The sign has come down. I suspect there has been a conniption of sorts thrown by Jeannette, whose relationship status is apparently “moitie-moitie” -fifty fifty. That or maybe she just didn’t take too kindly to being touted as merchandise, with her single status advertised right under our artisanal teas. Pity. I quite liked having it up there. I’ll just have to get a t-shirt printed.
I can hear it now. The Italian accent. For ages, I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was doing to sound so Mediterranean, but now, I can hear it. Involuntarily escaping from my lips. Voothrrrrrai vhoo othrrrra chose, madammmme?? And what’s worse, I can’t do anything about it. Which is weird, because in English, funnily enough, I’m not bad at accents. Not perfect or anything, but I can usually make a plausible stab at them, and I get unreasonably upset and offended when I hear actors making a bad job of them. Will you gimme the effing script and the kilt Mel Gibson, I thinks to myself, and I’ll do a better Braveheart than you. (I could be Braveheart -I have the shoulders for it). So I had thought that emulating How French People Speak wouldn’t be a bother to me. But the more nationalities I meet in work, the more I see how wrong I was. Or should I say, how-a wrrrong-a I wassss-a.
The sign has gone up in work by the way. “Nous garantie que le personnel est 100% célibataire”. Our staff are 100% single. Guaranteed. It’s not on the window, but the next best thing -the blackboard, just underneath a suggestion for a hot drink. Naturally we are all waiting for the offers to start rolling in…
Karim is back from his vacances. He is very sick with a head cold and a chest infection, but tells me he has a fear of doctors, and will not go. So when I casually offered him some Sudafed, he leapt on the packet like a hungry leopard. “How many of them should I take -two? Three? Four?” “ONE!!!!” I shrieked!!! But he had already hoofed three of them into him, before he even asked if he should take them with water. He then returned with my ‘present’ from Tunisia. Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I can’t make out if it is a handbag or a bonnet, but wearing it in either sense would lead to similar levels of social exclusion. It is Revolting. But it was very very nice of him. He tells me it is hand made. Men should never be allowed in shops. Oh god I hope his sister didn’t make it or anything. It might come in handy anyway. For storage. In a drawer. In the dark.
He makes me laugh though. I was at home tonight after work, watching something mindless on the television (as our Wifi is on the blink and ‘mindless’ is the only type of telly I can understand in French), and there was a woman on the Meilleur Patisserie, or the French equivalent of the Great British Bake Off, whose name was Chelsea. Karim walked in just as Chelsea was having some sort of chocolate egg related emotional breakdown, and was highly tickled by he situation -“CHELSEA is her name?!” he says, with great incredulity. “Why not AC Milan???” He might give borderline inappropriate presents, but he’s great entertainment value.
Another job offer!! Everybody want me!!! (To be read in an Italian accent). (But not a French Italian accent –I am resisting same and do not believe in it). I’m on the tram again for the carte vitale/ social security number application. I believe myself to have gathered all the necessary documentation, but you can never be too sure….
21 minutes later
My documentation is immaterial apparently, as I have missed my tram stop. By nine stops. Having run, yes run, on my sore knee to catch the tram and save myself three minutes, I then wasted those minutes multiplied by eleven by not paying enough attention. I am so sick of myself.
My knee is so sore at present that I have noticed myself launching myself at the toilet seat from about three quarters of the way down, hoping that the final leg of the journey won’t break anything. My first thoughts were for the toilet in this instance, but myself included in that hope. I’ll search for some sort of a knee-fixer at the next available opportunity. That or find Jesus. I haven’t seen him in a while, and I’ve heard he has two good knees. He might be willing to surrender one.
