The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Some things I can’t even write about.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on December 29, 2015

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Learning key life skills in Germany

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on May 27, 2014

When navigating your way around a german kitchen, or indeed a german party, one of the most difficult things to find is a bottle opener. Surprising, is it not? When all your instincts, long nurtured clichés, and the physical evidence of empty Pfandflaschen (deposit bottles) piling up on every street corner/table/ledge tell you beer is indeed flowing. So a word of warning: when you, confused tourist in teutonic lands, ask for one, do not be surprised when someone hands you a lighter instead.

You see, a true German can open a beer bottle with just about anything, and not having a bottle opener leaves room in the kitchen drawer for other, more obscurely exotic kitchen essentials: your schnitzel hammer for example or this terrifying and dangerous cousin of the tin opener (you may actually need the schnitzel hammer to work it):

Having become used to this state of affairs, my policy has long been to find the nearest smoking german and ask them to open my beverages. If there are no smokers around, any german person will do the trick, the only condition being that there is in the vicinity an object with an edge. Not too difficult then. Do not judge me for taking the easy way out. Over the three and some years I have lived on this side of the Rhine, I have tried, usually ending up covering myself in beer and ridicule: at best I would manage to slightly bend one tiny bit of the beer cap and give up with a sore knuckle. Worst case scenario so far, I broke a lighter and dropped the bottle which smashed on a rock, spraying everyone with the foamy stuff. Maybe it is simply that my frenchness prevails when it comes to accessing alcoholic drinks. Certainly I may be rubbish at opening beers with an USB sitck, but I am very good at uncorking wine. It was even noticed by my colleagues when I was working in a posh-ish hotel in Kiel. Give me a wine bottle and a corkscrew and sit back and enjoy the show. I won’t need to lean on anything or squeeze the bottle between my thighs, no drop will be spilled, no loud popping noises and would Sir like to try a sip first?Scan0012

 

 

Maybe that was what my friend Jan picked up on last Sunday at the barbecue. Not that I did open any wine there – all screwtops there (BLASPHEMY), but there was a wine bottle lying around and that was what I was told to use, if I wanted to get to my beer. No I won’t open it for you, you need to do it yourself.

I failed miserably the first time around, but the second cap flew a metre or so away with a satisfying pop on my first try. I could have clapped, if I had not been holding a bottle of beer in my left hand and a bottle of wine in my right. Never mind, and hurray! I am now officially one step closer to being German, which considering the french results of the European elections, cannot be such a bad thing, surely.

Posted in Germany, Life, Uncategorized, Wine | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Stasi, Surrealism and a random hypnotist: Lange Nacht der Museen

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on May 20, 2014

Saturday night was the “Lange Nacht der Museen”, the long night of museums, happening  apparently  in 33 european countries simultaneously. But as I learned today, it all started in Berlin, in 1997. You get a ticket for 18 euros and can get access to most museums in the city till 2am.

Whoever thought of opening museums all night long was a genius. I love museums, so how could I resist? Unlike people who grew up in towns, my school outings were more about nature and traditional craftmanship. Museums were something we visited as a family when we were on holiday abroad, something fun and enjoyable, full of man-made constructs and things that had nothing to do with everyday life. When you enter a museum, you enter a whole new world, with its own rules, where hopefully everything is thought out and serves a special informative purpose.

stasimuseum

The Stasi Museum – not particularly inviting but then again, should you be surprised?

In the real world, things are functional, and you don’t see them until you need them. Perfect examples of this are bins. And typography; you use them, walk past them all the time, put how often do you actually stop and think: now that is well thought out. Everything is supposed to be subdued, serving quietly its purpose without drawing attention to itself. Of course, nowadays there are so many things everywhere, objects have to be noisy and visible so people can notice them if they want them, but even when things cry out to us in vivid colours we just filter everything out which we don’t immediately need. A museum environment is the exact opposite. Things are put on pedestals and inside glass cases and call out for our attention. They were put on pedestals and inside glass cases, they must be important. And you go there to see things. I am never quite so aware as when I am in a museum. It’s a bit intense, a bit tiring, but it’s nice to be in a place where people don’t think you’re weird when you stare at every tiny detail.

