In the French countryside, the kindness of strangers often surprises

2005-09-17 10-01 Provence 173 Lourmarin

Image by Allie_Caulfield via Flickr

LOURMARIN, France — Kathy was buying a pretty pair of amethyst earrings at an open market here when my cell phone rang.  It was our daughter Betsy with an update on Dylan, our grandson, just 10 days old, whom we’ll meet as soon as we arrive home.

I walked a few steps away, but soon Kathy, in faltering French, was engaged in an animated discussion with the jeweler. When Kathy took the phone a few minutes later she told Betsy the woman, who spoke no English, wanted to know all about Dylan.  When it came time to pay, she insisted on selling the earrings for 15 euros rather than 18, the discount her contribution to the celebration of Dylan’s birth.

Such small acts of generosity and kindness seem commonplace in the French countryside. Lourmarin is, in fact, no modest village. It is a tony town, a place where one might plop down a few mil for a restored mas, or farmhouse, out of town, a place that is the second French home of author Peter Mayle, who became a celebrity and, to some, a villain, in these parts when he wrote his widely read book, “A Year in Provence.”  Yet there seems little of the snootiness one might find in Cannes or Nice, France, or, for that matter, Aspen, Colo., or Nantucket Island off Massachusetts.

Last night, out of cash, we went to the only ATM machine in town. I was about to put in my card when the owner of a rare book store next door waved a finger and warned me it was broken. Somehow money had gotten jammed on the way out. The closest place to draw money? Cadenet, 5 kilometers away. But a short drive surely beat the misery of getting my debit card stuck in the machine. It would have been easy for the book seller to ignore us.

This morning we went into the local tabac to buy the Internatioaal Herald Tribune.  We left and then returned — not, once, but three more times. First, we decided to buy an address book and calendar with beautiful photos of Provence. Then, after leaving again, we returned to buy two more for our daughters. Then, after leaving yet again, we returned to buy another one for my cousin. Each time, the young woman behind the counter asked if she could wrap the presents. And when we left the last time she handed us a large refrigerator magnet of Lourmarin that likely sold for $3 or $4.

“So you’ll remember,” she said.

I confess that I was wary coming to this town because of its affluence and the notoriety that comes with having Peter Mayle (and, once upon a time, author Albert Camus) as a resident.  But I should have visited first and made judgments later. Nor do I believe friendliness we’ve witnessed is a show for tourists.

At Cafe Gaby, where I interviewed Mayle three years ago for the Christian Science Monitor, locals greet each other with a peck on each cheek. It’s a great place for people watching so, after eating a light dinner there last night, we returned for coffee this morning.  At the table next to us was a well-dressed and clearly well-heeled French couple reading the morning  paper.  As they stood to leave, two men in overalls, street cleaners, were washing down the square in front of the cafe. The affluent Frenchman stopped to embrace each, giving each a peck on the left cheek and then the right.

OK, this is France. But how many Americans you know stop to give their garbage man a hug?

About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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