Visiting Vercors: being led up the garden path


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.

Fawlty Towers: when fiction becomes fact

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..

Ode to an expat waitress: bumpy, clumsy and inarticulate

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.

Conversations between self and self

Now let’s be clear. I do not wish to be mistaken for any shape, form or even semblance of a Freudian, but I have noticed of late, an increasing number of direct conversations between my Id and my Ego. Self and self. Plural. I have been addressing myself directly, and sometimes I even respond. I am interpreting this as too much time alone, as opposed to early-onset schizophrenia, but the conversations are becoming more and more elaborate… Sometimes the two are together, in the ‘we’ format -for example “we are NOT eating bread and Nutella at this hour of the night”, but other times they take the more accusing ‘I and you’ format. For example, one will look at the other’s reflection accusingly in the mirror and note the enormous black panda eyes and irritated sinuses. “What did you do???” It will demand. (Of itself. ) “I know, I know”, it will reply. “It was the bread and Nutella. I’ll quit the dairy soon, I promise”. They are not always food related, these conversations, but I have started to wonder whether they are cause for alarm. Does everyone do this? I mean, I know we all mentally talk to ourselves, but a two-way dialogue??? Even in this very moment, such a dialogue occurred. “Come on come on, you want the physio exercises to be done before 10:30-the physio must be done”
“(Sulky harrumph)”
“Come on, then after, I promise, I’ll let you back on the blog. I promise”.

However, if this is the price to be paid for having loads of time to myself, then I am more than willing to pay it!! When I am not working, the space I have is great. Incidentally, having gotten this job has proved more satisfying than I ever could have imagined. Okay, so for the moment, while I am there, I’m a little stressed, but that is normal when you are two days into a new job. But outside of the job, I feel like I have never been less stressed. I do not worry about the work when I am not there, and honestly, for the first time in months -if not years -I actually feel like I’m OFF. Maybe it’s just in comparison to the last few months, but I suspect it’s been longer. Life has a very fast pace at home, and it’s constant planning and multi-tasking -forever packing a bag, or exercising, or meal-planning, or filling out forms, or foolishly trying to change electricity providers in search of a better deal. Now some might say that’s just adult life Sarah, which will catch up with you in France as well, but for now, it’s great. I have time -and more importantly, mental energy -to sit around writing blogs, watching Netflix, learning French or buying jeans. I even want to do these things! It could of course be argued that there is a more significant price to be paid than having dueling internal conversationalists, which is having effectively cut out all friend and family commitments. That was a drastic one, admittedly, but advanced telecommunication technology (and €55 a fucking month to eMobile) means that this hasn’t been as stark a separation as one might expect. Although my mother is still refusing to learn how to press three buttons on WhatsApp to send me pictures (nothing but stubbornness if you ask me), we can, through a simple process of emailing and note-taking, still complete the Sunday Independent crossword together every week. I can also arrange phone calls with friends while we are both out walking, and a bit of swift narration can make me feel like I’m back in my old neighbourhood. (“Where are you now?” “I’m outside Aldi” “Oh grand we’re nearly home”.) But honestly, this feeling of relaxation, of actually owning the time off, is spectacular, and I’m really enjoying it. Give me about five minutes to fill it with commitments, I know, but like I said, For Now, I love it.

I am also sleeping better than I have in years. Now it could be the Tunisian climate in Apartment 1b (I always sleep well in hot countries), but for whatever reason, I fall asleep and Stay Asleep! Until my alarm! And I don’t even want to get up when it rings! Everyone should emigrate. If only for their circadian rhythms.

The aftermath of Amsterdam….

So it’s been a week since I was here in blog city -and what a week it’s been! Since my last update, I have been drunk, high, ogled in a window, culturally enriched and historically educated -and that was just one day in Amsterdam. Great city for tourists, really different and loads of very high quality attractions. The city itself is rainy but beautiful, and despite one reveller trying to take a bite out of one of the girls (apparently she looked like a hamburger, “nyum nyum”), we felt very safe there. We also felt appallingly objectified unfortunately, but that’s what you get when you put a thousand nearly naked women in shop windows I guess. And it wasn’t just by those who climbed up the wrong side of a magic mushroom either. The prostitution thing was sad -very interesting to look at it from the outside, but you were immediately disabused of any notion that there is even the vaguest hint of glamour associated with the lives of these girls. However, the legalisation of the weed worked very well in our favour, and although I wouldn’t be too keen to repeat the experience, getting high as a kite on hash brownies was immense fun. The simplest tasks took about ten minutes, and everything seemed Hilarious. Mighty craic. As a one off, I’d recommend it. As a regular habit, guaranteed to ruin your life. I’m not sure I would do well in Amsterdam…

However, the return to France was a serious comedown, especially landing back into a bare looking and empty apartment, shared with an Inconnu -the international man of mystery, Karim. Getting very drunk suddenly seemed like a very good idea, and that is what I did!! Turns out that wine and chocolate can in fact solve many problems, and in the end I spent a very pleasant evening over-indulging and watching chick flicks on the internet. However, this did not help the adjustment process the next day. When I finally ran into Karim, he caught me unawares and said some words and tried to do the French kisses thing, but I was at this point so entrenched in Irish culture and Amsterdamitis (a fancy way of saying hangover) that I forgot completely how to feign Frenchness and the whole affair ended in a very awkward handshake and an air of unmistakeable imbecility. Not a great start…

However, things took a turn for the better when I started cleaning things and getting the apartment into shape. Karim and I got chatting, and he’s very nice and friendly, in fairness. He assured me that I would find work, but not if I stayed at home cleaning the apartment all day! Cheeky fecker. All the same, he had the good manners to pick up a guilt-induced Brillo pad and started scrubbing at something orangey coloured on the walls. Which are now, I might add, a pleasing shade of white.

A trip to IKEA the following day made things all the better, and the place is really starting to feel like home. Karim and his endless pots of pasta and cheese do not seem to know what to make of it all, but they aren’t making any comments. The poor divil with his cheese and pasta -I’m having to work very hard to restrict urges to teach him how to cook. We won’t rule it out yet though… IKEA, by the way, is terrifying. Enormous and labyrinthine, with prices for all, but maps for none. I lost my Hungarian in Tiles and Bathrooms, and despite repeated roaring, didn’t find her again until the checkout.

So after IKEA (and a coffee with the Hungarian to celebrate our reunion), I was struck with a sudden wave of motivation that has lasted a full 24 hours, and resulted in a CV and cover letter written, corrected and printed times fifty, a list made of promising ads from the Internet and a shedload of good intentions. Okay, a CV and cover letter lifted off the internet and pawned off as my own, but still. I am not sure exactly what my cover letter says, which is admittedly a bit risky. I have the gist of it though, and have concluded that it probably doesn’t claim I am an experienced monkey whisperer, or fluent in Malayalam. Regardless, all my good intentions may be about to be derailed by an invite to the pub later. On a Tuesday, I hear you gasp in horror? Yes a Tuesday. You may not quite believe me, but I genuinely don’t want to go. It’s with Gabriela, the Spanish madwoman, but it’s an event organised once a month to go and have a drink and practice French. I have grossly neglected my grammar exercises of late, and have myself convinced that they can be successfully replaced by getting drunk and stammering at people. (Tell that to the secondary school kids and see what happens).