Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Which We do Some More Shopping

As it turns out, Grace wasn’t kidding when she said she felt awful. I know this because last night I suddenly got what she had last week. She described it as a headache and an awful, icky feeling, and that's just what settled on me this afternoon, first in the Carrefour aisle of patés and cured meats (yes, an entire aisle.) I brushed off this passing distress, assuming that I was merely overwhelmed inside this Palace of Food. Then, while I was starting to cook dinner, even the thought of the fig jam and goat cheese with a little white wine, even the lentils (my favorite) and the fresh salmon (Abigail's favorite) inexplicably all sort of turned my stomach.

Then, when it suddenly seemed like such a good idea to just lie on the floor rather than continue cooking dinner, it occurred to me that perhaps I wasn't feeling so well. While I am a champion at the High Jump to Conclusions, it sometimes takes me awhile to recognize the fully obvious.

Bill was very sweet about my sudden infirmity, and insisted that I move from the tile floor of our little carriage house hobbit hole up to bed (and he nicely let me do it at my own pace, a crawl alongside the millipedes.) He then brought me a cup of tea with some honey in it and finished cooking dinner for the kids, so I could lie prone and stare out the window and pretend that food never existed. And that my head didn't hurt so damn much. It was a fine ending to the World's Most Boring Day Ever.

We promised the girls a day with this title, as a way to distract Abigail from the fact that we were spending part of the day buying all of the supplies for her birthday party. I say "birthday party," even though it will just be the four of us, once again. She had a cake and bubbles and balloons and a big game of tag in the olive grove when the Americans were staying next door to us. Let me tell you, a family of five kids under ten really brings the party. This time, for our family celebration, we have decided to make up for the dearth of guests with a plethora of cheap plastic gifts, which are generally against my religion, but are Abigail's absolute favorite kind.

Hence the trip to Carrefour, which I found disorienting, and not just because I wasn't feeling too well. To get in my mindset, please imagine an upstate New York Walmart filled to the brim with cheap gourmet "specialty" products such as you might discover only in the most impressive sections of the Red Hook Brooklyn Fairway. A Kmart with eighteen different kinds of exceptionally wonderful olive oil. Milling around were lots of wholly unfashionable people, with sweatshirts and haircuts straight out of Aviation Mall in Glens Falls, New York circa 1986. But they were choosing from about fifty-four specific varieties of potted meat, not just Spam. (Oh, and for the squeamish vegetarians and PETA-members in the crowd, there was a whole section devoted just to different cuts of -- you guessed it -- horse.)

But aside from the fancy groceries at Carrefour, Draguignan is, to put it mildly, a big drag. But since it's also the most obvious place in the Var to buy plastic toys, that is where we found ourselves.

We also wanted to use the day in Dragging Town to check out a few used cars. As I may have mentioned, I sort of despise the Renault, and we're also going to need more car space once we start to have more regular visitors and need to go more than one place at once.

The first place we went to had lots of little cars, mostly itty bitty two door Audis we would rather not pay so darn much to own. Grace and Abigail went skipping about picking out all the blue cars and begging for them, but since they were invariably some sort of Yugo or another, we did not accede to their wishes. They did have an exceptionally cool old forest green Daimler Jaguar that made me weak in the knees. While lots of the cars had a big sign reading "-'1,000" this one sported a "-'2,000." Presumably, folks other than me have heard that Jaguars are more than the tiniest bit unreliable and expensive to repair. It was foolishness for me to even let myself want that car for five minutes, but this year we're basically rolling around in a great big mudpuddle of foolishness and irresponsibility. What's just a little bit more?

Bill and I do our best Lucy-And-Desi-On-Crack act around car salesmen. Bill, loathe to be cheated and eager to be savvy, likes to bargain so hard that occasionally car salesmen look as though they might spit. On or near him. His usually friendly and easygoing demeanor freezes into a poker face of unreasonable inflexibility. I, on the other hand, deeply hate the discomfort of telling the salesmen that their prices are too high. It seems so rude, even when I have hard evidence via the internet that their prices are in fact too high. When faced with a human being lying straight at me, particularly if there is a tinge of irritation and righteous indignation in his voice, it's hard for me not to cave instantaneously. This is not true when I am in my own element, but since I don't know anything about cars, really, other than "this one's really pretty" I'm at a serious disadvantage.

So sometimes people cry when we go car shopping, and it's usually me. I'll get furious with Bill for holding an endless and apparently unreasonable line with a car salesman. Or I will be totally ashamed when the salesman looks actually offended, and want to crawl under the carriage of the car itself. Or I will get really attached to a particularly pretty one, only to have it whipped from under my nose by a dealer who has decided that we are too irritating for him to continue to speak with us. I squirm and cringe and then let loose on Bill once we get back in the car and drive away empty handed.

I know that this dynamic is classic -- the man drives the sensible hard bargain while the woman tweets her gentle and foolish disapproval. It's the stuff of old "Take My Wife, Please" jokes. But I still think I have amply good reason to be nervous about Bill when it comes to buying cars. This time, I am hoping that we are not ridden out of our newly adopted nation on a rail. Or, since it is France, perhaps I should hope that we are not delivered to the Guillotine on a rickety old cart.

