Friday, June 9, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 20

Chapter 20: Farewell, Sweet Lyon

The last two weeks went pretty quickly, filled with good-bye visits and paperwork. One of the visits was to a colleague’s house in the Beaujolais (wine) region, and was a real treat: driving through pretty little villages and up into the green, green hills where she lives was a welcome change from the grey city life we were used to. Her chubby, gorgeous six-month-old was as soft and nuzzly as a baby can be, her musician boyfriend was funny and easy-going and their two French bulldogs, though snorting, snotting and completely moronic, seemed really happy to see us.

The weak link was their friend Sébastien, our ride from Lyon, who has lived in Canada and is supposedly a huge fan. It turns out that he fell in love with a Canadian girl who was in Lyon and then went back to live with her in – wait for it – Welland, Ontario. They broke up and he moved back to Lyon, but he still goes to visit fairly regularly and so considers himself an expert on Canadian culture and had a great time telling me all about its many deficiencies.

The only two North American cities he would ever consider living in, for example, are Ottawa and San Francisco. Montreal: too big. Vancouver: too slow. Toronto: too business. New York: too pushy. (Of these awful cities that he knows so much about, by the way, he has been to: Montreal.) I said that I was among the least business-y people I had ever met and yet had always been happy in Toronto, a city full of arts and culture and sports and food and all sorts of stuff, including, yes, business. But he kindly explained that I was wrong and that Toronto is actually uptight and lacking in human energy. And I guess he must be right; he did live in Welland, after all, a tiny little armpit town some hours from Toronto, and somebody undoubtedly told him all about our big, bad city and its soulless inhabitants.

He was supremely annoyed that when he told people he was French, they thought he meant French-Canadian. I told him about Lyon’s general refusal to accept that I was an Anglo-Canadian, one of many, and that I really didn’t know if Lara Fabian was planning a fall concert tour or how Roch Voisine’s new album was coming along. The principal of my school wished me – for the eight hundredth time – luck in all my endeavours in Quebec, despite my being the English assistant and wearing a Toronto t-shirt. But that’s different, Sébastien assured me; Canada really is known for its Frenchness in most of the world. (Most of the world being, of course, France.)

Having spent ten days one Christmas at a beach resort in La Réunion, a French island East of Africa, our friend Seb went on to tell Franck all about the cultural differences between this island and Guadeloupe, to which he’d never been but he’d seen travel shows. La Réunion has lots of different varieties of bananas, for example.
- Yes, said Franck, same with Guadeloupe.
- No, not like Guadeloupe, these are cooking bananas.
- Yes, said Franck, ours also including cooking bananas.
- No, it’s different.
Well, Seb, if you say it’s different, you must be right. After all, we may have lived there and eaten the bananas on a regular basis, but you’ve seen shows.

It was rainy and cold that day and I shivered through the afternoon in my skirt and sandals, having trusted the weather channel’s claims that it would be warm and sunny. Then they warned of wild rainstorms and as I lugged my umbrella around with me while sweating in the hot sun, I started to wonder about the legitimacy of the weather channel. I don’t really know how it all works, and I’m not saying that I could accurately predict the weather myself, but then I don’t go around making pronouncements based on wild guesses. Why do we keep trusting them? Planning our week-ends around their confident little diagrams, feigning interest as they blab on about various percentages and special names of Easterly winds, then consistently finding ourselves unprepared for the actual weather conditions?

*Here’s something I learned on my favourite game show, La Cible: as well as the paper anniversary, the silver anniversary and the linen anniversary, there is the uranium anniversary. I can’t express how unsettling I find this information; make of it what you will.

**Meanwhile, reading a Timothy Findley book that wasn’t very good in the first place, he kept saying “in her behalf,” “in their behalf” – are we okay with that? Isn’t it “on her behalf,” without exceptions? It made me crazy.

Sarah came down from Bristol for a long week-end, so Franck and I thought she would add some spice to our lives, as she always knows what’s happening ‘on the scene’ and her enthusiasm is catching. It turns out she’s become as much of a homebody as I am and we spent the evenings drinking tea, chatting and watching Eurovision, the funniest show on earth, to which I can do no justice in writing; you have to see it to believe it.

We did things around town during the day, like buying pretty Thai-ish flip-flops for only four euros that fell apart within two days of wearing them around the house. We also walked up the hill to Fourvière, the beautiful cathedral, only Sarah insisted we take the stairs instead of slowly zig-zagging up the path and Franck and I (a smoker and an out-of-shaper, respectively) almost had twin heart attacks. (Sarah’s step-aerobics class prepared her for the feat, but she was still pretty knocked out by the top and I felt justified in my red face and stinging thigh muscles. No CN Tower fundraiser for me, thanks.)

She was hoping, among other things, to get the last 400 euros from Clément, whom you may remember as the dear friend who was supposed to take her last paycheque and transfer it to her in England, but then decided to spend it instead and was indignant when she accused him of being dishonest. She didn’t actually get the money, but she found a couple of henchmen to put on the pressure, so hopefully it will appear.

My Australian friend Sylvie – from the last time I was in Lyon – arrived around the same time, fresh from traveling around Asia and planning to work in France for a while, and it was nice to have someone to hang around with who thinks somewhat like me and who sees the funny things in Lyon as funny, not just same-old. It was also nice to have someone to confirm my opinion that there is simply too much smoke in Lyon, indoors, outdoors and everywhere; I was starting to feel like a real whiner.

A student of mine invited me to an African dinner-and-music thing by her drumming teacher, Apollos. The ticket said 8:00 and I cut short my visit with Stephanie and her baby Marie (who’s walking now! It’s so exciting!) and hustled to get there on time, only to wait over two hours for the food to be served. The musicians – three of them band mates of Franck’s, funnily – started to wander in some time after 11:00 and the music started after midnight, giving the crowd lots of time to get drunk and sweaty before the show. Apollos’s dance teacher friend, Kiana, had invited her community centre dance class, a bunch of middle-aged women who wore whatever African clothing they could drum up. (None of the African people there wore anything even slightly African.) She got them up to do their routines a few times and it was so cute – I can’t find a non-condescending word but I don’t mean it that way – touching? endearing? – to see them enthusiastically struggling through the moves that Kiana did so naturally and beautifully. It looked a bit like a drunk aerobics class by the end, just with better music.

At the risk of digging myself too deeply into cultural stereotyping, I think it’s fair to say that African and Caribbean men generally – and undoubtedly with many exceptions, my politically-correct friends – are fairly easy with the flirting and are particularly attentive towards smiling white women who are delighted and dizzy with the attention they’re not used to getting. (I’m sure I’ve been one of those women on more than one occasion, truly believing that I’d been a Salma Hayek all along and only now was some guy recognizing my irresistible sex appeal. I’m not judging anyone here.) This particular evening, what with the dance class ladies who had never been to an African party before, there were more delighted-and-dizzy women than you could shake a stick at; the men didn’t know where to start, and mostly just moved through the crowd, getting jiggy with whomever they could grab.

As it happens, the woman who was the most enchanted by all the touching and whispering, and who threw herself whole-heartedly into the arms of every man who offered, looked like a terrifying combination of George Costanza’s mom and my grandma. It was most distressing. I wanted to tell her to pull herself together but she was too far gone for any kind of intervention and all I could do was watch, miserable and highly disturbed, as Grandma-Costanza shook her booty against a series of complete strangers, a look of frantic ecstasy on her face. I considered it a personal favour from God when the power cut out and – while the drumming and dancing continued in the hazy blue light of the cell phones everyone pulled out – I couldn’t see my desperate hoochie-mama anymore and my anxiety could finally begin to dissipate. I had a rough sleep that night, believe you me.

Then we had a good time dancing with Sylvie and our [irritating and needy] neighbour. At first the club we were in (a boat on the river, as it happens) was just depressing to me, all these people half-dancing while they looked around for someone to pick up. You could smell the desperation in the air – attack dogs would have had a field day – and it made me feel kind of gross. But the music, tripped-up funk, was really good and got into my bones, so I had to let it out. It had been so long since I’d gone dancing (letting loose in the kitchen doesn’t count) that once I started, I couldn’t stop. (Turns out I have a hoochie-mama side of my own.) Franck was disappointed that I’d resisted for so long when it turns out that I like it so much. What can I say.

Our landlord made no effort to rent out the apartment – he casually mentioned that we should put some posters up around the university, one week before we left – so we had to pay longer than we lived there, having given the standard three months’ notice a week too late. We managed to sell the furniture, mostly to some neighbours who ripped us off, and to Sylvie who paid way too much. (I tried to stop her.) We gave back the keys and didn’t have the courage to break through the smiley apartment-check and say “we pay more than anyone in the building and you didn’t even try to find us a replacement, you didn’t ever fix the leak in the floor or double-pane the windows, the paint is chipped and the floor's a mess, plus you’re racist, so we shouldn’t have to pay for this incomplete month.” Instead we said: “thanks for everything, take care.”

We had a nice moules-frites dinner in the most touristy part of Lyon and stayed the last night in our neighbour Rémy’s apartment. (Having his place available to us all day had made the move-out much easier to co-ordinate.) Unfortunately, his bed is uncomfortable and his apartment makes weird sounds, so with these distractions and my fragile emotional state, I got no sleep and was all crusty and freaked out in the morning. Nothing a good shower can’t take care of, but there was no hot water in the apartment (there’s a special way to turn it on and we couldn’t figure it out) so a couple of dabs with the washcloth were all I got, unfortunate for a long travel day.

After an obviously difficult good-bye at the airport bus – I like traveling, but these good-bye scenes are becoming too much for me – I had an easy enough flight. There was a huge tour group of Montrealers who all had gum and all chewed it as noisily and revoltingly as possible, but it added to the anguish of the day and I think I secretly enjoyed feeling so hard-done-by. They changed the plan and told us as we were landing in Montreal that the Toronto passengers would have to change planes, so we all shuffled into a shuttle bus, including the tour group, who were apparently on a Europe-and-Toronto adventure. They took pictures of the planes around the bus and I thought it might be their first time flying, but then I heard them talking about the Egypt tour last year and Peru before that, a group of well-seasoned travelers – well then what the hell are you taking pictures of random planes for?

