Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On expat luck

Are we so lucky, lucky?

There's a conversation over on Mary Kay's blog at the moment on what it means to be a "trailing spouse" following one's partner around the globe. Several comments mentioned that, from the outside, this seems an ideal lifestyle - travel, adventure, and on top of all this, you don't have to do the 9 to 5? Sounds perfect! However, as Mary Kay details, there are also sacrifices, notably of one's own career and other goals.

This isn't a position I've been in myself, but I can relate to the experience of being told by others that I'm "lucky" for living in France. But do I feel lucky, punk?

I think there's two different aspects to the "lucky" comment. One is that, from the outside, expat life can seem impossibly glamorous, like every day there is a wonderful adventure waiting on your doorstep. I can definitely relate to this - who doesn't feel twinges of envy when they see photos of someone living in an incredibly beautiful spot, or read about someone who gets paid to write about their travels?

But, having lived as an expat for years, my nose-pressed-up-against-the-window wistfulness is balanced with an awareness of what life is "really" like. One of my least favourite things about the plethora of A Year in Provence-style expat books is that these people never *do* anything. With the exception of the (fictional) A Year in the Merde (which, by the way, I found grating and a bit sexist, from memory) I don't think I've ever read one of these books where the protagonist is living a "normal" life - getting up every day and going to work or living somewhere where they are just another anonymous face on the street rather than the Anglophone star turn in their insular village. Two things: I realise it makes for better copy if you're always exploring exotic places or dealing with the wacky locals rather than going to the gym and then the supermarket, and I realise that people who don't work typical jobs do exist and are probably more likely to write books, and that's fine. I just wish there was an alternative image out there to show that routine humdrum old life goes on in France (or wherever) too.

Because sometimes you could do with showing that side of things to the "oh, but you're in France!" brigade. It happens less now, but particularly when I first moved here, you could barely say a thing without them popping up. Burnt your dinner? "Oh, but you're in France, there are so many great restaurants you can go to!" Having a quiet weekend in? "Oh, but you're in France, you should be out exploring!" Just feeling a bit down? "Oh, but you're in France, you're so lucky!" Sometimes it can be a good thing to be reminded that, yes, we are lucky to live here - you're unemployed? "Oh, but you're in France and you're getting paid to live there!" - but sometimes you just want to be allowed to have normal emotions and a normal life and catch up on your laundry without being told that you should spend all your time thanking your lucky stars while touring châteaux, eating foie gras and swilling champagne (all good things of course, except the foie gras).

The second aspect to the "lucky" comment is the idea that this just fell into our laps without any effort. I will give credit to one great piece of luck - having an EU passport. But the rest did not happen by luck, I made the decision to come here and I worked for it. I studied French, I came up with a strategy to come over as a language assistant and try to find work from there, and I've put up with a lot along the way. We've all ended up in France by different routes, but whether we schemed for years to make it happen or we ended up here by chance, everyone has made choices and sacrifices along the line to be here. Whether you gave up job opportunities back home, you chose to live far away from friends and family, you decided to brave moving somewhere where you hardly spoke the language, or you traded a comfortable lifestyle for semi-poverty: we've all given up certain things. We gain other things, or we wouldn't make this choice. But that's not a matter of luck.

Those who say "I wish I could live in France, you're so lucky" don't take into account that we may be looking at their lives and thinking, "you're my age, you have a good career, you're married and you own your own home - you're so lucky". And I'm sure all of that took hard work and sacrifice too - there's no career fairy, just as there's not a move to France fairy.

I don't think that we should stop counting our blessings and seeing the good amongst the difficulties we may encounter as expats (god knows I have quite enough of a tendency towards pessimism and moaning as it is), but I think we should also pat ourselves on the backs for having the tenacity, determination and courage to choose this lifestyle and remind ourselves and even others that it's not just dumb luck.

How about you - do you feel lucky?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

La rentrée

Okay, holiday's over. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't idly looked up flights to Portugal - "I deserve a little summer sun" - but it's time to... procrastinate do something useful. Arrrggggh it's so frustrating! I'm currently procrastinating over the world's worst application form. I get it, standardised application forms make life easier for HR and also cut down the number of people who just spam out their CV to anything vaguely appropriate, but why do you need an application form in which every field has a ridiculous character limit so that I'm constantly running out of room to type basic things like my nationality (yes, "New Zealand" must be one of the longer ones even without adding in "/British", but still) or the name of my degree (again, the name of my degree is long, but it's hardly a fecking essay). Anyway, as you can tell, this is driving me *insane*. Breathe.

Furthermore, I have a little Google Calendar app on Chrome and it has suddenly started counting down the hours to midnight every day. I think it's mocking me because I no longer have anything in my calendar, ever, unlike when I was working when I used it to schedule everything I did. So it just counts down every day like "tick, tock, you're wasting your life". Even worse, sometimes something I'd scheduled way in advance still pops up in the calendar to say "ha ha, so you thought you had enough job security to pencil something in six months in the future? You fool!" I may possibly care too much about what the GCal app thinks of me...

