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

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