Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Broken Glass

I've been sorting through a few things to fill in my isolated days. Who hasn't? I found a short story and I thought I'd share it here. I wrote it when I was in my late thirties.

The glass was slippery, Ricky recalled, skidding back to his childhood in his memories.. This particular glass had a smooth milky opaque surface, and a regular pattern of tiny multi-coloured dots. It was awkward for him to hold, but he'd wanted it.

Even his mum couldn't hold it easily with one hand.

"Why did I buy these stupid looking things?" she'd said. "I should toss them out." She kept saying she'd get rid of them but she hadn't. Ricky liked the look of them and they held a lot of drink.

"That's too much. Here," she'd said to him more than once. She'd make a sucking snapping sound with her mouth. She was cross again. "I’ll do it," she snapped, "as if I haven't got enough to do around here-"

When his mother was outside at the line, Ricky had wanted a drink. He’d also wanted to watch the cartoons on TV. He knew he should have his drink in the kitchen but he'd made a nest of cushions and his special baby blanket on the floor in front of the TV.

He got one of the spotty, slippery glasses that his mum said he should be careful with. They were at the back of the cupboard with the Easter and Christmas mugs from his granny. "Cheap and nasty rubbish," his mum always said later when granny wasn't around to hear.

He poured his own cordial carefully from the heavy bottle in the fridge. It welled and splashed at first tip, but he wiped it up. He was careful not to rest the container on the side of the glass because he knew the glass might tip over. He didn’t fill the glass right up to the top because he didn’t want to spill it.

Carrying the glass of cordial, he walked with concentrated slow-motion through to the lounge. He held the glass in front of him, eyes darting from glass to doorway, trying to watch where he was going, but when he looked away he somehow tilted the glass so the drink almost ran over the edge. Neatly pacing, feeling his toes on the ground, he took painstaking tiny steps on the tortuous route to the next room, six adult strides away.

There. He sipped a bit of drink then placed the glass safely into the middle of the coffee table behind him. Not near the edge. "Not there, in the middle! Here." This was what his mum always reminded him. He might knock it over otherwise. He clambered into his nest, pleased and proud. He hadn't given his mum any bother. He didn’t have to trouble her and hear "What now?" if he called "Mu-um?" his high voice undulating with request.

Then his mum called sharply, "Ricky! Get the door for me! Hurry up!"

He jumped up to get the back door and in his haste knocked the table. The drink washed over the table, onto the floor on the far side. The slippery glass was rolling, rolling over the table then it smashed on the hardwood floorboards.

"Ricky? Ricky! What have you done now?"

He heard the backdoor and the alarming rush of air and temper as his mum flew into the room. He darted around the table, bare feet losing their grip in cordial,

"Leave it! It's too late now! You've done the damage. What have I told you about those damn glasses?"

Keeping her feet outside the puddle, she reached out, gripped his forearm and dragged him back. He’d felt sharp pain in his bottom and legs as glass jabbed into the ball of his foot near his little toe. There was lots of blood. 

"Stop crying now,” his mother had said more gently. “Come on. It's never as bad as it looks."

Crimson splats dripped on the floorboards as she'd hobbled him back into the kitchen. His mother had bathed his foot with cotton balls soggy from Dettol and water. 

"Oh, it's all right!" She’d held his face in her hands, smiled at him. She’d kissed him and lifted him onto the table. "Sit there and I'll get you another drink. Don't worry about the rotten glass. Stupid looking things." She was quite sure she'd got all the glass out, she'd said. 

That memory of his own childhood had flashed through Ricky in the seconds after his son, Luke, accidentally nudged the glass off the edge of the bench. A wine glass. They both looked blankly at the spreading red pool on the floor and the glass, on its side, with a jagged piece out of it, but its stem intact.

Then he remembered when he'd seen the celebrant through the window. He saw her over someone's shoulder. On one level he couldn't help noticing, as you do. Her dark hair, lacquered into place, was just lifting slightly with the pace she was making, striding with her brief case to the next job. It's how it had seemed. That bit of hem on her long black skirt was coming down. You'd think she'd have fixed it. He hadn't been able to stop cataloguing the details and felt guilty. "I think we're talking about a very special person here," she'd said in a voice like liqueur during the service, her head on one side, her eyes roving around the crowd. Then she'd timed the pause while the mourners drew breath and Janine's sister in the front row released an enormous sob which hung for a while in the dust motes shining in the sun.