First stop on my trip was the Stasi museum, just two U-Bahn stops away from my flat, on the outskirts of town. There’s nothing much else there. Lots of emptiness, old houses being pulled down, their ghost silhouette still hanging on walls, trees and piles of rubble everywhere. Of the great concrete complex that was the headquarters of the secret police in the GDR, only one building is now devoted to the museum. You walk all the way across a great blank courtyard, wondering if you’ve got it right – there was a sign at some point but you’re not sure anymore – and enter Haus N°1. And you step back in time. Seriously, they had to put in some fire doors, but apart from that, nothing has changed much since the seventies. Lots of brown, lots of drab, plastic telephones everywhere, five centimetre thick unmarked doors. It feels like a blend of Kafka, Bradbury and Orwell. Sounds like it too, when you listen to the tour guides: “So THIS entire building was devoted to hinder the social and professional progress of people who were deemed to be against the Party” –  “Everyone had to copy every word that was said, although everyone knew everything was scripted and they would get a printed copy after the meeting” – “No-one knew anything about anything going on outside their own work – or maybe their office, if they had responsibilites” – “There are rooms full of shredded, torn, mulched paperwork; when the wall came down they tried to destroy everything”.

Great museum. Lots of blunt information, unembellished by interactive whatnots: you are allowed to try and reassemble photocopies of torn documents if you fancy, but that’s it.  Good for school groups, if a little dry.

My next stop was the Museum für Kommunikation in the  town centre. It made sense when I organised my trip: after learning about the orwellian GDR, a special exhibit entitled “Out of control: living in a world under surveillance. Brilliant, I like logical connections. Continuity! Well… to a certain degree anyway. After the
straight up information provided in the unnerving quiet of the Stasi museum’s decrepit building with beige lacy curtains, it was strange arriving in the town centre, with its colourfully illuminated glass facades, cars rushing by, and in the midst of it all the museum, shining neon-blue, marble staircases and columns, a DJ and a hypnosis show vying for attention, games, gadgets, a robot hovering in the foyer, and people on sewing machines making personalised mobile phone pouches. There was a lot going on.

Aliceinwonderland rabbit

Down the rabbit hole – Dalí, of course.

The museum itself was… well, fun. There is no other word to describe it. It was obviously designed with a younger, holidaying audience in mind, with games and buttons to press, magnifying glasses and pretty displays. It is very attractive and colourful, and a good way of introduction to communication technologies – actually combining these two specific museums wasn’t necessarily a bad plan, but would have benefited from being swapped around: after the seriousness of Haus N°1, the Museum für Kommunikation seemed a little childish, the information it provided, somewhat incidental. And seriously: a hypnotist?

Finally, I went to see the new permanent Dalí exhibit near Potsdamer Platz. Well, what can I say: it’s Dalí.  “Come into my brain” say the posters: an enticing, if slightly scary prospect. And the exhibit doesn’t disappoint. It’s brilliant and overwhelming and terrifying all at once. N0ne of the artist’s biggest (scale-wise) works are there, but series upon series of lithographies, silk-screens, etchings and, woodcuts, with a couple of photo-collages thrown in. As well as finally seeing some of the classics “for real”, like the series of illustrations of Don Quichote, I really loved discovering his take on Alice in Wonderland, which makes complete sense by the way. Who better than Dalí to show giant smoking catterpillars, rabbit burrows, watches and decapitated card figures?

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A year ago today: Getting to Berlin

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on March 24, 2014

p to b

Ok my Eiffel Tower looks more like that of Blackpool… but you get the gist.

It is a year today since I first set off on my Berlin venture, and to mark the occasion, I decided to get started on this long promised blow by blow account of what has happened since then (I also resigned from my job as a waitress – the 24th of March is a good day for a fresh start). So here goes.

I set off for Berlin on a premeditated whim. I had been mulling things over for a while and the absence of any culture-related internship in my 140-strong village seemed a good indication that I should be looking elsewhere. London kept sending me rejection emails and Berlin seemed appealingly alternative so I found a flatshare on the internet, booked a night-time carpooling to from Paris to the German  capital and hopped onto a train with as much luggage as I could carry. The deal was: I had two months to set myself up, find a job and an internship, or  I would have to go home.

The trip to Paris was more or less uneventful. The SNCF train was punctual apart from a smelly Yorkshire terrier in a basket which didn’t seem to be enjoying the trip. The carshare was allright too, at first. It was a big old Renault van, which meant a lot of leg room and luggage space. One by one, the other passengers arrived and started piling their stuff into the boot. Travelling me with me were five people and a dog. That worried me a little at first; having spent the previous 4 hours in the same cart as a barking vomiting hairy fiend had somewhat reduced my affection for the canine species. This apprehension was soon replaced by another however, as the driver started handing out blankets, two each. It’s quite an old vehicle, and it gets draughty, especially at night – he said. I remembered the weather forecast for that day: although spring had finally come to France and daffodils were popping up everywhere, the temperature in Berlin had been stuck at minus 10 Celcius for the past week or so. The next few hours promised to be interesting.

