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Tag: Aix-en-Provence (Page 2 of 2)

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

Aix-en-Provence — Seven Months in Provence (Part Three)


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 Three:

(Part One is here)

I finally got up, utterly unable to sleep. I knew I had to eat something. Unfortunately all I really felt like doing was vomiting. Nervousness and lugging too much baggage all over God’s Green Earth had left me weak and nauseous. I got dressed and visited a nearby convenience store. It was now evening and I was wearing my glasses, which I wasn’t accustomed to. That and the dark in a strange locale contributed to my feeling of dislocation. I picked up some fruit juice and an apple. The cashier, a young man, saw that I spoke English and asked me if I was an American. I said no, Canadian, and he perked right up and told about his brother who lived in Canada. He was quite friendly and again I thought how different people seemed to be here than I was led to expect.

Back in my room I got the juice and the apple down and tried to sleep again. I gave up and tried to watch some TV. It was all French, of course. There was a movie that looked interesting, a war film, but I couldn’t get into it understanding nothing of the dialogue.

I worried about making it to the train station on time in the morning. I worried about catching the right train. I worried about money again. I worried about catching the right train again. I worried about accommodation in Aix. I thought what if this just doesn’t work out at all? What if I have to go back home with my tail between my legs? What would my friends, family and colleagues think? What if I’m robbed? What if the school in Aix doesn’t let me in for some reason? What if I feel this nauseous for the rest of my life? It was the most nervous I’d ever felt in my entire life. One of the most anxious nights I’ve ever passed. Most of my fears proved to be ridiculous but boy they can be hard to control when they’re upon you.

I felt marginally better in the morning. I had gotten up quite early to make sure I didn’t miss the train. The front desk clerk was quite friendly, calling me a cab and chatting with me. He didn’t alleviate my fears about Aix, though. He told me to watch out for the people down there, that they were different in the south. Not like Canadians, he smiled. He’d been to Canada and found it so different from France. He’d loved it. Couldn’t wait to go back.

Another friendly Parisien. The stories I’d heard must have been about another city named Paris.

The cab took me straight (as near as I could tell) to the Gare de Lyon where I was to catch the TGV, those super-fast French trains. It was still dark and there were few people around. I walked inside, happy that my strength had returned a bit, enough to carry my bags. I wasn’t long finding the trains.

The Gare de Lyon is a huge, cavernous place. The trains rest side by side like giant sleeping snakes. I was there at five in the morning and they were all lined up waiting for me. I had about a two hour wait to figure out which snake was mine and how to get on it. I didn’t know if my ticket was good as is or whether it required stamping or what have you. I camped out by a set of stairs in good view of the arrivals-departures sign and nervously kept an eye on some rough looking types hanging out not far away.

Soon the place began to fill up with folks like me and I began to feel more secure in like company. I saw people stamping tickets in orange posts scattered about, found someone who spoke English and got the scoop on that. Yes, I was supposed to stamp the thing. I did so, glad I’d settled that. Later someone asked me the same thing, a fellow from India, and I felt happy to be able to instruct him.

The trains were quite long and I didn’t relish the thought of lugging my bags around trying to find out where I was supposed to be. I still wasn’t feeling all that well. There were carts around similar to the ones they’d had in the airport so I decided to grab one. I didn’t know how much they cost as they weren’t free like at the airport. I saw a woman about to return one so I thought perhaps she wouldn’t mind if I just grabbed hers. I did the “vous parlez anglais?” thing and lo and behold she didn’t. But she understood that I wanted her cart. I asked her how much and she waved a ten franc piece in my face. I dug out a ten franc piece and tried to give it to her but she wouldn’t take it. Instead she insisted on locking the cart back up with the others. We had a little bit of a tug of war, as I hadn’t completely understood how the system operated and feared that if she locked the thing up I’d never get it back again. But my manners soon got the better of me and I let her do it. Then, just as I was thinking, oh darn, there goes that thing, she grabbed the ten franc piece from my hand, inserted it into a little slot on the cart, and unlocked the contraption again. I was mystified why she hadn’t just taken my ten franc piece and let me have the cart to begin with, but I was grateful just the same. I suppose she just thought she’d teach me how the thing worked. (Such carts became common after I returned to Toronto, but this was the first time I’d run across them). Anyway, it was great not to have to lug my luggage around anymore.

