I leave the house while the world is still sleeping.
Blue dawn is just giving way to cool golden daylight. There’s an unseasonable chill in this midsummer air. Even the sheep are still huddled together, snuggling among the low tree branches on their hill. Arriving at the station, I see one other lonely soul waiting on the deserted platform. The orange LED timetable display is blank, dormant.
Shuttered houses snooze, while the first birds are swooping and cackling above our heads.
I wait for the tinny tell-tale vibration of the tracks that signal the train’s arrival. Birds cheep, cars rev into second gear, plastic trash bags rustle. No vibration, no train. The sky darkens, cool air licks up my spine and blows away my grogginess, giving way to worry.
I’ve been pacing, while the minute hand has sliced through half a revolution. A husky wheeze of a bus engine signals behind me. A rosy-faced motherly woman commands the immense steering wheel, and waves me over. Climbing aboard, rosy perfume mingles with the fatigued, stale odor of bus seats who’ve seen better days.
There’s always one passenger who’s got to make friends with the driver; today, it’s a woman who looks just like her, short and plump with hair to match. Her rough smoker’s laugh matches the wheeze of the bus engine, periodically firing off as we gallivant through the countryside.
Bus bounces through impossibly narrow country roads, past steep green hills of grapevines that make way for flat horizons of corn fields. Detours take us through isolated roads, until we reach the point of no return: a road barely large enough for a horse and buggy. A Herculean effort is necessary for our valiant driver to back on up out, and eventually we find the main road.
The passenger next to me is glued to his smartphone. I recognize him as a train employee, on his way to work like the rest of us. His globby fingers daintily poke at the touchscreen, and he’s still wearing yesterday’s 5-o’clock shadow. I keep sneaking glances at him, just another guy on the Saturday morning bus. He seems so much smaller than the man whose gaze I avoid while he suspiciously scrutinizes my train pass.
The bus finally hauls its tired mass into the station. I left home nearly 2 hours ago. My legs are a blur, propelling me through the familiar streets rendered foreign in Saturday morning light.
The streets are dingier in the gray light. I pass by a man, roughened and beaten down by life, shuffling stiffly along, hollow mouth agape, framed by a dirty beard and long-neglected hair. The sight of him inspires disgust, then hot shame.
Past the post office, whose sidewalk reeks permanently of urine, sprinkled with crumbles of doubtful origin… Are there THAT many large dogs left to freely defecate on this same sidewalk? Doubtful.
A man strolls along, engrossed in the glow of his smartphone, which emanates suspiciously pornographic sounds.
Just before arriving at work, I catch a whiff of shair. Why is that rank-ass smell following me today?
Rip the door open at work, and there’s nobody but my coworker chirping, “Good morning! Your student called and said she’s gonna be late for class…”
I crouch into a squat and collapse into laughter. Sweet relief mixes with exhaustion and sudden buoyancy. Everything’s okay, and I can finally take a moment to laugh at the thoroughly bizarre start to my day.
I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another day.
In class, one-to-one with a young woman. Her limp ponytail drags between her slumped shoulders. I’m patiently listening to her gulpy, whispered half-responses. Gently, I ask for a full sentence, and she’s staring down at the table, cold. Out of my peripheral vision, the television in the next room plays a special report: death rituals in some faraway country. The desiccated, hollow, toothy face of a man’s dead father comes up onscreen. My eyebrows twist in morbid fascination as he explains the bathing and offering of food and cigarettes to the mummified body of his father.
My attention whips back to my student, and I tune back in. It’s been almost a full minute of silence. I rephrase in favor of a black-or-white question. She continues staring down, frozen in time.
The full-length window facing the sidewalk buzzes with passersby. One figure looks in, then turns and stops. Staring at me through the window, vulgar, slack-jawed, grimy canvas vest, clutching a tattered shopping bag. I flush when my eyes meet his, and hurriedly tune back in to my student, who is just finishing her carefully composed response.
My eyes crinkle with a plaster-toothed, dry smile. “Great,” my voice creaks.
