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  • Writer's pictureDiann Schindler, Ph.D.

Culture, Kindness, and Compassion: Episode One, Madame Donka.

(This is the first of three episodes/blogs.)

I had been traveling for over 20 hours from Jacksonville, Florida, to Paris, when I finally arrived at the lobby of my hotel, the Sulley in bohemian Marais area of the “City of Lights.” I was so ready to check in, brush my teeth, shower and walk 5 minutes to meet up with my Amelia Island, Florida, travelling buddies.However, this was not to be, at least, not as quickly I had planned.

The men at the front desk of the Sulley said that the hotel was completely booked. To prove them wrong, I began searching for my confirmation on my cell phone. Meanwhile, they looked as if they were calling an alternative hotel for me.

I showed them my confirmation. They ignored it and immediately ushered me out the entrance, speaking rapidly in French. Even if they had spoken slowly, I would have not understood.

Finally, I gave in and realized when I was handed an orange post it note with something scribbled in French, they had found another hotel for me and it was, according to these front desk clerks, a simple 6-minute walk.

I was too tired to argue.

Traveling often requires great tolerance. The ability to face the inevitable and “go with it” is key to ensuring a good trip. I began my trek.

Well, I’m sure you are thinking what I was thinking as I pulled my medium sized suitcase over the pavements and streets teeming with people under the searing, midday sun: “It is no 6 minutes.”

Indeed, over 30 minutes later I arrived wet, tired, thirsty and annoyed.

From inside the hotel, a hefty, round, sixty-something women smiled, “Madame DEann. Bonjour! Bonjour! Bienvenue!

Bonjour,” I said as I scanned the white, tiny, narrow what-was-supposed-to-be a lobby. It had 2 plastic chairs with worn, flattened cushions; a huge, old television; and a short table adorned with dingy, yellow plastic flowers.

I forced a “merci” and smiled.

She said she didn’t speak English. I said I didn’t speak French.

She handed me a bill for the room for one night and said, “Cash coins, s'il vous plait.”

(I needed the room for 8 nights, but I decided to tackle that conversation later.)

Obviously, she spoke some English and, of course, I had euros, but no coins.

She was not happy.

Pardon,” I said, working very hard to project a courteous demeanor.

She took my money and gave me a receipt.

A tall, baldheaded, muscular man with tattooed arms and hands, spotted teeth, and a large knuckle on his right cheek emerged from a back room and took my luggage upstairs. He opened the door, put my suitcase inside, and exited.

The room was dreadful, with red flocked wallpaper, old and worn purple carpeting, two full-sized beds with blue and white bedspreads, and two plastic tables and chairs, college-dorm style.

The good news was I had two beautiful, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, covered with clean sheers, overlooking the street. The bad news was the drapes were an orange brocade.

The bathroom was clean, with a French style bathtub (spicket in the back center of the tub and no shower curtain), a 12x14 inch see-through white towel which attempted to serve as a bathmat, 2 clean glasses and round soap. You know, that round soap that requires soaking to soften before the most vigorous rubbing will create even the slightest of lather.

Thank goodness. hot water!

I freshened up, brushed my teeth, and was off to see my traveling friends. It felt good to walk those 25 minutes and leave the disturbing images of the hotel room behind me.

I caught up with Donna and Frank (see below) and we spent a wonderful day together.

When I arrived back at my hotel, the main door was locked. I rang the bell and waited. After 2 -3 minutes, Monsieur Knuckle Face appeared, rubbing his eyes as if he had been sleeping. He smiled slightly, handed me my key and I climbed the stairs to my room.

It was very dark, but I felt around the red flocked walls and found the light switches. Unfortunately, the lighting was very dim, and I had some difficulty finding an outlet to charge my phone. I looked everywhere that made sense and found only two outlets. One bedside my bed, about 3 inches from the floor. The second one was directly above the first, 3 inches from the ceiling and totally useless without a 12-foot ladder. I was happy the first outlet worked.

I fell into bed and managed to stay asleep until 7 am.

I rushed to wash my face, brush my teeth, grab my purse and my phone, and traipse downstairs to see the same women I had met the day before.

She said, waving her hands, “Bonjour, Madame DEann….oh, pardon, les chambres sont pleines.” Then, she chuckled.

