When You Least Expect It

I had the advantage, in that I saw her first.  Fifteen seconds, in which I could digest the fact that the woman at the desk was the one who had haunted me for years. She was concentrating on some paperwork, while I waited for her to lift her head to ask,  presumably, how she could be of assistance.

Instead, she stared up at me, stunned. It must be fate, I said. Her face stiffened into, what? A kind of wary defensiveness, perhaps. Why would you say that? Without waiting for an answer, she said, almost angrily, What are you doing back here?

But I never really left, I said. I was sure you knew that.

We looked at each other for a long moment. Are you well? I asked.

Her expression softened. Yes, yes I am. She leaned forward, cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered, confidingly, I’m never going to retire. They don’t know how old I am, and you’d better not tell them!

My heart relaxed. If she could talk to me like this, then perhaps there was a chance we could find our way back, even briefly. The telephone rang. I have to answer this, she said apologetically. The call was brief; she put the handset down and leaned back, smiling. I have two beautiful granddaughters now.

I probably shouldn’t have said that I knew. She recoiled, her mouth forming a soundless How? I’m friends with K on Facebook, I said.  .

I don’t like Facebook, she spat. Have no use for it. She was clearly shocked by the fact that her daughter was in contact with me, even if from a distance. I hoped there would be no repercussions for the younger woman, while understanding that my former friend was hurt. I couldn’t blame her, although a part of me thought You see? You might have discarded me, but she had her own loyalties.    

I didn’t know where the conversation was going to go now, but was more intrigued than apprehensive. I felt like a clinical observer, watching the sea changes of my subject.

To my surprise, she began to talk about how the experience of having grandchildren had changed her, and how different was the connection with them than with her own children.  I realized then what I had forgotten about her over the last ten years – how lyrically she could express herself. Our shared pleasure in the beauty of language had been something so special that, as I was now reminded, the loss of it flooded through me.

I’ve missed you, I said. I used to dream about you so often, that we were friends again.

I dreamt about you, too, about a month ago.

Why did you disappear?

I had longed to ask the question for most of those years and now it came quietly, without emotion.  She cocked her head, looked past me. I don’t know. You know, I’d have to think about that.

I assume you got my letter, I said. The one I wrote about six years ago. She nodded, said nothing.

It hurt, that you never replied.  She was clearly uncomfortable. This isn’t the place to talk about it, she said.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a scene – I just tried to understand why you withdrew like that without ever saying anything. I imagined all kinds of possibilities: that I had offended you, that you disapproved of my choices at the time, that…well, I had no idea. Perhaps you were just tired of the friendship.

She jumped on that. Yes, that’s probably it. I think we were just done, she said,

So there it was. As simple, as enigmatic as that.

I didn’t want to let go just yet. I asked about her husband, a guy I had liked a lot.   And what about M? At the mention of her son’s name, she sighed deeply. You know, if you’d asked me about him a month ago, I would have burst into tears. He’s gone through so much, a lot of self-discovery, had to figure out what he really wants. But amazingly, now he seems to have done it, and he’s in a really good place.

She talked on about him, this boy I had known since he was born, had seen grow into a person of immense talent and spectacular intelligence. She confided in me as though we were back in those days when we’d have a regular date to eat Italian, staying late over endless cups of coffee, talking, talking, talking. Feeling through our fingertips – literally! – the electric charge of connection. Marvelling at how close we were.

She stopped abruptly.  What are you here for, actually?

I explained. I had been advised to borrow a CD on meditation from this, the hospital library, in preparation for heart surgery. Her eyes widened but she didn’t comment. Asked nothing about me, nor the kids whom she’d known so well. She pulled a form from a drawer.

Just write your name and address here. You know, it’s just like when you were in elementary and you checked out a book.  She laughed.  No need to sign it. Did you ever sign a library card at school? No. Not here either. She handed me the CD and said I could keep it for 3 weeks.

We had reached the end. I knew it. But even though I had been dispassionately assessing her behaviour and odd reactions, unable to avoid the conclusion that this was not someone I could be friends with again, I still wanted to draw something from her unexpected confidences and uneven warmth. It was a few minutes before noon.

Any chance we could do lunch?

She shied from the question, startled and uncomfortable. I ’d seen this reaction before in her, this instinctive aversion to unpleasantness. Maybe some other time, she said.

No, you don’t mean that. And you still can’t say it. I shook my head and walked away.

It had taken a long time to get over losing my best friend, although her daughter’s bewilderment over her mother’s refusal to explain my absence helped me to accept that I wasn’t likely to get any answers, either. I understood that it would have been very difficult for her to say, flat out, that it was over, but I never really forgave her for what felt like cruelty.

Until yesterday that is, when, in an unlikely coincidence, I was handed the chance to ask the question that had bothered me for so long.   And more than that, to let her know that it had been hard to lose her. Is it vindication? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s fair to face the consequences of our acts.

I’m free of my old hurt, while feeling some sympathy for her. Unexpected and unwelcome as it was, our conversation would have been unsettling for her, I think. In any case, the story has finally come to an end, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think the universe had conspired to make it happen.

We’re In The Army Now

Stuff’s been happening since I last wrote about the association.  After the president resigned – apparently because the secretary and I challenged him for sidestepping an committee -approved policy banning freebies for event organisers – his post was assumed by the vice-president.

The VP, a Belgian who spoke three languages, wasn’t the best person to step into top spot but he had his good points.  He was inclusive, listened to advice and had some good ideas about what could be done to make the association more dynamic.  On the downside, he reacted without thinking, couldn’t remember from one day to the next what decisions the board had reached, and was woodenly awkward with people, which was a bit of a handicap considering that PR is the president’s job.

