Friday, December 23, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 9

Chapter 9: Christmas in Deutschland

This one's pretty long – and on a German keyboard! – and I was going to send it in two parts but then I figured that was more mess in your inbox. So read as much or as little as you want; I've taken the liberty of suggesting a good point for a break.

So there's this cd that I really wanted, and it's been so long since I had a new cd – at one time in my life a weekly staple at the least – so I decided I should make myself a Christmas present. That's what credit cards are for.

I went to FNAC, the only store for new cds, and discovered that shopping is the best way to make you hate humanity, particularly salespeople. Their little computer booths are squished among overflowing cd bunks, so I had to perch on the greatest hits of Johnny Hallyday and Francoise Hardy just to talk to some guy, which only happened when he was good and ready. First, you see, he had to finish his conversation with his buddy from computers, a bragging session about each of their super top scores on a video game intriguingly called "Wild Onions." He only tore himself away from this inspiring dialogue when his phone was paged and he started to flirt with whatever cute thing was on the other end, continuing to act as if I wasn't standing in front of him with my hands resting on his booth.

I finally leaned in close and said "I'm so sorry to interrupt, but could you spare a second to help me find a cd?" He said "hang on a second" into the phone, covered the mouthpiece with his hand and looked at me: "what?" When I repeated what I consider to be a reasonable request – help finding a cd from an employee in a cd store – he said "ask at information." I looked up at the sign hanging over his booth, which reads "information", and waited for some kind of further instructions. They were: "I'm just covering for someone. Go ask Philippe."

I followed the direction of his vague nod to find someone Philippe-ish and found three staff members sitting at a booth, laughing at the story that a fourth was telling them. They uniformally refused to look at me, but kept right along with this obviously hilarious anecdote about making fun of an ugly lady on a train by pretending to flirt with her. (Like I said: hilarious.) I interrupted – twice, because they ignored me the first time – and one guy turned his head towards me, sighed and said "yes?" without actually looking at me. (He looked past me into the store for the whole conversation.)

I'd been pronouncing the name "ho-se," as I understand to be the system with Spanish "j" words, but apparently things don't work that way here in Lyon, where you use the soft “j” (from “jaune”) and treat everyone who doesn’t like an idiot. I spelled the name out for him and he corrects me, “you mean jo-se,” as if it made a difference in the last name, which is how it’s listed.

The cd was on order so I had to try again the next week, when the snotty girl at the computer could only find Ruben Gonzalez and told me I was wrong. I said no, I believe it is you who are wrong. While I enjoy Ruben Gonzalez, and Cuban piano music in general (she was none too happy that I knew what I was talking about) I am looking for Jose Gonzalez, who very much exists and is in your system, as one of your equally charming colleagues found him for me last week. I spelled out the album name for her and she grudgingly told me where he was bunked.

Now. One jerky staff member can happen. Two on a bad day, to be fair. But all of them? How can everyone be so highly inconvenienced by the presence of a customer in their store? What exactly do they think a store is for? They make fun of us for over-the-top friendly customer service, but I think North America may be onto something.

My classes finished in a mad pre-holiday frenzy, with the kids even more hideously over-excited than usual. We sort of talked about Christmas traditions but mostly stared maniacally at the clock with our bags packed and our coats on, and I avoided the hallway like the plague. There was so much pushing and shoving and screeching in the school that my nerves were shot by second period and I was sure the kids would feel my loathing and use it to their advantage. Never show them your weakness, any more than you would to a pack of wolves. Or monsters. Ah, junior high.

Franck’s been gone since the 9th, in Bretagne with his brothers. I thought it would be nice to have some quiet time before the holidays, but it turns out that I’m quite fond of ol’ Franckster – like Henry Higgins, I’ve grown accustomed to his face – and I just get sad and mopey when he’s gone. So I was happy when the week-end came along and my mom came to Lyon – I even baked a pie, copying Franck’s recipe-less recipe, and it was tasty (if a bit undercooked) – and we lugged our equally over-packed suitcases to the train station to set off for Germany, where we’re spending Christmas with Gela, a friend of my mom’s who lives in the Black Forest region.

We haven’t been here long but I’ve already discovered a major character flaw in myself, one that I had suspected but desperately avoided facing until now: I do not rise to a challenge. I knew that I didn’t speak German – unless you consider counting to forty and being able to say "parrot," “snowflake” and “no thanks” to be a firm grasp of the language – but I somehow expected to understand most of what was going on, as I believed what I had been told of the similarities between English and German.

Granted, when you read a sign that says “Postbank,” you can feel proud of your immediate control of the situation. “This is at once a post office and a bank,” you will say, beaming. When you glance at a bottle of mineral water, you will be satisfied to find the words “mineral wasser” on the label, and you might say “I agree with this statement” or “yes, this is as I had expected” or something to that effect. But that’s about it. All I hear is a lot of sounds, and I get kind of panicky when I bump into someone and can’t even say “excuse me.” I’ll suddenly remember “guten tag” but no one else is saying it so I keep it to myself. I can’t be polite, I can’t ask for a stamp, I don’t know where you buy a phone card or what a mailbox looks like, and it all makes me feel helpless.

It’s just bizarre, that this whole world is going on around me – people getting on and off trains, greeting friends, buying apples, making jokes – and I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Imagine! A whole country speaking German! The idea of travel sometimes blows my mind.

It’s very snowy here in Freudenstadt, something about the altitude, so it looks like a postcard of winter in Germany. Beautiful fir trees everwhere, tall and bushy, up and down hills with little villages in every nook or cranny, and everything snowy and dreamy. The houses in this region are often barn-sized, with dark wood criss-crossed everywhere, exactly out of the picture book of Hansel and Gretel we’ve all seen at some point. It’s pretty as can be.

**This could be a good place for a break, since the rest is details of our trip so far. Maybe have some hot chocolate or some fruit or something?

Our first full day here we went to a Christmas market in another town. These markets can’t be described without getting all sugary and quaint, so just picture cozy cobblestone streets with giant wooden gingerbread houses for homes and little vendors’ cabins full of crafts and food and other nice things. There are children busking every 500 metres – hopefully to raise money for a trip and not just because their parents are exploiting them – and so recorder music and folk guitar chaos fill the air.

Imagine the bright orange gloves that we find for one euro, since I lost a mitten in Lyon and my hands are freezing: brand new, these are the brightest, most exciting gloves I have ever worn and I briefly consider a career in traffic direction but remember just in time that you only need gloves in the winter and so more than half the year is wasted.

Picture the high school kids selling fundraiser waffles who are out of batter but scrape out all the bowls and lids to make one triumphant waffle for us, their English-speaking customers. And oh, imagine the smell of that waffle spreading through this fairy tale street, mingling with the smells of pralines, candy apples, gingerbread chocolates and warm, sweet wine. This is Christmas in Deutschland.

We went to see The Nutcracker that night, performed by a Romanian dance school on a very small community centre stage. Some of the dancers were really just little kids, and some were clearly the teachers, as it was the first time I’ve seen pot-bellied, saggy-bummed men in ballet tights. One of them looked like Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies – which is as unfortunate as you’re imagining – and another, part of the Arabian duo, looked like Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage”; Rex Harrington they were not.

There were some young and typically beautiful men as well, though. The prince looked like a diagram from an anatomy textbook called “the male body,” only in white tights. The girls had those long legs and pretty wrists that ballerinas tend to have and watching them made me think that maybe I should have kept up with dancing, as I could have ended up being graceful and beautiful in a snowflake fairy costume. Then, remembering how those dance get-ups always made me look like a sausage stuffed into a leotard, and imagining myself prancing around in one now, I realized that I had once again narrowly escaped a terrible fate and thank God I got out before I had invested myself and my dreams any further.

The lobby was full of little girls in pink dresses, including one who kept stopping on her way down the stairs and pointing a toe out to the side, probably thinking she looked like a ballerina. I figured she would learn, as I did, that she just doesn’t have what it takes, and I let her continue in her fantasy world. It will crash and burn on its own, and anyway I don’t speak German. All in good time, little ballerina, all in good time.

We went to the afternoon show of the school where Gela is vice principal: one of the MCs seemed really funny and confident and popular with his peers, and as I watched him act out stories and make jokes with funny faces and voices and all sorts of wild expressions, the whole thing became increasingly surreal. It turns out that German sounds a lot like Swedish, at least to my ears, which makes it automatically funny. Such a bouncy, rhyming language, when I don’t have any idea what’s going on – like the Swedish chef doing stand-up. The kids around us were laughing because they understood the jokes he was telling, but I think it must have been much, much funnier for us.

After a choir, whose English pronunciation was so good that we understood all the words to each song, this funny little rock band came on to set up. The guitarists looked kind of punkish and indifferent (the way I think rockers are supposed to look, no?) but the bassist was a little round boy in a bright and friendly orange t-shirt, and the singer looked like a combination of Harry Potter and Bastian from The Neverending Story. How strange, we thought, when this clean-cut young lad in glasses and a neat side part started to mumble into the microphone: “I hate you ‘cause my hate is big… ‘cause I’m strong.” The drummer was godawful and the whole thing fell to pieces, and that was even before the next song – “I walk alone until my shadows find me” – when the guitarist yelled “fuck you fuck you” before every chorus and the audience was all shocked and excited at what would surely be the talk of the school for weeks. It was power chord hell and such a mess, the drummer clearly unaware that he was playing with a band and not just alone in his basement, so I think my favourite moment was when one of them missed a chord at the end and they all shook their heads and were disappointed that it had gone wrong. Yeah, too bad, I thought. Up until then you were right on.

There was a grade five band that played their instruments remarkably well after only a few months, and I enjoyed that every single person was in solid red except for one kid who didn’t get the memo and was wearing a black-and-white striped top. They were followed by a group of boys doing a play in which they came into a restaurant and had a grumpy conversation while the waiters brought them giant paper mache hams, chicken wings and strawberries. The audience wasn’t laughing at all, so I thought it was weird to do a completely non-comic sketch. Gela said it was a post-World War Two discussion. Woo-hoo!

We went to a colleague’s house for a warm and delicious staff lunch, where almost everybody spoke very good English and I felt bad that they had to be the ones to make the effort. Then we stopped in at a museum with all sorts of old dolls and trains and other toys. It’s actually quite creepy, walking around looking at dolls, because they stare out at you with those glassy eyes and they never smile; I felt closed in and judged from all over. I looked for a red-haired Mrs. Costanza doll because I thought that would make it all worthwhile, but I didn’t find her.

