Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 11

Chapter 11: still a grump

I have these pants that are pretty much hideous, a highly unflattering pair of khakis. Once, with sandals and a summer top and in a certain mirror, they looked cute and fun, so I keep wearing them in the hope that they will magically become the pants I so want them to be. Then they ride up, they're too baggy, too short, a bad colour. Wearing them puts me in a bad mood and makes me uncomfortable all day. I basically hate them – and yet I persevere. Maybe the problem is that they're really not for winter? Maybe without heavy shoes and a long coat they will be okay again? Another good reason to hurry up with the good weather, Lyon; help a girl out here.

For those of you who are starting to believe all this feminism hype, are getting too comfortable in your bodies and need to be knocked down a peg or two, I recommend the European ice skating championships. Have you seen these girls? Flipping around in the air like that, their partners holding them up with one hand? WHILE skating? On the other hand, one pair missed a lift and he dropped her on her face. It was terrifying, obviously very painful, nearly a broken neck. Is it worth being all cute and flippy just to be dropped on your face on the ice in front of thousands of people? Certainly not! Back to the cookie drawer!

One of my schools is completely disorganized: I never know if there will be a classroom available, if I even have a class, if I'll have to babysit the kids through a presentation of future job possibilities or if the teacher will have a whole folder of activities that I am expected to make happen. For this reason, I keep a little stash in my locker which I call "For When I Am Desperate," mostly a collection of crosswords and fill-in-the-blanks songs.

Last week a teacher was absent and the kids who showed up were unsure of whether or not they had to be there. I assured them that the skippers would be punished and so they were relieved to have made the right decision and looked forward to a fun, unstructured class. They were almost deliriously happy when they saw me prepare the tape player and got their pens out, all excited and ready to hear something cool, possibly by Snoop Dogg. Why did they think I would suddenly be hip? Did they imagine I had undergone some kind of transformation over the holidays? The last song we did together was Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" and I had to play it once through just to let them get their giggles out before even handing out the lyric sheets. (In a shameful attempt at redeeming myself in their eyes – their cruel, judgemental, junior high eyes – I casually mentioned that the song had been sampled by the likes of Janet Jackson, among others. They were slightly impressed but still thought my beloved Joni was dorky.)

You want to know how to have a good laugh? Let your students believe that they're about to hear cool, young, American music, that you've even given them the lyrics, that they will spend your hour together talking about booty and bling-bling, and then play Donovan's "Universal Soldier" and watch their faces crash in disappointment and horror. What is this folk guitar? Why is he singing like this? Why is it so slow? Why are you doing this to us? It's even better when you've filled in the missing words and get to talk about the meaning behind Donovan's ballad. Tell me, my sweet students, what do you think of war? Is the soldier truly noble? Or is he the problem? Discuss.

A funny translation moment: after the holidays I met yet another class for the first time, so I introduced myself and they had to ask as many questions as they could properly form. (By properly, of course, I mean "even slightly in the right direction with hopefully at least two English words included.") As per usual, they asked my age ("do you old?") and my background ("what do -- comment est-ce qu'on dit 'pays'? -- What do you 'pays'?") Then one boy asked if I had a boyfriend, which is "un petit ami" in French. How cute is this: "you 'ave a little friend?"

That same class has a new boy in it, Alexander, the talk of the town. He's from St. Martin and is nearly impossible to understand in both French and English. (I don't know why this is; the St. Martiners I met all spoke an easy and musical English and their French was the same as the Guadeloupans; I guess this Alexander is just a mumbler.) He was very excited to meet me, hoping to finally have someone to communicate with, but alas, it is not to be. I have to lip-read and guess and I usually still answer something that has nothing to do with what he said; he's a puzzled as I am and our conversation is limited at best. I name-dropped Guadeloupe in some effort to seem like a comrade in arms, I guess, but that made it even worse because he has family there and wanted to talk about it and I had NO IDEA what was going on. I was too shy to whip out my limited Creole but I have a plan: I have been practicing with Franck and have developed a whole repertoire of friendly Creole dialogue; next time I see Alexander I'm going to impress him with how hard-core I am. Ca caille, 'ti-mal? Yes-I.

