Saturday, 31 August 2013

Erasmus in Grenoble-first impressions of my new home

I arrived the day before yesterday in this town which will be my home for the next 5 months. It's quite a strange feeling, especially in the first few hours. I am being hosted by a very generous and trusting host, who has lived here for the last 5 years but is in fact Pugliese, from couchsurfing who has gone away for the weekend and left me with the key to his flat, with the agreement that I look after his tomatoes. Whilst I am very thankful for this, I seriously doubt I would entrust a stranger with the keys to my flat, especially when inside there is a PlayStation 3 and a widescreen television. That's just me though.... I guess he did assess how trusty I was when he took me out to a local pub and a salsa bar the other night. We have been communicating in Italian, and thus my French has only thus far been practiced in ticket offices and shops. So here I am alone, in this rather large studio flat in the centre of town. Yesterday morning I took a look around the centre, taking photos and trying to orientate myself. I came home for a quick lunch, courtesy of my host (he filled the fridge a bit for me) and indulged in his homemade sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil.

At 4pm yesterday I met up with a friend from university who is also on her year abroad here. After a bit of a natter and a wander around town we finished off the bottle of wine my host bought me in the park, drinking from plastic cups. It was actually nice to speak in English, though I promise I won't be doing that throughout the entire the semester. Today we are meeting up to look into bank and simcard deals, then at 3pm we are meeting up with a French guy who may end up being one of my many tandem partners. We started talking on facebook messenger after I expressed interest in a "colocation" that he was offering, and he turned me down saying he needed someone who could stay for at least 10 months, but that he'd like to engage in a language exchange with me. So while I do feel that my French is awful, I am about to try and do as many exchanges as possible and hopefully find some really good friends. I have already signed up for tandem via InTeGré and on the facebook language exchange group: here's to hoping I get some responses.

To increase my vocabulary I also intend to join the local library and work my way from children's to adult's books, besides reading le monde.  Hopefully just being at Uni and studying via French will be a big help.

With regards to the town, what I have seen so far has really impressed me. It is quite a small city, but big enough to offer everything I need. I saw three markets selling fresh produce, plenty of interesting clothes shops, restaurants, parks, coffee shops, boulangeries and salons. The tram service seems very frequent and efficient, and the mountains are almost always within eye shot. There seems to be a really international scene, yet with that classy French vibe which I love. There is a big couchsurfing community and many free events are organized in town, including free Summer yoga in the park. The supermarkets are very exciting, full of delicious and creative flavours of chocolate such as wasabi and organic products seem to be in high demand over here. Ignoring the services available, it's a very pretty and clean city which has a lot of charm.

Tomorrow I am moving into student accommodation, which is a little far from the centre, but well connected via the tram and very close to campus. I hope to find a cheap bike so as to easily travel between Résidence Ouest and the centre. The next 48 hours, and indeed two weeks will be pretty intense, here's a brief look at what needs to be done:

Checklist (in order of urgency) 

-Get French sim card
-open bank account (preferably with household insurance)
-Move into student accommodation (tomorrow)
-Print and sign certificate of arrival, send to Edinburgh international office
-Buy a frying pan, a regular pan, a fridge freezer, perhaps a mini oven/rings to cook with, a bike, cutlery, a few staples (olive oil, vinegar, miso, soya milk, cereal etc).
-Meet Erasmus coordinator and redo learning agreement
-Email Edinburgh uni DELC office with confirmation that I have done everything necessary to get started.
-Find calendar dates and book fight home

Things I must do when in Grenoble

-visit la bastille
-a weekend away in Lyon
-a day trip to Annecy
-visit the local museum
-get a hair cut and waxing treatment
-Go clothes shopping (LOVE all those ethnic prints which are currently in fashion)
-meet regularly with tandem partners
-Eat Vietnamese food and churros
-weekend in Paris
-Regularly read online newspapers and magazine articles
-sign up to the local library
 -go hand gliding or sky diving...? 

Yelping in Milan

Yesterday I took the train from stazione Garibaldi, Milan, to Chambery, France, from which I took a bus to Grenoble. The day before yesterday however I left Cremona for a night out in Milan with a school friend who now lives near Wagner. She took me to her lovely little flat, had a natter and catch up, then took the metro to i navigli. From there we wondered around until reaching our destination: Ginger cocktail lab.

As many of you may know I write reviews for Yelp, and have been an elite member since March. This has meant that I have been able to try out some of the best service, food and drink in Edinburgh. Since moving to Italy I had been relatively distracted, and only managed a few reviews as I didn't really go to many restaurants/cafés, and the ones I did frequent were in Cremona, a city which has no community manager. For this reason, I am registered as being in the Milanese yelp community. This summer I haven't had many opportunities to visit Milan thanks to the expensive train fares, lack of "abbonamento" and intense heat. I will be making almost daily trips to Milan from January to July when I start studying there as a full-time student.

