Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Halloween

Around this time of year, you tend to get a lot of (mostly) Americans expressing horror at the idea that I (and the French) didn't grow up celebrating Halloween. Don't I feel like I missed out? Well, no, actually. To take the example of another festival going on right now, it's like asking if you (presuming you don't celebrate it) feel like you've been missing out on Diwali for all these years. I'm guessing your probable reaction would be something along the lines of "looks great, it would be fun to take part in some time, but it's not part of my culture so no, I don't feel as though I missed out on it".

Sure, as a kid it would have been great to dress up and get given a lot of free chocolate by people. Well, actually, maybe not so much the dressing up part. We weren't really a "dressing up" family. Infamously, one year when I was about 5 or 6 (and my Mum is probably going to cringe hearing this brought up again), for the school Book Week my older brother got kitted out as Biggles (fictional ace fighter pilot) which included having the plane built around him, whereas I (the family's limited energy for That Sort Of Thing having been exhausted) got to go as The Paper Bag Princess. In case you're wondering, to the best of my recollection, that involved cutting a neck-hole in a heavy paper rubbish sack and sending me off to school in it. I couldn't sit down in the thing all day. Apart from school plays, I remember dressing up one other time as a kid, which was Pippi Longstocking (also for Book Week, I think). I can't remember what Pippi Longstocking wears exactly, but I think it consisted mostly of stripey tights and putting my hair in plaits with wires in to make them stick out. So yeah, not really ones for going all out in that department.

But even as a kid, I was aware of Halloween from books, and I honestly don't remember feeling like I wished I could take part in it. Sure, I wished I could be like Claudia Kishi with exotic-sounding American "candy" stashed all around my room, but I never remember wishing to acquire said candy at Halloween. (How I longed as a child to be eating HoHos and Babe Ruths and whatever else you have. Then I grow up and discover almost everything has peanuts in it. Gross. I have a (stupid) theory that the chief cultural divide between Europe and the United States is that, in America, everything has peanuts in it, and in Europe, everything has hazelnuts in it...) If anything, I wanted to be a little English girl enjoying Devonshire teas and lashings of ginger beer on the lawn, not a little American girl going trick or treating and watching out for razor blades in my apples (seriously, what kid wants apples if there's chocolate on offer anyway? It's like how my Mum and Dad - sorry, Santa - used to put an apple and an orange in my Christmas stocking because that was a treat when they were little. War's over, Mum and Dad!).

And as an adult, the whole idea of Halloween (other than strictly adult-only costume parties involving lots of booze - and even then, I still don't really have the dressing-up gene) appalls me. I'm going to sound like the Halloween version of the grinch, but I don't like children. The idea of having troupes of them coming to my door and demanding MY chocolate is the stuff of nightmares as far as I'm concerned. (Now I probably am going to have a nightmare about it and wake up screaming, "My chocolate! My chocolate!" and chewing the pillow.) And the whole idea of 'trick or treat' is really offputting. I don't know whether in real life people actually go around egging houses or throwing toilet paper in trees like in the movies, but the underlying concept of "give us stuff or we'll exact our revenge" is horrible. It kind of reminds me of the tipping thing - again, I expect in real life it's not as extreme as you see on TV, but the whole trope of the badly-tipped waitress spitting in your food or your mailman breaking your packages etc. is just nasty from where I'm standing.

As with most aspects of American culture, Halloween seems to be catching on more and more at home (at least when I left). Next thing you know we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving... Of course I don't think this is any sort of deliberate cultural imperialist ploy by the average American citizen - for one thing, my English Dad (I don't have an English Dad and another Dad, just to be clear) has stories of carving turnip lanterns at Halloween as a kid (much to the general mirth of the family, who think that's about the most country bumpkin-ish thing we've ever heard) - but it is in the interest of American (and other) manufacturers of chocolate, decorations, costumes etc. to rope as many people around the world into these things as they can. Add in all the American films, TV, and books and Halloween just becomes normal to the younger generations. Well, fun as it may be (and I don't begrudge anyone else celebrating it, nor am I saying that I am anti celebrating it myself) it's never been an important thing to me, and that's why I've never felt cheated out of growing up with Halloween.

(PS I feel I should say that I realise this might come off as anti-American - it's not meant to be, I respect you have your traditions and that Halloween isn't a purely American invention anyway, I'm just trying to explain my cultural perspective on things. Also, this isn't aimed at any specific person, I've just heard it a lot over the years that French people are missing out on Halloween, or I've missed out on Halloween, so this is just something to think about if at this time of year you're looking around you at the lack of Halloween celebrations here in France and thinking "oh those poor kids". It would suck to be the one kid out of everyone you know who's not participating, but if no-one is, I don't think you really care.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why France is not a workers' paradise, no matter what you may have heard

Today we all had to go to a 'laboratory council' to vote whether a technician working in our team should get 'titularisé' - that is, get a permanent (and in France, they really mean permanent) job or not. I found it really bizarre that one's colleagues have the right to vote on this. Basically, the procedure was that our team leader said a few words about his performance (he had left by this stage), then the head of department said a few words, and then we all cast a vote by secret ballot, which consisted of choosing amongst slips of paper reading 'Oui' 'Non' or blank and putting them in a box.

I was mortified when the results were read, because there were like 15 Ouis and one abstention, which was me, and now I feel guilty for abstaining and fearful that he'll somehow find out by a process of elimination that I was the abstainer. (So totally, writing about it on the internet is a great idea.)