And then I realized that I truly am difficult to please and just generally crotchety. I run a lunchtime club for eager-beaver kids who want to play games and do activities in English. It's really not a lot of fun and I don't understand why they keep coming back, as we have to have a "written trace" to impress the parents and so it's mostly writing and homework and that's just not anyone's party. Plus, they're generally hyper and in recess-mode, having just gobbled up their lunches in fifteen minutes to be able to come to the club, so for me it's The Discipline Hour and I can't wait for it to end.

Last week there was a winter camp and I only had four kids out of eighteen, all girls. We played some Simon Says and other such things, and then they got hold of the coloured chalk and went to town on the blackboard. They drew flowers, hearts, princesses -- the usual -- and then they started writing all these nice things about me: "We love you Kathryn," "Katreen, you're the best," "don't ever leave," "you have nice hair," and so on and so forth. Was I flattered? Sure, a little. Was I touched? I guess so, out of obligation. Mostly, I was just grossed out: stop being so girly! Stop drawing hearts! Your flowers make me sick!

I don't know when I went from being a girly-girl -- ballet, pink wallpaper, hearts dotting my "i"s and crushes on every boy who wasn't a blood relative -- to hating them, but that seems to be what has happened. You don't love me, you won't miss me, you're just girly and want to write pretty things on the board and suck up to the first available older girl, which happens to be me this year. And I think it's gross. Bring the boys back! Get some testosterone in this classroom! God help any daughter of mine who becomes a girly-girl, you mark my words.

Elise, my nine-year-old tutoree, decided last week that we should start doing plays, rather than the workbooks her mother got for her. I saw a puppet show stage set up and thought she meant that we would be writing stories, then practicing and performing them, which I agreed was an excellent way to speak English together. It turned out, however, that the puppet house was incidental and the real play was the two of us in this elaborate make-believe session she had dreamt up. The basic scenario was that I was a beggar, poor and cold, and she passed by me on her way home from a manicure. She recognized me from her grade one class and took pity on me, invited me for tea and cake and decided to change my life. She created a mansion for me and a baby and chose me a wonderful husband, the perfect life; however, it was all dependent on my wearing the magic dress she had given me. Without it, I would return, Cinderella-like, to the street, never to taste happiness again.

She selected a few dresses from her closet and told me to choose one, not quite grasping the fact that she is a small nine-year-old girl and most of her dresses would not fit on my left thigh. She insisted, though, and we found this pink dressing gown that I could wear if I took off my sweater and abandoned all pride. She put make-up on me and did my hair -- in an extravagant twist that she claimed she had seen on a runway model -- gave me a fancy purse and sunglasses to wear on my head, and then said "now you're starting to get pretty." Zing! The play went well enough, my lowest moment being when her mom looked in to see how we were doing. Elise, like most nine-year-old girls, is curious about bodies and chests and things; she was very pleased with my new look, stuffed as I was into my magical dressing gown. Her mother, however, was less impressed. I felt hideous. Hideous Chesty McGee.

The play suddenly took a strange turn and Elise was trying to kill me, something about poison and a sword. Only she would never let me come up with my own lines. "No, Kathryn. You say: 'Elise, you're so beautiful! I wish I could be just like you! I'm so jealous of you!'" I told her she was unrealistic -- why would I be jealous of her when I was the one with the mansion, the perfect husband and the fantastic hair? -- and she said the play was her idea so she could decide how it went. I told her she was bossy and I took my bag and went home.

Yesterday's play started as a restaurant scene and then morphed into her dancing to the new Madonna cd and "teaching me the steps." There was obviously little English involved and I had to put my foot down, afraid her mom would come in and ask me what exactly she was paying me for. The dance session was ultimately abandoned as an "unsuccessful tutoring activity," though she had this one really happening move, up on her toes and kind of twisting, that I plan to use next time I go dancing. Tutoring's the best.

More up my alley was the morning I spent babysitting the nine-month-old daughter of a colleague: I don't imagine any of you want to hear me go on and on about the bajillion amazing and delightful things a baby can come up with in the course of four hours, so suffice it to say that it set my personal little clock ticking even harder and faster than before. For the last time, girls, could somebody please have a baby already? What are you all waiting for?

