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)

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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Exaggeramazing

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on October 5, 2012

Looking elegant at the finish line.

Am I simply a moaner, do I always have to be ill in some way to find something to write? I hope not. It is just a coincidence I tell you. Or, well, maybe it also has to do with bedrest boredom. Anyway, my annual bout of bad cough has arrived, so: time to write! And since I am stuck at home and cannot currently do physical exercice, I will just have to write about it. And it occurs to me I still have not had the time to tell you about the Great North Run

It was, to use my lately discovered new adjective, amazeballs. I could also use stupendous, overwhelming, flabbergasting… but I like to use new words for new experiences, and I had a very emphatic and verbose teacher at school. Mind you, a typing glitch has just handily created exaggeramazing. That works.

And it was, it really was.  Even at mile 11 when I got a jelly-baby induced stitch. People were shouting at me to carry on. “Go Chef, nearly there!” And then the Red arrows to greet us as we all ran down lizard lane. Finding out I could hobble just that little bit faster than poor brave amazeballs Tony the Fridge could run with all these people talking to him (check him out). Ice pops and orange slices and even a beer stand. All the multicoloured charity T-shirts, wigs, baloons and yes, Oompa-Loompa costumes. A banana flying overhead and nearly hitting a passer by on the Tyne bridge. So many little big things adding up to bigger big things adding up to my oddly mathematical GNR.

And also, because I will never be able to say it enough, thanks to all the amazing people who helped me raise more than £650 for Alzheimer’s Society. It really means so much to me and to Chef, although she doesn’t really know it.

I cannot wait to do it again! But in the meantime, cows and pigs and tractors and lots and lots of farmers to look forward to.

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Units, conversions. How big is the Great North Run?

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on September 14, 2012

Now I am no mathematician, figures and numbers always take for ever to register in my mind. So usually in order to comprehend any statistic that gets thrown my way, I bring it back to something I know. Growing up between French and English culture, I have had to do this all my life. 1 mile is 1,6 kilometres. £1 equals approximately ten francs. Or 1,65 euros. Ounces and pounds to grammes, yards to metres,  Fahrenheit to Celcius…

It is the same thing when it comes to demographics. I was raised in a very small village in the middle of nowhere. Growing up, I moved from village to town to city, from school to high school to Uni, moving to ever bigger places, groups and communities. Inevitably, every time you get to a new place, someone will helpfully bombard you with information and tell you how many people live, learn or work there.  Now like I said, numbers are not my forte. I have as much difficulty picturing a population in millions as you would a travel distance in bolts, cubits, furlongs or megalithic yards.

So I bring those figures back to my village-girl level. I have my own special demographics unit: the Chaméane. How many times would my village population have to be duplicated to make as many people. A Fokker airplane would fit most of my disgruntled village neighbours. My high school in Clermont was about 16 Chaméanes. The total number of people working and studying at the University of Regensburg last year was 165 and a bit Chaméanes, you could fit 10 times my village in the biggest lecture theatre.

And in three, no, two days, I’ll be taking part in the Great North Run. 54 to 55 thousand people. Have not tried converting that into Chaméanes yet, but it will be so many I might have to find another, better unit… 2,5 Universität Regensburg? 25 or 26 times my high school? I have seen pictures of the startline, crowd stretching as far as the eye can see.  It will be massive I can’t wait.

PS: I am running for Alzheimer’s SOciety. Sponsor me here

PPS: Great North Run ≈ 3,2 x Chaméane2

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Regensburg retrospectives – part 1 : Ahne Brreeeeeze?

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on August 1, 2012

I promised some german reminiscences, so let’s start at the very beginning; when after a 13 hour and 1250 kilometre train journey carrying what felt like my own weight in luggage, I arrived in Munich central station (Hauptbahnhof) to find out my train was delayed indefinitely. Yay!

It was high time for some sustenance so I headed for the bakery stand (miraculously still open at half past ten). My german was a bit rusty after the summer holidays, so I had carefully prepared a sentence (Bretzel finishes with a “-el” diminutive… surely that makes it neuter…?). What is a Bretzel? Google it and find out. It is a type of bread bun I suppose, only not shaped like a bun. It is typically german and covered in salt. Unhealthy enough, but perfect to get into German mood and cheer up. Comfort food incarnate.  So I smiled up at the lady in a striped apron and carefully said in the most polite way I could think of: “Ich hätte gern ein Bretzel, bitte.” (I would like a Bretzel, please.)

She peered at me through my luggage and blurted : Was woin Sie hobn?

Oh dear; what? I could not understand the woman! My German had obviously become a lot worse than I had thought.  But I had noticed somewhat of an inquisitive tone, and – yes! – her eyebrows were raised quizzically. I pointed to the bretzels hanging off a hook on the counter.

