The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Friday, February 23, 2007

Date with IKEA*

Yeah, it's been about two weeks since the last new post...well, I've been sick (since shortly after taking the Elixir of Long Life, hmmm...) and then we went on a 5-day trip to Nice & the Riviera for Carnaval. Both of these experiences will be related further in a later post.

But now I wish to speak of IKEA. Back when I was in college in Pittsburgh, I actually enjoyed going to IKEA--the experience involved piling into the Roomie's Subaru and rolling out near the airport, loading up on $1.49 Swedish meatballs [photo], getting half-tanked on lingonberry wine and glogg, getting kicked out of Kiddee Playland by overzealous security (c'mon, those five-year-olds were having a great time with the ball-pit "snowball fight"), and buying some cheap fiberboard bookshelves plus some random knicknacks just because they looked cool or had a cool name. Look, dude, I got a RADVAART! Only four bucks! I think it's a pencil holder!

My dates with IKEA in France, alas, have no such charms. But like the victim in an abusive relationship, I keep coming back. Maybe it'll be different this time.

As I've mentioned before, furniture in France is very expensive. When you've got an entire apartment to fill, and you've got to do it quickly because you quite literally have no place to sit down, and you don't have a car to drive way out in the 'burbs to Conforama (the other cheap-flatpack-assemble-yourself-furniture source), IKEA is about the only option. Perhaps this is why the customer-service waiting area at the Lyon IKEA--a Sartrean existential limbo in which one confronts the Void, the horror of one's own exisitence, and minimalist Scandinavian design--is a Babel of Brits, Germans, and Italians waiting to make a new life for themselves with the aid of scalable modular shelving.

The very shopping center where IKEA is located is perhaps the least-French place I have visited in France. Centre Commercial Porte-des-Alpes is an endless parking lot at the very edge of town, ringed by big-box retailers. The stores are American (such as Toys-R-Us) or are French versions of American big-boxes: Leroy Merlin (analagous to Home Depot), Kiabi (Marshall's), Boulanger (Circuit City), Feu Vert (AutoZone). Most fearsome of all is Auchan, the Wal-Mart of France, in truth bigger than any Wal-Mart I've ever been in, and equally populated by the souls of the damned wandering the earth in search of price rollbacks. [photo: at Auchan]

In the times of the great Greek city-states, the undesirables of the population--the disfigured, mentally deficient, diseased, etc.--were labeled pharmakeus ("poisoned") and cast outside the city gates. Socrates himself was declared pharmakeus due to his hunchback and only later readmitted to Athens. From the looks of the clientele of Porte-des-Alpes, one might assume a similar program is still in effect in Lyon: Stunning women and stylish men fill the streets and cafes of the Presqu'ile, but here where Bron gives way to the industrial dead zone that stretches east toward the mountains, another population exists--the fat, the warty, the slackjawed, the trashy. Inside the doors of Auchan, where a sort of mini-mall gives way to Auchan proper, there are shoe shops and sunglasses kiosks, even a Claire's Boutique. Here, suburban guidos in Rivaldi tracksuits and 14K gold chains hassle hoochie-mamas with big hair and giant silver hoop earrings; harried overweight mothers whale on screaming kids; toothless grandmas push shopping carts groaning with cases of cat food and Diet Coke: If you squint, it could almost be New Jersey.

To recap, it's utterly lacking in charm or class, there's plenty of free parking, and there's a large variety of goods for sale at reasonable prices in a single convenient location: The antithesis of France.

