France, Strangers, and Gasoline

Sometimes it’s little things that can significantly change our understanding of what we think of as “the basics.”

A few weeks ago I was traveling in France. Before I left, I heard the same sort of warnings from various people at home: “Those people are rude,” “Unfriendly Frenchmen,” and so on. I figured that while there could be some amount of truth there, it could hardly make sense to characterize an entire country in this way. But I thought little of it as I left on my trip.

Above image by Aaron Weber.

Some time later, while driving in France, I had to stop to refuel my rental car. After stopping at a gas station, I was alarmed to discover that I was unable to actually buy any gas. The stations in the area are fully automated so cash is not accepted, and because of some technological differences my American credit cards would not work.

I was in a place where only French was spoken, and my French is very far from fluent. After a moderate amount of stress, I was able to communicate with another customer through a mix of gestures and my limited French. I asked him if he would be willing to take 40 Euro in cash from me in exchange for putting 40 Euro worth of gas on his French credit card for me.

Without any hesitation, he agreed. After entering his card into the machine, and before I had even begun to start pumping, he left — not even bothering to wait to make sure I wouldn’t spend more than the 40 Euro I had paid him.

It might seem insignificant, but I thought about this encounter a lot for the rest of my trip and have even more since I got back. On a number of occasions I’ve asked myself, “What are the odds of a French traveler in the US getting that kind of unhesitating help from a stranger here?” It’s a tough question to answer, and I can’t help feeling that most people — myself included — would cry “Scam!” and would be very hesitant to help.

I’ve also thought about the stranger’s trust that I would be honest in not spending more than 40 Euro, which is in some ways even more striking. To me, it indicates a faith in the best of people, and not the worst. I can’t help but think about this act of kindness in the context of the stereotypes about French people I heard before my trip, which in my experience were contradicted at just about every turn.

From this I learned to work harder to be generous to strangers, and to question broad, negative assumptions about others. So, to my fellow Wanderers, I hope you’ll keep this anecdote in mind, whether it’s when you are hesitant to believe strangers will be kind and helpful, are hesitant to believe it’s worth being kind and helpful yourself, or when you have misgivings about traveling. The world has countless exciting places you should go see — but don’t overlook the fact that everywhere you go, there are great people there too.


Signing off for now,

Aaron Weber
Fearless Leader, Wander




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