Why international soirees are not for me….

Weds AM

Thirty seven minutes. I timed it. Thirty seven minutes is the difference between the time I started attempting to leave the pub, and the time I actually left the pub. And this was no feat of conviviality -no no. This was a very strange Spanish reluctance to leave a socially awkward and boring situation. I could not explain it, but was helpless against its power.

At 12:01, I announce my intention to leave. I have a gleeful moment in which I think I have gotten away with it, but before I have my scarf around my neck, Gabriela announces her intention to come with me. Just after she goes to the toilet. I am okay with this, and make further announcements about waiting ‘ici’, which are somehow misunderstood and she returns from an unsuccessful mission some minutes later to collect me for our joint bathroom visit. No no, says I, ‘ICI’. You can brave it on your own. She eventually returns with the next announcement. The other Spanish girl, Val, is apparently also going to come with us, and now she needs the toilet. More waiting. I realise that I am now helplessly embroiled in a social joint-exit situation that I cannot escape, as I have lost the right to leave independently. I panic and start wrapping more layers around me. However, Val is at this point very busy wrapping herself around her Iranian not-boyfriend, and looks like she has not got the slightest intention of going anywhere. No amount of disengaging from conversation and clutching my handbag can save me now. Gabriela finally puts a jumper on (not a coat yet, mind you), but becomes distracted by two young enthusiastic Venezuelans, who are dying to dance with us and speak anything but French or English. Gabriela has little to gain from this exchange, but still does not seem to be showing any desire to extricate herself. It’s bizarre. In the end I picked her up, threw her over my shoulder and garryowened her into a tram, sprinting the rest of the way home. And all of this took thirty seven minutes. That is a lot of minutes, when all you want to do is be at home in bed -alone -watching Netflix. In one language -not seven.

It might have been that I was intimidated by all these young people, having multilingual conversations and dancing to Europop, but I found it very difficult to see the appeal of such an event. No, methinks, international soirées are not for me. How they are for anyone I find very confusing, but Gabriela was most insistent that I should agree it had a been a great night, what with the dancing and all. (Or in my case, awkward shuffling). I tried to explain to a grinning Iranian that we are nicely repressed in Ireland and don’t do sober dancing, but he completely ignored me and bullied me into adding him as a friend on Facebook. This Facebook friending is also quite mysterious -Gabriela was adding people like a mad thing, and given her level of commitment to actually texting her Facebook friends, I just don’t know how she does it.

Another surprising aspect of an international soirée -and the expat community in general, which I had avoided mentioning until now, is the racism. Jesus Christ, it is alive and well. I have previously noticed a rather alarming amount of bitching about “the Chinese and the Arabs”, but I had hoped it was just miscommunication. But no, last night confirmed it. Oddly, a penchant for international soirées and stilted conversation is only a mark of open-mindedness if you are also white and European. And we wonder how the Americans elected Trump. (About which, incidentally, I am still so upset that I cannot bring myself to further comment on the matter).

So today was supposed to be about printing more cover letters and traipsing the town delivering same, but it is pouring rain and actually snowing outside, so I am finding it difficult to leave the apartment. Which is deliciously warm, as Karim is fully committed to recreating a Tunisian climate in our living quarters. Fine with me says I, and he paying all the bills. I do wake up most mornings in a somewhat sun-dried prunish state, but anything is better than the cold. Nothing a half a litre of Nivea lotion can’t sort out. But with all this rain and mankiness, I may even mop the floors. Which is about as appealing as chewing my own arm off, but I tried that and it tastes of Nivea. A bit of Radio France Bleu Isere and mop city it is.

The aftermath of Amsterdam….

So it’s been a week since I was here in blog city -and what a week it’s been! Since my last update, I have been drunk, high, ogled in a window, culturally enriched and historically educated -and that was just one day in Amsterdam. Great city for tourists, really different and loads of very high quality attractions. The city itself is rainy but beautiful, and despite one reveller trying to take a bite out of one of the girls (apparently she looked like a hamburger, “nyum nyum”), we felt very safe there. We also felt appallingly objectified unfortunately, but that’s what you get when you put a thousand nearly naked women in shop windows I guess. And it wasn’t just by those who climbed up the wrong side of a magic mushroom either. The prostitution thing was sad -very interesting to look at it from the outside, but you were immediately disabused of any notion that there is even the vaguest hint of glamour associated with the lives of these girls. However, the legalisation of the weed worked very well in our favour, and although I wouldn’t be too keen to repeat the experience, getting high as a kite on hash brownies was immense fun. The simplest tasks took about ten minutes, and everything seemed Hilarious. Mighty craic. As a one off, I’d recommend it. As a regular habit, guaranteed to ruin your life. I’m not sure I would do well in Amsterdam…

