Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lux travel

Or, how I tried something new and it paid off.

Let's fill in the backstory. As you probably know, I got hired for my current job starting in April, until the end of August. At the time, whether they believed it or not, there were many positive words about how my contract would "probably" be renewed, the subcontractors I am working for just had to iron out the formalities of their contract, etc. etc. Fast-forward to the beginning of June. I have two months left on my contract, the subcontractors' contract runs out the end of July and hasn't yet been renewed, and the UK project I was hired to work on will probably not get off the ground until 2014. Plus I have gotten rid of the entire backlog of documents that, when I arrived, filled about 7 shelves (with more arriving every day), and there have been days where I've finished all my work by 11 am and literally played Candy Crush for the rest of the day. Which isn't as fun as it sounds.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that things were not looking rosy for a contract renewal. Now the last time this happened, it was a great shock to the system and I ended up depressed, on sick leave, and ultimately unemployed. This time, I was determined to be proactive and start lining up something else while I still had a day job. So I marched into my manager's office, asked him about my contract, got the response I was expecting ("I don't know, but things don't look good") and told him that, with the clock ticking and no offers on the table from their side, I had to start looking elsewhere.

Cards on the table, I started firing CVs off, deciding to be confident and just go for anything I saw that looked vaguely appropriate, unlike when I was depressed and kept telling myself "you can't apply for that, look, you're underqualified/overqualified/probably the right amount qualified, but they won't want you anyway because x, y, z". Almost straight away, my phone started ringing and recruiters started doing that horrible, horrible thing French people do of ringing you out of the blue and submitting you to a mini-interview over the phone. I had one complete disaster where there was a bad line, I couldn't hear a thing the woman said, had to ask her to repeat everything, and actually spent the whole phonecall thinking it was another job entirely that was ringing me. (By the way, I find it incredibly rude that, even after I sent an email to apologise and explain again that I just couldn't hear, this woman hasn't got back to me to at least say "sorry, we're not going forward with your candidature".) Several others went a lot better, but they told me to get back in touch closer to the end date of my contract.

The one that actually paid off, however, was what I would have thought of as the longest shot of all. For I think the first time in my life, I submitted a candidature spontanée - I even had to look the term up in the dictionary to find the English equivalent (they suggested "spontaneous" or "unsolicited" application, neither of which I think sounds all that great). That is, I found a company online that looked like they might regularly hire people a bit like me, and sent them my CV even though they weren't advertising any vacancies. I've been to the seminars before where they tell you to do this, but honestly, I'd never really believed it would work. Even when they called me, I half expected they would just say, "cool, we'll keep you on our books", but the next thing I knew, they were inviting me to Luxembourg for an interview.

So, after hastily wangling two days off work, booking (reimbursable, thankfully) last-minute train tickets, spending a weekend of debauchery in Toulouse then having two much-needed sleeps in my own bed, it was off early in the morning to take a train, metro, train, and two-bus journey, spanning three countries, to my interview. The bus, from Germany, arrived at the Luxembourg city train station as scheduled, two hours before my interview, and after changing into my interview clothes and touching up my makeup in the train station loos, I decided to head straight up to the vicinity of my interview location. Thankfully, since of course I took the wrong bus (it went to the right area, but by a different route that didn't go past the stop I needed). The bus driver told me to go round the corner to the main road and wait for a different bus back down the road, but when I got there and looked at the map, I decided that it was just one straight road, it didn't look far, and the next bus wasn't for 10 minutes, so I'd just walk.

This was a bit of an error in judgement. What looked not far on the map turned out to be, I later verified, a 2 mile walk (by the way, it annoys me no end that I can't figure out how to change from miles to kilometres on Apple Maps). 2 miles in the blazing c. 28°C, humid sunshine dressed in a wool suit (well, I took the jacket off of course) with a full knee-length slip underneath (cos otherwise that woollen waistband is itchy!) on one of those long, straight roads that just seems to go on and on without you ever getting any nearer to your unknown destination. Pulling a wheely suitcase. Altogether, it took 1 1/2 hours from my arrival at the train station to reaching my destination, so thank god I always leave myself a lot of time. I used the spare 20 minutes before heading inside to try to sit quietly and stop sweating. Always a good start.

