Tag Archives: aix-en-provence

The Art of Non-Conformity

Posted: December 1, 2016 at 11:05 am

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I’m featured on “The Art of Non-Conformity,” a website for people with unconventional ideas about work and happiness. It was started by Chris Guillebeau, a New York Times bestselling author. The website has 100,000 subscribers. Check out what he said about me (some of it true): http://chrisguillebeau.com/william-crow/. Special shout out to my friend Sharka Stuyt who plays a role in the story.

A Christmas Story, France-Style

Posted: December 15, 2015 at 9:17 am

 

It was Christmas Eve, and no one was telling me what to do. I wasn’t following traditions or making excuses for not going to church. I could do what I wanted, and what I wanted was a big, wine-sodden dinner with the Reid family at la Pistache.

We planned a non-traditional Christmas dinner of beef tenderloin, a tantalizing cut of meat Carol and Michelle chose that morning at the Meat Nazi. They stalled the Meat Nazi’s famous lineup, which snaked out the door, past lecherous Monsieur Bon Appetit’s stall, as the male butcher brazenly flirted. He ignored me, pretending I wasn’t married to one object of his desire. Everyone was meat shopping for Christmas dinner, but no one looked upset by the delay, placid faces of tolerance all. A combination of “it’s-their-turn-so-they-can-take-as-long-as-they-want-and-I’ll-take-a-long-time-when-it’s-my-turn-too,” and “it’s-a-man’s-obligation-to-flirt-with-pretty-women-so-who-am-I-to-object?”

We started our party at the Reids’ house, champagne and amuse-bouches: crab cakes with lemon slices, rolled smoked salmon cigars with caper-dill relish, and tiny leek tarts. We continued our moveable feast at la Pistache. The children trampolined on beds upstairs, and the adults crowded our kitchen to watch Carol make dinner.

“Get out of here, you guys, or we’ll never get to eat,” she said after 15 minutes letting us help. “Let me finish this and I’ll be out in a minute.”

We settled around our dining room table for more champagne and roquefort mini quiches I prepared that morning. Carol bustled in the kitchen until calling out the five minute warning. I said to Michelle and Jordan, “Would either of you like to influence the choice of wine?” I held a bottle to my chest, label side in.

“Uhh, what? No, of course not, you choose,” said Jordan.

“Don’t mind him,” said Carol, stepping from the kitchen. “That’s an inside joke. Remember we said Nickipedia knows everything about everything? That goes double for wine. He picks the wine because everyone knows he’s the expert. One time we were in a Paris restaurant and we assumed he’d choose the wine, and he assumed he’d choose the wine, but he didn’t want to look arrogant. So he said, ‘Would either of you like to influence the choice of wine?’ and we’ve laughed about that line ever since.”

“You’ve already chosen, so what is it Bill?” asked Jordan.

“A Clos de Vougeot pinot noir. It should be good with the beef.” I handed the bottle to Jordan so he could examine the label.

“How do you know that’s the right wine?” asked Michelle. “But I’m sure it is.”

“I’m pretty sure pinot noir is the right grape, but I’m no expert. I chose this one because I dated a girl from the winery in Burgundy. You were in high school, Carol, so I can say that.” I poured wine and the four children came to the table, red-faced from laughter. Carol brought in steaming plates of beef, wild mushrooms and ratatouille, to the mouth-watering of all. We passed serving dishes and plates were filled. Once the baguette basket made the rounds, Jordan stood and raised his glass.

“I want to propose a toast,” he said. “We’d like to thank the Crows for celebrating this Christmas dinner with us, while we’re far away from our families in Canada and the States. We’re lucky to be living this incredible life in our adopted country. To good friendships and all we have to be thankful for. Santé!” Everyone touched glasses. The children leaned dangerously over the table so they could reach the far side with their sirops.

Santé!” “To the Crows!” “Santé!

