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

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.