There are hot springs all over the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) region and bath houses – or thermal palaces – have been built up around them. We went to one that is Arabian themed and has little two- or three-person basins as well as bigger ones with massage sprays. People tend to walk around naked, which is fun, if distracting; when an elderly German man leans around the corner to see if your basin is taken, it takes a whole lot of focus and self-discipline to look in his eyes and smile.

Predictably, since I am, after all, Kathryn, I started to feel kind of claustrophobic. The water is so hot and the air so steamy that I found it hard to breathe and got increasingly panicky. (How irritating can you be, that you can’t even handle a mineral spa? I think I must be the worst person to travel with.) The bigger basins were better, with high ceilings and cooler water, but the small ones were just so hot and intense that I was afraid I would pass out. The sauna was out of the question and while my limbs felt relaxed and my pores open and clear, I was happy to step back into the cold air outside where I could fill my lungs comfortably and completely.

Obviously this cold-loving phase didn’t last long and I shivered through our otherwise lovely evening in nearby Gengenbacher. The town hall is turned into a giant advent calendar, as it has twenty-four windows and each one is a Chagall painting. Each night they have a concert (a local choir, for example) and then this kind of weird circus play, and they uncover the next window. The town is beautiful, as per usual, the market charming, the calendar windows dreamy and sad. (And they had non-alcoholic hot wine! Essentially grape juice and entirely delicious. I’m going to write Lyon a letter and suggest they do the same, especially now that they’ve discovered the designated driver.) We each ate a German sausage – no veggie or chicken options here, my friends – and then took the train home and I soaked my feet in hot water and agreed that when your boots aren’t insulated, wool socks are the way to go. I thought I was Canadian, but apparently I don’t know much about winter. Idiot.

At some point in the near future is our tour of the Ritter chocolate museum, so it looks like we're on the up and up. I hope your holidays are going well.


ribbit ribbit

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 8

Chapter 8 : Sausage for Santa

I think it’s time to add a Strike of the Week segment to this series, though it’s becoming difficult to keep track. I think the interns are heading into week two, as are the train stations’ shuttle buses, and the tourism offices have been shut down since mid-November. The newest one on the table seems to be the pharmacists’ strike, which is obviously a big hassle and so is being dealt with as quickly as possible, and is also apparently completely unreasonable, as the newspapers scoffingly point out – less than a week after calling off their own strike, of course. I think it’s only a matter of time before France throws in the towel and just goes on national strike. Is that possible, for a country to go on strike? If it is then France is the country to do it.

As for exciting epiphanies in teaching, here’s what I figured out: the way to make it bearable is to play camp games in class. Oh, how I have counted the minutes through that grade nine class; how I have planned complicated excuses to keep me from having to show up… until Thursday, that is, when I said “why don’t we try a game?” and we spent forty glorious minutes chanting “this is the pen. The what? The pen. The what? The pen. Oh, the pen.” (Or, more accurately, “zis is ze pen. Ze what? Ze pen. Ze what? Ze pen. Oh, ze pen!”) It can be difficult for kids anywhere, not to mention for uptight and self-conscious 14-year-olds who have never been asked to be silly in class; their ferocious concentration as they tapped their laps and bobbed their heads, trying frantically to hang on to the rhythm, was endearing to say the
least, and I temporarily liked them again. I think next week we’ll just go and play tag, or maybe ditch school and catch a movie.

A funny moment in class: I had thrown together a Christmas crossword and was explaining some of the vocabulary and North American traditions. (Which is tricky, because I have no idea if other families do the same things that we do, having only Christmased with my own; do you all put a clementine in your stocking? Do you all eat all the chocolate right away and then feel ill throughout the day?) I told them that we leave carrots out for Rudolph and his brethren and asked what we might leave for Santa to eat. They guessed “saucisson” and were disappointed when I explained that no, we tend not to leave big, greasy sausage for our Father Christmas, but rather cookies. And what might he want to drink with those cookies? “Wine?”

And speaking of French alcoholic tendencies, on the news the other night the weather lady talked about road conditions and introduced a new idea that they’re hoping will work its way into parties and other boozy events: it’s called “capitaine de la soirée” and entails choosing someone to be in charge of driving everyone home, a person who will obviously not participate in any of the evening’s boozing. Kind of like – oh, what’s that called, already – right, a DESIGNATED DRIVER. A new concept, hot off the press? This is actually just occurring to them now, the country with the highest accident rate in Europe – are they kidding me with this?

Meanwhile, December 8th in Lyon is the Fête des Lumières, when the city is turned into a big light show, so it was disappointing to wake up to rain. Then at lunch the sun came out and everyone got excited – and then it rained again. By the time it was dark out and the thing was starting, it was kind of drizzly and got progressively wetter throughout the evening. This might have put a damper on people’s spirits if it weren’t for the traditional and plenteous stands of cheap, hot wine (sweet and with cinnamon, their boozy answer to apple cider), which kept most of the crowd in fine cheerful form.

The crowd in question was the entire city of Lyon, plus however many hundreds or thousands of people came in from neighbouring counties. It’s hard to guess how many people there actually were, since the streets are narrow and fill up pretty quickly, but we were in more human traffic jams than the most desperate people person could ask for and I am not, as it happens, a desperate people person.

Our first jam was as we wandered through the Christmas market, which Franck hadn’t yet seen. The little wooden cabins were charming as usual and the bizarre reggae-Christmas music blaring out of giant speakers made our local Guadeloupan feel slightly at home. (If only there had been palm trees, sweet mangoes and the sea sparkling around us… but I digress. I weep and I digress.)

The shuffling pace was driving me crazy, as among my other charming qualities is a “lack of patience” for walking slowly behind people and I tend to become frantic and start full-speed weaving through any openings I can find until I get to a clearing. This system worked well enough until we found ourselves in the middle of a giant throng of people, at a dead stop and being vaguely pushed from behind.

It was okay at first because we were beside the concert platform and its very earnest choir, so I was able to laugh about their dorky actions and Franck, who is not mean-spirited and tends to wish people well – the loser – was able to hum along and smile encouragingly. It was still okay when I got tired of resisting gravity and let my head rest on the back of the man in front of me, since I was being pushed in that direction, and I felt a kind of communal bond via his down jacket. When we realized that we really weren’t going anywhere, though, and my panic reflex started to settle in, it started to feel – how shall I put it? – less okay. I found that if I closed my eyes and just counted slowly, I felt a little less smothered, but that seemed like such an exaggerated reaction that I was torn between my self-mocking and my genuine and growing fear of entrapment.

The crowd eventually shuffled back to life and we worked our way out but the streets were still packed and we both felt edgy. There were some very pretty things to see, namely the windowsills of almost every single apartment, as the tradition is to put candles out and so the whole city kind of shimmers and sparkles against the dark. All the buildings along the quay, layered up against the mountain – it’s really something. The cathedral and surrounding area were also beautiful in a series of colours and special lightings with ethereal movie music blasting out over the river. (Including, at one point, the theme song from “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” which was somehow right on.)

Important churches had interesting and artistic lighting designs – it’s all very difficult to describe, is the thing, and the whole is much more effective than its parts, because you wander around a kind of magical city for a night and around every corner is something new. One church, to give you an example, had bubbles floating up it and then a series of Medieval paintings, and at one point a very dreamy and mystical space thing. Or a school in town had an underwater theme and there were dolphins and whales swimming in and out of its windows. (See? Hard to describe. If it sounds lame, believe me that it isn’t.)

We called it a night after our misadventure at the Place des Terreaux, which was supposed to be the best thing in the city. The crowd was so awful that we got swept in and couldn’t get out, and we stayed there for OVER TWENTY MINUTES! Think about how long twenty minutes can feel when you’re stuffed up against a bunch of strangers, trying not to be pulled apart and unable to see anything in any direction. Franck’s tall enough that he saw some of the show, which apparently involved flames, but I literally saw nothing but coats and hair. It was ass. I remembered that the night’s-end fireworks were like that last time, as a kajillion people crammed themselves along the quays and we all got split up and could only pray that no one in a wheelchair or with a weak heart was stuck in the mob because there was no way to help them. That’s precisely why Franck and I had decided to skip out before the fireworks, but then I guess it happened anyway.

The lucky thing is that we have a clear view of the cathedral and its general area from our window, so we were able to watch the end of the night’s colours from our quiet, crowd-free living room. I went to bed wondering when exactly I became an old lady and hoping that I might have a funny reversal in my life and suddenly be fancy-free and wild in my eighties. For now, though, I will content myself with watching major cultural events on television and toasting the brave souls who live them with such gusto.

I now head into the festive season alone, as Franck left for Bretagne on Friday to spend his birthday and Christmas with his twin, so while I wait for my own German adventure to take flight, I’m back to spending lots of time with Just Kathryn and to eating pre-cooked ravioli. I watched “Calendar Girls,” which was a very nice movie (and a true story, so you can’t criticize the sentimentality) and am reading a terrible Soviet-era murder mystery that I would immediately abandon if I had anything else to replace it. I’m going to get a library card.

Good luck with all your shopping and have an apple cider for me; they don’t have it here. (French “cidre” is alcoholic, surprise!)


ribbit ribbit

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Yuletide Incoming

Apparently people are freezing to death in Pakistan from the unprecedented snowstorms, which made me realize that I’m a big complainer and lots of people (most people) have it worse. Anyway, I’m over the initial shock of winter and have settled into the reality of living coldly. By actively getting rid of my bitterness, I’ve been able to remember some of the things I claim to like about winter, like having cold, pink cheeks or the sun shining on a crisp day. Plus, our landlord finally replaced the pane of glass that he knocked out of a door before I moved in, so the bitter Lyon wind (the one that rips your face off if you’re not careful) has stopped coming into the apartment and I can now move around without wearing a sleeping bag and two scarves. I might even start washing my hair again, which was out of the question in the meat freezer known as “the bathroom” until now. Suffice it to say, I’ve been wearing a lot of hats.

We had kind of a fun day last week when Sarah invited us to a modern art exhibition. There were some good pieces, like the very exciting mirror cone – where you stick your head in at one end and it’s reflected as in a honey comb for everyone on the other end – and the huge glued-down patterns of pencil crayon shavings. There were also decidedly crappy pieces, such as a whole series of pastel Easter egg-ish paintings and a large bottle with a blue smudge on it. Oh sure, you’ll tell me it represents wasted youth or Senegalese politics – I don’t want to know. It’s crap.

