Thursday, 14 October 2010

The nicer side of humanity

I've had several occasions yesterday and today when I have been reminded that some human beings are just plain nice. They are comfortable in their own skin and thus are open, genuine and expect nothing in return. They help people, they go the extra mile and they get involved in other people's lives just for some moments. And it doesn't phase them. How many people do you know like that? The people who naturally seem to 'pay it forward'?

Last night I had dinner and conversation with Laurence. She's a 60 year-old french couchsurfer and it turned out I am her very first contact. She met me at the train station near her home. She's warm, genuine, enjoys people (as many french folks do) and generous.

I was a wee bit nervous because I don't eat so many things and most french people seem to eat anything. I sure got lucky! Laurence was making home-made Quiche Lorraine. We went through the making of it together; she had printed the recipe of it from the internet for me. I might need to wait until my flan tin arrives from NZ but I'm confident I can make a good one the french way. We spoke french because Laurence doesn't know much English. I asked her advice about curtains and curtain fittings. She said she'd see if she had any old ones in storage that I could have.

She's selling her house soon. It's delightful, oldish, traditional two-story on a decent-sized plot of land with trees, a defunct pond and some flowers and herbs. Her back's not good now and she can't cope with the upkeep. She has a lot of precious personal items handed down from her grandparents and parents. I wished I had such things to give me a place in the generations, I don't even have much from my own past now. As the Quiche was cooking her daughter and daughter's boyfriend arrived to join us for dinner. They speak a little English and were keep to make the most of the opportunity. It was a very convivial and happy evening just talking, eating and drinking (not much drinking which is normal for the french).

The menu started out with aperatifs. There was a selection of nibbles including a paste/pate made from very slowly cooked lamb which is then spread on your pieces of baguette, and some tiny spicy sausage thingees you stab with a toothpick. We gave up stabbing and used a spoon instead because the little blighters ran around the bowl trying to avoid us. To drink I tried a fabulous alcoholic beverage reminiscent of port called Floc de Gascogne. It's a bit like a dessert wine but VERY cultured and smooth. I think I'll investigate that because you don't have to drink the whole bottle in one go. I had a glass of red wine with my quiche and salad. Then it was on to cheese (which I passed on because I had a double-helping of quiche) and then dessert - a bowl of vanilla ice-cream and fresh white and black grapes from France and strawberries. The grapes are like miniatures but with plenty of flavour. Italian grapes are much larger.

We discussed diverse topics - Laurence's parents, countries to visit, the good and the bad of our respective cultures, politics, the natural history of NZ amongst other topics; we bounced from one thing to another. Then it was time for me to be taken home. I was driven back home- well fed and appreciative, once again, of french hospitality.

Today I had to go to the bank to make my first transaction. I needed to collect a cheque book and to deposit some euros so I could write a cheque out for someone to officially translate my birth certificate. As I stood in the queue I felt the sweat literally trickling in rivulets down my back. It's a big deal, I was on my own, bank staff don't speak english, I did not understand the system or how to fill in the forms. I was told I couldn't even put money in the back without handing over my passport. I don't carry it with me every day because I can't afford to lose it. My drivers license is not offical ID. My bank card from them is not ID. They decided to make an exception for me this time and used my license as ID.

Apparently all french people have an identity card to prove who they are which they carry at all times (big brother must be watching). I'm not used to that idea. A french lady behind me overheard and pulled hers out to show me what it looked like and to confirm the requirements for bank transactions. I succeeded in obtaining a deposit slip and tried to fill it out. It's not like ours and the jargon is confusing. A lady offered to act as interpreter and taught me how to fill out a deposit form correctly. Each time I thought I had finished she checked and corrected. Awesome young woman. So kind. I watched her walk out of the bank, so at ease, so obviously 'together'. Wow.

When I got back to work I discovered that Clothilde had decided to organise a welcome dinner for me with some of the ladies at work who live in or near Rambouillet for next Tuesday. Gosh-they go out of their way to be inclusive. I'm impressed. Then Clothilde joined me in the train for the journey home and we chatted in french and english. I think the office is changing a wee bit since I arrived. I think I've become a catalyst for my colleagues to freshen up their english. They are enjoying it and I'm delighted to help. I know Martin is keen for everyone to now share culture and knowledge and especially language at the laboratoire.

So you can see-I'm surrounded by lovely people, all with different personalities but so accepting of me, so welcoming and generous. I don't understand why NZers think the french are snobby or arrogant. Yes there are a few but most people I am meeting are a delight. I'm so relieved. I was sad and worried about leaving Waitakere City Council. I loved and respected the people I worked with and didn't know if I would ever find such a culture again. Maybe I'm lucky. It certainly looks very encouraging from where I'm sitting now.

What is couchsurfing you may wonder? It's a large international network of folks who love to meet other people from diffeent cultures, to have personal experiences with local people when travelling. No money is ever exchanged. If you want to stay somewhere you search for hosts in your target area and send them requests to surf their couches. Sometimes you even end up with your own bed and a meal cooked for you-all free. Your host will often take you places or make suggestions for explorations that you would never discover as a normal tourist. As a host you get to practice another language or share ideas and plans. I really recommend a visit to if this sounds like an interesting idea to you. I think it's good for older people to have contacts and I'm a member of the 50+ sub-group.

Photos of Rambouillet


Alison said...

What a lovely post, Frances. It's interesting - like your experience, people often mention to me French people's supposed arrogance, snobbishness, whatever. Apart from les dames at the prefecture and odd other instances (just like here), I have never found that. I met so many fabulously generous and kind people in France. I must check out that couchsurfing site - it sounds great!

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