The kindness of strangers
The first thing people say to me when they hear I live in France is, “Oh my God! You’re so lucky. I love Paris!” This is usually followed by, “But, ugh, how do you deal with the French? They’re so rude.”
Before I carry on, I need to set a few things straight. One) I don’t live in Paris, but a small town of 13,000 inhabitants 15 km outside of Toulouse. (And, more importantly) Two) sure, there may be a couple of surly waiters propagating the stereotype as they serve overbearing tourists; however, the entire French population cannot be summed up as ‘rude’.
(Don’t get me started on the ‘ugly American’. Yeah, yeah, I know. A few of them exist, too.)
Rather than giving a lecture about not subscribing to stereotypes or making assumptions, I’d like to share a few recent encounters I’ve had here in France.
One Sunday not so long ago, I wanted to get some cardio in. Cursing the kilos I’ve gained (I’m looking at you Monsieur Foie Gras and Mademoiselle Baguette), I borrowed the stepdaughter’s bicycle. Having heard that one hour could burn around 400 calories, and thus deciding to explore a new, longer route which, with my lack of direction, meant I ended up getting a little bit disorientated. No longer on the bike path, to my left was a median; to the right a torn-up gravel/dirt sidewalk with a very high curb; and behind, a couple of cars.
I pedalled faster and faster, making my move so the cars could pass. Unfortunately, I’d misjudged the dip in the curb and I totally wiped out, skidding across the gravel with the bike on top of me – my right arm taking most of the weight. Immediately, two cars pulled over, protecting me from oncoming traffic. In shock, I just sat on the torn-up pavement holding my even more torn-up arm, watching the scene play out before me.
A man brought over a first aid kit from his trunk, while the woman from the other car tended to me and – tissue after tissue – to my geyser of a wound. A former nurse, she explained that I had to get to the hospital – and quick. “Oh yes,” she said, “you need stitches.” Once the bleeding subsided to a trickle, she wrapped up my arm and helped me retrieve my cell phone so I could call my husband to pick me up.
While we waited for my knight in a silver Ford to arrive, the daughter of the woman – a four-year-old and adorable blonde – stood over me, shading my face from the hot sun as per her mother’s instruction, and giggling because a light breeze kept making her skirt fly up. This, of course, made both the mother and I laugh – a welcome distraction from the pain.
Both the man and the woman (and obviously her daughter) stayed right by my side until my husband arrived. I must have said merci about a million times, yet, in a rush to get to the emergency room, and fighting back the urge to cry and vomit at the same time, I didn’t think to get their names.
Makes me think of a line from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, when Blanche Dubois said, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I’d like to expand on that thought.
I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers– no matter where they’re from.
Just the other day I was getting a little exercise (sans le vélo) walking around my neighborhood, when I came face-to-face with the seventy-something-year-old neighbor across the street. Other than a perfunctory wave from our front yards, we hadn’t been formally introduced. So I stopped and rectified this situation, complimenting him on his landscaping.
By his smile, you would have thought I’d told him he’d won the lottery.
Proudly, he ushered me into his garden, showing it off, and question after question ensued.
Did I like living in France? The town? Did I miss the States? (My reputation as ‘the American’, it seemed, had preceded me.) How was my husband? His kids? If there was anything I needed, “Don’t hesitate to ask,” he said.
This is the spirit of France I want people to know.
From my neighbors (who bring over fresh tomatoes from their garden and, to my delight, wine from the surrounding regions) to the strangers who helped one bruised-up American on the side of the road, I’ve found the French to be nothing short of giving.
Hey, I married a Frenchman after all.
Yes, just like any other country in the world, France may have a few rude people living in it. I just haven’t met any of them yet. On the contrary, I’ve been welcomed to this new life with air kisses (one on each cheek) and open arms. Literally.All images © Samantha Verant