I am trying to do some useful things though. I have been following a course on coding at I know what you're thinking, "you? Gwan? Coding? Hahahaha!" (or you're thinking no such thing, since we've never met and you have no opinion on my coding proclivities). But I was talking to my friend Rick (he of the blog guest appearance) about this, and that was pretty much his reaction, and I was all "fo shizzle ma nizzle, Ri-bizzle!", because that's totally how I talk off-blog. Moving on, yes, Gwan, coding! Finally, perhaps the "basic HTML" written on my CV will be true!* It's actually kind of fun at times, although at other times it's really frustrating, since it (like real code) doesn't actually tell you precisely how to fix your errors, and I have a tendency to instantly forget whether I'm meant to be typing "color:blue" or color:"blue" or color=blue or some other permutation. (And why can't these things stay the same in each coding language?!)

*Just to be clear, this isn't a lie per se - they did make us build our own websites from scratch at uni, but I did a half-arsed job of it and then promptly forgot everything I'd semi-learnt. I think this counts as "basic".

I also have done a few Spanish lessons on I've signed up for quite a few of these language-learning websites in the past, but this is the best one I've come across so far. I like the mix of repetition and introducing new elements, and that it tests you across the four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking - although speaking's a bit weak, for obvious reasons) without resorting to boring lists or flashcards. It took me a while to realise you can scroll down for extra grammar tips, I thought at first you just had to sort of infer these things, but if you speak French or another European language, things like the adjective agreeing with the noun will probably be pretty intuitive anyway. I don't know enough to judge whether everything's completely accurate or up-to-date, but it seems quite good to me.

So, maybe since I've written about those things on the blog, I'll keep doing them? Any bets??

But la rentrée ("the return" - back to school/work/being an unemployed bum) isn't all work and no play. It's also an opportunity to catch up with all your mates who have also been away on holiday. I don't know why, since almost all, if not all, my friends here are women, but on Friday I was totally "oh my god, it's such a pleasure to hang out with a bunch of such intelligent, funny, strong women who are all pretty much my age" (nothing against 20 year olds, but I did kind of get tired of being older than nearly everyone when I was an assistant and my first year in Tours).

I started off the evening by cracking open a bottle of champagne and catching up with Liz at my place. That champagne has been looking at me every time I've opened my fridge for the past two months, and I think I've shown heroic restraint by not drinking it till now, but I couldn't stand it any more! I think we managed to cover only about 5% of what we got up to in our holidays (London for the Olympics followed by Serbia for her), but it was great catching up and we turned up to the guinguette (an hour late oops) to meet the other girls with that sort of warm, giggly buzz you only get from champagne.

At the guinguette, we met up with Laura, Philippa, Marcia and Caroline, none of whom I'd seen from between a couple of weeks to a couple of months, so there was much to discuss and many laughs. We made up a very multinational group - two Americans, an Australian, a Scot, an Englisher and me, the Kiwi. After the guinguette shut down around midnight, we said goodbye to Liz and Laura (who presumably had to get to a rendezvous at the Goblin Market), and it was off to the Pale for an alarming amount of shots (we were actually playing some sort of Snap!-based drinking game, like a bunch of 16 year olds, ye gods). 2 am closing rolled around, at which point we somehow ended up going to an "after" at the home of some French friends of Marcia's. I have no idea where they came from, suddenly we and an Irish man who also materialised from somewhere and let me steal his cider (which probably means I was all "YOU HAVE CIDER! GIVE ME CIDER! COME TO PARTY! BRING CIDER!") were just all heading off with a bottle of wine Marcia managed to cajole out of the bar staff - not sure if that's legal, but I doubt the French authorities are reading this. And then we stayed up at this house party, drinking, talking and - I kid you not - listening and singing along to Pink Floyd until 7 am. It was actually light and Marcia (who somehow managed to sleep amidst all the Floyd) was up and making pancakes by the time I left.

That was probably super boring to read - nothing like a lengthy description of a night out you didn't participate in - but I had the best time! It really was like being a teenager again, with the added bonus that there was no need to sneak up the stairs pretending to be sober at the end of it. Plus I stopped drinking after the first bottle back at the after (they then served up a bottle of muscat or something equally horrible, so I was saved from drinking more in spite of myself) so I didn't even have a hangover yesterday. Hurrah!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From windswept moors to stifling Tours

When I stepped off the plane in Tours on Saturday afternoon, dressed in the same basic dress-leggings-cardigan combo I'd been rocking solidly throughout Norway and the UK, I confusedly thought that the jet engines of the plane were pumping out a lot of heat. While I'm sure they were moving the air around, it soon transpired that it was just that hot. Saturday was (I assume) the hottest day of the year, with temperatures reaching 38.1°C in Tours and more than 40° elsewhere in France.

