Renewing old Servas friendships in France

Carol and Jim of Ottawa include Servas friendships and stays during their recent trek through the Pyrenees.

During the summer/fall of 2017 we completed a trek on France’s GR 10 trail, a 950 km coast-to-coast route through the French Pyrenees. Because of the planning and logistical difficulties of staying with hosts along our way, we chose to limit our Servas travel to before and after our trek.

Before starting on France’s Atlantic coast, we wanted to play tourist for a couple of days in Bordeaux. We were unsuccessful in finding a host to stay with, but eagerly accepted a dinner invitation from Servas host Christianne. Along with her adult son, we had a very pleasant evening of lively conversation.

After our 10-week trek, we visited folks we already knew through Servas, and renewing those friendships was a perfect way to end our three-month stay in France! Our first stop was to see Carmenza and Louis, near Toulouse, who first visited us in Ottawa in 2011 and have diligently stayed in touch ever since. They showed us around their small town, took us to a very interesting aeronautical museum, and gave us a tour of Toulouse’s main sights. While no longer official hosts, they clearly continue to demonstrate the open and generous spirit of Servas.

From there we stayed a few days in the lovely walled city of Carcasonne before moving on to our next Servas rendezvous, near Avignon. Jim and I met Nöelle and Michel on our first-ever trip with Servas in June 2005. We immediately clicked with this down-to-earth, outdoorsy couple living near Chamonix with a stupendous view of Mont Blanc from their deck. They recommended hikes for us while they were working, and we hiked together during the weekend. We enjoyed them so much we invited them to visit us in Ottawa some day for a quintessentially Canadian canoe camping trip. That idea caught their imagination, and three years later they decided to give it a try. In the lovely fall foliage we took them on a three-day circuit in the Lac du Poisson Blanc area of Quebec where, unbeknownst to us, a storm had recently felled quite a few trees over the portage routes. Ever good-natured, Michel could be heard to exclaim “c’est sportif!” repeatedly as he pushed their canoe under and over the windfalls blocking our way. We also took them hiking in Frontenac Park, where we skinny dipped in a lovely Canadian shield lake. After an excellent week together we once again bid them adieu, assured that we would see them again.

Fortunately, Jim had business in Provence in March of 2010. Afterwards we met Nöelle and Michel at the nearby home of their daughter Sabine. She and her husband Fabrice are also Servas hosts and welcomed us warmly even though they had very recently added a baby to their family. We next saw them in 2012 – for only one night – during our first long-distance trek, on the GR 5 trail through the French Alps, which passed near their home. What a pleasure it was to reunite with our friends once again at Sabine and Fabrice’s house near Avignon in October of 2017! We so enjoyed seeing their new house, getting to know the school-aged child we last saw as a baby, sharing delicious meals, having a rousing ping-pong competition, and hiking together again. Nöelle and Michel are somewhat older than we are and have slowed down some from that first meeting 12 years ago – when we could barely keep up with them! – but are still hiking, biking, travelling and volunteering. They love talking about words and language and exchanging humourous idioms in both of our mother tongues. Every time we see them, we feel like we’ve never left.

In our travels with Servas we have most often interacted with hosts in short bursts of time during which we’ve learned a great deal about each other’s lives and cultures. Even when we’ve never seen our hosts again we have considered that time extremely worthwhile. Servas has also facilitated long-lasting friendships for us, both abroad and at home… a delightful bonus.