Poser ses valises

Set down your suitcase

How I love the French expression, ‘to set down one’s suitcases’. Although it hints of travel, ‘poses ses valises’ means just the opposite: to stop moving around and settle down somewhere.

Ah, travel. The romance, intrigue, the sheer chic of wheeling that expensive Samsonite trolley bag around. Of taking off in one language and landing in another, of leaning back in your seat and being served while selecting from various entertainment options.

Readers of this blog will see where this is going. I love going places. I just hate getting there.

Why do I dislike travel so much? I’ve mentioned before how much I hate packing. I used to enjoy the idea of a few empty hours in which to read, catch up on work or just let my thoughts go idle. And I still do: on a train or a boat. But when it comes to air travel, it’s another story.

Travel for me is a great many small details and a few sweeping generalities. Most of them are aggravating. It seems that effort required to move from point A to point B across borders and seas with suitcase intact is inversely proportionate to the increasing democratization of international air travel.

First there is the airport security check. The removal of personal items, the stacking of your stuff in plastic boxes, the impatience of the staff and fellow travelers. The shoes that ring alarm bells and must be removed. The full bottle of water that goes down the drain, only to be replaced by one that costs twice as much on the other side.

Rinse and repeat. Hurry up and wait.

If purgatory exists, it must surely be in an airport departure lounge. Where, despite the unpleasant state of being on hold, the upside is the chance to people watch. And the endless parade of humanity, with all of its foibles, is by turn entertaining and repugnant.

The fact is that I do not wait well. I am unable to settle comfortably into one of those molded plastic chairs with the immovable arm rests that prevent people from lying down. My eye wanders continually to the departures board, to check if there are any changes in flight status. I look for signs of life at the gate, in case we may be called to board. I watch the people for signs of lunacy, check for the nearest exit, ever vigilant in case a disaster should be about to occur.

In another scenario, I race to the gate for fear of missing the ever-earlier boarding call, where I learn that my flight is delayed. Then look around hoping to get a good coffee or a nice strong drink to dull the pain only to discover that this particular terminal or departure area is devoid of anything as civilised as a proper coffee shop or bar. Vending machines only with their astronomically priced distractions.

Finally we board (bored) and I learn that the only thing on offer are soft drinks and hot beverages, served at boiling temperature in carcinogenic plastic cups and so late in the short haul flight there is barely time to gulp them down before we land.

If we land, says my ever-paranoid self. Despite the fact that time and again seems to prove that we will indeed deplane in one piece. But that little voice has been drummed into my psyche and nearly always makes itself heard somewhere midair.

If the flight is long enough to have food and drink service, I order the Frenchman to get wine even though he no longer drinks, just so I can have a second tiny bottle. He is highly amenable to my inflight alcohol dependency.

Possibly he hopes it will take the edge off my nerves enough to hunker down and read or watch a film for a few hours. He, of course, has downloaded a slew of his latest series, something involving drugs, violence and bloodshed. His iPad is primed for hours of entertainment, which is he able to absorb under almost any circumstances. Turbulence, delayed food service, even amidst the crowds in the departure lounge. I do envy his ability to focus on pleasurable pursuits while I self-inflict mental anxiety and count the minutes. Either that or he is asleep. He often nods off before we even achieve altitude.

With a raging thirst brought on by being so unnaturally high in a pressurized atmosphere of the plane, exacerbated by nerves and boredom, I down each and every beverage on offer. Wine, water, coffee, tea, more water…which is why I always take the aisle seat. I’m frequently up and visiting the loo. Husband will go perhaps once in an 8-hour flight, often just before we land.

Another form of limbo for this reluctant traveler is circling in the sky over an airport for endless loop de loops waiting to land. When all of the highly impatient, nervous flyers like moi are thinking to themselves: is everything all right in that cockpit? I imagine the copilot, suicidal, having slipped a mickey to his unsuspecting captain. I can almost see terrorists having cracked the door code and insinuated their way inside. Or worse, having taken remote control of our plane somehow and sending us for a nosedive into the sea.