I found my place on the TGV (which stands for train de grande vitesse, or Train of Great Speed). I was the first one on my car. By the time we left, though, the coach was packed. This bothered me as I had a window seat and I was still feeling nauseous. I could visualize some ugly things happening, worst case scenario speaking. I popped one of the gravol Ron had insisted I buy, kept an eye out for an ever-elusive Eiffel tower, and an hour into the trip managed to get to sleep.

I awoke a couple of hours later feeling much better.

We were about an hour outside Marseille. I’d probably slept about two hours and the difference in how I felt was incredible. I was able to sit back and enjoy the sights.

It was quite picturesque in this area. The landscape was quite rugged, lot of rocks and hills. The forestation was sparse and shrubby. I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean. I don’t remember being struck by the colour of it at this time, but I saw it again on a trip to Nice and marvelled at its truly remarkable shade of blue.

The architecture of the houses was quite a bit different from what I was used to. They used uniquely shaped shingles made from what looked like baked clay in a variety of colours. I later discovered that this rounded type of shingle is unique to Provence.

We made it into Marseille around noon. The day reflected my improved mood. It was hot and sunny, just as I had expected the south of France to be (at least, when I wasn’t worrying about being stuck outside all night). I was still nervous, but now my nervousness was focussed: how to catch the train to Aix? It wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped it would be. My ticket had specified a time, but when I scanned all the platforms in the Marseille St. Charles station I could find no corresponding trains. I did find one platform with a train leaving about an hour later than the indicated time.

I found an information booth and asked the young woman there if she parlayed anglais. Brusque and businesslike, she informed me that, “Non,” she did not.

Somehow I conveyed to her what I wanted to know and together we determined what platform my train was supposed to be on. I carted by bags to the platform (on another one of those great carts) and began waiting. I kept a close eye on my bags as I figured I looked like a pretty easy mark.

Half a year later a friend from Calgary told me the story of her arrival at the St. Charles station.

Suzanne was an experienced traveller, having already spent thirteen months seeing the world from the deepest heart of India to Europe and North America. Nevertheless her mental state upon arriving in Marseille was not unlike mine. Flying from North America to Europe pretty much requires being up most of the night, and if you’re travelling again the next day you’re going to be pretty knackered. Suzanne had been smarter than me, having flown to Nice instead of Paris, so she didn’t have as far to go. Just the same she was still pretty tired when she got to Marseille. Like me, she was feeling nervous about what was going to happen in Aix.

As she was waiting for the train, she noticed a seedy looking guy checking her out. She didn’t pay much attention until she went to use the washroom and the guy followed her. He waited just outside and was there when she came out. Scared, she went back inside, waited a bit, and then checked again. He was still there, leering at her. Again Suzanne went back inside the washroom, by this time quite scared and worried.

How to handle this? As she put it, she completely forgot that she was already a battle-hardened world traveller. It had been a year since her world travels so perhaps she was a bit out of practice. Unnerved, she shed a few tears, but finally managed to pull herself together. There was a woman washroom attendant present, so Suzanne confronted her with the problem. Fortunately Suzanne already spoke enough French to make herself understood. The attendant was helpful and fetched a gendarme who told the guy to beat it. He disappeared and Suzanne was able to finish her trip uneventfully.

Another friend, Tove from Denmark, told me that she found the trip to Aix quite unnerving as well. She worried about everything just like Suzanne and me. One of Tove’s main concerns was “wondering if anyone would like me.” This might sound silly but it was true. You do wonder whether you’ll be able to get along with people.

