Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A heartwarming moment in this increasingly divided world

Aachen (Germany)

A short but sweet memory from my time in Aachen came flooding back to me today and I wanted to share it. Whilst working in a primary school, I was asked to help a group of girls choreograph a dance for parents' evening.

We found a free classroom and I told the five pupils to move the tables from the centre of the room to clear some space. I used the verb 'bewegen' which was the only one I knew for 'move'.

"What, like this?" asked a cheeky nine year old, rattling a table.

"You know what she means!" cried another one sternly, immediately setting to work. "Ausraeumen!"

My heart went out to the second girl. At a time when the world seems intent on dividing itself, when racist attacks are on the rise, it is worth remembering this girl's actions. She didn't feel prejudice towards me. She didn't blame me for not knowing the language. Instead she had the guts to stand up for me and help me.

Be this girl. Stand up for others. Don't let hate triumph.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A derelict house and a nightclub with an unusual feature in France

Moissac (France) - August

            On my second Saturday in Moissac, Luc (the son of my host) was once again coerced into letting me accompany him on his night out. We drove to a house in the countryside surrounded only by field after field. It was a dilapidated ruin and clearly hadn’t been lived in for a very long time.

Derelict French countryside houses

           There are many of these houses in France. Much of the previous generations lived in large rambling country houses. Subsequent generations, however, preferred to relocate to live in towns. (The rural exodus in France didn’t experience its height until during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.[i] [ii]) When the previous generations died, there was no customers to buy their houses and so many have been left, by those who inherited them, to their own devices. As the website French Property Centre states, “many visitors to the French countryside are astonished to see how much rural French property has apparently been left to go to rack and ruin.” And, in contrast to the UK housing market, often in France “the more rural a property is, the cheaper it becomes.”[iii] This could partly be put down to the fact that while France has a similar size population to the UK, it has much more land. Therefore, many rural properties are just too isolated for modern day living. This also explains why Brits looking to buy a house in the French countryside, can, to their surprise, often find a bargain!

         In retrospect, I wonder how safe the house I had arrived at can have been. However, my carefree nineteen year old self didn’t think twice about entering the crumbling stone building. We climbed the stairs to the first floor where we joined a group of people. There was no roof, no partition walls and and the external stone walls were only a couple of feet high. I recognised Luc’s best friend (the owner of the flat with the unusual plant) (see Greeting the French way)  but nobody else.

       Luc remained his uncommunicative self but a kindly female took me under her wing. I spent the next few hours drinking and dancing on the first floor in the open air surrounded by the French countryside; it was a surreal set-up. After two or three hours, the night drew in and it was time to move on. It was at this point, with the liquid I had consumed pressing on my bladder, that I discovered there was no toilet. So it was, that I found myself squatting in a field in the pitch black. It's a bizarre experience, peeing in the open air just a few metres apart from strangers doing the same thing although you can barely see their outline.

A nightclub with an unusual addition

            From the derelict house, we piled into cars and drove to a nightclub which was also in the middle of nowhere. Two things struck me as different to a English club. Firstly, we all pooled our money and bought several bottles of drink between us. I was told that this was cheaper than buying each drink separately. I’ve never come across a pub or club that would let you do that in the UK. 

         Secondly, there was a swimming pool. Yes, a swimming pool in a club. It was only a small one and outside but still! Obviously such a thing wouldn’t really be appropriate in the British climate. But I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to swim when I was dressed up. Pulling yourself out of a pool with mascara streaks running down your cheeks is not a good look. Plus, I have the type of hair that does not dry naturally into a manageable style. If I do leave it to dry on its own, I end up looking like Cousin It from the Addam’s family, only worse, like Cousin It who’s just had an electric shock and been dragged through a hedge backwards. I didn’t, however, see anyone using the pool the whole night either. And, fortunately, no joker tried to push me in either.

[i] McNeill, T. (1998),‘Les trentes glorieuses: 1945-1975’, www.eserve.org.uk/tmc/contem/trente1.htm
[ii] Pierre Sorlin, ‘Stop the rural exodus’: Images of the country in French films of the 1950s. Taylor and Francis Online.
[iii] www.frenchpropertycentre.com/rural

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A habit of fainting - Working in a French factory

Moissac (France) - August

         At the end of my first week in the plum factory, I was told that we alternated shifts with another team each week. Therefore, the following Monday, I would be starting work at six in the morning. Ouch. (I know this will not be early for many of you but remember I was a student and it was a big shock to the system!) 

        Monday came and I dragged myself out of bed at five am. It was still dark and the outside cellar felt particularly creepy as I extricated my bike from it. I hurried back up the stone stairs as quickly as I could with a bicycle in tow, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. I never did like the dark. The sleeping village was deserted. There was not a soul to be seen and no noise to be heard apart from the whirring of my wheels as they turned. It was an eerie atmosphere and for once I pedalled fast, along the cobbled streets of Moissac. Arriving at the factory, I was put to work as usual on the second section. I had been standing there, battling plums, for about half an hour when I felt a familiar but extremely unwelcome sensation creep over me.

Fainting at school

I have a habit of fainting, you see, thanks to my low blood pressure which seems to run in our family. The first time I fainted, I didn’t really understand what had happened. One moment I was standing up leaning over to draw a picture at my friend’s house, the next I was lying on the floor having knocked over the hamster cage. My most spectacular performance was in the dining hall at secondary school. It was just a few weeks into my first year and I had been standing in the queue for ages. It was a warm day and when I reached the front, the added heat from the hot plates was too much. I started to feel dizzy and wobbly and then everything went black. I regained consciousness to find the giant head of a dinner lady in my face.

           “It’s alright dear”, it said.
“Where the hell am I?” I thought.

           I now know why, when a patient wakes from being unconscious on Casualty, they always say, "You've been in an accident, you're in hospital." I had always thought they were stating the obvious. But, seriously, I didn't have a scooby what was going on and it was quite frightening.

          The giant headed dinner lady (actually, it turned out she had a normal sized head once I could see properly) led me through tables of pupils. The normally rowdy dining hall was silent. Every single pair of eyes was focussed on me. Every fork poised half way to someone’s mouth. Apparently I had made quite a noise going down. I had knocked my friend’s tray out of her hands and her plate had smashed to the floor. I was told afterwards that I was not only deathly pale but my lips had turned a ghoulish shade of blue. And this was how I introduced myself to my new school.

Fainting at a French factory

 Over the years, I had learnt that, if I sat down as soon as I started to feel faint, then I could usually manage to avoid blacking out completely. So, as I stood there in the factory, feeling lightheaded and shaky, I knew I had to sit down immediately before I sprawled headlong in to the plums. I called out to the passing supervisor. Fortunately, I didn’t have to explain; she took one look at my white face and hurried me over to a nearby chair. There she handed me a sugar cube and I dutifully sucked it, foolishly feeling like a child who had just had their vaccinations. All I was missing was the sticker that said “I was brave at the doctors today”.

          I was aware of my co-workers all staring at me. I guess they were wondering if l'idiote anglaise had managed to staple her finger again. (See previous blog post A French hospital visit ) Half an hour and three sugar cubes later, I felt stable enough to return to my post, although I made sure I had a chair close by just in case.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Keeping up with the plum line in a French factory

Moissac (France) - August

       After the stapling incident (see previous blog post A French hospital visit ), I worked the rest of the week at the factory in France on the one till eight pm shift. My co-workers were not particularly friendly and, as I had feared, I found little opportunity to practise my French. Three times during the shift, the supervisor would hit a large button and the machinery would grind to a halt. Everyone would troop outside to perch on two long benches facing one another. There we’d sit pretty much in silence, munching on snacks whilst the hot sun glared down on us and reflected off the concrete jungle all around. After just ten minutes it would be back to the monotonous treadmill.

The plum line

        At one end, plums would pour onto a conveyor belt. This passed four women (two on either side) who removed any of the fruit with bruises or other defects. I soon learnt that this was the most coveted task since it was done sitting and involved the least manual labour. Being new and only there for a month, I was naturally considered the lowest of the low and never got a look in. The plums then rolled onto the second piece of machinery where they were channelled onto the third and final part. Here they dropped into small wooden crates which were fed empty into the machine on one side and shot fully loaded out of the other side.