Although I work in the same team with this guy, and I can say he's a really nice person, our paths don't really cross in a professional sense, so I didn't feel in a position to pass judgement on whether or not he was worthy of getting a 'post'. In fact, since I handle the English stuff, I'm quite often just working away in my little corner with not very much in common with everyone else, but that's even more true where this guy's concerned.

And if I'm brutally honest? The second reason I abstained is because I think it's unfair that he should get titularisation when no-one else in our team has it - we don't even have permanent contracts (I won't go bore you going into the differences between the two or why it is that he's able to get titularised while we can't). Not even our direct manager has a permanent contract. This guy is a grade or two below all of us, and the last person to join the team. And getting titularisation means all kinds of benefits, most of which I don't even know about - I assume there are health care and retirement benefits. What I do know is he gets 2 months' bonus salary every year. He's officially below us on the pay scale, and while I don't know by how much, I'm betting 2 months' extra salary means he'll now earn the same or more than I do. I have 2 Masters' degrees, he only has the Bac, and I'm doing a supposedly higher-level job.

I know I sound bitter and it's not this guy's fault how the system, or our particular workplace, operates, but it is like a kick in the pants. It honestly does make me wonder what the point is in staying in France where it seems not only are there zero chances for advancement or pay increases for me, but I don't even feel like I'm getting appropriately compensated if the only thing that matters is whether or not your employer decides to create a permanent job for you, not the work you do or the qualifications you have. After all, unlike most people I know, online and off, it's not like I have a boyfriend or any other significant tie keeping me here. Just an apartment full of expensive stuff I had to buy after getting screwed over by one of my only "friends". #Depressed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Girl Gone Mild

Just posting about "Going Wild" - as Keith from the highly addictive A Taste of Garlic blog puts it - evidently exhausted me, since last week was very quiet. I did go out on Friday, but only round to a mate's where we drank wine and ate blinis and no-one Went Wild in the slightest. Is there possibly a "Girls Gone Mild" section I haven't noticed?

Actually (and this is 100% true) the most exciting event in my life last week was that I finally bought a dressing gown after discovering that Auchan sells ones that don't cost 40 €. Last night it was finally dry and ready to wear and I have therefore vowed to spend my winter thusly: 60% in bed, 30% in my dressing gown, 10% in my dressing gown making soup. Work may have something to say about me turning up in a giant blue dressing gown, but honestly it would be NO WORSE than what half of my colleagues actually do wear. So much for the French being chic.

As for the soup, I bought a big soup pot and a stick blender and I have decided I am going to spend the winter living off soup and beans and hot chocolate with Baileys in it (it's been a heady time for making decisions on how to spend the winter, I tells ya). I was going to start last night with the soup, but I forgot to buy onions and hence I was forced to eat a can of beans which were meant to go in the soup for dinner and they were surprisingly delicious. Hence why beans make the cut for my winter menu. I also had what I've decided to call une baguette éventrée, because everything sounds so much classier in French. This consists of fisting a baguette in order to extract its fluffy inner goodness, and then throwing the crust away. I confess this under conditions of strict anonymity, since I'm quite sure that if the French catch you in the act it's 10 years' imprisonment on Fort Boyard for you!

(By the way, if you think me talking about soup and dressing gowns and beans is too exciting for words, pity my poor mother who also got a whole email of me talking about soup and dressing gowns and beans.)

If you're anything like me, this weekend you failed to care that New Zealand won the Rugby World Cup. It did, however, give me the chance to smirk at some rugby-loving Frenchies, which is better than having rugby-loving Frenchies smirk at me, so it's all good. I did actually try to go and watch the final (and by 'watch', I mean 'not watch' while seizing the opportunity to drink cider at 10 am in the morning without people judging me). I was meant to meet up with some friends at The Pale, an Irish pub near the cathedral, but when I got there it was so packed that there were lines out both the doors with people standing on chairs in the street to try and get a view of the TVs. I hung around outside for a bit until I got a text that the people I was meant to meet had decided to go to Place Plumereau instead, which is about 10 minutes away. When I got there, however, I got another message saying everywhere was too full and they might be going to around the train station (in totally ANOTHER direction) but would text when they had found somewhere. I hung about for a bit then decided to walk towards the station, mostly because there is a place there that sells the best brioches in town and I thought I might have one for breakfast. When I got there, the brioche place was closed, I'd been wandering about for 45 minutes and still hadn't received a text, and so I decided to go home. Where I proceeded to not care about the rugby some more. (Actually, I was chatting to my friend Rick, who is American, on Skype, and he informed me of some of the rules of rugby – I thought you could only kick after a try, apparently this is incorrect. We mutually decided that an American explaining rugby to a New Zealander is probably a Portent of the Apocalypse, so if your week is disturbed by plague and pestilence and horsemen, you probably know who to blame.)

Then I had a nap with Bob (the cat) and woke up feeling like I had a hangover. Which is even Not Fairer than when I feel like I have a hangover after only a couple of glasses of wine, since not only had I not been drinking, I had in fact been THWARTED in my plans to drink before noon, which only goes to show that you may as well just get pissed in the morning and not care who's going to judge!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How to poison friends and put people under the influence

This happened about 6 weeks ago, but I was too busy dying of a terrible hangover to blog about it until now.

I had a few friends over for some drinks at my new apartment. We like nothing better than dressing up and drinking cocktails, thus the evening started out with what I'm going to call Kir Royales, but was actually Vouvray with syrup in it (totally the same thing), followed by Liz's famous Cosmopolitans (the secret seems to be burning some orange peel over the glass), followed by Gin Fizzes. A good time was had by all, and Liz and I decided to head out to a club we'd never tried before.

