Thursday, March 27, 2014

A little bit Frencher

Photo: Heading out to vote in France for the first time! 

"Voting is a right. It is also a civic duty" - so it says on the French electoral card. The problem being, I basically don't have the right to vote pretty much anywhere. New Zealand is holding elections this year, but because I haven't been back home in the last three years, I can't vote in them. I can't vote in British elections because, bar a few months here and there, I've never been a resident, and I can't vote in French national elections because I'm not a citizen.

So that leaves the local French elections, and the EU elections, and I duly signed up to have my say. It doesn't bother me so much that I can't vote at home - I know who I'd vote for (or, rather, against - bye bye John Key), but I don't really bother keeping up with what's happening, and it doesn't seem that fair to expect a say in what's going on in a country I haven't set foot in for 4 1/2 years. Still less in the case of Britain: I may be a citizen, and probably actually know a bit more of the current events there since I read The Guardian religiously, but as I said, I've never really lived there and have no real plans to do so. But it does bother me having no influence on policies in France that affect my daily life. It doesn't seem fair that the French living permanently in London or wherever get the right to vote, but people living here legally for years can't. And if the threatened UK referendum on whether to stay in the EU ever does go ahead, I seriously hope I get a vote on that!

Now, hypocritically, given what I just said about wanting to influence policies that affect me, I don't really follow French politics that closely either. If it doesn't crop up in the free newspapers that I read on the train in the morning, basically I won't know about it. So it was a rather underinformed Gwan who toddled off to a local primary school on Sunday morning to cast my vote for the next mayor of Metz. I hadn't bothered looking into anyone's policies, so my strategy was just to vote for the party I think most favourably of.

But first I had to learn how to vote in France. There was a trestle table set up with sheets of paper representing every party running in the elections. I assumed this was just one last chance at electioneering, in case you were undecided as to who to vote for. But when I handed over my electoral card and ID to the volunteer, she explained to me that I should take copies of the papers from the table, go into the voting booth, and put the paper representing the candidates of my choice into the envelope. Confused, I confirmed with her, "I don't write anything on the paper?" Nope, no ticking or crossing needed, just stick it in. Obviously then, if you want to vote for one candidate for mayor, you have no choice about electing the other councillors, it's all or nothing from one party.

As I gathered up the papers and headed to the small, curtained voting booth, I heard the volunteers whispering "New Zealand", "Yes, I saw" to each other. I think it's a safe bet that I was the only New Zealander voting that day in suburban Metz!

By the way, I was a bit concerned I wouldn't be able to vote because both my passports are off for renewal at the moment (irritatingly, to renew my British passport, they make you send in any other passports you have as well). But I was able to use my French driver's licence, despite it having "this is not ID" written right on it. 

As I said, I hadn't researched the candidates before heading to the polling station. I had assumed it would be pretty obvious who I wanted to vote for though. Instead, I had to go through all the papers twice before I was sure I was picking the right one. I had expected big logos of each political party, but in most cases the full name was just written at the top. Since the main parties are normally referred to in the press by their initials or in shorthand - UMP (Sarkozy's lot) or PS (Hollande's crew), the full names (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire and Parti Socialiste - although I'm sure there was a longer name for the PS on the voting papers) didn't really leap off the pages at me and I was a bit nervous I'd accidentally vote for the wrong party. Just as long as I didn't accidentally vote for the Front National though!

Paper duly in the envelope, it was back to the desk to drop my envelope into the "urn" (aka plastic box), as one of the volunteers ceremoniously pronounced "a voté" (has voted). I half wished there was someone there to snap a picture of my first time voting, politician-styleez, but no. The final step was signing the register to show I'd voted and getting my elector card and ID back.

And there you go, my first time voting in France, I feel a little bit Frencher for it. That was only the first round. Since no-one got a majority of the votes, this Sunday there is the runoff between the candidates for the UMP, the PS and the Front National. Alarmingly, the far-right FN got 21% of the vote, with the UMP and PS separated by just one point, at 34 at 35% respectively. Also on Sunday is the Malaysian Grand Prix, so I'll have to bestir myself to get out and vote afterwards. This time, I'll be an old pro. I might even have a quick read of the candidates' policies ;)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why nobody wants to be your friend

Browse through any compilation of "expat tips" on the internet, and one thing will probably stand out: you are not, under any circumstances, meant to be friends with other expats. If you are, you've royally failed at Integration, Getting The Most Out Of Your Stay, and, probably, Life. You are most probably an Ugly American or the kind of red-faced Brit who wears a knotted handkerchief with the St George's Cross on it on his head, uncomfortably tight shorts and no shirt. While others - classy, sophisticated bon vivants - are quaffing Bordeaux and tucking into cassoulet, you're probably blind drunk on warm beer and stuffing a pie down your hole while you indulge in a little light football hooliganism before retiring to the bar for a moan about being surrounded by "bloody foreigners speaking gibberish".

