Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Friday, September 15, 2006

Je Ne Comprends Pas

After so many trips to France, and untold mis-adventures, I still do not understand these three things :

(1) Entry and Exit Matters
I have lost count of the number of times I have been to the Gemenos office. Yet for a direction-challenged person like me, each time I have to figure out the route from the hotel (15 minutes walk) to the office, situated in a deserted industrial park called ‘’parc d ‘activites ‘’, with the imposing Saint Baume and Garlaban looming majestically in the background. Not to mention I have to decode the enigma of the way the entry pass works. Having battled with the security guards and having struggled to understand their Marseille accent for the past five years, I thought I have finally ‘’found the key’’. The key is supposed to be: enter by the reception/ main entrance, hand them my Singapore office’s badge and get them to ‘’personalise’’ it at the touch of a few buttons on a computer (ah the wonders of smart card technology!) and voila – my Singapore badge can gain me access to the French offices and their many doors, gates and gantries!

Not so easy this trip. This time, they returned my badge and gave me a temporary one that did not work at most entry and exit points! Nevertheless I tried to use it for other ‘’illegal’’ (short cuts for certain staff members) entrances too, but did not got yelled at. In the past, I would have had the security guard marching out of his cosy office to give me a good lecture and to ‘’escort’’ me in via the ‘’approved’’ tourniquet. This time, he simply asked who I was and from where, and he let me in (since my pass did not work), using his office switch to activate the tourniquet for me.

Yet in the same evening, when I had to return to the same entry – another guard had a different ‘’rule’’ – ‘’on ne peut pas entrer ici… allez aux accueil!’’ he yelled. ‘’What does he want?’’ Brittany, my American colleague looked at me, alarmed. ‘’He wants us to go to the reception entrance instead of using this gate,’’ I translated. ‘’But this morning…’’ she argued. ‘’Er… let’s just go there… I don’t know how to argue in French…and you can’t win…’’ I told her.

(2) Strange Italian Food
The last trip to Fontainebleau, it was spaghetti. This trip, it was cappelletti. France is renowned for its cuisine and proud of their talented Michelin-starred chefs, or even skillful MOF ones. But they just can’t get Italian pasta right, can they?

I know that when in Rome, I should do as the Romans do, and when in France, I should eat ‘’French’’. But while at a resto at the Marais area, I could not help noting that they served cappelletti as their ‘’plat du jour’’ and it reminded me so much of Franca my landlady in Perugia that I ordered it out of nostalgia. She used to get up at 5.30 am to make them by hand, lovingly and patiently. So when my much-anticipated ‘’plat du jour’’ came, I could not help exclaim in disappointment, ‘’cést cappelletti?!’’ The waiter, feeling hurt, replied, ‘’mais oui, madame, cappelletti, cappelletti, oui!’’
They didn’t look like the dainty ‘’caps’’ (‘’cappelletti’’ means ‘’little caps’’ in Italian) that I know. And they tasted like… oh well….

And when I visited Anne at our new office at Meudon, she drove me to her house at Issy-les-Moulineaux, 10 minutes drive away, just for me to see her adorable baby. ‘’I hope you don’t mind a quick pasta lunch as here, unlike Gemenos, we have only one hour for lunch’’. And out she brought a huge packet of frozen – you guessed it – cappelletti – ready-made from Auchan, her favourite supermarket. They looked exactly like the flat crescent moon the resto at Marais served. Maybe the resto buys its supplies in bulk from Auchan too. Anne’s ‘’instant cooking a la instant cup noodle’’ meant that they tasted different too – from those at the resto and at Franca’s… oh well…

(3) Strange Airline Practices
I have never had problems in France requesting for aisle seats, or seats at the emergency exits, to give myself more leg room. If such seats are no longer available, they simply tell me so. This time, at CDG on my way home, the lady at check-in asked if I spoke French. To be modest, I said, ‘’a bit’’.

‘’You have to speak very good French to get the seats at the emergency exits; so I can’t give it to you,’’ she said. I didn’t bother to argue. You can’t win.

I do know that people who sit at the emergency exits are required to help out during evacuations, and maybe that’s why – to communicate with passengers, or with the crew. Still, it’s a stupid and presumptuous thing to assume that the lingua franca during evacuations would be French, just because the plane took off in Paris and it’s on Air France: isn’t the crew supposed to speak English also and besides, the plane is bound for Singapore – full of Singaporeans, stupid!

Tarte vs Tarte

I wanted a break from my colleagues in the Communications dept where I belong. Some of them are sheer poseurs. Listening to them at dinner for the past two nights trying to impress the big bosses with their grandiose empty bullshit about the ‘’future of technology’’ has given me enough goose pimples to warrant a skin scrub at the spa.

So on my last evening in Gemenos, I decided to join a bunch of more down to earth, and supposedly less sophisticated group of colleagues – technicians and engineers - for dinner at Aix-en-Provence. I met them through my colleague Wendy, a technical consultant from Singapore, who was also in Gemenos during that period. It sure was a different perspective. Some in the group didn’t even talk much! And if they did, it was pure, simple fun stuff – jokes, hobbies, pets.

