Tag: France

Seven Months in Provence: Part Nine (or Joe’s Brush with the Law)

Hôtel de Police – Aix en Provence, France

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 Nine:

Going to skip ahead a bit here and recount one of my more interesting days in France. It was around Christmas time, between Christmas Day and New Years. But a bit of background first.

The room we lived in was on the top floor of a small apartment complex with four floors. It was a long complex, with about three separate sections. You couldn’t get from one section to the next without going outside.

The people living in the unit beneath ours — an old man and a woman and their son — were completely intolerant of noise. The old man and woman were already so old that the word old could also be applied to their son. Their old age didn’t seem to have affected their hearing. In fact their ability to hear seemed to have only improved with age.

So it was that whenever a few of us and our friends gathered in the evening in our apartment we could count on the eventual tap on the floor (their ceiling) and a subsequent phone call. At first I never answered the phone, because these people spoke no English, and in the beginning I spoke no French.

I remember the first time Mark and I had some friends up and the doorbell rang. It was the son, who looked a bit like a Ferengi from Star Trek: The Next Generation in that he had the largest ears of any man I have ever seen. I only ever saw him once or twice, but I still have a strong mental impression of those ears.

I answered the door and the guy started in on me in French. It was pretty obvious that he was going on about the noise. My friends, some of whom spoke French well enough to understand a bit of what the guy was saying, helped me out with the translation. The fellow was a little upset but not too bad this time round. I kept saying, “D’accord, d’accord,” because “okay” was about the only thing I knew how to say in French at that point, and I thought it might help soothe him. My friends laughed over this for months to come, me trying to calm this guy down with my heavily North American accented “d’accord.”

We never really did make a lot of noise. It was rarely more than a group of people speaking, and sometimes when there was no noise at all these people would still complain. One time they rang up to complain when my flatmate Matthew dropped his pencil on the floor. Another time they rang up when we were all playing Axis & Allies (a military boardgame) in Marcus’ room. That time I answered the phone because my French was coming along and it was good practice. I was happy because I got the gist of what the guy was saying. I promised that we would be quieter. We thought that they were crazy but still strove to be respectful. In fact, the problem may have had more to do with the nature of the floor than them. Perhaps we were fortunate not to have had anybody above us.

That’s one piece of background to my interesting day. Here’s the next:

During the year I was fortunate enough to make several French friends. One of these, Francois Esnault, a researcher in the France Department of Forestry, made arrangements to meet me at a cafe called Le Festival, the usual meeting place for all of us. We were to meet at 1:00pm on this particular Friday. Francois was going to drive me to Nantes the following Monday to celebrate New Year’s Eve with other French friends.

I’ve already mentioned in these notes the problem I had with my clock radio (see Part Eight). It ran off time, but I knew how to compensate for it, and in any case I had my watch as a backup. So on this Friday morning, according to my clock radio, I woke up around ten. Because I had stayed up late the night before, and wanted to sleep in, I reset the clock radio using my watch.

I finally got up around 11:30, according to the clock radio, and got ready to go out. I felt quite rested. As I got ready to leave, Marcus told me that we had received a letter from the police saying that we had to go see them that afternoon at five. It had to do with our neighbours complaining about the noise we allegedly made. I found this quite disturbing. I thought it sounded pretty serious, having to go see the police. Apart from sorting out my Carte de Sejour I had never had to see the police before in my entire life, and now here I had to do it in a foreign country! Would they throw us out of the country? That sounded a bit extreme, but I was worried about it.

I was also worried because Marcus planned to move out. He informed me that he wasn’t going to go to the police because it didn’t concern him anymore. Mark was in London for Christmas, so he couldn’t go, and Matthew was nowhere to be seen. It looked like I would have to go to the police on my own, and my French — three months in — was still pretty limited.

With these thoughts on my mind, I left to meet Francois. The day had a strange feel to it. The light outside the apartment complex was weird; off, somehow. Halfway down the hill on my way into the city I met Matthew coming back to the apartment. He asked me if I knew about the letter from the police. I said yes, and he said that he would go with me. The appointment was for four o’clock. I was relieved that he would be there, as his French was pretty good.

He asked me when I planned to be back at the apartment. I told him that I was aiming for three.

He said, how do you expect to do that?

I said, what do you mean?

He said, it’s after three now.

I looked at my watch. It said a quarter to one. The damn thing had stopped. And I had used it to reset the alarm on my clock radio. I cursed and told Matthew that I had been supposed to meet Francois at one. He had a good laugh. I went back up the hill with him, wondering how I would explain this to Francois, and if he would believe my reasons. I felt quite badly about missing my rendezvous with Francois, as he was a really nice guy and I pictured him wasting his lunch hour waiting for me at Le Festival. Also, I knew that it would be difficult for me to explain the situation in my limited French.