Temperature map at 5.48 pm Saturday. Tours is in Indre-et-Loire, the département with a 37 in it (also, coincidentally, the number of the département) which is sort of divided into two between the black and dark purple, north-west of the one right in the middle that says 40

You can imagine what it was like coming back to my little apartment under the eaves... I was super glad to be back for Bob though. I've never seen a cat panting before. I didn't even know a cat could pant! I wrapped him up in a damp towel and we had some cuddles by the fan. He still insisted on welcome-back cuddles on my lap despite the heat and the wet towel. Silly Bob!

I tried to get one with the towel over his head so I could call him Little Virgin Bobby, but he kept moving. Goddammit, Bob!

You can wrap me up like a mummy, but you'll never take my tail's FREEDOM!
Anyway, let's go back in time and recap the rest of my holiday in the UK. As promised, I made my famous wine jelly for M&D. The wine (South African) was horrible, but thankfully I managed to simmer/sugar the horrible out of it and the jelly was well-received! We couldn't get it into the fridge at first, but I was assured that it would set overnight on the bench. I knew that wouldn't work - how many jelly recipes have you seen saying "leave it to set overnight on a bench"? - and sure enough, it was still liquid in the morning, at which point Mum managed to manhandle a shelf out of my granddad's tiny fridge.

Mum, Dad, and my disembodied arm
I'm not sure whether Mum wanted to eat the camera or she was just too eager to start on the jelly
Going back even further in time, I think it rained every day we were there, starting off punctually when we landed in Liverpool on Wednesday.

Driving in Norway

Driving on the M6. Spot the difference.
However, it did brighten up on Thursday afternoon for a trip to Haworth, the famous home of the Brontë sisters. We visited Haworth en famille in early 2007, but the parsonage where the Brontës lived was closed in winter (in fact, this is my first time visiting Lancashire in summer since I was a kid. And I know Haworth is Yorkshire, but we are a Lancs family. Screw you, Yorkshire). This time, everything was open and the morning rain seemed to scare off some of the tourist trade, since it wasn't toooo busy. The museum itself is quite small and photos are not allowed, so I don't have any. It was really interesting though. I knew quite a lot about the Brontës and their works, but I did learn new things, such as that Jane Eyre was first published as an autobiography "edited" by Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë's pseudonym), and Charlotte even pretended to be acting "on behalf of" Currer Bell with her own publishers (I had assumed they would be in on the secret, at least after the first books were published). It was also fascinating seeing the "little books" that the children wrote. They really are tiny, and the words are hard to read even with a magnifying glass

An example which came up for auction recently (and sold for over AU$ 1 mil)
I also didn't know that the sisters were accomplished artists. I thought their sketches and paintings were far better than their brother Branwell's horrible oil paintings, but of course, being a boy, he was the one encouraged to pursue a career as a professional painter (although I suppose we should all be grateful that the girls weren't stopped from writing. Or not, depending on whether you had to suffer through them at school.)

His famous painting of his sisters. His other portraits were equally crude and unattractive, I don't know how he managed to get people to pay for them. Maybe because they didn't feature someone getting Raptured out of them.
The main street in Haworth

On th' moors. Either Lancashire or Yorkshire, on top of the Pennines

A green and pleasant land, and all that

Pretending to be the ghost of Cathy searching for Heathcliff. Or something equally foolish.

One thing about the moors is true - they certainly are windswept!

Oh, and by the way, without ever (in France) having turned a wheel in anger, as they would say in Formula One (i.e. "driven a car"), I now have waited out the three years of probation on my French licence. That means I can now rent a car, I have the full amount of points on my licence (points are taken off rather than added for infractions), I wouldn't have to carry an "A" (for "apprenti" - "apprentice") on my car window, and I wouldn't be charged a premium on my insurance. I have no plans to drive in the near future, but still, huzzah! Especially since (difficulties with driving on the right and in a manual car notwithstanding), I've actually been driving off and on since I was 19, so about bloody time!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Adjø Oslo!

Here's a little (probably not so) secret: sometimes blogging gets tiring! I find the most tiresome and time-consuming part is sorting through photos, especially at the moment when I've been taking hundreds. This is an incentive to blog every day, as it leaves you with less to go through (plus the longer you put off blogging, the more sketchy and vague your posts will be), but it gets a bit much sometimes. I somehow ended up with 385 photos from the last couple of days alone, ai-yi-yi! Well, I should roll up my sleeves and get on to it, because this is our last evening in Norway before heading back to the barren internet-less wasteland of northern England (hasn't been invented yet up there).

