Letter from France – The downside of travel #2

The bank and other disappointments

Dear Mum,

It’s wise to expect one major bureaucratic disaster per overseas trip. Especially if you are foolish / optimistic / besotted enough to buy an apartment just days before you leave Australia. And thank you for being so utterly non-judgmental about that decision, along with all the other dubious decisions I’ve made in my life. I miss you.

When I left Australia, I left behind a team of volunteers who basically moved all my possessions from my old place to my new place and prepared my old place for sale. There will have to be a lot of payback when I get home. Not that I will ever be able to repay them as they deserve.

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This trip, I didn’t expect smooth sailing but nor did I expect a perfect tsunami of incompetence and withheld information that could so easily have had disastrous consequences. Travel has its drawbacks and these first few weeks have been a perfect storm of them.

The internet

I knew the internet at my home in Burgundy might be unreliable so I bought a European SIM card with 20 GB of monthly data allowance. It seemed like a princely amount of data to me and I used it unsparingly during my time in Paris. I purchased it with my Australian credit card while back in Oz, of which more later.

Once in Burgundy, I was entirely reliant on my phone data for internet connection. Within two days, I was down to 4 GB, then 3, then 2. I was using more than 1 GB per day. These days I am much better at conserving data, but back then – it seems like a lifetime ago – I was profligate.

So here I was in the French countryside, with no financial or online means of paying for a data top up and no other means of communication with friends and family back home. I was utterly alone: for two days I didn’t hear the sound of a human voice. Except thank dieu for France Musique – a daggy blend of classical music and 1950s crooners. I’d packed my old tranny for just such an emergency. You raised a resourceful daughter. Possibly two.

I made several attempts to top up my phone data online but each time a security code sms was sent to – you guessed it – my Australian phone number. My online activity was identified as potential scamming and my credit card was rendered inoperable.

At this point I will divert to my second major disappointment …

The bank

In the days before my departure for France, I spent some time at the local branch of the bank. Our bank, Mum. Since last you were out and about in the leafy suburbs, things have changed. Our bank has had major renovations in many of its branches. The goal of these renos is to remove all opportunity for customers to sit down and have a discussion with any member of staff.

You arrive and wait in line for access to the one remaining teller station.

This is manned by only one teller during the lunch hour and smoko breaks. During those same breaks, the patrol officer who vets the queuing public is also absent. If you encounter such a patrol officer, nine times out of ten you will be sent home to make your enquiry via the telephone. That poses its own set of problems. Again I’m not sure how long it is since you’ve waited on the telephone line to the bank. These days, it’s long enough to knit a beanie and possibly matching socks.

Five balls of wool and an unfinished brown beanie with circular knitting needle
Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

On the day in question, I cunningly arrived at the bank at 9.30am sharp and was the first customer of the day. As I approached the glass window, I was assailed by both the teller and a random scary woman sitting at a low desk (without a chair opposite her). Both demanded to know the nature of my business.

Having just bought an apartment and being in the process of selling another while overseas, I said mildly, ‘I have a few questions. Can I please sit down with someone to discuss them?’

‘What kind of questions?’ barked the scary woman.

‘Oh, moving large sums of money from my account to the vendors, that kind of thing.’

‘You can’t do it from overseas.’

And so it went on. As other customers trickled in, they too were treated to the story of my finances. Finally, close to tears of mortification, I sought refuge in the manager’s office where I had seen him cowering throughout this exchange.

Note to the bank renovators.

I know your evil plan in introducing see-through offices without doors. It is to impress upon your customers the impossibility of conducting a confidential discussion at the actual bank. That kind of discussion belongs in the privacy of the call centre. But the absence of doors and places to hide means that riffraff like me can march right in if we spot our prey (assuming we’ve managed to evade security).

Once inside the hallowed – erm – open space of the manager’s office, I sat myself down in the one spare chair and said, through wobbling lips, ‘That was inhumane.’

‘I agree,’ said he. He did nothing to address it.

A blue and white electronic sign that reads 'Personal Banking' with a caption underneath that reads 'A contradiction in terms'.
A contradiction in terms

The bank insisted I set up a large deposit transfer to the vendor’s account at the branch, conducted by a teller. The bank charged me $35 for this service. The large deposit was returned to my bank account four days later when I was in Paris. The $35 fee was not.

No reason for this epic fail has been given in the six weeks since it happened. I have had to borrow the large amount from elsewhere. The Customer Complaints division is still ‘reaching out’ to the Bentleigh branch – oops did I just mention the branch? Next thing, I’ll be naming the bank.

