Monday, October 29, 2018

France: final thoughts

I'm back in Seoul—back home, basically—and it's time to put France behind me. I had a great two weeks there; technically, the whole trip took place over 18 calendar days, from October 11 to October 28, but in my defense, I did work an entire weekend to make up for the two extra weekdays that I "stole" from the company.

The trip back started on Saturday morning; I was up a bit after 6 a.m. and out the door by 7:05 after policing my giant bedroom and packing my backpack—which had grown as heavy as it had been on the way to France. I tried to rinse out the shower so there'd be no stray pubes for Dom and family to pick up. I piled all the towels I had used into one place; I remade the two beds I had used: one giant bed with a too-soft mattress, and one much smaller bed with a firmer, more comfortable mattress. I hope I left everything in a fairly decent state. I also left behind the bottle of shampoo/body wash that had been my companion for two weeks, plus the bottle of "bio" detergent that I had used for my nightly loads of hand-washed laundry. I failed to refill the metal tin that had housed some cute little chocolates; those got slaughtered within the first week of my time in that bedroom.

It was about a 17- or 18-minute drive to Niort from Dom's house, and as I thought might happen, little Tim was awake and insistent upon accompanying us to the train station. Héloïse also popped out of the house to wave a final goodbye to me; I wished her a good rest-of-vacation (the students' vacation during la Toussaint lasts until November 5), and she wished me a good trip home. Along the way to the station, I asked Dom about stamping my train ticket (Tim professed not to know the verb composter, i.e., to time-stamp a train ticket), and I asked about traveling second-class because, on my ticket, there was no seat number given for second-class travel. My route took me from Niort to Poitiers, then from Poitiers to Paris; the Niort-Poitiers route was in second-class seating on a non-TGV train, and the Poitier-Paris route was first-class assigned seating on the TGV (humorously called "LE TGV INOUI," where inouï literally means "unheard-of," i.e., fantastic, unprecedented, incredible). When the train arrived, I saw that the train's number wasn't exactly the same number as was marked on my ticket (off by one digit), but I shrugged, got on the train anyway, and waved a sad goodbye to Dom and Tim as we slid away along the tracks. And just like that, I was out of sight. My time with the Ducoulombiers ended as it had started: with me, Dom, and Tim at the station—first saying hello, then saying goodbye.

I found a second-class seat on the train out of Niort, then after about thirty minutes, I took out my phone and began tracking our movement on the GPS. Something seemed amiss: my GPS was saying we were approaching La Rochelle, which was entirely the wrong direction. I began to wonder whether I was on the wrong train: had another train pulled into Niort a minute later? Was that the train I should have been on? Crap. Pressure began to build in my head as I pondered the possibility that I was miles and miles from where I needed to be: Poitiers was registering at over 70 km away on my GPS, and that was at 8:05 a.m. According to my ticket, I needed to arrive at Poitiers by 8:18 to be able to make the 8:28 TGV to Paris. Feeling desperate, but having come up with a contingency plan, I texted my situation to Dominique, then took one last look at my GPS before realizing the truth: the GPS had been stuck on La Rochelle since the previous day, when we'd actually been to La Rochelle. I texted Dom again to say "No worries," and sure enough, our train pulled into Poitiers only a few minutes late. I had about five minutes to get off, walk across the station to the TGV section, find the part of the platform from which to board Car #13... and then I waited.

The TGV pulled up right on schedule; I breathed a sigh of relief. I was now clear to roll to la Gare de Montparnasse in Paris—the selfsame station I had been to two weeks earlier. From there, I would take the Metro Line 4 to a transfer station for the RER B train to Charles de Gaulle. Nothing went wrong with the TGV ride, but we did pull in slightly late. More bothersome was that I had trouble using an automated ticketing machine to get a Metro/RER ticket to go to the airport. I fought the machine for a while, using both French and English, before I was finally able to find a "type in your destination" screen that allowed me to name and purchase the ticket I wanted. With that ticket in hand, I marched over to the Metro Line 4 platform... and promptly took the train in the wrong direction. It didn't matter too much: there was an RER B transfer station no matter which way I went, so I got off at the transfer point and successfully boarded the RER B. After that, it was a matter of counting down the minutes before my arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

