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

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.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A bit of silliness and sentimentality for your Monday

Hello chaps,
Привет мои дорогие читатели,

I am suffering from serious Piter withdrawal symptoms, so I am going to write this post in both English and Russian.

Сегодня я очень скучаю по Питеру и поэтому буду писать тоже по русски. Я очень хотела бы что вы помогите меня с русским языком. Мне кажется что он скоро убегает от меня из-за того что я больше не живу туда!

So, I thought today I would provide you with just a little something to improve your Mondays, as a quick reconnaissance of various social networks would suggest that it is needed today!

Так, я подумала что сегодня я обеспечивала бы вас с чем-нибудь чтобы делать более интересный ваш день, потому что читав социальные сайты, мне кажется что вам нужно какое-то развлечение!

My wonderful grandmother sent me this video, which I thought was great, so thought I would share it with you. The video is just a bit of light entertainment in the form of some popular Russian songs performed by the Military Orchestra - and performed very well at that. There may be some you recognise without realising it, so do check it out.

Вот, моя дорогая бабушка мне послала это видэо и мне очень понравилось - я подумала что это вам тоже понравилось бы.
В этом много русских песен - Пожалуйста, дорогие русские читателя, можете ли вы объясните мне об их культурных контекстах для вас? Мне очень интересно было бы слышать ваши мнения.

Check out the video here

Saturday, 9 March 2013

International Women's Day

Hello chaps,

In a slight break from normal service, today's blog is going to be something of a rant/attempt to persuade internet bigots to open their minds. I hope you will enjoy it, I'd love to hear your feedback, as always!

March 8th is International Women's Day, and has been celebrated in other countries for much longer than in England. Or at least, I suspect this, but we must consider the fact that I have myself only been aware of it for a few years, since studying the Russian Revolution for AS level 4 years ago. This can go two ways: I am horrendously ignorant, or we just didn't have it in the UK. You decide about that one.

Indeed, Women's Day much celebrated in Russia, it is an officially recognised national holiday, where men traditionally give flowers and presents to the main women in their lives, such as their mothers and sisters. I suppose it can be regarded as an extension of how we celebrate Mother's Day in the UK. The day in Russia exists to pay tribute to the hard work that women contribute to society and is in no way meant to be either patronising or feminist.

Feminism does not really exist in Russia in the Western sense of the word. Women were enfranchised in 1917 in line with the Russian Revolution, which was in part sparked by the (peaceful) Women's Day march of that year, so there was no equivalent to the suffragettes.

 Men and women have very different roles in society in Russia compared with in the West - women are allowed to vote and hold office (the previous mayor of St Petersburg was Valentina Matviyenko, the most prominent female politician in the Russian Federation), yet it is still the custom for them to be considered the weaker sex, and for men to act in a chivalrous, masculine fashion. In a practical context, this largely refers to them opening doors for women.

A traditional Russian holiday, then, which appears to have been more widely adopted by the West in recent years. My theory on this is that we have the internet and social media to thank in part for this, which has its pros and cons. The main con I will point out here is the lack of cultural understanding in the West about the provenance of this holiday. I was rather exasperated to see comments by young men saying "When is International Men's Day?" in a joking-but-not-joking kind of way. Firstly, there is an International Men's day, it's on 23rd February in Russia, and exists in the same context as Women's Day - a day of celebrating the hard work of men in society. In Russia this is typically reserved for military men, as it was traditionally called Red Army Day.(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defender_of_the_Fatherland_Day ). I am told that the International Men's Day is 19th November, so take your pick which date to celebrate.

In the West, I feel that Women's day is coming into prominence as a feminist concept, which I wholeheartedly support. I have always been surrounded by strong women, for which I am hugely grateful, and hope to one day exert the same influence on young women myself, whether I have kids or not (bit soon for that, please stop hyperventilating - besides I rather like the idea of being someone's mad aunt, who has lots of cats and sends them postcards from my various travels to obscure countries).

I am a huge appreciator of writers such as Caitlin Moran, who, in her book How to Be a Woman, essentially lays out my own feminist belief, which is the following: you don't have to be a bra-burning banshee to support the cause of women being accepted in the workplace on equal terms as men, for the same pay.

The fact remains that this does not yet take place, even in today's society, some 100 years after the suffragette movement. Let us all remember the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Davison on 5th June 2013 - the lady who was killed by the kng's horse at Epsom on the same date in 1913. It is a complete mistake to think that feminism is outdated and should have died in the 60s, along with the mini-skirt. It therefore completely riles me when people make such comments - for them to get annoyed that women get one day of recognition is frankly an insult to the day-to-day inequality that women face all over the world, at home and in the workplace.

My adam's apple is smaller than a man's. That doesn't mean my brain is too.

This leads me onto my next point, which is related to this, and that is the rather despicable 'Lad' culture that has been developed in recent years also by social media. Of course, we accept that it existed before, but the force of the internet has increased awareness and popularity of something that started off as isolated joking and banter by groups of males at the end of high school education and in their University years - we can take the Bullingdon club as one of the oldest examples of this. I want to make one final point about this, without drawing on too many examples - you can find them for yourselves at the utterly despicable "unilad" website. (Google it, I don't want to directly give them traffic). Basically, it is this - it is *never* acceptable to make derogatory comments about women, based solely on their gender. The assumption that women can be automatically exploited by a small minority of silly little boys is quite frightening and must be extinguished with everything that social media (and wider society for that matter) has to offer.

Tell me this, silly boys: Would you make the same comments to your mother or your grandmother?

