Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Personal defects

People swear that they're prepared to talk openly about their personal defects, but they generally find subtle ways of avoiding to do so. And I'm no exception. So, don't expect to find me revealing the truth about myself, the whole truth, etc. Worse still, whenever I decide to mention one of my weaknesses, it's often just a pretext to hit back with an explanation concerning one of the more positive aspects of my character. I give the impression that I'm opening my front door and welcoming you in... but, meanwhile, I'm sneaking out of the house through a back window.

Let me start with a weakness that is totally undeniable: I would be a lousy worker on a construction site such as that of the Eiffel Tower.

I'm simply scared of heights. Once, when I was holidaying with my children in Bangkok, I was suddenly overcome by vertigo at the top of a stone staircase, just a few meters in height, in a Buddhist temple. My legs were jelly; I was so giddy that I could no longer even stand up straight. Consequently, my children, along with other tourists, were greatly amused to see me bumping down the steps on my backside.

Now, here's the exit window. Many years ago, when I was a student in Sydney, I got a vacation job working as a welder's assistant on a construction site. My boss, a friendly German guy named Horst, was erecting steel staircases and platforms around an industrial boiler. My job consisted of following him around with his tools, and I was generally draped in coils of rubber tubing connected to oxy-acetylene cylinders. At one stage, I told Horst, naively, that he didn't seem to be generous with the amount of welding he was applying to attach the steel platform to the fa├žade of the boiler. He said he was using a rule of thumb that consisted of applying a centimeter of welding for every meter of platform. To me, that rule didn't sound serious, because the weight of the platform clearly varied from one point to another, depending on whether or not it was supporting a section of stairs. I let the matter drop, since I imagined that Horst knew what he was doing. Suddenly an entire ection of the platform dropped to the ground, and I was left dangling in the rubber tubing: my first and last taste of something akin to bungee jumping. I was not injured in any way whatsoever, but Horst and the people handling the site were frightened that I might be wounded internally (which could lead them into a costly damages situation), so they preferred that I should remain seated and do absolutely nothing during my remaining days on that job. Incidentally, a humorous conversation has remained in my memory ever since that experience. With his charming accent, Horst had described to me his attitude towards working as a welder in Australia: "I do it, not because I like welding, but to make money. When I arrive at the factory site in the morning, I deposit my brain with the gatekeeper, and I pick it up when I knock off work in the afternoon." Horst also taught me how to say, in perfect German: "The only rays of sunshine in a worker's life are fornicating and boozing." Needless to say, Horst was happy in Australia...

Getting back to my personal defects, I have no memory for faces. This works in two directions. On the one hand, I can fail to recognize a person I've already encountered. On the other hand, I can imagine that I know somebody who's in fact a total stranger. Let me relate two trivial anecdotes, both of which concern women. Once, at an outdoor Bastille Day ball in Paris, I overheard a girl speaking Greek, and I was immediately convinced that I had met up with her a few months earlier on. So, I started talking with her (in French) as if we were old friends... and we soon did indeed become very close friends. The next morning, in bed, I asked her to remind me where it was that we had initially met up. She was surprised but amused: "Last night was the first time I ever saw you. It's a fact that I found you exceptionally affectionate for a stranger..."

The second anecdote dates from yesterday. For my regular medication (run-of-the-mill stuff for blood pressure and cholesterol), I decided to change to a pharmacy at St-Laurent-en-Royans, a little closer than my usual shop at St-Jean-en-Royans. The female pharmacist welcomed me warmly: "I worked for years in the pharmacy at St-Jean, and I have a wonderful recollection of your visits, because you had the habit of rambling on about all kinds of things, quite unlike most customers in a pharmacy. I always had the impression that my contacts with you were... enriching." Wow! Now, guess how I reacted to these nice words from an attractive young lady. Sadly, you'll see that I've lost my touch since the evenings in Paris when I was capable of picking up an unknown Mediterranean damsel. I said to the pharmacist: "That's funny, I don't remember you at all." What an idiot I am! That's no doubt one of the worst statements a man could ever make to a woman. Fortunately, I have to purchase pills once a month... so I should have time to redeem myself. Meanwhile, let me crawl back into my house through this open window.

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