Monday, 30 September 2013

Come with me to Manchester, on va s'éclater!

Coucou! So I've started my new blog about life back in ma ville natale, Manchester in the United Kingdom! It's the best thing since sliced bread (which is my poor substitute for baguettes these days) Catch me here,, and you'll soon find that whilst Paris is where good Americans go when they die, Manchester is where naughty people go to live.

See you there!

Sunday, 30 June 2013

'Attention à la Marche en Descendant de Paris'

     I think it's rather apt that my Year Abroad blog started with talking about mishaps on transport, and that's exactly how it's going to end. Due to the Air Traffic Control strikes in early June, I was forced to abandon my flight. This meant lugging myself and the 50 kg of life that I'd acquired aboard the metro to get the Eurostar, conducted with all the grace and decorum of an elephant with an inner-ear infection. Yet ironically, it was aboard the metro, squinting over the top of my enormous suitcase at the various stations that I began to realise how similar my Year Abroad experience had been to getting the metro in Paris. So go ahead and jump the barrier, and if you've got a couple of minutes before your train arrives, let me explain to you why this is.

     The metro is fast, loud and very intimidating at first glance. Living abroad is no different. You look at the map and wonder to yourself how you'll ever end up anywhere, amazed at how effortless it seems to be for others. But you'll never go anywhere unless you start moving, and so you take a deep breath and jump on board.

Easy Peasy Facile... Pacile?
     Sometimes, life is painful, like getting your hand trapped in the metro door (the plight of many a French bunny). People can be rude, and you feel like there's just no place for you. There are times when you feel like you've had enough and you just want to leave, but you know very well that you'll never reach your final destination if you do so.
Will they ever learn.

Enjoying an accordion cover of 'Fat Bottomed Girls'
    People come and go. There are those who come in and brighten your life, and are gone in a flash, just like a metro busker. There are also those who will come and sit with you until the end of the line. It's the not knowing who you might meet that day that makes it so enthralling.

     Sometimes you see everything so clearly spread out before you, and other times you are subjected to complete darkness. From personal experience, the delicate beauty of all of this is that the light at the end of the tunnel is more beautiful than you ever imagined.

    When it's time for you to eventually end your journey, you are faced with different exits that will lead you to different directions. However, it's not quite as easy and romantic as it seems. After living life at approximately 80 km/h, the world is suddenly much slower than you remember. What at first seemed scary and inaccessible has become your life, and you can't remember what it was like before. You may be accustomed to the announcement on the métro of:

'Attention à la marche en descendant du train'

     However, as I suggested in the title of this piece, it's the gap between Paris and the rest of the world which is the most unfathomable and dangerous.
     Having got off the métro now, both figuratively and literally, I am trying to deal with this strange surreal sentiment of my year abroad being over. In fact, friends often ask me if I'm sad to be back at home now. Yet that's not how I'm thinking about it. If life is like a train journey, then seeing as I've not been derailed just yet, I guess I'm simply waiting for the next adventure to leave the station. 

Ready to catch my next dream.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Liberté, Egalité, Sororité

Famous catch-phrase from The Harry Enfield Show
I’ve always considered myself a bit of a ‘Fair-Weather Feminist’. This would be the type of woman who is proud and happy to have the vote, yet is conscious of the fact that she lacks the wrist stamina to open a jar of jam, or the fearlessness to tackle extremely leggy spiders. Yet on this year abroad, I have come across an attitude to gender and sex in La Métropole that is equally disturbing and interesting, and worth sharing with both women and men alike.

                So, La Belle France;  a country where masculinity and femininity are so important, even nouns are gender specific.  France prides itself now on being a ‘secular’ country, yet its Catholic and conservative values are well-engrained up to the present day, and this includes attitudes to sex. The little girls that I look after on a Saturday for example can’t imagine how I could live here without my husband. And what do my children do when I’m at work? When we were playing ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ the unanimous response was simply and cheerfully ‘Epousé’.  Some may argue that the viewpoints of two children don’t present a valid argument. Granted, when I was 4 although my ambition soared higher than being someone’s wife, I did want to be a horse. However, my point is I actually think their enthusiasm is quite surprising, mainly because the portrait of women in this Parisian portion of planet is very confusing.

Beautiful or Brave? MAKE A CHOICE.
 There was an outcry recently about the sexualisation of La Princesse Merida from ‘Rebelle’ (Disney Pixar’s ‘Brave’), in that the artists gave her a more glittery and glam appeal and sexier  softer curls for her Disney princess initiation. Whilst I understand that Merida’s appeal is her carefree attitude and her frankly un princess-like behaviour, I think this retaliation from angry women is actually unnecessary. It portrays idea that one cannot be beautiful AND feisty, independent AND pretty and that we have to choose which woman to be, which defies the message that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’: a worse message in my opinion than the one which received all the complaints in the first place.

