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

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Un Regard Sur Tours

The following is a blog that was posted on my University's Erasmus exchange page. The guy who is behind it is not someone I know, but his photos are certainly worthy of a look! He does a better job than I have so far, though that is more due to the terrible weather than any laziness on my part - honest!

http://unregardsurtours.blogspot.fr/

Sunday, 27 January 2013

France and Russia: Compare and Contrast

Hello chaps,

If you'll forgive me, I'm not really sure in myself about how I'm going to structure this one, but I feel the need to write something.

Basically, I am noticing a lot of similarities between France and Russia, which I am pretty sure are not completely coincidental, due to the French aristocratic tradition in the 19th Century in Russia. French was the language of the aristocracy and as a result has a considerable linguistic and cultural impact. I have long made the point to anyone who asks me the question "What is Russian like?" that it is a lot more like French than people would otherwise imagine. I guess I'll start with a few linguistic similarities.

1. The word for "shop" in French is "magasin". The Russian is "магазин", which even if you cannot read cyrillic, looks pretty much identical, in terms of the ma-az-- letters. It is indeed identical, except the end syllable, which is pronounced "an" in French and "een" in Russian. 

This is perhaps too simplistic to be of any real interest, so we should delve a little deeper into the highbrow.

The word for "landscape" in art? Paysage/Пэйсаж. Choose your alphabet, the two sound the same - the Russians adopted it and transliterated it. The influence of the 19th Century was so profound that it exists in many manifestations today. It was a century of profound cultural significance, and we can compare the works of many great writers from both countries. The one I probably know most about, as I am certainly no expert on this, I jjust had to write an essay or two on it in my second year at university, is Guy de Maupassant and Chekhov. Both are renowned for their use of simple sketchy imagery, or what has been termed 'literary impressionism', and their portrayal of Life as Life is. 

I consider Tours to be a French St Petersburg in many ways. The strong pride of France in its famous people and cultural and literary heritage is displayed - as all, if not most of the roads and avenues are named after someone of note. Just like the Russians, or rather, just like the French. I lament the fact that we do not share this same cultural pride in the UK. A lot of our street names are names of places or old aristocratic families - Denmark Street? Cavendish place? With respect, the aristocracy were only known for their money and power, and arguably not specifically for any feats of intellect. Sure, they may have existed, but the landed gentry are labelled as landed gentry in history - and not intellectuals. I see no mention, except perhaps on post 1960s housing estates - artificially constructed after the war to cope with the housing deficit, of English writers. 

Indeed, there is a street in Bradley Stoke, Bristol (or it may be Stoke Gifford/Filton - they all merge into one, quite frankly), called Paul and Emma Way. Every time I drove past it (ancient history now) I wept a little bit. For those who don't know, this part of Bristol is a post 1980s housing development, in which live a lot of people who commute daily to Bristol and who have moved newly to Bristol from other places. I feel though, that a road must be deserving of its historic name - Dickens Way would not work if it was built in 2005 - one would accuse the town planners of running out of ideas, or if one reads certain newspapers, as being 'out of touch with the working class'. Or something like that. 

I therefore think it is a shame, but a necessary one, that we do not in the UK pay homage to our cultural traditions in the same way as the French and the Russians. We shall just have to cry internally a little more at places such as Paul and Emma way and seek a little comfort in the fact that such places do not tarnish the name of our great writers.

A few musings.

Hello chaps,

A post I drafted in my head and never actually published was about the Russian 'Devushka' concept, so I think I'll make a short comment on it now and compare it with the French 'mademoiselle'. Look at that folks, more bang for your buck! (My excuse for laziness)

So the Russian devushka is the antithesis to the babushka. A devushka is a young lady, being a diminutive of the word 'devitsa', meaning girl, or maiden. (Tchaikovsky's Evgenii Onegin - or as the English so nauseatingly call it, Eugene - is very good for learning the origins of Russian words!).

The devushka - if we are to take it from my perspective, is a stereotype, but a common one. The devushka wears heels, and can walk in them, everywhere. Even in temperatures of -20. And when I mean heels, I mean *heels*. She is tall and very thin, a size 10 is considered unacceptably fat. She is heavily made up, even during the day, and takes good care of her skin, attending the banya regularly. They could all be models. The devushka has high cheekbones, willowy limbs and a slavic, sincere demeanour - yet a high pitched laugh and a rather musical intonation of the saying "Nu, da!" (well, yes!). 

