Wednesday, September 21, 2011

La rentrée

So this past weekend, I went out on Friday night, got absolutely shit-faced, cycled home in a blur, fell asleep, woke up at 3pm on Saturday, read for a few hours, then went out to an African themed party at the residence, with my new 'residence friends'. I got to try some African food, these spicy meatballs covered in what appeared to be some sort of mango chutney, along with these fried banana pieces in a sticky spice mixture. Absolutely delicious!
They put on some music, but I drew the line at dancing along to it. I'm fine thrashing away to typical white music, but there is no way in hell I'm going to get up there, swinging my distended skinny limbs around the place, when I'm surrounded by buxom, glossy-skinned African beauties with BOOTYS. As it happened, I was the only white girl there, which I thought was interesting: why? A guy came up to me, and was really concerned about something on my shoulder.
"Your shoulder, are you okay? What's wrong with it?"
Eh? You what, love?
I turned my head and tried to see. It was just your basic bog standard mysterious red blotch which those of you with pathetically transparent skin will understand. One of those things that appears for no good reason, and then disappears. I spent the next half hour reassuring him that I wasn't ill. That I was going to live.

On Monday, I had my first class. We started off with a meeting at 9am, to introduce us to the school and how things were gunna work 'round here. I had been woken at 6am by an incredibly intense dream, in which I lied to the police, my Mutti was panicking with me trying to hide me in the house. In the distance, I could hear the sirens, and suddenly, I was stung on the hand by an enormous wasp, and woke up feeling a serious pain in my palm. Turns out the siren was an actual ambulance going past in the street, and the wasp fantasy was just the fact that the motorbikes rushing past have that whiny insect sound. Nevertheless, I was awake, so I got up. Shoved some breakfast down my face, and headed out in good time.
The meeting was fairly interesting, and didn't last too long. I'm under the impression the head of department is English, but difficult to tell. We got given our timetables, and I have 16 hours in total, which is a massive step-up from my 'doing fuck all' life of yesteryear. That afternoon, I had my first class: French-English translation (as opposed to Eng-Fre of which I have 4 hours a week). The guy taking the class was English and seemed quite nice. The word I would use to describe him is: bumbling. I was on the edge of my seat half the time, nodding encouragingly, lifting my chin in anticipation, willing him on to finish the sentence. He latched on to me and this other girl as the only two anglophones in the class, which was quite sweet, if a little embarrassing. There was one guy in the class, a Romanian guy we shall hence forth call 'A', who was extremely endearing, and apparantly a bit eccentric. Very eager, and seems to have an almost photographic memory. The teacher would make a throwaway comment, eg:
"Interesting, you use the word 'cool'...I suppose I'm not au fait with the current British lingo anymore"
And in A would pop, with:
"In actual fact, the word 'cool' in its modern sense was coined in the early 20s. Due to an influx of....." and so he went on, whilst the rest of us watched on, mouths hanging open, intrigued. 'A' wears white polo t-shirts (is that what you call them?) with an ironed collar, over slacks and under jumpers in muted shades. His hair is parted. Brilliant!

So intrigued was I, that yesterday, as I sat outside the building waiting for my I.T. class (more on that little gem later), I saw him go in and called out to him. We chatted for a bit, and it turns out he lives up round my area - the ghetto, as other people seem to see it as, due to its outskirtish nature and mainly student population. Half way through our conversation, I asked him if he knows my name, because I don't remember his.
"Of course", he smiled. "[My first name.]. [First name] [Last name]"
Jesus Christ! The guy knows all the class lists and who's who! Unbelievable, and again, intriguing!
What's been interesting me lately, is how other people have the power to make you feel a certain way. Perhaps I am alone in this, but I feel like my whole being changes depending on who is around me. With some people, I feel like a strident maniac. Around others, I feel myself recoil, my voice becoming almost shy and unsure. Some people make me feel like I have to lead and be in charge. Some people make me feel girlish and superficial. Others make me feel butch. Some people make me feel stupid, others make me feel irritatingly pompous. Answer me this, readers: does this happen to you as well? There are very few people who I can be around, and feel, simply, myself. This A guy made me feel extremely comfortable and at ease, and he seemed to be a very generous and kind spirit. He came with me to collect my student card from the office, and as I was screwing around trying to open the enveloppe, he took my stuff off me so I could do it properly. I really appreciate little gestures like that. Then he was craning his neck trying to read the blurb, and had a few questions about how to register, how to get a French phone, etc. I just found him very touching.

We went back outside and waited for the IT teacher to arrive. Yes, you read correctly. We have 2 hours every other week, of learning to 'use word processing equipment properly'. What this means, as is later revealed, we are learning all the little hidden quirks of Word. I mean, fair enough. Like everyone else, I struggle with the thing at times, finding exactly what tool I want to use, and just learning to live with those fucking mystery occurances (for example, when you start typing, and out of nowhere, as you type, it starts eating up all the words you've already written. WHY?!). Sure, it's great if I can learn to stop all those things from happening (as we did in class the other day), but is it really ESSENTIAL? Anyhow, the teacher is a pretty wacky matter-of-fact woman, who I like. She has dyed red hair, with one side longer than the other, wears bright cardigans, has nail art, and is in her 50s. She uses a few cultural shockers, such as calling a type of quotation marks 'gillemets negre', which was a little odd, and then when talking about Microsoft Office packages versus Open Office, said:
"But I mean, if you like Open Office better, then go for it. I'm only racist by ignorance". Hmm. Interesting!

As we sat down at our computers, 'A' was in front of me, and his computer started beeping like one of those heart machines attached to a dying person. Nervously he looked around, and realized he had no mouse, so I whispered to him, "there's one at the back". I meant, 'just change computer mate', but no, he got up and disconnected the mouse from the other computer, came and sat back down, replugged it in, and the beeping continued. I felt especially bad when latecomers came in and sat at the back, and when we began actually using the machines started bleating 'Madame, someone has taken our mouse! We have no mouse!' Poor A just sank lower into his chair, and I felt as if I had caused the whole debacle, whilst simultaneously being amused by it. A reminded me of those characters in films who are held responsible for some horrible event, but are unable to express that their error was made in ignorance, not evillness, and so eventually get hunted down and murdered by the townspeople.