Didn't think so.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Travels and excuses

Hello chaps,

So I feel I should explain my blogging absence of late. After the announcement of my winning the iX13 blog competition, I found myself far too busy to maintain my position - funny how you're actually expected to work at university, isn't it? (I'm kidding, I work pretty hard. She says, writing a blog completely unrelated to such matters)...

It was all announced during the last week before the pause pedagogique, or Reading week as you and I call it. I found myself swamped with 3 exams and life admin related to my upcoming travel plans.

I spent my pause in 4 cities, which over the course of 9 days is pretty impressive.

I returned to my parents house to celebrate my 21st for the second time - which culminated in a chocolate mousse cake so big it took 4 people 4 days to eat. And I don't mean it was only eaten at dinner. Oh come on, if you can't have cake for breakfast on your birthday, when can you? Don't judge me!!

I then returned to London to see some friends, and then was off to Cardiff to see another friend. It is something of an Erasmus student stereotype to do a crazy amount of travelling, so naturally I went to Brussels and Bruges for the last 4 days.
It made me feel horribly old to realise it was over ten years ago that I last visited Bruges, when they were still phasing out the Belgian franc. We visited a chocolate museum that was opened in 2004. Seems like ages ago now - but was not there when I last was. This makes me feel old because it just does not feel like that long ago.

For the main point of this article: It's actually unbelievable how important the ability to speak other languages is. I'm going to draw on two examples here. Firstly, the serveuse in the macaroon shop in Montmartre I visited a few weeks ago. She was speaking to two Spanish customers before us, in fluent Spanish. She then lapsed into perfect English to serve my companion (I was holding fort at the table). She then switched into her native language of French to serve the next customers.

All of this took place in the space of 5-10 minutes. 3 languages. 10 minutes. When was the last time you did that, and seamlessly?

Didn't think so.

Second example: Bruges. Everything is written in 3 languages as a matter of course. And all service staff are required to speak all three. Sure, English is the lingua franca, in most cases, but not everyone can speak English and, quite frankly, not everyone should have to in order to communicate with other people. I denounce our lack of linguistic ability in England. We are lagging behind other nations, especially on the continent, and are selfish enough to expect other people to speak our language without making any attempt to speak theirs.

I therefore choose to speak in French to all service staff over here, as I am frankly ashamed of this national heritage. It screams ignorance, and I certainly do not think ignorance is bliss.

Mistakes made and learned from

Hello chaps,

As is often the case these days, I am suffering a serious blog backlog. In order to overcome this, I have entered myself into a translation competition, which at the moment is killing me more than writing up my overhanging blogs. Funny how procrastination makes you more productive, isn't it?

So today's blogs covers some recent experiences where I have made a bit of a fool of myself, so figured you all could learn from my mistakes. I will also discuss some other people's silliness to make myself feel better. ;)

Episode 1: "Charity" scammers in Tours and Paris.
When a tourist in Paris, do not fall into this trap, as it has the potential for some dire consequences.
I want to make the disclaimer here that not all charity collectors in Paris are scammers - but as with everything, check the legitimacy as far as you can. If they are legitimate, they will show you some actual identification and will not mind doing so, and certainly will not chase you in the Metro.

 I will point out that myself and my companion were even then relatively seasoned travellers, as my companion had spent a year travelling through South and South East Asia, as well as North Africa and Europe. I had spent a month living in Tatarstan and had been to Moscow (and been mugged whilst there - a lesson in itself). We both live in London so are relatively streetwise, yet this still took us by surprise.

The first incidence happened in Paris last summer, when I was there for five days. We were enjoying a walk along the Seine by the Pont Neuf when some children approached us, claiming to be taking people's details for charity donations. The children were claiming to be mute and deaf, so our only communication was through some rather fumbled gesticulation on their part.

Halfway through writing a name down, the police came around the corner in a patrol car, at which point the apparently "mute" child shouted "Polizia!" in a language that was not French. Moreover, it proved that they knew they were not supposed to be doing what they were doing and that the police were well aware of their presence.

This is not the only time I have seen scammers such as this. There was a group of them on Rue Nationale here in Tours for a time (I suspect they have now been removed by some force or another). I saw a group of them chasing tourists in the Metro only on Sunday as I was passing through Paris.

The fact remains that they prey on the goodwill of tourists (in the case of Paris) and the goodwill of passers-by in Tours (there are fewer tourists here). We felt slightly sickened after we almost got taken for a ride ourselves.

A serious point to note here, then. Don't make the same mistake we did - even though we didn't give them our details, you can't be sure what they will do with them if you do.

On a lighter note, I think I have solved the world obesity crisis - replace all chocolates with diabetic Stevia chocolates. I bought some by mistake in Bruges this weekend. I never want to make this mistake again, and therefore feel compelled to warn all of you. They are probably one of the most vile things I have ever eaten; they have a terrible aftertaste and leave you feeling horribly sick afterwards. You'll never want to eat chocolate again - which, if you're trying to kick that chocolate habit once and for all, is probably a bonus. For everyone else, not so much.

A final betise for all of you, which made me chuckle no end.
An Englishman, ordering a "coffee" from the sandwicherie at Gare du Nord, speaks no French.
He returns the coffee, saying "I asked for a coffee, you've given me an Espresso. I want another coffee, with milk, or a refund"
The serveuse responds, "Mais non, monsieur, c'est comme ca, un cafe est un cafe".
"But I asked for a coffee, this is an Espresso, I can't drink this"
"Mais monsieur, c'est la machine, c'est un cafe noir, comme vous m'avez demande"
Englishman grumbles. Abandons "coffee".

I then order my sandwich, in French, pretending not to be English.
The serveuse speaks to me in perfect English.

Oh, France.