Monday, March 9, 2009

À peu près

We drove up to the mountains late last Saturday afternoon. From La Bastiole (50 degrees) to Valberg (30 degrees) it took just under two hours, the first hour on the autoroute, the second up an increasingly narrow road through a canyon whose rocks hung with car-sized icicles. It was the middle Sunday of our region's vacances de ski, and we were prepared for ski traffic, families going up, like us, for a few days' skiing.

There was none. Unless you count the five cars that we passed waiting to turn left onto the road at the bottom of the gorges.

After we had unloaded the car at the apartment and bundled up, we walked down the hill to the local pizzeria. We should have made a reservation, C said. It's going to be packed. Saturday night, middle of the vacation, and it's the only restaurant in the village. What are we going to do when it's full?

I guess we're going to walk back up the hill and drive someplace else, I said.

It's going to be a long walk. We should have called.

We got to the Sapin Blanc at 7.15. There were two cars in the parking lot. When we walked up the steps to the door, the owner put his head out and said they didn't open til 7.30.

Could we make a-- C said as the door closed.

I should have called before, he said. Dejectedly.

I looked around at the empty car park, across the snowy field towards the cross-country ski hut and the village houses perched above it. There were no car headlights anywhere, no lights to detract from the one house that had strung itself with flashing Christmas lights.

I think it's going to be okay, I said.

At 7.30 we went in. Wherever you want to sit, said the owner. Choisissez-vous.

We chose a table by the window. We ordered. A little while later, another family came in. Then a couple. Then two families together, with a sulky teenager.

The next morning C and the girls were up early--for us--and left for the ski lift a little before nine. It's going to be busy, said C, and we have to get our lift tickets and look at the map and figure everything out.

I went off to buy provisions and rent raquettes--the only place I waited was in the boulangerie, where everything I bought was still warm--and met up with the skiers again at noon.

Was it crowded? I asked.

The girls answered. There are no lines anywhere, Mommy, they said. We never waited at all and there's hardly anyone on the slopes.

I looked at C and he shook his head. I don't know where all the people are, he said.

We are city people. We expect to wait in line, to need reservations. We used routinely to buy our Saturday night movie tickets online Saturday morning, or even Friday night. Even, truth be told, Thursday. And our parents before us expected to wait, and taught us, early and well, to make reservations. Figure out where we're going to leave the car. We're genetically and environmentally disposed, because of all that training, to be early. In my family, we allowed at least fifteen minutes to get anywhere, and likely more. If we were early, then we'd just park down the block and wait til it was the stroke of on time to appear. C's family leaves early, too: look around any grandchildren-centered event, and, at least 20 minutes before it's due to begin, you'll find a couple ambling about outside, reading the notice board and checking out the third grade's Lewis and Clark posters.

My own small act of rebellion is to be late. Not late, late--that will be for my descendants--just five or, maybe, ten minutes. (Truly radical. I know. My mother wonders where she went wrong.) I don't like being early, sitting in the car, standing around. What that means is that I wait til the last possible moment to get ready to go somewhere and then, because I'm rushed, forget something and have to go back in the house. This can be, on occasion, a point of marital stress. But at least I don't have to wait when I get there.

The French have an expression: à peu près. It denotes approximation. More or lessness. If you arrange to meet for coffee à peu près 10.00, then one of you might come at 9.45 and the other at 10.15, but it won't matter: you'll wait inside with your café crème and your paper and, if you finish the café crème, maybe you'll run up the street for a few groceries and then come back. And have another coffee with your friend.

And you can do that--you can be à peu près--because this is the country. What happens in Paris I don't know. But here, in our corner of the world, there just aren't that many people. You don't need a reservation, and, when the ski lift opens at 9.00, the line will not have formed. In fact, the only people around will be the lift operator and his dog. If there's a line at the bakery at 10.00, well then, that's because everyone knows that that's when the second batch of the day comes out of the oven. But if you miss that, it's okay, because at noon there'll be the third batch coming out. You can go up the street and have a coffee while you wait.

We're learning--slowly--to relax. That we don't need to call ahead and that there will be plenty of parking, some of it even legal. But it goes against our grain, and I'm afraid that by the time we begin to organize our lives around the à peu près principle, we'll be back on the East Coast and find ourselves forgetting that we needed dinner reservations only to arrive late to a sold-out movie.

Maybe we'll move to Montana.


  1. Sigh. I'd love to live my life in "a peu pres" mode. We're all so constricted by schedules here - mine follows me on my BlackBerry, which, I admit, is the only way I'd remember "Pick up child 1 for dance by 4:30 and bring a snack."

    Today was a "daylight savings" time change here, and I woke up at 7 to the local NPR personality telling me it was "news time - 8 am" and hit snooze, certain that he was confused. When I heard "news-time 8:10," I assumed child 2 had changed my clock - he loves to play with "the technology." By 10:30 a.m., I finally realized the time had changed and--even with all my tech gadgets, facebook, computers, etc.--I'd been completely unaware.

    I'm sad that you'll have to end this story when you move back to the states, but I look forward to your "culture shock" blog about readjusting to American life.

  2. As a Californian, the most difficult thing about moving to the East Coast was being forced to be early, making reservations and waiting in line. In California, we weren't like that. I think I'd like living in France. Their Time Sense is like Italian Time, which is to say, flexible.

  3. Although the UK isn't as laid back as you picture there, it is far more comfortable than America. Even parts of America that aren't city stress about time.

    Not sure about restaurants...the point about those, in the back woods I came from, that there weren't any... And from what I remember, you would probably be frustrated at what they considered reasonable opening times. I should think it was more like "7:30? We will be closing soon."

    I do hope you settle well when you go back. The culture shock is not a wonderful experience. We coped with it for 4 months 19 years ago, and haven't gone back for more than 2 weeks since!
    Sandy in the UK