Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The F Word

Before I leave France behind, I need to share one of the highlights. I had just floated out in an inspired cloud from another small gallery featuring an amazing exhibition by a South Korean artist who, in the style of The Planet of the Apes, had replaced the faces in famous paintings and photos with those of gorillas. After the apes, I walked into a small gallery with some amazing photos hanging on the walls. A shallow focus shot of a man paddling a boat over rolling waves absolutely blew my mind. In a haze of aperture and iso inspiration, I offered to donate one of my photos from my trip to the gallery. I didn’t ask for any money. I didn’t give away my copyright. All I asked was that when the gallery put my name on it and when they eventually had it printed and hung, that they would send me a photo of it there on the wall. They then told me they had another gallery in Monaco and that it might pop up there as well.

Time to leave Nice
I had looked at a map of places within 200km of Nice to see where I should head next. Nice itself has fallen into the same trap as Lorne and Byron Bay - only 50 years earlier. Cute little town by the sea that has grown too fast for the infrastructure to keep up. That and the massive three year long road works installing a new tram line through the heart of the city has made for a chaotic, seething with tourist mess. After Alex took me to a pool bar on Sunday where we were charged 16 Euro for two steins of beer (a price enforced by the two heavy dudes who controlled the automatic doors), I knew that this was my final night on the coast.

There were a few places within 200km that seemed cool, but mostly I wanted to get away from the coast and check out either the rural or mountainous areas. I fully intended to stay in France, but included a couple of places over the border in Italy for a bit of variety. I sent some couchsurfing requests out to some interesting looking people. One that I was really excited about was an old French bloke of 76 years who had worked as a translator during times when England and France’s hostilities extended a little further than just frustration at not being able to communicate properly and the perceived inadequacies of one another’s cooking. When I got to the train station the next morning, there was a strike and all French trains were either cancelled or hideously delayed. Nice had passed its used by date and I had tired of the occasional snooty remark from tourism workers about my lack of French*. Rather than work my way up to Paris, I grabbed a train to Torino, Italy. Because of the strike, I had to take a not-so-cancelled local train to the Italian/French border and wait for a train that according to the French rail worker, may or may not come. I work out the automated ticket machine (the English button helped), and skip the massive line of piss off and confused tourists. The board tells me platform 6 and I head there. On my way I double check with a guard if 6 is the right platform. He looks at my ticket and tells me to go to platform 4 instead. Ok. The platform’s board says a destination that’s not on my ticket, so I check with two more guard and they all agree that platform 4 is where the train will leave from. Train arrives, I get on and as we are pulling out (in the same direction I had just come from), I look out the window and notice the train at platform 6 is clearly marked with Torino Porta Nueva, where I want to go. My stinky mood and silent swearing was soon doused by beautiful mountainous views, little villages hanging from the sides of cliffs and impossible looking castles perched on the top of rocky outcrops. I no longer cared if I was going the wrong way. I was just going. It would sort itself out eventually. After some inoffensive sign language with the conductor, it was made clear that I was on the right train and that all I needed to do was change at certain station to get the correct train to Torino. So I sat back and enjoyed the train ride as it stitched its way through the mountains along the French/Italian border.

*Really. I make an effort when I go to a country. I learn the basics (greetings, pleasantries, numbers, etc), and feel that if I’m dealing with someone who speaks English and who’s job it is to help tourists, I shouldn’t have to cop an ear full about my inability to conjugate verbs or conduct an in-depth political discussion. On the night I went to stay at a hostel in Nice, my question of if the bloke behind the counter spoke English was met with a “no”. I struggled through my bad French and I sorted out my bed for the night. A little later, I heard him lucidly chatting in English with a group of Japanese tourists. A French girl I spoke to said that she went to the airport with an Irish friend of hers to sort out some tickets, they started out with the “Palais vous Engla siv ou play?”, to which the attendant said no. This was fine and good as the French girl could translate between them. But about two minutes into the conversation it became clear that the attendant could understand everything that the Irish guy was saying (a small feet in itself if the word isn’t ‘Pint’), and the French girl got quite irritated with the airline guy and cracked the shits at him for giving France a bad name.

After his own adventures through Euroland, a tip for handling just such a situation was offered to me by Mikey B. His advice was to approach the situation slightly differently. Rather than walking up and immediately asking in English (or badly pronounced French), if the French person behind the counter speaks English, try asking in you best-worst French if they speak Russian, Spanish, Hungarian or any other language your complexion can get away with. When they say no, offer up English as the second option and watch how polite they are with helping you out, minus the attitude. The best part is, half way through the conversation they realise they’ve been conned but have to suck up the snoot and continue being courteous. That said, not everyone in France is like this, but when you get a dose of it, you get the full offering. Can someone who is French offer an insiders perspective on this?

1 comment:

Ludo said...

hi dan,
I'm quite amused at what you're writing here (even if you wrote it half a year ago). I'm French, indeed, and leave in Brisbane at the moment. One of my friends has had the same unpleasant surprise: trying to get her plane ticket at a travel agency, she asked if the (not so) courteous attendant girl could speak English. Of course the girl said no. After a full hour of showing/explaining/drawing/communicating where she wanted to go, she just said she was from New Zealand, and wanted to visit the place. The girl suddenly became very warm and, speaking fluent English, gave her instructions and tips for her travel. The point is: just show them you're not British, they hate them.

As to why it happens to be this way in France: France is the most visited country in the world. With a country that is 14 times smaller than Australia, but where 3 times as many people live, tourism can be sometimes hard to stand.
I used to live (and well, maybe I'll go back again) in Antibes. You talked about Nice, so you must know where Antibes is... Sometimes, tourists can be really annoying. I'm not talking about the regular tourist, but about the eccentric/ very selfish one, who asks for a rebate for an ice-cream and then throws away the plastic packaging (I know this isn't the right word... but hey! I'm trying!) on the floor of the shop. Or the one who comes to a massage booth directly from the beach, barefoot, and puts sand everywhere, gets... hmmm... erect... while being massaged, and then leaves the place without paying. Happened to another friend of mine. So yeah, sometimes, tourists are an annoyance, to the point where we, as residents, stopped going to the beach during summer, but only in May-June and September-October.
However, many French people react badly at tourists just because they are idiots and basically, assholes (the French, not the tourists). The French feel very important, so everything they do is important, and if they've got the tiniest problem, well, everyone around has to suffer.

As for strikes, they always happen. Especially between September and November, because classes start again, and it's a good way to paralyse half of the country to make oneself heard (because we have tiny problems that need everyone to suffer... remember?). And also, strikes happen around June during the exam period. Nice indeed.

So, my advice, meet French travellers abroad (not in France is what I mean) first, and let them guide you to visit France.