Sunday, January 28, 2007

Leaving Paris

Firstly, apologies for the blog silence over these past 7 or 8 months. I have been living with my brother in Portsmouth and working for a company which produces prepared salads near Chichester. My life has not been devoid of interest in this time, but I guess I was not in a blogworthy (nothing like a neopropism to start a blog!) sort of mood.

Anyway, I now feel that I have got stuff to write about, but I left the story of my time in Paris hanging. In the intervening months, and even at the time, I thought of things to write, but I suppose it never became sufficiently pertinent to overcome the procrastinator within.

Essentially, my leaving Paris was not unexpected or in any way a surprise to me. For as long as I had lived in the city, I knew my date of departure. But that did not make leaving any easier. I suppose you only come to appreciate a place (or maybe even people too) when it appears to be falling through your grasp. When this moment comes, however, I find that I have a tendency to regret the things I have not done while failing to remember all the wonderful experiences I have enjoyed. In the month leading up to my departure, the main activity in my life was a singular failure to effectively consolidate four years of study in any sort of meaningful way. In other words, I was struggling to write up a project in which I had become quite interested too late, and a dissertation that I was trying to avoid writing altogether. A recipe for disaster!

Well, after I had gone back to London and cobbled together what was left of my degree, I had the last couple of weeks to enjoy living in France. So I went with Dan, an English friend of mine (have a look for "Yorkshireman in Paris") to Geneva and Lyon (where we couchsurfed - my inaugural experience as guest!) for four nights. Then I tried to get round all my friends and say goodbye to them.

In the last 24 hours, I embarked upon a feeble attempt at packing up my belongings and tidying up my room. In my experience, it's always the little things like dealing with concert tickets and other scraps pinned to the wall that take the time, but this is only because I attach sentimental importance to what other people would call litter. The night before I left, there was a party in the Foyer des Elèves, a good opportuntity to say goodbye to all my student friends. I don't remember much of the party, but I did have to leave relatively early to finish off my packing before I got too drunk. I didn't get much sleep that night, and I will not forget in a hurry the feeling of sheer panic about the idea of missing my train, and the fact that I had been sufferring from terrible diarrhoea that day.

After writing off at least one pair of underpants (having not made it to the toilet in time) and ending up dripping in sweat through having to pack in a mad rush in the heat of Paris in late June, I finally got my affairs into some sort of order. I had to catch the particular train on which I was booked, since I was travelling with a Parisian teenager who was going to spend some weeks with my mum (long story!); he didn't have a 'phone, so was incommunicado, and I would not have been able to make it back with my suitcase, four bags and violin without his help. Eventually, I managed to find a member of staff to check me out of the student dormitory, and two of my friends ran with me to the Metro station. For some strange reason, I had allowed myself to be talked out of getting a taxi, possibly because the fifty minutes I had left to get across Paris, check in and get on the Eurostar before it chugged out of Gare du Nord would not have been sufficient. Unfortunately, this meant that I had two changes to make, which involved going through those hideous automatic barriers, which, with my incumbrances, was no small order. To cut a long (and rather sweaty) story short, I only got there through an athletic determination which had always evaded me on the sports field, and thanks to the help of two kind strangers whose acts repudiated the unkind popular view of Parisians. One guy took a ten-minute detour in Gare du Nord to help me to the train with my baggage.

The upshot of all of this is that I did, eventually, make it on the train (albeit in a state of some discomfort, for many reasons), and was reunited with my friend. After such a frenetic departure, I didn't have much emotional energy left to get sentimental about leaving such a great city, but it was clear to me at the time and since that I would have rather stayed there. Whether this was purely because I didn't know what the next period of my life would herald, or simply because I wanted to perpetuate the happiest period of my student days, I do not know, and neither does it really matter, because I had nine wonderful months in a great city with some of the most interesting and friendly people I have ever met.
In case you are wondering, I didn't stop to take this photo. That would have just been silly! Whilst I have a few nice snaps of this amazing station, they are on my laptop at home, so I'm using this one thanks to Christopher Crews, from Flickr Commons