Tove told me that when she got to Aix she went straight to the hotel she’d booked only to find that, just like my hotel in Paris, they were all booked up, despite Tove’s reservation. Frustrated, she insisted that they phone around to find her another place. They did so, but apparently not very willingly. It didn’t do any good. She was informed that every hotel around was booked solid, sorry. Alone, with more bags than she could easily carry (just like me), she became quite concerned about her possible fate. She set out on foot to try to find a place to stay. Luckily, she met some other students outside who offered to help her with her bags. As it turned out the first hotel she tried had plenty of room (suggesting that the previous hotel hadn’t tried very hard). Relieved, Tove stayed there, and the students who had helped her with her bags became her roommates for the first term.

As I stood waiting for the train, I was approached by a tall, athletic, bearded fellow. He had a small backpack and carried another small bag. I thought, boy, that’s the way to travel. He’d have no trouble getting around. I decided that the next time I’d do it that way: nice and light. Anyway, this guy was everything I felt I wasn’t just then:

Joe: Dishevelled, pasty-faced, too much luggage.

Guy: Confident, tanned, fit.

He’d seen my Canadian flag on my backpack and asked me if I spoke English. I said yeah and we talked for a bit. He was going to Aix too. He was from California (I’d never have guessed) and was on a two month trip around Europe by himself, though he was going to meet up with a female friend later.

I told him my plans and he seemed to think it was an interesting idea, studying French in Aix for the year. We talked about travelling around Europe. I asked him if he made reservations in advance at the places he visited. I was still worried about finding a place in Aix and was looking for reassurance. He laughed and said almost never. In all the travelling he’d ever done, he said—and he’d done a lot—he’d only found himself stuck once, in Bangkok. And it hadn’t been that big a deal to spend one night outside.

Eventually a train arrived but it turned out not to be the train to Aix, even though I had been informed that it would be, and the sign at the head of the platform said that it was. This prompted some scrambling around as we hastily tried to discover the correct platform. At the far side of the station we discovered the appropriate platform. I boarded the train as the Californian went off to look for a sandwich somewhere, and I didn’t see him again until Aix.

It was a forty-five minute trip to Aix. It was beautiful, sunny and warm—a good sign, I decided (as an optimist, I managed to consider both rain and sunshine auspicious). We crossed over hills and trestles that allowed me to look down into Aix as we arrived. All the buildings seemed to be white in the suburbs. I wondered what kind of people lived in them. I wondered whether I would fit in.

We arrived at the train station and suddenly there I was, in the place I would spend the next six and one half months of my life. I lugged my bags into the station and ran into the Californian, which wasn’t hard to do as the station wasn’t very large. I was kind of hoping that he’d be looking for a hotel and that I could sort of tag along, making my life easier. I didn’t want to be a leech, though, so I said nothing, except, “So, what are your plans?”

He replied that he didn’t even know if he would stay the night. He was scanning the big overhead schedule for train times back to Marseille in case he didn’t like Aix.

I said, “Oh,” and “Well, I guess I’ll go and find a place to stay.”

He wished me good luck, and I had the distinct impression that he meant it. He looked at me with a sort of pity, as though regarding a particularly scrawny stray dog, wondering if it would still be alive in a day.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

Paris — Seven Months in Provence (Part Two)

Some city in 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 Two:

(Part One is here)

It was still dark when we made the coast of Ireland. The captain had said we might be able to make out some of the Emerald Isle but that wasn’t the case. Too dark and too much cloud cover. We carried on and by the shores of France it had begun to lighten up a tad. But still I couldn’t really see anything for the clouds. It wasn’t until we began our descent that I finally caught a glimpse of France.

When we came out of the clouds I saw that it was going to be a bleak day. Drizzly. I saw French countryside and scattered farmhouses. I felt nothing save a dull curiousity. What was going to happen? This initial look at France told me little; so far it looked pretty much the same as Canada. We touched down and I exchanged goodbyes with my young French friend.