We pulled up to our new plane and shuffled onto it; looking at it up close through the bus window was a bit disconcerting, as it looked like a piece of crap. Some aluminum nailed in here and there, an off-colour strip replacing whatever went wrong before – basically a large piece of tin that is going to fly up into the sky with all of us heavy people in it and try not to crash. The new plane was exactly the same as the last one – they asked to sit in the same seats, even though it was half empty – so I don’t understand why we had to change. A smaller plane for fewer people would have made sense; here it was clear that something was wrong with the last plane and it was just an accident that we had made it to Montreal in one piece. Did they want to mess up a new plane for a one-hour flight? Or maybe they wanted to up the chances of our losing our luggage by adding a last-minute plane change, just to mess with our heads.

I thought it was funny that on a Lyon-Montreal-Toronto flight, the information was all in miles and degrees Fahrenheit, neither of which has anything to do with any of those cities. The you-are-here map was funny, too, as it never once labeled Toronto, the destination. There was Chicoutimi, Boston, Dallas – because the most important thing is to know where exactly I am in relation to Dallas – but never Toronto. Our destination today, ladies and gentlemen, is somewhere between Detroit and Montreal. We’re almost there.

I was pleased with our landing, as we flew straight past Toronto and then turned around over Oakville, coming back low and zig-zaggy over my childhood. The various malls were easy enough, the hideous pink Sussex Centre and the different highways, but then I saw Mom’s house (by counting back from the water tower), Papa’s house (close to the gas station), my various elementary schools, the education buildings on Matheson – it was so exciting. And ugly! It’s not a dream to fly over Mississauga, let’s tell it like it is. Down inside it is okay because there are trees, but all those brown roofs and parking lots…

Miscommunication led to a wasted hour at the airport, my uncle waiting inside for me to come out from customs and me waiting outside for him to pull up and avoid parking. But that’s all over now, I’m home, living with my brother in Mississauga. And it’s a bit weird, as I knew it would be. Young people still do the Canadian up-talking that I hoped to have heard for the last time (“I got, like, a C on my exam? and then? I was like, so angry? And Mr. Cook said he couldn’t do anything?”) and Mississauga Transit drivers still want to chat the whole way to the bus terminal. (“France, eh? Yeah, I never been to France – parlay-voo fran-say? Eh? Heh heh.”) The Streetsville dessert shop is now a Starbucks, I counted six new housing developments during a thirty-minute bus ride, and our neighbour has blasted crappy music as he washed his already-shiny car three days in a row. The fruit is over-sprayed, the subway costs a whopping $2.75 (none of which seems to have gone towards fixing the torn, stained seats or improving the stations) – and I have desperate moments of looking around me and thinking, what have I done? Why didn’t I stay in Lyon with Franck?

But this has happened enough times now for me to learn that the grass really is greener wherever you aren’t, and that the problem is perching on the periphery of a place, not the place itself. Besides, our rickety old subway has its own special place in my heart, there are green, leafy trees out my window, Seinfeld runs regularly and in English on tv and the concept of “smoke-free” is not ground-breaking or mocked. I already miss Lyon’s beauty, the cheap, delicious bread, the breezy view from our balcony, the new-age (and cheap) public transportation and the curving rivers with lit-up bridges that you have to stop and stare at, they’re so pretty, and so much more; but that’s the hard part – and the lucky part – of leaving a piece of yourself somewhere else. I guess the trick is to take the best of each place.

Thanks for reading along this year.


ribbit ribbit

Friday, May 26, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 19

Chapter 19: Always another holiday

My contract is over, I have taught my last class, I never have to set foot in a school again. Praise the Lord. It was something of a shameful end, though: one of my classes had organized a good-bye party and we went outside to stand under the big pine trees, munching and drinking while the sap dripped unnoticed into our hair. I was standing with Nathalie, whom you may remember as Mathilde's mom or as the colleague who wrapped squishy bacon around squishy prunes and changed my life. (Because it turns out they were prunes, not dates, which further demystifies the intestinal crisis I suffered that night after eating half the tray myself. For those of you who have never been sure if prunes really do what everyone says they do, your wondering days are over -- take my word for it.)

Different candies and cakes kept being brought around and I felt that it was only polite to accept what was offered and let my napkin pile up. And, obviously, to eat what was there so as to make room on the napkin for the next round, since I am a deeply altruistic person and wanted my students to feel good about themselves and their effort. Nathalie, selfish as she is, kept refusing the offered treats, and one of the girls finally said "Madame Roger, why aren't you eating?" She answered, "I'm trying to control myself so that I don't just start pigging out," and everyone suddenly became aware of me, standing in the middle of the group with an overflowing napkin, pulling a melted candy off its wrapper with my teeth. There followed a long, nervous silence while everyone tried to think of how to start on a new topic and while I tried to unblush my cheeks and contain the giggles I could feel rising to the surface. I smiled, intending to communicate my cool confidence, then caught Nathalie’s eye and her signal to wipe the chocolate off my chin. Which I did, with as much dignity as I could muster. Later, they made a speech thanking me for a fun year and blah blah blah, and then presented me with my gift, a beautifully-wrapped box of chocolates from a pish-posh Lyon store [that Franck and I polished off in about eight minutes]. I said thank you, made a little speech of my own, and said "and I certainly do love chocolate;" this was apparently the funniest thing they had ever heard and caused great and raucous laughter until the bell rang and they tried to clean up the styrofoam cups and candy wrappers while wiping the tears from their eyes. Turns out being a slob is hilarious.

Back in April, during the Easter holidays (two weeks in February-March, two weeks in April-May; the French are not afraid to take a holiday), Franck and I went to visit his family in Marseille. His step-father, Roger, came to get us at the train station, and from the moment he stepped out of the car to say hello, it was like being back in Guadeloupe. We were standing in the hot sun, surrounded by palm trees, and there was Roger in stained shorts and a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned over his bare chest, with flip-flops and wild hair, shouting greetings in Creole. The car was filthy and missing half the back seat and all rearview mirrors, the radio was playing zouk and we stopped five or six times on the way home to say hi to people he had seen on the sidewalk, all of whom seemed thrilled to see Franck and me, two people they had never heard of and would never see again. "We're so glad you came!" they cried, with “bises” all around.

Franck's family is large and boisterous, the meals were huge, the rum was flowing and people had no problem asking me intensely personal questions as casually as if they were asking me whether I liked citrus fruits – just like in Guadeloupe. Marseille's architecture is the same as in Point-a-Pitre and the city is just as dirty; I don’t think I ever went ten minutes without seeing someone throw something on the ground as they walked or bussed by, whether gum wrappers, cigarette stubs, styrofoam trays filled with ketchupy fries or dirty diapers. (I am not exaggerating.) It was also like Guadeloupe in that everybody talked in circles and went off to the kitchen to agree on a plan without telling the rest of the group what had been decided, and so I basically had no what was going on, ever. It made me very nostalgic for my chaotic island.

Everybody was happy to see us and made a big fuss out of meals, which weren’t separate occasions for eating, so much as a constant stream of food that we had to happily ingest if we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. “Go on, help yourself,” they say when they see you not in the act of bringing food to your mouth, and then you have to beat them to the serving spoon before they heap their interpretation of a portion onto your plate. “Eat, eat! White girls just don’t EAT anything!” (As I polish off my fifth egg roll and the black girls at the table pick at the ten grams of carrot salad they were served.) I once temporarily got off the hook by saying – truthfully – that I had an upset stomach and wanted to lay off the
face-stuffing, but by that evening Franck’s mom had concocted her special Upset Stomach Soup and I didn’t have another excuse ready to go. (The soup, in case you’re curious, involved a lot of beans and spicy things and did nothing very good for my stomach. Part of the expectorant school of healing, I guess.)

The best part was after they’d bullied me into eating enormous quantities of hearty, starchy foods for three days and then they gave me a bunch of dresses and pants that didn’t fit them right but would be perfect on me because my hips are so big. “Your hips will fill this dress out much better than mine.” “Your hips are just so much BIGGER than mine, Kathryn; YOU try it on.” No matter if I liked the clothes, no matter if they were, in fact, much too big for my apparently inhuman, giant hips. “Of course it will fit – look at your BIG HIPS!” I felt like if one more woman held a pair of ugly pants up to my PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE hips (because these things are relative) and told me that they were just too big for her tiny, narrow little frame, I would punch her in the throat. Then, “have another egg roll, Kathryn, you’re wasting away. Eat! Eat!”

I was in charge of driving because Franck’s sister is hugely pregnant and it helped to have my licensed self there to run errands and take us to touristy places and to visit family. I was terrified at the idea of negotiating the narrow streets of Marseille but was mostly fine once I got the hang of it. After a quick and not entirely successful parking manoeuvre by the beach, some woman yelled at me to “get out of her life,” but when we saw her anger directed at other people (and seagulls) along the way we realized that it was not about me in particular and decided that “get out of my life” was as good a group cheer as we could expect to find. We accidentally kicked our soccer ball into the water and a brave young man swam in to get it for us (if you’re crazy enough to be swimming in the ice cold sea, you might as well get our soccer ball) and then we saw a woman with a bird on a leash, for which I can find no reasonable explanation but which definitely called for a rousing “get out of my life!”

To add to the Gwada vibe, we watched a lot of the African and Caribbean channel, which consists mostly of all sorts of people lip-synching to zouk while dancing and making seductive faces for the camera. You aren’t missing anything if you don’t have this channel. But then one girl looked like an African me and we were all fascinated, so it was worth it.

