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Letter Home from France

'Migrant moments' humbly shared by a former Vancouverite.

By Jim Boothroyd 16 Mar 2006 | TheTyee.ca
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I sensed that I was in trouble when I discovered that I could not contact the local phone shop by phone. Then two hours later, at the nearest branch of France Telecom, my worst fears began to materialize. I had been handed a number after coming in and was waiting obediently, but the shop clerks were working at a glacial pace and serving people who had just wandered in, numberless.

It was a warm October afternoon and my four-year-old son was now sleeping on my shoulder, humidly. In a park nearby, my daughter was playing soccer and I had hoped to drop into FT, get the modem I needed and be back at the field in time to see her heading home a goal. Twenty, maybe 30 minutes, I thought.

But I had now waited 25.

Judging from the looks and whispers, I sensed that the other waiting customers shared my indignation about the lack of line discipline. Yes, I was aware that the French play by different rules when it comes to waiting one's turn, but we had been given numbers; so I figured that we would exercise our solidarity against this arbitrary regime.

I began to fashion phrases for when my number came up-something that might trigger an uprising.

"Madame, pourriez-vous m'expliquer pourquoi your telephone utility cannot be reached by phone. And why I must drive for 15 minutes, wait a further 35 minutes and miss my daughter's soccer match because you choose to serve a series of queue-bargers before me?"

Ten minutes later, I'd added an historical reference. "I cannot believe that in Ferney Voltaire, named for the Father of Reason and Defender of Justice, that French civilization has become so unreasonable, so unjust, so…"

When my number came up, however, my French failed me.

Number games

I showed the shop clerk my stub. She looked up from a package that she was slitting open for another queue barger.

"Madame, it's my turn."

"I am just helping this woman. I will serve you next."

"But I have been waiting for 40 minutes and have a number-she doesn't." I tried to smile, ironically.

"I am the manager," she replied. "Normally, I do not serve customers."

How eloquent, I thought-the epitome of French commercial "Let-them-eat-cake-ism." I turned to my comrades for support, but they didn't rally. Some avoided my gaze, others returned looks of mild embarrassment, even pity. It was now that I noticed the pong. My son had farted.

This is a migrant moment: one of those occasions when immigrants, emigrants, migrants (like me) are made painfully aware that they are not in the know-and outsiders.

Right now, thousands of migrants from Melbourne to Manama to Moose Jaw are suffering moments like this- with worse outcomes for the most part. And it's the accumulation of these moments-the experience of over-crowded classrooms, squalid housing, daily discrimination-that no doubt fuelled the rage of French teenagers from immigrant families who fought riot police and torched hundreds of cars in the suburbs of Paris, Toulouse and Marseilles in November.

Life is good

My migrant moments, of course, are trivial. I, after all, have a good job and live in a nice apartment in a town with thermal baths, a casino and a fabulous football stadium.

Which brings me to my second moment. I agreed to coach my daughter's soccer team a couple of weeks ago. Why? Because I have coached before and know a bit about soccer and, okay, I fancied myself guiding the team, in the language of Voltaire, to victory against our less enlightened opponents.

Before kickoff, however, I realized that I might be in for a surprise. In the other half of the field, my counterpart was barking orders as his little charges obediently jumped, sprinted and passed their way through one drill after another. In our half, our players were tackling and throwing balls at each other and rolling on the wet grass, while I struggled with my second language:

"Form a circus! I mean circle!" I shouted.

They didn't.

I sat out the unruliest boy. "Antony, you can rejoin us when you behave better." Antony pulled a face at me. I told him to smarten up, or tried to. (I can chair a teleconference in both official languages with people from across Canada, and next month I am going to write the United Nations French proficiency exam; but that doesn't mean I have the verbal arsenal to strike fear in a French eight-year-old.)

Again, I tried to form a circle. I got an oval.

It was now that I noticed my daughter gazing into the distance. She didn't respond when I called, even in English. I ran over, turned her to face me and began to say that if she did not immediately join the circle, she'd watch this game from the touchline.

"What are those men doing?" she asked, pointing to a group of men in orange vests just outside the fence. They were carrying shotguns.

"Hunting. Pheasants probably…"

"Isn't that kinda dangerous?"

"Ah, yes…get back on the field."

The other parents, strung out along the touchline, seemed uninterested in the scene unfolding behind them: men with guns, hounds sporting bells around their necks, the occasional pop of gunfire nearby.

"It's hunting season," would've been their reply, if I had I questioned the safety of our children. A mother would then have turned to the game and remarked "That boy is sturdy. Do you really think he's just nine?"

Thankfully, kickoff was moments away.

Jim Boothroyd moved from Vancouver to Divonne les Bains, France, in August to begin a job in nearby Geneva.  [Tyee]

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