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.

Dopamine, serotonin, and of course, coffee….

The coffee quest continues. I have vacated the premises to give Mrs. G. and her daughter their space (she’s visiting for the weekend) and have installed myself in a very nice nearby café, with my iPad and a crossword. Today I tried my careful explanation again, and the very friendly girl working here assured me that it was a double noisette I was looking for. However, the caffeine induced shakes and double vision I am now experiencing suggest that she has in fact given me a double espresso, with a bit of foamed milk. It’s not what I wanted, but it’s getting closer!!

Today is all about preparing for the Paris/Amsterdam trip. Much Googlisation is in order. I plan to do this in English as I have dutifully done my bit for French acquisition today, by listening to my new favourite radio station -France Bleu Isère 98.2. This morning I listened to a fascinating expert-advice show addressing the very serious issues faced by French ladies in their encounters with stray cats. Apparently stray cats are creating quite the social problem here, to the extent that the vice president of the organisation for stray cats (no,I definitely did not misunderstand) was given a prime time Saturday morning slot on the radio. (The actual president was no doubt too busy discussing the matter with Ban Ki-moon). As far as I could follow, the advice was neuter, neuter, neuter. Not sure how this took a half an hour to establish, but there you go.

 

PM
Having started a bit of organisation for the holiday and suitably relaxed myself, I decided that the weather was fine enough for a ramble into the centre-ville. This, of course, was not before yet another cooking related scuffle with Mrs. G., who now regards my every move in her kitchen with suspicion. What was I doing with the grill? And how long was it going to take to make my toast? And oh mon dieu is it burning? No, calm the hormones, Mrs. G. I’m 32 years old. I’ve made toast before. However, you are nearly sixty and you still don’t own a toaster. One nil to me, I think you’ll find. (Says she whose French crockery collection amounts to a plastic cup and a free wine glass). Still we had a nice chat, even if she did become apoplectic when I explained that the Chinese girls in my French class are all convinced they are losing their hair since they came to France. No this is true, they are all convinced of it and keep showing me their hairlines, which they believe to be receding!!! One of them told me that she had been warned of this affliction before she came here, and hadn’t believed it until it happened! To be honest I can’t say for sure whether it is happening or not, but they are very adamant. However, Mrs. G. is having none of it, and practically spat fire when I suggested that it could have been the change in diet that brought it on, what with the Chinoises typically being unused to dairy products. Maybe they’ve hit the camembert big style, and their little systems aren’t able for it. However, Mrs. G. took this as a personal affront and what followed could only be described as a diatribe condemning China, it’s food, it’s pollution, and it’s general inferiority to all things French. She may have a point though -it does seem unlikely that a bit of cheese would make your hair fall out. But try telling that to my poor balding classmates. Nonetheless, we reconciled our differences, and she is now pimping out her poor daughter to me for social outings. It remains to be seen how her daughter will feel about this, but we may just have a hiking date on Monday.

The ramble in the centre-ville I must say was extremely enjoyable. The town was hopping and I spent a very happy hour and a half exploring cobbled streets and lane ways that I hadn’t found before, taking in the ambiance and casually glancing in the windows of potential workplaces. There’s a crêperie I have been eyeing up, but that is a project for another day. Yesterday’s trepidation has suddenly given way to a great sense of freedom and possibility, akin to the excitement I felt when I first arrived here. The uncertainty is almost intoxicating. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet, but it’s going to be NEW. And I like that.