SMS security codes.

On one of my visits to the bank, I requested that sms codes be sent to me via email, as had been the case in all my previous overseas trips. The conversation went something like this:

‘We don’t do that anymore.’

‘So how do I overcome the problem of not having access to my Australian phone number while overseas*?’

‘Dunno.’

Which leads me back to…

A red and white electronic sign that reads 'Internet' and beneath that is an @ symbol.

The internet (continued).

When my credit card was frozen, the bank told me it was the credit card company’s fault. *The staff at my local branch hadn’t told me that I could have removed the sms security code myself while still in Australia. Unfortunately you have to enter a security code to do that, so not an option now I’m in France.

In the end I had to use a neighbour’s mobile phone to ring the bank’s Australian landline number listed on the back of my credit card. My only option was to nominate someone to receive and relay my sms security codes to me via text. How’s that for security?

If I sound bitter and twisted, it’s because I am. You know what, Mum? I reckon you’re right to stay at home. Remind me next time I get restless.

In the meantime, I’ll sit on my balcony ‘office’ on the south side of this gorgeous old pile of stone overlooking the undulating hills of this beautiful part of the world. A place where locals pull over every time they see me trudging along the dusty roads with my backpack and ask if I need a lift.

J’aime marcher,’ I say. Then we wish each other a ‘bonne journée‘ and go our separate ways. I love those moments. On second thoughts, Mum, I don’t think I’ll stay at home for too long. I know you won’t mind.

Letter from France – The downside of travel #1

Getting from one place to the next

Dear Mum,

I don’t have to convince you there’s a downside to overseas travel. You tried it once and didn’t like it. Not one bit. I think it was mainly because you thought it was a holiday and Dad thought it was a business trip. You did look chic in Paris though.

Black and white image of a woman in a coat boarding a boat
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I’m a late-in-life travel evangelist – the worst kind.

But I’m never going to convert you so I’ll just tell you my thoughts and we will have a most rewarding to-and-fro about it. Because even though you have no intention of ever travelling again, you will listen, reflect and gently give your opinion if asked.

The flights, the trains, the taxis – so much can go wrong. As you know, I am geographically challenged. Anne and I inherited it from you, and it’s so severe it has been referred to by various in-laws – we know who they are – as a disability. It’s never occurred to me to be ashamed of it, although a friend once applauded me for not caring.

I couldn’t tell you where Burgundy is on a map, even if I studied it for some time.

I simply wouldn’t retain it. Google maps and public transport signs tell me where I have to be and at what time. The first downside of train travel is the electronic timetable gremlin, who likes to keep the weary traveller on tenterhooks regarding their actual departure platform.

Despite that, I found my way without incident to the Gare de Lyon, and to Platform 19, carriage 11, seat 62. And what a comfortable seat it was. I will have to do some divesting of belongings though Mum. I can’t rely on kind young men to lift my case on to and off trains forever. And in one case to rearrange the suitcase section so my monster could nestle safely among its little friends. But once my Samsonite and I were settled, it was a breeze all the way to Macon-Loché TGV.

The tray table of a train with a bottle of water, a baguette and a newspaper

Every time I catch the TGV I have a brief moment of sheer panic.

It happens when the driver announces in French that the train is going to Milan. Or Timbuktu. Or somewhere other than the destination I’m after. I’ve learned to breathe through that first announcement and wait for the English version.

I arrived 90 minutes later at my destination station with nary a taxi in sight. I’ve decided to go car-less because a) I don’t fancy driving on the opposite side of the road this time and b) it will tether me to my home base and hopefully to my laptop.

There’s a strange gadget at the local TGV station that lists various taxis and their mobile numbers.

An old fashioned taxi register at the TGV train station

My first attempt to call one of the numbers elicited a flat no. My second resulted in an offer to pick me up if I didn’t mind sharing. At least I was pretty sure that was the offer. It turned out I was right and I met a lovely Indian man who runs some corporation or other in Macon.

He wants to write the story of his life but says he can’t write. So we exchanged contact details – I said I’m sure I could find a ghostwriter for him. That’s the kind of misplaced self-confidence you have after spending a week with a high powered New York literary agent. (What was I thinking?)

I fear I was ripped off by the taxi driver.

I’m sorry to think ill of any Frenchman as you know but for the second time in a week I was charged about $170 for a 25 minute taxi ride. C’est la vie maman. I told you there was the occasional downside to travel.

