Carol Drinkwater: the power of kindness in challenging times

PUBLISHED: 12:28 12 January 2021

© Melissa Wood

© Melissa Wood

Melissa Wood

FRANCE Magazine’s Provence-based columnist looks back on 2020 and reflects on the kindness of strangers during difficult times

After what was a challenging year, let’s hope that kinder, less turbulent days lie ahead in 2021. I ask myself what can I take from all that we have been through in 2020. I want to celebrate those who have gone the extra mile, to lend a hand when the nation’s services were stretched to the limit.

I met a man in Paris, or rather I spotted him from a pavement café when Michel and I were sitting outside sipping a chilled Chablis, hoovering up the last rays of autumn warmth. The man – lean, possibly in his sixties – was on a bicycle. Several plastic carrier bags hung from the handlebars. Reminding me of vegetable-growers here in France transporting their necklaces of onions from one shop to another. The man pulled up in front of us and started poking at the pots of flowers the bistro had placed to designate the extra space the mairie had allocated them to make social distancing easier.

I whispered to Michel, “Is that man stealing the pots?” I watched him with an eagle’s eye. He pushed his fingers into the earth of several of the pots, looked about him, dismounted his bike and wheeled it alongside us, where he balanced it against the wall. He entered the café and returned with two wine bottles brimming with water. These he poured onto the flowers. He watered one and all, hurried back inside for a refill and did the same again. When he had finished, he returned the empty bottles to the bar and was about to disappear with his bicycle, when I stopped him.

Many will be looking forward to the time when they can sit together on a cafe terrace in Paris once again © ventdusud iStock Getty Images PlusMany will be looking forward to the time when they can sit together on a cafe terrace in Paris once again © ventdusud iStock Getty Images Plus

Everywhere in cities now, cafés and bars have constructed temporary wooden barriers made up from old boxes and palettes. These mark out their extra eating areas. To make these look more attractive, proprietors have decorated the upturned palettes with plants. Was this man a gardener working for the city? I asked him.

He shook his head. “I’m not working for anyone. I’m retired, but I can see everyone has their hands full, trying to earn a crust during Covid. I live in Dunkirk.” (Reader, look Dunkirk up on the map. It’s close to the border with Belgium. 297.7 kilometres from the capital.) “I bring my bike on the train into the city once a week and ride from one restaurant to another to water the plants for the owners who are way too busy to give time to such matters.”

I was astounded. “So, you do this as an act of love?” He shrugged his shoulders in Gallic fashion. “Just doing my bit.” And off he rode. I was humbled as I watched him pedal across the busy street.

An Act of Love is the title of my new novel to be published in April. It is a World War II story set in the lower Alps, in a village high above Nice, inspired by true incidents that took place in 1943. When I first came across the history of this remote mountain settlement, I was blown away by the courage displayed by its citizens. So much so that I felt impelled to give life to their events. I have spent 18 months in my head (and sometimes for a few days in reality) living with that long-ago community. It is the small acts of love, of generosity, and occasionally the bigger more dangerous ones, that give us humans dignity. Our moral courage, our reaching out to one another in times of crisis. That stranger on the bicycle whose name I shall never know reminded me of that power of kindness.

Carol Drinkwater writes a bimonthly column in FRANCE Magazine. Click here to find out more about the latest issue, and click here to subscribe.

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