However, the return to France was a serious comedown, especially landing back into a bare looking and empty apartment, shared with an Inconnu -the international man of mystery, Karim. Getting very drunk suddenly seemed like a very good idea, and that is what I did!! Turns out that wine and chocolate can in fact solve many problems, and in the end I spent a very pleasant evening over-indulging and watching chick flicks on the internet. However, this did not help the adjustment process the next day. When I finally ran into Karim, he caught me unawares and said some words and tried to do the French kisses thing, but I was at this point so entrenched in Irish culture and Amsterdamitis (a fancy way of saying hangover) that I forgot completely how to feign Frenchness and the whole affair ended in a very awkward handshake and an air of unmistakeable imbecility. Not a great start…

However, things took a turn for the better when I started cleaning things and getting the apartment into shape. Karim and I got chatting, and he’s very nice and friendly, in fairness. He assured me that I would find work, but not if I stayed at home cleaning the apartment all day! Cheeky fecker. All the same, he had the good manners to pick up a guilt-induced Brillo pad and started scrubbing at something orangey coloured on the walls. Which are now, I might add, a pleasing shade of white.

A trip to IKEA the following day made things all the better, and the place is really starting to feel like home. Karim and his endless pots of pasta and cheese do not seem to know what to make of it all, but they aren’t making any comments. The poor divil with his cheese and pasta -I’m having to work very hard to restrict urges to teach him how to cook. We won’t rule it out yet though… IKEA, by the way, is terrifying. Enormous and labyrinthine, with prices for all, but maps for none. I lost my Hungarian in Tiles and Bathrooms, and despite repeated roaring, didn’t find her again until the checkout.

So after IKEA (and a coffee with the Hungarian to celebrate our reunion), I was struck with a sudden wave of motivation that has lasted a full 24 hours, and resulted in a CV and cover letter written, corrected and printed times fifty, a list made of promising ads from the Internet and a shedload of good intentions. Okay, a CV and cover letter lifted off the internet and pawned off as my own, but still. I am not sure exactly what my cover letter says, which is admittedly a bit risky. I have the gist of it though, and have concluded that it probably doesn’t claim I am an experienced monkey whisperer, or fluent in Malayalam. Regardless, all my good intentions may be about to be derailed by an invite to the pub later. On a Tuesday, I hear you gasp in horror? Yes a Tuesday. You may not quite believe me, but I genuinely don’t want to go. It’s with Gabriela, the Spanish madwoman, but it’s an event organised once a month to go and have a drink and practice French. I have grossly neglected my grammar exercises of late, and have myself convinced that they can be successfully replaced by getting drunk and stammering at people. (Tell that to the secondary school kids and see what happens).

 

En Train à Grande Vitesse

6:30am
TGV baby! En route to Paris, to meet some friends from home who are on a holiday there, before continuing on for Amsterdam this evening, where other friends will arrive tomorrow morning. I’m a bit hungry and caffeine deprived (it didn’t seem right to start at 5:10am) but I’m very excited to see everyone. Much to my amazement, the taxi I ordered yesterday actually showed up -any successful telephone interaction is nothing short of a triumph -and brought me to La Gare for 6am. As a stark contrast of lifestyles, when I turned on my phone first thing this morning, what pops up on the screen but “Bestie écrit…” -My bestie is writing!! WhatsApp messages! The dirty divil is only going to bed as I am getting up! And I only at Greenwich Mean Time +1. Very glad to be on this side of the time difference though, as I am not feeling too hectic and am already fantasising about the pharmacies that are going to greet me when I stop in the next train station. Panadols and coffee and I’m hoping to be right as rain.

For the moment, I am being rudely reminded of my Chinese friends, and their horror at the public displays of lust that are all too common in France. They are particularly upset about the sound of lips smacking against lips, which assaults their ears at all hours of the day and night. To be honest I hadn’t noticed this until they pointed it out, but now that it has been noted it cannot be unseen. Or unheard. It is 6:30 am and the two behind me are slobbering loudly over one another like attention-starved St. Bernards. They look at least 45 years old. I’m with the Chinoises on this one. As long as my hair doesn’t start falling out I suppose we can risk some common ground.

