Well, that’s not strictly accurate. I believe you have to be a French citizen to be a fonctionnaire – civil servant. But you don’t have to be French to become a bénévole – volunteer – and help deliver a service. I’m now part of a team of people who run the library at the village of Parisot.
Apparently, in France there’s a distinction between a bénévole and a volontaire – also a volunteer in English. The former give some of their free time to do something on a continuing basis, often for an association; the latter are taken on to do a job of limited duration, normally full-time under a contract. They might get pocket money and/or expenses. I’m one of the former.
Parisot is not our commune but it has a good community spirit and the village always needs people to help with things. Feeling that I could spare a few hours a week, I volunteered to run the library – or médiathèque – every Saturday morning from December onwards.
If your vision of a library is a dark and dusty place run by a Gorgon with bottle glasses and a quadruple humour by-pass then think again. A dynamic English woman who speaks excellent French runs our team. Four French women – and me – are the foot soldiers. There’s a great team spirit, a lot of goodwill and we all tutoie each other. I run my own business and haven’t worked directly for any organisation for more than 14 years so I have sometimes missed the camaraderie.
A few years ago, there was no library at all. A lot of hard work later and our library is part of a grouping of médiathèques under the aegis of the Communauté des Communes. Volunteers run all the médiathèques. There should be a salaried person at the head of it all but the previous one left and has not yet been replaced.
Not just books
The library itself is housed in a light, bright building in the centre of the village. The library’s services are all free. It has a good selection of English books, a lot of French novels and reference books and an excellent children’s section. The classes from the local primary school come in turns to choose their books. I haven’t borrowed any books yet because it’s all a bit hectic when you’re working there, especially when the classes are in (I have to say I’m rather glad to be doing Saturdays in that regard).
It’s not just books, though. You can borrow CDs and DVDs and also access the Internet via two computers. A French woman runs French courses for foreigners in a room upstairs; English people run English courses and conversation groups; and an association connected with the médiathèque organises talks, demonstrations, films and social events.
Getting to grips with the system
This month, I have had a series of training sessions in the procedures and routines, including how to deal with the computerised lending system without making a complete mess of it. Having to speak and deal with people’s problems in French is excellent for improving my grasp of the language. I’ve also been initiated into the mysteries of an AZERTY French standard keyboard. One day I’ll get the hang of it.
There are some irritations too, of course. Our photocopier won’t work because it’s run out of toner so we have to use the computer printer instead. Since the departure of the salaried person, no one knows whose responsibility it is to get it serviced. I was all for going out and buying new toner and claiming back the cost. This isn’t how it’s done, apparently. So sometimes I have to swallow my natural impatience with disorganisation and bureaucracy.
Once a volunteer, always a volunteer
Once you start volunteering for things you tend to get roped into other activities. We’re already volunteers at la chapelle de Teysserolles, which is good fun and restoring a sadly-neglected building is a worthy cause. I managed to avoid being drafted into the choir for the carol service since I sing like an owl. The SF, who has a rather better voice, is in it.
So if you happen to be in this area of southwest France at 17h00 on Sunday 18th December, come and join us at Parisot church. The commune is offering mulled wine, cakes, mince pies etc in the salle des fêtes afterwards.
Was I allowed to escape entirely? Certainly not. I’ve got to read one of the lessons – in French.
P.S. I don’t want to sound all holier-than-thou about this. I do it because I enjoy it. But it’s also nice to think you can be helpful at the same time.
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