I'm not saying never make friends with locals, or shut yourself up in an exclusively English-speaking enclave where you are guaranteed a steady supply of meat pies (momentarily tempting as that sounds), but I say, feel free to disregard this supercilious advice and make the heck out of expat friends. They may very well be the only friends you'll have.

I always roll my eyes at the romanticised travel guides where the author pitches up in a small French village and everyone is mad to learn all about ze craaaazy Eeenglish who is renovating the local Murder House (fun fact: Murder House is what we used to call the dentist growing up. There's word of mouth advertising for you). You'd think, from reading these books, that nobody in France lives in a city (well, except Paris. It's well known that Paris is the only city in France).

(On a side note, a lot of people (French and otherwise) tend to assume that I come from the country, or all of New Zealand is some sort of clean, green rural idyll. Chunks of it are, sure, but I grew up all my life in a city of a million or so inhabitants - according to Wikipedia, it's now at around 1.5 million. I'm not saying that's huge, but depending on who you ask, that's bigger than all French cities except Paris, Marseille and Lyon. Add in Auckland's peculiar geography, our penchant for living in detached houses on ample land, our crappy public transport and the world's 8th highest number of cars per capita (the US is 3rd, France is 19th, and most of the top spots are taken by dots on the map like San Marino, Monaco, Lichtenstein and our old friend Luxembourg), and I am no stranger to gridlock.

See how awkwardly-shaped Auckland is? It's like someone's small intestine after a tragic accident. That circle in the middle is the Central Business District, full of all the offices in the entire city and half-empty apartment buildings built by speculators in the early 2000s who thought that Asian students would like nothing better than to come thousands of miles to a country the size of Great Britain but with a population that would fit into one of their hometown suburbs, and then live in a shoe closet. Ringed around the middle are where rich people live, and then everyone else has to commute in from all directions, thus equalling traffic chaos.)

But I digress. My point is that everywhere I've lived has been marked by the baffling indifference of the surrounding Frenchies to my presence. I was promised casseroles, pastis at 10 in the morning, and hilarious misunderstandings. Where are my casseroles? It's true, French boys do quite often like to chat up the Anglos on a night out, and you get the odd person enquiring where you're from in a shop or whatever, but it's yet to translate into life-long friendships and comical anecdotes.

The truth is, while I'm getting to the age that, even amongst the expat pool, more and more people are settling down, getting married and popping out kids (the horror), chances are that many of the expats you'll meet will share a similar outlook and lifestyle to you. Compared to your peers back home or the local population, they'll often be more fancy-free, adventurous, and most importantly, also desperately seeking friends. Throw in the fact that the language and cultural barriers between you are lower or non-existent, and you can bond over bitching about French people and venting the frustrations of trying to establish a life in a new country, and you basically have insta-friends, just add rosé.

While there are some tried and true methods of sneaking into a French friend group (getting a French Significant Other being the most obvious, but you can also try studying or working with them, flatsharing, or just dumb luck), the shocking truth is that many - most? - French people just don't want to be your friend. If you live in the same city you've always lived in, or maybe the one where you went to university, where your family lives, where you have a solid group of friends going back years, you're probably just not on the market for new friends all that often. Add in a serious relationship, a dedicated career and/or kids, and the odds decrease even further. And then consider the fact that the person you're being asked to befriend basically has the language and social skills of something ranging from a bright cocker spaniel to a slow ten-year old child. OF COURSE when they're surveying the savannah of friendship, they're not going for the goofy, lame gazelle jumping up and down screaming "Pick me, pick me!" (I guess in this tortured metaphor, the French friend lions want to have to work for their prey or something.)

That's not surprising, nor am I blaming the French or any other majority group for this situation. I think 9 times out of 10, you'll find the same thing wherever you go in the world. Some people are lovely, patient saints. Some people actively seek out those from different cultures because they want to learn the language, or they're fascinated by their country of origin, or they just want a bit of exoticism in their lives, but most people have their own stuff going on and they're not going out of their way to include the bumbling foreigner in their lives unless there's a compelling reason to do so.

So that's why I say to you, expats of the internet, feel free to actively work on cultivating friendships with the locals if that's what you want to do. But don't feel bad if it doesn't work out exactly like you planned. Don't fall into the trap of becoming that bitter expat in the corner who spends all their time whining about their host country, but embrace your expat friends - literally, they probably need someone like you in their life too.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Daytripper, ja

This weekend has been all about the return of F1, but last weekend it was all about the sunshine and unseasonably warm weather we have been enjoying (right up until, um, this weekend). I decided that I had to do something to make the most of it - while this winter has been unusually mild, it's still been winter after all - so I headed out on what was almost a 6-hour return trip to Trier, Germany. (It's not that far, but way cheaper to use my "free" train pass to go to Luxembourg and then switch trains there than to go direct from Metz.)

