Thursday, 26 December 2013

French Christmas, Digital Christmas

The day before Christmas eve there were fireworks on the bastille. There was also a nativity scene in town, complete with a donkey and a goat...

On Christmas Eve morning I went to my Swedish friend's place to "help him" finish of his vegan mudcake with soyatoo cream. We drank a lot of coffee too, and I spoke with his aunt from Marseille (who was born in Algeria) and his gran, to whom the flat belongs. They were preparing a North African sweet made with peanut oil, flour and sugar, and molded into little balls.When my friend went to fill up the coffee I overheard his gran asking my name, and asking whether I would like to join in their family celebration that evening.

Christmas eve isn't really much of a big deal in the UK. Children get impatient about the next day, leave out food for Father Christmas and the reindeer, and perhaps watch a Christmas movie to get into the festive spirit. I wasn't really feeling it this year. I honestly just craved an unconventional Christmas with a few episodes of the walking dead, a curry and sleep. It turns out that in France, like in much of continental Europe, the 24th is pretty important. I of course seized the opportunity with a definite yes.

My mum and I then met for lunch, which was in an organic restaurant a little away from the centre, l'échelle de la grenouille. I orded l'assiette végétalienne, a colourful dish with a massive salad, lentils and smoked tofu, a slice of pumpkin tart, rice with ratatouille, cooked leeks, pumpkin puree and lentil soup. It was actually very filling but left me feeling quite clean and satisfied all afternoon. My mum had some fish dish. We shared the vegan chocolate brownie for pudding, with was very good. We walked home, stopping to buy a few last minute gifts. I watched the walking dead before heading out.

It was quite a full house that evening, the decorations and table layout was perfect. Each guest had been given some chocolate and some hyacinths. Champagne was flowing like water. We watched the two very cute and polite little girls open their presents, and after some time talking and drinking started eating. I can say that as vegans, what we were eating was actually quite moderate and healthy. We had lentil soup, followed by roast carrots, pumpkin, turnips and avocado sushi (whilst the others had salmon). The breaks between courses were pretty long. The next course was gratin made with onions, potatoes and soya cream. The others had sausages too. Next came the cheese-we continued to nibble on the baguette. The real treat was found at the end: chocolate sorbet, those little peanut sweets, mandarins and fresh pineapple. This meal ended at about 23.30, though we didn't leave until about 00.30.

Christmas day, I woke up way too early and so passed the time with the penultimate episode of season 3 of the walking dead. I then went to the boulangerie to buy some bread and a croissant, and we opened our stockings. The mosquito spray inside hinted that I was going to some hot country. Mysterious holiday turned out to be... Senegal and the Gambia! Heading there on the 12th January. I stole "someone's" recipe for roasted pumpkin and served it to my mum for brunch, watched the final episode of walking dead and slept all afternoon. We then went out for one of the most sickly meals ever, came back and watched a documentary about Senegal and went to bed. I skyped my dad, grandma, aunt, uncle and cousins in England, brothers in England, Saudi Arabia and America, boyfriend in Germany. I remember when this was the future.

Mamma eats fondue

Friday, 20 December 2013

Exam week has finished and people are leaving

I spent more or less all of exam week tucked into bed, either sweating from a fever, blowing my nose or coughing in a vein attempt to regain full use of my vocal cords. I did all of my exams from the comfort of my bed. I only really left the house if there was a promise of food, or goodbyes were involved. Most goodbyes were said with a raspy witch voice, very little time and much hesitation. I usually prefer to sneak away quietly...

Looking back on this semester, it has truly been one of the best things I have done. I was a little apprehensive about coming initially, as I was also really happy where I was, but it was definitely a great decision. My original aim was to "improve my French and get good grades". I foresaw a semester of hard work, stress, and loneliness. Fun wasn't really part of the equation for me. My preconceptions were immediately challenged when I first arrived at the résidence, as you may see in one of my posts from early September. People were so unnecessarily altruistic. It was a huge relief. I immediately met people and formed friend networks. Due to my choice of courses, these were mainly other international students, though our main language is usually French. I also met a few French people, with whom I had interesting conversations and encounters, and bonded a little more with some people from my home University.

