“Le vrai philosphe n’attend rien des homes, et il leur fait tout le bien don’t il est capable.”
(“The true philosopher expects nothing from others and offers them the best he can give them. ” – Voltaire)
I didn’t just learn French, I learned the meaning of friendship.
My French studies weren’t just a passing fad. For several years, it was a serious hobby. I took classes, studied independently, consumed the culture, and met two pen pals who became two very good friends – Corentin in France, and Hervé in Switzerland.
Corentin was an older gentleman who lived with his wife in a small town in southern France near Bordeaux. We had a common interest in gardening, society, learning our respective languages, and talking about life in general. Corentin told me stories of his bee keeping and fishing. He also told me stories of growing up in Nazi-occupied France and how the German soldiers brought candy to him and his sister.
Hervé was a young French expatriate living in Lausanne, Switzerland. He had his doctorate in geomatics, the study of geo-spacial mapping. An expert in his field, local media interviewed him about the emerging fields of real-time, spacial locating. He and I talked about computers, engineering, and beer.
In 2006, my wife and I abandoned our kids (it was the first and only time Melissa and I took a vacation without the kids), and went to Europe. We spent a week with Corentin and his wife in France, then a week with Hervé in Switzerland.
After eight years of full-time parenting, the vacation was glorious. We visited castles with Corentin, saw German war bunkers on the shores of the Atlantic, ogled ancient cave paintings, and relished in exquisite French food.
With Hervé, we walked with the swans along Lake Geneva, toured Castle Chillon, drank copious amounts of beer, bought a cuckoo clock in the little Swiss Alps village of Zermatt, and hiked near the Matterhorn.
Corentin and Hervé showed us new cultures and new ways. As hosts, they expected nothing. As friends, they gave their best.
The next year, Hervé came to the United States for the first time. We toured Portland, Mt. St. Helen’s, the Pacific Ocean, beer gardens, and all manner of touristy thing. We showed him our home, our ways, and our food which included root beer. “Tastes like bubblegum,” Hervé said with a turned up nose.
After those trips, we continued our correspondence. However, as my life became even more child-centric, the French studies waned. Still, we continued to converse. When I had a question about French grammar, Corentin always had a quick answer. When my son made it to the global finals of Destination Imagination, Hervé was the first to send a large donation to cover travel expenses. When I felt like chatting, he always had an ear and a smile. Hervé was one of the happiest people I knew.
Nearly three years ago, in January, I went onto Hervé’s Facebook page because I had not heard from him him in awhile. There, written in French, were a number of messages all bunched together. They looked … odd.
When Hervé didn’t respond to my emails. I contacted one of his Facebook friends, and in broken French and English, found out that he was no longer with us. He had passed away from an acute attack of asthma. Had he lived, on February 1st, 2010 he would turned 33 years old.
Even from afar, it was shocking and difficult. A life taken too soon, and too young. A friend taken too soon, and too young. Distance doesn’t diminish friendships, nor does time even though the luster of being together may fade. In the ensuing months, I found this page posted as a final tribute to my friend. Hervé had nothing more to give.
But time passed, as it always does.
Until this past Monday.
Sadly, and quite by accident, I discovered that my friend Corentin had left us. I don’t know the circumstances and may never know. I do know that after his wife had passed away several years ago, he had discovered the joy of travel and had frequented the islands of New Zealand where he passed many months walking the trails. He had sent me some pictures and postcards of the local fauna.
I found his obituary by chance from a New Zealand registry. I then found a corresponding, and confirming, entry from his hometown in France. He was an older man, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But nonetheless I am because was always so vigorous and active. He never seemed to slow down. When we visited him in France, he rode his bike with me while I ran. When we hiked, he hiked with us. He never seemed to expect anything from me, but always was willing to give what he had – his help, his home, and a piece of his heart.
We only have one chance in this life. We can give our best, or not. We can be the best friends we can, to treat each other with love, friendship, and support. We can learn to go out of the way to support each other. We can expect nothing and we can give everything. My friends gave much to me, without expecting anything in return.
Last night, I wrote a letter to Corentin’s next of kin. I don’t know them, and I don’t even know if the letter will find it’s way across the Atlantic to reach them. In the letter, I wrote of our friendship, our visit to his home, and a hope that his last days were happy. I wrote that he was a wonderful host, teacher, and friend. And in between the lines, I wrote down something else. Memories.
I will miss my friends. I only hope that I was as good a friend to them as they were to me.
To be a friend is to give everything one can and to expect nothing in return.
Yesterday’s gift of time … A final goodbye to a departed friend.
Note – Corentin was notoriously camera shy, and the few pictures of us are now missing. If I find them, I’ll post one.