This was actually written very soon after the facts but for whatever reason I never pasted it in…
It’s a cold and rather depressing evening; we had wonderful summery weather there for a while but March has decided to come back with a vengeance. Listening to a La Bottine Souriante disc on my bulk-trash ghetto-blaster while the two-inch-high pile of paperwork standing between me and Quebec City sits half done on my kitchen table/desk (I always like to do a draft on paper before sinking my teeth into the online version).
I did not get the London job, and I can’t shake the feeling that I somehow sabotaged myself. But what’s done is done, and it took me two tries to get the job in Switzerland, two tries to get the work placement I had in Montreal my last winter of undergrad, and three tries to get sent to East Africa. And nothing is stopping me from applying again to London next year. For now, what’s done is done. I’m a bit unhappy that my loop is closing, that I’m going back to Switzerland and then back to Quebec, but another door might open.
I had some unexpected time off in the second half of last week so I went first to Le Grau du Roi and then to Nice. Le Grau du Roi is our very own Ocean City, and getting out there on the train is just 2 euros aller-retour. Rob and I went, and did what anyone does on the beach in March—waded into the frigid water, felt the ice crystals growing inside our bone marrow, then spent the rest of the day lying on the beach, drinking lemonade I’d made and reading paperback books, until we realized we were already cooked shrimp and would cross the line into lobster territory if we were not careful. Then we both got all-consuming cravings for moules frites, only to run smack into the rigid French scheduling—it was nearly five in the afternoon, lunch was long over, and dinner wouldn’t start until after 7, inconveniently timed to be half an hour after the last train. Rob thought it was a plot between the SNCF, restaurants and hotels to get tourists to stay the night; I thought it was just plain damn annoying. Either way, I headed back, heated up some pasta and went to bed because I had to get up at 4:30 the next morning…not all that different from tonight, in fact.
The next morning I had to get to Nice. The World Figure Skating Championships were on, and I had just gotten paid—on time, for the first time since I got this job. Felt like destiny.
For people who met me after I was 19 or 20, it might come as a surprise that skating consumed my life for eight years. I loved everything about it, starting with moving to the music and performing for an audience, but passing through the jumps, the spins, the discipline, the sweat and the early morning workouts, the friends and coaches and teammates who became close as family at times when my own family weren’t the easiest people to be around.
Feeling special and powerful in my tight dress. Passing a skills test or placing well at a competition and feeling all the work come to a head. The adrenaline that sizzles through the rink as people wait for their names to be called, the tingle of the cold air through my tights.
When I first decided to be a journalist, I wanted to be a sportswriter specializing in skating. But for all that, I left the sport without even thinking about it. I was never a really good jumper and after awhile that stopped me from advancing in the sport. All through high school and the first year of university I had amazing coaches, but in second year I had a coach who was only able to be a part-time coach in the first place and put most of her focus on a competitive synchronized team. I’m not saying what she did was wrong, it was just wrong for me. I’d also gotten a job and started paying my own expenses; ice time was expensive and I could not afford the money or time to go looking for a better coaching arrangement or even maintain my skates. I started dancing, which filled a lot of the need I had for music, physical activity and human contact. With work, school and dancing, not to mention a coach who didn’t motivate me as much as her predecessor (he was an old-school Russian, simultaneously affectionate and tough, who treated me exactly the same as the regional-champion, triple-jumping junior and senior men he coached; she would spend ten minutes teaching me a step sequence and then put me in a corner to practice it) and practices that were half an hour earlier (6:30 instead of 7) it just was not worth it anymore. Before I even realized it, four times a week had become two, then one, then once or twice a month, then whenever I had time, which was less and less often. Of course I can still skate—it’s like driving, I don’t think you can forget it—but I don’t even try to jump anymore, and I can’t hit the same spin and spiral positions I did back when I was in twelfth grade, on the ice twelve or fourteen hours a week and working out for an hour every day before school.
