Friday, 19 July 2013

La France et les Franç impressions

So there are plenty of stereotypes about France and French people in general, but here I'm going to take a look at some things I noticed about this wonderful country and its people, to see if these age-old clichés are true, and of course to add several new ones to the list. 
*Disclaimer* - This post is designed to be as honest as possible, and if I cause any offence, je suis vraiment désolé. I assure you that France and French people made my time abroad the best year of my life and I love you all forever, despite some of these interesting observations.. 

1) Bureaucracy 

Everyone has heard of the notorious French bureaucracy at one time or another. With good reason, let me tell you. Coming to France, you'll find that instead of the euro, passport photos and birth certs become legal tender for the first few weeks, as you can barely buy a pint of milk without someone asking for your documents, and if you have some new sécurité sociale they seem to have made up five minutes previously just to annoy you. I was almost refused my room when I arrived, exhausted and confused, to my Résidence because I didn't have some personal belongings insurance that I had never been told about. I eventually persuaded them to let me stay, as I knew nobody in the town, and I promised to get it done as soon as possible. In order to persuade them however, I had to speak directly to Mr. Bureaucracy himself, the Résidence director, who ambled out of his comfortable armchair to come reprimand this bothersome jeune irlandais who didn't understand their ridiculous system of checking in. But all things considered, the Résidence wasn't too bad compared to everyone else in that regard. 

Applying for CAF, or APL as it is called too, was one of the most stressful things I did all year. I eventually went to the office in mid-October with all of my documents and handed them in. The extremely disinterested guy behind the counter told me that everything was fine and that it would be processed within the month. Happy days, I thought to myself. I might add that the very fact that the French government gives students free money back on their rent for no apparent reason is pretty decent of them, and redeems them somewhat in my eyes (I'll try not to think about their massive budget deficit that isn't getting any smaller, but not my problem I suppose!). About seven weeks later, I received a letter saying that my documents were not correct, and that I needed an up-to-date, recent birth certificate. Now I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I was only born once, unless Hinduism has become a thing in France all of a sudden. If it was about the translation, I'm also pretty sure that the French language hasn't changed drastically in the last two years since I got it done either, perhaps some new verlan additions and new words such as iPad and hashtag, which I'm pretty sure wouldn't feature on a birth certificate. Not yet anyway, we'll see how things go. I subsequently did absolutely nothing about it, trying to get my head around this strange request, when suddenly a few weeks later they wrote to me saying voilà, here's your money, tout va bien ! Some in-house contradictions going on in the local CAF office obviously, or maybe some guy just had had a really bad day and decided to take it out on me.  Which brings me quite aptly to my next point.

2) Customer service 

The French have no idea what it is, nor have any desire to start doing it. Growing up and working in Ireland, where the American over-the-top customer care attitude has somewhat caught on, I'm used to decent service, such as people asking you if you need help, going the extra mile for you, that kind of thing. Even a smile as you walk in is nice. The French honestly couldn't care less, and the fact that you're buying so many things and asking them for an extra bag is quite frankly very annoying to them, and they don't seem to understand why you can't just go elsewhere. In fairness to them, in the smaller shops, the owner or cashier does tend to greet you with a big "bonjouuuur" and then wish you a "bonne journée/soirée" on the way out, but that is about the extent of it. An extremely irritating experience I had was in the local post office. I went to get some money, sent from home by the Western Union transfer system, which I had used before elsewhere without much difficulty. I walked into the post office at 4.35pm and asked about the transfer. The mademoiselle behind the counter informed me that she could not do the transfer, as the office closes at 5pm and they usually finish the Western Union transfers half an hour earlier. 4.35pm. I looked at her in shock for a few seconds, before showing her the time in a desperate "I really need my money and I think you're being a tad unreasonable" kind of way, and she eventually let me complete the transfer, at the same time making me aware that she had done me a massive favour and that I, in some way, owed her one. I might add that I was pretty much the only person in the place, apart from another client who was being angrily shouted at by another cashier after he kept asking for something they could not do for him. Yep, that happens too. Another thing is, cashiers will continue to place your receipt and change on the counter right beside your outstretched hand, resulting in a full minute spent trying to pick up each and every coin, while a massive queue waits behind you. The cashier will then act frustrated at your lack of progress, not realising that it was his or her simple action that caused all the trouble in the first place. Gaah. I am aware that there are also a lot of very nice, helpful French workers that welcome customers warmly, but in the nine months I spent there, I must say they didn't seem to be an overwhelming majority.

The most ridiculous customer service experience we had was when ringing the emergency services. There were a group of youths up to no good at the Résidence, who had threatened my friends with brass knuckles and even knives, yet the authorities not only put my friends on hold for several minutes, but then refused to send anyone over (all "busy" apparently) and tried to get them to "make sure" the group was still there, telling them to "take off their shoes" and tiptoe down the stairs. I have a feeling there won't be a series called CSI Grenoble anytime soon.  

3) Food and Drink 

The French are known worldwide for their excellent cuisine, and despite living on a tight student budget, I sampled some of the local and national delights a few times during the year. The €2 bottles of wine that were so much part of the experience may not have been the best quality wine in the world, but it felt very French to us, by the end of the night at least. However, a friend's Parisian roommate was personally insulted when he spotted a plastic 1,5L bottle of wine on the table, costing a sum total of about 1€, and refused to associate himself with us for the rest of the evening. He was equally as offended and quite hurt when he saw us later opening a different bottle of wine, apparently in an extremely blasphemous way which went against his Parisian values and upbringing. On a positive note, my experiences of the local Tartiflette and Raclette dishes were excellent, and despite not being the biggest cheese fan, I had some good experiences in that regard. The French enjoy their baguettes and boulangeries in general, however I couldn't find a decent replacement for Irish white bread. At Christmas I was welcomed home by a glass of nice milk and a slice or two of Brennan's bread and I couldn't have been happier. I also missed my chicken fillet and breakfast rolls, examples of typical Dublin cuisine that no-one else understands. 

One thing I had noticed about France several years back but that hit home again this year was the surprising lack of overweight people. For a nation that eats so much bread, you would think they'd be piling on the pounds. To my surprise, I realised there were only about three McDonalds in the entire city, compared to three within 200 metres in Dublin, there were no massive counters full of sweets and chocolate bars in newsagents, and they didn't tend to stuff themselves at meal times either. Fair play France, something we could all learn from I think.

Drinks wise, the French were a revelation. The wine was of course an ever present necessity, but the drinking habits in bars were quite different. I was recently dared to ask a barman in Dublin for a half pint of beer with some added peach syrup, and the look of confusion on his face was quite a sight to behold. In France, it's not even the girls or the not-so-tough guys that would order those, but big groups of hefty mecs coming in together to have a few scoops, demi-pêches all round s'il vous plait, merci et bonne soirée. Then there was the Kriek, a Belgian beer that was cherry flavoured. I'm not even going to make fun of it because it was actually excellent. A personal favourite, along with the aforementioned demi-pêche. Working briefly as a barman in France I realised that it is quite different to Ireland, as you come across things you've never tasted and never even heard of every night of the week. The French seemed to love their apéritif drinks like Pastis and Ricard, and even the orangey flavoured Picon which you add to your beer, again for better flavour. There was also this bottle of green liquor called Get (pronounced Jet) which I had never seen before in my life, but was a big hit with the jeunes and even the not so jeunes. Apart from the endless slagging from those who are not French, you can order what you like in France and nobody will judge you. So if you really want that cranberry juice with a hint of lime, go for it ! Your manliness shall not be questioned and your self esteem shall remain intact. 

4) Landscape 

It goes without saying, France is an amazing country for many reasons, but the landscape is quite incredible. They have a region to suit all tastes, snowy mountains and breathtaking views in the Alps, sun, sea and sand in the south, beautiful countryside near the centre and in Brittany, the germanic beauty of Alsace, the beautiful wine region in the south-west and of course the buzzing metropolis that is Paris. (Apologies for regions not mentioned, it's nothing personal). I fell in love immediately with the mountains that surrounded me and I missed them whenever I went elsewhere. I came to envy the kids growing up in the region, especially when they would nonchalantly whizz by me on the mountain with perfect balance and no fear of falling over and making a fool of themselves on the slopes. Grrr. The weather was a welcome change too, as there became an expectation of snow and sunshine at certain times of the year, something I have never been used to growing up in Ireland. 

5) Politics and the Revolution

French people love their Revolution, and never stop talking about it. While I did go to Sciences Po, a Political Science university, and therefore should have expected political polemics about the foundations of modern democracy etc, they would bring it up constantly and at any given moment. Fair play and all, I think they did a good job (apart from letting Napoleon run the place afterwards and then putting a King back on the throne 30 years later...*awkward*...) but in a very abstract History of Mentalities class with a few foreign students that would love to participate and have lots of experiences from their own countries to share, it might be interesting to take a more worldly view of things, especially on universally relevant topics. I've realised that France, while not quite as noticeable as the US in terms of inward-looking attitudes, it is a country that is quite centred on itself, something I am not at all used to growing up in Celtic Tiger Ireland, where we depended on other countries and our large number of exports kept the economy going. I'm not saying it is a negative thing, but noticeable all the same. Our history, being controlled for years and fighting for independence also lends itself to that difference, and while socially we lagged behind everyone else for years, economically we relied on Britain and, since 1973, on Europe for our livelihoods. France, being the home to one of the most influential revolutions the world has ever seen, and being relatively powerful in the grand scheme of things for years, is a very proud nation, from their involvement in the wars (which fortunately gave us a few days off during the year) to their current social system and employment laws, they stick to their ways and are delighted about being French. I do admire that, as the notion of "being French" is more important to them than individual sub-cultures or religion, and it works quite well most of the time. 

Also, La Marseillaise is now officially my favourite of all national anthems. While the lyrics are incredibly gory, racist and bloodthirsty, its rousing nature is an absolute pleasure to behold, especially at a France Vs Ireland rugby game where you're the one Irish guy in a sea of French people, trying not to feel awkward. The best way to avoid the awkwardness, I found, is to just start belting it out with them. 

I had the privilege of attending a speech given by the President of France, François Hollande, in January, when he gave his Voeux à la Jeunesse, addressing the French youth. Being a massive deal for me to be invited, I suited up, but going out the door, I was quite self-conscious about my lack of shoe polish and the slight crease in my shirt. However, when I got there, I found that I was the only young person, out of several hundred, that had worn a suit for the occasion. A few were in shirts and one or two had ties, but the vast majority of students and young people there were dressed as if they were going to the cinema, including the twelve young people up on stage speaking directly to him. One guy was in a full Adidas tracksuit, looking like he was just back from either the gym or vandalising someone's car. Now I understand that they are young people and they have to be young, but when the President of your country comes to speak to you, the very least you should do is put on a shirt and trousers. Some people mistook me for security near the end, allowing me to get quite near the guy and shake his hand, so wearing the suit definitely paid off. 