There were interactive installations that were downright terrifying, namely a roomful of balloons that you have to cross to get to the exit. The thing is, lots of people passed through this installation before us and by the time we pushed our way through this roomful of static, all the balloons were covered in strangers’ hair. (I think the artist forgot to account for that particular inevitable reality.) Whether for your claustrophobia, your germophobia or your fear of popping balloons, this room was designed to destroy you.

Another one was full of green fog and lighting that made it impossible to see anything past the end of your arm, so you had to wander around in a puke green nightmare until you found the exit. Unfortunately for me, Sarah and Franck loved this Room of Hell and thought it was funny to tap me on the shoulder and run off, laughing madly. The tapping, in their mounting frenzy, became smacking me on the back of the head; I was panicky enough to begin with – maybe unreasonably so but let’s leave our judgments at the door, shall we? – and didn’t think it was funny at all. As it happens. The terror eventually won me over and I sat down against the wall, where my whimpering inspired pity in Franck. He spoke in soothing tones and helped me find the exit before heading back in to play with Sarah some more, both of them oblivious to the cold hatred in my heart.

The best part of the exhibit – though my balloon room fear of death-by-smothering is a close second – was the Spencer Tunick wing. (I am very probably spelling his name wrong and I apologize to anyone out there who knows the difference. And I guess to ol’ Spencer himself.) He takes pictures of large groups of naked people in bizarre positions and in front of important monuments, and Sarah had worked her way into the five a.m. crowd for the Lyon series. Looking at all these naked bodies crammed together in a Vieux Lyon stairwell or on a bridge, often with one leg up or something similarly risqué, was like Where’s Waldo? – if Waldo were naked and Sarah. All very exciting.

There was a group of high school kids being taken through the gallery and we considered trying to sell her autograph, but she was suddenly shy about showing them where exactly her bare self was in each picture and so we settled for knowing smiles and self-congratulatory smugness. (I don’t know what Franck and I were smug about, fully-clothed and unphotographed as we were, but it felt right at the time.)

On the travel front: after the newspaper strike and the teacher strike came the train strike, so that it looked like our Annecy week-end was going to fall through. Then they settled just in time (or maybe they didn’t; what do I care? I'll tell you where they can stick their next strike...) and Franck and I left at an ungodly hour the morning after a snowfall and headed out to ever-charming Annecy to visit my mom.

The cold in Lyon had already pushed Franck to buy a proper winter coat and accessories, but he was still in running shoes when we stepped off the train and into the winter wonderland of a mountain town. The snow in Lyon was wet and mushy, you see, so you could survive by just sidestepping puddles, but in Annecy it was unavoidable. We’ve all been there, I’m sure, we all know the misery of icy wet feet, and it was a hard reality for Franck to face after a life lived between balmy Marseille and steaming Guadeloupe. We found him some boots and soaked his feet, the process of his ice block feet suddenly thawing bringing him an unprecedented amount of pain; so much for his theory that he could go the whole winter without socks.

Once he was warmed up and shod in boots over wool socks, we were able to walk around Annecy and marvel at how lovely it still is. Even without the pretty flowers everywhere, it’s impossibly picturesque and romantic. A low point was when mom lost her contact lens in a puddle of water along the canal and we crouched down and looked for it, as if there were any way we’d find a clear, dime-sized piece of plastic on a swampy, mushy sidewalk. It was hard to accept defeat because there were little bubbles everywhere that looked like lenses and we didn’t want to give up on the real one. Needless to say, we gave up, life went on. (Though we did linger in that spot again the next day, squinting like idiots into puddles.)

We all agreed in Annecy that I’d put on some weight in my nether regions since the cold set in this year (see? all my problems are around my butt!) so Franck and I decided to actively cut back on munching in-between meals. The problem is that while I’m happy to have a health coach in theory, having someone looking over my shoulder to remind me of my promise to myself is irritating at best, especially when that someone has the metabolism of a meerkat and couldn’t gain weight if he tried. It looks like my aversion to supervision is trumping any commitment I may have had to this cause, as I’ve twice now hidden chocolate in the apartment and eaten it on the sly, even though I didn’t particularly feel like it. I need to get out more.

Meanwhile, for those of us who have believed what they’ve told us over the years about the French being less consumer-frenzied at Christmas than North Americans: we’ve been duped. There was a sudden two-day promotion in a nearby home and garden store and I bought a thirty-euro dvd player (formerly seventy-five euros! What a bargain!) and had to "just pop into the mall" to pick up an adaptor for our television set. The mall was crowded and hot and awful, as malls are wont to be, but its pushy, angry mood could not possibly prepare me for the frenzy of the main department store.

I crossed the security check into my own personal hell: the entire store was decorated beyond what I thought was the limit, including a front-and-centre collection of garish red-dressed angels hanging down at eye-level so that you had to manoeuvre your way through the maze of their little golden shoes to even get into the store. There was holly, there was tinsel, there were hideous plastic turkeys and jolly Santas – I think they ordered their material from – and there were eight billion aggressive people with shopping carts and screaming children. I’ve worked six Christmases in retail and it always felt like a nightmare, but now I realize that it was a walk in the park next to this place.

The guys who work in electronics all had mobs of people around them, shouting out their needs and complaining about the crowds. I obviously couldn’t get to a staff member, so I ended up asking a fellow shopper who looked dvd-savvy and he hooked me up with the adaptor. On my way to the check-out counter I got elbowed in the side of the head by some frantic woman. I then waited thirty-four minutes in line (I am not exaggerating; I figured I’d want to tell the story and I timed it for accuracy), paid for the stupid adaptor and rugby-shoved my way out of the mall. This was on November 30th, and not a week-end. Merry Christmas!

The dvd-related purchases will be my last this year, as I just found out that my salary is 243 euros less than I thought: the amount they claim – already one hundred euros a month less than in Guadeloupe – is before taxes. So let me be completely clear and upfront: none of you is getting anything for Christmas. Once again, I curse this city and its sneaky ways: I’ll see you in hell, Lyon.


ribbit ribbit

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Dreams of Guadeloupe

And that is precisely why I am such a difficult person to please. Remember from Guadeloupe, how badly I needed to get out of there? Remember the frustration? All I talked about was how much I missed having seasons, how nice it would be to snuggle up into a sweater, maybe drink some hot cider... Well let me tell you, I got my seasons and no, thank you. Sweaters don't help when your fingers are snapping off from the cold, do they, Kathryn? Oh, how I dream of the beach in Deshaies, the sun burning my scalp raw, the sand scorching the backs of my legs... paradise. And it's only November! This is nothing! Who knew I was such a wimp? (Let's tell it like it is, we all knew. We've known for a long time.)

Tuesday was an irritating day for me, would you like to know why? It wasn't so much from getting up early or miserably washing my hair in the freezing cold bathroom, nor was it from missing my bus and having to run up the hill to make it before the bell. It was from doing all this for nothing, as my first class was cancelled -- they don't have a supply teacher, but put the kids in a baby-sitting room, bizarrely called "permanence," for the period -- and I had to kill two and a half hours in the staff room that smells of stale cigarettes because the door to the smoking room is always open. (Oh, you read right: there is a smoking room in each school.)

It would have been alright if there were someone to complain to, but the whole staff was grumpy and grumbly because there's been some kind of change in the parent-teacher nights and they each have to come in three times; the school was collectively pissed off. They were too busy feeling hard-done-by on their own accounts to have sympathy for mine. (Mine was mostly based on the theme of "why in hell can't they call me when it's cancelled?" and as I don't think that's ever going to happen, there's no point getting worked up about it.)

Fortunately for me, I don't have to get involved in any staff room anger because I understand very little of what they're all saying; conversations are in teacher-speak and I'm up on neither the vocabulary nor the context. They also tend to go a little wild with the local colouring, changing accents and doing impressions, so that someone will speak directly to me and I will have absolutely no idea what to answer. Or, most often, someone will tease me and I won't realize until it's too late and I've already smiled my assent like some idiot. My new system: read an English book in the corner and look generally inaccessible, as politeness evidently gets you nowhere.

I understand the riot action is getting dramatized international coverage, so for anyone who's worried, it has nothing to do with me. Not least because they're targeting the "bourgeoisie" and I live in a poor, kind of crappy neighbourhood; the rioters are my neighbours, essentially, and I don't see them setting fires to their own property any time soon. They're also doing a lot of damage in the downtown area at night, and since I don't go out, I am safe from danger. When some young hooligan sets fire to my couch, then I might need to rethink my strategy.

Because it's France, the riots coincided with the strikes of several major newspapers -- most events coincide with some kind of strike; this was just an unfortunate pairing -- so there was little information for the first week or so. (I heard about the whole thing from Bronwyn, who is in Toronto.) This means that when the public transportation system started shutting down at 6:00 p.m. for security reasons, nobody actually knew about it.

I was at a colleague's house after school to pick up the tv she's lending me for the year, so after standing at the bus stop for 45 minutes (someone passing by finally told me there were no more buses), I found myself walking down into town, carrying the heavy tv and my school bags. I eventually wimped out -- I was freezing and the straps were cutting into my hands; don't judge me -- and joined the 25-person line-up for a taxi. (Not an exaggeration.) When it was finally my turn, the driver who pulled up wouldn't take me because the roads were all blocked in my direction. He took a couple who were far back in the line-up, so everyone was angry and told me to hold strong, jump in the next taxi and refuse to get out. And, indeed, the next driver was adorable and we chatted the whole epic ride home. He said that my route was no more blocked than any other in the city and that they're not allowed to refuse customers and the guy was just a creep. I said "yeah, he's just a creep" and we high-fived.

As for the tv, the new joy of our lives – uh-oh! How quickly we lose sight of the concepts of exercise and fresh air when the travel channel is doing a special on the Greek Isles! At first we only had three channels, which generally included the news and special reports on old men from Iceland who hang fish and then eat it raw. I had no idea there were so many volcanoes in Iceland. (Though, to be fair, all I knew about the country was that it gave us Björk; pretty much anything other than that would have to be new information.)

