Friday, March 08, 2013

Lilles, France 1987

[Journal entry, May 13, 1987. I met my father in France for a three-week trip to visit family and tour wine country. I flew from St. Paul into Amsterdam, then took a train to Lilles, a town about 30 minutes drive from my father's childhood home in Henin-Beaumont, where my grandmother "Mamie Yvonne" and my aunt "Tante Evelyne" lived. The conversations recounted here  actually were in French]

The Lotto Cafe. I came all this way and ate as my first meal a toasted ham and cheese on white bread. This day has been one of those nightmares I have.

I'm in another place, unknown, foreign. I try to call my family but I don't have the right currency. I drag my baggage along the street to find a bank. The first one won't exchange anything less than two thousand francs, but in my exhausted stupor I think my $20 t-cheque is too much. So I wheel my gear across the street and up a block. It takes a while before the teller gets off the phone with his brother, but I get my $50 cheque cashed (I've decided I don't want to go through this again soon) and ask for enough change to call Henin. He slides it all under the window and says, "You were born there, but there's no trace of an accent." "Thank you," I say, grateful he's just given me the strength to go on.

Back on the street. I've really got to maneuver this pile of baggage on the little geurney-type contraption  along these un-level streets and sidewalks. One too-bumpy stretch of cobble stone and the whole things tips over. So I walk slowly. There's a telephone across the street and I avoid getting shoveled up by a really loud tractor getting there. Put in the coins. I've no idea how much it will cost but I figure I'll just keep dropping it in if it asks me to. A woman answers. "Is this the Dubos house?" The phone goes dead. At the end of the cord I see it's a little mangled. I try again, holding the cord still, but same thing happens.

When I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam and tried to use the pay phone, the call wouldn't go through. And the airport personnel were barely helpful enough to get me to the right platform to catch my train for Lille. I didn’t get a wink of sleep on the train, of course, not just because the Dutch were gargling conversation all around me, but because there’s no announcement at any of the stops and I had to look for the sign with the name of the station at each stop. Nobody bothered to tell me that Antwerp, where I was to make my connection, was huge and at the end of a line.

So I’m just a little frustrated, but keep cool and pull myself and my bags further up the street to find another phone. Two blocks later and still no phone. A guy comes up and asks me if I know where the museum of Lille is. I laugh him off and continue up the boulevard. There’s a phone, but it’s occupied so I park my stuff and dig in my purse for more change. An old guy comes up on a bicycle and mentions how tied up the phones are. Then he makes a remark about how equipped I am, nodding at my bundles. The girl in the booth seems to be calling everyone she knows, but finally gives up the telephone. I chink in my coins and dial the number and the same woman as before answers.

Is this the Dubos house? “Non,” she says. “It’s not?” I read the number to her and she still says no.
“Is this Henin-Beaumont?”  “Oui.” “I’m trying to reach the Dubos house. This is number I have.” She doesn’t know any Dubos' and so I apologize and hang up.

Great. I don’t even know where I am, except standing on the corner with some old guy on a bike, tired and hungry and convincing myself that this is not the time to cry. I ask the old guy, who’s invited himself into my dilemma, if there isn’t a number to call for information. Yes, but he doesn’t know it. He suggests I look at the post office, which is further down the boulevard, he says. Wonderful. I get back in the phone booth and dial the number, altering it slightly, figuring I’ll get someone else in the same town. I do, a gruff man who shouts into the phone so I can’t understand him and I keep having to say, “Comment?” I ask him if he has a phone book that would give me the number of my family’s house. He says they don’t have the book and hangs up. Well, at least I know there is such a thing. The guy on the bike has left and I find that standing there on the corner staring off into the distance isn’t getting me anywhere. There’s a café on the next corner so I head for that.

A guy, who I later learned was Corsican, grabs the door for me when he sees me coming and yells, “Help! Au secour!” as I hoist my heap through the door. I ask him if there’s a number to call for information. He says, “certainly there is.” It’s 12 and all I need to do is call and ask for the name I’m trying to find. “Yep, that’s what I figured," I said, while he escorted me over to the phone. But when I pushed the 2 it wouldn’t connect. We dropped the coins in again and again, thinking the machine just wasn’t accepting enough money. It was a very bizarre plastic payphone with digital read-outs of money. The boss came over and tinkered with it. He couldn’t get it to work either. He emptied the coins from it, thinking maybe it too full, but that didn’t work either.

We’ve got the gang in on it now, standing around the little phone closet, offering suggestions as to why it doesn’t work. Finally, the owner pulls his own phone out from the cupboard, plugs it in, and offers me the use of it. At last, a normal phone. I get ahold of the operator after five minutes of muzak and ask for the number. She gives me the same number I already have. I say, “that can’t be, I’ve tried this number and it’s the wrong number.” She’s having a conversation with someone else in her office and foolishly I think it’s to solve my problem. Then she says to me, “Did you get your number? Okay, goodbye.”

I stand there with my hand on the phone after I’ve hung up and think, “What am I doing here?” The owner, a real sharp looking guy with grey hair and mustache, takes his phone back, rolls the cord around it and stashes it in the cupboard again. I’m sort of desperate now. I’m going to call the woman with the number I have and ask her to help. Hell, I’ve called her three times already, we’re practically friends. Back to the plastic payphone. I reach her (the phone must just not work for information), explain my problem, and ask does she have a phone book and could she please look up the number for my family’s house? Yes, she can, to get me off her back, she’s probably thinking. She’s got the book, she’s leafing through the pages . . . and click! The phone goes dead!

The digital read-out says “off.” I go back to the bar and bother the tender for more change, redial the number and apologize. She says she’s found the number and reads it, the same number, except the last number is different! “Ah,” I say, so that’s the mistake. I thank her very much, hang up, and call my grandmother’s house. A familiar voice answers – it’s my grandmother! She asks how I am and then puts my dad on the phone. I’m watching the money tick away as my father tries to figure out where I’m at. Then he gives me my aunt’s phone number at work in a nearby town. When I give her the name of the café, she doesn’t believe me, insisting that Lotto is a game, not the name of cafe. After going back and forth with her about this, I have the bar owner confirm my location. Now that she's convinced, she says to stay put and someone will come and get me.

A few hours later I’m sitting by the window with four old guys in mismatched suits and clashing ties (now I know why my dad has such bad taste in clothes), drinking beer and bullshitting, when my cousin finds me, and I have to tell the story all over again.
In the doorway of my grandma's house

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