Tuesday, 30 April 2013

So British!

"So British" is a catchphrase, used by the French, to encapsulate all that is glorious about my fellow countrymen and me. Our accents, our stiff upper lips, our sartorial excellence and the furtive, shifty way we speak French.

I like it. It makes me feel as though I am the keeper of secret knowledge, a wielder of the flame of Britannia, a member of a secret club - a club I was apparently born into it. I rather imagine it's how Prince Harry feels every day of his charmed life. "So British" has followed me since I arrived, and only recently have I realised what a strange people we must seem to our brothers and sisters from foreign lands.

Tea, for a start. Trying to convince the French catering department at the school to provide me with kettles to boil water is turning into a Escher-themed tennis match. They simply do not understand why the water has to be boiling. Why can they not simply boil it at 9am and leave it in the huge urns? It'll still be hot by 3pm.

Tea has to be made with boiling water, I explain. Not tepid, warm, or even hot water. Boiling. A sigh, a shrug, and a rueful look at colleagues. "So British!"

Second: scones. We've bought a lot, and both students and staff are going to enjoy them. However, they're having serious trouble deciphering what they are. Are they biscuits? Cakes? What's this on top? Jam? And this? Cream? English cream? Crème anglaise? What do you mean, they're not the same thing? A sigh, a shrug, and a rueful look at colleagues. "So British!"

It is an odd thing to insist on, but I'm also certain that High Tea is going to go over a storm. It'll be bally marvelous, what what. I might even break out the tuxedo.

So: this morning was mostly calm. A few bits and pieces to do in Excel, including a formula I worked out to separate names into two columns rather than one. I could have looked it up on Google, of course, but there's a great pleasure to figuring it out by oneself.

The afternoon was crazytown central. I got the certificates for students who'd taken the TOEIC and they descended, not en masse but in dribs and drabs, to collect them. This wouldn't have been so bad were it not for the other students whom I was trying to help with an article on an explosion that killed three people. Tough to dart between light banter and "So, here we need to stress what killed these people."

Lunch was a rapid, half-hour job, as translations needed to be finished and I had a meeting about another presentation I had to do. My colleague showed me the software and how to use it; it seems very simple and I should be able to rip through it in about thirty minutes on Thursday. After that was big-brained Alexander, whose nationality my friend Adeline could not figure out (Alexander speaks like a villain from a Bond movie; his Russian accent is so beautifully clichéd that I want to record him saying things like "You have a message, Mr Kerr" for my phone alerts.).

Finally, Alexander's article was finished, my door was closed, I was reaching for my keys when -

"Can we have our diplomas?"

"Certificates," I hissed between gritted teeth, and turned, smiled, and opened my door again.

That brought me to my French lesson, where we did negation.

I'm not going to say anything else there because I'll be either sarcastic or mean, and neither is appropriate.

Instead we shall skip ahead to tonight, where I find my privacy invaded by a colleague who desperately needs work done now because she didn't do it earlier.

I caved and did it. It only took thirty seconds, and it made her happy.

I'm a flake.

Tomorrow is a day off! And I'm probably still going to get up at 7! Hoorah for body clocks!


Monday, 29 April 2013

[Manic laughter]

Stage directions in my life are pretty much the above right now. I have time for manic laughter and half an hour for lunch. Half an hour! I'm no lawyer, but I'm pretty sure there are laws against that kind of cruel and unusual punishment.

To recap: this morning started with me discovering that whoever had set up our google+ account had done it assuming you could just set up a personal page as an organisation. Google, however, has spotted that there aren't many (indeed any) folks in the world with a name that is entirely initialisations (not acronyms; acronyms are initialisations that you say as a word, like RADAR or COBRA). Consequently our account has been closed and we've got a stern email from Google, which none of my colleagues read because they don't monitor the social media accounts.


So that was a new and exciting spanner that was thrown into the engine of my life. All the same; I thrive on challenge, and before long I had a new page up, in the right place this time, but unfortunately currently administered by me. I need to shift that on to someone else quickly, because I won't be here for much longer and it needs to be dynamically managed.

Speaking of dynamic managing, and dragging the conversation away from me for just a second, can I point out that my little sister is running an entire store's social media strategy, has been elected the local Carnival Queen, and is also doing a degree?

I've already mentioned my brother. Seems like my gene pool is for awesome only.

Anyway, enough about her, back to me. Aside from redoing our G+ page I've also put together several montages for perusal by the upper echelons and rattled off a translation for my secret project. All I need now is willing volunteers and actors. It's going to be so, so much fun. Apply within.

My "English High Tea" project moved forward today too, with posters going up around the school with enigmatic images of scones, jam and clotted cream. Not enigmatic to those born on the shores of Blighty, of course, but to those of foreign birth they seem to represent a perfect mystery.

I played a game of chess with Adeline today, which I almost lost at several points, in part because I was distracted by several students and in part because she turned out to be better than expected. This is always an unsettling turn of events, akin to seeing a tortoise outpace a hare. In any case, she saw her doom approaching and resigned, but not before an exciting battle in which I first lost and then regained my queen. Thrilling.

The afternoon was given over to my friend Alexander, who has such a giant brain, so filled with electric thoughts rushing about, that he has become quite bald. It's a sign of his marvelous brain that I could only understand a third of what he'd written, but I corrected what I could and helped him break forty-word sentences into more manageable, human-sized chunks. I was torn away from that task - I say task, but it's so much more fun that the word implies - by more work from this morning. The upper echelons had sent a messenger to ask me to redo something in the photographs.

A task that would take me but a moment, and yet the messenger - because she, too, does not quite understand how I do what I do with photo manipulation and as a result is not as confident as I am in my pronouncements - insisted it be done there and then. Lucky I've managed to reschedule that meeting for tomorrow, so here's hoping everything else goes well.

(Yea, right. "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength" or, to put it another way, "No plan survives first contact")

So: tomorrow will be another fantastically busy day, Wednesday I have off which, for the first time since I can remember I am furious about (there is way, way too much to do to just take a day off in the middle of the week!) and the rest of the week I'm without one of my colleagues.

Then next week we've got another three days off ("work ethic" are both hideous, foreign words to the French, and have no place in their vocabulary) and then we're in the middle of May and I've got my year abroad project due, a serious of videos to be ready for two weeks after that and just -

I feel this fortnight is going to stress me out.

Blogs may be a little curter (from French court, meaning short or brief.).

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The belles of Notre Dame

So I saw this poster on the way home from today's travels:

"The number 1 site for extramarital affairs thought up by women."
And after uploading it to Facebook I decided that this was what I should write my year abroad project on - the fact that the French apparently invented the word "blasé" to describe how they feel about extramarital affairs. It should be interesting, and hopefully suitably culturally-centered. We can but hope.

To get to that point, let's go back to this morning. I though I was meeting Kate and Mary at 11, and not 10, which is why I was stepping out of the shower when my phone rang this morning. Kate wanted to know if I wouldn't mind meeting them at a different location - one that would be easier for me since I was already on the train.

(I definitely was not already on the train.)

I got dressed, grabbed my camera, and bolted out the door. A speed-walk to the station and a mere three-minute wait and I was on the train and on my way into town. Once again I'm stunned with glee that a ticket for all public transport in Paris on the weekend for young people is 3.75€. It's incredibly good value and stands in stark contrast to, say, First Aberdeen, who charge a little under that for a student day ticket. First Aberdeen are thieving whatnots, and it's an ongoing struggle to make them lower their prices even a smidgeon.

But that's Aberdeen's problem, and not yours. Onwards.

I arrived a mere five minutes after I was supposed to and snatched a moment with Mary before greeting Kate. Greeting is really too small a word for the huge bosie I gave her and she in return gave me. I felt ribs creak. They'd stowed their luggage at Gare de Lyon - the luggage storage at St. Lazare is now closed, for reasons currently outside the wit of man - so that's where we met, and from there we headed to Chatelet-les-Halles. A short hop on and then off the train again and we found ourselves strolling through the warm morning with blossom showering around us. To get from where we were - Chatelet - to where we wanted to be - Jardin du Luxembourg - we could have caught a train and sunk once again into the stinking underground. The system of trains in Paris is wonderful; the smell of sulphur, however, would make even a Satanist baulk. Instead we strolled across the river and took the opportunity to sit outside the cathedral and take some snaps.

I say we. I gave Kate the camera, since the last time I did so she got some cracking photos - and I got it back before she left with another 200 snaps to work through. They're almost all golden. Kate sings like an angel and takes photos like a pro. Being around her is jealousy-inducing to the highest order. All of the photos that follow are credited to her.