I was kind of curious what would happen with French customs. This was my first flight overseas and I figured there would be a big to-do over passports and what you were bringing into the country and so on. But all that happened was I stood in a line for a while, a young man in a booth cursorily examined each of our passports, stamped it, and we were past customs and free to go. I thought, boy, you must be able to bring anything into this country. I would imagine there were officials on the lookout for suspicious looking characters but maybe not. In any case I had passed muster.

I collected my bags. They had carts sitting around that anyone could use so I grabbed one. I thought it was considerate that you didn’t even have to pay for one. I saw my French seatmate greeting his family. I was pretty sure he saw me, and wondered if he might call me over to greet his family, but of course that was silly. What would he say? Hey folks, I’d like you to meet this guy here that I don’t even really know! But I sat beside him for a little while so I thought maybe you should meet him.

I chuckled and shook my head at myself and left the arrivals area of the Charles de Gaulle airport.

I was nervous about this part of the trip. How to find my way downtown to my hotel. I figured I could take a taxi or an airport limo, but that would cost a fortune. Instead I made my way to an information desk. A friendly looking woman greeted me in French. I asked her if she spoke English and she replied that she did and told me how to get downtown. I thought, well this is good if lots of people speak English (I would change my mind about that later).

A shuttle bus took me from de Gaulle to the RER line, which is something like the Go train in Toronto. From there I could connect with the Paris Metro. I took a few minutes there to collect my thoughts and sort out my baggage. I stared for about ten minutes at various maps until I felt there was a possibility I wouldn’t become irrevocably lost.

Having simply lugged my baggage with me onto the shuttle bus because it hadn’t been far to walk, I realized now that I had better get my big backpack set to wear. I knelt down and examined my friend Ron’s handiwork from before my departure. It was a veritable work of art. There wasn’t a hint of a loose strap anywhere. All loose ends were neatly knotted and tucked away. It took me about fifteen minutes of cussing and perspiration to get the damn thing completely undone.

I bought my ticket for the RER. I said, “One,” holding one finger up. The ticket guy muttered something, I have no idea what, so I just shoved him something like fifty French francs. It sounded like a lot to me and under the pressure of the situation I found myself completely unable to translate French money into Canadian funds to get a frame of reference. I got a ticket and a wad of French francs back so I was happy. I checked my change and it seemed to me the ticket had cost a fair bit. This concerned me a bit because of my financial situation.

I had plenty of money on me, in French francs and traveller’s cheques, or so it seemed to me. Nevertheless I had this gnawing fear that for some reason I would run out and wind up stuck. Never mind that I also had access to a credit card with a two thousand dollar Canadian limit. I thought, sure I have the credit card, but what if it doesn’t work here in France? I had a bank draft from the Royal Bank of Canada for the sum of eight thousand, four hundred and twenty six dollars (or something like that), which I was told I simply had to deposit into a bank somewhere. But what if banks refused to accept it in France? And what if the credit card didn’t work? And I ran out of my supply of French francs and travellers cheques? These were my perhaps silly but nevertheless real fears.

Toronto time it was now about four in the morning, and I hadn’t managed to sleep much on the plane, so I wasn’t at my absolute best.

Casting my nagging concerns aside, I carried on. Despite my fears I was enjoying myself, a bit. A little tense, but pretty sure everything would work out okay.

The train station (or RER) was quite busy. I saw a few others with backpacks and wondered who they were and where they were going. I looked for Canadian flags sewn on the backs of the backpacks, a practice almost universal amongst Canadians, it seems, but I didn’t see any. I hefted my backpack with my Canadian flag onto my back and entered the RER.

I took up a lot of room in the train but no one seemed to mind. I sat in a seat with a map of the route beside me on the wall and soon was satisfied that I was headed in the right direction. A lot of the route on this train was above ground, so I was constantly looking out the window, taking in my first glimpses of Paris. I kept hoping the Eiffel Tower would turn up, but it didn’t.