The way things work in French associations is that all executive board members have to be re-approved by the general committee  immediately following the AGM.  If there are no challengers  for any of the board jobs, it’s a general shoo-in.  Nobody ever wants these posts, generally, and so it was highly unusual for a second presidential candidate to pop up.

The challenger was a Scottish ex-army type, an seemingly affable guy who hadn’t had much to say in committee meetings for the two years he’d been a member.  He looked after a few things, but didn’t have any big ideas.  It was generally thought that he was only semi-interested in taking on the presidency, and none of the executive board members (the president, secretary and me, the treasurer) thought he represented a threat to the status quo.

We all assembled a few days after the AGM, with the first item on the agenda being the election.  The two presidential candidates gave their spiels, and as soon as the Scot opened his mouth, I figured he was done for.  In perfectly decent French, he said that one of the first things he would change, were he to be elected president, would be to insist on English during the meetings meetings.  My inner jaw dropped.  The committee is comprised of 4 Anglophones, one Dutch and 10 native French speakers, of whom five are not terribly comfortable with English, and two are unilingual.  Of those last two, one is the indefatigable and efficient secretary, the best the association has ever had.

To suggest that association business be conducted in a language unintelligible to two members, of which one is charged with writing the minutes, was so pompously ridiculous that I was sure the guy had dug his own grave in one sentence.  I didn’t even bother challenging him on the point after he finished speaking, so inconceivable was the idea. We’ve never had a problem with those who have to temporarily detour into English to explain themselves, but once the translation is made we’re right back into the language of Voltaire.

Mais quelle surprise! The Scot won by 9 votes to 6, prompting the visibly shaken former president to resign from the committee on the spot.  I was gobsmacked, as was the secretary and a few others around the table.  Obviously quite a number of the Francophones had voted for the guy, and that made me think that they were voting against the Belgian’s woodenness  more than they were approving of an English-language policy.

The second the sceptre was in the Scot’s hands, he morphed from innocuous bystander to tinpot dictator.  The meeting would now be in English, he intoned, and the two Francophones who did not speak any English would have to just take some lessons.  He smiled when he said it, but it wasn’t a joke.  The secretary spit tacks.  One of the Francophones said quietly that no one, not even the Anglophone presidents previously elected, had ever spoken anything but French in the boardroom.  I saw red, and said that no one, not even the president, could impose English on a French association with a majority of French members.  I spoke up, saw a few heads nod, and figured that would be that.

But if I thought that a public remonstration would stop him from trying that stunt again, I was wrong.  Two days later, at a meeting of the five board members, which included me and the secretary, he tried again.  About twenty minutes in, he announced that we would switch to English.  I didn’t even try to be diplomatic this time.  To proceed in anything other than French was at best bad manners and at worst, a display of astonishing arrogance, I said.   He was forced to continue in French, but the atmosphere didn’t improve.  He indicated in unsubtle ways that he considered himself to have the final word on everything, the secretary to be beneath his attention, and that he intended to keep an extremely close eye on what I was doing.  My knee-jerk reaction was to butt heads with him at every turn.

The phone rang the next day, with a summons to his house for a one-on-one meeting to discuss our working relationship.  Nyet to that idea, said I – we’ll meet somewhere neutral.  I was brought up to be (in the absence of a really good reason) co-operative so my first reaction was to agree to a meet up, but my natural inclination is to go my own way.  After a bit of reflection, I wrote him an email, explaining in plain but polite language what my position was regarding the language issue, and the autocratic manner he seemed to think was necessary, and further said that I had had quite enough of committee meetings for the time being.  If he wished to respond in writing, I invited him to do so.  I know perfectly well that emails aren’t the best environment to sort out a problem, but I’m at my best when I’ve got a figurative pen in my hand.   He declined to reply, and insisted we meet.

I both hate and relish confrontation, in almost equal measure.  When my dander is up, I’ll fight for what I believe is right, and I don’t take prisoners.  But that reaction takes a personal toll in terms of stress, and it’s usually accompanied by serious doubts about whether or not I am actually right.  The one thing I’m afraid of is being unfair, which is just another way of saying I terrified to be wrong.  For two weeks, I wrestled with the knot in my stomach, trying to talk myself into not caring, trying to convince myself that was perfectly OK to speak my mind.  Despite the impression I give of unlimited confidence, I’m not a fan of hubris.  I prefer to get along with people, and I’m not at all disagreeable generally.  But there are limits to what I’ll accept, and the Scot tested them sorely.  I realised that I wouldn’t be able to calm my nerves until we both had a chance to say what was on our minds, and that if there was a chance to smooth the waters, I really should take it.

I got to the meeting point first and ordered a beer, paying for it before anyone else had a chance to offer.  I don’t drink beer, but my inner spin-doctor thought it would send a message.   My mantra for the previous couple of days had been ‘calm and confident’, and I was feeling pretty good.  I had tried hard to get past the deeply-ingrained worry about not being nice.  Tinpot duly arrived, and one of the first things he did was to comment on my beer.  He was taken aback.  I congratulated myself.

He jumped in with, ‘lots of people think the association is becoming far too French.’  There was no point in asking what nationality these ‘lots of people’ were, but I did ask him just how many they represented.  Well, loads, he said, but had the grace to admit that ‘loads’ was difficult to quantify.  Where do we live? I asked.  He seemed puzzled.  France, he answered.  Indeed we do, I said.