Making it all worse was the fact that Francois was to drive me to Nantes the following Monday, a twelve hour drive. I hoped that he would forgive me. If not, it would be an uncomfortable ride, if he still agreed to take me at all.

Later, Matthew and I went to look for the police station, which wasn’t too far away. We discussed how we would defend ourselves. We agreed that Matthew would do most of the talking. We found the police station easily enough and were ushered in by a burly, serious looking officer. It was a small detachment, and it looked like pretty much his show. He asked us to explain our side of the situation. Matthew went on at some length about how crazy these people were, describing the pencil incident and so forth. Afterward the officer said something to the effect of, okay, try to be quiet guys, and don’t get these people too pissed off. Then he asked us how we liked France. We said it was just great. He smiled a big, broad smile and wished us a bon sejour (a good stay). Then an older fellow came into the station, and the officer looked at him with a serious expression and greeted him with a nod and a “jeune homme.” He looked at us and winked, and Matthew and I laughed, myself because I was relieved and also because I had understood the officer’s little joke. I was always quite pleased when I understood any joke in French, even a tiny one like that, because it didn’t happen often.

I phoned Francois that night from a payphone outside the apartment (we couldn’t make calls out from our phone in the apartment, we could only receive calls). I had looked up the words I would need in the dictionary beforehand, such as the word for watch: “montre”. Francois accepted my apology gracefully, and said that, yes, he had waited a bit but that it had been no big deal. I was frustrated that I couldn’t explain in English, sure that I would have come off more sincere.

But Francois still drove me to Nantes, and the drive was lots of fun, and I got a letter from the man three years later when I was back in Canada (“le temps passe vite,” he wrote) so I guess he never held it against me.

And with that we come to the end of the notes I originally made about my time in Aix-en-Provence in 1993/94. I do have some letters I plan to transcribe and a few other interesting memories (well, to me at least) so maybe I’ll get around to posting a few more stories someday. We’ll see.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

Seven Months in Provence: Part Eight

Atelier Cezanne — although right next door to where I lived in Aix, on rue Cezanne, I never did get around to visiting it

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 Eight:

I woke up to the sound of my clock radio. Some classical music station. This was the same clock radio I’d received as a Christmas gift when I was twelve years old. Up until that time, and probably for some time afterward, I considered this the best gift I’d ever received. It was electronic and had cool red digits to tell the time. It had neat buttons that performed various functions. I dreamed of finding an extra button on it one day, perhaps under a secret panel, a button that would perform some extraordinary function, like enable me to fly or travel in time or something.

So over the years I’d brought this clock with me wherever I lived. I bought a special adapter so I could use it in France. Once in France I was pleased to see that the adapter worked perfectly. Although it did seem to get rather hot.

I discovered something unfortunate about the clock radio, though, after one night’s use. Although I had made sure that it was set accurately the night before, when I awoke after eight hours the time on the clock radio no longer matched that of my watch. It was about eighty minutes too fast. When I picked up the clock radio and examined it I noticed that there appeared to be something loose inside. It had probably been knocked around during the trip over to France. The darn thing was busted, at least as far as telling time was concerned. The radio still worked all right, though.

I didn’t like the thought of losing this valued personal possession. I was also ticked because I didn’t want to fork out more dough for a new alarm clock.

So I didn’t throw it out. I suspected that the problem lay with the power and/or the adapter. Perhaps some discrepancy with the current threw the timing mechanism out of kilter. The following night I discovered that the clock remained absolutely consistent, running ten minutes too fast for every hour, gaining eighty minutes over eight hours.

Cheap sentimental bastard that I was, I hung on to the clock for the entire year. Every night I reset it to the correct time, figured out how long I planned to sleep, then factored in the ten minute per hour time differential when I set the alarm. This foolish system only ever let me down once. I kept it up until the day I left Aix. And then I left my valued clock radio in my room in Aix because it was too much to carry home with me.

I’ve missed it ever since.

Anyway, I got up early to pack my bags on my last morning in the Hotel de la Rennaissance. I showered in the “douche” (the one without the shower curtains) and got water all the hell over everywhere. I hailed a cab on rue Gaston de Saporta which carried me to my new home on rue Cezanne. I got there around eight-thirty. I hadn’t been given keys yet. I knocked but no one answered. I had thought that I was supposed to arrive around this time to get the keys and sort out whatever remained to be sorted out, but when no one answered I began to think I was mistaken. There was no sign of Mark.

This had been the last night the Richauds planned to stay in what was to become my room. This place was their summer home, which they rented to students during the winter. They returned during winter months to their true home in the much disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine (which borders Germany, but is in the hands of the French these days; ownership of Alsace-Lorraine goes back and forth depending on the outcome of the latest European war).