When I first met Bill, he drove a car widely known on campus as The Beast, an enormous blue-black Mercury station wagon with a way back big enough to fit his entire singing group (or several coffins) inside. It had no stereo, just an old boom box plugged into the dashboard. The boom box itself was also broken, and it could only be played lying on its back while the part the cassette tape went into (remember cassette tapes??) had to be held closed with a brick. One of the headlights drooped half-closed, so when the Beast was driving towards you, it looked as though it were drunk. The car looked as though crazed monkeys had had a go at the outside, and was full of old fast food wrappers, smelly crew clothing and car-repair supplies on the inside.

We took this car on our first date, and he had to stop halfway to Northampton to put in an alternator when one blew out en route. He kept a whole case of alternators in the way back, along with a case of engine oil. It is a testament to just how smitten I was that we even had a second date. And here we are, twenty years later, still in full-on disagreement about every car we see, but somehow still in love.

Bill drove the Beast when he moved out to L.A. after graduation. When he was ready to come home, he wanted to sell it. This was after the A.C. died and the car suddenly filled with a green gas (no, he did not turn into a superhero.) It was also after the car simply shut off (not just the engine, but also the power steering and power breaks) as he and I crested a tall hill down into Malibu canyon. Our first clue that something might not be right with the car was when the tape deck sounded as though it were being strangled. Then once we both realized that nothing was working, and we were shooting down the hill on inertia alone, it took all of my screaming and all of his strength and weight standing on the brake pedal and working the steering wheel to pull the car to a stop over about 100 yards and then to bring us onto the curb in front of a nail salon. A woman came walking out of Malibu Nails, took one look at us, and was worried enough to offer us cash on the spot.

But rather than just sensibly dropping it off directly at the junkyard, he worked all the angles to find an enthusiastic buyer, a developmentally disabled man who wanted "a really big car." (This of course reminds me of my own car-buying acumen being put to use to find "a really pretty car.") When the sale looked like it might not go through because the car couldn't pass California state emissions standards, Bill went on a crusade to a car graveyard to find another 1977 Lincoln Mercury that had the proper State of California sticker on its valve cover under the hood. An automotive Dr. Frankenstein, he ripped the valve cover off the dead car and placed it on his own environmentally destructive engine so that it could continue to pillage the towns up and down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Since then, he has purchased one car of his own (a Mazda 323 which looked, drove, and smelled like a tunafish can) and we have purchased three together (two red Subarus and the Silver RAV4.) In each of these cases, he has driven the car salespeople to the brink by insisting on lower and lower prices. His methods have involved multiple written offers in sealed envelopes, insane levels of emotional manipulation, pulling out an internet coupon at the eleventh hour of a deal, and driving from state to state in search of a dealer who would continue to speak to him long enough to even allow him to test drive a car. He bought down the price of the brand-new Mazda to $6,000 by playing two dealers off one another and straight-out lying. All of our shenanigans with the Toyota dealer resulted in our buying the car for just a few hundred bucks over the invoice, but also took up most of our time and mental attention for several months in several different states.

So in context, Bill was downright tentative and cautious yesterday. He tried, hard, to get the dealers to bargain, but it seems that just isn't done here. One stood behind the desk looking disapproving when Bill started in, while the other glad-handed us in English until Bill started to try to carve down the price on the one I liked. I am pleased to say that since Avignon, nobody has given us the finger, and Bill has not even been tempted to use Buck's nuclear option.

But every culture has its own specific rules about bargaining, money, lying and manipulation. It seems as though bargaining here brings out not just the crusty French baguette side, but a thoroughgoing iron willed distaste and disapproval. For now we're in a stalemate, not just with the car dealers, but with one another, nobody willing to budge enough to make a deal. Bill is coming up with plans to drive to Germany, to take out a 24 month lease and drop it after 8, to use our limited English skills to somehow coerce two dealers to write bids that we can put in sealed envelopes. I'm not entirely sure to whom we would give said envelopes, or whether we would be able to read what they said inside.

It's really too bad that there isn't a French Click and Clack NPR show we could call for a little vehicular marriage counseling. For now you will find me cringing under the sofa, waiting for this all somehow to end with four wheels, a signed deal and no bloodshed.


  1. The supermarkets here are insane! I went to the monoprix about 2 blocks for apartment the other day and I was completely blown away. I've always been pretty happy with Union Market in the slope. I mean, they have some decent cheese and at least 2 different kinds of Saucisson Sec. The produce isn't fantastic, but it's ok. But the Monoprix here? It blows away even some of the best grocery stores I've seen in New York, even Balducci's and Citerella. And this is just a normal old grocery store. They have an entire wall of Saucisson Sec, probably 60 different kinds. And the produce, to be honest, looks every bit as good as the stuff at the farmer's market a few blocks further away.

  2. Hope you are feeling better!!