Back in France

After a plane flight and multiple hotels, trains and taxis, I have finally found myself in Annecy: which is thankfully exactly where I was hoping to find myself.

Annecy old town from Rue de la République

Annecy is a small town in eastern France near the border of Switzerland. In fact my apartment is only 25 miles from Geneva and that would have been the most convenient city to fly to. But the Swiss have closed their borders to dirty Americans, even Americans who have been peacefully minding their own business in Scotland for the past six months, so instead I had to make a more protracted journey through France from Paris. But everything went well, my pants only fell down a few times, and I have already repressed most other memories of the trip as I try to do with all travelling memories.

It does remain an open question though as to which part was worse – the two days of actual travel or the two weeks of dreading it before hand.

Either way, what a shock to the system when I finally arrived. I don’t know if it was culture shock quite, I mean how much culture are you really exposed to in the first few days? But I certainly experienced the “total change in surroundings” shock. From the mists, fog, clouds, rain and cold of Scotland I overnight found myself transported to a place of sun and heat and red tiled roofs. What?! It’s still summer? We were not prepared.

There is also the “change in situation shock” where one’s comfortable daily routine and the familiar paths of the local neighborhood are abruptly shoved away into the past, most likely never to be experienced or seen again, and replaced with a new set of unknowns, unrecognizable streets and no routine whatsoever other than trying to keep one’s head above water, at least at the beginning.

I am very fortunate to have once again found a great apartment, in fact it is far nicer than I need but I am not complaining. My apartment is on the top (two) floors of a building in a quiet, peaceful neighborhood close to downtown. Off the kitchen I have a balcony with a view of the mountains and a cozy bedroom in the upstairs attic. I would have settled for far less but no one would rent to me: I wasn’t staying long enough, their insurance only covers French citizens, I didn’t have a garant, the building is only for students, etc, etc… Finally I came across this apartment being used as an Airbnb, but the owner was leaving for three months to dog-sit with his girlfriend in Costa Rica of all things, which just so happens to be the exact length of time I can stay here. He was happy not to have to manage guests checking in and out and since I offered to pay all three months up front I guess he didn’t care about my lack of garant

The view from my balcony

Everything was perfect, save for the heat. That little attic room gets to be melting by the end of the day, and I realized I would vraiment need a fan.

(Full disclosure: I also bought a fan in Scotland. As cold and gloomy as it was there, I found I could improve conditions by making it even coldier and gloomier.)

I wandered all over town in the first week and I even bought several appliances such as an electric kettle and a clothes iron, but nowhere did I see any fans. You’d think they’d be selling them like hotcakes in this weather; in America during the summer they have literal mountains of box fans heaped up at Home Depot, and that’s in a country where pretty much everyone already has air conditioning and ceiling fans (needless to say, neither exist here).

But no fans did my eyes discover, even though I put blisters on my feet searching.

Restaurants down every alley in the old town

Mom has a story about giving birth to my younger brother in Grenoble and suffocating in the heat of the hospital room. She wanted desperately to open the window but another mother sharing the same room would hear nothing of the sort, citing the dire consequences of un courant d’air (a draft). This is apparently a real thing, if you Google courant d’air you will find plenty of sites in French with handy tips on how rid yourself completely of any unstable air molecules. Here is a humorous, but completely serious quote from one:

« Il y a un courant d’air ! » Cette phrase, que nous entendons dès notre plus jeune âge et que nous répétons à notre tour à nos enfants, s’accompagne toujours d’une demande ; celle de bien vouloir enfin fermer la fenêtre ou la porte ouverte.

Here is a hilarious account by an American living in Paris, of his experiences with the dreaded courants. The comments to his article are equally amusing, but also informative since it appears this may be a European-wide obsession, and not just with the French.

Finally in my wanderings I noticed a ventilateur in the window of an appliance store (Savoie Pièces Ménager). Well anyway I noticed a piece of cardboard in the window, with a picture of a fan on it. I went in and said quite clearly “Bonjour monsieur, I like well to hachet the wind creator of your window, just there” as I pointed to the picture. Since this was (probably) perfect French he understood me sans problème.

Other appliances for sale

Unfortunately as he explained to me there were no fans actually kept on the premises but he could order me one, and maybe it would arrive in a couple days, or maybe next week. By now the conversation was drifting rapidly away from any kind of vocabulary I was competent to speak or understand, but somehow through a series of well timed groans, sighs and opening my eyes very wide I did let him know that “yes, that would be great, please order this device on my behalf and charge my credit card anything you want!”

Then he struck terror into my heart when he asked for my phone number so he could call me someday without warning to let me know when it arrived. It is hard enough communicating in a foreign language when you can avail yourself to suggestive eye-rolls and indicative hand waving, but he might as well call a vegetable as to try to converse with me sight unseen over the phone.

Nevertheless a few days later the phone rang and although I didn’t understand a word of what he said, I did know he was the only human on earth to whom I had given my French phone number, so after he finished his surprisingly long prologue I volunteered that I would come by shortly and that seems to have been the correct response.

