(Author’s Note: This text, written on the first day of my second stay in Salies, goes to show how one changes with time; two years later I am a Saliescien)
Day one in Salies and one cannot understand why one does not live in France: the flowers coloring every street, park and window, the humidity softening the skin, the rains (after Madrid-corner-Sahara), the gentle people who say hello in the street… it could be Paradise on Earth.
Day two in Salies and one understands why one does not live in France: perhaps it could be called ‘culture-shock’ with the French way. It starts early. I go to the park for a walk and everything seems the same, so I trudge over to the Tourist office for a map. Seeing the lady look up at me I begin asking –in my bad French- for a map of Salies and thereabouts. She snaps something about zee téléphone… and turns brusquely to take a call she apparently had waiting (for God knows how long). I wait… and wait… and wait… When she finally finishes the call, she looks up and points to a shelf: “Là, les cartes.” Couldn’t she have pointed before, while she re-took the call?
Armed with my map and a booklet which explains the “fêtes” of Salies, I head for a Café and chose an outside table. I deposit my map and booklet on the table hoping no one will occupy it while I go in and see if they have service outside. Behind the counter an elderly woman (about my age) talks to one that must be in her forties and to a man standing outside the counter and leaning on it towards the younger lady.
“Il y a de service dehors” I inquire in my best French. The younger lady bursts out laughing and says something about “fatigue” which I can’t understand. I presume she is laughing either at what I said or at me. The man and the elder lady join in. “Pour quoi vous riez?” I ask, hoping my French is at least understandable. This produces more laughter and I have that shrinking feeling inside which accompanies the fear of having done something really ridiculous and absurd.
“Je veux un café alongée, s’il vous plait” I sputter, noticing how everything in MY French seems to end in “é” more noticeably than with native French speakers.
The elder of the two women starts making my coffee while the other and her gentleman continue amusing themselves at, what I believe to be, my expense. I feel really sad to not get the joke and be able to join in, but I have lost the gist of their comments totally with my embarrassment.
The coffee is not as enjoyable as it usually is even after I sooth my ruffled feathers at the table of my choice. When I am halfway through the coffee, from somewhere on the other side of the table next to mine, occupied by 4 French women, an enormous Weimaraner charges out and towards Salomé who, terrified, makes a dash for the street. Fortunately, she’s on the leash and I practically strangle her to a standstill before she dives under the wheels of a passing car. In an attempt to get her away from the furry jaws of the monster Weimaraner, I am almost lifting her off the ground by the neck. The larger dog is so strong that it has virtually pulled its owner –a dark skinned French woman- and her chair halfway towards my table. The grey giant keeps pawing at Salomé who is whelping helplessly between her fear and her stranglement, while the owner gets it under control, pulls it back to the table and sits down, saying something in French to the other occupants at the table. Finally I can release my grip on Salomé’s leash. The party at the other table is laughing and I am wondering how it is possible that they don’t apologize for having scared me and my dog half to death. Finally, the dark skinned woman turns and says “Pardon, il veux seulement jouer”. I smile: “Pas de problème. Elle (pointing to Salomé) a le couer…” and I make the sign of violent beating against my chest while my mind entertains images of the Weimaraner “playing” with Salomé by the scruff of her neck until she’s dead.
On the way home, I go through the park and throw a few balls for Salomé to chase. With the last throw, the ball ends up in the flower patch, completely out of sight. I must do forbidden things, like entering amongst the flowers to find the ball. Suddenly what yesterday was a beautiful arrangement that delighted my eye today becomes an impossible entanglement of stems and leaves that seem to die underfoot without even a hint as to where the pink ball could be. It takes me a good 15 minutes of trampling
–wildly looking around with hopes that no one is noticing my violation of French beauty- to find the ball, get out of the flower bed and escape to my studio.