Coincidentally the August yelp elite event fell upon the day I was planning to go to Milan anyway. My train the next morning was at 8.30am, and I didn't really fancy getting up at 5am to commute into Milan. I felt better being able to offer my friend something in return for hosting me, and invited her along as my plus one.

We got a great welcome reception from the Milanese yelp community. So many people were talking to us, most spoke in Italian though  many people made an effort to at least say something in English to make as feel more at home. 

We got two free cocktails, I had a fruity pineapple and passion fruit cocktail followed by the most delicious ginger cocktail ever, topped with thin strands of dark chocolate which solidified on the surface of the drink. The aperitivo was Milanese style, which meant that an abundance of food was available in the buffet, much of which was vegan and gluten free. I tried about 5 different tofu salads, some with walnuts and avocados others with thinly sliced raw vegetables. There was also a rice salad which was very good, and some foccaccie and pizzette which I couldn't eat. There were plenty of non-veggie options too, which my friend enjoyed, and some fresh pineapples and watermelon wedges which were a welcome treat after the delicious food. We didn't feel rushed nor restricted to one plate, the buffet kept refilling itself.

The barman was like a robot, he seemed quite the master of cocktail making, and yet still retained a friendly demeanour. The waitress was very friendly, even after having to return our first cocktail (major blunder, the barman thought we said we really liked liquorice when in fact the music must have drowned out the "only thing we don't like is..." bit.

Definitely stolen from Michele Florio

This was definitely a very cool evening. We both got a little tipsy and ended up walking for an hour before getting home, feeling very high on happy vibes.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Initial thoughts on Mandarin (coming from the mouth of a beginner)

Three weeks ago I started learning Chinese. I am lucky enough to have a friend in Cremona who was born in Italy but has Chinese parents and speaks fluent Mandarin. She had just returned to Italy after a year in America, and so wanted to keep up her English to pass a TOEFL exam, with high hopes to study abroad in the USA or the UK in September 2014. We met up with for an aperitivo and agreed to meet a few times this summer and exchange languages. Those "a few times" turns into 3 or 4 times a week full on lessons.

I would meet at her flat and study Chinese from Italian for an hour. We would then put down the book and chat in English about everything and anything.

I have with me the Collins book Chinese Language and Culture. It is extremely interesting, informative, and gives a brief idea about the kind of problems one might encounter with Mandarin, namely: Pinyin vs Characters, the counting systems, tones. It also provides motivation, emphasising the "lack" of grammar in Mandarin and the ease of learning the often one or two syllable words. That said, there was definitely an obstacle: the pronunciation. Though the pronunciation guide is rich, and the method for learning tones is about as good as a written guide can get, I still think it is necessary to learn these things from a native speaker.

The tones are the main complaint of every Mandarin learner, be it from a beginner or advanced student. When said clearly and in order, it is pretty easy to notice the different, but being emphatic enough often poses a difficulty. I found copying my friend's pronunciation, reading and being corrected and moving my head at the same time as sounding the tone all useful. While it is quite straightforward picking out the 3rd tone, sometimes the other three can be very subtle and difficult to identify in full sentences.

Things which I have learned in the past few weeks:

1. That Chinese is an SVO language and there is no inversion even for questions. So to make a question of "Nǐ hǎo", which literally means "you are good", you would retain the same order but add the question marker "ma". So "Nǐ hǎo ma?" means how are you?"

2. The numbers from one to ten With these you can count up to 99. 20 would be 2 10, 11 would be 10 1 and so on. 3. The Pinyin system. There are undoubtedly a few vowel combinations I am unsure of, but I have got the jist and feel I would be quite comfortable with reading a text in pinyin, though very slowly to ensure I get those tones right...

4. There are no conjugations like in romance languages. The past is demonstrated by adding an extra past marking after the verb, either le or guò, the former describes action which could still affect the present, the latter describing events which have finished, and/or could have been repeated in the past. 

5. The main way of talking about the future is similar to the English way. "I will" previously meant I want: Wǒ yào qù Běijīng. It is loosely equivalent to the English "I am going to", showing intent.

6. The equivalent to the English "I will" is found more in Wǒ huì Zhōngguó", meaning "I will speak Chinese". This is more of a prediction about the future rather than an intent. 

7. Many new words are formed through compounds. Many concepts are visualized in terms of the images which could be used to described them. "Zhōngguó rén", for example, translated as "Chinese person", literally means middle-country person. jīntiān, which means "today", is actually a combination of the words current/modern and day. The character for day, 天, also means heaven as has an important place in Taoism. Often by learning a small set of basic everyday characters, it becomes possible to create more complex meanings. 

