Thursday, January 20, 2011

Adieu, or The Difficulty of Final Farewells

One of the things I've noticed when watching people say goodbyes is that they become very awkward when it's likely they will never see the person again. Often they're incredibly reluctant to acknowledge that this will probably be the last time they will talk to the person.

Instead, it's common to cling to the feeblest pretenses that this won't in fact be the last meeting. The modern age has made this easier, particularly things like email and facebook. We'll stay in touch! I'll come and visit you when I'm passing through Japan. Never mind that you don't have any plans to visit Japan, and that once you do, it will probably be in 8 years time. At which point, of course, it would probably feel awkward and forced to call up that person and stay at their house. What would you even say to each other?

The reality is, the world is a huge place, and this is almost certainly the last time you will actually see each other. But nobody wants to admit that.

Part of the problem, I think, is that in English we don't have common expressions for this situation, so people don't know what to say. In their mind they're thinking 'Well, I hope your travels go well, and...'. But how do you finish that sentence? 'Have a nice life' sounds far too flippant. 'Goodbye' and 'It was nice to meet you' aren't definite enough, and lack the gravitas. 'It was nice to have known you' is better, but still not great. So they fill in the gap with 'what's your email address?', even though that's not really what they want to say.

I always liked the French 'adieu'. The literal translation of it is 'Until God' - meaning, I shall see you again in heaven. This is perhaps the nicest spin you can put on a final meeting. It offers the right measure of serious contemplation of the inevitableness of sad departures, but with the bittersweet possibility of that glorious day in the afterlife when we will all be together once more.

The problem with 'adieu', however, is that precisely because of its gravitas, it gets used very sparingly. Part of this is also that it would be awkward and anticlimactic to say goodbye forever and then see the person again. Interestingly enough, the Spanish 'adios' (which has the same meaning) is used much more liberally, which makes it accessible, but undermines the seriousness.

When I spent some time travelling on my own and meeting people, I decided that I didn't want to run with the 'let's chat on facebook!' goodbye, and tried to come up with a more satisfactory farewell.The formulation I settled on is the following:

"Well, I don't know when or if I shall see you again, but it was a true pleasure nonetheless."

which is the best I've been able to come up with.

In Imperial China, it was much harder to pretend that you actually were going to bump into each other in a few months, and so serious men had to give the matter much more thought. So rather than closing with my relatively poor words, I instead leave you the much wiser and better thoughts of the Tang dynasty poet, Du Fu.

To Wei Ba, who has Lived Away from the Court

Like stars that rise when the other has set,
For years we two friends have not met.
How rare it is then that tonight
We once more share the same lamplight.
Our youth has quickly slipped away
And both of us are turning grey.
Old friends have died, and with a start
We hear the sad news, sick at heart.
How could I, twenty years before,
Know that I'd be here at your door?
When last I left, so long ago,
You were unmarried. In a row
Suddenly now your children stand,
Welcome their father's friend, demand
To know his home, his town, his kin -
Till they're chased out to fetch wine in.
Spring chives are cut in the night rain
And steamed rice mixed with yellow grain.
To mark the occasion, we should drink
Ten cups of wine straight off, you think -
But even ten can't make me high,
So moved by your old love am I.
The mountains will divide our lives,
Each to his world, when day arrives.

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