There are all kinds of thresholds. There are foyers and antechambers and vestibules. There are gates that seem wide open from a distance but swing shut as you approach. There are red dots on the map that cannot be found on foot, no matter your angle of approach. There is no bird’s eye view; even looking out my 2nd/3rd/4th-floor window provides no true landmarks, unless you can disambiguate chimneys or read the slightly concave shingled roofs forensically, like fingerprints. The only piece of reliable help is the abundances of épiceries; in France, you will never lack for breadcrumbs.
We have been in Lille a week. Most of the time has felt frantic. Each morning, we prioritize – should we try to get a back account, unlock a cell phone, or knock on the door of a kindergarten? We peer at our wallets, still stuffed but with visibly dwindling folds of 100 Euro bills. We down the last of our coffees, and then we walk – sometimes together, often with X tugging, reluctant, on our arms – plodding across cobblestones towards whichever business we’ve got in our sights. We chose deliberately to eschew driving in this new life, and Lille’s bus service is lacklustre, so it’s always walking, checking maps and compasses, slowly bringing ourselves into tune with Lille’s non-Euclidean grid.
Obstacles vary. A bank might be closed for an extended lunch when we arrive, while any other establishment could close at the merest whim of the owners. We are, after all, still hanging on the coattails of August, when les aoûtiens are all en vacances. The number of aoûtiens, who take the month of August off, is only rivalled by the number of juillettistes, who shut up shop the month before. Basically, France is a write-off in the summertime. We arrived a few days before la rentrée, wherein schools and universities and businesses all grind to life again; so, in many cases, our requests for help in getting settled constitute an imposition on the last few days of respite for the French.
If we do get through the gates of a business establishment, there is usually a guardian lying in wait just within. It’s Lesson One of French Etiquette that, when you enter a shop, you say “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame” before initiating any business. What I’ve learned is that, especially in busy shops, this is as far as you’re allowed to get at first. A greeter will ask you what you need today, and will sometimes ask you to wait there until another staff member is available, or else take your name and direct you to a waiting area.
The first few times, we ask our questions haltingly, in our rehearsed, unsteady French, without realizing that we’re going to have to do it all over again momentarily. The guardian/greeter replies in swift, efficient terms, none of which we understand. We repeat our requests; they begin to comprehend that we are asking something out of the ordinary – a French bank account for Canadians, or a child’s transfer from one school to another. We are sent deeper into the maze.
G explained the next stage elegantly: in France, nobody wants to be seen making exceptions, lest it come across as favouritism. Since we, as ex-pats, are exceptions by definition, we therefore require a lot of dealing behind the screens, as it were. However, we haven’t quite earned the right to join the backroom conversations. So what happens is this: a staff member greets us, we make our request, they disappear. It is assumed they are conferring with a superior, but this isn’t always explicit. They reappear, ask a question, disappear again. We exercise the patience that is Lesson Two of French Etiquette. Isn’t the slower pace part of the reason we came here, after all?
If we’re lucky, this magic act only happens once before we get our “non.” Otherwise, there is a series of riddling delays before the “non” drops: Make an appointment. Ah, but the person with whom we must make an appointment is not here, so how can we make an appointment? We’ll need to call. When to call? Ah, who can say? And so on. This bureaucratic bric-a-brac was especially thick at the post office, which is one place we tried to set up a French bank account, because in France the post office is also a bank – although they still won’t trade your 100 Euro bills for smaller ones, because – France. Eventually, we just kept coming back, like petitioners at a monastery, till finally we got our “non.”
Well, to their credit, the Banque du Poste tried to offer us a compromise. They were prepared to offer us a savings account into which we could deposit Canadian cheques, but each cheque would take “plusiers semaines” – many weeks – to clear. G had mentioned this universal delay, calling it “la quinzaine,” as in “15 days” for anything to get done, period. And it’s no shock that foreigners get taxed with extra time. In most respects, I can roll with that, but waiting an unspecified amount of time for the money we’ll need to buy food or pay rent…? Especially when the bank you’re using is also a post office? That seems like an insult, not a best offer.
In Montreal, I sought a spiritual experience, and was forced to back down because of X. Here, the experiences I seek are more mundane by far, but my frustration grows when it’s not a child impeding me, but a whole system of adults. In theory, I know what I can do to get the functionaries of the world on my side: make them the heroes of the story, not the obstacles. But my transformative abilities depend upon my talk. This playwright is hard pressed to reframe anybody’s narrative in anything but English; all it takes is one missed pronoun – “tu” instead of “vous” – and it’s another gate slamming in my face.
At least the French pigeons love us. Breadcrumbs for everyone.