I am not sure when I became so addicted to this feeling of possibility, but I am very much in the grip of its seduction. I often think of a film I saw a year or two ago called The Age of Adaline. In this film, the main character, Adaline, gets somehow infused with electricity (I am never good with details -more of a vague ideas kind of person..) and becomes incapable of ageing, staying young and beautiful forever. There’s lots in the film, but I remember that what really struck me was that she became completely jaded by what life had to offer. Her youth and beauty lost its appeal, because she had seen it all before. It highlighted the fact that life’s pleasures are made all the more pleasurable maybe because they are time limited. But I have identified with the idea recently in a new way. It relates in a way back to a diagram I saw once in a book that I have now lost, the name of which I cannot remember, malheureusement. But the diagram illustrated the idea that we have drives towards different social and emotional goals at different stages of life. For example, babies and infants are driven to make the strongest connections with their parents in the early years, and this remains the case throughout much of childhood. In adolescence, the peer group becomes the most important social bond, and all of your energies are poured into fitting in at all costs. (These costs can be quite high, as anyone who ever became a goth and hung around Paul Street in long black coats will eventually admit). In your twenties, the strongest drive is to find a partner and probably to start a family. After that unfortunately, my memory fails me, and I would dearly love to find this diagram again, as I am dying to find out what is driving me now! However, I have my suspicions. At each stage of life, you get the greatest pleasure from things that move you, or have the potential to move you towards your goals, and your hormones and brain chemicals assist you in ensuring that this happens, with goodly doses of dopamine and seratonin. However, it is roughly age related, and I am not convinced that the hormones hang around for you, if you are a bit slow on the uptake in getting these goals met. So although I am now in my thirties, I am still single, and therefore living the life of someone in their twenties.. But recently i have been reflecting that maybe, if you spend too long in any one phase -regardless of how much fun it is -maybe, like Adaline, you just get a bit bored of it. And perhaps it is this fatigue that gives rise to restlessness, and leads someone who only ever dreamt of a house on the hill above the River Lee (who couldn’t understand why you would ever leave the country when obliging travel writers and documentary makers had done it for you), to find herself gleefully, joblessly and directionlessly gadding around France like a love-struck teenager. But maybe I’m over thinking it….

The stroll around town was almost like a mindfulness exercise -just taking the time to notice what’s around me. Now as my close friends and family will enthusiastically assure you, I am not known for my skills of observation. I once stood for five full minutes in a room in my own house, before realising that there was a large motorbike in the centre of the room. Which had never been there before. Yes. However, I would argue the point that I am observant, but just with more focus than is considered strictly normal. If you go shopping with me, and if you tell me that you are looking for a grey woolly cardigan (it might be the winter time and you may want some comfort clothes), I will, within five minutes flat, have sought out every single grey woolly cardigan that is to be had in that particular shop or market. However, I will register the presence of absolutely nothing else on my mission. If I am walking to a particular destination, for example, a particular shop or restaurant, then my head is focused on finding that shop and that shop only, and no other establishment along the route will exist for me. I am too busy with my own thoughts. Typically, I find what is going on inside my head to be much more diverting than what is going on outside of it. However, I do have to work on marrying the two, because that is when the magic happens.. If you ever happen to read the book The Tailor and Ansty, you will meet the famous Tailor of Garrynapeaka, who often commented that the truly wise people are those who look around them and learn from what they see. The Tailor saw very little in his life, and yet learned a huge amount from it. He had nothing but contempt for people who were privileged enough to have a very wide experience or education, but didn’t seem to look around them. In this age of cheap flights and easy travel, we are all surely guilty of this, but me more than most. So my venture around town can be taken as a step in the direction of reflection and learning. All in all, I have concluded that a day in which, to the untrained eye, I appear to have achieved very little, can be claimed to be a good days work. Or maybe I just drank too much coffee and wandered around with my head in the clouds.. You decide!

Thin slices of joy. Very thin.

I’ve just read an article stating that ‘thin slices of joy matter’ -we should be taking the time to notice and appreciate the small reliefs, sensations and pleasures of everyday life. Apparently you get better at this as you get older, but today must surely be proof of my ongoing youth. Firstly, there is absolutely no joy whatsoever in this plate of mush I have served up to myself. Apparently the French don’t eat the same kinds of beans we do, and my longing for beans on toast has to satisfy itself with some kind of sugar free mulch and gluten free pain au cardboard. Washed down by another coffee attempt -this time I appear to have ended up with a lukewarm double espresso. It is all most disgusting. But in general, it’s been a bad oul morning. I’ve made four unsuccessful attempts to contact Objets Trouvés (lost and found) in the town hall, only to be told to call back in five minutes three times, and to have a very confusing exchange of wrong numbers on the fourth. I traipsed back to the train station to discover that Objets Trouvés there is only open during a two hour window in the mornings, because of the holidays. The credit card is doomed.