It also means that rather than being behind the camera all the time, I got to be in front of it. Very much in front of it, on one occasion.

A little too close for comfort perhaps.

We strolled in the direction of the Garden and along the way ducked into my favourite Parisian haunt. I'm pretty sure this is the third time in a week and is now bordering on an obsession, but Shakespeare and Company is the greatest English-language bookstore in Paris.

There's barely enough room to squeeze past books upon books, all ordered but not only on shelves but tables too. Books spilling out and words, just words, everywhere.

I love this shop.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat in a pizza and pasta place run by genuine Italians, which meant they understood English better than they understood French - don't know how to feel about that - and which made Mary roll her eyes just a little.

The reason Mary rolled her eyes is because she is essentially sensible, and if she were to have a food intolerance then she would avoid that food in particular. Since Kate has an intolerance to gluten and I have an intolerance to lactose, a pizza/pasta parlour is literally the worst place for us to be. Everything is made with dough and cheese. Everything.

Did we listen? Am I a sensible person?

What do you think?

In any case, after our grub stop, we made it to the Garden. They looked incredible, with flowers in full bloom and small children setting boats free on the central pond. One of the children had a pirate boat, and I suspect I was not the only person feeling just a pang of jealousy. I mean look at it, it's a pirate boat. I wanted a pirate boat.

How much did I want a pirate boat? Enough to make me pull a very ugly face. How ugly? I can't say. It would make your eyes pop out, one-two, and then you'd never read this blog again.

We did a tour around the Garden, encountering a Giant Sequoia (that "only" reaches around 40m in Europe, according to the delightfully understated sign) and a woman doing sprint yoga.

By this I meant she would do a yoga stretch in the middle of the path and then carry on walking and then, as if she had received instructions from some other place, promptly did another one. She hopped, skipped, jumped and stretched around the circumference of the park, and by the time we parted ways we all felt absolutely exhausted. The girls had only an hour before their train, and so we wound our way back to Gare de Lyon, and stood outside it for a second.


I have very strong memories of this place, and they all seem to center around this particular girl:

Pictured: Demon-spawn. And a blueberry muffin.
Your year abroad - I make a huge assumption in saying this, but I think many of you will be going on a year abroad - will expose you to new cultures in ways you could not possibly imagine. It will change the course of your life, and sometimes that course will collide with someone with whom you will click in every way. And sometimes these relationships won't last; you've only got a year, and so do they. Even with Skype, and aeroplanes, and Facebook, some things can't survive the distance.

So seize the opportunities that I know you'll get.

Pictured: Opportunity being seized.

Also: blueberry muffin.

And blog about it, so I can read your adventures.

Anyway, before the nostalgia set in, I was talking about Gare de Lyon and the girls. We had a quick drink and retrieved their luggage. Kate rushed in and assured us we needn't come in with her, which was transparently both untrue and crafted to give Mary and I another moment. She is a great friend, and I can't wait to get back to studying with her next year. I owe her a lot, and it may well be repaid in dinners.

We seized the moment, as if you need to be told.

On the way down to the Metro, the escalator was out of order and the train was at the platform. Kate dragged her suitcase down the stairs at some speed and she had almost managed the whole lot when we heard an awful crack. We leapt onto the train, manhandling the suitcase, and took stock of the damage. The handle had snapped right off the bag and so had a white tube that was previously hidden inside the handle. It seemed to be made of fibres, so I grabbed it to try to twist it and snap it completely. It was, indeed, made of fibres - fibres of glass.

Nasty, nasty little fibres of glass that were now stuck in my fingers and next to impossible to see because glass, of course, is transparent. Hilarious when this property results in children and small animals running into it, less fun when microscopic fibres of it are jammed in your fingertips.

In any case, with the judicious application of gloves we got the suitcase on the train, said our goodbyes, and parted. 

I hate parting.

So that's been my Saturday. It's only six now, but I don't foresee anything interesting coming up before midnight. A massive thank-you to thirdyearabroad.com whom I am sure are responsible for the vast majority of my readers, as well as running a site that got me really prepared for my own third year abroad.

That's all for today folks. I read something lovely the other day that I'd like to share with you:
"The evening news is the only television programme that opens with 'Good Evening' and the goes on to tell you why it's not."
It amused me, and I hope it's amused you too. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Back to normal

Normal here means my normal style; less "blue". My girlfriend assigns colours to my blog, but she also leaves out the u in colour so we'll take what she says with a pinch of salt. (She's coming back tomorrow, and I react to the reappearance in my life of those I've missed by being sarcastic and mean.) In any case, today began with a bang as I had an hour-long meeting five minutes after I got in. It was a great meeting, with lots of positive actions coming out of it, but all the same - that much French a mere 90 minutes after I'd woken up and blearily switched on +France24 is too much, even for someone with my staggering intellect and endless reserves of modesty.

In any case, I understood everything, and have now been commissioned to record myself giving one presentation about mind maps as well as film a series of clips for a secret project. Secret for the moment, in any case. There'll be more about it once I have more details for sharing. In any case, that brought me to 10, when I went to work for the Association, sorting out figures from last year. The accounts seem to be a bit of a mess, but I was reassured by my colleague that the figures I'd worked with last year were all wrong, and the ones I know held in my hands were the "good" ones.

(To all French students of English:  le bon is "the right one", and not "the good one. We can't make moral judgements about numbers.)

I had to fortify myself with coffee to bite back the quick response, which was why on earth was I not given the right figures in the first place, and as I waited for the dark nectar to fill my cup I realised that they probably thought they were the right figures in the first place. It is far too easy to leap to the conclusion that everyone had the information then that they do now, and it's simply untrue. I took a deep breath, a deep draught of coffee, squared my shoulders, and wrote lovely formulas to make numbers jump across pages and add up in neat little columns.

I darted back and forth between the Association and the mediatheque for the rest of the morning as students dropped in for books and DVDs. I have been dong that a lot recently, as I'm yet to work out how to automatically transfer calls. It seems that whenever I am in the Association nobody calls but the world wants to get in touch with the mediatheque, while when I'm in the mediatheque the world and his brother are both calling my Association phone. Sometimes, just for fun, they'll ring together, and I'll get so confused I run into a wall.

I have a fitness machine disguised as a pair of phones and it is a sadistic son of a gun.

I am also only now discovering the joys of endless e-mail threads, where you read something and then write your reply and send to all, because your opinion is so damn important that everyone must read it. Not just the project leader. Everyone on the project. This guy, who did a little picture montage and then nothing else this morning came into an inbox full of e-mail tennis about the correct wording of the French text in the e-mail that accompanied the montage.

And right at the bottom, after scrolling through for twenty minutes and trying to decipher the semantic battle waging, I find: "The montage is fine."

Road rage is a picnic with Winne the Pooh compared to the sensation coursing through a fellow's bloodstream on having read every line of this silliness in hope of any sort of feedback on one's work and finding it consists of four words.

No matter. I quit the business at midday, and threw myself into mediatheque work. The first part of the dual projects I have going on require a translation in which I have - and gods, I love my colleague for saying this - I have white card.

You've never seen anyone look so blank in your life. He repeated.

"Tu as white card pour faire ce que tu veux"

Understanding crept over me like moss creeps over a boulder. Slowly.

"Carte blanche?" I asked.

He beamed. "Oui!"

I almost bit through my lip trying not to laugh. What are the odds that he would pick that exact phrase to translate? Marvelous. A moment of pure comedy.

So I've broken down some of the heavier phrases and pages into more manageable chunks, like a bar of 95% chocolate recommended by the mother of an ex-girlfriend. I've played with the phrasing but, reading back what I've written, I'm realising that I may need to tone down the "me-ness" in it for those who don't speak my particular brand of English.

All of this, by the way, and it wasn't even lunchtime. I love working this hard, the time absolutely flows. I also love Fridays, because I get served this after lunch:

Pictured: why you want to work in France.
Second coffee of the day and this time with chocolate. There's just too much dark deliciousness there.

Straight after lunch I had a meeting with M, who's in charge of social media at the School. She's also charming, smart, and my co-collaborator on my third current project. She'll be interviewing a senior member of staff about an exciting new relationship that the School is developing, and she wants me to help her film and then subsequently edit the footage. We'll be adding in watermarks and doing our best to make the whole thing look as professional as possible.

Exciting times!

The rest of the afternoon was then given over to Chapter 4 of the book, which I didn't even realise I'd not seen yet. While I'll be losing marks for, you know, noticing stuff, I think it should be well noted that I then promptly busted my ass for another 90 minutes before throwing everything in a bag and running off to teach my private students.