The two Americans already occupied their rooms, I knew. I didn’t want to wake anyone if they weren’t already up, so I just sat there, in the stairwell on the landing, and dug out my Robert Jordan book and read for a while.

After about twenty minutes the door opened and Monsieur Richaud popped his head out. He was surprised to see me just sitting there. He muttered something utterly incomprehensible, though I do believe I caught the words “foolish boy” in there somewhere. I was slightly offended. I did not consider myself a boy at the age of twenty-eight. I wasn’t particularly inclined to dispute the adjective “foolish,” though.

Monsieur Richaud led me inside the apartment. Madame Richaud appeared. Between the two of them they managed to produce some comprehensible English. They provided a key and told me a little about the Americans students staying there. Apparently the Americans’ French was already pretty good and they made it a practice to speak French all the time in the apartment. I liked this notion but found it intimidating, as at this point I hardly knew any French. I knew also that the Americans would likely be disappointed with me and Mark, considering our almost non-existent levels of French. Obviously, speaking French with us would be useless for at least the first three months of our stay.

One of the Americans, Matthew, was home. The other American, Marcus, had stayed out the night before. The Richauds introduced me to Matt, a young guy of about twenty-one, who looked as American as all get out, to me at least. Dressed in casual, hip clothes, Matt was cocky and confident and said things like, “Hey dude,” a lot. Did I mention he was from California?

Matt breezed around the apartment like a young cat. He fried eggs in the tiny kitchen. He may not have been the entire cat: the Richaud’s behaved like he was the cat’s meow. I thought, yikes. I’m living with Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But I came to really like Matt. Turned out you could count on him in a pinch.

I wondered what Marcus would be like. The Richaud’s told me he was twenty-six and studious. This seemed at odds with him having stayed out all night. I liked the thought of meeting somebody closer to my own age, though.

Checking out my room I saw that the bed had no pillow. I brought this up to Monsieur Richaud who seemed disgruntled that I expected him to provide a pillow. He trekked down to the storage room, though, and retrieved a sickly, white affair with yellow stains that wasn’t going anywhere near my head! I thanked Monsieur Richaud just the same and he seemed pleased to have resolved the matter.

The Richauds didn’t provide any blankets, either, apart from one threadbare sheet. Even though it was still fairly warm in Aix during the day, it cooled off at night. So, with no blankets to speak of, that night I froze off my Canadian arse.

Mark eventually showed up. We each unpacked and settled in. I decided that I liked my room, even though it was small. I didn’t have any food, so Mark invited me to hang out with him once again, and off we went to find Mark’s former hotel roommate’s new place.

Where I met several people I would wind up spending a lot of time with.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

Seven Months in Provence: Part Seven

Mont Sainte Victoire, the view from my apartment in Aix-en-Provence (well, from Mark’s room, at least)

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 Seven:

My room in the hotel had a phone on the wall.

That evening I phoned my girlfriend Lynda back in Canada.

I felt badly because I knew that she would be wondering why I hadn’t called her yet. She would think that it was because I couldn’t be bothered. Of course, this was not the case. I picked up the phone and got the front desk. Front desk made the whole thing simple, getting the international operator for me. Seconds later I was talking to Lynda. She sounded a bit hurt, wondering why I hadn’t called days earlier. I explained the difficulty figuring out the phones in France and she told me that she understood.

The next day I set out for the Institut d’Etudes Françaises pour Etudiants Etrangers. I knew generally what direction it was in. I had this naive notion that I could find my way anywhere. Such is the case in North America where cities and towns are typically laid out in grids, but this is not necessarily so in other countries. I took streets I had not yet taken, turned onto others when I felt it was time, and somehow miraculously found my way to the school. Later I found out how the city is actually laid out and it’s a wonder I made it there at all.

I found out from the Institute’s office that I could not be issued a student card until I paid my tuition fees. However, I could not do this until my bank draft came through, which I didn’t think would happen until the following week.

Without a student card I wouldn’t be able to use the housing registry. This meant I might have to stay in hotels until I ran out of the money I had on hand. I had a credit card but I hadn’t tried to use it yet and wasn’t sure if it would work for me in France. Also I wondered how would I pay it off in France. So I didn’t want to use it.

But the school did let me write a test to see what level I would study at. Everybody had to write the same test. If you got zero you were put in Niveau I, at the bottom, in class AA. Top students who already spoke French quite fluently were placed in one class all together in Niveau III.

We had one hour to write the test. I went through it and understood very little. I didn’t even understand most of the instructions. I guessed at most of it. Frustrated, I eventually just translated a bunch of words I knew and wrote a note saying I was just doing that to prove that I did know something! Then I handed it in.

They placed me in Niveau I, but four classes from the bottom, in class D. So I wasn’t the worst who wrote the test. And it turned out that this was about the best class I could ever have been placed in, based on the quality of the other students. It was just a great collection of people, many of whom became good friends.

