Sunday, 29 September 2013

What brings me down

I had expected to write a post about how lovely the last week has been, how I have been on a couple of hikes, visited Annecy and Chambery, walked up to la bastille in the centre of town, eaten authentic Japanese food with a Japanese friend, spoken more and more in French, played a drinking game in French (Je n'ai jamais... so-not me but I enjoyed myself for once!) changed courses for a few options, thoroughly enjoyed my first Chinese lecture and just generally had a really great time. Instead, I am going to briefly talk about something that happened today, and how it made me reflect on my position as a female in society.

To cut a long story short, I got spat on twice. I was walking through town with my tandem partner. We were in the old centre near la bastille and suddenly I felt and saw a large disgusting gob of spit land on my leg (I was wearing Jeans, fortunately). I started to walk back then looked up and saw someone staring at me in a really hostile manner and they spat at me again, I had jumped away but they caught my coat anyway. Ran away pretty fast and my friend helped me find a fountain to rinse my clothes. I do not know why that happened. Did this man sense that I was a foreigner? Was it my blond hair or my black waterproof coat? I do not really know, though I know that I was the target. It was not my friend, who was slightly shocked and very sorry that it had happened to me. His hypothesis was that the man was probably crazy. That is probably true, but it is still the case that I was most definitely chosen over my friend, who is a guy.

I would just walk away irritated and disgusted with the intention to get over it, as assholes like that should not get a special place in my head, but at the same time, this is not the first time something like this has happened to me. A few years ago I was chased down the street by a man in central Athens who was waggling his tongue out at me. A month later in Florence I was walking from the centre to the station at 9am when a man stepped out of his house and started masturbating in front of me. I ran, I was not touched, yet I still felt assaulted. A month later this happened again in Antibes, France. I was walking home from an afternoon language class when a guy pulled up his car next to me and started doing the same thing as the man in Florence... I promptly went home, felt paranoid, gazed around alert and wide-eyed like a hunted deer. 

Before you ask, I was not dressed provocatively. I rarely wear any makeup, I was just dressed in casual clothing, jeans and a waterproof coat with a pair of hiking shoes. This should not even be regarded as important though. What kind of society and we living in if women have to dress to avoid sexual harassment, when men can strip down to their underpants and still remain relatively powerful?

I am a powerful woman. I have strong ideas, though I do not voice them in public so as to not start unnecessary conflict. I have ambition, plans, I work hard in just about every sphere. I have a boyfriend and like to feel as though I am on an equal level with him. Sure, we have different reproductive systems but similar ideas about politics and ethics. Whatever I have inside of me will perhaps never be enough to counteract some of the prehistoric ideas of some human beings. 

Recently the rape case in India brought media and global eyes to the country and deemed it a dangerous place for women. I would like to emphasize that it is not the only country in which females are vulnerable. In mainland Europe I have avoided the so-called dangerous areas, taken no risks, and yet still I have encountered threatening behaviour. Even in the UK, Rape is more common than it should be and usually women are the victims. Far more women are the focus of domestic violence than men, women are still poorly represented in politics and traditional roles for women are still common received ideas in many spheres of society. Men are often still frowned upon or mocked for taking on so-called "women's roles" such as house keeping, cooking or looking after the children, whereas women who make it in business or demand more equality in society are often deemed "raging feminists" or "dykes". Does this make me one? I have far too many female friends who have told me that they have been in similar situations, i.e. they felt threatened/intimidated in public spaces as females. 

I would love to leave the house without feeling the need to plaster myself with bubble wrap, but sometimes this seems one of the only options. 

Whilst my next post will most certainly be about exciting experiences, curiosities, and linguistic and cultural encounters, this post is important. I recommend you all to try and stay safe, but I would also suggest that you remind yourselves that these things can happen. Occurrences like this do not mean we are guilty of being provocative, or "wanting it" as Robert Thicke's embarrassingly crude song Blurred Lines seems to suggest; it is rather indicative of the sad fact that many changes are still necessary in order for women to be truly counted as equals in a male-dominated society.

Monday, 23 September 2013

First week of courses

So this is what I am really here for when it gets down to it. I have noticed that the system here is very different to the British one. A passport photo, way too many documents and confirmation emails seem to be required for EVERY course. This is a little bit excessive, time wise and money wise.