Ah, the days when I still had a tan! Liz was convinced I'd set the camera up in the wrong position and all that we'd get was her arm.

Liz, Laetitia and me

By this time, I was pretty drunk to be honest, and decided it would be a fabulous idea to do some shots of the vodka I brought back from Ukraine with me. Remember that vodka? It got me into a polite debate with the airport security, then I had to go check it in with the help of a nice German lad who gave me some free newspapers to stuff around it in the plastic bag. I primarily bought this particular vodka because it came in two varieties with three 'free' shot glasses. I'm not sure whether that's what gave me the bright idea of doing shots, since in general I'm not really massive on shots, particularly not shots of vodka.

Laetitia and Liz were also a bit dubious about doing shots (I'm not sure honestly why Laetitia agreed, since she wasn't coming out to the club with us) but I managed to persuade them by telling them it was honey vodka. What could be nicer than a shot of honey vodka? Genuine, Eastern Bloc honey vodka! Nom nom nom! Smooth as silk! Good for what ails ya!

Well... turns out this vodka was just about the burniest, harshest firewater I've ever tasted (and I was recently persuaded to try rakia). I put the shot glass down mightily regretting that I'd poured myself a shot twice the size of the girls'.

But it wasn't until a few minutes later that Liz held up the bottle and we discovered just why this vodka was so evil:

Yep, that's a giant chili pepper right there! I can't believe I managed to purchase, transport, unpack and serve this vodka all without ever noticing the horror lurking within! It's not exactly invisible! In my defence, it does *say* honey on the label, but it says it in the tiny letters right underneath where it says PEPPER (Pertseva, but in Cyrillic obviously) in big letters. I assume I saw this strange word written really big, didn't know what it meant, decided that logically if I didn't know what it meant than it must be unimportant, and then forgot about it. I can tell you, I got much abuse the next day from the girls as the effects made themselves felt, but it didn't make much difference since I was already dying from the evil chili hangover anyway! (Obviously the wine, gin, cointreau and normal vodka had nothing to do with it - it was all that damn chili's fault!)

And when we got to the club everyone there was at least 5-10 years younger than us, at least in the downstairs bit. (The club featured "two ambiances" - downstairs, which was a normal club, and upstairs which was full of couples slowdancing at 3 in the morning for some reason.) These dickish young guys tried chatting us up - in French - and one of them said to the other one right in front of me that you could see the whole of my boobs (which was NOT true, as the photo evidence above attests). And then when I called him out on it, he said he said it because he thought I wouldn't understand the word (nichons, which is slang). Um, saying rude things in front of me because you think I won't understand you makes you even more of a dick? And is pretty stupid, since we've been having an entire conversation in French up to this point. Then one of them asked if Liz would be upset if he undid her bra (she had on a backless dress and you could see the clasp). Sigh, why are the only people who go out in this godforsaken town under the age of 21? Safe to say that was as close as they ever manage to get to nichons!

Monday, October 17, 2011

A disappointing weekend and a stroll by the Loire

Last time I posted, I mentioned my friend Amber was coming to visit. Amber is a fellow librarian with a special place in my heart since she once made me Eggs Benedict when I was badly hungover. She then forced me to watch the Home and Away Omnibus, but I suppose nobody's perfect. Even though she was only scheduled to be here from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, I took both Friday and Monday off work (for house-cleaning and hangover recovery purposes). Sadly, though, just as I was thinking about getting up on Friday morning, I got a message that she couldn't find her passport, and thus the trip was off. Bummer :( Especially because, although Friday morning started off horribly, it subsequently cleared up and we've had nothing but blue skies and sunshine since then. So I was left all of a sudden with a 4-day weekend and nothing to do...

I decided I wanted to do something with my day off anyway, so I headed to the movies to see We Need to Talk About Kevin. I couldn't help constantly comparing it to the book (I don't want to give anything away, but let's just say I thought the psychological aspects and the build-up to the ending were better handled in the book) but it was pretty good, although the succession of 30-second scenes was a bit irritating, especially early on. It really was a different story than the book, not because they changed anything material in the plot, but just because of the nature of film and certain choices in how the story was told. After that, I went and had a pint (of cider) at an Irish pub and watched the world go by. Lots of tourists about! I was down by the cathedral, where I don't normally spend a lot of time, so I don't see tourists all that much usually. I would have thought the season was finished, but I suppose you've got the people like me who don't like travelling in peak season so much.

On Saturday I met up with Marion the kiwi to check out some French classes I'd heard about. She doesn't speak a word of French, so she has been looking for classes and I asked around and found this voluntary association that gives classes for only a 36 euro annual membership fee. Amazing! They are aimed at helping immigrants integrate into French society - to be able to pass exams in the hope of getting into university or getting a job. I have been slack as in terms of studying French. It's been 9 years since I've taken classes, and to be honest, other than living here I do absolutely nothing to improve. I have improved nonetheless, but I know there are still plenty of gaps and grammar I've forgotten or never properly learnt. So I thought I might as well check it out as well, and although I'm not sure how committed I'll be to 4 hours of fairly disorganised classes with a wide range of levels jammed together on a Saturday afternoon, at 36 euros you can't go far wrong.