I made an appointment to see the housing registrar even though I knew that she probably wouldn’t see me without a student card. Someone had told me that the housing registrar could be rather difficult. The appointment was for the next day around ten. I arrived a few minutes early. I needn’t have worried about being late.

When you walked through the school’s arch, took the left up the stairs to the second level, you arrived at a common area around which were spread hallways, offices, and rooms. In this common area sat a curious woman behind a long desk. You had to deal with her before you dealt with anyone else. Somewhere in her fifties, I would guess, she always dressed like she was a lot skinnier and younger than she actually was. She spoke French fluently but with a broad accent. At first I assumed she was French and just happened to speak English well. Later I found out that she was actually British but had lived in France for a quarter century. As the year progressed I eventually was able to tell for myself that her accent was too broad to be truly French.

When I arrived for my appointment I immediately informed her of my presence. She brusquely told me to take a seat and wait. I noticed that a lot of other students were already sitting around waiting. I told her the time of my appointment, thinking that perhaps it meant something. She told me rather harshly that she didn’t give a hoot about that and would I just sit down. I decided that she was a bit of a dragon lady. Subsequent encounters proved me correct, though eventually I discovered that dragon ladies can be people too.

So I sat and waited. Forty-five minutes later I was still waiting when a young man with long black hair approached me. “You speak English,” he said, in a British accent.

I agreed that I did.

He introduced himself as Mark, from England. He was looking for a place to stay as well. It turned out that his appointment was right before mine. He finally got to go in to see the registrar. When he came out he told me that she had told him of a place where two rooms were available. He asked me if I would like to come along. The registrar popped her head out and said that this wouldn’t bother her any if I did. I immediately agreed, knowing that she probably wouldn’t have spoken to me anyway without my student card. Lucky.

Mark was twenty-one and had just finished university in Wales. His father, the CEO of an extermination company, had allowed his older brother to flake out for a year in Spain after university, so Mark insisted that he be allowed to do the same in France before having to find a job. I’m not sure Mark learned much French in Aix, but I do believe he had a good time. Mark turned out to be a good guy and a lot of fun.

The apartment was a twenty minute walk north out of town, up a huge hill. Mark, a smoker, huffed and puffed his way up. He commented a couple of times that he couldn’t believe the hill, which was quite steep in places. You would be hard pressed to bike up it, but at one point it affords a great view of the city.

A man of about sixty, Monsieur Richaud, stood by the road waiting for us. The addresses could be hard to figure out so this was a good thing. He greeted us and took us through the parking lot to the condominium. There were four bedrooms with a central kitchen. Two students were already living there, Americans. At least two of the bedrooms were actually converted living rooms. Madame and Monsieur Richaud were staying in one of the rooms not yet rented out. They barely spoke English. He was French and she was German. As neither Mark nor I spoke either French or German we had to make do with the Richaud’s English.

The apartment was clean and tidy. We snapped it up right away. I was quite relieved to have one major worry resolved. The Richauds wanted money right away, so Mark and I went downtown where I discovered that my credit card worked after all. Mark had already borrowed something like four thousand francs from another student he had just met who later became a good friend of mine, a Scottish girl named Tracey Coleman. We went back and signed the lease, and moved in the next day.

One of the available rooms, the smallest, had a shower. The monthly rent was the least for this room, 1850 francs. (The other rooms all cost more.) The other available room was slightly bigger, faced east, and had a fantastic view of Mount Sainte-Victoire, made famous in a painting by Paul Cézanne, whose workshop turned out to be right next door (I always intended to visit the workshop but never actually got around to it).

I took the smaller room with the shower, a decision I never regretted. The communal shower sucked. Apparently you had to crouch to use it, although I never tried it. Mark was happy with his room because it was bigger and had a little balcony. And there were lots of pieces of furniture upon which he could place his empty beer and wine bottles.

My worries seemed to be dissolving, one by one. I knew my credit card worked, so I had cash for the forseeable future. I now had a roof over my head, or at least I would the next day, after I moved in.

I was starting to feel good.

That night I had supper with Mark, a young Swedish girl still in her teens whose name I don’t recall, and an American girl named Kristin, around twenty, who also became a friend of mine. We were all attending the Institute. We sat at outside at a table on the Cours Mirabeau. I was relaxed, extraordinarily happy to be in Aix rather than working back in Canada. Although early October, it was still quite warm in Aix. We talked about who we were and what we were doing there. It was such a great atmosphere. At twenty-eight I was by far the oldest at the table, but I didn’t feel old. Or rather, I didn’t feel bad being old. I felt more experienced than the others, is all.

