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 Five:
In the morning the room reeked of sunshine. It crept through the cracks in the shutters covering the window. I guess they weren’t really shutters, as they were on the inside of the window. I threw them open, looked out on a glorious day, and from directly below on the steps outside the caretaker arched his head to regard me.
“Good morning,” I said.
He smiled, like someone only just barely happy, and nodded.
I took a shower and realized that I wasn’t crazy about French showers. You couldn’t hang the shower attachment on the wall and just stand under it, revelling in it. You had to hold it in one hand and direct the spray across your body. It was too much work for what was supposed to be, in my experience, one of the more sublime pleasures of being human. Not everyone had showers like this in France, I would learn, but every shower I had occasion to use was this way. For the first three months of my stay, every time I emerged from the shower I realized that my right arm was still completely dry.
I now had a number of things I had to accomplish. Finances, finding a permanent place to live, even finding the school. On a less immediate but no less important note, I had to figure out how to use the phones. And I needed to find a laundromat. I hadn’t come across any the day before.
Serendipity stepped in on the telephone problem.
Shortly before I’d left for France a bunch of friends had taken me out for beers at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto. That night my friend Claire De Visme presented me with “A Survival Kit for a Canadian in France.” Transplanted from Lyons, Claire had a pretty good idea what I might find helpful. Aside from the Berlitz phrase book I mentioned earlier, she’d included a Berlitz Country Guide, a wine tasting guide, a corkscrew, a cheese tasting guide, a paint brush, a few French Francs, and a Paris Metro guide. It was a thoughtful and, as it turned out, extremely helpful gift.
I was thumbing through the Berlitz phrase book when I noticed a section on telephones in France. I learned that the phones required something called “Telecartes.” You could buy them at the post office or in what they called les “tabacs”, which were basically little pubs that also sold cigarettes and other related goods. The Telecartes gave you either 50 or 100 local call credits, or you could get the operator for free, to place a collect call or use a calling card.
There was a post office located near La Rotunde, by La Grande Fontaine, where I had walked the day before. It was a large post office with many serving windows, but the place was jam packed, with lengthy queues of resigned-looking people snaking back from each window. Signs above each window described the function of each attendant. Naturally I was unable to determine the purpose of any, so I just joined the friendliest looking line.
I spent half an hour listening to the people around me speak French. I understood nothing. Off to my right a young couple struggled to wrap a large travel bag. They had a hell of a time with it but treated the experience as an adventure. They wore jeans and carried knapsacks and looked like they didn’t have a proper home to get cleaned up in; they looked like kindred spirits to me. On my left an old French guy frustrated everybody in line behind him by arguing loudly with his attendant. She didn’t look impressed. He didn’t appear all that angry. In fact, waving his arms every which way, he looked like he was enjoying himself. Finally he smiled broadly, turned away, and said something directly to me but I didn’t have a clue what. I shrugged and smiled, which may have involved wide, frightened eyes. He lost a bit of steam at that, but recovered quickly, and with one final pointed gesticulation at the attendant, shambled off in the other direction.
When it was my turn I said to the attendant, “Telecarte, s’il vous plait?”
He said, “Hein?” (Later, I learned that meant, “Huh?”)
“Telecarte!” I said again.
“Hein?” the attendant repeated.
“Ah!” the fellow exclaimed. “Un telecarte!”
I’d pronounced the word “tell a cart.” He pronounced it: tay lay cahrte, with the “h” I put in the last word there representing something very strange going on with the “R” in the word.
“Oui!” I said quickly.
He rattled off a bunch of French that might as well have been Martian. I gave him my best “I don’t know what the hell you’re saying” smile, so he showed me two different cards, one with 50 marked on it in big white letters and another with 100 marked on it.
I bought the first one, stuck it in my wallet, said “Merci” in my flat North American accent, and left.
I’d accomplished something. I was well on my way to overcoming the telephone obstacle. I felt empowered.