My travel preference is to arrive somewhere and prop for a while. I’m certainly doing that this time. Seven weeks without wheels. My feet are taking me where I need to go, treading the well worn path between chez moi and the village boulangerie for my morning baguette, and the occasional ramble further afield before the day warms up. It’s just as idyllic as it sounds Mum.

Letters from France – Endings and beginnings

Dear Mum,

At the writing workshop last week in Paris, we had a discussion about endings and beginnings. In case you’ve forgotten, my Young Adult manuscript is a mother / daughter dual coming-of-age story set in Paris. The mother is newly separated, the daughter is on the cusp of adulthood, and each of them is leaving something behind to begin the next phase of their lives.

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My last night in Paris felt like an ending of something very special.

I decided to go to a performance of baroque classical and sacred music at a local church. On my walk there, I paused at the end of my lane and looked back at my open window. The window through which I watched my Parisian neighbourhood in all its glorious mundanity. For the first time since I arrived, I felt at home.

View from a Paris laneway towards a building with an open window

Waiting in line to enter the Eglise St-Paul Saint-Louis, I was reminded of the high tolerance of the French to a queue. While US tourists behind me complained loudly, the French just chatted amongst themselves. I have learned to follow their lead.

At weekend markets, I always head for the stall with the longest queue because I know the produce will be good. When it’s my turn at the counter, I know I can take all the time I like to ask questions and make my selection because I have earned the right. I am a different person in France Mum.

The musical performance was entertaining: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played at high speed.

The lead violinist took every opportunity to steal the limelight and work his colleagues to the bone. The result was a case of catch up that didn’t always quite get there. I was concerned for the young cellist who discreetly stretched and twirled his left hand during every brief respite from playing.

But the audience loved it – the return of live performance in France is as welcome as it is in Australia – and the church setting with its towering marble columns, chandeliers and ornate sculptures was almost as baroque as the music.

Afterwards I wandered out into the Rue de Rivoli – it was still bustling at 10pm – and made my way to the bar across the road from my apartment building.

The Royal Turenne is my local.

A flute of champagne sitting on an outdoor table with the insignia RT written on it

On my first night in Paris – could it only have been a week ago? – I foolishly ordered a ‘piscine’ of champagne at this bar. Piscine means swimming pool and I thought I deserved one after a 24 hour flight. I wanted to bathe in that goddamn stuff. What I wasn’t expecting was a vase full of champagne with ice cubes floating in it. Quelle horreur!

This time I didn’t make the same mistake.

I sipped my average-sized coupe of Taittinger and revelled in the late evening dusk of Paris in summer. Above me, suspended between two buildings, was a rising crescent moon. It glowed brighter as the sky deepened to a darker shade of blue.

A crescent moon shines against a deep blue sky between two buildings.

Endings and beginnings mama. We know all about that. This phase of my journey is coming to a close. Tomorrow holds the promise of the unknown. I can hardly wait.

Letter from France – Reflections from a window

A view through a window to an open window

Dear Mum,

It’s been a week since last I wrote. I made new friends at the writers retreat even though I told you I had enough friends and I wouldn’t. You were right yet again.

There were 13 of us from all over the world, 12 women and 1 man.

The standard writing class ratio. Most of them were writing non-fiction. Only two of us were working on fiction and both for a younger audience. There is too much to say about the past 5 days to put in a letter. I’ll tell you the long version next time I visit you and Dad. It’ll be springtime in your rose garden by then. I’ll make a cup of tea and we’ll have a long chat.

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In the meantime, I’ll just say that every one there had an incredible story to tell and a unique voice and that we shared the most intimate, painful, joyful, hilarious moments of our lives. It reinforces my belief that everyone has a story and deserves be heard. Of course not everyone wants to share their story, but for those of who are drawn to the writing life, it’s like oxygen. We need it to make sense of our lives, to understand the world we inhabit, to thrive.

In other news, I have discovered the best boulangerie in my part of the Marais.

The owner of Brigat’ is a friendly, bright-eyed man who slowed down his French for me when I asked him not to speak in English. Then he sped it up, telling me my French was beyond the need to parler lentement. So you understand why I like him mama.

His baguettes are warm when I buy them after my early morning laps of the Place des Vosges. I do a circuit and look down the road to see if his blinds are up or down. The sight of them furling (is that the opposite of unfurling?) makes my heart sing just a little bit.

