Cold turkey after Christmas
Cold turkey refers to the withdrawal symptoms heroin addicts feel when they come off the drug. (It is said that they get shivers so strong that their skin looks similar to that of a turkey before it is cooked.) More prosaically, the expression can be used to describe the feeling of readjusting after an exceptional good moment in your life. 72 hours after Christmas though, it is simply a description of what is left on the dinner table! The appearance of this cold, unwanted meat is all too often a sad reflection of peoples’ feelings now that the big party is over.
Christmas at home
“Tradition can be a dirty word.” says Markus Zusak in his excellent novel “I am the Messenger.”
“Families all over the globe get together and enjoy each other’s company for all of a few minutes. For an hour, they endure each other. After that, they just manage to stomach each other.”
Perhaps “to stomach” is quite strong, but university students coming back after the vacation often tell stories of just how difficult it is to go back to the home where they are still supposed to behave and be treated like children. Similarly, parents find it hard to come to terms with the nocturnal habits of their returning prodigies.
Zusak’s book is a story a story of a bit of a loser (“Oh, it’s about your life then, is it dad?!” chirps up my teenage son!). His life changes when he starts receiving mysterious playing cards (all aces) that incite him to help others around him. It is a funny and beautifully written book and almost allegorical in some ways. If you have already run out of conversation with your family, this story will keep you entertained and cheer you up no end.
Simple acts of kindness
Simple acts of kindness do not just exist in fiction though. Let me share with a story that showed me much about benevolence. It also taught me more about developing harmonious intercultural relations than a lot of books I have read on the subject. Bear with me on this story, it is worth it!
A chance meeting
I had been in France for only a few months and was working one day a week in a school 50 kilometres away. Given the infrequent trains, I actually took to hitch-hiking back home at the end of the day, saving myself a 2 hour wait (and a bit of money I in the process.) One sunny Friday, I found myself standing by the side of the road when along trundles an iconic, grey 2CV. Inside, a man who was pushing 70. He was clearly a farmer, dressed in old baggy trousers, held up by his braces and a beige chequered shirt. This is what the French call, “La France Profonde”; deep rural, agricultural France, where time stopped back in the 1950s.
I climbed in and we drove off.
No more than 10 minutes later the man explains that he has come to the end of his journey, but gestures towards a bar with a wry smile on his face.
A new drink
“Fancy a drink before you go?” he enquires.
“Sure.” I smile back, somewhat surprised by the invitation.
We enter the bar and he asks what I would like. Young and impressionable at the time, I state that I will have the same as him.
The old man bangs his fist on the bar.
“Cent-deux!” he cries.
The French like a alcohol drink called pastis. It has a rather unique taste to it akin to melting an aniseed lollypop, sticking it in a glass and then adding water. It is sweet and pretty strong and seems even more so in the early evening when you have eaten little all day! One brand of this pastis has a 51 written on the bottle. “Cent-deux” or one hundred and two, was a double shot!
We drank and I spoke as much as I could in my very poor French.
“Another?” he asked after less than 5 minutes.
“Thank you, but I must pay this time.”
My banknote was vigorously pushed back into my pocket.
“Cent-deux” he cried again.
“Cent-deux!” cried the old man once more.
You get the picture!
30 minutes later
In all I probably spent less than 30 minutes in the bar in the presence of this charming old gentleman. It was enough time to drink 10, (yes ten!) shots of pastis. Each time I offered to pay my offer was refused.
We left the bar and the man pointed to a house across the square.
“I live there.” he said.
Phew! At least he wasn’t driving.
Your road is that way. He said pointing to the right of a fork in the road.
I thanked him profusely for his kindness and his generosity, making one last attempt to make a financial contribution to our short lived drink.
Then something extraordinary.
He reached up to put both his arms around my neck and stared at me. I even wondered if he might kiss me in full view of all the people sitting on the square. (To be honest, with all that alcohol inside me, I am not sure that I would have put up much of a fight!)
He looked me in the eye and said the following:
“It was a pleasure to get to know you. You owe me nothing at all, but you must promise me one thing.”
I agreed of course, without even knowing the request.
“If one day, you find yourself back in the UK, and you run into a Frenchmen, you must do exactly the same thing for him!”
Wow! Here was a man than had probably gone no further than 100 miles form his own house. He had little knowledge of other cultures. He had never had an ethics class and hadn’t engaged in any theological debate. He had just decided to do something kind and hoped that this gesture would someday be repeated.
The number “one”
Most good business leaders will tell you that the only figure that really matters is the number “1”. It is always about one customer. Education should be no different; we should always be concerned by the needs of one student. In the daily bustle of work this can be easy to forget, which is why it is always wonderful to have someone to remind us just how easy it is to put into practice.
Now, there’s something to contemplate over the cold turkey.
International Affairs in Higher Education