In 2017 I was living in the capital of Belgium and the EU. Here I got to know a totally different and mainly unknown world: the world of people with learning disabilities. I would like to share some funny stories of my experiences as a volunteer of l’Arche.
Because I could write a whole book filled with stories
It would be a huge lie if I would say that there were not any scary or annoying moments while I was working at l’Arche, but I tell the truth when I say that there were much more funny ones. Usually the core members made me laugh or made me happy and grateful, it was a really intense emotionally. It is really strange to live in a house of Arche – because at the end it is not strange at all. Or at least, at the end it was so normal for me. But nobody could believe this: nor those who heard the stories, neither those who visited me for a few days. You have to live it to understand it.
Madame Merde and the Banana
For example, I had a really strong relationship with an almost 40 year old lady with Down-syndrome. She was the type who mainly made people frightened at the first glance because she could kill with her look if she was not in a good mood (or at least in a medium one :D), but she made you to like her immediately when she was in a good mood, laughed and made jokes. Usually, it was not the case. Usually she just sat at her favourite place and when she blocked (= she forgot what came next –or she did not wanna remember, because you were going to remember instead of her anyways…), she started to say different kind of not-so-nice words in French until you came and asked her what the hell was the problem. If she already knew you, usually she reacted nicely, but if you were a new person, well… Not so nicely.
She was the person who made me learn French so well, obviously.
And we get to know and love each other. In my last days at l’Arche she was always happy to see me – except that time when she chose another person to go on a walk instead of me. I guess it was my fault, since the purpose of walking for her was to lose some weight and I never gave her coke. This thing with the coke and food was her weak point and her motivation – she went basically anywhere if she knew that she was going to get something sweet at the end. She loved bananas, too.
That was her motivation to sit near to me in the car. Once we went on a weekend trip which was organized for people with learning disabilities and we got a ride from two other persons who were friends and wanted to sit near to each other. But! The first passenger seat is usually “her place”, so when we came back, she just sat in, not letting the other core member to sit next to her friend. I tried to motivate her with a) nice words b) not so nice words c) physically, but she was bigger from me so I never had the chance to unfix her seat belt. That was the moment when another volunteer came and said to me:
“You know, Ági, we still have some bananas. You could try with that!”
I was impressed by his idea, got a nice banana, sat behind Banana Lady and said to her:
“Look, I have a banana. If you sit next to me, it can be yours.”
She just looked at me, than to the banana, she had this face of Joey from FRIENDS when he sees food (or a girl), than unfixed her seat bell.
“Okay!”, and the next second she was sitting next to me .
I think after five minutes and the banana, she realized that this was kind of a trick, because she started to repeat her fav word, ‘merde’.
This story was at the begging of our friendship. At the end I had another story with her which was related to food. We had our dinner together and the food was really hot, but she was really hungry and inpatient, so she ate anyways with this “I have pain” kind of facial impression. I looked at her and made her look at me and said that she has to blow a little bit the food like this and I blew and she continued to eat, but she also blew like for a second before biting the volcano-hot food. Obviously this was not enough, so she had the same “gosh, this is hot” face and I was just looking at her still with the same bite of food on my fork. I knocked her shoulder again.
“Nonono, look, longer, like this!”, and I blew again twice stronger than before.
She looked at me, then she turned away, then she looked again at me with the face of a very wise grandma and she said only one word with a full philosophical meaning.
“Eat!”, and she continued to eat.
Every time I think of this I start to smile, but she was kind of right. Stop worrying and enjoy your meal!
But of course she was not all about food. When she was not lazy, she danced better than me, she laughed a lot and she cared about her clothes more than anyone I’d ever known. When she was ‘there’, she cared about people, hugged those who were in emotional pain. Sometimes, she just hid behind the glass door or under the table and she laughed at us. Or she jumped up, went into the garden and danced next to the window. One time she was addicted to this series called Misfits, she was talking about it for days, like “oh, these guys were not nice to each other, I am frightened, when are we going to continue watching it?”… (BTW, it was in English, so I still don’t know what she understood of the stories.)
How to get free beer in "cool old lady"-style?
She was not the only movie-fun in the house. Another core member, a young guy loved Star Wars. And Harry Potter. And Narnia. He could watch them anytime, and he has these cool stuffs, like swords and cloaks, so he watched them with style. On the other hand, there were core members who hated to watch movies, for example this 77-year-old lady who was the coolest old lady I’ve ever met. She loved to live. She visited every hairdresser she could just for fun and she always found the opportunities, like a good free concert or a beer. Oh, yeah, that story with the beer – you can see from it how cunning she was!
