Farewell to Tramayes

Dear Mum,

With less than a week to go, I’m already feeling homesick for Tramayes.

The French for ‘I miss Tramayes’ is ‘Tramayes me manque‘. Literally, ‘Tramayes lacks me’. I love that the French translation hands the active verb over to the object of my affection. I think you’ll find that interesting too.

Tramayes

I’ve already written a love letter to this small village in the south of Burgundy. You get a mention in there somewhere too. I know this will both astonish and delight you.

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I seem to be a bit of a novelty around here.

The free-range Australienne with the sunhat. Or possibly that eccentric writer who sometimes does aeroplanes with her hands when she’s roaming down a quiet country lane listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral in her ear buds. Occasionally my solitary antics are witnessed, owing to the aforementioned earbuds blocking out the sound of cars (and occasionally tractors) approaching me from behind.

I have been spotted wandering dangerously on the verge of a busy road at 8am – I was impressed with the forensic nature of this infringement notice – by someone with whom I had sipped Apérol a few weeks ago. Today she drove up behind me on a country road to tick me off about my prior misdemeanour. I felt cared for rather than chastised.

On at least two other occasions, I have been wandering along with my back pack and carry bags full of groceries – no aeroplanes this time – and strangers driving by have slowed down to offer me a lift to wherever I happen to be going.

J’aime marcher,’ I say.

The locals find it hard to believe that I like to walk. But we smile at each other and wish each other une bonne journée. Another transaction of mutual goodwill that puts a spring in my step the rest of the way home.

Those are some of the reasons I love Tramayes. Here are some more:

1. Apéro can take place any time after 11am.

Friday is market day in the village and you’d be surprised what thirsty work early morning shopping can be. And who you might bump into who is similarly parched.

2. French children and adolescents say bonjour to strangers even if their parents aren’t around.

They are also included in dinner parties and soirées, sitting at the table and contributing to the conversation. I suspect this is the case throughout France.

3. Everyone says bonjour madame when they pass you in the street.

They are often keen for a chat if you can string more than two French words together in reply, mistaking you for someone who is fluent in French. I do a lot of smiling and nodding and afterwards wonder what on earth we were talking about.

4. Everyone says a general cheery ‘Bonjour, ‘sieurs ‘dames‘ when they walk into the small village supermarket.

This is short for ‘Bonjour messieurs et mesdames‘ and is another example of good manners mixed with inclusivity. I’ve started doing it myself.

5. Once inside the supermarket, one can feel free to ask the opinion of any random shopper of any product.

A crowd will soon gather, the merits of one product over another will be discussed in forensic detail and friendships will be made. You may, as I did, end up going home with yeast (levure de boulanger) instead of baking powder (levure chimique). A brisk walk back to the supermarket soon solved the problem and this time I learned about the merits of whole versus powdered nutmeg.

6. Older women – and possibly men – are not invisible.

They are treated with respect, especially by their grandchildren – of any age – who seem to enjoy close bonds with their grandparents and seek out their company.

7. The thunderstorms are cataclysmic.

There can be rolling thunder for hours before a single fat drop of rain heralds a downpour. But when the storm hits, it hits with house-rattling intensity. On a similar note, jet fighters perform random flyovers low and fast, their supersonic roar heralding the end of days. They vanish from view within seconds and life as we know it continues.

8. Queuing here is an art form.

At the market the butcher is happy to chat and joke with a customer even after she has paid for all her purchases. He does exactly the same with the next customer. The queue builds up but no one seems to mind. I held up the line in the post office to discuss the merits of buying a pre-paid 5kg box to ship home to Australia compared with sending any old random box and paying per kg. No one in the queue behind me seemed to mind. (NB. Buy pre-paid every time.)

On the flip side, don’t commit the faux pas of popping your head into the fruitshop back room and saying ‘coucou‘ to get someone’s attention after standing at the counter for five minutes. It will not be appreciated. You should wait meekly at the counter hoping someone will see you there. Which they eventually will.

9. Tramayes is un village renouvable (recyclable).

Everyone takes their rubbish to large enclosed bins. The black bin is for household rubbish, the yellow bin is for packaging. Glass goes in another bin. (Of that more later.) You must take care to place the correct items in the correct bin. It is rumoured that those caught not doing so are made to eat their own rubbish.

Glass bottles go into a very large communal bin in a public parking space in the village. I tend to deposit mine in the early hours when no one is around. This walk of shame involves carrying all my empties in a shopping bag – try doing that without clinking glass at every step – and hiding in the long shadows of every house I pass en route to the bin. Once there, I shoot each bottle individually into the hole provided, the sound of splintering glass drowning out the early morning birdsong. I then fold up my shopping bag and conceal it on my person, then decamp with haste, whistling an innocent tune all the way home.

Dawn over Tramayes

So Mama, I’ve told you all the reasons why I came to France. Tramayes is one of the reasons it will be hard to leave. But I’ve got a few adventures to go between now and then.

À la prochaine fois.

Ta fille aimante,

Ib

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.