OK, I will get this out of the way from the start. Today ended up being not such a pretty day for me. It was perfectly pretty in terms of weather – same clear blue sky to wake up to, and same deep blue evening sky as I sent the girls to bed. It was me who got a little ugly. Maybe a lot ugly, depending on your point of view. Bill was a lot easier on me than I was on myself, but by the end I was fuming at myself and my total incompetence. In this first paragraph I hope to give you enough foreshadowing to know that Launa will have a tantrum by the end of this post. Like Grover and the Monster at the End of this Book: the monster coming up is me. Don’t like to read about adults having tantrums? Go read the diary of the nice sane person who quit her perfectly good job and took off with her entire family for a foreign country.
I started off just fine, if a little late in the day, driving to the boulangerie in Sillans de la Cascade, Abigail at my side. I had told the kids that whoever got up first should wake me so we wouldn’t miss the hour of baguettes. As it was, we got there at the crack of 10:00 A.M., but the loaves were still warm and crusty. I already prefer the Sillans baguettes to the nasty overmixed ones Bill got yesterday at the Salernes market. Preferences are exactly what make one a real New Yorker – it took me years to cement mine into place – I like this bagel rather than those bagels – so I assume that becoming real here will also require me to have strong opinions on products made with bread, water and yeast.
On the way to the boulangerie, I stalled the car twice. This mortified me – I pride myself on being deeply competent, simply not the kind of person who stalls any car. I did have minor successes. I learned how to drive around Sillans (given how tiny the town is, it was more difficult than you might think.) I mustered the use of the plural personal pronoun “We have need of two baguettes,” I believe I said, and voila, there they were in a little (free) bag in my hands! I even got little chocolate croissants, although I can not with 100% certainty claim that the way I pronounced "pain au chocolate” was what got them in the bag, and not Abigail’s wide-eyed stare as she held up two hopeful fingers. I did throw out a “"Bonne Journee, Monsieur” to the nice-man-of-warm-bread, which Bill claims is the only way to end a purchase. The bread man just looked sort of befuddled by my extreme politesse, but I might try it again tomorrow to see if he catches on if I say it more convincingly.
I guess I would be even more impressed with myself if this place were not crawling with English people. Mr. Boulangerie is probably used to hopeless cases who prefer his baguettes and tell him strange phrases as they leave his store. At Casino, my new favorite supermarket (the one where I always weigh the vegetables myself, and can buy stinky blue cheese, delicious pork chops, and amazing wine for ten bucks or less) there is a whole section right by the checkout counters of inedible English foods: Marmite and Lemon Curd and biscuits that look like cardboard. This display depresses me – like standing at the bottom of the Tour Eiffel and looking up to see the Golden Arches. I want to be more French than I am, and I want for it to be authentic Frenchitude, not some version tailor-made for Mr. and Mrs. Garnsworthy of Loftinside Place, Churchmouse Gardens, Heaventhshead.
In just this authentic French mood, upon my return, I set the table for the four of us at breakfast with tartines, jam, butter, juice, coffee and strawberries. No English marmalade for my little family! I love these authentic (French) strawberries, which look and taste like strawberries – not the ones in New York that look like strawberries on steroids: STRAWBERRIES!!, but taste like straw. Duly fortified, and feeling oh so French, we set off for Day of Errands.
Here is the basic truth of our life so far in France, so succinctly stated by Bill in the car during our sad trip home. (There is a monster at the end of this post.) Things that should be difficult are easy. Things that should be easy are hard.
Buying a new car? Well, we were given a free ride from the airport and drove away after five minutes of instructions in how to use the electronic key (no such helpful instructions for how not to stall it, of course.) Getting good wine? At home, it seems remarkably difficult to find cheap yummy wine. You must supplicate to some snotty wine store person, or read lots of magazines with words like oaky, smokey, or artichokey describing fermented grape juice. Here, it seems as though any bottle you stumble over contains something uniquely delicious, all for fewer than 10 Euros.
Walk into a pharmacy? A phalanx of attractive and well-dressed women dote on you and sell you exactly what you need, subsidized by the French government. Talk about easy – buying medicine here is downright pleasant. It should also be difficult to find thin and gorgeous women, but here I am for the first time in years feeling just a tad bit plump and frump in contrast to the waifs and coiffed and dressed beauties all around.
