Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. Here’s Part Six:
The day after figuring out how to call Canada I went to see about getting a Carte de Sejour/student visa. I figured it would take one trip to settle that.
Back in Toronto the French Consulate had told me that I needed a Carte de Sejour if I was going to stay in France more than 3 months. As a student, I would be eligible. Just make sure to report to a police station within eight days of arriving in France, they told me.
There was a police station near my hotel, so I checked in, bringing with me everything that I had been told was required. This meant black and white photos of myself, medical travel insurance, papers indicating that I was a student, an up-to-date birth certificate, my passport, and a statement from my bank in Canada indicating how much money I had.
I told the friendly folks at the police station what I wanted. One man who spoke English told me that I couldn’t take care of it there; I had to go to a special location that dealt with that sort of thing. He gave me a map of Aix and circled the area where this special station was. He suggested that it was within walking distance. Slightly dismayed that I couldn’t take care of the Carte de Sejour right away, I left, resolving to take care of it later that week.
I also went to the bank to deposit my bank draft of over eight thousand dollars Canadian and to open up a new account. I walked the length of the Cours Mirabeau to check out all the banks. One called Credit Lyonnais looked the most inviting. I didn’t know at that time that this was in fact France’s largest bank, and also that it was in financial trouble as a result of Bruce McNall’s questionable financial wheelings and dealings involving his sports team, the Kings and the Ticats, and his various other activities. This never affected me in any way; I just found it interesting after I got back from France.
When I got to the bank around noon they were just closing the doors. A security guard shut it all up solid. This was my first encounter with France’s odd habit of closing stores and banks at strange, inconvenient times of the day. I went away for a bit, then came back and found it open after one pm. I went inside and stood in line only to be told when I reached the teller that, as a foreign student looking to open an account, I needed to talk to someone in a completely different area. They showed me where and I waited some more.
While I was waiting in line someone in line behind me said “Hey, Canada!”
I was wearing my CBC radio jacket which has a big old CBC logo on the back, and which said on the top, “Radio Canada.” So when I was wearing that coat I was easily identifiable as a Canadian. It was a major reason why I had bought it along.
I turned to find four young women directly behind me. The woman who had spoken was Holly, I learned, from London, Ontario. The three others were Americans, all from California, although one had been born in Lebanon. They were all very friendly and it turned out that they were all going to the same school as me (Institut d’études françaises pour étudiants étrangers). They offered to show me where it was. This had been a concern of mine, finding the damned place. They set my mind at ease in other ways, too, such as exactly when classes started, and how the school helped people find places to live.
I opened a bank account with the aid of a friendly employee who spoke English quite well. She assured me the bank draft I had was perfect and that it should go through within a week. That was a Monday and in fact it did go through on the Friday, which was much quicker than the Royal Bank in Canada had told me it would. They had pretty much been guessing. I later wrote the Royal Bank asking for help with some other financial matters and while I was at it thanked them for helping me with my France arrangements. An employee named Lee Bakitch wrote me back, impressed that I had taken the time to handwrite a letter of thanks.
I waited as my fellow students finished their banking arrangements, then took them up on their offer to show me where the school was. It had only been a couple of days since I’d had a lengthy chat with someone in English, yet it still felt good to be able to speak English with fellow native speakers.
We set out for the school, walking north (for the most part) from the Cours Mirabeau on a series of narrow streets, all bordered by tiny shops selling the latest in fashionable clothes, or electronic goods, barbershops, hair salons, wine stores, boulangeries, patisseries, book stores, you name it, they were there, all crammed next to one another. Tiny cars shared these little streets with the pedestrians, and dogs and bikes and motorized bikes and scooters and full fledged motorcycles. The dogs, hordes of them running loose, left behind a notable legacy—the streets were filled with “crotte de chien.” You had to watch where you were going constantly. I was told that the French considered it good luck if you accidentally stepped in crotte de chien. One way to rationalize it. Every day the streets were hosed down, as near as I could figure mainly to wash this stuff away. I couldn’t imagine the carnage if it were left to accumulate.
Whenever a car passed we all had to get out of the street and walk single file along the side of the road. Some streets were off limits to automobiles during certain times; there were thick black iron poles, about three feet high, which would rise from the road to block their passage. A Canadian friend by the name of Doug told me how he figured out that the poles went up and down. One day he noticed that one pole had a neat little pile of “crotte de chien” atop it. He wondered how the heck the dog had got it there. Must have been some neat manoeuvring involved with that, he had thought, before making the connection that, oh yeah, the poles must go down from time to time to let the cars through, and that’s when the dog must have done its business! Unless there had been a particularly acrobat dog about that day.
There was a distinctive arch on Rue Gaston de Saporta. Holly suggested that I use it as a landmark. Sure enough, moments after spotting the arch we came upon the school. Which turned out to be somewhat different than I had expected.
I had envisioned a campus with lots of grass and many noble ancient buildings and students leaning up against trees. L’Institute Pour Les Etudiants Etrangers turned out to be mainly one old concrete building, although it shared classrooms with the building next door, which was largely for actual French students studying economics and business. You entered our building through a big arch with huge wooden doors. Beyond the arch you passed through a door and then took a right to climb stairs to classrooms and offices on the second and third floors. Left inside the arch you found more offices. Straight through the arch to the other side you entered a quadrangle, where there actually was some sparse grass and maybe a single tree. From the quad you could access more classrooms, including a couple of sound laboratories and an auditorium. To my delight I later found a piano in the auditorium.
