I have been reading food writer MFK Fisher’s book about Aix-en-Provence – Map of Another Town (1964) – written about her time here in the 1950s. She spoke of the incredible loneliness she felt, the sense of being an “outlander,” her very word.
In other words, she addressed the question of exile.
She lived near where I sit tonight. For a while anyway, she rented a room at 17 rue Cardinale, with the unforgettable Madame Lanes. She detailed her thoughts and feelings very bravely in Map of Another Town and wrote very bluntly about the French tendency of abrupt rudeness to strangers.*
What was harder to take calmly, especially on the days when my spiritual skin was abnormally thin, was the hopeless admission that the people I really liked would never accept me as a person of perception and sensitivity perhaps equal to their own. I was forever in their eyes the product of a naïve, undeveloped, and indeed infantile civilization, and therefore I was incapable of appreciating all the things that had shaped them into the complicated and deeply aware supermen of European culture that they firmly felt themselves to be.
Now I understand what she meant. Completely.
What is it to be a stranger in a strange town? Displaced from most of what makes us, well, “us?”
I’ve often wondered how people – uprooted from their homes and loved ones – maintain their sense of who they are in the face of events that strip them of their usual identity markers. Think of the Jews during World War II. Or maybe we should go back even further to the 1492 diaspora enforced by the Catholic monarchs of Spain?
Being a stranger in a strange land imbues a whole new meaning to the phrase from Genesis 18:2 – “… he [Abraham] ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth” (18:2) or the Benedictine charism which admonishes people to greet strangers as if they were divine incarnations.
Being a stranger calls for a sense of humility, as well as a remembrance of the very thing we need in this moment, the act that we might not heed as we go about our ordinary lives, surrounded by people who know us, who love us.
Being a stranger means than when we are no longer strangers that we remember that rough feeling of isolation, when an extended hand means so much.
Guests. Sojourners. Immigrants.
Exiles, all, in a way. What kind of welcome do we give these strangers in our midst?
*Granted, it is not fair to paint a whole people with a tarred brush, but the truth is that in many parts of France, the stranger is greeted with less than great enthusiasm. For more on this, see The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb.