Our multi-ethnic, multi-lingual neighborhood in Massy is different from anywhere we’ve lived in the past. We live in the first-floor apartment in the foreground. (Ground level holds garages and a few storage units.) Ours is one of five identical buildings.
We set out one Saturday on a five-minute walk to Centre Ville. We heard a friendly “Bonjour! Comment allez vous?” from a young woman striding up the hill with us. Then she seemed to be remarking on the weather. I explained, in halting French, that we speak very little French, then asked, “Do you speak English?” “Oh, no,” she laughed. “I’m Portugese!” We enjoyed her smiles, but except for a parting “Have a good day!” in French, none of us could be understood further by the others.
Four times each weekday, we pass a junior high school (called “college” here) as we walk to and from our classes at Les Cèdres. On several mornings we’ve seen four to eight armed military personnel near the city bus stops and walkways to the junior high. We’ve seen them in the afternoon as well, when the kids return from special outings. The military presence is unnerving to say the least; our walks between home and school are definitely “prayer-walks.”
One of our professors and a fellow student take the train to and from Massy to Paris each day. They were late to Massy one day last week. Because of a terrorist threat, military personnel had stopped the train to search each car.
At the shopping center (Cora), alert security personnel check each person’s bag or cart at the entrance. Military, police, and security forces are everywhere in this high state of alert. Though there is discussion on the news channels about personal rights, the government responds quickly and decisively to threats. People on the streets here seem resigned to the subordination of personal rights for the safety of the whole.
Yesterday, on the walking path to Cora, we met, in quick succession, a 20-something West-African woman, a 30-something Scandinavian woman and a 40-something Indian man. Each was engaged in conversation on a cell phone; each spoke languages we failed to identify; all nodded to us, in what we considered to be a substitute for the normal “Bonjour” we would have heard, had they not been already conversing on their phones.
Speaking of Cora, we’re just 10 minutes on foot from groceries, clothing, housewares and electronics. ( In the photo above, a walking path slopes steeply to the right of the tallest tree.) We’ve hauled a few small red 🙂 kitchen items, a small garbage bin for recyclables, a larger plastic bin for off-season clothes (which will serve doubly as a printer stand), a tall laundry rack, a 32-inch flat screen tv, and a printer back up the downhill path to Cora. These are in addition to our normal grocery loads. On nearly every trip, Doc quips, “I sure wish we could make this path go downhill both ways.”
Our apartment came fully equipped, so there was no need to purchase anything beyond the list above. My favorite of many dated tools in our apartment is the tiny vacuum cleaner (pictured at left). It’s older and sports duct tape, just like the one I left in the States; it works. The washing machine in the kitchen holds very small loads that take 2-3 days to dry on the small rack we were provided; a second drying rack is a definite blessing. We brought no electronics from the States, aside from the computers, since those in the U.S. weren’t compatible to electrical receptacles here.
We had heard some scary stories about haircuts in France, but the mirror was looking even scarier after ten weeks. On a walk through Massy Centre Ville (town center), in an unprecedented burst of bravery, we entered hair salons, one for men and one for women, on opposite sides of the street. We were each happy with the results, and Doc will return to the same barber. I might try elsewhere, mostly because of the language barrier. Each of us received help from other patrons willing to explain what we were supposed to do. (“No appointment, just wait your turn. Prices here.”) We gestured for the type of cuts we hoped to receive. Before we go again, we’ll try to rehearse some French for the salon venue.
We’re both losing weight from all the walking and improved eating habits. The French love dessert and bread, but very few products contain close to the same amount of sugar as is found in the States. We took the photo at left on our 30-minute walk to church.
We survived our first two weeks of language school. The work is challenging for both of us, but in an only-French-speaking environment, Doc is struggling to understand many instructions. We’re both highly committed to the langua-culture learning process, and so far, we’re keeping up with our homework.
Last Friday, I felt like I was chasing my tail. In the kitchen, I needed definitions for 1) French instructions on a box of rice, and 2) French terms for laundry tasks. In the living room, I needed to look up French TV news captions. In the office (second bedroom used to study, hang laundry and house Doc’s clothes) we both needed this well-worn book to complete our homework. I’m thinking we might place one in each room, rather than running in circles. A pair of reading glasses would be helpful at each spot as well.
I brought my silly socks—the colorful knee-highs that always lighten my heart in the winter. However, the temperature in our apartment fluctuates widely. Heat comes from plumbing and heating pipes under the floors and we’re told it’s regulated twice a year, based on the seasons. Rain is an ever-present reality in France, and word is that this winter is unseasonably warm. The only way to adjust the temperature, say our colleagues, is to layer clothing and open and close the windows. Those layers, including the silly socks, get quite a workout!