I just moved back in to the hotel here in the-town-that-can't-be-named, else it will show up in the Google alerts feed of the owner of this lovely establishment, a fact he was kind enough to inform me of the last time I was here. And while that's fine, I do prefer to fly under the radar whenever possible. (Though it is starting to become slightly disconcerting, given my penchant for online anonymity, just how often I manage to give myself away). So, as I said, I'm back in the hotel after a week of staying with a host family, and I'm drunk on freedom and unlimited internet access. And that's all I'm drunk on, I can promise you, because as my co-leader said to me recently with a bit of a desperate gleam in her eye, "Rachel, I haven't smoked, drank, or had sex in almost a month, and those are three of my favorite things to do." And I can say that I miss at least one of those things, though I will never admit which one it is, although fine, I will just say that it feels wrong, oh so very wrong to eat cheese without a bit of wine to go with it. It should maybe even be illegal to eat cheese without wine, which is just my personal opinion, of course, but that is just how wrong it feels to me.
It's been a bit of a challenge for me to try to write honestly about this trip, since as I have discovered all over again, in the blogging world, you never know who your audience is. I will say that it has been a roller coaster ride, with more lows than highs, and just when you think you're at the bottom, there you go, plummeting downward again, heart flying up into your throat, only to finally land in the pit of your stomach with a resounding thud. The hardest part for me has been having to be responsible for so many people's individual happiness, and in the end being able to satisfy no one. The thing is, in general I am pretty eager to please. I like to keep things on a pretty even keel, and I will do whatever I can to make this happen. In my professional life, I'm used to people thinking I do a good job. I'm used to people thinking I do a great job. There's a reason that I'm conscientious and detail-oriented to the point of it keeping me up at night. I am a tier-up of ends, a coverer of bases, and a checker-off of lists. But on this trip, every other day I am on the verge of calling the whole things quits, and if only it were possible I would already have boarded a plane back to the States, because no matter what I do here, it's just not good enough.
The office says the students' daily online trip updates aren't good enough, are nowhere near, and their marketing director is very disappointed. It goes without saying that I am personally responsible for this. I must make the students understand that they have to do better, although they barely have time to do the updates as it is.
The director of the school here blames me for an important e-mail that I sent and she never received. If I sent it, she says, well then I will just show her the proof. Proof? An e-mail disappears into the ether of the Internet and she wants proof. As she is talking I try to offer an explanation, and she roars that I will let her finish! I let her finish. I want to cry.
The students aren't allowed to drink. They aren't allowed to go out alone at night. They hate this. They sneak out. They get busted. They get upset. Some of them are from New York City. They go out alone all the time. They feel like they are in prison here. No one is happy. Everyone is having a terrible time. They call their parents. Their parents are upset that their kids are having a such terrible time on such an expensive trip. They call the office to complain. They don't know what they are complaining about, exactly, and so they say things like, "They took a tour and it was in French and my kid didn't understand, couldn't keep up, and someone should have translated for him." Then we will have a tour in English and another parent will complain that it was in English, when this is supposed to be an immersion trip. Someone thought her kid didn't look happy enough in the pictures posted on the updates.
After enough parents called with their vague and uninformed complaints, I got a call from the owner of the company, which is an experience I never wish to repeat. After an introductory period of being talked at loudly and angrily, followed by some general ranting and calls for things to improve, stat, he said that we were being too strict. We had to loosen up a little. Because we were upholding his rules. His rules and the basic dictums of safety and common sense. Well, of course we couldn't be more flexible with those rules, he said. We still had to uphold those rules, but wherever there was room for flexibility, we should exercise it. He didn't seem to understand, and wouldn't listen when I tried to explain, that it is those rules the students are unhappy with. They're not upset because we had sandwiches for lunch instead of pizza, or ice cream after dinner instead of crêpes; they're pissed because they can't go meet their classmates at the bar everyone is going to tonight. And the only thing I could do after 45 minutes of cross-continental reprimand, the disappointment echoing tinnily in my ear, was repeat mechanically "Yes, I understand, yes, I understand" through tightly clenched teeth, and refrain from throwing the cellphone across the empty schoolyard.
Things seemed to be on an upswing, for a while. The momentum shifted, and we spent a whole day in Tours, yesterday. The kids had time to walk around on their own and feel some of that freedom they were desperate for. I went shopping and bought clothes and tried not to think about the exchange rate. Finding a place for all of us to go to dinner was a challenge; everything was expensive, and we had to stick to a budget. We finally found a place that looked reasonable, and made reservations for twelve. After walking around a bit more, we found another restaurant that was perfect. At this place we could get a three-course menu for less than the price of an entrée at the previous restaurant. (Entrée used in the American sense of main course, and not to be confused with the actual French meaning of entrée, which is appetizer). We decided to go there instead. My first thought was that we had to cancel the reservation at the first restaurant, but we didn't have a phone number. I could go back there, I said, but in the end we ran out of time, and then, ultimately, I forgot. The phone rang in the middle of dinner. I didn't answer it in time, and it went to voicemail. The other restaurant. A brief ball of guilt in the pit of my stomach. I could have abandoned my dinner, left the table, called them back. But I didn't. It's already 40 minutes after our reservation time, I thought. Surely, they have to know by now we're not coming. We finished our meal, which was amazing, and I thought with some satisfaction that for once, everyone was happy. The kids were still all raving about their food, showing off their purchases from the day, and exclaiming over the perfectness of the city. We got in the cars and headed home, tired and happy. I retreated to my room with a book, brushed and scrubbed and ready for bed. Then, at 11:45 p.m., the phone rang. Thinking it was my co-leader, I answered in English.
"I just wanted to thank you for your reservation for twelve people tonight," a voice said in French. An unhappy voice. An angry voice. She couldn't fool me, though. I knew she was not actually calling to thank me. And though I had previously considered the American culture to be quite adept in the art of sarcasm, I had to admire how this French woman managed to take it to a whole new plane. Trust me when I say that America is not even in the same league as the French when it comes to sarcasm. Speechless, I said nothing. "This is the restaurant?" she said snippily. And I said the only thing I was capable of at the moment, which was simply, "I'm really sorry." "Well next time you should think about calling," she said, and hung up.
And once again I went to bed riddled with guilt and anxiety and regret, and wondering if maybe tomorrow will be the day, that magic, elusive day, when I actually do something right.