So I'm now half way through the working week. My next class is at 5.30pm (I know!) until 7.30pm, after which I shall retire to the student restaurant, and eat and drink my fill for a mere €3. I am enjoying it here!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The tarte flambée club and the hypochondriac's guide to self-healing

For about 4 or 5 years now, I have sporadically yet regularly woken to find my face afflicted by a beast of a blemish. There is only ever one of them, about every 1-2 months. The thing starts as a tingle, and then over the course of a few hours, develops into a massive, subterranean welt - albeit an easily disguisable by make-up, welt. It hovers there, an angry looking lump, with no head to pop, no visible orifice from which to squeeze what I assume is a wealth of pungent pus just waiting to be let out. The thing gets massive, maybe the size of a kidney bean, and can take up to two weeks to disappear. It reacts to nothing, no product is mighty enough to shift its weighty presence. From my frantic internet searches, I can only assume it is a form of cystic acne, although because of its only occasional appearances, I don't consider it to be something worth worrying too much about.

Except that now, as a fully-functioning member of French society, I am entitled to go and see a doctor and get reimbursed. I did consider this. I wonder how pissed off doctors get when these days you waltz into the clinic, make yourself comfortable, and say: "Right, well in my opinion it seems to be a sort of cystic acne, possible nodular although I'm not sure it reaches the stage where it could be considered nodular in the strict sense of the condition, per se..." I thought about making a trip to the dermatologue, since many French women just casually slip into the dermotologist's every now and then for an acid face peel or for a consultation because they're worried about a few blackheads around their nose, and have no qualms about getting reimbursed by the state for this, because let's face it, how your skin looks can be possibly considered taking care of your mental health. However, true to the general character of my weak-chinned and thin-blooded nation, I displayed a certain level of foolish stoicism, and proceeded to cure myself of the affliction on my own. I mean, once you start going to the dermatologist for stuff like this, what comes next? Buying a poodle and getting it's hair chemically straightened once a week at the local pooch parlour? Making appointments to see my nutriotionist because of a potential wheat imbalance? Checking myself into spas to 'deal with my stress' (which is apparantly, again, reimbursed by the sate, if you have been sent to said spa by your GP). No!
I cured my subcutaneous chaperone by using a clay mask on it 3 times a day (just that part of skin, too drying for the rest), and then icing it until I felt like I only had half a face. It's taken about three days, but is definitely on it's way out now. Hope you enjoyed your holiday ON MY FACE. Now get your shit together, and GEDDOUT!

Anyway, in other exciting news...last night I decided on an impulse to join a few other people in the residence on an impromptu trip to the student restaurant for some tartes flambées. (Aside note: My diet over the past 2 weeks has consisted of variations on these basic ingredients:
  • lardons
  • cheese
  • cream
I've made carbonara (pasta), eaten it on tartes flambees (dough) and have made a stellar tartiflette, without the help of an oven (potato). I have basically eaten these ingredients with almost every carbohydrate known to man.)
I wasn't sure whether I really wanted to go to this thing. I envisaged a group of 19 year-olds, fresh-faced and eager, and myself, 24, cyst-faced and jaded. I made some sugared popcorn to help myself decide. I burnt the popcorn, and took that as a sign. I stepped out of the studio, locked the door, walked down the corridor, and there in front of me, lay one of those little foam armchairs that fold out into a mattress. On it, was taped a piece of paper with the words: 'A prendre'. What unbelievable luck, I thought to myself. What a stroke of good grace, a sign from God himself, for this sort of fruitful twist of fate rarely happens to me. Although, as Vatti would point out - it's that sort of negative thinking that MAKES it not happen to me. Like a furtive, spritely little crab, I grabbed it, and scuttled back to my room. Leaving the room, take 2. This time, I made it down the stairs, saw several people clustered around the post boxes, and said "Is this the tarte flambee club?", and so the evening began.

They took the tram whilst I cycled in, and MAN is biking faster than public transport. I was there a good 15 minutes before they arrived. After a slight kerfuffle over paying methods (to use the student restaurant, subsidised by the government, of which there are many in Strasbourg, you need to pay using your 'top up' student card. Me and two of the others don't have ours yet, so there was some exchanging of money and logistical ponderings, before we walked through the spinning glass door of the RU). Allow me to mention just how great these student restaurants are. Here in Strasbourg, you get a three-course meal for €3.05. That's including a salad, a hot main course, a dessert, some cheese and a drink. Just brilliant. We decided to go for the deal of the day, which was a pitcher of beer and a tarte flambee for €5. The guy who had organised this meet-up is the sort of person who always inspires awe in me, simply due to his generosity of the spirit. I'm sure everyone has met a few people like this: this guy, let's call him P, has no need of new friends, having been born here, and yet took the time out to set this up for all the lost souls in the residence, and spent the rest of the evening making sure everyone was alright, and feeling part of the group, and had been engaged in the conversation. I admire those people, because for whatever reason (Insecurity? Shyness? A lack of social charisma? Laziness?) most of us do not quite go to the same extent. It was interesting to meet this guy, because despite having been born here and being, for all intents and purposes, French, his mother is English and his father American, so he is bilingual, and, like me,  only returned to England as an adult to do is undergraduate degree. It meant we had a lot to discuss, and I felt like he understood where I was coming from. Like me, he had also spent a good few years 'fucking around' before starting his Masters, in various ways, although I'm not sure he ever told me doing what, exactly.

After we'd eaten and downed a bladder-bursting amount of beer, they got back on the tram to the residence, and I cycled off to make a pit stop at Marcel's. He brought out a bottle of wine I had left there last weekend and had neglected to finish, and we sat under a tree, having a right old merry laugh, as I swigged down the wine, almost cutting my mouth on the metallic plastic that was still around the neck (charming - face cysts, and a cut mouth. Any takers?), and I felt so happy in that moment, like I was beginning to find a place here, as I cycled  slalomed my way home, almost slamming into an unfortunately positioned traffic cone, before sauntering up to my bed and falling into a blissful sleep.