Well it transpires that my incompetence has extended to my personal life as well as my professional life. I got up at 6:30 this morning, and launched myself onto my tired feet at this ungodly hour. I had it on good authority (the weather forecast) that we would have cold temperatures but sunshine today, and I had an ambition to get myself to the mountains. There have been a number of failed attempts so far, previous plans being thwarted by bank holidays, buses, and finding work, but this time I was determined. I had given myself ten minutes leeway, in case I couldn’t find the bus, and was full sure I had left myself with ample wiggle room. However, in my hasty Google planning yesterday, i forgot that everything in France is highly bureacracised, and that to hop on a bus, buy a ticket and GO somewhere would be far too much to hope for. Naturally, office finding and lengthy queuing are in order. So having found the bus for Vercors, and on the second sprint found the ticket office, I stood in the queue until 7:49, watching the monitor telling me that the bus was still at the platform. I had tried the ticket vending machine to no avail, and joined the long queue -ignoring the lady at the empty counter who was clearly only stationed there for celebrities and royalty. Equally naturally, the bus departed on time, at 7:50 -apparently long waits are only necessary for public services when it is highly inconvenient. Of course I was still in the queue. The wrong one, evidently. If I had paused my panic and read the sign, I would have seen that the queen’s first advisor was in fact the one selling bus tickets, and not train tickets. So I could have made it after all. Je m’énerve. I’m annoying myself. So now I’ve opted for the later time, and have lost all hope of ever finding a mountain without a car. I can SEE them, I just can’t REACH them.
Fail to prepare and all that.. (This plan incidentally was my third option for finding mountains, and nothing is guaranteed even if I get there, as I am awaiting the advice of a tourist office adviser in Vercors to see if such a thing is even possible -the buses generally refuse to take you to the mountains midweek). I am now back home in defeat, waiting for the next bus at 10:10, which is unlikely to leave me with much time for rambling around Vercors. There is a lot of failure associated with finding your pieds in France. Even more with getting your pieds on the montagnes, apparently -even the lady at the bus station told me to get a car. But it doesn’t help when you’re an optimistic ape who doesn’t read signs. Moral of the story? Sleep deprivation doesn’t work kids. It doesn’t matter how many espressos you drink.
But now, having had the time to open Facebook messenger….. Copine alert!!! A message from Karim last night, advising me that it is cold in France (clearly he saw the weather forecast too…) and to mind myself when I go out!! WTAF is going on in his mind???!
I am on a bus!!! Who knows where it will take me exactly, but at least I’ve gotten this far..
I realised on the way to the bus station (round 2) that I still feel like I am only pretending to live in France. Even though I now have an apartment, a job, and you never know, maybe in time even a social security number. I run into people I know in the centre-ville, and I have someone possibly trying to seduce me into Islam. It all SOUNDS very much like I live here, but it still feels like I’m only playing a game. Which I am in a way, having run away from reality and kind of joined the circus -which has been a lifelong dream, if you must know. In fact, I’ve just realised that moving to France with a view to climbing up high things (rocks, mountains, whatever) isn’t a million miles away from the career path I chose at age 4, which was to join the circus and be one of the acrobats who climbed the ropes. Christ, do we decide anything independently? I’ve long suspected that our major life decisions are driven not by rationality, but by an almost pre-conscious force, that is driven by much more primitive instincts and early-life formations. This has in fact been well documented in several prestigious psychology publications, but this proves it for me. My four year old fascination with the blonde lady in the blue sequinned bikini has led me to what many may interpret as an early mid-life crisis! I was always advanced for my age…
You will not believe it. For some unspecified reason, the extraordinarily pretty office de tourisme has a special closure for Weds 29th and Thurs 30th November. The curse of the fermature exceptionelle strikes again….
Why France, WHY???? Toujours pareil, always the same, as the friendly bus driver told me. There was a promising looking sign outside with mountain routes, but it seemed to think I had three to six months to spare, not recognising that my last bus home is 6pm this evening, and only suggested routes ranging from 60 to 350km.
I took a stroll up through the town for a bit of investigation instead, now that I was there. It was DESERTED. Like, abandoned looking, tumbleweed gently rolling across the empty streets. All it’s missing is a Wild West style saloon, with no one there but a swinging door and a smoking gun. Vercors is clearly a skiing resort, but can’t think what else to do with itself for the rest of the year. Typical French attitude -they have no idea what to do with time off and just go to sleep. So I walked through the village -every shutter in the place closed and the wind whistling through the town -and out the other side. The were a few bedraggled looking signs claiming ‘overture 7/7 jours‘, (open 7 days a week) but this was either wild optimism or blatant lying.