Thursday night is party night. Leaving work, I hear echoes of music and rallying cries that hasten the merrymaking. I walk past a troupe of university-age men. A cloud of scent slaps me as they pass by: fresh laundry.
I imagine their mommies lovingly washing their clothes at the weekend: scrubbing their pit-stained t-shirts and skidmarked undies. Fold the laundry for their little boy, give him a kiss on the forehead and send him back to school. They wipe a tear away and wonder where the years have gone.
Meanwhile, their little prince is out trolling with his carbon-copy friends. They don’t speak–they grunt out slack-jawed dopey nasal duh-duhs while they pound beers and try to score chicks. Flaccid, sullied masculinity. With a whistle in their step, these stellar knuckleheads stroll along, in tandem and with intention.
These thoughts accompany me to the station, and I ride back home.
It’s that time of the year again, and I’ve been looking forward to it. Silver lights suspended all around town from the beautiful Haussmanian balconies, and neat rows of red and blue cabins erected in the town center. The Christmas Market is the embodiment of the spirit of the season. I love the glow of the lights, the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine, and the glorious explosion of rich colors. The holiday season is a beautiful time to be alive.
With this lovely image in mind, I dance out of work, looking forward to strolling about the market on my way home. My spirit is light, and I’m surprised there aren’t twittering doves lifting my coattails on the way out.
I arrive at the market with a bounce in my step.
A young couple is swinging their bags as they stroll, and they’re unceremoniously perfect in converging into my path, cutting me right off. No matter, they must be so lost in their loving reverie that they didn’t see me.
Then my heart starts to sink as I pass by each little cabin.
Vendors are selling snake oil and toe socks, ugly overpriced jewelry and cured saucisson that smell like feet. Waffles and churros are made from boxed mixes and dredged with off-brand imitation Nutella. Sacrilege.
Warped speakers vomit out “Last Christmas,” and the tinny sound of George Michael narrates my walk through town. The song echoes and distorts off the storefronts, intercut with snippets of banal dialogue.
A vendor is displaying huge slabs of chocolate, filled with nuts and dried fruit. There is no plastic barrier, and I imagine passersby inadvertently touching the chocolate with their putrid hands, and germy children sneezing all over it. Merry Christmas, Grandma; here’s a taste of gastroenteritis.
A group of sour-smelling, salty-looking homeless dudes play patty cake while their dogs gnaw at their rope collars. One dog is spreading his own Christmas cheer all over the sidewalk; something tells me he hasn’t been eating enough kibbles.
All the while, George Michael’s buttery voice indulges the word “special,” and it’s following me at every turn. His sensual whispers are giving me douche chills. I try to keep my spirits up as he flirtatiously caresses each word, but it’s starting to wear on my soul.
Just ahead, a fat homeless guy shuffles along, muttering to himself. At once, like a backfiring jalopy, he fires out of both ends. He releases a massive wet fart, then coughs up onto the cobblestone.
A crescendo of wails starts up from the other side; a kid has just evacuated his churro all over the front of his jacket. Mom looks beyond exasperated, and she herself is fighting the urge to gag as she wipes up her kid with cheap disintegrating napkins.
I don’t have time to wish them a Merry Christmas because I’m dancing around the pavement now, swerving and side-stepping the well-trodden doggie piles. Like an unholy mandala, the traces of shit radiate outward from the foul nucleus. Animals.
This is no Christmas market. This is criminal. This is a farce.
On a human level, this is offensive. They’ve taken the spirit of Christmas, dolled it up with rouge and cheap perfume, and sold her off to the highest bidder. They’ve turned her out, and for what? As Seen On TV gimmicks and radio-controlled planes that the vendor insists on dive-bombing in front of you, expecting you to be impressed. Where are the homemade crepes with real fucking Nutella? Where’s the hippie selling handmade hemp bracelets and artisanal soap? This is sordid business.
Tim Curry is laughing diabolically somewhere, as “Time of My Life” starts to ooze out of the speakers. I gotta get outta here, man.
The holiday season is a beautiful time to be alive? Humbug.