And indeed, after the first two hours of an elated “I’m-setting-off-on-an-adventure-hi-Im-Alice-where-are-you-from-what-do.you-study?” giddiness, I spent most of the trip looking down at the road rushing by through a gap between the door and the floor of  the van. The driver hadn’t lied, it was draughty. It didn’t seem to disturb my fellow passengers though, who slept throughout, only waking when we stopped for cigarette breaks on the way. The dog was very good too, and nowhere near as loud as the one on the train, or as the snoring of its master.

The journey lasted 12 long hours and we were dropped off in icy Tempelhof, which meant I had to travel all the way across town to meet my new and very intriguing flatmate (but he deserves a post all to himself)

Anyway. I survived a year in Berlin!

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Incy wincy spider

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on September 4, 2013

Some people have a monster on their shoulder, skeletons in the closet or a beast on their back. I have a big fat gluttonous spider inside my chest. It moves around with its long, hairy, spiky legs, nestles in my ribcage, somewhere between my heart, lungs, guts, and pulls strings and feeds all day. Its massive appetite carves out hollow spaces inside me, and my organs sometimes feel like they need to bloat out to fill in the gaps, getting entangled into the cobwebs as they stretch and expand.

The first thing that disappeared into the gigantic black hole of my arachnid’s stomach was my sense of perspective, years ago. Since then everything in my life has been either a miracle or a catastrophe, and every time my spider eats a new bit of me, I start blowing everything out of proportion. In my defence, it has got a very big appetite, and like a troubled teenager, when it does start feeding, it does not just eat, it binges. It does not just nibble at my self confidence. If I leave any lying around, it all gets sucked away. Of course it goes both ways, anything can disappear down my large black hairy, leggy pe(s)t’s oesophagus. Like any spider it can prove useful and eats away at all the useless flies. Sometimes it will spot my fears and doubts and anxiousness cluttering around and sucks them in like a vacuum till they’re all gone. These are good days: I feel big and roomy inside; I want to reach out to the stars and swallow the whole world in my embrace. I could breathe in and in and in and never be full.

It never lasts; my hungry spider is not picky with its food, and never satiated. After sucking in all the darkness it then goes for all the bright butterflies of stars and the night air and all my ambitions, gobbles the lot and spins its web tighter around itself so they can’t get back out. No more dark, no brightness, no nothing, just a spider resting and digesting, waiting for me to build up some more emotions for it to gorge upon.

I don’t like spiders much.

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Cure for all ills

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on February 25, 2013

Some of you might have heard me say that carrot cake would cure anything, even political despair. Give them cake, right? Chocolate cake, Frau Boxler’s mocha cake, macaroons etc would take care of the rest. But recently I have driven around the countryside with my grandad in tow and now I know better. You see, although I still don’t have a driving licence (at 25; shocking I know), I can drive when accompanied by an adult who knows how to drive. Never mind that I feel safer with Papy sitting in the passenger seat where I can see him than if he were driving himself.

IMGP9282So anyway, in order for me to acquire experience of driving along narrow winding roads with a rockface on one side and a ravine on the other, we go together to visit his friends from way back when; old grannies and grandads who went to school with him, or sat next to him and my grandma on coach trips to Lourdes or somewhere. Nowadays they sit around their front rooms wrapped up in shawls and scarves, waiting for winter to be over. We have long conversations about the weather, the war, farming, and grandchildren like myself who should really be looking for a husband and produce offspring. Someone heats up coffee in a pan on a wood-burning stove, which we drink from worn out bowls or cups or glasses. As the conversation goes on, an old bottle is brought out of a dark cupboard and someone will ask, or rather state: “You’ll have a little drop, won’t you.” “Une goutte”, a drop, “of eau de vie” of course. My grandad chuckles and protests, just a bit.

The bottle itself if usually a little sticky and dusty; it has been kept in there for so long. The stopper never quite fits, so there’s an accumulation of “stuff” round the neck of the bottle – you don’t really want to know. Sometimes, as a conversation piece, there’s a pear floating around in there (my grandfather’s godfather put that in there), or a stick, an articulated wooden doll, or even a snake or two. Someone explains: it’s quince, pear, plums, marc de raisin or some other fruit, and you have to take their word for it because really, you could not tell the difference. Either it tastes like pure alcohol and will burn your tonsils off, or if you’re lucky, it tastes of sugar. If it has any flavour at all, it will be of coffee because it is poured straight into the warm cup or bowl you’ve been using, even if you have explained that you’re supposed to steer the car all the way home and it’s getting dark. “Come on. Just a drop. It can’t do you any harm.”

