Friday, June 9, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 20

Chapter 20: Farewell, Sweet Lyon

The last two weeks went pretty quickly, filled with good-bye visits and paperwork. One of the visits was to a colleague’s house in the Beaujolais (wine) region, and was a real treat: driving through pretty little villages and up into the green, green hills where she lives was a welcome change from the grey city life we were used to. Her chubby, gorgeous six-month-old was as soft and nuzzly as a baby can be, her musician boyfriend was funny and easy-going and their two French bulldogs, though snorting, snotting and completely moronic, seemed really happy to see us.

The weak link was their friend Sébastien, our ride from Lyon, who has lived in Canada and is supposedly a huge fan. It turns out that he fell in love with a Canadian girl who was in Lyon and then went back to live with her in – wait for it – Welland, Ontario. They broke up and he moved back to Lyon, but he still goes to visit fairly regularly and so considers himself an expert on Canadian culture and had a great time telling me all about its many deficiencies.

The only two North American cities he would ever consider living in, for example, are Ottawa and San Francisco. Montreal: too big. Vancouver: too slow. Toronto: too business. New York: too pushy. (Of these awful cities that he knows so much about, by the way, he has been to: Montreal.) I said that I was among the least business-y people I had ever met and yet had always been happy in Toronto, a city full of arts and culture and sports and food and all sorts of stuff, including, yes, business. But he kindly explained that I was wrong and that Toronto is actually uptight and lacking in human energy. And I guess he must be right; he did live in Welland, after all, a tiny little armpit town some hours from Toronto, and somebody undoubtedly told him all about our big, bad city and its soulless inhabitants.

He was supremely annoyed that when he told people he was French, they thought he meant French-Canadian. I told him about Lyon’s general refusal to accept that I was an Anglo-Canadian, one of many, and that I really didn’t know if Lara Fabian was planning a fall concert tour or how Roch Voisine’s new album was coming along. The principal of my school wished me – for the eight hundredth time – luck in all my endeavours in Quebec, despite my being the English assistant and wearing a Toronto t-shirt. But that’s different, Sébastien assured me; Canada really is known for its Frenchness in most of the world. (Most of the world being, of course, France.)

Having spent ten days one Christmas at a beach resort in La Réunion, a French island East of Africa, our friend Seb went on to tell Franck all about the cultural differences between this island and Guadeloupe, to which he’d never been but he’d seen travel shows. La Réunion has lots of different varieties of bananas, for example.
- Yes, said Franck, same with Guadeloupe.
- No, not like Guadeloupe, these are cooking bananas.
- Yes, said Franck, ours also including cooking bananas.
- No, it’s different.
Well, Seb, if you say it’s different, you must be right. After all, we may have lived there and eaten the bananas on a regular basis, but you’ve seen shows.

It was rainy and cold that day and I shivered through the afternoon in my skirt and sandals, having trusted the weather channel’s claims that it would be warm and sunny. Then they warned of wild rainstorms and as I lugged my umbrella around with me while sweating in the hot sun, I started to wonder about the legitimacy of the weather channel. I don’t really know how it all works, and I’m not saying that I could accurately predict the weather myself, but then I don’t go around making pronouncements based on wild guesses. Why do we keep trusting them? Planning our week-ends around their confident little diagrams, feigning interest as they blab on about various percentages and special names of Easterly winds, then consistently finding ourselves unprepared for the actual weather conditions?

*Here’s something I learned on my favourite game show, La Cible: as well as the paper anniversary, the silver anniversary and the linen anniversary, there is the uranium anniversary. I can’t express how unsettling I find this information; make of it what you will.

**Meanwhile, reading a Timothy Findley book that wasn’t very good in the first place, he kept saying “in her behalf,” “in their behalf” – are we okay with that? Isn’t it “on her behalf,” without exceptions? It made me crazy.

Sarah came down from Bristol for a long week-end, so Franck and I thought she would add some spice to our lives, as she always knows what’s happening ‘on the scene’ and her enthusiasm is catching. It turns out she’s become as much of a homebody as I am and we spent the evenings drinking tea, chatting and watching Eurovision, the funniest show on earth, to which I can do no justice in writing; you have to see it to believe it.

We did things around town during the day, like buying pretty Thai-ish flip-flops for only four euros that fell apart within two days of wearing them around the house. We also walked up the hill to Fourvière, the beautiful cathedral, only Sarah insisted we take the stairs instead of slowly zig-zagging up the path and Franck and I (a smoker and an out-of-shaper, respectively) almost had twin heart attacks. (Sarah’s step-aerobics class prepared her for the feat, but she was still pretty knocked out by the top and I felt justified in my red face and stinging thigh muscles. No CN Tower fundraiser for me, thanks.)