Welcome to my twisted writer’s mind. There is a great deal of drama. Travel only fans my flames.

I watch in fascination as people go by in wheelchairs, with babies and toddlers, with pets in carriers, folding strollers and various paraphernalia. How is that I, an able-bodied middle-aged adult, find this so hard when others with real baggage seemingly grin and bear it?

On a positive note, I may have missed my calling as a consultant to the airline industry. By the end of our trip, I had completely redesigned overseas air travel to be more comfortable and efficient for the modern-day passenger. More on that later.

For now, vive l’été chez soi!

Just as many in France are packing their bags for a much-anticipated summer vacation, I’m home from holiday and very pleased to be staying put for awhile.

How about you?

 

La différence

It used to be like going home. Still is, in many ways. But now Canada is a place I visit, a trip down memory lane. The décor is oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign. And I am like someone recovering from amnesia.

“I remember that!” I’ll think. Quickly followed by “That’s new!” and “What will they think of next?”

Arriving in Vancouver for the very first time, we noticed a great many things big and small. A forest of tall buildings, some of them of questionable architectural taste.

Used to Toronto’s intensely diverse ethnic population, we found Van City to be especially Asian. But like everywhere in Canada, an interesting cultural mix.

Food-wise, Sushi abounds, as does Indian. Coffee culture is on every corner. Not just Starbucks but also independent coffee shops where you can get a truly great cup of java. Not to mention mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts!

The coffee is also mobile. On the street, everyone seems to be carrying a drink of some kind. But when it comes to alcohol, there is a holdover of historic British rules. At one bar, last call came at 10:45 pm!

Vancouver is a city in constant motion. In the air, sea planes take off and land along the sea wall. On the water, boat traffic of every description, including these sweet little water buses.

Everywhere, people run, ride, cycle, skate, walk dogs. We joined them and cycled around Stanley Park, one of the highlights of our week.

At intersections, the cheeping of birds tells visually impaired pedestrians when to cross. It took me a minute to figure out it wasn’t just a loud bird following us around.

Around town, crows have replaced our domestic flying rats, aka pigeons. We awoke each morning to their raucous cawing; in the streets we observed the constant scavenging of these big black birds.

Abiding impressions? People seem happy. They are friendly. They ask us how we are, where we’re from. I don’t really mind this; in fact, I quite like it. But at first, my reaction is entirely French: do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

The service is attentive, if perhaps overly intrusive. Once the introductions are over, I prefer wait staff to keep a low profile. Instead, we are continually asked how things are going, did we enjoy our entrées? (French confusion – they mean main courses), would we like another drink…? Husband becomes irritated with the freezing A/C everywhere and all the ice in drinks.

We begin to feel foreign. At home. Again.

After 30 years in France, I’ve been trained to speak French in public places. In Montreal, it’s natural. In Toronto, slightly weird. In Vancouver, definitely not the norm.

And then there’s the entirely un-French custom of the tip. In Canada, 15% is standard. Anything less is insulting. One place suggested 22% as the norm. The amounts are conveniently added when you pay by card, which virtually everyone does. But it does make the service culture seem a little excessive. Perhaps, compared to the good old French insouciance, a tiny bit fake.

It was time to go home. First, to Toronto, where both the time change (3 hours forward) and the bilingual road signs are a little more familiar. Then, after the Canada Day celebrations, and a good dose of family and friends, we flew back across the ocean to France.

I do love a good holiday. Almost as much as coming home.

How about you?

Chez moi

Chez moi

No sooner do I set foot outside in Toronto than I stumble upon this sweet café and boutique, making me feel almost at home. Chez moi is France now, I remind myself, and I am only a visitor in this impossibly big, booming city I used to call home.

I’ll leave you with this postcard for now. Holidays are made for being fully present. More on my adventures as a foreigner in Canada when I return home next week!