Although in truth I was probably the least experienced of the bunch, at least when it came to travelling.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

Le Cours Mirabeau: Seven Months in Provence — Part Four

Les Deux Garcons, along le Cours Mirabeau, the main drag of Aix-en-Provence

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 Four:

Cabs pulled up outside the Aix-en-Provence train station about once every ten minutes. I nobly let an older lady grab one before me while I checked out my Berlitz book of French phrases. It had been a gift from a friend at the CBC, Claire de Visme, who hailed from Lyons. She knew what it was like to be suddenly immersed in a foreign culture where you aren’t comfortable with the language. Although it’s my understanding that her English had been much better when she first arrived in Canada than my French was now.

I located and memorized the words, “Un hotel, bon marche!”

And that’s what I said to the cabby who picked me up. He didn’t have a problem with this, and before I knew it we were whipping through a crowded, festive looking Aix. He drove me through what I later learned was the Rotunde, around la Grande Fontaine, and down a wide, busy street to my cheap hotel. Hordes of people clogged the streets, strolling, relaxing in sidewalk cafes, everyone in shades and shorts.

I wondered briefly (as I always do in a cab in a strange place) whether the driver was taking me for a ride. Obviously, I was a foreigner. But because I’m generally an optimist and believe that most people are good, I decided that, nah, he was probably honest. I still winced at the end of the ride when it came to about forty francs. I was watching every franc I had until my bank draft came through.

We pulled up beside a one star hotel. “C’est bon marche,” the driver told me.

It was a dubious looking affair called Hotel Vendome, located above a pharmacy. You had to pass through a decorative arch and climb a set of stairs on the outside of the building to reach the hotel door. I paid the driver and thanked him, then wrestled my luggage through the arch to the stairs. I got my stuff up in two trips, pausing briefly in between to pat the head of a black cat that was resting on the landing. Afterward I tried the hotel door. It was locked. There was a note affixed to the door in French. I took a moment to decipher it.

It said “ouvert a 1600.” My French was pretty poor at this point but this was fairly obvious. It was currently three thirty, so I sat on the steps to wait until someone showed up. The cat did its best to make me feel welcome.

A heavyset man about forty years old showed up right on time at four. His looks, I would learn later, were typically Provencal—dark and swarthy. He nodded at me and I at him. He parlayed anglais assez bien. My fears around finding accommodation in Aix proved groundless (for me, at least). He had plenty of rooms free. He led me inside and around a corner. My room turned out to be quite spacious with a large bed and a huge window. It also included a shower, a bidet, and a sink and mirror. It had everything, was reasonably clean, but somehow still felt rather seedy.

I may have decided that because it was a one star hotel it had to be seedy. Or maybe it was the threadbare sheets and the dark and dusty hallways. If I’d had my druthers I’d have preferred to stay someplace else. But just then I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend the night outside on the street. Not only that but I’d managed to find the place quite effortlessly.

Here’s the embarrassing part. Checking out the room, I must confess that I was confused by the bidet. I realize that this is the classic (unsophisticated) North American’s mistake. Also I have no excuse having seen Crocodile Dundee 2 in which the eponymous Australian confronts a bidet, so I should bloody well have known what the thing was for. Just the same I didn’t recognize it. I just saw what I thought was a vaguely urinal shaped porcelain object resting on the ground beside the sink.

It gets worse.

As there were no other objects in the room resembling a toilet, I naturally concluded that this object must serve some purpose related to that. So, feeling the need, I took a whiz in it and the process seemed to go quite well. However, I couldn’t imagine number two going quite so smoothly. The hole seemed too small. The fact that you couldn’t sit down on the sucker (it was too low to the ground and had no seat) didn’t bother me; I just assumed the French were more than happy to squat (hey, I wasn’t completely ignorant). And how would you flush it? There was a faucet, you could run water through it, yet…

The mystery was solved shortly afterward when I returned to the hall and discovered a door nearly opposite my room. Behind it lay a small chamber wherein lay a comfortable, conventional toilet. Clearly then, my floor model was something else altogether.

I was bemused by the key to my room. It was a skeleton key, such a simple affair that I wondered about the security of my room. It seemed to me that the lock would be easy to pick.

I took a shower, which felt great. I had no shaving cream so I was stuck with about two day’s growth. But I looked fairly respectable with a black blazer I’d brought along, and it was thusly attired that I first ventured out on my own, in Aix.

Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I hadn’t eaten a good meal for a couple of days and figured I’d better eat something to keep my strength up. As I walked, I kept an eye out for someplace where I could get a healthy dinner.

In the cab on the way to the hotel we had passed what looked like the main street of Aix, featuring a prominent fountain, which I recognized from reading about Aix before leaving Canada. I later learned that this street was the Cours Mirabeau. I judged it to be within walking distance, so I set out to find it.

It was late afternoon but still quite warm. It felt good to be walking somewhere while not lugging more baggage than I could carry. In fact I felt pretty good period at this point despite the thousand concerns still on my mind.

