Today I chose to go to St. Denis, the capitol of Reunion Island, to go to a giant department store called Carrefour to buy a pair of flip flops, a garbage can, and other essentials you feel guilty spending your euros on when converting that number to pain au chocolat or some other delicious French pastry. “That’ll be 12 pain aux raisins, please.” Carrefours are everywhere in France, as ubiquitous as Walmart in the United States. To my knowledge there’s only one here, in St. Denis, and as I found out, a two-hour bus ride (on Sundays) from St. Gilles-les-Bains where I’m staying.
What I learned from living in France is that you don’t necessarily need to know exactly where you’re going before setting out. The world is your Siri. If there is one stereotype I have found to be very true about the French, it’s that when it comes to giving directions, the moment you ask is the moment you become family. Unless the person you’re asking flat out doesn’t know or is in a rush, they will walk you there or give you more precise directions than Google Maps, making sure you understand. It’s a lot easier than memorizing directions, bus transfers, and store hours.
Not knowing where in St. Denis Carrefour was located, I asked the bus driver who directed me towards the bus stop I needed to catch the 5 from. I walked from the bus terminal along the ocean (where I took the photo at the header of this website), beneath a bridge and up the street. After arriving in general proximity of the stop, I approached a man walking towards me to confirm that I was in the right place.
“I’m not exactly sure which bus, but Carrefour is quite a ways away” he said. If I wanted to accompany him to the market so that he could pick up some roses, he told me that he would drive me there. “Sure,” I said. “That’d be very nice.”
I accompanied him to the market and ate a banana while he picked out his flowers. As we sat down in the car, I asked if they were for his spouse, and he said yes. I presumed that it was his anniversary or he was engaged, marrying later in life.
“Félicitations!” I congratulated him, hearing only the words “13th of July.” That must be the date he asked her to marry him, and he buys her roses from the market on a regular basis. His response was emotionless, and as he continued talking, I recognized another word, tombe, and finally pieced together what had actually happened: his wife had passed away three months ago. The roses he bought were to be placed at her headstone.
I didn’t know what to say. Overcome with embarrassment and ashamed at my mistake, “I’m sorry,” came out unnaturally. Nonetheless, he accepted my apology, and we continued talking. I asked how he was doing, if he was still grieving. “Yes, he said. “Forever.”
In fifteen minutes, a stranger told me the hardest thing he has ever had to deal with. Imagine though, walking around with so much grief everyday and not having someone to talk to. Sometimes, the easiest people to open up to are those whom you only meet once. Sometimes the best ear is a stranger you meet on the street, someone sitting next to you at the bar.
He was 60-years-old with four kids, born on Reunion Island, a widower, on his way to drop roses off at his wife’s grave. Myself, 24, unmarried, childless, oblivious to many things, in search of a beach towel and yeast. We didn’t meet at a bar, but somehow we found ourselves in the same car on the way to a giant department store.
When I left him in the parking lot, I thanked him and told him that he would find his way onto this blog. We shook hands as he held my gaze. I could see it in his eyes. Something. Appreciation, maybe.