6) The people themselves  

The general stereotype of French people is not very flattering. Frogs legs and snails tend to describe the people as well as their daily cuisine sometimes, but I think that's very unfair. While Parisians are traditionally the most unfriendly, the Parisians I met were for the most part really nice people, and easy to get along with. Perhaps this is because they were outside their tourist-filled home city, however when I was in Paris I also had some very good experiences. 

The age-old problem of French immersion is one of the main problems with the Erasmus programme as a whole, in my opinion, especially for English speakers. At times the Erasmus community is alienated from the French student body purely due to language barriers and unwillingness to embrace the unknown, on both sides. I found that taking smaller tutorial-like classes (CM), in which I was one of the only foreign students, really helped in getting to know the French students and becoming a part of the class, rather than just the foreign part-timer that nobody knew. The groups which organised the events for Erasmus students were run predominantly by French people, showing that they do have an interest in meeting people from elsewhere, and I honestly think that with a bit of effort language-wise, it is very easy to make some great friends in France. I noticed too that French students in France are the exact same as Irish students in Ireland in some ways, as they can be very welcoming, as long as they understand what you are saying or what you are trying to say, but if no effort is made, then they will naturally stay with their classmates. That's why having a good basis of French before going and also being prepared to leave your comfort zone in the language really really helps. I would highly recommend finding an apartment with French speakers too, as it is too easy to stick with the anglophones all the time and not embrace the French for the really great people they are. I am glad to say that I have some fantastic French friends after my time there, which I will definitely be back soon to visit. 

All in all, I have to say that France is a really fantastic place to live, and if you ever get the opportunity to spend some time there, or even to learn French, do it. If you respect the people by trying your best to use your French, they will most likely respect you back, and even if the odd few speak back in English, don't back down, keep speaking French whenever possible. Eat baguettes and drink wine to your heart's content, and for the girls, beware of some French guys who tend to be creepy with a capital C. Only some though, the vast majority are complete legends. If you're reading this and are French, you know who you are. 

                                                          Vive la France !
                                                          À la prochaine ! 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Nearing the end (Part 2)

So this has taken me longer to write than planned ! Life since getting home has been a helter skelter mix of sleeping, depression eating, re-establishing old acquaintances, selling bed linen and giving tours of my lovely home city of Dublin. But let me take you through the last week or so in the place which played host to the best year of my life...

The 11th of May was the date I had set back weeks before for my 21st birthday barbecue, as being a Saturday night after all exams were finished, the stress levels for most of us would be considerably lower. You would think that May would provide some glorious sunshine, somewhat required for outdoor evening entertainment, however I soon realised that Gcchhuunooblhh had decided not to adhere to the weather rules this year, and the days leading up to it provided us with some torrential rain and left us all feeling a bit bedraggled. So with much apprehension, I woke up on the Saturday, to be met by a gloomy, overcast, cloud-filled sky that looked like it could go either way... With a heavy yet hopeful heart I set about making the necessary preparations for what I hoped would at least be a dry evening ("dry" of course here referring to the weather and not to people's state of happiness and consumption levels later in the night). The barbecue that I rented from the Résidence association was nice and big, and despite a leg of it nearly falling off, it worked very well. The sun came out at the last minute much to our relief, and our collective prayers were answered as it stayed nice and warm all night. Many thanks have to be once again given to my wonderfully generous friends, who came to help with the preparation and the serving of food, which was also so generously provided by everyone present. In the hours that followed, the picnic tables outside Résidence Ouest gradually filled up and many hours of fantastic fun and merriment ensued. 

It is without doubt the best birthday party I've ever had and it's thanks to everyone that came along and made it so special. The amazing gifts and baking exploits were extremely unexpected, incredibly thoughtful, and very much appreciated. Before this descends into an Oscar-like speech with a long list of people I want to thank, I'll move on. Unfortunately there were some uninvited troublemakers that made an appearance at the tables at about 3.30am, which dampened spirits somewhat near the end, and we discovered how unhelpful and indifferent French emergency services could be. As one of my friends pointed out, we had no idea that 911 had a busy tone. Bienvenue en France quoi...

Despite a few scary experiences for some of my friends, everyone got home safely, having what I hope will go down as a very good night. The following day I woke up, slightly dazed, to discover that the left-over barbecue supplies had been transferred to my room, and as you can imagine, it made for an excellent breakfast ! A few of us spent the afternoon in town chilling in the sunshine which was a perfect way to relax and catch up on the previous night's interesting incidents. The next few days were quite chilled out, and despite having two dossiers still to write, my productivity levels managed to remain at zero, possibly even minus one. A few tearful goodbyes had to be said, however many of them temporary as people would either be coming back or else they wouldn't be living too far away for a visit later in the year, once the necessary funds are collected. 
The first semi-final of the Eurovision song contest was celebrated on Tuesday night, and especially so after Ireland managed to qualify for the final ! Many games were played, keeping an eye on the wonderful and hilarious spectacle that this contest brings to our screens every year, however it was only a taster of what would become widespread havoc at Saturday's final.