On Sunday, I set my alarm for 7 am to watch the Formula One race. I have much more commitment when it comes to getting up early for F1 than I do for work! Unfortunately though, I woke up feeling sick after only 2 glasses of wine the night before. If there's one thing I hate, it's a hangover without having even had a proper night out. If I'm going to be sick anyway, I may as well have been out drinking cocktails and making a fool of myself. So anyway, I ended up watching a few laps and then going back to sleep and watching the replay later. Okay race, a good fight between Webber and Hamilton in particular, but not a classic. If you'll permit me to talk motorsport for 1 more minute, it was sad to see news of the death of a British IndyCar driver, Dan Wheldon, this weekend. F1 is the only motorsport I watch, but I saw news footage of this, and it's just a waste. I couldn't help thinking, "why was that fatal? Why was his car on fire?" Say what you will about F1, it has really become incredibly safe compared to the past, and apparently compared to other types of motorsport. Compare it with a crash like Robert Kubica's in Montreal in 2007 or Mark Webber flipping his car in Valencia in 2010 and you see how safe F1 really is (Kubica had to go to hospital, but no-one was badly hurt in either of these incidents). Sadly, Kubica has actually been out all season after badly injuring himself rallying in the F1 off-season. Fingers crossed he makes it back into F1 soon, he had so much potential.

Then today, I thought I should also do something worthwhile with my day off, and decided to go for a long walk on the banks of the Loire. I used to go for walks all the time in Nice, but a combination of having less spare time, the bus routes being terrible in the countryside round here (don't want to walk for hours and then there be no bus back for 2 hours) and there not being any scenery quite as lovely as the Cote d'Azur in these parts means that I haven't really done it here. But today I had a very nice walk in about 18 degree sunny weather along the Loire to just after Rochecorbon (about 5 miles according to Google. I'm not sure why it's suddenly in miles. Apparently that's around 8 km in sensible units of measure). Then a less pleasant walk part of the way back on the main road (due to the bus situation).

Presumably the 13th century fortified farm I saw a sign for

Pont Wilson (as in Woodrow)

The library and cathedral viewed from Pont Wilson

A church on the north bank of the Loire

Some autumn colour on the banks of the Loire

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reims videos

I tried to post these with the post below (a thrill-a-minute account of days 2 and 3 in Reims, don't miss it!) but it wasn't working properly for some reason. Anyway, here are some very short videos of the light show at the cathedral. Unfortunately, now I have uploaded them, I realise you can hardly see anything (on my computer, they look a lot clearer and they are also rotated the right way up). So, they weren't great to begin with and they are even less impressive posted here. But anyway, I've uploaded them now, so if you want to get a very vague idea of it, it will only take up about 1 minute total to watch all of them. If you don't have that long, #5 is probably the best.

Where there's a Reims part one, there must be a...

Reims part two! I thought I'd better do this today because my friend Amber is visiting this weekend and I'll have that to blog about next. As I think I've said before, it is easy to lose the motivation to blog about "part two" of a trip - there are usually tons of photos to go through, you feel like you're rehashing stuff and/or just presenting a mundane list of things you saw and did - and that only increases the more time that passes between the event and the blog. That's why I made a real effort to blog in "real time" as it were in Ukraine.

Anyway, on Saturday Jess wanted to go and watch the France-New Zealand rugby match. I am not *at all* a rugby fan, and to be fair Jess isn't really either, but she thought it would be fun and a cool atmosphere to experience seeing a game in France. After all, it's not very often that the French remember we exist. The game started at around 10.30, but I was up and ready a bit before that, so I decided to head out early to see some sights and meet Jess at the pub we had scoped out the night before.

I headed to the cathedral, which was pretty much empty at that time of day - which was nice, it was already starting to fill up with coachloads of tourists by the time I left. To be honest, it's not the most impressive inside of all the cathedrals I've been to (a lot!), most probably because it was gutted by fire in WWI. Reims was the coronation cathedral for the French monarchy, dating back, as we know, 800 years. It was built on the site of the basilica where Saint Rémi baptised Clovis, the first Catholic French king, in 496.

Reims cathedral

Bizarre camp dinosaur-looking gargoyle on the cathedral

This statue looks like a right moody so-and-so. Pretty sure she'd punch you if she wasn't missing her hands

A chap who lost his head (and got some sort of weird neck growth in return?)

Allegedly famous "smiling angel" statue. Kind of creepy. Also kind of inspecting his/her nails


Inside the cathedral

Stained glass windows by Chagall

When I got to the pub, I found Jess sitting with two strangers, one of whom was in an All Blacks shirt and thus presumably Kiwi. They turned out to be a couple who were roadtripping around Europe before planning to do a year working in London - very typical Kiwi stuff. They were really nice & it was fun to watch the game with them. Much more knowledgeable about rugby than us, especially the guy! I didn't pay all that much attention to the game, but it was good that we won! There seemed to be some All Blacks supporters somewhere in the back of the pub at first, but then I think they left for some reason, and you would just get silence punctuated by some "woohoos" from our table (at which everyone turned round and stared, every time) when the All Blacks scored a try. After the game, we moved outside into absolutely blazing sunshine and had a pub lunch with the Kiwi couple. I got to have some proper fish and chips for the first time in a long time, yum!

Jess wanted to head back to the hotel for a rest after lunch, and I wanted to find somewhere to watch the F1 qualifying - the pub where we watched the rugby was showing a replay of the same game. I found a different pub but they told me the qualifying was on in the middle of the night, which it wasn't, and explained to me that Singapore was in a different time zone, like I was an idiot. Yes, Singapore is in a different time zone, but Singapore is a night race! Anyway, thwarted in the attempt, I wandered out of town to the basilica of the aforementioned St. Remi, where he is buried. Again, it was nice enough, but not particularly interesting to blog about.

