Sunday, 13 July 2014

Dusting off a high-school relationship

Throughout my life I've been one of those people who doesn't accumulate many friends. There are many reasons for that: I'm an introvert, I've relocated many times, I've changed careers many times, I prefer quality rather than quantity in my relationships, I was in an exclusive relationship at a young age, I didn't flat when I was at university (I never flatted at all), I was never a party girl, I was often a solo mother, I'm almost teetotal and I don't suffer fools gladly.

So, what friendships I have enjoyed over the years are important to me. They are spread across New Zealand and further afield which means contact with past friends is limited and infrequent and most likely initiated by me. Therefore, it has been an interesting intellectual and emotional experience spending time with a woman who was my friend in the later part of high school, more than 40 years ago.

Lorraine and I both played the violin in the school orchestra at Papanui High School, Christchurch. We were part of the music department and both participated in theatrical/musical productions. She was a year ahead of me and always seemed a better scholar and more successful than me with picking up French. I have discovered she started learning the language at a younger age, using a more oral method. But it's me who has pursued it more consistently since those days.

We'd go to the movie theatre in Papanui (long since gone), sew ballgowns together at my Grandmother's. I visited her in Fairlie. She visited me in Sumner. We both have 'only daughters'.
Lorraine and I both attended Canterbury University on its old central city site, studying French and English, among other subjects; she got a degree and headed out into the world, I didn't finish my degree due to my family breaking up, but started and completed a different degree 33 years later. In between, our physical meetings can be counted on one hand. 

Here she was, with her daughter, staying with me for two weeks before we headed to the Loire Valley to explore the chateaux. Here she was, sharing my bed, spending more time together in one shot than we had ever spent together as teenagers. How would it be? We looked at each other and marvelled at how strange life could be; that we'd be together in France in late middle age.

I asked her why she had decided to come to France now, at this stage of our lives, and she told me, "I like the warmth of summer in France. I didn't have anyone to come with or stay with in France earlier."
"What's the highlight of your trip to France?" I asked.
"Going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower and having clear weather to do it."

As we talked during her stay it became clear to me she didn't know the current me at all. She'd made assumptions about my likes and motivations to do things, that were completely erroneous, based on her own values and experiences. This was surprising and unsettling.

"It's good seeing you," she said in a reflective moment, "but we're very different. I'm not into careers like you, and we don't agree. I haven't changed much but I think you have," she said.
"We were both more shy back when we 'knew' each other," I said.
"Yes, we were" she replied.

We had to get to know each other all over again and it's true we are very different, without the common, shared experience of schooling to bind us now. I asked myself if we had met now would we have become friends?  I don't know, perhaps not, but I was enjoying being myself with her. She's one of the few people I can slip right back into having an equal relationship with in English and just say what I think. We may not agree but it doesn't matter to me. It's simply sharing and learning about each other.

It was also fun for me to discover her daughter Kiri whom I had only seen two or three times in my life; an outspoken and confident person with the drive to get on and do things. Sometimes it seemed her daughter and I knew each other better than Lorraine and me, because we were starting from scratch with no 'baggage'.

Lorraine and I shared intimate stories and concerns about life and the past. This is something I cannot do with anyone else. I'm isolated. I don't have anyone in my daily life where I can do that. Conversations with Jean-Claude are different because of the language barrier and cultural differences, as well as gender differences. It was good for us both to be able to share like that, and as I watched her I was struck at how so much of her was still the same - her mannerisms, voice. It was as if my past was riding along parallel with me in those moments.

I was particularly interested in her descriptions of what it was like to live through the two devastating Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. I'm glad I wasn't there while the city and residents' lives changed forever, but it does reinforce how much I can never go back to the life I had. I can't even visit it now. It was particularly difficult for me to explain why I'm trying so hard to stay in France, against all the difficulties in the past and ahead, and why I don't feel disloyal to New Zealand in doing so.

Will we ever meet again? Was that the last time we would see each other and share stories? It's certain that we won't be able to wait 30 or 40 years to do so. Will our lives continue to operate in different spheres? Absolutely, but I hope we can remain friends and in contact for as long as we're on this earth. I wish Lorraine and Kiri all the best.


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