Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rolling with Rick

I've been pleasantly AWOL for the last few days, first visiting Cambridge and London and then squiring my friend Rick about here. I'll blog London later, but first here are the results of Rick and I playing silly buggers in the Loire Valley.

I met Rick at orientation when I was an assistant in Nice and he was in Saint Raphael, and while we hit it off straight away, we actually only saw each other a few times in the seven months we were both living down there. However, we talk a lot on Skype and Gchat and so on and he's become a really close friend, the kind of guy you can turn to for anything and know he'll always be there to listen and give advice and annoy me by asking questions I don't have the answers to :) His three-night visit (which he promised me two years ago when I left Nice) was the longest we've ever hung out for and it was great to see click just as well spending hours on end together as we do over a webcam.

Anyway, soppy stuff over (and note to anyone with the wrong idea, we're just good friends)! I got back to Tours on Sunday afternoon and spent the next couple of hours cleaning and preparing dinner (in the course of which I managed to slice my finger open rather badly in a monumentally stupid fashion that I'm too embarrassed to describe on the blog) before Rick turned up in the evening. I made him watch the Formula One with me, which he claimed to enjoy despite falling asleep, and then it was off to bed.

The next day was spent enjoying the glorious weather we've been having, basically chilling out walking around, seeing the sights of Tours, and enjoying lunch and a cider in the sunshine before heading home to have dinner with Liz and Charlie, a couple of my friends.

Yesterday, despite much huffing and puffing on my part, we headed to Chenonceau (my third visit, hence the bitching and moaning). It was actually a nice trip, especially since I took advantage of having a willing partner in crime to take a variety of "hilarious" pictures in and around the chateau. The place was full of Russian tour groups as far as the eye could see, but it was another beautiful day and we had fun. After that, we came back to Tours and did a degustation at the Maison des Vins de Loire. This is basically an arm of the tourist office designed to promote Loire Valley wines, so you can do a degustation of 6 wines (and, in fact, she served us 7) for the bargain price of 5 euro. The wines were delicious, the woman running the place was really nice and we spent a very pleasant 45 minutes tasting, which is value for money in anyone's book, I would think. We did our degustation in French because the woman said she was more at ease in French and we didn't mind, but a group of Americans came in a bit later (you don't need an appointment, but I think they had made one) and she served them in English. So anyway, if you're ever in the neighbourhood, I would very much recommend a visit. They also do special themed degustations (for example, roses or chenin blancs or the vocabulary of wine tasting or whatever) in the evenings and weekends, which are a bit more expensive but more involved, which I would love to go to some time. Anyway, after that we wandered back to Place Plum for a few more drinks before heading home with a kebab. This morning, we had breakfast before Rick had to catch his train to Lyon & I was very sorry to say goodbye, but we had a lovely time!

Me jumping for joy at Chenonceau

Chenonceau is built over the Cher river

Me and Rick in front of the chateau

Rick on the castle balcony in front of the tower

Doing my best evil enchantress luring unsuspecting men into my chateau of death

The fourth Grace

Pretending to be a dinosaur in the chateau gardens

I'm a fancy lady!

Rick pretending to be Louis XIV

Pretending to be a... stoat?

Rick pouting at the cabinetry

This shot involved lying backwards on a window ledge over the castle moat

This would have been a nice picture if someone hadn't ruined it

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Definitely Mike Jagger

Those cool cats at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours aren't just all about that old fuddy-duddy art and history, they know their stuff when it comes to popular culture too.

I've seen the printed version of this poster on the bus as well, same typo. Bien joué! I do want to go see the exhibition though...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Marmageddon is here!!

You may remember my recent post in praise of Marmite. Well, luckily I got my stocks safely delivered at Christmas, because due to the after-effects of the Christchurch earthquake, New Zealand has hit "Peak Marmite" and gone into a serious tail-spin, with no more Marmite to be produced until July.

Some highlights from articles on the subject from the country's biggest newspaper:

"It was one simple warning - ration Marmite and yet it has sent the country into a spin as 'Marmageddon' takes hold."

"Sanitarium is urging consumers not to "freak out" as it works to relocate its Marmite manufacturing facilities to a safer part of the Christchurch site."

"Social network websites went into a frenzy yesterday when the news broke that consumers needed to ration their Marmite usage, and now almost 100 jars are up for sale on TradeMe."