In terms of the actual courses, my initial freak-out moment was when I realised that each class lasts 2 hours here. Some people have it even worse though, with 3 hour classes. Fortunately I do not have it that bad, but still, 2 hours is way too long to sit in a classroom. Especially in French. I concentrate for the first hour, with great effort, then slowly find my mind dissolving and take refuge in my interior world of thought and imagination, or else the distracting campus wifi network on my android... Aside from Phonétique et Phonologie, which was very well organised and actually had a power point presentation, most courses here just consist of some lecturer rambling on about something in parrot-fashion, something which they so clearly rehearsed a hundred times before. I just get the feeling that there is little spontaneity in some of these classes. In particular, my first course caused me a sleepless night. Cinèma was a very long repetitive ramble about disconnected moments in the history of cinema, with a 20 minute "interval" in which we watched one of the most pretentious art house movies I have ever seen, "l'amour existe". After this 2 hour lecture on a Monday afternoon, I was seriously reconsidering my decision to do Erasmus in France, I am not going to lie.

Fortunately my experiences were better later in the week. Tuesday morning Grammaire Française also came with a long ramble, but at least it was a nice friendly ramble and I got the sense that the teacher did want to help us. Tuesday afternoon I had the already mentioned Phonétique et Phonologie. It would seem that linguistics courses are just universally well-organized. The lecturer also asked us to fill in a little piece of paper with the languages we speak and a few questions we would like answered. That was quite a nice personal touch. Wednesday morning I didn't have a class, but from this week onwards I will be doing Italien thème, a translation course from French-Italian which seems like quite a challenge. On Wednesday afternoon I had littérature d'idées. I was quite intimidated by the French at first, and the class interaction, but all in all the course seems very interesting, and the teacher is very enthusiastic about what he is teaching. There are three main works that we will be looking at this semester, though we were told we could choose to just read two and base our coursework on one. I am going to be looking at André Gide's Corydon (1920) and Christine de Pisan's Le Chemin de longe estude (1403). I am not sure which one I will be concentrating on yet. Each week we also have to read short extracts of literature which may or may not be considered littérature d'idées. This week I read a page from Descartes' Discours de Méthode (1637) and a Science fiction work, Second Foundation (1953) by Isaac Asimov. The lecturer is pretty cool with us reading translations or the Modern French alternatives to Medieval texts. I sent him a nerve-filled email after the lecture after seeing the fast-paced class participation, and he sent me an essay-like response within minutes which cleared away all my anxiety.

Thursday Morning I had pratique de la langue française. It seems like a good course for picking up vocabulary and I had the same teacher who I had had for Grammaire française. I signed up with a group to do the first oral presentation, which will take place on the 3rd October. We chose to talk about the role of women in society, and have to come up with a structured and interesting talk and a powerpoint presentation this week. At least it will be out of the way! In the afternoon I sat for 30 minutes outside what was supposedly littératures francophones, before finally realising that the lecturer was not coming. Of course when I went to the international office the secretary already knew this information. Why couldn't she send us an email or put a notice on the door? I guess I will find out what that course is like this week.

Friday I had a very good translation course, but found out I have to change to that Wednesday class I already mentioned as the Friday course was a general traduction course, whereas I am supposedly going to do thème which is translation from French-Italian. This course should be quite hardcore, but it seems interesting. The prof already sent me the work that needs doing for Wednesday morning-a translation of a text by Camus. On Friday afternoon I attended a meeting about les randonnées, the sport qualificant course which I will be doing every Friday in October. We will be walking in some amazing looking places, mainly in Belledonne and Chartreuse. Most of the walks will mean I will be busy between 13h-18.30h every Friday, though the last and longest walk will take up a full day, from 9h-18h!

From this week I will also have pretty intense Wednesdays, as I will also have Chinese every Wednesday evening. At least I will have a four-day weekend. That will provide time for some sight seeing, keeping up with homework and the voluntary work which will I be committing to from November 1st onwards at Phares.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Soul searching in the French Alps

Spending time away from home and day-to-day routine certainly makes you think about who you are. During the summer I actually grew bored of reading after the 8th book and craved some form of social interaction. I have been around people since the 28th August, when I moved to Grenoble. I have quickly realized that I can have enough of people after short periods of time, though I do enjoy their accompany occasionally when not making small talk.

I had one of those intensive integration weeks: class meetings, hundreds of introductions to new people, a night drinking in the park, practicing French with locals, watching a film with some friends in their room, eating with people and chatting with them everyday. Cool, I was satisfying my need to see people. Then the news started reaching me that there was an Erasmus welcome party, and just about everyone was planning on going. It cost 10 euros to get a ticket, which was pretty expensive, but my first thought was "oh god, I guess I ought to go though..." People I had met kept asking "est-ce que tu as déjà acheté ton billet?",  "tu viens avec nous à la fete?", and a whole host of other uncomfortable questions. I was slightly begrudging paying for a party I knew I would probably dislike. Suddenly logic unveiled itself; why pay to go to a party I dislike? I don't like clubs, excessive drinking or small talk. Thus, I decided quite casually to spend the night in. I experienced a serious recharge sitting on my arse doing more or less nothing. I was thinking though, recharging and regaining energy that too many social encounters had stolen from me. Even though I really enjoyed the movie night with my new friends, for example, I felt exhausted when I left the room, yet immediately perked up when sitting at my desk alone. The truth is, too much socializing drains me of energy.

