For the first time since I arrived, three weeks ago, inclement weather threatens.
Actual raindrops just fell on my car as I returned from the boulangerie down the hill with my morning croissant and a baguette. The sky is quite dark to the west and northwest, which are the prevailing directions for wetness. And I heard actual rain falling in the alley next to chez moi as I drank my espresso and sucked down the croissant. I rushed upstairs to the keyboard, because you have to take advantage of these moments.
And now damn it, the sun is dappling the ancient tree in the place just outside my window. In fact, it’s getting stronger as I type, like one of those scenes in a bad movie as the hero’s fingers race over the keyboard (or the keypad on the nuclear device, or the dials on the safe with the exonerating papers…) or like Peter Pan exhorting us to clap ever more enthusiastically to save Tinker Bell, as her inner light dims and wavers.
I was looking forward to the village people (no, not what you’re thinking; I mean literally, the locals here in the village) having some other subject than heat to talk about on the theme of weather. The weather isn’t boring, it’s the talk. Heat heat heat. Oh it’s hot! Hot today. Wasn’t it hot?
Relentlessly, day after day, week after week, as the summer makes its indolent way through the phases of the moon (which has now been waxing itself, also since my arrival), and the sun beats down unceasingly, at least 14 hours a day. All of this so much so that it reinforces one’s natural tendency to lose not only a sense of time, but of time passing altogether. Without the internet, I am convinced, or the need to get to marché each week, or every three days, for fresh produce and a nice piece fish, no one would know what day of the week it is. No civilian that is, because the French who own the banks, and merchants who make the endless cycle of visits to villages on the marché circuit—if it’s Aups, this must be Saturday—they always know what day it is, because for the one, it’s a matter of making sure that people’s lives are inconvenienced periodically on a hebdomadal basis [irrelevant note here: writers who pledge themselves to writing about life in France must understand that pledge to include the obligation to use the word “hebdomadal,” and a few other lexical rarities, like “lexical,” in their production]. You see the banks, like many many shops are simply closed on Mondays.
The critical time unit is the week. Let’s face it, each day is the same except for the folks who have to shlep tomatoes and French tschotschkes, with cicadas embroidered or laser-cut or molded into otherwise marginally useful household objects, like little olive bowls with even tinier bowls inside, one for the pits and the other for toothpicks—I used one of these yesterday while having dinner out: it actually had the words “noyants”and “piques” fired into the surfaces, in tiny black letters, of those tiny bowls, in case you might get confused—or the bankers, who need one day a week to count their money, which they are not lending to anyone, even here in France. They know what day it is.
The bankers may be losing track of time. Like all establishments in rural precincts, in hamlets and villages, even the bank branches (never mind the post offices, the offices of the Public Treasury, sort of the local outposts of the national treasury, where you can pay taxes, and have interminable discussions about whether you really have to pay the television ownership tax since you don’t have a tv, never had a tv, can’t even stand French tv), everything closes for lunch. This is in addition to having all of Monday off. However, on this trip, I noticed something quite interesting.
There has been a radical remodeling of the local branch of the Crédit Agricole, which among its other accomplishments holds my mortgage, along with those of the majority of the populace, making it, I think, one of the largest banks not only in France, but in Europe, which might explain their difficulty in hiring local personnel for their thousands of branches and who individually have enough brain cells to rub together in order to be able to answer simple direct questions. That, or it’s my accent, but then, most of the questions that have gone unanswered have been via email. But, back to the remodeling.
Whereas formally, the bank resembled a corner branch of Fort Knox, or the French equivalent, assuming they have an equivalent; it’s also possible they’ve used up all their gold embellishing the Empire gimcrackery on the buildings in Paris: domes, balustrades, corbels, etc. etc. Instead of plate glass so thick you could not see inside to reassure yourself that the tellers were in their little stalls, the managers were temporizing behind their desks, probably playing Sudoku, which has apparently taken rural France by storm, because I know they’re not doing anything to learn the bank rules any better for my rare visits when I can pose my unanswerable questions in person in my impenetrable accent, there are now automatic doors that slide open as soon as you get within about five meters of them (that’s about 20 feet). Instead of a double door system with a waiting cubicle smaller than a French phone booth on a hot summer night when you not only have no French coins, which French phones no longer accept, but no French credit card, with their little gold printed circuit “puce” or, literally, “flea,” which contains all your personal account information and is the little key to your pitiable little financial kingdom, and is the only way you can use a French phone, unless you are making a call to a “numéro vert” or “green number,” that is, the quaint French way of saying a toll-free call, wherein (in the cubicle, not the phone booth; I know it’s difficult, but pay attention) you wait, while tiny little, well, traffic lights, they’re red and green see?, flash on an off while in some mysterious way someone or some thing inside the bank determines you are not bent on some underhanded business if they admit you to the bank and then presses a release button to let you through the second door. And it can be an ordeal in summer, because that little cubicle is not air conditioned. And then you do the whole thing in reverse on the way out, as a security measure. It is possible, you’ll admit, that you may have cleverly disguised yourself as a retired farmer in jeans or overalls, or a tired housewife in an even more tired housedress, or an American tourist in goofy shorts and athletic socks with your ankle-high Cons, and actually were coming in to do something underhanded, instead of asking innocuous unanswerable questions, and then you thought you could just sashay out of there with the underhanded ill-gotten gains of your visit. No, you must do the double-door-cubicle, stuffy and hot, the door behind you locking before the light can change to green and the door in front of you unlocks.