So many easy things. Today, it was remarkably easy to register our children into a top-quality educational system. We had planned, as with the visa, for several unsuccessful passes through the Mairie, the mayor’s office. We assumed that this would be one of those occasions (like our many trips to the consulate to get a visa) where we would slink away, tails between our legs, hoping that at least our blameless children had left decently adorable impressions on the bureaucrats in charge. Bill came fortified with multiple copies of all the documents that could possibly be required. But since it had taken us so long to get out of the house, and took us quite some time to find the proper office in Aups, we arrived ten minutes before the lunchtime closing marked on the door. I predicted disaster. (There is still a monster at the end of this post.)
In New York, as head of a private lower school, I have been a centrally located cog in a ponderous wheel of the machine through which completely sweet and lovely young children are assessed, denied, deferred, and eventually enrolled in one school or another. The school they finally attend is only rarely their parents' first choice, or even the school nearest their home. The process requires endless research, multiple tours, extensive gossip, and massive worry on the part of families, and similarly tortured efforts on the part of the schools. A prospective parent pays hundreds of dollars in fees, is invited to visit and exclaim over a variety of fairly equivalent Kindergarten classrooms, and dresses his or her children up for what must feel like potentially pointless school visits, during which their very young children play – on display! – in several different schools that they will never attend. Public schools are cheaper by scads, but choosing a school and getting into said school is not necessarily a whole lot easier, particularly once your kid gets past the zoned PS-es to the selection process for an MS. School is the single most fraught topic of conversation among the upper middle class families I know well in NYC, even moreso than house renovations or the economy. I am not proud that things are so difficult back home, and I must say that every single admissions officer and school person I knew did his or her absolute best to make the whole process as fair and painless as possible for families and kids. And, most of the kids I know end up in great schools and thrive. But when you get right down to it, determining which kid goes where is a pretty awful business, start to finish.
Today, we walked into the Mairie, which looked like a rather more pleasant than usual DMV. An efficient and friendly woman wearing jeans and a tank top took us in, smiled kindly on the children, and asked for a series of documents – all of which Bill had in his possession, in multiple copies. I felt like falling to his feet in gratitude and awe. This was going so well. We briefly discussed where Abigail would be placed. Back in New York the question of where to place a child with a late summer or early fall birthday was the cause of many tortured and lengthy conversations at the table in my office. There was supplication, justificiation, tortured logic and frustration on both sides, and I could never simply give the parents what they imagined they wanted.
Today, we politely requested that she be placed in 2nd grade rather than 3rd, since she just finished our school's first grade, despite the fact that her mid-September birthday would place her in 3rd grade. “C’est un bonne annee,” the efficient woman – clearly a mom – remarked. 2nd it would be. In about six minutes – with four minutes left to spare – we were back out on the street, with the woman's instructions for our next step. A backpack. And a pencil case. Show up the morning of September 2 at the school.
That was it.
I admit it. We got cocky. After this success, we did a victory lap through Casino. I weighed my own vegetables, I found the sunscreen, I located the hidden garlic and onions. I bought two more bottles of the cheap and lovely white wine that put me in such a great mood the day before. The girls bought pencil cases to put in their backpacks. Eagle-eyed Bill even picked up two bags from a counter as we approached the checkout. I later saw a sign clearly stating that bags were .03 cents, so technically he stole six cents from the Casino. (What is the French word for “le shoplifting?”)
Our next adventure would be easy: pick up some yummy lunch at a swish little countryside inn, then swing into the provincial capitol Draguinan and get an iphone to throw in my bag. I will admit it –I have been craving an iphone for months. Ever since I lost my home phone and my work phone in the same week, and picked up a stupid AT&T Granny phone, I have been looking with sin in my heart at my friends’ iphones. I generally don’t covet my neighbor’s anything, but I was coveting iphones left and right. Today would be my day.
