OHMYGOD I AM SORRY. I have been quite inactive lately and I hope I haven’t lost all of your attention!! It turns out the European school system is much crazier than I imagined and I have been so busy either doing my work or filling my time with exercise classes that I have neglected all of you wonderful readers! I will talk about the school system later….but for now I need to update you on my “internship” aka experience d’immersion from January!!
Part of the St. Lawrence program is that we do a not-technically-or-legally-called-an-internship internship (even though I DEFINITELY signed three separate copies of a convention du stage and stage DEFINITELY means internship in French… ahh bref) during the January break “in between the two semesters.” (I put that in guillemets and you will find out why in the post about European universities.) Before the first semester was over, we had to tell our program assistant’s intern what we would be interested in doing during the time. I immediately thought FOOD because, obviously, who wouldn’t want to cook and make delicious food in France for three weeks….? Only crazy people. In the back of my mind, I just wanted to work at FLVM the whole time, but I knew that wasn’t possible, so I said food as my request anyway. After some complicated searching and an interview where a woman told me I would be bored if I was an “intern” at their company, I finally fell upon a place that seemed to work. My host parents know a man who works (in some fashion) for a soup kitchen called Repas Chauds St. Marc and he said that I would be welcome to join their team of bénévoles for the three weeks if I wished. I did a trial run one evening to check out how the association worked and decided to stick with it.
To be honest, which I always am, I was initially absolutely terrified of everything and everyone, I felt incredibly uncomfortable in the whole place, and I felt like I was cheating on FLVM by working in someone else’s kitchen. So I was pretty uneasy for the time in between my trial run and the beginning of my internship, a period of probably 2 weeks. But when the time came to start working there, I slapped myself in the face and said ANNA STOP BEING SELFISH AND MAN UP WOULD YA. And I did just that.
Repas Chauds St. Marc is an association made up of a president and a team of bénévoles who cook dinner 4 times a week for [mostly] SDFs (sans domicile fixe) from Rouen. The kitchen, and the rest of the property of the association, is located in the sacristie of a condemned church in Rouen, about 5 minutes walking distance from my house. The church is called Église Saint-Nicaise if you care to look it up! (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89glise_Saint-Nicaise_de_Rouen that’s in French…sorry…good luck!) The association runs on food donations from local commerçants and doesn’t have a very high yearly budget, so we only serve 4 meals per week : dinner on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. There are about 10 bénévoles total, including me, who volunteer there, but each night is led by a different team of 4 to 5 people. (For the sake of my later references, here is the list of names of people I worked with: Christian, Guy, Salah, Bruno, Réginald, Gwyndoline, Patrick, François, and Michèle. ) My apologies if you get confused by my verb tenses…I’ve forgotten how to write properly in English. Out of all of the bénévoles, I was the only one who worked there every night, so I got to see everyone!
My favorite days to work were Wednesdays and Fridays because Bruno and Salah were there. All of the bénévoles were really nice people, but Bruno and Salah were my favorites because I somehow managed to get super sassy and make jokes with them IN FRENCH which is quite rare! They were both very sweet to me and even though I didn’t understand eevverything they said (Salah talks REALLY fast, and Bruno kinda mumbles), they were a lot of fun to be around.
My job as the intern was the same as all the other bénévoles, we helped prepare the different parts of the meal together. Each night there was a soup or an entrée, a main dish, cheese, dessert and coffee. Much like my time at FLVM, I chopped a lot of vegetables….which I love! I discovered that my favorite thing to peel is a good MUSHROOM and I also discovered that I am SO WEAK compared to the powers of onions. One day I had to cut six onions and my eyes actually felt like they were rolling back into my skull because they couldn’t function anymore. It didn’t help that I was trying to stop myself from crying…but I genuinely felt for a second the way you feel when you go cross-eyed and someone tells you your eyes are gonna get stuck like that….It was terrifying. But aside from chopping vegetables, the biggest thing I did was THE DISHES.
I was the vaisselle girl! I once had to tackle two giant platters covered in the sticky oven remains of some boudin noir which was a pain in my rear, but also very satisfying to accomplish!