                On the other hand, if we look outside of cartoons and into the real world, does the premise change so much? Carla Bruni-Sarkosy was quoted as saying her generation of women ‘don’t need feminism’ and that ‘On the contrary, I'm a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day.’  Then, at the other end of the spectrum, we find Marine le Pen, who came under scrutiny not so long ago by
'Half a smile and half a spurn, as housewives do a fly'
comparing Islamic Prayers to the influence of the Nazis when France was under occupation.  With cripplingly-dull bourgeois values on one hand, and militant racism on the other, are these women in power really any better role-models for young women either?

                In the face of this disconcerting attitude to gender, I must admit I’ve thought about it a lot and after all I’ve read and seen, I’m not a fair-weather feminist because I’m not a feminist at all. This is largely because I think the movement appears to be poisoned and limited by a hatred for men, and a lack of reasoning for this that I personally don’t agree with. If anything, I feel the real perpetrators of female oppression are often other women, and the nasty things they say about each other. If you want to stay at home and raise your family, that doesn’t mean you’re oppressed. If you want to go out to work, that doesn’t mean you’re a soul-less spinster. If you want to do both, just do it. Furthermore, whatever you campaign for, there will always be people who disagree with you. As long as you have your facts and can argue your case confidently and coherently, I don’t really think it matters what anyone thinks about someone being a man, a woman, or a horse for that matter.  Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her essai ‘Le Deuxieme Sexe’

On ne naît pas femme, on le devient’- One is not born a woman, one becomes it.

I would argue go further than this. Go further than becoming a woman, go further than becoming a feminist and simply become what it is you want to be. Women: Know No Limits.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Lovers and intellectual equals, the way it should be.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Gynaecology Pour Les Nuls

     As a rule, I am a woman who lives by the moral code of 'better to be safe than sorry. Or worse, pregnant'. So, on running low on my contraceptive pill, and in the knowledge that abstinence is only 99.9% effective (thanks 'Virgin' Mary), I decided to go to the French doctors to re-stock. A good friend told me that getting contraception here in France is a little different. Whereas in England, we have free sexual health clinics that catapult free protection from the rooftops, in France, you require a full medical and gynaecological exam. So with God as my witness (and not my baby-daddy), I decided to bite the bullet, mainly in order to provide you, the reader, with the Do's and Dont's of how to survive a gynaecological exam in France. Which, funnily enough, is not something they think of addressing before your year abroad. You're welcome.
The Not-All-That-Hot Seat
1. DON'T: Go To Your Appointment Drunk
Papped at the Reception desk
   I made the school-boy error of getting ridiculously champagne-lairy the night before my appointment, to the extent where I couldn't eat my breakfast in the morning because the noise of my own mouth crunching cereal was too much for my brain to handle. This also meant I showed up to my appointment in very dark sunglasses with hair like Captain Caveman, and slurred my name to the receptionist. As a consequence, my prescription was written out for 'MLLE OLIVIA DARLING'. Which I can't say was so much of a disappointment. 

2. DO: Be Prepared to Play 20 Questions

...zat you arr an eengleesh whorrree
Don't get me wrong, my doctor was very smiley and friendly, and made excellent small-talk. The trouble is, it's kind of difficult to talk about what you're doing here on your year abroad, in a foreign language, when you're drunk, legs up in stirrups, front-bottom is out for the whole world to see. Equally very distracting to try and remember who your favourite French author is when doctor is submerging a be-gloved hand into an industrial sized pot of Vaseline like she's about to deliver a baby calf. However, do be prepared for some classic French medical advice i.e. 'Oh smoking less than ten a day is fine, enjoy your life you are still very young and beautiful, it is not time to stop yet'. Duly noted. 

3. DON'T: Worry About Your 'Downstairs' Area
     This being my first ever lady-examination I was a little nervous, not so much about the pain but rather about pubic grooming custom in this domain. This is France after all; a country renowned for its lustrous follicles both above and below see-level. Yet in England, women do like to give off the impression that we each suffer from neck-down alopecia, thanks to a prevalence of porn and 'vajazzles'. I guess I wasn't really expecting my gynaecologist to exclaim that my vagina was 'très mimi!' (very cute). In retrospect though, she probably just thought I was pre-pubescent. At least it's better than 'QU'EST-CE QUE C'EST ÇAA OHHH LAAAAA SAUVEZ-VOUS VITE!', which might have been a bit of a blow to my self-esteem. 