Their lessons went well, though it's interesting to see that B, while more confident, is still a lot shakier on grammar than C - but C would rather carve her own arms off than say more than a sentence at a time. I need some way to meld them into one super-student and then divide them in two.

Crashed home, bought a kebab on the way - immigration is amazing for so many reasons, but the spread of spectacular food is the one I love best - and now, at twenty past ten, I'm considering going to bed. I had a lucky escape today; I was offered the last ticket to a party happening tonight in the Tour Montparnasse, the 2nd highest point in Paris. I was more than tempted; despite the long day, this was one of those occasions that will never come again.

But when I dug into my pockets I found nothing; not even a bit of fluff. Not even a moth to comically flutter out to denote my total lack of cash. The opportunity passed me by.

Let's be honest - after last time, that's probably just as well.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

17. Qd8+ Rxd8 18. Rxd8# (Sacrifice)

I've just beaten the computer at chess and, since this marks the high point of my nerdiness, I thought I'd share it with you and then craft a bit of a blog about it. It's about the time I'm spending here, and what I'm spending it doing.

Oh yes. We're going to get reflective. I'll understand if you're entirely uninterested and only come for the gossip, chicanery, and other tomfoolery. There'll be more of that tomorrow, but for now -

The last 8 months have been a time of enormous personal growth for me and, simultaneously, a time of enormous frustration. If you have been reading this daily - and if you have then may flowers rain down from heaven and blessings come upon you like ninjas - then you will have read the subtext that, on occasion, I have been frustrated and felt that perhaps I was not using my time to its full potential. And yet from that has sprung this blog, and poems, and a newly-renewed love of chess. I have used the time to perfect translations, apply for internships, and cultivate new friendships both among the students and among old friends.

I have drafted and designed the layout of a new library and seen it installed, gained a budget - the majority of which I will probably leave to my successor - and, most recently, planned High Tea, complete with scones (with jam and cream), strawberries (with sugar and cream) and tea (no. No cream.).

I've also taken time to go around Germany, begin dating an American (if you knew me when I was younger, you'd be just as surprised as I was when I fell for her) and start translating +Derren Brown's book Tricks of the Mind, which will doubtlessly stand through history as one of the worst translations of an excellent book ever attempted. If I am to fail, I shall endeavour to make it memorable.

The point is that learning French is now, and always will be, the small part of my degree that makes up the marks. At university I have met incredible people whose views have continually challenged mine, from Aric at one end of the spectrum to Rob at the other. At every point in my education I have been challenged, frustrated, elated, impassioned and quite frankly murderous, especially when Student Council members -

But I digress. My point is that what I sacrifice by going to university, by spending 10 months abroad instead of 6, is not time that I could otherwise have spent earning money because money is not really the point of university or, indeed, of life. It is nice to have more money than less, but I don't know if I'd give up these earnings in the face of the people I've met, both here and at home.

The fact remains that this language, the seeds of which were sown at the age of maybe eight or nine years old, remains both constant and constantly fascinating. It has opened doors to me that I had never imagined opening, and as I look forward to the mere 3 months still ahead of me I know I'll be back before very long. There will be internships and possibly even jobs to be seized and friends with whom I  would to be reunited.

In short, then, languages are my passion and the skeleton key of my life. I don't know what lies ahead.

But I'm starting to get an outline.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013


My day started badly. The internet still didn't work - more on that later - and I spent too long trying to fix it by unplugging it, staring hard at it, and then plugging it back in. That didn't work. It never works, but one day it will, and that will be the day I become "The Man With Laser Eyes."

It actually picked up once I got to work; it's roasting hot and I'm in a nice cool office by the window, which means I never overheat and simultaneously have absolutely no chance of seeing the screen as I am blinded by the glare. Today I was working on a mini-guide to help computer illiterate alumni connect to the network. I had done a French and an English version when my colleague mentioned that there were a couple of German people on the list, and would I mind rattling off a version in German quickly?

Give her her dues, she held a straight face remarkably well while I spluttered and reached for the words in French to convey how touched I was that she'd asked me and how utterly awful that same idea was. I must have been a ridiculous figure, and she finally relented and admitted she was joking. The rest of the day passed as always; another chapter to re-read (I keep thinking I've finished with that, and I keep getting more chapters. It's bizarre.) and more students coming and borrowing things. Hurrah! I'm going to work on a survey for other students as well and offer a prize to bribe them into doing it. I love bribes. I love anonymity too, anonymous surveys are absolutely the best. Anonymous everything: job applications, exam papers, feedback forms.

I think a 50€ Amazon voucher would be in the theme of things.

I also corrected a blog post by a student who was writing about an explosion (and who'd tried to make it light-hearted but instead had made it scarier, like a gorilla with an Uzi) that occurred in a petrochemicals plant in Carling, France. The students have to write in English, and I was struck once more by the curiously narrow band of errors all French students make. Missing articles and prepositions  and having real trouble with the third person singular ending -s. Is this common to all students, or only those for whom French is the langue maternelle? 

My afternoon was given over to T.F.I practice, which is getting fractionally better week-on-week. There's one other student who's leaping ahead of me, and being naturally competitive I keep having to remind myself that I'm not trying to beat her, I'm just trying to get a good score.

(I am definitely trying to beat her.)

Following the lesson I headed back to my little mediatheque, saved lots of little pochettes from the bin - I have big plans for those bad boys - and then went to La Défense, to recover my shoes, which I'd worn a hole in from tramping around Versailles. I should have gone to a concert tonight, but I discovered before leaving work that my ticket had fallen out of my pocket at some point during the day and, despite tearing the room apart, I couldn't find the thing. I can guarantee that when I go in tomorrow one of the cleaners will have found it and put it on my desk. You'll be able to hear the cry of anguish wherever you are.

There's a silver lining, though. I've got my room tidier, my washing up done, and my laundry freshly...laundered, I suppose. And, even better, I've got the window open and the sounds of a little town on the outskirts of Paris are drifting in like smoke.

Let's not let this ever end.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013


I write to the tune of regular blips from Facebook which tell me I should be moderating and not writing. However, I'm going to disregard the blips for a moment, which tell me someone is trying to teach philosophy to a group of a thousand people and being given a lesson in the disconnect between reality and logic, and go through my day. For posterity.

It's got busier again, which I wasn't sure it could, but it could and it did. Another chapter landed in my inbox, an interesting one which has lots of lovely paragraphs to rewrite, as well as an entire course's worth of slides and, in addition, I was offered the chance to become immortalised on film giving a Health and Safety presentation.

Oh yes. My life is literally that cool.

In addition, two students came in and played three games of chess, four people borrowed books or DVDs, and I handed out test preparation materials like there was a test tomorrow. (There is.)

I have to confess total admiration for anyone who asks for "a book about grammar" 30 hours before a test on English grammar. I'm too much of a chicken to leave it that late, I study way early and still get nervy before the test.

The afternoon continued much like the morning; I completed one chapter and basked a bit, wrote something for my French class incredibly quickly (it was really weird, the title was life without television and I just went...surreal. I'll show it to you if you'd like.)

Went to the self-same French level and almost exploded my eyeballs with rage as the people around me explained in their halting French why television is a bad thing. It addicts people to sitting around on their bottoms, it promotes laziness, it's propaganda paid for my multinationals - as if books, newspapers, magazines weren't exactly the same. Apparently it makes kids violent, an assertion not reflected in any study I know if but still trotted. I'm so tired of it, so tired of hearing it, that I found my mouth forming the words the teacher said, simultaneously. Like the creepiest scene from any Doctor Who ever.

This one.


In any case, after the lesson I had a chance to speak to one of my classmates, Juan Pablo. I've mentioned him before, and we managed to spend two and a half hours talking about the role of faith, religion, science in the grand scheme of the universe. I think I made a couple of points, and he raised a couple of interesting ones too - there are areas of my argument that I am not absolutely knowledgeable on, and I need to read more.

Then back to my little flat, to find it had been cleaned and consequently my router had been shut off. It's now refusing to work. I despise all technology, apart from the bits that allow me to write this and upload it to the interweb.

Do watch that video, because it's scary and cool and, taking a step back, very well done. 

And then please get me some aspirin, because this blipping is blipping doing my blipping head in.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Yesterday was a Sunday, which is why there was no post. (That's a joke. Sorry)

Yesterday was a fantastic day. After teaching, I went into Paris to further explore the bookstores I'd found on Saturday. I had a notebook, I had a pen, I had pages of research: I was ready to make a list of 100 books that I wanted in my mediatheque.

Almost all the shops were shut. It was a Sunday. Obviously. Sometimes I forget that to the French, the capitalist spirit is anathema. This city-wide closure was probably not aided by the fact that there was yet another march against gay marriage. Say what you like about the ignorant and homophobic, but you must admit that they are tenacious and single-minded. If that were harnessed to a desire for equality, think how quickly we could all find ourselves in a better world.