That's okay. It does not mean I am lacking in social skills, it just means I do not enjoy too much socializing. There is probably a reason as to why I always come out as an introvert on Carl Jung's personality test. I am not actually shy usually, nor a snob, nor an absolute nerd. I just like my space in generous portions.

So if such a huge-scale party doesn't excite me, what does? Today I went on a quite spontaneous 6 hour hike with a few people from my résidence and some couchsurfers. I spoke in both French and English, got a  sunburn, had a picnic with an incredible view, felt an incredible thirst after some steep slopes, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. These were interesting and enriching conversations and sights, I got an experience to remember and felt like I was doing something good for my mind and body.

One of the friends who I had met in the résidence luckily has a car an drove a group of to the car park, from which we commenced on our hike (starting the hike at about 9.30am). We walked to the summit of Aulp de Seuil and then reached the beautiful arch. The view was outstanding, and the white peak on the horizon is Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe. Up here on the plateau there was an absolute tranquility (when we weren't chatting), warm rays from the sun, and an occasional refreshingly light breeze. It was only a 4.5 km walk, but the almost vertical steep and crumbly slopes made it feel more like 7km. It took us over 6 hours to go up and down, including our picnic break and occasional photo stops.

Some of the others are going out for a drink in town this evening. I decided to stay here with my sunburn, gluten free chocolate cake, skype, and my blog. It was great, but I feel like recharging.

In other news, due to annoyingly placed exams post Christmas, I think I have decided I will stay here in December up until mid-January. My boyfriend will also come, and we may be spending Christmas in a traditional chalet in a mountain village with a French friend I met here. We then intend to get a cheap ride to Paris with covoiture, spend a few days there, then catch the megabus to Edinburgh or Dundee via London.
Life gets complicated.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A veggie in Grenoble

 Vegetarianism may seem difficult in France what with all the “jambon” sneaked into everything, but veganism can be even more daunting. Often rare veggie options like gratin and crepes are swimming in butter, cream and cheese.  Both vegetarianism and veganism are however well represented in Modern day France. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and products which cater for this life choice.

Bio shops often sell a wide range of veggie and vegan products, though at least in Grenoble these are not always exclusively animal free. They often sell organic meats, fish oils and cans of tuna.  With a little bit of French vocabulary under your sleave, they can however be very useful. “Végétalien” vs “vegetarian". "Sans oeufs, sans lait, sans viande, sans poisson, sans poulet.” 

Cheese can be a great option for veggies, though do  look out for “prèsure animale”, which is in fact animal rennet.  If buying in a fromagerie it might be worth checking whether this is an ingredient. Likewise, check for meat stock in soups when ordering seemingly vegetarian options. French onion soup, for example, is usually made with beef stock (and loaded with animal rennet laden cheese). Make sure you recognize the word for ham (jambon) too. This ingredient often makes its way into otherwise vegetarian sandwiches and salads.

Vegans are well accommodated for in those bio shops, though the products are often expensive. Some tofu dishes include cheese as an added ingredient, so be careful for that too. Usually on offer in such shops are various varieties of tofu, today in Satoriz I saw  Tofu affumé (smoked), tofu curry (self-explanatory) and Tofu Français (marinated in herbes de provence). Ready made seitan is also an option for those who can eat gluten, which can make for a nice alternative to soya products. Beans, chickpeas and lentils are very common and amongst the cheaper products on the market. 

 If in need of something in a supermarket, the soja sun company has a range of veggie steaks and burgers which are gluten free, vegan, and I have so far seen the following flavours: Indian, tomato and basil, and classic. 

Both bio shops and supermarkets alike cater for a vegan sweet tooth, with many vegan biscuits, soya yogurts and desserts, and plenty of really good dark chocolate. Very good sorbets are readily available, and often dark chocolate ice cream is also made without milk (you had better ask). 

Being a good vegetarian, your diet (should be) is likely to be based on fruit and vegetables. France rules for fresh produce, so you are in for a spot of luck. Throughout the week there are various markets in town which sell a colourful selection of seasonal produce. I am yet to buy something, but can see me popping back come pumpkin and fennel season.