Flash back again to nine years ago, when I was in ninth grade, with around two dozen skaters of all ages from my rink, we put our lives on hold for a whole week and went to the world championships in Washington, DC. We lived on coffee, took exhaustive notes and bugged skaters for autographs at every break, then piled into the cars of those who had cars, got home—late, giggling, with the same glittery feeling as after a really amazing concert—to watch tapes of the TV broadcasts, then go to sleep and get up to do it all over again. We slept only about four or five hours a night. But when you love what you’re doing, you’re blind to time and sleep and food and all that. It was the best week of the decade.
And here, now, the chance of living that opportunity, which I thought I’d never had again, was staring me in the face Never mind that it was five hours to Nice. Never mind that I had to get up at 4:45 to catch the 6:10 train to make it to the ladies’ short program on time, and it was already close to midnight. I was the mom and my 14-year-old self was begging me, holding my wrist and jumping up and down on the balls of my feet. I had just gotten paid after all. No way in hell could I afford an all-event ticket, but I could at least manage to see the ladies’ short program.
The damn 6:10 train was cancelled, meaning I had gotten up an hour earlier than I needed to and I would be late even in the best of circumstances. But it wasn’t that big a deal.
At the World Figure Skating Championships there are usually between 40 and 50 total competitors in ladies’ singles and around the same number of men. Based on past results (for the established names) and performance in a qualifying round (for less experienced skaters), 30 competitors advance to the short program. They warm up in groups of six at a time, then skate two-minute-forty-second programs with a sort of checklist of required elements. The top twenty-four skaters are allowed through into the long program, which lasts around four minutes for women and 4.30 for men. The short and long program scores are added together to determine the final placement of each competitor.
Fortunately for me, neither in the short nor in the long are the “big names” usually early in the lineup. I missed one group but there were sill 5 to go.
There were few fans there except for real diehards, which wasn’t that big a surprise. It was a bright sunny spring day in a beautiful city by the Mediterranean. Everything about the rink looked temporary; I had skated in some nicer places in high school. But they were there anyway—brightly made-up Swedes wearing blue clown wigs, flag-waving Japanese and Spaniards, loud Americans and Russians, Germans who had brought the same earsplitting noisemakers they take to Bundesliga matches, the Canadians always numerous and endearing, friendly middle-aged prairie dwellers taking up a whole section in their maple-leaf patterned fleeces, French schoolgirls chanting and waving homemade placards. Before I even realized it I was drawn into animated speculation with the fans around me, who were all anglophones. We called the competitors and coaches by their first names and dissected everything we could find to dissect. Skaters and coaches may seem like big stars , but they couldn’t be distant if they wanted to. Because many serious fans are skaters, a ticket-buying fan could only be three or four degrees of separation from the competitors. Oftentimes skaters get off the ice, change clothes and melt right into the crowd in the stands, to cheer on their teammates and evaluate the competition. They mill around the coffee queues and the exhibitor booths along with coaches, choreographers, “parents-of”, TV commentators on break and ticket-paying fans. I heard a few people speaking in thick Quebec accents behind me in the vendors’ area and figured out they were Amelie Lacoste’s coach and possibly her mom. Lacoste appeared five minutes later and I ran around looking for something appropriate for her to sign, but by the time I found an ice-resurfacing-machine advertisement that had a lot of white space on it, she had gone. During the men’s event, French men’s champion Brian Joubert poked his quite recognizable head into the section where we were sitting, looking for somebody.
A few skaters I had really looked up to as a child were still going at it, including Carolina Kostner of Italy who is the fastest and most powerful lady skater I know but has a tendency to come unraveled after one mistake. The powerful and striking Japanese girls were there—who knew what power was in those cute, prettily dressed bodies? The French skater, a gorgeous, young black girl who had to block out the entire rink hollering at her. Girls from Germany and Austria that only the noisemaker guys had ever heard of, who won everyone over by skating the best program of their careers and going off the ice hollering and pumping their fists. A delightful salsa-themed skate from a girl from Puerto Rico, who sadly finished in 25th place. There were disasters too, like one of the milquetoast American girls, who fell three times and got sympathy applause at the end. The most impressive were the resurgent Russian girls—a few years ago the Russian women’s program had nearly been given up for dead, but now there’s the elegant, powerful Nordic-looking Ksenia Makarova, perky but self-possessed Liza Tuktamisheva (who is only 14 and consequently was not allowed to compete), and Alyona Leonova, who I really like—not over-the-top feminine at all, powerful, theatrical and emotionally involved. Jumps like a super ball. A sparkplug, to use a cliché. The kind of skater I would have been, if I’d been a good enough jumper to rise up the ranks and not gotten distracted by little things like university. It was Leonova who won the segment, skating to Pirates of the Caribbean in trousers, a blouse and vest and a bandanna. On dirait Keira Knightley.
