Transforming Bull

Thus far, I’ve been settled snugly in a Greco-Roman groove, so forgive the turbulence as we get pantheistic. In times of crisis nowadays, I turn not to Theseus but to the Buddha. A mythic hero by accident at best, Gautama overcame most obstacles through letting go of expectations, releasing attachments. Through this deceptively simple gesture, the arrows of demonic archers turned to flower petals before striking him.

I am in crisis; my Canadian sim card has disappeared, and with it, access to 10 months’ worth of music. Suddenly, my son was no longer my dependent; now my weak spot was Paul Simon and R.E.M. and Soul Coughing, and the more I tried to let go of it, the harder it hurt. I have one hour before X’s school day was done, so I abandon the beer I just ordered and I run, through the high branching passages of Lille, back to Orange.

This is the heart of the labyrinth. The lineup to the greeter is endless; worse yet, the greeter now IS the slick-haired manager with whom I’d dealt the last time. At first, this seems like a boon, and once I get up to the front of the line, I’m able to ask directly if he still has my sim card. But he has a new job now, and impertinent, ill-phrased questions from half-remembered Anglophones are not enough to throw him off. He taps my name into his tablet and he sends me to the waiting area. This means that eventually I’ll be helped by somebody else – somebody with no idea where my card wound up. How could I have forgotten the most basic rule of maze-ing? Leave behind yarn, not cards the size of pomegranate seeds.

10 minutes pass. One screen nearby flashes my name in a queue – “M. Soctt” in my case – but five other names are above it. Waiting is the minotaur. The LED kaleidoscope inside Orange almost makes me forget that I’m inside a building built by hands that turned to dust two centuries ago. I look out through the upper windows and study the carvings on the façade across Rue Neuve. Insouciant cherubim mock my impatience.

20 minutes. I realize my list of names is actually just one of three, all of them crawling along as Orange employees labour in unseen corridors beyond. I try to meditate; I try to let go. I start to feel the curdled absurdism of the quest in my gut – wasted effort, wasted stress. Did I do this to myself – abandon my sim card, throw away my Canadianness?

No. Theseus would not have doubted himself. Though even he could be forgetful, as when he caused his father’s death by neglecting to change his ship’s sails. King Aegeus sought white sails, to prove that his son was still alive; when he saw black instead, he hurled himself into the sea. And will my son despair, if I’m not on time to pick him up from his second day of school? Will he hurl himself from the monkeybars?

40 minutes. I stare at the useless cell phone in my hands. I thought I had the bull by the horns, but it was the wrong minotaur. My fears were baseless – faux bovine. This flat object in my palm was the real culprit – a golden calf which I’d begun to worship, despite only having owned a cell phone for less than a year. I was within its idolatrous temple, and now that I could see clearly how much stress it was causing me, I wanted to smash it defiantly upon the countertop, flip the tables of the moneychangers, decry the entire system in a language no one here will understand. I stand up, poised to smash. But just then a nice young clerk appears, trying to wrap his tongue around “M Soctt.” And I am back inside the myth.

To fully understand the final confrontation, I needed a debriefing from G, my local culture expert. He later confirmed for me that, since the Manager had changed jobs, and was now the greeter, it would be perceived as a grave insult to his queued-up customers if he should leave his position, even for a moment, in order to assist me. My clerk, whose name is André, knows this, but I was insistent. “Je suis perdu,” I lamented, hoping to cast André as the hero. Finally, he relents, and interrupts his boss to ask the whereabouts of my original sim card.

The Manager stares at me as if I have brought the pox into his home. He responds with the phrase I have been dreading the most: “J’ai lui donné.” “I gave it to him.”

Sur mon honneur, non,” I vow. But the Manager turns back to his queue, and André can do no more to help me. So I linger – first behind the Manager’s back, then in his periphery, then finally I am beside him. My iPhone gleams accusatorily in my hand. I am forcing him to break the cardinal rule of French protocol – don’t show preferential treatment. But his honour is not the only one at stake.

Finally, he cracks, turns on his heel and storms back to the service counter where he snatches up the wastepaper basket and roots through it furiously until he finds the hermetic white pouch which had contained their sim card. Inside the torn pouch: a flat white diamond prize – my card.

No way could I expect an apology. I take the card and I leave Orange the way I came, and in much the same state.

Except. I had slain no minotaur, but like another, tricksier kind of hero, I had stolen the dragon’s treasure from under his nose. Quite by accident, I now had two sim cards – and while the French one wouldn’t work in my glorified Walkman, it did turn out to work in S’s home-borne smartphone. So I inherited her French burner, we both acquired a French phone number, and I even made it to the kindergarten, where S was waiting to send me back to the bistrot to drink my warm beer.

Looking back over the escapade, I can see the similarities between the sim card shitstorm and July’s passport poop-drop. It’s about me creating problems with my own expectations and fears, then inflating the hurdles – mazes out of molehills – a mythopoeic backdrop to distract from my mundane buffoonery. Mostly, I come out ahead, either through luck or by cottoning on, at the last possible minute, to the fact that all I have to do is wait and the crisis will abate.

Because sure, that Cretan minotaur was nasty. But he wasn’t going to live forever. An open letter to all would-be Theseuses: put away your sword, turn off your GPS. For the love of Zeus, stop abducting women. Mind your sails, and wait, and let the minotaurs wither from age. Let the tyrant arrows turn to flowers.

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