Today I did 3 hours of volunteering for the French Association called “Les Restaurants du Coeur” or the Restaurants of the Heart. It was the local collect in the supermarket and my neighbour and I were on duty from 4 to 7. I have never enjoyed anything so much! I really thought I would hate having to ask people to give something… and in French! I believed I would be embarrassed and feel badly when they said “no”. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
From the very start I found myself speaking from my heart, approaching each shopper as he or she entered and smiling because I really felt happy; there was nothing fictitious about what I was doing. I seemed to find the words; most people stopped and listened, took the suggested donation list that I offered and smiled back saying they would cooperate. When someone waved me away saying they had already given, I spontaneously thanked them from my heart for their donation which I had no proof of, but why would I have doubted such beautiful people. For suddenly everyone who entered had become beautiful and gracious. I don’t where the magic came from; I felt as if I had just fallen in love and nothing, absolutely nothing could go wrong even if they spat in my face. When they said “no” and refused to take my little sheet of paper, I said “thank you for your honesty” and sincerely felt it; strangely, I did not feel bad for myself, but rather for them not having the pleasure of giving, for I began to notice that all the people who came out with a donation, no matter how small, looked different, were happy, were glad they had given, felt generous, perhaps even a bit proud of themselves. I really wished that for everyone, not that they should give to the “Restos”, but that they should give that to themselves. I loved everyone! And then… the people I met!!!
Friends came and I realized how many people I knew and how many knew me and were happy to see me. Some asked about Salomé, others stopped to talk and bring me up to date on their lives while I continued giving out flyers and inviting people to participate. My friends didn’t seem to mind that I interrupted them off and on; they would just pick up their conversation where they had left off when I broke away.
There was my old French teacher, Annie, who I was delighted to see. She did not look well so I gave her an especially tight hug and asked about her new apartment; she said it was too small for two people to each have her or his own space. Then there was Maité one half of the first lesbian couple I met upon arriving here (I had never met a lesbian couple before, so it was a first for me); she is fond of me, I can tell by the way she always hugs me a bit too tightly and a bit too long for just a normal salutation. She talked for almost 15 minutes telling me the latest about the problems they have had with their builder whom they are suing.
Then there was a lady who goes to the same café I do in the morning and –although we do not even know each other’s names- she asked about Salomé who everyone knows. And a gentleman who I know from just passing him in town frequently and always saying hello, and the lady that used to own one of the restaurants I go to sometimes, and my hairdresser…
But, more than the people I knew, it was the people I didn’t know that gave me the most. A man came over from the checkout counter and asked to borrow one of the large cartons we were filling with produce. Then he returned with the box completely filled to the top with canned goods. A darling little man was about to walk by and leave the store when he saw me, covered his mouth and muttered: “I forgot”. Then, instead of leaving the store, he handed me his goods to watch, re-entered, went through all the trouble of standing in line again at the checkout and brought me a bag of noodles. I couldn’t believe it. I told him he was ‘adorable’ and he seemed to like that. We were just two people completely in love.
A rather scruffy looking tall man sidled over. He didn’t look as if he could buy anything for himself, much less for us, but I invited him to anyway. He said no, he was a store thief and had come to steal some food. I asked why he didn’t register for the Restos de Coeur for food and he got angry, saying that he had tried but they had demanded certain legal papers that he didn’t have and he had decided they were no good (or something like that). He talked on a bit, but as I was busy inviting other people I couldn’t pay much attention to him. I know that the Association is strict and people must have their papers in order for them to receive aid. A while later, the ‘thief’ came back; he seemed in a better mood.
“Are you giving away any of that stuff today?” he asked. I said “no”, we were collecting and did not have permission to share any. I asked him how his ‘thievery’ had gone. He shrugged and with a sly smile, said that it hadn’t gone at all well. “There were people watching; I couldn’t take anything. I’ll have to give it another try.”
“Better luck next time” I said and I really meant it. He stuck around for a while; he seemed pleased that someone had taken his ‘occupation’ seriously. He explained how he hid things in his clothes, or ate them in the store. As a justification for his trade, he explained how the managers and owners of big businesses were stealing left and right and people like him were arrested for lifting a loaf of bread. “And don’t forget the politicians,” I added. That seemed to encourage him and he went back in. I didn’t see him again so I have no idea if he got to eat his meal or take home a few bars of chocolate for dessert.
People kept coming with stuff, filling up all the boxes I had. They seemed so happy and it pleased me tremendously to have given them the chance to feel so good with themselves.
A sort of dark-skinned good-looking young man came in and I presented my spiel. He shook his head and in broken English said he did not speak French. “What do you speak” I asked in English. “English and Spanish” he said, immediately clueing me in with his accent to the fact that Spanish must be his first language. What a relief! I immediately broke into Spanish asking him where he was from. It turned out he was Peruvian and he had come to give a conference for some business (I didn’t really catch the name) in town and he urgently needed a current adapter for his computer or he wouldn’t be able to give his course tomorrow. I was not sure he could find one in the store so I told him that if he didn’t, I had plenty at home and if he waited or returned at 7pm I would take him home and loan him one. He returned a few minutes later with an adapter in his hand: problem solved. I asked him if he would kindly help me take the full box of cans and goods off the top of the empty boxes so that I could get one out and he did. He was a lovely young man and I was so glad to speak in Spanish for a few minutes. We thanked each other and he parted.
A couple of tall, lanky teenagers strode into the store and –in spite the fact that someone had mentioned that youth seldom gave- I stopped them and offered the list, saying that any small thing would do. About twenty minutes later they came out and approached, handing me two small boxes of cookies: “It was all we could afford” they said, looking slightly embarrassed. “Oh no!” I cooed, “It is wonderful, just perfect. We are so grateful and the kids at the Restos des Coeur will love them.” If I hadn’t been so sure that they would feel very uncomfortable, I would have hugged them on the spot!
One lady, when I tried to explain about the Restos, stopped me. “I know” she said, “they helped me out for a while there when I was in trouble.”
“Are things better for you, now?” I queried.
“Fortunately, yes” she said; “What is it you most need and I’ll get some.” I told her some cooking oil would be good and she came back shortly later with three bottles. Another lady stopped and told me she had heard the advertisements about the collect on television and that she did not agree to giving the recipients cans of cooked food. “They don’t learn how to cook their own food that way; it is not right; I don’t agree with that.” I nodded my head and said I found her opinion interesting and that she just might be right about it. Then I suggested that she could always give a bag of lentils or rice and she smiled, and nodded. A while later she returned with two cans of cooked vegetables, so I guess her opinion wasn’t so solid after all.
Experiences of extreme generosity, of efforts made in spite of not having much for one’s self, of the painful way people hid their faces when they didn’t want to give or even take the paper, and so much love that my heart was overflowing. As I left, mentally kneeling down with gratitude, I wondered if somewhere along the line I had missed my calling. It has been a long time since I have felt so much love in my heart. How to say ‘Thank you,’ except…. Thank you.