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THE WELFARE OFFICE
Valentina had had the form for five weeks. It had its own place on the messy table. She would glance over at it every so often, as if it were some sort of unwelcome houseguest that she needed to cater to, but dearly wanted out of the house. Even when she wasn't looking at it and not explicitly thinking about it, she felt its imposing presence.
When it was several days past the moment that she couldn't wait a moment longer, she finally filled it in through heart flutters of anxiety. It took a very long time as far as forms went. She didn't understand a third of the questions and another third seemed illogical and repetitive in relation to other questions she had either filled in already, or didn't completely understand. Her stomach was killing her.
The following day, she left in abject misery for the welfare office.
She went to the post office first to get a stamp for a card she made for Agnès, feeling like the sore patches in her digestive system must have been growing ever bigger. She dawdled around looking at the various car rental brochures and flu jab leaflets at the local information board... but it was getting late and she couldn't put it off any longer. She asked one of the people at the window serving for directions. (She didn't dare ask for the actual street the place was on in case the woman realised where she was going, so asked instead for the street next to it – not that she had ever seen the woman in her life and Docteur Blanchard had assured her that it was a completely normal thing to do, but she was still utterly ashamed).
Valentina knew her French wasn't by any means native, but she was certain that she had addressed the woman very clearly. (Hadn't she?):
«Bonjour madame, savez-vous la direction pour Rue de Poitou, s'il vous plaît?»
The woman smiled kindly and replied to her in S-L-O-O-O-W, basic French with the sort of tone one would use to speak to a child. While she thought it was nice that the woman was kind spoken and apparently trying to be helpful, Valentina didn't know whether she ought to appreciate the gesture, or to be insulted. Even an American could have understood her and they hardly ever spoke anyone else's language! Was her accent that foreign? Did the woman think she was speaking to a 12 year old? Even when she was much younger, no one would have ever spoken to her like that – maybe they had known who she was (as far as in that she wasn't an imbecile) or perhaps there was something in the confidence of how she looked and presented herself before? Did others who weren't yet confirmed as not being imbeciles frequently get spoken to like this?! Did they put up with it? Did she really look 'that young'? How old did she need to look in order to not to be spoken to like a child for goodness sake?
Before she was "exotic", "beautiful", "desirable", "sexy" even (so she was told). Her (apparently) foreign accent was «charmant» and «mignon». She had obviously taken for granted how lovely and nice everyone had always been BEFORE... Before, her foreignness was something extraordinary and exquisite to be attended to and captured. She had been like a rare bird or a butterfly. Now there was no longer any mystery to her. She was just one among the multitude of ordinary, penniless aliens. Now in everything she did: her stature, her fallen attitude, her often peasant-like way of dress, she was a nobody – just a faceless cog. Foreigner. Stranger. Misfit... She probably should have dressed better and made an effort to look less miserable, to be fair.
It was reassuring at least that the woman was pleasant. The hostility from some boorish people like Martin Martin (whether shrouded, or transparent) that she had unexpectedly experienced since moving to the west of the country had taken her off guard and made her feel demoralised, but also bitter. Perhaps this was why some underprivileged people seemed so angry? 'Underprivileged'... 'under the privileged'... was that even a polite term?? She'd probably be castigated –called stuck-up and bourgeois– by some politically active 'free thinker' for using the term in place of whatever term was the current, 'politically correct' buzz word, even though she had no ill intent... Anyway it was ironic, as she was now one of these 'underprivileged' and it did seem like she WAS angry much of the time.
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