Yes, I thought, I am lucky to be right here, right now, with my family and these wonderful people. This is my happiest moment in Aix, which is odd, coming so soon after one of my lowest. I must hold onto this feeling, appreciate what’s right in front of me, not agonize over everything I’ve messed up. I must use this feeling of contentment to move my life forward. I can do it. I have to do it. I want to feel like this all the time.

“We’re so happy to be here, you guys,” said Michelle, once everyone sat. “I’m starting to feel at home in Aix, and with our families making such a great fit, it’s so much better.”

“You’re happy to have someone to complain about the French to,” I said.

“It’s more fun at soccer games when we make snide remarks in English, Bill,” said Jordan. “What was last week’s record? 1:12?”

“1:12?” asked Devon. “What does 1:12 mean?”

“It’s a ratio, Dev,” I said. “Do you know what a ratio is? It means you played soccer, say for 20 minutes, but all the other time we spent waiting for late people and driving around lost and waiting for everything to start because your coach gave us the wrong time, and waiting for you after the game and driving home and everything else connected to French organizational ineptitude was 12 times as long. So if you played for 20 minutes, the total time we invested in soccer was four hours.”

“What does ineptitude mean?” asked Devon.

“It’s the reason France hasn’t been the centre of the universe for hundreds of years,” said Jordan.

“That’s not what they teach at school, in history class,” said Sophie. “France is the centre of everything.”

“Let’s not focus on negatives,” said Michelle, ever the brimming optimist. “It’s good to learn patience, and we have so many great things going on here. Let’s look at what we’re thankful for. What does everyone like about living here? You start, Bill.”

“Me first? Okay. Well, I love the food. Thank you ladies for everything you made for dinner tonight.” I leaned over and gave Carol a kiss on the cheek.

Carol pushed me away gently and said, “Is that your real answer, or are you sucking up?”

“My real answer,” I said, “what I love the most, is never saying ‘no, I’m too busy’ to the kids. I have time to do whatever they want. In Vancouver I was constantly thinking of other stuff I had to do instead of enjoying aimless fun with the kids.”

“That’s not true,” said Sophie. She put one hand on her waist and shook her finger like a school marm. “You tell us you’re too busy here, too. Like two weeks ago when you weren’t talking to anyone and you were mad all the time. You didn’t want to do anything with us. What happened to Vacation Daddy?”

“Thanks Soph,” I said. “I’m sure everyone wanted to hear that.” I felt heat rise in my face, because what she said was true. Despite my enviable French life, I experienced short bursts of depression as my sabbatical quickly flowed past me. Each time I blinked, another day, another month rushed by without resolution to my professional crisis. Not a “mid-life crisis,” because that suggested I experienced contentment for a long period, and only felt working-life malaise as I aged. I had been in crisis forever, and ran halfway around the world to solve it. I wasn’t sure I could solve it, but I would drink better wine while I tried.

“Most of the time you’re fun here, daddy,” said Sophie, with a smile no father could resist.

“Nice save attempt, Sophie,” I said. “Anyway, I’m sticking with my answer. What about you, Michelle?”

Michelle put her glass down and scrunched her brow before her face brightened. “I’m feeling like a local now, so that’s been great. People ask me for directions, and I know the answers!” Michelle worked diligently at bilingualism, but what she lacked in perfect French was compensated by lovability.

“Me too,” I said. “I think I have the right clothes and I know how to shrug, so I look local. Until they hear my Québécois accent.”

“Did you say, ‘the right clothes?,’ ” asked Michelle. “I think you have a scarf deficiency.”

“I know, I know. That’s been tough for me, but I’m almost ready for one. I want to be immersed in this society. Despite my scarf issues, I have to say, as soon as I was back in France, hanging out in cafés, I felt like I did 20 years ago. I was immediately comfortable. That’s what I love here, feeling like I’ve adopted French relaxation and coolness techniques well enough to fit in.”

“You took another turn,” said Carol.

“Sorry, but there are so many positives here, I need more than one turn. Go ahead, Carol.”

“Oh, me? Okay.” Carol looked at our children, who beamed at her. “For me, it’s all the time with the kids, and you, Billy. I’m not as comfortable as you guys in Aix because my French isn’t as good.”