Tomb of St Rémi

I thought these unusual late 13th/early 14th century lead engravings were pretty cool

I finished off the afternoon by visiting some Roman ruins - a 'cryptoportique', the subterranean remains of a grain storage markety thing. Basically just a big underground room, but it was free! I always forget how far the Romans got and that they actually had real, functioning settlements all over the place.


When I got back to the hotel room, I found a bottle of Dom Perignon chilling in the bathroom sink, packed in with a couple of packets of frozen potato bites (cheaper than ice, apparently). We enjoyed our champagne out of the plastic cups they leave on the side of the sink, which is probably such sacrilege that we would have been run out of town had we been caught in the act. Jess had also bought a packet of the allegedly famous pink biscuits of Reims, which my friend Liz had insisted we try (never having had them herself, mind you). We tried eating them straight out of the packet, only to find they were hard and dry. I read the back, and you're supposed to dip them in champagne or a sweet wine like port, kind of like biscotti and coffee I suppose. We gingerly tried it out with a small amount of champagne. Turns out they're even worse dipped in something - mine instantly turned to complete sugary mush, thankfully not in the champagne glass though, that would have been even more criminal!

On Saturday night, we had our Michelin meal, which has already been blogged in loving detail. After that, we just went back to the hotel room to bed.

I forget the exact sequence of what we did on Sunday... We had lunch at the same pub where we watched the rugby (chicken burger for me this time, and flammenkeuche for Jess) and just enjoyed the sun. Ah, I miss the sun already! It really was fabulous, hot weather, we were really lucky. We visited the Palace of Tau, the old bishops' residence adjoining the cathedral, where its "treasures" are kept. This was a bit disappointing, since the vast majority of said treasures seem to have disappeared in the Revolution - no crowns or sceptres to be found. There were some nice tapestries and some of the original statues from the cathedral, and that was about it. One really cool thing was some gargoyles that looked like they had metal tongues - turned out that during the fire, the lead pipes had melted and run out of the gargoyles' mouths and then cooled in place, so it looks like the gargoyles are spitting out lead.

Lead-mouth gargoyles

A necklace supposedly taken from Charlemagne's tomb

There was a display of pieces made by people training to be master carpenters or something. Some of them were actually pretty good, but with all due respect to this guy, you do kind of look at this and think "300 hours' work, REALLY?"

A sort of storage room for bits and pieces of statues. Just kind of liked this photo

Later on, we went to the art gallery, which was okay. I was disappointed that only 2 out of their collection of Cranach engravings were on display at any one time, but oh well, preservation and all that.

We had time for a glass of wine or two before the train, then a smooth journey back home & Jess went back to London the next day, while I went to a workshop on copyrights and the ethical diffusion of information (thought rather than taking the day off I may as well get paid to sit around doing nothing and get a free lunch into the bargain. Plus it's good for the old CV).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Things they don't teach you in French class

...How to understand (or reproduce) French handwriting. Below is a password a colleague wrote down for me. Perhaps I shouldn't be posting passwords on the internet, but seriously, if any of you want to figure out how to hack into the admin interface of the local-host version of our Theses and Dissertations Database, please just do some indexing while you're there. We is Dublin HARDcore, bitches! (Ah, library jokes, the best of all. PS Even for a library joke that one was stupid and didn't make a lot of sense, even if you know what Dublin Core is, which you probably don't... I promise not to make any more, or to pretend I can pull off saying 'we is' or 'hardcore' or 'bitches'.)

ANYWAY... I've been in the habit of writing 7s with lines through them for a long time, since I used to write a lot of barcodes out by hand in an old library job & my 7s ended up looking like 2s. Here, though, their 1s look like 7s (without the bar).

I often end up writing 1s as just a line and then going back and adding the little tail they have here later (curse you, 2011!), but there are plenty of other weird differences that always trip me up, and presumably cause problems for French people when they try to read my handwriting. (My name on my Monoprix loyalty card, for example, has an extra E and L in it, and I'm always getting an O tacked on to the end of my name as well. And the birth date they have down for me is wrong, but I don't know how, so I can't actually use my loyalty points. Quel scam!)

It took me about 5 goes to decrypt this, and that was after having typed it in the day before (with my colleague reading it out to me).

What do you think this says??

Oh, and remember my awesome pun about the cardboard boxes - ça cartonne? Of course you do, you've only just managed to stop laughing about it and I'm going to go and set you off again - and on top of that, you're already in fits over my awesome Dublin Core joke. Sorry!

Well, the 'happening' was written up in one of the local rags, but they missed a trick! Someone give me a job as a French journo, tout de suite!

PS I have just remembered that Jennie en France did a post on handwriting differences several months ago. And I saw it, and I commented on it. Never mind though, she has quite a different blogging style from me, so other than the general subject I don't think our posts have that much in common, so feel free to enjoy them both. Or if sensible and informative is your style just read hers, but TOO LATE, you already got this far with mine! Muhaha

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Haunted city

For me Tours has become a haunted place. Everywhere I look I seem to see the ghost of my old flatmate. And the sad thing is, I'm actually frightened at the thought of seeing her. It's like breaking up with a boyfriend and wondering what you'll do or say if you run into them again, except with less worrying that they might think you're looking fat or be with someone else, and more worrying that they'll just skitz out at you. Come to think of it, breaking up with my boyfriend of six years was both more amicable and less financially complicated...