Instead it's not. It's harnessed towards bigotry. Which kind of sucks.

In any case, Shakespeare and Company was open, and I snagged a copy of the sonnets. While he is an incredible author, a poet and a playwright, his sonnets make it so wonderfully clear that he was a man who struggled with love and rejection and, above all, mortality. It's so easy to give him the status of a god, but realising he was human is better and worse - he was human, and since I am human too, I am capable of such astonishing feats.

Mind you, I used to feel the same about Richard Feynman, and it turns out he was light years beyond most everyone in terms of intellect. So perhaps it's not entirely true.

The rest of the day passed without incident; in glorious sunshine I strolled about the city and for a while read and trailed a finger in the waters of the Seine. I got drawn into a conversation with some Americans and, after a couple of drinks, blearily realised that it was terribly late and, gathering myself, staggered to the RER station and made it somehow home. I didn't manage to write anything last night. I barely even managed to get up this morning, but get up I did, and the headache is just now starting to recede.

Tonight my class has been cancelled, as has my private student, and so I can finally get a haircut! It's not as interesting as I'd like this blog to be, but sometimes even such a life as mine has dips of dull minutiae, like haircuts. A bowl of soup and a long sleep should have me feeling far better for tomorrow morning, but for now, light is agonising, noise is painful, and I've still got the shakes - so that's all for today.

Thank you to those who suggested titles to me; they're brilliant ideas, every one, and have been added to the list.

GEGS, by the way, is "EGGS" but with the letters mixed up - or scrambled. The answer is "scrambled eggs."

Isn't it a beauty?

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Shakespeare and Company

Well. It seem I really love books.

Today was a long day. It started at half past seven, as usual - I can't remember the last time I had a long lie in - and after ablutions and dressing (black shirt, burgundy tie, navy suit since you asked) I made my way to A's house for some more English tutoring. Having seen his syllabus, I'm going to need to brush up on some maths along with some biology, so that'll be really interesting. Evolution is up next, so there's a lot for me to read there - I'm currently reading The Science of Discworld III and it turns out almost everything I thought I knew about evolution is wrong, so I need to get refreshed.

After teaching, A's father suggested that I carry on tutoring A even when I go home, via Skype, and they'll set up a wire transfer and keep paying me. The idea is very tempting, especially as it'll mean I'll only need to work four hours a week to manage my budget, rather than the twenty I've currently got planned. However, I'm not sure how well I can tutor via the internet, so I might need to do a trial run first. If you tutor online, what programs do you use? Are there any you recommend?

After tutoring I headed home and dropped in on my friend Adeline, who's as cute as a button and as innocent as the driven snow (and almost as dangerous). She'd agreed to come with me on a journey to the centre of Paris to find Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore. We strolled down to the station at about 2 and caught the RER into town, popping up at Chatelet-les-Halles. From there it's a short walk south to the Seine, over the bridge, and into what could be described as the literature quarter. I didn't take my camera. I'm still kicking myself.

I failed at finding Shakespeare & Co on the first try, so instead we went to Gilbert Jeune, which is one bookstore with many different storefronts spread around the Place de Saint Michel. I confess at this point that I went back into full-on teacher mode. I spoke at length about Saint Michel and Satan, calling attention to the figures that form the fountain in the Place. I gathered a small crowd with my ramblings. The crowd dispersed when I realised they were there and became rather self-aware, and with a motion worthy of Schrödinger they disappeared. Going into the bookstore I was in my element, plucking books from every corner and gleefully exclaiming at the prices. My glee was turned all the way up to eleven when the manager told me that, if I were to spend more than x amount, he would give me a ten percent discount. Nothing makes me happier than books; nothing but books that cost even less. Let me teach Shakespeare for the rest of my life and I shall be content. Let me help students explore my language always and pay me only enough to survive and I will be content always.

After that outpouring of excitement (and an interesting flirtation with a goddess from the Egyptian pantheon called Isis) Adeline and I grabbed a seat outside Notre Dame and listened to the bells. They start off sounding like a mere cacophany, but as you listen you start to hear the tune and the counterpoint; it shifts and moves and is glorious. The bells are new and shiny and recently blessed, and while I can't speak for the blessing the newly cast tongues sing gloriously. The technical term for bellringing, by the way, is campanology.

Outside Notre Dame we met Arrash, another student at school, who told us about the concert happening at Notre Dame on Wednesday. He was going, and was kind enough to ask if we'd like to go too. Adeline and I were quick to agree; she is both musical and Christian and, while I am neither, I have a deep-seated appreciation for both in their more beautiful forms. The tickets were 20€ each; a little pricey, but I strongly suspect it's going to be worth it.

From Notre Dame, we said goodbye to Arrash and Adeline navigated us to Shakespeare and Co, where I managed to form another small crowd - not such a sensible idea in the tiny little space of the shop. I couldn't help it; we found the Shakespeare section and, since Adeline has trouble with Shakespearean English - heck, even I used to have trouble with Shakespearean English - I went through some of the more famous speeches with her. We gathered a little audience, although part of that might have just been onlookers concerned for my health when I talked about how everyone wants to just kill themselves although, as I said at the time, they weren't my words but Hamlet's. (Not Shakespeare's; ascribing an opinion to Shakespeare because he wrote it is akin to ascribing paedophilia to Nabokov because one of his characters was one. Idiotic.)

I snapped some pictures of books I'd like to add to the library. Do you agree with my choices? I've obviously missed a lot, so what would you suggest? Thoughts in the comments below or to my twitter as always please.

 Any you violently disagree with? Still let me know, although gently please. I like these books and your opinion matters to me.

After that glorious jaunt, and while I say jaunt I mean hours (we finally came out, blinking in the still-strong sunlight, at 7) and strolled about, looking for somewhere to eat. We found a gorgeous little bistro and got stuck in to soupe oignon gratinée, malgré du canard, tarte, sorbet and an excellent wine from the Alsace region.

Fuller and happier and utterly content in the company of a friend we made our way gently homeward. A gorgeous stroll through the still-warm night and we are home, and just about ready to collapse. Tomorrow there will be more tutoring and some work on my year abroad project and blog. And planning on how to spend my budget.

Life is just too great right now.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Samuel Beckett and waiting

Such an incredible day today, and I'm bursting to share it with you. A little while ago I started emailing my supervisor from my gmail account, because that's the one I have easy access to on my laptop and it's on my laptop that I do my translations, because being able to touch type is no advantage at all when you're using a keyboard with the letters in all the wrong places.

However, using my gmail account means that I now get important emails from her on my phone, and so it was that in the middle of lunch I discovered I have a little budget for new books, DVDs, anything I want at all for my new mediatheque and for my awesome students!

I'm so excited I'm going to Shakespeare and Company tomorrow after my normal teaching session to check out the books on offer and, perhaps, do a little dance of total glee. I have money to spend on books and it's not even my money. There's going to be some game of thrones up in here. At least. In other money mentions, I discovered another solid lump in my bank account courtesy of the student loans company, so with that on top of other plans my next two years are looking pretty comfortable.

The book's finished; the last part of that went this afternoon, and I'm not sure how it'll be received - the conclusion as I translated it reads well but plays fast and loose with the original language. It's an ongoing issue I'm having with translation works, but so far I'm pretty pleased. We'll see; if it comes back with a "REJECTED" stamp on it it'll be back to the drawing board.

Two more hours of teaching this evening and, as I think I mentioned last week, En attendant Godot rounded off my evening. Godot is a work of absolute brilliance, and seeing it in French was amazing - the actors were fantastic and the theatre, while as hot as all hell, was utterly charming. Publicly funded théâtres are the greatest thing in the world, and it's only given me more enthusiasm for student théâtre when I get back.

When I get back! The days are rapidly running out but time still turns. At Aberdeen we now have a new executive committee and my own personal favourite committee is headed up by two excellent people. I'm hoping that I can elected to it, but since elections will take place while I'm all the way out here in France I'm not confident. We shall see what happens.

Oh, the reason I've put waiting in the title of this post is because I've been waiting all evening to find out who translated Beckett's English play Waiting for Godot into French.

Turns out it was originally a French play that Beckett wrote in French and then translated.

Every time I get some culture I am reminded of the depths of my own failings and the heights there are yet to achieve. So exciting. Next year is going to be incredible.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Things are hotting up

The weather and the work. The weather is glorious, and although my girlfriend is currently in Scotland (and having an incredible time, by the sounds of it) I feel absolutely no inclination to head in that direction. Sorry love, but I know you're coming back. I'm not so certain about the sun.