Aaaaah! Ahne Brrreeeeeze woin Sie? I once again failed to understand the sentence, but did I spot one word. Brrreeeze / Bretzel… close enough. I nodded hopefully and she handed me one. Yes! I was in possession of my baked goods. However, I was starting to feel somewhat daunted by the prospect of discussing ticket swapping at the information desk.

Because you see, Munich – and indeed Regensburg – are in Bayern (Bavaria). Not just Germany, Bayern. They do things differently there. First of all: they talk funny, but there’s a lot lot more to it than just dialect. They eat bretzels and sauerkraut and strings of sausages, boiled, broiled, grilled, baked, or even cold. And they wash all this down with litres of beer which, by the way,  they produce by the ton. Women wear dirndls that make their boobs pop up and breathing difficult whilst the guys walk around in checkered shirts and knee-length leather breeches with braces (suspenders, if you are american). The very height of fashion.

Does that sound german to you? Probably. Because you see, that german stereotype that goes around is not exactly relevant to most of Germany. It is like picturing all british people wearing kilts and washing down copious amounts of haggis with hearty swigs of whiskey all day to the sound of bagpipes playing Auld lang Syne. Like the Scots, the Bavarians are quite proud of their local heritage and often call the rest of Germany and indeed, the rest of the world : “Saubreissen” (Prussian swines). You don’t want to start mixing the two.

My mind had been purged of sausage-eating, leather-pant clad stereotypes after spending a year in the North of Germany where I had been fed slimy fish as a local delicacy and not seen a single dirndl in twelve months, so it was a surprise arriving in Regensburg to find out I had to make readjustments. I had effectively arrived the land of stereotypes everyone had told me about. I cannot wait to tell you more about it!

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Regensburg retrospectives

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on July 29, 2012

I am told the word “so” should never be used to start off a sentence, let alone an entire text. Having reached this point however I think it has the right feel and conclusiveness. Sticklers will just have to get over it.

So. My stay in Regensburg has finally reached its conclusion, although my brain is still having difficulties registering it. I know my writing habits have been less than satisfactory lately but I will not apologise. It was perfectly justified: I was far too busy rocking the student life in what was ultimately one of the best years of my existence. Certainly, it has been a bumpy ride, with soaring, glorious ups and grey mopey downs, and I have much to tell. And when I say much, I mean much much more than you think. Mad, random adventures, administrative challenges and casual observations of teutonic idiosyncracies. And I have more than half a mind to tell you all about it. It will help me organise my thoughts and stories before Christmas comes with the roast ham, Christmas pudding and compulsory tales and anecdotes.

In the meantime: Regensburg, I miss you already.

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Granny recipes against alzheimer.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on March 2, 2012

My old friend insomnia is back! It is now half past five in the morning and I have been staring at this very uninteresting ceiling for the past seven hours. Silent sleep has deserted me and in its place, ideas and thoughts bouncing off the walls like pin balls and hitting me regularly with a loud clanging ping sound. How am I supposed to sleep with all that racket? I try counting enough sheep to muffle up the noise but some ideas just ram through (he he) and get me anyway. Most of them are useless (doing push ups until it tires me out –  I don’t think so) so I send them back on their merry way until the next time they fly by. Other ideas I keep and let roll about in my head for a while until I can make sense of them. One of those tonight has turned out to be a gem.

Because you see, I have got a charity place in the Great North Run. It is now official: on the 16th of September I will be running 13 miles wearing an Alzheimer’s Society T-shirt and that not only involves some training and running shoes, but also a fair amount of fundraising (a minimum of £375 to be exact). I was mulling this over when a series of notions zoomed my way:

ߛ The solution to most of life’s challenges is cake ===> ie: bake sale.

ߛ Fact: grannies make the best cakes. There always used to be a tart, clafoutis or cake on my Grandma’s kitchen table in the good old days when she could still tell the difference between lemon and washing liquid. It was systematically a little burnt around the edges but no one cared, it tasted delish.

 ߛ I have been meaning to meet little german grannies ever since I got here. One of the point of coming to Germany was to meet the locals, and grandmas have been around for a while, they should have a lot to tell. I also of course always intended to ask them about their favourite typical recipes ; food tends to be a good starting point for any conversation.

ߛ My very good friend Steph mentioned something about old people’s homes…

PING

I have already drawn up a list of old people’s homes to get in touch with to see if I could come in and chat with the residents about cake. The security levels surrounding grannies’ kitchen secrets are normally extremely high, but with a bit of luck I might be able to coax out one or two recipes, round up a couple of friends and organise a bake sale at university. I like the idea of getting grandmas involved. It’s such a shame I did not get to know mine better before Alzheimer’s disease caught up with her. Hopefully this whole thing might also encourage other people to get in touch with their grans and get them baking…(and send me the recipes?)

However before I call all these people it would probably be a good thing to get some sleep. Night-o.

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