Back at the store he presents to me across the counter an enormous box that felt like it weighed thirty pounds. This is no Home Depot plastic box fan! This is a true appliance, like those old cast iron washing machines they used to sell in the Sears catalog to the pioneers out west.

Not being able to resist interjecting some Midwest humor I made the comment that now I have this fan it will certainly turn cold.

Mais non monsieur! Pas du tout,” he said, and began to extol at length the great virtues of this fan and how there were still many hot days yet to come, and many other things besides which went over my head completely. I felt bad that I may have given the impression I had any regrets, which I certainly did not seeing as how I was now the proud owner of the Fan of Thor. I could already foresee this mighty machine was destined to produce courants d’air très puissants and cause serious envy amongst all my French neighbors when through their sweat-soaked fever dreams they hear my ventilateur roaring away all night long.

Back to our shopkeeper, who is still telling me various interesting things; I however not knowing exactly what they were couldn’t be quite sure when to interject the appropriate “vraiment?” and “ç’est pas vrais!” or “mais bien sûr” or “la vache!” – but anyway I did smile behind my stupid face mask for whatever good that did. He was quite a friendly man and maybe I will take it as a compliment that he spoke to me at such great length as if I could understand anything (I couldn’t). Perhaps he too was a secret lover of courants d’air.

Happy French people who already know what they’re doing

One final comment on this fascinating topic – apparently the greatest danger of a courant d’air is for it to blow across the neck, and one of the comments in the article I linked to above even theorized this could be a reason behind the French proclivity for wearing scarves. I am no authority on such things myself, but the other evening I was walking home when a thunderstorm unleashed the heavens on one and all. I’ve seen people do all kinds of things in a rainstorm – usually hold something over their head – but on this occasion I saw a woman with both hands clasped over the back of her neck as she sprinted down the sidewalk. It is rather an unusual pose to make unless you are being arrested, and it leaves the top of your head completely exposed, but it proved to me there are people for whom the back of their neck is very important. I think the only time I have ever noticed the back of my own neck is when it gets sunburned or tattooed.

Social distancing at the boulangerie

The weather is not the only thing that has changed, so has my diet. In the mornings as I sit on the balcony and watch the clouds waft by the mountains, sip my coffee, and take a bite of some indescribable delicacy; I have to ask myself – is this real? Est-ce que je rêve?!

People really live like this? Someone really woke up in the middle of the night and toiled away baking the best bread on earth, and assembled all these beautiful pastries with heavenly fresh fruit just for me, and when I buy them for the cost of almost nothing the friendly lady is even going to put them in a box and wrap it with paper and tape and everything, and call me monsieur too? What kind of paradise have I been banished to?!

Even the so-called “junk” food at the grocery store is out of this world (and does not deserve to be described with that dreadful word). These are not things made by some chef in Paris, these are merely snacks that literally do come in a cardboard box from a factory, but good heavens! How they manage to get so much flavor into things so small is beyond me.

In short, my stay in France is off to a good start. I admit to being in high spirits.

These are going to be the death of me

Goodbye to All That

In just a few days I will be leaving the island of “cheers mate” and cottage pie to fly back to the land of “Bonjour Madame” and millefeuille. So ends six months in the UK.

At the end of each of these chapters I suppose it is expected of me to summarize my experiences and offer some sweeping generalizations of a foreign culture, as Americans in far away lands are inclined to do. I hesitate to indulge this exercise too far since conditions here have not been normal. Hopefully anyone who visits in the future will see things very differently than I did. There is also the old dictum about keeping things to yourself when you don’t have much good to say, but having not hewed too closely to that one over the years maybe I won’t bother starting now…

King’s Stables Road

I leave Scotland bumbling through Phase 3 of their coronavirus route map, which is to say Phase 3 of pretending to have a clue and roughly phase 99 of making a bad situation worse. The contradictions, incongruities, and mind-numbing whiplashes in gulag policy stand in stark contrast to the sole consistent feature of this entire sad episode: the supreme arrogance, self-assurance and condescension of the political class as they issue their schizophrenic pronouncements to us the dirt people. I can only hope such fine personal qualities will serve them in good stead in the fiery afterlife to which they are surely headed.

During the months of lockdown I can’t have been the only person dreaming of the return to normalcy that would arrive just as soon as things began to reopen. Although I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, having reached the new normal we find it so painfully abnormal that I often think back fondly to those days of confinement, when the streets were empty and quiet, and I didn’t have to wear a mask to buy a cardboard sandwich.

Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Speaking of cardboard sandwiches, Jacques Chirac once famously said of the British, “You cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine.” To what extent he was joking I don’t know.

I came across another food comment in one of my Joan of Arc history books. Back in 1431, when the English arrived in Paris to crown their double-king, a French supporter of English rule nevertheless wrote in his diary, in regards to the coronation banquet, that “Nobody had reason to boast of the meal.”