He went on to say that I did far too much for the association, that I took jobs away from other people.  Those same people who never raise their hands to volunteer for anything, I asked? I asked him what he thought I did, apart from keeping the books and filling in just this one time for the communications guy who abruptly quit doing the newsletter.  He didn’t really know, so I spelled it out for him.  In addition to those two things, one of which is strictly temporary, I had an idea a while back about how the association might assist the local junior high schools with their language exchange programs, which some students are not able to take advantage of due to financial hardship.  Our members come from eleven different European countries, plus a few Americans and Canadians, and being open to other cultures is a big deal for us. Our bylaws state that giving back to the community is a fundamental part of who we are, but that has been slipping away over the last few years.  I wanted to explore how we could fulfil that obligation while giving French kids a chance to travel to other countries.  I also am part of a working group to develop a new website, since I use the existing site every day and have an insider’s familiarity with it.

He tried to prop up his position by fixing the number of people who didn’t feel comfortable with my involvement at six.  If I were in it for personal power, I could understand that, I said.  But the simple truth is that I like to help, have energy, time and ideas, and I feel strongly about the aims of the association.  People who are bothered by that tend to be those who don’t do much, and are resentful that there are others who do more than they.  They want control without earning it.

He wanted me to stay in my corner, do the books, and keep quiet.  I declined, and told him exactly how things would go down.  I would continue to challenge any attempt to Anglicise the association meetings unless every member of the committee agreed to it.  I would continue to speak out against his efforts to quash dissent.  I would continue to do my job and most of all, in what I viewed as my primary role, I would continue to defend the interests of an association which had been of great benefit to me and many others.  And no, I wouldn’t play nice just to make his job easier.

I also called him on his treatment of the secretary.  How he’d ignored her during the meeting, and literally waved her away as unimportant.  I suggested that he had done so for one of three reasons:  because she was French, because she was ‘just a secretary’ or because she was female.  Maybe even all three.  He blustered that he’d worked with lots of women in his life.  And what does that prove? I asked.  He had no answer. There is an almost visceral pleasure in laying bare the inconsistencies, bias and self-serving justifications of an opponent.  I haven’t enjoyed an exchange so much since I acted as my own lawyer during my divorce.  After a period of wordlessness he said, You’re pretty aggressive.  I smiled.  That’s always the word men use when they run up against an assertive woman,

I’m not going to waste any time wondering if I did the right thing, if I was fair, if I was too hard on the poor guy.  I figure he’ll either shoot himself in the foot, or else he’ll get his way with a majority of the committee members who can’t be bothered, or just plain can’t stand up to him.  If so, it’ll be a loss for all, but I’ll have done what I could.  And by god, it felt good.  I think I might be on a roll.

Sometimes I wonder

What is the matter with me?

We have a guest, arrived yesterday.  He is the nephew of my husband, a man in his forties whose life is in a bit of a shambles.  Father to two boys, he and their mother divorced long ago and until a year ago, he saw his sons every other weekend and half the school holidays.  His relations with his ex-wife are difficult, but he has always held to his end of the bargain in terms of his responsibilities to his kids, as far as I know.  Nevertheless, his ex embarked on a systemic campaign to turn them against their father, to the point where the eldest, at 15, exercised his right to refuse to see him.  The younger one is not yet officially allowed that freedom, but his mother has flouted the court ruling and simply won’t cooperate with weekend visits.

In addition, the nephew’s 5-year live-in relationship with a rather nice woman came to an end a few months back, and he is now living under his mother’s roof while he tried to sort his life out.  He is, fortunately, gainfully employed and successful in his job.  I feel extremely sorry for his kids and for him, and wish him all the best in his attempts to reassert his parental rights through the legal system.

But I don’t really like him.  He’s a bit of an odd character, and not in an amusing way.  His company feels oppressive, and I don’t feel comfortable around him.  When he wrote last week to invite himself here, I panicked.  Pleaded with my husband to make sure that the ‘full week’ he wanted to stay would be limited to a ‘short week’, and husband wrote back to that effect.

Last night at dinner, the nephew mentioned that he wanted to see the Museum of the Confluence in Lyon on his way back to Austria, and then sadly added that ‘unfortunately it’s not open on Mondays’, leaving the clear impression that he didn’t intend to leave us for eight more sleeps.  I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing.  But it kept me awake for a while last night, figuring out how to be diplomatic about telling a guest that you don’t want them hanging around for too long.

I can’t keep track of the number of times I’ve encouraged female friends to be assertive, and to stop worrying about conforming to that feminine ideal of being nice.  My daughter has learned this lesson well, I’m glad to say, and is as upfront as anybody I know, although she deals with pangs about being unkind.   Nobody wants to be mean, but sometimes that’s how it feels when you have to make yourself clear, when others don’t pick up on the unsaid messages or have different values that you do.

So added to my unease with this guy is my worry about saying anything that could make him feel unwelcome, especially considering what he’s been through, plus my fear of appearing to be un-nice.  I’ve been trying to figure out why I find it so difficult to be around him, without laying all the blame on his behaviour.  And it’s not even his behaviour,  but just a general way of being, which seems pretty petty to find fault with.

He’s heavy going, basically.  Dark and brooding at times, although not at the moment.  A sense of humour that’s a little bit off, and a marked inability to interpret the unspoken.  He doesn’t get social signals, and I think that’s what bothers me the most.   The autism label is trendy but I have only the slimmest notion of what that entails, beyond the frequently cited inability to ‘read’ others.  I had a twenty-four-year-old PhD student boarder a couple of years ago who was pretty much oblivious to social norms, and very poor at reading non-verbal cues.  Coincidentally he was also Austrian – extremely well-mannered about stuff like standing up when  a woman entered the room, but without the faintest idea that bringing a girl to the house with no introductions (walked right past me) and proceeding directly to his bedroom to make all kinds of noise audible throughout the house was not exactly the done thing.  His reaction when I asked him not to repeat the experience was a mixture of clinical interest and well-bred apology, without any apparent embarrassment.  It was as though he’d just learned something new to add to his etiquette folder.  He was bounced from the house a few months later for, among other things, a remark that was breathtakingly inappropriate, apparently completely unaware that anyone would find it objectionable.

