Thursday, March 27, 2008


8am, Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Made it onto the airport bus headed to St. Exupery. More people getting on the bus now, cramming on, as an old guy finally decides to move the coat and bag he had sitting on the two chairs behind him off the seat so someone else can sit there. Nice. And someone comes up from the back of the bus and sits right down there. Kind of like on the funiculier this morning when I had my bag sitting on an open seat in front of me as I stood. There were multiple other seats available but I moved my bag out of the way as a middle aged woman with white hair came on to the middle station on the way down the hill, and she promptly sat right where my bag had been without acknowledging me. And so it was.

If I had any doubts about whether there’s place in non-place maybe I found out in the last hour or so. After dropping off the keys for Romain’s dorm room in the mail box at Caroline’s place, I decided I’d walk to the next stop at Bellecour and get on the metro there instead of walking back to Vieux Lyon. Fair enough. The river was brownish grey looking since the sun hadn’t come up. Mostly clear sky, pretty cold, probably in the mid to high 40s. that part was fine. Took a few pictures. Postcards do it better so I haven’t taken many of these kind of pictures but something possessed me to turn back and take a few of Fourviere and the scene around there. Maybe because this is the day I’m leaving?

Getting to Bellecour though was the start of a mini-crisis that’s obviously resolved as I’m sitting on the bus right now, speeding past the green countryside just outside of Lyon. 1:55 remaining til flight time. Plenty, right?

I spotted the elevator on the other side of the street as I walked along one edge of Place Bellecour. Vast expanse of open ground there where kids had been playing soccer last night, running around, when I had checked out what turned out to be my last VeloV out of pure gluttony (?), just to ride around and try taking a video while riding. I had something half in mind like the silly Foux de Fa Fa video that the tutors had shown us and which I’ve since watched several times on Youtube. But nothing of the sort at 7am on a weekday. I went directly over to the elevator—that is, crossed the street after waiting for the crossing light to turn green (why is there no blinking red light here? You never know how much time you’ve got left on a ‘red’, that is, just how ‘red’ a red light is. And the drivers don’t stop for you, like Rick was saying last night...)

Get to the elevator. Great. Some dude is loading a bunch of boxes from his truck onto a mini-lift/cart thing that’s already inside the elevator taking up most of the room. I decide I don’t want to enter into a linguistic interaction with a likely unknown outcome (“Can I ride this elevator too? How many more of these freakin’ boxes are you going to load before this thing goes down the floor”). I was getting a little annoyed since I hadn’t slept much and I had already schlepped the bags around quite a bit, thought that the stairs in the dorm leaving earlier in the morning were the only stairs I’d have to navigate, unlike the trip up the hill 11 days ago with its multiple staircases, sidewalks of varying or completely disappearing width, unpredictable walking surfaces, etc. And of course the jaws of death, the subway gates that, like any urban setting where gate-jumpers have figured out ways to avoid paying fare, snap shut after you put your suitcase through and you have to pry them back open or risk turning into a piece of chopped meat.

What would I have said in that interaction? French as an object, something I can reasonably think about and talk about right now, seems rather far away. Because I’m tired? Because I’m heading back to California to rejoin life there? It’s interesting, the French is there, but...but I get ahead of myself.

So next up is to walk back across the street and take the escalator down. I had noticed that the escalator near the elevator was totally fenced off/blockaded, so I was glad there was another one across the street. Wait for the light to change. It’s not changing. Since there are no cars, I decide to just walk across the broad street and hope nothing comes peeling around the corner. Reminds me of last night when I had asked Rick what “Jaywalking” is called in French, and after pondering for a minute he said something to the effect of, there’s no word for that since it’s what everyone does anyway. And it seems true based on 11 days of observat—er, participation.

As soon as the cars have passed people are walking across the street. But Bellecour is one of the wider expanses of pavement between sides for pedestrians, or pietons (one of my favorite words...I was wondering if the expression “je suis soulamente un pieton dans la vie” makes any sense...)

OK, the bus has arrived at the airport and now it’s time to do the check-in thing. TBC in a few minutes...