My only notion of British cuisine before I came here was what I saw on The Great British Baking Show, all of which looked fabulous. This was not however the kind of food I generally found at the local grocery store, which I guess is to be expected. Even so I was constantly surprised at how tasteless everything was, even table salt is definitely less salty (no, they don’t have Morton’s). Once I decided to treat myself to a cheesecake from Marks & Spencer, the nicest of all the grocery stores in downtown Edinburgh. Admittedly I was not expecting perfection from the supermarket, but I would think it pretty hard to screw up something delicious when all you have to do is mix a bunch of fat and sugar. In America even Wal-Mart has good cheesecake. However to my great disappointment this one had both the taste and consistency of sand even though it still had a million calories. I had to ask myself, why am I eating this? Maybe my taste buds have been obliterated by over-exaggerated American flavoring, but it seems to me there is a crisis to be acknowledged when a society can’t get junk food to taste good. What other purpose could it possibly serve? This is all the more remarkable and puzzling in a place where junk food seems to be the main staple.

Of course I am hardly a discerning food critic as we can surmise from my great love of Taco Tico – a place some people have speculated may not even serve actual food. I’m sure the locals would also point out that Tesco and Sainsbury’s are not the place to discover delectable cooking. So I don’t want to pass too harsh a judgment, and I will suffice it only to declare that no doubt great food is to be found somewhere in Britain: but unlike in France, it is not at every street corner.

Whether because of scurvy or other reasons, I do know that I have been steadily losing weight since arriving here, to the point I now have to walk everywhere with my hands in my pockets to keep my pants from falling down. This is not a problem that concerns me very much because I know a surefire remedy for losing weight, and that is, about three days in America.

Pantheon on Calton Hill

When I left France earlier this year I wondered if I might find it a great relief to be somewhere I could speak English once more. Maybe I might even feel at home! After all my distant ancestors did once live on this island. In fact I have felt just as much a foreigner here as in France. I can’t tell if others immediately peg me as a foreigner too or whether it is only a perspective I project outwards.

I watched a YouTube about 5 Things Americans do that Annoy Brits (just watching the video annoyed me), where I was informed that one of their biggest pet peeves is when Americans say “Excuse me” – for example when bumping into someone on the street. According to them, in the UK the phrase “excuse me” actually means “excuse you” and naturally enough is therefore considered quite rude. In America we actually do have a phrase for “excuse you” – never actually used in real life because again it would be rude – and that phrase is: “excuse you.” But things are apparently not so straightforward here.

I know you can’t believe everything you hear on YouTube, but I’ve paid close attention on the street and sure enough I’ve never once heard anyone say “excuse me.” It’s true that for many months the streets were empty, but since the end of confinement they can get quite crowded again, especially on the weekend, and I live on the most crowded street of them all. So I have had plenty of opportunities to observe.

According to these YouTubers what you should say instead is “sorry,” and indeed that is the only thing I have heard spoken in such situations. Incidentally the word “sorry” also exists in America. It is something people say after they’ve run over the neighbor’s dog or forgotten to pick up their kid from school. Married men use this word frequently with their wives, and celebrities and politicians say it, often accompanied by tears, when they’ve been caught foolishly posting some verboten evil on social media like “All Lives Matter.” But Americans don’t usually apologize for the street being crowded, because that is nobody’s fault.

As a courtesy to my foreign hosts I’ve tried very hard to use “sorry” myself, but I admit to failing several times a day. It is just about nearly impossible to break yourself of a lifetime habit, as I also found in France with the door handles that wanted to be pushed instead of pulled (described earlier).

I have learned that two people can speak the same language and yet still not be speaking the same language. And this is to say nothing of the vast difference in accents, many of which are as incomprehensible to me here as Greek.

Sunset at Calton

In normal times I gather Edinburgh is something akin to the Disney World of Scotland, especially during the August festival which however is cancelled this year (a better analogy would be Silver Dollar City for Americans that know what that is). But even under the toned-down atmosphere that exists now, the city has a bit of the feel of the unreal to it, overlaid on top of the very real and very old buildings, cemeteries, and surrounding nature. There are guys in kilts on the street playing bagpipes, and probably one hundred whisky and cashmere wool shops between my apartment and the castle. We all know these things are symbols of Scottishness. But did the Scots invent kilts and bagpipes just to earn tips on the street corner? Do they love whisky and tartan patterns only for the sake of the tourism industry? Surely not, but whatever the deeper significance of these things is I don’t know and didn’t experience. And maybe Edinburgh is not the place for that, though if you like to browse tourist shops, this town surely has the most per square mile of any spot on earth.

Fog descends on the castle light show

Six months is a lot of time to spend anywhere for someone who is essentially a glorified tourist. It is enough time to explore a lot of out-of-the-way streets, enough time to watch some seasons pass, enough even to pay taxes. But for me it was not enough to encounter the Scots themselves. When the somewhat necessary act of breathing becomes responsible for killing everyone around us, it is only natural that opportunities for socializing are going to be drastically reduced. Under such circumstances not even my great talent of speaking English in an English speaking country was of much help.

Thus the real Scotland has remained hidden from me, and that is just how it will have to stay.

The entrance to my apartment at Bailie Fyfe’s Close