I noted that there was a large supermarket near my hotel. Walking up my street to what I hoped was the centre of town I observed bars, travel agencies, other hotels, shops with signs such as “Boulangerie” and “Patisserie” (bakery and pastry shops respectively).

It turned out I was seven or eight minutes from the Fountain. Hanging a left from the fountain put me on the main street, the Cours Mirabeau, which is famous as one of the most beautiful, breathtaking main streets anywhere in the world. Don’t feel bad; I hadn’t heard of it either. But it is quite something. Bordered on either side by stately plane trees (I didn’t know what they were either—apparently before they were planted along the Cours Mirabeau it was all elm trees, but they died, so the city fathers replaced them with plane trees). Plane trees look similar to Maple trees when they have leaves, but look gnarled and strange when they don’t have leaves, in the winter. The Cours Mirabeau itself is a street bordered on one side by cafes, restaurants, a fast food restaurant called Quik, a record shop, more cafes, a department store called Monoprix, a bank or two, and more restaurants and cafes. On the other side is mostly large, stately bank buildings. At one time many of these buildings had been the homes of the French elite.

I walked up and down the length of the Cours Mirabeau three or four times, thrilled to be there. The street was packed with people. Everyone seemed carefree and happy.

Menus for the restaurants were placed outside on the sidewalk so you could peruse them before going in. Very few people sat inside the restaurants—almost all of the patrons sat around tables arranged outside, crowded together so that you could barely move amongst them. I examined each menu as I strolled past the restaurants, trying to glean from what might as well have been hieroglyphics to me what exactly was being offered and for how much. Each menu offered a plat du jour (I understood that much). But when I finally settled on one for 55 francs at Les Deux Garcons I had no idea what I was going to get.

All the tables outside were full so I went inside where there was plenty of room. A black and white uniformed man with a thick black moustache served me with what I thought was an air of slight disdain.

“Le Plat du Jour, s’il vous plait,” I ordered, with what had to be among the worst accents he had ever heard.

But he understood me and soon I was eating a dish of lamb, served with a thick, sweet sauce. Although it was delicious, I had absolutely no appetite and had difficulty finishing it. I forced myself to finish it anyway. I drank water with it because I didn’t want to spend too much. I just ordered the water in English because I didn’t know how to in French. The waiter had no trouble understanding me.

On my way back to the hotel I checked out a phone booth because I’d been meaning to call my parents and my girlfriend to let them know that I was okay. From outside, the phone booth looked fairly North American. Inside, the phone itself was slightly different. The main difference lay in the fact that it did not take money. I was surprised and dismayed to see this. There was a slot that accommodated a card of some kind. I thought, okay, it takes credit cards, maybe. But I didn’t try it at the time. I was eager to get back to my room to see whether anyone had broken into my room and stolen my stuff. A little paranoid, maybe, but I figured that with the way the locks were it would be easy enough to do. I wasn’t really worried but the possibility crossed my mind, and I was in a bit of a “worst possible case scenario” frame of mind during those first few days.

But when I got back everything was cool. All my stuff was untouched. I reclined on the bed and read a book I had brought along: a fantasy, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan. It was the fourth in the series, so I was familiar with the characters and the general storyline, and I liked it well enough. It helped me get my mind off my fears, so I was glad I had it.

After a while I got up to find a convenience store or somewhere to buy shaving cream to get myself cleaned up. I found a gas station down the street with a little store where I bought some. I shaved back at the hotel, then went out again to try the payphone.

I still couldn’t believe it didn’t take change. I just wanted to get a hold of an operator to call my folks and my girlfriend using their calling card numbers, or failing that, collect. But it needed some kind of card. There was a grey display panel on the phone that produced words in black letters when you took the phone off the hook. I didn’t understand any of the words. There were operating instructions on a sign in the booth, again all in French, which I didn’t understand.

I tried my credit card. The panel told me to “decrochez.” I took the phone off the hook and the panel told me to “raccrocher.” I dialed numbers but got nowhere. In the end it was all a bust. I thought, I’m stuck in the south of France, I don’t know a bloody soul, my money will run out, I won’t be able to get any more money, somebody will steal all my stuff, and I can’t even figure out how to use their damn telephones to call home and say “help!”

I went back to my hotel room and read some more Robert Jordan. When I tried to go to sleep, I lay awake some time wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been the night before in Paris—I wasn’t feeling physically ill anymore—but I was still kind of panicky. Whenever I thought what’s the worst case scenario here, it kept coming up DEATH. I’ll have no money, I’ll have to sleep on the street, I’ll have no food, I’ll simultaneously freeze and starve to death. To make matters worse, the pillow on my bed was strange and uncomfortable. It was hard and round, about half a foot around, and ran the width of the bed. It was not an acceptable pillow.

I managed to get to sleep anyway.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

French Radio: CJBC

One of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

I spent four and a half years working for the French at CBC Radio.