These friendships took me to different places, from the mountainous plateaus of charteuse and vercours to the warm Autumnal streets of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. I tried out a via ferrata, tried paragliding for the first time, understood French films in the cinema without needing subtitles, ate plenty of new exciting foods, attempted laser tag, got absolutely plastered for the first time in years and enjoyed myself doing so, started learning Chinese characters, attended la fete des lumières in Lyon, saw the canals of Annecy and visited Geneva again after having been there 5 months ago. I watched all three seasons of Game of thrones again, started the walking dead, got to see the English versions of the Hobbit and the sequel to the Hunger Games in the cinema. I earned some pocket money teaching private English classes. I spent two months hiking around the local mountains before it got too cold, the rest of the time eating and constructing a layer of blubber to defend me against winter on this side of the channel. In terms of my original language goals, I completed 6 courses in French, attended an intensive evening language course in October and spoke a lot of French with other none-natives, and some French friends. I have also volunteered in a hospice where the job involved speaking a lot with patients and staff, and allowed conversations to start wherever I found myself, be it in a shop or on a tram. I also got through a few hurdles in my life, started happy and finished happy. I have met some really special people, leaving is really going to be a bit of a bugger.

So, I never did read loin de Mèdine. I am not going to beat myself up about it though, as I spent quite a lot of time on the exposé, studied quite a bit for the linguistique historique, Italien traduction, and Chinois, and did all that was asked from me for pratique de la langue française and Grammaire française. In the end, I think I had the best of both worlds. This semester has ended, all I have left to do is change my Academic transcript to show which course options I changed around, and then get my certificate of departure printed.

My mummy is coming tomorrow. We will have a slightly unconventional Christmas together, probably eating well (and discovering which mysterious French-speaking country I will be going to), drinking, soaking up the French "ambiance", skyping family and watching something on the telly.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Geneva, Lasertag and a few reflections as the semester draws to a close

So it's been a roller coaster ride. On Sunday I took a rather spontaneous trip to Geneva with some friends to meet up with some other friends from Edinburgh. During the day I went to the museum I had visited in July when au pairing in Switzerland again with my Spanish friend, Alex. We then explored a medieval passage which is only open twice a year, before taking a stroll along the lake and trying to walk along every street. I drank hot chocolate to warm my fingers. I then got a vegetarian gummy sweet and dark chocolate delivery from one of the Edinburgh friends, which was much appreciated. There was a festival going on, la fete de l'escalade. The streets were roaring with Medieval reenactments, a procession of dukes on horseback followed by peasants leading cattle, donkeys and sheep, canons shooting and people in medieval attire. It was pretty surreal being in Geneva again after 5/6 months, but a reminder that life goes on when you leave a place, even if you just dip your toes in.

Yesterday, as a celebration for having finished class for this semester, I went for a vegetarian lunch at an organic restaurant called au clair de lune with my tandem partner, "someone else" and his friend. Polenta topped with roasted pumpkin and a chunky tomato sauce, served with salad, sweet red cabbage, a lentil paste, hummus and some wholegrain bread. It was pretty delicious. For pudding three of us opted for the chestnut flour chocolate fondant, a brownie like pudding with a hint of orange. My tandem partner had the surprise citron tart, within which there was a mystery ingredient. The restaurant had organised a game, the winner of which would guess the herb. It ended up to be tarragon, so our closest guess was fennel or aniseed. Realizing I had very little to do for the rest of the day, I spent it strolling around with my friendssss once my tandem went home. We did a sweet tour of the town, eating sticky sweet nutty treats from the oriental patisserie, the Christmas market and browsing incense shops. We spent a good hour in Nature and Découverte in Caserme de Bonne, something which has become a bit of a regular haunt for me, a place where I go to drink free herbal tea samples, smell scented candles and procrastinate amongst the many toys, instruments and gadgets. We got the feeling browsing that it was aimed at middle class women, the goods ranging from children's toys to yoga mats and self help books. Whatever, we sank ourselves into the massaging chairs and stayed there for a while. After eating dinner I realized that my throat was tightening up, and ended up doing laser tag with a sore throat, extreme congestion and a bit of a headache. Needless to say I came last, at least in my team. Not saying I would have done much better had I not been ill, but I think a wee bit better. It was fun though, very much like playing a video game.

This morning I said my first goodbye and realized that I am going home in just over two weeks time. As a seasoned traveler I am quite familiar with this feeling, though I realize that some goodbyes will be particularly difficult. My mum is coming here on Saturday and we will spend Christmas together. Then I just have the new year left in Grenoble before heading back home to the Scottish highlands. After 11 days at home I will be jetting off to some mysterious Francophone country, before potentially visiting Germany or Morocco at the end of January. We shall see! Then, prossima firmata, Milano, in February. I hope to make a few more posts about my experience in France before moving on.


Monday, 9 December 2013

2 Weekends in Lyon plus the first snow settles, Erasmus traditions

A German friend and I took advantage of covoiturage to pay a visit to Lyon the weekend before last. I think it was my first trip to Lyon. It was potentially my second trip, but if I did visit another time my memory was hazy.