“Mind!" said Ricky. "Go round that way and get the mop would you Luke?' Luke was eleven. Ricky crouched and picked the two sections of glass out of the puddle.

"Sorry, dad."

"Forget it, Luke. You can't stop shit happening."

He'd only had a mouthful out of that glass and there was no more left in the bottle. Ricky wasn’t sure he could manage through the night without it. He'd saved half a bottle from the night before. He was rationing it. He'd consciously re-corked the bottle after he'd had his two and a bit glasses. He was sensible about it.

Luke was filling a bucket. Good lad.

"It's not a good time to give up drinking," some friend had told Ricky, a couple of months back. They'd shared a bottle of wine on a Tuesday morning. Janine had been asleep and it seemed like a good idea. "Nope. Not a good time."

He hadn't had such a hectic social life since he was a teenager. The visitors with their cakes and casseroles had propelled them along. But that had stopped now. Life was supposed to go on after some respectful pause.

"I've got it dad." Luke mopped the floor and Ricky cut vegetables into even strips, wondering whether he ought to go out and buy another bottle. Maybe later, after dinner.

Alyse, Ricky's thirteen year old had turned silent. Like Luke, she was helping out. Doing the washing. Setting the table.Taking over where Janine's mother had left off when she decided it'd be better for all of them if she went back to her own house.

Alyse was briskly setting out place mats and cutlery. She put out bread and butter plates, folded paper serviettes, tucked them under the knives on the plates.

Alyse's hair fell in golden glossy blobs. Ricky sometimes had helped her to get the knots out when she was little. She used to hold him round the waist and press her face into his tummy while he smoothed out the tangles. He'd hold her head gently so he wouldn't hurt her. There'd be a hot damp patch on his cotton business shirt where she'd been breathing. Now she glanced up occasionally at The Simpsons on the television as she set the table. They’d watch television while they ate.

Ricky was still painting the house. He hadn’t finished it in time, even though he'd tried to. He'd been keeping the garden weeded. The garden was a clock reminding him. He'd never really bothered with it except for this last year. He’d thought it would be good for Janine. Some sort of compensation for their up and down life together for the last sixteen years. Like most people's lives, he supposed.

He'd really upset his mother-in-law when he'd refused to go and have one last look at Janine in the funeral home.

He'd felt a curious ecstasy after the funeral. He was ashamed of the feeling of relief after weeks of lying next to his dwindling sedated wife with her body swelling hideously and her bones sticking out, never sure when death would strike or whether it already had.

The day of the funeral came blue and sunny with odd drifts of vaporous clouds in a warm deep sky, odd, metaphysical conditions that he couldn't help noticing. A compilation tape of all Janine's favourites blasted at the crowd while they gathered outside the bizarre red carpeted hopeless mechanised temple.

They'd all gone back to Ricky's afterwards. He didn't know who'd organised the barrage of food and alcohol but it had all happened. The sun shone and he’d sat on the front veranda and held court with Janine's basketball girlfriends, wondering how he could be intermittently laughing and getting drunk, then suddenly being slammed by violent engulfing waves of unthinkable loss. Getting giddily plastered on wine and that putrid jasmine blooming by the front door.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Feeling remote in a Zoom class

About half way through my second Zoomed German lesson, while someone was reading her essay aloud from from her 'shared screen', I absented myself from the virtual classroom. Took a bathroom break. Had a little walk around the house, still within hearing range of that confident German voice. Actually, I was pacing up and down, convincing myself not to drop out of class.

Weird really. I've loved learning that language for the past three years. Not that day.

There are five of us in this 'Intermediate German Continuing' class, which due to Covid has gone on line. The plan was that we'd 'share screen' - our own - and individually read our personal writing while the others followed along.. That's one of those clever things you can do on Zoom on a PC or Mac. But not on the iPad I was using. Feeling disadvantaged and just a tad left out, had a teeny, tiny sulk about that; a sulkette. No matter. My Zoomed face, in its Brady Bunch grid, wasn't revealing any emotion

At the start of the lesson, the first student couldn't work out how to 'share screen' on his Mac. We all watched patiently while he peered up close and personal into his computer screen. Ten minutes later the teacher was still calmly trying to help him. And we waited. Yes, I know. New learning medium. Covid. Crisis. Hundreds of thousands dying world wide. Donald Trump. Couldn't I have been a little more tolerant? Evidently not. The teacher in me would have moved it along and figured the problem out with the particular student later. Suppose it's not so easy in a virtual classroom though. Still, my face in its little square wasn't revealing my increasing irritation.