The work has increased apace as well, with new commissions coming in left, right and centre. We're already gearing up for next year's rentrée, the start of the new year, which means co-ordinating all the different schools, the numerous presentations that need to be given, translating materials for each programme in each school and finally planning new things for the médiathèque next year.

(Apparently next year's stagiaire reads this blog. Well played that girl. There will be many new and exciting things for you to do next year.)

The book is nearly finished, and the history just becomes more and more interesting. Here translation becomes more difficult; while I want to stick to the original text, I also want to stay true to the spirit - and the two are almost incompatible. Translations are hard, and I wish I'd got into it earlier - the European Government runs an annual competition, and when I get back I'm going to be asking why more places don't take part.

Probably because they're not as nerdy as me. Ho hum.

French class this evening coupled with another two hundred words of my year abroad project have left me starving, so it's going to be a jacket potato (done in the microwave - ye gods I miss my oven) and a relaxing evening watching the results of Aberdeen University Students' Association's elections coming in.

A really short blog tonight, but hunger prevents me expanding, so instead I leave a fascinating cryptic crossword clue that I'll be offering to students.

The clue is: GEGS
The answer is 9 letters long, and then 4 letters long.
So it might be, for example, Alexandra Scot.
(It's not that, which should help.)

If you know the answer, do let me know. It's amazing once you get it.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


I think I now have to admit it. I have put it off for long enough, but today, as I sit at my desk, I must admit defeat. There is fluid streaming from my nose, my eyes, too, are watering and itchy to boot, while my head is playing host to the kind of headache that isn't enough to stop you working but is enough to really, really irritate you.

It's clear that this is the first stage of the bubonic plague, and I will shortly die.

With that in mind, let me tell you about my day, which has been long and fatiguing. First things first; I woke up to 13 Facebook notifications. The only time I get that many is my birthday, and that was the first thing I checked. It was only my unbirthday.

In my bucolic and idyllic life I had forgotten that far away in Aberdeen the elections for next year's sabbatical team were approaching, and last night the storm broke. Invitations to join events and publicly declare for whom I would be voting flooded in. I don't know how you feel about this. On the one hand, suddenly I'm the popular kid, and lord knows that's exciting.

On the other hand it's really, really hard to even think about next year's sabbatical team when the weather is a balmy 20º and I can do my translations outside and my twitter feed is alive with people "being brave in spite of the weather." I shudder when I remember that Scotland will be home for the next two years.

Post-degree, I'm going to be back here. Assuming the plague doesn't claim me first.

In any case, it's not a thought that needs to be entertained for long, but I was further reminded by an insolent email today from the school that told me I needed to fill in several forms if I wanted to receive the rest of my ERASMUS grant. However, scanned copies are acceptable, which is really cheering - paper copies can be lost, while digital information sticks around forever.

I've absolutely finished unpacking my new office, and students are already coming in and borrowing books - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde went today alongside a collection of Wilde's stories. I lent that one with particular glee; Oscar is one of my absolute favourites. I hope the student enjoys him like I do.

We had a French lesson this afternoon, in which I pretended to be +Barack Obama. I feel like I did a pretty good job, although I broke character by speaking French - Obama speaks Spanish. Which is pretty cool in itself, I think.

The last action of the day was to head into Paris central to drop off a confirmation cheque for a little soirée we're organising tomorrow for some of the school's alumni and current students. It'll be a great opportunity to network, if you're interested in becoming an engineer working in oil and/or gas.

Translation, teaching, PR, diplomatic corps? Not so much. Still, it'll be a fun evening; out of necessity I've tried a couple of drinks on the menu and they are very good at momentarily convincing a chap that the deadly buboes that will kill him are even now not expanding in his -

Oh, hang on. I've just checked wikipedia. It's hay fever.

I feel faintly robbed.

(Something I wrote got guest blogged for someone pretty impressive today too, so that was kind of awesome. If you're interested in the other side of my life, where I just talk about PR, you can read it here.)

Monday, 15 April 2013


I'm writing even as updates appear in the left hand corner of my screen about some explosions that have occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It's really quite weird to even consider writing about my day when these events are happening, but happening they are, and they are happening half a world away from me. I can't change that, though I'd like to, so rather than sitting here twiddling my thumbs I'm going to say only this:

  1. Donating blood is easy. You can do it anywhere. I recently did it here in France and was only a little afraid I'd be misunderstood and have my entire body accidentally drained.
  2. Donating a little cash is even easier and even less painful. Consider giving a couple of quid/dollars/huge rocks with holes in (delete as applicable) a month and feeling smug for saving someone's life.
Easy peasy. Please do one of those two things before reading on, or at least do it simultaneously. If you're giving blood then with any luck my prose will cause you more pain than the needle and thus distract you. Onwards.

My morning was beautiful. The sun is shining, the air is warm, and rather than leaving my skin behind when I arose I was instead a rather nice light tan colour. The wonders of my Spanish heritage, which turn up only when I'm under attack from ultraviolet rays sent through space. Or sunlight, if you prefer. I installed myself in my new office, brought my computer down, and plugged everything in. There is a curious satisfaction to currently connecting all the bits and pieces of a computer; everything fits together perfectly.

My morning was taken up with a thirteen-page read through of the third chapter from the book I'm proofreading. No sign of chapter two, as I'm sure you noticed. Where that is nobody knows, but we're certain it exists somewhere. This chapter was a lot easier, and finding out the history of the place in which I live is really very interesting.

My afternoon was all about unpacking. At this point the sneaking suspicion grew on me that books multiply in ways we cannot be certain of; while I cannot prove it, I am sure that we now have more books than we did when I boxed them away. I stood looking at shelves heaving with books, and then the pile of books still to be unpacked, and could not work out how to recombine the two in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Several hours later, and with filthy hands, one of my students turned up to tell me that nobody would be coming to class today, as they all had project work or were on vacation. While a warning of more than ten minutes would have been more useful, and would have better allowed me to plan my free hour, these kids are really busy and the mere fact they sent an envoy was very good of them.

So I upped and I left and managed to read a little more Machiavelli before supping on soup and going off to my private student, who is as charming as ever. The evening was so barmy we sat outside in the heat and sipped beer and talked. I keep saying this, but there is nothing as brilliant as looking back at how a student used to be, and how they are now, and realising the leaps and bounds they've made. Fantastic.

Home; no greasy take-away meal for me today (though my stomach, being naught but a dumb animal, protests at the indignity). The awful events in Boston are still unfolding so I'm going to stop here and just restate that giving a pint of blood will impact your life only so far as some of your lifetime will not be spent doing precisely what you want. Please, please do it. If you can spare a little wonga too then fantastic, but blood is absolutely more important. 

I can't say it without saying cheesy, but if you save a life with your own damn blood, that makes you a superhero. 

Go forth and be a superhero.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Doing the lobster

You know how sometimes you put things off because you know they'll be painful? Like going to the dentist, or getting your injections, or going to bed after spending a day in the sun without so much as a hat.

This informs the title of this post. My skin has the tight, pink sheen that is normally only associated with a freshly boiled crustacean. I am now giving off heat and, I suspect, would glow like an ember were I to turn out the lights in my little room. Was it worth it? At the moment, through cracked lips, I still say yes. When I get up tomorrow and slough off half of my skin in the shower you may get a different response, but for now:

God, Paris is a gorgeous city. Even when it's so hot I can barely walk, it's beautiful. You know that in Paris you can sit by the Seine and dangle your toes in the river? You can't do that with the Thames. Common wisdom is that you'd end up with more or less toes than you started with. More or less, mind, no chance of the number remaining the same.

But in Paris, in the shadow of the French Iron Lady, you can dip a toe in the water and only worry about the current carrying you away, screaming, before being shredded by the blades of one of the many tour boats the prowl the river.

The view over the Seine is equally beautiful, although it was disturbed today by the site of a clearly highly organised gang of conmen. They were running a scam that has various names and involve a large degree of sleight of hand - "Find the lady" being the most common of its names. Being something of an amateur magician it was hard not to be impressed with the misdirection they used, but at the same time the stooges were obvious - although clearly only to those watching. I saw one Spanish tourist lose 100€ in a minute, and when she started to become visibly irate the whole gang just up and melted away into the throng on the bridge. And I mean gang; I'd not spotted the spotter (qui custodiet ipsos custodes, you know) but he moved with the whole lot of them too. If you want to know more about this particular con just type "find the lady" or "three card monte" into Youtube and look forward to hours of fun.