        Mostly, I’d work on the second section ensuring the plums continued through the machinery in an orderly fashion. This meant I spent most of my time clawing back handfuls of plums to ensure that they went through one by one and didn’t clog up the machine. I should point out at some point that the word ‘plum’ translates as ‘prune’ in French, another one of those crafty false friends. (See previous blog post German false friends ) The English ‘prune’ is ‘pruneau’ in French. In a similar way, grapes become ‘raisins’ in French and the English raisins become ‘raisins secs’ (dried raisins).

A race against plums

It goes without saying that I was kept far away from the stapling section. Occasionally, I would be put to work feeding empty crates into the machinery. There were four areas through which to insert the boxes each with a conveyor belt leading into it. When there was a lull in the amount of plums coming through, I would manage to get quite a few crates lined up ready on the conveyor belts. At other times, the crates would shoot into the machine and my lines of waiting boxes would rapidly diminish. I would have to race between them trying desperately to always have at least a couple of crates on each conveyor belt. I often got nail bitingly close to losing the race against the onslaught of plums. 

        I felt like I was in one of those Saturday evening family game shows. The kind where the Dad has to keep thirty plates all spinning on sticks for two minutes. If he fails to reach a wobbling plate and it smashes to the ground, then he loses the promised campervan, widescreen television and food processor. If I failed to keep all four conveyor belts fed with empty crates, then hundreds of plums would fall to the floor and I would likely lose my job. Fortunately, however, I always managed to just about keep one step (or rather one crate) ahead of the game.

Monday, 13 February 2017

A French hospital visit

Moissac (France) - August

         So, where was I? Oh, yes, I'd just arrived at a factory in France to start work packing plums. The boss led me through vast room after room until we came to the one I was to be stationed in for the next month. In the middle, stood a long line of machinery surrounded at various intervals by about ten workers.

Encounter with a stapler

           I was put on the final section where workers were stapling cellophane wrappers onto plum-filled crates and loading them onto trolleys. For the first couple of hours, everything went fine. I was getting into a rhythm. Whack, whack, whack; three staples to secure the cellophane wrapper onto one side of the crate. Whack, whack, whack; three staples on the other side. Whack, whack, whack. Whack, whack, whack. And it was then that the unfortunate incident occurred. I was in the act of swinging my arm strongly downwards to hit a staple into the box when the lady behind me knocked my elbow. So, instead of hitting the crate, I hit my forefinger that was holding down the cellophane. I examined my finger in shock. There, embedded in the fleshy part of my nail, was a perfectly positioned staple. I could not have done it more neatly if I had tried. Pain surged through my finger; I had not only injected a staple into my nail, I had also hit it extremely forcefully with a heavy metal object.

            At that moment, the supervisor walked past and I had no option but to hold out my finger. I tried to explain that the woman behind me had bumped into me at the crucial moment. However, in my distress, i was lost for words and could not remember the French for either ‘knock’ or ‘elbow’. So I was left to say “she…” and wave in the direction of the woman. To my great annoyance, the culprit remained silent. If it had been me, I would have been greatly apologetic. As it were, I was left looking extremely stupid; the ‘anglaise’ who, on her very first day, had managed to staple her own finger. Oh, the humiliation.

A French hospital visit

            The supervisor walked me back through vast room after room until we reached the office of the boss, the last person I wished to see right then. (See previous blog post Manual labour and French forms )
           She took the news with a weary air; I had no doubt lived up to her expectations. I was driven to a local nearby hospital by another employee. Healthcare in France is to a degree private. And it is thus a rather different experience than a trip to the NHS. I sat in a small comfortable waiting room which was empty apart from myself. After only ten minutes, I was shown into a consulting room. Well, that was certainly better than the typical four hour wait in the NHS! There are, however, disadvantages of a private health system, namely it isn’t free. With this in mind, I was concerned that, since I had no social security number, I would not be covered by the factory’s insurance. To whom would the bill then fall? To the factory? To me? Either way, it was clear that I was not going to be invited back to work there. Sacked on my first day, that was a record for me.

