Monday, June 14, 2010

La Musique qui m'a fait bougé: première partie

Music often becomes the Proustien link to certain events in my life.

Arrival in Dijon

I flew to Paris with my mother. Having spawned only one offspring, my mother wanted to ensure that her sole daughter was bien-installée in a foreign country.

If you need to travel from Paris to Dijon, and you don't have a car, your best bet is to use a Train à Grande Vitesse (le TGV). That means that from Charles de Gaulle airport, you must head to the nearest train station. You could either take a taxi (which are reputed for being very, very expensive), or you could take the Métro (which is not a convenient choice if you possess three suitcases, two carry-on bags and a laptop), or you could take the Air France flat-rate shuttle service (Les Cars).

One hour later, we found ourselves facing the Métro stop in front of Gare de Lyon. In a manner of seconds, we encountered our first concern: how are we suppose to lug three large suitcases, two carry-on bags and a laptop? There were no porters, no carts, nothing to aid us drag our encumbering baggage. We had to hoof it.

Fearing the frigid Parisien weather at the end of September, I wore a yellow long-sleeved shirt along with my thick winter coat.

The temperature was a cool 85 degrees F.

When you purchase a ticket for the TGV, you get an assigned seat. With much difficulty, we heaved the suitcases and bought two tickets for the next train headed to Dijon. We waited some 20 minutes before we could board the train.

Once again, we forced our arms to strain their muscles and lift the rectangular rocks into the car. I eventually removed my thick coat and knotted it on the largest of the three bags.

Next issue: where were we going to put the bags?

The car normally has a spot for passengers to set aside their luggage. By the time we had boarded the car, the compartment had been filled beyond capacity. We resorted to dumping the bags next to the gap between said compartment and the bathrooms.

We looked down at our tickets to see which seat had been assigned to us. Going into the narrow corridor, Mom and I struggled and yanked at the carry-on bags to follow us. We found our seats amid a large group of Japanese tourists who looked at us inquisitively. One minute passed before a young Japanese couple informed us in their halting, gentle speech that we were in their seats.

We had gotten on the wrong car.

I could sense my mother's anger beginning to boil...

We relinquished the seats to their proper owners and dragged our hefty carry-on baggage out of the car. Since we could not bear facing the ordeal of moving all three suitcases into the next car, we sat down in the extra seats by the door.

Two Swiss stared at the badly-hassled aliens speaking to each other in a foreign tongue. The lady silently crocheted something that I imagined would belong to a baby. The young blond man's head bobbed frenetically and rhythmically to the music blaring from his earphones.

One hour and a half later, we arrived in the Dijon-Ville Gare. Just like at Gare de Lyon, there were no porters to help us with the luggage. What made it worse for two travel-weary gals was that we did not spot any elevator to help us get off the platform; we had to climb down the stairs. My Mother was close to blowing a gasket.

"Why don't you go to the information desk to see if they have anyone who could help us," she asked in a tone that clearly indicated her question was really a command.

So, I did.

"No, sorry, we can't help you," was the reply.

I don't want to give the impression that the French are inefficient and heartless. Fellow train passengers will often lend a helping hand if you are 1) young and female and 2) old and female. However, if you happen to be a young female accompanied by an old-ish female screaming viciously in a foreign language, the French will cautiously divert their gazes and nervously back-off.

Ironically enough, at the point when her bottled-up temper exploded, my mother belted out this question:

Hoping to survive to see another day, I opted to not reply.

After climbing down the stairs, we made our way to the exit which only led to more stairs. We called for a taxi. The driver was a friendly blonde who briefly became our tour guide and pointed out various Dijon sites like Rue de la Liberté and the arc-de-Triomphe-like Porte Guillaume. Within 3 minutes, we found ourselves at our hotel on Rue Montchapet.

The Receptionists

Upon arrival, we were greeted by two men. One of them, Pascal, turned out to be fluent in a few languages and was very pleased to see that I could communicate effectively in French. We checked in, heaving a sigh of relief. Pascal looked at our suitcases.