After the women’s event I went to get a sandwich and buzzed around Nice for awhile. To me, it looks like a city bathed in light. There’s a beach right there in the city and you can see from the colour of the Mediterranean why they call it the Cote d’Azur. My original plan was to leave after the ladies’ event and just go back to Nimes and avoid spending the money. Once at the train station I discovered (to my great annoyance) to make the last train to Nimes I would have needed to sprint back to the train station just after the event. And the icing on the cake was somewhere between the arena, the train station and the tram, a library book had disappeared from my bag. So it was time for Plan B, finding a hostel. Most of the hostels were full, but there was one partway out in the suburbs which apparently had a few beds left. I headed out there, and two bus transfers and a long walk up a steep hill later, was told it was full. Either the website was bull or the remaining beds had been snatched up in the hour it took for me to get out there. At this point I wasn’t a very pleasant person to deal with at this point—sleep-deprived, tired and out of options with a bad stomachache because I hadn’t eaten right all day (I think the only thing I had consumed all day was a cheeseburger).
The manager, a slim, mustached German guy around my father’s age, advised me to “go have a drink or two in the bar and we’ll sort this out.”
I went to the bar, drank one orange juice after another (healthy, reasonably caloric and cheap) and installed myself at one of the dozens of free computer terminals around the enormous bar.
Leave it to Dieudonné to straighten my head out, from a continent away. “I lost a library book, a library book, a LIBRARY BOOK!!!!!” I type-howled.
“It’s only a thing,” he said.
Well of course! How much will it cost to replace anyway, 20 EUR? Hardly a catastrophe. Why was I ruining my night over a book? I eventually got into conversation with a Moroccan guy and a couple of German girls who spoke French. By now over four hours had gone by since the manager had said “We’ll sort this out”—I mean, he obviously has other fish to fry, doesn’t he?
It turned out that a double room was unoccupied, normally 60 EUR a night but available to me for half price because otherwise it would sit empty. Delicious sleep.
The next morning I got up and took the bus into town. It was fantastic to be back in a city with decent mass transit again, where I could just wait a few minutes and jump on a bus and get where I wanted to go. I poked around some stores and then took the tram that went to the arena. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to the men’s event or not, but there were a two rink volunteers standing around selling their free tickets for half price. There were three tickets available and I was third in line. So I got to watch the men’s performances, which I’ve always liked better for one reason: the guys don’t have so many expectations tied to them artistically. Instead of a dozen ballerinas and four or five Spanish dancers and one pirate who is the highlight of the evening, you have a gypsy, a kung-fu fighter, a jazz musician, Austin Powers, an action hero, the occasional male ballet dancer and even the occasional cowboy or silent movie character. One Italian guy I really like skated to tarantella music; there were swing and techno programs. I enjoyed the Polish boy, a Cossack dancer who ended up in 25th place, the Japanese guy whose kodo-drum program clicked together with his spare and powerful style, and the segment winner, Patrick Chan from Canada, who came out in black trousers and a cardigan and skated a relaxed, masterful blues program. At times he was rocking out so much to the music that he lost his focus and there were wobbly moments, but he still deserved to win the segment.
I sprinted out just after the last skater and made the train with minutes to spare. I got into a conversation with my seat-mate, a street cleaner from the Seychelles, off to see family in Lyon. He worked in Monaco. The higher Monaco salary allowed him to go see his family in the islands twice a year and stop in Dubai and have some fun along the way—can you imagine an American street cleaner having that much money or vacation time? I told him I was charmed by Nice, that it looked to me to be a city suffused with light. But to him it had its share of blemishes. “Nice is dirty,” he said, pointing out the window. “You see that graffiti? We wouldn’t have that in Monaco. Why don’t they hire people to clean that up? And then people complain about how there are no jobs—why don’t they pay people to clean that up?!”
