Here’s What He Thinks About That

Gifts Between Strangers


My dad had a British colleague who owned an old house somewhere in northern France. We paid him a lengthy visit one summer when I was 12, back in 1976. There was nothing special about the locale that I could see. No castles or monuments, just simple farms among aging battlefields still alive in memory, a sleepy canal where I fished with his two sons and two daughters from two different marriages, and a lot of loose cows roaming the countryside demanding to be milked at all hours. I was given the use of an old bicycle, and I rode everywhere by myself including a daily trip to the village with some net bags to buy the local bacon and cheese and, of course, bread.

It was a mission I would scarcely assign to a 12-year-old now but back then, with my few words of French, it seemed normal. The merchants sized me up with blank expressions, hand-rolled cigarettes glued to their lips, and charged me accordingly. But I remember one elderly woman, all in black, habitually sitting in a corner of one local shop next to a pile of newspapers and an overflowing ashtray. One day she summoned me into her presence with a crooked finger and croaked, “Garçon, ici.”

I stood at attention before her. “Bonjour madame.”

“Vous êtes Américain?”

“Oui, madame.”

She held out a small can of what the Brits call potted meat, enveloping my hand in both of hers as I received it.

“J’adore les Américains,” she said.

“Merci, madame. J’aime la France.”

I didn’t mean to say that. It just came out. I felt embarrassed.

The faces of everyone around me lit up, warm and smiling from that day forward. “Au revoir mon fils, à demain!”

Back at the house, our host examined the tin and looked skeptically at me over his glasses.

“This is foie gras. You didn’t pay?”

I related my adventure. No one believed me.

But it happened. It was an act of generosity I could not appreciate until later recognizing how the woman was trying to inoculate me against the many indignities still to come in life, and that we all must face.

It was a small but powerful spell.

Our host and his wives are long gone now, like my own parents and so much of the family, but his children and I maintained our friendships. They visited me repeatedly when I lived in L.A. and New York City and attended my wedding in Seattle; I ushered at one of theirs in London. And we occasionally met in more remote areas for more strenuous adventures.

In 1990, I was on my way to points east when one son invited me to a dinner at Oxford University where I was seated next to a mathematics professor. She was quite irritated by the close proximity of an American and had a good deal to tell me about U.S. policy in Central America where she had traveled and about which she harbored grave concerns (remember Ronald Reagan and the Contras?).

I acquitted myself fairly well, though mathematicians have a peculiar facility for logic. I tried to parry her attacks on the American character with the record of Margaret Thatcher, then still in office, but my companion had even more contempt for her nation’s international misbehavior than my own, as she saw it, and it was a losing battle.

Some weeks later, she wrote me a letter. She had reconsidered some of the things she had to say at dinner and went to the trouble of fact-checking me to confirm my claims, hoping that I would come up short. Instead, she said, I had succeeded in changing her mind, at least about Americans if not American foreign policy.

It was another gift — a small but powerful spell — except this time I had cast it, unknowingly, and she had the integrity to act on it. (There’s that talent for logic again.)

We have corresponded for years, not least because she ended up marrying my Oxford friend.

I received an email from her just a few days ago, suggesting that my family join theirs for a grueling bike ride across some desperate stretch of Australia next summer. She lost me at “grueling,” “desperate,” and “biking,” I said, but if they wound up at the edge of some ocean I might be convinced to meet them with a rented sailboat and a large cooler of beer.

Hearing from her again reminded me of that elderly woman, all in black, coolly smoking her hand-rolled cigarettes in the corner of a village shop so long ago, casually working magic on the character of any hapless youth fate sent her way. I realize now that I have met her many times since, in many forms, in some unlooked-for act of acceptance that spanned a chasm between strangers.

It is a powerful spell. One we would do well to practice on each other, if we can find the courage.

Ted Olinger steps in this month. He is associate editor of the Key Peninsula News.