Anyway, I don’t do well when I’m off balance, and that’s how I feel around the nephew.   By this morning I had figured out how to broach the subject of his overstay, but couldn’t summon the nerve at breakfast.  My stomach was in knots and I thought about all the times I have not been able to say what I wanted because of the fear of being unkind or not believing I had the right to express myself in anything but a positive way.  That did it, as well as taking to heart my daughter’s exhortation last night to ‘just tell him, Mom.  He’s the one who isn’t polite, by assuming he can dictate how long he can stay.’

I waited until he and I had a moment alone in the kitchen and then said, as mildly as I could, that we had only planned on him staying until the end of the week.  ‘But I want to stay until next Tuesday,’ said he.  What can you do with that, except be sniper-like direct?  I fixed my gaze on his and said, no, it would better if he left sooner, then  mumbled something about this being a hectic week all round.  He tried to bargain more, but in the end is leaving Saturday morning.  Interestingly, he then went to my husband and told him that I had said he should leave by Saturday, but not in a I’m-telling-0n-you kind of way.

If it helps me to accept his oddness by thinking he’s got some version of autism, then that’s what I’ll do.  Easier to accept that he can’t help the way he is than to be irritated by his lack of courtesy.

And what if they were underfoot all the time??

I’d rather drive a French autoroute than a Canadian highway any day.  Behind the wheel, the French, for all their vociferous opposition to radar controls, are predictable.  They don’t pass on the right, they don’t hog the passing lane, and when a fire engine approaches from behind in rush hour, they do the Moses-and-the-Red-Sea thing promptly and without head-scratching.  Driver training in France is more rigorous than in Canada or at least Alberta. and you don’t see any 16-year-olds behind the wheel, either.

So it was plain sailing down the A8 this morning from junction 39 to Nice airport, about 60 kilometres (40 miles), on my way to pick up the Swedish daughter.  She was getting a bit fed up in Stockholm, spending most of her uptime trying to figure out how to make the analysis of satellite images more accurate, as in being able to pinpoint  ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’ to within a 3 metre radius instead of 3000.  She’s clever like that, but it can get a bit tedious, apparently.

I was ridiculously excited to see her.   It’s only been four months since the last time, but she is so  entertaining and educational (no one else I know talks about rasters) that I could have her around every day and never tire of her humour and her company.  She had an early flight out of Arlanda airport, which meant getting on the bus sometime around 3AM.  It’s a long ride, and she’s been told that the night bus is sketchy.

The last trip she made here, she sent me a text when she got to the airport.  In fact, she had messaged me throughout the night, having decided not to take the night bus but to spend the hours between 11PM and 5AM at the MacDonald’s closest to the airport.  Text messages from your kids when they’re anywhere but in your basement have the effect of being both reassuring and worrying.  You know they’re ok because you just got a message from them, but at the same time, the fact that you now also know they’re sitting alone in an all-night restaurant in the Swedish nowhere kicks your imagination into high gear.

So when I woke up this morning, having not heard from her, and without a reply to the email sent to her while she was supposedly aloft (Norwegian Air Shuttle has Wifi at 30,000ft) I figured I better contain my excitement.  What if this meant that I’d be the last, lonely one after everybody else waiting for the Stockholm arrivals had had their hugs and back-slaps and gone home? Maybe I’d better temper my excitement – turn it down to medium-low so, you know, it wouldn’t be as much of a crash when I realised she’d missed the flight.   But then I’d have to try to find out why she’d missed it, and that wasn’t even worth thinking about.

I ran into somebody I knew who was also waiting for a Stockholm passenger, and we chatted, my eyes flicking to the arrivals doors every time they swished open.  It was better to have someone to talk to, to distract myself from the slight queasiness in my gut.  I’m stupid that way , worrying about stuff that will probably never happen.  My cousin told me it’s like paying interest on a debt you’ll never owe.

She was there, of course.  Easy to spot, six-footer that she is, with a head of auburn curls.  I excused myself from the acquaintance and launched myself at her, in our own little version of that choke-worthy scene in Love,Actually.  Apart from appreciating the fact that she’s exactly and conveniently my height, I loved the opportunity.  She’s not a hugger, generally, except for hellos and goodbyes of long duration, and this was an especially good one.

All the way back down the autoroute she talked, mostly about school, about the difficulty of working alone in a field that not many others are familiar with, and the exhilaration of finally finding somebody who speaks her language.  Raster language, that is.  She was bagged from being up most of the night but spilling over with news and excitement, partly, I guess, from having somebody who hung on to her every word.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever want to have children, she’s said.  Her reasons are lucid and thoughtful, and even if they weren’t, they’re hers and that’s enough.   If she stays true to her current thinking, she’ll almost certainly be better off financially and will be able to concentrate on the work that so interests her.  I don’t yearn for grandchildren anyway, and would be absolutely OK if none of my kids ever had any of their own.

I was thinking about that as I waited for her to come through those doors – that she’ll likely never find out what it’s like to love a child of her own.   She won’t miss what she doesn’t know, most likely, and maybe she’ll be able to give all the love she wants to somebody else.  If things go that way, she’ll have somebody whose arrival at an airport puts her into a state of high excitement.  But for sheer emotional fireworks, nothing can top what it feels like to love a child.  For me, at least.

My husband loves his kids and loves the time he spends with them, but doesn’t miss them when they’re not there and doesn’t yearn to be with them.  That’s where we differ, which might be a common-enough paternal-maternal reaction.  I don’t know –  what’s your view?

