Tuesday, May 13, 2008


A relaxing bus ride

You can always rely on the French to provide a bit of theatre when dealing with life’s little difficulties, and however corny the plot, the acting’s always great.

So when we’re bundled off our Italy-bound train at the French border town of Menton because of a strike by Italian train drivers, we find ourselves reluctant bit players in a one act drama.

We’re told that if we catch a bus to the end of town and do a fifteen minute walk across the border, there might be a bus to Ventimiglia, from where we might find a train to Milan when the strike ends mid-afternoon.

In England, a bus is full when the driver says it is: in France, in true revolutionary style, the passengers decide. My loved one and I exchange looks of disbelief as the driver continues to accept fares from anyone who can get a toehold on the platform and an arm far enough in to hand over their money.

Finally, when no amount of jostling will admit another passenger or permit the doors to close either, a stillness descends upon the bus and an expression of calm acceptance on the faces around me suggests that they expect the problem to be solved by divine intervention.

The minutes tick by in silence. It’s obvious something has to give, but what or who isn’t clear, until suddenly the driver, who’s looking through his window as though he’s not part of any of this, has an idea. But it’s not a great one - he just urges us all to move further down the bus.

This ought to mean that those already on the platform can move in far enough to allow the doors to close, but unfortunately, it’s a signal for those not lucky enough to have made it the first time, to launch a fresh attempt on the platform, and for a few resourceful others to try their luck through the back doors.

It’s at this point that all patience and passivity evaporate. Someone’s gone too far and it’s the driver, who, in attempting to close the doors, has apparently hurt someone, and now finds himself on the receiving end of the passengers' abuse. The poor man shouts back in his defence that it wasn’t his fault, but ours.

Now that everyone seems agreed that action is what’s needed, a man, who’s just squeezed aboard by the skin of his teeth, puts on his Napoleon hat and berates someone attempting to get on after him. A murmur of approval from inside the bus and a small chorus of abuse persuades the man to abandon his attempt.

Flushed with success and still deploring the foolishness of the ousted passenger, Napoleon heaves the passengers on the platform a few inches further in, instructs the driver to close the doors and we’re off.

We did get to Milan eventually, but there wasn’t a bus on the Italian side of the border - the bus drivers had joined the strike - so it was a 5 kilometre hike to the nearest town before we could pick up a taxi to Ventimiglia. Apart from that, it was a great weekend.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Cowardice in the face of the enemy

Oh the shame! My loved one and I cowering in the bedroom, under siege, afraid to answer the door and face the consequences of our hastily fired off e-mail. The buzzer sounds again, long and insistent - clearly our visitors are not going to give up easily. I jump up in panic as I realise that if another resident lets them through the gate we could be forced to face our enemy through our open glass-panelled door. I scuttle through the apartment, secure the locks and I’m back cowering safely in the bedroom.

No, the two people outside are not mafia heavies demanding that we cough up our unpaid debts, neighbours complaining about late night revelry, or even Mormons looking for converts. They’re just a couple of innocent-looking estate agents who want to sell our apartment.

And yes, we asked them to. But we didn’t know when we walked through their office doors that we were entering shark-infested waters and that once we were in the jaws of these two mighty creatures, they weren’t likely to spit us out until they’d given us a good chewing over and tasted blood.

“We haven’t definitely decided” we told them. “We don’t want to sell until we’ve got somewhere else lined up” we told them. “We’d just like you to have a look and tell us what you think” we told them. They nodded and smiled and came a day earlier than agreed.

If the French speak any English they like to prove that it’s better than your French, so a little tug-of-tongue bi-lingual battle ensues until one or other concedes defeat. This time however, the only thing our two French estate agents were interested in proving was that they could strike a deal without the need for anything except our signature.

A relentless barrage of promises and assurances gushed forth. If one of them showed signs of flagging, the other took up the cause, airily brushing aside any concerns we raised. But, we would have to sign up with them now (memories of that scene in The Godfather, when it's pointed out that either his brains or his signature will be on the piece of paper spring to mind), give them exclusivity and put the apartment up for sale immediately - wait another month and we’d be too late! On and on until resistance became useless and we were buried under the avalanche of words.

When we’d recovered from the shock and marvelled at the stupidity of some salespeople, but not wanting to get into another conversation with them, that evening we sent a very polite thanks but no thanks e-mail. So why are they outside the gate a few hours later ready to do battle again? If words haven’t worked, is it now to be sticks and stones?

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