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.