8. The counting system is a little scary. Though the cardinal and ordinal numbers are easy enough to remember (for ordinal numbers you just stick a "dì" before cardinal ones), there is an important classifier which must be put between the number and noun, depending on what type of noun it is. The most common is "gè".

What I miss about home

For the past 8 years, I have spent at least the majority, if not all of my 3 month summer holidays out of the country. This has been been a method of catching a "real" summer, getting a tan, spending less than I would on rent in the UK, and going on a fragmented journey of self discovery. I would have gone the hole hog and set off overland to Bali or further afield had I enough time, but as it so happens I am a modern languages student. This is my alternative. Initially I thought I was running away to some better reality, which is often the case when one is overly familiar with one's home. I have always craved the exotic and detested the monotonous British countryside, the bland British food and rotten class system. Surprisingly, spending sometime away from home has made me realize that the UK is not THAT bad after all...

After au pairing for a month in Switzerland I returned to Italy to spend the rest of the summer with my boyfriend's parents, in the small city of Cremona. I had fond memories of both countries, Switzerland thanks to its incredible mountaintops, quaint little towns and delicious chocolate, Italy for its dazzlingly elegant coasts, lakesides, melodic language and friendly people. When visiting as a tourist it is easy to be blinded to the faults of a country and see only the positive things. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?

Working in Switzerland gave me an entirely new perspective on the country. To start off with, I wasn't nestled in a chalet in the mountains for the entire time, I was in a very wealthy city, Lausanne. One stereotype was quickly replaced by another in my mind, that of Swiss watches, investment bankers, over cleanliness and plush lakeside hotels. I didn't like this new image of the country near as much as the first. It was a pretty town, people were wealthy but everything both in and out of the shops screamed capitalism. The family I was staying with were very nice, but you could see the effect money had on them. Too much money leads to bizarre life choices... Why not buy a contraption which cuts the green bit from strawberries? Or pay to visit an artificial lake when there is a wide range of far more beautiful natural lakes in the city? Or pay the equivalent of £10 for 6 rolls of sushi just because you can? Heck, why not get your children an au pair when they would rather spend time with their parents or get plugged into the matrix?

So I spent some time in a chalet too, and I did eat lots of chocolate, but living in the country I realized it wasn't altogether better than where I was brought up. My parents worked enough to live and give me plenty of great experiences, but never went through the protestant work regime, so I had both their attention and security.

Italian hospitalty. It seems limitless right? There is a point where you work out that you have overreached your stay, over-abused your stomach and your poor waist line. La dolce vita cannot continue every day, and doesn't even for the Italians who apparently are blessed with the gift of slow living. My offers to help are still rejected, yet I feel the resentment building up. Blood pressure is often high amongst Italians, and it is unsurprising considering the passion/stress levels.

I won't ruin the contents of my top 10 list before even getting started. Let's go...

1. Independence. This is the number 1 thing I miss about being out of the country. This is not the fault of any country I am in, but rather, the circumstances in which I find myself. Whilst my parents are pretty easy going when I visit, here I might as well have set off an atomic bomb if a drip of water dares touch the clean tiles. Better not mention the consequences of daring to mention by lactose allergy. What on earth will I eat if I cannot digest mozzarella? Really better not tell them I am vegan...

2. Small lunches and more substantial breakfasts. Brits love the idea of slow meditteranean lunches, a delicious antipasti followed by a bowl of fresh pasta bursting with fresh aromatic flavours, soaked up with bread and followed with cheese and fresh frittata. All of this washed down with a deep red wine. First of all, at home Italians drink Lambrusco, a pleasant enough "soda" which goes by the name of wine. It is sweet, sometimes sickly, and often results in tipsiness at 12pm. This and the big lunch results in a massive stomach ache if consumed everyday after having been starved all morning (yes, here they have coffee and a biscuit for breakfast if you are lucky). I must admit I miss my porridge, mid morning snack and gut-loving mini lunch. The lunch of la dolce vita is occasionally quite sublime, but if eaten every day can only lead to angina and an afternoon food hangover, surely?

3. Good television. I never really appreciated the BBC and HBO (yes, American, but well-diffused in the UK) as I should have. Whilst we have Attenborough, Doctor Who, monty python, game of thrones, Michael Wood and a whole host of amazing documentaries, dramas and comedians, Italy has Mediaset and a variety of badly dubbed American reality TV shows like Breaking Amish.

4. My cats. Not much needs to be said regarding this one, but I really do want to spend some quality cuddle time with them both.

5. The sea and the mountains. Yes Italy has plenty of high mountain ranges and beautiful coastal towns. Unfortunately I am about as inland as you can get in the sweltering Po valley. The heat I once craved is agonising, I actually miss the cool salty sea breeze and the roaring winds which break the silence in the glen. Here I feel like a rabbit in an open space, there is no where to run to or hide. At least cycling is an option.