A suivre…

Outre-mer

Salish Sea

This week, we leave our usual ramblings and observations about life in France for a holiday outre-mer, across the pond to Canada. A postcard from the Salish Sea where this blogger has crossed not just the pond but the entire country to discover Canada’s western sea wall.

We’re just back from a catamaran tour with the Prince of Whales — a cool and breezy way to discover the beautiful Salish Sea, so named after the Coast Salish peoples who traditionally populate the coastal waters along British Columbia and the Gulf Islands to the northwestern United States.

They promised whales and whales they delivered! A pod of Orcas kept us entertained for an hour or more near the San Juan islands on the US side.

I did not know when we stopped in Victoria that the killer whales had in fact just made an unusual appearance in the harbour. I can understand how their presence next to all this water traffic might be disconcerting, but after all, they were here first! The place was hopping with sea planes, ferry boats and little water taxis. I wonder why we don’t have these in Geneva?

Then again, we also don’t have the seals, water lions or the cormorants that have completely taken over this little island.

These seals were so much a part of the scenery that at first I thought they were rocks.

All in all it was a remarkable day. We were glad of the blankets on board as the wind was brisk and the air quite chilly.

 

Also glad to have these just in case. Still, with whales nearby no one wanted to see a man overboard.

I’ll share more on Vancouver and Whistler before we go to Toronto to celebrate Canada Day next week. A plus! x

Les feux de l’amour

Long before Netflix was born, way before digital came to town, years before anyone watched TV on their computer, a woman moved to Lyon, France, and found herself rather alone.

She turned on the TV for company and discovered six channels, all of them in French. Mostly offering news and information shows in prime time and talk shows or ancient American reruns during the day or late evening. Very occasionally, the artsy channel would run an old English-language movie in the original version with French subtitles. Usually after she had gone to bed.

One day, when the time had come to put her feet up in the afternoons, she turned on the TV just after the lunchtime news and discovered something vaguely familiar. A soap opera. Not one she had ever watched herself but had seen in other people’s living rooms. The characters appeared quite modern and, although they spoke French, their words sounded familiar. She had stumbled upon the longest-running French soap opera: Les Feux de l’Amour. It didn’t take long to figure out that ‘the fires of love’ was in fact ‘The Young and the Restless,” dubbed into French and several seasons behind the US original.

The woman, becoming gross with child, found herself tuning in every afternoon to this feuilleton, as she learned the French call serialized programs. She grew familiar with the doings of the Newman family and learned all kinds of new expressions in her adopted tongue for the sneaky behaviour of Victor, Nikki and Jack: “Que’est-ce tu manigances?” meaning: What are you up to? (or more precisely: what are you scheming/plotting?) “Où voulez-vous en venir?” (What are you saying/suggesting?)

For a few years the woman watched the show whenever the children were napping. It wasn’t very good but it was a connection to home. And after awhile, she was able to read the lips of the actors under the dubbing and figure out what they were actually saying. Her French improved by leaps and bounds from all this unconscious translating.

She became so used to the French voices that once, when she was visiting her family in Canada, she came across the Y&R in English and thought it sounded very strange indeed.

Then one day in France they got cable. And a wonderful thing happened: they had the BBC. The woman discovered a nighttime soap, one that felt refreshingly real after all those perfectly coiffed Americans. It took place in the east end of London, set around a pub called the Queen Vic in a place called Albert Square. The woman took to EastEnders like a duck to water. Her TV family had relocated to London from midwest America. She was home.

For many years, whenever the woman’s husband and children heard the strains of the show’s theme song, they relaxed a little. They knew that for the next half hour, peace would reign over the household. And the woman knew that no matter what else happened in her life, that every Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day there would be drama in Albert Square. And so it was.

The woman forgot all about the other show, the one that had saved her from homesickness in those early days. Until just the other day, when she opened her window in the early afternoon and heard familiar music playing at the neighbour’s house. Les feux de l’amour. It brought back many memories, of her early days in France, of feeling relaxed and coming home. And she was happy.

Do you watch any soaps? What’s your favourite TV show?