As I say, all gone. You just sashay in at virtually all hours. The sign proudly announces that there is access from some ungodly hour in the morning, when no one should be in a bank deep in La France Profonde doing any kind of business, until ten at night, when the sun has just set, at least if it’s anywhere near that time of year called the Summer Solstice. What they’ve cleverly done is eliminate the need for any staff with any brain cells to rub together, and provided three automated banking stations—one for deposits, one for withdrawals, and one, well, I’m not sure what it’s for, because I’m afraid to go in there. The only reason I ever went into the bank before was to get a roll of one euro pieces for the laundromat across the street, whose computerized control system only accepts one euro, two euro and 50 cent (euro) coins, and no one has that much change in their pockets or it would rip the pocket right out of your shorts, because it costs about 14 euros all told, washing and drying, to do a single eight kilo load of wash and dry. The other reason I’d go into the bank would be every three years to get my new ATM card, which they will not mail to you, no no no, but you must pick it up in person. Not so bad, as I only use the card in France, but there’s a little catch. They also issue the four-number PIN to you—you can’t compose it yourself, and I don’t dare ask if it can be changed, because I think this will fall into that category of questions I have already belabored. However, they mail the PIN to you, and only after issuing the card, which you must sign for at the bank. And well, my bank statements and all other mail go to my U.S. home address, because, damn it, I still happen to spend the preponderance of my time in the good old U.S, of A. The timing of this all gets rather tricky.
My current ATM card has another year to run, thank God, so I have all that time to sort this out once again, and muster the courage to walk between those automatically sliding doors and scope out the vision of the 21st century that Crédit Agricole has implemented. I might even run into someone who works there, so I can polish my question-asking skills. I still need to know the mortgage interest I paid in 2009 for my American tax return. That always stumps them. They can’t comprehend that the government, any government, would in fact lower one’s taxes for any reason, least of all paying interest to them, a French bank (to whom I think we U.S. citizens still owe loans they made to us during the Revolution, our revolution) on a home mortgage. So maybe their silence or confusion in the face of my questions is less ignorance or incomprehension or lousy oratorical skills, and more a form of long term shock. These are bankers, understand, so it might even be a fiduciary version of some other disorder, a kind of petit version of PTSD. I’m a little wary of trying to find out, as French fiduciaries, like their American counterparts, are now somewhat in disfavor, and they may be a little sensitive. It isn’t Monday, after all, which is their refuge.
But it will be a good day to go, because I see that the sun has, once again, won out, and the rain is no longer pittering or pattering on the ancient streets, and as the photo below attests, taken moments ago from the window I see through just above my monitor, when I raise my head, it shines once again triumphant, as it has so many thousands of times before on the ancient, inscrutable tree that is, no doubt, as insouciant of the day of the week, as it is of the prevailing meteorological conditions.
Final note, for my Cambridge readers. The subject of this blog essay is “La Pluie” or, simply, rain, because in my excitement at the prospect of some variance in my dull but strangely satisfying routine that’s what I chose to call it. No homage to W. Somerset Maugham. Not even a not so oblique reference to that carriage trade spa in the heart of Harvard Square, which demurely and in the most chic of manners calls itself “La Pli,” not only two fewer letters, but with a different meaning. No doubt aimed at their chief audience, women, and not a few men, of a certain age, and a certain magnitude of bank account (they’re a part of a group of 40 spas and salons around the country, catering to this trade, called “Halcyon Days Salons and Spas”—I will say no more), the name of the spa means, “the crease,” “the fold,” or, dare I say it, “the wrinkle,” any or all of which I know they are dedicated to preventing, or ameliorating, or—there’s no way to get away from it—disguising.
Now for all the relentless sun, which once again, and I’m saying this for the last time today, has prevailed, there is nary a wrinkle one finds the local populace worries about or, for that matter, manifests personally in any noticeable way. Les plis seem to be reserved for the venerable trunks and branches of the trees hereabouts, which seem to thrive for centuries even with the paucity of la pluie.
Not only interesting but helpful and full of wonderful detail about something as simple as a phone call!