P.S.: I decided to be all ecological and order school copy books off the internet from some green company who sell really cheap, recycled stationary. Perfect. Except it took 13 days to come, as opposed to the promised 5, and when it did, I only had one copy book instead of 5 (although this single book came in an absolutely HUGE cardboard box. 'Green', hmm?), with a hand-written note attached saying "Sorry! We ran out...". The note was signed with a red rubber stamp of a heart. Well, thanks for the love, but if you want me to save the bloody planet, you better make it easy for me to do so, because otherwise I am going STRAIGHT out there, back to my consumerist, capitalist ways, to purchase stationary of the nice, shiny, bleached, freshly-stripped-from-the-tree, took-10-days-in-a-plane variety.

Monday, September 12, 2011


I seem to have spent a lot of my time defending America to my fellow Europeans, and with good reason. The attitude expressed against Americans is one of loathing in the face of American heavy-handedness- they are self-centred, ignorant to the rest of the world, taking what they want whilst condemning other nations for war crimes, stomping into our countries and terrorising us with their franchises and television. Let's not forget that many European couuntries did exactly the same not so long ago. It was called colonialism. Lately, I've been reading up on my own country's despicable actions towards Ireland (amongst many, many others) and how they dealt with the potato famine over there. So Europeans may well take a sanctimonious and disapproving approach to America's politics, but it wasn't so long ago they were up to similar sort of stuff. Let's also not forget that globalization can only occur following a philosophy of demand and supply. You can't bitch about America 'forcing' Burger King on us when we basically are all gagging for the Summer BBQ Whopper and onion rings. Europe is like a pathetic slag, staggering home in one cheap stiletto, throwing up into her own bargain basement push-up bra, screeching "he got me drunk!". You got yourself drunk. You may have been facilitated, but you did it to yourself.

Having said that, and I know that I am a day late with this pondering, but one thing about American culture (a fairly recent addition to America culture) I just cannot physically stomach, is the reaction to 9/11. Here we go, another year, another saccharine round of Facebook statuses and pop prayers. People utterly unconcerned with world events and the monstrosities of the world we live in have suddenly developped big, watery-eyed hearts and self-effacing voices. Where were you when it happened? How did YOU feel? Because it often seems that American society is based on the YOU. How did the tragedy make YOU personally feel? Not what consequences does it have for our society or our economy or our community make-up, but how have YOU, important YOU, digested this event, and are you feeling bad enough about it?

It has been said over and over again, and let's face it, nothing anyone ever says is going to change the way the whole nation have chosen to deal with this human tragedy, but: is America not aware of the absolute horrors it has wreaked the world over? "Yeah, I get that, but it doesn't take away from what happened on 9/11," the American you're discussing it with might drawl casually. No. You're right. It doesn't. But why don't you have a bit more respect for the world you live in and the world you inhabit, and stop throwing your sobs in everyone's faces, when you've drowned out other countries' sobbing YOU have caused?

It's true that when 9/11 occured, it was one of those jaw-dropping moments, where you feel overwhelmed with sadness and terror and anger at what has happened. For Americans, because it happened in their backyard. For Europeans, because it made us all think: "America is not infallible. If this can happen in AMERICA, in AMERICA of all places, what the HELL is going to happen to the rest of us?". And yet we forget that the British Isles has suffered internal IRA terrorism attacks for many decades now. We forget about ETA in the Basque country. We indulge America's paranoia and gratuitous self-pity and romanticised sorrow, forgetting about WW1 and Nazi Germany, forgetting about Kosovo and the destruction of the Balkans and the troubles in Northern Ireland. We forget that we, Europe, as a continent, have been touched by all of this in the last 100 years: two world wars, terrorism, regional warfare, all within our own tiny continent, whilst America has yet to suffer anything of the kind. Perhaps there it is, that which is so guiltily grating - the idea that the world has suffered at the hands of the bestiality of what mankind is capable of, and yet somehow America has escaped this fate, whilst having no qualms regarding imposing the fate on others. No army has reached American soil in recent history. No terror of foreign dominance has lapped at America's shores. Perhaps this is where the hysteria concerning 9/11, the cinematic proportions of the emotion bestowed on this one event, a decade later, comes from. In the same way that so many Americans you meet cling to a particular nationality ("I'm Irish", or "I'm Polish") to procur themselves some wispy sense of identity in a grander scheme, perhaps this attachment to the memory of 9/11 is burrowed deeper into the American psyche than we (or even they themselves) realize: perhaps to hold firmly onto the terror of 9/11, as opposed to remembering it but moving on, is to give themselves that which they have never had - a sense of victimhood ("see! We're not just bad guys! We can be hard done by too!") which draws them closer to being a nation with a past. America, the youngest country in the world in many ways, through 9/11, now has a richer history, a history that could only be fully complete with a chapter on "Suffering".

I'm sure that Americans do still feel some fear. But really? Do they? Do they live with daily fear of a terrorist attack? I find it very difficult to believe that the vast majority of Americans are sitting in their houses, paralysed with panic and anguish at the prospect of terrorism striking them down. I find it difficult to understand because there were the 7/7 terrorist bombs in London too, but I don't know a single British person who now lives with an under-lying concern of terrorism. It doesn't even cross my mind when I've been on the underground. Granted, the casualties in London were ''only'' of 52 people, but I'm fairly sure the American reaction would have been the same, had the death toll been 52 or close to 3,000, as it was for 9/11. And 52 or 3,000: what does it matter? Deaths are deaths. Deaths by terrorism, are deaths by terrorism.

Still - to those families who lost someone on that fateful day, I sincerley wish them strength in finding peace in themselves, because no matter what analysis we throw on it, it WAS a terrible thing. I'd also like to say that I hope I haven't hurt any feelings. These are, after all, only my personal ramblings, and like most of my ideas, aren't particularly fully-formed. Not being American myself, it is very possible I haven't grasped the true emotion behind 9/11. Unfortunately, as for all of us on a multitude of topics, I have only the media and my own instincts to rely on.

