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French and Russian undergraduate student, trying my hand at the real world.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

On piecing together a sense of cultural identity

Evening ребята,

So I am in the process of a mini project I have set myself, in order to liven up my next few weeks of slogging away in the library. A spoonful of sugar, or something. I have sent questionnaires to my peers who I know to come from a multicultural background (with their volunteering of course!) because I want to explore the balance that people of diverse cultural backgrounds establish for themselves in day to day life - to explore the clashes, the balances, the benefits and so on. I'm really enjoying working on it so far, so hopefully you won't have too long to wait for it. As it is, I can't wait to get cracking on my write up.

I want to attempt to piece together what it means to be "British", as I  have dedicated this academic year to experiencing so many other people's cultures.
It was time to come home and back to my roots.

A topic that I did for AS Level English Literature in England is entitled "The Struggle for Identity in Modern Literature". At least, I think it was AS Level, it may have been GCSE come to think of it. I think an issue with the topic is that at that age, most students haven't yet formed their own personal sense of identity, so it is a difficult topic to fully get to grips with. I know if I was to go back and do it again, I would approach it with a different perspective, especially after this year abroad.

This year has distanced me from England and therefore given me the space to really think about my own culture. I feel it fills a fundamental part of my personal identity, but is not my sole personal foundation.

I suspect this post is going to end up cheesy and sentimental, but if that's how it turns out, so be it.

My first point is that the human mind is a strange thing. It likes to attach itself to places, towns, locations, and develop a strong love and affinity with them, to the extent that you yearn for them when separated for long periods. When you return to them, the relief is indescribable. The only way I can put this into words is to call it one's "soul home" - I know, cheesy, but it stands nevertheless.
For me, this is Wales. I have a lot of ancestral roots in Wales and the borders with England, though I have never lived there myself. We recently upped sticks and moved from the south of the country to the north. This bothered me less than it may have otherwise done, as our proximity to Wales remained largely the same. I can't describe it, but I just have to travel through the valleys and see the Black Mountains and for some reason, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace within myself. I don't think you have to be "from" a place to feel a connection.

Secondly, I want to pose the million pound question of "What does it mean to be British?". This is a very contentious issue at the moment, what with the emergence of the so-called "Racist Van" that has been doing the rounds in areas of North and East London that have a large immigrant population. It is a sad state of affairs when I feel uncomfortable writing that word - even when it is just a statement of fact. People do come to live in England from other countries, nothing more and nothing less than that. There has also been mention in the British media of high profile, and highly public, spot checks from UK Border Agency officials at Elephant and Castle tube station. All of this seems to have come into the public conscience at the same and most crucially, during Parliament's summer recess. I'm not a political expert and the point of this post is not for the sake of controversy, so I will leave you to draw your own conclusions before I make any misguided sweeping statements.

We must of course remember the old statement that "Everyone's an immigrant if you go back far enough" when reading this post. I want to pinpoint the British stereotype and by British I mean anyone who would refer to themselves as "British". I think this is probably the fairest assessment as it transcends any kind of bureaucratic judgement. I strongly believe that British is a state of mind as much as a nationality, and as such, you can be British without technically being a British citizen - given that some countries automatically grant you a citizen because you are born there.

I have been watching the documentary on Channel Four entitled "Why don't you speak English?" as part of my wider research for this blog and to examine the differences between the British host families and their guests, who came from Rwanda, China, Columbia and Poland. Actually it really surprised me that the second most widely spoken language in England is actually Polish; I had previously thought it would have been a South Asian language or French.

While it is important that cultural roots are not abandoned and forgotten, wherever they come from - British or otherwise - it is an inevitable consequence of exposure to a culture that you pick up elements of it and adopt them as your own. For example, living in Russia, I gained a stronger sense of self and the confidence to challenge authority, as well as smiling and showing my emotions less. I also cultivated a stronger sense of femininity and started wearing make up more.

British culture, then. I think this is most deeply rooted in our history and our now essentially defunct class system. I would argue that we are one of the most tolerant countries in the world, politically. We allow freedom of religion and our newly enacted Gay Marriage laws mark us out as one of only 15 countries in the world to allow this practise. While it is incorrect to say that we, universally speaking, are not a racist country, rates of racial violence are considerably lower than many other countries. You just have to look at the US as a similarly advanced economic country to establish this.

Our previous political imperialism has left us, I think, with a sense of post colonial guilt which has led to our better track record of racial tolerance. Furthermore, we also hate rubbing people up the wrong way. I think we have the Royal family (especially our current Queen) to thank for this, for instilling values of politeness, diplomacy and deference in our nation. I speak here with awareness of the Second World War and how the country's figureheads conducted themselves through such adversity, as the King and Royal family had a much more political role then. The stiff upper lip attitude was very much cultivated during this time and prior to this was the notion that one must conduct oneself with a sense of grace and decorum. In fact, I miss this idea. Call me a snob, but I think we could all do with more self respect as a nation and stop eating so much, stop swearing in public and stop revealing acres of bare flesh in the street and just took more personal responsibility. It's just not nice. I'm not saying that we must be Victorian and rigid, but when you see a woman swearing at her child in public for the slightest misdemeanour, there is something wrong.

We should all be more like the Oxford university don, Professor Mary Beard, and less like the dregs of society who take it upon themselves to send her death threats for deigning to appear with grey hair on the television.

I'll be frank, I have little time for Republicans who have this class based mentality that the Royals are a waste of tax-payers' money. Look how miserable the French are. It's not like the Royals are requisitioning lands from the paupers any more, we've reined them in since then. They do form a hugely important part of our national identity as one of the last vestiges of our history - and that, I think, is something worth hanging on to. Frankly, far more tax-payers' money is wasted in other areas due to the amount of bureaucratic shuffling that takes place due lack of solid policy, than on the Royals, as indeed they are tax payers themselves...

It is true though that snobbery is absolutely rife in our culture, and I am not talking about a top-down concept here. Rather, it is the opposite. The last social group it has become acceptable to judge is people of wealth and status. The term "old-Etonian" has become a stick with which society can beat a person, whether or not there has been any prior judgement of their character. (Usually the case is not). My stance on this is clear. A person cannot help their birth status. They can avoid being born into a poor family just as well as they can avoid being born into a family of wealth, just as well as they can avoid being born a woman, avoid being born into a particular ethnicity. You wouldn't assault a person based on their skin colour in this country, so why on earth would you assault their upbringing? Fair enough, if you don't like the person, then disagree with them on a human level. Otherwise mouthing off about a "rich" person says so much more about the fact you cannot see past a person's outer layers, or past their accent.

As such, I have got rid of my twitter account. Twitter is full of too much of the depraved and darker parts of our culture, and there aren't enough pictures of cats.

Britain, then. We have a ridiculous system of bureaucracy, people, by and large, follow the rules here and we are lucky to be in our position. We are so keen on tolerance to the point that we are haplessly socially awkward. This is Britain now, and I am both proud and lucky to consider myself British. In our increasingly globalised world, it is so important to understand other people's cultures, and to share positive cultural values - more so than it has ever been.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

On the French

And a good afternoon to you all.

I have decided to dispense with writing about the Swiss as I do not have enough material to make a decent sized blog post about them, and instead to skip ahead to the French. This post then is one that has been gestating in my head for a rather long time and proves to be one of the most challenging ones to write. 

The French are just so complicated. I lived there for a total of six months this year and I still cannot get my head around their completely tangled and contradictory culture. I thought the Russians were complicated and occasionally fickle, but I clearly had not seen anything yet. I speak the language relatively fluently, (depending on whom you ask!) and it has long been said that language is the gateway to culture. Perhaps the difficulty with which I acquired any grasp of French grammar is testament to this.

I just don't understand the French.

My university professors out there were the hardest people to read. My literature professor especially. She was one of those people with a "kind" face - soft features, a maternal presence. She lectured fluently, with an awareness of whom she was lecturing to. I found her most engaging and looked forward to her lectures every week. This was not the case with our personal exchanges, where she became closed off and steely. While I am aware that the relationship with professors and students in French universities is far more formal than here in the UK  - "C'est Madame, a vous!" - I was not expecting such brusqueness from someone who had previously displayed overtones of kindness and approachability. 

I suspect that the French are automatically suspicious of me because I have an English accent when I speak French, despite my efforts to hide it. But it is an accent, not a mental incapacity. There is a misapprehension associated with language and accents, the assumption being that just because a person finds it difficult to function in a foreign language as well as a native, they are unable to function altogether.

It is not just the French who do this, it is a rather universal thing.

I can give you an example on a rather tangential note here. I read a piece this week about mail-order brides in Ukraine and Western men. The same old case of Western men looking for a companion and a trophy, the Eastern European women looking for a way into the West and to be funded in doing so. Except one key difference - the women did not exist. They advertised fake details and personal profiles, luring the men to Ukraine, whereupon it would be discovered that the entire thing was a scam.

