Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hell is other people

Having settled down rather nicely in Gex, I woke up today wondering how to spend the weekend (the last one didn't count as I had just arrived). The thing to do, quite obviously, was to drive up into the Jura and trek. Never mind that I've never trekked alone before, I didn't know where to go, and the thought of enquiring at a French tourist office terrifies me.

Actually, doing anything in France has always terrified me. It's not as if I don't know French - I've recently reached near-100-percent comprehension when reading ordinary (not literary) French, and I can speak enough to get by. But there's something I don't do right, and it seems to bother people here en particulier.

Last Sunday I went to the farmers market in Thoiry, a picturesque village nestled in the shadow of the Jura. I was doing OK until I dared to ask for a filet of salmon. The fishmonger froze when I spoke to him, and stared at me in horror for a couple of seconds. Though he did sell me a filet of salmon, he steadfastly looked the other way (chatting with someone else to disguise the fact) even while handing me my change. What was it? Racism would be too simple an explanation. I think it's just me.

Next, a couple of days ago, again in Thoiry (could it be that the village hates me?) I went to the gigantic Migros supermarket. As it happened, all I needed was milk (and I picked up some mushrooms too). Then I saw her - the African-French lady at the counter - and she saw me, which caused her to roll her eyes in disgust. I fumbled with the shopping bag (you have to buy one, which I had forgotten). She rolled her eyes again. Then I handed her Swiss francs instead of Euros (I was carrying both). I'm sure this lady has the most muscular eyeballs on the planet by now.

Then yesterday, by now terrified of Thoiry, I tried to shop at Intermarche in St Genis which I had successfully conquered - or at least survived - on a previous visit. I picked up some trout. I remembered to pick up a shopping bag. The teenage boy at the counter wore thin-rimmed glasses and was clearly an aspiring existentialist. I mean, deep down he was yearning to go dancing, but he had developed a fixation on Sartre that made this impossible - for, if you believe that "All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure." then how do you step into a disco?

Anyway the gloomy kid asked me coldly if I had a "fidelity card" for his store. I said no, then (thinking to be chatty) asked if it cost money or was free. Unfortunately I said "gratuit" instead of "gratuite" which is the appropriate feminine adjective for "carte" (if you don't know cards are female, well what do you know??). And that did it. Boy-Sartre fixed me with a poisonous look and gave me a long and hostile lecture on how to acquire a fidelity card. I thought of hitting back with "Sartre only did philosophy so he could pick up women", which is also true. But I'd have messed up my grammar and he'd have won again, so I didn't try.

So this morning, with all these experiences under my belt, I set out in my rented Ford Focus (suggested ad line: this car accelerates from 0 to 100 kmph in a single afternoon!). I reach Col de la Faucille, park next to the tiny wooden shack which claims to be a tourist office, and - my heart understandably thumping - walk inside. "My French is terrible" I start out in French. The lady gives me a kind smile and says "English?" and I dance the bhangra and say "yippee!!" (or rather, "balle balle!!"). This lovely lady is most helpful and, to cut a long story short, I followed all her advice and had a wonderful trek.

Well there was one part of her advice I shouldn't have followed. "At the top of Petit Mont-Rond you will find a restaurant" she said. I did indeed find it, and went in for some coffee. Only, Mme Fraud, the owner, had the nerve to bring me a lukewarm cup of mud-water and ask for the Euro 3.30 upfront. The Italians, who can actually make coffee, charge 1 Euro for their divine beverage.

And there ends my adventure. Not much of an adventure, you say? You haven't read Sartre, obviously. The great man once said: "For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it."

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