Because whatever the shape and size of the bottle, the percentage of alcohol or sugar and which members of the extended family were involved in the distilling process, it’s good for you. So far, it has been recommended to me as an aid to digestion, a cure for the runs, the solution to headaches (hair of the dog perhaps), and as a panacea for all coughs, sneezes, tickly throats and bad colds. For internal and external use. If you have a sore throat and a runny nose, imbibe cotton wool in eau de vie and tie it around your neck with a scarf. That should sort you out. And make you smell like an alcoholic.

Well I spent hours outside in the cold over the past few days, shovelling never-ending piles of snow from the yard, and although my many layers of clothes made me look like the Michelin man, I got the sniffles. Maybe I should try the “goutte” remedy. But Mam went to the chemists today and bought some Fervex. Just in case.

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Rough around the edges

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on February 23, 2013

Being a student has its advantages: you get a card, free internet access on crappy computers in stuffy rooms at uni if you get up early enough, you get to learn things, you are surrounded with people who care about your future; in fact, you have a future. Come to think of it, you have little else: People don’t so much ask what you do, as what you will do once you’re done being a student. Even when you tell people something as questionable as: “I do Intercultural European Studies” , the next question automatically is “what sort of outcome can you hope for once you’re finished?”.

Some people stroll through their studies, their lives, and the university corridors, knowing exactly where they are going and how to get there. Serene, unwavering, purposeful, they take great big determined steps towards their goal. You can hardly call them students, they are all future somethings. Future lawyers, teachers, doctors, etc. If you ask them what they want to do, they answer, “I’m studying to be a [insert job title here]”. They know. Lucky them!

I am not one of those happy few. Never been one for choices: decisions, decisions… This is why I spend ages in the chocolate aisle, why I don’t have a favourite colour, and also why I have picked the most general course I could possibly find. Literature, comparative cultural studies, image analysis, translation, media studies, cultural projects management… Some day, I know I will have to make a choice, to specialise in something or other, but I don’t wanna! Certainly, I adore plain chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa and cocoa nibs, but hazelnuts are tasty too, so is high quality milk chocolate, and who’s knows if this new “Irish coffee truffle” filling might not be even better? As long as I don’t decide, a near infinite number of possibilities exist. I could have a last minute change of heart and grab a bag of Maltesers. But I haven’t got the means of buying all the chocolate in the shop. And as long as I don’t choose, I can’t eat any of it. Or share any of it. None of this chocolate is mine.

Same with my studies: as long as I don’t choose a specialised field, I could be anything, but am nothing. I am a student without a visible future. Is that depressing or encouraging?

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Extreme flirting in Bavaria. Nope.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 14, 2013

This article has been trotting around my brain for the past 8 months.This delay means I can now pride myself that I am sitting on months of hard empirical study, interviews, and even on occasion things said by some highly respectable  and quotable people in lecture theatres.

Let’s start with a handful of stereotypes. One could say that Italians and Spaniards are very open with their flirting, especially when young, and very apt and swift at slipping their hands on people’s backside and their tongue down people’s throat. Blame it on the hot mediterranean sun and temperament. The British, in spite of their long reputation for being timid and prudish, have spent so much time baking on the white sandy beaches of Ibiza that they have adopted a similar way of flirting. A modern english damsel out on the town will typically not be wearing very much, and will not raise her eyebrows and say “Shocking!” if she should encounter an exposed pair of gentleman’s buttocks. On the other side of the channel, we French are under a lot of pressure. Over the course of my travels I have often heard the French were supposed to be good kissers, lords of the dance(floor), and queens of hearts. Paris is ze capital of romance, sacrebleu! On a more serious note, I think we lean towards the mediterranean style, only we spend more time on the preliminaries and start kissing a little later than our spanish and italian friends.

SAVE0002As a general rule, flirting has become very physical. Better people have written better texts, essays and books about this, so I’ll not gloss over the details, however, Germany seems to be an exception. Innocent flirting is much more rare, and if there are a few tigers out there on the prowl ready for action, the rest of the German population will need much beer and time before they can loosen up and start “making a move”, or at least one that a foreigner will notice. The Germans are the first to admit this as a nation: a song was even written about the bewilderment of a french girl Aurélie, when confronted with the “subtlety” of German flirting.