I have heard many theories as to why there are so many thin people in Russia, girls in particular.
Firstly, their culture of exercise. Frankly, we don't like it in the West (in general terms). 
Secondly, a pursuit of perfection that is stronger than what we have in the West - just look at the training they do in sports, Ballet and in life in general. They have much more of this, and I rather respect it.
Thirdly, the gender imbalance means that there is more competition from other women, meaning that it is harder to get a boyfriend (just what I've been told).
Fourthly, their national diet - salads, soups and not snacking. This is also due to the fact that food is actually pretty expensive in Russia, with little fresh produce (compared to the West) so it is seen as a necessity and not a frivolity.
Fifthly, the fact that they are constantly surrounded by older women who have often (in the kindest way possible) 'let themselves go a bit' after getting married and having a family, so the younger generation are constantly supplied with what the kids are calling these days - 'thinspiration'.

I want to draw a parallel here with the concept of the French mademoiselle - I consider the two to be remarkably similar. It is a British and American cliche that "French women don't get fat" - and indeed, there are far fewer women here who could be considered, if not fat, 'curvaceous'. Sure we all know the mademoiselle from courtisan times - where the ladies held philosophical, political and economic discussions in their salons, while the men held the same discussions under the guise of 'doing business' in their bureaux. We must note, however, the lack of mention of such discussions in my Russian 'devushka' analysis, which I will be honest, is due to a lack of knowledge. I can make a somewhat educated guess therefore that these were far less widespread and possibly only took place in the cultural centres - though don't quote me on that.

Who, then can we consider the ultimate mademoiselle? I am going to use clichés and say that it is any one of Marie Antoinette, Coco Chanel and possibly Audrey Tautou - all regarded by society as prime cultural figures of their time. Each is a manifestation of French society in its different stages of contemporary evolution. I beg you to consider my point, before you sue me for slander, that I am in no way drawing parallels between any of the three figures I have just mentioned! The French mademoiselle is also the woman on the street - whether physically at that time, or who once was. They are the bearers and contributors to the French culture as we consider it in the West, that is to say, the romanticised version we see in Hollywood films about France and other such media. 

I will openly admit to my desire to be as stylish as the French! (give me some time!)

Friday, 18 January 2013

An Englishman's Idyll

Hello chaps,

The English are renowned for having a complex love/hate relationship with France. As a nation we complain of their 'rudeness', tendency to go on strike, snobbery and 'lazy' work ethic (they have a legal working week of 35 hours - less than in the UK which is 39 hours).

Yet we admire their food, architecture and, ironically, their relaxed 'mode de vie' - I suspect this comes down to jealousy. Watch any French film and you will see what I am referring to when I say 'mode de vie' - my favourites are Amelie, Conversations with My Gardener and The Grocer's Son. The Grocer's Son is a particular favourite of mine.

One of my favourite books that I have ever stolen off my mother is The Bloody English Women of The Maison Puce, by Jill Laurimore, because it sums up everything that English people love about France. I think it is a common aspiration to one day move to the French countryside and escape all that England threatens us with - and escape from other English people. Alas, the latter is rarely possible - as the book satirises. I have felt this myself, as I was hugely disgruntled in the summer, whilst on holiday in Paris, to discover that no one was French (they were all German or English tourists - I suspect the Parisians had all rather prudently upped and left to escape the mass of holidaymakers descending on their doorsteps) and that no one would speak to me in French - despite the fact I speak it well, albeit with an English accent that I try hard to control. I fully understand the hypocrisy in this - being yet another 'bloody English woman', but nevertheless, I echo the sentiments of Jill Laurimore's main protagonist.

Tours is a wonderful sanctuary away from English. I absolutely am wallowing in the bliss of this. There is comparatively little for tourists around here, despite there being a massive tourist information bureau, which is rather nice - it means I can speak the French I was hoping to, plus more besides. There is a profound novelty in pretending to be French - having a coffee in a cafe and the abundance of boulangeries is making my francophile side jump up and down with glee. I'm sorry, Russia, but shokoladnitsa aint got nothin' on this. I am hugely enjoying the fact I have to cross the Loire to do anything - though I suspect this novelty will wear off as I make my way into 8am lectures. Anyone who knows me will know I am not a morning person, so this will be an interesting part of my year abroad.

