Finding Community in a City

“Community is not an ideal; it is people. It is you and I. In community we are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and their gifts, not as we want them to be.”-JEAN VANIER

I’m living in the midst of a holiday season in a metropolitan area.  It’s a time when cities feel frenetic.  Locals are shopping for gifts for loved ones.  Tourists inhale the Christmas spirit each store window has to offer.  And often we may feel overwhelmed and exhausted.  Being an outsider who is residing in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language, oftentimes I just observe. Paris seems in some ways like any other big city.  Many people live alone in their tiny apartments, and interact with their romantic partners or close friends for lunch or dinner.  It doesn’t seem as if people go outside their own little bubbles.  I’ve accepted this, as it what I am used to.  But last week I had two experiences which warmed my heart and reminded me a sense of community can exist anywhere. 

I was in my favorite gluten free boulangerie last week, which was crowded.  There was minimal seating available.  I asked a woman in a communal table if the space across from her was free.  She nodded.  I began to sip my coffee, and she tried to speak to me in French.  My French is horrible, so then she began speaking in Spanish.  This happens often.  I am mistaken for being some type of Latin.  I answered in Spanish that I was from the United States, and she transitioned to English.  Claudine was this woman’s  name.  She hailed from Morocco, but who has been living in France for years.  A mask covered her face, and a cane graced the table.  As we spoke, she noted how lovely the lattes were.  She stated she should know because she came to the Chambelland boulangerie daily.  Claudine began to tell me she lives in an apartment behind the boulangerie, and each day a staff member will help her walk the steps to her home.   I could have closed our interaction and typed on my computer, as I had planned.  But I welcomed in the moment with this stranger.  As our conversation continued, workers would stop and check in on her.  Claudine created community in this popular establishment, with her loyalty and regularity.  As she was about to be escorted by a worker, she asked me to visit her house.  I agreed.  All three of us walked to her apartment, and thirty minutes I was a guest in her home.   She offered me another coffee, as I continued to eat my pastry from the store.  As we bid farewell, she left an open invitation for me to return to her home. 

Later in the week, I went to a tiny Vietnamese restaurant where I had a similar experience.  My friend Isabella and I grabbed lunch, after a macaron making class at The Galleries Lafayette.  We sat at a table next to these two older women.  At first, they seemed shock that we would sit next to them.  The restaurant was tiny, and they appeared as if they didn’t want to be bothered.  There seemed to be an apparent free spot at a table next to a woman dining alone.  After time, their energy settled.  The older woman sitting next to me attempted to start a conversation with me.  Again it was in French, and again, I simply smiled and noted “Je parle un peu francais.”  I only speak a little French.  She offered to transition to English, and queried where we were from.  When we shared that we were from California, she noted that her grandson lived there and she visited once.  As she spoke about it, it appeared as if it was ages ago.  This woman than said she’s nearly 100 years old, and whispered to me her real age of 98.    We continued to politely chat, and they received their meals first.  Her and I ordered the same dish, a shrimp stir fry. 

At one point the woman got some of the stir friend noodles she was eating on her shirt.  I didn’t notice this, but the waitress did.  The waitress came over to her to wipe it off her shirt and then placed a napkin over her shirt like a bib.  The elder woman told her “Toi es gentille.”  You are kind.  At first, I thought this was strange.  I didn’t know how I would feel if a stranger did this to me, wiping me down, and doting on me.  But then the older woman stated she comes to this specific restaurant daily. “I live above here and I’m too old to cook,” was her response.  When I inquired her favorite dish, “all of them, I rotate,” was her response.  What I was witnessing in this moment was another act of kindness.  Two days after my interaction with Claudine, I observed this.  It was another older woman, who made this Vietnamese restaurant her third space.  Her home.  The staff member cared for her like a family member.  It was beautiful to witness this.  

These two single older women lived alone in Paris.  Their family members did not live in the city, but they created family.  They created community in third spaces.  The staff members at these food establishments went above and beyond their duties and job descriptions and offered support, care, and love to these women for small moments each day.  It was beautiful to observe these warm acts during these cold Parisian days.  And it wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t present enough to chat with these women in my poor French and be willing to go with the flow and engage in conversations with strangers. 

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