Although it sounds patronising I'm going to say it anyway for the benefit of people like me; that is to say people who are intelligent enough to think they can outsmart these guys. Don't try. They are far better at it, and you cannot be everywhere at once. You might win once, but one of the gang will shortly have his fingers in your pockets because you showed the world where you keep your wallet when you got it out to pocket your winnings. The house always wins, no matter if it's Caesar's palace or a sweaty guy on the Pont d'Iéna. Do the really smart thing and walk straight on.

Aside from that, I took some touristy snaps - I do love the Eiffel Tower - and then strolled my weary bones home.

Reading, as always, is my constant joy as I walk. While my HTC has access to every song I've ever bought it's also got the life of a gadfly and loses 50% of its battery if I so much as look at it, so that negates any musical distraction. However, my +Amazon.com Kindle Touch, a much appreciated gift from my mother, has the staying power of a Duracell Bunny. I literally can't remember the last time I charged it, the thing's a beast, and it boasts a lot of interesting titles - although new releases still haven't come down in price, classics are ten a penny. At the moment I'm trying to sink my teeth into Flatland by Edwin Abbott and I confess it's doing my brain an injury. It deals with a totally two-dimensional world, and just trying to imagine that is making my grey matter fold in on itself. How do they eat? How do they have houses? Or trees? Both are mentioned by the narrator in the first chapter. I look forward to seeing how it further unfolds. Or doesn't, since in 2D space there are no folds.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

There was so much promise

Today has been characterised almost entirely by yawns. I yawned my way through teaching, my promenade by the Seine, and the second book in the Felix Castor series, which is actually an excellent book and comes highly recommended by yours truly.

Unfortunately that's all I can manage, I'm falling asleep at my desk here and to avoid ending up with YTREWQ printed on my face I'm turning in. There may be more tomorrow if this fatigue lifts.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Installing real life...99% complete

Exciting day today, which started with me being locked out of my new office. This happens too often.

However, I found a key, and sat myself down. No computer yet; while books can be lugged around any old how, computers must be signed for in triplicate, because people are more likely to steal a computer. Even a four-year old computer with less processing power than the A5-sized tablet they have in their bag. It's crazy, the thing must weigh a ton.

In any case - this meant I was on my laptop, and since I prefer +Gmail over Outlook (sorry Microsoft, sorry Apple, my next laptop's going to be a Chromebook and I'll always be an Android fanboy) my supervisor has started emailing me on that address. However, since I also use it for personal stuff (emails to my dad, getting tickets to En attendant Godot, my weekly hairdressing appointments) I decided now was the time to take control of my inbox. I said it with force. I said it with conviction. I said it with absolutely no idea how I'd go about it.

Step forward +Lifehacker, my favourite find ever. They output around 20-30 articles a day, and almost all of them go in my trash bin because they don't apply to me. But I always scan the titles, because once in a while an absolute gem comes up. Lifehacker is my go-to guy; if Stephen Fry were a website, he'd be Lifehacker. Maybe. Whether he would or he wouldn't be, I knew Lifehacker would help me out, and they did. Page after page on how to take control of your Gmail inbox, and before I knew it I'd so totally organised my inbox that I had a folder for everyone, subfolders for topics, and I'd lost three hours of my day.

Students came in and out throughout the morning, and I'm hoping that's going to become a common theme - I really want the huge new space I've got to be more than book storage. I want it to be a place for conversation, for improving English, and for rediscovering classics of English. English is my first language and my first love, and I'm so excited to now have the opportunity to share it with even more students.

I'm also right next to the coffee machine, so I'm expecting my five hours of sleep per night to be further abbreviated. I will carry on regardless; I would do anything for love. Apart from that weird thing with ketchup and apples, you can keep that to yourself. Weirdo.

Lunch today was kids' menu; turkey nuggets and chips. This is what I count as a weekend treat; going out on a Friday night is not feasible with a 10am start. I'm confident that other students reading this will shake their heads and laugh mockingly, but I'm old now. I'm 23, another few years and I get my pension.

(As I get closer to graduation I'm realising more and more that the world doesn't work that way, but I'm clinging to my delusion like a lifejacket)

My weekend looks pretty good, with lessons in the morning, a walk along the Seine with some work colleagues and I think a visit to Paris on Sunday. I've not been in for a while and I've some things to see before I leave - a date which is approaching with alarming speed.

For tonight I'll leave you with this from my new favourite musical, Matilda, which has just opened on Broadway. 400 Americans read this blog in the last five days; if any of you are New Yorkers I implore you to go and see this wonderful production.

Skip to 0.40 for the good stuff and to avoid David Walliams.

When I grow up, I will eat sweets every day
On the way to work 
And I will go to bed late every night
And I will wake up when the sun comes up and I
Will watch cartoons until my eyes go square and I won't care
'Cause I'll be all grown up.

(Hands up if this was you not so long ago.)

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Moving about again

I am in my new (new) and (I pray and I beg) permanent office!

The workmen finished off today, and I now have a gloriously open space, with a table for meetings and lessons as well as shelves for books and DVDs. I also have a blank wall, on which I could put posters or project English-language video clips. There will be Blackadder, Ab Fab, Fawlty Towers and the Office before my time here is out.

I arrived this morning feeling utterly washed out; I've not been sleeping particularly well recently and apparently staying up until you almost fall asleep is not the cure I thought it was. However, calls in rapid succession from my supervisor and my co-worker had my brain turning over like the finely-tuned engine it is. My supervisor needed a very boring task done in Excel, so I made a macro and watched with glee as my boring task got a lot easier. Macros are exceedingly cool little things, and if you use Excel a lot I recommend you learn how to use them.

I also had a small translation to do and a copy-edit to do on someone else's translation. A small nightmare, because the translator had translated the present tense in French to the present tense in English. This doesn't sound even vaguely nightmare-like, but in French you can describe events that happened in the past with the present tense - the same way you do when you tell a story in the pub:

"So I'm in the club and this guy comes up to me, he starts talking to me and flirting with me and I'm like..."
Unfortunately, it's not suitable for written text. Thus for half an hour I went through an otherwise perfect translation making "is" into "was" and "have" into "had" and "explodes" into "exploded". I actually really enjoyed the text, which is lucky, because there are another 12 chapters to come.

That brought me to 5 o'clock (which I almost wrote as 1700h, my French ambushes me in unlikely places) and my French lesson with Raphaël, who's my favourite French teacher. He loves tangents as much as I do and we have a good rapport, which is really cheering. We were doing the passive tense, which is old hat for me, but since there were only three of us we worked together, and I tried to tease the right answers out of my friends - which to their credit they hardly needed, leaping to the correct response like gazelle.

After that, I went back to see my supervisor, where we worked out a few kinks in the copy-edit, talked about some more work she had for me, and how I can improve my written style and grammar. Before I knew it was 8pm, and she kindly offered me an hour off tomorrow. I've taken it in the morning, which means I will be staying in bed until the glorious hour of 9am.

I'm telling you. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

For dinner I have accidentally bought a baguette that could be considered a loaf. Take a butcher's at this bad boy:

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


I got a pleasant surprise in my inbox today; an email from the British Council congratulating me on the fact that I'd been approved to work in France next year.

This is pleasant because it gives me something to fall back on, should other career plans fall apart, but surprising because I've withdrawn my candidacy for next year. Or at least I thought I had. So I sent a quick email back, thanking the British Council for the opportunity but mentioning that regretfully I would have to turn it down.

A quick response pinged back; no problem at all. I would be taken off the system. Best wishes for the future.

Ten minutes later I got another email from the British Council, asking if I'd mind terribly if they placed me in the countryside rather than in a city. I am currently trying to formulate an email that doesn't question the reading abilities of those writing these emails. It absolutely isn't their fault, no doubt the system updates at midnight and the email blasts are being sent automatically. Which is why I shan't send the email.

I just find it cathartic to write.

In other news: our network went down this morning, so I was left twiddling my thumbs as I tried to find something to do. I was so strapped for work that I started on the essay I have to complete for university, which will be on manifestations - demonstrations - and why the French are more enthusiastic about it than we are. It will likely be a little fluffy, but should be fun to write - and to read.

I was sent on a mission - an errand, rather than an explosive adventure featuring micro-star-scientologist  Tom Cruise - across campus to retrieve an important cheque. The errand happily coincided with the rain that began to fall in sync with my first step outside, and by happily I mean unhappily. Once I got back, an avalanche of work fell into my lap, including two translations and an Excel project. Using a macro I have to match up questions from our questionnaire with state-approved questions, and it is proving to be something of a nightmare because the answers have to match state-approved answers too.

And neither list is in alphabetical order and there are about fifty questions on our side and 150 on theirs.


