Nativities and la Croix Rouge

nativity

It’s Christmas time at Grenoble. Standing behind a manger, I press my hands together serenely next to two other angels wearing feathery halos. Shepherds are sitting on nearby bales of hay. Goats are bleating and there is a boy sitting on a donkey.
In the archway of an old palace, a nativity scene has been put together and my friends and I go in for a photo. Looking at them across the hay, you’ll perhaps find testimony of my failure or success.
There is just one French person – he’s sitting on the donkey. So perhaps I haven’t integrated enough. My number of French friends currently totals at three; Nicolas on the donkey, Marcia with hazelnut spread and a rat tattoo and Simon who brings me walnuts from his garden. Failure perhaps, or just a sign that I am well and indefatigably entrenched in the Erasmus community. The two angels on my left are Spanish and Polish. The shepherds sitting around are a fabulous spread; Argentinean, American, Moldovan, Irish, British, Spanish, Columbian and Chinese.
On Erasmus, it’s difficult to move outside the international enclave. At first I fought against it, but later realised the benefits of worldwide friends; conversation is interesting; the people are adventurous and I’ll never want for a holiday destination. However, my bid to integrate into Grenoble continues and three weeks ago I began volunteering with the Red Cross.
In a little building in the courtyard of the local organisation, there is a makeshift supermarket. The shelves are stacked with tinned food, spaghetti, toothbrushes and baby milk. Running along the side are piles of fresh bread, cakes, vegetables, sandwiches and snail-paste for the brave. This is the local aide à alimentation, a service that the Red Cross runs for the homeless and vulnerable. Provided with a ration card and making a euro donation here and there, all this good quality produce can be given out for free.
I’m glad to be volunteering on this service as it’s giving me the opportunity to engage with French people from outside the university campus and make a contribution within the community that’s hosting me. I work there every Friday afternoon.
On my first day, I was introduced to the three very French old ladies who run the Friday shift; Germaine, Chréssienne and Emée. Germaine is in charge, old enough to be my grandmother and completely admirable. Emée sits benevolently at the till, while Chréssienne helps people to choose the right food to feed their families. I give them dairy produce and offer the bread, sandwiches and vegetables. Unexpectedly, this is becoming a very good revision session for the Year 7 French that often escapes me. I’m learning all the vegetable names, how to cook a navé and whatever on earth is a quenelle.
Second Friday, I have become Coraline. Things are getting easier, I know the ropes, but every time this Coraline has made a mistake in the books, Chréssienne looks up at me and I get a glare.
Last Friday, I am Alice once again. I run off early to go up the Chartreuse, but first spend a shift made more rewarding by the fact that the families now recognise me. We’re giving advent calendars and knitted jumpers out to children. I say au revoir to the ladies for Christmas, sure I’m going to return.

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