She was hoping, among other things, to get the last 400 euros from Clément, whom you may remember as the dear friend who was supposed to take her last paycheque and transfer it to her in England, but then decided to spend it instead and was indignant when she accused him of being dishonest. She didn’t actually get the money, but she found a couple of henchmen to put on the pressure, so hopefully it will appear.

My Australian friend Sylvie – from the last time I was in Lyon – arrived around the same time, fresh from traveling around Asia and planning to work in France for a while, and it was nice to have someone to hang around with who thinks somewhat like me and who sees the funny things in Lyon as funny, not just same-old. It was also nice to have someone to confirm my opinion that there is simply too much smoke in Lyon, indoors, outdoors and everywhere; I was starting to feel like a real whiner.

A student of mine invited me to an African dinner-and-music thing by her drumming teacher, Apollos. The ticket said 8:00 and I cut short my visit with Stephanie and her baby Marie (who’s walking now! It’s so exciting!) and hustled to get there on time, only to wait over two hours for the food to be served. The musicians – three of them band mates of Franck’s, funnily – started to wander in some time after 11:00 and the music started after midnight, giving the crowd lots of time to get drunk and sweaty before the show. Apollos’s dance teacher friend, Kiana, had invited her community centre dance class, a bunch of middle-aged women who wore whatever African clothing they could drum up. (None of the African people there wore anything even slightly African.) She got them up to do their routines a few times and it was so cute – I can’t find a non-condescending word but I don’t mean it that way – touching? endearing? – to see them enthusiastically struggling through the moves that Kiana did so naturally and beautifully. It looked a bit like a drunk aerobics class by the end, just with better music.

At the risk of digging myself too deeply into cultural stereotyping, I think it’s fair to say that African and Caribbean men generally – and undoubtedly with many exceptions, my politically-correct friends – are fairly easy with the flirting and are particularly attentive towards smiling white women who are delighted and dizzy with the attention they’re not used to getting. (I’m sure I’ve been one of those women on more than one occasion, truly believing that I’d been a Salma Hayek all along and only now was some guy recognizing my irresistible sex appeal. I’m not judging anyone here.) This particular evening, what with the dance class ladies who had never been to an African party before, there were more delighted-and-dizzy women than you could shake a stick at; the men didn’t know where to start, and mostly just moved through the crowd, getting jiggy with whomever they could grab.

As it happens, the woman who was the most enchanted by all the touching and whispering, and who threw herself whole-heartedly into the arms of every man who offered, looked like a terrifying combination of George Costanza’s mom and my grandma. It was most distressing. I wanted to tell her to pull herself together but she was too far gone for any kind of intervention and all I could do was watch, miserable and highly disturbed, as Grandma-Costanza shook her booty against a series of complete strangers, a look of frantic ecstasy on her face. I considered it a personal favour from God when the power cut out and – while the drumming and dancing continued in the hazy blue light of the cell phones everyone pulled out – I couldn’t see my desperate hoochie-mama anymore and my anxiety could finally begin to dissipate. I had a rough sleep that night, believe you me.

Then we had a good time dancing with Sylvie and our [irritating and needy] neighbour. At first the club we were in (a boat on the river, as it happens) was just depressing to me, all these people half-dancing while they looked around for someone to pick up. You could smell the desperation in the air – attack dogs would have had a field day – and it made me feel kind of gross. But the music, tripped-up funk, was really good and got into my bones, so I had to let it out. It had been so long since I’d gone dancing (letting loose in the kitchen doesn’t count) that once I started, I couldn’t stop. (Turns out I have a hoochie-mama side of my own.) Franck was disappointed that I’d resisted for so long when it turns out that I like it so much. What can I say.

Our landlord made no effort to rent out the apartment – he casually mentioned that we should put some posters up around the university, one week before we left – so we had to pay longer than we lived there, having given the standard three months’ notice a week too late. We managed to sell the furniture, mostly to some neighbours who ripped us off, and to Sylvie who paid way too much. (I tried to stop her.) We gave back the keys and didn’t have the courage to break through the smiley apartment-check and say “we pay more than anyone in the building and you didn’t even try to find us a replacement, you didn’t ever fix the leak in the floor or double-pane the windows, the paint is chipped and the floor's a mess, plus you’re racist, so we shouldn’t have to pay for this incomplete month.” Instead we said: “thanks for everything, take care.”