I'm quite shortsighted, and every time I see someone in the distance or from behind who looks a little bit like her, my heart is in my mouth. The other day, I thought she got on the bus (even though she never takes the bus). Then I thought I saw her in the supermarket and I had to go hide down a different aisle until I was sure it wasn't her. I don't even know if she is still in Tours, or if she left to move in with one of her parents, but I still think I see her everywhere.

I hate feeling like this. Firstly, I'm not sure why I'm so nervous. Surely, in her position, if she saw me she wouldn't want a confrontation. What do I think she's going to do? Scream at me? Attack me? Secondly, it's ridiculous. I did nothing wrong. She stole from me, lied to my face, quit her job and spent 6 months lying in bed living off my money while I was getting up and going to work every day, and she topped it off by finally causing me to lose my home... So why am I sure that I'm the only one dreading the thought of running into her?

Even on a practical level, the repercussions of what she did are not over. Very soon we will have to pay a tax which is based on where you live (kind of like rates, but tenants have to pay it too) and should, at least in theory, be in both our names. I went to the tax office last month to explain the situation and ask if we could be assessed separately. They told me it was too late for that, but it was too early to tell me if the bill was in fact in both our names. It should be, because they calculate it off your tax return and I assume she at least had a grain of responsibility (or self-preservation, more likely) left and declared her taxes properly. Still, it was a bit disquieting when they gave me a piece of paper with just my name and the full amount showing on it. The question is, what happens next? If her mail is getting forwarded too, I don't know what the post office will do with a letter addressed to both of us. I really don't want to talk to her, I definitely am not going to give her money to pay on my behalf, and I don't want to be stuck with the full amount (450 euros). I'm hoping the bill will come to me and I can persuade the tax people to just let me pay my half, give me some document to say I'm not responsible for the other half, and to hell with her. It's so effed up that this is still affecting me.

On the other hand, you may remember that I told her to send me copies of all the outstanding bills, plus copies of all the utilities bills for the time we lived together, and I'd make a decision on what I thought was my fair share of them. 2 1/2 months later, I haven't received anything from her, so I feel like I have a clean conscience on that front. Lots of people told me not to give her a cent anyway, but I'm glad I at least left the door open on it and she's the one who didn't follow up, so I still have my integrity intact. My suspicion is that she had actually inflated the electric bill and that's why she hasn't responded. Even if it was only 20 euros extra a month or whatever, over a year and a bit that's not a negligible sum of money. I did see a couple of bills, but after everything that's happened I think she was quite capable of strategically showing me a couple of very high ones and just blagging it that that was what it was every month. It's not that I can't read an electricity bill - I'm not stupid, and I even briefly had a job where I was responsible for paying the EDF bills for some 200 properties (and took great pleasure in analysing the nitty gritty of them and refusing to pay out for the portions of the bills I thought our company wasn't responsible for). I was just trusting, and I therefore didn't look at anything too closely, or question her about anything.

Now, of course, I feel stupid about that, but at the same time I don't want this to destroy my general faith in human kind and expectation that someone I'm close to probably won't be secretly screwing me over on a long-term basis. Let's hope it somehow works out with this tax thing so that I can finally start to feel like most of this episode is behind me. And maybe then I can stop seeing the ghosts of flatmates past.

Friday, October 07, 2011

I am stupid, my bank is too

The other day at the supermarket I somehow broke my brain and just completely forgot my PIN, which I have been using successfully for two years now. I think the problem is, right before I put it in, I for some reason thought "Oh my god, what's my PIN?" and once the thought entered my mind, I froze up and just completely forgot it. There are certain things - reversing in a car for example - that I totally can't do if I think about it. This, it appears, is one of those things. Anyway, I was dumb enough to try three times and then my card stopped working - temporarily, I thought, otherwise I may not have gone for that third attempt. I then tried to use it the next day - turns out it was permanent. Not permanent in the sense that you go and see the bank and they fix it, permanent as in you go and see the bank and they have to order you a brand new card. D'oh!

So far, it's all my fault. But when I went to see the bank, I got the mumbliest woman in the world who was just generally unhelpful. She started off by telling me "I shouldn't have done that" when I explained how I'd blocked my card. Um, yeah, you think? I know that now and am not planning on running back out and putting the wrong number in again. She later rolled her eyes when, after dealing with my card, I asked if I could take some money out while I was there - seeing that I wouldn't be getting a replacement card for a week. Reasonable enough, no? And she never asked me for ID despite the fact that I had obviously failed at the PIN test and she was letting me withdraw money from my account. Same thing at the supermarket - forgot my PIN, blocked my card, and then when I had to pay with a New Zealand credit card the girl didn't even try to look at the signature! Dodgy much?

But the reason I say the bank is stupid is because my original card was expiring anyway in October. The bank girl pointed this out and asked if I could wait for the replacement. Obviously, I asked when the replacement would arrive. End of October - nope, don't want to wait that long. So she orders me a new card. THAT EVENING I arrived home and my replacement card was in my letterbox. Seriously, what kind of system are they running where there's no information on file about that and apparently no-one has any clue whether replacement cards are routinely sent out at the start or end of the month in which the card expires? Weak. So I had to go back to the bank and tell them to cancel the other card. Now I'm just hoping that that works and they won't for some reason decide to cancel the new card I just got.

Oh and it took me *three days* to remember my PIN - I actually remembered it when I was on the way back to the bank for the second time. For some reason I had become convinced it started with a certain number and had been running all sorts of combinations through my mind, but a 5-digit number, starting with that number, kept popping into my mind. I kept dismissing it, since obviously it couldn't possibly be right, until it struck me that maybe my feeble mind was trying to tell me something. All I had to do was drop the first number, and voilà, I remembered my PIN. Now all I have to do is stop thinking about it again...