We watched some celebrity schmooze shows, which are even worse than the Hollywood ones, perhaps because they're so shamelessly copying: better to be the original pretentious thing than to recreate it in French. And there are "medical emergency" shows all over the place: the one I stayed and watched (it's cold out, I watched some crap tv, what can I say) has this doctor – always wearing turtlenecks – who not only treats his patients, but also investigates the crime scene and does research in the lab. Is that ridiculous or is it just me? While treating a quarantined family for a surprise outbreak of small pox, is it at all possible that the head surgeon would poke around the suspected corpse at the camp ground, trying to determine whence came this dastardly virus? Who's writing these things? Maybe it's a budget problem: they can't afford to hire a whole detective cast, so the surgeon does all the work. The result is a show so bad that you can't stop watching it; I had to be careful not to let my life slip away between terrible American-dubbed-in-French medical dramas and terrible British-dubbed-in-French who-will-be-the-heir-of-the-manor family dramas, featuring Sarah Brightman as herself and wearing some kind of crown of thorns. All very fishy.

Franck has since poked around in the television and "found more channels," which I don't understand at all but is apparently what you have to do when you first set the thing up. We have twenty-four channels, some fluke cable mistake that we're hoping will last, and there are no fewer than four travel and nature channels. It's partly depressing because they show you one beautiful place after another (I'm sorry, but have you seen Mauritius? are you aware that there are people who live in paradise?) but mostly fascinating. I can't get enough of this series on sharks, which are every bit as terrifying as the movies have led us to believe. Don't let your guard down for a minute; they even show up in rivers in New Jersey! Rivers! With sharks in them!

An English assistant from Ottawa called me to organize a soccer day and said she'd been in touch with the funny Australians -- of Hutt River Province fame, which, by the way, I think is a sham after looking at the slightly unnerving web page -- and I thought all my dreams were coming true. I picked up a frisbee and Franck and I went to meet Alexa, only to discover that everyone was away for the long week-end and we were a less-than-triumphant group of three.

We kicked the ball around for a while and then played a sort of keep-away, in which I ended up being the monkey-in-the-middle a disproportionate amount of the time. It's a good idea, this trying to get the ball away from their fancy foot work, but it mostly made me feel like a child -- presumably because I wasn't very good and ended up running hopelessly in circles. We played some frisbee to shake things up a bit (read: to calm the rage rising within me before it was too late) and to get moving, and here's my problem: while I love running around and it makes me feel energized and hearty, it makes my butt hurt. I think because there's too much jiggling going on. My legs feel fine, my feet, my heart -- how discouraging to know I'm going to have achy-butt the next day. Is this normal? Is there something I'm supposed to do, other than have a smaller butt? Is this what spandex is all about? I've heard of shin splints and sprained ankles, but this is new. My nether regions are turning out to be the big hassle in my life. (See: pants-shopping in Aix, chapter 5.)

I never told you that I didn't get the Renault Trucks job, because he specifically needed Thursday and I work all day, so that was a little disappointing but also a relief; it sounded like a lot of work and it turns out that I am: Lazy. So to make a little extra money, I've started giving private lessons. One is just an hour of conversation with a Spanish teacher from school: her English is perfect but she's shy, so my job is just to get her talking. It's pure gold.

The other one is through the American teacher I told you about: she was at a dinner for the biggest Hermès clients in the country (her boyfriend's business is involved with them) and met this couple who have an eight-year-old girl named Elise. She was in a bilingual school until she was five, and now her mother is afraid she's losing her English. Rather than wait for her to start English at school, a private tutor seems to be in order, so we colour and play "Guess Who" and do things like that. The first class was fun, as Elise thought I was the cat's ass and would do whatever I suggested. She, in turn, told me about her uncle's castle and vineyard, the family trips to Italy, la Réunion, California, Grenada, Australia and so on, her membership in her parents' golf club. Added to their stunning apartment and the Hermès dinner, I guess it's clear that I'm out of my league.

Our second lesson wasn't as much fun because she turned out to be pouty. I had a whole list of things to do and she wasn't into them, but just wanted to colour again. When I agreed to do a drawing (I smuggled some English into it), she said mine was better than hers and refused to continue -- of course mine is better, dumb-ass, I'm an adult. Um, I mean, no, little Elise, it isn't better, just different. You're a beautiful child and this lesson is a joy.

I then babysat for the American teacher, as she and her fella were going to a wedding and staying overnight. A gorgeous house that included a home theatre screen and computer, on which the girls spent hours writing badly-spelled MSN messages to eight million people; at one point I realized that the two sisters were writing to each other, one in the family room and one eight stairs down in her mom's office. I suggested it might be time to turn off the computer and play a game, which was just such a stupid idea.

The game they had was "Star Académy," the equivalent of "American Idol," and was basically about dancing and singing your way to the end of the board, one hideous number at a time. My first dance was a raging success, totally blew the girls away. (I guess I don't look like someone who has rhythm.) I thought they were just being polite but then they copied all my moves on their own turns and I realized that I was very close to becoming a household legend.

Unfortunately, I chose to dance again instead of singing on my next turn and I thought I should up the ante, rather than recycle my admittedly-limited dance repertoire. I pulled all sorts of exciting moves out of my past and was dismayed to see their expentant faces turn to confusion, disappointment, and eventually, when I let loose the Roger Rabbit, revulsion. By the time I did the use-your-leg-as-a-chicken-wing dance, they had returned to their seats and resumed playing, pretending the whole episode had never taken place. No word of it was ever mentioned again.

I made them crêpes and felt that I should insist on their eating something with protein, so we had these turkey burgers and some sweet potato casserole (reheated; who do you take me for?) and then the crêpes with too much Nutella and we all went to bed feeling like hell. It occurred to me that I have some work to do before I undertake raising a family of my own, unless I want my kids to be greasy and bloated through life. (Though there are worse fates, aren't there?)

I leave you with a funny question from one of my grade seven students. During the no-holds-barred question period, when they were asking me about pets, family, marital status and how I feel about Snoop Dogg, Lorenzo asked me: "Do you have a God?"


ribbit ribbit

Monday, November 7, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 5

Chapter 5 : Lyon Pulls Ahead

All bets are off ; Lyon turns out to be a tougher competitor than I had anticipated. Tough, and especially, clever; Lyon had lulled me into a false sense of security – look at my beautiful buildings! and my pretty rivers! I’m sunny in October and I occasionally play a stellar musical line-up in the subway station! Ooh, I’m so great! – so that he may better pull the rug out from under me. (This format requires me to give Lyon a gender, and my gut tells me to go with masculine.)

A quick recap: Franck came to Lyon to go to a music school. The school is ridiculously expensive but the state agreed to pay for it, as part of a Guadeloupe-France project. I came to Lyon to be with Franck and, while I’m at it, save up for school next fall.

It turns out, however, that Lyon is not accepting the Guadeloupe file – which I suspect is largely, if not exclusively, Guadeloupe’s fault – and so Franck has to start again, from here, for next year, or go back to Guadeloupe. Meanwhile, my nine hundred-odd euros a month being more than a couple’s state allowance means that Franck, as long as we live together, cannot apply for any financial aid and won’t be able to go to school at all. He has to apply before he turns thirty, so this is the last year he can do it.

In other words, I’ve taken a job I don’t particularly like, just to be with Franck, which will result in his having to take jobs he doesn’t particularly like, just to be with me. No music school, no health care, just Kathryn: a one-two punch from Lyon.
(We’re looking into possible solutions, namely Franck working in undeclared jobs – shh, don’t tell – or his renting his own place so that we don't have to declare together, so things will probably find a way to work out in the end. For now, though, it’s a bad scene.)

My birthday was low-key, largely due to our finding out about our dire financial situation the day before, but it did include the very exciting “Legend of Zorro,” which is a rip-roaring (and cape-swirling, hair-flying, spur-twinkling) good time. It’s one implausible plot point after another, complete with greasy villains and narrow escapes. There’s a horse-on-top-of-the-train sequence, a sword-fighting-on-a-scaffold sequence and even an evil plot to destroy America, including a secret passageway boiler-cum-meeting room with unexplained steam hissing all over the place that makes Rufus Sewell’s wacky eye look even wackier. It’s classic.

I confess that I walked around afterward looking for a fight, because I wanted to do a round kick like my hero, the impossibly beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones – is it possible to be that beautiful? No, no it’s not – with my skirt and my long black hair swirling around me. (She was often filmed from above, so the effect was very successful.) Some clumsy editing made it clear that her fights were done in tiny little mini-shots, but I don’t care; all the more reason for me to become a champion sword fighter and show her (and the world!) how it’s done.

I was once again reminded of how much I need a personal soundtrack; things would obviously be more exciting in my daily existence if important moments were marked with a flamenco guitar flourish. Even without the horse, the sword or the crowds of cheering Mexicans, I think a well-timed musical cue here and there would really make my life come together. I’m looking into it.

Ah, Zorro. How I love impossible romance.

There’s a ten-day holiday around All Saints day (November 1st), so a friend of my mom’s – Rita, a Canadian teacher who’s doing an exchange in Brittany – came to Lyon with her daughter Emma and spent the week-end with Mom and me; my mom finally got to see the city when it’s sunny and warm, instead of rainy and cold like last time.

We then took the train South to meet up with Nancy and Nick, Canadian friends who are spending a year in my mom’s beloved Aix-en-Provence. I stayed on the train the extra twenty minutes to Marseille, thinking I would meet up with Franck, who was there to visit his family. I forgot, you see, that making plans around Franck is like making a bookshelf on a cloud; things always fall through. (How do we feel about my attempts at poetry? Maybe I should keep them to myself?) I obviously never met up with ol' Francklin, who was by this time with his twin in Montpellier, but spent the day wandering around Marseille with my backpack for company and a marriage proposal from a Canada-loving bartender.

The ladies came down from Aix in the afternoon and on my way to meet them at the train station, I saw either Merry or Pippin from “The Lord of the Rings,” no word of a lie. (The one with the cute, bulbous nose, not the Scottish one.) I figured it was just a Marseille incarnation of my loneliness-inspired faux celebrity sightings, but then he was muttering to himself in English – Irish English, no less – and was quite wee and let’s tell it like it is, his is a one-of-a-kind face. I didn’t know what to do about it and ended up just watching him walk away, but believe you me, I spotted a real live hobbit in the South of France and that’s got to be worth something.

We spent the next couple of days in Aix, which is every bit as charming as my mom had said. We started by wandering through the market and my life suddenly took an unexpected turn: I became a shopper. I think it was the fact of having all these supportive women around me, enthusiastically telling me that a certain sweater was just my colour; it went to my head and I couldn't stop. How about this one? Is it my colour? Let's talk about me some more!