Thursday night was the wonderful celebration of my good friend Krista's birthday, celebrated earlier than the date itself as she figured that nobody would be around in July to celebrate her actual 21st. An excellent idea, as Erasmus birthdays, judging by the previous examples throughout the year, tend to be amazing fun. We started off in the kitchen of her building, before continuing the party in the notorious Vieux Manoir, home to many a good night throughout the year. An all-round great night was had, and one of her best birthdays too by all accounts, so a great week in that respect !

Saturday played host to one of the most unforgettable Eurovisions in living memory. Having watched Thursday's semi-final on playback on Friday, so as not to miss an iota of Eurovision madness, we all had our favourites leading up to the big night. There was the male soprano vampire guy from Romania, the incredibly attractive Ukrainian and Norwegian singers, the extremely happy and high-on-life Maltese entry, our very own topless bodhrán players and of course the alcohol-loving Greeks. 
For those unfamiliar with the wonders of this annual showcase of European craziness, here are two of the favourites previously mentioned: 

With rules such as drinking, cheering and clinking glasses every time there were either pyrotechnics, key changes, ridiculous outfits, ridiculous lyrics, bad jokes by presenters, good jokes by presenters, cringy moments, the classic "thank you europe!", neighbouring countries voting for each other, attractive people, not-so-attractive people, crazy dancing and high notes, (to name but a few criteria) as you can imagine, it was an interesting night. It became even more interesting as the paramedics were called for my friend Silas, who had an unfortunate fall, leading to a broken/dislocated shoulder which looked incredibly painful.. the night somehow continued, and culminated in a facepaint fight before exhaustion took over and ended things at roughly 4am. A memorable Eurovision indeed. 

The next day was spent mostly pretending to work on my essays, as well as the beginnings of what would become a last minute dash to pack a year's worth of life into two inadequately sized suitcases. My oldest brother Christopher arrived in the fair city of Gcchhuunooblhh the following day, and despite having very little French, beyond the words "boissons", "poissons" (pronounced "boy-sonns" and "poy-sonns" respectively) and the essential "Je ne parle pas français", he managed to get all the way and navigate both the Swiss and French rail systems without much difficulty. Low key gatherings were the order of the day, and the weather permitted a lovely picnic in the Jardin de Ville which had become a popular spot for us sun-seeking and expense-evading students.

A trip to the Bastille followed the following day, and a brief tour of Gcchhuunooblhh's main attractions, which are quite few really if you take away the mountains, followed by the best send off any of us could have asked for. Four of us were leaving the following day, and as such we decided to commemorate the occasion in La Bobine, a fantastic outdoor spot, ideal for casual chat and long goodbyes. A great crowd turned out to see us off and many a photo were taken, which I honestly will treasure for a long long time, but not as much as the people who made the year the crazy, unbelievably amazing bundle of fun and happiness it was. 

So it was with a heavy heart that we returned to the room for the last time and packed everything faster than ever thought possible before the taxi came to take us to the gare. I was so stressed by the end that I almost forgot to hand in my key to the Résidence, which may have been awkward if I discovered it was still in my possession upon my arrival in Dublin, considering that I had already lost their two other copies. After having a carriage to ourselves, we proceeded to spread ourselves out and doze off , before arriving in Geneva and finally boarding the plane home. While I missed everyone at home, I can say it was the first time in my life that I wasn't looking forward to a flight.

I like to think Gcchhuunooblhh had a positive effect on me, apart from my lengthened list of bodily injuries (I may add that my thigh was still in bad shape, thus leading to some painful and awkward airport bag-carrying), and the people I met during my time there are some of the best people I've ever met and have been lucky enough to count as friends. The French improved a fair bit too, but if you ask me about fluency, I still can't answer, as I have no idea yet what that really means. Perhaps, who knows. On verra. 

What next, you ask ?

Me considering my future, quite pensively

Well, a summer earning some long overdue money is my first priority, as is finishing my degree next year, and after that.. well, we'll see. All I know is that I have a lot of travelling to do, and a lot of people to see, which hopefully will begin very soon. I like to think that my first blogging experience went well, I certainly enjoyed updating it with my various adventures and misadventures throughout the year. If you can get anything from reading this, it should be that Gcchhuunooblhh is amazing and everyone should go there, my home from home. I'd like to add that it's actually spelt G-r-e-n-o-b-l-e, just for any Google searches that may go wrong with too many strange letter repetitions. 

I'll finish this blog soon with a brief summary of my experience of France and dealing with the French, which hopefully will be insightful for any of you planning to visit or revisit this beautiful and great country. 

Merci à tous !
Merci Gcchuunooblhh !
à bientôt !

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Nearing the end.. part 1

This past month, the last of my incredible year in Gcchhuunooblhh, has been one of the best. I hadn't really prepared myself for the end of Erasmus, but I have to say, everything fell into place perfectly to give me a fantastic send off.  I've decided to make this a two-part post, due to how many unreal things have happened in the last month, I'll definitely reach the word limit on this otherwise...

After the wonderfully high class and ceremonious Sciences Po gala at the top of the Bastille (which admittedly had lost every single element of class and ceremony by 4am), exam season was upon us, but not before a bit of travelling down to the south of France. Due to limited time and already stretched budgets, myself and two friends decided to embark on a two day whistlestop tour of both Avignon and Marseille.

