far too much writing, far too many photos

Last weekend: tossed myself into the car and followed the road south, driving through southern Quebec farmland — fields once green now slowly turning yellow — crossing the border after a nicely cursory questioning by a customs agent (a few questions, then almost literally shrugging his shoulders before handing back my passport and waving me on). Green mountains, increasing traffic along the interstate as Burling came and went. Arrived back in Montpelier, got out of car. And found myself suddenly immersed in autumn — trees doing the foliage thing, orange and yellow leaves strewn across lawns and road, air pungent with the smell of all that, insects in tall grass making quiet music. Hillsides displaying big color, shadows of sunlight/clouds moving slowly over them.

The first leaves began showing bits of color in mid-August, the normal start of all that in this corner of the world. And never really advanced from there, the weather mostly dry, temperatures mostly mild, even summery, despite decreasing daylight hours, sun lower in the sky, sliding slowly north as the days slipped by. When I left Vermont for Montreal, autumn seemed to step back even further, September putting on a show of lovely late summer conditions, everyone out in summer clothes. And that’s how it remained until this return to Montpelier. During the days away, rain arrived, apparently jump-starting the transition.

Last week in Vermont: days with a cool edge, nights of falling temperatures, the season’s first frost warnings.

A friend — S. — was supposed to drive up on Monday, I would then drag her up to Montreal for 2-3 days of fun. Late Sunday night, the phone rang: S. calling to say she’d just discovered that her passport had lapsed last year. I encouraged her to call the appropriate people the next morning, see if there was any chance of securing a new one on short notice. She did, there wasn’t, she surrendered. Yesterday I drove back to Montreal to use the teeny studio flat I’d rented for two months for the very last time. And found out that during my days away, autumn had begun taking hold here — air still mild but trees showing lots of yellow, yellow leaves sweeping through streets, driven by a restless breeze. Overnight, the temperature fell, wind rattled the windows all night long. This morning: autumn. Cold air, chilly breeze, lots of clouds scudding across the sky, sunlight peeking through.

Amazing. (Well, maybe not to you. But to easily amazed me.)

[this entry in progress]

España, te echo de menos

[continued, kinda, from the previous entry]

The problem with taking so long to write about happenings, with so much time between entries: life continues, events accumulate, until the pile of things going on is so big and unruly that attempting to dig into it can seem like so much trouble that a lazy individual can easily opt to blow it all off. Leaving loads of fun and/or interesting hooha undiscussed. (Which may be a blessing in disguise for those who stumble across this page.)

On the other hand, the fact of going so long between entries indicates that there’s an active real life happening, packed with things needing attention and soak up time. It’s good to have a life.

(Blah blah blah.)

Since pulling out of language classes more than three weeks ago, I’ve been back and forth between Vermont and Montreal far too many times, with a fast overnight jaunt to Toronto tossed into the mix just ’cause the possibility was offered. Change is good for me, the stimulation of all the fresh input does positive things for my state of being, but I think I’m tossing myself all over map in this case because right now no one place seems to have enough of whatever it would take to make me feel… not sure what the word I want here would be. Full, satisfied, connected to life. But there have been moments of feeling at ease, at peace, sometimes a fine abundance of those moments. They counterbalance the overall sense of being in a transitional time, in transitional places. But I find myself feeling restless, jonesing for somewhere — a place, a situation, a social network — that really feels like a fit. And I realize that may in part be a reflection of not feeling quite as comfortable in my own skin as I have in times past.

But I try. I swear I do. And I’ll take this way of dealing over some other possibilities I might have resorted to in earlier times. (Drinking, anyone? Watching endless hours of meaningless television, anyone? Eating shitty food, anyone?)

Er, where was I?

Something I’ve noticed that seems to be rampant here in Montpelier: distracted drivers, cellphones jammed to their ears. (One half-wit nearly hit me as I got midway across State Street in a crosswalk, a cardinal sin here where drivers are almost uniformly deferential to pedestrians. This individual, not paying attention at all to what he was doing, didn’t even slow down as he zipped by me, scant inches from my adorable bod. As he passed, the driver’s window down, I saw he held a cell in both hands, thumbs busy texting away. And my verbal response quickly morphed from a harmless, ‘Hey, whoa!’ to a shouted ‘STOP TEXTING, YOU JACKASS!’ This was midday in front of the post office, pedestrians and cars all around, a whole lot of attention quickly focused on this guy — I sincerely hope I embarrassed the bejeezis out of him.)

Something I’ve noticed that seems to be rampant in Montreal: self-talkers. Some of them street people or individuals clearly going through hard times, others appearing normal, well-dressed, high-functioning. Some mumbling, some talking normally, some shouting. In English, in French, even in Spanish and Chinese. Pretty impressive.

Also rampant in Montreal: genuinely lovely women. (Of all ages.)

España, te amo

[continued from previous entry]

It seemed pretty clear that I needed to withdraw from classes, but I decided to flee back to Vermont for the weekend and ponder the sitch before making a decisive move. Left Friday a.m., post-rush-hour — heading south on a beautiful summer morning. A long stretch of the ride between Montreal and the border is a two-lane that stretches through southern Quebec farm country — a two-lane that sometimes expands to three, providing a passing lane. I found myself driving behind an immense pack of Harley riders, a double column of motorcycles filling the road ahead as far as the eye could see — raising the spectre of arriving at customs behind a sprawling collection of bikers, having to wait forever while they trickled through. A thought that got me using the passing lane every time it appeared, speeding past as many Harleys as possible, inserting myself back into their lane as slowly and politely as I could when the passing lane disappeared. Kind of a harrowing process, me wondering if I would get past them all in time. And it mostly went well, most of the riders showing courtesy, allowing me in, only a handful making the process hairier than it already felt, refusing to cede space, me having to finesse my way along. Until I made it past them a few miles north of the border, wide-open farmland spreading away in all directions, summer air sweeping through the open windows of the car.

And then Vermont, green mountains rising up, highway moving south to Burlington then east to Montpelier. Arriving back just before midday, parking near the post office, realizing I had no change for meters, finding enough coins in the street to allow me to check mail and grab a fast, excellent bowl of curry from the little Thai food stand that sets up shop in front of the courthouse two or three lunchtimes a week.

As small towns go — and that’s all it is, really, despite being the state capital — Montpelier is a sweet, overgrown crossroads. Green, mostly quiet away from the small downtown. I arrived back just as songbirds were pointing themselves south and taking off, mornings growing increasingly quiet, though enough of summer lingered that daytime traffic remained slow, swollen with tourist vehicles.

The middle school across the street from the building that houses my current squat was coming back to life after two quiet months, trees and greenery around the area showed the very beginnings of what will become the annual autumn show.

Spent a couple of days thinking, then headed back north on Sunday. Showed up at the school Monday morning after the 9 o’clock bell, hallways empty and quiet. Strolled into the office, talked with a staff member I’d spoken to after classes on Thursday (giving them fair warning at that time that I might bail).

I confirmed that I was withdrawing, his response was to get a sheet of paper laying out their refund policy. Here’s what it said: if you’ve completed 10% of the classes you’ve paid for, they will return 70% of your money. If you’ve completed 10-30% of the classes you paid for, they will refund 30%. I’d paid for four weeks and completed one — they would only return 30% of the cash paid. That amounts to a huge penalty — a classic case of caveat emptor.

On the strength of this one bit alone, I could not recommend this school to anyone. I haven’t even — you may have noticed — mentioned its name. Me being discrete. (Individual requests will receive discretion-free details.)

[continued, sorta, in the following post]


Vermont, 9/10/09:

España, te echo de menos

[continued from previous entry]

Next morning: more of the same. Like the day before, I found myself sitting between the Turkish architect — Emry, I think his name was — and the sweet Mexican woman. The gulf between those who had some foundation with the language and those who didn’t became clearer, more apparent, with each passing hour. I, one of those who didn’t, continued scrambling to keep up, cracking my dictionary every couple of minutes with the vain hope of picking up enough words to be able to cobble together an actual sentence, pose an actual question.

The teacher, Sana: a hard-working, good-humored individual. Maybe 5′6″ tall; shortish black curly hair; either olive-complexioned or well-tanned, I couldn’t tell which; with the teeniest bit of pudge and a nice smile. There were moments during the morning, pauses between exercises, when everyone fell silent and I could see Sana regrouping before pushing ahead, turning away to take a breath and collect herself — dealing with a group that hardly spoke her language and often didn’t understand everything she said. I liked her and admired her. But I didn’t always understand everything she said. Sometimes I didn’t understand anything she said. There were times when we students would look at each other, sharing a moment of dismay before shifting attention back to her.

I’d gotten in the habit of getting myself to a coffee-pusher before school hours, taking a little time to fuel up before squaring shoulders and heading into class. By the second day, the owner had my preferences down and began getting my order ready when he saw me stumble in the door. I quickly developed the habit of returning at the mid-morning break to re-fortify my sad-ass self. This day, Wednesday, I went with a young American woman I knew from the very first day — tall, slender, bespectacled, w/ long blond hair. Smart, seeming a bit awkward, some might say kinda nerdy. The process of drifting there, ordering, getting her stuff took long enough that when I looked at my cell and saw time had grown so short we needed to return to school immediately — before the goddamn 11:20 bell rang — she hadn’t even come close to finishing coffee/muffin, had to pitch food (no chow allowed in class), grabbed coffee, made the trip back without protest. Me feeling like a fascist, silently cursing the school’s policymakers.

The Mexican woman began grabbing my dictionary more and more frequently as class wore on, and began whispering questions, checking on exercises or homework. I answered when I could, but if I was having trouble keeping up with the onslaught of French I could only answer with an apologetic shrug, needing all my attention for the wave after wave of material coming at us. My last memory of her is one of those moments, me not being able to answer a quiet question from her, flashing her a fast apology, turning my focus immediately back to scribbling notes. Her eyes lingered on me briefly, her expression showing what I now think was desperation tinged with resignation. Next morning — Thursday — she was gone, along with Emry, the Turkish architect. Leaving me feeling the teeniest bit sad (and guilty) with respect to her and surprised at his disappearance. He was bright, funny, outgoing — it never occurred to me he might be part of the attrition as time whittled the group down. On the other hand, he hadn’t managed to line up a flat or homeshare, was staying at the Y or a hostel, may have been feeling overwhelmed at the combo of trying to keep up with classwork and finding a place to live (a process probably made more difficult with the return of local college folk).

I’d put in quite a bit of studying time Wed. night, found myself feeling like it made no real difference. The disappearance of two students overnight left me the only one of the remaining group who really didn’t seem to be making headway, and I could see the gap between me and the rest of the class widening as Thursday’s class wore on. At some point I realized that I just was not going to get anywhere in this class, at this school, under these conditions. I need some kind of minimal foundation, maybe in classes moving a whole lot slower and using clearly organized reference materials — charts of stuff, hand-outs explaining stuff clearly. This class was not going to give me that and it seemed starkly obvious that beating my head against that particular wall would only result in a massive headache with nothing much to show for it.

I picked up a good French-Spanish dictionary, that helped more than my dog-eared French-English dictionary did. That evening I got together with a friend and pondered all this out loud. She brought me to a bookstore, we tracked down two simple, clear reference books, one on verb conjugations, one on basic grammar. (They were on the third floor –- we took the elevator up. When the doors slid open, we were met with the spectacle of two 20-something women sprawled out on the floor together in front of us laughing hysterically. I burst into laughter, which got them snorting with embarrassed glee. A great scene.)

[continued in following entry]


Graffiti parking lot — Montreal:

España, te echo de menos

[continued from previous entry]

Next morning, there I was, ready to go. In my seat in the right classroom. Fresh-faced and caffeinated, carrying notebook, French dictionary, pens. Made it there and found my place before the first bell* — by the time the second bell sounded there were seven of us: a 30ish woman from Brazil, a 20-something male from Germany, the previously mentioned 30ish architect from Turkey, a college-age guy from Chile, a sweet college-age woman from Mexico, and a girl from Columbia, 18 or 19 years old, looking to be fresh out of high school.

Something I learned during all those classes taken in Madrid: you never know what kind of classmates you’re going to find yourself corralled in with. Sometimes it turns out to be a joy, sometimes it’s more routine, every once in a while it turns out to be absolute hell. And all it takes is one loose cannon to send the experience off toward darker, more chaotic places. Something I genuinely appreciated about the group I found myself with in this class: good people, every single one of them. Not a bad vibe to be found. Not that it was a love fest at all times, but it was benign. People were there to learn, with good will toward their classmates. Not a small thing.

And the instructor: another good person. A 30ish woman named Sana, who launched right into the work, me dealing with the stream of 100% French, scribbling pages of notes as fast as I could, trying to absorb sentences of introduction we were expected to understand and begin using (Comment tu t’appelles? Quelle est ta nationalité Que est ton état civil?). All that did was raise one question after another for me — what’s the infinitive form of the verbs, what are the conjugations? why use tu in one case, ta in another, ton in the third? — leaving me with no way to ask questions (lacking the ability to toss together sentences) and longing for simple charts re: some basics: verbs/conjugations, nouns/pronouns, direct objects/indirect objects, blahblahblah. No charts, though. Just a whole lot of verbiage, me scrambling to get some of it.

That feeling of not being able to put together basic questions or statements? Not much fun. And my defensive reaction was to start blurting things out in Spanish. Which led to one strange thing -– I’ve known French folks who say ’si’ just as much as they say ‘oui,’ I’ve always had the impression it was normal. I found myself answering ’si’ sometimes, getting told it was dead wrong, had no way to explain my experience with that or ask about it.

Well. That day ground to its end. I returned to my temporary squat and studied.

*This school uses signal bells — one at 8:55 (five minute warning, the equivalent of a nudge in the direction of one’s classroom), then a second one at 9 a.m. If you’re not in class by the 9 o’clock bell — and I am not making this up — you have to wait until a bell that rings at 9:30 before you can skulk in and take your seat. What happens during that 30 minute penalty period? Not sure — could be they use it to brand you, leaving a shameful, livid L on your forehead.

[continued in following entry]


In the Plateau, Montreal:

España, te amo

I’ve been through big honking pooploads of language classes since arriving in Madrid nine years ago. Far, far more than it ever occurred to me I’d find myself wading through, both intensive studies (4 hours daily) and evening classes (1-1/2 or 2 hours, 2-3 nights a week). At four different schools, each one providing a distinctly different experience.

(Why so many? I wanted to learn the language and knew I wouldn’t without the structure, information and push that classes provide. Did it add up to a pile o’ shekels? Yes, and I consider it cash well tossed about. I wouldn’t speak Spanish as decently as I do without all that classwork and class time. I wouldn’t have met a lot of great and/or interesting people without all that. And I sure as hell would not have passed, much less signed up to take, the DELE exam.

I’m not sure when it was that I decided that learning to speak some French would be a good thing. Maybe after passing through Paris and Montreal a few times. Maybe after hearing how amazing French sounds when spoken by representatives of the female gender. Maybe after spending a weekend in a place where almost no one spoke either of the two languages I can babble. Somewhere in there. I’d love to be versed in a bunch of languages, and maybe if I’d discovered that desire early on I might now have that capability. My life might have taken a whole different direction, getting international a whole lot earlier than it did. ‘Cause something I’ve discovered during the last few years is that multilingual people are heroes to me. Not that I want to be a hero. More like I want to be able to spend more time around women who sound wildly sensuous, and I want to understand what the hell they’re saying.

So. Classes.

When I was here (meaning Montreal) in June, I posted a Craig’s List ad, trawling for people to hang with, to explore the city with (platonic only, thank you very much). One of the individuals who responded was a woman who was at that time doing intensive French classes at a local language school. I checked out their webpage, it seemed all right. The woman liked the classes, and in researching other schools, none of them looked to have any advantages over this one. When I returned to the city three weeks ago, I hopped the Metro, found the place, signed myself up.

Total beginners — like me — can only start classes on the very first day of one of the school’s four-week sessions. Which meant, in my case, Monday of last week. The day arrived, I crawled out of bed real damn early, was at the school by 8:30 — because that first day they force everyone to go through placement testing. Didn’t matter that I let them know I had no experience in French, couldn’t speak it, that the test would be one big freakin’ waste of time. Everyone has to do it.

Did it, answering maybe three out of nearly forty questions. Handed it in. Waited, along with thirty or more others wanting to begin classes but being forced to sit around. Once the tests had been collected and looked through, they came and dragged us out one by one. Because we all had to go through an oral exam. Didn’t matter that I assured them I had no experience with French, couldn’t speak it, blah-de blah-de. They sat me down with a 30ish architect from Turkey who also couldn’t speak it, we both told the nice woman who talked to us in French that we didn’t know what she was saying, couldn’t answer her questions. She eventually gave in and switched to English. Which is when we found out there would be no classes on that first day of classes. We’d have to go away for a couple of hours, entertain ourselves, then come back for a group Q&A with the director of the school and a walking tour. All of that could have been taken care of with printed material.

Which meant: Day 1 of classes = a wash.

[continued in next entry]

España, te echo de menos

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