“It’s getting a lot better,” I said.

“Thanks,” said Carol. “All that extra time also allows me to reassess what is important to me. In my old life I’d say, ‘If I had time to do yoga every day, I would.’ But now that I can do yoga every day, I’ve realized it gets boring. When we’re back in Vancouver, yoga three times a week will be great.”

“Is no one going to mention the wine?” asked Jordan, pouring Carol another glass. “I think everyone’s lying. The wine is by far the best thing here. I should probably be a bit more careful.”

“Our consumption is up quite a bit too,” said Carol, taking a sip.

“Mum, remember when you got drunk in Paris?” asked Sophie. She giggled with her brother. The Reid girls looked shocked Sophie would speak that way to her parent.

“I didn’t get drunk. What?”

“Yes you did,” said Sophie, “At that apartment, La Bohème, remember?”

“Oh yeah, you’re right,” said Carol, “but it wasn’t my fault.”

I felt it time to teach the children a lesson, so I said, “No Carol, you know each person is responsible for their own alcohol intake. You can’t blame your drunkenness on anyone else.”

“But we had dinner with Nickipedia that night,” she said.

“Okay, I forgot about that,” I said. I twisted the corkscrew on another bottle of pinot noir, and popped the cork for emphasis. “That’s the exception to the rule. Each person is responsible for their own alcohol intake, unless Nickipedia is involved. Then it’s clearly Nickipedia’s fault if you get drunk. The wine he serves is too good.”

“I think that rule is fair,” said Carol, holding her glass for a refill.

“What about the teenagers In Aix?” asked Michelle. “They aren’t part of the Nickipedia rule, but their drinking is crazy.”

“I haven’t seen it as too terrible,” said Carol.

“Wait until the festivals,” said Michelle. “During spring carnival, Proxi on Richelme sold full-size, glass bottles of rosé to drunken teenagers for five euros. They set up a big cooler, right on the square.”

“Good idea!” I said. “What could possibly go wrong?”

“Downtown was broken glass everywhere.”

“That’s another good thing about Aix,” I said. “Everyone goes a little crazy once in a while, there aren’t any rules, and the next day city workers clean everything up. I like the idea of letting loose, living, you know, the joie de vivre as they say – I’ve spent so much time following rules and doing everything according to plan and worrying about everything.”

“You want to get drunk downtown daddy?” asked Devon.

“No, Dev, that’s not what I meant. I meant it’s a good way to live your life, paying attention to your experiences, having fun, living in the now.”

“But aren’t we always living now, since it’s….like, you know…..now?” asked Devon.

“Living in the now, Dev. That’s different.”

“Whatever,” said Devon. “I kinda get it. But when do we get the 13 desserts? I wanna live in the now, so I want them now.” The 13 desserts were a Provençal tradition we adopted. As the name implied, 13 different desserts were trotted out each Christmas Eve, 13 being the number of the birthday boy and 12 apostles. We cheated and bought a pre-packaged assortment of 13, but at the market that morning it was obvious many locals did the same.

“You probably won’t eat all 13 tonight, Dev,” I said. “Tradition says the desserts stay on the table for three days.”

“Dad, you said we should live in the now. Who knows what desserts will be left in three days? I’m not waiting.” Devon sidled up to the buffet where I had left the 13 desserts.

As everyone laughed, I wondered exactly when my son became smarter than me. He was right – I had to enjoy what was right in front of me, at that moment. Take those feelings of gratitude, joy, optimism, and love, everything I felt about that night and the people in that room, and let those feelings wash over me, bathe in them, revel in them. If I could do that every day, I had the recipe for a fulfilling life. Hours later, we stood on the terrasse on a surprisingly warm night, making many-kisses goodbyes. I stood on tippy-toes and kissed both cheeks of the towering Jordan, aware I was drunk and realizing I wouldn’t be kissing him if I wasn’t. Maybe I would have – I was that happy. I wondered whether it was my best Christmas ever. Even better than the Christmas seven-year-old me received a Great Garloo robot, after it was on my list for three years. A story for another time.

