Friday, August 28, 2009

More Geography at the Scale of Launa, or: The Metric System is Weird

Each time we stretch the boundary of the known, there is inevitably a moment when one of us has some sort of unattractive freak out (over a toll booth, a confusing sign at a roundabout, or maybe just our inability to procure the right sort of food as immediately as one or more members of our clan would like.) If you know us well, you might be surprised to know that the one freaking out is not always me.

But once we've been past that freak out, the new place becomes familiar territory. Ours in a way. We've added to our places the museum of prehistory in Quinson, as well as a beautiful road on a high plain between there and Riez. (see photos below.) The road was planted with rows of lavender that had been harvested. Some fields had been plowed under, mounds of deep orange earth. In one field, a goatherd and his three big shaggy dogs were, as his job title would imply, herding goats. He also had some sheep with him, so he and the dogs were shepherding as well, multitasking. A huge herd/flock, and no fence, just dogs. The goats had curving, pointed horns like some strange African deer, and one of the dogs looked like a polar bear. To master our way to that beautiful road, we had to take two wrong turns and snake into the snail-shell centers of two mountain towns, Fox-Amphoux and Montagnac-Montpezat. I couldn't quite believe that the roads would lead me out as well as in, but they so graciously and wisely did.

Today, we went to Antibes, for a swim in the Mediterranean. The daily freakout had to do with parking, for driving into Antibes in late August is a lot like showing up in Vineyard Haven and expecting there to be a spot right in front of The Black Dog. Bill did the navigating while I tried not to hit anything, and he brought us straight to a lot that beamed, in promising flashing letters and several languages, "Ouvert." "Open." I was cheered, and we took a ticket and drove in. But the sign meant theoretically, rather than actually, open. There were no places, and plenty of cars rolling around looking for them. When one would open up, all the nearby cars would muscle their ways in, although nobody had any real room to move.

After twenty minutes of this non-driving, non-parking activity, a tiny little Toyotamobile pulled out of a space directly next to our car, and I was halfway in the space when a tall blonde girl came and stood in it. I shouted, "NON! C'est la mien!" while she crossed her hands in front of her chest, looking hateful and resolute. When I shouted again, she gave me the finger. Perhaps 10 feet and only the windshield separated our angry little faces. Bill did not (to his credit) use what he refers to as the "Nuclear Option" which involves a phrase that he learned from Buck back home and I desperately hope he will never repeat in public. Blonde girl was simply too mean to be moved, so I gave up. But I started to shake as I continued to circle the lot and she and Bill continued to shout at each other each time I passed her and her folded arms. As she sauntered out with her weasel boyfriend, pointing threateningly at our car, I realized that she had an ugly back tattoo and two rotten-looking dogs, one of which had a muzzle. Bill kept muttering, "I could take that guy," as though he ever would. All of these things were frightening to me, but particularly scary to Grace, who had never before seen anything quite like this. And she's from Brooklyn.

Eventually we decided to give up on that "Ouvert" lot entirely. But in a French parking situation, you don't pay at the exit. You pay elsewhere, then bring your ticket to the gate to be let out. (To me this is as Byzantine as the system at the Park Slope Food Coop.) So once Bill gave up, and left to get the ticket validated, of course I found a space. I pulled in, so proud and pleased. But we quickly realized that there would be no way to get another ticket, as the one we had had already been paid and cancelled. We drove out, defeated, and then managed to route ourselves once again into some impossibly narrow streets. The streets of the old town got sick of us and wisely spit us up on the Ramparts overlooking the sea, where we rolled down towards another set of beaches.

The first parking lot for the public beach looked just as crowded as the one in town, but more nicely landscaped. It had no promising signs, and no system for taking a ticket. But we drove about 30 yards, and there was a wide, Escalade-sized parking space directly on the boardwalk adjacent to the sand. It was cheap, too, as three Euros would get us from now (lunch) to 19:00 (7:00 PM).

The key to having good parking karma is to pay homage the parking gods for every single space they provide, no matter how long it takes to find, or how far it is from where you thought you might wish to park initially. This space was so good that it demanded that we sacrifice a small animal; I was suddenly chagrined that I had not boosted a goat back in Riez. Luckily, the walls of our house here in Sillans-la-Cascade filled up with gross black millipedes after the rainstorm two nights ago. We squished them with pink toilet paper in a frenzy this morning, so perhaps that will gratify the forces responsible for our earlier good fortunes.

Little by little, freak out by freak out, we learn the tiniest bit about being here in a new place. So now I know how to park in Antibes, and slaughter millipedes in the house. I know that the chevre on the road to Riez comes from real goats. I know not to mess with badass girls with back tattoos and chiens mechants. I deftly used a "toilette" in Antibes that was just two places to put my feet and a little hole in the floor. (Bill taught me that when asking for directions to the bathroom in France, you refer to "les toilettes" in the plural; however, it seems strange to ask for something in the plural that turns out to be almost nothing at all. Even worse when that plural nothing costs a Euro to enter.) On Tuesday we somehow couldn't even manage the tolls on the A8. But today, we had the two Euro coin all ready, and knew we would get 60 cents in return.