Well that was more than a few minutes. I’m sitting next to Gate 14A now after going through security twice, listening to the musical sounds of the woman working at the Segafredo stand singing to customers, “Bonjour, monsieur!” “Merci monsieur!”.

Monsieur. I was just getting used to being “아저씨” (uncle) in Korean and now this...but it’s just a question of how you greet people, not just saying “hi” but “hi sir!”. Sir.

The wine, the wine, how could I have forgotten the wine? How could I have forgotten the all-important 3 ounce limit? This of course came after my bag weighed in at about 25kg. It didn’t seem to be a problem as the Lufthansa attendant processed my passport but then I asked her (why did I ask her?) and she mentioned casually that when it’s checked onto United in Frankfurt it might be a problem. And I thought, I’m glad I asked. Seemed like it wasn’t even an issue on Lufthansa. What’s an extra kilo? But I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out somehow that since my baggage was over weight with United, they fined me or kept the luggage back or something. Just because. Welcome back to the USA. Looking forward to paying for my peanuts.

But, yes, the wine. The two bottles that Romain’s father had given me after they had so kindly invited me over to their house for Easter lunch with their family. The second time I got to eat with them and soak in all the little things I have access to as a foreigner here who speaks only enough of the language to get a few laughs. To see how they talk at the lunch table, the laughter, the joking, moving from champagne to wine, from appetizers to main course, to the even smaller things like learning how to eat bread.

How to eat bread? Well, yeah, where to put it. It’s fine, of course, to put your bread on the table. Nobody was putting it on their plate. And when the cheese goes around and if you already cut one kind with the knife and you don’t want to infect the next block, what do you do? Get a new knife, right? Pas du tous, just wipe off the cheese with your bread. What else would you do? Around the table with in the living room with the interlocked diagonal wood floors and high ceilings and electronic picture frame that rotates all the family photos by, admired by all the family gathered from different parts of Lyon—uncles, aunts, cousins, a baby and an infant (whose? I wouldn’t know if they told me), Romain and his nice sister Marion (siblings whose names have the same letters, just arranged differently, he told me the first time I met her. Was this on purpose? It reminds me of meeting with the professor yesterday with the little Scottish terrier, named Aya. Why Aya? Well, it’s short. But why does Aya’s name start with an “A”? Because, of course, all purebread dogs born in Aya’s year have to have a name that starts with an “A”. By law, or by practice? I don’t know...) and with Romain’s grandfather.

His grandfather, with whom I had one of the most substantial conversations in French that I’ve had here. Substance in terms of import, of content, and not of length, and certainly not in terms of my contributions, since I didn’t really say that much. But he, smiling, wearing jacket and tie, with no teeth to be seen, told me he had fought in the war. That he admired the English, admired the Americans. And what was to happen in the next U.S. presidential election? Something about democrats and republicans. It was hard to tell. I nodded, I listened. I could feel his words but not separate them. Could feel good will and respect and the weight of history that probably had few outlets at the lunch table with everyone else...nobody else who had fought in that war. Did he talk with Romain’s joke-cracking uncle, who talked of all the bizarre things he had eaten and seen eaten in Vietnam? Had his uncle fought as well? Had he lived there?

These conversations, these meanings, remain veiled behind a haze, a haze that lifts for a few words and then descends back upon the melodic, the whispering, the unfolding, winding streams of sound around me. And I can tell in places when I myself am being interpellated, being spoken to or spoken of—actually a fuzzy distinction a lot of the time for me as it must be for other language learners who find themselves in group settings. At certain points I realize I’m being spoken to, in a way, but when the speaker realizes that I’m not capable of responding or following what’s going on, they reorient themselves to the other competent speakers around them and what had been second-person address terms slip into the third person. “He...”

...doesn’t speak French.

Around the lunch table, I know Romain’s mother was reaching out to me, asking questions to include me that she must have realized halfway through I couldn’t quite grasp, or know where they were coming from, and the questions died in flight, and I was aware of myself at the table as a spectacle or maybe rather as a static image, part of the background to the ‘real’ conversation going on that somehow wouldn’t let itself be just a background.

Since it did ask for another piece of bread once in a while.

