When you arrive in a big, unfamiliar city, things that are not normally intimidating become new sources of anxiety. You don’t know, with certainty, where to find the landmarks which normally ground your life and you feel like an outsider to the cultural nuances specific to the city. When you arrive in an unfamiliar city and you do not fluently speak the native language, the stress of completing daily tasks increases, as the stakes also heighten in relation to your ability to plan outings effectively. The possibility of getting lost becomes a much more serious worry when you realize that people can use your newness to their language to their advantage. You take time each day to try to memorize what you imagine may be natural to the locals, like the locations of groceries stores or the ways people intuitively diffuse aggressive street merchants or beggars. When you arrive in a big, unfamiliar city in which the language is new to you, and you are asked to guide visually impaired individuals who speak none of your language through daily tasks and weekly errands, the pressure to learn quickly about the cultural practices tied to this mysterious geography because much more serious.
I work at a nonprofit NGO in Paris titled Les Auxiliaires des Aveugles, or the Auxiliary of the Blind. This organization provides a biweekly service to the blind and is almost entirely run through volunteer hours. For a small fee of about 40 euros a year (slightly over $40), each client has the option of two missions, or outings, each week. These outings can involve writing and delivering a check to the post office, grocery shopping, or a walk through the park. Whatever clients need assistance with, outside of household chores and cooking, we are allowed to help them with.
The volunteer base is made up of a pretty wide range of people. Some younger people volunteer to fulfill high school requirements or to have something to do during the summertime. Some older people volunteer specifically because they are related to blind people. I even helped bring one client to the butcher shop, and she told me that she herself volunteers at the organization twice a week, answering phones with the other receptionists. An important part of understanding the mentality behind this organization is that clients are not treated as different from others in any way outside of acknowledging that they cannot see. Blindness is not a taboo, nor is it a major hindrance for many of the clients who I have met so far. And so it makes sense that the organization, which depends almost entirely on volunteer work, allows clients to have opportunities to exercise control and autonomy within the organization.
What I have benefitted from the most at my position is the insight and intellect of the older people with whom I work. When given the opportunity to guide older Parisians and to talk with them in their homes, I am astounded by their ability to open up to me, a young American girl whom they’ve only just met. Men and women alike have shared with me their life stories, filled with heartache, loss, and the experience of getting older. More often than not, I found that the clients I worked with guided me more than I guided them. They took me through parts of Paris that I never would have found on my own and explained the complex history of the city to me.
My favorite types are missions are those where clients want to walk to the local parks, which are often more like what we Americans might recognize as botanical gardens. Paris has lovely parks tucked around the most unexpected corners, which allow both clients and myself a brief escape from the infamously stuffy Parisian flats. Unlike in the United States, the parks in Paris are maintained with a sense of pride. Flowerbeds are planted with intention, trees are trimmed into neat boxes, and people are instructed to stay on the pathways. People here do not play on the grass like they do at home. There are specific areas made for children to play in, which have sand and rocks instead of grass. The grass here is just for looking at! The French are especially fond on geraniums, which happen to be one of my favorite flowers. It is truly a magical experience walking from the dirty streets of Paris into a lush and lavish garden, where I help my clients to stop and smell the flowers.
One of my biggest challenges so far has been contacting clients when I arrive at their places of residence. To enter into buildings in Paris, each resident needs a key. Since I do not have a key to every client’s apartment, I am supposed to call the clients with my cell phone to tell them that I have arrived. As difficult as it can be to talk face to face in a second language, talking on the phone is even more challenging! Despite my struggles, clients are generally patient and understanding. Another challenge has been my inability to build long-term relationships with clients. Each week when I meet with my supervisor, he assigns me my clients and provides me with basic information on the person. Typically, all that I receive is their address, name, phone number, and the type of mission that they wish to go on. As of now, I have not received any clients more than one time, so during each mission, I am getting to know a new person. This doesn’t seem to hinder them in the ways that they open up to me and discuss topics as serious and personal as, for example, their experiences hiding from the Third Reich in World War II. Although I enjoy meeting new people, I believe that it would be beneficial if I were to have some chances to meet with clients multiple times. That type of system might also allow for clients to build more trust with the person who is somewhat responsible for their safety, as each client always seems a bit nervous when I first arrive and introduce myself.