I’m back – or should I say, je suis revenue. This year, I spent my summer vacation in beautiful France. It was an epic journey for me and my daughter, as we don’t have the opportunity to travel nearly as often as we’d like. Plus both of us appreciate gorgeous landscapes, love good food, and can get along in passable French. (My accent is cringeworthy and I sometimes flub my grammar, but my vocabulary isn’t bad at all.)
If you’ve visited Paris, you know that in this international city a great many tourists and citizens alike speak English. We didn’t land in Paris until the last leg of our trip, however. Up to that point, most people we encountered spoke little or no English. Our lack of total fluency in French was a minor barrier when we needed help, but not a significant one. There are no language restrictions on acts of kindness.
And people were lovely. They really were. When we were trying to find an obscure museum building in a Lyon suburb, the middle-aged woman who noticed us wandering went out of her way to put us on the right path. When our train at Aix-en-Provence was en panne and we were forced to change routes and we suddenly weren’t sure just where we’d end up, every fellow passenger we spoke to was generous with their assistance. Every day, shopkeepers greeted us with warm welcomes, took time to describe heritage recipes or discuss their handicrafts. Tour guides patiently answered our questions, happy to explain customs and even talk politics. Hoteliers handed out as many maps and directions as we needed.
When your experience is made better by the courtesy of so many strangers in so many strange places, how do you give back to the community? My daughter easily answered that question by passing coins to homeless people everywhere we went. As for me, I’ve just packaged up a couple of Canadian souvenirs to put in the international mail.
There’s a funny story behind that. We were at a large train station with a few minutes to kill before our bus connection. We’d noticed the SOS Station office, but I’d assumed it was for lost children, or perhaps passengers who’d taken ill. That was until an older French woman came barrelling out of the office towards us. “You speak English,” she said. “Let me guess, you are American?” No, we said. “Oh, then British?” No. “Australian?” Nope. She finally pegged us as Canadians on her fourth try, and then entreated us to stay in her waiting room for a few minutes. Apparently, SOS is set up to save the souls of international travellers, a sort of comfort station for the non-French. There were seats, tourism brochures, a water cooler. We spent a few awkward minutes perched on chairs until it was time for us to go meet our bus. That’s when the French woman got to the point: She’d love it if we would mail her a Canadian pin for her collection. Perhaps two? She scribbled her name and address on a scrap of paper, helpfully adding “lady at SOS Station” in case we couldn’t remember, later, exactly why we were holding onto this stranger’s credentials.
So that’s why I’m now sending a padded envelope to France. It’s my small way of giving back to a country that welcomed us and shared with us its culture, its vast natural beauty and its fascinating history. Not to mention its astonishingly perfect cuisine.