She’s upstairs now, catching up on some sleep.  I’m totally thrilled to have her around for a whole week, but will have to contain my hugs.  This little story hasn’t got a tidy wrap-up, but I care not.  I’m just happy.

Tsunami in the fishbowl

Gunshots echo throughout the neighbourhood as I write.  Any civilised person should react unfavourably to this, and in my other life, as as city-dweller in the Canadian west, I’d be punching 9-1-1 with a shaky hand.  Like the time I smelled natural gas from the demo site across the street, and my call to emergency services resulted in two fire trucks, a blog post, but no explosion.

Here in the So of Fr, people hunt wild boar.  I say ‘people’ but they’re men, most of them bearded, all dressed in camouflage gear and driving 4X4s.  Their dogs are nervous, spotted things that nobody would want as a pet, and to a pooch they sport collars the colour of butternut squash flesh.  Hunting season for wild boar runs from mid-September until the end of February, and is about seven months too long, in my view.  I’m OK with one day of the year being open season on furry pigs, and I really like wild boar stew, but I resent mightily that my life is at risk as soon as I’m more than 100 feet from the post office.  Hunters seem to have free rein everywhere outside villages centres, and that includes inhabited areas that may also be frequented by hikers.  The shots I’m hearing probably come from the woods behind the house, where there is also a recreation centre with a soccer field and an exercise circuit.  A headline might read: ‘Woman mistaken for boar while doing chin-ups’.

But more importantly, things have been happening in my amicable association since I last wrote about the woman whose vision of volunteerism meant funnelling freebies to herself and her friends, instead of ensuring that these occasional gifts, offered by the Ballet de Monte Carlo, benefitted the association as a whole.  At a fractious meeting of the committee last week, 10 people voted to let her keep doing this because, as one put it, ‘she’s old, and anyway, she’s been doing it for ages’, this despite the fact that a year ago these same people all voted to tighten the rules against such practices.  I disagreed, but had only two supporters, so accepting the will of the majority means I have to park my sense of injustice somewhere.   Tourner la pageBut there is a second situation that bothers me more, and I’m still losing sleep over whether I handled it properly or not.  

A committee member, a fellow who is the editor of our newsletter, volunteered nearly a year ago to make a new website for the association.  It was widely understood that he would do the bulk of the work, with some assistance from me.  After months of silence, he let me know in early autumn while I was in Calgary that he had brought in a professional web designer and that this fellow had already started developing the site.  The pro’s assistance would cost 1200€ – a steal, he assured me.  I was stunned.  There had never been an instance of paying anyone to do work for the association, and not only had this idea not been approved by the committee, it had not even been raised.  I should have thrown on the brakes right then and there, but felt that I must have missed something along the line, being totally preoccupied with the painting of my house a continent away.      

You may have heard of the Ladder of Inference, which is what happens when one misunderstanding or assumption leads to others, all erroneous.   Well, that’s what happened here.  The committee members, including me,  had assumed that our volunteer had all the skills needed to build a website.  He assumed we knew he intended to get input from a pro. When he first told me that somebody was in on the project and had already made an analysis of our needs, I assumed that we, the association, were on the hook for the work already done.  The board would have to approve the expense, I said, but there was enough money in the treasury to cover it.  I assumed he realised that he’d have to put the brakes on until I was back in France and the board could meet to discuss the situation.  But he assumed, I later realised, that I had given him the go-ahead.

When the board finally met, the site was revealed to be well under construction.  I felt stupid for not having been clear and firm from the outset, and for not having clued in to the assumptions made by Volunteer Guy.  I acknowledged my errors to the rest of the board, who waved them away.  They listened to VG’s sales pitch, and took a look at the draft site.

I couldn’t believe – and said so – that a designer would charge 1200€ for a site based on a very basic WordPress template that I could have done myself.  It wasn’t much of an improvement on the old website and looked like the work of an amateur.  The secretary’s comment was, ‘All that money just for that?’   The rest of the board disagreed and outvoted us, approving the expenditure.

I decided to make the best of a bad deal and try to help improve the thing.  I worked on it with Volunteer Guy for about a month, but my heart wasn’t in it.  What did it matter if it didn’t meet my standards?  Who was I to say it wasn’t worth it?  It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong in thinking I knew better than everybody else, and maybe I just had to let go.  So I did, more or less.  I worked on text and left the design alone, although it pained me to look at it.

A few weeks before the grand unveiling of the website to the entire committee (and thence to the 400-odd members) I went to see a guy at our local web hosting shop to discuss replacing the old site with the new one.  Naturally, he asked to see the site.  Remember the story about the Emperor’s New Clothes? The web-hosting guy was that villager who pointed his finger at the emperor and declared: ‘But he’s NAKED!’

The design and functionality were most certainly not professional, in his view, and not worth a quarter of the price we’d been quoted.  Since there was a chance that his opinion wasn’t unbiased – he hadn’t been asked to do the job, after all – I thought I’d get a second opinion from someone who had no stake in the project.  I sent the link  to a friend whose 20-year-career in web design made him something of an expert, simply asking him to look it over and make some suggestions, if any.  His analysis was comprehensive and detailed.  It was an unsatisfactory job, for a whole lot of reasons.

The only good thing about this news was that we hadn’t yet paid the 1200€ bill.  I informed the board of what I’d discovered, and we agreed that we’d find out what could be done to address the deficiencies.  I then brought Volunteer Guy into the loop.   I felt bad about blindsiding him right before the launch, but better then than after it went public.  There was still time for him to put his head together with the original designer (who had promised that he wouldn’t sign off until we were satisfied)  to see what could be done to improve the site.

