as ex-pats, shaking our heads in mutual admiration and exasperation over the bureaucratic insouciance of the French.
I keep in touch, vaguely, via email. And Thibaut and I exchange postcards on behalf of our kids. But it’s not enough, and it never will be. I know that, just like my NTS gang, these few Lillois connections will inevitably fade. And that’s okay, because that’s the way it goes. But I miss them, and I suppose, by extension, I miss Lille. I resent this stage of memory – the phase in which experiences still feel fresh but aren’t real any more. I’m living fully now, as I should be, but every rich experience I claim in Louisbourg also serves to shove the richness of those memories further back onto the shelf.