In Aix-en-Provence, a Moment of Kindness Across Cultures

We’ll call him Bernard, this man who touched our lives today.  I wouldn’t wish to offend by using his real name.IMG_5445

This morning, Luca, one of my Emerson College students, arrived at IS-Aix, our French language school here, without his smart phone.  He’d dropped it jogging on the way.  He was quick on his feet though, and he immediately texted the number of a classmate’s phone to his own number, just in case someone honest picked his phone up.

Someone did: the man I’ll call Bernard.  Within an hour he had contacted the student whose phone Luca had used.  Luca had texted that he would give a 100 euro reward.  I accompanied him on a 15-minute walk along a beautiful stream in southeast Aix I’d never  known of before.  As we emerged back onto the street, a man was sitting on a wall.

“Are you Bernard?” Luca asked.

“No,” he said. But as we started to walk further down the block he called us back.

“What’s my name?” he asked Luca more than once.  And then he got a little tough on him, “You should be more careful with your things,” he said.

He spoke in French, of course, but it was clear he was being stern. He mentioned that he had an 18-year-old son, and he clearly wanted to deliver a fatherly message.  He didn’t want the reward, he said, just to join us for a cup of coffee. We demurred — the students’ classes in Aix are for just two weeks, and we needed to head back to school.  When Luca handed him 10 euros as a thank you, he said it was too much and handed back 5.

I told him, “vous etes tres genereuse” — you are very generous –and this time I got the lecture,  “Genereux, ” he barked. “Masculine.”

I’d used the feminine version of the word to describe this gruff but caring man.  When he discovered I was leading a group of college students, he handed Luca back the 5 euros he’d accepted. * He wanted no monetary reward after all. He just wanted to be recognized.

He asked us both to give him our names again. And then he asked us to repeat his, Luca more than once.  The man I’m calling Bernard had told Luca he was hours late to work because of this incident. But I don’t think so. I was left wondering: Was he part of France’s double-digit population of unemployed workers?  Was he perhaps a disabled veteran (he asked if I’d fought in Vietnam and said something about his hand when I shook it)?

Through the cloud of a foreign language half understood, it’s quite likely that none of what I imagined is true.  But this much I know: Luca and I had a special intercultural experience today with a man who did the right thing, and who, I believe, felt good about himself and his actions — as well he should have.

*CORRECTION:  Perhaps I saw what I wanted to. Perhaps it was a sort of slight of hand. But after appearing to return the remaining 5 euro note, Luca tells me,  the man I’m calling Bernard pulled the note back and put the 5 euros in his pocket. I regret the error.

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The French, I learned today, sometimes use the honor system.  I stopped at the public “urinoir” near Place Richelme for a bit of relief.  At 50 centimes, it’s a somewhat pricy proposition. As it turns out, no one was collecting money. So I dropped my 50 centime piece on a pile of coins on the counter, peed, and left.  Aix has its share of indigent people, some sleeping on the streets. Given that, I found it remarkable that this bathroom operated on the honor code.

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Ah, the hazards of learning a language.

One of our teachers asked her students yesterday, “What did you have for dinner?”

Answered one, “Je mange ma famille” — I am eating my family.

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Fashion has come to the French dog.  It was cool today, the town’s streets whipped by the Mistral winds. That did not phase one Jack Russell terrier who sauntered up the street wearing a pink scarf with, naturally, a perfect French tuck.

 

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