Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Begin Download

The route departementale that stretches from Nice to Grasse follows the line of the foothills as they circumscribe the valley: west of the departementale lie hills that get higher and higher until you reach, finally, the Alps; east, the hills diminish until they disappear into the valley that is Sophia Antipolis and that wanders to the sea. We took the departementale a lot in our first days here. The first town the departementale takes you through is Roquefort-les-Pins, which is spread along the route for a couple of kilometers. On the outskirts is a real estate office and, when we first arrived, a large illuminated sign had just been installed in front of it, complete with a flashing LED screen that, we assumed, no one had yet programmed: it flashed "Begin Download" each time we drove past.

It took us a few weeks and a little less culture shock before we realized that the sign was in English. We work so hard to make signs make sense--signs of all sorts, not just LED panels, but the way the baker holds her lips when we ask for a baguette, the way people wait to cross the street--that we find ourselves re-translating. It is like we put the English words into a box that will turn them into French words, and then we turn the box over too many times and take out the English words by accident. Once we realized that we understood the sign without translating it, though, we laughed; we got the joke. We imagined the realtor on the phone with the sign company waiting on hold while the guy at the other end had a cigarette, or talked to someone else, or, maybe, looked for the manual for that particular sign so that he could tell the realtor which button to push. Meanwhile, the realtor sat in his office and watch potential clients drive by, clients who could not read about all the real Provencal farmhouses with pool and view that he was selling.

Last week I found myself driving past the sign again. I had taken the girls to look at a stable and then to buy school clothes. The stable was enormous and everything you might like a French stable to be: fountains, not troughs, for the horses to drink out of, and a large centuries-old stone farmhouse for the offices and, of course, what else? a small restaurant with a terrace. I imagined myself sending the girls off to their riding lesson on a Wednesday afternoon and sitting down on the terrace. I would order something French like a creme de menthe, or a cafe, and read something serious and difficult, like Le Nouvel Observateur. The man we spoke to at the stable looked like he probably had an Olympic gold medal or two stashed in a drawer if not hanging on his mantel. He was lean and taut and brown, in jeans and boots and a polo shirt with a sweater over his shoulders; in the States he would have read as gay but here he read as a former Olympian who probably had five or six children and a wife every bit as slender and elegant as himself. While I spoke to him a flock of dogs gathered, everything from a miniature Corgi to an ottoman-sized ancient Labrador, and by the time the chevalier handed me a list of the equipment the girls would need for their lessons, I was ready to hand over my French debit card.

After the stables we went to the girls' department at Galeries Lafayette for the semi-annual ritual of buying jeans. Always stressful for everyone--usually because we are rushed, or annoyed with each other, or the music in the store is so loud we resort to sign language--this time it was more stressful because: the girls have just turned 12 and clothes matter in a new way, and they are about to start junior high school in a French school, and we're not sure what that will be like. Surprisingly enough, we managed. We found the jeans that did not cost 99 euros and the jeans that did not look like they were taken from the costume shop for some Broadway musical about child prostitutes and bought them. Then lunch at the cafe in the mall, which cost nearly as much as the 5 pairs of jeans but was worth it as a reward; a fruitless search for a sporting goods store; and then we found ourselves again on the route departementale headed for home.

We passed the Roquefort realtor and I took in his sign, still flashing "Begin Download," two months later. This time it wasn't the frustrated realtor who came to mind. The sign was talking to me. "Begin download," I thought: I am downloading as fast as I can.