I'm not trying to moralise here; my point is that people are smart. Smarter than you might expect.

We (as a human race) cultivate assumptions about countries that have had a shaky political past, that were previously impoverished, and we refuse to accept that they have either changed or that they even have the same grasp of "the system" as more affluent nations.
We just have to look to Russia and how our media covers news in their country as evidence of this.  If you read anything published in certain newspapers, we are made to believe that the country is to be judged solely on its political situation. We are made to overlook the human element of the country. Nothing positive is ever written in our media about Russia. While it is true that the activities of the justice system have raised eyebrows here and in Russia itself, we are never posed with a countering view.
Also, in certain newspapers, the stories come from a "Moscow Correspondent", who often will have no training in Russian, Russian culture, and who will have been sent out there on secondment with a limited understanding of the country that they are being sent to. It will even be their first time living there. Russia is a difficult country for Westerners to understand, from the most basic essential fact that Russians culturally do not smile when you greet them. It looks like it could be a European country in St Petersburg, but it just isn't. It is Russian and always will be. I think often this difficulty in comprehension is translated into our media coverage. A person who is struggling culturally is going to have mixed views about a place, which will often lead to a negative portrayal in media sources. In sympathy with such journalists though, as I suspect I have been a little harsh here, they will often have to fly off to far-flung corners of the country with little notice, which can't be too much fun. I pity anyone covering the Snowden affair - airports are sinfully boring places to wait at the best of times.

I'll put this into context. If you replace all of the Russia elements of that last paragraph and say that England can only be judged by the actions of Whitehall and the House of Commons, you'd probably have something to pipe up about it. Everyone knows that English politics and media is extremely London centric. No Russian who lives outside of Moscow will say that everything in such a vast expanse of land can be judged by a city that is, in many cases, upwards of 500 miles away. That's like saying that Portsmouth can be judged externally by the actions of Stirling, Aberdeenshire for all their geographical assimilation. It's just wrong and misguided.
As such, it is not just Russia that has such treatment by the Western media, I use this only as an example. We are exposed to the negative sides of all countries by our media - such as how Istanbul was transformed into essentially a warzone with the riots, how India is the place to go if you're a woman and you fancy becoming the victim of all manner of violence. The media is what causes us to treat nationals of certain countries less respectfully than we should.

Heading back to France now, I was talking to a camarade in my geopolitics class, who said in no uncertain terms that if I were to go to his house, I would not be welcomed by his step-dad, who was an unashamed Anglophobe. Such a camarade was perfectly pleasant to me, this was if anything a mere anecdote. Can I consider this as racist? I'm not one of those people who deliberately looks for something in everything to get offended about, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth that someone would judge me so harshly, solely on the country of my birth. I am a human being, before I am British. Nevertheless, I never pushed for an afternoon tea session at his parents' house. I would have had to tell them I was Australian or something.

I am also unsure of the overall glumness with which many French go about their business. Restaurant workers in particular, who act as though my custom is a personal affront to them and their "leisure" time at work. The French are a polarised assortment of people. Some are serious to the point of making the House of Lords look like Magaluf, yet others are vivacious, social, exotic, fiery. You meet many French who couldn't do more for you, who will welcome you into their shop with open arms and who consider your accent "mignon". 
"J'adore les Anglais, je suis alle a Brighton - mais j'ai mange trop de barbe a papa et puis je me suis sentie un peu malade!" - so said the woman who set up my bank account, and who I subsequently fell a little bit in love with. It's not even a generational thing; friendliness and seriousness are transcendent of age.
While of course you cannot tar all with the same brush, each culture has its idiosyncrasies. Coming across English people during our travels proved a welcome relief when faced with occasionally very alien cultures - we are universally a highly awkward people who like to make life difficult for ourselves. The French, however, are very much split down the middle - the super generous and the super grumpy. France would be a much easier country to live in were it not for this latter half, and this is a view that is shared by many of my fellow English. 

I would not change the French, but maybe cheer some of them up a bit.

Part Four of the Cultural Observations series: The Austrians

From Venice we went to Vienna, on possibly the hottest overnight train I have experienced. (Though my train from Moscow to Kazan is not one I would undertake again without at least a gallon of water!).

I couldn't wait to go to Austria again. My family have had a long standing relationship with the country, since my mother spent a month there as a teenager to improve her German and in so doing developed a keen love for apricots, leberkasesemmel and all things in between. I'd not been to Vienna, only to Salzburg, but this was my third time in the country.

We must establish first of all that the Austrians are some of the most kind and hospitable people I have ever come across. Nothing is too much trouble for them; they are genuine, thoughtful and immensely easy going. They are also blessed  with the same sense of efficiency as the Germans and Swiss, but I have found them to be rather more personable. I found the Swiss to be a little too efficient, at the expense of other social skills. For example, in our Swiss hostel, we were requested to take our shoes off at the door, the owner was rather austere and formal and we found others to be rather unfriendly. Not in Austria though. Our hostel owners in both Vienna and Salzburg were immensely warm.

Austrians also make the best goulash. "Everyone in Austria has a Hungarian relative", apparently. It was a pleasure to have been able to share something that my family has held onto for so long with my companion. I cannot wait to come back for a fourth time, frankly. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Cultural observations Part 3: The Italians

So the third part of this series of blogs is on the Italians.

We travelled to Italy by ferry from Patras to Bari, which unfortunately was not the best first impression we could have got of Italy. No one goes to Bari expecting a whirlwind of culture, it is the Dover of Italy. Our ferry was delayed by four hours, so we had to wait another four before we were able to move on to our next destination, Naples. (Which I loved, by the way. I think it's my favourite Italian city).

We were lucky enough to spend an entire week there, which was an ideal amount of time to really take in this enigmatic culture. I came to the conclusion that the Italians are immensely laid back people, but not so much as the Greeks. I will confess that my views about the Italians are a little less established, by which I mean I lack a proper cultural portrait of them in my head. Perhaps this is because I have found them to be quite reserved people, but perhaps also because Italy was so filled with Americans. I'll be honest, this did lower my enjoyment of the place, as some Americans have a rather low view of any country that is not America. "Oh my god, does no one round here speak English?"...

Actually I have a rather good anecdote about that one. I am not very good at delivering anecdotes and maintaining their humour, but I'll give it a go.

Armerican woman outside museum in Rome, looking at the audioguides.

"Hey Bryan? Bryan? They have the walkie talkies in English, but not American..."

There are a number of cliches and stereotypes associated with the Italians, some of which are more accurate than others. They do talk a lot with their hands, but one thing I noticed was that their faces are almost deadpan when they talk; all the expression is in the hands. My Italian friend once told me that the way to spot a foreigner from a mile off is their inability to do this as fluidly as a native Italian.

Apparently every grandmother in Italy has her own sauce recipe. I absolutely wish this was true, though I am sure there are plenty of cheaters out there. What I love though is that the Italians are not afraid of food. Real food. Bread. Pasta. There are English and American women collectively hyperventilating as soon as they so much as read those words. "But b-b-b-but what about the carbohydrates?!".

Have you *seen* an overweight Italian under the age of 35? I think it's about time we bucked up our ideas over here and stopped eating so much in between meals and instead ate better food at actual meal times. I ate Italian sized portions of carbohydrates, everyone, and I did not gain so much as 100 grammes! I am fed up with people (Women in London especially), who claim to be eating "only Goji berries on a Thursday because they have, like all these antioxidants and like yah... Oh, look its time for my wheatgrass smoothie and polenta salad. I'm like totes gluten free these days - just like all my Pandora and Cosmina..." . How utterly insufferable.

So, then. Pasta. Wild boar pappardelle. Real tagliatelle bolognese - eaten in Bologna of course. Why on earth would anyone willingly succumb to stupid diet fads?

I loved Italy, but goodness knows they could make their trains run on time. I guess you have to be as relaxed as the people are when you have such an inefficient public transport system.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Cultural Observations Part Two: The Greeks

So after a few days in Istanbul, we headed west to Greece, which I was hugely excited for. I had never been to Greece, but had been lucky enough to have known some lovely Greek people during my time at university, so I felt a trip was long since overdue. I was not disappointed.

It was fantastically hot in Athens, around 28 degrees every day. It was a dry heat, the kind I like, where there is some hope of respite in the shade. It was dusty too, which meant that the place looked artfully shabby and dishevelled. We were lucky enough to be staying in the area near the Acropolis, which was visible from our hostel.