Thanks to some lovely weather and some relatively inexpensive train fares, we spent a day and night in Avignon, a quaint little town, known for the Pont d'Avignon (as in the song) and as the home to the Papacy for about a hundred years in the 14th century. Both were incredibly impressive, and with the sunshine, the river, and the sense of history, it made for some really nice views and excellent photo opportunities. We were also very proud of ourselves during our picnic by the river, drinking some Côtes du Rhône...on the Côte du Rhône. Yes, yes, we are very easily amused this year it seems. 

Côtes du Rhône...on the Côte du Rhône

"What IS this?? A Palace for ants?!!"
Myself and Will reliving the Titanic on the Pont d'Avignon

Inside the impressive Palais des Papes

An entire theatre to myself..

We stayed in a rather discrete little hostel in the centre which was also very impressive, with a very nice reception dude and really friendly roommates, and after discovering that night-life in Avignon is not exactly bouncing, we ended up hanging out and playing cards with the roomies all night, before waving goodbye the following morning as we all went our separate ways in the world.

Next stop was the seaside metropolis of Marseille, about an hour and a half further south. Once we got out of the train, it hit home that wearing jeans was a baaad idea, as the heat suddenly began to drain our energy and rapidly overactivate the sweat glands. We wandered around quite lost for a while, but with the help of a lovely French man we eventually came to the Vieux Port, an amazing harbour with some spectacular views. Ice cream was next on the agenda, followed swiftly by the cathedral, another few aesthetically pleasing buildings and finally...the beeeeaaach ! Having taken the metro, we proceeded to walk down the length of one of the longest roads I've ever seen, which would give the auld Champs Elysées a run for its money, as well as the cours Jean Jaurès in Gcchhuunooblhh, which is a fair trek and a half as well. It was worth it though, as we arrived at the lovely stonily sandy south coast of France were we happily spent the next few hours in the beautiful sunshine, me trying desperately to tan my pasty white Irish skin, to no avail. 

Unfortunately the train back to Gcchhuunooblhh was waiting for us in the evening and after several hours of me losing badly at cards, we arrived back in our mountainous home. The next few days were spent revising, well rather what I like to call revising, involving copious amounts of Facebook and hilarious comedy videos courtesy of Youtube. Exam week arrived nonetheless, and my exam entitled Systèmes Politiques de l'Europe Meridionale, soon nicknamed by us as Meridional systems, and later Mary O'Donnell systems, went surprisingly well, thanks to the day and a half of intensive cramming of the revolutions in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Turkey. So many coups d'Etat, would they just get democracy already - what I was thinking for the entire 24 hours previous to the exam in question. It did expose us to some excellent names though, mostly on the Turkish side, however we also had a laugh over the Italian Communist guy Antonio Gramsci (gramshee). And by the end of the 2 hour ordeal we were all feeling a bit gramsci, but the end of the week was approaching so all was good. 

Despite not having registered for an exam on the Friday, I decided on a whim at 1am to do the exam entitled "New Ireland", dealing with Irish history and culture. I figured I was in a better position than most to get a good result, and considering the exam was in English, there was no excuse. Given that all obstacles relating to difficulty were done away with, it would have been quite embarrassing for me to do badly. Fingers crossed the prof doesn't dock marks for my very explicit Irishness, with phrases such as "up North" used in my essay on Northern Ireland and my above average knowledge of the Home Rule crisis for someone studying in France. 

Exam week ended on that note, and despite having two dossiers to finish, the relative freedom went straight to my head, and the soirées continued with enthusiasm and vigour. I had left my job at the bar a week or two previously due to exam commitments, and despite enjoying a lot of my time there, poor scheduling, some bad internal communication and not-so-peachy relations with one or two colleagues meant that I wasn't rushing back once the exams were done. 

A Sciences Po barbecue near the résidence was followed by a massive outdoor Erasmus party on the Friday evening and another weekend of fun and merriment ensued. The following week brought the last Sciences Po evening of the year, held in the notorious SONO venue, essentially a converted warehouse in the middle of nowhere with what can only be described as a very lenient free drinks limitation policy. 

The last excursion with ISI took place on Thursday, with a trip to the magnifique Lac du Bourget, about an hour or so from Gcchhuunooblhh. We had a picnic and then went on a cruise across the lake, where we visited an old monastic settlement, steeped in history and very impressive architecture. Luckily the weather held up too, making for some magnificent views and a generally excellent day with friends. 

My ability to walk for the next week was severely hindered by a quite frankly hilarious accident, adding to my growing list of injuries sustained while on Erasmus. That night, once the skies had decided to open up providing more rain than ever thought possible for the month of May, several of my friends were leaving Gcchhuunooblhh for good and as such, goodbyes had to be said. Furthermore, due to their exquisite planning, all had to be seen in the one night, providing me with an evening of marathon-esque party hopping. 

The incident in question occurred between gathering number 2 and 3. 
For the next several sentences, I invite you to imagine the story in a slow motion, epic, movie-like manner. 

