I've just returned from France - I flew down to Bordeaux to meet a friend to help her drive back from her holiday with her girls, who are my goddaughters. We decided to make it a gentle journey and stop in une chambre d'hotes - a B&B - on the Saturday night. My friend managed to book somewhere over the phone with a non-English-speaking lady. Much encouraged by her successful venture into the French language, we realised en route that the satnav didn't recognise the address, but we still felt confident we would be able to find it.
Six hours later, in the pouring rain, we found ourselves in a small country lane surrounded by fields having absolutely no idea of where we were or how to get to where we were supposed to be. We decided to phone Mme Bourg, our landlady-in-waiting. I was on the phone trying to understand her rapid French instructions while my friend was scouring the map. She pointed to a town called Javer. "Did she say this word?" she asked, anxiously. I looked at her balefully. "There were many words," I said. "That may indeed have been one of them."
Eventually, when all parties concerned settled on the words for church (l'eglise) and car (la voiture) we realised that Mme Bourg was offering to meet us at the church. Finally united with our hostess, we got to the B&B.
Over coffee we established that, after a mix-up between the words mari (husband) and mairie (town hall), my friend was not married to the town hall and it was not the father of her children. We also discovered that Mme Bourg (Beatrice) and her mari (Jean-Luc) were very interesting people.
Jean-Luc works in the local hospital during the day. In the evenings he runs a small educational museum called Le Pot au Lait (the pot of milk), which is a homage to the history of milk, cream and cheese-making in the area, which he insisted on showing us and where we watched a film of cows being milked, narrated of course in French. The museum, it turns out, benefits the local farming community and is used to educate the local children about their history. He is also a pompier (a volunteer fire-fighter) on Sundays. Beatrice volunteers in the local community as well.
What struck me was the pure and simple kindness, generosity and humility of these two people. Their lives appeared to be about helping: their local community, the local schoolchildren, the two nutty blonde English women murdering the French language while blundering through rural France.
But here's the point. Britain is full of Beatrices and Jean-Lucs - about 20 million volunteers, according to some figures. So when our government bangs on about how people will not give without incentives, I say "couilles!" (look it up). People will and do give out of the goodness of their hearts, and not for personal gain, even here in the UK. The French word for altruistic is altruiste. That's no coincidence.
Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change