I have a new ritual of going to the market every Saturday morning. Whether I am in Perpignan or elsewhere in France (Arles, Carcassonne, Paris, Montpellier, etc.), I find a market and follow the steps as follows:
(1) I walk around all the stalls at least once until I identify the one with the best looking fruits and vegetables that morning.
(2) Once I pick a stall, I take my time looking at all the produce. Whatever looks the freshest and the most interesting, I take, provided it's in season and not too expensive.
Thanks to my new market-going ritual (and some encouragement from my friend Michael), I have discovered delicious fruits that I didn't even know existed (e.g. abius ('ananes'), quinces ('coings'), persimmons ('kakis'). The key is, you only buy what looks good, what's ripe, and what's in season.
The technique is surprisingly similar to dating (or at least my understanding of dating -- having only ever dated one person I can't say I'm an expert). But when I saw Hiro for the first time, I didn't weigh the pros and cons, nor did I really consider all that I knew about him. More accurately, I saw a handsome exotic young man that (like a good, ripe piece of fruit), I wanted to sink my teeth into!
Now fruits - like people - can have drastically different characteristics. Pineapples versus grapes. Kiwis versus pomegranates. To illustrate my point, I'll use the example of watermelons and peaches (two of my favorite fruits). Peaches are fuzzy on the outside. They have thick skin that's easy to bite into, and when ripe, are soft and mushy. It's not until you get to the center that you realize they have a hard pit that could break your teeth if you bit into it. Watermelons on the other hand have hard, thick skin that requires a knife to cut into. Even when ripe, they maintain their form, so you would not guess by looking at them or touching them that they are so juicy and sweet on the inside. They have tasteless seeds ('pépins'), but no hidden pit like the peach. One could rightly compare Americans to peaches (soft and fuzzy with a hidden pit) and the French to watermelons (a thicker skin but abundant and sweet when you get to know them). There's variety among people and fruits. It depends what you like. But all fruit, when ripe, is sweet and bursting with flavor; when upripe, even the best fruits can taste disgusting.
Sometimes, you get bored of apples and you want to try someting new. If you decide to try a new or exoctic fruit (and why shouldn't you?!) you never know whether you'll like it or not. Some types of fruits have a taste that takes getting used to. Sometimes your tastes change. Other times, six years go by and you're still addicted to your favorite fruit (personally I'm a creature of habit, and I like what I like!). Everyone is different in that respect, and it's important to know your preferences.
So in that respect, picking out your fruit at the market is like dating (in my opinion it would make more sense to say someone who is single is "at the market" and not "on the market", but I'm getting sidetracked here). Friendship, on the other hand, is slightly different. With friendship, you don't just eye the fruit that looks tasty and take it home. With friendship, you actually have to start from scratch; that means (1) plant the seeds, (2) water them, (3) give it time, (4) prune the tree, and (5) harvest! The process involves much waiting, and if you try to rush it, you'll get rotten fruit as a result. Sometimes you use bad seeds to begin with, or the conditions of the soil aren't great, so your final product isn't what you were hoping for. For this reason, the best way to ensure excellent results is to plant many seeds in different places.
I have been in Perpignan for six weeks now. And for the past six weeks I have been busy planting seeds. This is the first time in my life that I've moved to an entirely new place where I knew nobody, and making friends can be challenging as I've come to realize. It's not like going away to summer camp, going to college, or studying abroad. In all of those situations, you are surrounded by people in the same boat as you. Everyone is eager to make friends because nobody wants to be a loner. Summer camp, college, and study abroad programs provide optimum conditions for friendships to flourish. They even give you the seeds and the soil, so the effort involved in making friends is minimal.
But in Perpignan, it's different. I work in a school, so the bulk of my interactions are with high school students (18 and younger) and teachers (upwards of 35). Perpignan, for better or for worse, is the Boca Raton of France, meaning that the majority of people living here are retired and/or grandparents. I thought I'd meet some people my age by going on a hike with a group called 'The Circle of Young People', and it turns out the average age of the members was 60 (they should change their name to 'The Circle of Young (at heart) People').
Clearly, not every attempt to meet people and make friends will be fruitful. But I haven't let that fear stop me from sprinkling some seeds wherever I go (including the most random of places). Last week on Tuesday, I got lost as I was leaving the philosophy studio. It was late and I was scared. So I went up to the first normal looking person I saw - a girl about my age - and asked for directions. She walked me back to the main avenue, during which time we made small talk. She seemed like a really nice girl. I decided to risk looking like a total weirdo for the sake of potentially making a friend: I asked her for her number. Last night we went out for Tapas and sangria. This girl - Marine - is awesome! It's still early but I feel like we could be good friends.
On Wednesday of last week, I went to the university in Perpignan to attend a club meeting. While waiting for the meeting to start, a group of students saw me sitting by myself and invited me to sit with them. Small talk turned into longer, deeper conversation and in the end, I skipped the club meeting to stay and chat. And this past Wednesday, I went to the a first meeting for the student-run non-profit that I'm volunteering with here in Perpignan. I got to meet the other volunteers, all of whom are about my age and passionate about helping underserved youth. I really hit it off with some of them, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them better over time!
Growing friends is time consuming. The process can be exhuasting. But when harvest time comes, you realize it was worth it. Two weeks ago in Paris, I stayed with my friend Virginie (whom I met last October in Evanston) and Hiro & I had dinner with Gregoire & Fabrice (whom I know from study abroad). And this past weekend, I had a fabulous time with my four buddies in the French Air Force (whom I met at the food court in Northwestern's student center). When they were in Chicago, I invited them over for drinks, took them to a baseball game, showed them the best piano bar in the city, hung out with them on Dillo day, and brought them to their first yoga class.
They returned the favor this weekend by taking me out for dinner in Avignon and drinks in Aix-en-Provence. They brought me to Arles to see the roman ampitheater and Baux-de-Provence to see the chateau. They introduced me to their friends and roommates who made us breakfast, lunch and dinner at their VILLA near Salon-de-Provence. It was such a relief to be with people whom I know and trust - for the first time since Paris with Hiro, I could really let my guard down. And it was nice to be taken care of - driven cool places and treated like a special guest.
So I guess I could say my hard work of 'planting seeds' paid off. But the truth is that friendship isn't about payoff or return on investment. You don't make friends so that they can invite you to their villa in Provence or their Parisian studio. You aren't (or at least you shouldn't be) friendly towards people because you hope to benefit in some way. Real friendship is organic and genuine. Yes, it takes effort to make friends. It also takes dedication to keep friendships alive and well. But it comes from the heart.
You pick your friends (and your friends pick you), but only when the time is ripe.