Even the waiters at Aix seemed extra friendly and cheerful. When it was time for dessert, one of them took the trouble to explain each item on the menu, in halting English. He had to do it all over again for Wendy, just because ‘’everything was so new’’ to her – and even after that, I had to re-explain it in Singlish for her. The waiter was certainly very patient! I added to his stress by asking the difference between ‘’tarte aux pommes’’ and ‘’tarte tartin’’ . He said they are both apple tarts, one with the apple slices outside and one with the apple slices inside. I was not satisfied with his reply but decided to have it ‘’on the outside’’ and ordered ‘’tarte aux pommes’’.

When he served it, he brought me the ‘’tarte tartin’’ that someone else had ordered – just to show me the difference. ‘’Oh, I see – the tartin is American, while the other is French,’’ I blurted out. The tartin sure looks like the typical American pie. ‘’Ah non, madameboth are French,’’ he protested with exaggerated chagrin, pulling back the tarte he was about to serve me. ‘’No, American,’’ I flirted back. Woon Wee, another technical consultant from Singapore, joked, ‘’Janet – you are in France, so both have to be French, how dare you say American!’’ I forgot – you can’t win.

The waiter nodded approval. ‘’And do you know the history?’’ he continued. ‘’The tartin was baked by the sister who made the tarte and she had an accident, dropped it and the apple went inside the pastry, that’s why in France we have two types of apple pies,’’ he said. I simply grinned at him and ate up my yummy tarte.

Canard vs Canard

My Brazilian colleague decided to change her flight so that she could hang out with me in Paris for half a day before catching her connecting flight back to Rio.

Maybe I’ve had enough of hanging out with people everyday for almost a week, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear that, especially when she suggested shopping on Avenue des Champs Elysees. ‘’Can we not go there please? It’s so touristy and tacky there,’’ I protested grouchily. And so we had a leisurely lunch at Boulevard Courcelles, near the studette I rented, and hung out around Opera.

By the time Wendy arrived the next day to hang out with me for one and a half day, it was getting really tiresome – especially with her wide-eyed innocence, incessant questions and constant looking at me questioningly for explanations and translations, even though she has been there three times. I do not know what gave her the impression that I am a French or France expert and am expected to know the unknowns. ‘’What is this? Sorry, I make you sound like my tour guide, but what is that building? Why is this like that? Why do they do it this way? What does this mean? What do they mean by that? Where when what how……’’

The toughest bit was at the resto at Marais. After going through almost every single item on the menu with her, and telling her honestly that there were a few items I simply could not understand (due to my limited vocabulary), the conversation went like this:

W: So canard is duck. Do you think the magret de canard would be nice?
Me: I don’t know – I don’t like duck, even though I have seen my colleagues
eat it a few times.
W: Should I order it?
Me: If you like duck, why not.
W: But I don’t know if it would be nice. How is it cooked?
Me: It is grilled, or fried… I think.
W: Same as confit de canard? I tried that before and it was great.
Me: Magret is duck breast. Confit is cooked differently – using duck thigh,
cooked in some ‘’sauce’’ or ‘’confit’’… I think.
W: I really like the
confit – do you think the magret would be as nice?
Me: I have not eaten either of them myself but they are prepared differently.

When the duck finally came, she took one bite, and the tiresome conversation continued like this:

W: It is not duck! It tastes like beef. And it is not well cooked like I requested.
Can you ask if they had made a mistake?
Me: It is duck. Exactly like the way it was served last night at Cassis where
my colleagues and I had dinner.
W: But it is not like the confit I ate last time.
Me: But I already said they are two different dishes even though both are
W: But it tastes off. Please take a bite and tell me if it’s duck.

Me: Alright. I don’t like duck but will taste it for you.
W: So? It’s duck? How come it does not taste like the confit….
Me: It is definitely duck and it really stinks like duck and it is so well cooked
that it is tough, even though you said it is pink!
W: But I thought it would taste like the confit, which really tastes like duck….
Me: But like I have said, confit and magret are different… OK OK! Let me
ask the waiter for you, just so you believe me.

And so the poor harassed waiter had to confirm that it was canard… after having to confirm earlier that my order was cappelletti…..

Taxi vs RER

Unlucky ‘’janet loh moments’’ tend to happen to friends who travel with me too. Wendy and I under-estimated the amount of time needed to get back from the Louvres to the flat to wait for her airport shuttle van, and by the time we realized it, she was sure she would miss it. She started asking questions: ‘’Will they wait for at least five minutes? What if they don’t? Will they be late also and I then won’t miss it? Will they come back for me again if they don’t find me there when they first come?’’

I tried to re assure her that we should be able to make it in time, if we ran from the Courcelles station to our studette. I told her that I would go up and grab her luggage while she could wait downstairs to look out for the van.

And so I began a real frantic 10 minute run from the station to the flat… while she trailed far behind. This is the second time I had to run like a mad woman in the middle of Paris… it’s amazing no one stopped me for being a lunatic. The first time was two years ago when I nearly missed my airport van pick up too.