Also like in Guadeloupe, the showers were shifty and were mostly just a basin in the corner of the living room with a cheap curtain, which means that I obviously got walked in on twice. And people don’t really like their children, but generally consider them a huge hassle. On the bus, in the stores, on the street, people dragging their eight-year-olds by the arm and saying “mais il est CHIANT, celui-là!” to whomever will listen.

There were all sorts of good things about our visit and Marseille is an interesting and vibrant town, but it’s exhausting. Which is why it was striking to go from the hot, stinky streets of Marseille, with burned-out crack spoons littering the parking lots, to clean, pristine, mountainous Annecy, where we hung out with my uncle and his family at my mom’s house. It was nice to see the family again, since when I was in Le Mans in February I was crabby and tired and it wasn’t a raging success. This time was much better, except that the kids, who had been all excited about seeing me again, immediately dumped me for Franck, who is APPARENTLY much cooler than I am. (My little cousins are losers, is what it comes down to.) My favourite was when Timothée, who had latched onto Franck and hadn’t let go, said to me, “I knew I’d like that Franck the moment I saw him.” I think he had already formed a bond based on a picture I showed them in February; Timo and Anahé were adopted from Vietnam, and when Timo saw a picture of also-not-white Franck in February, he said “I didn’t know he was adopted!”

We had a mini family crisis when we lost uncle Patrice, who decided to wait for us on a bench when we went for a walk and then had disappeared when we got back. We didn’t know what to do because it was starting to rain but we didn’t want to leave in case he came back and didn’t know that we’d come and gone. I thought Franck’s theory, that the bench was a porthole to a parallel universe and that one of us had to lie on it and fall through to find Patrice, was worth considering, but then it turned out that Patrice had walked home to get the car and he came to pick us up. Crisis averted.

We went to the concert of Mom’s gospel group (including Julie’s dopple-ganger, to whom I still couldn’t speak) and I went into school with her, as some of her students had requested a singing day. Some of them were cute, some of them were total jerks (in the non-singing classes, to be fair), and I realized that all ages, all schools, all subjects are the same. Teaching is not for me.

Reading the poster on the bathroom door, I was once again amazed to discover (it should be “rediscover” as I forget every time and am amazed all over again with each visit) that not only were Yeats and Beckett Irish, but also Jonathan Swift! Oscar Wilde! George Bernard Shaw! Who knew?!

The train ride home was interesting because there were drug dogs everywhere, on the platform and then on the train, whatever that means. Also because ticket controllers – who stand in groups of three or four, wear conspicuous uniforms and talk loudly at all times -- were on the platform with us, got on the train with us, and still managed to catch two people in my car alone who hadn’t paid. Getting busted because you took your chance and they got on at Chambery is one thing, but what kind of idiot tries to sneak on a train WITH the controllers?

Then home, back to school, finished with school, and now begin the preparations for the grand departure. See you soon.


ribbit ribbit

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 18

Chapter 18: Spring has Sprung

Faith and begora, the sun has come out. The laundry dries in three hours, neighbours smile at one another, the tomatoes and melons are deliciously in season and once I even got a little bit of a farmer's tan.

Franck is learning for the first time what it means to wake up to spring; after years in a place where it's sunny all year long, this is the first time he's actively appreciated the difference a little warmth can make. The Gwada sun is also exhausting and aggressive and you generally try to stay out of it; our April sun in Lyon is warm and loving and invites you to bring a chair outside and bask in its glory. Franck didn't know that this kind of sun exists and can't believe his luck as he walks around outside with outstretched arms and his scalp not burning. He also can't believe how late the sun sets: in Guadeloupe it's between 6:00 and 6:30 every evening, all year long, whereas with the daylight savings jump it's setting at 8:30 here and Franck is freaked out. "We can't eat dinner, it's still day out!" So we eat late and have indigestion throughout the night -- vive le printemps!

The high temperatures seem to have settled in for good now, but it was touch and go for a while: after a couple of 26-degree afternoons, I would dress confidently in skirt and sandals, prepared to greet the sun. The freezing rain would start on my way to the subway and by the time I read the temperature board at the station -- six degrees celsius -- my bare arms would be aching with cold. So I would drag myself home eight hours later, teeth chattering and fingers blue, make soup and wrap myself up in a sleeping bag on the couch. The next day, having learned from my mistakes, I would wear a turtleneck sweater, jeans, a poncho and socks with my shoes, and I'd be sweating in the 25-degree sunshine by 10:00 a.m. while my students said things like "madame, aren't you hot?" and all I could do was squint my eyes at them in distaste.

That's all over now, and all that remains is to tackle the real problem of good weather, which I like to think is shared by many people, with obvious exceptions such as Salma Hayek and the like. You all know how it goes: you've spent months and months covering your skin to protect it from the cold and the harsh winds. You've worn jeans and track pants, sweaters and flannels, winter coats, ponchos, boots and wool socks. You've mostly forgotten what your body looks like, and in the glory of a first warm day, you throw caution to the wind, whip out your favourite wrap-around skirt and tank-top and run out to feel the sun on your skin -- which is when you realize that said skin is white, white, ghastly white -- almost night-bus neon blue -- and flabby. The sun highlights your pasty, sickly flesh and your every flaw without pity until you break down and curse the heavens: Why did I ever leave Guadeloupe? I abandoned tanned, toned and blond to come back to pale and flabby!

Bronwyn once theorized that you don't actually look better at the end of the summer, you're just used to yourself by then -- but seeing pictures of my smiling summer self makes it painfully clear that the sun IS all it's cracked up to be and Kathryn-in-April simply is not at her best. And so, here begins the season of either slowly looking better or just getting used to myself, and I wish myself luck during these bumpy weeks.

The English teachers at one of my schools had a dinner that may or may not have been in my honour. Nathalie invited Franck and me to meet her family, and then all the other teachers were on board and suddenly they were buying me a gift and saying what a jolly good fellow I am. (I noticed they didn't say anything about what a jolly good teacher I am; you can't win 'em all...) None of the other men came, either, which makes me wonder if I had misunderstood the invitation. It was a good thing that Franck had a music gig and couldn't come, or he would have spent the evening among a bunch of women talking about students and super-intendants and ski-trip staff scandals, which, it is safe to say, just isn't his bag.

I spent the afternoon with Nathalie's family, in particular her seven-year-old daughter, Mathilde, who decided I was amazing and hooked onto me like a desperate woman. She showed me her dolls, her clothes, her photo albums, her swing set, the cut on her finger that refuses to heal. (She slammed it in a car door and a month later it's still the size of a cocktail wiener, which is huge next to her tiny seven-year-old fingers and also very gross.) She showed me her turtles, her sisters' rooms, the shower that the girls refuse to use because it is infested with spiders. She admired my braids and my shirt and said I looked like her favourite cartoon character, Sparkle. (I saw her; I don't.) It was the best. It was fun being considered exciting again, afer so long in Lyon where people collectively could not care less about my existence, other than as a degree of connection with either Quebec or Los Angeles, depending on their age bracket.

Mathilde's affection lost some of its charm when I stupidly told her that I, too, prefer short-distance sprinting to long-distance, marathon-type running; she got out her specialty stop watch and was only too pleased to alternate between racing me herself and timing my [frankly unimpressive] sprints, unmoved by the difficulty I faced in running around a sloped backyard in a skirt that holds my knees together. It was like jogging in a kimono and let it be said that it wasn't pretty. After twenty-five minutes of racing, I was saved by a request to play piano duets with the eldest of the three daughters, almost fun but for the unnerving and unwavering gaze of Mathilde, standing behind the piano bench with her face about four inches from the side of my neck. She didn't take her eyes off me the whole time.

She picked flowers for me from the garden, gave me her favourite sparkly bracelet and a little white rock which she claims looks like a polar bear (but which actually looks like a little white rock), drew me two pictures and then put the picture I drew above her bed, covering the poster of her beloved Arthur (the turtle). It was intense. She cried when I left and sent me two more pictures and some very tasty Easter eggs -- god bless the child -- with her mom on Thursday. One of the pictures had the two of us holding hands, surrounded by the bunnies I taught her to draw, the sky filled with hearts. I guess I'm her first crush and I wish her luck to deal with the let-down a first crush inevitably brings.

The dinner itself was okay, pretty low-key -- nowhere near as much fun as hanging out with Mathilde, but I was expected to participate in the grown-ups' conversation and could only play pick-up sticks on the floor for so long -- and featured bacon-wrapped prunes. Have you tried these before? They're fantastic. I ate no fewer than fifteen of the little squishy treats, which may account for the gastro-intestinal crisis I experienced that night.

The ladies offered me a linen scarf, typical French fashion to remind me of my year here. It's a very pretty blue and everyone said it was a good colour for me, but what am I going to do with a French scarf? This is a look that you either can pull of or you can't. I most definitely can't -- it's highly un-slimming, as it were -- and when I wore it for some of the evening I felt suffocated and hostile. As I have to wear it to school at least once to show my appreciation, I've been experimenting with possible looks, the only successful one being an exciting turban style which is not school appropriate and thus not in the running. Maybe I could borrow Stephanie's baby and sling her up in it as a carrier, though there's something fishy about using a one-year-old as a fashion accessory. Tricky.

A lot of you ask about Franck, who is doing lots of music, particularly with an African reggae group that's just as disorganized and loopy as the ones he played with in Guadeloupe, god help us all. As for work, let me tell you about "getting a job in France." There's a government employment agency called the A.N.P.E. and you have to go through them if you want financial help while you're out of work, which everyone obviously does. Franck can't work for more than three months at a time if he's to get financial aid for school next year, so he has to keep his name on their list by signing in every two weeks and they, in turn, are supposed to find him short contracts, presumably in his field (horticulture or sales), as they make such a fuss out of creating an information file on each job-seeker. Here's how it works:

Every two weeks, after two or three hours in the waiting room (I've gone with him and I am not exaggerating), he speaks with someone behind the counter to confirm that he's still here and looking for work. The person then gives him information on a bunch of available jobs and Franck calls them; several are invariably non-existant numbers and the others say that they informed the A.N.P.E. weeks ago that the position had been filled. Twice they sent him to the wrong address and in February he showed up at the grocery store where he'd been officially hired and they'd gone out of business. He can't stop going to them or he'll lose his chance to go to school, so no matter how much they dick him around, he has to keep showing up and waiting for hours in the empty hope that they'll actually do their job.