The story even made headline news on CNN (a friend of mine who is in PR was apparently called for a comment - she's not the person named in the story though).

You can even watch a Canadian video about Marmageddon or a video of Kiwis trying to identify Marmite in a blind taste test.

And in case you wondered,

"Prime Minister John Key is among thousands of Kiwis having to ration their Marmite, as 'Marmageddon' enters its second day."

Yep, the Prime Minister has commented on the Marmpocalypse. And, confirming my low opinion of him, he thinks Vegemite's just as good. Exactly what I'd expect from someone with a history of traitorous behaviour towards his own country.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Disaster strikes

This has not been a good week. Working backwards, this morning I managed to get foundation all over a pale grey dress I quite like. I usually swear by if you wash something immediately, the stain will come out, but despite having it in a tub of soapy water licketysplit, the stain showed no signs of budging by the time I left the house this morning. Yesterday, I got a rejection email from a position I'd applied for. On Sunday, the charger for my laptop gave up altogether – it had been a bit dodgy, needing a bit of gentle wiggling at times to work, but now not only is it not charging, it is also ominously crackling and sparking, so I've had to put it out to pasture. Luckily, I can use the charger off an old laptop, except it doesn't fit properly so it can take minutes of patient fiddling to get it to charge, followed by it falling out again a second later if you don't stay perfectly still. On Saturday, I broke my phone while texting, inadvertently pushing some mysterious combination of buttons that sent it into 'backtrace mode' aka turning it into an expensive paperweight (well, expensive as far as paperweights go, cheap as far as functional phones go). I went online and there are a bunch of kiwis whining about the same issue – apparently it's a "known software fault" that they will fix for you in NZ, but that's no use to me now, is it? On Friday night, I got really drunk and may have made a fool of myself in a fashion I won't specify on the blog but let's say I'm not best pleased about it. And my camera, which as I noted, was playing up in Barcelona, is pretty much completely broken as far as I can tell. I seem to have awoken some sort of mummy's curse for electronics (last year, my ipod and my laptop went down around the same time as well). I suppose that will teach me for all those tomb-raiding expeditions I've been on. I've already bought a new charger (still waiting for it to be delivered) and camera and phone, because in times of crisis (see below) my brain has a bit of an unfortunate tendency to go THIS IS IT! THE END TIMES ARE HERE! and get all spendy. Bad brain.

All of this is leading up to the big one. On Friday, I received a letter telling me that my employment contract is not being renewed. Let me tell you, it was a shock. Last I heard was about the importance of English in the organisation and how everyone needed to make a big effort to get involved with international endeavours etc. and then they don't even have the balls to tell me this to my face. The letter didn't even say one word to the effect of "thank you for your work" or "sorry". We have supposedly had a new director since January, but he has already quit (effective in July I think) and he has never actually spoken to me. The whole place is in disarray and it seems like they are planning to shut down the whole project I currently work on and either get rid of all my colleagues or move them on to other things. It's true I haven't enjoyed my job for some time now, but at least it was something – and while I have been half-heartedly looking for another position, nothing's leapt out at me, so I was pretty much banking on my contract being rolled over (you know, as my old boss told me it would be).

So there's a number of things at play – firstly, I don't know what I'm going to do. There are 6 weeks left on my contract (6 weeks where, if this week's anything to go by, it will be mega-hard to drag myself to work and pretend to show an interest in working on something that might just disappear tomorrow anyway). 6 weeks is not a lot of time to find something new. Tours is not the sort of place where jobs for people who speak fair- to middling-French are hanging from the rafters, but finding a job somewhere else would mean trying to organise a huge move with very little time to do so. It's not like when I came to Tours any more, I own a whole apartment's worth of furniture and am signed up to leases and direct debits and so on all over the place. There's perhaps unemployment, but I've never been unemployed, let alone in France, and I don't know how to go about things. I've looked on the official website, but it seems they don't want to see you until you are actually officially out of work with the paperwork to prove it. But by that stage, how long does it take before you get any money coming in? And could, potentially, the fact that I am signed up as an auto-entrepreneur somehow kick me in the pants despite the fact that I'm not actually in business?

