I spent the entire morning of my day off running around, picking up things I had forgotten to include in a long-promised care package to Emilie, Pierre and Nadège, forgot the packing tape, walked the 15 minutes back to get it and, after the usual half hour or more of queuing at the Cadereau post office and initally speaking to an employee who had never heard of Burundi, filled out all the customs forms, wrote Fabia’s address on it and sent it onward. After teaching yesterday, I spent a long time arranging a shipment of headphones from that tour company in Spain to my students via Antoine, Professor K and Alexis. Then I tried again (after continual bothering since October) to convince Alexis not to charge my students a 4000-franc fee to pick up their certificates for my class. Even if it is a legitimate attempt to recoup printing expenses instead of the pocket-lining it sounds like to my skeptical ears, it’s downright mean-spirited to change my students 4000 francs for these “attestations” when they have enough trouble finding 600 francs to get themselves to and from school.
Godmothering is a full-time job! So is negotiating with sources, collaborators, editors and photographers while working on stories about (ready?) gay refugees, Canadian military bureaucracy, child labour and microbreweries. So, more or less, is teaching. And I still don’t have a home computer; it’s looking like before March, I won’t. So you understand why my posts haven’t been as consistent as I would like.
It took a frightfully long time, but I’m finally starting to get a niche here, with, you know, friends and all.
There’s Rob the Recluse, of course, with his nice Belgian housemate Jeanne (who is sadly leaving next week) and their friends. Since Christmas, we’ve had half a dozen evenings fuelled by wine and our own cooking.
There’s Carlos, the Spanish assistant, our Italian colleague, and the other non-plastic girl assistants. We aren’t really the plan-making kind, but we sometimes bang into each other on the street which often leads to coffee and a nice talk.
There are Daphnée, Jean-Claude, Alexandrine, Marianne and the rest of my left-wing discussion group friends. We get together three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. I don’t know how anything constructive gets done…we have working stiffs, retired people, students and the unemployed; Catholics, agnostics, airy-fairy spiritualists and hard-line Marxist nonbelievers; activists with various left-wing parties and people who are so disenchanted they no longer vote, as well as people who are too young to vote; anti-alcohol activists, habitual drunks and everyone in between. The only thing we have in common is a belief that the current cynical bourgeois-corporate system is not serving the interest of the everyday workers and would-be workers , in other words, most people. That and we all like potluck picnics, and believe the local newspaper is a rag. Jean-Claude, Daphnée and I especially spend a lot of time together, editing the minutes after our Monday meetings. Well…playing with her dog, laughing, talking about love, life and whatever and occasionally turning our attention back to said minutes. Jean-Claude is a retired SNCF train engineer who loves to talk to me (in excellent English) about his adventures in Canada. Daphnée is a house painter and a grandmother. She loves her dog, her granddaughter…and us. All of our numbers are on her speed dial and her phone never stops ringing with someone who has gotten himself or herself into some situation.
Yesterday Jean-Claude and I came over to Daphnée’s flat at around 3:30 with the stated purpose of doing the minutes. We ended up lingering over tea and getting hungry- hungry enough to give ourselves a special treat and go to a restaurant, which meant I went to bed with a happy stomach full of ham and sauerkraut instead of the planned rice and broccoli stems. We played with the dog, danced to old rock songs on the radio and laughed until we were weak in the knees.
There’s also Ibrahim, the owner of the most reliably open cybercafé in town. We started talking because we were both wearing black fedoras one evening. Then in less than half an hour we were talking about religion. I think he likes me because I always ask him about his country, Morocco, and I’m neither as loud, as demanding or as off the plot as most of the other migrant workers who come in there.
There’s Fabrice the burger man, who’s really only drunk some of the time and gentlemanly all the time.
There’s Mitch in Montpellier, Mary in Lunel, Giulia in Alès and Sam in Mende. And of course thanks to computers, neither Ottawa nor Burundi near anywhere else is as far away as it used to be.
And finally there’s Tarek, who I can’t believe I haven’t written about before. He’s my friend. A huge, bearlike Chechen refugee who runs the Russian grocery store halfway between my place and Brahim’s café. One time, months ago, I just walked in and started chatting with him in my rusty Russian. Now we chat a few times a week, about a little bit of everything. Putin, the protests in Russia, Chechnya, Islam, our families, the Americans, the French, the Spaniards, the Russians, the Germans, the movie playing on his TV, our various petty worries and so forth. Not all that different from what I talk about with Yves, except Yves is a pen pal and Tarek is someone who I see. Although the way I do things, Tarek will become a pen pal too, in relatively short order.
Oftentimes, Tarek’s Chechen friends come to keep him company in the little shop. Between themselves they practically speak a secret language: French, Russian, Chechen and Arabic tossed into a big linguistic blender. I asked Tarek once to teach me a few words of Chechen and– this is the first time I’ve ever said this about a language– I really can’t get my tongue around it. When I’m there, they usually do me a favour and stick to Russian.
When there are a few of us, Tarek will pass around tea or ice creams or Heinekens and we’ll sit around and talk about whatever is on our minds and watch the TV which always murmurs in the background among the cans of pickled tomatos. A few nights ago there was a documentary on about Bokassa,and I found myself explaining to the Chechens who Bokassa was. In Russian. this whole experience has been fantastic for my Russian.
I signed up for a cheap Russian class at a community centre here. I’m reviewing the same reflexive verbs I first saw when I was 15, along a coouple of French doctors, their pre-teen son, a few retirees and a guy named sergei who left the Soviet Union as a small child and never learned his parents’ language fully.
The prof is a skinny, bespectacled older lady, the spitting image of Claudine from the postal union. She’s a real stickler for pronunciation, which is ironic considering she has one of the thickest Ukrainian accents I have ever heard.
I don’t know when I’ll go back to the Russian-speaking world again, but when I was in Paris reporting the gay refugee story, and many times before that, it has proven a real wrench in the tool belt.