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Joe's Neighborhood

A traditional French kiss

3/6/2019

What is the difference between somebody we know for a long time and a person who is a new friend?

They laugh. And not just with their mouths, like your teenage kids do when you tell a joke. Instead, their eyes sparkle, tear up, close tight and sparkle again. Even their ears twitch. I mean real laughter.

And everyone and everything is fair game for their laughter: the President of France, their age, marriage, religion, Frenchmen… and me.

“Where are you from?” they ask. 

Iowa, I say. 

“Texas?” 

HIV

No, Iowa. 

“Ohio?” 

No, Iowa. 

“Oh, Eeowa.”

Uproarious laughter! 

Really? Are you kidding me? This is the level of our humor today? I can’t help but smile.

This all began simply enough. I needed to find a leather-bag-repair-shop in Carcassonne, France. Apparently, I had stuffed one too many bottles of wine, hunks of cheese and loaves of bread into my little leather bag, and the strap snapped in complaint. A shoe-repair store seemed the ticket. So I found Cordonnerie Traditionnelle.

“Today is a special day. I kiss you.” 

I guess this is what happens at a French shoe-repair store. Heck, what would have happened if I brought in boots to repair?

The traditional French kiss, left cheek then right, came from Mokhtar Bendahmane. Mokhtar had been called in by the shoe-repairman, Emmanuel Delcambre, to translate for us.

“Mokhtar, can I take a picture of you and Emmanuel?” 

“Excuse me,” Mokhtar says. And he takes off to the back room.

Did I offend him?

Shortly, he returns dressed in a beret, a jacket, and a blue scarf. 

What? You have French picture props?

He and Emmanuel are once more driven to laughter by Mokhtar’s antics.

Mokhtar begins to translate for us as I ask Emmanuel questions. 

“I only repair shoes and pieces of leather for horses. I have been here 25 years. I am 68. For 22 years, I lived in a community. The aim was to live a Christian life and experiment with another kind of society, living an orthodox life with less power.”

Emmanuel looks like an ascetic monk dressed as a shoe repairman. I point this out to Emmanuel. 

“There’s a story we tell to kids,” Emmanuel says. “St. Antoine goes into the desert and survives on almost nothing. He is the classic ascetic monk. One day an angel comes and says to St. Antoine, ‘You are a great saint. I bring you to Cairo. I’m going to show you to someone.’ The angel took him to a shop of a very poor shoemaker. The angel says to St. Antoine, ‘The shoemaker is a greater saint.’ ”

St. Antoine is flabbergasted and in total disbelief.

“St. Antoine says to the shoemaker, ‘Do you pray? The shoemaker says no. St. Antoine says to the shoemaker, ‘Do you sacrifice?’ The shoemaker says no. ‘Do you give up sleeping?’ The shoemaker says no. ‘Do you give up eating?’ The shoemaker again says no. ‘How is this better than me?’ Saint Antoine says to the angel. ‘He is more humble,’ says the angel.”

Really?

“I am not the shoemaker, by the way,” Emmanuel quickly adds.

“He is that close,” says his friend Mokhtar gesturing with his hands inches apart.

What about your job, Emmanuel?

“When I started this job,” Emmanuel says, “I discovered I was the king of the world. Because by this work, I can eat, my family can eat, I do something I love very much. I love working with my hands. It varies each day. I have no boss above me. One day a woman slapped her small son in my shop. I told her she would have to leave if she did that. I can allow whatever I want in my home.”

“He can dance when he wants,” Mokhtar adds. Of course, this observation required that Mokhtar dance a small jig.

It is time for Emmanuel and Mokhtar to get back to work. But Mokhtar leans in before leaving:

“One journalist asked the Dalai Lama, ‘What is the difference between somebody we know for a long time and a person who is a new friend?’” 

Mokhtar gives me his last smile.

“The Dalai Lama said, ‘No difference.’ ”

Kiss left cheek, kiss right cheek.  ♦

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