Being away from beloved family members and close friends for an extended period of time has a way of making you seek out ways to compensate and fill the void. For me, it means that I relish those rare and precious instant connections that I sometimes experience with people I meet along my travels. It also means that when an opportunity to spend time with someone else’s family presents itself, I’m all too happy to jump on board.
Such was the case this past weekend, when I enthusiastically accepted an invitation to accompany my Couchsurfing host, Étienne, on a visit to his father’s home in the village of Labatut, in the Basque region of the south of France. Étienne’s grandparents were coming down from Bordeaux for a weekend visit, and the family would be getting together for a Saturday lunch.
From Bayonne, it took an hour of driving through quaint villages and peaceful valleys, then along a silky winding river to get to the old farmhouse. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, and before I’d even met Étienne’s family, I was overcome with a sense of contentment and tranquility. This was exactly the kind of place and energy I’m drawn to, and I knew, instinctively, that it would be a lovely afternoon.
Étienne’s family didn’t disappoint. His grandparents were warm and cordial, with smiling eyes that sparkled as they recalled happy memories from the time they’d spent travelling in Quebec and other parts of Canada. His 18-year-old sister, Fannie, had a calm and inquisitive disposition, and a distinct sense of style that will only continue to bloom as she spreads her wings to take on the world. Étienne’s father, Françis, was as gracious a host as can be, and with the help of his girlfriend, Pascale, he busied himself bringing out a continuous flow of nibbles, dishes and drinks while his guests engaged in one stimulating conversation after another.
After lunch, I had a tour of the old farmhouse, which his father had acquired a few years ago and has since been renovating. Françis is at once a collector of sorts, an inventor and a talented artist, as was clearly reflected in the decor. I was enchanted with all of the wonders that were hung or laid out throughout the place – a large collection of stickers taken from supermarket fruit and vegetables from all over the world; giant sculptures made from recycled parts taken from heavy machinery; light fixtures and arrangements in an assortment of sizes and colours… Every corner offered an opportunity for surprise and discovery.
There were also quite a few paintings on the walls, most of them big and bold and featuring voluptuous women in sexually suggestive poses. Françis doesn’t paint much these days, though. The paintings are from an earlier time in his creative life. And as much as they were able to make an impression on me that day, Étienne confessed that they had quite an effect on him too when he was growing up.
In fact, Étienne thinks these paintings may have played a significant role in the evolution of his own view of women. It was always clear that his father was attracted to the female form in all its natural beauty, and so not surprisingly (and not unlike many other boys out there), the son also developed a deep appreciation for a woman’s grace, suppleness and femininity.
During my visit, as it happens, Étienne pulled out a drawing he had done about a decade ago, when he was in his early teens; in it, a woman, nude, is standing with her back to the viewer, relaxed and natural, holding her long hair up with her hands. The drawing made it clear that he had inherited both his father’s artistic talent and his desire to capture a woman’s essence with a pencil or paintbrush.
But there is something more in his admiration of women that has blossomed in Étienne over the years. Experience, a keen sense of observation and perhaps a touch of intuition have led him to become particularly sensitive and respectful of the challenges, joys and subtleties of womanhood. He recognizes women’s essential roles as mothers, daughters, partners, and individuals within all spheres of society, and is able to see beauty in women of every shape and colour. And it is all of this (and more) that he wanted to capture in a tattoo that we would do before our time together was through.
Inspired by his childhood drawing, I designed the piece that would finally commemorate his love and admiration of women. And since Étienne wasn’t afraid to have a touch of feminine tattooed onto his body, we went went all out with a pretty dark-haired woman nestled in a bed of roses.
It was with a heavy but warm heart that I left the old farmhouse in Labatut with Étienne on Sunday morning. (Unable to will ourselves to leave after that first lunch, we’d ended up staying for dinner and breakfast the following day, along with every other guest who had come to the house that day.) And the feeling was the same when it was time for me to leave Étienne and his lovely roommates in Bayonne the day after that. For as sad as I am that these wonderful encounters with genuinely kind people might ultimately be one-time events, I’m also grateful for the emotionally uplifting effect that such meetings have on me. At a time when I’m missing family and friends, wearing the same clothes I’ve worn over and over again for months, and living out of a few small bags… it sure is nice to feel appreciated for the woman I am, and to feel beautiful, inside and out.