Finally, you can all rest assured that I am in perfectly good health. I've had this bump under my jaw since last summer and since I tend to be overly unconcerned with suspicious bodily activity, I didn't worry about it and trusted that everything would work itself out and the bump would disappear. (Interestingly, I have little to no general medical knowledge; one might wonder on what I was basing such trust?) Recently, however, I got to thinking: it hasn't disappeared yet and in fact is a little tender to the touch... Panic ensued. I booked an appointment at a medical clinic and started planning the letter I would have to write to my schools, explaining that I had to go home for emergency treatment and possibly have my jaw removed. The clinic is ten minutes from my house but I left a full hour before my appointment in case they could fit me in sooner. I sat in the waiting room, whimpering, until the doctor finally opened the door and invited me in. He jotted down some basic information, checked blood pressure and heart, and then felt around my jaw for five seconds and said "oh, these are 'ganglions.' Everyone has them. Here, feel mine." I think they're nodes? Is that right? Is that what lymph nodes are? Near the jaw and mobile, like mine, is exactly right; you worry if they're lower down and hard. They're tender because you must have a cold coming on, they're pretty much forever and you don't need to worry about them. And that was that.

Meanwhile, I don't like going to male doctors and wondered if I should hold out for the next available woman, but this turned out to be the single nicest man on the planet and all I can do is hope to get sick before the end of the year so that I have a reason to go see him. So friendly! So cute and enthusiastic, trying out his English. His name is John! Not Jean or Jacques, but John! I would like him to be my neighbour or possibly my cousin. I'm considering inviting him for dinner -- would that be weird? God, I love that John. He's the best.

We've had some sunny days and they make everything just so much better. But then tonight there's a concert that a colleague of mine organized and enthusiastically invited me to and I feel bad not going. The flyer features names such as "DJ Flytrap" and I'm dreading the whole evening, but Franck's into it and we can at least make an appearance and then go for a ride on the big ferris wheel they've set up downtown: now that's what I call a good time.


ribbit ribbit

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Holiday cheer, continued.

Did you know that Santa has a friend? We were at an outdoor German sing-along and the man in red appeared on the scene to make the kids happy (and to temporarily distract them from whipping icy snow balls at each other, three metres from where the brass band was playing.) His beard wasn’t too convincing and his Nana Mouskouri glasses a bit too stylish, but he was jolly and wearing a red Santa outfit, so it worked for me. But then I noticed this other guy carrying the sack: he was dressed in a long brown robe, monk-style, and a cap was pushing his bushy brown wig low over his eyes. “Who is this jerk?” I asked Gela, with possibly unwarranted hostility. It turns out he’s Black Peter – also St. Peter? – and I’m not clear on whether he’s a bad guy or not, because in France there’s something about whipping associated with him. But then again it might be wishing, not whipping, and he seemed really friendly holding that sack. Black Peter. Who knew?

On the 24th, Gela went to hang out with her family, so Mom and I were left to our own devices, which ended up being a pseudo-children’s show on French TV. We always laugh at their misguided attempts at reproducing American culture, and it turns out that their take on children’s entertainment is among the worst of the bunch. To wit:

The hostess is dressed in a skimpy cocktail dress, the between-song interview segments are self-conscious and dry and the songs themselves are confusing, wordy, tuneless, breathy, rambling, pointless and non-participatory. Sticking on a chicken or a spider costume does not children’s programming make, my friends. How about songs with harmonies and rhythms? with sing-along parts? with morals? with something – anything – that speaks to children?

The little ones in question were stuck around the audience in exciting hair and make-up, staring stunned at the jittery cameras and never once laughing. The adults, while singing badly and doing awkward movements, were self-congratulatory and schmoozing as they talked about this amazing show they were putting on. As far as I know, the subject matter was a lonely snail. Needless to say, we didn’t watch all the way through.

On Christmas we went for a walk in the Black Forest, up out of the valley, and realized that it had been grey and sad only because we were living directly under clouds. It was nice to breathe such clean air and to see this amazing light over everything, including the snow-laden fir trees, all bent out of shape and looking like a Dr. Seuss illustration.