6. Travel culture. A well-thought out gap year between 6th form and university reflects well both in academic and social spheres in the UK. It shows you are worldly, independent, have broadened your horizons, and you usually turn up at university far maturer and ready to study. Chances are you also have something to add to your CV, be it volunteer work in Burundi, language learning in Austria or a TEFL course in Thailand. Whatever you do will undoubtedly give you some kind of experience, anyway. I did a foundation art course at my local college which was still free as I was under the age of 19. I met loads of cool people and gained plenty of experience/new skills, as well as an extra qualification. It was also a step up between school and university which gave me a taste of independence without too much of an abrupt change. I then spent 2 months in South America, travelling in Brazil and Argentina, living a dream and visiting the Amazon rainforest. Not only did this gap year look impressive to employers and the university admissions committee, but it also gave me an incredible life experience and I got to meet many new people. All too often in other countries the reaction when I say I went on a gap year is far from the "Wow that's so cool" that I regularly get in the UK/America. Here in Italy for example, there is not a strong gap year culture, and a more urgent rush to graduate. It's a shame, because it means that many students feel under pressure when they are distracted by other ambitions, unsure of what they want to do, and too often end up studying a subject by which they are not interested and have no motivation to excel. Travelling is just not on the agenda for many Italians, so are "so anxious" to get to university that they often repeat years and take it slowly in the end, graduating at a later date than many Brits. It's a personal thing, but in my opinion you should travel earlier on in life when fit and healthy if the desire to travel is present. It really does open up your mind.

7. Variation in the diet. I like Italian food, but as already mentioned it is often carb heavy, fat heavy and very rich. It is also lacking in spice. I miss eating Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese food. I miss inventing dishes and trying new stuff every now and then.

8. A mild climate. I was also convinced that I hated lukewarm summers and cold but snowless winters. Whilst I do love a bit of sun and snow, I have come to appreciate the comfort of mild weather patterns. In South West England in particular it was never colder than -1 degrees celcius in Winter, and never much hotter than 25 in Summer. For someone used to 35 degrees heat, this may sound cold, but when it arrives after 15 degrees in Spring it sometimes feels tropical. I could swim outside in 25 degrees, eat an ice cream, lie on the beach, all without the displeasure of meeting mosquitos, jelly fish, and avoiding the risk of heat stroke. Don't get me wrong, I love hot countries, but when in a city with no sea/lake to resort to, life is tough. I love the snow too, but only if it snows before Christmas. Afterwards it is far too often a curse, mixing with mud and salt to create that gritty dirty slush which makes movement cumbersome. It delays/cancels flights, blocks roads, causes accidences and increases heating bills. Either way, extreme weather also makes it difficult if you have plans to do anything productive that day. In Florida I got hives from the heat, in China last year I looked disfigured for 3 days after an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite on the face, this summer I am suffering from dizziness and multiple itchy bites. In the extreme cold I suffer from raynaud's disease, which shows its full fury and my extremities turn blue. With extreme temperatures, the body is likely to suffer and life may need to be put on hold.

9. Useful product details. As a vegetarian verging on vegan with a gluten intolerance this is something I really miss when outside northern Europe/the USA. Product labelling is essential in the UK, and it is easy to find some indication that a product is vegetarian/gluten free/contains nut. Here, and in many other countries, it is difficult to distinguish between animal rennet/vegetarian rennet, as both are dubiously listed as "caglio". Though vegetarianism is getting more diffused in Italy, and health food shops are more likely to provide useful labelling ("caglio caprino/bovino etc/caglio microbico", the latter being vegetarian), in supermarkets this still too often a problem. I guess it generally quite disturbs me that there is such a lack of vegetarianism here. Sure, there are plenty of products like vitasoia gelato, soya milk, seitan and tofu burgers, but many people just eat these for health reasons. It is difficult to get hold of gelatine free sweets, for example M&S veggie percy pigs, Katie's veggie sweets, trolli vegetarian fizzy mix and haribo veggie funmix. With a high occurence of coeliac disease, at least Italy is good at labelling products as being "senza glutine". I will struggle on, and probably miss a lot of accidentally suitable products by being too cautious.

10. Privacy. Bathroom doors open, unannounced visitors and the culture of making room for relatives in whatever small space that may be found. Knocking on the door seems to be quite alien to many cultures, who are apparently okay about being caught naked or on the loo. I even get my food inspected here. It is difficult to get used to minor details like these. I guess I miss feeling as though no one will disturb me when I am in my room. In a strange way though I feel I have more privacy in hostels, because despite sleeping in dorm rooms, there is a definite social constraint which prevents too much invasion of privacy.

So there we go. Not too many things, but enough to appreciate where I am from. Now to get on with it and enjoy this lifestyle while I can. I am heading to Grenoble on Thursday, and will not return here for at least 3 months, if not 5.