I carry my baguette under my arm and make my brisk way to chez moi where I set myself up on the desk overlooking the Parisian laneway with beurre de Baratte and – occasionally – jam. But the butter is good enough on its own.

I watch the street wake up through my open window.

In the apartments across the way, blinds come up and French doors open to let in the morning sun. Diagonally across from me lives someone who loves to let in the Paris air as much as I do. Her bed must be directly behind the shuttered window, and when she opens it I can see the shape of her under her doona, raising her knees or turning over.

Sounds a bit voyeuristic, but in a city where I know practically no one, it’s reassuring. Companionable somehow. There she is in her bed, and here I am in mine, sitting up peeling an outrageously expensive Spanish orange. I’ve blanked out the cost of the 8 oranges I bought on my first day in Paris. Back home in the arctic Melbourne winter, excellent oranges were my one consolation and I have got into the habit of eating one to start the day. I counted the days of my Paris sojourn and ordered an orange for each. It had slipped my mind that they were out of season over here. And honestly Mum, I don’t even care about the expense. I’ve got you sitting on my shoulder telling me I deserve it.

When I’m home in my apartment, my main preoccupation is gazing through the window at laneway life.

During working hours there have been roadworks at the far end of the lane. Watching the baby digger zipping up and down, coordinating with the ‘mother ship’, I’ve noticed how this kind of activity involves a lot of standing around by road workers, shouting their two bobs’ worth to the drivers. If there are any tight corners to be negotiated, a small crowd of onlookers gathers to watch the manoeuvres. Once I saw a huge bus do a 20-point turn into a one-way street. Mesmerising.

After work and on weekends, small groups of handsome young men gather in my laneway, drinking coffee and talking animatedly. I don’t know why it heartens me so to see young men having conversations that involve both speaking and listening intently. They may not be discussing Proust but that’s what it looks like from my eyrie. I also love the unselfconscious kissing between these young men. I’ll miss my window onto the world when I leave for Burgundy, but I’m looking forward to my return here in mid-September.

Love Ib x

Letter from France – Changes

Dear Mum,

So much has happened since I last saw you. It was back in February: you were in the sunroom surrounded by homegrown summer roses. Something I said amused you. I asked you why you were smiling and you said ‘Stop asking me how I am.’

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How annoying of me. How typical of you. The most humble, most deserving and least demanding of women. It’s been a long five months since then.

Somewhere along the way my mojo went missing. I knew I had to make some changes so I booked a place in a week-long writers retreat. In Paris. That seemed to do the trick – enough of my old blind optimism returned to convince me that everything else would fall into place.

Friends offered me a place to stay in Burgundy for two months. But why stay for two months when I can stay for 90 days without having to apply for a visa? So I am.

You’ll be pleased to hear I’ve reconnected with an old flame, one you wrote about in your journal with great fondness. I’d forgotten how kind he was to you the first time round: that connection has taken on an extraordinary significance for me.

So that’s two changes. There’s just one more. I bought an apartment Mum.

Stop laughing. Not quite such a laughing matter when you sign a contract five days before leaving the country for three months. And your lawyer finds a major problem with the contract when you’re somewhere over Western Australia. And solves it somewhere over the desert sands of Dubai.

I have handed over the execution of both sale and purchase to a band of volunteers in Australia to whom I will be forever grateful. Then buggered off to Paris.

And since you’ve always been my favourite correspondent, you’re the one I’ll be writing to. So strap yourself in mama…

Silent reading: Turn off, tune out, shut the f*** up and read

I’m on the train to Flinders Street Station, heading for my first silent reading party and already I’m nervous. The STFU (Shut the Fuck Up) Reading Society’s official Facebook page reads: ‘We host silent reading parties because we want to allow for […] introverted or anxious people to join a no pressure social activity with zero expectations of social interaction or conversation if it’s not wanted!’ 

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Paying attention: the writer’s superpower

I began to wonder why the verb that goes with ‘attention’ is ‘to pay’. Is it a debt? A duty? A tax? An outlay of energy? Work seems to be involved in the phrase, or perhaps sacrifice. And what do we get back, if we pay it?

Helen Garner

Helen Garner’s reflections on her writing life – featured in this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival – were as welcome as could be to this HG-starved aspiring author. Immersing myself in the writing life of other writers feels like relaxing back into a warm bath. These are my people.

Helen Garner - one of Australia's leading writers - in a Melbourne Writers Festival publicity shot
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