On a whim I went towards the opposing mountains and followed the sound of water. Lo and behold didn’t I find a friendly yellow sign, pointing me to a number of possible walks of varying length!
Success!! Who needs tourist offices!! Actually me. I do. As everyone knows, those yellow signs only ever want to lead you up the garden path -quite literally in this instance; the path started at the back of a few of the shuttered up houses. So up the garden path I went, panting and wincing my way up what seemed to be very steep slopes.
Now I’m a great women for going UP things, with little consideration or thought given to getting back DOWN things. It was only when I turned around, after reaching a wide field with no further directions (that’s yellow signs for you), that I realised I appeared to have, without noticing, mounted a red ski slope.
Tricksy that was, to pick my way back down.. But I did it. My left knee had an awful lot to say about the matter, but we’ve discussed it and I’ve promised it I will bring it to a physiotherapist before I bring it to another mountain. I also promised it a chocolate crepe with ice cream later, which appeased it no end.
So Vercors was an interesting trip, and the place is very beautiful, particularly in that gorgeous almost ephemeral frosty winter sunshine weather that is best experienced at altitude.
I did succeed in getting a bit of a hike in the mountains, and it wasn’t until I left on the bus that I realised I had stayed in the city almost without exception for a full two months, which is a most unlike me thing to do. Sadly, it looks like I won’t be repeating the experience any time soon, and purchasing a car is a long way off, unless I decide to purchase a set of crutches to go with it. So for now, crepes and ice cream it is.
It is not that great a source of sadness to me, but I can never again watch Fawlty Towers. I have developed a sudden and powerful empathy with Manuel that I fear can never been reversed. For I am the clumsy, bumbling Manuel of our good creperie.
I can’t explain it, but somehow, when I translated myself into French, I became incompetent. (I must have used Google Translate). The amount of effing mistakes I am making!! It is unforgivable, and whatever about my co-workers, I don’t think I will ever forgive myself. The problem is, these are not mistakes of linguistics, for the most part! They are obvious, no-cop-on errors. Last night I spent many dark moments dejectedly reflecting on the lack of foresight involved in delaying placing an order until people had their aperitifs. Good god, what kind of an idiot am I?? And there are many more. Table placement is another challenge. You can put this down to my limited visual spatial awareness if you will, but for the life of me I cannot seem to seat someone at a table for two without being told that no, I should have put them at a different table.
Now admittedly, there are two aspects to the errors. Or maybe three. The first is that my brain is so busy concentrating on speaking a language that I don’t speak, that once it achieves this it feels proud of itself and decides to put its feet up for the evening. Disoster. And I can only imagine that this is what poor Manuel has been enduring all these years. While being clattered about the head by John Cleese. The second aspect is that I have discovered it is the great hobby of French people to go around correcting other people at every given opportunity. Being told I have done the wrong thing at every single turn (even in the rare occasions it’s not my fault, defending myself seems effortful and pointless), I am reminded of a book I read before I came here. It was written by an English woman who moved to Paris, and was utterly miserable, and even though she was not emulating incompetent fictional Spanish waiters, she was worn out from people stopping her in the street and chastising her. Genuinely, all the time -she was told she was using the lift wrong, walking around the park wrong, and I remember she reported that one woman gave out to her for having the wrong kind of coat on her son. So maybe there is an aspect of that going on as well. They all seem to have a touch of the Mrs. G.s, and her rigid patterns for cutlery arrangement. The third possibility of course, is that I am useless. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that I have had many, many, MANY jobs, most of which I have been reasonably good at (with the possible exception of lying to landlords on the phone and telling them that our company had prospective tenants for them -this was not my strong point, no no). BUT I am getting better. Soon I will remember the importance of rinsing the plates when Brigitte is there, but Not when Alice is there, and of leaving the bucket IN the sink instead of BESIDE the sink for the person who opens in the morning. But only when it is Jeannette, Jackie is more flexible about such things. Aaargh. However, all has recently been forgiven by all of the above, because my work colleagues have realised that for some reason or another, I get lots of tips! Which is a great advantage when all the tips are divided between everyone, and has increased my popularity exponentially. Maybe the customers feel sorry for me, but maybe it is just that I am smiling at people and trying very hard to do what they ask. In other words, I am not French..
