It’s not true that I take my skates everywhere I go; it just seems that way to my wife Brenda. The big question when we first contemplated the teaching exchange was whether I would find any ice thereabouts. At least that was my foremost concern. Whenever I brought up the issue Brenda would change the subject.
Which is why my first choice was Switzerland. True, it is a picture-postcard beautiful country. Most importantly, there is lots of hockey played in those mountains. Switzerland, I convinced my wife, would be the best choice for all concerned.
In mid-March we received a phone call from Francois, a Franco-Swiss who lived in Neuchatel, a beautiful mountain town beside a lake in the Swiss Alps. Francois was very excited about coming to Canada. He taught History and Geography but twenty per cent of his course load was teaching Italian. Could I handle that ?
“Mamma mia, pizza, spaghetti – that’s it.”
There was silence at the other end of the line. “Oh, and excusio,” I added.
“Not good enough, I guess.” I was always good at reading between the lines.
Francois was doubtful. Perhaps I could drop that part of my teaching load and live on an eighty per cent salary ?
This time it was my wife Brenda who was doubtful. “Eighty per cent of one salary and the Swiss cost of living is twice that of ours’?” she asked, thinking practically.
“Well then, maybe I can add an ‘i’ or an ‘o’ to the ends of French words and they’ll be able to understand,” I countered hopefully. “Remember, that worked with that hotel clerk in Florence !”
Francois had now figured out what he was dealing with and hung up. That ended that. It would have been nice living beside an alpine lake in the Swiss Alps for one year, but to compensate we would just have to get out more in our canoe on the Scugog River.
A month later there was a call from the teacher exchange office in Toronto. “How about the south of France ? We have a partner for you there.”
Brenda was ecstatic. The south of France ? A thirty-five minute drive from the Meditteranean and not far from Italy, Spain and Switzerland ? Of course we were interested ! I nodded my head, trying to feign interest. The Meditteranean ? How many arenas would I find there ?
“Hockey ? In Nimes ?” My exchange partner, Philippe, struggled with the concept. “I don’t know anything about that, but there is a patinoire a glace (a rink).” That was good enough for me. That was good enough for me. Perhaps some ex-pats in the area got together for a once-a-week shinny session. I would settle for a leisurely Sunday skate with my family at this point.
August 23rd was a typically hot, sunny day with a cloudless blue sky in the south of France. Both kids were napping, Brenda was cleaning the pool, and I was inclined to do neither. I jumped on the Honda motorbike that had been left for me and sped off for parts unknown, in search of that elusive arena.
What is interesting about asking for directions in France is that when questioned, a French person will almost always direct you to contine on straight ahead. “Toujours tout droit.” Whether it is Jim Morrison’s grave at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery or the location of the local boulangerie, the destination one is seeking always seems to be just up ahead. That afternoon it seemed as if I had toured half of Provence before I mercifully came upon my Holy Grail, the arena, sitting in the hot sun right beside the railroad tracks. As I rolled into a parking spot a small lizard scampered to safety, reminding me that I was a long ways from the arena in Lindsay, Ontario. Inside the building was something more familiar, however, a worker wearing a Montreal Canadiens’ jersey. Finally, I figured, someone who would know how I could find some ice time.
“Excuse me, I’m a Canadian, and a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens, and I was just wondering if there was some way I could come in and play hockey once a week. Would that be possible?”
At the sound of the word ‘Canadian’ his eyes lit up. “Come with me.” I was led upstairs to the bar to meet Philippe, the president of the Nimes Hockey Team, National League, Division II. (Despite what you may now be thinking, not every man in France was named Philippe.)
As in all conversations in France it began with a handshake and like most, the offer of a cigarette. Philippe opened the conversation with the comment that his team had been looking for a Canadian for the past month. Each team in the French league is allowed one ‘etranger.’ Just in case he was expecting Eric Lindros or Mario Lemieux (remember this was 1995) I levelled with him right away.
“I’m thirty nine years old.” My heyday was behind me. I had aged and slowed down and I was now more accustomed to being just another oldtimer, short of breath and slow of step, than Canada’s representative on a European hockey team. Philippe pursed his lips and gave a Gallic shrug. “I’m not looking for someone right from the N.H.L.,” he replied generously. He blew out a cloud of smoke. “You can score goals ?”
I thought back to all the goals I had scored playing shinny at the Lindsay Arena these past fifteen years. “Mais oui,” I nodded.
“Well, we have a practice this evening. Bring your equipment and we’ll have a look.”
That night, though rusty, I was able to stay upright and not embarrass myself. Philippe was all smiles as he welcomed me to his team. “Now all we have to is pay a couple of thousand francs to get your release from your last year’s team and the Canadian Hockey Association and you’ll be all set for our first game on September 23rd.”
I smiled to myself. My last year’s team had been sponsored by the ‘Grand Hotel’ and the Canadian Hockey Association didn’t even know I existed.
Someone at the Grand Hotel was going to be sitting down to a few pitchers of free beer.