It is at the far corner of this shopping center, at IKEA, where I have spent approximately $5000 and far too many of my weekend afternoons over the past year, despite the fact that each visit seems to find new ways to frustrate and disappoint me:

Desolee, our delivery service will not transport rugs. Perhaps you would like to rent a van to transport it yourself?
Desolee, all of our vans have been rented until 8 o'clock tonight.
Desolee, you will require a French driver's license to rent this van tonight.
Desolee, this chair has been discontinued. I'm not sure why it's still in the showroom. Perhaps when your son stops crying he will find another that he fancies as well.
Desolee, your child is not admitted to the play area without proof of age. Does he not carry his passport everywhere?
Desolee, you will need four doors for these cabinets, but only three are in stock. Perhaps in a few weeks we shall have another in the color you desire.
Desolee, the meatballs are not served between 2PM and 5PM.
Desolee, this armoire does not come with legs. You will need to buy them separately.
Desolee, we do not sell armoire legs here. Please check online at
Desolee, you signed for the delivery; why did you not open all 19 boxes to ensure that the hinges were included? You will need to purchase them again. The delivery fee for the packet of four hinges will be 55 euros.
Desolee, you will need to take a number to ask this question of our kitchen consultant. Also, none of our kitchen consultants are available today.
Desolee, you may not leave your vehicle unattended in this loading zone even for a moment. I understand that your wife has gone into labor in the office furnishings department, but I would tell her the same.
Desolee, you will need to have a French family member co-sign for you to receive our store credit card and frequent-customer discount. What do you mean you have no family members in France?

So it goes. I'm off to Ikea again this evening to pick up a rug for the playroom (Tater's lack of crawling prowess means his head goes *clunk* against the parquet) and schlep it home on the tram and the Metro. [Photo: On the tram]

May God have mercy on my soul.

[Postscript: We found a rug we liked for the playroom...not in stock. But we did get a ROKKITT storage shelf for Boog's room. I also neglected to mention that Auchan is also the only place I've seen in France that has U-scan self-checkout lanes. They're brand-new, have bilingual instructions even, and the French have no idea how to use them. Shorter lines for me.]

*Yes, Pavement, off the Brighten the Corners album. Give yourself 10 kewl points, hipster!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Horror Beneath the Stairs

When I was a kid, I read a Stephen King story (I know...I was a kid, I said) about an abandoned factory that was overrun by rats. In the course of the story, the exterminator ventures into the bowels of the factory and discovers its horrific secret--a mutant, malevolent hairless white super-rat queen the size of a horse, with legions of rat-drones bringing it nourishment as it pumps out more flesh-eating mutant rats in a foul ichor-covered chamber... you get the idea.

I was pretty certain there was something like that living in the basement of our 150-year-old building.

Why else the perpetually-locked 10-foot solid-oak door? Why else the threatening signs? What else, other than a fearsomely efficient apex predator, could explain the complete lack of typical urban pests of either Class Insecta or Order Rodentia?

Then one day I noticed that the perpetually-locked basement door might not be so locked. In fact, it sags rather heavily to one side on its hinges. If I could get enough leverage on it to lift it dead upright, the bolt just might have enough clearance to slip out of the jamb. So I tried it. Putting my shoulder into it and pulling towards me at the same time, the door shifted suddenly up...and swung open.

Stone stairs led down into the inky darkness.

Fearful of being discovered, I quickly re-sealed the door and started making plans to return. I'd need flashlights, a camera, a respirator mask--and a big rubber mallet or clawhammer for rat-whomping. I'd need a time, too, when no one was likely to be around during daylight hours. Sunday afternoon was that day.

With the wife and kids napping, I slipped away to the basement and dislocated the door. Flicking on my headlamp, I stepped onto the stairs and pulled the door to behind me. Another threatening sign on the wall. I walked quietly down the steps to where I could see around the curve of the wall, and at the bottom of the steps, my headlamp beam picked out...another door. Steel this time, and clearly barred. Dang. Probably leads to the storeroom of the shoe store on the front corner of the building, and bolted up tight.

But as I stepped closer for a better look at the door, I realized that the curve of the stairwell hid another passage, to the right of the door: A stone archway, head-high, opening into a chamber with a dirt floor and a passage leading away on the other side. I listened, anticipating perhaps the scurry of feet or heavy fetid breathing or the low growl of something inhuman--but nothing.

Suddenly feeling that my headlamp beam was very inadequate, I quickly scanned the small room: stone walls, dirt floor, passages leading away on not one but two sides, and completely empty. Near the rough ceiling, a forest of pipes, and a single, naked light bulb. Bingo! I traced the electrical conduit back from the bulb socket and found a very dusty switch.