It was in Athens that a lot of my pre-existing misconceptions were demolished. I'm not sure exactly what I mean by this, it lacks clarity in my head so I'll try my best to put it into words here. I guess it can best be described by the buildings and the culture. By culture, I mean the way that people are so relaxed in Greece - more so than the British. I felt alienated by the buildings and felt as though a way of life so laid back as this could not possibly function as efficiently as ours in England. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a superiority complex, despite my phrasing of that sentence - it was more of a lack of understanding than a belief that my country was superior. But when you look under the dust and amongst the white, airy buildings, you appreciate that what is different is not necessarily wrong. It is simply different. It is not just with Greece that I thought this, I should point out. I have thought similarly of countries which are so different from England. This was pure ignorance on my part, due to lack of travelling experience, but I can proudly say that I have since realised the error of my way of thinking.

As it happens, I think the English would do well to be more like the Greeks. I've discovered that the English have a national hobby, which is not, as you may expect me to say, queuing. English people love finding things to get offended about. We like to find the smallest details about other people's lives and decide we are "offended" by them. These include: people eating their lunch on public transport, gay marriage, following the rules of the highway code (when the offended person is not) and many others besides. We have not yet mastered the art of picking our battles wisely and risk losing our integrity over something that really does not matter now, let alone in three weeks. The internet is prime battle ground for this - but I think I'll leave that for another post.

As it is, the Greeks actually have things to complain about, though, on visiting the country, you would not know of this. Greece is too hot a country to get stressed and in a flap in over petty, banal things like eating on public transport. The Greeks are far less conniving than the English. They just don't consider it a necessary way of passing the time. Their customer service is fantastic and as laid back, but efficient, as the people.

My next holiday destination will be Greece, I'm desperate to go island hopping - but perhaps not to anywhere where there are any 18-35 holiday camps.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Cultural Observations part 1: The Turkish

I must say firstly how much I enjoyed my time in Turkey. We were only able to see Istanbul, much to the consternation of my family as it was just as the protests in Taksim Square kicked off. I'm still alive though, and had an absolutely magical time.

We were staying in the Old City, around the corner from the Blue Mosque and Hagiya Sofiya, in a hostel that had a roof terrace that looked right over to the Bosphorus. At night we sat up here and watched the ships slip past in the darkness, something I have loved doing since the first time I saw the razvedka (raising and splitting) of the bridges in St Petersburg all those months ago.

Kazan in Russia is often likened to Istanbul as they are both cities where East meets West, due to the strong Islamic influence. I would say that this is even more apparent in Istanbul than in Kazan as there are so many more mosques, without Islam being the entirely outwardly predominant religion. Turkey prides itself on being a secular state, whilst allowing freedom of religious practise.

I think in Britain, we are made to essentially fear Islam due to our laughably misinformed and hyperbolic media sources.You only have to pick up certain newspapers on any given day to see some kind of scapegoat being made of an Islamic figure, without showing a positive, regular Joe citizen who just so happens to follow the Islamic faith and who represents the 99.9% of the British Islamic population. Furthermore, they exaggerate some of the cultural aspects of Eastern countries that contradict what we perceive as acceptable in our Western society, which the majority of liberal, modern Muslims would also find distasteful. I find this contemptible.
I do my best to read analytically and retain some sense of perspective, but nevertheless, on entering Turkey I was wary of offending cultural sensitivities and considered whether I should follow (what I perceived as) custom and cover my head. This was of course not the case in Turkey and I rather hang my head in shame at the way I felt the need to tread on eggshells based solely on the way the media has shaped my opinions.

I openly confess to being hugely culturally ignorant, purely because the area in which I grew up was in no way culturally diverse. This is something that can only be rectified.
When I travel, I always make sure to pick up on the culture, for no other reason than that it interests me. As such, there is such a richness of culture that I think we miss out on in England. A prime example here is the art of haggling. We got the shuttle bus from the airport to the city centre, which was interesting for two reasons: firstly, our fellow passengers, and secondly, the fact we were diverted past Taksim, which turned out to be our only glimpse of the protests. This glimpse was as tame as the French protests I saw on an almost weekly basis while living in France and absolutely nothing like the picture the media presented us with back home.
Our fellow passengers, then, were the most interesting part of the journey. We shared the trip with a friendly Persian woman, who had lived in England for 20 years and was in Istanbul to meet her sister, as Istanbul served as a useful halfway point from wherever she was travelling from. Being Persian, her mother tongue was Farsi, which it emerged is spoken by a lot of Turkish people, due to historical relations between the two countries. Farsi is the language of bargaining. She spoke fluidly, with humour, to the Turkish taxi driver, who responded with shrugs of the shoulder, shakings of the head. I, of course, had no idea what was going on. She was haggling down the price of the bus ride, but in a way that English people would be so hopelessly awkwardly incapable of. It was incredible to watch. It was a light exchange, a sort of banter. English people would get flustered and uncomfortable, or worse, offended. I think getting angry and offended has turned into something of a national sport in England - it's the reason certain newspapers exist and indeed continue to maintain such high circulation.

It was in Turkey that I found a sense of peace with Islam. I heard the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque and felt unbelievably moved by its power and its resonance. Islam means obedience and modesty and I felt that this was embodied by the beauty of this call from the mosque. I have always loved alaaps when used in music from the East, but this was on a whole other scale. Islam in my head developed a human, quotidian element that I had never before been exposed to.  I felt like my previous ignorance was forgiven, as well as confused as to how some people feel threatened by Islam and fear its cultural emergence in Western society.

The people in this amazing country were some of the most relaxed and easy-going that I have ever come across. Nothing was too much trouble for them; they have a fantastic sense of humour and are hugely personable. I had some unbelievable food whilst there, including the flatbread I came to love whilst in Russia. (They have recently relaxed border controls between the two countries, so there are a fair number of Turkish people in the Eastern areas of Russia, Kazan included).I loved the Eastern feel of the country from the spice markets and hammam cloths for sale, but without it being too alien to my Western comprehension. I consider this my first steps into a part of the world of which I have barely scraped the surface, but I know I will be welcomed into it with the open, warm arms of the people and not allowed to leave until I have been filled to the seams with the richness of their culture.

I can't wait, frankly, for the next time I can head east.

Back with a vengeance

Hi Everyone,

So I am back from my European travels and am all set to move into the library to finally get cracking on my ever-looming work for university. It is big and it is stressful, but I am going to try and enjoy myself as much as I can. It seems Mary Poppins knew what she was talking about when she sang about making hard work into an enjoyable task to motivate yourself. So I keep telling myself anyway.

I've been super busy lately and have only just had the time to reflect and to update this. The promised cultural observations are on their way, I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I have enjoyed conceiving them. I'm planning a blog revamp too to evolve this project from being just about my year abroad to covering broader topics about society, culture and relationships - mainly because those are topics that I love writing about and that you (my audience) would appear to enjoy reading about!

Everybody wins.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

I wondered lonely as a cloud

Hello again,

Do not panic, my dear readers, I have not forgotten about you. I am currently travelling around Europe on my first (shamefully) interrail experience.
I didn't take a gap year before university as I wanted to make the next step, but I feel now like I have much to see in the world and am now brave enough to discover it.

As such then, I have been drafting my first proper "travel" blog posts in my trusty little black book and am planning a few posts on my cultural observations.

I am looking forward to writing these up and sharing them with you all.

But that is for another day when my keyboard is not Italian (I'm currently in Florence) and actually has a working spacebar (this post has taken a disproportionate amount of time to write, you have no idea).

Also, while I am still here

This is my friend Emily's blog. She has been spending her year abroad in the Orion Children's Village in Kitezh. She is fantastically artistic and creative, as well as a fantastic wit. I have had to stop reading her blog in public places as it causes me to erupt into the most raucous laughter so as to disrupt anyone in the near vicinity.

http://happymollusc.tumblr.com/ - A fantastic blog


Good evening everyone,

So I am a nosy parker - but I think we established this a long time ago. I am the sort of person that is utterly fascinated with other people's success stories and how they live their lives - goodness knows this is part of why I do a language degree, so that I can see how other cultures do it too, by speaking their language!

At the moment I am in the process of finding myself, as are the majority of 21 year olds. Perhaps this term is thrown around a bit these days, but I consider my "finding myself" in its most recent manifestation to be reading economics books and Intelligent Life magazine while wearing the heels that I am determined to be able to walk in and thinking about all the possible feminist allegories that may go with it. That, and eating more carbohydrates than could possibly be good for me and considering how to become more pretentious and a self made millionaire by 25 so I can keep my parents well stocked in truffle oil. Busy times, then.

You can consider this to be the reasoning behind why my posts have been much more about myself and my personal development of late. I've noticed that I have been writing far less about French culture than I have about Russian culture, but you can be assured that my cultural posts will resume in a few weeks' time after I have been interrailing. (Again, cliche - but probably the one of the best experiences you can have in life. So I am told, of course).

