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Dec 12 2008

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PARISIAN KINDNESS TO STRANGERS

At the cafe in the Place de la Sorbonne

Victorians go out alone far more than Australians in the other states, according to a new survey I heard about on ABC Radio this morning. This started me thinking about how much I enjoy travelling alone. It’s not that I’m anti-social—quite the opposite, in fact. And that’s precisely why I love travelling alone: locals are far more likely to talk to you when you’re alone than when you are in a group. I have sat alone in Paris bistros, for meals or just for a coffee, countless times; on the majority of occasions a fellow diner or even a waiter has started a conversation with me.

A few years ago, I was staying near the Sorbonne, and made it a habit to have a mid-morning coffee and read Le Monde in one of the Cafes in the Place de la Sorbonne. It was the time of the referendum about the European Constitution, and each day there were articles in the newspaper outlining the reasons to vote Yes or No, which I laboured over, looking up many words in my pocket French dictionary. It wasn’t a busy period in the cafe, and one of the waiters in particular always made time for a quick chat, after greeting me with, ‘Bonjour, c’est l’etudiante de la constitution Européenne!

One evening, quite late, I called in to the same café for a drink on my way home. The evening was not too cold, so I sat outside. My usual waiter wasn’t there, but that didn’t matter. As I was drinking my chocolat chaud, a man came along, looking rather down and out, and holding out a bottle of something that he was trying to sell, saying he needed to buy himself a meal. Before the few of us sitting at the tables could think of what to say or do, one of the waiters walked up to the man, took him gently by the arm, and led him inside the restaurant, saying he would find him something to eat.

As well as in Paris, I’ve sat alone in cafes in Melbourne, London, Brussels, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Tokyo, and possibly quite a few other places that I’ve forgotten. But I’ve never forgotten that waiter’s action, and I’ve never seen it occur anywhere else, although it probably does. When I find myself having to tolerate yet another stupid tourist’s tale about the ‘rudeness’ of Parisian waiters, I sometimes tell this story.

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