However, there are some advantages to despondency. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that men sense vulnerability, and they effing LOVE it. As I exited the train station, feeling miserable and defeated, one of the hottest men in history started eyeballing me. I took no notice, until it happened three more times in the ensuing hour -different guys each time. Apparently, to attract a man, I need more pain, misery and loneliness in my life! However, having identified the solution, I’m not sure I can implement it with any degree of success -you can’t fake that shit. Still, having noticed of late far too much ‘madame-ing’ and not enough ‘madamoiselle-ing’, I’ll take what I can get in the ego boosting stakes.

So today is the last day of the course, and I am about to become officially direction-less. Now that my life has no purpose, I am a bit unnerved. Additionally, it is the Jazz Weekend at home. Now I may not have mentioned this before, but I LOVE the Jazz Weekend. To me, it is better than Christmas -all the fun and none of the hype -and I have genuine affection for it. So when I rang my bestie at 5:30, I was nothing short of devastated to hear that she is already in a pub with all of our friends. In one of my favourite pubs, as it happens, where there is a fire and crosswords on the tables. The crosswords were a step too far. I may never forgive that pub. This Amsterdam trip next week is well-timed.

The day has however been somewhat redeemed by getting good marks in the course -I didn’t even know they were assessing us, but apparently so! My oral comprehension an expression are reportedly coming along very well, although my written expression is betraying my cavalier approach to anything that resembles grammar or structure. What care I for pronouns! If I even knew what they were.. Still, big teacher’s pet that I am, I got 20/20 for ‘travail’, working hard. (Thin slices of joy you say…) It feels a bit like a medal for participation, but I’ll take it! I’ll even go one further, and I’ll put it on my CV is what I’ll do. Hopefully this will distract potential employers from the spelling errors, and enlighten them to the fact that there is very little report-writing involved in smiling at people and serving coffees. I might have to work on the smiling…

 

The sadness of salad

12:10
I’m in the university cafeteria, and regretting a sudden fit of recklessness, in which I deviated from the norm and ordered a new kind of salad. It is 4% tuna, 96% raw carrot. Given my historic fondness for extreme dieting, I am well aware of what this means. Juice diets (nothing but fruit), paleo diets (anything but fruit!), low carb, unlimited carbs (the mystery of Slimming World), low calorie, high protein + lifting things -I’ve tried them all. And committed to them all individually with a determination, rigidity and vehemence that can only be sustained for about three weeks. And which is invariably followed by a 6 month guzzle fest. And once I’ve loosened the reins on myself, my inner savage comes bursting out, with a whirlwind appetite for wine and chocolate. So in conclusion, I’ve met raw carrots before, and I’m wise to their trickery. They have a sustenance quotient of about 4.7 seconds. They insist you are full, and bravely refuse additional nutrition, only to turn around five minutes later, cup their hands behind their ears and say “haaaaah haa, only joking”. It’s set to be a long afternoon..

 

16:50
Said afternoon was spent, incidentally, in the laboratoire with Classe B2.5, where we generally put on our headphones and pretend we are on the phone, causing logistical problems for one another. If I get any better at emulating an unhelpful slacker in after-sales-service, I am sure to be head hunted by a large multinational. We spent more time on our /b/s and /p/s, and afterwards some on our /d/s and /t/s. Nothing to do with /d/elirium /t/remens, but if you could get these by boredom, I would have them. Amusingly, we record ourselves so we can listen back afterwards to how we’re doing. My very audible sighs meant it became difficult to tell whether the playback was my own voice or whether someone had invited Darth Vader to the language lab. I’m not sure whether it was the Chinoises or the chstarvation.