 

8:45am
I have finally done it!! I’m on a new TGV now towards Paris, and I have found the holy grail -a nice coffee!!! Un café allongé, avec beaucoup d’eau chaude !!! You add in the request for milk casually at the very end, to avoid risk of contamination. And crème de la crème, they also gave me the much sought after but oft times elusive mini-chocolate. Heaven! It’s taken an entire month, but it’s been worth it. It is so delicious. It probably helps that it is my first caffeine fix in 24 hours, but I want it to last forever.

So with a bit of time on my hands for reflection on the train, I’ve just recalled this phenomenon in rock climbing, that affects the person who is second to climb a route. This is often the less experienced climber, as the leader is the one who takes on the risk, and seconding a climb is a reasonably low risk and easy thing to do. However, as the second, you can often start imagining while you are climbing, what it would be like to lead the route. Even on routes that are well within your ability level, you almost invariably convince yourself that the route is perilous beyond imagination and that you could never lead such a thing. You therefore end up at the top of what should have been a walk in the park, white in the face and covered in sweat. It’s weird. And it’s kind of like that with French. I find that when I’m leading my own route -having a conversation that I actually need to be part of and know the gist of -I get by just fine. However, when I play the game of “let’s see can I understand the snippets of conversations of the passers by” -as I foolishly attempted in the queue for the coffee just now -I immediately become dejected and deflated, convinced that I will never understand a word and am doomed to confused mumbling for the rest of my time here. It’s odd. I don’t have a solution, but I guess just keep leading on up.

Welcome to Tunisia

Almost a full month down!! My last day chez Mrs. G.!! The weather is so beautiful today though, I couldn’t sacrifice the entire day to moving, and Mrs. G, her daughter and I all set out ensemble to walk up to the fort above the city. The walk was much less strenuous than either her daughter or I had anticipated, and I was very pleased with mounting many steps relatively pain free. Mrs. G. complained of palpitations most of the way up and needed a lie down on her return, but she made it. Her daughter and I hatched a plan to sound out Mrs. G. on parapenting -a very mild form of paragliding. Or maybe it’s just paragliding. I know what it is anyway, and so did Mrs. G. Her daughter has been thinking that this might be a good surprise for her mother for her upcoming 60th birthday in January. Given Mrs. G.’s somewhat nervous disposition -kettles, microwaves, out of season vegetables and the Internet featuring among her many terrors -I could only conclude that her daughter had lost her mind. However, I dutifully sidled up to Mrs. G. and started asking casual questions about it. Knowing full well that it wasn’t, I asked whether this was the mountain for doing the parapenting, because I had a bit of a yearning to try my hand at it. She immediately launched into a tirade listing the many risks that are associated with it, and told me that because of her two children (aged 28 and 31 I might add), she doesn’t take any risks with her life. It took quite some time and joint forces between her daughter and I to explain to her that you don’t just take off on your own like a mad thing, you are strapped on to a trained professional. At that she became better disposed towards the idea, and we were all delighted. Although she may not know it yet, it looks like Mrs. G. will be taking flight on the 20th of January! As for me, I was delighted to have conducted a covert operation en français. This is surely a positive sign -of my French if not of my nature.

Later in the afternoon, I commenced the moving process towards Northern Africa, also known as Apartment 1b. I spent many long moments reflecting on my gratitude towards the inventor of the wheel, without whom moving all of my things and 16kg of dumbbells would have been a considerably more painful affair. I should probably be more grateful to my mother’s partner, who lent me the bag adorned with said wheels.. He may also be slightly better disposed to receive a thank-you note.. However, two trips and 6 trams did the trick, and I installed myself in my new lodgings. Now it may just have been tiredness, but I will admit to experiencing some feelings of mild loss while leaving my first France home -and my first France host! I fact I think she had a similar moment of unexpected emotion, as when I was on the way out the door, she suddenly looked at me with a very forlorn expression on her face and tried to give me her breakfast bowls!! It was a bit odd but very nice, although I politely declined the offer. I will also grant that there were a few initial moments of loneliness and desolation, staring at the bare white walls in my new chambre. I briefly found myself longing for  Mrs. G. and her warm family environment, with its brightly coloured bedspreads and clean kitchenware. (And her kettle and her microwave oven, which may have to be budgeted for..) But once I took a shower and cooked myself an omelette -under the grill, like a rebel -I soon began to feel at home. It was the moment when I was about to go to my room to watch Netflix (which has become my unhealthy habit in the evening, but the are only 86 episodes to go in my current series) and realised that I was allowed to do so in the sitting room, when the pleasure of having a proper rented apartment really set in. Okay so I did spend most of the night dreaming about my new housemate invading my room and assaulting me (but it was okay in the end because I murdered him), but in the five minutes I met him he seemed very amicable! I’m very pleased with the apartment though -it’s lovely and warm and the view from the window out on to the river and the mountains is really lovely. A good clean and a few essential purchases and I’ll be only delighted with life.

