This is my first time writing a blog about my life and sometimes it feels so overwhelming when you can measure your life in stories as it passes by. Right now I’m volunteering in a little village in the central-eastern part of France called Beaumotte-Aubertans, with a mere population of 300 habitants (And I haven’t even seen a dozen of them), exactly the number of people residing in a building near my house in India. I will try my best to express my observations and feelings honestly in writing and sometimes a pinch of exaggeration may be present to flavour my visuals into words. So, here goes!
After a long wait preparing my travel documents, my luggage, my language skills and mostly myself for a year in a country so diversely different from my own, I was finally here. It being my first time, I hardly believe it’s real. I had a first hand experience of difficulties faced in International Mobilisation. I can say now that I’ve come to understand the bureaucracy and functioning of my country better, and will be well prepared to face them, with patience and tact. The security at the Airport in Bangalore not only checked my luggage, but my jitteriness too. But, I was firm with handing out my passport and tickets, and putting them back in. Sometimes it’s these small moments of newness that make them feel bigger. And it’s funny how I feel like a criminal sometimes, walking with these documents and stamps, as they define where I can go and who I am in a world which fantastically belongs to everyone.
It’s been a rather really fast paced month here in this “grande maison” of Centre de Beaumotte, the regional delegate of Solidaritaires Jeunesses in Franche Comte, but I can truly say each day felt like a long week, and still does. After visiting the architecturally rich city of Strasbourg with a few volunteers and teenagers from the house and watching the talented street performers and artists showcasing their wonders under the mild shadow of the L’oeuevre Notre Dame Cathedral and the indigo stained statue of Gutenberg for a day, it was time for the week to begin. The trip was an informative insight into one of the larger cities in France. I felt a bit isolated with the new people around me and the already knit volunteer group. As you know, I was the last of the lot to arrive.
I had always felt so confident about my French language skills in India, and I was pretty talkative and electric with the nasal sounds on my first day here. But, it was just until I heard a couple of the quieter volunteers casually speak that made me want to just stay quiet for sometime. I wish I had spent a lot more time learning French at home, than meeting friends and loitering around the sepia shaded streets of Bangalore in my free time. But, I can rightfully say, listening closely and introducing new vocabulary slowly in your speech has helped me get a catch on the language. But it just makes it harder to understand when the French speak really fast, even after you politely say, “Parle doucement s’il te plait”. But I think I’m getting used to it and I always try catching a few know words in the conversation to sum up what the person wants to say. A few weeks ago, I went to see an American Sci-fi movie (Interstellar) at the cinema and it was completely in French. But what was really interesting was not the story, but how my brain tried to understand the French spoken and at the same time make sense of what was happening.
What also astonishes me is how everything here works like a perfectly well functioning machine. I see cars waiting at the red signal even when there isn’t a single soul in sight, in a radius of 5km. The cars here don’t honk unless its an emergency, while in India, every once in a while if people think the streets are too quiet or their patience too good, they just fill them with the blasting echoes of the menacing “too-toos”. Also what seems awing to me is the fact that I don’t see a single person on the highway, and the cars zooming at the speed of 180kmph on the icy smooth roads. Things are too far off in every sense between France and India, and sometimes im not really able to perceive it an intact form. I somewhat find it disturbing too not see people on the streets, and feel the echoes of emptiness carried by the now chilling wind. I feel so many things, things that I had never felt before, and things that I cannot explain. It’s different. So different, that I must still find out. The area around the volunteer house is full of grass and maize fields, with fat French cows grazing to fulfil their duty of providing milk or being potential dishes of Boeuf Bourguignon. Well, holy cow!
In France, food is something as important as religion in India. It actually is a religion, if you think of the perennially empty churches in every village and the crowded cafes. And making mistakes in food it not looked at with enthusiasm to correct the person. I remember the afternoon i ate some peche confiture (jam) in the plat (main course) and i was looked at like i had just committed the biggest blunder possible. They made it sure that i knew how they felt, without actually telling me. Since, then i haven’t messed up or experimented with food on the table or at least when people are watching me. People around here eat a lot of baguette, a cylindrical long hard French bread which is oval at the edges. It’s eaten all the time with fromage, confiture and chocolate. Meat in all varieties like jambon, boeuf, poulet etc is eaten all the time, which makes it hard for me to be a vegetarian. But i do just alright with salads, cheese, bread and potatoes. Once i’d gone to a cafe and asked for something vegetarian, but all i was served was silent chuckles in disbelief that a vegetarian would ever step inside his humble meat eating palace. Also being even slightly late for a meal is treated like a crime. So much so, that I wasn’t given breakfast that morning. But I guess it served me right, as I have always been on, or before time ever since.
Coming to my typical day here in Beaumotte! The day starts at around 7 in the morning, with the petite dejuner until quarter to eight. Then out come all the brooms and mops, swishing and sparkling the floors of every room of this gigantic house. After that, we put on our work clothes for chantier (construction area), where currently we’re building a wall using the ancient method, for the local community of a village called “Autrey Les Cerre” which is 25km away from the house . I find it to be real hard work, working with stones under the locally perceived “mild” cold, which is even worse when it starts to rain.The hardest part is cutting the stones as sometimes I end up hitting my fist with the hammer instead of the chisel and it can be really painful, especially when you give it all in that one hit. When the stone is well shaped it’s placed among many other similar ones, and filled in with cement and small gravel stones and rocks. Like this the wall develops each day, slowly, and painfully. But since the day seems long, I try to fill it in with as many French conversations with the contract workers to improve my French and understand French people’s take on life and work here. We come home after work at around quarter to four. Soiled and exhausted, looking forward to a much needed relaxing bath. Then we have meetings or some time off until its time to prepare dinner. We have a rotation of the kitchen team each day who rapidly wash all the vessels to make it in time for collective activities like ping-pong, French cinema, dancing, yoga-meditation .etc, or just getting to bed early to catch some extra energy for the next day. I really like being in the kitchen as I learn something new each and every day, by over-cooking, or under.
But sometimes for me, the collective life gets too much as I feel like I don’t have a single moment to breathe or refresh myself. Thinking about it, I feel that I could be living in a house any where far away from Bangalore and doing the same things I do here. Things seem to start being a routine and isolated sometimes (even when you’re working together). Many a times, I don’t understand what people think, say or do. Even the birds chirp in a different tune. I find everything to be drifting away from my sense of logic and correctness.
Earlier this month we had a volunteer reunion here of all the other delegations of SJ. We were about 50-60 people in total and it was amazing. I met so many different kinds of volunteers and learnt about their way of life, projects and activities. A lot of their work and ideals which differed from ours, really interested me and gave me a sense of motivation. I will really love to work with different delegations and share their projects and ideas.
During this period we also had the elections for the volunteer representative for all the delegations. Normally, in such situations I would shy away, but that day motivation struck me. I gave a speech and tried my best. The result didn’t favour me but my confidence did. I was really happy that I tried. Later we had an International dinner, where we had so many different kinds of dishes from different countries. I cooked puliogere and some spicy chai. It was really challenging for me as I had never really cooked for anyone but myself.
I don’t know what changes, feelings, difficulties, learning’s, situations or emotions await me, but I hope that I realise that they carry a lesson and that I let them pass through me.