All the way through lunch I responded to students' requests for their scores, which arrived this morning, and then ran off to grab a swift bite to eat before my T.F.I class. Some good and some bad came out of it; my listening scores are now hitting the mid-80s which is a huge positive, but my grammatical skills still - and there is no other way of saying this - suck.

So that's what I'll be doing after this, after the other two blogs I need to write.

Anyone else ever get annoyed and frustrated that the only important part of their body is their brain and it petulantly demands petty things like nutrition and sleep?

Just me. Right.

While I eat, here's a guy doing some impressions of how other animals eat. They're excellent, you'd almost believe the animals were there in the room.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

French secretaries

Some things in life make you want to explode out of sheer rage at being made to wait. Sometimes it's in the coffee-shop, where the person at the front of the queue has apparently been asleep and is now unsure of where they are or what they're doing. Sometimes it's in the laundry room, where someone has left their clothes in the dryer and, as the minutes creep past, it becomes clear that they have forgotten.

And sometimes it's being made to wait for twenty minutes, sent away, brought back, abandoned and then shot up 45 flights in a lift only to be abandoned again.

Let me start from the beginning. We had some important documents in the office that needed to be signed by a man who works in La Défense, so at 3pm I girded my loins, pulled myself up by my bootstraps, and made my way into town.

At this point it was raining. I say this now because the rain continued throughout this little misadventure, and I really want you to understand my soggy unhappiness from the offset.

So after finding the tower in which the elusive Monsieur was hiding I was blocked by four elegant, beautiful, bespectacled secretaries. I felt like Don Draper. I stepped up, presented my credentials, and had them returned with a blank stare. Not a good start, I felt, but perhaps my French had deteriorated after a week in Allemagne. I started again.

- Je suis - I was cut off.
M. is not available today. He will be available later this week.
Four perfect pairs of Parisian epaulettes moved in time.
Later this week.

The frustration notched up a little.

- I need three signatures, that's all.
The look I received might have floored a rhinocerous. I beat a hasty retreat and rang my supervisor, who is also a secretary. She snorted derisively, told me she'd call me back, and hung up.

A moment later, one of the secretary's phones rang. She answered in tones as clipped and polished as her nails. Her eyes widened. She looked down. She looked at me. She looked at the phone. She put the phone down.

I didn't do a victory dance. At least not on the outside.

I was escorted to a life, where a number was punched in and I was ushered inside. Before I had a chance to ask the number of the office, I was flung up 45 floors. The height of a room is 2.4m, which means I shot up 108m in a time that was unpleasantly fast. Several of my vertebrae cracked. My ears popped. I got shorter, and at this height, that's not a fun thing.

I stepped out, trying to get used to the fact that my chin now touched my shoelaces. I waited there while people gave me suspicious looks as they swept past. Finally the Monsieur's own secretary came to find me, and then took my documents and left me in what might charitably be called a broom cupboard. She returned thirty seconds later, scowled, and gave me back the documents. She ushered me back to the lift, which re-cracked my vertebrae, re-popped my ears, and returned me to my normal size.

I then had to rocket home to drop off the documents. I literally ran past, dropped the documents in my intray, ran out and leaped back aboard a bus. Three metros later I was in the right area.

I then managed to take a wrong turn that would give me a lovely mile long walkabout before finally reaching my destination - a meeting with the next President of the CIPR.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Everything's coming up

So getting in at 2am, starting work at 9, and not doing laundry is not the brightest of ideas. Furthermore, scheduling things all day so that when you finish at 9pm everything is shut is similarly un-cunning.

These are things I have learnt.

However, I also had the incredible opportunity to speak to an old friend of the family, which was an enormous pleasure. Something may come of it, but then again something may not. I shall be sure to keep you updated.

Aside from that, however, today has been really quite slow. I taught a class of two, which was difficult, because two is a little too small to really get decent discussion going. I've got a book to translate - an actual book! - which is exciting but will be tough work.

And aside from that...nothing. A good lesson with my private student earlier, an entire baguette for tea and near terminal fatigue setting in right about now.

I hate to do short blogs, but after the splurge of writing and excitement over the past week this is all I have to give. I am splurged out.

That sounded less unpleasant in my head.

Regardless. I'm falling asleep at my desk, and to avoid the dreaded "QWERTY" face I'm leaving it.

It's wonderful to be back in France and unsettling how much it feels like home.

Jonathan im Deutschland - Sixth Day

Today has been spent almost entirely packing or traveling, and as a result I have little of note to share today. I will remark, however, that German security is more stringent than its French counterpart. As example I offer my own experience.

Upon arriving at Paris Charles-de-Gaulle airport I rushed through security and soon found myself ready to take a plane. To get through security I merely evacuated my laptop from its bag, dumped my coat and jacket in a tray and strolled with leonine steps through the metal detector. The security guard gave me a nod, I returned it, replaced laptop, jacket and coat, and then strolled on before having a coffee and pondering some Molière.

For "pondering some Molière" read "sitting down, realising that the plane was boarding and leaping up again." but really, why let the truth get in the way of a pleasing phrase?

Now, on my way back, I went through the same procedure, only this time the metal detector went off. I was wearing almost the exact same outfit, note, but the detector went off anyway. It could smell my apprehension, my fear of being shouted at in German again. So it went off.

I was waved to the side and what followed was the most intimate examination of my being I've ever had while still wearing clothes. This security guard knows which way I dress. He knows whether or not I'm circumcised. He knows my collar size, my trouser size, and the length of my hand from the wrist to the tip of the longest finger.

That's not what he measured, but he knows it all the same.

So my advice to travelers is this: if you are passing through a German airport, save yourself some time and dress in canvas trousers, a cotton shirt, and rubber sandals.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Jonathan im Deutschland - Fifth Day

We woke up late today, our bodies clinging to the last vestiges of sleep. These early starts were conflicting with the weight of human belief, which is that holidays are for lying about in bed. We finally left at ten and were soon on the autobahn, heading to Cologne. There's a little cathedral in Cologne. Well, maybe not little. In fact, it's so huge that I may well need to spend the rest of this paragraph explaining its size.

The cathedral is a work of extraordinary architecture. You can climb to the top of this tower to look out across the city, and I say you because asking me to climb that high via a helical staircase while other people come down the same staircase is a waste of breath.

The thing is, I have absolutely no fear of going up. Getting me down, however, might require a parachute. Even a few chaps with a wee trampoline.

The point is going up is easy. Coming back down without becoming a messy stain is a little more tricky.

In any case, it's a huge tower, and since Ali is kind and sensitive to my hatred of seeing nothing but air between me and concrete she did not even suggest we venture up.

For that I am indebted to her.

She's also driven me round and let me live in her living room (which I maintain is the purpose of a living room) but this is more important.

We went in after circling the building to find Mass in full swing and the only people being allowed into the church proper were the faithful. I was tempted to fake it, but there were other things to do, and I'd had my fill of being angrily shouted at in German last night. So instead we wandered. We wandered to the little train that takes people through the town to the Schokoladenmuseum.

In English: the Chocolate Museum.

Pause for a moment. Rest your weary eyeballs from their continual race across the electronic page and drink in those words. Chocolate. Museum. With a display by Lindt. It was utterly beautiful. The smell that assaults you the moment you mount the steps up to the building is glorious, and you swim against the tide of the chocolate smell until you enter the building and stand, soaking in it. Entry for adults is €8, but with that smell ensnaring your senses you'd gnaw off your own arm if they asked for it.

We roamed through the halls, drinking in the scent and the history - the story - of the humble cocoa bean. Did you know that the name of the cocoa tree is theobroma cacoa, or food of the gods? I didn't. Now I do, and so do you.

The exhibition also didn't shy away from the fact that cocoa workers are gratuitously and hideously exploited. Approximately 75% of all cocoa harvesters will never taste their finished product. They subsist on little wages and have to include their children in the harvest. The situation is getting better, with co-ops and Fairtrade organisations, but still - there's some way to go.

After that depressing episode, we went to the chocolate room, which seemed to have been transplanted from Willy Wonka's factory. I am convinced that with a top hat and a cane I could have breezed through the locked doors and found the chocolate river. And then sailed it.

Right here we have a lovely lady standing by a facsimile of a cocoa tree from which flowed a little chocolate river. Behind is the gorgeous Rheine. I didn't get enough pictures, but all I can do is implore you to visit if you ever find yourself in Cologne. It is money well spent.

Plus, the shop at the end will ensure your kids don't get any inheritance. Chocolate everything, everywhere, in every variety you could imagine and some you'd need to drop a tab before you could even imagine them. Such utter, total, glorious cocoa beauty.