The latest adventure was for a job stacking bottles in a supermarket, a three-month replacement contract. The only qualification was to be in good shape, which Franck is, and so he got up Monday morning, spruced himself up, packed a lunch and headed to the store for 7:30 a.m., as the A.N.P.E. had told him to do. When the manager showed up and opened at 8:30, he told Franck that the job started in two weeks. "Wow, you're right," said the A.N.P.E. after Franck had waited the two hours to see someone. "I guess you'll have to go back in two weeks." This last Monday, then, off he went at 8:30: "Right," said the manager, "so did you do the training?"

It's not actually that surprising that he should need to take a course and receive a diploma in bottle-stacking for a three-month job; this is France, don't forget, and you can't do anything -- from picking up garbage in the park to stacking bottles, apparently -- without having done "une formation." No, the problem is that the A.N.P.E. didn't bother to give Franck the information package that goes with the job so that he might actually DO the training required, and now he doesn't get the job, despite having assistant-managed a grocery store for two years.

Obviously, this is crappy for us because it's hours and hours of wasted time, which is frustrating and bad for the morale, and less money in the household. More importantly, though, what kind of system is this? People have no choice but to go through the A.N.P.E. and then it plays around with them so they feel like shit and it doesn't ever deliver so they don't find work, they continue to live off of government aid and everyone complains that taxes are too high. Not that there's any incentive for the A.N.P.E. workers to do their job well, since they're in for life unless they set the building on fire or kill someone. You can't fire people in France, remember. Why shouldn't some jerk sit in his cushy job, come back from his two-hour lunch break, not give Franck an information package and then shrug and say "oops" when he asks for an explanation? What difference does it make to him? But that's dirty capitalist talk and I should know better than to think that people should actually earn their money. Down with the CPE! Villepin sucks!

So they sent him on the trail of some horticulture-related jobs which we're vaguely hoping will pan out, but we aren't getting our hopes up. He'll probably have to do a training stint on water jug-filling, since they undoubtedly use different equipment here than in Guadeloupe and his diploma and years of work experience simply aren't compatible with the specialized "formation" offered by the Lyon's A.N.P.E. (And paid for by them as well, thus adding to Useless Government Expenses and further raising taxes -- opa!) We're thinking it's time for him to start selling drugs; he seems to look the part, as he's constantly approached by people looking for a quick fix, so getting customers would be rather effortless. He could cut the stuff with Creole spices that would keep them coming back for more and I could hook him up with the junior high crowd. There are glitches to work out, but we're looking into it.

But enough bitterness. Let me share with you some good thoughts from students of mine: the first is a written response to a car ad, in which a grey and depressed-looking man is standing in front of a fancy house, wearing a classy pin-striped suit and holding an electric guitar, presumably pitching the sleek grey car to men experiencing a mid-life crisis. Here's some funny English:

"In my opinion which is an opinion of me, old people who get into this car will be perhaps well but they won't become again (of) young people. And in my personal opinion I don't like this car."

Another student was surprised that the sun rises in the East in Canada, same as France. I used some students to act out the Earth turning around the sun and showed that pretty much anywhere -- maybe not in the Arctic? are you with me? -- the sun will show up in the East. I threw in a little bit of time zone information and the student said "thanks for the lesson; I guess we'll go to bed a little less stupid tonight." Which, all things considered, is all we can really ask for in this life.

Think of me on May 17th, when Barcelona and Arsenal will compete in the final of the League of Champions. This pitches my two favourite players against each other (Ronaldinho and Henry), much as I had feared, and it will be a stressful game indeed. I've loved Thierry Henry for much longer, but I don't like English teams (sorry, I just don't) and would rather see Barcelona come through. And have you seen our Ronny with a soccer ball? He's amazing, a living legend. Tough decisions. It will be the same situation this summer if their national teams, Brazil and France, end up playing against each other, though my having gone off of France should help. I do love that Thierry Henry, but now that I know the dark side of his country, I'm going to have to find a new favourite team and Brazil is looking pretty good from here. Could someone make soccer happen in Canada so that I could root for our own team for once? The whole world is on it -- what's taking us so long?!


ribbit ribbit

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 17

Chapter 17: Woozy in the Staff Room

It's just after 8:00 and I'm at school, though my first class on Tuesdays is at 10:00, so I have to kill a couple of hours and I thought it might be a good time for a letter. I'm feeling a bit woozy, as the flavoured pipe tobacco coming in from the smoking room is going to my head (you remember, of course, that there are SMOKING ROOMS in both my junior high schools and that each one is the home of the staff microwave and lockers) but I think he's almost finished his break and will have to actually go teach someone.

Why am I two hours early for class? Simply because I didn't know if there would be a bus and I had to get a ride with a colleague who starts at 8:00. (It was a stressful ride: she recently fell and hurt her back, so in the car she cheerfully told me about the frequent and unpredictable arm paralysis she now experiences, like this one time when she was driving and her arm seized up and she couldn't change gears or steer and almost crashed into the bookstore! Ha! Funny story, Claude! Now let me the hell out of the car!)

And if you have to ask why there might not be a bus, you haven't listened to anything I've said about France since September. (By which I mean September 2001.) A strike, of course, you silly geese. Another angry strike and the demonstrations that go with. That damn CPE, you see, that has everybody in a tizzy about the two-year trial period and the fired-without-reason thing, has just been officially signed in by the president, the bastard. Except that -- hang on a second -- he refused to sign it until it had been adjusted so that the trial period is only one year and any firing action must be justified by the employers. Which is... exactly what the angry protesters were demanding. And they got it. And yet they're still protesting. Hmmm... tricky, the French.

(A quotation to sum it all up from Bernard Thibault, the leader of France's largest union and thus one of the chief people in a position to help find a solution to the problem: "The president remains stuck on that invitation for dialogue that has no chance of success." And so he refuses dialogue. And blames the president. See? What can anyone do with that kind of logic?)

My prediction: Villepin's career will be destroyed, no politician will ever dare try a new strategy again, foreign investors will continue to pull out, unemployment will continue to rise, young people will have even less job security than they have now and the protestors will take to the streets again in five years because they're unemployed and angry. Isn't life hard.

But enough about current events: let's talk some more about me! I was going to tell you about my week-end in Annecy, which came about because my mom is involved with some hardcore [French, white and mostly non-religious] gospel singers and wanted me to play the piano during their five-hour workshop. I took the train out on Friday with my Herald Tribune for company -- you know when you're doing a hard crossword and people look over your shoulder at your lack of success and you feel judged? They saw my three or four desperate (and probably wrong) answers in the course of a two-hour train ride and I wanted to explain that the New York Times crossword is famously difficult, increasingly so during the week, and that if I had taken the train on Monday or Tuesday I would have been on fire, but they obviously didn't care. It was a defensive beginning.

Since everybody in Annecy is particularly nice and welcoming, the workshop looked like it was going to be a good time. Then the stand-in-a-circle warm-ups started and I realized that my personality has fundamentally changed since high school. Have you seen the show "Dead Like Me"? There's an episode in which George refuses to participate in her office getaway week-end and explains that she's just not a joiner, which turns out to be exactly my problem. I don't know at which point in my life I went from being a drama club kid to a complete loner, but it's happened and it's too late to go back.

*For example: the lunchtime cafeteria at my Thursday school is back up and running after a long break for renovations. The teachers who pack a lunch go and sit with the cafeteria diners for company and they always invite me to join them. I can't refuse, so I end up sitting in conversations that have nothing to do with me (except when someone has a sudden thought about Quebec and asks me what the temperature is these days or if they use a certain French expression, and I remind them, as I've been doing since October and as I will do until the day I die -- or leave Lyon, whichever comes first -- that I'm the English assistant because I'm from an English-speaking country, and I probably know less about Quebec traditions than they do) and waiting for someone to get up and leave so that I don't look rude for doing the same. I've taken to hiding out in the bathroom until the halls are empty and no one can trap me with their kind intentions so that I can sit in the empty staffroom and eat my almond croissant in peace.

This gospel workshop started with trust-your-partner exercises, continued through walk-through-the-crowd-of-strangers-while-singing-solo and finished with clapping and singing and doing actions along with the words. It was a joiner's paradise. At one point I was sitting in the pews, watching some of the small-group acts, when a girl came to sit beside me and smiled. And not just any girl: she was practically identical to my dear friend Julie and I had been staring at her, fascinated, all day and wanted to talk to her.

Well, I didn't. I just sat there and she sat there and after a while she got up and went back to the group. Went back and "joined" the group, even. I stayed in the pews while the singing started back up and hummed along with "Children Go Where I Send Thee" quietly to myself -- so what's happened to me? When did I stop being artsy-fartsy and become not only cynical and mean, but paralyzed with anti-social tendencies? I can't put my finger on the exact moment it happened, but I've changed. Now I have to decide whether it's a personality defect I need to overcome, or whether I should just accept that I am no longer a joiner and sit out. And if it's the latter, should I get some cool sunglasses or something? Maybe a motorcycle?