If any American readers care to share their thoughts, then feel free!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In which I read some books, get even with the Algerians, and get hit on by a lesbian

Alrighty fellas, in a nutshell, voila a few things that have been going down since I last posted:
  • Last night went out with some of my 'friends' here (strange: we went out again tonight, and I'm beginning to settle into what I imagine one might term a 'friendship' with these people).
  • Marcel's place has become a sort of stepping stone between 'town' and my place. It's situated just behind the uni, so basically exactly midway between the two. Most nights, whether I've been out with him or not, I'll send him a text and drop by, or accompany him to his before heading on. A great thing I've discovered about Marcel, is that although he may not be the "fuck yeah!!11 Let's PARTAY!" type, he has a knack for concealing hidden talents. Ever since I picked up a backpack on leboncoin and told him about my amazing find, he has become obsessed with the website, and will often tell me he "can't tonight, I've got to go and pick up a lamp". One of his talents, is he seems to be pretty good with DIY. He found some old planks and turned them into shelves for his (shit) wardrobe. I showed up this evening on my way back from a few drinks, and we sat on his doorstep, as we normally do, and he produced juice and freshly made coffee cake. Excellent. Just the sort of fuel I need for my laborious cycle home. I say laborious, but in all honesty, the novelty hasn't worn off. I love that bike, and getting on it is never a chore, however tired I may be feeling (read: however wasted. Nearly mowed an old man down the other day. lulz!)
  • Cleaning up this shit hole of a room. One thing I'll say for myself, is I'm not lacking in imagination. It's what makes me so paranoid about, say, being left at home alone. Unfortunately, it also means I often have 'memories' that I cannot say are 100% accurate, because I wonder if over time I have embellished the truth slightly. I do have a fairly confident belief in the memory of my mother shrieking that my sister and I's shared bedroom looked 'like a brothel' once. And most days, as I gaze around my studio, I realize that in 10 years, nothing much has changed. The place does look like a whorehouse. The worst part is, I do regular damage control initiatives, putting on 'inspiring' tunes and blitzing the place, only to find that 5 minutes later the incense holder is over-flowing with cigarette butts again, and the floor is once again littered with discarded clothes, deemed too staid, or too slutty, or too trampy or too formal, or too teenagery or too thirty-something, or too WHATEVER - just too something, to be worn out of the house. 
Having given you a brief outline of my fascinating activities over the last few days, let's talk about some specifics. Thursday night, as I cycled home, my eyes taking in the airy boulevards and shuffling trees, I heard from behind me a faint yet consistent 'shhh' sound. I began to notice that it was becominjg more and more of a strain to pedal, so got off the bike to realize that my back tyre was punctured. FUCK. Words can't describe how pissed off I was, as I pushed the stupid bastarding thing the 30 minutes back home, resenting every cyclist I passed, glaring icicles as they whooshed past, their tinkling laughs trailing behind them. Obviously no-one else had ever had a puncture before, I was obviously all alone in this situation, the only person in the world to experience this inconvenience. I got the bike home, stomped up the stairs, fell asleep, and the next morning called the guy who sold it to me. Luckily, he's a pretty decent guy and had given me a one month guarantee, so I flung the bike on the tram and headed into the 'petite France' quarter to get it sorted out. He got it all fixed up in under 10 minutes, and I told him that I really wanted to learn to deal with this sort of thing myself, and so he said that in October (this month is his busiest month, understandably...all the students [myself included] want to get their grubby, poor little paws on a bike) he would have me over to his workshop and let me take apart an old bike so I could understand how it works, and then he would show me how to deal with punctures. As someone who has never been very 'manual', and who made the mistake of displaying total disinterest when faced with her father's DIY projects, I am now in the unfortunate position of basically not having a fucking clue on how to do just about most things. Lightbulb changing is something I can do, although tentatively. I feel proud when I open a tin or a bottle of wine. That's the extent of practical things I can do with my hands. So I think it would be pretty interesting to get to grips with something like dealing with bike punctures.

The bike repaired, I headed down to the train station area to join the library. Much to my joy, they had a proper, full English section, a far cry from the meagre collection found in Val. Having spent the past year resigned to taking out Patricia Cornwell novels, or worse, those 'classics' they insist on stocking (I mean, yeah, "Moby Dick" is a literary staple....but who's read it, and more to the point, who actually enjoyed it?), it was a complete and utter pleasure to have a whole new world of books spread out in front of me. Two books I just finished reading are:
  1. "L'étrangere", by Bess Nielsen: the tale of a Danish girl who goes to Algeria aged 16 to marry her charming Algerian husband, who turns out to actually be a massive dick. He tries to force her to become Muslim. She is forced to walk 3 steps behind him, is locked in their flat in Alger, has her child removed from her since it is customary for the first-born son to be given to the grandmother, is emotionally abused by the women of the family, and is forbidden from leaving Algeria without her husband's written permission. I must say, it was pretty enlightening, and made me immediately stop bitching about my punctured tyre. The day after I finished this book, I cycled through the streets of Strasbourg, wind in the proverbial hair, feeling light and so free, free to do anything I set my mind on. There's a little shop run by Algerians on the corner of my street, and they shout and whistle at all the women who go by ('Hey! *whistle* Hey you! My friend wants to talk to you chérie! Come on! Come here!') and I must admit, after reading this book (although I don't want to judge a whole society on one woman's account, I think I trust her), I felt appalled at not only the way they would treat their women, but how they would think it would be acceptable to treat women HERE. Since, I have developped a different technique when dealing with these guys - rather than walk past, eyes lowered, I shout back, nothing in particular, I just whizz past and screech the same incomprehensible animal sound they make to us, and turning the corner I clicked my tongue at them and laughed. Let THEM feel belittled, because I won't.
  2. On a much shitter level, I read "Eat, Pray, Love". What a load of absolute bollocks. I read it because of peer pressure. I feel like every woman on the planet has read it, so I should at least give it a try. If you haven't yet: don't bother. It's not even okay in a casual beach read sense. Dull, self-pitying, self-absorbed, arrogant, and worse of all - not funny. Sounds a bit like this blog, eh? ;) The first part of the book (Italy) was okay. As a self-confessed PIG (had a whole melted camembert this evening, following on from lunch's rich and cheese-laden carbonara....must stop....maybe next week...) I enjoyed hearing about the luscious food and gorgeous men. That's about it though. Particularly hateful part: when she tells us about a gorgeous Italian 20 something guy on a train  hitting on her. Not sure if believe. The second part (India) was I-want-to-slowly-strip-all-my-skin-off-my-body BORING. Do I give a FUCK about your chanting and meditation? No. No I fucking don't. She goes to an Indian temple to sit there and pray for 4 months. She adds a Texan character in there for good measure, but he's neither endearing nor funny. His nickname for her (I find this difficult to believe, btw) is 'Groceries'. Maybe she found it touching and 'we're so close now!' at the time, but....seriously? If your nickname is longer than your actual name and is also a very dull noun, then it ain't a good one. Particularly hateful part: when she goes to see the temple leader (forget technical word for), and tells him she finds one specific daily meditation session boring and would rather not do it. ARE...YOU....FUCKING...KIDDING ME? Last part (Bali), mildly better than second part (although perhaps because nearing end?) in which she goes to the island to essentially leech off a generous old man. She, a rich American writer, is to teach this medicine man English (which she never gets round to doing, natch), and he is to teach her to meditate (which he does, basically out of the kindness of his heart, not seeing a penny for his troubles - which is irritating, since let's face it, the woman is wealthy enough to go fucking around Europe for a year without working). Particularly irritating part: 2 years previously the medicine man had read her palm and had said 'you should come to learn from me in Bali sometime'. So, after 2 years, she rocks on up there, without the least thought that maybe, JUST MAYBE, he might have forgotten who she was. Because no, obviously a mind so perceptive, a spirit so pure, a face so dazzling, could not possibly be forgotten. JESUS CHRIST WOMAN.
Aaaanyway. Where was I? So I suppose I can wrap this post up with a brief account of what I got up to tonight. Headed out with 2 other girls I met, and we ended up in this gay/lesbian bar. The head waitress took a shine to me, and as soon as we walked in said "are you here to pull tonight?" [throaty, bawdy chortle]. We had some pastis, went to pay, and: "Where are you going? You should stay! It's early!". I explained we had no money left, and she said "It doesn't matter! You can pay with your body..." [raucous chortle]. We left, but not before she insisted on kissing my hand. Mkay!