I managed my connection from the RER to the Metro easily enough. I was lugging a lot of bags but it didn’t seem to be a problem. The weather was still overcast and drizzly but this didn’t bother me. It was warm enough and I actually kind of like rainy days. It dates back to when I was a kid. I liked to read a lot, and while my mother appreciated this, she still liked to see me get outside to play. So often I would be reading, immersed and enjoying myself, when suddenly my well-meaning mother would unceremoniously shove me outside. This never happened on rainy days, so I came to appreciate that sort of weather, and is why I considered it a good sign that my first day in France was rainy.

The helpful travel agency guy in Canada had instructed me to get off at Place d’Italie station in downtown Paris. I had been led to believe that my hotel would be located just around the corner. I had a map on which the travel agency guy had drawn a small circle, suggesting that my hotel would be located somewhere within that circle.

Emerging from the Place d’Italie station, I surveyed the situation. I was in a busy area. Lots of people about, wide streets replete with noisy automobiles, and tons of large stone buildings hulking over all the goings on. Many of these buildings were hotels, but the one I was looking for was not amongst them. They looked pretty pricey. Mine was located along a side street somewhere, no doubt.

I wandered along a bit, enjoying the foreignness of the place. When the drizzle became more of a pelting rain I took shelter under a colourful canopy in front of a small canteen. I stood there a while, keeping dry enough and checking out the people going by. They didn’t look that different from North Americans to me.

When the rain slowed up a bit I set out again. It soon became clear that relying on luck to find my hotel was not the answer. I set down my bags and re-examined my map. This time I did what I should have done before I even left the airport: I looked for the location of the street the hotel was located on, which was rue Barrault. It was silly not to have done this earlier and I really don’t know why I didn’t. I suppose I’d had a lot of things to think about and I had trusted that the travel agency guy had indicated the correct location of the hotel on my map.

rue Barrault in Paris

Naturally I discovered that rue Barrault was in a completely different quadrant. My friendly neighbourhood travel agency guy wasn’t completely off but I would have been better served getting off at a different Metro stop. So, just to make things even stupider, I decided I could walk there just the same, never mind that my luggage was starting to feel awfully heavy, and it was now six in the morning Joe time.

Well, I couldn’t find the damn place. I got to the point where I couldn’t carry all my bags together more than about two hundred feet at a time.

A woman saw me poring over the map and stopped to help me. She gave me directions in pretty good English. I was impressed. I had been led to believe that Parisiens were generally rude, especially to Anglophones.

Somehow I STILL couldn’t find the hotel. Finally I was just so tired that I did what I should just have done right from the beginning. I flagged a cab.

The cab driver said, “But eetz just right over zere, monsieur.”

I said, “I don’t care, just take me there!”

I was pretty happy when I got in the lobby of the place. I was all cheerful to the front desk clerk. I had decided that the best thing to do to ensure that people were friendly to me was to attempt to speak French at first. I had heard that this was appreciated. Then when they heard you abominate their beautiful language, they were more than happy to speak to you in yours.

So I said to the clerk, “Est-ce que vous parlez Anglais?”

It was pretty much all I knew, although I did have a little Berlitz book of commonly used phrases that I could resort to if required. But that one line was all I really needed. Everyone I encountered in Paris spoke English. In fact, as I was to discover later, the trouble with trying to learn French in France is trying to get the French to stop speaking English to you!

Unfortunately the clerk, although she was more than happy to speak English, was less than happy to see me.

“I’m sorry sir, there is a slight problem with your room. We are checking with another hotel to see if perhaps they have a room for you.”

I was slightly aghast, but figured that so long as there was a room somewhere it was all right. When the clerk got off the phone to the other hotel she gave me her best hangdog look and informed me that unfortunately there were no other rooms available at any other hotels either. Obviously she only meant within her chain of hotels, the Timhotel chain, but I didn’t relish the thought of hitting the pavement again to look elsewhere. Also, since I’d had a reservation, the onus seemed to be on the hotel to accommodate me somehow.