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Translation of the below comment

You should be impressed that I didn't use google translate for any of this ;)
You will notice a different style of writing from my own - which is arguably the beauty of translation. I've tried to keep as much of the Russian syntax as possible, so I hope you will get an insight also of how amazingly musical this language actually is.

Also, for you Russophones who will understand the original comment - I  apologise if this is shoddy, I'm not the best at translation!

"Dear Fliss, Hello,

"In Russia we have different attitudes and you will certainly know this.
Men and women are different, but together they make up one whole. In the meaning of life, there is motion and progress, "the law of unity and the struggle of opposites". In China, this is Yin and Yang.

"If everything was identical, then life and society would stagnate and die. You would like to become a man, but why? Because as a woman, you have the greatest blessing and happiness. You are superior beings and own the world, direct it.

"In Russia there is the saying: "In a family, the man has the head, but the woman has the neck". She not only holds the head up, but directs it where she wants. In Russia this is considered harmony. Many foreigners coming to Russia to work say that the woman becomes more of a woman, and the man more of a man.

"None of this means that the woman should have less of a right, but that they are simply different and the woman makes her own way in life. And men have less biological abilitiy - they cannot give life.

"It seems that nature has given you more abilities than us - so we should have more rights as we are damaged. Just kidding. :-)

"By the way, you may not know that the question of women's equality with men for the first time in the world started during the Soviet Union - studies, work, science, culture, sport, social work. So Russia is the pioneer :-)

"Good luck to you, dear Fliss
Mikhail. "

Sunday, 28 April 2013

One of my favourite comments

So it's a silly hour of the night but I just had to post this. One of my favourite comments I've received - an interesting insight in gender roles in Russia. This commenter, Михаил (Mikhail), has commented on a few posts (спасибо большое вам Михаил!) when I have written about or asked about Russian culture. I'll work on a translation on Tuesday (most likely), but here is his original text.  Non Russophones - pop this in google translate for the time being! I'll post some other cultural insights in due course!

Счастье, всем!


Уважаемая Fliss. Злравствуйте.
В России другое мнение и Вы наверно это знаете.
Женщина и мужчина разные, но образуют одно целое. В этом смысл жизни, движения и прогресса. "law of the unity and struggle of opposites". В Китае это "Инь и Ян" - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yin_yang.svg?uselang=ru

Если все будут одинаковые, то жизнь и общество остановятся и умрут. Вы же хотите стать мужчиной, а зачем? Ведь то, что Вы женщина есть величайшее благо и счастье. Вы высшие существа и владеете миром, направляете его.

В России есть поговорка: - "В семье мужчина голова, а женщина шея". Она не только держит голову, но и вращает ей куда захочет :-). В России считают, что это гармония. Многие иностранцы приезжающие на работу в Россию говорят, что женщина становится более женщиной, а мужчина более мужчиной.

Всё это не значит, что у женщины должно быть меньше прав, просто они другие и выбирает свой путь она сама. А у мужчины такой возможности по биологии нет - он не может дарить жизнь. 

Получается, что вам природой дано больше возможностей чем нам - это мы ущемлены и нам, мужчинам нужно больше прав. Это шутка :-) 

Кстати Вы возможно не знаете, но уравнение женщин в правах с мужчинами началось впервые в мире именно в СССР и сразу после революции – учеба, работа, наука, культура, спорт, общественная работа. Так что Россия здесь первооткрыватель :-)

Удачи Вам уважаемая Fliss


Explanation of previous post

My last post, to my non-Russophone audience, is to thank my Russian audience for their continued support and loyalty. They remain my biggest audience - I've had 250 hits from them this week which is more than double that of my UK readership, who are (less surprisingly) my second biggest audience.

I receive a lot of comments from Russians - usually in Russian - which is fantastic for widening my knowledge of their culture and improving my Russian at the same time. The whole point of my doing this blog is to document my cultural experiences and observations and the support I get from them has opened my eyes in ways I never could have imagined.

I risk sounding like I'm at some cheesy awards ceremony - but unfortunately I am British so compelled to over thank everyone all of the time for the slightest kindness. You can at least take this as a sign of my sincerity!

I have immense respect for Russians and a deep abiding love of their country and cannot wait to spend more time there. Russia taught me so much about how to be myself - a lesson I will keep a tight hold on to.

I think I'll compile a post of my top comments - the ones that have taught me the most about Russia that is - they're too good to keep to myself!  Keep your eyes open, I'll do it when I get a spare hour ;)


Здравствуйте еще раз,

Я заметила что вы, мои уважаемые читатели, читали мой блог эту неделью, и я бы хотела вам благодарить. Особенно за мнении в моем статьи о Феминизме - мне очень интересовались!

Спасибо еще раз - ваша поддержка самая сильная из всех моих читателей и вы мне дарите надежду. Здоровья и счастье, всем и вашим семьям.

(Простите, пожалуйста, мой ужасный язык! Я долго уехала из России!)


Life updates

Good day everyone,

It's a lovely Sunday here in Tours and I'm meant to be doing six other things - so naturally I am writing a blog while I rearrange my brain. 

We've been blessed with some spectacular weather here this week, which has been fantastic timing as I'm coming to the end of my university mid term break. It was 26 degrees the other day and I have the sunburn and obligatory terrible tan  line to prove it. I've had some spectacularly awful tanlines in the past, but this is definitely the worst - wearing a scoop neck top and a crossover bag was never going to be a good idea, I am now stripy. Goodness knows I'm not complaining though. I've had ice cream, pizza and sangria in profligate quantities this week in a variety of locations (largely pavement cafe based) in some lovely company. Friends are a curious invention, aren't they?

Went to visit Leonardo Da Vinci's house this week. It's strange to think that such an important figure lived just down the road, where indeed he is also buried. Ate crepes and galettes in the sunshine and drank cider and thought about how good life is. I wore breton stripes and blistered my feet.

I've only got four weeks left here now, which I am frankly devastated about. The comes a point in every stint spent abroad where you hate the place and everyone in it, but once this phase passes you can think of nowhere better to be. Good grief. You can consider my sentiments of resentment and homesickness as cause for my lack of recent blogging - I will soon return properly to usual service.

Perhaps I say this purely based on what I've eaten today which has been nothing short of astonishing. The thought of leaving this place has made me want to eat everything French and delicious in sight while I still can.  I said in a previous post how little I like brioche. I think I am coming around to them slowly, based on today's work of art from one of the local boulangeries. This was followed swiftly by a macaron framboise from another boulangerie. I will miss macaroons. I must learn how to make them, they are one of the most delicious things on this planet.

Lunch followed and was simple and French, comprising of walnut bread (utterly delicious) and vieux pave cheese. And a cup of tea. Obviously.
I don't think you need anything else, quite frankly. 
What France does, and does well, is good basic ingredients that speak for themselves. Nothing else needs to be added - no fuss, no bother. Just good basics. 

I'll give you an example: the restaurant Chez Gerard in the heart of the Old Town here is one of my favourite places to go for a good meal. I took my parents here. It sits quite sagely in a 13th century wood-framed building. The proprietor is a fantastically French gentleman - he probably smokes about 20 a day, is covered in tattoos and as such looks about 20 years older than he actually is. Despite appearances, he is as sharp as his cooking knives and knows all there is to know about his building, his restaurant and the customers in it. He gallically shrugs when you call him out on his menu and provides you with an entire lecture on the history of his restaurant - how the beams are 13th century Portuguese. 

He serves roast chicken, chips and haricots verts. The chicken falls off the bone in strips. The haricots verts are just a touch overcooked, but smothered in garlic butter and parsley. The wine is local. You drink red because you like it and the proprietor couldn't care less; he's no micromanager. He is not trying to compensate for power he does not have. He knows what's what, it doesn't bother him that you don't.

After 3 hours of eating, you're stuffed. You can't exactly eat another bite, but the town and you are so sleepy, you decide there is nothing to do but eat. So, obviously, you order the panna cotta and wonder why on earth you don't eat more of it, in this restaurant, in this company. Then you realise it's four o'clock and try and work out what on earth you're going to have for dinner.

I've discovered blood orange ice cream. It's like a Solero. Remember how delicious those are? I'm locked in a perpetual struggle of trying to work out which is better out of a white Magnum or a Solero. But what about those Magnums with hazelnuts embedded in the chocolate? 

Some things are almost too much to bear.

Thursday, 18 April 2013


I'm not sure how many actual French people read this (I get stats for France but there is a difference between France-based and actually French), but I'm going to post it here anyway - it's my blog!

Bonjour tout le monde! Je suis étudiante anglaise et je suis en train de poursuivre un projet de recherche pour mon université anglais. C'est tres important, parce que cela compte vers la classification finale de mon diplome entier, alors j'ai vraiment besoin de votre assistance. Mon projet est autour du changement de la loi en France du terme "mademoiselle" dans les formulaires légaux. Depuis 2012, il est interdit de l'utiliser, parce qu'il y a des groupes de gens qui le trouvent discriminatoire. 