After checking in to the front desk, I headed into my interview with a woman about my age who had not only been very friendly over the phone and by email (signing off, unusually, Bien cordialement instead of just Cordialement) but turned out to be gorgeous, and wearing a dress that was tight and low-cut even by general office standards, let alone French women's standards. (Yes, this was Luxembourg, but she and her company were French.) I swear I spent the start of the interview just staring at her thinking "please hire me and be my new best friend". (There was also a man and another woman there, who were not candidates to be my new best friend/girl crush.)

The interview started off on a bad/confusing note, when it emerged that they had decided I wasn't experienced enough for the position we had discussed on the telephone. The good news, however, was there was a more junior post, that they weren't interviewing anyone else for (yet). One of the bad things about living in France is it's really hard to get a job as a librarian, as my training, experience and inclinations would normally lead me to do. So I have to apply for jobs in records management, which in fairness, I am rather comically clueless about (despite actually working in a records management position right now, and having studied it a bit at uni).

Obviously, I'd tried to brush up before the interview, but things started off slightly dodgy when she asked if the term "classification code" meant anything to me. "Yeeeeeeees....", I replied, praying there wouldn't be any follow-up questions (in which case I would have gone for the obvious, but probably hopelessly undercooked reply of "a code for classifying stuff?"). Thankfully, probably sensing that I in fact didn't really know, she moved on. More horror to come, when she inquired about what I had studied relating to archives/records in my Masters degree. I just kept naming random concepts - "authority control!" "authenticity!" "records lifecycle!" "preservation!" "retention schedules!" - like a mad person who had swallowed a records management glossary until she finally interrupted me and said "so, those are things you covered in your course?" "Um, yep..." We did get back on to firmer ground when the other woman asked why I'd applied and I think I did a pretty good job of pointing out how the values espoused on their website matched my profile and how although I might not have a lot of experience in records/archives I've proven my adaptability and ability to learn quickly on the job, but it was still something of a surprise when, at the end of the interview Miss Franco-Luxembourgeoise said "okay, well take a few days to think it over, then if you want the job, let us know". A triumph for my personal skills over actual knowledge and experience, or a reflection of the fact that they weren't interviewing anyone else? Who can say?

They only told me AFTER I accepted the position (which only runs till the end of the year, boo, but it's a start) that it was subject to confirmation by the IO (international organisation, arguably not quite as important as the IIO), so it was a semi-nervous wait for a couple of weeks until the news came through that I officially got the job! So now I need to fit in the last month at my current job, a trip to Belgium for the Grand Prix (woohoo), a week and a half in England and Italy, and then move to somewhere in the vicinity of Luxembourg (still thinking that through) and start a new job, in the space of the next six weeks. Help!

As for the rest of my short time in Luxembourg, I just wandered around really. The weather was gorgeous (once I was out of the the wool suit), and it turns out Luxembourg is really pretty! I knew nothing about it, but it's set between a couple of plateaux and valleys, so there are amazing views everywhere (and some steep hiking up and down hills), and it is so so green. I swear, you're in the middle of the city and you'd think you were looking out on an alpine village. I think I read somewhere that there is 30% green space in the city, plus it is dotted with the picturesque remains of the old city walls and other fortifications.

The Luxembourg Philharmonic (right)

View of the city from Kirchberg. Yep, the old self-timer on a wall trick.

Fort Thungen with the Musée d'Art Moderne designed by I.M. Pei, he of the Louvre pyramids. (I suppose once you've hit on a winning theme, you may as well run with it, eh?)

The Adolphe bridge, whose central arch was the largest stone span in the world when it was built at the beginning of the 20th century

Tiny village nestled in the Swiss Alps? Nope, just the central valley between the city centre and Kirchberg (facing a completely different direction from the picture above, but just as green)

View of the Grund quarter from the Bock promontory

The Grund again

Looking from the Bock towards the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge

The gorgeous Luxemboug Cathedral, a new favourite of mine

Valley with the (little) skyscrapers of Kirchberg in the background
Panoramic video from the Bock promontory, featuring the music of Elvis Costello (as in they were playing a gig, not as in I dubbed some in)! PS, if it is just looping at double-speed, it's not meant to do that...

War memorial

Thursday, July 18, 2013

La ville en rose

Mes amis! I have so much to talk to you about! I know I have been sadly neglecting the blogosphere of late, due to having nothing interesting to say, but I should have quite a lot to get off my chest in the upcoming weeks.