Confined like everyone else, I'd been hanging out for that two hour session. To spend the first ten or so minutes doing nothing was tedious. But it got worse. When the teacher finally displayed this student's sophisticated essay, I could barely understand it as he read with his to me, flawless accent. Seemed to be out of my league, advanced German. I took some comfort from everyone else saying, almost unanimously, that they'd only understood 'ein bisschen' - a little. My image on the screen didn't reveal my rising sense of inadequacy.

When I began learning German three years ago, we were all beginners. But gradually those beginners left for various reasons to be replaced by more advanced students. I'm the least experienced now, and despite recently gorging on three seasons of Babylon Berlin, that day, Deutsch was all a bit beyond me.

Floundering, hurting, I was back in the late 1960s in Year 9 mathematics struggling with quadratic equations, or some such. The oblivious teacher was at the front catering only for that row of mostly boys who liked maths; who seemed to get it. Think I managed a ten minute bathroom break during every one of that teacher's lessons. He always waved me off cheerfully. Memory suggests he didn't care. With 40 kids packed into the room, he seemed prepared to let some fall through the cracks. For the next couple of compulsory maths years, I treated maths with contempt. Barely passed. Hated every painful minute during which I was reminded of how stupid and lazy I was, not by the teachers, but by my own sense of failure and inadequacy.

I've no intention of dropping German. I love it too much. Recognising those primal feelings that betray me if I'm not careful, I got a grip and returned to the session. Of course, because I know now how to learn, I'll have done heaps of revision before my next class.

And a shout out to all those amazing teachers who've pulled off the most astounding feat during the last four weeks in getting all their classes on line. If you ever deserved a pay rise and some proper respect, it's now.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Want to experience some magic? Make your own yoghurt.

I started making my own yoghurt this year to reduce waste. But really? You still have to buy milk and your initial 'starter' yoghurt so unless you have your own cow, you're going to create some waste in the process. If it was just about reducing waste, it would probably be much easier to return to buying Greek style yoghurt, at about $6 for a large tub, which can be recycled. 

So why bother? Making your own yoghurt is so much better. It's like the pleasure of bread making. It's alive and you're the alchemist.

If, like me, you have time, and enjoy creamy delicious Greek style yoghurt, whipping up your own is so satisfying. Seriously, the euphoria of tasting yoghurt straight from its tepid bath. Heaven. These days I enjoy my pleasures where I can. Perfect consistency: dollops cling to the spoon. Intense creaminess on the palette. 

It's taken me a few weeks to get there, a bit of trial and error. So here's my method, in case you feel like trying something new.

You don't need special equipment, other than an esky (mine's big enough for a six pack) - cool box - a meat thermometer and a bit of patience. You have to wait for the magic. The batch I made yesterday had rested for about 20 hours - because I forgot about it - and it's the best I've ever produced.

Initially, I bought an Easiyo Yoghurt maker from the op shop but it's not necessary. Any clean lidded jars or even an old plastic yoghurt container will do.

For your first batch only, you need a starter. Buy a small tub of full cream Greek style yoghurt. I started my current batch with 170g of the Tasmanian Tamar Valley Dairy variety, but I don't suppose it matters. You only need it for your first 'cook'. Get the yoghurt out of the fridge before you start the whole process, to allow it to get to room temperature. I dispense the yoghurt into a large heatproof jug at this stage. (Tip: wash and reuse the yoghurt tub for your next starter.)

In a saucepan, whisk together a litre of full cream milk - I use the UHT type - and a cup of powdered skimmed milk. Now slowly, slowly - patience! - heat the milk to 82 degrees centigrade, stirring occasionally.

When it's at 82 degrees, take it off the heat and wait for it to cool to 46 degrees centigrade.
When it's at 46 degrees, gradually - slowly - mix it into the starter yoghurt in the jug. The idea is to try to keep everything as close to 46 degrees as possible, so don't be too slow!