Alors, j'ai composé un sondage pour ramasser les opinions populaires autour de ce changement de loi. 


Il n'y a que 8 questions courtes et je serais vraiment reconnaissante si vous pourriez le distribuer entre vos ami(e)s francais et le remplisser vous-memes. 

Merci beaucoup!

I'm not very good at being French


I have tried. I have tried so hard for four months (to the day, actually).

But the thing is, I just do not like brioche...

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Good things come in small packages

Hi everyone,

It's been a while, as is a phrase that is uttered far too often on this thing. I've been busy - finishing term, doing exams and fitting in the odd social engagement in between.
The weather in Tours is gorgeous at the moment, it must be 20 degrees today, if not more. I'm very glad it's the end of term and I have a two week break, or my concentration levels in classes would be rock bottom as I would find myself unable to stop thinking about the ice cream, pavement cafes, friends and maybe a demi of blonde that would soon be mine for the taking. Good times all round then.

It's been a good week in general, for reasons that I am about to explain. It seems that Christmas has come early for me this week, as I received 3 care packages from 3 friends (and another one from myself). Not bad at all. It is the year abroad that has really taught me the value of friends. That is not to say, of course, that my friends were not valued at all before I did this crazy thing, but I certainly appreciate them more now. Friends are there to listen to your moans about homesickness and to supply you with honey and welsh cakes if ever you should need them. I had this irrational fear of being forgotten about as others learned to build their lives without me - which has certainly not been the case. Care packages have to be one of the perks of a year abroad, as well as being one of the most essential means of survival. I've got so much tea now, it's great - I'll certainly get through it all too!

I've been thinking though, and I guess this is just one of the main parts of how learning a language and living abroad make you question the world a bit. While mired in the depths of homesickness, one of the thoughts that popped into my head was how sick I was of pronouncing my name in a stupidly exaggerated French accent just so that people can actually write it down. My view on this is that it's a bit insulting - my name is my name, I pronounce your name correctly, or at least try to - why can't you make the same effort? Another thing on a related note is how annoyed I get by non-English, but anglophone, people pronounce "France" - instead of "Frahh-nce" (which is arguably closer to the French pronunciation of it) they pronounce it "Fraa-ntz". Yes, I am being a complete and utter snob when I say this, I make no bones about this. I will confess my belief here that when something is not pronounced correctly, it suggests to me a lack of comprehension of the subject. For example, I saw Chicago the other weekend, which was sung entirely in French, and it was fantastic. My only niggle was that the French mispronounced "Roxy Hart". This riled me no end. Sure, I understand that the French like to make many things their own, but given that the musical is called Chicago, they should at least honour the American pronunciation. It is rare that you will hear me say that too - I am a purist and consider British English and American English to be entirely separate languages.

A biscuit is NOT a cookie. They are two different things in British English. And a macaroon is certainly not a "cookie". It's a macaroon, it exists of itself. Calling it a cookie cheapens it. Colour has a "u" in it. (I'm just saying).

But then it hit me.

What does it mean to be correct, anyway? Correct here suggests to me that which has become culturally appropriated.

For example, It's not wrong in American English to say "the hospital" and "a couple things" - eg. "I took him to the hospital, he has a couple things wrong with his kidneys". This is fine in American English - in society anyway.

However, this is wrong in British English, due to the need for a preposition "a couple OF things" and the unnecessary use of the definitive article - "the" hospital would suggests that only one exists. Maybe it does. But I would be inclined to ask "which" one. In British English, we say "I took him to hospital, he has a couple of things wrong with his kidneys". Hospital here is less defined and more conceptual. One is still inclined to ask "which" hospital, so neither is more correct - it is just a question of what has become culturally adopted and accepted. Two different interpretations of the same thing and nothing more.

As for my name, it is a tough one. You could argue that I am being xenophobic by resenting that people who have another mother tongue to mine pronounce it differently. I mean, of course they will - they will pronounce it according to their own linguistic patterns. They don't do it on purpose just to insult me, it's not another symptom of their expectation for me to conform to their culture as I live in their country. Perhaps you are right. You could also argue though that they are equally guilty by not respecting that I am a foreigner in their country, so do not respect that I speak a foreign language to them. It could be argued that they think their language is superior, or that I think my own is superior. Again, both are probably right.

I'll give you my view on this one though.

American English and British English are different languages. If I were in America, I would speak American English (as far as my knowledge of it stretched - it'd take a lot of mental effort to get myself out of the habit of saying "trousers" for example).

In England, I speak British English.

In France, I speak French. To a French person, I would pronounce their name as a French person might as a sign of respect.

In France, I pronounce my own name as I would in England, contradictory though this is to my previous point. It is my name, therefore I will keep it as such. It is a Welsh surname that has already been pretty slaughtered by the English anyway.

I find it rather sad that friends from countries such as China and South Korea have been forced to adopt an English name in order to make their lives more simple when heading westwards - why can't we make the effort to call people by their names, even when they are linguistically different from our own?

The golden rule of translation is that you never translate the name of someone or something - eg. Downing Street is always Downing Street. It's never "rue Downing". Everything else, you can translate. This is my view on the pronunciation of individual names also.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Easter / Pacques / Пасха

Hello chaps,

So it was Easter Sunday recently and I just wanted to write a little something about it. It must have been the first really sunny day that we’ve had in a while here in Tours, so I thought I would make the most of it and go for a walk. I personally love walking as you can stumble across so many little things that you otherwise wouldn’t and it really clears your head. It’s also the first Easter I’ve spent away from my family, so I thought I’d take a bit of time to reflect. I’m not religious but I’ve usually spent the weekend at home eating more chocolate than can possibly be considered good for me.

Easter in the UK, as my UK readers will know, is a hugely commercialised “festival” where chocolate manufacturers and card shops cash in big time. Here, though, it seems eggs are reserved more for children, where Carrefour sells its net worth in Kinder Surprise. Easter is instead a day for family; I have never seen so many people out walking their dogs in big family groups. One of the things I love about France is the strong sense of family. Girls and their mothers walk arm in arm with the dog, in a way that is just so quintessentially French.

Everything shuts in France on a Sunday, except the odd boulangerie (where else would you get your brioche?) so it seems the whole of France, or Tours at least, leaves the house and does more spiritually fulfilling activities than shopping. I’m not necessarily talking about religious activity, such as going to church, though of course some choose to do this. People go to chateaux, museums and the cinema. The Sunday roast does not exist here, as we do it in the UK, but the French certainly know how to “do” lunch, as I read an article recently that discussed their campaign to UNESCO to get it internationally protected – such as is the case with parmiggiano reggiano and er, Melton Mowbray pork pies…

So what, you ask, did I do for Easter? I savaged two Lindt milk chocolate bunnies sat in my jogging bottoms watching the American sitcom “Community”, drank impossible amounts of tea and walked in the sunshine for three hours when the guilt of such profane acts of domestic sluttery proved too much. 

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Stupid things I have done while not in my home country

Hello chaps,

So I have just returned from a soirée at the beautiful, actually, Hotel de Ville where all the exchange students got together and drank plenty of free wine. It made me think about how far I have come in 4 months and that this has been one of the best things I've ever done. Despite the ups and downs, I have been incredibly privileged to have met some amazing people from all over the world and have fallen in love with an incredible city.
Here endeth the cheese fest.
Instead, here are some of my more stupid moments in France for your entertainment.

1) putting washing up liquid instead of olive oil on pasta. (Both green, in the same cupboard and in a similar bottle. Still idiotic).

2) forgetting to put teabag in tea and not realising for a good 10 minutes.

3) being misunderstood by a French waiter when asking for "vin rouge", who instead thought I asked for "vingt rouges" - who then proceeded to panic and Gallic shrug at me.

4) being refused sale of bananas. (Still not worked this one out)

5) saying politely "No, I don't think I will thanks" when shop assistant asked me to remove my card. (I thought she said "do you want to open a card with us today?")

Why am I allowed in public?

Monday, 1 April 2013

Statement to the Press

My publicist would like it very much if all journalists and PR agents read the following statement issued on 01/4/13 at 2056 BST:
Felicity says: I have not ordered a half price Easter egg from Hotel Chocolat.
Such actions I consider to be utterly frivolous and a symptom of this me-me-me culture that seems to bestow itself upon the youth of today.
I will discuss this matter no further, except via my publicist in future press releases.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

I'm feeling feminist

The best compliment that anyone has ever given me was when a colleague of my mother's heard about some stuff I was up to a few years ago and said to her "Gosh, your daughter has a bit of a mouth on her doesn't she?". This was meant in a positive way - not to say that I'm some gobby little madam who expects her parents to pay for everything while she sits in her room attaching hair extensions for her Girls' Night Out - instead meaning that I have an opinion and I'm brave enough to express it.

