As we pull up the driveway and into the parking lot, we glimpse their silhouettes through the window. Folks busy at work, sprucing up tables and walls and all corners of Le Café du Palais, a restaurant in Grasse, France where a labor-of-love team is setting up for a local Seva Café.
Sheetal, Madhu and I had arrived just a few hours earlier, and were welcomed by Lilian, who immediately greeted us as family though we had never met before. As we step up onto the damp, just-rained-on outdoor patio of the restaurant, the air is alive with enthusiasm.
One volunteer is wiping rainwater from the tables. A chalkboard welcomes us by the entrance, etched with words of welcome: “Bienvenue au Seva Café Grasse”. Inside, people flutter around and the building is a-glow with folks arranging tables with homemade menus, bookmarks and heart pins, colored napkins, and centerpieces of flowers and floating candles.
Catherine jumps up and greets us with an enormous smile—the sparks of her eyes zapping us all to life. A community organizer with an entrepreneurial spirit, she is the heart and soul of many initiatives in the Grasse community. In this perfume capital of the world, Catherine organizes a conference on deeper, collaboration and values in beauty and prosperity. A couple years ago, Pavi had come and shared stories on giftivism. Last year, Catherine and her colleagues, Genevieve and Lea, were visiting India for work, swung by Ahmedabad to visit the Manav Sadhna ecosystem, and ended up attending a couple Awakin Circles and volunteering at Seva Café.
A deep resonance struck home.
Immediately in the coattails of that visit, they began experimenting with Awakin Circles in Grasse, and just last December launched the first of their monthly Seva Cafés. Last week, Jayan, Sheetal, Madhu, and I were nearby for a conference the week before, and the timing lined up to join for their May 1st Seva Café. Suzanne, who had spent six months volunteering at Manav Sadhna and currently lives in Paris, hopped on a train to join for the weekend. Jayan, who had launched a spontaneous Karma Kitchen in Kerala, dropped into the spirit as naturally as fish in water.
It’s half past six and folks have already been setting up for the last hour and a half. We get to work decorating a flower rangoli to greet folks as they enter.
Volunteer chefs arrive with hefty pots of home-cooked entrees and ingredients. A couple others prepare sparkling strawberry surprise beverages. At seven, Catherine gathers us all in a circle and offers some words of welcome. She invites us to share, and Madhu highlights his experiences in India of serving guests as a practice of seeing the divine in each person who comes. I recall a story on how we never know from where the ripples come and where they go. Sheetal and Madhu close the circle with a soulful song and prayer.
As guests enter, the patio comes alive with the buzz of conversations and labor-of-love appetizers. Suzanne and several others serve up squares of pizza slices and pastry puffs, as well as sparkling strawberry beverages. Sheetal and Madhu welcome and connect with each guest as they gift them a heart pin.
As we move inside, the kitchen volunteers set to work, artfully plating the first course of polenta cakes with salad. Each dish feels like an elegant work of art, and the kitchen is alive with a jovial focus, the volunteer chefs laughing and joking as their fingers swiftly arrange food on each plate.
After the first course, Catherine announces that a sweet 9-year-old guest, Sybille, will offer a song. As all eyes turn towards her, Sybille belts out an elegant song far older than her youthful self, and the restaurant falls still, enchanted by the innocent maturity in her demeanor. Soon after, one of our volunteer chefs takes the stage, and belts out a classic, upbeat Les Champs-Elysees song, to which all the guests proceed to sing along. The crowd is a-buzz with a familial feeling of connectivity, and conversations flow from one table to the next, as the main course of Vincent’s hearty vegetarian chili is served, followed by dessert of homemade apple crumble and mini chocolate cupcakes.
At the restaurant bar, elegant mugs of espressos and tea are whipped up, and I run into an older male guest as he waits for his order. I ask him how his evening is going and he replies, “I’m moved by the genuine enthusiasm of all the people here.”
I agree, and remark in some English and broken French, “Yes, everyone’s hearts seem so light.”
To which he replies, “There’s a difference though. People here are genuinely enthusiastic. That’s different from being naïve or innocent in the heart. It’s their genuine enthusiasm that moves me.”
Our conversation moves in a slow rhythm as he speaks a mix of English and French, and I speak English and whatever high school French I can remember. Something about the meaning behind his words strikes me. Underneath the kindness and the smiles is a genuine goodwill to open up to our interconnectedness—it’s a space to see, listen and connect with the thread of the human spirit that invisibly and inextricably weaves us all together. As he picks up his espresso and offers a warm nod for our brief exchange, I’m humbled by the way these spaces continually draw out living insights on the subtleties of service and generosity.
More folks are inspired to offer a song. One person sings La Ballade des Gens Heureux(Song of the Happy People)—to which the entire restaurant instantly sings along once again. At its conclusion, Sheetal and Mandhu offer a beautiful bhajan in Hindi.
Catherine floats from table to table, greeting and conversing with the guests as Suzanne seamlessly drops into the kitchen team, Madhu fixes the stereo and starts washing up the drink glasses, Sheetal schemes up gifts to tag folks with, and I receive encouraging French lessons from various parties. :) Jayan seems to transcend any language and cultural barriers, conversing with guests well into the evening. Local anchors, Hervé, Vincent, and Caroline buzz around the kitchen with a joyful activeness that gives the ambiance a tone of purpose and light. Everyone is smiling in swift movements each time I step in. As the clock ticks into the later hours of evening, Lea, Lili, Manu and a few others setup a volunteer table in the backroom.
As we sit for our volunteer meal, one volunteer, Caroline, reflects how there’s something about serving that makes the concept of Seva Café come alive. She and her husband, Vincent, had come as guests last time. This time, they volunteered to cook the main course meal, and laughingly recount us how they slowly transported the two commercial-sized pots in their car, with one foot on each lid to make sure the hearty chili wouldn’t spill over (as previous soups had in the past). Other volunteers had never eaten there before but immediately felt called to come as a serve. Hervé and Vincent dish up the remaining food, and the way they arrange the plates as artfully for the volunteers as for the guests invokes a natural sense of abundance.
The evening trickles onwards, and everyone diligently goes about clearing tables, washing dishes, organizing ambiance supplies and putting the tables back to their original configuration. The restaurant owner kindly drops in close to midnight, simply to help us put things away and clear out, and lock-up. As we gather for a couple group photos and final goodnight, my eyes scan the restaurant, taking in its spick-and-span state as we depart.
“It’s almost as if we were never there,” I joke to someone nearby. And it makes me realize how humbling it is to come together, share space in these ways, and disband without so much of a material trace, but with countless invisible seeds of “genuine enthusiasm” sown deep in our hearts—ready to bloom whenever the time is ripe, whether that’s tonight, tomorrow, or ten generations down the line.
A work of art, the beautiful pictures, the poetic prose, the imagination taking flight to vicariously share the experience that must have been so special. Congratulations to all who co-created it. Thank you.
What a joy to read this and to feel the warmth, beauty and inspiration of the space you all created together! And such a testament to the universal spirit of generosity. Thanks for sharing so eloquently Audrey. And huge hugs to Catherine and all of her lovely team in Grasse for being such dedicated and enthusiastic keepers of the flame in that beautiful corner of the world!