There's nothing like a crisis for focusing the mind on what's essential in life. After covering the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, journalist Stefania Rousselle had her own moment of reckoning. Depressed, she headed out on a road trip across France in search of love. In these times of coronavirus, her portraits of what love means to different people can speak to us all.
Rousselle, an award-winning French-American journalist and documentary filmmaker, was freelancing for the New York Times when militants with Islamic State armed group attacked the Bataclan concert hall on 13 November 2015.
She literally jumped out of bed in her pyjamas, grabbed her camera and ran to the scene. Panic, death, terror, hatred was everywhere. And she lost a friend among the 130 killed that that night.
Later, covering the regional elections in France she was embedded with the hard-right National Front. More hatred, more division.
“It was sadness, despair, sadness, despair. I needed a way out and I always kept hitting a wall. I didn't feel love, I didn't see love and so I just decided to take my car and ask people one question: What is love? To find out if it still existed.”
She hit the road shortly after the presidential elections in May 2017 and spent the following months crisscrossing France and some overseas territories.
The people she met are as varied as the terrain: young, old, straight, gay, happy in a relationship, happy out of one, recovering from abuse, being a mistress, mourning loss, coping with loneliness.
Her travels resulted in a collection of more than 80 interviews, each illustrated with an expressive colour portrait.
“I fell in love with everyone I met,” she laughs.
There's Julie Lafourcade. When she was 17 she met a man at a village dance and fell in love. He was 55.
“She was asking herself, 'Is this man too old for me?' But they fell in love. Then when she was 25 they discovered she had cancer. She told me: 'I can die at any time but I've had this feeling of love and being able to give love.' ”
Then there's the story of Lucien Lalanne, an 82-year-old former mason. When he met Rousselle he'd just lost his wife after 47 years together.
“He told me: 'In the winter we would watch television, then sit near the fire and fall asleep in our respective chairs. We were happy. I always hoped it would last forever, it didn't.' ”
There's Rolande, who found love late in life when she met Claude in her local restaurant.
“She's my hero,” says Rousselle. “Her first husband beat her, and the second died of an epilepsy attack. She was at home and lonely. She spotted Claude in a restaurant, invited him to come to her home for coffee the next day. She asked her daughter to help prepare the bed, put on the pink silk sheets.
“It's a beautiful story because it shows a lot about resilience and hope. She was 70 when she fell in love and it shows love is always there for you. And you can always be on your own too.
“It was like for each moment of joy there was a sad moment, and for each moment of despair there was a moment of healing. So what's the definition of love? Well there are 92 people in the book I think I could say there are 92 different versions of love.”
Going into homes, and hearts
Rousselle had no agenda or profiles of people in mind when she set out, but getting people to open up in this way didn't happen by chance.
“I know the French can be extremely reserved. But I'm reserved too,” she says. “If people opened up, it's because we really got to know each other.
“Basically they would say, 'What are you doing here?' And I would say, 'Well, I'm depressed. I don't see love. I haven't seen it for years. And I need to know what love is, what the meaning of life is, what's our purpose.' I think people have the same questions. They don't know either. So we said, 'Let's talk about it, because I need to know too.' "
She stayed at their homes, sharing a slice of their daily life, and of herself.
“People are always are looking for a sign that we exist. So we shared meals together, cooked together, we would go on walks together. They knew I wasn't just passing by, I wasn't scraping the surface. We were connecting. They know everything about me, all my life.”
Beyond the clichés
Rousselle was well aware of the “romantic France” cliché but the people she met revealed a different picture.
“France is not romantic. Love in France is not forever. Love in France is not Disneyland, that's what I really liked.”
She was struck by the fact people made no attempt to put a brave face on things.
“The rawness, the honesty...it was crazy. They were so sincere in their feelings. I think that's why they were able to move on. They accepted the pain and were able to overcome it, instead of being super positive all the time, as can happen in some other places.”
Rousselle trekked up the Pic d'Ansabère in the Pyrénées to meet Marcel Etcheberry, a shepherd. As was customary for the least favourite child, he'd been sent into the mountains from an early age to herd the sheep.
“How do you survive that?” he told her. “I had a terrible adolescence. It was endless. I was in pain.
“I don't like humans. They are twisted. When I see what they are capable of. I am ashamed. I would rather have been a dog. That is why I work with animals.”
The Internet connection
Rousselle's road trip took her to regions all over France and to overseas territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe. She found geography had little impact on the way people talked about love, but admits it was more challenging for people in the countryside to meet someone.
“In rural areas they were having a much harder time to meet people. In cities, there are bars everywhere. But even in cities a lot of people, maybe 75 percent, actually met their partners through websites or apps. In rural areas they were all on a site called Badoo.”
No French exception
Regardless of where people came from, Rousselle was struck by the extent to which people were struggling generally and felt the need to reconnect with others.
“There's this idea of French love as a super romantic ideal that lasts forever but it's not true. People here are exactly like anyone else: they have doubts about their ability to love and to be loved. There's a deep feeling of needing to reconnect.”
She cites Pascal Grimault, an industrial sauce maker in a factory in Brittany.
“He would wake up at 3 am to go prepare some sauce for your frozen food, it's non-stop in these factories.”
He told her: “I'm not quite sure what love is because I've never really lived it. It would probably be tenderness… I didn't love myself before, and now I do”.
Love as form of resistance
Rousselle was travelling before the Yellow Vest protest movement began in November 2018. Yet she saw it growing.
“Some people are suffering a lot in France, they're having a really hard time, struggling to pay their mortgages, seeing their social rights starting to dwindle. I think that the Yellow Vest movement was a wonderful way for them to say, 'Yes, you actually exist.'
“I met a women called Laurence in the Pyrénées mountains in the south of France. As I was leaving, she opened the window and looked at me, and said: 'Stefania, Vive La Résistance!.'
"So what I did about love is a sort of ode to the French. These people are trying to fight the darkness coming upon them through love.”
The first person Rousselle engaged with on her road trip was not French, but a migrant from Pakistan called Salam Salar. The 31-year-old was queuing up at a food distribution point in Calais.
“When I explained my quest to find out what love means to people he said: 'Love is my mother. Love is in the trees and flowers. Love is good.'
“In the worst conditions possible this man was seeing light in the darkness. Even if this is a hard life, there is hope.”
Conversations like this and indeed all the others restored Rousselle's faith in love.
“It brought me back to life, basically. Each of the encounters mended me.”
Stefania Rousselle has gathered photos and interviews from her journey in the book 'Amour, How the French talk about love'.