We stayed in a high rise flat with an awesome view of the city. Our couchsurfing host was an English expat. He was obsessed with marmite, tea and an assortment of other things quintessentially British. We checked out the town, walked up to the basilica and around the old town, survived on baguette, dark chocolate and tropical fruit juice, hung out with a Brazilian guy I first met in Manaus over 3 years ago, checked out the cathedral, the opera house and watched the Doctor who special in the guy's flat. Before leaving on Sunday we browsed a shopping mall which was surprisingly full considering all the shops were closed, people seemed to be walking around without direction, unperturbed by the music reminiscent of the relaxing music you hear in a massage parlour.


A lot has changed for me since then. I won't go into the details here. Last weekend the first snow settled, albeit for only a couple of hours, after which it left no trace in the city centre. In an attempt to chase it, I went up to the bastille with a bunch of friends and we found a few patches of snow, with which we did manage a little snow ball fight. I found some mistletoe on a tree, which amused me for a short while at the Christmas market. We went there after the walk to indulge in some freshly baked pretzels. On Sunday Michaela and I made vegan banana bread in my mini oven and drank an entire bottle of mulled wine on our own whilst listening to cheesy Christmas music. I had a mini day out with her a few days after in Ikea, where we bought bowls, cutlery and less useful stuff, in my case cinnamon buns and mulled wine... I got treated later in the week to a German dish, schupfnudeln (potato noodles) with sauerkraut. The next day I was treated to lebkuchen by a friend from Berlin and some sweeties from the generous hands of St Nicholas. 



This weekend would have been thoroughly lazy (spent sleeping, watching the walking dead and eating yummy food) had I not gone to la fete des lumières in Lyon yesterday with 4 friends...It was cold, crowded, but also quite pretty. Good thing it was free or I would have felt conned due to the crowds, but it comes out quite well in the photos. The company was rather pleasant too. :)

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Teaching English and volunteering

So aside from "working my ass off" at University, ahem, I am spending a lot of time socialising, walking, drinking tea in various city centre venues,"connecting", exploring the local area, volunteering (I will tell you all about this in due course) and teaching English.

As some of you may remember, I got a TEFL certificate last year and have used it a few times since, teaching English and au pairing in Switzerland, language school application in Italy etc. This semester I had my first opportunity to teach English privately, and I have been earning 20 euros an hour (the apparent minimum rate, as seen on leboncoin). I had a few offers, but given the good wages decided not to be greedy and just accepted one student's offer. He's in his third year of a grande école, and pretty eager to get his English up to scratch for a professional competitive examination in English. Given the rigid format of the exam, the lessons are pretty easy to organise...

We start with a brief friendly chat, then either a dictation, a pronunciation point (either obvious in terms of a sheet with phonetic explanations or a sneaky hint, e.g. through the poem Chaos or some tongue twisters), sometimes go on to a grammar point for 5-10 minutes, then head into mock exam territory. I bring an article to each class, usually out of the Economist, the Guardian or the Independent. He reads it out loud. I pick him up on any errors he makes with pronunciation afterwards and give him tips for improvement. I ask him to summarise the article, then translate a portion of it into French. He is French, I am not, and thus I may not be able to pick up on some errors he makes, though I keep my ears open for wrong translations, e.g. not maintaining the same tense, changing a definite article for an indefinite article etc. After the translation and a few questions, we work our way further and further away from the article itself, talking around the topic and sometimes concluding with a little debate. His homework tasks involve writing up a little summary or some grammar exercises. Each session last between 1.5 and 2 hours, and he seems pretty satisfied. So that's 30-40 euros spending money every week and some much needed work experience...

I am volunteering at Association Phares, a hospice in the South of the city. It's quite a sad job, but at the same time the patients all seem enthusiastic to see someone young amongst the many retired volunteers, and it's quite refreshing for them to talk to someone from a different background. I have heard all sorts of life stories in French, Italian, and Sicilian dialect (I didn't understand the latter). The other volunteers are very nice and people seem to really appreciate my presence. Apparently the only other young volunteers are wannabe nurses and doctors who need work experience. It takes an hour to get to the place, taking a tram and then a slow bus which stops in every neighbourhood on the way. Though pretty tiring, the journey gives me some thinking space, allows me to see another side of Grenoble and listen to some French chitter chatter.
This Friday I will be helping with decorating and wrapping presents, on the 20th December there is a répas de Noel, where the volunteers and patients will enjoy a Christmas meal together.