Secondly, there's the emotional factor. I feel a lot better now particularly after talking to my old boss, who has suggested several options and is willing to talk to different people in the organisation and put my name forward for jobs, if I want to stay in Tours. This makes me feel a lot better that someone who actually knows me and I've worked for is willing to go to bat for me. Even though not getting your contract renewed by an arsehole you've never met isn't exactly the same as being fired, it is hard not to take it as a personal judgement. I really don't know at the moment about the jobs she's proposing – they are very different from the line of work I'm in at the moment and it would mean potentially moving into a role where I had to use French a lot more which makes me a bit anxious. It's nice to have options, but I'm wary of feeling pressured into taking a job I'm not sure about and the whole thing turning into a disaster. (If anyone's read my blog for a very long time – hi mum! - you may remember the time when I applied for a job in Chamonix and they offered me a more senior role, which I took but then hated and failed spectacularly at and quit 2 months in.) My boss herself described my written French as "presque bien" ("almost good") but said that I don't speak French as well as I write (true). Well, at least she's a straight-shooter, so I can have some confidence that she has a realistic assessment of my level and what sort of jobs I could be capable of.

Everyone at work is being very supportive, but my usual fashion of working through things is silently and by myself, so it's getting a bit grating to have people constantly asking "what are you going to do? Are you going to stay in Tours? Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?" That may be ungrateful, but it's stressful. I don't want to be reminded all the time that there's this looming impending doom to deal with, thank you very much.

After going through the experience of my flatmate stealing from me and not paying the rent for either of us and subsequently getting evicted, this feels like France has kicked me in the pants again. I don't know whether I want to tell France to go eff a donkey (we've all seen how you look at donkeys, France, don't try to hide it) or if I can pick myself up again and try something new.

On the plus side, this is going to be a good weekend, I just know it. Saturday is the Fête de Vins de Bourgeuil, where you pay 2 euros for a tasting glass and then go around and taste as much wine as you like (woohoo), then in the evening I have a housewarming/birthday party to go to (whether that's prudent after a whole day of drinking wine remains to be seen), and then Sunday the FORMULA ONE is back, I'm super excited even if I will have to watch crappy delayed highlights coverage online (if I stick around I'm gonna have to buy a TV, because nothing comes between me and my F1). Then next week, I go to England for my sister's birthday and to see my friend Ruth's new baby, and then when I come back my lovely friend Rick who I haven't seen for 2 years since I left Nice is coming for a visit. I'm a bit overwhelmed by everything, so in the meantime I'll be here drinking wine and watching F1 and fiddling while Rome burns...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Next time, run it by someone who actually speaks French...

A touch of French will always class up your ad, right? Not so much when the tag line translates as "Small dicks, big compliments". Oops!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

What am I reading? The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I absolutely loved Eugenides' Middlesex (seriously – go and read it if you haven't), whereas I put The Virgin Suicides aside after just a few pages (I can't remember why exactly any more, but it irritated me in some way). So it was with some trepidation that I shelled out the not-insignficant (in Kindle terms) sum of c. £8 to read The Marriage Plot. I'm a little more than halfway through, and while I'm not loving it the way I did Middlesex, it's not irritating me the way Suicides did either, so that's all to the good. I suppose naming a book The Marriage Plot is like a Chekhovian gun – I'm still waiting for the marriage. It's sort of your typical American (post)college novel – following three characters: Madeleine, aimless English Lit major (aren't they all?) who turns out to be a bit of a doormat for love; Leonard, her scientist boyfriend with issues which I won't go into here; and Mitchell, a theology student in love with Madeleine (who does that annoying girly thing of leading him on while claiming she's just seeking a Platonic ideal of a relationship*. Not that that's restricted to girls.) If anything, so far it has made me wistful for the epoch (early 80s) as depicted – a time where working on gender issues in literature was fresh and exciting (to drive the point home, Madeleine glimpses the infamous Gilbert and Gubar at a conference) and you could go travelling around the world with the romance of not planning everything ahead on the internet and encountering a seemingly endless stream of people who speak perfect English. Other than that, it's an interesting read, but I'll reserve full judgement until I've made it to the end.

*Mixing of Platonic references deliberate albeit probably clumsy

I've read quite a few other books recently as well, which I'll just sum up briefly.

  • Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which I read in one sitting, was certainly a good read and quite compelling. I didn't personally feel that there was a great deal of depth in it, but maybe that's from not being a middle-aged man looking back over the events of my life.
  • The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann. This was a good choice for my Barcelona holiday, as it was easy to dip in and out of this collection of journalistic pieces, without needing to pay close attention. The interest level, for me, was very varied. The title story, which tries to unpick the mysterious death of a prominent Conan Doyle scholar, for example, was quite absorbing, but I could have done without other pieces such as on a one-time big-shot baseballer trying to make a comeback while marooned in the minor leagues, or a tale of political corruption in an American city which just went on too damn long.
  • The Women of the Cousins' War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones. Philippa Gregory's historical fiction (of which The Other Boleyn Girl is the most famous) is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me and makes for the ideal aeroplane reading. In this book, Gregory (who actually has a PhD so she knows her stuff) and two historians tell the true stories of three women involved in the Wars of the Roses - Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII) and Jacquetta, Lady Rivers (Woodville's mother). I've never got much beyond a vague idea of most of the players and events in the Wars of the Roses (go Lancaster!) and I'll probably forget it all again shortly, but this book did a good job of telling the stories of three women who are overlooked to various degrees by mainstream history, in a very accessible and readable way.
  • She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth, by Helen Castor. Sort of continuing the theme of the previous book, in that it's dealing with powerful women of England, this book focuses on Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret of Anjou, and Mary Tudor. Again, an interesting and readable introduction to a subject I knew only smatterings about. I read this on my Kindle pretty much exclusively at the gym, so it took a long time and perhaps wasn't the ideal way to take it in, reading a handful of pages at a time on the treadmill, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. One interesting thing is how often parts of France I know and love pop up in passing, particularly with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Margaret of Anjou, but also with others. For example, Eleanor is buried not far from here (which I knew, I want to visit but it's fairly impossible without a car from what I gather) and Margaret of Anjou's marriage to Henry VI was arranged via the Treaty of Tours. Always fun to realise a bit more of the historical connections places in Europe have!

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Hooray for labour-saving devices!

Big news! I made the trek out to Auchan today for something entirely different and ended up being swayed by a 50-euro vacuum cleaner - a 50-euro, 8-kilo vacuum cleaner that I had to haul home on the bus along with two other bags of purchases, I might add. It was all totally worth it though. I've always hated vacuuming with a passion - I'd much rather clean a (not disgusting) toilet than vacuum (and by clean, I mean actually *clean* not like my stupid sorority-girl ex-flatmate from Nice who thought that she'd cleaned the toilet by putting Toilet Duck in it and flushing. Fo' serious). This has all changed, however, after spending the past 7 months sweeping the floors by hand. Even in a 30 sq m (? the square metrage of one's apartment, like one's glasses prescription, is for me one of the mysterious things in life that everyone else seems to know by heart except for me) apartment with lino floors, sweeping the floor is time-consuming and difficult. And then there's the fact that it never ends up properly clean at the end of it - if you don't miss half the dirt in the first place, then it just floats off out of the dustpan the second you turn your back. So yes, it may be lame, but I am uber-enthused about my new vacuum cleaner. A very sucky motor (to quote a vaguely racist vacuum-cleaner ad from back home) it may not be, but it does the trick a whole lot better than a dustpan and broom! (Bob's not quite so keen on it though...)

I have a theory that if everyone had to do their time in crappy customer service jobs, then the world would be a much nicer place. Well, 7 months without a vacuum cleaner might not bring us that much closer to ending war, but it definitely helps towards appreciating the little conveniences of modern life, and I for one am sparing a thought for all the women (and hey, maybe even the occasional man, if we're lucky) through the ages stuck cooking and cleaning and looking after their kids without such things. So join me in raising a glass - to labour-saving devices!

Mmm - looks good, doesn't it? One of my special wines I discovered at the Vitiloire festival (there is a wine festival in a couple of weeks - can't wait!) I haven't actually drunk a lot of wine over winter, but hey, what better occasion than this? Planning on making myself a chorizo and chickpea stew for dinner and chilling - I decided to stay in this weekend because I'm supposed to be doing some more work on that damn auto-entrepreneur job. So far... not so much. But there's still like 36 hours of the weekend to go, right? Just one glass won't hurt :)