There WAS a purely vegetarian restaurant, le Mandragore which just closed so I missed out on, though it has been replaced by the apparently veggie-friendly bio restaurant Léchelle de la Grenouille. New to the scene, there is a vegetarian and vegan Italian restaurant, Sapori Antichi, which has rave reviews so far. Happy cow also points out that there is also a veggie and vegan friendly restaurant, Au clair de lune which could be worth visiting. 

Vegetarians and vegans are unlikely to encounter problems here, as many sushi, Indian and crepe restaurants have plenty of options. Don’t expect to find much at chain fastfood restaurants. Mcdonalds in the UK may have at least one veggie option, but here it is all meat, as is the French chain Quick. Vegans are likely to find that traditional alpine restaurants are off limits, though the Provençal cuisine offers more naturally vegan options, such as the famous and now widespread Ratatouille, a vegetable stew made from aubergines, red peppers, courgettes, onions, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil. Nice is also famous for its borrowing from Ligurian cuisine, the socca. It is basically a galette made from chickpeas flour, olive oil, water and salt. It is traditionally egg free and dairy free. Despite not being very common in other parts of France, it is very easy to find the ingredients (chickpea/gram flour: farine de pois chiche) and to make it at home.

Though the presence of meat and dairy may seem quite strong in this traditional mountain town, there is also a counter-culture; the mountain air, bicycle-beaten paths and health conscientiousness of the general population has made les Grenoblois cut back on their consumption of animal derived products. 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Erasmus-a step towards bringing the world together

My first encounter with the Erasmus project was a very positive one. After three years of being in a long distance relationship with a boy from Italy, we were finally united, living in the same city, under the same roof. Many people have to say goodbye to their loved ones when they go on their year abroad and many meet new loved ones. Erasmus brought us together. We appreciated every moment, grabbed every opportunity and broadened each others horizons, whilst training our brains through constant translation and interpretation. It was no ordinary Erasmus. Edinburgh was not a new city for my boyfriend, but it became a home. Despite having already been in the city for two years, my eyes opened anew. Leaving the city and our poky little cosy wee flat was traumatic. We drowned our confusion in a fleeting trip to unknown territory, Iceland, where differences and landscapes made us forget. It softened the blow but did not fully remove its effect.

On the 21st June we flew to Italy. I shed a tear for the life I had been living thanks to somebody else's Erasmus. I considered how fortunate we were that it existed, this programme which connects countries which otherwise are doomed to be kept apart. Borders, stereotypes, patriotism and other sorts of meaningless pride stop us from creating this peace, which takes a lot of motivation and courage to achieve.

After a summer of distractions I headed for France on the 28th August, reluctant to embark on my Erasmus year. Whereas previously I had associated Erasmus with closeness, I came to accept that it also meant distance, as is the case for most other people with partners. I expected loneliness, language difficulties, I missed the other Erasmus year. After being trusted with the keys to a flat by a nice Italian guy from couchsurfing, I moved into my accommodation on Sunday 1st August. I was desperate. I had no internet as I had no user login details. I had no food or bedding as all the supermarkets were closed. After using the wifi in a café with nothing but an espresso coffee, I headed home tired and frustrated. I met a girl from Senegal on the tram, who felt sorry for me and invited me to her house for mango juice and food. She ended up giving me sheets and a pillow case too. An hour later, and my tandem partner turned up to give me a pillow and towel. I gave them nothing, and they didn't expect anything.

As the week progressed I realized that making friends wasn't so difficult. I have quickly made friends with people from Germany, Colombia, Nigeria, Brazil, France and England, though our lingua franca is almost always French (with the occasional word in English). People have offered me food, drink, invited me out, helped me with computer problems, provided me with company. I didn't really need reminding, but Erasmus serves as another big reminder that borders are useless, and only testiment to power. We are all people and we all want the same things: love and intimacy. We are all curious to a certain extent.

Erasmus helps break down these abstract labels. English? Yeah, because that is what my official documents say. I hate hearing about people who struggled to get a visa, who would like to stay here after graduating but are legally obliged to return to their home country. I live on this planet, and so does everyone else. We are earthlings, and restrictions which tie us down and tear us apart are cruel. They infringe our most basic human rights. I want to feel able to see the people I love without fear that we will be forcibly ripped apart. It would be great to be able to walk and keep on walking without eventually being told to halt and show my documents. So that is England and this is France, so what? Who decided to put a line right here? The EU is gradually eradicating these disgusting abuses of power, whilst still protecting the diversity which naturally unfurls with distance (and time) from any one point to another. My hope is that the Erasmus programme will continue to make people rethink insignificant categories such as race and nationality. Because all of those political devices are just that, political constructions. And we are the human race.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