On a linked but separate note, I have made a new and dangerous discovery: Espressos. A little shot of alertness and happiness, that I thought I could never get used to, but OH. I’m still not mad about the taste, but who gives a rats arse about the taste?!!!! Indeed, rats arses may not be a million miles from said taste, but it can be sweetened with a tiny drop of milk. But the HIT!! Heart racing happiness!! In a cup! Everyone else in work was downing them goodo, so I thought to myself that I’d get in on the action. I love working in a place where basically mainlining performance enhancing substances is par for the course. Who needs sleep, I hear you exclaim? Not I! Which is for the best, because I may never again be blessed with its mercy… Still, I love them. And I plan to continue in this vein. Putting it directly into my veins, if necessary. But I promise to keep you updated if it gets to this, so that a low level intervention can be staged. But people of France be warned: there is a jittery waitress at large, whose eyes are popping out of her head, and who will refuse to give you Un Déca.
So now that I’ve imbibed three in rapid succession, to get me through the lunch hour, I’ve suddenly remembered the text message I got last night… “Coucou Sarah, ça va ?” It was Karim. Messaging from Tunisia. I assumed he was checking if his parcels had arrived, but he did not seem overly interested in my reports regarding same. No, he was messaging to see how I was, and did I want something from Tunisia? Like WHAT, exactly???? This made me very uncomfortable. Was he offering to bring me a present? And wanting me to ask for it?? QUESTION MARK!!! This chancer better not start thinking I am one of his copines, or he will find himself very violently disabused of the notion..
The Dancing Debacle. Spectacle. Spectacular mortification and ultimate failacle.
I tried the swing dancing business last Friday night. I went along, as instructed by the Internet, to a soirée in which debutants were apparently welcome, and apparently free. They were neither. Not only did you have to be enrolled in a course already, but you also had to have learned something at this course. None of which I knew, in advance of being the first person invited to dance, before the whole thing had really started. Or started at all, in fact. So I agreed, forewarning the man of course, that I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, and I just followed him around the floor, putting my feet slowly into different positions that I thought could pass as dancing. Later observations revealed that they could not. AT ALL. In front of Everyone. After we stopped this ridiculous walk around the floor, and a few more songs had passed (floor empty), the whole thing suddenly kicked off, and I realised what I was in fact supposed to have done in the first instance. In front of Everyone. It was a bad one. One or two late comers (who hadn’t seen my original performance) invited me to dance, but soon gave it up as a bad job. It didn’t take them long to spot that I was not going to quickly pick up the motor planning of ‘step step triple step reverse’. So after about a half an hour of hiding behind a pillar and a large glass of Orangina, I slunk off, defeated and debited to the tune of fourteen euro. They also informed me that no courses are available until January -despite having happily taken my €10 registration fee -and further Internet research suggested that no beginners courses will be running on my days off. I wrote what I thought was a friendly email explaining my situation and asking them if there was any chance they could fit me into the class that started two weeks ago, but got a prompt and abrupt response telling me that the course was already FULL and to look on the Internet for January classes. A big f**k off if ever I heard one. Bastards. I didn’t like them anyway. Okay that’s lies -I was completely taken by them and very badly want to be part of their gang, but for now I am sulking with them. And I have deleted their page from my Google history, in an act of private mutiny. About which they will never know, but if they change their minds about Thursday night courses in 2017, I might be glad of the covert nature of my vengeance. (Sock it to them Sarah. Just make sure they don’t know about it…)
Just what does it say about you, when faced with a choice of whether it is more important to make your apartment clean or make yourself clean, that you choose the apartment??? Every time. My Hungarian is coming over in half an hour, and it seems that there is nothing like a dose of anticipated shame to get you up and at em with the rubber gloves. As for me, I’m filthy, but I don’t think I smell so I’m hoping she won’t notice.