Once you've mixed the yoghurt with the hot milk, pour some into your starter container - for next time - then fill your jars. Now turn on your hot tap and get it to the temperature where it stings on your knuckle. This is about 46 degrees. Put the containers in your esky, or Easiyo container if you have one, and fill the containers with water at 46 degrees - about half way up the sides of the jars in the esky. Now close the esky and put it somewhere to stand for at least 8 hours, but as I said, 20 hours produced my best return.

I've read that some people just put a container of boiling water in with their jars in the esky. Makes sense if you don't have a small esky that fits under the tap.

This recipe works for me. Of course, you can sweeten it in your preferred way once it's done.

There's heaps of information on line if you don't get pleasing results the first time. But it's like anything. Practice makes perfect.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Toilet paper? So yesterday.

Looked longingly at five toilet rolls, three on the bottom, two on top in the bathroom at a café the other day. Had a back pack with me. It would have been so easy to steal just one. No one would have known. It would have bought me toilet paper time.

Happy to tell you that my morality kicked in. I left, hands well-soaped and dried but not thieving. Self-consciously, I used the edge of my shirt to unlock and open the bathroom door. Felt irrationally proud of my antiseptic fastidiousness, despite having always bordered on OCD with hand-washing and hygiene. Then I realised that had there been any Covid-19 invisibly lurking amongst my fellow Francophones at the café table no offence to any of my delightful group - I would have already contracted it. See, we were all handling the communal water bottle, as was the waitress. And before Id gone to the bathroom,  Id had a handful of sultanas from a little supply I carry around with me bit of carb sustenance for this diabetic cyclist. Despite my best intentions, Id forgotten to use hand sanitiser. Fark.

Quite easy to spread this pandemic, eh?

Being retired, I made the relatively easy decision to self-isolate, four days ahead of the state governments declaring a State of Emergency as it turned out.

Still plenty of fruit and veg in the shops, if like me you shop small, and in a pinch I can be quite creative with legumes. Pfft to pasta and rice. Too many carbs for me. Well be right, potential imminent death notwithstanding.

It pained me a bit initially to miss out on my beloved German lessons, French conversation groups and choir rehearsals. Had a brief adrenaline fuelled sulk and then, something weird happened.

I felt pleasantly free, and not only from my packed post-retirement program.

My frugal zero waste tight-arse mentality has me pandemic primed. The lidded nappy bucket is in situ in the laundry sink. An old towel has been cut into squares, now neatly hemmed. A repurposed squeezy detergent bottle is an excellent portable bidet.

Poor fools lining up for toilet paper. Having experienced a new cottony softness on my nether regions, I doubt Ill return to my former wasteful habits. And dont get me started on the squirty bottle.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Never meet your heroes. An encounter with David Sedaris.

I had a brief personal interaction with David Sedaris the other night. Let me just say, I love Sedaris's writing. I'm a long time fan and have therefore read lots of his work. He's an inspiration. A great wit, he finely crafts his hilarious, often poignant observations into highly engaging anecdotes. I leapt on the opportunity to hear him live, having missed out last time he was in Melbourne.

At Hamer Hall I had my copy of Naked hoping to get it signed after the show but bought a paperback copy of Calypso anyway, not having read it yet.

Really got lucky then. Sedaris was signing books pre-show and there were only four people ahead of me in the queue, which I joined. Sounds simple. As I waited, hyperventilating, I noticed Sedaris did a bit of sketching and colouring on the title pages as he chatted to those getting their books signed. Me, I was about to faint from nervous excitement. Interestingly, Sedaris later addressed this very feeling during his show when an audience member asked him whom he'd most like to meet. He talked about this being tricky - my word - as he is often overwhelmed by nerves and therefore when he meets a much anticipated person, someone else turns up; a representative; not his true self.

I hear you, Mr Sedaris because my representative turned up to get my books signed by you, one of my writing heroes. Prior to my turn, I'd checked the readout on my insulin pump to verify that my rapid heart beat was just nerves and not a dreaded hypo - low blood sugar. I was fine.

To expedite the signing process, Sedaris's assistant had written 'JUDI' on a sticky note and placed it just so on the title page of the book for which I'd just paid $29.

