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

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