Well, it turned out they did have a room available, it was just not the room I had originally reserved. I wanted a big room with a shower. All they had was a tiny closet of a thing with no shower. Glad to have at least some place to lay my head, I somehow summoned up enough energy to bargain for something else I felt I desperately required, a shower. I told the clerk that I didn’t mind about the mix-up, but would it be possible to dip into another room not yet taken for the day just to grab a shower? I would do it quickly and the future guest would never know the difference. At first the clerk resisted but probably my body odour swayed her and soon I was scrubbing merrily away in somebody else’s room.

When I returned the key, the clerk handed me a card and informed me that I now had a free night anytime I chose at their fine establishment, if I cared to return after such a mix-up. Happy I’d been allowed to shower, I told them sure, I’d be back, and the clerk seemed happy that all had worked out in the end.

I checked into my own room and was somewhat dismayed at the size of it. I remembered some old joke about sticking the key in the door and breaking the window on the other side of the room. But it had a bed and a washroom and that was all I needed.

The hotel that almost turned me away. (Photo by Robert “Robs” H.)

That, and sleep. I was now very tired. I wasn’t hungry at all because my nervousness about this whole venture had returned with a vengeance.

I took off my clothes and climbed into the clean but diminutive bed. I couldn’t get to sleep, even tired as I was. I got up to use the washroom time and time again. The more I lay there and thought, the more nervous I became. My fears about money returned. I worried about finding a hotel in Aix, as I had not made a reservation. It was October 2 and I figured it would be pretty cold even in Aix at night, that time of year. Someone had told me that it might be hard to get a hotel in Aix what with school starting in October. I questioned the wisdom of leaving it to chance. I visualized toughing it out on the streets at night, worst case scenario.

I had expressed these fears to Joram before leaving, half in jest, and he had simply laughed at me. The bottom line was, I was an inexperienced traveller. I didn’t know what fears were realistic and which weren’t. I hoped that Joram was right and my fears were unjustified.

But I remained nervous.

Seven Months in Provence — Part One

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. So here we go: off to France!

Part One: Off to France

October 1st, 1993 I was living in the apartment of a friend named Joram Kalfa. That night, around 8pm in the evening, I would be leaving for France.

I spent the day packing as I always pack at the last possible instant. I hadn’t done a wash in about a week and figured, well, I’d better do one here today, God knows when I’d find a laundry in France, so I scrambled around doing that as well. This was all good, as I was keeping myself busy, and that was good because I was getting a little nervous.

Joram came home from work and whipped up an ungodly supper for the both of us which consisted of basically every possible vegetable he could find in his refrigerator thrust into a food processor and turned into liquid mush. I believe the prime ingredient was beets and the result was a hideous reddish purple substance. I figured it would be good for me and it didn’t taste quite as bad as I thought it might, so I gulped it down. Joram had done a lot of travelling himself, and I’d done practically none, so I figured he was kind of looking out for me. I figured this drink was supposed to fortify me or something for the road ahead.

Joram commented that I didn’t really look excited. I had been quite excited, over the summer and in fact ever since I’d first planned this trip to France, but now it had been replaced by nervousness. Keeping busy packing and doing laundry I’d manged to keep the nervousness at bay, but the end result was that I wound up feeling nothing. I didn’t know what to tell Joram. I felt as though I should feel excited, but I just didn’t. So I felt the way I felt and told Joram as much and waited for my ride to come and take me to the airport.

My friend Ron Koperdraad had generously offered to perform the role of chauffeur. When he arrived I plucked a bottle of Olde Jack from Joram’s refrigerator. The specialty beer was a going away gift from a friend at work, Mike Danchyshyn, which I’d been saving for just that moment. Ron, Joram and I drank a toast to the forthcoming year, and I was off.

On the way to the airport we ducked into a pharmacy briefly to pick up extra supplies of contact lens solution. At Ron’s suggestion, I also stocked up on some gravol.

I was no longer feeling nothing. I began babbling to Ron about the nature of nervousness. What was its function in nature? An unfortunate evolutionary fluke, I supposed. Just when you should be at your physical and mental best nature provides you with the uncontrollable urge to vomit. Ron, struggling with early Saturday evening traffic, and perhaps fearful that I would provide him with a graphic demonstration, provided few insights.