But it certainly did not ask for a bottle of wine, and even more certainly not TWO. Yet Romain’s father, the pinball repairman who hunts and had a fur hat made for the babies that still hung in the room, who loved his wine and loved his cheese (bleu’s the best, he said knowingly), who was a step or two behind his wife in conversation, a bit more reserved, but who had smiles aplenty to fill the linguistic gaps left wide open, was insistent that I should take some with me. I felt awkward as I saw him reaching into a case and pulling one out, then the other, putting the first one back, and deciding which he would send with me. I, ignorant of where they came from or what they mean, what’s a ‘good’ wine there—the most important lesson I learned when getting a few bottles to take over to Caroline’s house several nights ago was that as long as there’s no barcode on the front of the wine, you’re doing OK, since barcode says less than 5 euro.

I had put those two bottles in my backpack, separated carefully so they wouldn’t be banging into each other. Yet where did I think I was traveling? And more importantly, when did I think I was traveling? Certainly before September 11 2001. I had thought of putting them in my suitcase, congratulating myself on the ingenious solution of putting a bottle each in my two rollerblades, well protected and needing only a little extra wrapping on the tops to insure they didn’t meet the fate of my plastic razors that must have received an impact from the outside as the handlers dropped one bag on top of another. But that would have been too heavy, I thought...

So I checked the luggage once I had pulled out some more of the weight, and threw away some of the daily papers that I was planning to bring back for other students in my French language class in Berkeley. Got ready to go through security, took out my computer, got waved through the x-ray machine, and everything was cool. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. But the young guy was saying something about bottles in my backpack. I said yeah and he looked away, did something else, didn’t make anything of it, so I started putting my stuff back together, computer back in case. Got everything put together and was ready to go when he said, “Excuse me.”

“You have two bottles in your bag?”
“Can you show me please?”

I took them out and it was only as I was removing them that I realized what I was doing, what I had done...was wine somehow exempt from liquid restrictions in my mind? It was a gift, how could it be a problem? And how could it have been a problem when the security guy was being so pleasant about it? I’m pretty sure (though there are exceptions of course) that the TSA official in the US would have used the opportunity to belittle me, to threaten me, to taunt me and make me feel either stupid or semi-criminal or both at the same time, taking the condescending parental directive tone that now seems to be what passes for “service” in transportation and other official agencies. Post offices, airports, train stations.

So he reminded me, ever so pleasantly that, no, these could not go. Even in Europe, I found out from him on the second pass through, as of November last year there’s a 100ml restriction on flights (7 years after 9/11!) and I had to go back out with my bottles and all, and figure out what to do with the wine.

As I now have to figure out how to get on this plane, as people have started boarding the plane...

Sitting here above the clouds, caught a few glimpses of the Alps before clouds moved underneath us. We’re in a German-speaking zone again, and the sharp jawlines, curt smiles, tall stature and sand-blond hair of the stewardess passing by remind me of where we’re going, that, yes, this is Lufthansa. As I needed a reminder, here came the sandwiches in their little half-baggies. I’ll save it for later, as there’s no telling what might be in the McUnited happy meal in several hours. And up ahead I had seen a bottle of wine being passed to someone sitting down. I’m going to order that too. Wine at 11:30 in the morning? Why not. Because I can. And I looked at her when she came by and asked (I think) what I wanted to drink and I said “vin blanc”. No response. White wine, please. And she pulled out a bottle. Glinting red color through the green glass as it sat on top of the tray and she arranged some other stuff. The man next to me, in shirt working on his PC, noticed, turned to me and asked, “Did you order white wine?” yes, white wine. And we cleared it up with the stewardess, who smiled back, mouth closed. Poured a cup and passed it over with the napkin.

And then came the rest of the bottle, assuaging my momentary concern. Was I only going to get the little cupful? I’m used to this, it’s par for the course where I come from. But there’s something fulfilling, a bizarre psychological reality like going to a buffet and knowing, just knowing that you can eat all you want to, that feels so satiated at having the ‘whole’ bottle. All 10 ounces or whatever it is. This is the strategy of Cheeseboard pizza in Berkeley also. If you can give people a smaller piece but then cut a little sliver “extra” and put it on top, well then, your customers will really think they have something special. Makes me think that a better strategy for coping with rising gas prices in the States is for the government and the oil companies to get together and just redefine the gallon. Make it something like 2.5 liters instead of what it is now. So you’ll only have to pay $1.65 for a gallon of gas. Kind of like they’ve already done with ice cream. Isn’t a redefinition of the systems of measurement in order?