Rita also found me cargo pants and jeans for under five euros a pair – I know! What a steal! – so it was a satisfying expedition, as I needed pants for school. We had a little fashion show at Nancy’s that evening, as everyone has made good buys, and I felt, maybe for the first time, a part of this grand, supposedly female tradition. (It didn’t last; I need a pair of shoes that aren’t sandals and the idea of going shoe-shopping makes me dead inside. Maybe I’ll have to wait until the next visit…)

One of the pairs of cargo pants has this big floppy pocket down near the ankle – I think it’s supposed to be higher, as the pants were designed for someone taller; I did some serious hemming – and a series of pen-holders. Isn’t that a bit much? There must be a limit to on-clothing gadgetry. Not that it stopped me from buying them – at four euros, how could I resist? I’m only human – but come on, now.

Rita and Emma are food-based tourists and we all agreed that it was a relief not to find ourselves with picky eaters or dainty “I just couldn’t possibly order a dessert” loser-types. We had dessert like it was going out of style, enough to leave me generally bloated and gunky by the end. Now, I can handle more dessert than your average sweet tooth, so when I break down and draw the line, you can be sure that we’ve had too much. I’m okay now, though. Back to the patisserie!

Hey, my cute neighbour? I figured out what he’s been hearing from across the wall: my nose-blowing! Oh no! It’s a shameful and irritating honk – due to a deviated nasal septum; I am not to be blamed – and the bathroom is particularly resonant, not to mention a thin wall away from his own bathroom. Sorry, neighbour. Another friendship down the septum.

As for the central intrigue in my life: there is a phone booth on my street, the only one for miles around, and it is in front of a students’ residence. Every single evening, from just after 7:00 to however late I happen to walk by, the same woman is on the phone. (Luckily it's a double phone booth, or no one else would ever get to talk.) She is around forty, with glasses and straight black bangs, always nicely dressed, kind of a sexy secretary look. She leans back against the glass and crosses one nylon-clad leg over the other, at the ankle, for hours. Every single night.

At first I saw her when I was calling Guadeloupe all the time and I felt like we were comrades in arms, waiting for someone to arrive. I had nothing but sympathy for her and found it touching that she hardly ever spoke, figuring that she was listening to someone’s comforting voice before sleep.

Then, seeing people waiting outside the booth for her to get off the phone, and often waiting myself, I began to feel a little resentful. How can she commandeer the phone for hours every night? And why isn’t she talking? Is this some kind of kinky operation? Can a phone sex thing be run through a phone booth? How does she get paid? I’ve now heard her talk a few times, but I don’t understand Chinese and don’t know what she’s talking about. It doesn’t sound like she's being very sexy, though.

Franck, calling Guadeloupe once, made her wait for the phone, and we were unreasonably triumphant. Take that, mystery phone lady! Don’t feel so hot now, do you?! But then one evening I was out for some reason or other and was feeling kind of blue, and she wasn’t in her booth. I felt so sad not to see her, and even betrayed, that I realized I have to get a grip over my emotions. Why does she have such power over me? Why the rage, Kathryn? Why the sadness?

A fun part of waiting for the phone to be free last night was that this guy walked by in jeans and a t-shirt -- it was freezing out -- and crossed in front of me to the wall beside the pharmacy where there's a condom dispenser. I guess I don't have a particularly good story to pull out of this, but I just found it funny to see him saunter up and buy two boxes of condoms (two boxes! not two condoms, but two boxes!) and then go back home. Very funny.

I saw my Lyon buddy Florian, who is living in Nice this year but was here for a few days. We both felt I’d gotten taller.

The suspense must be killing you, so I’ll tell you that the staff dinner from last time went fine, the bitchy lady is actually really smart and interesting (if a bit bitchy) and the teachers paid for my meal. Phew. I told them all about the Hutt River Province and was the hit of the party, but I still haven’t checked out the web page, so it could be a hoax and I could be building my reputation here on lies. Anyone have time to throw together a web page?

They play music in the subway and on the buses, and this month they’re on fire: I have now heard, on no fewer than six subway-and-bus trips, excerpts from the fabulous and timeless West Side Story. I don’t know who’s in charge, and I think it may just be a ploy to keep the young hoodlums from loitering – think Beethoven outside of Tim Horton’s – but I feel like it’s a special tribute to me and I accept.

I took Franck up to Fourvière, the beautiful cathedral we can see from our balcony. (I remember making a big fat fuss when Paul took us up for the festival of lights last time, and feel it necessary to make a public apology: it’s not such a bad climb, I’m a whiner, I should have just sucked it up. Sorry, Paul.) It was a perfect day, not least because it’s warmer outside our apartment than in, and also because I’ve been reading too many Alice Munro stories and have little to no faith left in life or love, so a bit of sunshine and exercise provided a much-needed shake-up.

Nothing in particular to report about Fourvière. The highlight for me, perhaps shamefully, was that the sun was just at the right angle to make my shadow look something like Angelina Jolie. I was wearing those pen-friendly cargo pants for the first time and had almost convinced myself that the shadow was a true likeness; I must look about six feet tall and narrow. Or even, dare I say, willowy. But then I looked at Franck, who actually is six feet tall and narrow, and his shadow looked like an eleven-foot flag pole, so I had to admit to the possibility of distortion.

Fortunately, Franck baked the best strawberry pie of my life when we got home – after seeing the overpriced little mini-pies in the windows of neighbourhood patisseries and deciding that he should just make one himself – see why we keep him around? – and I forgot all about my woes and dug in. (I think I may have still believed somewhere that I had Angelina’s metabolism; here’s hoping I can ever fit into those cargo pants ever again…)


ribbit ribbit

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 4

Chapter Four: Please help me kill two hours

One of my schools grouped all my classes on one day, which I think is just excellent of them, but this second one has me spread out over Monday and Tuesday. Each day I have two classes and a club, which is me hanging out with whatever eager-beaver kids decide to give up their lunch hour to talk about Anglo pop culture, but that won't start until after the Toussaint holiday, which is next week. That gives me a very long stretch of sitting around between today's two classes, and what can I say: there's free internet in the staff room. You're getting an update.

Guess who made it to Lyon? Franck! He actually exists! (I know you all thought I was off my rocker and just didn't want to say anything, but I will take a picture and send it to you and you will see.)

He got here on Friday and had to hang around the train station for hours because his phone card wouldn't work and he couldn't let me know he was there, but let's not forget how much waiting I've done, and let's not shed any tears for ol' Franckster. When I found him, after hunting through the entire [and very large] train station because he was definitely not where he told me he would be, a little group sitting on the next bench broke into applause; apparently they'd been chatting him up and were anxious that he would never get through to my phone, and so they were very pleased to see a real live reunion. I think they really liked my skirt, too, which is swirly and nice. They were right to.

He's gotten lost a few times -- on Sunday he went out at 11:00 for a before-bed walk and wandered around for three hours before he accidentally stumbled onto our building's graffittied door -- and is having trouble adjusting to certain urban concepts, namely traffic lights and our need to respect them, lest we should be run over by any number of speedy Smart cars. He keeps thinking people will wait if he starts across the street, since the four or five cars in Guadeloupe always did... I've asked him to write out a will so that everything's in order, because the last thing I want to deal with is a pile of morbid paperwork. Let's be fair here.

We've been doing music theory lessons as well, to bring him up to speed on the not-by-ear chapter of studying piano, and I'm looking for a French equivalent of Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle. Anyone? It has to work backwards as well, like Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles' Father. (How brilliant we are in the English-speaking world!) If anything suddenly comes to you, please jot it down. Thank you.

That same train station Friday, I went to an assistants' meeting as a guest speaker. Nobody seemed to care that my experience was in primary, which has NOTHING to do with the junior high and high school system, or that nothing in Guadeloupe functions even slightly like it does in Lyon. Mostly I told anecdotes and sighed in a world-weary manner, offering vagueries like "you just have to take these things in stride" and "six of one, half a dozen of the other" when asked a specific question for which I had no answer. I had lots of bad news about health cards (you aren't getting them any time soon) and safety deposits on apartments (write everything down; they'll try to screw you over!) which I guess is practical for people to know ahead of time. Otherwise, I cracked jokes and made little pointy-gun hands without shame,
apparently interpreting my role at the meeting as that of the stand-up comic, and -- I'm sorry to say -- I can't say that I've found my calling.

They appreciated my words of wisdom, though, and at the break for lunch (which I stayed for, in case you're wondering if I'm the kind of person who passes up a free lunch) I was suddenly surrounded by people and their questions about financial aid, dealing with teachers and so on. I do enjoy being deemed important, even if wrongly, so it was a bit of a bust when I told a girl where the washroom was and she said "no, that's for boys." No, I assured her, with the confidence of someone who's been around the block a few times, washrooms are co-ed; you can go ahead and use this one. So she pulled the door back a little and showed me that there was not only the little boy stick figure, but also, in very clear letters, the word "garçons." Which accounted for the strange looks I got from the 15-year-old boys who saw me come out of the stall, and which completely undermined my position as the local expert. I'm working on a come-back.

BUT. Some of the assistants seemed really into my plan to use the large field two minutes from my apartment for soccer/frisbee/whatever games, so I'm feeling really good about that.

More importantly, there were a couple of funny Australian boys who told us about the Hutt River Province in Western Australia. Are you familiar with this? It would seem that some Australian farmers in the late '60s were not feeling successful enough with their crop production under the Commonwealth laws, and so they legally ceded from Australia and created their own country. Hutt River Province, which the Australian goverment refuses to acknowledge, has a population of about 25? 30? but claims to have fifteen thousand passport holders around the world. And there's a king, and a queen (Tom called her Queen Shirley, which made me fall off my chair laughing), and their two princes -- so do they pay taxes? Can they go to university in Australia, or do they pay the foreign student rate? Are they still farmers? Can you be a king and still do your own planting and hoeing? Are the princes going to marry princesses from other countries to create political ties? Is this the CRAZIEST THING YOU'VE EVER HEARD?

There's a web site and I suggest you have yourself a little browse, because I think the whole story is amazing. If I get enough money, can I just cede from Canada and make Kathrynland? I think I'd make an excellent queen, and I have some very good ideas about politics. I think you should give me a chance.

