New Orleans Over the last two years with an emerging affiliate in France, I’ve now been on the ground working in Grenoble or Paris there a bunch of times, well for me a bunch anyway, like five or six times over two years approximately. My comrades and colleagues there are wonderful people of course, but that’s true of all the people with whom I organize, but on the train the other night from Paris to Amsterdam to fly home, I found myself reflecting on the reputation the French have for being unfriendly to strangers. It’s a bum rap!
I’ll pass over the common courtesy and generosity of our organizers and their friends when I’m passing through who are constantly offering tea or coffee or in many cases surrendering their beds and bunks to an unexpected American squatter. Within the organizing culture that’s pretty standard and to the degree “birds of a feather flock together,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that it rubs off on their friends and supporters.
My brief for a new and friendlier France is not because this has been a big push from the tourism industry or the government, both of which are true, and both of which are undoubtedly totally ignored by the French people, but is based on my experience in the endlessly confusing Metro and train stations, particularly in Paris. On several trips, I’ve been flummoxed by the problems of getting Metro tickets from the machines. Several times I’ve been helped through a tough spot when someone employed by the metro system or the state railway came to save the day, but I started counting the times it was just random situations where I was bailed out by complete strangers passing by when it was obvious I was clueless who wordlessly stepped in to save me.
In the giant Paris Nord on this very trip, I had jumped off a bus and had gone in the first door to the station with the crowd to catch my train and somehow had ended up in the Metro complex rather than the city to city train station. I followed folks through the turnstiles, but then I was caught going through successfully, but not getting my bags through that were stuck on the other side. While wrestling with the situation a man coming through the other way saw me, and without saying a word, walked over and waved his pass across the scanner so the gates opened allowing me to go through. Having found out from an information officer how to get to the train station, the ticket from the bus, which should have worked, but didn’t, I was stranded in between another set of turnstiles unable to move forward or backwards. A woman, her baby in a carriage and a friend saved me there. I wish I could say these were isolated examples, but I’m afraid they weren’t. I could easily cite another three or four times when total strangers have stepped forward and gotten me on my way, as I thanked them profusely in English, as they politely waved me off and walked away.
The one common denominator in all of these situations has been that virtually every one of the folks. epitomizing the kindness of strangers, have almost all originally been strangers themselves at one time. They have almost all uniformly been Afro-Caribbean or Afro-French or possibly just Africans and presumably as foreign to all of this in the past as I often am now.
I don’t want to extrapolate past the point of all reason, but just maybe this kind of empathy with the lost, confused, and foreign by others who have been in the same boat will be one of the saving graces of not only French civility and manners, but also the same in the United States and other countries. Utah will invariably not end up in the Clinton column, but the fact that many citizens there thought about it because their foreign experience was such that they were unwilling to join the Trump anti-immigrant call, might offer us hope here as well. The French like the English, Americans, and other countries are all dealing with waves of anti-immigrant feeling, but it may be the empathy of those who choose our countries, rather than many of the natives who want to return to some foggy, archaic times in the past by forgetting about their own experience in order to adopt a bankrupt and false ideology, that end up saving all of us at the end of the day.