A little later, after doing chores around my petite but comfortable abode, making a phone call I had pending and writing a letter to an internet friend I decide to go to Carrefour to top off the shopping I didn’t have time to finish on Saturday. I arrive at 12:26 and leisurely start wandering up and down aisles looking for the six things on my list. I get the two beach towels that I wanted for the Thermes, walk by the DVD section and start to browse. I have picked up two DVD’s of movies that look interesting, hoping they are in English and have French subtitles, when a harried looking clerk comes charging up and saying in an accusing voice: “On va fermer dejà; on va fermer dejà”. I understand what he is saying and look at my watch: it is 12:37. I look at him puzzled “On va fermer?” I ask lamely. “Oui, oui…” he glares at me as if I were mentally retarded, “On va fermer dejà.” I helplessly look at the list where I have only crossed off one item, and then up and down the aisle. Several people are still strolling around placing things in their baskets. I decide to run through a couple of aisles looking for more of the things on my list. Quickly I locate a white plastic bucket which for 1.40€ can fulfill the role of recyclable waste bin, and pop it into the cart. A harried looking woman clerk comes along and begins hurrying me in the same tone as the not-so-gentle-man before her. I give up and head for the cashier. There is a lady with a full basket in one of the lines and I slip in behind her thinking I can run and get a few more things while she pays. I am no sooner about to abandon my cart, than the clerk who hurried me previously, slides sneakily into place at the cash register next door and signals to me to go there. I hesitate, but the firmness with which she looks at me could have been learned with the Gestapo so I switch to her lane. I am now frustrated, flustered and slightly angry as I empty my five items onto the table. Three women with carts line up behind me and I gleefully note they have a lot of merchandise; my Gestapo agent also notes it and does not look pleased. I pay for my items, almost 60€, and begin putting the DVD’s in the bucket and the towels, apparently not fast enough because the woman behind the register, stuffs one of the towels brusquely into the bucket as she hands me my change. I take the change, carefully open the coin part of the wallet, drop the coins in, then open the bill part (it is a new wallet and I am not familiar with its functioning yet) and put the bills in while Miss Gestapo dispatches the next lady in line and glares a bit at me. By this time I am totally flustered and I grab my cart, wheel it out to the car, my head buzzing, the anger welling up and my gut telling me how awful the French are. My dis-ease seems to increase with the grating of the cart wheels on the gravel. Salomé contemplates me through the car window; I smile at her as I push the cart into place, insert the metal prong and extract my euro.
Once in the car, I breathe deeply, calming down a bit, not without going over once and again, and again, and again, how unpleasant some French people are. But it’s over: I drive back into town. At the entrance to Salies, I stop for a moment. There is nothing coming behind me so I pull out my little camera and take a photo which will be titled “Entrance to Salies”. There is time for a couple of clicks before a car pulls up behind me.
When I reach town, instead of heading straight for my studio, I turn to the left and park in the main square. It’s a lovely afternoon for walking a bit while I decide where I’d like to have lunch. My mind drifts to this evening when I will put on one of the movies I have just bought. Suddenly I realize that there is no memory in my mind’s eye of putting the white bucket with my merchandise stuffed into it, in the car. I turn around and, sure enough, there is no white bucket in the back seat. I look on the floor in front of the passenger seat and it isn’t there either. I check my mind’s register and there is no image of me taking the white bucket from the cart and putting it in the car. So… I think: Oh, Lord! I’ve left the bucket and 60€ worth of stuff in the cart!!! All the way back to Carrefour I try to picture how I could have left the cart and extracted the euro without seeing the bucket sitting there. Was it possible that I was so wrapped up in my thinking, in my frustration and my irritation that I didn’t SEE what was in front of me? ZERO register… I don’t even know – my mind tells me- if I left the bucket in the cart or in the store; intuition tells me that if I had left it at the counter, the woman would have called out, in aggressive French to expose my forgetfulness. In my heart I know I left it in the cart and the chances of it still being there are slight: surely someone has come and found it. Quietly whispering to myself that I hope they are pleased with the movies I have chosen and the towels, does nothing to alleviate the feeling of frustration for having allowed my mind’s eye to be so observant of the French lack of “politesse” and so forgetful of my own business.
When I arrive at Carrefour the store is closed –at the rate they were pushing customers out they must have closed two minutes after they got rid of me-, and the line of carts has at least one behind the one I left: I can tell this because the last cart does not have the metal plug placed in the cart before it, something that I did carefully so as to remove my euro. There is no bucket –white or otherwise- in sight. For a moment I stand there, taking in the lesson that must be learned from this “oversight”. Then I get back in the car… slowly.
I sit for a moment, contemplated by Salomé who takes all these human goings-on in stride, noting how my frustration and my mind’s occupation with the business of others –the rudeness, according to me, of the French- made me be out of the money and also the merchandise. Sad but perhaps a bit wiser, I drive back into town and –having lost my appetite- find no place that entices me to stop for lunch. I park in front of the Studio building, take Salomé out of the car and, thinking of cheering myself up a bit, decide to go to the Gran Hotel du Parc for lunch, a wise and kind decision on my part it turns out, as I will lunch on a delicious dish called Noix de Saint Jacques… in translation: Saint Jacque’s Nuts, or –in plain English- scallops.