Click. As the light came on, I suddenly felt a little silly about my childish, irrational fears: it was, after all, just a cave (pronounced cahve); most French apartment buildings of this era have them as additional individual storage spaces, since they lack closets or storage rooms or much else in terms of where to store one's fishing rods or camping gear or wine collections. An apartment in our neighborhood that we seriously considered renting (but eventually rejected due to its lack of a balcony) had a quite substantial cave, maybe 15 feet deep by 10 with barrel-vaulted ceiling, and the current tenants had it stacked all the way 'round with wine.

These caves, though, behind individual wooden doors arrayed off the main passage like a capital letter "E", were completely empty, save for the odd piece of scrap wood or flattened cardboard. Why they aren't in use, I can't say. I'd sure pay a few extra Euros a month to have space to keep some of my extra crap that's currently jammed in corners all over my apartment. In New York they could get top dollar for that kind of space; in Chapel Hill, there would be 4 college kids living in it. But here, for whatever reason, they prefer to just keep the space empty and locked up.

Unless there's something else going on here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Further Adventures on Embassy Row

[Unrelated pics: Les Arenes, the Roman colisuem at Nimes--the best-preserved in the Roman world and still used today for bullfights]

For the past seven months, the Tater (formerly known as the Tadpole in this space, but "Tater" seems to have stuck much better) has been a baby without a country: though he has a French birth certificate, he does not automatically qualify for French citizenship--though he can apply for that when he's older--because he was not born to French parents. From an American point of view, he automatically qualifies for US citizenship, but this cannot happen unless formal application is made--this process begins with a form called a Consular Report of Birth Abroad and ends some time later with the issuance of a passport.

As you can imagine, and as our experience with the French consulate had taught us, there's a great deal of paperwork involved, a lot of it redundant, some of it confusing, all of it unnecessarily complex. Plus there's the small matter of a passport photo: easy enough to do in the States, trickier when you have to find a photographer in Lyon who can set his camera in inches rather than centimeters. Getting a seven-month-old to sit up straight on a stool and look steadily into a camera is no picnic either. Eventually, though, we got everything in order and made our appointment with the US Consul.

At the US consulate in Lyon, there is no flag, no white-gloved US Marine, not even a sign. In this building along the quai du Rhone, between a travel agency and a podiatrist's office, you wouldn't even know it was here unless you were specifically looking for it, which I suppose is the idea. In fact, I had passed the back side of the building several times a week (on my way to the grocery store, past the corner where the World's Oldest Hooker plies her trade) and never noticed it. There's just a non-descript acronym on the sonnez pour entree board, and a higher-than-usual number of security cameras in the foyer.

After being buzzed in and directed to the [redacted for security reasons] floor, we entered through a normal-looking door into a security checkpoint. The guard was apologetic as he asked us to turn over all electronic devices (so, yeah, no pictures with this story), plus my keychain with the Swiss Army knife on it, plus Tater's electronic toy (the guard registered brief alarm when it unexpectedly started playing "The Muffin Man"), V's iPod, etc. Then he hand-searched the stroller while I carried Tater through the x-ray portal.

The waiting room is presided over by the official portraits of our President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State. W's portrait is actually pretty flattering; if you squint a little, you could almost imagine that it represents a decent, honest, caring, competent human being. Cheney's portrait, on the other hand, looks as if it is plotting ways to crush you and steal your soul; if it were in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, the eyes would slide aside so that the villain could spy on our heroes from a hidden compartment behind the wall.

I occupied myself with a French-language copy of Pennsylvania: Your Key to the American Market! (see what they did there? Keystone state? get it?) and settled in for a wait. The wait wasn't long, though, and within 20 minutes or so we'd concluded our business, reclaimed our stuff from the guard room, and were on our way.

We should have Tater's passport within about 4 weeks. The lack of a passport for him has prevented us from venturing to even nearby countries (it's 45 minutes to Switzerland from here), but when we get it, boy, look out Luxembourg!