A tram appeared at the stop roughly 100 metres from where we were standing. As we were already quite late, we decided to run for it. After a good 20 metres, I was up to full speed sprinting, undoubtedly on course for catching the tram in question. As you can imagine, I had eyes only for the tram, and with my forward looking, blurred, rainy vision, focussed solely on the dry, warm interior of the tram, confident in my speed and feeling like Usain Bolt's successor, I failed to notice the approaching bollard... 
At the last second, I swerved to the right, thus preserving my future children from an untimely non-existence, but subjecting my right thigh to the worst pain imaginable. I was spun around by the force and planted face-down in the rainy cobblestones, my right leg on fire with the pain. I didn't have too much time to feel sorry for myself however, as some youths standing at a nearby kebab shop didn't wait long to humiliate me with their raucous side-splitting laughter. In fairness, it was pretty darn funny and I would have done the exact same if I had seen me run straight into the poorly placed bollard. Plus, let's be honest, it's a great story, even if I couldn't walk properly for about a week. 

This photo is taken from the exact spot where the bollard defeated me
A bollard similar to those in the bottom left.
Very hard, and as I discovered the hard way, immovable.

In any case, I hobbled to my goodbye gatherings and said some tearful farewells, before limping back to résidence with a swelling the size of a baby seal and a considerably shrunken ego. 

The following day we all gathered for the distribution of the yearbooks, a project organised by Krista, for which we were all extremely grateful, with pictures and "most likely to"s entertaining us greatly, as well as the obligatory comments and/or abuse that we set about writing about each other at the back. 

The following day I had my 21st birthday party, which shall be delved into in further detail in the next post, for fear of overshooting the word count and attention spans of the readers. It set in motion the last 10 days of my Erasmus experience, which were just fantastic. 

à bientôt !

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Awesome yet arduous April..

The St. Patrick's day festivities of mid-March were followed by an eventful few weeks to say the least, filled with stressful deadlines, hospital appointments, exhausting bar work and needless to say at this point, some excellent soirées and general good times.

The deadlines mentioned were predominantly two back to back exposés for my CM classes, essentially the classes where it's pretty much all native French people and me, slightly more challenging than the big lectures, which are somewhat optional most of the time anyw- I mean, obligatory at all times, what am I saying. Despite the last minute nature of certain aspects of both presentations, they went quite well, hopefully not just because I'm foreign and they were trying to be nice though, I'd be glad of people actually listened attentively to what I had to say, even if it is highly unlikely given the attention spans of twenty-five 19 year olds with computers in front of them.

I had further treatment for my wrist, in the form of an ultrasound at another hospital in the city. It was quite a bizarre experience, as I sat there feeling like a proud mother looking at my unborn wrist-baby, while they tried to figure out what the suspicious looking lump was at the bottom of my hand. I've since started physio with a very friendly curly haired man not too far away, and despite mistaking me for a knee patient one time and giving me a skateboard to exercise with, he's been very helpful. I had no idea how dull going to the physio actually was, as he tells you what to do, goes off to sort someone else out, leaving you to your own devices for however long the exercise requires. Luckily there were some serious tunes on the French radio station last time which kept me amused as I flexed my wrist muscles to the beat and tried not to sing too loudly. I've since been discharged from the hospital, where I have so many memories, most of them pain related so it won't really be missed.

On the subject of pain.. my heart was broken recently, not in the typical fashion involving actual humans, but more by certain unknown individuals in society, who I discovered recently have all but murdered my poor bike, Princess Sparkles. She has been tied up to the pole outside Dia since early December, and while I regret not doing more to alleviate her suffering, the lack of functioning oil and scarce availability of chainsaws (also the societal aspect involved with carrying one around), have prevented me from helping her up to now. I logged into Facebook a few weeks back to find a picture of her current condition.
WARNING - this next bit may contain disturbing and gruesome images.

So yes, very sad indeed. The world, I have realised, is a very bad place.

On a much happier note, Easter arrived at the end of March, and with it, a trip back to chez moi in Dublin ! It was a highly secretive affair between myself and my parents, and as such, my siblings were taken majorly by surprise when I sauntered into the Pro Cathedral on Thursday and sat down beside them. An excellent weekend was had, with lots of catch ups, Easter ceremonies and some quality time spent at home. I did have a horrible experience getting to Grenoble airport on the way over however, as my poorly functioning alarm made me late for the bus, leaving me with no other option other than taking a taxi from the station, costing me a whopper 80€. (Yes, I do my euro signs after the number now, the French have changed me).  Despite my wallet and my good humour being severely wounded, the few days at home made it all worth it, and I managed to get safely back to the mountains the following Monday, in time for the last few weeks of class.

What seemed to me like a few easy weeks after my exposés were just that, with birthday parties, Erasmus parties, party-for-no-particular-reason parties and of course bar-work dominating my schedule, however my false sense of security came back to give me quite a welt in my backside, as suddenly exam time was upon me. There was a French novel to read for French class, not exactly literary gold by any means, making the task somewhat more arduous, then a few intense nights of revision for "Histoire des Mentalités" which were followed by an exam question entitled "Mémoire et Identités". Such a ridiculously vague  title I can imagine as the equivalent of a history question reading something like "The 20th century. Discuss" or a science question saying "Explain biology". I did manage to philosophise for three hours and I think my equally vague essay was at least passable. That week continued in a stressful vein, with a presentation in my Europe class, where I accidentally referred to Margaret Thatcher as a socialist, and the following day a presentation on the Irish language where I ended up using the wrong powerpoint. Such is life.