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Only in Paris…

I have been wondering how I can follow a blog silence of more than a month. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t done anything of interest… in the last couple of months, I’ve seen a new-born calf on my relatives’ farm in Cornwall, I’ve entertained a visitor on the Isle of Wight, I’ve bought a bike, I’ve cycled to the Louvre, I’ve entertained many couchsurfers, I’ve stood up in front of a bunch of French students in and English class and told them about where I come from, and I’ve had lunch with the Director of the School. No, I’ve certainly been busy enough. Nor is it the case that I haven’t had time. Yes, of course, as the final few weeks of my degree close in, I have at times become more than a little worried about my academic commitments, but it’s not like it’s impossible to find half an hour to write a few thoughts down. It’s more the case that the longer you leave something, the more difficult it becomes, and the more pressure you feel to make it really good.
Sometimes I reflect that it won’t be the amazing places I’ve been to or the exciting things I’ve done that will provide me with fond memories about my last eight months. And whilst my amazing group of friends, and the antics we get up to (vegetarian cooking, British comedy – good job it isn’t the other way round! – afternoon tea (or sometimes coffee), panini in the park) will be what has made my time in Paris very special, it will be the bizarre things that prompt the response, “This could only happen in Paris!” that will make me chuckle for years to come. Many of them have been a part and parcel of trying to integrate within a bureaucratic organisation in a foreign language and culture, such as trying to do the laundry in my residence on a Bank Holiday (apparently the washing machines need a day off too). Sometimes it’s a question of the local culture shining through the pervasive McDonaldsisation that seems to be a ubiquitous illness of the Western world these days, like hearing an accordionist playing from behind an open window on a warm summer’s day. Delightful when it’s not being done for the tourists’ benefit. Other times, however, the occurrence is just plain odd, like the time my brother Alex and I saw a lady bring a small dog into a bar, carrying it in a type of rucksack she was carrying on her front. I think it was the way the little dog was peeking out the top…
It is certainly the last category into which yesterday's “Only in Paris” incident fell. Yesterday afternoon, Dan (my English friend) and I were planning a short holiday to Geneva and Lyon on the TGV after our project is handed in. He was sitting on my bed, whilst I was at the desk checking train prices on the Internet, when a woman came in through the open door. Dan was initially a little surprised (seeing her before me), but assumed she was a friend of mine. Wondering why he’d stopped talking (and also sensing that “there’s someone behind me” feeling), I turned round to see this woman of indeterminate age shuffling towards me. I think perhaps it was the fact that she was shuffling made me think that she was wearing slippers (although I cannot be certain of this), and was therefore a resident. My brain was momentarily utterly confused: for about a second, I thought I knew her, simply because the deep-rooted subconscious, based on experience, tells me that only people I know walk into my room unannounced and uninvited. After about a second’s uncomfortable silence, I realised two things: firstly, that she was a complete and utter stranger; and secondly, that she smelt.
The first thing I thought to say to her was “Salut” (perhaps I still thought I knew her, using the informal greeting), closely followed by “Bonjour?”. Then she mumbled, “Métro Chevaleret”. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: “Pardon?”
Her: [mumbled] “Métro Chevaleret?”
Me: “Je ne comprends pas”.
Me: [whispered, to Dan] “What’s she talking about?”
Dan: “Oh, she’s looking for the Métro station… Chevaleret”
Me: “Oh, let me see…” [turn to Métro map on wall, looking for Chevaleret]
At this point I think, “Oh my God, what have I done? I’ve turned my back to her! This weird woman’s in my room, two feet behind me, and she’s going to stab me in the back!” My heart rate had doubled. So I just say the name of the two closest Metro stops, hoping she’ll take the bait. It was only when I was giving the directions to Glacière station that I realised how absurd the whole transaction was. “Well, first you have to get the lift to the ground floor, leave the building then turn right…” What was she doing, looking for a Métro station on the eighth floor of a student residence? I think it highly probable that she was mentally ill, on drugs or both. Only in Paris…