I stopped off at Marcel's, comme d'habitude, and cycled home. As I was putting my bike away, I noticed a guy standing there in the dark listening to music, with bleached blonde hair and a pork pie hat. We greeted each other, and he said he was heading out, but he didn't know where, because he didn;t have any friends. Then we got talking about the pressure and social responsibility of actually having friends, and how we didn't really mind being alone. I sat down for a bit by the bike cage and we finished smoking the end of a spliff he had, whilst listening to some old French classics on his music player thing (how old am I??). I began to think he was slightly and endearingly odd, and here are the reasons why:
  • He kept stroking my arm and hair and saying I was pretty
  • He was delighted that I knew 'Highway to Hell' when it came on (ummm...doesn;t everyone? Maybe not in France?)
  • He loved it when I said (can't remember context) "We aren't limited by anything at all, not even our own universe" (fairly throwaway bullshitty phrase, no?)
  • He kept muttering "What can I do tonight? Who can I see? No one. And I am happy about that."
  • He clung to my arm and said "No! NO!" when I said I had to leave, but also refused to exchange numbers because he said he "didn't want the social pressure of having to get in touch with someone, and anyway, I believe what happens happens in an evening, and doesn't neccessarily have to be a continued thing". I totally got him, and was relieved by that!
Anyway, it made me think: we need to be open to the idea of people not neccessarily acting the way society has deemed normal, or talking about acceptable things, because I can understand where these people are coming from, because my basic instinct is to be similar to them, it's just I have pretty good social intuition and feel more pressure to conform than they do. 'Normal' people are very simply conformists. If we weren't concerned with conforming, we'd all be out and about punching people in the teeth, not speaking to anyone else for days, and sleeping with our best friend's boyfriend. How refreshing to be able to spend these fleeting ephemeral moments with people though. How sad but wonderful at the same time, to remember how different we all are, and yet how similar in our foibles and insecurities. And let us do away with those who judge these people, less 'normal' than the norm. Do away with the people who would mutter a quick 'bonsoir' and then scuttle off into their rooms, especially people our age. Because how desperately sad, that you prefer the comfort and safety of those banal 'around a beer' conversations about "my first impressions of France" and "what I studied at university, and how it makes me better than you", than the wonderful ideas you can get from those who are just ever so slightly 'unhinged'.

Now, I must go to bed. And resist the urge to cook more food beforehand.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In which I meet Yannick

First exciting detail to report - I finally met the infamous Yannick. And guess what guys? He's hot.
This morning, I begrudgingly set the auld alarm for 7.30am, determined to beat the crowds and to head down to the CROUS for when their doors opened. I was ushered into a tiny backroom, and told Yannick would come and find me. Here are a few things that made this experience so much more enjoyable than your normal average French admin experience:
  • It took Yannick less than 60 seconds to come and get me
  • He had my paperwork ready and waiting, and opened our conversation with 'we've been expecting you'
  • He asked me to provide just 2 documents. My passport, and my bank account details.
  • The whole process took ten minutes.
I sat, dazed by the early morning sunshine filtering through the broken blinds, and allowed my mind to wander. I began to ask myself the kind of existential question that torments the mind of any foreign student ploughing their way through the sheafs and deadlines of bureaucracy. What document would I be missing, today? How will I have inadvertently fucked up? What error in my application process will be uncovered, like an oily slug sleeping amongst the leaves of a lettuce? Never fear. There will be no errors, not if Yannick has anything to do with it.
He appeared suddenly, and greeted me. Under his cool green gaze, and due to the early hour of the day, I was unfortuantely only able to express myself by muttering 'Me...Hannah. You...Yannick? Yes? It is?' Anyhow, we stepped into his office, filled out the paperwork, and I walked away with everything sorted.