“Would you like some water with your wine?”

Sure that’d be great. Is that how people drink it usually? Not to get dehydrated? I remember in Vienna drinking water with coffee. And then...

“Would you care for anything else?”

Hmm...should I have a coke with my wine and water? Or does food count here too? It wouldn’t be a bad idea to stash away another sandwich for the trans-atlantic flight. But I pocketed my miserly grad student instincts and said that’d be enough.

Cut back to the airport where I was walking the wrong way out the security exit, setting off the alarms as I walked with my camera-packed bags (but did I forget my cell phone charger and computer power cord? Shit, gotta check, I’m getting nervous). What was I going to do? Drink the wine? Not an option. I asked at the counter if I could get my bag that I’d already checked back and reshuffle the luggage, but it was too late, they informed me. Great. Give the wine away? Leave it there in the Lyon airport? That’s when the sense that that was indeed a ‘non-place’ hit me so hard. What worse crime than to leave 2 bottles of personally selected, memory-rich bottles of wine (even if I couldn’t appreciate their names and regions and years) in a place like an airport, left to who knows what fate? To get thrown away? Disposed of? Brought home by someone who I would no doubt be friends with if I got to know but, as part of the non-place of the airport, might as well be a drone?

Absolutely not an option. I go to the Lufthansa service desk and ask them if there’s any packaging material I can buy. No. Wander around some more. Tired. Sleepy. My eyes are red from not sleeping that much the last few nights. Great way to start an international flight, I think. Go back to the original counter and I talk to a guy there and he mentions that they have a few boxes, would this work? He shows me and I greedily accept it from him. There is hope.

“And do you have any packing tape?”

I’m normally not assertive, I think. Don’t normally press for what I want or even know how to define it all that well. I watch pushy people in line, or interacting with others, or pushing their research agendas, and I say pushy probably because I lack the confidence and self-assertion at times myself. They’re just doing what they need to do to ‘get the job done’. Well this is me this time and it’s OK. He gives me the packing tape and I’m off, off with the stack of newspapers I had taken this morning (sorry French students!) that were soon to be repurposed as packing material for these bottles of wine...


And 20 minutes the two bottles were encased in the box, suspended in a sea of crumpled newspaper and airport guides, and sandwiched between my Chez Nous textbook on the bottom and Mitchell’s Me++ on the top. Sitting under me in the cargo bay as I write this message. One of them, I’m not sure which, I plan to share with mom and dad, tonight if I have enough energy.

France, France, France is something that we share, somehow, now. As my mom had visited first and loved it but the rest of the family, myself included, had never picked up on her interest in France. Fields of sunflowers and cosmopolitan scenes and ancient churches and guided bus tours and hotel rooms and battling the occasional migraine headache that could sabotage one’s experience of a whole region of the country or, God forbid, the entire experience of Switzerland on the whirlwind bus tour, her sister in crime and love Marj and the fields of sunflowers, sunflowers that now and still live in the side yard of the house, lining the fence, visible through the window of my room at home in Livermore. There was France looking in at me as I slept. And Paris, wherein lies the entire world, it’s true, like Rick was telling me last night as we walked back from Christine’s.

The world in a city, imagine that. It’ll be a lot easier to imagine once I charge this computer. Thanks, wine, for the enhanced sentimentality as we descend into the clouds...

1pm. Frankfurt Airport.
There didn’t end up being an outlet here. Sitting in the pre-holding pen with other passengers going to SF, like animals in a zoo. I’ve lost my momentum. The sky’s gloomy, and after a bus ride from the plane across a mile of airport tarmac, a maze of terminals...tired.

2:40pm? I think? In seat 49C at cruising altitude now, probably over England but already very far out of Europe. The insane, inane politics of overbooking and last-minute seat assignment by the monkeys at United Airlines have left many of us on this plane shaking our heads, irritated, tired of being shuffled around, told to show passports repeatedly, ignored...seems to be a standard business practice now.