Friday, May 12, 2006


Last Monday (May Day), I went with a group of about 50 students from Télécom Paris to Disneyland Resort, Paris. Having had about six hours’ sleep, my friends and I went down to the bus at the appointed hour (7.30am), only to wait at least twenty minutes for all the late-comers, including several of the organisers, who would have known from past experience that we wouldn’t be leaving before 8am. After singularly failing to sleep on the short journey there (mainly due to enthusiastic renditions of traditional French songs sung with gusto by the group of lads on the back seat, which, from what little I could understand, had a somewhat smutty content), we arrived at the gates 30 minutes before the park opened at 9am. After the inevitable time-consuming prerequisite bureaucracy, we disembarked and began the journey to Disneyland. After the anticipation of being transported through several vast, empty car parks by travelators, everyone was quite excited to get through the gates. The magic of the place was such that I immediately started dancing to the saccharin music in front of Cinderella’s castle; I knew then that thenceforth, only happy emotions would be permissible in that enchanted fantasy land.
The day included gut-churning white knuckle rides, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to meet our favourite childhood fairytale characters, themed adventure lands, getting soaked by the persistent drizzle, and innumerable opportunities to be liberated from the oppressive burden of loose euros in one’s pocket. I was impressed by the variety of themes successfully evoked (since I had been expecting just Disney). The attention to detail was ubiquitous: even the street-sweepers were in character!
I was impressed by the Indiana Jones feature, a white-knuckle ride along a Temple of Doom-style mining railway, the only point in the day in which I was inverted through 360 degrees. Despite the speed and unexpected twists and turns of this feature and the visually disappointing Space Mountain, the vomit-inducing moment of the day was definitely the Tea Cups. In this particular treat, you sit in a giant teacup mounted on a rotating carousel with a couple of friends, and push the central wheel, thus being responsible for your own rotation. Now, this is fine if you happen to be an eight-year-old girl, because you probably won’t be able to push it very fast, but I, for my sins, was sharing a vessel with my friends Dieter and Dan, who insisted that we kept pushing our bodies and the teacup to the physical limits. I cannot describe how abused my body felt after coming off that ghastly ride.
Whilst I had a great time, I couldn’t help but feel what I could only describe as “cultural guilt” throughout the day. The only gentle nod given to the culture of the host country was that all the signs and announcements were in French (as well as English). The most surreal (and strangely successful) mélange of languages was in the acrobatic display “Tarzan”, when the characters encouraged the crowd to participate in a variety of different languages, including English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. Unlike the Eurostar (where the first language used is a function of the country that you’re in or closest to), there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut language policy at Eurodisney: sometimes rides are commentated in French, sometimes in English, sometimes with subtitles, or indeed with voice-overs in both languages.
The area in which some French cultural influence was most sorely needed was that of the range and quality of food on sale. Despite the effort which had clearly gone into designing the physical appearance of the various restaurants, they all seemed to serve the same unimaginative tasteless fast-food shit. My only experience was of an expensive and mediocre panini, which was half-filled with cheese and had been only briefly introduced to a grill. I’m surprised the French put up with it, but then, I guess Disneyland is not relying on repeat custom.
Despite the fact that the day was rather washed out, I stuck together with a group of friends (two Belgians, five Italians and one other Brit) all day long, so the company was superb, and I genuinely came away from the place feeling uplifted and even younger! I think there is something about the way that such places are designed to shield you (both visually and mentally) from the outside world that appeals to my sense of escapism. Whilst I was somewhat sceptical about the whole Disney theme, failing to get terribly excited when Snow White wandered over, I suspect this was due to my childhood not being full of memories of watching their films. (“So what did you watch when you were younger?”, I was asked by an incredulous friend at more than one point during the day.) The overall effect was skilfully executed, and for 15 euros (subsidised by the Bureau des Elèves) I certainly got my money’s worth. I would, however, have been less than happy to pay the full-price €43 adult ticket.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Couchsurfing Project

I should apologise yet again (why break the habit of a lifetime?), for my lack of blogging in recent weeks. It is due, principally, to two reasons: exams, and the Couchsurfing Project. For those of you wondering what the Couchsurfing (CS) Project is, I shall explain, since I’m not in the mood for talking about exams.

