In 2001, at the age of 20, I went to live in France for four months. I had taken one semester of French, and I opted to live with a French woman who spoke no English in the effort to force myself to become proficient. My program was part of the University Study Abroad Consortium, and so there were other students from around the United States. Most of them, honestly, seemed alien and ridiculous. They liked nothing better than to go out and drink beer, a privilege forbidden to many of them back in their own country. They talked about boring subjects like what they were going to be wearing that night. They stuck together and they spoke English, loudly, and then they would whine about the fact that some of the locals appeared to think they were rude.
Part of our orientation involved going to the castle in Pau, the same castle Henri IV of France had been born in. Henri IV was the son of Protestant firebrand Jeanne III de Navarre, and is supposed to have famously declared “Paris vaut bien une messe” when he converted to Catholicism in order to take the French crown. Afterwards, Henri IV provided the French with the Edict of Nantes in an effort to allow for religious freedom. It was in wandering through these halls that I met Meg, a tall girl from New England who was on the rowing team at her school. I had my little black notebook with me, and she wrote her host family’s number in it, and next to it, she drew a picture of the mountains. For hiking, she said. I want to go hiking.
We did go hiking. We hauled ourselves up the Pyrenees with a group of middle-aged French people, we stopped to have pasta and cheese and wine, and then we went down again. Another weekend, we went to a vineyard owned by a guy her host family knew, and for four hours we craned over, cutting clusters of grapes and putting them in buckets. We stopped for cake and new wine, which tasted like juice, and which we gulped thirstily. After our break, we continued in a happy fog, trying to keep up with a blind man who was cutting the grapes by touch.
At some point, we talked about the way we grew up. Meg was a Quaker, which, as far as I could tell, meant she was big on social justice and against anything wasteful. She had gone to Quaker music camp and to an all-girls boarding school, and she was almost reverently polite about making sure she never took the Lord’s name in vain in my presence, although I had never mentioned anything about it. I had been homeschooled until only two years prior to this trip, so she was the most liberal friend I’d ever had up to that point. But we got along well. We had both been raised with a certain simplicity and anti-materialistic worldview, and we would make dinner together rather than go out. At lunch time, we would find the free food together if it was to be found.
At the end of our semester, we took the train up to Paris and went to the Musée d’Orsay, walking along the quays afterwards. She flew back to the US the next day, and I went to spend Christmas in Germany. We kept in touch, though, and in the fall of 2008, we met up for a weekend in Chicago. It was about halfway between where we both lived. We saw the sights, wandered around lost for awhile, and stayed with friends so that neither of us were paying for lodging. “You’re my adventure buddy,” she said as we shared an expensive cocktail in a rotunda overlooking the city.
And, finally, in November, I went East and saw where she was studying to be a psychiatrist, staying in her cozy little apartment in Cambridge. She was on rotation when I arrived, so her fiance Jesse showed me around the neighborhood. He was very proud of the local library, and gave me a special tour of it. “And,” he said “you can print stuff for free here.” Jesse had also been raised a Quaker, and genuinely seemed to have a lot in common with Meg. Or Greta, as she was now called. Meg had been easier for the French to pronounce. Jesse asked what I wanted to see in Boston, and I said, oh, the history stuff, like maybe having to do with religious history. “Ah, yes,” said Jesse “You can see where the Quakers were hanged by the Puritans.”
“Really?” I demanded “The Puritans hung Quakers? But that’s so ironic, given that the Puritans came here because of religious persecution.” Not to mention, who the heck would want to hang seventeenth-century Quakers, who were dedicated to pacifism, the love of Christ, and simplicity?
Jesse nodded. “It’s kind of like the cycle of abuse. You act the way you’ve seen other people act.”
It started to snow, and I hunkered down in the apartment, drinking tea with Greta. I wondered if the reason so many people in New England are liberal has to do with the fact that they live in places where their forefathers were executed for not conforming to Puritan society. I sat on my heels in a straight-backed chair and asked Greta again about being a Quaker. She told me she liked sitting in silence with other people who spoke if they felt moved to. I think you would like it, too, she said. I nodded. I probably would. But I was leaving before Quaker meeting, so I would have to try it some other time.