Last Friday, we headed off on my very first Euro Roadtrip (can you believe it?) for a much-anticipated visit to our lovely friend Caro, who has been studying down in Toulouse for the last few months (and will soon head back to Tours, yay). In her absence, I managed to kill one of her plants and, I strongly suspect, knock the stuffing out of the other two, but in fairness, she was warned.

Due to the inconvenience of having a job and the selfishness of the French not moving Bastille Day to the Monday, it was a whirlwind trip. Six hours down in the car on Friday, leaving straight after I finished work at 4 (well, in theory - it was actually more like 4.45 before we properly hit the highway), and six hours back on Sunday. One mission: party hardy. Make that two missions: party hardy and eat cassoulet.

Philippa, Liz and I made a pact in the car down - Friday was going to be a quiet night, and above all, there were going to be *no shots*. We love Caro, but she is notorious trouble. Honest to god, I had grown out of the shots thing, but hang out with this girl for long enough and they mysteriously appear. The car was hot, the aircon was ineffectual, the weather was perfectly sunny and cloudless the whole drive down, and we finally rocked into Toulouse around 11 pm, planning for just a sneaky drink before resting up.

The next thing we know, Caro turns up at our hotel announcing that she had found a cute Kiwi bartender in the Irish pub across the road who was looking after her pint while she came and fetched us. It seemed a good idea to stay in the neighbourhood for our "quiet Friday drink", so we headed over, chatted with the bartender and caught up on each others' news.

A photo of Philippa and me and some randos in the background. (I'm kidding, but do check out the Vanilla Ice dude back left.)
Look look look! A kiwi! Called Sam, although I insisted on calling him Matt. Does that not look like a Matt to you?

Sure enough, a couple of quiet drinks in, suddenly a round of shots appeared at the table. Caro swears black and blue that she didn't order them, that the kiwi bartender just "sensed" we might like some. Shortly afterwards, we were up and dancing, but due to our late arrival it wasn't long before the bar closed.

However... for some reason, one of the other bartenders came up and asked us if we were keen for sticking around for a lock-in. This is where all thoughts of a quiet night started to go out the window. There was only us, about 4 bartenders, 3 girls and a couple of guys who stuck around for the lock-in. There's part of me that thinks, damn, why can't these things be happening in Tours? Over three years here, and no-one's asked us to a lock-in, whereas bam, first night in Toulouse and we're officially Friends of the Bar, even though this involved me (voluntarily) putting my arm around the world's sweatiest shirtless man.

So very sweaty. "Matt" the Kiwi bartender actually offered me a paper towel to mop the sweat off my arm.

Look sexy ladies

Sambucca, tequila and ??? shots followed one after another, and I somehow got involved in a pastis-off with one of the locals. For those unfamiliar, pastis is a not very pleasant aniseed-flavoured drink that's about 45% alcohol (although, as in this case, it's often mixed with water). Said local claimed that no-one who wasn't from the South of France could drink pastis without throwing up. I am nothing if not bullheaded, particularly after a series of shots, and loudly proclaimed that not only could I do so, but I'd also drink it in one go, faster than him. What can I say? I won. Of course I won. It's a fool who goes head to head with Gwan. What I should have done was left things there instead of, some time later, agreeing to a rematch (and paying for it this time). Oh Gwan, when will you learn? I won again, naturally, but it really wasn't the smartest move. Let's just say it's lucky the local wasn't around the following morning...

We left, basically, when we were kicked out. To the best of our calculations, we got back to the hotel across the street at around 6.30 (FYI, that meant I'd been up for 24 hours, worked a full day, had a 6 hour+ car trip and then partied all night) and managed to sleep until around 11 when it was time to get up and get ready to meet Caro for lunch at 2. I filled in the interval by taking about an hour-long bath, although by bath I mean I lay in the tub hosing myself down with the shower head, trying to get into the foetal position (not possible) and moaning like a mournful whale. 

After this shaky start, however, I managed to mount a Phoenix-like recovery thanks to some upbeat music, caffeine and a bit of lippy. Sad Face came out again when my lunchtime burger came out practically raw, but I sent it back and was soon soaking up the alcohol with some fatty goodness.

Then it was time for a bit of a wander around to see what Toulouse has to offer. It's called la ville rose (hence the blog title) due to the colour of many of its buildings, but I think it's more orangey than pink, really.