"I have good news," began Pascal. "We now have the pleasure of carrying your suitcases up three flights of steps because our hotel does not have an elevator."


Pascal and his co-worker were gentlemanly enough to take our suitcases to the third floor (if you don't count the rez-de-chausée as the official first floor; if you do, then it was the fourth floor). After settling in, we told Pascal why we had come to Dijon.

"I'm going to work as an English teaching assistant for seven months and I need to find a place to stay. I need all the help I can get..."

"Well," Pascal said, "if I hear about anything, I will let you know."

The Quest

I forgot to mention early in the post that I had traveled to France without already having an apartment. According to where assistants are placed, some are fortunate enough to have housing provided to them by the school. Others, like me, didn't have that. It was highly suggested to those unfortunate souls to wait until they arrived in France to start the search for an apartment. That way, we could familiarize ourselves with the city and calculate certain distances. I couldn't live in the hotel forever, so I had to start looking for something.

I quickly learned that finding suitable housing would become my poignant concern. Not only did I need to find a place that was safe and affordable, I also had to deal with housing terminology in French.

La caution, les frais d'agence, la location, une chambre meublée, une salle de bain, les colocataires, le propriétaire...

All of these words made my body recoil. I spent three days walking up and down the various Dijonnais streets with my mother in tow.

The streets in France were another thing I had to become accustomed to. Unlike Miami, which has streets numbered in ascending and descending order, Dijon's streets had no numbers, only names. I found that this fact priviledged me to obtain extra exercise by making me walk more when I tried to search for a particular street.

Mom and I went to realty agencies that offered unkempt cramped apartments that looked as if no one had resided in them since the late 1800s . We scanned out ads in the Bien Public, Dijon's newspaper. At one point, I saw a want ad for a student to live in a room. I eagerly called the number to see if I had a chance.

I was too late. "Désolée, mais la chambre has already been taken," said the lady. Sensing that my foreign accent sounded dejected, she inquired to see what my nationality was.

"I am American."

"Ah, bon? I thought you might have been German."

Dijon became a true desert of unavailable or out-of-budget housing.

Going to School

I didn't have much time to remain moping. On the second day of being in Dijon, Mother and I went to visit the school where I would be teaching. We thankfully woke up to blue skies and sunshine. Still resenting the previous day's agonies, she loudly exclaimed to me "I honestly don't see why you are so crazy about being here."

Countless steps up and down the Dijonnais streets and rejected phone calls had left me beginning to wonder the same thing.

The one call that was not rejected was to my contact at the high school where I would be teaching. The head of the English department, she invited me to come visit her and my future colleagues at school. We asked Pascal where the bus stop was and which line we had to take. We went down Rue de la Liberté and stopped at Miroir, the arrêt located in front of the department store Galleries Lafayette and, unavoidably, McDonald's.

Riding the Divia buses quickly became one of my greatest pleasures in Dijon. In Miami, the public transportation system is far too inefficient to be taken seriously. Ergo, that is why Miamians all drive cars. The distances, coupled by the heat and humidity, make walking a difficult task. Traffic makes walking a life-threatening risk. I have come to conclude that, in Miami, a pedestrian is nothing more than a speed bump with two legs.

At Miroir, I spotted a teenaged boy carrying a folder that bore the school's name. I decided to mimick his actions because I was untrained at using a bus. The long, white bus eventually arrived at the stop.

"Bonjour, Monsieur," I greeted as I bought two tickets and handed a 2-euro coin to the bus driver. Tickets in hand, we found a seat and sat down, without stamping the small orange pieces of paper. It wasn't until later that I learned that one had to stamp a ticket or else pay a fine.

On that ride, going up to the high school, I heard this song:

Little did I know then that "Stereo Love" was the title and that the singers weren't French; the accordion had tricked me. It was a summer song that must have been played en boucle throughout the whole season. It accentuated the otherwise silent ride. I admired all the streets we zoomed passed and the trim houses.

I kept the corner of my eye on the boy. His actions would let us know when we had arrived at the high school and therefore needed to descend. I anticipated that moment...

Barb the French Bean

Disclaimer: I do not own the video that has been shared in this post.

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