It was an overcast, chilly autumn day. This pleased me as I imagined the weather would be much more agreeable where I was going. I didn’t know much about my destination, Aix-en-Provence, located in the south of France, but I was pretty sure that it would be much warmer than Toronto, Canada.

At the airport Ron helped me lug my bags inside. I had one large, overstuffed backpack, and one small, overstuffed knapsack. Ron, like Joram, had also done more travelling than me. He took a look at my backpack and the million or so loose straps dangling this way and that way and told me that was bad. You never knew what could happen in the cargo bay of a plane. The next thing I knew he was down on his knees tying every strap together so that they wouldn’t get caught on anything and in such a way that they wouldn’t come undone. He was very thorough and I was impressed to have such a knowledgeable and helpful friend.

Soon we were shaking hands and then he was off and I was checking my bags and I was surprised to discover that my nervousness had largely disappeared. I looked over my fellow passengers and wondered if they were French or Canadians or maybe both. I located a seat by my Gate and dug out a book I’d stashed in my small carry-on knapsack.

I found I couldn’t concentrate to read it, though.

I worried a bit over my tickets, checking the one over for the train from Paris to Aix. I was a bit concerned about finding the train station in Paris, the Gare de Lyon. Then I checked my hotel voucher, and wondered if I would find it okay, the Timhotel Italie. I had plenty of maps so I wasn’t too worried.

Most of the passengers seemed quite a bit older than my twenty-eight years. Not too many students among them. I wondered what the odds were that another student on the way to the same school as me in Aix might be on the same plane.

After a while a skinny young kid dressed head to toe in black (with pitch black hair to match) came and sat in the seat opposite me. He plugged a walkman into a pair of ears only slightly smaller than those you might find on Ferengi from Star Trek. The kid stood out from the other passengers because his youth. He looked to be just shy of twenty. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, which, together with a haircut singularly devoid of any style that I could see, made him look rather bookish (it takes one to know one.)

He might not have made quite such a lasting impression on me had he not wound up sitting beside me on the Air Canada flight for the next six and a half hours.

It wasn’t long until we got talking. I’m afraid I don’t recall the kid’s name. He was travelling from California, heading for a town in the north of France where he lived with his family. He had been visiting his brother in the States, in L.A, and had done Disneyland and so on and had had a good time. I learned that he was finishing the French equivalent of high school, and was about to go to college to study sound recording. Naturally I was quite interested in this, as it happened to be my day job at the time.

The kid was quite friendly. Near the end of the flight I told him that if all French were as friendly as he was then my year in France would be a good one. He seemed embarrassed by the praise.

He wasn’t the only one embarrassed during the flight. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean I managed to embarrass myself by spilling an entire glass of orange juice on myself. I just knocked it off the tray and splashed most of it over my crotch. Fortunately the flight was a long one so I didn’t have to get up before it dried off. My French seatmate politely turned a blind eye.

When my French friend and I weren’t talking, I watched a bit of the inflight movie, The Incredible Journey. You could watch it in either French or English. I flicked it to the French for a while, but it was no use. I understood practically nothing, and I reflected a bit on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of going to live in a country where for quite some time I would understand nothing. But I was encouraged by the young guy sitting beside me, who had told me that his English had been nothing to speak of before his trip to the States. He’d been there only a month or so, he told me. His English seemed pretty good to me. On perhaps eight or nine occasions I had to rephrase something that he hadn’t quite understood, and I understood all of what he said to me. One time he found himself utterly unable to express something, and after I couldn’t guess what it was, we just let it drop. But I felt that if I could get my French up to even his level of English by the end of the year then I would be doing quite well.

Talking to him reduced my nervousness to almost nil. I caught a tiny bit of sleep and, except for the unfortunate incident with the orange juice, enjoyed the trip over.

Next up: Paris

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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