Here’s an incredibly long-winded explanation why:

I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, amongst French Acadians. Acadians are French who originally settled the Maritimes hundreds of years ago. Back in those days, Prince Edward Island was known as Isle Saint-Jean (before that, it was called Abegweit, by the Mi’kmaq Indians).

Between 1755 and 1763, the British forcibly removed most Acadians from the Maritimes, confiscating all their wealth, possessions, and land. Fifty-three percent of the French Acadian population died, many by disease, others by drowning when three of the ships transporting them sank. (Sadly, the world doesn’t appear to have changed much since those tragic days, as recent headlines attest.) Although the British did not transport Acadians directly to Louisiana, many wound up there, attracted by the language, where they settled and developed the culture known today as Cajun.

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

Ships Take Acadians Into Exile (Claude Picard)

The expulsion is a Big Deal in the Maritimes. I studied the events in high school, and in Grade Ten I played the man chiefly responsible for the expulsion, Governor Charles Lawrence, in a High School play called Evangeline, which was written and scored by a local High School teacher. I remember being roundly booed during the curtain call for the dress rehearsal. I believe the booing was because the character I was playing was evil, though I can’t be entirely certain that it wasn’t a comment on my performance: my English teacher had coached me on how to play the part, and after one of the shows I asked him what he’d thought:

“I thought your character would be much fatter,” he told me.

He declined to elaborate.

The expulsion was well known elsewhere, too. In 1847, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called Evangeline: a Tale of Acadie. The poem was about a bride-to-be wandering for years trying to find her fiancé after the expulsion forced their separation on their wedding day. Longfellow based the poem on a story he’d heard; some believe that the couples’ forced separation on the day of their wedding may actually have happened.

Some Acadians escaped the expulsion by hiding in the woods. After Quebec was formally ceded to the British in 1763, the British decided that the Acadians no longer posed a threat and allowed them to return to the Maritimes. By the time I was born, there were about five thousand Acadians on Prince Edward Island (there were more elsewhere: about thirty-three thousand in Nova Scotia and a couple of hundred thousand in New Brunswick). Not all of them spoke French anymore, but some did, and the more time I spent with them, the more it bothered me that I only spoke one language.

Thus was born my thirst to learn French (hey, I warned you it would be a long-winded explanation).

In 1993, I asked for a leave of absence from the CBC to study French in France. My boss at the time, Kel Lack, applauded the idea and was only too happy to accommodate me.

Before going to France, I seriously overestimated my proficiency in French. I had, after all, studied French in school until Grade Eleven. I don’t know what the heck I did in all those classes but it sure wasn’t learn French. My first few days in Aix-en-Provence I couldn’t understand anyone. “Qu’est ce que tu cherche (what are you looking for)?” a girl in a store asked me. I couldn’t understand her. I could trot out a few phrases learned from guidebooks, such as: “un hôtel s’il vous plaît. Quelque chose de bon marché (a hotel, please. Some place cheap)” or “une chambre avec une douche (a room with a shower),” but that was about it.

No matter. I set about making up for lost time. I studied hard at school. Although the school was based in Aix-en-Provence, it was a part of l’université d’Aix-Marseille, called Institut d’études françaises pour étudiants étrangers (years later I saw the actor Bradley Cooper conduct an interview in fluent French; turns out he studied at the same school). I made many ridiculous mistakes. I once asked a street vendor for “un chien chaud avec tout le monde (a hot dog with everybody on it).” One day, when a Frenchman asked me how much French I spoke, I attempted to tell him that I knew a few words. “Je connais un petit mot (I know a small word),” I told him. He asked me which small word I knew.

Garden of l'Institut d'Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

Garden of l’Institut d’Etudes Francaises, where I went to school.

By Christmas, though, I was able to carry on rudimentary conversations. I began to insist on speaking only French. There for the same purpose, my closest friends were only too happy to oblige. Unfortunately, everyone else wanted to practise their English on me. I began a battle of wills with the French populace. One banker I did regular business with insisted on speaking to me in English. I refused to cooperate. I spoke French while she spoke English. Few things are more ridiculous than speaking French as a second language to someone speaking English as a second language. The loser was whoever was forced to switch to their native tongue first. I always lost. Until the end of the year, when during our final encounter she ran head-long into a word she didn’t know and was forced to switch back to French first. La victoire était douce (victory was sweet).

I resorted to tricks to prevent people from speaking English to me. If I spoke French and they responded in English, I would say “Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas l’anglais,” (I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English).

Mais vous êtes américain, vous n’êtes pas (but you’re American, aren’t you)?” (They always thought Canadians were Americans.)