Thinking back several hours now to when I started writing this post, after just having got on the airport bus, I think of the difficulty finding the stop at Grange Blanche and how ‘being’ on that bus is different from being on this plane. The frustration I feel with U.S. airlines has a history, a discursive ocean surrounds it, and I have the words to ‘language’ it; wandering around the roundabout with all its different bus stops, at Grange Blanche, unable to find a plan or map or layout of bus numbers, destinations, and position on the plaza, my lack of language overlapped with a lack of familiarity with where I was, the ability to ‘place’ myself at Grange Blanche. What do French speakers call the assemblage of covered benches that line the concrete island inside the roundabout on the ground level and the bus stops on the adjoining streets? Is this one place or several? I was searching frantically for the bus stop on the roundabout, looking for a master plan, and assumed that the airport bus would arrive at one of the stops there. After walking back and forth a few times, though, saw the airport waiting at one of the intersecting streets.

Great. There’s no way I can get over there in time. But at least I know where it is so I start dragging my suitcase over that way. I get to the stop 2 minutes after the bus left and since Samira reminded me that the buses come every 20 mins., I thought I’d use this ‘occasion’ to grab a – my last, that is – pain au chocolat and a coffee. So I walk further down the street and cross to get to a boulangerie on the other side.

This is where I meet the couple, probably in their early 60s, well-dressed, fashionable bags, woman with a fur-looking coat and the man with a leather hat and neatly trimmed white beard. He asks me, in French (the exact words escape me now),

“Is this where to get the airport bus?”

And I say, “Jen e sais pas mais je pense que on va venir pour la ba,” pointing back across the street at the bus stop I had just come from. Or that’s close to what I said. He acknowledged, they both looked confused still though, and as I walked away with my suitcase realizing I’m gonna have to take care of my coffee business at McDo’s since this boulangerie is a restaurant, I’m struck that I actually communicated in a chance public interaction. I had deliberately avoided several of these before, kept walking, listening to my invisible ipod, hoped I wouldn’t be accountable for my Frenchless body walking the street...

Across the street again. Into McDonald’s. Order a coffee. “Long” size. No sugar.

I’m getting this. I find the right coins, pay, and with coffee in hand turn around to reach for my suitcase. There, outside, the next airport bus is already ready to pull away. Shit. As I walk toward the exit it pulls forward and through the intersection and by the time I get to the bus stop it’s long gone. Shit. 2 hours before the flight.

Well, this should be OK, I guess. I notice the fire hydrant – is it a fire hydrant? – and the shadow it casts.

And when I look away from the camera after taking the shot, there they are. The couple have found the bus stop, and are looking around, anxious to see that they’ve found the right place.

I walk up to them and say something in greeting and the man responds.

Silence for a moment, and then he asks me,

“¿Habla usted español?”

I’m struck for a second by this change of the linguistic tide, wondering for an instant if we had both ‘succeeded’ at talking in French the first time across the street because we were both operating at our linguistic wits’ end? So to speak? Or not to speak?

He smiles. My mouth recovers, starts to move, happy that a bit of the haze had lifted, “Sí, hablo un poco de español...” And he expressed his and his wife’s frustration at not knowing where to go. And we remarked about how hard it was to find this place without signs. And what do you know, in just three more minutes, here came another bus, and we were off to the airport.

From one non-place to the next, starting on computer and now scrawling this out with my 4-color pen on a wrinkled yellow lined pad of paper, 1 hour out of Frankfurt (as the sign in my post going the other way says), I wonder if the ‘non’ of these places doesn’t fade a bit, like the haze that lifts as soundstreams become language, as stories are inscribed into them.

But now I’m just wondering if that wine is okay.


Plume said...

great post ! the office seems empty since you re gone ;)
bon retour !

daveski said...

Thanks! Back safely in CA right now and I miss everyone in the office too!

comment on dit "to miss something/someone?" en francais?

Plume said...

tu peux dire "tout le monde me manque" , "Quelqu'un/ quelque chose me manque"

Viorica said...

Quelle aventure! Moi je déteste les aéroports, les bagages et les départs!...