Sedaris sat at the other side of the table with his mug and his felt pens arrayed next to him, perhaps wondering which colour to use. My idiotic representative quaked obsequiously in Sedaris’s presence. For the previous few days since I'd bought the tickets I'd been wondering what I could possibly say to  Sedaris. His delicious diaries - Theft by Finding - had revealed that he enjoys signing books. He's interested in what people tell him. Yet I had nothing to say and didn't want to sound stupid. Unfortunately, my blithering representative took over as I passed Sedaris my books, and this is what she blurted out during my two minute encounter:

"I was so nervous about meeting you I had to check my blood sugar to make sure I wasn't having a hypo. I'm diabetic!" She/I giggled like a teenager. Felt like a complete moron. Yet my unnecessary revelation prompted Sedaris to tell me a really insensitive clichéd tale, the type most people with diabetes have been subjected to repeatedly by the ignorant and curious. A nurse he'd met had told him about 'a diabetic' who'd had a great hole in his foot and he didn't even know it was there and you could see bones and tendons and everything!

"Yeah, thanks," I said. "haven't heard that one before." Actually, it's one of the plethora of stories one hears regularly when one has diabetes. Clearly he didn't sense my disapproval but I doubt whether he was listening. He said something about people feeling bad about being diabetic because they ate too many sweets, or some-such. I can't exactly remember, but it made me say that I'd had diabetes for 39 years. "Big year for you next year then," he remarked as he found his 'theme' and sketched '39 years’ in red felt tip pen on the title page of his book. My representative clarified that I couldn't help getting diabetes so I was one of the good ones! FFS! My cringe-worthy rep was being idiotic and politically incorrect. (There's no good or bad diabetes, or 'diabetic shaming', in case you didn't know.)

"Who are you here with?" Sedaris asked, still focused on his colouring in. "My husband," I indicated skinny Big Al, staring off over by a pillar. "Does he mind that you're diabetic?" What the fuck? "Of course not!" My representative guffawed inanely.

Sedaris was finished. My time was up and I was dismissed by his glance at the snaking queue.

Mixture of emotions for me; but mostly disappointment which I am still working to overcome. Having somehow managed to get seats three rows from the stage helped. Sedaris's readings were wonderful: poignant and hilarious; exactly what I expected. But that encounter in the foyer stuck in my craw and took the edge off what should have been a stellar evening.

I'm currently rereading Naked, and since the signing I'm perceiving things differently. Not sure I'll even read Calypso.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Unsolicited inspiration

She carefully negotiated around the tables in the North Melbourne café, steadying herself on the backs of chairs. She squeezed onto the banquette at the table next to ours. Initially I felt a bit invaded, given there were heaps of spare tables in the café.

She ordered a large cappuccino and a bowl of fries.  Almost instantly she was holding court with the middle aged business men who'd arrived at the table to her right. Couldn't help overhearing snatches of this elderly woman's jolly banter. She was Maltese, as was one of the business men she was regaling. Seemed she was entertaining them, rather than just talking.

After the lunch rush, the men returned to work, or wherever. My friend briefly left the table and I could sense this woman trying to get my attention.

"Do you live locally?" she asked. I couldn't ignore her overture and my response was all she needed to engage me in a chat. It gave me a chance to study her. She had a weathered complexion and thick, steel wool hair, cut short and practical, a bit awry from sleep on one side. She wore a loose black t-shirt and slacks. No bra. No upper teeth. The lack of teeth made her speech a little difficult to discern so I gave her my full attention. Her eyes twinkled, her face was creased into a permanent grin, as if she expected to see the funny side of something.

She'd lived, raised her three children and worked in North Melbourne all her adult life after emigrating, aged 21, from Malta in 1954.

"I survived World War 2, you know. Lived through it. Can you believe this cafe used to be a Commonwealth bank?" she asked, shaking her head in amused disbelief at the changes. "Have you got children?"

She told me about her son in St Kilda who'd just turned 60. "He looks out for me," she said. One daughter lived in Sydney. She shrugged at my sympathy about her daughter being a bit far away. "What can you do? You'll never guess where the other daughter lives," she said. "Go on, guess"

"Broome," I said. By some fluke, I guessed right. She looked at me like I was magic; a clairvoyant. She was very impressed.

She told me she'd complained to her daughter. "Why do you have to go so far away? 'Well where did you come from, mum?'" Her daughter had reminded her. "What can you do?" Another mirthful shrug and shake of her head.