I reached the airport around 11:25 a.m. The RER dropped us at Terminal 2, departures, which was right where I needed to be for an Air France flight. I found an automated check-in machine and made the mistake of clicking "yes" to the question, "Does your passport have a visa for Korea in it?" Technically, my F-4 visa is a card that looks a bit like an American driver's license—photo, personal info, etc. Inside my passport, on the pages that say "Visas," I have a set of Korean stamps, which is why I clicked "yes" without thinking more deeply about the situation. The check-in machine then took me to a visa-information page. It first asked me to present my visa for scanning. When I placed my F-4 card on the scanner plate, the machine registered an error. So the machine flipped me to another page on which I had to type in my visa information. I typed in the data on my F-4 card... and miraculously, the machine didn't question me further: it simply took me through the rest of the process for obtaining my boarding pass. At one point, the machine asked me whether I'd like to change my assigned seating. After I clicked "no," the machine belatedly informed me that there were no free seats on the plane to allow for a change, anyway. After that, the thing spat out my boarding pass, I asked a uniformed gentleman where I needed to go for passport control and security ("Follow the signs"), and away I went. I still had over an hour to pass through both layers of security. The passport-control line was slow but steady, and I got through with plenty of time before my flight was to board.

Security, however, proved to be another problem: my backpack got snagged and rerouted because I was carrying several verrines of pâté—a food product apparently not allowed on board passenger planes. A middle-aged Frenchwoman with a bad cough removed my bottles and told me what would happen: she was going to box my bottles up as if for mailing, then place them en consigne. Onto the parcel, she would place a coded label, part of which she would peel off and give me to as a reference. My job, then, was to go back to Korea, access a special produits en consigne website, type in my parcel's information, then pay the 30-euro fee to have my stuff shipped overseas to my home address in Seoul. (I placed my delivery order within an hour of getting back to my apartment.) I sadly said goodbye to my pâté, a jar of Nutella-like chocolate, and some terrine or other.

But even with that delay, which took several minutes and a long, sad chorus of coughing to get through, I still made it through security and to my gate with twenty minutes to spare before boarding. I typed out a final thank-you to Dom and family via Kakao, my Korean texting/chat service (it had taken a while to convince Dom to download the app), then I used some remaining euro coins to buy myself one final Orangina, which I drank triumphantly before strutting off to the men's room for one last pre-flight shit. There wasn't much that needed to come out, luckily; I had nearly emptied myself earlier that morning.

After that—boom. On the plane.

The flight was even shorter than I'd thought it was going to be. Coming to France had taken over twelve hours; going back to Korea, with the jet stream, took only about ten. The problem was my seatmate, a large, young Korean guy who kept straying over the imaginary boundary between our chairs to touch me lightly here and here—his knee on mine, his arm against my arm, etc. I was in an aisle seat, and I kept leaning left, into the aisle, to try to avoid this guy's touch, but he was utterly unaware of what he was doing. I'm not the type of person to say shit like, "Stay in your own fucking zone," so I took the discomfort stoically, curling myself as much as my large body could, and minimizing my manspreading. Somehow, I managed to survive the flight with my sanity intact.

Oh, a word about the way the flight attendants handled me: they were mostly French, and it was a pleasure that they immediately spoke to me in French instead of automatically guessing I was an American who needed to hear English. But I must also have looked Korean enough, to their eyes, for them to hand me a Korean-language ROK Customs declaration form instead of an English one. I had to smile at that. Let me also note that the Korean flight attendants on board spoke French at an impressive level; I'm used to encountering Koreans whose French is poor at best, with exceedingly few exceptions. These flight attendants spoke both rapidly and clearly; they were obviously comfortable in the language. Hats off to them.

We touched down in Incheon at about 6:40 a.m. on Sunday morning. We rolled to a stop by about 6:50 a.m., and I was in the passport-control line by 7:05. My turn at an officer's station didn't come until 7:36 a.m. (I played a mental game in which I tried to predict exactly when I'd be called forward, and I got it right when I guessed 7:36.) Korea requires that you present your declaration form (no arrival card needed if you're an "F"-visa holder), your passport, and your two index fingers, which you must place on the world's cutest scanning plates to verify you are not an incoming sexual predator intent on raping middle-school girls.

Once through passport control, my first order of business was to find a fucking restroom: I had boarded the plane with an empty stomach (except for one bottle of Orangina), but by the time I deplaned, I had eaten two full meals (although "full" may be too generous of a description for such skimpy fare), had a snack, and drunk several cups of Coke and/or orange juice. I did my business, went to the money-exchange window and changed my euros to won, then went downstairs to look for a bus to my part of Seoul.

Along the way, I espied a Shake Shack, which I blogged about previously. I have now satisfied my curiosity on that score, so there's no longer a need to dwell on the Shakes and the Shacks.