I was pleased to discover that even junior high kids are generally excited about my presence in their classroom, though I have nowhere near the celebrity status I found in Guadeloupe. Nobody has mobbed me or frantically petted my clothing, but I am taking into account the more blazé nature of a) older, and b) French kids, and I'm refusing to be disappointed. The fun part is that they actually speak English, at least well enough to ask me questions and understand the answers, and they are very curious and cute. They prepared possible questions to ask me and they have to write up an essay (I have requested that it be called "Ode to Kathryn," but it isn't looking like a go), so I was expecting to answer questions about Canada,
about favourite sports and music, about my family and pets and committment to crêpes, and those questions were all in there.

However, I think there's a line somewhere between the acceptable "are you married?" or "do you have a boyfriend?" and the altogether questionable "are you happy with your boyfriend?" and "will you have children together?" I don't know if it's just what comes out of their trying to get a question across and not being sure how to phrase it, but it blew me away. I was also a bit stressed out to answer "what are your qualities? what are your defects?" - I said I was nice and a people-person, and I'm sorry to say I went so far as to say "passionate," but can I tell you? I couldn't find any defects! There is nothing to be improved, kids; what you're looking at is a finished product. I guess defects are personal, because you're starting to talk about your real self, and I felt highly uncomfortable. I ended up saying that I talk too much, and I get really competitive for things that really aren't, by any stretch of any imagination, important. In the grand scheme of things. Then I felt I had to explain myself, and started off in some rambling direction -- however many minutes later, somewhere in the middle of my outlining the rules of team charades, the teacher said "any more questions for Kathryn?" and we all agreed that competitiveness aside, I was right about the big talking.

I have an interview tomorrow for a job teaching adult English classes -- maybe I shouldn't tell you about it because then I have to admit very publicly if I'm not hired. The guy seems very enthused, though, and was disappointed that I have days already taken up with the assistant job, so unless he's one of these "getting your hopes up in order to let you come crashing down" kind of interviewers, I think I have a good chance. I'll try not to end my sentences with prepositions and to cut the excessive use of "like" out of my speech; I will also bring some baclava from the little store downstairs because it's the best thing I've ever tasted, and if nothing else, he'll have to hire me to keep the supply coming.

I don't think I actually say "like" that much, but you know who does? The American lady (from Los Angeles) who's my supposed co-ordinator at this school. She has a big California smile that seems decidedly fake, she's really mean to my favourite little lady, and she's not co-ordinating me at all. She was supposed to call me to come in and see the school but she never did, and last Thursday since I was in the neighbourhood -- visiting the other school, who did call me -- I thought I'd just pop in and see where things were at. Hey, you're here! Great! You're starting on Monday! said the principal. What if I hadn't come in? What kind of system is this? So we're keeping an eye on this "Deborah" character. They're having an English department dinner tonight (one lady made it sound like it was in my honour, but I think it might not be; I'm not sure how I'm supposed to proceed) (namely, I'm not sure if I have to pay...) and she's coming, but she makes them all really nervous. Doesn't sound like a lot of fun. I thought it would be nice to have someone to chat with in English, but it isn't always worth it, is it? Luckily, I'll always have myself; great talks to be had there.

And so, it looks like I'm settled. I'm kicking ass this round.


ribbit ribbit

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 3

Chapter 3: I'm Mister Lonely

I don’t know about this update thing anymore: these days, coming up with sharing-worthy stories is like squeezing water from a stone. Mostly because I’m not doing anything, ever. Ever. Anything. Maybe I’ll just invent something…

I have been hired to teach junior high, starting either next week or in November (it depends on how they work it around the All Saints’ holiday), so at least there’s something of a reason for my being here now. Wait, you’re thinking, you’re there to be with Franck; that’s your reason. Well yes, that was the idea, but it turns out that Mister Franck’s stand-by ticket requires more standing by than he had realized. (I wasn’t entirely aware that it was a stand-by ticket in the first place, but then I rarely know what’s going on in Franckland; nothing new there.) That would make him: still in Guadeloupe. Which makes me: still alone in Lyon. So maybe he’ll get here Thursday? Friday? Early November? Or maybe not. It’s all part of the adventure, and let me tell you, I’m really enjoying it. It’s the best, this not knowing what to expect or how to plan – it suits my personality to a tee.

I did have some company a couple of weeks ago when my mom came down from Annecy for the week-end. As it happens, the glorious sunshine that had brightened my arrival in Lyon disappeared a few hours before she got here, to be replaced by the howling Mistral wind. I guess it’s legitimate to experience the city the way it will be on grey rainy days as well, but a little bit of warmth would have been nice. Our Sunday sightseeing jaunt to the cathedral on the hill was cut short because the wind was blowing so strongly and I’m kind of a wimp, so what Mom really got to know what the inside of my apartment and what it feels like to drink tea there. (Frankly, that’s a fair representation of my life in Lyon, so maybe it was for the best.)

Even through the misty cold, though, our Honey agreed with me that Lyon is the place to be. (After Annecy.) Not least because of all the amazing food, of which we chose crêpes for lunch. Because we’re such delicate ladies, we got two crêpes to share, each featuring some extravagant combination of cheese, lard, ham, eggs and crème fraîche. I think you can imagine the bloated-and-achy outcome of such face-stuffing; suffice it to say, Never Again. (Until next time.)

After Mom left and the weather turned nice again (what can you do), I went back to my sad search for human contact. I had dinner at Sarah’s one night (the assistant from Guadeloupe who is also in Lyon) and then went to a party with her on the week-end, which I knew was a bad choice but I’ve already explained: human contact. After walking through Lyon and hunting around the pokey student quarters for her friend’s apartment building, we crossed a suspended courtyard – like the one in The Aristocats that all the drunk cats dance over, carrying their instruments and singing “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” - a reference that was lost on my British-and-evidently-not-raised-on-Disney comrades – and opened a door, and there it was: my past. Like so many frosh parties of yore, cramped apartments, crappy music, self-importantly obnoxious people dancing and smoking like it’s going out of style (hey! it IS out of style, losers!) – oh, how I wanted to be home and quiet. Through endless boring conversations, I just kept thinking of the stack of short stories from the New Yorker sitting on my table – why do you look so sad? they asked, obviously impressed, and planning such effective moodiness of their own for the next party. I must have seemed very poignant indeed.

All things considered, I’m not the party type and it must be irritating to hang around with a wet blanket, so I guess Sarah, who is much more social than I, will be a museum-visiting and errands-running friend. Our afternoon at Ikea, for example, was a party and a half, not least because Sarah’s Swedish and so I felt like a real insider. What does that word mean? “Point.” And that one? “Closet.” And so on and so forth, until the check-out guy heard us speaking English and asked where we were from and I said “Sweden” without even thinking. One can dream. She bought all sorts of special Swedish things from the boutique on the way out, mint chocolate and crackly bread and blood sausage and other such tasty treats, and she was really happy to taste things from home. It kind of made me wish there were a Canadian Tire somewhere with a little boutique in it, so I could buy – um, I could buy – Kraft cheese slices. Yes. That is what I would buy. Mmm, Canadian food.

My previous trip to Ikea was a solo trek and ended with me lugging home two lamps, a bedspread and kitchen stuff on my back, and carrying a computer table (which I cleverly transformed into a kitchen table, but for half the price – zing!) in my blistered hands. A very nice man heard me muttering to myself (“I really don’t think this is going to happen”), took pity on me and carried it up the street for me, but that was after I had gotten it that far in the first place. You don’t know how far it is, but trust me: far. So my I’m-so-tough pride notwithstanding, it was nice to have someone to shop with. I got a picture frame for the infamous print (which crashed down beside my head at 4:00 in the morning, but I attached it properly and I
think all is well) and some paint to make it the right colour. I also got a teapot, which I was sorely missing, and a mirror which turns out to be very flattering and I am quite pleased with it. Everything is now in order; you are all invited to come and visit. And bring a hat rack, please, because that’s the only thing I couldn’t find.

A funny side-effect of having almost no friends here (the bank lady doesn’t count; she only calls when she has to discuss my chequing account) is that I’m desperately seeing familiar faces everywhere. I’ve seen about half my high school so far, as well as people I’ve worked with, people I’ve lived with and people who once sold me juice at the QuickMart on the corner. I’ve seen my dad so many times I’m starting to believe he’s actually here and following me around to keep an eye on me. Sometimes I see people I don’t actually know, like Joan Cusack, and then I get all excited, which is obviously ridiculous; I have no claim to Joan Cusack, in Lyon or anywhere. Joan! Hey! What are YOU doing here?! I’ve seen Hugh Jackman (which was nice), Annie Lennox, Kate Moss (a kajillion times; everyone here looks like Kate Moss) and Richard Gere, to name a few, and every time it’s that same excitement, followed by crushing disappointment. And embarrassment, if I waved or called out.

I think I specifically don't have a new friend in the cute neighbour I just met, since we shared the elevator and then realized that we also share a wall. And he said “oh, you’re the one who – um, you’re new here, right?” and I’ve been wracking my brain ever since to figure out what he was about to say. Maybe it’s something harmless, like “oh, you’re the one who dropped all those pots on the floor the other day,” or maybe it’s something god-awful like “oh, you’re the one who’s always moaning in your sleep.” Hard to say.

I guess I can’t ask you to think any more good Franck thoughts for me, because whatever you’ve already come with clearly isn’t working. (Thanks for NOTHING.) If you have a sudden moment of inspiration, though, and feel that you are in contact with the movers and shakers in the universe, maybe you could send some positive travel thoughts via Guadeloupe. Get that guy on a plane, is all I’m asking.

Happy [belated] Thanksgiving to the Canadians out there, and keep on truckin’.


ribbit ribbit

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 2

Chapter Two : The Big Bust

I’ll just come right out with it, since I know you must be expecting juicy details from The Big Reunion : it was A Big Bust. Something about a plane ticket gone awry and October 8th, which is apparently Mr. Franck’s new arrival date, rather than last Friday. This obviously makes my presence in Lyon questionable at best, hanging around with nothing particular to do while I wait for my possible October 14th hire… It also makes me one sad puppy and I thank you for the sympathy you are undoubtedly feeling towards me as you read. Really, thank you. It warms the heart.

This is not to say I haven’t been busy, as getting settled is quite a process. I’ve been walking everywhere to save subway fare. Monday, for example, I left my house with a six-point to-do list at 11:25 and got home at 5:10, with only forty minutes of internet time for sitting down. And then the elevator was broken and those six flights were all me… I’m an amazon, I don’t care what you say.