4. DO: Worry About Your 'Upstairs' Area
I wasn't quite ready for this photo.

     So after having some seriously close encounters with the 'Frottis' (known to us as smear tests but feels rather like someone is trying to hook out your intestines with a knitting needle), I was hoping the worst was now over. I should have known better. I have had had two medical exams in France so far, one routine check-up for employment law and one to receive contraceptives I am already taking. Both have involved a sudden and unexpected boob groping. I am not talking about when you go to the doctors, and they politely ask if they can politely check your breasts, which is dignified and practical. I am talking about a no pre-warning, hand-shoved-in-your-bra, inexperienced-teenage-boy fondling of your lady lumps. I'm sure this is all part of protocol in France and is nothing out of the ordinary and nothing to worry about. Or at least that's what I tell myself in my scalding shower when I still feel so dirty inside. 

And finally...5. DON'T: Forget That This Isn't A Free Country
     After a good hour of having an agreeable chat with someone whose head I couldn't see, I eventually hobbled out of the room doing my best John Wayne impression, ready to go home and eat my feelings. On leaving however, I was chased after by a flustered secretary, reminding me that I'd forgotten to pay. I hadn't forgotten at all, I just didn't think I had to. Our NHS, however corrupt and inefficient it is, redeems itself in being free of charge at the very least. I had to pay 30 euros for the privilege of being excavated and molested, and then a further 15 euros for my contraceptive pill. Was it 45 euros well spent?
     Well, in all honesty the female practitioner was very reassuring and helpful, and I am now once more safe from that sexual deviant of a Holy Spirit. Maybe not the most popular of the tourist attractions, but frankly I'd take a Frottis over a rush-hour heat-wave metro at Chatelet any day of the week.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Metro, Boulot, Bordeaux!

The wonderful thing about Paris is that exciting things happen all the time. However, when a new friend of mine invited me down to Bordeaux to visit, I was quite dubious at first. I've become a bit of a Parisphiliac so to speak; why would I go anywhere else when I'm in the City of Love, Light, and Langues de Chats? Then it dawned on me: besides going to Happiest Place on Earth, I had not been anywhere else in France other than Paris. And as a lady who doesn't like to knock things before she's tried them, I felt it was my duty as a bloggeuse/bloggatrice/blogginatrix to venture out a little further into La Métropole in the name of research and ideally good wine.
Here I am arriving at Bordeaux St Jean, looking windswept and interesting.

I think it's pretty important to mention here just how easy and relatively cheap it is to get around in France. The TGV I took to get to Bordeaux was comfortable, fast and simple, unlike trains back in England which are as fickle and rickety as scorned lovers on wheels. The aller-retour cost me 70 euros in total which was not bad at all, but this was without a young-person rail card which takes a great deal of money off too. So if you want to have a look at the sights of France, it's certainly worth investing in. But a little less of my sponsored advertising (merci, SNCF) and a little more Bordelais beauty.

Bordeaux bell tower, rings at Gouter

Blue-tack Bordeaux Lion 
Beautiful Bordelais Bridge

Okay, so maybe the beautiful south of France weather my friend had promised me was on strike at the time, but it certainly was a lot warmer than it was in Paris, where the drizzle was just getting into full force. Saying this, I really loved the whole light and airy feel of Bordeaux. Paris can feel kind of suffocating and grey at times, but the landscaping in Bordeaux town centre was much more spacious, and as the buildings were mainly in sandstone it gave the whole place a much lighter feel. The Bordelais themselves were marvellous; the whole life-style is much more tranquille than that which is found in the hustle and bustle of Parisian life. It was nice to be in an atmosphere that is both provincial and yet still animated at the same time.

Although this blog entry is about Bordeaux, the main aim is to address the question of travelling about on your Year Abroad. I'm sure there are lots of other wonderful places to see in France. Unfortunately, I have left it too late and have become much too down-and-out to afford other Francophone frolics, but if I could have my time back again, I would certainly travel around this eccentric country a little more. A cool French newspaper (of which there are plenty) once said:

« Femme qui voyage laisse voyager son coeur. »

I've got to hand it to Rivarol: If I had the chance, I'd be back there in a heartbeat. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Les Écrasmus


To crush, smash, squeeze, over-write, mash, over-burden, overwhelm, step-on, run-over. 

Dramatic Reconstruction of Events
The latter of these definitions being particularly poignant (I was nearly run over by a bus yesterday morning, traffic lights are more decorative than purposeful in Paris), it's probably not so unusual that the title pun popped into my mind. The Erasmus scheme, although chocolate coated with a delicious soft caramel centre in theory, doesn't really prepare you for the reality of the situation which is at times, not so sweet. 

Maybe it's just Paris. Despite having nine universities, this isn't really a city for students. With its high living costs and low social awareness (see above bus incident for details), it can feel a little alienated and cold at times, particularly as the students who tend to live inside the Péripherique are often foreign, due to our inner tourist aversion to living more than a metro away from the Eiffel Tower. 