The group met up for dinner that evening in a restaurant called Canadian Corner, which Mom and I tried to interpret as being in our honour but they insisted was just because one of the singers had been there before and liked it. Likely story. The best part about the place was that it was run by a couple of Parisians [the one we talked to had never set foot in Canada] and it had pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop, Charlie Chaplin and other famous not-Canadians all over the walls. True, there was a Mountie hat, a picture of John Candy -- in the Jamaican-dominated movie cover from "Cool Runnings" -- and a stuffed caribou head, but they were hidden behind Kangaroo Crossing signs and Marlboro Man ads and were probably just there by
total coincidence. Calling the place "Anglophone Culture Corner," while less catchy, would have been closer to the truth. It had a log cabin feel, though, the walls were covered top to bottom with pictures and stuff was hanging on clotheslines all over the place, so it would have been a familiar setting for your average Canadian diner -- Mom likened it to Jack Astor's -- but didn't we get that look from the American restaurant chains that supplanted our own? It's not like they served fiddleheads, Molson beer or poutine (God save us all), so I conclude that the sole purpose of the name "Canadian Corner" is to lure in customers who hope -- as do most people, in my experience -- to meet some real live Canadians. Good thing we were there, Mom and I, to lend the place a little of our star quality. I'm surprised they didn't ask to take our picture; I guess it was a busy night.

The group sang a few songs every ten minutes throughout dinner, which was cute at first but eventually inspired resentment [read: loathing] in the other diners and barely-concealed frustration in our initially very friendly head waiter. My favourite game was to try to figure out the words they were singing; their pronunciation is hit and miss, sometimes perfectly understandable and sometimes near-gibberish. (Interestingly, one of the songs that I thought was in English turned out to be in Spanish, which obviously undermines my own ear and thus my commentary on anyone's linguistic efforts.) The various courses took hours to come out and Mom was having a hard time with the endless Jesus songs. The hand-clapping songs are a good time, but the dreary, saviour-praising ones are hard to stomach when you're tired and someone's hogging all the water jugs at the other end of the giant table. And then we scored a ride home and left, praise the lord and hallelujah. That was two weeks ago and I still can't get "Oh Happy Day" out of my head, just for the record.

Back home and to the French game shows I love -- I'm not being sarcastic; I really do love them and I can't tear myself away, especially "La Cible" (target) which is like a complicated and ruthlessly eliminating version of Scattergories. My new favourite moment in any of the game shows is when someone loses at the end, which is kind of the definition of a game show, and the host says "so what happened? Was it the stress?" and makes the person justify his or her performance. The victory is often by just one or two points and really nothing for the other person to be ashamed of, but I've seen this end-of-game taunting countless times.

A recently hilarious thing on a diner-themed show: there's a segment in which the host sings English songs translated into French and the contestants have to name the singer. On this episode it was going fine, with funny renditions of "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Bad," and then he sang the unmistakeable tune to "Hey Jude" with the words "Eh, Juif..." They buzzed in, identified the Beatles and moved on to the next one, apparently in agreement that the famous lyrics are "Hey Jew." I laughed for days.


ribbit ribbit

p.s. a cute e-mail from a student, the only one to write to me in English:

Hello Kathryn,

Thanks for your answer.
Temperatures are very low (I don't no if I can use this word) in Canada.
To the holidays I stay at Lyon but I see a lot of friends. Today it's a little snowing, it's stranged !!!!

I am happy to speak with you because I can improve my English.
Good end holidays.


P.S : I've the paper to the african percussions show, it's an advertise.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 16

Chapter 16: My friend the CPE

Are you seeing the footage of the strikes and riots here? I'm not sure how much I need to explain. Basically, this is the deal: forty per cent of French youth (26 and under) are unemployed. This was one of the main reasons for the riots last fall, which were labelled "suburban" but which included burning stores and breaking windows in downtown Lyon.

France's Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, in response to said riots and the general griping in the country about unemployment, came up with the CPE -- First Employment Act? -- under which employees under the age of 26 can be fired with little to no explanation during a two-year trial period. "Without explanation" is arguably the only sticky point in an otherwise smart initiative; under France's current employment laws, it's terrifying for a boss to hire anyone because employees are so well protected and so expensive to upkeep that the employer can be stuck with awful workers and impossible taxes for life. So obviously they don't want to hire anyone and obviously there's unemployment.

Does the CPE need to be adjusted? Sure. Should Villepin have been so final in his presentation? Probably not. Is he kind of sleazy and creepy and an interview bully? Well, yes. But is all this strike action justified?
"Aargh!" cry the angry young people, "we are angry! You aren't listening to us!"
"I am open to dialogue," says Villepin, as he has been saying since the beginning. "I'd like to talk about this and maybe find a compromise."
There is a nervous silence as the young people rack their brains for something to be angry about, in the face of this reasonable proposition to find a solution to unemployment.
"Aargh!" they cry triumphantly. "You're too late! We don't want to talk anymore!"
And they continue to set fires in department stores, throw large rocks at the riot police and block the universities so that all the students who would like to continue their own journey towards unemployment by finishing their degrees have to organize their own counter-demonstrations.

In other words, the CPE is just an excuse to rage against the machine. I'm sure there are a few people who really think it's a bad idea and could argue against it using full sentences and not pepper spray or the word "putain," but they aren't being interviewed; "Villepin sucks!" is pretty much as intelligent as I've heard. They charge out into the streets with signs and torches, occasionally with viking costumes or large Disney-style mascots, though what a bear suit has to do with the CPE remains unclear.

A few weeks ago there was a demonstration downtown around a monument that had just gone up in the name of the Turkish-Armenian "conflict"; the Turkish protestors were not okay with it being called a genocide. (There were no Armenians present to defend their side of the argument, having all been killed in the not-genocide.) As it happens, the CPE demonstrations had just finished in the same neighbourhood, having started that morning at the university on my street and blocked my subway access and thus my route to work -- but I digress. The demonstrators, perhaps keyed up from a day of Villepin-hating, joined the Turks and turned a mild crowd into a stomping, chanting, charging mob. Riot police were called onto the scene, news cameras caught the action.

Now, what the HELL were these kids doing at the Turkish demonstrations, cause-hopping like that? This isn't a game. Except that it is, and that's just the problem: all they want is something to get angry about, to claim that rights are being abused. Actual human atrocities in, say, Darfur or Guantanamo, are just really far away and nobody's too clear on the stories anyway, so... CPE it is! Down with the CPE!

What's interesting is that the demonstrators are all the middle-class university students who have never had jobs before (school is state-funded and few students work) and will get jobs when they graduate, as the employment statistics demonstrate. They enjoy endless strikes -- which, funnily enough, never include demonstrations on the week-end -- while the young people who are actually in the work force and struggling against reluctant employers are hoping to hell that these whining students just SHUT UP ALREADY and the thing goes through. Fire me in two years if you must; at least that gives me two years of work and a boost towards finding a new job.

Also not demonstrating are foreigners, and not just because they want to mind their own business and not be arrested or assaulted by the police for someone else's cause. I think it's mostly because their being from the outside gives them some perspective.

1. French people need all the help they can get finding jobs, since it's impossible without the exact right diploma, including volunteering in a day care, which I am not allowed to do -- despite having done summer camps of all ages for ten years and I'm not exaggerating -- because I do not have the B.A.F.A. diploma. My colleague’s nephew was a ski patrol mountain rescue guy but he had an accident and now he can't ski. You'd think he could find a job in the city, maybe first aid-related, something with the ambulance or fire brigade, something in sports or fitness training, but he can't. Sorry, your diploma says the word "mountain" on it and absolutely can not be adjusted to match any other job. Welfare for you, and dammit if our taxes aren't off the charts! Why does this keep happening?!

2. When you're unhappy about something, there are many ways to express your feelings. You can write a letter to the newspaper, say, or accept the prime minister's repeated invitations to talk things over; a strike should be your last resort. I don't feel that striking three days a week at random, shutting down public transit, the post office and the airport and causing riots (because people are stupid, have always been so, and can't help their mob mentality) are particularly good or thoughtful solutions. I wouldn't hire you either, you bunch of jerks.

3. What the rest of the world is okay with is that sometimes you have a crappy job. Often, even, when you're young. Your internship is temporary (the cause of last month's rage and strikes), you have to do some menial tasks and maybe work a week-end every once in a while, and you suck it up because you never expected to be the CEO at age 23. You EARN job stability and raises in pay and if you're really bad at your job, you will probably lose it. That's how it works.

I understand that they want to preserve their nice number of hours and vacation and pay and security and all the rest -- who wouldn't? -- but they can't do all that without unemployment. You have your crepe or you eat it, mes amis, it can't be both. I want to be sympathetic to the cause: this is a first step towards -- steel
yourselves -- CHANGE [gasp!] and I guess it can seem threatening. But their way of going about it is so frustrating and unprogressive and self-righteous that I'm turned off by the whole thing. Why don't you try a new approach to your economy and actually WORK for a change? Huh? There won't be time for demonstrations, which might be a problem for you, but I think it just -- might -- be worth a try.

Anyway. That was in case any of you were hearing things about France losing its mind and maybe saying to yourselves, "I wonder what our Kathryn has to say about all of this." Now you know. What I have to say is: "blech."

The apartment is kind of a hassle these days. First was the water: it's heated by a big white thing over the toilet, whatever that means to you, and the white thing has been leaking since November. Our landlord finally got a replacement, waited for me to come home from Canada and Franck from Marseille, then came and shut off our water. It was supposed to be just hot water and just one day, but of course he didn't want to pay for a plumber and he knew what he was doing (read: he had no idea what he was doing.) He muffed it up and ended up banging and smashing things in our narrow little hallway for five days, blocking the toilet so that I was always panicky about not being able to pee. And no hot water, which meant boiling water and pouring it over my shampooed head, not as romantic as I had imagined. (The tricky part is when you realize you didn't boil enough: do you take your wet self out into the freezing cold kitchen and wait for a new pot to boil, or do you just use the ice water in the shower to rinse off your head? Neither one is really a happy solution.)

This is obviously nowhere near as traumatizing as the plumbing problems I hear from Julie in Moldova or Clara in Mexico, but suffering is relative and our apartment is COLD. I've never been so happy to see someone leave: I washed the floor with cold water, so desperate was I to live in a clean and chaos-free space.