We drove on to Hotel Bien Etre, which I translated to myself as Hotel Good Being. It was not only marked by multiple clear signs, but celebrated in our guidebook. We drove through beautiful fields, olive groves, past signs for fresh chevre for sale. We started to get the sense that we understood how all the roads linked together – Aups to Salernes to Draguinan in a big beautiful triangle of happy agricultural goodness.
The first disappointment of our day: something easy became difficult. Hotel Good Being’s little terrace restaurant was fermé. Closed for lunch on Mondays. No matter. It was getting a little late, but we could just press on in our little triangle and get a bite to eat before the iphone. I suppressed a little trademark Launa crankiness as I stalled the car once more while pulling into traffic on the tiny mountain road.
As we drove, Bill chattered on about different interest rates in various countries. He has been hatching a scheme to find countries with a stable currency and high inflation and to invest sums of money there to take advantage of their misfortune. I will admit that I don’t quite understand, but worse, can’t quite get myself to care. I’m specializing these days in buying and cooking our oh-so-French food; he can specialize in multiple copies of documents and international banking. But he likes to tell me about it nonetheless. Grace launched into a discussion of all the times I had wronged her, and then set on Abigail, complaining for the hundredth time about her tuneless humming. Grace has no idea of the depths of Abigail’s tolerance for her (to her credit, neither does Abigail) and loves to find myriad ways to pick away at all of her (barely existent) flaws. Abigail kept asking for the air conditioning to be turned up, but in a voice so quiet I had to strain over the water in my ears to hear her.
They all were getting on my nerves.
This went on through a few unpronounceable little Provence towns (How might one say the word “Flayosc?” Can I buy a vowel?) As we swooped around corners and up and down hills, both girls got a little carsick and I started fantasizing about being in a Beamer or an Audi rather than my little lawnmower. Driving one would be even better with my iphone, or maybe one of those Bluetooth contraptions, whatever that might turn out to be.
Guidebooks and people we had run into had described Draguinan as being ringed with strip malls, so I assumed I would drive right in and find a lake of parking right next to a cute little fast food bistro and the French Vodaphone store. Give me convenience or give me death – the cry of the harried suburban mom in her kidmobile with its sticky seats and filthy floors.
As we drove into town, there were lots of signs I did not understand, but no lakes of parking. It was much bigger than I had hoped, and everything – literally everything – seemed to be fermé. I kept following signs for “Centre Ville,” assuming that at least in the middle of town we could find a sandwich and a coke. Bill remarked –somewhat unhelpfully at this point I thought – that perhaps the phone place would be closed until 3:00 P.M. We parked and walked over to the first brasserie we could find, studied the menu a bit, then sat down. The nice man who came over to us was really not so nice. He looked quizzically at us (did he need a “Bonne Journeé,” perhaps?) then informed us that no, they were closed. Fermé.
So as it turns out, there are some clear timelines that one must follow if one is to eat or do business in France. While New York is the city that never sleeps, France is the country that takes several government-issued naps during each business day. Baguettes disappear by noon. The mayor’s office closes at noon. Lunch is served from noon to 2:00 PM (although not in all locations on Mondays.) You may not have lunch after 2:00, but don’t expect the stores to be open again until 3:00. Ignore these timelines at your peril, foolish girl, or you will have no place to be for an hour every afternoon.
The one open place was, when you get down to it, perfectly fine. No, there was no air conditioning, and no there were no glasses of water on the table, and yes there was a pigeon walking around and then taking flight out of the open door. It was unreasonable for me to be as disappointed by this contrast between the lunch I hoped for at Hotel Good Being and the salad I eventually ate at Only Café Open. The girls picked at their food, too hot to eat.
At least I would get my iphone. It says a lot of bad things about me that I already thought of it as my iphone, assumed that it would just hop into the correct pocket in the bag I bought with it in mind. The perfectly nice woman at the pigeon place gave us great directions for where to find French Telecom Orange. There was a long wait in the store for us to figure out which form to fill out to wait in which line. The girls were positively wilting, but played a number of halfhearted games of Miss Mary Mack sitting in the orange plastic chairs.
We waited. And waited longer. There were five very smartly dressed women, each sitting at a little counter with a customer going through the details of a telephone plan. Things that should be easy were suddenly difficult. Back home, all you have to do is think, “I might like a smart new phone today,” and one appears in your hand. If it involves your spending money on something cool and technological, it is easy.