The 'studying' option is also une arme à double tranchant. Like many Erasmus students, the marks that I get during my time at Paris-Sorbonne don't actually go towards my degree. Which in effect would be a great reason to slack off and enjoy Parisian life, but being a level 5 woodland elf alchemist standard of nerdy, this option didn't massively appeal to me. However, I've found that Erasmus students at my host university are often brushed off like annoying ants, ruining grade averages with their not-native French and sometimes being  lost or confused because they are foreign in a foreign country trying to get by at a foreign university which quite frankly so far, has been as welcoming and helpful as a bag of dismembered toes.

Obviously this is not the case for all my lecturers, and I have been lucky to have taken some great courses so far. But it's just sometimes seemingly a relentless tidal wave of merde. For example, I enrolled for all my courses for the year in September as I was told this was acceptable, only to find in January I wasn't on any registers and hadn't actually been enrolled in anything I'd been attending for the past couple of weeks, potentially jeopardising all of my credits and resulting in the failure of my entire year abroad. Apparently, the secretariat who had told me this in September was 'just a little mistaken'. 'No shit, Sherlock' doesn't translate all that well.

So, my advice to Les Écrasmus? Stick together: there is strength in numbers and the Erasmus plight is by no means singular. Just when you think you've had as much as you can take of unannounced final exams, patronising lecturers and the bureaucratic organisation of a blindfolded rhinoceros, just remember this one cure-all remedy. In France, wine is cheaper than coca-cola. 

Illegitimi non Carborundum- Don't let the carbonated drinks get you down.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Ex-Patrius Unum: In Gags We Trust

An American in Paris is nothing out of the ordinary. Three million US Tourists will roll into Paris every year, and some of them don’t even make it back. Of the 165,000 American expatriates in France, a supersized 50,000 live in the capital. And yet, I could not imagine two nationalities more alien to each other.  How do you convert from a banner that’s star-spangled to sanglant? From the Pentagon to L’Hexagone?  Can Americans ever fully integrate themselves into perhaps the most European of cities? The whole thing just seems funny to me. And to Sebastian Marx too, so it would seem.

Spreading Marxism to the masses.
                As well as performing his one-man spectacle, ‘A New-Yorker In Paris’ in both French and English, Sebastian also hosts an English speaking open-mic night, as well as The Melting Pot Comedy Night at the Théâtre de Dix Heures. Add to this a weekly chronique on RTL and role in a new web series about Ex-Pats in Paris, surely just finding the time to be interviewed by my inquisitive self must be his biggest achievement to date.  Having seen his show in both English and French, I was intrigued by the relationship between laughter and language: at its basest element, does humour translate?

‘There are some things that work and some things that don’t,’ he explained ‘For example, I don’t do my Shakespearean death gag in my French show: they just wouldn’t get it.’

(Which, by the way, is very true. If all the world is indeed a stage, then the Anglophone act would be a Laurence Olivier style soliloquy, whereas the French would have more of a monkey-riding-a-unicycle-juggling-kiwis type number).
SoGymnase:  4 perilous flights of stairs above sea level.
Sebastian’s spectacle is very much about the trials and tribulations of ex-pat life in Paris; a theme that touches both the ex-pats themselves and the French people who are suddenly made aware of their curious culture and customs. Painfully conscious that 9 years living in la Métropole top trumps both culturally and linguistically my measly 6 months in Paris, I asked Mr Marx  for some advice. How does one go from the Big Apple to becoming  La Grosse Légume, or is that too much to ask, being simply a humble Rosbif?

The recipe according to Marx is that patience is a virtue: a piece of advice that should be handed out to trainee Parisians at the Arrivals gate. He told me about how easy it he thought it would be when he first arrived; Fluent in 6 months, crazy successful job, living in a harem of Parisienne contortionists etc. However, no matter what you do here, everything takes time. A lot of time. Whether it’s waiting for the CAF to come through, or establishing English-speaking comedy in the capital of France, you just have to grit your teeth and hope that all the hard work will pay off (or indeed pay up) in the end.

Laughter is contagious, yet also the best medicine. Discuss. 
At first glance, an American open-mic in Paris might seem as though we’re forcing the relative toddler of the French stand-up scene to be bilingual, however nothing could be further from the truth. Europe just seems to be interested in what we have to say. Sebastian told me of the English Comedy Scene in Berlin, which has exploded in the past three years. When I went to the New York Comedy Night myself, I was really surprised that over half the audience was actually French. Furthermore, the nationalities of the performers vary, and it’s hilarious to see how American, English, Irish, Dutch and even Russian comedians react to the immediate world around them, (and of course, to laugh at our diverse accents).  It unites expatriates and tourists through unanimous experiences and invites the French to laugh about it with us, rather than at us.  Quite frankly, if Mr. Marx’s master plan is to unite people of all nationalities together via one international tongue, whilst encouraging comedy in Paris to flourish and grow, I myself might just adopt a New York state of mind.