 Now all I have to do is gather up the courage to slay the giant monster that is the CAF. I submitted all my paperwork which included proof of medical insurance (why? what's it to you? Anyhow, wonderful Yannick sorted that out), a letter stating I can look after myself financially, and proof of the scholarship. Done, done, done. Handed it in, now all I do is sit back, relax, and wait for the whingeing, stuffy "there was a problem with your application..." letter to come through.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

100 % knackered

The biggest piece of information I have to impart is - I got a bike, and am in love with it! Any excuse to get it out, and I do. I'm literally obsessed with it, and with the idea of taking it anywhere I can. Before I go on to describe my biking habits - as I'm sure many of you are desperate to hear about that particular aspect of my life - let me begin by sketching out brief outlines of the 'friends' I have come to acquire over the past 3 days. Before I begin, I'll give you a 'too long - didn't read' breakdown: it's pretty shabby.

  • Marcel - NB: not his actual name, but a name I have chosen to give him due to his grandfatherly like ways. This is a guy I met when sitting the entry exams back in June, along with a second guy (T-Bo), who will be moving down here on the 12th. Anyway, we started chatting, kept in touch, and have basically been spending every day together. For those of you who like to put a face to a name - he's basically really tall, with hair down to his waist, a mad kind of goatee thing (I'm afraid I'm not au fait with men's facial hair terms), and wears stuff from army surplus. Here are a few interesting facts and things about him:
      • He hates bikes with a passion, because they go too fast and are wobbly
      • He is anti-social, apparantly
      • He plays electric guitar
      • He's French
      • He has a pretty shit studio, but it's right next to the university. Seriously, I went to visit this place,'s quite dismal. It's the same kind of structure as mine, except it's ground floor and reaaaally dark, and to get to the bed you climb up this shaky weird ladder, and downstairs is the kitchen, a desk, and a space you can just about turn 360 degrees in. Anyway, this guy seems like a nice, generous person. We've been striding/cycling around town together everyday, setting ourselves objectives ('today, we will fight the CAF system', 'today, we shall locate the book market', 'today, we will find a park that isn't covered in dog shit'). The reason I say in my title that I am physically broken, is due to all of this pavement-pounding. We have literally been covering the town for 4/5/6 hours at a time without stopping, mainly due to getting lost. Not only that, but it also happens to be 30 bloody degrees out here, and I cannot STAND it anymore. Especially when surrounded by golden-skinned cool as a cucumber French women. I'm just standing there, melting into the road, my uncooked-chicken-style English skin slowly fizzing under the beating sun, hair plastered to my head. I caught a glimpse of myself in a car window, and the only adjective that came to mind was 'florid'. Shudder.
    • Erfal: this guy is from Iran, and lives on the same corridor as me. We first met when I was outside having a smoke and he was moving a box into his room - his room, which just so happens to be the worst room in the world. The door faces right onto the fire escape, so basically you get everyone coming in and out all the time. The window faces out onto the main road, so you've got the traffic noise. And it's also right on the corner of the building, so the wall where the bed goes is at an angle, so the bed actually doesn't fit. Nevertheless, he seems like a pretty cheery chap. He comes out to sit with me when he hears me going out for a smoke, which is nice. He's 26 and studying graphic design, but is also working part-time so seems quite busy. He also seems to have this massive group of Iranian friends here in Strasbourg, so obviously when I mentioned shisha off he went, inviting me to a shisha bar his friends go to near the train station. Doesn't sound shady at all. He took me into his room to discuss the angle problem with me ("what is solution? None is here! What can I do, Ali?"). Yes, he seems to think my name is Ali, so this evening I wrote it down on a post-it for him, despite his protests of "but I know your name!" No. No you don't. So he showed me this video he made for his friend who is leaving Strasbourg. He showed me all 8 minutes of it, a photo montage set to a wailing, slit-your-wrists Iranian trad song. 8 minutes is a long time when you're trying to keep smiling. Then he gave me a glass of milk, and I left. This morning, he wanted to know about my bike, and wanted to see it so he could judge whether I paid a good price for it (I had). Then he asked me if I'd used my door key to open the bike shed, to put my bike there where he keeps his. Actually, my key doesn't work in the lock, but I realized that I could fit my child-like wrist through the metal wiring and turn the lock from the other side of the door. He found this hilarious, and went on a "aren't the French just SO fucking stupid?" rant. Then he tried, and his hand fit through too. Conclusion: the bike shed lock is bogus. This evening, I staggered in from yet another day of exhausting physical endeavours. My feet look like the feet of animals: dirty, hoof-like, but hooves with CLAWS. I have these massive weeping blisters on my feet, I mean they look like the feet of an actual tramp (UK meaning, not US). So I dragged myself up the stairs and onto the fire escape, where I had a smoke, and Erfal came out and gave me some peaches, and had a great laugh over today's escapade: me and Marcel left my bike somewhere in town, crawled around under the hot sun like bloated ageing lizards for 3 hours, and then spent 2 bad-tempered hours going round and round that fucking cathedral trying to find the side-street where I left my bike. Everyone we asked for directions was a tourist, and did that big smile "hahaha, I'm a tourist, I can't help you, isn't that funny?" thing that just made me want to punch them in the fanny pack. Erfal enjoyed that story, and much laughter was had. We spoke for a good hour about Arabic and Persian, and how Europeans assume they're the same just because they use the same alphabet and numbers, like how Iranians assume Italian and English is the same. Crazy.
  • UK Girl: here's a new one. There's this English girl coming to be an assistant, and she arrived today. We casually arranged by Facebook to meet for a drink when she got here, except this evening I was checking my messages and saw one that read 'Hi Hannah, this is UK Girl's Mum. She can't get internet working, she's in Strasbourg, here's her number, please text her she wants to meet tomorrow'. Mkay! Soooo: tomorrow I'll be meeting someone new! Will take the bike, bien sur. I'm not gonna lie - having lived with S, I am finding now that I miss being able to speak to someone in my own language, to natter away naturally. I don't want a big gaggle of anglophone friends, it's not what I'm about, the whole cliquey 'brits abroad' scene, would be nice to have someone who understands where I'm coming from culturally, and who you can have that easy relationship with.
So there you have it guys. It always starts off slow when you move somewhere, and cobble together the beginnings of a life. Rest assured that I am exhausted, but vey happy. I will leave you with some images of what I cycle by every day to get home:

The Orangerie park right next to chez moi!