In retrospect, I should have told VG about the situation face to face, but I emailed him, including the original text of the second opinion.  Two days went by without a response, at which point I picked up the phone.  Could he give me an idea of where things stood with the web designer, and what I could report at the board meeting of that morning? Too busy with other things, he said, and hung up.  When I tried to view the site later that day, it had been withdrawn, replaced by, ‘Move along.  Nothing to see here.’

A few days later all the board members received a long email from him.  The essence of it was that we had no clue what we were talking about, and that his designer buddy was brilliant.  I was a double-crosser, and my two sources were unschooled and rude, to boot.  Etc, etc.  Oddly, he also said that showing the website to anyone else was unprofessional and possibly illegal.  The designer was not willing to change the site because there was nothing wrong with it, and to suggest otherwise was insulting.  He had chosen to remove it.   Frankly, I was pretty happy with that outcome, as it meant we were off the hook for the bill, and could proceed with something a whole better.

Here’s what bothers me.  Volunteer Guy is someone I liked, have socialised with, and who, along with his lovely wife, had been kind to my student daughter in Stockholm, where they live when they’re not in the So of France.  He’s not a close friend, but my husband  and I have had some pleasant times with him and his wife over the last couple of years since we first met.  I didn’t expect him to be happy to be told that a project he’d invested time and effort in wasn’t up to snuff, and I considered the possibility that he might take it personally, at least at first.  I could have been more diplomatic, certainly.

What I wasn’t prepared for was his refusal to consider that anyone else’s opinion had merit, and his view that I had been unethical in the extreme by soliciting a second opinion before approaching him.  I stewed about this for a couple of days, and then picked up the phone.  I hate confrontation (just in case I’m wrong…)  but hate leaving things hanging even more.  Could we meet for a coffee and sort out a few things? We could, he agreed.

It didn’t really help.  He listened to my explanation of how things went down, how I hadn’t deliberately sabotaged the project, how I wanted to get a second un-biased opinion just in case the first one (and my own) was off-base.  I said I was sorry that he’d had the rug pulled out from under him at the last minute, but that my obligation was to ensure that the association got the best value for their investment.

His response was very disparaging.  Clearly I didn’t know much.  The local guy was just a local guy, and whoever my designer buddy was, he obviously didn’t have nearly the brilliance of his designer buddy.  I had made mistake after mistake.  I had handled the whole thing badly from the beginning.  Etc, etc.

I listened.  But when it got to the point where he hammered home three times in the course of a minute the fact that I had made multiple mistakes, I got pissed off.  Not admitting to my mistakes is not one of my faults.  His condescension made me mad, the word bullshit was uttered, and the conversation ended.

I haven’t seen him since, but will eventually run into him.  It’s a small world here.  I’ll be perfectly pleasant, but I don’t think we’ll go back to being friends, which is too bad because I like his wife a lot.  If he and I had simply disagreed about ways and means, that would be one thing, but it’s probably fair to say that we both felt under personal attack from the other.

I doubt very much that we’ll be having dinner with him and his wife anytime soon.  On the other hand, he seems to be someone who is smoothly adept at compartmentalising and/or hiding his feelings, and maybe he can be perfectly jolly all while maintaining his low opinion of my management style.  That sort of thing smells to me like falseness, although maybe I see him in that light just because I’m terrible at putting a good face on things.

As so often happens, writing about something brings clarity.  I realise, while reading that last paragraph, that he doesn’t put up a facade.  I think he genuinely believes that he knows better than anyone else, and what I used to think of as an odd personality trait – his outright dismissal of things that others consider important, like  proofreading the newsletter! – is actually his sense of superiority showing.

To be honest, I also believe I’m right most of the time, the difference between the two of us being that after the dust has settled, I often have to grovel.  But not this time.

Big fish, really tiny pond.

I volunteer as the treasurer for an association here in the So of Fr whose 400-strong membership is overwhelmingly retired and financially comfortable, more or less equal parts French, Dutch and British, with a sprinkling of Germans, Belgians and Scandinavians, plus two Canadians. I’ve been a member for the last ten years, and been involved on the periphery for most of that time, mostly because my now-husband was once the president and is still the webmaster and general go-to person.

When he woke me up one morning about two years saying that he’d come up with a really good idea, I thought he had a tropical holiday in mind. He needed one, since he’d just spent about 10,000 hours writing a computer programme that could handle all of the administration, registration for activities and payments for membership fees and organised trips that our club offers to its members. He came up with this little project on his own, and set to work writing code, even though he’d never done anything like it before. Eventually, he finished it and made his little presentation to the board, who embraced and implemented it almost immediately.

But he had also sweated a lot over the development of a companion accounting function to go with the programme, and wasn’t sure that any would-be treasurer with a true accounting background would be happy to leave Excel tables behind. So his idea was to sweetly suggest that I, a total nabob where numbers are concerned, should volunteer to replace the retiring treasurer, thereby ensuring that his labours on that score would not go to waste.

After swallowing my disappointment about the non-holiday, I said I’d think about, did think about it, and said yes. I’d seen it coming, anyway, and couldn’t bear to squash his eagerness. I called the president and told him I’d volunteer for the job. He snorted with laughter (not kidding), caught himself, apologised, and explained, lamely, that he’d just never thought of me as having a head for figures. I know my way around an Excel table, I lied, knowing full well I’d never have to use one. I got the job.

That was two years ago, and after a difficult apprenticeship, things are going smoothly now. The presentation I gave at the AGM last year was preceded by a Conte de Fée – a fairy tale – that I wrote about my initiation into the world of accounting, but which was also a play on words, since ‘conte’ sounds just like ‘comptes’, which is ‘accounts’ in French. I think I was the first treasurer in the history of the association who didn’t bore everybody to death with the annual report.