Here, I managed to feel under-dressed, woefully ignorant, and annoyed all at once just waiting to be seen by the sultans of the telephone. The customers all appeared anxious and confused, weighing the benefits of plans and phones. Each transaction appeared to take at least a half an hour. One somewhat foolish and poorly dressed woman even got in a minor shouting match with one of the sales clerks. I pitied her, while at the same time I wished she would just get on with it and give us her place.
I fumed a little, pouted a little. By the time the bottle blonde called us forth, I had read every pamphlet in the store. She spoke down to us, clearly and haughtily. We sought to buy a contract for an iphone, yes? We wished an hour a month, two hours, three, or four? I couldn’t believe these were really my only options. Four hours a month? I was sort of hoping for a few hours a day if I needed it. Everything I said to Bill came out just as anxiously and pathetically as the looks on the faces of the other customers. Suddenly I was the foolish and poorly dressed woman, with my total inability to comprehend anything she was saying or get her to see things my way.
For awhile it looked as though I would get the phone, with about 2 minutes a day worth of talk on it. We hadn’t even begun to talk about international calling when she asked us for our checkbook and our RIBE. Although Bill had had literally everything on hand to register the kids for school, pulling out documents like arrows from a quiver, we did not have a check, and could not for the life of us figure out what she meant by the word RIBE. (Of course, the irony is that had we an iphone, we could have just looked it up on www.lost-in-france.com, our source for answers to all of our most confusing questions. As it turns out, when we got home, we of course already had a RIBE, which is, for your information, page 30 of a French bank checkbook. Don’t forget to bring yours when you visit Orange Telecom.)
I suddenly and stupidly hated Ms. Bottle Blonde the phone-lady. She was standing there, skinny and well dressed, between me and my iphone with her RIBE and her 2 minutes a day calling plan. I could see my texts and Skype and google searches slipping through my fingers as we stood in the store. There would be no phone. There would be a long sweaty drive home with carsick children and a stalling voiture and at least one of us would have to do it all again tomorrow.
I would like to say that I did not stomp out of the store. I would also like to say that I did not try to pin blame on Bill, nor did I burst into tears, nor yell at Grace for leaving her can of Fanta tipped over on the seat of the car. I would like to say these things, but they would not be true. I ranted against my own total lack of French, and the way that Mme. Telephone Face felt she had to overpronounce even words like “contract,” and “telephone.” I hated being talked down to, rejected, misunderstood. I hated that the options available to me were not those I had imagined. I was angry that we hadn’t already known the French business nap-and-lunch timelines. I was angry with myself in a very complicated verb tense: angry for not having already learned French, not having already bought a phone, not having already gotten the things right that I was now failing to understand.
We rode home in silence for awhile once my shameful tantrum had played itself out. Bill cajoled me with promises of olives and a big glass of water by the swimming pool. He reminded me not to be so hard on myself. Of course his French was better, he said, he spent 100 hours at an intensive language program. I had to give it time. I wasn’t really buying it. I’m not the kind of person who stalls a car, and I’m not the kind of person who fails when taking on things that I imagine should be easy.
It occurs to me in retrospect that all this frustration I am having with new and opaque systems is karmic retribution. While all those families were feeling their way through the crazy school application process, I was the one with all the answers who steadily had to say no, to redirect, to tell them that the options that they had imagined were open to them were in fact fermé, and they might have to send their child to Only School Open, where there might in fact be a pigeon in the lunchroom.
Or perhaps I have gotten so used to being in charge at work that I have lost the patience I need to be learning something new. As the kind of person who can’t even stall a car without berating myself, how will I let myself make enough mistakes to learn a new language? Or learn whatever else it is I am to learn this year?
Tomorrow is another day here, at the phone store, and even at Hotel Good Being. There will be no tantrum at the end of tomorrow. I promise. My pledge for the next day as it rolls my way: I will learn what is in front of me to learn, rather than angrily shaking my fist at what I do not know. I will strive to be not only more French in the days ahead of me, but also more human.