After a weeklong visit with my newfound French family (and the ubiquitous American set), I’m left feeling exhausted, exhilarated, and reflective all at once. The exhausted part is easy to understand: almost 30 players with distinct personalities and expectations moving in and out of the scenery for nine days (whew!) generates a level of energy I can’t even duplicate with espresso and Red Bull. Exhilarated? Well, meeting long-lost family members and scaling language barriers will do that to a person. Reflective? This is exactly the kind of situation that is perfect for pondering, internalizing, and growing.

I learned a lot this week. Some of the lessons were new, while others simply reawakened or reinforced truisms I had long ago packed away in my mind. In no particular order, here are some of the lessons I learned.

  • Some things transcend language. Beyond the basic necessities of eating, sleeping, bathing, and shopping, all of which can be handled easily enough with a round of charades, we somehow exchanged a lot of other information. All it took were open hearts.
  • We can learn a lot from our kids. Instead of stumbling over words, they found a common language in shared interests–music, games, videos, teenage angst–and built out their relationship from there. When they couldn’t find words they could understand, they simply shrugged and moved on to something else, eschewing frustration for an easy-going camaraderie. The sound of their laughter warmed everyone’s hearts.
  • Family is family. It didn’t matter that most of us hadn’t met our transatlantic relatives; the connection was undeniable.
  • People need downtime to process emotional experiences, even when they are positive. As much as we wanted to take advantage of every limited moment together, by the end of the week the fatigue of constant emotional barrage showed plainly on everyone’s faces.
  • Although we may try to divorce ourselves of expectations, we can’t completely get rid of them. 30 people = 30 sets of expectations, however minimized. The best way to deal with them is to acknowledge their existence and work around them. Be flexible and direct, and never, ever let them become the elephant in the middle of the room. Given the size of our group, I think everyone did a pretty good job.
  • Personalities aren’t dependent on words. Even without a common language, they shine through loud and clear. What a gift.
  • Smiles, hugs, and outstretched hands make all the difference in the world.

My French sucks (Ça craint). I’ve got a long way to go with the lessons I started taking in May, and that became very apparent this week. That didn’t stop me from getting to know my uncle and cousins, though. As I had hoped and believed, we made it work. The best part is that not only did I learn about them, about my American family, and about myself, the story isn’t over. The Chevalhiers are my family forever, not just for this visit. That leaves me more determined than ever to master their complicated language, and I’m already making travel plans for next year. That’s not a happy ending–it’s a happy beginning.

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