French Politeness Scale

Posted: November 12, 2015 at 8:42 am

 

“It’s pretty here, Billy, but the French are so rude,” said my sister Cathy, as we sat on le Verdun’s terrasse, side by side, facing out. Cathy had come for a week visit from Canada.

“C’mon Cath, that’s only a stereotype you’ve heard,” I said. “You’ve been in France three days, so you can’t really judge. Not all Canadians are polite and not all French are rude; it just seems that way.” The waiter placed an espresso in front of me, a café crème in front of Cathy, and a water carafe and glasses in between. That covered the entire surface of the bistro table.

“You know they’re rude, Billy. You love France so much you don’t want to admit it.”

“Well, I have a different way of looking at it after being here so long. Most French people adhere to the French Politeness Scale.”

“You’re making that up,” said Cathy. “There isn’t a scale.”

“I did make it up, but it works,” I said, lifting the tiny cup to my lips. “Listen. The first level of social interaction on the scale is ‘Between Friends and Acquaintances.’ In France, if someone is a friend, they are a friend for life. They will welcome you into their home, ensure you have a drink and something to eat, never rush you, really listen, and never let you leave until you are satisfied with how the third bottle of wine paired with the cheese course.”

“I thought you didn’t have many French friends here.” Cathy knew that was a sore point, twisting the knife. She sipped her coffee and burned her lip. Karma.

“Not many, because they don’t want to invest time in someone who’s leaving soon. Friendships here are long-lasting. But I have some. Anyway, relationships between acquaintances are also pleasant and polite. The first time you meet someone, the proper greeting is ‘Enchanté.’ ”

“I’ve heard that. What does it mean?”

“It means ‘I am enchanted to meet you.’ ”

“That seems a bit much,” said Cathy. “Do you tell guys you are enchanted to meet them? Like those guys over there?” She nodded her head in the direction of two men in flowing scarves and pointy boots who emerged from Passage Agard. Wait a minute…I was wearing a flowing scarf and pointy boots.

“Yes, I would. It’s the manly thing to do,” I said. “And polite. Actually, everything between friends or acquaintances is very polite, very pleasant. There’s a lot of kissing too. If you go to a party, and there are 30 people there, that’s an automatic 60 cheek kisses. Girls and guys.”

“You aren’t serious.” Cathy leaned forward and held each side of the round table. “No one would kiss every person in the room.”

“It’s different in the Luberon, which is north of here. There, it’s three kisses for each person, so that’s 90 kisses.”

“I’m not doing that.” Cathy took a long drag on her cigarette and tapped ashes into the well-worn ashtray on the next table.

“I do it. I had to learn the proper way, too. When you’re planting your cheek kisses, you always start by kissing the kissee’s left cheek, touching the kissee with the left side of your face. If you don’t do this, the other person doesn’t know what you’re doing, and there’s jerky, confused head-bobbing. It can result in the worst faux pas, a kiss right on the lips. This is bad if I’m kissing the kids’ principal, or my friend’s 15-year-old daughter. Or a guy. If you’re not gay, that one is not much fun.”

“You didn’t kiss a guy on the lips,” said Cathy, laughing.

“Hey, it was an accident. It felt weird. Don’t tell mum.”

“Maybe I will. Is that the end of the first level?”

“I call the second level of the scale ‘Overly Polite But I Don’t Really Give A Shit.’ It’s used in clothing stores and cafés. A salesman doesn’t try to be your friend, like in Canada. He’ll say ‘Bonjour, comment est-ce que je peux vous aider?’ That means, ‘Hello, how may I assist you?’ And if he wants to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ you’ll get the overly polite ‘Je vous en prie.’

“Which is…….?”

“Literally, it means ‘I pray of you.’ If you say thank you, you’ll hear, ‘Non, c’est moi qui devrais vous remercier,’ which is  ‘Oh no, it is me who should be thanking you for gracing me with your presence.’ Something like that.”

“That sounds civilized,” said Cathy.