The basic concept is that it is a network of people who wish to see the world and become better acquainted with its peoples, places, cultures and languages. These can be broadly divided into two groups, membership of which is interchangeable with respect to time. The first consists of those who are currently travelling, and wish to avoid the expense and tedium of staying in hotels, preferring instead to experience a city through the eyes of a local; the second group is composed of those who are, at least temporarily, settled somewhere, and have space on their floor, a spare room, or a garden with space to pitch a tent. I’m sure that by now you can see were this is going: members of Group A get in touch with members of Group B (based on anticipated compatibility informed by their profiles) with a view to spending some rent-free time their destination city of choice.

Of course, individual arrangements vary, in terms of duration and in terms of what each party expects from the other. For example, when a German and a Berlin-based American guy got in touch begging for help because they’d been stood up, I felt sorry for them and let them stay for three nights on the understanding that they’d keep out of my hair (since I was trying to revise for imminent exams), and cook a meal for me and my friends. As it happened, it was an arrangement which worked very well!

I had my first CS experience before I had actually signed up: a Belgian friend of mine had agreed to let an American couchsurfer stay, neglecting to account for the fact that his girlfriend would be staying the weekend! I, of course, offered to help out, got on very well with Adrian, my guest (we still see each other once every couple of weeks), and decided that this couchsurfing lark looked like fun. Which it has been!

Being a somewhat difficult topic to illustrate, I struggled to seek out a suitable picture. However, I did find this photo of Adrian (front right) and I with the gang in La Pentola, our favourite, closest and cheapest pizza restaurant. One moment I had to capture and share with you was the warning given to me by the CS system that there may be a language barrier between a potential guest (whose language competencies are shown below) and myself. Green typeface indicates a common language; suffice it to say that that the grey font indicates that the system sees no compatibility between my native tongue and English (United States).

Friday, March 24, 2006

While Paris Burns...

What does one do when French students are revolting, standing up against an oppressive state attempting to impose unfair conditions on vulnerable workers? Why, go to a classical music concert in the poshest theatre in town, of course! And that’s exactly what I did recently with three friends (Dan, Lieven and Martin from Yorkshire, Belgium and Germany respectively). The programme was Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto and his Second Symphony, sandwiching Theo Verbey’s orchestral arrangement of Alan Berg’s Piano Sonata; the venue, the sumptuous Theatre des Champs-Elysées. We were entertained by the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under the baton of Riccardo Chailly. The playing was absolutely superb, and we had a good view of the pianist’s hands, albeit with a bit of craning of the neck! The theatre was a superb art-deco affair, with an auditorium of a couple of thousand seats. You might be wondering how four scruffy students managed to fit in in a place like that… well, we decided to change out of our rioting clothes and smarten up for the evening.
After the concert, we decided to take a stroll through Paris, ambling towards a Ligne 6 station which would take us directly back to our residence. As it happened, we ended walking all along the banks of the Seine until we got to the Eiffel Tower. I think the Tower is at its most beautiful at night, with the exception of the ghastly flashing fairy lights which are turned on on the hour, every hour. I don't know what they were thinking... it makes Paris's most famous icon resemble a giant Christmas tree.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

La Neige à Paris!!

This is going to be a short and factual post.

On the evening of 28th February 2006 it snowed in Paris. The following photos document a walk I took the following morning. There's not much more to say really, except for the fact that it probably won't snow again here whilst I'm living here, so I'm glad I made the most of it. I didn't have the opportunity to indulge in any snow-ball fights though, alas.

The first two pictures were taken from the grounds of the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, a place that can only be described as a sumptious student village that is doubtless too elegant for those who are fortunate enough to live there. Lucky sods.