I thought she was saying that the hotel was full, and I couldn’t rent a room for the night. But the chuckle was confusing. A mixed message, for sure.

And, so our “play” began.

She said, in French, that she had no rooms. I chuckled and asked her in English, interspersed with words I thought might be French and some Spanish, for spice, if she was sure there were no rooms. I placed my palms together as if to pray…or perhaps beg…smiled and requested that she please check again.

For extra emphasis, I pointed to the street and said that I would have to sleep under an automobile! She laughed out loud now.

This went back and forth for a time, and, finally, somehow, it was a miracle...she found an available room!

I was prepared this time. I had the euros and coins. When the transaction was complete, I thanked her profusely and decided I needed to “play” our game more intensely and get a little more personal.

I asked her her name. She answered, “Donka.”

I noticed her English was improving expeditiously in just a few hours!

I said, “Merci. Merci, Madame Donka.”

By the way, I think this hotel had a total of 5 rooms…so, clearly, something else was happening here…another agenda. I had a strong suspicion that I was experiencing some aspect of the French culture. And, if correct, I knew how to deal with it: Kill Madame Donka with kindness! Not just any kindness. My kindness would have to be genuine.

Later that morning when I went to the lobby again, Madame Donka was sitting with a man watching television. Why, he looked just like her! Same nose, same hair, same rotund body. He was either her brother or her son. I chose to believe he was her brother. Ah, flattery would be a perfect strategy in our "play."

I asked if they were siblings and the man answered in English, “No. No. She, Mama. My name is Minco.”

“Oh, Madame Donka, you must have been 4 years old when you had Minco. I thought he was your brother!”

Minco translated for me. Madame Donka, in a shy gesture, covered her mouth. I knew she was tickled, as well as pleased.

Ah, our “play” was going well. We were warming to each other.

Still, just to be on the safe side, should my "kill with kindness" strategy fail and there truly be no room for me, I contacted, telling them the Sulley story and asking them to find me an alternative hotel. They returned my message with an alternative, alright. They said it was high season, with only 1 hotel available. The cost of 350 euros a night and only available for 4 nights!

Completely incredulous!

I refused to pay that much money and possibly still be out on the street, sleeping under an automobile my last night in Paris. Now I had to get very serious with our “play.”

I increased my humor, compliments, and overzealous gratitude. After 3 days, Madame Donka agreed: I could rent a room for the remainder of my time in Paris.

At the end of our transaction, I was leaving the hotel. I turned to say au revoir, and she blew me a kiss. I blew her a return kiss.

We were "sista's!"

Yet, the “play” wasn’t exactly over. We continued our banter throughout my stay. But, we had tied, early! Yes, a win-win situation. I had a room. She had a renter. She got her money. We became friendly and had fun with each other.

Yes, I stayed in this dreadful room. I adjusted my standards and my attitude. And, truth be told, I was enjoying my relationship with Madame Donka.

The last time I saw her, I greeted her with, “Oh Madame Donka, mon chéri, my BFF! Comment vas-tu?”

“Je vais bien, ma belle amie.”

She stood up, came from around the desk and hugged me.

A little kindness and compassion go a long way, even in a confusing culture.

What did I learn about Paris?

Well, there are rules…unspoken rules…especially when it comes to pleasantries. When you enter a restaurant, shop, bank, or Madame Donka’s hotel, always, always smile and say “Bonjour madame / mademoiselle/ monsieur” (Hello mrs/miss/sir), as well as “Au revoir madame / mademoiselle/ monsieur” (Goodbye mrs/miss /sir) when leaving. Always say “merci” (thank you) and “s’il vous plaît” (please) are also important.

If you don’t exchange these pleasantries, you may be faced with confusion, lack of information, lack of consistent information, and possibly more. For example, no room at Madame Donka's.

Choose pleasantries…learn a few lovely words, in every country you visit, and chances are really good, you’ll get what you need.

Remember, the problems you encounter on a trip aren’t always the fault of the place or its people. Sometimes it is us!

My Amelia Island traveling friends, Donna and Frank.

Embrace the culture, wherever you are, I say!

Besides, this was Paris! The City of Lights!

I spend nearly all my time finding ways to cultivate compassion. You can, too, with my 4-week, online Charter for Compassion Course: Cultivating Compassion through Travel. Classes begin July 29! Check it out!

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