Saturday, February 21, 2015


One of my goals for my time in France has been to volunteer, both to make some constructive use of my time and have a place to be on my own and speak French. When Carol is around it is too easy to rely on her. It isn't actually easy to find a volunteering gig in a foreign country. There are plenty of websites for volunteers in Paris, many of them connected to the city government, but they lead to long web forms with questions that don't really apply to me, and then I generally never got an email back anyway. But finally, last Saturday there was a table for a food back outside our local supermarket. I took a flier, which said they were from something called Le Relais Frémicourt, maybe a twenty minute walk from our house in the 15eme. It had an email address, and when I emailed I got a nice response from the President of the organization, saying he was out of town but asking me for a phone number. A few days later my phone rang. It is generally a moment of panic when my phone rings and it is someone not in my address book. Those of you who try to speak a foreign language know that talking on the phone is an especially difficult thing, and unknown incoming calls are the hardest. You don't know what to expect, what the context is going to be. I find I understand people much better when I can see their faces, and especially when I know the general context of the conversation. This is actually a lot like natural language problems in artificial intelligence-- it is relatively easy to get a computer to understand within a limited domain, like ordering in a restaurant. But getting a computer to understand when the topic could be anything at all is the great problem of AI, it has been since I first took a course in natural language programming thirty years ago. Anyway, I am going through all this to warm up to announcing that I did really well, I had a whole conversation and (as it turned out) successfully understood everything I was told. And the guy didn't just switch into English on me. I am unduly pleased with myself. So this morning, Saturday, was the appointed time. I headed out toward the Tour Montparnasse, with my two-wheeled grocery cart in tow. Got there fifteen minutes early, sat and watched while a group of Lubavitchers in as storefront got ready for services, talking to the cops who were guarding the entrance. It was sobering but good to see. Finally, Mr. L, the President, turned up, unlocked the door and let me in. The association is in the back of a church, in a big old red brick building that stands out from everything else around, there aren't many brick buildings in Paris. There was no one much else there-- a middle aged woman who I think turned out to be Mr. L's wife, and a couple of minutes later a young woman who was the only other volunteer there. Mr. L was very nice, and took a half-hour to explain that the Relais Fremicourt is basically a go-between between the big food banks in Paris and the actual clients who need the food. The word relais, which I only knew in the sense of meaning an inn, actually means relay, a place where things are passed along. During the day during the week, the place is open for people to come by and get boxes of food on their own; on Saturday mornings they deliver food to people who can't leave the house, which is what I was going to do. They have a couple of big rooms filled with canned food, pasta, but also milk and butter and some frozen stuff. He explained that most of their clients were Muslim, so they have to be careful that their products don't have pork or alcohol. This was, I think, the first time that they had delivered food to this particular client, and they didn't know exactly what he needed. Part of my job was to ask him when I got there. So, address in hand, I headed out. It was raining hard, cold and windy. The 15th is the biggest arrondissement in Paris, and I was headed out toward the perimeter. Paris, as you have probably heard lately, tends to have the working class or poor neighborhoods on the periphery. I was a little nervous but didn't have to go anywhere sketchy, as it turned out, just through slightly seedy working class neighborhoods, actually with a lot of old-fashioned French businesses, finally out to the ring road around the city. There were a bunch of housing project type complexes, again kind of run down but not terrible. Half the people seemed "French", ie white, the other half African or Arab. At first I couldn't figure out what building I was supposed to go to, but fortunately I found a mailman who pointed me in the right direction. I called the number I was given and nobody picked up. I thought I had been told that the buzzer into the building didn't work, but when I checked it did, and after a while I figured out what to do and pressed. The client answered and buzzed me in. He was an Algerian man, he looked about my age but is probably younger. We lugged the cart up the stairway to his apartment on the second floor and he let me in. It was bare and run down, but again didn't seem awful at all. We actually spoke more or less equivalent French, his translated from Arabic as mine is from English. We chatted and he was really nice about my being American, one of his daughters worked in Boston for a while. He explained that he is diabetic, sick in some other ways that I couldn't quite understand. He was laid off from a construction job in June and hasn't worked since, and is really unable to do construction work anymore. It was quite sad, he had tears in his eyes as he spoke, telling me how hard it was to be unable to feed his wife. He is a vegetarian, I'm not sure why, and he carefully inspected each item to make sure it didn't have any meat. He didn't want a couple of cans of soup and the actual meat I had brought, politely giving them back to me. He has a list of some other things he could use-- dairy stuff like cheese, eggs, lentils. I'll have to check if they have that back at the Relais. So after a little chit chat that was it. He thanked me over and over, I had to hold back tears myself. I am sorry to say I don't spend much time attending to the fact that I am surrounded by people without enough to eat-- here of all places-- and it was sobering to come face to face with it. So I headed out. This was my only job for the day, it had only taken a couple of hours, and I was taking the bus back home. I wasn't sure what to do with the meat and soup, I didn't really want it, so I gave it to a beggar by the side of the street, I hope that was the right thing to do. From the apartment continuing around the loop road I came to the Porte de Versailles, where there is a big convention center sort of place, caught the bus and headed home. All in all a success. I look forward to going again next week, though if I do the exact same thing I won't get to speak as much French as I would like. Well, that's not the point in the long run. Maybe it will turn out that there are other things I can do around the Relais.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like your good deed was a blessing to both you and the Algerian gentleman. I loved reading this; thanks for sharing.