The road trip – begun in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terror attacks when she was feeling depressed by the hatred and violence in the world – saw her speaking to, and staying in the homes of, dozens of ordinary men and women the length and breadth of France.
She said: “I think some people have a romanticised idea of what Love is in France. That French Love is this sort of Holy Grail. That it is perfect, romantic, and eternal. But it is not. It never was, and it never will be.
Patrick Celard, 53, stay-at-home dad, and Emmanuelle Lemée, 44, timber negotiator
“French people are scraping to get by – to pay their mortgages and to buy food, just like you.
“They are extremely complex beings, just like you. And the same goes with love – the French have the same fears and the same doubts about their ability to love and be loved. Again, just like you. They were brutally honest. There was no pathos.
“Take Rolande, who fell in love again at 70; take Arlette, who has been with her husband for 17 years; take Jean-Luc, whose girlfriend just moved in with him. These stories all highlight the beauty, comfort, and allure of Love – but Rolande’s first husband hit her, Arlette has another man in her life, and Jean-Luc was about to open a restaurant with his girlfriend when she died of a heart attack.
“Again and again, for each beautiful and consoling moment, there was one of ineffable sadness; of loss, rejection and despair. They were very lucid about it.
“And I’ll always remember what Lucien said to me. He is an 82-year-old retired mason whose wife Marie-Jeanne had just died. We had lunch together in his house in the southwest of France. He had a hard time expressing his feelings about Love but he told me something that will always stay with me, because it was so mundane, so delicate: '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.' And then, he cried.
“Or I could tell you about Nicolas and Lucile. They are farmers in Normandy.
“When I arrived at Nicolas and Lucile’s, I had a very bad flu. And they took me in as if I was a member of their family. Lucile gave me all kinds of natural remedies. Told me to stay with them for a couple days. She showed me how to milk her goats. Nicolas, his cows. I hung out with their children. There was so much love between them. It was so palpable that I started to feel better.
“Nicolas told me he had turned his whole self to his family “Lucile and I have been together for twenty-four years. My guiding principle in life has been building a life with her, then with her and our children. Not building a professional career. There is something sacred.”
“But nothing is picture perfect. He was a very timid child, afraid of showing any emotion: “I believe that we are not educated to have feelings. I was a very cheerful child, but adults took it away from me. I was very sensitive, so I closed myself off to stop suffering or feeling any emotion. It allowed me to stay among others while remaining hidden.” And his love for Lucile made him feel again.
Suzy Diakok, 66, retired secretary, and Dony Diakok, 69, retired mail carrier
His story was published in the French newspaper, Le Monde. And when his father read it, he called his son immediately and told him: 'Let me make up for what I did to you.' So they took a trip to Bruges in Belgium, and they made peace.
“Nicolas and Lucile have become true friends. We spent Christmas together last year.”
As well as speaking to people about their experiences of love Stefania also took their pictures.
She said: “Most of the conversations took place at dinnertime.
“There was a lot of eating involved in this journey. A lot. It was nice to sit together around a table. So I would never take peoples’ portraits immediately after they told their stories because we were just too tired.
“Our conversations were so intense. We had puffy eyes from crying, our abs hurt from laughing, and we were full with food. It was in the morning that I usually took their portrait, right before they went to work or right before I left.”
Although the journey had a tragic origin, it ended in hope.
“Paris, November 13th, 2015, the terrorist attacks happened. 130 dead, 430 wounded. I was there to cover it. A man I knew died that night, shot down by a terrorist. And for what?
“Where was that Love? The one everyone praises? I didn’t see Love. So I told myself that I was going to go look for it. I was going to see for myself if people really cared for each other. Or if Love was just a lie. I got in my car and left, alone, on a year-long road trip across France to see if there was anything of Love to find.
“And at the end of the journey, Love won for me. And more than hope, these people brought me back to life. I saw beauty in all this disarray. And the most important thing is that I love myself again. I am happier today. I hadn’t had this feeling in a very long time.”
Author Stefania Rousselle Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov
Stefania Rousselle is a French-American journalist and documentary filmmaker. In 2016, she was part of a team of New York Times journalists who were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their work on the Islamic State. The interviews and photos from her journey are published in a book, Amour: How the French Talk about Love, is released on January 21st – order it here.