Incidentally, I accomplished absolutely nothing the entire day. Everything is closed on Monday, you see. Everything’s also closed daily from 12 to 2, which is difficult when you consider that the day generally runs from 10 to 4. Little windows of Open on either side of a generous lunch, and this makes to-do lists very tricky indeed.

If, however, I was unable to get my health insurance, set up a doctor’s appointment or mail a letter from the post office, I was at least able to reacquaint myself with lovely, sun-dappled Lyon. And walking through the richest part of town, which I obviously never had any reason to know too well, I remembered that Lyon really is as bourgeois as everyone says. Little yappy dogs on sparkling leashes, fur coats and aggressively manicured hands abounding; you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

1. I passed a park and saw two children, maybe five years old, sitting on a bench and talking on cell phones.

2. Looking at pretty journals of handmade paper, I was shocked to see that they were almost 45 euros each. Then the woman who was in the store with her pre-pubescent daughter asked if there were more in stock because they needed twelve for loot bags. For loot bags! What, no sapphire necklaces available this year? Your daughter is turning ten, after all; it’s a big one. Get with the program.

I did get one thing accomplished this week, and that was opening a bank account. I was a bit nervous about it, since my last bank in Lyon, C.I.C. Lyonnaise de banque, took my eight hundred dollars in traveler’s cheques, shook my hand and then refused to let me take out any money until I closed the accound eight months later. Not because I didn’t need the cash – quite the contrary, in fact – but just because that’s how it worked at ol’ C.I.C. (Lyonnaise de rat-bastard, let’s tell it like it is.)

Well, however the accounts turns out, and it looks like a good time for anyone lucky enough to be under 25 – ding ding ding! – I am infatuated with Anne Pegrini, my personal banker. When I first saw her, I jumped to all sorts of typical Kathryn-meets-the-French conclusions. She’s just tiny, you see, in even tinier little pants and extraordinarily pointy shoes (when – and WHY? – did those come back into style?), beautifully coiffed and made-up, in a little French sweater and a not un-pouty mouth. Great, I thought. GREAT.

Through her warm smile and startlingly firm handshake, I held my suspicious ground. She smelled just a little too good for my liking, is all I can say. Well. A lesson was learned that day. Anne, my dearest Anne, is smart, funny, exceptionally kind and particularly good at her job.

I’m by nature quite anxious in most across-the-desk situations, especially where fluorescent lighting is involved. I’m not sure why; I get all nervous and hot-faced, guilty like I’m being accused of something. Case in point: on my way out of an eight-minute chat with a friendly enough lady about transferring my health account from Guadeloupe, I saw myself in a mirror and was taken aback – taken aback, I tell you – by how red my face was. My neck was blotchy, my breathing strained… If I’m ever accused of something and end up in one of those good cop/bad cop interrogation rooms, well, it’s all over; I don’t stand a chance. I confess! I did it! Let me out of here!

Anne was so nice that even with this predisposition to break out in panic hives and bolt from the desk-room, I was able to focus and take in information and sign in all the right spots. And there’s a lot of signing for French paperwork; I was in there over an hour.

So now I have this mystery to deal with: how can she be so lovely and feminine and appealingly French, and still be a smart, efficient business lady? More importantly, can I be all those things too? I can’t wait until I have to go back with my health insurance papers and see her again. Anne, teach me your ways. Wax on, wax off.

Here’s a funny one: a huge poster all over Lyon for shopping centre La Part-Dieu is a funhouse-mirror-demented picture of a naked woman, all gumby legs and small torso and hair flying, hands covering her fig-leaf parts, Venus-like. (Is it Venus? Who’s that naked redhead lady?) The caption: Fashion 2005 at La Part-Dieu. Now, I could have sworn fashion was about wearing things. Nudist beaches and the bathtub for naked, public life and fashion for clothes. Besides, is that okay, to have gigantic pictures of a mostly-naked woman all over the city?

(I considered criticizing something from home for each something from here, to keep things fair. The misused quotation marks, for example, on a closed check-out counter at Dominion: “Another cashier will be only too pleased to help you.” Do they realize they sound sneering and sarcastic? Are they idiots? But it would get tiring, I think, so let’s forget fairness and get back to one-sided criticism of this France we know and love.)

I kind of made a friend, which was fun. The girl whose apartment I took over, Angèle, left me some much-appreciated furniture, and we met up so I could pay her for it. We ended up spending the afternoon together and had good girl talk – useful to have someone my age who knows how things are done here – and the only thing I didn’t like was when she told me I’d love the area of Vieux Lyon, where there are lots of “people like me.”

I was wearing a purple dress, is the thing – a beautiful dress, dammit! It’s beautiful! – and Vieux Lyon, with which I am quite familiar, is where all the pretentious hippie types hang out. Like Kensington but really expensive, and I don’t know how I feel about being stuck in the Vieux Lyon category just because I am a purple sensation instead of wearing tight black jeans, a black halter top and alligator-skin pointy boots. For example.

(Really, it’s just a taste of my own medicine. I, the number one categorizer, have been judged. And not just judged, but judged to be pretentious and faux-arty.)

At any rate, I chose to interpret Angèle’s words and any bizarre looks I got throughout the day as being rooted in admiration; perhaps even awe. (It is highly possible that they were actually rooted in “is that girl wearing pyjamas?”, which I thought myself when I caught my reflection off-guard, but denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.)

We went for a sandwich with some friends of hers who had driven in from a neighbouring town. Cyril was easy-going and puppy-eyed and told me all sorts of useful things about finding a soccer team in Lyon. (And he said I had beautiful eyes, so I liked him right off the bat! Oh, those French men, such charmers... tee hee...) The other one, “Aléxandre” as he called himself, was strikingly self-absorbed, vain, pompous – the whole caboodle. Flirting with Angèle while looking past her to wink at girls walking by… I once caught him trying out his wink in the mirror beside our table – who IS this clown? (Truth be told, a good wink is hard to pull off and his practising could have made us kindred spirits if he weren’t so otherwise obnoxious. As it is, I hypocritically counted it as a point against him.)

They suggested we get dressed and go dancing. What are you talking about, get dressed? Change OUT of the most beautiful dress you have ever seen? Say no more, mon a-mor. That was all I needed as a final push to hightail it out of there. I walked a long, digesting walk home (my monster sandwich, possibly the best falafel of my life, needed some help settling down), made tea and practised winking. Enough is enough.

Apparently my need for friendship persisted, though, as two days later there was a knock on my door and a girl about my age was on my landing, art portfolio in hand. Now, obviously you never invite someone who’s selling something into your house, and obviously I invited her in. She showed me the art, which is by a Spanish friend of hers who can’t afford to rent gallery space, so a team of them go door-to-door.

And I liked it, one print especially, but I have no money, no cheque book yet, I’ve just paid 1000 euros in a safety deposit for the apartment, plus rent… obviously this isn’t the time. I have two months to send payment, she says, and post-dated cheques are fine – so I buy the print! What is the matter with me? Am I that big a sucker? I mean, supporting young artists and so on, and I really do like the print, but let’s get serious.

What I didn’t like was this Sandrine girl, with the cutesy-giggly persona she’d cooked up for herself and her pretend enthusiasm about my entire life.“Where’s your accent from? Canada?!! Oh my God, I LOVE Canada!!! Awesome! Did you cut out those sunflowers yourself? That’s such a good idea! I love sunflowers!! Is that hair on your head? Oh my God, I LOVE hair! That’s so awesome!!!”

And then showing me the angel theme in the print – because we women are all angels, and you be sure to tell your boyfriend that, missy! – while wagging her finger at me and baby-talking… forget it, I hated her. Nothing but the purest loathing. My least favourite new person in a long time and what do I do? Buy a print. What I am not: someone who can say no. What I am: a big fat sucker.

A good purchase, however, was the fridge that they delivered eight peanut butter days after I moved in. I almost wept all over the delivery man’s shoulder when he said I had to wait six hours to plug it in, but all is well now. I have purchased Boursin garlic cheese, lemon sherbet and eggs, and I am pleased as punch with my little Bluesky fridge.

All that’s missing now is a Franck; hopefully he’ll get here some day. Oh, that Guadeloupe – tricky little devil sometimes.


ribbit ribbit

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 : Homecoming

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the showdown of the century !! In this corner, the defending champion. Star of the South-East-ish region of France called Rhône Alpes, a beautiful city often called the gastronomical capital of this particularly gastronomical country, please put your hands together for… Lyon!!

(Audience claps politely; Lyon is quite bourgeois.)

And in this corner, hailing from the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, Canada, back for a second round after getting seriously whooped in 2001-2002, Kathryn!!!

(Audience boos; they can tell Lyon is in for a serious fight.)

So let me bring everyone up to speed: I studied (and I use the term loosely) in Lyon four years ago and, contrary to what some readers understood, I loved it. Oh, there were bad times, I don’t deny it. But it’s a beautiful city, in a country that tortures me with how irritating it can be and how much I love it anyway, and I’ve thought about this city often in the years since. I cut out and framed no fewer than five pictures from a Lyon calendar, to give you an idea.

Now. Last year I taught English in Guadeloupe, an island in the French West Indies, and there I met a special somebody named Franck. (You may remember Franck from such winning moments as luring iguanas out of hiding with banana peels and carrying a TV down the mountain so I’d have green-screen soap operas to watch while I had dengue fever. Always a new trick up his sleeve, that Franck.)

Franck, trying to pursue a career in music and frustrated by the overall smallness of Guadeloupe, is diving into a music program in France. Shake things up a bit, if you will. I have come along for the ride (while I wait to go back to school next September, knock on wood), and when he asked me what city I would like, I voted Lyon. And here I am.


I had a disjointed beginning, possibly because I spent my last two weeks in Mississauga with no phone, internet or car, and you’d be surprised how frustrating that is. I also had strange company on my flight and got no sleep, and then was suddenly in Paris – isn’t it wild that people just live their lives in so many different places? Here’s Paris, trucking along – and nothing had changed as far as I could see, so it was kind of same old and mundane, which made me feel even more disjointed as I waited for a concrete emotion to hit.

I’m more on top of things now, though. For those who remember the hell of my first three weeks in Lyon 2001, check this out: I found an apartment in under 24 hours! Hoo-wa!

