"I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit any time I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished.
There was no reason for her to trust me. She did not know me and the address I had given her, 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, could have not been a poorer one. But she was delightful and charming and welcoming […]" (39)
In this excerpt from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Hemingway describes the kindness he receives while inside Paris' Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I've grown up being told to be skeptical of receiving kindness from a stranger. Perhaps, it is because of the environment I grew up in, i.e., New York City (where I'm supposed to walk quickly, not supposed to trust anyone, shouldn't speak to strangers, and should avoid eye-contact whenever possible). The unspoken rules of urban living that I picked up navigating the city on my own.
Naturally, when I arrived to Paris, I abided by the same rules, until this past weekend. Ximena had come to Paris to celebrate my birthday with me, and we ended up taking an impromptu trip to visit Chartres and Combray (two small towns outside Paris). We visited Combray mainly because of my love for Proust and Ximena really wanted to find me a nice copy of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Anyway, as soon as we got off the train, we walked to the center of town in order to get a better sense of its general layout. I had my obnoxiously large canon camera hanging from my neck and kept thinking to myself, "maybe I should put it away for now - I'm in a small town and this is definitely marking us as--". Before I had the opportunity to finish my thought I hear a man's voice behind me yell "Est-ce que vous voulez prendre des photos?" (Do you want to take some photos?). I ignored him the first time, and continued to walk. My first thoughts were "oh my god. What does he want? Is he going to try taking my camera? Should we walk away right now?" I tried to ignore him but he walked up to us and repeated the same question. I turned to him, dumbfounded by his insistence (he looked like he was in his late 60's or 70's) and didn't know how to respond. Ximena recognized I just didn't know what to say and proceeded to speak for me, "oui, nous voulons prendre des photos" (yes, we want to take some photos).
Happy that our response was yes, he asked us if we'd like to be shown around the town (he seemed to take pride in helping tourists see the sites the small town had to offer). Ximena and I looked at each other, half amused and another half confused…and decided to go along with his offer. Given there were two of us, we felt a little more confident in accepting this man's random kindness. He proceeded to show us Musée Marcel Proust, Maison de Tante Leonie, Eglise St. Jacques, and a beautiful little garden. As we were walking through town, various people would say hello to him and I could hear some of his friends in passing say things like "look at him, showing the tourists around again…oh Guy".
We learned that his name was Guy and that he had been living in Combray for forty years. He asked us what we were going to do for lunch (since the museum we wanted to attend in the center of town was closed until 14h30). We asked him if he'd recommend any restaurant in town to visit. Instead, he smiled and invited us to eat with him at his house. Again, we were skeptical. Ximena and I look at each another dubiously and then decide to nod. As a Julia Conrad once said: the key to adventures, is not saying no (within reason, of course). Next, Guy took us to his local boulangerie and bought two baguettes. He then asked us what we would each like for dessert. Ximena and I settled on tarts of some sort (I can't remember the flavoring other than there being berries and pistachio).
We continued our journey and walked to his house. After about a fifteen-minute walk from the center of town, we made it to chez Guy. We spent the afternoon admiring the bird-feeder and garden in his yard. We listened to him tell us about his life and the years he spent working in a boulangerie. We listened to him tell us about the years he lived in Normandy during world war II. We listened to him explain to us how to make the perfect Madelines and he proceeded to share his recipe for Madelines with us. He described, and showed us multiple photo albums that captured his travels to Spain, Greece, Russia. The list of places he had been to was endless. He asked us where each of us had been, and where each of our families were from.
The bookshelves in his dining room were lined with encyclopedias. He showed us the paintings he made that he has hung up around the house. Upon discovering that both Ximena and I are musicians he played us his favorite classical record (Karajan, a bit cheesy, but still endearing). Sadly, and in passing, he mentions that his wife had passed away four years ago and hasn't travelled much since. He prepared us a delicious meal (baguettes and pâté, meat, roasted potatoes, wine, port, tea).
Both Ximena and I were dumbfounded - we didn't understand this stranger's kindness. At the same time we felt very lucky to being to experience a small town in an authentic way - listening to a perspective you can't know without engaging with its residents.
Around 14h, he pointed out that the musée Marcel Proust would be opening soon and that we should probably head over. Before we parted he asked us when our train would be leaving from Combray and we told him 18h. Once Ximena and I were finally alone we tried to understand what had just happened - what made Guy want to give to us, feed us, share with us, expecting nothing in return? Was our mere company a meaningful exchange for him? I spent the rest of the day tossing these ideas around trying to understand. As expected, at 18h, as Ximena and I were waiting for our train to return to Paris, Guy shows up on his bike (decked out in cycling gear - which we learned was one of his interests earlier in the day) and wished us a safe journey home. As the train pulled away, he continued to wave good-bye.
What strange experience it is - in this age of connectedness and technology - to meet someone, spend a significant amount of time with him, learn about his life, his passions, his losses, and then, to say goodbye and thank you, with the knowledge that most likely neither of us will never encounter this person again.
There was no reason for him to trust me. He did not know me, but he was delightful and welcoming…
(photo was taken by me outside a cemetary in Combray, France)