Gcchhuuunooblhh played host to a very large amusement fair these last few weeks, and before it closed, we decided to head along to see what it could offer entertainment-wise. The first ride we went on, called Speed Dance or something to that effect, was, for want of a better explanation, absolutely mental. A dance at great speed, if you will. Or 'on speed' could work too. Never have I been thrown around upside down and inside out as much but yet it was strangely one of the most enjoyable aspects of my evening. The Fun House was up next, a really enjoyable tour through a little house that contained lots of surprises. Moving floors, nasty rope traps and a lethal conveyor belt were among the challenges we faced, and it put us all in good form. We then did the auto-tamponneuses, or bumper cars, which I had had reservations about from previous experiences, rightly too, as my tallness counted severely against me, leaving me to hobble home like a newborn calf with two dead legs and a sore neck. The passion-fruit flavoured candy floss did help slightly, before we all headed home after a very enjoyable evening.

The Jeunes Ambassadeurs Gala night was last Thursday, and the winners of the project competition were announced. Unfortunately I didn't manage to make much progress with mine in the end, however despite not being in the running, I had an enjoyable night of socialising, champagne and great food. I also got my certificate of participation in the programme, but depite the year being officially over, I have a number of contacts that I plan on keeping in touch with when I leave.

It was followed by a party in Résidence, which turned into a walking-home-at-4am affair after an excellent night. The weather for the last week or so in Gcchhuunooblhh has been nothing short of exquisite, with mid-20s every day for the last while. The Saturday was equally as beautiful, and ISI, the Erasmus group in Sciences Po, organised a day of fun and games in the sun near my Résidence. Primary school was revisited, with egg and spoon races and water fights, which after an hour or two, descended into an intense and very messy egg battle. All I can say is, egg works surprisingly well as a hair gel, as I came to realise. Yes, by the end of the afternoon, I was covered head to toe in the stuff, after an eggstremely eggciting day.

I don't remember much about the the next few days, as they were spent exclusively either in my room or the library as I desperately tried to finish (and start) my research topic for my Europe class, due for the Wednesday. Luckily we all got a two day extension, but after a sleepless few days and some extreme manipulation of bibliography sources, I finally finished my 10 page dossier on Ireland's relationship with the EU. No marks for originality, but I think I may have done alright. The subsequent test on the EU institutions went relatively well, as did a presentation in Italian the following day, and I suddenly found myself finished all my classes in Sciences Po. Scary scary times, as I like to believe that the Erasmus bubble will never pop..

To finish off the year, the student bodies at Sciences Po organised a Gala evening, but not just in some large hall or the summit of the Bastille. Looking out at the twinkling lights of the entire city at night time, while suited up and having the time of your life is a pretty special experience. I had a fantastic night, catching up with friends and dancing the night away at the top of the mountain, in an old army fortress... Not bad at all as soirées go.

The next few weeks will be jam packed with dossiers to write and exams to study for, but also hopefully a lot of very very nice weather and enjoyable Erasmus times. I'm thinking of possibly visiting the South of France a lttle bit, due to extremely attractive train prices so hopefully something can be arranged. I also managed to get the motivation to tidy my room yesterday, so here's hoping a similar attitude can be seen in other aspects of life. I also plan to update this sooner next time, so fear not, it won't be too long before my next few adventures will be etched into the world wide web for all eternity. Lots of time for people to read!

à tôt-bien !

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Magnifique March Madness

It feels like it's been a while, especially after my impressive 2 posts in a week last time (any hope of such diligence making a reappearance is unlikely at best). The last few weeks have been simply fantabulous. 

Despite that particular fact not being toooo out of the ordinary due to my enjoyment levels in general while here, this last while really has been great. My faith in humanity was also strengthened the other day as I accidentally left my clothes in the washing machine for over 26 hours, before dashing back to the laundry to discover to my pleasant surprise that everything was still as I had left it, despite me unintentionally hogging one of 10 machines that I share with over 1000 people for an entire day. I also like to think that it wasn't my clothes or my clothing style that deterred any potential thieves either. Hmm. 

Well, after my unforgettable bohemian shenanigans, Gcchhuuunooblhh welcomed me back for a short few days, before I got the train to la capitale, Paris (or Paaachh-ihhhh, for those wishing to gain an insight into French pronounciation. Might just stick with the 5 letter version though). So yeah, I went up to meet some friends I hadn't seen in a long long time from my Disneyland Paris working days, and a weekend of hilarious fun and merriment ensued as we soaked up the loveliness of quite possibly the Frenchest place in the world. After having severe phone issues, leading to a long and cold 2 hour wait in Paris Bercy station (quite depressing as waiting places go), we found each other and the festivities soon commenced. We stayed in a small, 2 star hotel (I was convinced someone had just forgotten the S in "hostel"), which was ordinary but decent considering the price we paid and how near we were to everything. 

The first night, we had all planned to suit up, and needless to say, my suit made the trip across France to live up to the occasion. We then went to Harry's New York Bar, a very famous cocktail spot (they invented the Bloody Mary apparently), and spent several hours catching up and sipping on incredibly strong and outrageously overpriced beverages. Bienvenue à Paris.. 