I spent the first week, while waiting for my place to be free, in the gorgeous apartment of Jacques, the brother of my mom’s French exchange partner. (No homeless Kathryn THIS time, thank you very much.) My time with Jacques and Isabelle was inspiring, and not only because I caught the contagious joy of their 20-month-old son.
1. Such a beautiful apartment shows me what life can be for people in Lyon with money.
2. There is a bookshelf, an all-out bookshelf, in the WC, which I think is a bold move.
3. Jacques, a geography professor, knows my own beloved geography professor Jacques Comby and has promised to put in a good word for me.

They’re also soccer fans and we watched in triumph as Olympique Lyonnais beat Real Madrid 3-0. THREE to ZERO! Unprecedented! I’m in the right city this year.

I spent a long week-end with my mom in Annecy, the prettiest little town I’ve ever seen, where she is doing her teaching exchange. It’s near the mountains and a couple of canals run through the old city, so with the baskets of flowers and the pretty little boutiques everywhere, it’s achingly charming. (Keep in mind that Catherine, her exchange partner, left Annecy behind to spend a year in Mississauga. Every stick has a short end – what can you do.)

Everyone I met was nicer than the last, including a friend of Catherine’s who has a room set up for me to stay in, since there are cats at my mom’s house. Isn’t that nice?

(One of said cats is a big, long-haired male named Mocha, and the neighbour’s little dog apparently keep trying to mount him. His owner was joking about the dog being in love and I was laughing along, until I saw the spades in Mocha’s eyes. I guess being repeatedly humped by an ugly little dog just isn’t as funny when you’re on the inside. Life is all about perspective, isn’t it?)

We spent a day in Geneva with Mom’s old friend Judy, whose husband is a Canadian ambassador to the U.N. Life in the ambassador lane is a-okay, my friends, and includes a personal chauffeur. There are things a person can get used to.

The only negative part of the week-end was the freezing wind that blew through on Saturday, ironically named “la bise” – the kiss. Kiss of Death, maybe, especially coming after a week of 32 degrees. The upside what that I was so cold I went home and blow-dried my hair (blew my hair dry? how do you say it?) and it turns out to be a good look for me. Maybe my ratty days are over? I also got to wear my large poncho against the cold, and that’s always good news.

At one point a wedding party drove past us in town, honking and hanging out of cars, and then they blocked traffic, got out of the their cars, and danced in the street. Not long enough for anyone to get mad, just long enough for me to think: yes.
I’m just getting it out there in advance, and friends please take note: I want street-blockage at my wedding.

We got lost on the way to the train station, actually driving out of Annecy and into a completely different town, and I ended up running down the platform and diving onto the train as the whistle blew. It was very dramatic.

Now I’m settled in my apartment – minus some key furniture – which is five minutes away from my old one and has a nice view of the cathedral on the hill. It’s cozy and orange with hardwood floors and a balcony, and the elevator’s out of order so I’m getting my exercise. (Fifth floor, which is sixth in Canadian-speak.) I don’t have a fridge and was thrilled at the excuse to eat nothing but Nutella – “for protein” – but that turns out to be gross and I’m not feeling so hot. Live and learn.

I bumped into my Swedish/English friend Sarah from Guadeloupe – literally stopped dead on the street and stared at each other, trying to fit a familiar face into a new context – so it will be fun to hang out. It’s been weird to be in Lyon without my friends from last time, who were obviously more important than the city itself. Franck gets here on Friday, and hopefully I’ll start teaching soon, but just walking around makes me miss them a lot.

What’s changed is that men aren’t bugging me at all. It’s a relief, but I’m also a little bit offended. I’ve decided that it’s because I don’t seem as open or naïve as last time – I’m coming straight out of cat-calling Guadeloupe, remember, and I have learned a thing or two – and not because I’m not cute anymore.

I thought the super intendant of my building was a cute little man and he seemed utterly charmed by me, but I’ve twice since seen him be utterly charmed by other young ladies in the building. I now realize he’s just a creepy old man who likes young flesh and that’s that. So I’m on the look-out for someone to charm. The lady in the fruit market seemed touched by my commitment to her figs, so maybe I’ll make something happen there.

I did get one really outstanding line: a guy at the train station asked me for help finding his path as he was new in Lyon. Sure, I said, what path?
The path to your heart.
Use it freely; it’s a keeper.

Next in the adventure is a reunion with Franck, whom I haven’t seen in over two months. We’ll get some furniture and then we’ll have to decide how to deal with our landlord, who told me (after I’d signed and paid) he liked me because I have light eyes and am from this side of the Mediterranean. Sorry, Francko, I scored us a racist. Bienvenu en France.

I’ll write down contact information for those who wanted it, and otherwise hope everyone is well.


ribbit ribbit

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

In the Loupe, Chapter 31

Alright, Guadeloupe is upping the ante. I fly out Thursday morning at 7:30, which means I had to talk Franck's friend Hervé into driving me to Point-à-Pitre at 5:00 in the morning, and the whole scene was looking pretty stressful to begin with. Early morning, long drive, saying good-bye to Franck in the cat litter-smelling airport... there was never anything to look forward to in the first place.

Today we heard an explanation on the radio for the wild heat and unruly storms of late; there's a hurricane heading this way. Now, obviously, anything I say from here on in sounds selfish, as I'm mostly concerned about keeping my own butt covered, but it's a bit lame that the hurricane is supposed to hit Wednesday night. They've been wrong before, and some people are talking about the week-end instead, but I feel like getting a hurricane the night before I'm supposed to leave is a bit much. Not only because of having to deal with a hurricane because I booked a flight 24 hours too late, but also because how am I going to get home? And if the thing misses Guadeloupe, it might be heading towards Puerto Rico, in which case I still can't go anywhere. Obviously, what I am hoping is for the hurricane to miss all the islands. Or if it has to hit, the least possible damage to everybody involved. But after that noble wish, let's hope that my flight isn't screwed up and I don't have to hang around in Guadeloupe - and in a hurricane - for a week.

On the non-natural-disaster front, I met a friend of Hervé's one afternoon, the famous "Laurent" I had heard so much about. (Undoubtedly you have too; this guy's on FIRE.) He came to drop off a futon for Hervé, who was really psyched about adding it to his old futon and making the ultimate "L" couch. As it happens, you can't sit at the connecting point because there are pointy springs poking you in the bum, so it's a bust, and now Hervé has another big couch in a small living room for nothing.

Laurent is rumoured to be a wicked good guitar player, which is always fun, and he's also in aquaculture. This means that he's raising some kind of shelled creature to use in medicine - the shiny part of the shell, from what I understood - I wasn't really listening; aquaculture doesn't do it for me - because it has a special property that can help fight against osteoporosis. If it works, you realize, and the funding comes through, I know the osteoporosis guy. Glass of milk? None for me, thanks. I've got Laurent.

I liked that he had long wavy hair and kept his sunglasses on all the time, like a movie star. And SPEAKING of movie stars, Hervé asked me who Laurent reminded me of. He's kind of a Jeff Bridges-Tom Cruise amalgam, but that wasn't the right answer. Nick Nolte? Kevin Bacon? Hervé says, "how about Leonardo Di Caprio?" which is obviously not happening, but the thing is that our Laurent was Leo's stand-in for "The Man in the Iron Mask."

Fun, you may think, to hang around with ol' Leonardo for fifty days in a French castle - well, I see your Leonardo and I raise you: John Malkovich! Jeremy Irons! GABRIEL BYRNE!!! "Is he as beautiful in real life as in his movies?" I gushed, like he was my favourite Teen Magazine idol. Really now, Kathryn. I guess Gabriel just has that effect.

But it gets even better. For as well as being a guitarist, aquaculturist, futon-bearer, Gabriel Byrne's best friend and the unlikely cameraman for the "making of" video of a terrible Hollywood movie - they let him do the making of! - Laurent is an astrologer. You heard me, a reader of the stars. I must admit upfront that I am highly skeptical about most things astrology-related, tending to believe that if we're different from each other it's because we're different people, not because I was born on an ending moon and you have water associated with your month.

(A wild coincidence: I met, at the age of fifteen, a new classmate who turned out to be born on the same day in the same hospital - Mount Sinai in Toronto, in case you want to add a bit of reverence to your University Avenue experience - our mothers were maternity ward roommates. We therefore have exactly the same astrological birth map, including our precise location on the earth at the time. And yet - and yet - we are completely, even fundamentally, different from each other. See?)

For all my naysaying, however, having an astrologer run through your personal zodiac stats is the best. Based on my birthday and year, after a bunch of adding and dividing that ended up with the numbers three and sixteen, I am kind, determined, balanced and social. I am creative and sensual, diplomatic and feisty. I accept a challenge but have no need to one-up my fellow human. I am even-tempered and understanding, I am discerning and thoughtful, I relate well to children, I am expressive and gentle. I am extremely emotional and take things quickly to heart.

I am deep. I am passionate.

I am Scorpio.

Obviously the list is hit-and-miss (balanced? challenge-accepting?!) and our having spent an afternoon together made the objectiveness of his findings a little fishy. He often used examples from my life - teaching camp this summer? that's because you're a Scorpio and you relate well to children - which made it feel more like a personality assessment than anything else, but I totally lapped it up. Who doesn't want a near-stranger to tell you you're every good quality in the stars? I don't imagine he would get many clients if he said, "you're whiny and unmotivated, you're vain and jealous, you have a wicked temper and you hold a grudge. You're selfish and immature, you have no will power, you offend people wherever you go and your body odour is unbearable. There are no trips in your immediate future, you will come into no money and you haven't a single lucky number. You will die alone."

He did say I was "gourmande" (which I would translate as sweet-toothed, or just someone who enjoys food) - as if it takes a psychic to figure that one out - but he put a little spin on it and it turned out to prove my sensuality and my lust for life. (Nice one, Laurent.) He predicted a life change in the fall (after I told him we're going to France in September) and told me karma is on my side and I've got good things coming my way. (Like hurricanes.) I asked him if this interminable cut on my arm will ever heal, but he said the stars don't decide that kind of thing. (Ah, but they do, Laurent; you just didn't remember that three and sixteen also indicate an obsessive-compulsive tendency to pick at scabs.)

Overall, I was quite satisfied with the afternoon. I found out all sorts of reasons why I'm an excellent person, I got a semi-clean futon to sit on when I'm baby-sitting (I can't even describe Hervé's couch; just thinking about it makes my throat close up) and my buddy Laurent said he'll put in a good word for me with big Gabriel. My life is falling into place. I guess this is the last update, so thanks for following along.

Oh, that crazy Guadeloupe -- good times, good times.
Now get me out of here.