campus vs city life

Campus vs city life

I am currently writing this post from my laptop on a word document, as I will not have internet until I become enrolled as a student. There are positives about not having the internet-I have time to read, write and socialize. I ended up spending yesterday evening in the kitchen with a nice French girl from nearby who is studying English and Japanese. We have decided to speak one day in French, the next in English to help each other out. She is a Doctor who, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones fan, so I doubt we will run out of things to talk about.  She offered me some coffee and said I can use her microwave whenever I fancy, which is a very useful proposition, considering that up until then I thought I would only be able to make food on the hob. I thought it was quite surprising to see a French person in this international-student-dominated hall of residence (in a good way). She concurred, though said that she was here for “this”, i.e. the social side of things. The kitchen may be poorly equipped, a little vacuous, but it is a great place to meet people.  

So whilst I am not yet enrolled as a student, something which I unfortunately cannot do until Thursday, I am now in student accommodation and have visited the campus. I didn’t plan this very well, so arrived in student halls on Sunday just to realize that everything was closed, including the university, the local supermarket, the nearby restaurants. So there I was with an empty fridge and a bare bed. I went into the centre desperately seeking food and bedding, but all the supermarkets were closed. The only places open were expensive looking restaurants and a few fast food joints. After looking everywhere I realized that the only thing I could eat being a vegetarian (within my budget) was something with gluten. I had some churros for 1.90 euros. They were good. I went home after taking advantage of the internet from a central coffee shop and headed home. I ended up talking to a girl from Senegal who took pity on me, invited me to her house and gave me some mango juice, but also offered me food. When I said I didn’t have bedding she gave me some sheets, a mattress cover and a pillow case. Her and her sister came to see my room, curious about uni accommodation. There are some really generous people in the world… A  local post graduate student who I had met several days earlier also felt sympathy towards me and brought me a pillow and a towel. 

I walked to campus the first time, which was a bad idea. When they call the campus a cité they are barely exaggerating. I eventually found Stendhal, and then the central area which was very modern, with coffee shops, banks, ticket offices and an international student’s centre. It’s green, wooded, there are views of the mountains, but it is clear that there are only students and teachers in this vast area.

This is quite strange for me, coming from a university which is very much part of the city, with buildings spread across the centre of Edinburgh. The students at Stendhal still frequent the city, but by bike or tram, which I soon realized I would have to buy if I wanted to avoid going crazy. It’s nice sometimes to pretend that deadlines do not exist and that I am studying because I want to be studying. I like doing this in parks and cafés. Though 27 euros a month is an extra expense for which I hadn’t planned, the tram ticket will give me the liberty to do these this. It will also undoubtedly be great for socialising, shopping and visiting attractions like the bastille. The tram is very efficient, a 5 minute walk from the halls of residence, and takes very little time to reach the centre of town. It is also quite a nice journey, you get to see the surrounding mountains and the river.

I think that here in Grenoble I am going to appreciate resources such as couchsurfing and the student’s own Intégré service (like Tandem at the University of Edinburgh). It’s extremely important here making friends for one’s sanity, and finding friends who can help you with your language goals is an added bonus.
The international student office confirmed that there are plenty of University “assosciations” (like British university societies) organized on campus, and on the brochure I saw photos of fencing, paragliding, skiing, rugby and archery, so I guess you can practice them here. If paragliding is an option I will definitely do it. I would like to try out something completely new too, so if there is a dance assosciation I may try it. I would also like to keep up yoga. I know that when it comes down to it, I will have to  make some firm decisions and stick to them. It’s impossible to do everything and still succeed with studies, which brings me to my final pressing concern...

My learning agreement. I got sick looking at this thing, though it would seem as though I need to do so again. I have a few clashes, and quite frankly I am relieved to have the opportunity to change a few things. When I speak to the erasmus coordinator I am going to try and get rid of that course 16th and 17th century literature. Francophone literature will already be bad enough, surely.  I am going to hold on to grammaire française, Cinèma and Chinois, regardless of what else happens. It would probably be wise to sway more towards linguistics courses, rather than literature and philosophy. I think the French are on a completely different level when it comes to literary criticism, and it may be hard to learn their technique in the few months in which I am here.

You know I love lists, so here’s a reminder to myself of what I hope to accomplish:

1.       Reading in French for pleasure every week, be it with library books, magazines, newspaper articles.
2.       Weekly meetings with my tandem partner and other French friends I may find along the way.
3.       Volunteering work.
4.       Participation in clubs where French is spoken.
5.       Skiing.
6.       Learn a few French nuances.
7.       (At least) weekly Memrise.
8.       Conversational Chinese.