So you know what, here we go. This is my blog, dammit.

I am a feminist, not a man hater.

I am worth the same pay as a man for doing exactly the same job.
I am as intelligent as any man.
I am as hard working as any man.
I have the right to an education.
I have the right to vote.
I have the right to my own professional career.
I deserve the same level of respect, professionally and personally, as any man would receive.
I am my own person and as such will not change my name if ever I am married. SO HANG ME.
I deserve to not be patronised. I will not be talked down to on account of my being a woman.
I do not know everything, but nor does any man.

You do not have the right to deprive me of a career based on the fact I "may at some point" choose to have children.
You do not have the right to deprive me of a career based on my looks or age.

You have the right to disagree with my opinion, based entirely on your better knowledge, but not based on your preconceived judgement of my gender.

I find it frankly bizarre that there are members of our 21st Century society who still think it is acceptable to deny me my rights as a human being on account of my gender. Women are still objectified in our society. Google "University lad culture" for more on this.
I have had to unsubscribe from the Everyday Sexism Project Twitter feed for a bit, even though I fully support their work, because I frankly cannot handle the way that so many women are put down by men - purely on account of their being a woman.

French Women Don't Get Fat, and other stories

Hello again, dorogiye chitateli (dear readers)

In England we certainly have a romanticised version of the French woman, as well as of the French lifestyle. We love France, as English people. The Guardian article I referenced in my previous post quotes a figure of 150,000 British expats, and the fact that the expatriate population tend to have a higher overall happiness level than the resident French themselves. Even this side of the channel, we cultivate a certain myth about the French lifestyle, where we purchase books entitled "French Women Don't Get Fat" and "French Children Don't Throw Food", in the hope of recreating a little slice of this fantastical lifestyle for ourselves. 

These publications are not even the most recent example of this - we can draw on the quite brilliant Rachel Khoo as our most current propagator of this French "myth". (I have a massive "girl-crush" on the lady, this is in no way a criticism). The fact is, her work is well constructed, she presents herself well and makes for a very credible TV personality as the girl next door. She is the well-brought up, articulate and intelligent one on the street whose wardrobe you wish you had, the one who, at school, maybe went to a redbrick and played the violin (stereotypes, but not bad ones).  But as Brits, we are a very receptive audience to this Parisienne mode de vie. Two to tango, or something like that. A concept only works if there is a market for it.

So then, French women. Here's one for you, there are actually some fat French women, but fewer of them. Culturally, they eat better, but in smaller quantities. French women eat cake. They eat big old cheese and ham baguettes at lunch with (god forbid) BUTTER in them. They know what they like and they eat it - but here's the thing- they don't supersize their portions or eat a whole bag of cookies in one sitting washed down by a MILKSHAKE. Self control, girls. Have that milkshake but don't over do it - save some for later - double the enjoyment, right? My female French flatmates are excellent examples of this - they have a croque monsieur for dinner and fry it for goodness' sake - but they stick to ONE, and STOP when they are full. The normal ones don't starve themselves or going on stupid diets (It's called the South Beach Fat Flush and all you drink is cranberry juice for 72 hours - Mean Girls).

What the French beanpoles do instead is chain smoke until their lungs are black and drink about a litre of coffee a day - both of which are appetite suppressants. I suspect this is in part deliberate, as there is a pressure to be thin here, more so than in the UK. This is perhaps where the stereotype comes from, as well as the lesser popularity of fast food (there's only one McDonald's here). But you know, I wouldn't fancy a madeleine (or six) either if all I could taste was tobacco and coffee. I like coffee, but I think smoking is one of the most stupid things you can do to yourself. Just sayin'. I'll take "squishy" over "terminal lung cancer" any day. I get looked at for not having beanpole proportions, though goodness knows I am not a big 'un. There are so many smokers here, it's quite scary. People do it so flippantly as if they didn't already have a smokers' cough, and half of them are only late adolescents. I'm not one of those militant anti-smokers who makes a point of coughing in affected fashion whenever someone lights up - those people are actually so annoying I'd start myself just to play games with them. (Don't worry - it's not worth the five minutes of enjoyment I'd get from it). I keep my opinions to myself (except on here, obviously). So yeah, society, stare at me for not being a size six and enjoy your cigarette - but you know that smoking causes irreversible premature ageing of the skin, right? And no, I don't have a light.

That turned a bit catty towards the end, sorry about that. You could say, and have a point, that I am bitter but frankly, I'm not going to lose sleep over it. Chocolate, anyone?

On the Gallic Shrug and the Elderly in France

Hello chaps,

I thought I would write a bit more about culture today, as the whole point of the year abroad is to experience a foreign culture. The Gallic shrug is arguably the most stereotyped French gesture known to us English, but yet a quick recon of English friends suggests a lack of knowledge on our part. It is arguably the best way for an English person to respond to any kind of French bureaucratic nightmare - as goodness knows, the French are experts at doing it themselves. See earlier comment on the Englishman ordering coffee in Gare du Nord.

What is the Gallic shrug?
I read somewhere that it is the outward expression of all the pains in the world, that run much more deeply than any superficial Englishman could possibly understand. I, with a wry smile on my face, agree with this. French people are reknowned for their grumpy culture. In fact, this Guardian article (posted by a facebook friend who is also out here) paints a rather grim picture of the entire thing. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/24/french-taught-to-be-gloomy

This post is meant to be light hearted, so we will step away a little from cultural grumpiness and instead deal with "coping methods".

The Gallic shrug then. I'll present to you a little stereotypical scenario and you can imagine it for yourself. Forgive me, I am no Jeanette Winterson.

Consider your standard stereotypical Frenchman. He is at Gare de l'Est in Paris. Those damn SNCF drivers are on strike again, when do they ever do a hard day's work eh?
Quand meme, c'est ca.
There is nothing for the Frenchman to do, alors. He cannot make the striking workers go off strike all by himself. He is not a one-man trade union, and besides, it's Thursday, this always happens.
He looks at the timetable for his train.
All trains cancelled. Rail replacement services. They never work anyway.
He shrugs. It is not just a shrug. It is an entire bodily convulsion, that encapsulates not only his physical being but his entire soul as well. The hands go up. The head tilts. The facial muscles slacken.
He leaves. Probably then has lunch or something, I don't know.

This ties in nicely with the comment made in the Guardian article - that the French are culturally miserable. It's not their fault, but as an English person who lives in their country, I cannot understand this. Just cannot. Having lived in Russia where the standard of living is comparatively lower, they are more cheerful. Something about the general Don't Give a Damn attitude lightens the mood of everything - the Russian sense of humour is unbelievably dry and ironic. They take life far less seriously than the French. (just pop "meanwhile in Russia" into youtube if you want examples of this). I feel compelled to share with you an absolutely priceless moment from my first year of university that completely exemplifies this.
My first year teacher was fantastic. A short lady from Siberia called Evgenia, who had a baby son and was incredibly well dressed. She had the typical Russian breathy female laugh, (which I love about Russians), which emerged only rarely, when she found something particularly funny. She had a severe demeanour on all occasions other than our Russian oral exam, when she softened and offered us water. We all questioned whether she had been replaced by an uncanny lookalike.
For reference, the Russian A is pronounced "ah" and all Rs are rolled, sounding something like "airrr"
Student (asking for spelling of a word): Where does the R go?
Teacher: There is no "A", what are you talking about?
Student: But there is clearly an R in there, I can hear it
Teacher: There is no "A", there is an "airrr". We do not have R in Russian, it is only "airrr"
This was said with such dry irony and happened towards the end of the year - which had been filled with her playing dumb on purpose in order to make us think properly about Russian. Our illusions were shattered in one simple teacher/student discussion. All those times she had said "uh?" and pretended that she had no idea what we were talking about... No. She knew perfectly what we were talking about. Every single word. The Russian sense of humour is amazing.

The French, though. I think maybe this cultural gloominess comes from their strong Catholic tradition. Religion in France, when it was more widely practised, was societally enforced suffering, in the theory that one must be miserable in this life in order to achieve true happiness in Heaven. Thankfully, this was pretty much demolished by the Lumieres and the Enlightenment period, where people were allowed by philosophers to pursue more physical happiness in this life over posthumous spiritual happiness.