We had some early-morning visits -- all unannounced, despite my repeatedly writing down my phone number and saying "make an appointment" -- from the pipe-fixing guy, as the rain water gathers in our broken pipe and floods the girl downstairs. (Her cigarette smoke has made my wardrobe -- nay, my life -- smell like an ashtray, so I think the floods are just what she deserves and am in no hurry to help. Call it karma.) On his third visit, when he buzzed at 7:45 a.m., we decided to show him who's boss and pretend we weren't home. So the super intendant let him in! Super jerk! They tried to scold us for intentionally sabotaging their fix-it project but I tore into them about courtesy and respect and how dare they barge into our home when we have specifically asked them to call and arrange a time. Franck's favourite part was "I'm standing here talking to you in my nightgown. Do you think that's normal?!" The guy happened to finish his work that morning and never had the chance to sheepishly ask me when he could come by again, so all I can do is fantasize. In one version, he cries.

I gave my three months' notice -- that's right, he asks for three months -- later than planned, so I'm hoping the landlord will find someone to move in before my official leave date so I don't have to keep paying rent. A girl came to visit, though, and I told her how much he had jacked up the price (from our 490 euros to 600! It's highway robbery!) and that the hydro bills were really bad and it's freezing in the winter... After she left, Franck said, "so -- do we NOT want to find someone for this apartment, then?" We agreed that next time I'll go for a hot chocolate down the street while the apartment's being viewed.

I have more to say, believe it or not, so consider yourselves warned that another e-mail is soon to follow. But the bell's ringing for class and I have to come up with something to do with the little buggers -- anyone have a grade six lesson they want to share?


ribbit ribbit

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 15

Chapter 15: A Canadian Breather

There are certain things to which I still haven't adjusted here.

1. I can never believe how quickly my phone credit is eaten up by a local call.

2. Everyone smokes. Every single person. All the time.

3. Women in stores look me up and down with blatant disapproval, shamelessly staring at me until I feel that I've done something wrong. I can't find a good translation for "you got a staring problem, PUNK?" but am planning to whip out the standard "why don't you take a picture? It lasts longer" next time I am thus judged.

4. I'm never entirely sure if I should kiss someone hello, as the rules seem to change weekly. You're not supposed to kiss your colleagues, then suddenly I'm getting "la bise" from my entire staff room. It's when you say hello, not good-bye, except when they also do it for good-bye. Sometimes my tutoring lessons start with a bise, sometimes not. My neighbour may or may not go for it, who the hell knows? How am I supposed to understand if they keep messing with the system?

5. Yesterday, another transit strike. Except that the subways were running, so I had no idea there was a strike until I got to the depot and saw the infamous whiteboard, on which are listed all the bus routes and their new frequencies. Two or three were running at 50 per cent, usually the ones that go to the hospital, others weren't running at all; my bus clocked in a ten per cent, which is the most irritating of all. If it isn't coming, I can go home. If it's coming half the time, I can wait an extra ten or twenty minutes. But one in ten? This bus leaves every fifteen minutes; if I've just missed it -- and they don't tell you which one in ten is going to be running, so I have no idea how far off the mark I am -- I'll be waiting two and a half hours for the next one.Is this an effective strike? Does it accomplish anything other than turning the public even further against the transit workers' cause?

All these small details that I can't -- quite -- grasp. So it was good for me to spend some time in Canada so that I could feel confident in my understanding of correct social behaviour (which isn't to say I always acted accordingly) and to wash my neighbours' stinky smoke out of my clothes, even if only for ten days. It was also good, however, to feel kind of displaced and weird, which made me understand that any place can be unsettling when you're not used to it. Frankly, it was hard to adjust to Toronto.

-Why is everyone around me speaking English? How trippy is that?!

-Stephen Harper is ACTUALLY the prime minister? It wasn't just a sick joke?

-Was it always this damn cold? What will I do when my fingers snap off? How will I sew buttons on then?

-Why have they built ugly buildings all around the SkyDome (which isn't even the SkyDome anymore, is it?) when they were supposed to be IMPROVING the Gardiner?

-Have young Canadians always said "and I was like 'no way!' and he was like 'I know!' as much as they seem to now?

-Have I always said it? For ten days, I was like, "Kathryn, get a vocabulary -- you're an English teacher!" but then it was like "listen, it's just my speech pattern. I can't help if I'm regressing." It was like, shut up!

Home sweet home, and a lesson learned.

As for airport competence, it doesn't exist. They're all crap. Our flight out of Lyon was delayed because there wasn't enough air space for take-off, which struck me as highly irresponsible; shouldn't you know ahead of time who's flying out of your airport on any given day? Aren't air space negotiations done ahead of time? On -- what's that thing called again -- oh right, a SCHEDULE? So Mom and I waited -- what else could we do? Strike? [bitter laughter] -- and the longer the delay, the more it looked like we would miss our connection flight in Frankfurt. As it happened, we landed and had to run through the very large Frankfurt airport, carrying our luggage and sweating through our it's-cold-on-the-plane layers. We arrived at the gate -- gasping, triumphant, bedraggled -- and there a twenty-minute delay. (Take your time, ladies! Why don't you have a washroom break?) They couldn't tell us that before the three-kilometre sprint? Ever heard of a walkie-talkie, "Frankfurt"?

Coming back, I was confident that everything would function properly, that I would arrive in Lyon at the time written on my ticket, luggage in hand and good plane food in my belly. I was in Toronto, after all; in Toronto, things work. My suitcase was too heavy (it's all that damned maple syrup!) and so I took out my backpack and filled it with heavy things. There followed a brief interaction with the Air Canada agent, who had spotted my teddy bear in the open suitcase and was concerned for his well-being, and then with one hour until my flight, I said good-bye to Mom and Mark, whipped off my belt for the metal detector and settled in for a four-hour wait, as -- wait for it -- my plane was delayed. Here's why: the pilot, in a routine last-minute check, found some mechanical problems and refused to fly the plane. The offending vehicle was thus removed and replaced by a new plane, which was examined and cleaned and whatever else it takes three hours to do.

Now, you can't be angry in these situations. I, like our eagle-eyed pilot, don't want to fly in a broken plane. If I have to wait three extra hours, let it be in the airport lounge rather than in the ocean with a broken arm, burning debris floating around me and sharks coming in for the kill. Who's with me?!

That being said, don't they check the planes ahead of time? Isn't that somebody's full-time job? If you're pulling a broken plane up to the gate, loading in the luggage and counting on the pilot to spot the problem, you're just not running a tight enough ship.

We were offered a food voucher for the delay, but the only place available was a burger joint and I wasn't seeing a nine-hour overnight flight on a greasy french-fry stomach as my best possible decision. I got an apple juice and listened to a hoser from Calgary try to pick up an English woman: Don Juan's opening line, and I quote: "I detect an accent. What are you, from Australia or something?" I also listened to an agent with a.d.d. who kept trailing off in the middle of her announcements: "Would passenger Hwang and passenger Johnson please..." The first time, I figure they've shown up before she finished, or maybe someone has distracted her and cut her off. Then she does it again, then again with other names -- as those passengers look around desperately to find where the voice is coming from. "Yes? I'm passenger Hwang, where do I go? What do I do? Who are you?" And then his flight leaves without him.

One delay obviously leads to another, as I had missed my Munich connection by a long shot and had to wait three more hours for the next flight to Lyon. They gave me another voucher and the girl at the food counter was really stressed out that I wasn't taking the full fifteen euros' worth. I guess she thought I didn't understand and she kept pointing emphatically at the "15 euros"; I pulled out my limited German and managaged to say "no, thank you, six euros is good" (I think; maybe she was stressed out because I was spending too little and speaking gibberish at her) and then set off to find the rumoured non-smoking part of the airport.

The whole place is officially smoke-free, you see, other than certain special zones. These are: 1) every single area in which food is to be consumed, and 2) every ten metres in little stands called "smoke and go," like phone booths but completely open, so that there is nothing to stop the smoke but the people sitting in the smoke-free zones. Say me, for example. It's nice to see these innovative ideas popping up in Europe: keep up the good work, friends.

They obviously lost half of my luggage, what with my being on the wrong plane twice in a row, and I was concerned that someone was going to steal my half-dead 1992 camera with my film still in it. Such worries were for naught, however, as my bag was delivered to my doorstep the next evening, unthieved.

I was up early the morning after I arrived because Franck had to go to Marseille to get some papers re-printed, as our sketchy neighbour seems to have stolen his wallet and you can't go very far without your identity card here. (You can't, for example, go ahead with the operation that was scheduled two months earlier, even if the dentist doing it knows you and you are already registered in the system. Just an example.) So he was off.

I then had some tutoring sessions, came home to receive my bag from Lufthansa cargo and tried to get some sleep despite my jet lag, which was on the tail end of the jet lag I'd had in the other direction. (Incidentally, on Cranium night, I guessed Bronwyn's "jet lag" charade before the other teams, just one step towards our final victory. Sorry about your luck, LOSERS! Too bad everybody can't be on Kathryn's team.)

The next morning I went ahead with my highly questionable decision to get on a train and hang out with my family in Le Mans for four days. I had thought that tucking a visit into my two-week holiday was a good idea, since I haven't seen them in years, but afer an exhausting and emotionally draining Canadian adventure, four days in a family that includes two rambunctious children was a death wish.

At the same time, it was nice to see them, to get to know my little cousins, to eat the bread from their magical boulangerie, bread that I can't find in Lyon. (They said it's "un pain rustique," but my local bakers have looked at me blankly and suggested a nice rye loaf when I've asked. Le Mans. Who knew?)

True to what we've always known, the blue and sunny sky turned cloudy and grey as the train approached Le Mans, though my uncle Patrice said that they had great weather until I got there. Hmphf. Likely story. (The Canadians also claimed they'd had a mild winter until the freezing cold week-end we arrived. It's a conspiracy, dammit!)