But wait, there's more to this story. Because I couldn't possibly have created enough inconvenience for myself up to this point... I bought a 12-30 special discount card for the trains on the internet the other day (usually it's a 12-25 card, but for the 30th anniversary of the TGV trains, they extended the age eligibility up to 30. Yay!) and hadn't got around to picking it up from the station. Up until the moment I left the bank to head over to the station, I had forgotten that you need to present the bank card you used to make your purchase in order to pick up the 12-30 card. The card that the mumbly girl had cut up in front of me the day before. Fail. So I waited for a very long time in line for a nice man to tell me that I would have to purchase a new 12-30 card and then fill out a form and I would be reimbursed the original 50 bucks from my online purchase in about 1 to 2 months. Which is not very efficient, but after all it's not the SNCF's fault that I am a PIN-forgetting numpty. I must say that I've never had anything but friendly and helpful service at Tours train station. The guy even sensed my lostness (I think) at his original suggestion that I write a letter to get my money back, and helped me fill out a claim form instead. So now I am the proud owner of a 12-30 card, and in a couple of months I'll get a bonus 50 euros coming to me. Not too bad really! And now to plan where I can go with my shiny new 12-30 card!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Bad at bises, part two

I wrote a part one about the French custom of kissing (or air-kissing) ages ago when I lived in Nice, I think. So has probably every other blogger who's ever moved to France. But I think most of them only cover the potential awkwardness that entails when interacting with the French (from "they thought I was rude when I didn't kiss all 20 strangers at the dinner table" to "I hate kissing my colleagues when they roll into work sweating from their bike ride". That last one is true). I don't think I've seen anyone cover the potential for awkwardness when encountering another expat in the wild.

In New Zealand, as I probably said last time, we don't tend to kiss. We may hug people we're close friends with (or who are that particular kind of huggy girl, you know the type). We may handshake in professional settings (and even then, there's plenty of scope for awkwardness, especially as a woman - I would handshake at an interview with no problems, but feel a bit weird shaking the hand of a new colleague or someone from the other department down the hall who I've never met before). If you're the type of person who has "bros", then you can give them a sort of reverse nod, where you tip your head upwards rather than downwards, accompanied with an eyebrow raise. But mostly we just bob about in a sea of awkward. Popular awkward gestures include waving at the person who is stood right in front of you, or just doing the sort of awkward "I'm acknowledging your presence" shuffle. English people seem to be just as bad at this part of thing, while Americans I think do slightly better, being that they seem a bit more disposed to hug - but I'm sure they, too, must frequently run into people where a hug would be inappropriate.

Being in the land of the bisou throws a spanner into the works. It certainly can reduce awkwardness muchly - I have expat friends here that I kiss, we all know that's what we do upon greeting and farewelling each other, and the system works marvellously. But if you meet an expat stranger, the question se pose - do I kiss this girl/guy, who I wouldn't dream of kissing back home, or not? The other week I positively lunged at an English guy who responded with something of a panicked look. Which stopped me mid-lunge."Oh, so um, no bise?" I said. This led to him having to both kiss me and have an awkward conversation about the awkward situation of not knowing the protocol for expat-bisous.

So, dear readers, do you do the bise with your expat friends? What about when you meet an expat for the first time? Awkward, or not so much?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

A public service announcement

I am bored at work. This is becoming a major trend.... So I have two work-related things to say:

1) Everyone who ever makes a website - please put a million RSS feeds on it. Particularly if you are doing something like EVENTS LISTINGS where it is stupidly stupid not to have RSS feeds for people, or even often any kind of anything to tell you which events are new, and poor schmucks like me have to just keep clicking the same things over and over because they forget that they actually saw that notice already back in March. Librarians will thank you.

2) If you ever find yourself writing a book, or article, or lecture, or thesis that involves cities in any way, do not entitle it any variety of 'A tale of two/three/four/fifty cities'. I promise you that a million billion people already had that idea.

That is all.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Miam miam Michelin!

I had my first experience dining out in a Michelin-star restaurant in Reims at Le Foch restaurant. This is definitely not the sort of dining experience I'm used to, but our parents had very kindly sent some money for us to have a special night out together, and my sister generously pitched a bit in as well. As for me, I mostly shut my eyes because I wouldn't have dared order anything otherwise! Jess wanted to go for the dégustation menu - she's a pescatarian (fish-eating but otherwise vegetarian) and it was her lucky day since there was only one non-fish course of all the seven on the dégustation menu. We had read a review saying they were very unwelcoming and rude to vegetarians, but while I imagine there were few options if you didn't eat fish, they were actually very accommodating in swapping the meat course for us. In general, I was a bit nervous of rude waiters and having to be very formal, but it was absolutely fine. The waiters were all nice and helpful, and we even had a laugh and joke with some of them, and got them to take photos for us, so there was really no standing on ceremony. As for the meal - amazing! It was really a memorable and unique experience for me - who knows when if ever I'll be eating in a Michelin-star restaurant again - and great to share that with my sister! I don't know if taking pictures of all your courses is the classy thing to do in a fine dining establishment, but what the heck, I did it anyway!

All good things start with champagne! We went with Taittinger, in honour of our visit the day before. I'm clearly sitting up straight on my best behaviour here!