We've had a great trip. I've got to give a big shout-out to Mum and Dad for picking Norway (Dad), planning (some of) the trip, and financing it!! We've had wonderful weather almost the entire time and seen and done some amazing things. However, all good things must come to an end, so it's up early tomorrow (Wednesday) to get back to the airport, then I have a couple more days in the UK before flying back to France on Saturday.

Yesterday (Monday), we had the long drive back down to Oslo. It was a fun little roadtrip, but I think we were all glad to get rid of the rental car, after sitting in it for more than 1000 km over three days.

A couple more shots of the scenery from the return journey

Today was quite relaxed, with the main activity a trip to the Museum of Decorative Arts. First, though, we called in at a nearby cemetery. I love cemeteries in general, and while this wasn't as full of interesting graves as, for example, Eastern European cemeteries or Père Lachaise, it did have Munch and Ibsen (and some other "famous" Norwegians).

Ibsen's grave

Munch's grave

I don't know who this is really, but tonight Matthew, he's going to be Joseph Stalin
I did a terrible job of taking note of what period or designer things were from in the Decorative Arts museum, so here are just some contextless pictures of things I liked/thought were interesting.

My absolute favourites were the tapestries, such as this early 17th century Norwegian tapestry

The close-ups are priceless. EVERYONE in this tapestry is permanently surprised

Well, Jesus is a Bit Sad

And as for the faces on this late 17th C tapestry...

This is obviously made by the same dude as the last one. I think this Where-The-Wild-Things-Are-looking guy is meant to be one of the Magi

This is amazing - a tapestry from between 1040 and 1190. Look at how bright the colours are! It was my official Favourite Thing in the museum

I think this was 17th C too, depicting King Herod feasting. I love their outfits! The text you can see above the feasters is nonsense. Often illiterate tapestry-makers just copied scraps of text (which was often mirror-image to begin with), and, over the years, it ended up as gibberish
A much-later tapestry featuring Nordic maidens about to be licked by polar bears - ???

A dress owned by Norway's Queen Maud. I know they wore corsets back then (early 20th C), but damn, that's a tiny waist! How did she manage it?

Oh, I see, clearly she was one of the undead

I would have sworn this was by El Lissitzky, but funnily enough it turned out the black plate with red dots in the background was by him

A 19th-C throwback to traditional Viking motifs

How sweet is this little Japanese plate?

Talking of sweet, awwwww
I fell in love with the work of the Norwegian Nora Gulbrandsen. This cabinet is full of her work

Gulbrandsen (I think!)

Definitely by Nora Gulbrandsen, because this one came up on Google Images
Okay, that was a lot of photos, sorry! Here's just a couple more from our last evening in Oslo

Me and Dad at the restaurant. The French people sitting behind us chain-smoked through the whole meal, holding their ciggies over their shoulders so all the smoke went away from them and straight towards us. I really wonder if smokers just don't realise how horrible that is, even outside, or they just don't care

Me and Mum at the apartment. She's cheating by wearing shoes while I'm barefoot

Me at the restaurant, looking like I'm about to get a Christmas present

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Sunday drive in troll country

This post is mainly going to consist of pretty pictures of the fjords and lakes we saw on our drive between Sunndalsora and Trollstigen and then to the Marsdalfossen Waterfall. The Trollstigen is an insanely twisty piece of road going up a mountain - "Trollstigen" means "the troll's footpath". It has a 9% gradient and 11 hairpin bends, going up to 850 metres. My parents first came up here in the 1970s, when apparently it was just a gravel road - it must have been terrifying! I'm still amazed my mum agreed to come back. This time, it was not scary (at least for me). I'll post some videos when I get around to it.

It was hard to narrow down my selection of photos, the scenery was just mind-blowingly beautiful, and we had fantastic warm, sunny weather - couldn't have asked for better!

The drive along the fjords to Trollstigen. Then the drive to Mardalsfossen was along the right-hand side of the long lake that goes vertically up the middle of the map

In Andalsnes

Also Andalsnes

We found a troll! A friend of mine on facebook asked if he was our "Fjord Escort". Groan

Somewhere on the side of the road

At the top of the Trollstigen

The Trollstigen

The Stigfossen waterfall plummets 320 m down the mountain next to (and underneath) the Trollstigen

Not the ideal place to meet sheep on the road

Look-out point on top of the Trollstigen

Trollstigen visitors' centre, only completed in June this year. The water was amazingly clear

Stigfossen waterfall/river by the Trollstigen

I told dad you wouldn't be able to see me in the photo if he didn't come closer

In some bits, it was incredibly misty first thing in the morning

At Andalsnes

Mardalsfossen Waterfall (in the background). 650 m high

Mardalsfossen Waterfall

Stopping for a chocolate break! We had a bit of a chat with the lads behind me, turned out they were Scots who worked in Norway vaccinating salmon. Who knew that was a job?