Not bad for 3 1/2 hours' sleep, if I do say so myself!

The Basilica of Saint Sernin, Europe's largest Romanesque church (supposedly)

Almost Native American-esque Romanesque bas relief. Esque.

The Garonne

We stopped at a café near the Garonne where I attempted a bit of a hair of the dog with a glass of rosé, but instead got served the world's most horrible, bitter rosé. Say what you will, Provence rosés aren't a patch on the Val de Loire (yep, them's fighting words). After a wee nap, it was back out for a late dinner, and I had only one thing on my mind: cassoulet.

Now, traditionally a dish made up of masses of beans, sausage and confit duck might not be your classic summertime meal, but it's one of my favourite things which I hardly ever get to eat, and I couldn't pass up the chance to have some in its South-West home. So I dragged everyone along with me for a meal that proved to be delicious but deadly.

Om nom nom, this is before I started dying

Looks kinda gross, but it's delish! Don't be fooled by the seeming small size of the dish, I swear to god this was some sort of never-ending Jesus cassoulet. The more you ate it, the more there was. I'm sure I'd already been eating it for about 20 minutes before taking this photo.

It didn't take too long before I was regretting the cassoulet goodness. Fragile, hungover stomach + 30+ heat +crowded club +huge bowl of beans and fat = unhappy Gwan. We went to a Latin American-themed bar where everyone just danced into me constantly and I sulked and clutched my stomach and fought back the urge to vomit. Then I actually did vomit, sad to say. We moved on to another bar where I was just about to call it quits and go home when the Spice Girls started up with Wannabe. Like magic, sulky Gwan and her stomach ache was gone, in the second magical resurrection of the day, and we danced the night away until a very respectable 3 in the morning, to a panoply of cheesy hits.

The only thing marring our enjoyment in this bar was the rudest bartender EVER. I'd started on vodka so I wanted to stick with that and I ordered something I normally get with gin instead - vodka, lime and tap water. Yes, I know it's not a classic cocktail, but seriously, it's three things. Three really cheap, easy things. The bartender had some kind of issue with it from the start, repeating it back to me in her most incredulous tones about three times. Yes, that's really what I want (NB her colleague had made me a perfectly fine version with zero fuss a little earlier on). As she was preparing all our drinks, Caro and I were joking that she hated me, thanks to her obvious death glares, but didn't think too much of it. The drink came, with the glass half full and very strongly limey. I took a sip and asked for more water. She put some ice in, and SLAM, down on the counter. "No, water". She put it for a second under one of the bar taps, then the other and SLAM on the counter again. She turned away as I sipped it. She'd clearly accidentally put some sparkling or soda water in, which I really don't like. I was just going to let it go though, but she turned back and asked "ça va?" and when I just shrugged she threw out her arms and goes "QUOI?"

So, of course I had to say something, and I asked if she'd put soda water in. Incredibly defensively, she goes "I did exactly what you asked, I made it right in front of you". I pointed out that the second time, she'd filled the glass from two different taps, and she goes "c'était de l'eau et de l'eau" (it was water and water) in a snarky tone (so why switch between the taps then?). So that was that, and I go "What's your problem?" and she did the biggest "Qui, moi?", as though she was being nothing but sunshine and light. Seriously, it wasn't just me, Caro was right there witnessing her being an utter bitch, and also tasted the drink and confirmed it definitely wasn't plain tap water. I think she'd have spit in it if I hadn't been watching what she was doing. Still no idea what got her back up so much. Someone should tell her that it's actually a bartender's job to mix drinks, and it wasn't even as though I asked for an exotic cocktail made out of stardust and unicorn wee.

Anyway, that didn't stop us enjoying the rest of the evening, and I got an almost respectable 5 hours' or so sleep before getting up again, wandering back into town for a last lunch with Caro, and hitting the road back to Tours. I've got to say, queasy stomach aside, I'm incredibly proud of our stamina (especially Liz who had to drive in, once again, crippling heat). Not bad for a bunch of 30-somethings! Back in Tours, I was tucked up in bed by about 9.30, and the closest I got to Bastille Day fireworks was being woken up by them...

I would normally crop out the ham-hock arm, but the whole point was showing off our glowstick accoutrements

Liz and I are blurry, but this is still a fun party shot and a great souvenir of an awesome Toulousain weekend!