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.


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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.



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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.


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