Having been in the Czech Republic 4 days earlier, where they almost pay YOU to buy drinks, this came as a bit of a shock. As did the Bloody Mary I might add, which I have to say tasted like a mixture of Heinz ketchup and some Super Valu own brand tomato soup. The Sazarac I had was nice though, and obviously has a cool name so that definitely helped the taste too. The experience was an excellent one though, despite the waiter not taking to our lively renditions of Molly Malone and the Wild Rover. It's obviously not very often that he would find a group of Portuguese, Swedish and Irish people all suited up in the middle of Paris singing ballads, and the occasion just got to him I think.

We proceeded to dance the night away at another expensive Parisian establishment, before walking to the Champs-Elysées for the obligatory suited-up-in-Paris shot, which did not disappoint. 

Despite our immensely ambitious breakfast plans for 9am, none of us had regained consciousness before about 2pm. I travelled over to St. Michel to meet one of my roommates from Disney 2011, again, who I hadn't seen since then. A fantastic few hours of catching up was in order, before I rejoined the others across town, stopping off to soak up the view of the Eiffel tower on the way. 

I quickly got the hang of the metro system again, and it never fails to amaze me how well it works. Then again I'm from Dublin so most things public transport related anywhere in the world would be impressive by comparison.. That night, after an enjoyable period spent chilling out in the ho(s)tel, we decided for old times sake to go to Disney Village, and the unforgettable and unchanging Billy Bob's. A very nostalgic few hours ensued, as we bumped into old friends and colleagues, still living the Disney dream. 

Unfortunately my time with my friends in Paris came to an end the following morning as I had to get the loooong 6 hour TER train back to Gcchhhuuunooblhh via Lyon. Another highlight of the year, in a list of highlights so long I now am quite worried about having to recount them all to people at home..

Life soon got back into it's rhythm, well, what little rhythm there can be in the life of an Erasmus student, and soon classes and academia began to once more enter into the extreme background of my daily life. The weather has recently been a bit mental, with flurries of snow being replaced by a week of  20 degree summer sunshine, to be then followed by torrential rain and more snow last weekend. Quite similar to your average Irish afternoon I noticed, maybe without the snow. The lovely people at Résidence have decided to construct  a few football courts just outside the buildings, so needless to say they have been used quite extensively, even if they're not fully completed.. A few very enjoyable birthday celebrations were had in the last week or two, which makes me impatient for my own in May, just at the end of the exams, so I discovered last week. Planning stage long since activated.

And the days rolled into weeks and suddenly St. Patrick's day was upon us, my first outside the Emerald Isle in my short 20 year life. It was by far my best to date. Courtesy of some wonderfully eager Canadians and their very generous family members, we had decorations galore, and we proceeded to start partying from the early afternoon onwards. A considerable number of people came to this wonderfully daytime party, which lasted right into the night. As one of two Irish people present in a group of over 20, I can safely say that I have a new found love for our national holiday. And also the colour green actually, never noticed before how nice and photogenic it is.

I have also got myself a job here in Gcchhuuunooblhh, since Friday evening ! In one of the studenty bars in town, with good music, great atmosphere and general fun to be had pretty much all of the time. Being the occasion that was in it, facepaints, leprechaun hats and novelty t-shirts were the order of the day among the staff. It's challenging French-wise, as while I understand generally everything normally, loud music added to mumbling French customers makes for one intense aural listening exam. My beginner status also meant I wasn't too familiar with the menu, but thankfully no huuuuge mistakes were made and the vast majority of people so far have been happy.

Saturday evening, having been told that I wasn't working in the end, I decided to accompany some friends to a Ska concert. I have learned since that this refers to a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, and was a precursor to rocksteady and reggae (thanks wikipedia). The Wikipedia page also happens to mention that this music "is very popular with skinheads", and having read this after the event in question, I can affirm that this is indeed correct. 

After an hour and a half of some REALLY INTENSE rock/headbangingy/frantic tunes by some other band, the main act, Los Tres Puntos came on, and treated us to some more REALLY INTENSE rock/headbangingy/frantic tunes, but this time with saxophones, trumpets and trombones, which really made for a great sound. I'm all for taking experiences as they come, so it wasn't long before we were all thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the heart of the mosh-pit, surrounded by lots of bare-chested skinheads and other people with questionable piercings, strange clothing and generally quite odd mannerisms. 
It was quite evident about halfway through that the band were extremely anti-fascist, as was everyone in the room it seemed, judging by the way half of one particular song almost turned into a political demonstration. However I was humming the wild and energetic "Alerta, alerta, anti-fascista" song/chant to myself for the next day or so, as you do, strolling through the corridors of Sciences Po Gcchhuuunooblhh. 

(Unfortunately no pictures were taken at this amazing event, so I will have to leave the rest up to your imagination)

I now am embroiled in a week long battle with college work, with another exposé due tomorrow, following on from my first one today, in which all level-headed pacing techniques left me and I ended up bombing through it and finishing awkwardly 15 minutes too soon. Everyone had just settled down into the class, 10 minutes in, when suddenly...yeah... that', sooooooooooo...You live and learn I suppose. Hopefully the one tomorrow on European Regional systems will be better. Maybe everyone will fall asleep before they can notice any slip-ups.
It's upsetting me to think how little time I have left here in Gcchhuuunooblhh, only 2 more months !! But such thoughts, I have decided, are no longer welcome in my brain. Plenty more craic still to be had. 

A work filled week in both senses to come, but also plenty of soirées to be looking forward to, keeping up the Erasmus spirit.  Alors il faut en profiter !
That's all for now folks, à bientôt !