Random EU buildings on the way into town - I can almost smell the over-priced EU-approved packed lunches wafting on the air as I whizz past the men in suits chomping away on those grassy banks

Thursday, September 1, 2011

In which I become the proud owner of a new studio (and a moth phobia)

Well guys, here I am - yours truly is now an established member of the Strasbourg community. The underground, foreign, totally lost and ''wtf''ing their way around town community. Let me take you back, through the mists of time, to 3 days ago.
Vatti arrived in jolly old Val, and it just so happened that on that very day, the town was actually lively. There were people there, in the streets. Some of them were even having fun. And it was all in celebration of the illustrious BinBin, a massive wooden statue of a man that gets paraded around in every town in Northern France, accompanied by a selection of brass bands from around the world. Here's the star himself:
Terrifying, isn't he?
Vatti and I ate at a local brasserie, met S and D for drinks afterwards, and then hit the sack early so as to be fresh-faced and bright-eyed for our big trip the next morning. I spent a rough night tossing and turning, consumed by some sort of eerie anxiety. People say moving gets easier the more times you do it, and I suppose that's true in a sense. I wasn't worried about not being able to manage in Strasbourg, but I felt an unsettled feeling at leaving Val: more because of the people I was leaving behind.
The next day didn't allow much time for wallowing, however. I overslept, and jolted awake to find myself with precisely 20 minutes to haul my ass up to Pa's hotel and direct him to the flat. It was also at this point that I said goodbye to S, which was a sort of hazy moment considering I was definitely not awake by this stage. Vatti and I arrived back at the flat, where he enjoyed a cup of coffee and a chin wag with D, as I raced around stuffing my overflowing piles of pointless shit into plastic carriers, bin bags full of incense and odd socks bursting at the seams, plates and cutlery hastily wrapped up in my old holey jumpers, books and lidless pens gathered up in bed sheets. We threw everything into the car, and away we went!

The drive up to Strasbourg was long, although luckily we had the company of Maura O'Connell and the German GPS woman. At around 11, both Vatti and I suddenly started fantasizing about getting a McDonald's, our eyes desperately searching for a glimpse of some golden arches up in the distance, as we regaled each other with images of Egg McMuffins and sausage burgers. In fact, 'La Croissanterie' seems to reign supreme on French motorway rest points, and the idea of biting the claw off a stale, dry croissant was about as appealing as...that. We struck gold when we stumbled upon a restaurant that served bacon, hash browns and a fried egg, the 'Brunch Complet' as they so charmingly named it. Ever the anglophone tourists abroad, we turned our noses up at the finer local fare, and stuck with what we really wanted: grease.

Eventually, the landscape began to turn more and more Germanic (pines, wheat fields, umlauts and -burgs on the road signs) and we arrived in Strasbourg. We got to the hotel there, and may I just say: SWEET! Is there any feeling more luxurious than enjoying a high water-pressure shower, finished up with a soft, fluffy massive towel, and slipping into a bed the size of your kitchen back home, as you flick through TV channels? Find me something more luxurious than that, because I just cannot think.
Here is what Vatti and I mainly enjoyed during our 2 "holiday" days in Strasbourg:
  • The fine cuisine of Alsace (and its many beers)
  • The fascinating architecture
  • The beauty and pleasantness of the city itself
  • The Germans in our hotel
I am very sorry to get back onto the subject of bacon so soon after you thought we had moved past it, but my favorite food was present at the breakfast spread laid on by the hotel. There, just for me, was scrambled eggs and bacon, as much as I could eat, in fact - as much as I could ever wish for. The Germans seemed to be more preoccupied with the cold ham and cheese selections, which suited me just fine. Vatti and I were bemused to see that there was a certain level of elbowing and paranoia displayed by the Germans at breakfast time: their beady eyes scoured everyone's plates, checking to see who had had too much, and of what, and of how the supplies were looking. Was the quantity of fresh fruit dwindling? Nervously, they looked around to make sure a member of staff was aware of what was going on. Did that man there take too hefty a slice of black bread? And more importantly, what was to become of the muesli container, now full to just 32% of its capacity?

We both agreed that Strasbourg seems to be a simply beautiful place. It reminds me of half Amsterdam, half Paris, on a smaller and friendlier scale. We stopped many a bewildered Strasburger to ask for various directions, and we were always met with polite friendliness. There was one waiter who was a total DICK WAD, but Vatti soon tamed him, via some pointed and well-timed sarcasm. We went to eat dinner in this square under some platanes, where we tried the regional 'spatzle' which as far as I can gather is like gnocchi but lighter and much finer. Like potato noodles (but are they even potato, or are they just egg? That's one for Google). I had mine with meatballs and mustard sauce, and Vatti had pork knuckle (I think) and choucroute. Just wonderful! We were sitting by the canal, and at one point this strange street band began to play some vaguely gypsy-ish sounding music, which added to the all-round festive yet relaxed atmosphere. We both agreed that Mutti would LOVE this place, and we wistfully expressed our desire to share this time with her. Apparantly, there is talk that the family might come to Strasbourg for Christmas. As the saying goes: if Mohammed cannot make it to Christmas, Christmas must come to Mohammed.

So on the 30th we went to get the keys to the studio the CROUS has allocated to me, and I must say, it was not without trepidation on my side. For a number of reasons: it could turn out to be awful. But then, I've lived in some shit holes before. No, my anxiety was more to do with the fact that this was it: the tourist part is coming to an end, and I now have to face reality. We got the keys, the whole process went seamlessly. I think the fact that I have this special 'BGF' status helps a great deal: they were expecting me, and even gave me a few keys so I could go and check out the rooms and decide which one I liked best, which was quite nice. They are all exact carbon copies, so it wasn't like I was checking which one had the jacuzzi in it, however the one I ended up getting was cleaner than the others, plus had more stuff in it that the previous girl had left behind (including a heart-shaped England sticker on the fridge. Hells to the yeah!). The one I chose is on the top floor (only 3 floors) and faces out onto these verdant gardens belonging to "real people". Always good to remember real people. I'll try and take some photos tomorrow, in daylight, but to give you an idea, the studio is 19m2, and here's a vague (and shit) diagram:

After we'd moved my stuff into the flat, we went shopping for some essentials - my kind and generous Vatti bought me the staples: rice, pasta, porridge, eggs, milk, coffee, saucepan, frying pan, washing up liquid, sponges, bleach, onions, pasta sauce, etc etc etc. We took it all back to the flat, put it away, and then headed back into the town centre. My residence (not as in "my Strasbourg residence, dahling", as in, my halls) are a 10 minute tram ride from the centre of town, so let's put that as a 15 minute bike ride. Strasbourg is so bicycle friendly, that seems to be how most people get around, and I'm becoming more and more obsessed with the idea. I've been trying to buy one off this guy who specializes in second-hand bikes, but he's so serious. He wants to know my inner leg measurement so he can contact me when the right size bike comes through (I've heard that one before, Alain). In all fairness though, that;'s cool, he's not going to just sell me any old shit, which is good.

For our last night, Vatti and I went to see the university. It's a fairly big, modern campus, and I'd been there before to sit my admission exams, but it's something of a warren. We had a walk around and checked out a few of the maps to get a feel for what all the buildings were, and then went to this great little bar that I really enjoyed from some reason (there wasn't anything particularly unique about the bar, it just seemed like a great vibe) for a blanche and a glass of cider. Afterwards, we had a stroll through the university quarter, which seems to have shit-loads of ethnic food joints: Turkish, 'Persian', Mexican, Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Japanese (I think you get the picture, yeah?!), but really we wanted to have a last good 'Alsacian' meal. We went to one of the main squares where I had a tarte flambée and Vatti got pig's foot (Umm, EWW? The war's over, yeah?) and choucroute, washed down with 'Storig' beers and some Pinot. We had a good old chinwag, as we did for all of our 'holiday', about literature (the American classics), life (are people too hard on themselves? Is modern life constantly coloured by materialism?), linguistics (what is a dipthong, anyway?) and just the generally easy, good-nature musings and laughs you really only ever have with family.

The next day, we checked out and headed to the studio by tram, where Vatti had also left the car. We grabbed a coffee together at the local café (where my 'residence' is resembles something of a village, in the sense that it is fairly self-contained, and also mainly populated by OAPs who dawdle in the boulangeries taking about 67 hours to order a single pain au chocolat and an egg). The weather is beautiful at the moment, and the sun truly was beating down on us. I started to get that horrible ominous feeling you get: although we were chatting away breezily, in the pit of my stomach, I knew there were only a few minutes left and I didn't want dear Vatti to go. Eventually and inevitably that moment came, and so we walked back to the car and I waved him off. Then I turned around and walked back to the studio, thinking "well, this is it now", and I thought about what a good time we had had spending time together and discovering a new place, and how much I love my family, and how kind and generous a soul Vatti is, never complaining or acting fed-up, even at times like when I lost the hotel key (whoooops!), and how so many people have done nice things for me, but none more so than dear Vatti and Mutti, and so walking back to the studio in such nice weather but feeling a tad alone and slightly unworthy of so much generosity, I started to tear up a bit, and I got to the studio, sat on the bed a little weepy, as I gorged on Crunchies, and then I thought: okay: so I wonder what I should start with.

In actual fact, today I started with the insurance I was forced to buy in order to get a signed contract I can use to get CAF (housing benefits). So I've got that sneaky little card in my pocket, ready to pull out and slam down on the counter in front of me whenever the need for counter-slamming may arise. Tomorrow I need to go and show it to the woman who deals with our studios, and then once I get the contract I'll head out for more admin stuff which, bien sur, I will then recount in pain-staking detail. I'll give you an account tomorrow as well of meeting up with SPP and who he is. Let's just say: I think I'm really going to love it here. I already really love the city and all its charms, the friendliness of the people, the proximity to Germany, my studio, the course programme, and the fact that I have a few more social dates lined up.

As a closing point, let me briefly (ha) discuss something that those of you who know my chain-smoking ways may be wondering. How does she cope, balancing living in a studio and keeping up the habit? As you may have assumed, it's impossible to smoke in here, it's so tiny. I cooked spag bol for myself tonight (twas great), but the whole place smelt of dead animal and onion for about an hour afterwards. So: I go out to smoke on the fire escape, which is a safety hazard in itself considering:
  • there's no light switch except from at either end of the long never-ending corridor
  • the room needs to be locked, which involves shoving the fag into my mouth, with my reading material under my arm, a cup of coffee in one hand, the key in the other, and relying on basic luck that I actually get the key in the hole
  • there are bats outside. One flew right up near my face, so close I could feel the gentle breeze of its mad, hysterical papery wings. SHUDDER.
In fact, I've had quite a brush with nature this evening. Swanned back in from one of my cigarette trips to realize that I'd left my window open and the big strobe light across the window on. Enter trembly, unpredictable moths and their spastic midnight dancing. Taking my courage and my book firmly in both hands, I began to attack, swinging blindly at them, crushing them with the weight of "An Artist's Guide to Perspective" by Janet Shearer, hurling unneccesarily mighty blows onto their frail, pathetic little bodies. But they just kept coming back for more. The small darty ones I dealt with fine, but as I took a step back to survey my work, I realized that there, next to the bin, lay a gross, embalmed-looking BEAST of a creature: its hideous, bloated body unmoving under my shadow. I approached it with a broom and thwacked away as if my sorry life depended on it. Then, not bearing to reach out and gather its fragmented corpse with anything resembling paper, with anything that left mere millimetres between itself and I, I ushered the pieces out with the broom, and pushed it all the way to the fire escape, where it reunited with nature, and is probably in the process of reincarnating itself as a mad rabied fox, lurking amongst the bins, just waiting for its time to come.

Problem is: now cannot bring self to open window lest a moth revolution should storm the place, so will have to wait until daybreak. In the mean time, it's smelling like a mix of coffee, shower steam and stale incense. Not altogether too unpleasant!

P.S. Spotted in the corridor: spider the size of a fist. AHHH! Okay, need to grow a pair, seriously. Every time my hair touches my neck I'm going ape-shit.