Go. Go now. If you find the chocolate river, for God's sake tell me.

Speaking of God - but we'll get to that in just a second. First: lunch. Steak was on my mind, and we found a passable steakhouse in the cathedral's main plaza. It was excellent, although the Polish waitress who spoke only German made ordering hilariously difficult.  We did it, we ate, we paid. I was so happy to be back in a restaurant that had a normal system that I overtipped enormously. The tipping may have been helped by the Jäger I tilted down my throat. I couldn't say why, but I've been lusting after just a little of it all week.

We headed back out, with the aim of getting back into the cathedral in the hope that Mass had ended and we could fully explore the gigantic structure. Instead, we walked into a pillow fight.

Well, not quite. As we walked back towards the building, we saw little white feathers floating above us. Had angels descended? Unlikely. Had someone hit a seagull with a baseball bat? Also unlikely, but being students in Aberdeen a small part of us wished it to be so. The small part that had been robbed of a bacon sandwich at half past eight wished and hoped it, but no.

As we got closer to the source of the feathers, we heard joyous shouting. And then we rounded the corner. The longer version I recorded will come later, but for the moment here's a little clip of what we saw:

Utter, wonderful, chaos.

And a fitting end to my week here in Germany. Tomorrow I go back to France, but I will miss this place, the language, and the incredible scenery. I need to travel more.

But then I suppose we all do.

Jonathan im Deutschland - Fourth Day

We returned to Frankfurt for in the evening we had tickets to see Euripedes' tragedy Medea. There will be more on that later, and I strongly encourage you to stay for it, because it's an episode of my life that will haunt me forever.

But we shall start at the very beginning, which Julie Andrews tells us is a very good place to start. We took a direct train to Frankfurt and began our day at the Natural History Museum. You know. With the dinosaurs. Remember this guy?

Well it turns out that underneath that scaly skin and without the piercing eyes and walbut brain filled only with rage for humanity he's just like us.

Only weighing about five tons and with a radically different skeletal structure.

And still with the teeth.

Alright, so he's not like us at all, but I needed a lead in to this incredible skull.

The museum itself was incredible. There were admittedly a few rooms where the complex zoological language was only rendered in German, but that just meant I wandered through with glee. As long as it's not life threatening or people shouting loudly at me, I love not understanding. I like learning, and I love languages, but there's a certain childish glee in looking at a block of text surrounding a long-extinct fish and thinking I have absolutely not the first idea what this says. And that's especially true in German. Capital letters suddenly and spontaneously arrive in the middle of sentences, verbs go rocketing to the ends of clauses and there are instances of this letter, ß, which is just gorgeous. Reading Roman letters and suddenly seeing ß is like waking up one morning, going to eat your breakfast and finding you've got snails next to the porridge.

However, I would say around 90% of the museum has translations, and they're excellent. There are whole rooms of taxidermied animals, and if you get the audioguide a nice chap explains exactly what goes into making a dead animal into a beautifully posed statue covered in animal skin.

Eventually we worked our way into the dinosaur exhibit. Dinosaur bones are just the coolest. They offer your imagination the chance to put skin, muscle, soul on the shape in front of you. I like skeletons, and this was just a beautiful opportunity. I essentially just ran around reading and forgot to take photographs, so there are only a few to share.

After this visit we were starving, and Italian food was the desire of the day. We found what looked like a seriously promising Italian restaurant which was bustling with people. However, as we passed the front desk, the server said "Do you know our system?"

This is pretty high on my list of "Worrying things servers can say." I was, until this point, fairly sure I understood restaurants. I sit. Someone on minimum wage comes to the table, smiles the smile of someone who knows their job depends on it, and takes an order. It is delivered. I eat. I pay (and tip, because this industry is harder than investment banking and those guys seem to get decent bonuses). I leave.

That was what I understood, so the question "Do you know our system?" threw me. Clearly it was different to normal. I said no.

She explained in rapid German and then pointed us towards the table. As we walked, we passed queues of people. I found this odd, so we sat and observed.

It transpired that this restaurant had been inspired by school canteens. You lined up, ordered your food when you reached the front and faced the rushed-off-his-or-her-feet chef and then watched with fascination as he or she whipped it up in front of you.

No meal took more than five minutes to cook, and seeing it made in front of me, but after waiting for twenty-five minutes I was willing to lay about me with knife and fork and simply eat whatever body parts my flailing managed to carve from the bystanders.

And then when I'd finally been served, and watched my (admittedly delicious) meal be prepared in front of me, Ali then had to go and repeat the process.

Time spent eating: five minutes. Time spent waiting: fifty minutes.

Go only if you enjoy queueing. Never again.

After lunch we set off for the GeldMuseum, a museum about money and economics. I love economics. I love dinosaurs and German and philosophy and...

Well. You get the idea. I like most everything.

Allison had not been keen on the idea, but after much cajoling from me she acquiesced. The museum is a good distance out from the centre, but approaching it one is faced with a spiked fence and a spiked sculpture.

Basically, at no point are you allowed to forget that this museum adjoins the Deutsche Bundesbank, and people trying to get in without permission will be met with spikes and unpleasantness.

We, however, were not. We were met by a charming lady who gave us a free token for the cloakroom lockers and told us the museum was free.

(We shan't mention the irony of a museum which extolled the virtues of the free market offering an exhibition at below market price.)

So we entered, and a more enjoyable, a more fact-filled 90 minutes I have never spent. I learnt how money is made, forged, designed, counterfeited and its history, from cows to roe skins (a buck, from which comes the American slang for a dollar) through to our cotton based notes. I explored the whole gamut, including various oddities like the smallest banknote in the world, the note with the largest number on it, the note with the greatest value and the oldest continuously issued note - the honour of which belongs to the States, where any dollar bill issued after 1847 is legal tender - though if you were to sell a dollar bill from 1847 for $1 worth of goods and services you might be interested in a perpetual motion machine I've got.

Ali found something to be interested in, and managed to control inflation while increasing growth in a fictional Germany. I tried the same and caused hideous inflation, which simply tells me that the model is clearly wrong. The exhibition also had a shop adjoining, in which you could buy a block of €1m for less than €30.

There was a flaw, of course. Someone with a seriously twisted sense of humour had shredded the notes first. Imagine a million euros as confetti. It's enough to make you weep. You could also buy a sheet of 86 €10 notes that hadn't been cut for the low price of €960, which would be enough to make even the most mathematically-challenged of people go "Now, hang on..."

Still, as flash wallpaper goes...that would certainly be my pick. Or even just as as part of a daring ploy to pass yourself off as an international fraudster.

We followed the trip to the museum with a jaunt to the theatre to see Medea. In German. Now the Medea I remember from an admittedly swift reading at school was action-packed, with a chorus, blood, infanticide and Jason being an awful human being.

As a result, I was excited. Even though the words would be in German, I was absolutely certain that I'd be able to guess at where the play was by the action, by the emotional state of Medea, by her progression.

Audience, if you know about my life, you know that there was no way the universe was going to let that happen. What happened instead was two hours of dialogue, in German, punctuated by characters arriving on stage and then leaving and then never coming back. Medea was positioned on a ledge at the back of the stage throughout, clearly distressed, but when I was planning on mapping the play by her ongoing distress this rather scuppered me.

So my enjoyable evening turned into two hours, no interval, of extremely angry shouting in German. At one point the ledge on which Medea was perched began moving forward. It kept moving forward. There was fear in the eyes of the actors in front of this advancing behemoth and, since I had no idea what was going on, I felt certain something had gone hideously wrong with the mechanics.

I perked up. An early end was in sight.

Sadly not. To my disappointment, but the obvious relief of the poor souls in the first row, the scenery ground to a halt at least a foot from their noses. The rest of the play passed in a blur of similarly unintelligible German, although I must note that the final scene, where Jason discovers that his children are dead at Medea's hand and their bodies spirited away was evident, despite the fact that he may as well have been speaking the words in the original Greek. The emotion was raw and evident in every line of his body, drenched as it was in mud and water. This was a man who had dug up graves with his bare hands.

And then I plummeted back into a sea of strange words. The only other part I recognised was the five curtain calls the actors took, because actors are the same everywhere in the world.

After the performance we caught an early train home, and this is where things got a little iffy. You see, although we got an earlier train, the train network did not react to this by sending our connecting train earlier. Instead they stuck to their timetable.


So Ali and I waited for thirty-five minutes on a freezing platform in the middle of nowhere. The platform belonged to what would have been a one-horse town, if they hadn't sold the horse to Findus. However, the train came, we got home, and we crashed. The next day we would go to Cologne, and so I slept instead of blogging.

Mea culpa. Here it is.