I am quite aware that these victories of mine are all so paltry; they also are largely incomplete and poorly translated. For example, I'm quite sure that the word is not "cents," but I just call the money "bucks" and "cents" anyway. As in, "Billy, gimme a buck forty for this toll." Bill knows what I mean, and there are never any French people in the car to correct me, so it works. Ça marche. Ça roule. Many more accents are involved to write those phrases properly, but I'm doing things well enough for now.

The conversion of Euros to Dollars, 19:00 to 7:00 PM, and the entire metric system still are mysteries of computation for my little brain. I don't have calculator mind, and so I am still relying on a fairly vague sense of quantity in dealing with Euros, Kilometers, and Celsius. A euro I get; everything here is marked in Euros a it would be in New York if Euros were dollars. The problem we face is that a euro is equivalent to $1.40, so that "buck forty" in Euros is actually a $2.00 toll.

In this vague quantitative way, I keep a rough and relatively inaccurate analogy that goes something like this. Dollar is to Euro as Kilometer is to Mile. It's confusing because in one analogy the European thing is bigger, and in the other it is littler. Everything costs a lot more, and is a lot quicker to get to. Even Paris, 840K away from here, can be reached by car in fewer than eight hours. Since it would often take us that long to get from Brooklyn to Katie's lake house on the far edge of New York State, this feels like no big deal.

When I drive in the U.S. on long trips, a mile is a minute, give or take. Translating from kilometers to miles, however, requires that I use the computer, so I'm never quite sure when we will arrive somewhere. When I did the calculations this morning, I realized that given current exchange rates, the more accurate analogy is that mile is to a kilometer as a pound Sterling is to a dollar. 1.6, and $1.60. As it turns out, miles are more expensive, and kilometers even cheaper than I knew.

I learned the true weight of a pound sterling yesterday as well. Our best stop of the day was in the English bookstore in Antibes. I walked in out of the blazing sun into its shaded cave, and it was as though I had been transported back to Catherine's Community Bookstore in Park Slope. The beautiful woman at the counter greeted me in English, and all the titles were familiar. We each poured over the possibilities, hungrily reading a paragraph here, a book jacket there. Each of us selected a pile before we registered that the prices were marked in pounds. By the time the prices for dix-huit (18) books were added up by their individual prices, then converted into lighter-weight Euros, then we did the Euro to puny Dollar conversion in our own minds, the word-to-dollar ratio grew enormous.

If I were more agile with all of these conversions, I would be able to determine whether we would have been wiser to buy all of our English words back at Catherine's and ship them Fed-Ex. If I could do faster math, I would know that 79K home from Antibes before dinner gets me in at 19:45, just in time for a swim in a pool full of floating dead millipedes. I would know the Farenheit translation for the near-perfect daily swing between 20 degrees and 30 degrees, between slightly cool evenings and warmly toasty afternoons.

Back home, if you started out at 1:00 to drive 100 miles with the temperature at 30 degrees and spent $50.00, the trip would be long and pretty cheap, and with good luck and well-salted roads you would arrive at 2:30 in the afternoon. Here, a 1:00, 100K trip at 30 degrees on which you spent 50 Euros would be short and expensive, and you would get to your destination, feeling very sweaty, a little before 2 A.M. Except we are six hours ahead here, so you see why it sometimes feels complicated for us even to leave the house.

As I fell asleep, my mind filled with more of these math problems I will never solve. How many strangely-antlered goats to make a tiny ball of costly chevre? How many legs on all of those floating millipedes floating in how many thousands of liters of clear water? How many snails per olive in the field? How many tens of thousands of years did it take for Provence's cavemen to evolve alongside this complex and beautiful place where the natural world fits into the human world so beautifully, but the plumbing is still so famously dodgy?

And finally, the question that rolled itself over and over as I closed my eyes on the waxing half moon and drifted off in the cool night: what rate and ratio could ever quantify our gradually decreasing homesickness and ever-increasing feeling of rootedness and familiarity?


  1. I was with you until the arrival after midnight. Is driving backward a metric thing? ;) If it makes the conversion easier, take off the last digit of the distance in km and multiply what's left by 6.

  2. Just found your blog through Facebook, Launa. WOW. What an adventure. Looking forward to hearing more, seeing more, living vicariously. (This is Rachel Fishman Feddersen; can't tell if my name is going to show up in the comment.)

  3. Will there be a new verse?? Something about 'parkin' at the Ouvert'?