Despite the run, panting and sweating, the van did not turn up. I suggested that she took the RER to the airport, since her luggage was small and light. But she was afraid of the staircases at the stations and of going there ‘’alone’’! She was also afraid it would take too long, despite my reassurance that she would have more than enough time. So I offered to call a taxi for her but when no one picked up the phone, she decided to take the RER. We walked down the stairs of the Courcelles station and once we got there, she changed her mind, wanting to take the taxi. We walked back up, I rang the taxi number again, no one answered and finally she decided to take the RER, on condition that I accompanied her to the station that connects her to the RER.

She rang me when she finally reached the airport station but could not get out of the gate. ‘’Why can’t I get out? What do I do? Is it because the ticket I bought was the wrong one?’’

I told her to look for duty staff at the ticket office for help but there were none. ‘’Can I just slip under the gap there?’’ she asked. ‘’If that’s the only way and there is no staff to help you, go ahead, no one will bother to stop you,’’ I told her.

Long Queues

There was a long queue at the new Musee du Quai Branly; we waited for almost half an hour just to get tickets. I had read about the two month old museum since a few years back when they were preparing for its opening. I am glad I found it, after some nasty prank by a shop-keeper. I had gone in to ask for directions and he had told me, ‘’c’est fini!’’ and when I gave a shocked ‘’huh?!’’ he continued, ‘’c’est a Marseille’’. When I insisted that it was near his shop on Quai Branly, his colleague reluctantly directed me to walk further up, straight ahead.

There were also long queues at Ile Saint-Louis. Tourists thronged the ice cream shops to get a taste of Berthillon ice cream. Wendy and I decided to enjoy the famed ice cream without the queue, by dining in at the cafe. Ice cream and hot sun – so summer!

There was a much shorter queue at Musee Maillol though. My brother had sms-ed me to catch its exhibition on Marilyn Monroe’s last sitting for photographer Bert Stern – ‘’La Deniere Séance’’. My boss said it was a small museum whose permanent collection is worth a glimpse, but not necessarily the Monroe one unless I was her fan. When I went there, I realized why my brother would be interested in the exhibition – it was soft porn – tantalizing photos of Monroe’s pouts, tits and ass.

Au Parc Monceau

The studette I rented on rue Barye is 15 minutes walk from Parc Monceau. I went there for a jog on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was lovely. There were many joggers, and one of them skipped so effortlessly in one corner. I wish I could do my skipping so effortlessly during my training. As I jogged around the park, focused on the track and determined to improve my speed and stamina, I reminded myself not to forget to look around me and appreciate the natural beauty surrounding me. It is just so typical of me in life, to be running, running, running, and not stopping to appreciate.

I slowed down as I passed the huge pretty roses surrounding the lake. Yves Duteil’s little song ‘’Au Parc Monceau’’ began to sing in my heart. For him, Parc Monceau was ‘’un petit morceau de mon enfance’’ where he had his ‘’premier baiser de mon histoire’’. I tried to imagine how the park was like when he was 16. Were there as many joggers? Were the roses as beautiful? Did anyone feed the ducks on the lake?

After an exhilarating jog, I popped into a mini supermarket to get some instant coffee sachet, and into a boulangerie for a baguette and an irresistible canele (I love its shape!). I managed to carry all three back in my bare hands without dropping them, and even opened the front and room doors – albeit clumsily. The thought of tucking the baguette under my arm did cross my mind, but I remembered my sweaty armpits after the jog, and decided against it.

Not a Typical Jog

Brittany my colleague suggested jogging around the hotel and office area early in the morning, before our group meeting was due to start at 9.00 am. It seemed like a crazy idea, but we actually got up at 6.30 am to do so! It was still pretty dark, and we scarcely knew our way around, but gamely ran around the sleeping office buildings and empty industrial compounds anyway, for a good 22 minutes. While trying to decide the right way to get back to our hotel, a car passed by and asked if we were lost, and offered help. The run was indeed a great start to a long day of meetings and presentations.

Not Your Typical Paris

Getting to Meudon to visit the new Gemalto office was an adventure. I had to change a few metro stations, change to RER, and find my way to the tram station to take tram n◦2. And then I had to trudge through a mini construction site, listening to a few curious ‘’bonjour’s’’ of the workers there, before I found the building and Anne.

Is this the Paris I know? I asked myself. I guess most of us have images of Eiffel Tower, River Seine, Montmartre, Nore Dame, Jardin des Tuileries, and not that of a manufacturing centre that originated from the 1840’s. ‘’That island over there used to be the Renault factory,’’ Anne pointed out.

On my way back to the tram station at the construction site, I nearly slipped and fell as someone yelled ‘’c’est interdit bla bla…’’ at me. I decided to pretend not to understand, gave him a big shrug, gestured that I needed to get to the station. But he gestured to say that I had to take the long route – a big loop. I continued to look ‘’lost’’. One of the staff kindly waved me on and allowed me to pass. Merci monsieur, I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

Final Janet Loh Moment

When it was time to leave for the airport, I too faced the same no-show of the airport shuttle van, even though I was 15 minute early, waiting at the front door. What madness. Oh well, there is always the taxi… if only someone would pick up the phone!


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