Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nowhere else to go

This often happens to me. I want to talk in English about a newfangled thing whose name I know in French, but not in English. In the present case, this problem has arisen with a woodwork power tool I purchased a couple of months ago. You grasp it in both hands, place it on a piece of wood gripped firmly in a workbench vise (British spelling vice), plunge the tool’s revolving bit down into the wood and draw it towards you. In this way, you can create a long narrow centimeter-deep slot in the wood. The tool is exactly what you need to build cupboard doors composed of a solid framework housing a light plywood panel. Well, up until twenty minutes ago, I had no idea whatsoever of the English name of this tool. Thanks to Google, I now know that it’s called a plunge router. Before then, if you had asked me what a plunge router was (we pronounce the word like rooter in Australian), I would have replied that it’s no doubt a guy who dives stealthily into swimming pools and does naughty underwater things to female bathers.

My plunge router was dirt cheap because (like the tea towels I recently bought in Sydney, with bush scenes about The Man from Snowy River) it’s made in China. Well, yesterday, while building a kitchen cabinet (to hold stuff associated with my recently-acquired espresso coffee machine and sandwich toaster), I dragged the plunge router a little too energetically (I tend to get carried away when routing, and I’m capable of underestimating the strength in my forearms) and the Chinese-steel bit snapped in two. If I make a point of indicating that the bit was made in China, it’s because I think we shouldn’t count too much upon the quality of steel products from certain faraway places. The router itself appears to be pretty solid, but the collection of bits supplied with the machine (all housed in an elegant wooden box) could well be less than perfect. So, I had to set off to a local hardware store that sells high-quality Bosch bits. Sure, the single German bit cost me almost half what I had paid for the entire plunge router, but it probably won’t break so easily.

A happy atmosphere prevailed at the hardware store, where they seemed to be having a Xmas party in the back offices. The charming young woman at the pay desk was all smiles and particularly friendly. The moment I opened my mouth, she questioned me (as often happens in France) on the origins of my spoken accent. As usual, I suggested that she might be able to guess where I came from. By that time, a male employee had joined up with the cashier, and they ran through the list of all the likely countries from which I might have come: UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, etc. Finally, when they turned to Scandinavian and Eastern European lands, I decided that it was time for me to give them the answer. When I said Australia, they seemed to be amazed, as if it were unthinkable that anybody purchasing a plunge router bit in Saint-Marcellin (home of one of the world’s finest cheese) could have possibly found his way there from the Antipodes. Then their amazement was transformed rapidly into typical reactions that I hear inevitably, whenever Australia is mentioned in France. Every French person would appear to have a cousin, an uncle, a brother-in-law or a close friend who now resides in either Sydney or Melbourne (rarely anywhere else in Australia). And details about this emigrant are inevitably followed by a profound personal declaration along the following lines: “My X and I [substitute husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, etc for X] have always dreamed about going out to settle in Australia.” I always feel like asking: “Well, what the hell stopped you? Lack of courage? Fear that you might fall over the edge of the Earth?” Naturally, I’m too well-behaved to ask questions like that, but I think them all the same. Meanwhile, I react by explaining that French people can make a lot of money Down Under by working in restaurants, bakeries, taxis, etc. But I also point out that, personally, I find France in general, and the Vercors region in particular, an absolutely fantastic place to live. Funnily enough, none of these French people who apparently dream about going out to the Antipodes have ever actually asked me if I could maybe give them an address or even a bit of down-to-earth information about how to handle emigration problems. So, I end up believing that their dreams are just that: ethereal dreams rather than concrete here-and-now projects.

I believe that, if an Antipodean dreamworld such as Australia (or New Zealand, or America for that matter) didn’t actually exist, French society would need to invent it. As things turn out, French TV actually reinvents Australia regularly by means of allegedly serious travel documentaries (most of which are produced by French film crews who discover Australia for the first time) that air a host of delightfully false suggestions. In the case of Sydney, for example, the cameramen use images suggesting that the Opera House is located at the end of every imaginable street in the metropolis. Another widespread item of fiction is that most city office-employees change into swimming costumes for a dip in the ocean at the end of their day’s work. (French visitors would be dismayed to discover crowds of dark-clothed workers thronging into Wynyard after the offices shut.) Some TV documentaries give the impression that typical jobs in Australia include caring for koalas, searching for opals, catching exotic seafood, manufacturing excellent wines, flying planes in the Outback, driving road trains, culling kangaroos or delivering mail in an old wooden motor boat. And there’s one professional activity that seems to reappear continuously in documentaries, as if it were a major activity: leading courageous tourists in a climb up the coat-hanger-shaped arch of Sydney’s bridge.

While the French need to have a bottled-up Australian dream filed away in their virtual medical cabinet (to be taken out and consumed only in the case of an emergency), I’m amused to see that Australians themselves do not seem to be accompanied by ever-present dreams of maybe going off to live on the other side of the world. Nobody ever seems to imagine that they might live anywhere else in the world apart from Australia. Indeed, if you were to bring up this question with Australians, I think that most people would reply immediately that Australia, in any case, is the best possible country on the planet. So, why would they ever dream of going elsewhere? In other words, once you’ve got as far as Australia, there’s nowhere else to go. I sometimes wonder whether such dreams have ceased to exist in Australia because it is in fact the finest place on Earth, or whether (more subtle explanation) Australians describe their land as the finest place on Earth simply because they are no longer capable of dreaming...

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