Sometimes the thought of all I had to do overwhelmed me and I wondered how I would accomplish it all. But when I managed to get one little thing figured out, I began to feel that hey, I’m no fool, I can do this travelling thing. I’ll get settled in here after all.
I couldn’t wait until the first two weeks were over. I figured by then pretty much everything would be settled. I pictured sitting in my first class, starting to enjoy the experience, with the money all taken care of, a place to live, and maybe even a laundromat located before all my clothes began to stink and I became a social outcast.
I strolled down the Cours Mirabeau. I saw a few phones but they were all in use. About three quarters of the way down the Cours I decided to venture more into the heart of the old city. The way the city is laid out is you’ve got the cool old city with its narrow streets and three hundred year old buildings and mossy fountains dead smack in the middle of Aix with modern twentieth century suburbs of apartment building and hi-rises sprawling out from there in every direction. Actually, Aix is mostly these personality-less suburbs. Except that it wasn’t for me because the entire time I was there I spent almost one hundred percent of my time in the old city. The old city really served as the downtown for Aix. For the most part, everybody parked their cars outside the old city and then walked everywhere within.
For some reason I had no fear of getting lost, although I’d heard that French cities were not exactly well laid out. This was certainly true for Aix. You would think that one street would connect with another but then it wouldn’t, and if you weren’t careful you could wind up a fair distance from where you actually wanted to go.
I ventured down a little side street off the Mirabeau. Whereas the Cours Mirabeau was quite wide, the streets off it were often little more than alleyways. Yet they were bonafide streets, jam packed with tiny shops and sometimes big shops of all varieties. Apartments, too. And lots and lots of dog poop, I would soon learn.
After walking a ways I came to a little cross-section of streets in the midst of which were two payphones. Both were in use by a couple of girls a little younger than me. I decided to wait until they were free. There was an interesting looking store nearby called “Kennedy’s General Store.” I thought this was quite odd in the south of France.
One of the phones became free. I went in and inserted my Telecarte. I picked up the phone and dialed zero. Nothing happened. I just wanted an operator. At least I had a dial tone. When zero didn’t work, I tried nine. It didn’t work either. I tried several other numbers. Nothing worked. I tried to read the instructions written on the inside of the booth, but naturally everything was French and not at all clear to me.
I thought, what the heck, I’ll go into Kennedy’s General Store and ask them how to use the damn phones. With a name like Kennedy’s General Store I figured they had to speak English!
Kennedy’s General Store turned out to be a little grocery mart filled with specialty items from Great Britain. It was a little treasure trove, selling North American looking goods unavailable anywhere else. A tad pricy, though.
The cashier was a slim woman around forty years old with short, light-coloured hair. She was just wrapping up with a customer in French. Afterward, I approached her and asked if she spoke English. She replied in a British accent that yes, she did. We chatted briefly about what I was doing there in France (going to school to study French) and then I asked her outright: how the heck did the phones work here?
She told me that to get the operator you had to dial something ridiculous like nineteen, and that there were other special numbers you had to dial to get the international operator of the specific country you wanted. She had no idea what those numbers were.
I thanked her, told her I’d see her around, and returned to the phone.
I dialled the correct number to get the operator and got one who didn’t speak English. After gibbering with her for a minute, and mentioning Canada, she transferred me to someone else, who also didn’t speak English. Eventually the second operator transferred me to someone who did speak English, who transferred me to the correct international operator for Canada, who spoke perfect English.
“Bienvenu au Canada, welcome to Canada, can I help you?”
It was a beautiful sound. She explained exactly what I had to do in the future to get Canada. It was a six digit number! Then I had her place a call to home, using my mother’s calling card number.
I spoke to Mom for about fifteen minutes. I told her to call my girlfriend Lynda and apologize to her for not having called earlier, and to tell her that I would call Lynda that night. I filled Mom in on the trip so far and it was great to talk to her. I felt good talking to her, relaxed. I assured herthat the whole experience was the big adventure it was supposed to be. It felt cool to be calling home from so far away. After hanging up I thanked the woman in Kennedy’s and told her that everything had worked.
Then I continued wandering the streets of Aix.