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?!