“It sounds that way, but it isn’t. They’re overly-polite French phrases, repeated unthinkingly. They mean nothing. They hide indifference, bordering on contempt, just below the surface. Obviously, no one likes these jobs, but unlike in Canada, they’re something to be endured, not something you’d work harder to get out of. In France, a job is a job, a means to put in enough years to qualify for a pension, supplied by the socialist government. There is no incentive to be better at your job than the next guy, the tip is included in the price, so why make an effort? There is an inverse relationship between the degree of politeness used by a French waiter or salesperson and the amount they care for your comfort or satisfaction.”

“Okay, what’s the third level?” Cathy lit another cigarette, her third since we sat down. She was trying to fit in.

“ ‘Everyone Else Can Go To Hell.’ If you don’t fit in the first two categories, you’re in ‘Everyone Else Can Go To Hell.’ This is a crowded country, and if you want to survive, you have to concentrate on your own happiness, and the happiness of your family and friends. You can’t worry about everyone else. So if a person isn’t a friend, or an acquaintance, or someone you’ve met in a café, restaurant or store, you’re allowed to be as rude and selfish as you want. That’s why when you drive a car, it’s like an enormous video game of The Fast and the Furious. It’s why there aren’t any lift lines at the ski hills; it’s a big pushing blob of people, all standing on each others’ skis. It’s why the teenagers lie on the sidewalk in front of the high school and throw their triangle sandwich containers everywhere. It’s the reason there’s dog shit all over the streets and garbage in the ditches.”

“I thought you liked it here.”

“Are you kidding? I love it here. I even love the chaos. I don’t have to love everything here to love it in general. The ‘Between Friends and Acquaintances’ level of the scale can make up for a lot. And there’s an upside to the overall rudeness toward strangers. When the French do something rude, I can swear at them, or make snide remarks right in their faces. I do it in English so they won’t understand. You don’t know how enjoyable that is.”

“Oh, I see how you’d be excellent at that, Billy,” said Cathy. “Wait, is that guy over there drinking wine? At 10:00 o’clock in the morning?”

In Vancouver I would never drink at 10:00 a.m. “Oh, we’re definitely doing that,” I said, raising my index finger in the direction of the passing waiter.

Bucket List

Posted: November 5, 2015 at 9:12 am

 

Word got around Devon’s soccer pitch, and one day a soccer mom friend touched my arm while I watched my son practice. I knew who it was before I turned to face her, always Chanel No. 5. She looked concerned and said she thought I had a fatal disease, and was moving to France to check it off of my bucket list, before I kicked the object of such list. She didn’t understand my explanation.

“Why are you really doing this, Bill?” asked Janice. She was my occasional sushi companion and shit-shooter, but that day she looked like my grievance counsellor.

“What do you mean?”

“This is a big deal. Your whole family moving to France. Aren’t you worried about your job?” Janice tucked her dyed-blonde hair behind her ears to indicate she was prepared for a serious discussion.

“I am worried about my job,“ I said. “But you know I don’t like it.”

“I didn’t know that. You fooled me, and I’ve known you five years. What do you mean, you don’t like it? Nobody likes everything about their job. That’s why it’s a job.”

“No, I don’t like anything about it. Except the time I’m not doing it.”

“Ouch.” An errant ball from practice struck Janice on the shin, not hard enough for someone to say “ouch,” and she punted it back to the pitch. “So why is France going to make anything better, except get you a long vacation?”

“It’ll give me the chance to put everything on pause for a while, to think everything over. I don’t have time to do that now. I have to slow everything down before my life speeds by without a stop – that’s how I feel now.”

“You know your life doesn’t look too bad to me,” said Janice. “I don’t see how you could hate it so much.”

“I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I know I’m lucky. Why do you think I stuck with it for so long?”

“I don’t know what you think you’re going to find over there,” she said.

What was I expecting to find over there? I stared, unfocused, past the mini-Messis bouncing between their drills, past the pudgy middle-agers jogging the track, past the parking lot crammed with minivans and Suburbans. Something. Something different from this. At least a different me. At least a me with a plan.

