Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Paying it forward – the kindness of strangers

Years ago when I was travelling overseas I got myself into trouble and had to rely on the kindness of a stranger – a friend of my father’s, who didn’t know me but took me into his home because of the strength of his friendship with my dad. When I went back to the same place, it was in his home that I stayed again. I’ll never forget, that when I was down, showing me what he was growing in his garden gave me such a lift. Perhaps he reminded me of my own dad who has such green thumbs and has always enjoyed giving life to plants in a garden. I was always welcomed like a daughter by my father's friend, and to this day I remember his whole family with fondness, though I never write or even call. Occasionally I may catch up with him or his wife when I happen to be at my father’s house and they call. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about how I am now paying his kindness forward. Granted, in hosting Workawayers we are exchanging their labour for accommodation and meals. But not all working and living conditions or hosts are the same. We tend to show a spirit of generosity and hospitality towards these young travellers.

We had the privilege of welcoming and hosting a young couple from Montreal on a Workaway stint a couple of weeks ago – coinciding with the Easter weekend. At first I was hesitant when Philip read their email to me. We’d had such a great time with our older Workaway guest that I didn’t think younger travellers could measure up. I'm happy to say I was wrong. I feel travelling particularly when you’re young is character forming. You certainly find out who you are when not among your own kin.

Myriam and Olivier had been in New Zealand when they contacted us, hoping to spend some time in the Dandenongs. Philip was impressed because they’d actually taken the time to read our profile and directed their enquiry to specifics. We get so many general enquiries that have been sent to so many other hosts. We agreed to the stay – the timing was right as we had no paying guests booked in the BnB. They were to catch the Skybus from the airport and Philip would meet them at Southern Cross station. They arrived late one night and we made our introductions over a cuppa and a glass of milk.

Both employed on the bloody big hole

A cleaning task

Olivier proved a steady worker

Making sucre de la creme - a more crumbly fudge, which is a Quebecois specialty

Slowly, as we got to know them, we learned that their Workaway place in New Zealand hadn’t quite gone according to plan. There were working with a dozen others at a self-sufficient ‘rustic’ farm – self-sufficient they told us meant that there was no electricity, and the little internet data bought by the family was not shared with Workawayers. Disappointed, they had left their accommodation, and slept in a van with another friend. I was appalled that a young woman had slept in a van. Putting myself in Myriam’s shoes, I would not have liked the experience at all. Cold and cramped in a van, with no toilet. A long time ago, I did happen to spend one night sleeping (or trying to) in a World War II bunker on an uninhabited island, where there were no amenities; where in the morning sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend (a throat lozenge) sufficed for brushing my teeth. But that was one night cramped with a group of many strangers in a bunker…

I asked Myriam whether travelling together had put a strain on their relationship. On the contrary she replied, it had strengthened it because they were spending so much time together – something they didn’t experience back home. While Myriam had completed her course of study, Olivier had decided to change his field. They were going to be enjoying one long summer, for by the time they returned home for either study or work, the Northern hemisphere would be in Summer.

Enjoying some of that crumbly fudge - of course with a glass of milk

A surrogate family

As Myriam and Olivier settled in, they fell in with the rhythm of our ordinary days. They would usually help themselves to breakfast, while I prepared lunches and dinners. (I love feeding people but sometimes it takes up too much of my day.) They cleaned and tidied after themselves, contributing to household chores such as loading and unloading the dishwasher, even without being asked. I felt rather spoiled…In between their chores for Philip, they had time to visit the sights of the neighbourhood, and one evening we took them to see a French film (as the French Film Festival was in town) and treated them to dinner afterwards at a family restaurant. To our surprise they expressed enjoyment in spending time ‘en famille’. Philip also made time to take them to see the native animals at Healesville Sanctuary (every foreigner wants to see a kangaroo); and as well, Olivier accompanied him to watch his local football team play at AAMI stadium, while Myriam and I were happy to hang together, not-together, at home.

I’ve taken the attitude (and I know Philip shares it) that had they been my kids overseas I’d want them safe and happy, enjoying themselves among strangers. We’re not strange to each other now. But it is the differences, the ‘strange’ that help us to bond in the beginning, as we talk about how you live compared to what you are experiencing now. Or even as you try and master the nuances of language in translation. These bright young adults are bi-lingual in French and English, and so down to earth. It may sound trite but they are such good upstanding young adults. Any parent would be proud. I feel so full of optimism and enthusiasm having had the pleasure of their company for those few days.

Myriam and Olivier have moved on and at the moment we’re hosting two young men who were born in Germany and live in a little village outside Frankfurt. Sharif’s ancestors are from Palestine, while Tariq’s originate from Turkey. They have been close friends since the fifth grade and tell me there’s another friend whose parents are from Afghanistan, who will join them later during the year on their big adventure around Australia.

Doesn’t the world contract to hear about these three friends? You don’t need Facebook – migration brings different communities together and they are held by a language and customs foreign to their ancestors. The boys consider themselves as in-between cultures (neither German nor Middle Eastern). Much like me - I'm also in the liminal. Over meals we become better acquainted. I had an interesting first hand account of Ramadan over lunch one day. It makes you think deeply about the person growing his spirituality, rather than being confronted by a foreign incomprehensible religion.

Sharif and Tariq will travel north, working when they can, and by next New Year’s eve plan to be in Sydney – because after all that is where it all happens New Year’s Eve. They have only been in Melbourne for a few days – are at the very beginning of their journey, which they are documenting on video, so family members can enjoy vicariously, but also as a kind of memoir to look back on when they’re older.

The boys ended up spending 9 days and 10 nights with us and probably worked for about three full days and a couple of half days. On their 'off' days they were left to their own distractions. Tariq tells me that he applied to come to Ferny Creek because of the lush verdure of our garden, and for someone who lives in a flat it's been a welcome change. The work has been tough on both. They had never used garden tools, or dug a hole. They have also marveled at Philip's ingenuity. According to Sharif he has a solution for all the problems that come along, whereas kids of his generation rely on Google.(Older people too rely on Google these days, I piped in.) I'm uncertain what they will take away, destined as they are for white collar work. They may decide on account of their stay with us that garden work, particularly digging holes, is not something they want to make a habit - even while on holiday. 

The hole keeps getting bigger

Sharif and Tariq enjoying some of the familiar tastes of home, such as hummus and a favourite, olive oil

Sharif recording on his Go-Pro

Ingenuity to get the digger on a higher ground - and congratulating themselves that the two planks worked

Papa bear on his lonesome contemplating the work ahead without his Workawayers

1 comment:

  1. Nice post...I look forward to reading more, and getting a more active part in the talks here, whilst picking up some knowledge as well..

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