The kindness of strangers

Have I told this story before? Probably, but I’ll tell it again anyway.

Nearly 20 years ago I was on extended holiday and had made it to Paris, where I was staying on the Left Bank. On my third or fourth evening there my wallet was stolen, ironically at an Aussie bar. I returned to my hotel, and from there went across to the bar I’d got in the habit of visiting each evening.

It was a typical French bar with grizzled locals sitting around drinking beer or Pernod and discussing the week’s events, just as they probably had for many years previously. Though he had little English, and my French was scratchy at best, I had become friendly with the French owner and managed to communicate with him by a combination of gestures, nods and a pigeon version of Frenglish.

On this night I walked in and found a place at the bar and waited for the bartender to serve me. It was a Friday I think, and the bar was full and lively. I ordered a beer and when the owner asked how I was I mentioned in passing that I’d just had my wallet stolen. His brow creased with concern. He stood upright, and after a glance at me began addressing his regulars in French. I watched on as he spoke too fluently for me to understand, but felt at one point all eyes turn to me.

He had told them that my wallet had been stolen. Outraged that this had happened in their home down those lovely men shouted me one drink after another that evening as if it were their duty. I was roused and moved by this, and fell into broken conversation with them, who were interested in me as an Australian regardless, and as rugby supporters one and all felt some affinity with me (Australia had not long defeated France in the final of the rugby world cup). That bond was strengthened by the sympathy of my plight, and in the act of generosity to support.

The story doesn’t end there.

In the bar was an Australian who had lived in Paris many years and was a regular at the bar. When my situation became known the bartender tried to get him to speak to me, if only to translate. The Australian was unwilling, but finally relented.

It turned out he was the son of a communist who had been effectively hounded out of Australia, something that made him very bitter towards Australia. He relaxed as we continued to speak. I found out he was a documentary film maker and had a French wife and son. I think I was the first of his countrymen he had really conversed to for many years, and as he warmed to suggested I was unrepresentative of my country. I thought that unfair, but understood the sentiment – bitter memories make for bitter thoughts.

I ended up going with him back to his apartment at around midnight. He introduced me to his wife and then in a French manner we sat around his dining table talking, and drinking red wine while nibbling on cheese and ham carved from the bone. I left finally with him offering to lend me money to cover the deficit my stolen wallet had created. I refused him.

I’m a very proper person in many respects. Though I’d had a memorable night and was grateful for the support I received I thought it improper to take money from a man I hardly knew. I wish I had now – not because I needed it, but because it might have been the right thing for him. I failed to recognise the gesture, forgetting sometimes that it’s a kindness to accept a favour from someone offering one. In his case, as an estranged Australian, it might well have had extra significance.

I never saw or heard from him after that night, and I regret that I didn’t pay more attention to that. Years later I tried to re-visit the bar, but never found it. It was like one of those mysteries where something is found and then disappears forever afterwards. My mum, with Fred, tried to look it up to, but without luck.

It was a memorable evening and the loss of a wallet insignificant against the rich human experience. I’m very grateful to all those so kind to me that night. It’s one of those precious memories that only travel really can give you. I hadn’t thought of it for years though, until a conversation earlier today recollected it for me.

I’m glad I can share it again here.


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