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 americanchristmas.com – 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.