Enthusiasts of public transport may be interested to note the progress on the new south-Paris Tramway. However, I don't think much work was done on 1st March.

I have more photos were these came from. Does anyone know of any decent photo publishing/sharing websites? I would appreciate any hints.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Two job interview in two European capitals on two successive days

Having occurred to me that it is now almost a month since I have posted an epistle on this site, I felt the need to explain to you, my dear reader(s), what I have been occupying myself that is sufficiently important to distract me from this important project.
At the age of twenty-two and three-quarters, coming to the end of eighteen years’ formal education, I have reached the stage in my life where many things are telling me I really ought to decide what I am going to do with the rest of my time on this planet. It’s not just the "voice of reason" that one hears within one’s head giving "sensible" instructions, but also the nature of my dialogue with my peers, particularly those back in London:
"So, how many interviews have you had?"
"How many investment banks have you applied to?"
"What’s the highest starting salary you’ve been offered?"
Back in September, I was fully under the impression that I wanted to go and do something a bit "whacky" for a year, such as teach English in Japan, rather than throw myself immediately into the world of work. However, towards the end of last term, I started to feel slightly homesick, and I became envious of all my friends’ talk of getting nice graduate engineering/management consultant/investment banker jobs in London, a city I still yearn after. So I decided to check out the UK graduate recruitment scene after all. I was still under this high-minded ideal that an electronic engineering graduate should take a post in a relevant field, otherwise the degree would be "wasted". I was also (and still am), firmly of the opinion that one should be employed in a job which directly benefits society according to one’s own moral framework. I decided to apply to a couple of jobs in the public transport sector; people’s desire for mobility is continuing to increase, and a worrying increase in usage of air travel for short-haul transit leads to the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion that our land-based public transport network is a bit crap and needs to be improved.
On Tuesday, I had an interview with Network Rail, the company with the unenviable task of looking after our national rail infrastructure. It was my first interview, for which I prepared myself not unconscientiously. I wanted to know everything about the company’s history, and the intricacies of the arguments for and against rail privatisation. This was perhaps missing the point, as this knowledge was not really backed up by self-knowledge, which perhaps became painfully evident during my rather unconvincing answer to his very first question, "why does a promising Master’s of Engineering student at Imperial College like yourself want to work for crummy old Network Rail?" I was somewhat thrown off balance! The interview was amiable enough, and I managed to find adequate answers to all his questions; I’m not sure what to interpret from the fact that I went on for nearly an hour longer than it was supposed to. I guess he was just in a chatty mood! Whilst it was good to get my first experience of a real job interview, and even better to get a free ticket back to London, my conclusion was that it was not the right graduate scheme for me.
The following day, I found myself in an interview with a young consultant in the Telecoms Group of CSC (Computer Systems Corporation) in La Défense, Paris. It took place in an impressive modern glass edifice in the new business quarter of the French capital, in stark contrast to the Network Rail interview, which was conducted in a back office in Waterloo Station! It was much less structured than the previous day’s "competency-based" interview, and the onus was on me to justify my educational and professional experience, a task that no mean feat… in French! The upshot was that I was more suited to a project management or management consultancy role than the "pure" telecoms engineering that my interviewer and his group indulged in, but this could be accommodated in another department of CSC, and he would forward my CV onto the relevant recruiter. Altold, I survived an experience which I would have found mortally terrifying only a few months ago. In many ways, it was nice to have a couple of trial runs in jobs that weren’t really suited to me.
So what am I going to do? Well, I’m still not entirely sure, but I have certainly stopped worrying about the "You’ve missed the Goldman Sachs deadline!" genre of comments from my colleagues, preferring instead to concentrate my efforts on a more imaginative search for what I really want to do, and where in the world I want to do it. No discussion of my current career search would be complete without mentioning Richard Nelson Bolle’s superb career guidance book "What Color is your Parachute?" which has been my guide during the six weeks in which it has been in my possession. I thoroughly recommend it.
By the way, sorry for the length of this post; I didn't have time to write a short one.