I remember once talking to an English teacher who had travelled the world before returning to Liverpool to teach English to refugees. Survival had been the very definite answer she'd given when asked what made her return to the UK from her last job in Thailand. "The people coming here aren't just learning English, I'm helping them survive." Well, in my little French village the stakes may not be quite so high, yet survival was the unformulated, and for a long time subconscious goal of my first year in Gensdouce. There was so much to learn. I felt like a baby beginning life all over again. But this time mother wasn't there, and I had to learn to lifeswim alone.

Shopping wasn't that much of a difficulty. Being quite close to Besançon there was a giant sized supermarket right on the edge of town. It was a synch to go there and pick out everything I needed without using a single word of French. Even the numbers at the cash desk were in English. Strangely enough, I never met any of my friends there. Indeed, the only people from Gensdouce I did meet there, were Gérard together with a lady who was unquestionably his mother. He looked sheepishly the other way, and I could hear the words of the prayer racing through his mind. Like a benevolent god I stayed away. It wasn't until I'd been in Gensdouce for a few weeks that Jean dropped me a kind warning in the pub, one afternoon. Gensdouce people didn't go to the supermarket. They supported the local traders. So unless I wanted to be classed among the "nouveaux arrivés" - that group of people who sided with the likes of Mayor Demille, I'd better start frequenting the local stores. That's why tonight's dinner consists of soap flake soup, instead of the asparagus soup I'd thought it was. And the next day I put my initials to a petition going round to stop the store gaining trading advantages over the small shopkeeper.

Needless to say there were many other challenges, and the mistakes multiplied. But people were indulgent. I was one of them, they would look after me. Fortunately, I had a small number of really good friends who held the lifelines for me whilst I learnt to swim. Thérèse and her boyfriend Guillaume were the most helpful. I could knock on their door at any time of day and night. And as Guillaume worked for the town council he was fluent in administratese - the language of the INA, the elite French national school of administration. To this day I'm convinced he saved me from getting eaten alive, the day I was ordered to appear before a frail little lady to justify my existence in France and obtain the necessary papers to stay.

At least, she looked pretty frail but the burst of machine gun fire that shot out of her mouth had me cowering under the counter, shaking with fear. Patrice told me this was quite par for the course. Indeed, if I'd been there, that morning then I'd have had lots of company. But thanks to Guillaume's insistance, I got the necessary papers at the first time of asking - something quite inconceivable for a mere mortal like me.

That night it took several Guinnesses to get my nerves back to their normal state of relaxation. It also got me thinking. I'd been in Gensouce for six months now. It had been great fun. I'd got a nice little flat lots of friends. I was the talk of the pub with my French sentences which I still faithfully repeated every evening and life was treating me well. But where was I going? This had never worried me before. I'd enjoyed muddling along day by day. But I was beginning to get wrestless. Not that I wanted to leave Gensdouce. I would never envision that. What was it about this place that had so drawn me in? And more importantly, what was I going to give it in return? The weather had been beautiful that day and it was a bright clear night, so on leaving the pub I took a long reflective walk taxing both my legs and my brain, trying to figure out the next step. I didn't get back home until shortly before midnight only to find a small container sitting on my doorstep. Inside, a sealed plastic bad and a note pinned to it. "Bon appetit! Mme Bouclier."
... Asparagus soup. Damn! I knew I should never have told her husband about my little mistake.


excellent as usual, paul... simon needs a bit of a love intrest even better an unrequited love intrest... hmmmmmmmm

10 October 2007 at 20:28  

Another nice post........agreeing on the love thang.

10 October 2007 at 21:36  

Wonderful glimpse into living in a foreign place. And I loved the soap flake soup!

11 October 2007 at 08:43  

I enjoyed reading this very much - thanks.
Being married to a French woman I know exactly how intimidating the French can be, but also how warm and welcoming.

11 October 2007 at 08:51  

You took me on an interesting journey, to a place I have never been, to people I have never known, yet I felt it all through your writing.

11 October 2007 at 17:45  

That soup..What do I say about it?


11 October 2007 at 19:46  

Language barriers are tough to cross some days: good luck with those!

Fortunately, I had a small number of really good friends who held the lifelines for me whilst I learnt to swim.

Good friends make life so much easier.

P.S. Sorry I didn't get to this sooner: I didn't get mine posted until tonight and I typically don't read any other's until I post mine :)

16 October 2007 at 02:35  

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