Catholicism was only up until recently, despite the secularisation of the state, an incredibly important cultural influence. It lives still in the elderly members of society, who are, by the way, much more friendly than the young people in France. The old women are gossipy, they'll chat to you on the bus as if you were their grandchildren. They go out to lunch together. They walk down the boulevards in their red wire framed glasses, arm and arm with their husbands. Perhaps it is the presence of religion in their lives that, ironically, makes them more relaxed, or the fact they are retired and have that peace of mind that comes with being more experienced at living on this planet. I don't know. Again I confess my views to be formed by film portrayals - in this case I reference Chocolat and Le Fils de L'Epicier (my favorite French film, I think). Either way, my favourite demographic of French society are the elderly. Life is far less of a burden for them it seems - they certainly are far less moody than the younger generations.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Winning the Year Abroad

Seriously. I've won.

Why? Because I had my first dream in French since coming out here - and all the French was correct.

I can go home now, right?

The irony of this whole thing was that I was shouting at a waiter for being slow at bringing the bill and that he was "Holding me to ransom in his restaurant, what on earth is this, I expect better from a French waiter, you're a joke". I know. Bit unnecessarily angry, but when your friend has deserted you in the pursuit of pancakes (American style, weirdly), things get a bit out of hand.

Yeah, so I win.

Felicity 1 - French 0.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A few tips and tricks to surviving the Year Abroad

Or, "making the most of it"

Hello everyone,

In a return to normal service, I thought I would compile a list of survival tips that you may find useful. They may even turn into everyday life tips, you never know. This will apply in part to France, but edit and adapt as you wish.

1. Make plans. Plan everything.
Plan ahead when it comes to food, especially when there is a Sunday on the horizon when EVERYTHING is shut.
Plan on Sundays to, instead, go to museums, have a walk, visit chateaux, go to a friend's for a baking day/wine and whine session (term copyright Miss M Merryweather). Sundays in France are very traditional and being the reputedly lazy nation that they are (see earlier post, I think I called it Franco-British relations but it may be another one),  they certainly know how to do a Day of Rest. Cash in on this, by all means. I spent an entire Sunday in my pyjamas a few weeks ago. And I mean an entire day. I usually have caved in by 3pm - but I am not a quitter any more. Wink.

2. Make friends with people with whom you only speak the language you're all there to learn. (in my case, French.)
I've mentioned this a lot, so I'll only pass fleeting comment on it, but it's one of the best things you can do to improve your language skills.

2a. If they comment that they don't have much confidence with their English, offer to give them lessons. It looks great on your CV (er, hello "Voluntary freelance teacher of English to adult learners"), is immense fun and is a bit of a confidence boost too.

3. Travel.
You'll probably never have the same freedom to just wake up in the morning and go wherever you feel like, so make the most of it. My main inspiration for this is "Where can I go to tell stories of crazy people and crazy experiences to future generations of children that are not my direct offspring?"

4. Do something you don't fully understand every day.
By this I mean: Eat something you don't recognise, watch a film you don't fully understand the title of, go to a place of worship you would not otherwise go to (for me, this was a mosque in Russia).

5. Round up a group of locals and get them to take you for dinner/coffee.
My flatmates are great for this, anti-English sentiments excluded. The best way to understand a country is to hang out with the locals and compare notes.

6. Go to the pub.
If the rugby's on, you can learn all sorts of vocabulary.

7. Make a point of seeing a friend once a week, with whom you share the same mother tongue and the same year abroad experiences - but whom you don't see every day.
It helps. A lot. I've been exceptionally lucky to find people I can do this with in both Russia and France. You can also combine this with point 4 - two birds with one stone.

8. Start reading your assigned texts for final year.
Your professors will probably expect you to have done this, but even if they don't, it's a great head start.

8a. Read books that you actually want to read.
You'll have the time to do it for once.

9. Don't panic.
French university bureaucracy is a complete and utter nightmare, but for most people the actual grades do not count towards your final degree classification. Some people don't even have to pass their courses, so just check what you need to do for your university and act accordingly.

10. Buy a smartphone.
10a. Get accommodation that actually has internet. Not just for looking at pictures of cats (I know you do it), but take it from me, there is a LOT that the internet is actually useful for.

11. Make life plans.
You have one year of uni left, after which time people will be asking you uncomfortable questions, including "So what are you doing with your life now?"
In fact, they are probably asking you at the moment that question most dreaded by all students, "So what are your plans after university?". I hate this question. I really hate it. I've got sick of responding with the flippant, depression averting "You tell me!". I feel like an idiot when I reply "I have no idea" (which usually warrants the response "Oh Jimmy is going to become the new CEO of X at the age of 22, having completed his internship at Y" - that's great for Jimmy but it makes me feel awful, so please stop telling me)

Avoid all of this awkwardness and unpleasant feeling by DRINKING TEA AND MAKING A LIST. Seriously. Even if you don't like tea, a suitably hot beverage that you can put your hands around will do just fine. Make a list of everything you enjoy in life. Look at it often. Make a list of things you're good at. Look at that often. See if there is any correlation. If not, make another list of "Jobs that will suck out my soul but at least I can retire early and send my kids to public school". Then make a list of "Halfway-house jobs that won't kill me but won't utterly fulfil me either and will still allow me to buy my own flat. Not in Chelsea, but like, Hammersmith or something. The good part."

I have many lists. Of many things. I write them in a moleskine notebook, which makes me feel like I have at least achieved something in life - being that I'm at least at university in London, so my London allowance on my student loan will stretch just a little further - even if I still buy Morrisons Value food, which is actually pretty good.

12. Start a blog.
This one is a bit of an obvious one, so I've left it til last. Seriously. The best thing I have done in a long time. It's allowed me to document my experiences and share them with friends, family, strangers and to allow me to reflect on my life myself. It's given me a purpose out here. It has provided me with what is for all intents and purposes an online portfolio of my writing, which may one day come in useful. This blog has allowed me to connect with audiences from all over the world, which I never could have imagined happening when I set off on my travels just under a year ago

Sunday, 17 March 2013

And now for a brief musical interlude

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to share with you a few musical treats to round off your week and wave in this new one, whether it has been a shambles or a success. For those of you who don't know, I am a keen flautist when in the UK (where my flute is currently residing, it gets a bit homesick...). I chanced upon a slight nostalgia trip which quickly exploded into a full blown YouTube session, revisiting a few old favourites, that I have  both played and wished I could have played. 


Andante and Rondo - Franz Doppler

This was a piece I performed in a recital when I was an A level student. My flute teacher, who I miss terribly these days, played the first entry. My flute teacher was a huge inspiration to me throughout my teenage years and I will never forget her positive influence, her impeccable style of dress - and of course her inimitable musical ability. It is the Andante and Rondo by Franz Doppler, a fantastically cheeky piece which explores the flute's natural desire to show off. It has a fantastic element of "anything you can do, I can do better" (minus the pantomime connotations). The flutes chase each other like two little cats, before coming to a peaceful, harmonic conclusion, taking the listener on an intriguing journey - but only at a walking pace at first! These two performers are professionals, their other videos are worth a look too. 

In Ireland, Sir Hamish Hamilton Harty.

In honour of St Patrick's day, the one day of the year where everyone claims to have Irish ancestry and uses it as an excuse to drink copious amounts of guinness. I first heard this piece played by the London based flautist Ian Mullin and it struck me immediately. The piece is a "fantasy" which for non musicians essentially means that the piece follows the structure of the composer's choosing, rather than following any set rules of form, eg rondo, ternary and so on. The performer is an amateur (or so it would appear) but I would say her interpretation is the best I have come across on youtube. She doesn't overperform, but instead keeps it simple and does it to an impressive standard.

Friday, 15 March 2013

An observation

Hello chaps,

I have been thinking lately about perspectives. It is the case in France that people go to the nearest good university, rather than escaping to the furthest end of the country away from their parents like the British. As a result, the university culture is very different, as people tend to end up at the same university as their school friends.

This has a number of effects:
Firstly, if I'm honest, a sense of immaturity, as people are still in their high school friendship groups so do not need to make an effort to impress people to make new friends. They still act like they are in high school. This is not the case at a British university. I have seen behaviour from some students that I have not seen since I finished my GCSEs and their attitudes are exactly the same. It's a bit shocking really. People ask me if I'm forty when I don't want to down a whole bottle of wine before going out for the evening. No, I just don't have the mind of a teenager, thanks. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that London is so much more interesting than Tours and there are much better things to do without having to drink copious amounts of alcohol beforehand.

Secondly, there is an insularity amongst students. For some, Tours is the centre of their world. It is a thriving megapolis to them, where life is more exciting than the small villages from which they hail. Of course, we accept that my studies are in London and have travelled widely. However, I also notice a related lack of interest in other people. Many of them do not want to know about me or my fellow Erasmus students, which is not something that would appear to happen to students who go on exchanges to the UK -  all Erasmus students I have come across there have been well integrated into the student body and all parties have benefited from this.