Once upon a time, she came to me and said that she would like to go to the playground next to our house with me. So, I said okay. When we almost got to the playground, she said that she would prefer to go to the Carrefour next to it. I said okay. When we entered Carrefour, she explained to me that in the morning, when she was there with her best friend who happens to be really religious, she saw that there is a free beer tasting. One minute later we had our free beers. And we were heading to the playground. Officially.
Enough, Depeche Mode!
There was a fifty-something guy who also loved to go on concerts. Every second month he changed his mind about his favourite singer/band – it was always the one whose concert he was waiting for. He always went to the concerts with one of the volunteers, that why the first Young German Guy went with him to the Frozen and the Black M concert. He could not decide which one was ‘better’. I had a more preferable chance: I went to Antwerp with him where we enjoyed the cool concert of Depeche Mode. It was a cold and rainy day (as every second day in Belgium), so we were freezing in Antwerp, but we still made a great walk (I was the one who forced it, of course), and bumped into some Hungarian guys. Two of them headed to the same concert as us, so my core member immediately started to think about them as “cool guys and friends”, and of course he did not notice that they were already nicely drunk (not too much luckily). At the concert we were singing and he was all the time waiting to his favourite song (which never cameL) the “Just can’t get enough”. He was all the time repeating this phrase, but at the end he started to get tired, so he made it shorter, like:
“Depeche Mode!!! Enough!!!”
After he repeated this a few times, I tried to explain to him what he is telling…
I could not go to this concert at the beginning of this experience, since I did not speak a word of French. In the first two months I hardly could understand anything of the fast phrases of the core members, especially that some of them couldn’t really articulate. But I already at the beginning had these moments when I was totally alone with someone, especially in the mornings when I made the wakening. During the ‘lever’ you get up at 6.30, give the medicines to those who need them, help with the breakfast, try not to fall asleep and make the core members to go to work/the day centre.
Beautiful and chic
There is this woman. She always had some kind of crises, one of them is “Sad. I am a little bit sad.”. Sometimes, she is sad. And sometimes she wanna have attention. At the beginning I learnt from the others how to react in this situation: so I sat next to her, I garbed her hand (usually it made her calmer) and I asked one the few words I already knew: pourquoi? (why?).
I understood exactly this from her answer:
“Blablablablabla, Natalie, blablbla. Blabla. Bla!”
So, I was thinking about my options while I was petting her hand. If I ask her to repeat what she said, she will think that I was not listening to her. And I could not understand her anyways. So it is better to say something. I could only react to the one and single word I understood and use those few I already knew. So I said:
“Tu peux parler avec Natalie”
which means: you can speak to Natalie.
It worked! She answered to my sentence!
“Blablablabla, bla, blabla, mamma, voilá!” she said.
I decided to use the same strategy I’d already used and to finish the whole conversation, so I pat her hand once again and used the only word I understood:
“Voilá!” then with a smile I left her alone.
I could see on her face that she was in a small shock. “That’s all? We solved my problem? I should be calm now?” She was sitting there for two more minutes alone then she joined us and started to make some jokes. Jokes like: “Ants! There are ants in this [bag]. JOKE!”.
I guess I does not have to explain why I was so proud of my communicational skills and my poker face after this small episode of l’Arche.
And believe me, I needed them. Even in the very last days I could not understand anything, even if sometimes I thought I did. The same “Sad” Lady did not like changes, especially when volunteers left. So, when we were preparing my last party in l’Arche, she was really sad and she said this to me. I did not want her to cry (and destroy my party), so I said to her.
“Yes, it is really sad. I understand that you don’t like parties like this. But this is a last chance to have fun together, so you know what? We are going to get nicely dressed, be pretty and have some fun together.”
After a while she came after me and said something like:
Even with my French Volunteer Friend we could not understand what she was telling about tomorrow and Belgium. We asked her like five times to repeat, when French Friend had realized that she said more words:
“Demain, belle et chic!” Which means that tomorrow we are going to be pretty and chic. So, when the next day she ask me whether she should wear something to the party, I thought that she was talking about her new hair things, so I just said that, “yes, good idea, put it into your hair”. She looked at me in a very strange way, but I guess she got used to my weird sentences (and ideas) in ten month, so she just went up to her room to get her necklace…
Obviously, she did not put it into her hair.
We had so many funny stories, I cannot even remember to all. But this job had also its challenging parts when we had to think about pedagogy and sometimes I got frightened, and I needed a lot of confidence to get through this. But these kind of stories are for another time.