On the dangers of blogging while you walk

The nightly walk, however important, brings its challenges as well as its merits. Polite though they may be, there are many many homeless people in the streets, and passing them always causes a minor surge of cortisol to the system. Additionally, I have noticed that I appear to be living in the slightly dodgier quarters of the city, and the street on which I live is lined with numerous halal kebab joints, outside which sit groups of men smoking illegal looking substances from large bongs. They appear to do this all day and all night, all the while eyeballing you lecherously from their pedestals of mild intoxication. Having experimented with various methods, I have found that coughing, yawning, being on the phone, looking for your lost credit card or admiring the roofs of the surrounding buildings are all methods, with varying degrees of success, of avoiding eye contact. Eye contact is the worst possible thing to happen between a walking woman and a lustful lecher. It would naturally be taken as a sign of romantic interest and I would doubtless find myself in the throes of a loving embrace in the blink of an eye.

However, alas, yes, you read correctly. My credit card is perdu. It was dans ma poche when i set out, and upon my return home, I had only empty poches. I can only blame the repeated overly-enthusiastic “whipping out” of the phone from said poche, in my excitement to record some observation or other, one incident of which clearly took the credit card with it. No amount of retracing my steps retrieved it, although I quickly put a block on it before the homeless person who has doubtless pocketed it can order any Gucci handbags on the internet. However, the number of credit card-like objects one can find on a city’s streets is most alarming, once one’s eyes become attuned to small rectangular pieces of plastic. Chewing gum wrappers, discarded train tickets, even the inexplicable metal studs that line the streets for no apparent reason, all appear furnished with sixteen friendly digits and my own signature. But to no avail. I’ll try a few lost and found places in the morning.

In the course of my continuous loop of traipsing tonight, the city’s fitness obsession became increasingly evident. I had been fore-warned about this -I met a guy in a pub in Ireland who told me a story about a woman he met one night while he lived here. She was after a few drinks and on for more, but he politely declined her offer as he had a long cycle scheduled for the morning. She irately and bitterly complained that “everyone een theece fucking town eece always fucking exercising”. I well believe her, and I feel her pain. It the two hours I have been scanning the footpaths, I have passed the same guy twice, running at high speed and talking on his hands free phone as casually as if he was at home cooking the dinner. Not a huff or a puff out of him. The jealousy I felt of his fitness and posture (lovely knees -perfectly aligned) sent me into a such a fit of inadequacy and despondency that I was almost ground to a halt. Then I saw one of the lechers making to go down on one knee and I quickly thought the better of it.

In home news: Omelettus Interruptus! Following more door banging accusations, Mrs. G. took exception to my omelette making technique and insisted that browning the top of it under the grill was illegal in most civilised countries and considered a crime against pot and person. I sulkily scrambled my omelette and engaged in high level huffing and puffing. Omelettes that is not omelettes is not the same. Interestingly, I didn’t mind her reproaches a single bit -such an exchange would normally have me cringing in shame and in a three day spiral of guilt, but happily the effect of someone sounding off in French is much less pronounced! Additionally, I secretly note the incident for blogging purposes and it becomes not an awkward social situation but inspiration and ammunition. Also, having overheard her continuing a phone conversation through the entirety of a visit to the toilet (unashamedly I might add -she even flushed!), I am not too bothered about Mrs. G’s definitions of what is and isn’t appropriate… Only three days left here though, so I’ll carry on regardless.