Often on the way to work I find myself gazing out of the train windows (if I can tear myself away from building pyramids on my phone) and pondering, somewhat reductively, about how many millions of lives were essentially lost in the battles over the surrounding landscape. If there had been no Franco-Prussian War, no occupation of Alsace and Lorraine, would there have been a WWI? Without WWI, would Hitler have ever come to power? Do we have to search even further back in history for the roots of this conflict, or was it all inevitable all along?

History is certainly ever-present in Trier, but as you stroll around, you're more likely to come across relics of a more ancient past than reminders of 20th century conflicts. Trier, founded around 16 BC, "might" be the oldest city in Germany, and it's got the monuments to prove it. I've already been to Trier once, to check out the Christmas markets (and the Karl Marx museum), but this was a chance to take in the sights (mostly) without the crowds. Strolling in past the Roman Porta Negra, the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps, I first checked out the cathedral, a hulking edifice which dates back to Roman times as well, and is Germany's oldest cathedral. The main chapel was supposedly laid out on the orders of St. Helen, the mother of Constantine.

Porta Negra
Town square (Hauptmarkt)

The "Steipe" banqueting house, a reconstruction of a medieval building destroyed in WWII

Palace gardens. No digital trickery by the way, the sky really was that blue!

From there, I went to see the Imperial Baths, another set of Roman ruins. They weren't the most amazing things visually, but what was quite cool is that you can walk around inside the underground tunnels originally used to supply water and drainage to the baths. In practice, this means stepping out of the warm sunshine into a cold, dark, and slightly scary labryrinth. I made it out in one piece though!

The Roman baths, later joined up to the medieval city wall (on the left) and used as a palace

Could do without the scruffy shopping bag, but I brought too much heavy stuff with me (water, ipad)!

Lunch was bratwurst (of course), where I made a dick of myself by successfully ordering in German (okay, "eine bratwurst mit ketchup, bitte" is not rocket science) but then failing to understand when the guy said "2.20€" (or whatever it cost), whereupon he switched to flawless English. Then it was time for a stroll to the (unexceptional) banks of the Moselle while enjoying my first icecream of the season. Guten appetit!

Finally, I went back to the Liebfrauenkirche next to the cathedral, which had a service going on when I was there in the morning. I'm glad I did, as I think it's my new new favourite church. Very bijou, very harmonious, and just gorgeous with the strong afternoon sunshine streaming in through the stained-glass windows. I took about a million photos and also just enjoyed sitting in there taking it in. It dates back to the 13th century, although unfortunately the original stained glass was presumably destroyed in the war. The replacements are very pretty though, especially in the bold choice of colours.

That was all I had time for on this occasion, but I feel (especially casting an eye over Wikipedia for some of the names and dates I've mentioned) there's much more I could have seen in (possibly) Germany's oldest city. Perhaps I'll be back!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Norman invasion

Maybe in a future post I'll get into some of the shenanigans we got up to in Rouen (nothing quite as scandalous as the infamous Dijon trip, but we do like to keep things interesting), and I'll share with you how I discovered the world's worst hangover food. But for the moment, let's just take a minute to enjoy beautiful Rouen.

And Rouen is beautiful! We picked it off a dwindling shortlist of places that are not tooooo far or expensive to get from from both Metz and Tours, but Liz put a small cat among the pigeons shortly before we turned up by saying that she'd heard from everyone that it's a bit crap. Well, everyone was wrong! I can't comment too much on what there is to do (we ate a lot, drank a leetle bit, walked around, saw the cathedral and the markets and I went to the Beaux Arts museum), but I can show you some photos and let you judge for yourself. Personally, I loved it!

There was meant to be a group of us going, but for various reasons it ended up just me and Liz. Of course that didn't stop us having a lovely time :)

Rouen cathedral from the side (the front being covered with scaffolding)

Look at those blue skies and fluffy clouds!

Chapel in the cathedral

The tomb of young Henry, brother of Richard the Lionheart. Have you ever seen such nostrils on a sculpture?

The Grand Horloge

Me and a church I don't know the name of

Rouen is full of amazing medieval buildings

The spot where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake

Okay, you can't see much of the street, but you can see the John Rocha dress I bought in the sales quite well :D

Cute old-fashioned shop sign

Could you be (could you beee) the most beautiful church in the world?

Liz and me in front of St Maclou

St Maclou
We had church in a half-timbered medieval restaurant overlooking the square with the church above. Featuring ooey gooey delicious camembert, so much better than from the supermarket!

So, Rouen, what do you think?