We had a nice moules-frites dinner in the most touristy part of Lyon and stayed the last night in our neighbour Rémy’s apartment. (Having his place available to us all day had made the move-out much easier to co-ordinate.) Unfortunately, his bed is uncomfortable and his apartment makes weird sounds, so with these distractions and my fragile emotional state, I got no sleep and was all crusty and freaked out in the morning. Nothing a good shower can’t take care of, but there was no hot water in the apartment (there’s a special way to turn it on and we couldn’t figure it out) so a couple of dabs with the washcloth were all I got, unfortunate for a long travel day.

After an obviously difficult good-bye at the airport bus – I like traveling, but these good-bye scenes are becoming too much for me – I had an easy enough flight. There was a huge tour group of Montrealers who all had gum and all chewed it as noisily and revoltingly as possible, but it added to the anguish of the day and I think I secretly enjoyed feeling so hard-done-by. They changed the plan and told us as we were landing in Montreal that the Toronto passengers would have to change planes, so we all shuffled into a shuttle bus, including the tour group, who were apparently on a Europe-and-Toronto adventure. They took pictures of the planes around the bus and I thought it might be their first time flying, but then I heard them talking about the Egypt tour last year and Peru before that, a group of well-seasoned travelers – well then what the hell are you taking pictures of random planes for?

We pulled up to our new plane and shuffled onto it; looking at it up close through the bus window was a bit disconcerting, as it looked like a piece of crap. Some aluminum nailed in here and there, an off-colour strip replacing whatever went wrong before – basically a large piece of tin that is going to fly up into the sky with all of us heavy people in it and try not to crash. The new plane was exactly the same as the last one – they asked to sit in the same seats, even though it was half empty – so I don’t understand why we had to change. A smaller plane for fewer people would have made sense; here it was clear that something was wrong with the last plane and it was just an accident that we had made it to Montreal in one piece. Did they want to mess up a new plane for a one-hour flight? Or maybe they wanted to up the chances of our losing our luggage by adding a last-minute plane change, just to mess with our heads.

I thought it was funny that on a Lyon-Montreal-Toronto flight, the information was all in miles and degrees Fahrenheit, neither of which has anything to do with any of those cities. The you-are-here map was funny, too, as it never once labeled Toronto, the destination. There was Chicoutimi, Boston, Dallas – because the most important thing is to know where exactly I am in relation to Dallas – but never Toronto. Our destination today, ladies and gentlemen, is somewhere between Detroit and Montreal. We’re almost there.

I was pleased with our landing, as we flew straight past Toronto and then turned around over Oakville, coming back low and zig-zaggy over my childhood. The various malls were easy enough, the hideous pink Sussex Centre and the different highways, but then I saw Mom’s house (by counting back from the water tower), Papa’s house (close to the gas station), my various elementary schools, the education buildings on Matheson – it was so exciting. And ugly! It’s not a dream to fly over Mississauga, let’s tell it like it is. Down inside it is okay because there are trees, but all those brown roofs and parking lots…

Miscommunication led to a wasted hour at the airport, my uncle waiting inside for me to come out from customs and me waiting outside for him to pull up and avoid parking. But that’s all over now, I’m home, living with my brother in Mississauga. And it’s a bit weird, as I knew it would be. Young people still do the Canadian up-talking that I hoped to have heard for the last time (“I got, like, a C on my exam? and then? I was like, so angry? And Mr. Cook said he couldn’t do anything?”) and Mississauga Transit drivers still want to chat the whole way to the bus terminal. (“France, eh? Yeah, I never been to France – parlay-voo fran-say? Eh? Heh heh.”) The Streetsville dessert shop is now a Starbucks, I counted six new housing developments during a thirty-minute bus ride, and our neighbour has blasted crappy music as he washed his already-shiny car three days in a row. The fruit is over-sprayed, the subway costs a whopping $2.75 (none of which seems to have gone towards fixing the torn, stained seats or improving the stations) – and I have desperate moments of looking around me and thinking, what have I done? Why didn’t I stay in Lyon with Franck?

But this has happened enough times now for me to learn that the grass really is greener wherever you aren’t, and that the problem is perching on the periphery of a place, not the place itself. Besides, our rickety old subway has its own special place in my heart, there are green, leafy trees out my window, Seinfeld runs regularly and in English on tv and the concept of “smoke-free” is not ground-breaking or mocked. I already miss Lyon’s beauty, the cheap, delicious bread, the breezy view from our balcony, the new-age (and cheap) public transportation and the curving rivers with lit-up bridges that you have to stop and stare at, they’re so pretty, and so much more; but that’s the hard part – and the lucky part – of leaving a piece of yourself somewhere else. I guess the trick is to take the best of each place.

Thanks for reading along this year.


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