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July 31, 2021

When Two Strangers Collide: The Night I Learned about Empathy & Sitting with Grief.


When I was 24, I spent half a year in Bordeaux at law school.

My French was mediocre, to put it mildly, and I predominantly went for the experience of living abroad rather than to advance in my legal studies.

I rented a room with a family, Famille Dubois, who had a house right in the middle of the cobblestoned old town of the city.

As the warmth of late summer slowly gave way to more rainy days, the holiday atmosphere was replaced by a more permanent state of residence.

One afternoon, I walked past a language school on a leafy boulevard and saw a poster of a Giacometti exhibition. It featured a photo of him modelling one of his famous elongated sculptures. I liked Giacometti. Well, I mainly liked his hair. The sculptures always scared me a bit.

I went in to have a closer look and was greeted by a woman at reception.

“It’s a lovely little exhibition if you are thinking of going, but it is a little outside of the city,” she said.

“That is probably too much of a hassle for me to get to. But thank you.” I smiled and turned around.

“Hang on. Our lovely cleaner Estela wanted to go and she has a car. You could go together. She is just leaving. Wait here.”

She jumped up from her chair and came back with Estela.

Estela was in her 70s, I would say, short, and a little hunched over as if she was in constant unease or even pain. She had warm, dark eyes and greying hair which she covered under an old-fashioned scarf.

“Would you like to go together? I can take you in my car, no problem. We can go now,” she said with a heavy Portuguese accent. I couldn’t understand her all too well and I did not really want to go anywhere with her. This was all too fast and too pushy for my liking. But somehow, the two ladies rushed me into the car, and before I knew it, Estela drove us out toward the exhibition.

It was housed in a sort of abandoned hall. There were no Giacometti statues anywhere, but rather, a photo exhibition of the artist at work and extracts of unreadable letters and explanatory notes on the wall about his life and work.

I was underwhelmed. It started raining and I wanted to get home. Estela’s French was mostly incomprehensible, at least by my own basic French standards.

When we finished, the parkour inside the hall looked at me with piercing despair and asked: “Would you like to come to my house for a cup of tea? I live only around the corner. I can drop you off after that, no problem.”

I did not want to, but I had no idea where I was and how I would get back. And so I thought, I will have a cup of tea with her and then at least she will drive me back to the city centre.

Estela did not really live around the corner. We drove for a good 15 minutes. She lived in a small house on a rundown street with cobbled stones and tiny, terraced houses that had satellite dishes on the sides of their roofs.

“Boa tarde, Estela,” I heard an old Portuguese woman shout from across the street.

When we walked into Estela’s house, I got hit by a wave of memories of what it is like visiting elderly people’s houses. It is the combination of old lace curtains, brown old-fashioned furniture, knitted pillowcases, and porcelain figurines. It reminded me of things I wanted to compartmentalize away quickly: ageing, death, loneliness, and decay.

I suddenly was overcome by a great sadness. Where did that come from?

Estela smiled warmly. “Come to the kitchen and I will cut us some Jamon and make tea.”

There, the two of us sat, eating salty cured meats, drinking strong black tea, and trying to decipher what the other person was saying.

When someone prepares food for you, it always changes things for me. Sharing food and breaking bread is such a gift to give to someone.

Estela got up and came back with two old photo albums.

“These are my grandchildren. They live in Portugal. I don’t see them often. And this is my daughter.” She pointed out her family: old, young, and older still dead or alive or emigrated on old brownish Kodak paper.

I smiled and nodded my head.

“This is my husband.” She pointed to an older, bald man in a checked shirt and grey trousers. His walking stick leaning against the chair he was sitting on. “He died last year.”

I looked up. Estela had tears streaming down her cheeks. Her chin was quivering.

That is why I felt this way. There was so much grief in this house. My eyes filled with tears like two little sailboats filling with water close to capsizing. I did not want to cry. I put my hand on Estela’s and said, “I am sorry.” I did not know what else to tell her, so I said, “Perhaps you should go home to your daughter.”

Estela looked up, “I can’t. I have no work at home. I have to stay here.”

We finished our tea and I told her I had to get back home with the excuse that I had to do some reading for my course. We got up.

“Wait. Do you like figs? I have a big fig tree in the garden and they are perfectly ripe. I am not supposed to eat so many, the doctor said. It is not good for my diabetes. Come, you can pick some and take them. This way they don’t go to waste.”

And so, I stood on Estela’s folding ladder, reaching for the figs whilst she was standing underneath me with a straw basket to catch them. A slight smile hushed over her face.

Estela drove me home. I said my goodbyes and gave her a quick hug.

“Bonsoir, Tina,” Madame Dubois shouted from the kitchen. “Bonsoir.” I reciprocated and rushed past her to my room.

I flung myself on the bed and cried. I cried for Estela’s poverty, her grief, her loneliness, and her sadness. And I cried for my feelings of guilt of not having to care or worry about any of this. We were both strangers in Bordeaux, but I came to drink red wine, have fun, brush up on my French, sunbathe in the dunes, and make new friends while Estela came because she had no other choice to secure her own survival and that of her family.

As our two worlds collided in her little kitchen, I was so overwhelmed by my inability to sit with her grief and hardship, and she forced me to with her persistence, for which I was completely unprepared.

I have never seen Estela again. But I always think of that painful and unprecedented encounter with her that gave me one of my first and few lessons of feeling a stranger’s grief.

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