"You've got everything you need around here," she told me; "schools, hospitals, shops. Do you drive? I never learned to drive. No need."

"Are you finished here, Margaret?" the waiter asked, about to clear her table.
"They all know me here," she told us proudly. "I come here for a coffee, sometimes a bowl of chips on a Friday. That does me for dinner." 

She stood to leave, again holding onto the chairs for support. Worrying she might fall, I suggested a walking frame might be a good idea. "Never!" she said. "I'm all right like this, if no one's watching me!" A twinkling mock-chide.

"Sorry," I said, covering my eyes. I had been staring a bit.

A coughing fit halted her progress.

"I was hit by a car, you know. It was a terrible accident. More than 20 years ago now. They thought I'd die but God was full up. It wasn't my time. He had other plans and here I am. I had a tracheotomy after my accident."  Amused and incredulous at her own luck, she indicated the faint scar on her throat. "It still makes me cough a bit sometimes, but I get over it. If no one's watching," She wagged a finger at me. She took a couple of steps then paused at the next chair.

"Do you live alone?" she asked. I told her I had a husband waiting for me at home.
"Ah," she said. "Remember. You don't know what you've got until it's gone. I'm here now, but it's very quiet at home. I keep busy, but..." She waved the thought away and continued her slow exit from the cafe.

Margaret made my day. I've added her to my list of inspirational octogenarians, while remembering those who weren't so lucky

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: French immersion homestay in Aix-en-Provence

Still in Aix, now relishing the comfort of a perfectly appointed Airbnb apartment. I need to write a review of my experience living with a French teacher for two weeks. Almost feel like I have a duty of care to others who may be hoping to develop their French. Perhaps like me, you’re retired and ticking it off your bucket list. Perhaps you’re a parent thinking of sending your kid.

I’ve been walking around Aix with husband, Al, this morning. All the time I’ve been looking for the bewildered Australian woman who I knew was coming in hot on my heels yesterday, to live the same immersive experience. I saw a couple of dazed looking single women in the vicinity of that 17th century hôtel particulière.  Didn’t approach of course.

Will try to be objective here. In summary: S.L.Immersion in Aix-en-Provence provided good remedial French teaching for three hours a day. However, the accommodation was sub-standard; poor. The shared meals were mostly uncomfortable dining experiences eating cheap food. Save your money. Engage a private tutor for 2 hours a day, or join a class. Organise your own meals and accommodation.

I spent 2,800 euro to live with a French teacher for two weeks at half board, ie. accommodation and two meals a day. I had a reasonably large room with a double bed, bathroom and separate WC. I had two basic, occasionally unappetising meals a day. The meals were at a minimum cost, generally edible and covered the five food groups. (2,800 euro! What could you do with that much money?)

I was exhausted that late Saturday afternoon when I arrived. I’d landed in Paris the previous Thursday, hoping to get over some jet lag during two nights there, before taking a three and a half hour train trip to Aix. I’d eaten a sandwich at about 1pm during that train journey. Luckily.

When I arrived at the Gare Routière - bus station - in Aix it was raining. I’d been advised by the teacher to take a taxi to her apartment. There were no taxis available for about half an hour by which time my luggage and I were a bit damp.

I eventually arrived at the 17th century building, which under ordinary circumstances would have been about a 15 minute walk away, with luggage, guided by Google maps; would have been relatively easy given my light packing. The entrance hall in the hôtel particulière was shabby, cavernous and a little breathtaking for someone who normally lives in a Californian bungalow in a Melbourne suburb. Despite my relatively light packing, I was glad that my host came down to help me get my backpack up those 60 steps. She practically ran up, leaving me gasping with tachycardia on the third landing.

The apartment consisted of a lofty living room, a master bedroom - hers - a guest room which would be mine and a tiny, oddly shaped kitchen beyond which was my host’s tiny bathroom and WC.

Immediately upon arrival, before I’d had any time to catch my breath or settle in any way, I was invited to sit down in a chair that quickly had me at a disadvantage, my bottom almost on the floor and my knees up: a chair that was difficult to get out of without some serious bicep and leg work.

I was excited, exhausted, thirsty and quite hungry.
Could I possibly have a drink? I asked. Briskly, she answered,  of course, and got me a glass of tap water. It’s The Source, she pronounced and I gulped it down.