Karim has just departed for Tunisia for the next ten days, so it was a good time to start a quick “apartment-is-all-mine” spritz of the place anyway. I’ve been looking forward to this sole-ownership since I moved in, but now that it’s come around I’m actually going to miss him!! Even if he did cover the nicest feature in our apartment -our nice black glass and white veneer table -with a great wrinkled monstrosity that he thinks is a table cloth. In reality it is a large piece of grey lino with a design that looks like bar-codes and television static. I can forgive this however, because he’s great fun and good company. BUT: he does tend to somewhat alarmingly underestimate me. On the way out the door, Tunisia bound, bags in hand, he told me not to open the door to strangers while he was away and to message him if the light bulb blows or anything, and he’ll call someone to take care of it!! It was kind of sweet, in a totally condescending way..
He gave me some very exciting news this morning though, which was that I had been talking in my sleep. He said he couldn’t understand what I said in English but he understood the French. The FRENCH!!! Talking, in my sleep, in French!! This is the most marvellous mark of progress, and I am Delighted. I might have been just listing off numbers, but sleep-French is sleep-French is sleep-French. I have decided to appoint myself a goal however. One of the usual perks of the job as a waitress or a barperson is being allowed to flirt with the customers. It’s more than allowed -encouraged, even, and I find that I miss that. I’ve only had one decent opportunity so far, but it was with great sadness that I walked away from the table, mute and dejected, as opposed to swishing my hips and fluttering my eyelashes. (Both of which I can do very well in English). So I have decided that when I can flirt in French and concoct a ‘plan de drague’ (literally, a plan of ‘pull’), I will be satisfied with my level. So that is the mission. As a purely linguistic exercise, of course. Although I suppose washing myself would be a positive first step all the same….
Karim simply cannot get his head around why someone who isn’t working until 11:30 would even consider getting out of bed before that, let alone at 8:30. Which in my head is late, but in Karim’s is an abomination of industry. He spends most mornings snoozing or grunting sleepily around the apartment. I know better than to try and talk to him at such times -I have good experience with a best friend and a brother who are equally terrifying in the mornings. But he soon livens up, and is a great man for sharing information about his varied and chequered love life. He also likes to ask very personal questions, like as to whether I have ever been pregnant. But mainly the questions centre around what in God’s earth (or Allah’s) I could find to be doing three hours before work.
It seems that sleeping is a great hobby among the waiters and waitresses of France, and my work colleagues also seem to spend a great deal of time engaging in same when they are off. One of them, like Karim, tells me that he doesn’t really like having days off, because he is bored and has nothing to do, except watch the start of movies and fall asleep. I did somewhat idolise the famed lack of industriousness of the French, but I didn’t expect it to extend to their social lives. But it makes sense I guess. This particular work colleague has worked in the crêperie for a mere three years and has no aspirations to go back to his original career. He is single, but apparently so are all the rest of us who work there. The boss is threatening to put a sign on la fenêtre, announcing that all staff are 100% single. Now I liked Amsterdam and all, but I do draw the line at being advertised in a window.