But anyway. The real point of this little story is that being on the board of an association means having to work with other people. This is not my forte, either. I would never describe myself as a team player unless in a desperate attempt to get a job I wasn’t suited for. I tend to be a lone wolf who doesn’t willingly take direction, is slow to compromise, and doesn’t know what inclusive means. I don’t poll other people for their opinions, don’t seek advice and as a result tend to spend a bit of time regretting some of my decisions and actions. I am also impulsive and adrenalin-driven, with a tendency for fight rather than flight. I also think everybody’s wrong except me. In short, I’m potentially really lousy at working in a group.

The treasurer’s position carries a bit of weight, fortunately, and people tend to believe that whoever has the job is up to it. My track record is good on that score, and most of the feedback I get is positive. However, I’ve got a reputation for speaking my mind, and in the last month I fear that has cost me two friendships. The first case involved a discussion between me and the president about a member who organises concert and ballet outings. She’s done this for nearly 10 years, and for most of that time has been in violation of one of the fundamental rules of the association, which is Thou Shalt Not Reap Personal Financial Benefit. As a result of the business our club brings to one of the regular venues, she’s been offered free tickets. Instead of attributing the value of these tickets to the association, she’s been taking them for herself and her friends. She got away with it for a long time because various treasurers didn’t notice or if they did, thought it was fine. I didn’t think it was fine, and said so. The 14-member committee agreed with me, rewrote the rules a little tighter, and reminded everybody, including this person, that such benefit was a no-go.

Christmas ballet season approached, and I become aware that the ballet company had once again offered free tickets. I sent a little reminder about the rules to the organiser, not before double-checking with the president that he had my back (he most assuredly did, unquote). Her response was to call him up, plead seniority, ill health, good will, and the fact that nobody ever stopped her before. His response was to renege on his support of the rules, and me.

I admit to a long-time dislike of this organiser. I have seen her modus operandi at close hand for years, and am not the only one who finds her personal intercourse to be unpleasant to the point of aggressiveness. She is, in my view, a manipulator who can switch from breathtaking rudeness to to sweetness and light in a nanosecond, when it suits her. I used to feel sorry for her; she lost a child to a drug overdose, and has been widowed for years, but there’ve been too many occasions when I and my personal computer programmer were the target of her rudeness, and she has lost my sympathy.

I asked for a meeting of the board to discuss the issue. In preparation, I wrote a timeline of the process that had started with the auditor’s red flag about freebies, the subsequent committee decision, the president’s assurance of support, the reminder, and the about face. I was seriously pissed off, although most of that was directed at the woman who felt she should be an exception to the rules. Despite all the negative aspects of my personality, of whom a very few are listed above, I am a rule-follower, in the main. Most rules exist for sensible reasons, and I don’t question those, although I don’t fall in with ones I consider ridiculous, such as always having to eat lunch at 1 o’clock. Or having to eat lunch at all.

The meeting turned tense. I laid out my case, reading from notes. I have to use notes because the meetings are conducted in French and I can’t always afford to speak off the cuff in my second language. The president was alternatively tired and combative, and with varying degrees of conviction, the rest of us were lined up against him. He flared at one point, calling me Madame le Procureur, a reference to my chronological timeline and, no doubt, my lawyerly delivery. I was firm, calm, and not a little influenced by my incomprehension of his change of tack. I could understand that he felt under attack and tried to lighten the mood several times, and thought I’d succeeded. In the end, he stunned us all by resigning. If we were not willing to let a long-time volunteer get away with her freebies, then he didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We weren’t nice.

Did I come down too hard? I don’t think so. A rule for one is a rule for all, in such an organisation. I know that I can be intimidating, mostly due to my height and my manner of speaking. But I don’t think I was overbearing or unfair. Did I let my personal feelings about this woman colour my reaction to the situation? Absolutely yes. I was like a dog with a bone; no way did I want her to worm her way out of a resolution that the entire committee had agreed upon, and that I felt was morally correct.

I would have loved to be able to impose my values on the guy. I would have loved not to have to consult him at all before I reminded the volunteer of the no-benefits policy. I would love, in a general sense, to be able to sweep any opposition to my ideas and methods off the table. I would love it if everybody recognised how right I am. But I’ve had to turn myself into a team player, and it’s not always been a comfortable road.

In actual fact, I’m not really that thick. I know I’m not always right. I know enough to hold back when others have their say, and to really try to listen. My fight response would work super well in a dark alley, but in a boardroom it’s not always productive, and damn, it’s hard to keep it on a leash.

I’m now in the uncomfortable position of having ‘won’, as the remaining board members have sent a firmly worded letter to the offending organiser, but having quite probably lost a friend in the process. The president is the guy who, as a municipal official, married us. He’s funny and generous, but I don’t know how forgiving he is. He’s had a month to lick his wounds and maybe forget how mad he was at me, and in a few days I’ll drop a hand-written letter in his mailbox. We’ll see.

But before that, I have to deal with another situation where the divide between friend and colleague got really blurry, and if I don’t handle it well, I’ll definitely have lost another relationship.

Sigh. To be continued.

Interesting times

Last week’s vicious attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an unarmed policewoman responding to a traffic accident and a kosher supermarket have reignited the debate about freedom of speech around the world, and perhaps most intensely here in France. The hashtag #jesuischarlie, taken up by millions and sometimes turned into #noussommestouscharlie, morphed from being a sympathetic identification with the murdered editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo to a defiant expression of the right to free speech. The analysis and discussion surrounding the issue has been intense and unrelenting. Every intelligent French talk show (and there are a few) and many news broadcasts have tried to make sense not only of how and why the terrorists carried out their murderous rampage, but what the long-term effects will be for France. In the aftermath, a crackdown on those who have expressed their agreement with the terrorists’ actions has resulted in at least fifty arrests, and one unfortunate Facebook poster has been swiftly sentenced to four years in prison.