Before our official 7 courses even began, there was the amuse bouches. 1) Cold cauliflower velouté. I'm not generally big on cold soup, but this had a really nice flavour and smooth texture and wasn't ice cold. 2) Cheese with ham. We had already explained that Jess was a vegetarian before this turned up, but I suppose the message didn't get through to the amusing department. They made her a new plate with no fuss though. I'm not big on ham but this had that strong cured flavour and was very nice. 3) Mini brown shrimp tart. Seafood is not really my thing, so this was my least favourite of the three, but still not bad at all.

Not a bad photo except for THE CLAW which has taken up residence in my lap.

First course: Carpaccio de langoustine avec caviar d'Aquitaine. Langoustine carpaccio with Aquitaine caviar.

Sorry, I forgot to take a photo before I started eating. I assure you it turned up in a perfect circle looking much prettier! As I said, seafood isn't my favourite, so raw langoustines weren't going to be the biggest hit ever with me. The flavour was okay, but the texture was a bit weird to my taste. This was the only one of the 7 I didn't finish, but Jess took care of that.

Second course: Galette de légumes croquants, homard bleu, parmesan. A galette (in this context, basically a fancy way of saying "round thing") of crunchy vegetables, blue lobster and parmesan.

This definitely looked very visually appealing, although Jess and I tut-tutted (not seriously) that our plates didn't look identical, which Top Chef and the like has taught me should be the goal. I'm not sure whether I've had lobster before or only crayfish, but either way, this was nice and there was a generous amount of lobster too! In fact, all the way through the dishes were a good size without of course being huge (and trust me, with 7 courses you do not need huge!) I think we all have the concept that you will get a millimeter-sized cube of food at these fancy places, but it was not the case this time. I think this was virtually the only vegetables all night though!

Course the third: Saint Pierre roti, haricot cocos de Paimpol, émulsion de crustacés. Roast John Dory with beans that I can't find a translation for but I think we thought at the time were butter beans and a shellfish emulsion. I actually thought while eating this that it was a tomato foam, guess I don't have a great palate. Anyway, this doesn't look that special on the photo, but it was definitely my favourite course and I think Jess's as well. The emulsion was full of flavour, the beans were meltingly soft, and the fish was fresh, firm and delicious! Total foodgasm!

We've moved on to some yummy Sancerre rosé.

Fourth course: This was the only course we had to swap on the menu to suit Jess. It was meant to be veal, but instead we got monkfish with crispy leeks and I think a tomato compote. I'm not vegetarian, but I liked the sound of monkfish better than veal as well. If they had been serving chicken or something, I would have been all over it though! This was also very nice, again great texture to the fish, nice and flaky. Oh and in that little copper pot is potato purée. Very cute!

Very nice photo of Jess

The amazing cornucopia of cheese on offer!

Fifth course: My selection of cheeses, half eaten again. The big bit in front is Brie - I wouldn't have gone for something as "boring" as Brie, but the waitress told me it was very good, and it turned out to be incredibly different from the supermarket version, this actually had strong flavour and character. It was also practically oozing out of its skin, which doesn't sound appealing at all when I put it like that, but it was just ripe and lovely. I forget what the others are, not sure if the one on the right is a Port Salut or just something like a Port Salut, and I think on the left is a goat's cheese. All very tasty though, and served with different condiments selected to complement them.

Course Six: Macaron rhubarbe-framboise avec barbe à papa: Rhubarb-raspberry macaron with candyfloss. This was divine! Unusually for me, I think I liked it better than the chocolate dessert that followed. I ate the candyfloss separately, not too teeth-achingly sweet like a fairground version, and then underneath was a raspberry sorbet, rhubarb compote, fresh raspberries, a touch of cream, and finally the macaron. It really tasted like raspberries, which I adore, and the macaron was really soft, not chewy like they often are (I enjoy a chewy macaron too though). The cream was just right as well - I don't like too much, but it just added an extra softness to it all.

Another view of the macaroon minus its candyfloss hat. Looks kind of like a crimescene photo with the raspberry coulis escaping!

Sugar rush!

Concentrating - this is serious stuff!
As you can see, everyone else in the room (we weren't in the main dining room) has left by this stage, including people who arrived after us! No-one else was doing a dégustation, and our meal took a total of around three and a half hours to munch through!

Wahey - I managed!

Seventh course: Moelleux au chocolat de Saint Domingue, Paris Brest à boire. Chocolate fondant pudding (I assume the chocolate comes from Santo Domingo and is not associated with an actual saint?) with a liquid Paris Brest. A Paris Brest is a kind of doughnut-shaped dessert (it was made in honour of the Paris-Brest cycle race, so it's wheel shaped) made of choux pastry and praline cream. So basically it was a sort of praline milkshake. I don't really remember how it tasted, but despite preferring the macaron, I can tell you that the moelleux was very rich, cocoa-y and delicious. I even finished off Jess's! That's a real testament to my determination to hoover up any chocolate on offer, since as you can imagine, our intestinal fortitude was being severely tested by this stage of the evening!

Me and my Paris-Brest

We started off with an unheralded amuse-bouche, and I can only assume this was to really really make sure our bouche had been amused. I actually said to the waiter "you're going to kill us" when he brought this out, as I think both of us were full to bursting! We took one for the team though, and enjoyed the soft little cake at right (I think it was just a plain madeleine or something, not too sure, but it was light and pleasant), the wee little tarts and of course the chocolate, which again, was really cocoa-tasting rather than being just all fat and sugar.

One last photo, well and truly stuffed and ready to stagger home to bed!