With the girls I hung the right and climbed the stairs to the second story. Here you could inquire about registration and housing. On that day I just checked the place out. I had lucked out, meeting people who were able to show me where it was. I would be lucky like this in many ways in the days to come.
I hung out with the girls a bit more that beautiful sunny day, exploring a bit of the inner city. My main memory is discussing with one girl the fact that she was from Lebanon. I never spoke to her again that year. Of the other girls, I did speak with Holly several more times that year. I had the impression that she was not particularly happy to be there in France. I suspected she was lonely. It would have been easy to be. I was lonely a lot, despite being fortunate enough to make many excellent friends.
After I parted ways with the girls, I stopped at a hotel that appeared slightly more upscale than the one I was staying at. I was curious what their rates were. Turned out it was only thirty or forty more francs than the Hotel Vendome, and much nicer. This was the Hotel de la Renaissance. It just occurs to me just now, writing this, how significant that was. Renaissance. To be born again. I don’t mean in the religious sense.
I often felt, as the year progressed, that I was living my life over again, in a way.
The previous year, when I knew for sure that I would be going to France the following October, we had a Christmas party at work. It was a fun party, the last Christmas party ever held in CBC Radio’s Jarvis street facilities (these parties were legendary). At the time we were in the process of moving to the new Broadcast Centre on Front Street. Late in the evening a bunch of us crossed the street to the Red Lion bar for a few more drinks. My friend Wayne Richards was seeing a woman by the name of Stacey at the time. The first time I’d ever met Stacey we felt like we’d known one another for years. I don’t just mean that we’d hit it off; the first time I looked into her eyes I experienced a visceral sensation like an electrical shock. I never mentioned this to her at the time. Much later she mentioned it to me. “We have a connection, Joe. Don’t deny it. I know you felt it too when we first met.”
As a scientific rationalist, I don’t generally believe in that sort of thing. And yet…
Anyway, Stacey came with us that night. She was very into New Age stuff and brought her Runes with her. She wanted to read my Runes. They’re little wooden blocks like Scrabble letters, only with esoteric designs on them instead of letters. You put them all into a little pouch and then pull them out, one by one, and someone like Stacey reads them for you. So this is what she did.
I pulled out the death rune.
As I mentioned, I don’t really believe in this sort of thing. Still, I was a bit alarmed. Did this mean I would be hit by a bus in France, or my plane would crash? Stacey was quick to reassure me: Joe, it just represents change, as opposed to actual death.
That certainly fit. My life was about to change big-time with France.
That summer, the summer before France, I lived alone in an apartment on the York University campus where another curious thing happened.
I was coming home from work on a Sunday, and had just rounded the corner of the building where I was living, when I heard a big “splat!” It sounded like a bag of wet concrete slapping the ground from a great height. I rushed back around the corner where I saw a black object flailing wildly. It was disturbing. I didn’t know what it was so I went closer and saw that it was a young black cat, less than a year old. Obviously it had fallen from an open window high up. It was in the throes of a tremendous spasm that lasted several minutes. It broke my heart. A young woman happened along just after me.
“Do something!” she pleaded.
But there was nothing I could do.
If I’d had the heart I might have found some way to put the cat out of its misery. I suspected it was quite busted up inside. Finally, it stopped spasming and just lay there, breathing heavily, rapidly. The young woman implored me to call a veterinarian, so I agreed to go inside and call a cab and try to find a veterinarian.
Inside my apartment I scanned the yellow pages trying to find a veterinarian open on a Sunday. It took me forever to find one. I called a cab and went back outside. The girl and the cat had disappeared. I didn’t really blame the girl; despite trying to hurry, I had taken a long time. The cab came; I gave him five bucks and sent him away. But I wanted to find out what happened to the girl and the cat, so I went back upstairs and made a sign asking her to call me.
When I went to paste the sign to the front door of the building, I noticed another sign from the same young woman asking the owner of the black cat to call her. I took down the number and called her. I apologized for having taken so long. She said that it was all right. The cat had died shortly after I left. She thanked me for trying.
All right, I admit it. I’m a bit superstitious. I wondered what it meant, a black cat falling from out of the sky practically right in front of me and dying. That and the death rune some months earlier. I related everything to France at this point.
To spell it out, shortly after arriving in France, I began to feel very much like I was starting life over again there. I had gotten rid of many of my possessions before leaving. I had reduced my belongings to the essential me. I drew the death rune. I witnessed the death of a black cat. I went to France where I was unable to speak. I knew no one. I was like a newborn child. I stayed at the “re-birth” hotel. As the year progressed, I gradually grew up again. I learned to speak again.
I know this all sounds foolish. But it was always at the back of my mind during my time in France.
Anyway, I moved to the Hotel de la Renaissance, going from a one star hotel to a two star hotel. Returning to the Hotel Vendome to get my bags, I felt guilty when I told the swarthy manager that I would be leaving, it being already late in the day, but he didn’t seem to care.
At the Renaissance I asked the woman at the desk if she spoke English. She said, rather apologetically, that she did not. No matter: I had studied how to ask for one room with a shower. Quite self-consciously, I trotted out the French: “Une chambre avec une douche, s’il vous plait.”
No problem. Soon I found myself on the top floor of the Hotel de la Renaissance with a view of Cours Sextius. The room was small but pleasant. It had a charming ceiling, with timber laid in like you might expect to find in a log cabin. It had normal pillows and normal washroom facilities, with one exception: there were no curtains on the shower, which again was one of those hand held jobbies.
I couldn’t believe the lack of shower curtains. Was this normal? The entire room might end up soaked. The following morning I used the shower anyway, taking as much care as I could not to wet the room.
It got wet anyway.