I pasted a #jesuischarlie poster on my car window. In the hours and days after the slaughter, it seemed like the best way to share my horror and sadness, to declare that I identified with the mood of despair and defiance that took over the country. The media were full of it, and those who were indifferent to the fate of the seventeen victims or of the opinion that what Charlie Hebdo put on its covers was in poor taste didn’t get much airtime.

Charlie Hebdo has become the world’s darling. An initial print run of the first edition to appear after the killings was fifty times its usual number. A second printing has nearly doubled that. It sold out in minutes all over France, and was distributed in countries who had never previously heard of it. The cover features a turbaned, bearded individual who we are supposed to understand is Mohammed, a tear leaking from one eye, holding a Je suis Charlie sign, with the words “All is forgiven” above his head and is brilliant in its defiance without being gratuitously vulgar in the way that I think many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were.

It isn’t easy to say that you thought some of the work of Charlie’s cartoonists tasteless and offensive without edging dangerously close to an kind of unspoken ‘it’s not like there weren’t warning signs, so why did they…?’ Nobody other than an Islamist terrorist would believe that their caricatures of a the Prophet deserved an execution. But I have to wonder what the point is of mockery for the sake of it, which is how I see as the sole motivation behind some of the cartoons published in CH over the years. (Disclosure: I was vaguely aware of the magazine’s existence, but had never bought it. Since then I’ve looked at a lot of their cartoons online).

There’s been some criticism in the French press of the way American and British media have avoided showing Charlie Hebdo’s illustrations, with faintly sneering disapprobation of their perceived cowardice. A British news announcer, blindsided during an interview with a French journalist who briefly held up the cover of the latest Charlie issue before the camera cut away, immediately apologised to viewers who might have been offended by what they had just seen. This incident was probably widely reported everywhere, with some of the same sarcastic glee expressed by the French.

I’ve gone back and forth on this whole thing in discussion with my husband, mostly, and my French-born daughter, who initially declared herself to be Charlie, then disengaged. Depending on who I’m reading or listening to, I might agree that freedom of speech should be absolute, other than in specific cases such as uttering threats or slander. The next day, I’m leaning away, to a point of view more like, ‘yeah, but let’s just treat each other more respectfully, and see relentless mockery for what it is in the playground – bullying.’ I don’t pretend to have an intellectual or historical perspective on satire, and am more inclined to see it in the same utterly subjective way I and countless others view art: I know good stuff when I see it.

I’ve learned that France law already restricts free speech to a degree that would be unthinkable in the US, and there’s a risk that restrictions will be broadened. According to a law professor in Poitiers who was quoted in this article, a hypocrisy exists in how aggressively legislation addresses anti-Semitic speech, but is not necessarily as protective of verbal assault on other religions. It was interesting to find out, however, that Brigitte Bardot has been found guilty no less than five times for her remarks about Muslims. (She has yet to pay her fines).

American media seems to generally stay away from skewering religions, as do the Canadians. There are probably all kinds of exceptions, of course, but I can’t think of a North American equivalent. The culture of Canadian humour, if you could even paint it with a remotely broad brush, tends to avoid vulgarity. Disrespect is a basic function of satire, but is acceptable when it serves a justifiable purpose, which is often to provoke critical thinking. But gratuitous disrespect, especially when aimed at a particular group, whether religion-based or not, isn’t a particularly Canadian way to raise to laugh.

Religion, as pointed out by a commenter to the article cited above, isn’t just a set of beliefs. It is often central to identity and culture, and thus doubly immune to so-called rational discourse with those who don’t share common ground. You can’t legislate people into not taking offense, although you could perhaps educate them into understanding that opinions expressed by anyone about anything at all are simply a reflection of the speaker’s beliefs, culture, education. Not to forget that such expression has the potential to expose the speaker to disagreement, ostracism. loss of employment, relationships etc if her audience extends beyond to groups with dissimilar views. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, there were enough nodding heads to warrant continued publication.

I don’t have answers, and I don’t think anybody does. The constraints on free speech that characterise European legislation exist, in large part, because of Europe’s particular history. Decades ago, long before France banned the niqab and wearing of headscarves as a sign of adherence to Islam, Belgium outlawed the wearing of any symbols that would indicate membership in a religious or political group. This well-intentioned but imperfect response to the forcing of Jews to wear the Star of David is viewed by some, in its French version, as an assault on individual liberty of expression. In a perfect world, all humans would be taught, both through the lens of their religion and a cultural code of conduct, that we are all entitled to believe what we want and obligated to respect that others have the same right.

History both drives and illuminates the present. This week I was surprised to learn, while watching a news report on French TV, that depictions of the prophet Mohammed were not considered blasphemous until the Middle Ages. His likeness is found in ancient editions of the Koran, which forbids only depictions of God, thereby discouraging idolatry. But over the centuries, Islamic scholars have extended this to include the prophets, of which Mohammed is believed by Muslims to have been the last – and the truest – to have been sent by God.

The debate about freedom of expression will go on for a long time. Forever, if we’re lucky. What I hope to remember, as a guiding principle, is that the right to say what I think – and with it, the right to give offense – will always be met by an equal right to disagree – or take offense – and that I should be prepared to accept that there may be consequences – well short of facing down a Kalashnikov – in terms of my relationships with others. The only dictum from my religious education that I believe has absolute validity is the Golden Rule, or if you prefer, the ethic of reciprocity. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’