When we got a little hungry we had bread and sausage – we were in Germany, did I mention? – so maybe it isn’t so surprising that halfway through our delicious Christmas dinner I hit the wall and couldn’t swallow another bite. This gave me left-overs for the next day, when I watched “Moulin Rouge” – which is just as effective in German, you can take my word for it – and went into town to buy ingredients for the crêpes I had promised to make. Everything was closed, unfortunately, and of course I couldn’t ask anyone where to find a grocery store. (See “I still don’t speak German,” Chapter 9.) I could say “milk” and possibly “vanilla,” but didn’t feel that this would jump-start a successful dialogue in Freudenstadt. I went home

That evening we went to a beautiful church to hear a Bach Oratorio. We were way in the back and couldn’t see the stage, which turned out to be a blessing; there were ten women dressed all in white who did interpretive movement throughout the concert and if I had seen their whole performance I wouldn’t have been able to keep from screaming with laughter, which might be considered rude. As it was, from my little nest in the back corner of the church, I saw them move up and down the aisles and then stand there, maybe with their arms above their heads or down at their sides, palms forward. Never smiling. Sometimes they would slowly turn in a circle. Or hold up their hands like castanette players. Or sit down with blankets on their laps and stare straight ahead.

One time, as they were making their way up the centre aisle and splitting off down the sides, they suddenly added a little hop to their walk – step, step, step, *hop* -- and Mom and I almost fell off our chairs laughing. Near the end of the concert, I walked to the back for a view of the orchestra and discovered that all the times the “dancers”’ disappeared from my view, they were up front skipping around the Christmas tree or standing in an outward-facing circle, swaying. At one point they all rushed forward and dropped to their knees, then came up one at a time like a chorus line. It was horrifying. I was glad that I had been at the back and behind a pole, so that at least half of the time I couldn’t see them and could actually – oh, I don’t know, listen to the music? Interestingly, the word “choreography” appeared four times in the two-paragraph liner notes, so it was evidently a big deal. And I forgot all about the off-pitch alto whenever the skip-and-hoppers appeared on the scene, so maybe there was something in it.

What intrigues me the most is how solemn they were, performing ridiculous choreography with such grave self-importance. I’m sorry, ladies, but skipping? Are you kidding me with this? Fascinating, that they could find ten women, young and old, with absolutely no sense of irony. Gela translated the notes for us and explained that the women were “interpreting the space,” then suggested that this was a new way to live. “Why don’t we go home and interpret my apartment? Honey, you take the kitchen, Katy will take the living room, and I’ll go up and down the hallway.”

We spent my last day in Germany at a chocolate museum, predictably enough. Ritter Sport makes a huge and delicious variety of square chocolate bars, so we first visited their square-themed art gallery. There were some really nice pieces but a lot of them were optical illusion-ish and made my eyes swimmy. By the time I got to a neon zig-zag square I felt world-weary and couldn’t go on. Possibly from the gallery’s lack of air? Or from my impatience to get to the chocolate; art, shmart – hook me up with some sweet Ritter magic.

We skimmed through some displays about the history of chocolate – the Aztecs, blah blah blah – and the Ritter empire (they get all of their peanuts from Oregon; who knew?) and finally arrived at my personal Mecca, the Ritter store. Just the smell was enough to make you lose your mind. Indeed, by the end I couldn’t stand it anymore – I was getting delirious and needed to get out before I passed out in the Cappucino and Almond aisle.

And so, suitcase laden with many a flavour of chocolate (Cacao Creme and Nugat are the best; you should get on it), I took an eleven-hour train from Strasbourg to Mont de Marsan, near which Julie’s parents live. Why so long? Well, first, because it wasn’t the TGV and so it went slowly and stopped a lot. Second, because I had to transfer in Paris, which means getting on a subway and changing train stations.

Now here’s the thing. Paris is a big city, isn’t it? Fairly important on an international scale, from what I understand? So why don’t they have escalators in their train stations? Hm? Why?

The subway, I almost understand. Oh, it’s a hassle, bumping your suitcase up and down the bajillion stairways along the hallways that connect the stations, but then you don’t usually have big, heavy bags with you and you should probably take a taxi if you’re not up for it. In a train station, however, most people are going to have luggage. That’s kind of the deal. You’re not going to work or to a party, you’re getting on a “grande ligne” and changing cities, and goddammit you need help getting to your departure quay on the fourth floor.

