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.


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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!)


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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.


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