Patrice rented a piano for me to play, in the hope that I would inspire the kids towards music. We printed out Chopin and Scott Joplin pieces from the internet, the kids and I prepared a little singing concert and Patrice even rigged up a recording system so they could listen to my virtuoso playing any time, fortunately scratchy and white-noisy enough to cover my mistakes. (Oh, that crazy Chopin.) I think the clincher was when I played the theme song from their favourite PlayStation game and then snazzied up the chords; they were so overcome with awe that they couldn't speak. It was magical.

I very quickly lost points in the household, however, when Timothée, who has two little stuffed toys he carries around with him, saw the teddy bear sitting on my bed. His parents have been telling him he's too old to carry around Nemo and his bizarre little monkey friend, but seeing a full-grown adult (as far as he can tell) who has trouble sleeping without her teddy... I believe I swiftly reversed the progress that was being made. Aunt Marie suggested I start sucking my thumb, too, just to drive the point home.

Patrice and I then chose an adventure movie for the family that scared the bejeesus out of Timo (while, interestingly, leaving the younger Anahë completely unfazed.) I assured him that all the characters were just actors, that this man did not really have worms crawling under his skin and that girl was never actually stabbed. I then did a stage-fighting workshop with them and showed how we could make it look like he was strangling me without hurting me at all. In the end, he was reassured that the scary parts were elaborate special effects, creative tricks, and he didn't have any nightmares. He was also completely disenchanted with the film industry and spent the next few days looking distrustingly at his Star Wars video game, at all the light sabres and wookies that don't actually exist. Next visit I'll tell him there's no Santa, just to seal the deal.

In town we saw the display for the new tram that they're installing for next year. There was a computer-animated video with a virtual tramway driving through a spruced up and suspiciously green Le Mans, complete with terrible actors saying things like "this tramway will bring a whole new energy into our city!" and "wow, Claude, what a smooth ride!" Patrice said, "it may not seem like a big deal to you, but this is our most exciting event in years." I think he should watch "Waiting for Guffman."

We then walked through the beautiful medieval town, only by then it was raining and we couldn't look up at the houses because our umbrellas were in the way. We went into the cathedral, one which I particularly love, but wandering through a big stone building when your ears are cold and aching and your clothes are dripping ice onto the floor is -- what's the word here -- crap. Home again, home again, head colds for everyone! "Bon Voyage!" they cheered as I dragged my sorry ass onto the train.

I'm home now and things are as usual in Lyon, except that the missionaries are out with a vengeance. I've been approached twice in my three days back: both were from Utah (note to self: never go to Utah) and both were just so darned nice that I couldn't be rude. They're so sincere, these people, their smiles just so warm -- and yet they're complete loonies! Missionaries? Spreading the word of Jesus?! Are you kidding me with this? But I was defenceless in the face of their unnerving friendliness and could only sigh, world-weary, and say "I'm not interested. Best of luck in everything."

Hypocritically yours,


ribbit ribbit

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 14

Chapter 14: I become famous

I'm down with the black market, it's happened, I've joined the shady characters and their shady deals. I've been collecting money for my friend Sarah, is the thing, because she went back to England in December and arranged for her last paycheque to go into the bank account of her firend and co-worker, Clément, so that he may transfer the money to her and she may have a safety deposit for the apartment she is trying to rent. She found that no money had come her way by January and she called Clément to figure out the problem -- the problem, as it happens, turned out to be that Clément, that prince among men, had spent her money, all 900 euros of it, and she was now what is technically called "dans la merde."

After much panic and many frantic phone calls, it was decided that Clément would give me the money in installments so that he wouldn't spend it. We've been meeting up from time to time, whenever he has some euros to hand over. He never shows up with the promised amount -- I guess he's what you might call "unreliable" -- and everything became tricky when he arranged a meeting and then went a.w.o.l., so Sarah gave him long-distance hell (when he finally answered his phone) and threatened to get some of their co-workers to get the money from him. I spent our next meeting listening to his sob story: apparently Clément is at once hurt and outraged by Sarah's harsh words. In fact, if she keeps saying mean things about him, he won't give her any more money at all, so there. No one's ever accused him of being dishonest before, you see, and he doesn't like it. (The obvious question is whether or not he's ever stolen 900 euros and then steadily lied for two months before, but I bit my tongue; we must pacify this petulant child, as the end goal is for Sarah to get her not-insignificant paycheque.)

It's a pretty trashy situation and was made worse by our last meeting spot: I was coming home from that walleye rehearsal (for the "experimental" play) on the tram and would walk home from la Place Guillotière, so we agreed to meet there. When I got to the place itself, though, I remembered that it's full of men who stand around and sell any number of things, mostly hashish. I hung around for long enough that they thought I was buying and they kept wandering past me, mumbling "cinq euros... cinq euros..." I didn't like being so much in the thick of things and found a spot by a wall, but this made me seem like I was on the scene. By the time two guys had leaned against the wall beside me and asked if I was selling, I began to worry about my reputation.

Clément finally showed up and I tried to steer him away from la Guillotière so he wouldn't be handing me 300 euros in cash in the middle of the police-monitored black market, but he was too quick (read: too stupid) for me and our transaction was quite public. I was sure an undercover cop was going to jump out and find a big bag of coke in Clément's jacket (how else did he spend 900 euros in two weeks with nothing to show for it? and how else could he have become so stupid?) and I would be spending the night in jail until Sarah's job confirmed to the police that they'd transferred her pay to his account and that I was just a nice English assistant who sometimes hung around the drug market. Surprisingly, that didn't happen; I just took the money and left. (I'll sell the rest of my coke next time...)

I guess my part of the story isn't so interesting, but I wanted to tell you about this crazy Clément. Can you believe he spent her money? And is offended that she's angry about it and doesn't quite turst him anymore? Who IS this guy?!

As for laundromats, mine is a big jerk. On Friday I lugged a big heavy bag -- including sheets, towels and a comforter -- up the street and tried to push open the door, only to discover that the laundromat has completely shut down. The machines are gone, the floor is torn up, there is no trace of anything to do with laundry. And no notice! Absolutely no warning! In the space of a week, you're on your own.

I found another place but it's far and in a seedy area and kind of dirty; you don't want to sit around and wait for your laundry. There was this busybody man doing his load at the same time as mine and he went on and on about the corrupt police, and this one time they did this, and this other time they did that, but he sure told them, and next time he'll be the one throwing "un cocktail molotov" into their cars. (The home-made bombs that were the star feature of the riots last fall.) I tend to look at people when they're talking to me, nodding here and there, maybe frowning thoughtfully. This time I tried a new strategy and just stared straight ahead, slouched on the bench; it didn't stop him from talking to me (from ranting at me) but at least I didn't have to participate. Note to self: non-communication is the way to go.

I went through a faze of thinking I recognized people everywhere I went, whether celebrities, Mississauga neighbours or my father, and I thought it was over. Then I saw Steve Werber in the subway station: I vaguely knew him in high school, mostly as an unpleasant character, and I was so sure it was him, so surprised and -- for some reason -- so pleased that I yelled "Steve WERBER??!!?" (I really yelled it), whacked him on the arm and then immediatly realized that it was not Steve Werber. He stood frozen, unsure of what to do, and I made a weird sound in my throat. Then we both got on the subway and stood silently beside each other until I got off four stops later and we gave each other a good-bye nod, which struck me as impossibly funny.

As for school: on Tuesday I took the bus in the opposite direction from usual because my tutoring lesson had been moved. As I waited at the bus stop I wandered over to a dry spot by the wall and read the graffiti written there, mostly "Charcot bites" and "I [heart] J.B.," the usual. Then: "Katrine, l'assistante d'anglais, je la baiserais bien." (Roughly, "I'd bang her.")


What to do? My bus came before I could go tell someone at school, so it will have to wait -- but how many of my students have seen it? How hideous is that, dirty graffiti about me at the bus stop?! And it was spelled correctly (other than my name), conditional tense and everything, so it wasn't a completely stupid student. I am outraged.

So that's the wrong kind of celebrity, but a few weeks ago I had a brush with a nice kind: my very funny Scottish colleague invited Franck and me to dinner and made a whole youth scene out of it, with her kids, her god-daughter, her son's girlfriend and the girlfriend's sister and mother. It was a really nice evening anyway, friendly and warm with good food and funny people, but my highlight came right at the beginning: the girlfriend's sister and mom arrived together and the mom, Valérie, is particularly boisterous and slightly manic, red cheeks and everything. I suspect she might be the kind of person who wants to get on your good side, which largely accounts for the compliment she paid me, but never mind that. I had my hair in braids and my bangs were hanging out on their own, possibly Friends-style, and would you like to know who she said I looked like? Jennifer Aniston, that's who. Jennifer Aniston! It's completely untrue! But I love it! I suppose that I vaguely have her colouring, and that night I had the same bangs, but I clearly look nothing like the girl and Valérie must have been trying to buy my friendship. Well let me tell you, sold! To the lady with the keen eye and the infallible judgment! So now Afrique-c'est-chic calls me Jennifer and I flutter my eyelashes a lot. A few evenings after the dinner we saw a commercial for a Jennifer Aniston night on tv ("Along Came Polly," the one where she has a black eye and "Leprechaun") and though we didn't watch it, we thought it was very significant indeed.

Suffice it to say, between the drug deals, the smutty bus stop messages and my uncanny likeness to my friend Jennifer Aniston, I think I am making my mark here in Lyon. The world is my oyster.


ribbit ribbit

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 13

Chapter 13: Bad Decisions

Today is one of those days where I just keep making Bad Decisions. The first was to re-set my alarm for a little bit of snooze time, since I figured my hair was "basically clean" and could do without being washed. I then got distracted by my eyebrows and spent a hugely disproportionate amount of time working the tweezers and daydreaming that I was a contestant on the gameshow I saw last night (and obviously that I blew everybody away.) The snoozing and dawdling led to my missing my bus and to my next Bad Decision: instead of waiting for the next one, I experimented and took a bus that goes in the same general direction, only to find myself on an epic detour route and stuck in a traffic jam. Definitely late for school.