So today I FINALLY got my bank card. Apparently it was sitting in my account in the university waiting for me to collect it. However, no one was about to tell me this. Or if they did I didn’t know it. Still, step one accomplished. (I have attempted online registration but that was apparently a step too far and they have blocked my account until tomorrow, for security reasons). Next step -commence attempts to secure a carte vitale. I’m told this can take up to 11 months, and no amount of stamping and shouting will change this. Karim apparently tried crying but that didn’t work either. It’s tomorrow’s mission. Tomorrow will be my first day off in 9 days, and I’m looking forward to it. However, had I known I was going to get to go on the tram to the university bank today, I would have been looking forward to that as well, so it seems I’m easily pleased. #trams4life
There is a strange phenomenon in work that I hadn’t expected, in the dynamic between me and English speaking customers. I had imagined myself chattering confidently with such customers, all of us conspiratorially celebrating our shared Anglicisation. However, I had not factored in the motivations of said customers, who have no interest in conspiring with me, and fall broadly into two categories. There are the ones who are not confident in their French, who assume that I am French and are terrified of offending my French sensibilities by speaking English. They look at me nervously and uncertainly when I speak to them in English, convinced that I am internally en faisant du jugement. So we continue a charade in which we all together pretend to speak French, because we are in France, even though we all have a perfectly good common language at our disposal. The second category, the ones who speak better French than me, are belligerently insistent on demonstrating their fluent French at all times, and are having none of me with my hopeful glances of ‘en anglais, si vous préférez??’ They talk even louder in French and look at me directly and uncomfortably in the eye, as if to convey ‘WE ARE SPEAKING FRENCH, BECAUSE WE SPEAK GOOD FRENCH AND DON’T YOU DARE INSULT ME BY SPEAKING TO ME IN ENGLISH’. And so, the charade continues…
By contrast, all the Actually French people are truly baffled by my accent -I dread to think of what I must sound like -and frequent ‘guess the accent’ games ensue at the tables. They almost invariably sidle up to me and ask if I am Italian. Naturally I am highly flattered that I might be mistaken for any Mediterranean type, but respond with pleasure that I am in fact irlandaise. Unless of course they mean the overweight Mediterranean types, with the hairy faces… then I am distinctly insulted. But Karim tells me that it is definitely because “ils parlent français comme toi”-“they speak French like you.” If this wasn’t followed by so much laughing I wouldn’t mind too much… But I might just try and confuse things anyway by increasing my hand gestures and throwing in the odd “Prego”. That will drive the customers completely over the edge no doubt, during their four hour approach to a chocolate crêpe. (Four bites, is what it would take me -four bites).
Otherwise, petit à petit, I am getting better at the job. Now this is by no means a smooth or graceful progression -no no. Bumpy, clumsy and inarticulate would be a more accurate description of this non-linear process. I’m thinking of it as a ‘mistakes by elimination’ approach -it is generally easier for me to attempt something the wrong way and wait for the panicked “Sarah non, non, non!” cries of my co-workers, than to figure out the French way to ask how to do it. I do find their reactions a bit overly dramatic. My plan to mop up a small spill with a serviette was met with a three-person chorus of dismay that would normally be merited only by a an attempt to set fire to a table full of small children and puppies. All of said chorus, incidentally, we’re sitting on their arses watching me, but as all of them have worked there for at least 700 years, they are all entitled to sit around watching my every move. And criticising it. However, soon I will have made ALL of the mistakes, and there will be none left to make. And then I will be perfect.
Walking to and from work as it happens has become one of the pleasures of my day. In the mornings and the day time, I like to walk by the river, from where I can see the mountains and do my daily assessment of how much snow has fallen. (Very little for the moment, but it’s pretty nonetheless). In the evenings, I take the alternative, and slightly more populated route, through the town. The particular part of town I walk through is quite an old part, and takes in a wide beautiful square, surrounded by a large cathedral, the theatre and a few tourist restaurants. (I have a job here now, which entitles me to distance myself from and judge said tourists). The rest of the way home brings me down narrow cobbled streets, which make a pleasing clunky echo when my boots meet the pavement on my walk home after a night shift. The buildings are high and traditional, and I clunk away the time imagining all the glamorously French things that must have happened here throughout history. I have this very vague and mixed up fantasy image that amalgamates misplaced historical icons, such as Marie Antoinette and Frank Sinatra, having a great time together on these streets. Smoking cigars in long holders and consorting with glamorous guys n dolls at the picture houses and such like. I know my fantasies have absolutely zero links to reality, but they are my fantasies and I’m keeping them. They make me happy.