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 – 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…

Hitting the in-law jackpot in the lottery of life

A bonus long weekend post in honour of my nephew Tom and his mother – my friend – Anne

A gift like Anne comes along once in a lifetime

An in-law who becomes a close friend, confidante and partner-in-crime. From the day we met, we got the point of each other. We laughed at each other’s jokes, shared each other’s pain (including a common mother-in-law), went on holidays together and shared a brood of children who were best mates and just happened to be first cousins.

Two smiling women with their arms around each other and a champagne bucket in the foreground

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Little big secrets: keeping them and giving them away

It’s human to have a secret, but it’s just as human to reveal it sooner or later.
Philip Roth

I used to think baring one’s soul was a by-product of being a writer.

And maybe it is. But not all writers are secret-sharers. I know writers who are keen observers of humankind but prefer to remain unobserved themselves. I admire them but can’t emulate them. Such people do well not to let me into their secrets. For while I’m a great sharer of my own, I’m a reluctant holder of others’.

secrets, confidential, whisper, keeping secrets | See more at www.diywoman.net
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

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Time out: Fitting your own oxygen mask before assisting others

I’m sitting in a cafe in Montmartre.

I’m taking time out from a hectic travel schedule. From my table at the window I look out at a Sunday market in the tiny Place Lino Ventura. A full length mirror is placed outside a clothes stall directly in my line of vision. A middle aged woman trying on a leopardskin coat transforms before my eyes. She swings it this way and that, coming alive in front of the looking glass. She isn’t thinking about the shopping, the cooking or the week ahead. Suddenly radiant in the light Parisian drizzle, I imagine she is thinking about where such a coat might take her.

Woman, time out, leopardskin, coat, Montmartre | See more at www.diywoman.net

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