I am hugely glad I went to Russia though, as it is making this second half seem so much easier. I am very happy in my own company, which was not the case out there. This city is so warm and inviting, it appears to have a strong community feel to it - very French, very civilised and very nice. I am hugely privileged to be here, frankly, and I can't wait to get stuck in.

I survived sleeping under my coat last night, which wasn't as bad as you might think, but you may take comfort in the fact that I have now bought a blanket and crockery, so I am less of a tramp now!

Also, I have succeeded in making tea without a kettle! There is hope for me yet! (The answer to this one being a microwave. I am a GENIUS)

Oh and while talking to the receptionist today, he at one point said "Are you originally from Russia?" because  I could not stop saying "da" instead of "oui". This must be worked on.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Day One

Hello chaps,

I have actually made it safe and sound to Tours, France, where I will be spending the second half of my year abroad. I say this with a note of surprise, given the French reputation for bureacracy, strikes and generally 'not being British' about things. (Funny, that).

I am very lucky in that I have spoken French since I was a child and have pretty much have constantly had French lessons of some description since the age of five. While this does not mean I can consider myself to be any good at it, it means it does not intimidate me that much, which I think is very important. That, and it is much easier a language to an English speaker than Russian! It's also much easier to travel to for so many reasons - especially as being a London resident for most of the time, St Pancras International is essentially on my doorstep. 

I was dreading having to lug my suitcase through the Metro of Paris all by myself - where escalators are far less numerous than in London. It was so heavy that every time I lifted it, I almost fell over. Not cool. However, I was pleasantly surprised when no fewer than four people came to my aid and carried it up and down various offending sets of stairs with rather embarrassing ease. There is the character of the European to be completely unfazed by helping people out in train stations, especially when I fell over myself in Britishness, gabbling "oh thank you, you are most kind" with rapid gusto. Things that will never die.

I took the TGV from Paris Montparnasse to Tours, which was another pleasant surprise - the Loire Valley is incredibly beautiful, as well as completely flat. It's been a long time since I was in French countryside (at least 5 years or so) so it was nice to be back. It's being in France that reminds me why I do French!

Tours itself is incredibly beautiful. It is the stuff of English people's French dreams - winding cobbled streets, incredible 18th Century architecture and wide avenues, not to mention traditional formal public gardens where I can imagine petanque to be played on a regular basis in the summer. It makes me yearn for my childhood summer holidays spent in France, to be honest. Maybe I shall consider this the extended version, director's cut, or whatever they call it these days. 

I fear the gaffe reel will be extensive though. Today's gaffes include dragging my suitcase up a muddy bank because I went the wrong way to reception, speaking to the receptionist in half Russian, half French, my card getting blocked by my bank (even though I'd already told them I was going abroad - embarrassing) and almost getting myself run over when losing control of my suitcase.

I am going to spend tomorrow kitting out my new digs, including getting that outlandish frivolity - a duvet. I hedged my bets a little by not bringing one (physically couldn't carry it and it was all provided in Russia, so I made sure to bring a big towel instead!) so now tonight I will be sleeping under said towel and a coat. Idiot girl.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Bonjour à tous!

Well chaps, today marks the start of the final coundown towards my move to France - next week.
I feel as though I have only just returned from my travels in Russia - indeed, it has only been 3 weeks since I got off the plane! My life at the moment consists of pieces of paper and chasing up documents and signing forms. Goodness knows, I will forget something important and end up homeless. I'm not a disorganised person but there is just so much to keep track of!

I am very much looking forward to exploring my new surroundings, but my grasp of French at the moment has dwindled significantly. I did originally draft this post in French but I didn't have the guts to post it!

The only way is up though, right?

I hope all of you had a happy Christmas, whenever it was you celebrated it. (For my English readers, this was 25th December and for my dear Russians, this was the 7th January.) New Year though, is celebrated on 31st December by everyone, yet is more of a significant celebration for Russians. I am reluctant to talk about what I get up to in my daily life on here, frankly because it's not that interesting for people to read. I'll leave you with a brief comment about the fact I spent my festive period surrounded by good food, good fun and good company.

So for now, I will leave you all with my best wishes for the new year and I look forward to receiving your comments on my time in France.

I noticed lately that my view count has now passed 10,000 - so I want to thank each and every one of you for taking the time to read about little ol' me. I never expected anyone other than a few close friends and family to take a look at this thing, so thank you!