Could I possibly use the bathroom? I asked.

She showed me my room, and although it was quite spacious it was dingy. My stomach sank. The low double bed with a patterned polyester doona had no bed head. One half of it backed onto an unused, sealed door, the other backed onto the bare plaster wall. A small wooden chair served as a bedside table. A plastic shaded lamp sat on the chair’s concave base. (My water bottle and other night time necessities would lean into the centre of that cobbled nightstand for the next two weeks.)

At the far end of the room was a small toilet cubicle and next to that a tiny, dank bathroom with old fittings and exposed plumbing. In the bathroom, a shower curtain hung over a tiny hip bath. There was no fixed shower rose, only a hand held spray. Cleaning products, and what I presume were other people’s left over gels and shampoos, were ranged along a low tiled shelf.

Further, this bedroom, as I later discovered, was unventilated once the bedroom door was closed. One small, clean, well-worn folded bath towel sat on the end of bed. There was also a hand towel in the WC. I wasn’t offered fresh towels or bed sheets after the first week but when I asked for a towel it was provided. I also had to ask for toilet paper to be replenished, which it was on my request. I cleaned my own WC and bathroom.

A wardrobe,  built under an external staircase, held a rack of mismatched coat hangers, the type that come from the dry-cleaners or are given away with purchased garments. There was also a pokey corner desk with a lamp, built in under the stairs. There was a wooden chair by the desk.

At that stage, I was horrified at the amount of money I’d paid in advance for what would be my room for two weeks. What’s more, it was noisy, and a reinforced glass ceiling/floor in one half of the room meant my room was flooded with light whenever the upstairs light was turned on during the night. This was fixed half way through my second week when I had a dummy spit due to poor sleep for the previous ten nights. The teacher insisted that the owner of the apartments install a carpet square in the upstairs room, offering some relief but turning the room into a spacious dark cell. The room had no wifi, so basically, if I wished to use it I had to sit in the kitchen or living room.

We didn’t eat until around 8 that evening.  I wasn’t offered a snack of any sort before then either. I drank a couple of cups of tea to get by. It got to the stage where I had to ask when we’d be eating. (Lucky I’m on an insulin pump that adjusts insulin delivery according to my body’s needs!)

I fervently hoped that the lessons would be worthwhile, given the accommodation was poor. Fortunately, my teacher quickly diagnosed my French language deficits and worked out a suitable program of remediation. I enjoyed the teaching and learning for 3 hours each weekday morning and the 2 to 3 hours of homework and reading - some Guy de Maupassant short stories - each afternoon and evening. I found a couple of nearby brasseries with good wifi and did my homework there, surrounded by charming Aix. I also enjoyed the teacher’s guided tour of the city, our ‘walk in Cezanne’s footsteps’ and our day trips to both Marseille and Lourmarin, which I chose from several possibilities. The S.L.Immersion guidelines specified that there would be two excursions each week. On my first Sunday, my teacher also invited me to accompany her to a free exposition, which was quite impressive.

I discovered that on several nights a week, my host gave private hour long French lessons in her living room. On those evenings, I had to sit in the kitchen or sit without wifi in my depressing bedroom. Exhausted by that stage of the day, I was reluctant to go out alone.

The meals. Cereal and toast for breakfast. I had a slice of toast with butter and cheese each day. Could have had more. I drank tea with milk, mostly using my own tea bags, although loose black tea was available if I wanted it. During two weeks I ate a variety of soups, breads and salads and 2 omelettes. The meals were adequately nutritious and extremely economical. I felt uncomfortable sharing meals with the teacher, particularly in the mornings, when she was uncommunicative and told me she needed time to wake up. Lunches were better, at times cheerful.

Generally, despite being implored to feel at home and to help myself to anything, I didn’t
feel free to do this. Despite the teacher being able to eat in the living room, I was told to eat my own evening meals only at the small kitchen table, in my corner, unless the teacher wanted to use her bathroom, at which point I swiftly moved into the other room. She didn’t want to invade my space by using the guest bathroom in my room. It wouldn’t have bothered me. The lack of privacy made life difficult, for both of us, I imagine. Definitely for me.

I’m glad to have experienced this, but hugely relieved that it’s over.