Birthday here, birthday there

While it has been clear for a while that my daughter’s birthday (which is tomorrow), and most likely also mine (in 2 weeks) would be spent at home, it is still not obvious what the conditions for my husband’s will be (mid July). In the meantime, after making clear that the gifts would include neither a blue tooth speaker nor new shoes in order not to expose the post office and other delivery personnel unnecessarily, the trick was to still find ways to celebrate. Our local bookstore (located exactly one kilometer from our house) offers one slot a week to pick up orders from their stock: I went and retrieved a comfortable pile of books last Wednesday and wrapped them up with my son this morning. We were not sure that we would be able to provide the traditional tiramisu, but mascarpone and biscuits reappeared at the supermarket during the past week. It will be a different, but no so different birthday. And speaker and shoes will be there, at some point, later.

There was another birthday to celebrate a couple of days ago. It was the first time that I took part in lunch box distribution on campus, a solidarity initiative that could get started last week in this format: the city provides the meals, the red cross brings them to the campus, a team of volunteers composed of lecturers, students and administrative staff of the university portions and wraps the meal for each student – there are still 300 students living on campus, many of them with little to no income. So, while I was preparing the box of the very first student I had the opportunity to take care of, I simply asked: “How are you doing today?”, and he answered: “Today is my birthday”, with a large smile on his face. We should have sung Happy Birthday. We should have found something to give to him. But we, the three faculty members delivering the meals, stood kind of helpless. We wished Happy Birthday, we smiled, he pocketed a few more leftover Easter chocolates.  When he came the following day, we talked about his birthday again. He said he had spent the afternoon experimenting the baking of a cake while lacking most of the ingredients, and that it was fun. He smiled, again, a bright smile.

Volunteering is not as straightforward as it might seem, it supposes to accept that different people have different life values, different scales – to realize how incredibly lucky and advantaged we are and how that does not entitle us to be judgemental. Buying a good conscience with a few hours of your time is one thing. Expecting one very specific form of gratitude is another. There is a balance to find between what we can give and what we should expect. We were saddened by the student who said it was is birthday, but in the way he talked to us, it is not the sadness that came out, but, rather, the joy of sharing. Of course, we couldn’t help but think that maybe he was just doing awfully bad and this was just a way of giving himself a contenance. Maybe it was even worse to see him act happy, worse for us that he didn’t say how depressing it is to celebrate in these conditions. As a volunteer, you have to make sense of very small bits of information about the people you are helping, and to find the right distance in empathy, both for you and for the others. I found myself being simply happy about his bright smile, and smiling back – there was nothing more I could do. 

The students who come to fetch a lunch box have different personalities. Some smile, come relaxed, meet other students they know while waiting in line, talk to one another. Some are shy and seem to not want to talk much. I suppose they wonder just as much about us as we do about them. Since the volunteers rotate and the students meet different people along the weeks, it is not like there is much occasion for building a complex relationship. It is a short time, a few minutes per week, top. What do we make of that?

Still, for the students, this is about more than just fetching lunch boxes. This is about coming at a fixed time to a fixed place, which is extremely structuring when you are locked in 9m2 for days and days, up to a point where I can easily imagine that you end up losing track of time. This is about bringing a clean box every day, about standing in a line that respects the ground rules of social distancing, about finding a familiar space on campus open while everything else is closed, and about acting according to the new social rules in this familiar environment. This is about meeting students and faculty that you can only contact digitally otherwise, people you used to meet every day before being locked up in you dorm room. 

And then there is what it does to the volunteers, besides the feeling of being able to help a little bit. There is getting to know other volunteers or meeting there people you already knew: I was really happy to end up teaming up with Charlotte yesterday, a PhD candidate I used to sing with in the University choir a couple of years ago. She told me about the situation of PhD candidates and how difficult it is to keep working on her PhD right now. While in Germany PhD fundings have been extended unconditionally, we are far from that in France right now, alas. On the first day that I was there, we also had a quick visit from the colleague who provided the vizors that are made available for the volunteers (they delivered most of their stock to the nearby hospital) – he wanted to check that there was enough stock there for us. Talking with him and other colleagues from our technical institute made me realize what an asset the University could be in terms of engineering competence, but also of production with all the machines currently unused. We talked about the issue of plastic stocks in our region. We talk about what we have in common: the University, the students, our life in this city showing a new face and what the different areas we live in look like. For us too, volunteering is about having social relationships, in a familiar environment, with people who share that environment with us.

When Charlotte put on music on her cell phone for the lunch box distribution yesterday, everybody relaxed, students and faculty. There was suddenly so much social normality, with the music and the open doors to let in the warm spring air. We were there for the moment, distributing fish, carrots, explaining the difference between goat cheese and camembert and the composition of Far Breton to our international students, like we could have at the University canteen on any other day. They commented on the music, some picked the lemon cake after all, but after half an hour, there was no Far Breton left.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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