Today's choice of clothing was another Bad Decision. Somewhere among the dawdling and obsessive tweezing, I realized I had to throw on some clothes and get on my way. I chose a red plaid-ish corduroy shirt because it's very comfortable and Franck says that it's cute -- when worn at home with track pants for sitting on the couch and other such activities. My big mistake was my choice to pair it with jeans, particularly a pair that looks too short with running shoes, so I wear them with my boots, which are like construction boots. The result is that I am wearing a plaid shirt with jeans and work boots, which is really not school appropriate. And which makes me look like a lumber jack, as several of my students pointed out.

My final and most flagrant Bad Decision was in joining my grade nine class in the library for a guest speaker. I could only stay for one of the two hours before I had my grade seven class to teach; considering my recent emotional instability -- and my personality in general -- I should have known better than to attend a presentation by an Auschwitz survivor. On the one hand, I was glad to see the students, usually blasé and badly-behaved, become riveted and thoughtful; they were respectful and showed a deeper intelligence than I have seen from them in class. On the other hand, a big, heavy other hand, I couldn't pull myself together. I took a few minutes and tried to compose myself in the bathroom, but when I got to class and Stéphanie saw my red eyes and asked if I was okay, I started weeping in front of my terrified little twelve-year-olds. We went to my classroom and one of the girls offered me a kleenex, a kind gesture that just set me off again; we ended up doing a big multi-category bingo so that I could settle down while they drew their boards. Note to self: no more emotionally-charged activities during school hours. (I'm on my lunch break and am still a bit shaky -- have you ever seen a Holocaust survivor speak? Can you even imagine his courage to spend his life going over and over the details so that young people will understand? As if any of us can ever really understand.)

As for the arty French play, we had our rehearsal. It's hard to find a place among actors in the middle of a play, their intimacy and routines and so on, but they went out of their way to be welcoming and inclusive, which was nice of them. I tried to take this into account when I saw their excessive warm-ups, jumping around and twisting into balls on the floor. I was unreasonably irritated and tried to remember that it feels good to be in your own little warm-up; it's just so dorky to watch! The director talking to one of the actors, giving some kind of note from last rehearsal, and the guy won't stop jumping up and down and swinging his arms. You can't wait two minutes? Can you please stop jumping and just have your conversation? He was the most hard-core in his warm-up and was in the play a total of six minutes, mostly without moving. Go figure.

As for the play, which I saw in its entirety, it couldn't be any more irritating. Maybe if they blasted a siren through the whole thing, maybe then. Otherwise, from the first cryptic line to the awful sound effects, from the non-story to the barking voices, it is the biggest piece of crap I have ever seen -- and I've seen lots of crap, believe you me. The actors are embarrassed to be part of this "experiment," they won't invite their friends... I can't even describe it. You wouldn't believe me if I did. I convinced Nicolas that the piano had no place in this play; the music is fine as it is, I don't think I have anything to add to what Duke Ellington
already came up with. He's a pretty good pianist, you know? The sound clashes, as well, the fuzzy '30s jazz and the bright piano, and my entrances and exits are just confusing to an already-baffled audience. So it seems like I'm off the hook, and all I can do is send sympathetic thoughts towards the humiliated actors.



ribbit ribbit

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Afrique C'est Chic

Franck and I were on our way to an appointment when a lady passed by with very heavy bags. Franck offered to help her carry them and she got all excited about us and told us her dream for a new world where everybody is mixed and the children are all born from love. Initially, she seemed like a nut, not least because she kept calling Franck "Afrique C'est Chic," as in "I have a neighbour who's Afrique-c'est-chic like you" or "your child will be of the new world, half white and half Afrique-c'est-chic."

You might think she was speaking generally, as of the child I will some day carry, but you are wrong. As she patted my stomach and predicted it would be a girl, we realized that she thought I was pregnant. (I was wearing a coat that I have been TOLD is flattering and spent the rest of the afternoon catching desperate glimpses of myself in every car or store window I passed, and I did not look like I was in the family way. I swear.)

I couldn't be mad at her for smashing my self-confidence to bits, though, because I found her idealism touching. Her vision of the world and unconditional love of humanity were just so much nicer than my own cynicism and my bitching tendencies. To wit: she was Algerian and yet she quoted two Jewish proverbs and said if there's a people with goodness and joy in their hearts, it's the Jews. (From an Algerian Muslim in anti-Semitic France, this is a mind-blowing statement.)

Then she was so grateful to us for "listening to an old lady's rambling" and for "carrying love into the new world" (presumably referring to the upcoming birth of our rainbow child) that she gave us money to have a coffee on her. We obviously said that we couldn't accept her money and she told us she has no one, no family, no one to take care of but the stray cats in the neighbourhood. Please don't insult me by refusing this gift, after you have been so generous with me.

And so, yes, we took three euros from a bag lady. She said "may God bless you, whoever or whatever God is to you." How's that for a lesson in progressive thinking and true generosity and kindness. Afrique C'est Chic and I were quite moved.

I've been inexplicably emotional these days (possibly depression from the lack of sunshine?) and sent poor Franck into a panic by sobbing uncontrollably through the end of French-dubbed, Saturday afternoon tv movie "A League of Their Own." (When Dotty's husband came home from the war I started fighting tears; by Kit's slide into home base I was a mess. I had to leave the room for the forty-years-later reunion.)

Considering I'd seen this movie no fewer than eight times and still managed to be torn apart, I knew that I would have a hard time with "Brokeback Mountain," which I saw on Wednesday. I was the only person under sixty-five in the theatre, which I don't think reflects the film's target demographic so much as the reality of a Wednesday matinee. I was obviously weepy through most of the movie and had a particularly hard time dealing with the transition from the sweeping vistas of Wyoming (actually, Alberta) to the wet, grey pollution of the city. I think I had gotten lost in the mountains and trees; my first breath of outside "air" got lodged in my throat. And broke my heart.

It was strange, also, as the credits rolled and Willie Nelson sang "He Was a Friend Of Mine," to suddenly hear the clipped Lyonnais French of the women around me, putting on coats and not talking about the movie. I was wrenched from the Heart of Amurka into the Shopping Lists of Lyon, as the sales are on for one more week and they wanted to get that new iron before it's too late. Did you sleep through the movie? Were you not paying attention? Impossible love, grief, bigotry, injustice -- how can you SHOP at a time like this?!

Here's something to make fun of: the top new fashion is knee-length shorts with tights. Ha! I thought it was terrible that pointy-like-a-witch shoes had come back. Then it was shaggy boots, yeti-style. Now it's the shorts with dark nylons and shoes or boots -- pointy, furry, cowboy, what-have-you. What's going on here? How could I ever have felt inferior to these people? Never again will I feel bad about not looking "French" enough, now that "French" is Glenn Close, circa 1983.

I got a call last week-end from someone who'd gotten my name from a friend. The message wasn't clear but I understood something about a rehearsal pianist and got all excited: if there's one thing I miss, it's playing show tunes on the piano. I went and met the director, Nicolas, who gave me a Duke Ellington cd and explained that I was to play along with song #14, "Chloe," on stage. The play is an adaptation of a Boris Vian novel ("L'Ecume des jours," for those of you to whom that means something) and Nicolas is going for the minimalist look and wants a clear stage. As there's a grand piano on the stage that can't be moved, he figures they should just have a pianist. I will play along with the song at the beginning of the play and at the end, as Chloe has a breakdown and her song becomes fractured and dissonant.

It seemed like a fun idea, meet a new group of people, do something unlike the other things I've been doing in Lyon (read: doing something), and even though it sounded like exactly the kind of play I don't like -- he kept using the words "symbolic," "existential" and "absurdist" and I was increasingly filled with dread -- I thought, why not.

Well, here's why not. The recording is from somewhere in the '30s or '40s and you can't actually hear anything. You know that warm, fuzzy old jazz? Try playing along with it! It's hard to figure out jazz chords at the best of times, but this thing isn't even in an actual key: possibly due to the age of the recording, it has warped either flat or sharp and is now in-between the semi-tones of Franck's keyboard. I literally can not play the notes I am hearing. And the kicker: there are no lyrics! No one will know that it has anything to do with Chloe, so it's just a fun little wink between Nicolas and his actors. This is the worst idea ever!

I should have known when he said the words "now, I don't know anything about music but I think it will be easy," but his enthusiasm was fun and I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had just remembered I don't actually like the theatre world very much and the last thing I want to do is hang out with a bunch of ACTORS and talk about the SYMBOLISM in a minimalist French play. What a drag. I'll go to their rehearsal on Wednesday and see how it works; hopefully he'll decide that it was a bad idea and we'll part as friends.

Meanwhile, a girl Franck met this past summer in Guadeloupe is back in France, about half an hour from Lyon, and tracked him down through mutual friends. She started calling him daily and talking for way longer than he deemed necessary and he wondered what was going on, especially as he had been friends more with her boyfriend than with her. Then one evening she showed up at our door. Hello Audrey! She explained that she was on her way home from Strasbourg and just dropped in while she waits for her connection train, though she avoided Franck's question of how she found his address. She was also kind of freaked out by my presence and didn't know how to handle the situation, which was obviously that she had come to Franck's on some kind of romantic journey and had forgotten all about the Kathryn he lives with. It was: awkward. Once she had claimed to be waiting for a train, she had to go through with it, so she looked up the train schedule and there was one last one that evening. All she had time for was a cup of tea, some polite conversation and a tearful goodbye. (I am certainly in no position to criticize anyone for inappropriate tears, but someone needs to explain to her about -- well, everything. This girl has gone about everything the wrong way.) So that was fun.

Tonight we are invited to dine with my Scottish colleague, who invited her basically-my-age children and other young people (god-daughter, niece and such) and it sounds like it's turned into a big bash. We are bringing white wine.


ribbit ribbit