In general, the bénévoles wash the big things like the casseroles, saladiers, louches, plats…. while the clients have to wash their own dishes. That’s part of the trade. Since the meal doesn’t cost them anything, we require them to help clean up at the end. They set up a little line of dishwashing and rinsing and drying and arranging and they manage to get everything done in about 10 minutes. They also have to put the tables away, sweep and mop the floor, and clean the bathroom. It gets to be a very hectic process as there are 25 people bustling around in a very small space trying to get the job done as quickly as possible. There are the certain people who always do the same job each night, but there are always a couple men who just go out in the courtyard to smoke their cigarettes and let everyone else do the work. It was SUPER frustrating to see that all the time, but the other bénévoles with a better grasp on French gave them a little talking to every once in a while…or just handed them a broom and said GO. The biggest problem was that there are food trucks that come to the nearby Place St. Marc to drop off free food a couple nights every week at 7:30 PM. The meal generally finishes around 7 and they’re done cleaning by 7:25 or so, but it was very easy to tell when it was a food truck night because everyone ate very quickly and tried to rush to the best of their ability to get out of there.
Overall, it was a great experience for me to fill my time with. It was only three and a half hours each time and it was only 4 times a week. I wish I could’ve spent a lot more time there to cure my boredom, but I was there as much as possible! During all the time that I wasn’t at Repas Chauds, I’ve literally never been so bored in my life. And I know that being bored is for uncreative people, but I did so many things, I just couldn’t fill the time! It was crazy. So I was very thankful for the time that I did get to spend there.
It was definitely a very valuable experience for me. I get a lot of pleasure out of helping other people and although I was initially afraid of all of the people who came to eat, I eventually really appreciated their presence. They all come from different walks of life, each with a different level of poverty and resources, but it was so nice to see the smiles come across their faces when they walked in the door. The dining room was a place of warmth (but it was actually SO COLD in there because the only source of heat was an old wood stove that only sometimes decided to work with the impossibly damp wood we were trying to feed it) compared to the rainy winter outside and the people always seemed so pleased to be among friends. As the association doesn’t seem to be really well known, we had mostly the same crowd every night, with a few people who only came a couple times per week. The people all seemed to be among friends, and besides one little passive-aggressive fight that happened, everyone got along just swimmingly! Each person that walked in shook my hand and said “bonsoir mademoiselle,” and just with that small act I could feel how thankful they were.
I won’t credit the experience as giving me a brand new outlook on life, because I like to think I wasn’t completely ignorant before, but I will say it gave me a great, and pretty raw, introduction to a part of the population that I didn’t know much about. As in every city in the world, there are constantly homeless people roaming around the streets asking for money or help. Most people write them off and ignore them because that’s easier than smiling at them, because smiling at them would probably mean they’ll ask for more money. And I understand that sometimes it’s very irritating to be pestered by someone asking you for money, but I the biggest thing that I learned from Repas Chauds is that everyone in the world, rich or poor, just wants the minimum level of human respect. They’ve been told “no” hundreds of times, but the least you can do is say no with a smile! No one wants to be treated like they don’t exist. And although I can’t say that I’m the biggest philanthropist in the world as I don’t give money to every homeless person I see, I am incredibly thankful that I know, now on a more personal level, many of the homeless people in Rouen. I get excited when I see them on the street and it feels even greater when they say “bonjour Anna!” with a smile.
Since the end of my stage, I have returned to Repas Chauds on three separate Wednesdays to say hi to my buddies Bruno and Salah. It’s great to see them and they are still just as nice as ever. I would love to have the opportunity to go back and help out at least once a week there, but, as it always seems to go in life, something comes up that I have to be doing. It would be much easier if it was more than four times a week, but I know the budget and the help for that just doesn’t exist. So even though I haven’t gone back to help again, I haven’t forgotten the lessons that I learned or the people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting!
That’s Salah trying to make the oven work!
Here we have Bruno’s backside and a glimpse at how we make coffee!
And here’s a view of the dining room (connected to the kitchen); Guy and Réginald are setting up the tables. And behind that giant door?
This horrible quality picture of the part of the church still in existence from the 14th century!
And this better quality picture showing the construction that is condemning it! There is water damage on the ceiling, and that table you see there with the white tablecloth has been sitting there for twenty years!