Most Saturdays, for ten months, our family got lost looking for soccer pitches in little towns around Aix-en-Provence. Devon had a game every Saturday, always an away game, and usually in a Provençal town I’d never heard of before. Parents and players congregated at Devon’s team’s practice field in Aix and the coach told us which town we were about to drive to, as if we couldn’t be trusted with this information until just before the match. As all the parents climbed into their cars to ferry their children to some tiny town in the countryside, I always had to ask the coach where in town I could find the soccer pitch (assuming I found the town). Every time he replied with, “There’s only one stadium. It’s easy to find.” That was patently false.
One sunny October morning we drove into the small town of Peynier, and unsurprisingly, the soccer pitch was nowhere to be found. We crisscrossed all the town’s major streets to no avail, and finally stopped an old woman pulling a cloth-covered shopping cart with a wonky wheel.
“Excuse me, madame, but do you know where the soccer field is?” I asked.
“The soccer field?” she said, as if soccer was an obscure sport, like Quidditch or hockey. “There isn’t a soccer field around here. The only field is down that way, about halfway to the next town.”
“Merci, madame.” This information would have been helpful when I specifically asked the coach where in town we could find the pitch. We were now late and Devon was becoming quite agitated that he would miss his game. Scouring the roads between the two towns, we were ready to give up and drive back to Aix when we came across a game of boules (bocce, for you Italians). Like all games of French boules, the players were mostly ancient, smoking men, with high-belted pants, ratty sweaters and cock-eyed cloth caps. This was a serious game for squinty-eyed competitors, mouths set in bloodless sneers. I was deathly afraid of interrupting this crowd with my stupid question in my stupid accent. But I love my kid, and he wanted to play soccer that day. I mentally prepared my question in French. And then I chickened out.
“Carol, I’m driving the car, so you go ask them,” I said.
“No, Billy, you do it. You’re way better at French than me.” I hated when she said that. While true, her statement successfully extracted her from making linguistic errors in front of car salesmen, immigration officials, doctors, the optometrist, the telephone company, the cleaning lady, the school board, the mayor’s office, and many other people working in industries where knowing all the French words related to hockey (as I do) is useless. Carol spoke good French, and she was absolutely capable of asking directions in French. Naturally, I got out of the car to confront the boules players.
As I approached, the game immediately stopped. All of the players and spectators looked at me, not moving a muscle. Ten people standing still as stone, unsmiling.
“Hello, everyone,” I began. “I’m very sorry to interrupt your game. I’m trying to find the stadium near here. My son has a soccer game starting in a few minutes.” Blank looks all around. No one was happy that I had barged into their boules game.
“Where are you from?” asked one old woman.
“No you’re not,” she replied. “If you were from around here, you’d know where our stadium is.” That witticism garnered laughs all around. “Americans,” the woman added, under her breath. More laughter.
“Well, we live in Aix now, but we’re from Vancouver, Canada.”
A light switch must have been turned on somewhere as the woman broke into a bright smile and said, “Canada? Céline Dion? I absolutely love Céline Dion! You have a cute accent just like her!”
Not again! I despaired for my country. Why does everyone in France equate Canada with Céline Dion? Can’t we do better than that? I felt that this was an inopportune time to mention that Céline Dion is my most detested public figure, music division, in the world. I had quite enough of her anguished theatrics when I lived in Québec City.
“You like Céline Dion?” I said, faking enthusiasm. “We have the same birthday!” This was a true statement, to my everlasting shame. My disgrace was almost cancelled out by the knowledge that Vincent Van Gogh was in the same ignominious club.
“Lucky man,” she said, and proceeded to give me perfect instructions to a soccer pitch in the middle of a forest, covered by a Klingon cloaking device.
Once at the stadium, I was very happy to see there was a bar.