Thirdly, a lack of teaching quality and quality of resources. The universities do not have to compete with each other as much due to students not spreading themselves across the country as much. I have one teacher out here who clearly hates her job and all of her students, which is not surprising given the overall lack of respect that some of the students have for their teachers. It is also the case that universities have less money, as their fees are lower and so there is less of a "market" university system. Either way, one of my exam questions this week was "Write out the following numbers in words - 84 Euros". Frankly, if you don't know how to do that and you are an actual native French speaker, you probably shouldn't be at university in the first place. I remember learning the equivalent in English at the age of nine.

It is no wonder there are so many actual French students who study French at UCL.

Русским читателям

Здравствуйте, всем,

Я замечала что вы посмотрели мой блог о русском видэо, и решила читать немножка вашего форума. Я не часто читать его, но каждый раз, ваши комментарии мне очень нравится.
Я очень рад что вы выбираете читать мой блог, спасибо всем!

Для ваших предложения видэо - спасибо большое! Мне очень понравились и спасибо за ваши помощь чтобы мне можно лучше понимать вашу страну и вашу культуру.

(English readers - this blog is to thank the Russians for their continued support of this blog and their suggestions for videos in response to that which I posted on Tuesday. I will work out how to post them on here too!)

Friday musings

Hello chaps,

I just wanted to share my week with you as goodness knows, it's been an interesting one.

A friend of mine has come up with the "five week" concept, which is that five weeks into term, you hit a low point and start to hate things. This was true in Piter and it has proven itself here. Living abroad is a challenging one to deal with as your daily life is completely different - even the things you used to do at home, like simply buying a pint of milk, become foreign and alien. There is only so much that anyone can take of anything, and this week, France was not in my good books.

I did something I hate doing this week. I took two days off and hid myself from the world as I found myself grievously unable to cope with "life" due to major homesickness and stress. I never adopt "hermit mode" except in moments of feeling unutterably horrible. I am going to make no bones about this one, and if any future employer reads this, I am proving I am human and I have my weaknesses. My strengths and achievements are shown on my cv, but what is important is how such things are achieved and the moments of being at the absolute bottom that are not. Everyone has a point when they are run down into the ground, it is how you pick yourself up from it that matters.

Me? I chose coffee.
I chose coffee and I chose action.
I left my flat.
I made resolutions to be proactive.
I telephoned my parents who told me to get a grip.

As a result, I went for coffee with a French person from my International Relations class, who taught me French idioms and that the French hate the English for a number of reasons - but mainly because we used to be Best Buds - then sold ourselves out to the Americans. Controversial.

I've started voluntarily teaching English to my Italian friend - by using our shared language of French to facilitate things. It is this kind of experience which really makes me value my degree for its benefits to me as a person - I would be hopelessly incapacitated without it in these situations. I think I have also found my vocation for at least some small part of my Twenties - teaching English as a Foreign Language to adults. I previously taught it occasionally to my Greek-Cypriot housemate in my first year of university and loved it, so it was something I wanted to do out here with anyone who wanted to improve their English. As patronising and colonialist as that sounds, English these days is becoming a requirement for anyone to get a job in Europe, so, as it is my mother tongue, I feel relatively well-equipped to help people.

Pet hate of the week: French translation teacher telling us our English was wrong. Hang on a minute.

So this week has been mixed, but I feel better for feeling terrible then picking myself up. There is nothing better than a good action plan and a cup of tea (or six). This year abroad is proving more educational and character building than I ever thought possible, and I will remember it in many years to come.

Also, I have been wearing my Russian Orthodox scarf every day this week. Not a single person has commented on it, so I am going to tell you guys, my dear readers about this. I love it. It is of a unique design, it is pure wool and I had wanted one since I started studying Russian History at A Level. It is one of my most sentimentally valuable possessions and wearing it makes me feel worldly wise and reminds me of the Russian people who have been so generous to me in my visits out there. My scarf collection is ever growing, but my Russian orthodox scarf will always be one of my most treasured possessions and indeed, more simply, one of my favourite scarves!

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

La Vie en France

Hello chaps,

So I want to write today a bit more about my experiences as an Erasmus student, as, despite there being a large community of us, we all have our own unique experience.

The first question people usually ask me is "Why did you pick Tours?".

The first part of the answer to this is largely bureaucratic, as my university had some spare Erasmus places going. This is my blog so I am going to be completely honest, so hang me for it. Initially I was not assigned a place due to their internal selection process (they didn't want to acknowledge my Russian grades, despite them being in the Upper 2:1/1st category and instead chose to look at my shambolic French oral grade, which, in the exam I quaked under the pressure and forgot my entire presentation. True story). So, luckily, I was able to get a spare place and not have to pay two grand to come out here. Nice one.

The second part is that I wanted to go to "real" France, in order to speak as much French as possible. It is tough trying to learn a language when you are not immersed in it all the time. I found in Paris that people are unwilling to speak French to me, unless I spoke to them in English, in which case they would reply only in French. I love Paris but I thought it would be more beneficial for my language study to come to a place that attracts fewer tourists and where fewer people speak English as often as the Parisians.

Tours is incredibly French and functions as a sort of "mini Paris" in terms of architecture. This is the case because the rate of taxation on the style of buildings popular in Paris amongst the Bourgeoisie was much lower out here than in Paris. It is close enough to Paris to have made such an undertaking practical for the Paris elite, so many lived out here and conducted their merchant dealings in Paris. Bit like Surrey, really.

As a result, the city is delightfully middle class, for the most part anyway. There are far fewer "dodgy bits" than in Paris, London or St Petersburg, which is arguably also because it's smaller. Its heritage though means that it has tended to attract a richer population, so it is, as my mother would say, "very civilised".

Tours is situated in the Loire valley, or as the English call it, "Wine Country". The "tourangeaux" are very proud of this and there are many billboards in town advertising Bourgeuil wine, made in the Loire valley. I am not shocked by this but it raises a smile every time I see it.

"Oh, France!"

It is easy, though, to fall into the trap of not speaking  any French out here, as an Erasmus student. Living abroad is tough sometimes and as a result, groups of people who share the same language often spend the majority of their time together. "Birds of a feather" definitely do flock together. This is good to an extent, I must say that I have found it a huge comfort to know that there are English people close by, to whom this city is also alien. It's nice to know that there are people just as culturally awkward as me and who are a continually baffled by the French university system. However, I am in France to speak and learn French, so I try and push myself into this as much as possible. I have written previously about my European friends who share this opinion. I must also add that there are many English people who share this too. On a Monday there is the Language Cafe where French and other people meet to speak languages, which is very popular with English and other students alike, as well as locals who want to practise their English. (I love it)

There are plenty of cliches that surround the term "Erasmus" - that it's like first year of university again, people spend more time going out than going to lectures and go off travelling all the time.

Some of these are certainly true, I certainly feel like I'm in first year again - sort of.
I am pushed into the deep end again in terms of independence and making new friends. I am more crippled by homesickness and the discomfort of the unfamiliar than I ever was during my first year. But the sense of freedom and the lack of real responsibility is undeniably refreshing. Sure, I have classes to go to and I get a lot from them. I have incredible intellectual freedom as the entire university (save the medical school, but who wants to be a doctor anyway?! - before you all eat me, I am being flippant and doing my best to antagonise my brother as any good sister should) opened itself up to me. Like a clam. My courses this year do not count towards my degree, or to anything - I just have to pass them and that will be sufficient. I have never been able to study so freely at this level with no  real pressure. As a result, I have been able to put "Studied International Law as an Erasmus Exchange student in France" on my CV.  In theory, this makes me "more employable", though we shall see about how true that actually is.

As for partying, I am not much of a party type myself. Those of you who know me are now nodding and thinking "it'll be her fortieth birthday next year". It's true. I go out, I socialise, I'll have the odd drink - but the true cliched vices of first year never really applied to me even when I actually was one. I have never picked up a road sign or a traffic cone from the side of the street, and I am actually bored of clubbing by about 1am. So hang me and call me boring - but at least I can get home OK and function the next morning. Let's just go out for dinner instead, have a slow Leffe and be in bed by 12. I actually think that's more sociable, especially as the night buses stop at 130 so there is always a horrid walk home in the cold when you want to stay out past that time. Transport for London this ain't.

Travelling, though, is one of the cliches I do like. It seems that everyone travels to the same places, which is great because everyone shares recommendations and stories about their experiences. Bruges has been visited by many people out here, and Amsterdam and Madrid seem to be particular favourites. I am particularly interested by the views of non-Europeans (Americans, Canadians and Australians in particular), for whom this is their first time in Europe, and therefore is even more of a culture shock. My travels have taught me that the English conception of homogenised Europe is a complete and utter myth, and Europe is all the richer for it. I am hugely lucky to have a 3 day weekend, it's perfect for travelling and I know that it will be a long time til I get the same amount of freedom again.