Please indulge me. I want to tell a story – of course, about myself.
While I was the managing director in London running the EMEA region for Noetix, my wife decided to rent a flat in Paris during one of the summers. She found an adorable place in “Le Marias”, a chic district in the heart of the city.
I visited her on weekends coming in from London on the Eurostar. Given the generous European levels of vacation time, I also planned an extended stay for almost three straight weeks. However, I don’t always “vacation” well, sometimes becoming very stressed when trying too hard to relax. So, soon after arriving, I went to a community center recommended by a French friend.
There, I walked in and in my broken French asked if I could volunteer for two weeks. I explained that I played sports and was good with teenagers. The nice woman made several calls on my behalf, explaining to whoever was on the other end of the line that she had a person who spoke horrible French interested in volunteering.
After a couple of unsuccessful calls, she delicately explained that they actually needed volunteers who could communicate better with the teenagers. Then, she said in perfect proper BBC English that she appreciated my initiative to come and ask. We spoke for awhile but she didn’t have any suggestions on where I should go next.
After a few more days of drinking coffee, finding wonderful local restaurants and bars, I was starting to get a little antsy. I found a community newspaper where a nursing home asked for visitors for its residents. I called right away and made an appointment with a certain gentleman.
The nursing home was in a rather rough part of town and I had trouble finding it. Nonetheless, I eventually found myself at the facility being lead into this gentleman’s room. He was in his bed, with family pictures on the dresser.
I introduced myself, but he stared blankly at me. Then, he motioned to his ear and said he doesn’t hear well. So, I introduced myself more loudly. He waved at me to sit down. We asked each other basic questions. On occasions, he would ask me to speak up. Up to that time, I had never had the confidence to yell in French.
I learned that he had been in World War II. His daughter was out of the country and his wife had long since passed away. He showed me pictures, and asked politely about my family. I’m not sure how much he understood of what I was saying, but he would smile and nod repeatedly. As time passed, I knew he was tiring. I pulled out a book about Seattle that I had bought from a bookstore on Champs Elysees. I showed him Mount Rainer and the Space Needle, among other Seattle sites. I told him that I had brought it for him to keep.
He grabbed my hand pulling me closer, and said, “Merci”, but he would prefer that I visit him again than have a book about my hometown. I saw such honest sincerity in his eyes. We had connected despite language, generational, and cultural gaps.
When I opened the door to leave, a crowd looked up at me. Apparently, my loud butchering of French had attracted many at the nursing home. All the faces were smiling. They parted their walkers out of the way and let me pass. Some patted me gently on my back.
Success in business or life should always feel like I did that day leaving the nursing home.