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Kindness is Contagious

May 8, 2013

Last week had been one of the more stressful weeks since I arrived in Paris. I moved out of my apartment, had a monetarily complicated meeting with my rental agency, and came down with a sinus infection. Beautiful ending to the term, right?

With leaving my apartment came cancelling my housing insurance, so I made my way to the bank, the insurance provider. I met the teller with the usual apology of “My French isn’t stellar,” adding the new apology of “I can’t really talk that well in any language due to the phlegm surrounding my throat.*”

Oh, she said, cancelling housing insurance? Nope, you can’t do that in person. You have to write a letter to one of the bank’s offices; never mind that you were told earlier to come in person and that you have all of the documentation with you. Here, go find some paper and craft a business letter in your non-fluent language and find a post office and pay extra for secure mailing.

Now, as I’m writing this, I realize the situation sounds very small. Not a big deal, Deborah; keep your cool. But as I stood there, understanding about 3/4 of what this woman was telling me, exhausted from the moving and the plumbing and the coughing, I was tempted to ask her, “Would you like me to lose it here? I can. I totally can.”

Another customer approached us, hearing my confusion and my accent. She asked in English, “Can I help?” and proceeded to lead this remarkable bilingual conversation among the three of us. She asked my questions and found out where I was supposed to send the letter and had the teller give me a piece of paper so I could write it. Then, bless her heart, she helped me write the letter.** She pointed me in the direction of the closest post office, and she told me how to ask for secure mailing. I wanted to hug her.

I have been stunned by random strangers’ kindness here. That woman did not need to take time out of her day to help me with French banking. She didn’t have to bother to clarify the warped dialogue between myself and the teller. She didn’t need to do anything except finish her own business at the bank. But she did more, and no matter how simple or small it seems, I was taken aback by her generosity.

I wanted to repay her somehow, but — and I told her this, “All I have are tissues.”

She brushed it off and said not to worry about it. People helped her when she first came to Paris, and she wanted to do the same. Return the favor, in a way.

I headed to the post office feeling better about the city again. Less exasperated. Less, “screw the last week, I want to go home now.” I left Paris that weekend, as I think I’ve developed a knack for scheduling trips that will ultimately correlate with when I’m most stressed in the city. Taking my last European trip this semester, I went to Munich, Germany. I managed enough — but only enough — with my 10 words of German, the entire time thankful that I lived in a country where I have some proficiency in the language, even if banking in it is a nightmare.

On the train ride back, I sat near a group of six middle-aged Germans, most of whom were visiting Paris for the first time. The one sitting next to me spoke some English, and we chatted about my semester and their visit. She and the others have been friends for 40 years, and one of them recently had a birthday. His wish was to go on a vacation with his friends, so Paris for a week it was. I was impressed.

As we got closer to Paris, she asked me if I knew how to buy metro tickets at the train station. I described the ticket kiosks downstairs where someone could buy 10 or 20 tickets. The thing was, she said, they only needed six to get to their hotel, where they would then buy specific day passes.

Oh. The kiosks don’t do six tickets. Or any number other than 10 or 20, for that matter. But that was fine, I said — I’ll just go with you to the information desk and ask to buy the tickets there.

She was so relieved, and she asked if I knew how to get to their hotel’s closest metro stop. I didn’t, but I and one of the friends pulled out our metro maps and found the stop. I started to describe what signs to look for in the metro station and which direction to take, and then I realized I could get back to the apartment using the line they needed.

“I can take you to the metro and get on with you, if you want?”

So the seven of us, six Germans and an American, got off the train in Paris and walked to the metro station. I asked the man behind the information desk for six tickets, and we went through the station’s turnstiles, only half of us getting stuck with our luggage. We found line 4 in the direction of Montrouge, and I showed them where on the line I would get off and where they would get off.

They were so happy and so grateful, and it felt contagious. To me, it wasn’t any problem; they were so friendly, and home was that direction, anyway. I remember feeling so lost once I got to Paris. It’s an overwhelming city.

My stop came before theirs, so as I prepared to get off I told them a few last minute French word must-knows. We exchanged “auf wiedersehen”s and “bonne chance”s. They tried to give me money, and I tried to stop them. It was small and simple help, pas de problème.

I’m incredibly grateful to the people in Paris who’ve helped me stay afloat in rough situations. These four months have been the most humbling of my life, and I’m grateful for that, too. I’m more relieved and so glad, though, that before leaving I got a chance to return the favor.

*You’re welcome for that imagery.

**I’m pretty good at writing French. Not perfect, but I can write essays and whatnot. And I’m well familiar with writing business letters in English. Business letters in French, though? Not a strong point.

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