Sometimes there are escalators, which is nice, but then it’s even more frustrating when there aren’t. You go up the first one, following the sign towards “departures,” and it takes you to a snack bar. Then the arrows keep pointing upwards, but you’re on your own; three flights of stairs and a whole lotta sweating are in store for you, my weary traveller. Oh, you think you can take the elevator, you poor fool? Go ahead, then. Haul your suitcase across to the one marked “departures” and “washroom.” You might wonder at the frustrated faces coming out, but not for long; inside, you’ll discover the elaborate grid on the wall with many buttons, none of them labelled, and you’ll spend twenty minutes going up and down between floors, none of them with washrooms or departures as promised. You will finally emerge, haggard and old, on the floor where you started, and you’ll carry your bag up those stairs you tried so hard to avoid. By the time you actually get to your train, your head will be spinning from the hot box known as a train station, as there is still no such thing as “no smoking” in France. Some punk will be sitting in your seat but one look at the rage on your face will send him scurrying. Bon voyage.

It turns out that Julie’s family lives way out in the country, where the only signs of human activity are the gunshots ringing out across the fields. We mostly played cards and Scrabble (Julie kicked my ass in both, consistently), went for walks and ate. New Year’s dinner was a succession of delicious courses, the kind of meal that makes you swear you’re too full to ever eat again. Julie's mom made a filo pastry salmon and became my new hero. Unfortunately, I was suffering from cat allergies (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every party has a pooper…) and had to take a pill, though the question remains: is it worse to sneeze through dinner and make everyone uncomfortable or to take medication and slowly fall asleep into your plate? Tricky. Very tricky. I held on until a little past midnight but then had to go to bed, where my Drixoral-induced anxiety slowly subsided into the night.

The next day was exciting because we walked up the lane to visit with Michel and Jeanine, the neighbours who had come over for New Year’s. Michel and his friend Maxime have this hunting fort, you see, and we got to explore. It’s called a “palombière” (the birds they’re going for are called “palombes”) and is a series of tunnels through the forest. There’s a camouflaged lookout tower, kind of like a tree house, and then when they spot a palombe they hustle through the tunnels until they have a good shot and they take ‘er down. There is whistling involved, as they must communicate with their fellow snipers to shoot at the same time and not scare away the birds, and there are strings and levers and other fun gadgets.

There are also decoy pigeons. They keep a whole little pigeon house and train them in a kind of boot camp, some of them learning to go up and down in the trees and others to go back and forth along a wire. I didn't understand the wire thing, but if you have any questions I'm sure I can find out for you. For the up and down ones, they tie their little pigeon-legs to a platform and then raise them into the trees. The palombes, which are said to be pigeon-like, see these birds hanging around and figure it’s a good place to be, so they come in and settle in the branches as well. And then they are shot.

I’m not so big on killing palombes, let's tell it like it is, but it was interesting – if slightly unnerving – to step into this world. Any anthropologist looking for textbook male behaviour, maybe writing an essay called “boys and their toys,” need look no further than Michel and Maxime. The tunnels, the signals, the secret passageways, the pigeon training centre… amazing. Thomas made a joke about cowboys and Indians that was almost funny but wasn’t; maybe it hit just a little too close to home? Then they fired a gun at a board to show us how the bullet spreads out (kind of cheating, isn’t it? What chance does the bird have?) and I jumped so much that I hurt my neck. And almost peed. I don’t think that palombing is for me.

My ride home was epic (twelve hours! without stopping in Paris!) and involved a lot of crying babies and generally irritating people, though my mood might be largely to blame. (See “twelve hours,” above.) School is the same as always and I fear that life will return to its non-eventful rhythm sooner than I had hoped, though today was “la fête des Rois,” where you eat a delicious almond-y cake in the name of the Three Kings (or something) and whoever finds the little figurine inside gets to wear the crown. Would you like to guess who found it? I’ll give you a hint: it’s between Franck and me.

It was me! Hooray! I’m the king! I wore it all day but took it off to come and do e-mail because there are hoodlums who hang around the internet centre and I didn’t want to call attention to myself. It’s waiting for me at home, though, so I think it’s time for me to go. If there’s one thing I love, it’s wearing a crown.

Happy New Year and best wishes to you all.


ribbit ribbit