 

Cider swilling and culture

It’s Monday morning, and I’m on the tram, as usual, seeking entertainment and inspiration. As always, the tram doesn’t disappoint. A young guy has just boarded, and has met his friend. The friend asks, “T’as bien dormis?” (Has he slept well?). Our protagonist takes massive umbrage at this mild and mannerly enquiry about his health, and starts gesticulating pointedly at his face, having taken the question as a direct accusation of having not very bien dormis. Jaysis. You couldn’t keep up with the wide variety ways to insult someone before breakfast in this country.

I don’t feel as if I have very bien dormis myself as it happens. After a complete disaster of an attempt to socialise, I wasn’t much at ease before going to sleep last night. I had agreed to meet the Spanish ‘translationist’ of the wine tasting event, who quite randomly messaged me to see if I would like to meet her and an American friend to see a movie. Her name is Gabriela and she is very talented at sending rapid fire Facebook messages in French. She has usually launched six at me in the space of time it’s taken me to cobble together two sentences. Of course I have to run all my messages through Google Translate prior to sending, which doesn’t help time-wise. Additionally, I must adhere to my very strict rule about making an attempt in French first and then translating back for corrections -partially as a language exercise and partially to avoid sounding like a half-wit, which is the fate of those who foolishly believe Google Translate to actually translate things for them. It’s kind of like a sat nav -a handy tool to have in an emergency, but must be use with an element of reflective practice. As we all know only too well, a trip to a nearby attraction in County Kerry could easily take you on a fun filled spree through Boris-in-Ossery. And unless you’re on the bus to Dublin in 1992 and dying for a wee, NOBODY wants to be in Boris-in-Ossery.

But I digress. Gabriela arrived twenty minutes late for the film, leaving me and what turned out to be a very conservative American to find each other -without each others’ names, numbers or any other identifying variables. However, my nervous and abrupt head-turning in the queue marked me out as an étranger, and Rachel the Republican found me. Now in fairness to Rachel, it’s not like she was wearing a Donald Trump t-shirt or anything, but she tutted her way through the film, disapproving loudly at swear words and sex references. Which comprised of pretty much the entire screenplay. Immediately after the movie (Gabriela did eventually show up), the two agreed it was too late for staying around for the chats and actually started Sprinting, yes Sprinting, for a tram. Having not yet given Rachel the €6.50 for the cinema ticket, I was left with no option but to sprint after them, very nearly ending up carted off by their tram in the vague direction of Timbuktoo. Or its French equivalent at the very least. Jeebus. Starting to suspect that Gabriela is a mad thing.

I could be just tired after the whole weekend though, which was busy. The visit to Lyon was very enjoyable, but tiring. So tiring in fact that upon my return “home”, I was assailed with a sudden and insatiable thirst for cider, so I quickly made arrangements to call to the Hungarian and her boyfriend with the French equivalent of a bag of cans. Except we’re French now and we drink cider from fancy bottles, even if they did cost €1.80 in Monoprix. I think her boyfriend, Francois, who is genuinely French, was slightly shocked at the pace at which his lovely girlfriend and I could get through said bottles, but all in all we passed a very pleasant evening, comparing phrases and sayings in English, Irish, French and Hungarian. The Hungarian ones related mainly to goats and cabbages. Telling. In fact comparisons were far
more readily made between Hungarian and Irish, both of which have evaded contamination by American TV, and have resultantly maintained their histories and cultures within their respective languages. Although the goats and the cabbages seem to be still very real in the lives of Hungarians! I learned a lot about the origin of a number of phrases in English, their meaning having been lost on me due to disconnection from the world of their origins -for example, “the hair of the dog”. Francois also taught me about the origins of the two fingered ‘salute’ -I had thought this was a universal ‘fuck you’, but apparently it has its origins with English bowmen, who had their index and middle fingers cut off  when they were captured by the French, to render them incapable of using their weapons. To show two fingers thus became a sign of revolt, and of ‘fuck you, I can still shoot at you’. The things you can learn at a cider swilling soirée.

So France is definitely widening my cultural experience, but in a more easterly direction than I had anticipated! I also learned a phrase from the Russian during our trip to Lyon that reveals an awful lot about any Svetlanas who have previously crossed my path -in Russia apparently “A smile for no reason is a sign of a fool”. Yes. Ve are verry heppy to meet yoo, but ve theenk yoo or all greening eediots foo kennot hold yoor wodkas. By comparison to my sensitive co-tram-taker I imagine the Russians are somewhat less easily offended. Cultural studies continue!