Why do I say that everything changed after Nice? Because it did. The next day I had originally planned to go to Toulouse, but the night over in Nice had eaten up my Toulouse money. I went to meet the group, then wandered over to Nimes’ Communist bar, the Prolé, to a benefit party for AIDS research. I had invited two girls who had worked on the Carnival des Différences with me (that is to say, me and Daphnée and Jean-Claude and Annelies and Seydou and Alexandrine and Rémy and the whole crowd). The Carnaval des Différences, that’s another story. A story that involves parading through the streets of Nimes with friends, dressed as colourfully as can be, making as much noise as possible while calling for the closure of detention centres for refugee claimants, and running smack into a shocked Lucienne and her kids while dressed as a bluefish in a tuxedo, on a dare from Rémy. And meeting girls with pretty brown eyes.
I’m waiting for the girls on the back terrace, watching the Spanish dancers and beginning to doubt sincerely if they will show up, feeling a bit hurt, to be honest. I notice one other person by themselves. A guy, older–not *old* like Rémy who has white hair and a son my age, but older than me–sitting by himself. I slide my chair subtly over to his table. “Are you here by yourself too?” I ask.
That was Frédéric. And after an hour of talking with him (and one of the brown-eyed girls, Lucie, who finally did show up) I felt like I’d known him for years. It’s one of those…things. You don’t know what it is, but it’s happened to all of us.
The next day he texted me in the morning and I went to meet him for coffee. We ended up taking a long walk through the streets of Vieux Nîmes, ending up at a delightful Vietnamese restaurant where we talked about war and injustice and how much I wanted to be a correspondent, and Africa. He told me stories–some funny, some bitter–about his not-particularly-friendly family members and whiney 19-year-old housemates.
We wandered down to Les Jardins de la Fontaine, the biggest park in Nimes, and who did we find there but Seydou! and Rémy! We must have made a weird group, especially in Nimes where–let’s be honest–mixed-race crowds are not often seen walking down the street laughing together. The young girl with the foreign accent, the black guy with the dreads and the Senegalese accent (fast, inflected, rolling the r’s), 70-something Rémy with his head of white hair and ridiculous sense of humour, and Frédéric in the middle of it all, a middle-aged man with the big laughing eyes of an eight-year-old. It was a delightful afternoon–and is there anything more satisfying than seeing a new friend who gets on with all of your old friends? We ended up having a silly debate over whether there were horses in Africa (funny, I don’t recall anyone mentioning zebras) and making up tongue twisters with the words “cheval” (horse) and “Sénégal” (Seydou’s native country). With Rémy, Frédéric and I went to visit Daphnée. The thing that happened between them was deep and wonderful–they connected, instantly. It helps that they’re both empathetic, the kind of people who give and give and give and give until they drop, and they both spend a lot of time caring for handicapped family members–Frédéric’s mother has MS, Daphnée’s granddaughter has a rare genetic disease and uses a wheelchair and her boyfriend has had several strokes. They’re also both mother hens–a father hen, in Frédéric’s case. They’re both very strong–despite going back and forth to hospitals to see her boyfriend, despite working long hours as a house painter with colleagues who don’t take anything seriously, despite having to emotionally and physically support a slowly dying 10-year-old, despite always being the person our friends call when they’re broke or depressed or in hospital, I’ve never really heard Daphnée complain–but they need each other. The epilogue to this story, if I can write it so soon, is that they still see each other nearly every day. If nothing else comes of my entire trip to Nimes, I will have–totally by accident–caused two people who needed each other lke plants need water, to meet. And that will make everything worth it.
And it turns out that he lives a block away from me.
Later that evening, we were hunched over Frédéric’s computer reading the news–we’re both news junkies–and I asked to look at his music selection.
Not only did he have the complete works of Brassens and Trénet, but also Tiken Jah Fakoly.
Now that’s a weird coincidence.