Non, je suis suédois (no, I’m Swedish),” I would tell them, and trot forth a few nonsensical phrases in Swedish to prove it: “Kan jag prata med Eva tack?,” I would jabber. “En hund. Och en annan hund. Sex sardiner i en sardin tenn. (can I speak to Eva please? A dog. Hey, another dog. Six sardines in a sardine tin.) I had plenty of Swedish friends in France who enjoyed teaching me nonsense.

By the time I returned home, my French had improved dramatically (my Swedish not so much). Ironically, I still couldn’t understand Acadians. Acadian French is not quite the same as what I had learned in France. The accent is markedly different. It’s said that Acadian French resembles the French spoken in France about four hundred years ago, when Acadians first settled PEI. I suspect there’s some truth to this.

When I returned to the CBC in Toronto, my boss Kel Lack had retired and Charlie Cheffins had taken his place. Charlie thought it was brilliant that I’d learned some French. It meant he’d be able to place me in the French department. I agreed, and so began four and a half years of working almost exclusively for CJBC.

You might recall from an earlier post that CJBC is an affiliate of the ici Radio-Canada Premiere network, broadcasting to Franco-Ontarians at AM 860. They are a part of the CBC, and broadcast out of the Broadcast Centre in Toronto, but they report to French Services in Montreal. Or you might have skipped over this admittedly dry bit of exposition in both posts (I don’t blame you).

Everyone I worked with at CJBC was bilingual to one degree or another. My French was still very much a work in progress. I continued to improve, but at a much slower pace. My enthusiasm for speaking French had waned somewhat now that I was living my life in English once again. And I was having a bit of trouble with francophone accents in Canada. Not hearing one or two words in a sentence correctly can be enough to make the meaning of an entire sentence suspect. Making matters worse, almost everyone at CJBC was as bad about speaking French to me as the folks in France had been. Just like my banker frenemy, when I spoke French, they replied in English (there were a couple of exceptions).

Still, with all the French floating around CJBC, I couldn’t help but improve my French just by keeping my ears open. Here are a few of the words and phrases burned into my brain during my time with CJBC:

C’est mon lot (it’s my lot in life).” That was Guy Lalonde, the host of CJBC Express. I can’t remember what he was referring to. What I do remember is asking him to repeat what he’d said so I could add it to my vocabulary. I present it here not because the phrase itself is particularly interesting, but to illustrate one of the best ways to learn French, which is to ask people what the heck they’re saying when you don’t understand them. Otherwise it will be your lot in life to remain unilingual. (I learned a good portion of my French this way.)

Il bâille. Dans ma face! (He yawns. In my face!)” Frank Desoer was host of CJBC Express during my second year with CJBC. (I’ve no idea what happened to Guy Lalonde. CJBC Express went through hosts the way the French go through cheese.) Frank was just pretending to be angry, but his words lodged themselves into my brain, and I enjoy trotting them out whenever somebody yawns in my face.

Esther Ste-Croix was the producer of a show called De A a X (from A to X). Esther was a lovely woman, and you’ll have to take my word for it that I didn’t usually tease her, but I must have one day, for she replied, “Tu te moque de moi (you’re making fun of me).” Naturally I asked her to repeat herself, which she kindly did, allowing me to add that expression to my repertoire.

Other staff were fond of exclaiming, “Ben voyons donc!” to express frustration or incredulity. Taken literally it doesn’t make much sense—it seems to me that it would translate as, “well, let’s see therefore!” but francophones use it like anglophones use, “oh, come on!”, which doesn’t really make any sense either. Come where, exactly?

One particularly memorable day I ran into someone from CJBC whose name I must withhold to spare them undue embarrassment. We were on the second floor—not his natural habitat, and he was a little lost. He was also looking a little green around the gills.

“Where are the washrooms on this floor?” he asked me in English.

It was easier to show him, so I led him around a corner. A few steps down the hallway he placed a hand to his mouth and exclaimed, “Ca s’en vient! (it’s coming!)”

A half-second later he projectile-vomited his lunch the entire length of the corridor, a magnificent feat the likes of which I’ve yet to see equaled—and that I think of whenever I hear the words ca s’en vient. (You never know just what might be coming.)

Sometimes I would discern a jumble of words in the middle of an anecdote that I couldn’t quite make out. One day I got frustrated enough to ask someone what exactly they were saying. It took a minute to figure out which words I was talking about, but we finally narrowed it down to “a un moment donné.”

Literally translated, it means “at a given time.” People were using it to mean “at one point.” (It’s at this point that I must advise you to take any translations I provide with a grain of salt. Le français est pas ma langue maternelle—French is not my mother tongue). A un moment donné is (I believe) a rather common phrase, and I mention it here because it’s a terrific example of how understanding a single phrase can, in one fell swoop, render a foreign language infinitely more intelligible. And let’s take a moment here to pause and reflect on what a nifty expression “one fell swoop” is, and how cryptic it must sound to those speaking English as a second language.

More about CJBC in my next post…

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