We had just arrived in Bordeaux and we were taking public transportation (as is our custom) into town. We took a bus and then were waiting at a tram stop to continue when Patricia began to chat with a fellow passenger. She was speaking to a middle-aged woman who knew no English but to whom our imperfect French was no impediment. After only a few minutes of conversation she was making sleeping gestures, inviting us to stay at her apartment rather than a hotel. We thanked her but demurred, telling her we had already booked a hotel She asked which one. Then began insisting we come at least for dinner. Patricia did her best to put our new friend off, to leave her with a polite "peut-être," but she pressed ever harder. The woman gave Patricia her telephone number and asked her to call. "Peut-être," said Patricia. I confess to a wisp of wonder about just what was going on. We parted with her repeated wishes that she might entertain us. It certainly seemed a bit fishy. Though we communicated only with difficulty, it was clear that she ardently wished to see us again. We left the tram and located our hotel not far away, checked in and went to our room. The telephone rang. It was our new friend -- she had made her way to the hotel . She said that she merely wanted to be sure that we had found the address. When we continued our polite regrets, she said that we should let her know once we have decided to come. Ah, but we had no telephone. Instantly she had her cellphone out and was pressing it on us. Though we managed to refuse the phone, we found ourselves capitulating by way of compromise and agreeing to meet her at four the following afternoon. Her eagerness was so urgent it was a bit off-putting.
Terez, for that was her name, which she spelled in this rather than the French way, did come by the next day to conduct us to her home in Merignac. She had a pass for the tram, but the system required single-ride passengers to pay before boarding, and none of us had the proper change for the vending machine. She urged us to get on anyway as there was no ticket-taker, though fellow passengers could see that we had not stamped a ticket or flashed a card. Feeling conspicuous and vulnerable, we learned a bit more about our hostess. She had immigrated from Armenia some decades earlier. She and her husband were both on disability and her younger son Émile was a secondary school student while an older son Achot drove trucks, though he found himself at the moment unemployed. Her husband was in the hospital for shoulder surgery. After a time we were relieved to arrive at our stop, but then dismayed to find we had a bus yet to take, again conspicuously ticketless and now with a visible driver. By the time we reached Terez’s place, doubtless a welfare apartment but well-maintained and adequate, we were co-conspirators, anarchist comrades, fellow scroungers after life.
She immediately poured wine and gestured toward the coffee table, laden with chocolates and fruits and cheeses and pastries. Her younger son was a bit timid at first, but warmed to his role as the family member with the closest thing to some knowledge of English. After a short time her older son appeared with his family. His wife Milena (who had lived in Moscow for some years) was gracious, and their children Iliana and Mike were pleasant. What a fine family, and all welcoming us as though we had been relatives while grinning across the linguistic gap. Achot occasionally enlisted his telephone to turn our French into Russian.
There wasn't an inch to spare on the dinner table as well, though the principal dishes were as yet unpresented. The repast turned out to be gargantuan: baked pork chops, a casserole of ground meat, eggs, and potatoes, a plateful of fresh coriander stalks, olives, pickled peppers, creamed spinach, a cabbage salad, charcuterie including salami and a preparation of cooked lard (pure white, looking like benign slices of cheese), and half a dozen beverage options beyond the wine. This was eventually succeeded by a grand variety of fresh fruit (including excellent persimmons), cheese, fruits, and hitherto unseen pastries. Fond as we are of cooking, we could not imagine staging a feast on this scale.
Achot gave us a lift back to the hotel as his mother was asking if we didn’t want to stay the night, and, when disappointed, offering hospitality to us and our relatives for all time to come. We felt still a bit dazed, unable to process the experience as a whole. The family had doubtless been influenced by their alienation in France. “It is hard here for an immigrant,” Achot said, and we later were told that Armenians are considered by some in Western Europe as the next thing to Gypsies. Armenian custom surely played a role as well, and, most of all, Terez’ innate great-heartedness. With such slight acquaintance it is difficult to discern or even to speculate meaningfully about motive. Her liberality was not unique in my experience. I thought of the schoolteacher in a small Algerian town who heard we had been stranded there and turned up suddenly in his car to offer us a bed and a dinner at which he kept urging, "Mangez, mangez!" while we wondered whether his wife and children would have anything to eat after we had left the table with him. And the woman from the German embassy in Phnom Penh where she did what struck even this cynic as humanitarian work, who spread for us a tasty table in her apartment in a towering building overlooking the lights of the city and we ate together and discussed philosophy and art as though time did not exist and we knew we would never meet again. Then there was the ten-year-old boy in Khajuraho who tailed us until we tired of shooing him and in the end he brought us into his home where Patricia sat on the dirt floor with his smiling mother and made parathas. This Muslim and agnostic and Hindu would have understood the millennia-old Hebrew injunction, “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)
The encounter still seems a bit mysterious. I had been reading Céline's Death on the Installment Plan and relishing his profound pessimism, his disgust with humanity. He is like Henry Miller but lacking Miller's ebullient brand of joy. What carries Céline through the day I do not know, yet he has such propulsive energy in his revulsion that he goes on and on as though he must anticipate something coming of it all in the end. In spite of his fascism and misogyny he seems to me like Swift in his fierce and biting vision (not to mention his scatology), bitter because he cares so much. And even in the riot of vices detailed there, the hatred, lust, irresponsibility, wanton violence, utter selfishness, and absurd arrogance, there is the figure of Uncle Edouard, with no selfish end whatever, trying tirelessly to see that his wild nephew manages to launch himself in life. Such kindness, like other miracles, need not be constant or even frequent. It need not even be wholly pure in motive. It is enough that, now and then, along our progress, be it a day that seems a stroll, a hike, or a laborious trudge, someone look our way with uncalculating love. Surely this is the only grace there is, but if we are fortunate it will suffice.