If I say one word of French, most of the natives of France will know I am an American. I think they can tell I am an alien by the way I walk, how I look them in the eye and smile, and how I laugh too loud. I am not quite the “stranger” the Bible tells us to take care of, but I am close enough — I certainly need a lot of care! Just yesterday a canoer extended his paddle to me so I would not float away down the Dordogne River, and then a woman volunteered info on how to use a parking kiosk which only spoke French. I suppose I’d be dead or destitute if I stayed in the country too long without people who care for strangers.
Our first major stop on this trip was Amboise in the Loire Valley, the fabled land of chateaus. My first major lessons on two kinds of Frenchmen were learned on the shopping street of that city. The little stories of two men meeting strangers have become a pilgrimage parable for me and might teach you something too.
When we travel we often struggle to find something to eat, especially in French. (I studied up for the trip, apparently to little avail). We found a restaurant in Amboise which looked promising but the tables were all full on a lovely day perfect for lingering — and the French do like to linger. We decided to wait and see if a table opened up. I think I may have looked a bit like a Hugo pauper hoping the rich would offer me a crust of bread. To our surprise, a man who had been sitting contently with his wife suddenly got up and said, in halting English, “Would you like to have our table?” His wife smiled and looked at him with humor and approval and also got up. We made our way to their seats and he left us with a blessing. “Enjoy. And be kind.” There was more to his admonition, but it got lost in his accent. His actions spoke louder than his words anyway.
This care for others is a French virtue which appears as a stubborn streak in their societal personality. A few days later I was in Tours visiting the church of St. Martin, the soldier who turned church planter in the 300’s. He is almost always pictured cutting off half his cloak for a beggar, which he apparently did one time. Although the French generally appear to be disinterested in their old saints, a saintly charity is deeply rooted in many of them. I run into it all the time – and need it.
On another day on that same Amboise shopping street, we were again scavenging for food and trying to buy a sandwich. I was attempting to speak French and the server was vainly trying to explain things in English. A man about my age was standing there watching it all. I don’t think he was in line, he was just checking us out. When the server went to collect our order, he said, “You are in France now. You need to speak French. This is not America.” I said, “I know. Qu’est-ce que c’est en Francaise?” He wandered off. But all that day he stuck with me. I was shamed for not speaking French as I was trying to speak French! Oh, the injustice! And what kind of guy butts into a transaction to make someone feel stupid? “What are you, the French language police?” Maybe you know how these internal dialogues go when your shame button is pushed.
This disdain for others and domination of others is also a streak in the French societal personality. I know, I visited Louis XIV’s Versailles, and who knows how many other chateaux by now. Someone commented on one of by brag pics to say, “The French garden is mostly about making boundaries!” That is sort of true. You get over the moat, through the castle, into the walled garden, and every flower bed has an exquisite little hedge around it or some other “wall.” They are territorial and don’t mind telling you.
What will become of us?
Looking at the United States from far away, I have to wonder which of these kind of people will prevail in my country. Quite few of my friends have been out demanding school children be allowed to grow up without needing an armed teacher. But many of them are also rabidly in favor of filling Ukraine with weaponry so they can beat back Russia. Are you kind about either opinion? I’ve been wondering what my dominate streak is.
I am trying to be kind. I find that relatively easy with my loved ones, or with people who look like they are about ready to be kind back. But if you look violent, or you have a face that looks ready to shame me, I might wall off my garden. So on my pilgrimage, I keep looking for places to pray and wonder and listen for a deep way to form my personality. Thank you, Jesus, that so many others are also looking, and even looking out for me!