Luckily, despite my having arrived in Terminal 2 of Incheon Airport, I didn't need to take a shuttle to Terminal 1 to catch a limousine bus bound for Seoul's downtown. I got a bus ticket at Terminal 2's ticket window; the lady handed me my ticket and said, "You'll need to go right now" because I had only about three minutes to reach the bus platform. I reached platform 15 for Bus 6009 to Gaepo-dong, and I got there before the bus did.

The ride back was woozily pleasant. Despite the wonderful two weeks I had just spent in France, I knew, on some level, that two weeks would be enough, and that it was time to retourner au travail. So, yeah: I'm glad to be back. There were certain aspects of being in France that made me miss being in Korea. Subway trains and subway stations that don't smell like piss—there's one thing. Toilet handles on the side of the toilet tank—where they're easier to reach while still sitting on the toilet—as opposed to French flush buttons sitting at the top center of the toilet tank, where they're nearly impossible to reach unless you choose to stand and turn around (or, like me, you contrive a way to twist painfully around while seated). Food that's more than faintly spicy. Shops that don't seem to be perpetually closed, no matter the time of day or day of the week. Bathrooms with clean, functioning toilets (can't believe I'm saying that about Korea, but it's true: much has changed for the better since the 90s). Convenience stores no more than a short walk away. I could go on, but you get the idea: Korea has lots of little, civilized comforts that become easy to miss once you're no longer there.

After I got off the limousine bus at Daechi Station, I went into a convenience store... and bought an Orangina. (Orangina has been at the forefront of a marketing blitz, here, for the past couple of months, and I'm ecstatic: it's one of my favorite carbonated drinks.) I had originally wanted to take a taxi back to my place, but I decided instead to save some money and take the subway; it was only two stops to my place, anyway.

Got back to my apartment, which hadn't changed since I'd left it sixteen days before, and weighed myself out of curiosity: nearly six kilos lost. All of that was thanks to eating less, eating better (nice, balanced, homemade family meals), continuing to exercise, and nearly totally cutting out sodas. True, I did experience a bit of depression from sugar withdrawal, but as long as I had other things to occupy me, like long walks to Niort, there was little problem.

After some introspection, I've come to realize a few things.

1. My French needs work. While I'd still barely consider myself fluent, I really have let myself go in this area of my existence. I used to be at a near-native level of fluency, but the machine has rusted deeply since then. If I seriously want to improve my French, I need to find ways to improve not only my listening comprehension but also my speaking ability—expand my vocabulary, stutter/stammer less, and yes: work on my grammar.

2. I don't have any desire to live in France. As beautiful as France is, and as much as I like French people in general, I feel pretty darn good about my living situation right now. With the increase in my salary and the imminent end of my major debts, I'm soon going to be on a steeply rising curve of money-saving that will see me able to move back to the States where I can buy a legitimate, free-standing house and property somewhere, if that's what I choose to do. And I can do all that before I'm 60.

3. I do love homemade French cooking. If I may be brutally frank: in a gun-to-the-head contest between Dominique/Véronique and Dom's mother, Dom's mother would win hands down. Dom and Véro are both talented cooks, but Dom's mother definitively proves that love and experience, like time, are actual ingredients in cooking. Maman's cooking was never flavorless or overly water-logged; everything was carefully balanced and put together with great care and confidence. I contrast Maman's style with that of my Swiss mother's; the latter was a very good cook, but she approached cooking as a purely technical, almost scientific endeavor, not as an organic activity done with joy and élan.

4. I'll be back in France soon, I hope. With Maman and Papa not getting any younger, and with the possibility that I might become a bit more involved in the lives of Dominique's kids, I think there are plenty of reasons to try to stay more current regarding both French culture and, more specifically, the goings-on of my beloved Ducoulombiers.

Anyway, I'm back in Korea. Work starts up again on Monday (today, technically). I need to do some laundry and get to bed. Thanks for following along on this journey to l'Hexagone.*

*France's shape hints at a hexagon, so "l'Hexagone" is one of France's cherished nicknames. This leads to a jokey expression: les quatre coins de l'Hexagone, i.e., "the four corners of the Hexagon." The notion of "four corners" comes from the the expression "the four corners of the earth," which originates from the idea of the earth being rectangle-shaped, like a map of the planet's surface. Of course, even with "the four corners of the earth," if the earth is a sphere, then there aren't any corners at all, so the expression is very much tongue-in-cheek. This is even truer for les quatre coins de l'Hexagone because a hexagon obviously has six corners, not four, so it's as if someone were being deliberately obtuse. Layers upon layers of humor and history. The archaeology of teh funneh.

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