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?"


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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…)


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