Meet the Author

Posted: October 15, 2015 at 7:09 am

 

I brimmed with confidence, 25 pages of heartfelt memoir burning a hole in my laptop. I felt like a writer, and Carol and I were about to see another writer, award-winning literary superstar “Famous Author,” speak in the only English bookstore in Aix-en-Provence. He was in nearby Marseille at a writing conference and finally accepted the bookstore manager’s latest invitation. I read all of Famous Author’s books and felt I knew him because Carol went to school with him in Toronto. I always joked Famous Author was Carol’s high school boyfriend, but in truth he was the outcast loner with a mohawk in the leather jacket. Barely acquaintances. We walked into a packed house at Book In Bar, mostly older ex-patriots and English-speaking tourists in Rockport shoes. In the largest of Book In Bar’s three small rooms, bookcases covered every wall, floor to ceiling, surrounding a desk set up for Famous Author. About 30 standing people crowded behind 30 mismatched wooden chairs facing Famous Author’s pulpit. I spied my French conversation partner Céline sitting in the second row, her hands defiantly saving the only two empty chairs for us. This detail assured me that except for Céline, everyone in the room was English – there was no “saving” seats In French culture. Céline saving seats? My pupil was becoming more English while I struggled to become French. But a seat was a seat, so Carol and I elbowed our way over.
“Céline, what are you doing?” I said as we sat on either side of her. “Where did you learn that?”
“I can’t believe it worked. You English people are so polite!” said Céline, leaning over to kiss us each in turn.
“I’m so happy you came to this, Céline. I’ve been wanting to tell you I took your advice, and I…..” The bookstore manager stood before the crowd and asked for quiet.
“I would like to welcome our special guest,” said the manager. She outlined Famous Author’s string of literary accomplishments, including winning Canada’s most prestigious prize for fiction for his last published book. He was nominated for this and that, had won that and this, taught creative writing at two universities, had all the literary chops I lacked. In her introduction, the manager didn’t mention Famous Author was also very handsome, but the swooning ladies in the front row could attest to that.
I had seen many authors speak in bookstores, and Famous Author was more engaging and open than most. Listening to him, I thought what I always thought from the bookstore audience: I could do a talk like this. I want to do a talk like this. I would just love to do a talk like this.
As I dreamt of a beautiful future where I was a published author and strangers and lonely women came to musty bookstores to hear my bon mots, Famous Author started talking about his book in progress.
“So I was coming off the surprising success of my last novel and I spent about two years writing my latest. Wow, I worked harder on this book than anything else I had written before. Which was weird because the outside pressure was kind of off; I knew it would get published. That’s a luxury. Anyway, I thought it was in good shape when I gave the manuscript to my editor, the guy at the publishing company who edited the last one. He had it for a long time, weeks, but I thought it was just because he was incredibly busy. But I was devastated when he met me in a restaurant to tell me the structure of the whole book was wrong. And it was in the wrong voice. It should have been told from a different character’s perspective. He basically trashed the whole thing.”
Those in the audience stared in surprise, some in shock. I could only listen in complete dejection.
“I couldn’t just tweak it here and there,” said Famous Author. “What was needed was just too massive and complicated. So I started the whole thing over, and I’m almost finished the rewrite. I think it’s much better now. I guess we’ll see.”
At that moment I stopped listening. What I’d heard was enough to launch me on another downward spiral of depression. Famous Author had his degrees and experience and awards and accolades, and I received my creative writing degree from the University of YouTube. If this “auteur” could screw up so badly, what chance did I have of writing something coherent? It was hopeless. I clutched and unclutched my fists and fought the impulse to run from the room.
Céline leaned over and in a whisper close to my ear said, “What’s wrong, dear Bill? Are you okay?” I ignored her, staring straight ahead, unseeing.
Carol reached across Céline’s lap and found my hand to give it a sympathetic squeeze. The warmth of her touch calmed me slightly. She didn’t have to ask me what the problem was. She knew that my confidence, like Elvis, had left the building.