Aurélie so klappt das nie
Du erwartest viel zu viel
Die Deutschen flirten sehr subtil

Meaningful stolen glances, hints that don’t seem to be followed through, invitations for coffee that may or may not have a hidden meaning… Someone has yet to explain all these codes to me. With some friends, we went to serious lengths to try and understand. We pooled our experiences, we even interviewed handsome young men in Munich (whose excuses ranged from “being more career-orientated” to “intimidated by women”), but still couldn’t come up with an acceptable answer. The scientific, student-ish part of my brain reminds me: different cultures have different codes, different ways to react to different signals. But whatever  the German “signals” are, I (and a bunch of other french lasses of my acquaintance) simply cannot see them.

However, there is something unique about the politics of flirting in Bavaria. A tradition, which, according to my heated imagination, springs from the frustration caused by the local corseted rules of relationship-building. During the night before the 1st of May, young men in Bavarian villages secretly go and erect a long-stemmed tree festooned with paper garlands under their beloved’s windowsill. A sort of extreme, cumbersome Valentine card, if you will.

Trollops get a fir tree wrapped in toilet paper.

It’s all or nothing, innit?

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“Striking” a good joke.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 13, 2013

This is France, so it will come as no surprise that France Inter (Papa’s favourite radio) have been on strike for the last few days. Conversation at the dinner table has therefore not been punctuated with the usual titbits introduced by “ils ont dit dans le poste” (they said in the radio). Instead, we were treated to THIS joke:

A man drives home after celebrating New Year’s Eve with his friends, and has had a couple too many drinks. So when he encounters a policeman on the side of the road who asks him to take an breathalyzer test:

-erm… I’d rather not.. If I give you ten euros, will you just forget it and let me go? I promise it won’t happen again.

-no

-20 euros?

-OK then, but only because it’s the new year.

The man gives the agent 20 euros and drives along, only to find another policeman, 20 metres further along the road. Once more, the man refuses to submit to the breathalyzer test and offers a bribe:

-I’ll give you ten euros if you let me go

-no

-Twenty?

-Allright then.

He pays the bribe, drives another 20 metres, and once more, finds a policeman.

-Listen. I’ll guve you 20 euros, so please just let me drive on.

-No. You’ll have to give me a hundred.

-A hundred? What? Your colleagues only asked for 20!

-Yes, but if you give me a hundred, I’ll help you get off this roundabout.

Did I mention this was France?

 

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Killing pigs and other stories

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on November 17, 2012

I live in the countryside. As does my grandfather. I tend to move around quite a lot, travelling to and from town, in and out of the country, using an armada of busses, trains, planes and cars. My grandad is not quite so mobile. So when I am around for a couple of day, I drive him around to visit his friends. Emile, Marius, Hélène, Dauphin… all the people who have known him since the good old days. I love it. I love meeting these people and listening to their stories, sitting in their dark kitchens with cast-iron wood-burning stoves, hand-painted tiles and various other compound adjectives.

These sparsely toothed men and women bring out cake and tiny glasses of red wine or sweet coffee and start lisping stories of days gone by. About being a mischief at catechism and locking up the altar boy in a wardrobe “accidentally”, while fathers were protesting against boring sermons by leaving church halfway through to have a canon of rouge at the bistrot. Striking, some things don’t change. Or a few years later as young adults, cycling 23 kilometres downhill on a summer night to go dancing in Issoire and then drinking too much and having to carry the bicycles back up the mountain, sometimes spending the night on a haystack. Have you ever tried drunk cycling? I have. Thankfully in well lit, reasonably flat streets. And even then I did not get very far before dismounting and pushing the bike in front of me like a walker.

The most interesting topic hat afternoon was certainly 90-year-old Marius’ recollection of the pig-killing season. You see, November was the time of year those things were done. Maybe because that’s when apples are ripe and apples and black pudding are a match made in heaven. The more rational explanation is probably that people would want to stock up the larder before winter. Marius was, and still is, an expert at pork slaughtering. Even non-farming families sometimes fattened a pig, so he showed them how to go about killing it when the time came, and how to make boudin and chops and hams and dried sausage… He also explained when the factory opened, how people started killing their swine only on saturdays so he sometimes would have to “do” three pigs in one day. We were treated to a few details about  blood and guts and unpleasantness, about the thickness of  the layer of fat on the back of certain pigs’ neck and about how everything was kept and used, except perhaps the tail. It may not be very P.C. but in spite of the goriness  and the acrid smell of burning hairs, I would still love to see it done; not because I like the idea of killing animals, but because I don’t think that sort of knowledge should just disappears when Marius dies.

The last story of the day was  that of a man loading a sow in the back of his van. He drove all the way to his house and never noticed that the door was open and the pig had walked of. He got back to his farm and his wife said… something. Marius unfortunately delivered the punchline in patois, the local dialect. My grandad found it hilarious.

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