            “Oh, the new fashion!” remarked a doctor jovially as he entered the room and saw my stapled nail. I forced a smile for his sake but I was feeling far from cheerful. He injected a local anaesthetic into my finger. I am sure that I later benefited from the pain relief it brought. However, in that moment, the extra pain brought from sticking a needle into a place which has little flesh really did not seem worth it. After deftly removing the staple, he proceeded to wrap my finger in copious amounts of sticking plaster, wrapping each layer over the previous one in a crisscross pattern at the front. At the end, I looked like I had a small banana protruding from my hand. I had not had an x-ray. Yet I wondered if the doctor perhaps suspected my finger was fractured since this is the way my thumb was bandaged when I broke it aged twelve. I say when I broke it but it would be more accurate to say when my friend broke it. We were in a hockey lesson at school when the ball came whizzing toward us. My friend took a whack at it with her hockey stick, missed and hit me on the thumb instead.

          My host, Dominique, came to pick me up having received a phone call from the factory. More humiliation and explanation. To my great surprise, however, apparently I had worked hard and the factory would have me back the following day. I had been my usual diligent self. Still, I can only imagine that they were mightily low on staff. And even more fortunately, I never received a bill for my visit to the hospital, phew.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A scary boss in France

Moissac (France) - August

        The main aim of my trip, as with all my European travels during my time at University, was to improve my language speaking skills. To this end, my host, Dominique, had found me a job. So the Monday morning, my first full day in Moissac, she drove me to my place of work. I had envisaged something on the cushy side, helping in a library perhaps, a job in which I could practice talking French with colleagues and customers. Therefore, when we drove up to an industrial estate and parked by an enormous building, my heart sank. It turned out I was to work in a factory packing plums.

Newspaper delivery girl          

        Don’t get me wrong, I am no stranger to hard work. When I was fourteen I had a weekly newspaper round in the UK. For those who have never tried it, delivering papers door to door takes a surprisingly long time. It took me six hours to deliver three hundred and fifty papers. And for this I received the princely sum of six pounds. For every additional leaflet I delivered I received an extra one pound fifty. Happy days. Letterboxes became my worst enemy. My fingers took many a battering from lethal letterboxes just lying in wait for their next unsuspecting victim. By the end of my round, my hands would be covered in black print and several small cuts. Dogs became something to fear. A house which always had an Alsatian lying in wait in the front garden never received a newspaper from me. At another house, a savage dog would hurl itself at the door and start to shred the paper (and my fingers if I wasn’t careful) as soon as I began to push it through the letterbox. I lasted a year until I decided it was time to move further up the professional ladder.

Shop assistant

            I started working every Saturday in a small food shop in my local town. Most of my time was spent on the delicatessen counter, serving fresh meats, cheeses and pies. I worked from nine in the morning till half past six in the evening with only half an hour break for lunch. When the shop closed at half past five, I would go and sit on the toilet just to give my legs a rest. For the following hour, I would clean the deli and sweep and mop the whole of the shop floor. At £1.80 an hour, it paid better than my newspaper round but it was still a measly amount even for 1997/8.

French forms

            So, when Dominique parked by a factory in Moissac, it was not the thought of manual labour that bothered me. What did concern me was how much French I was going to get to speak against the backdrop of whirring noisy machinery. I mean, that was the whole reason I was putting myself through this in the first place! My host left me with the boss, a tallish middle-aged slim woman with short brown hair and a no-nonense look about her. We sat down in her office and she pulled out a form.

            “Name?” she enquired briskly.
            “Clare”, I replied.
            “That’s your name?” she asked harshly.
            “Yes,” I replied slightly confused. 
             She wrote it on the form.
            “Forename?” she then asked.

            Ah. I had completely forgotten that in France, when filling in forms, and on envelopes for example, surname usually comes first. In my defence, surname in French is normally “nom de famille” but she had used only the abbreviated term of “nom”. I explained my mistake.

            “I hope you’re going to understand what work you have to do here!” she barked.

          I had clearly not got off to the best of starts. We finished the form with a few more hiccups – I didn’t know the full address of where I was staying, I did not have a French social security number and I did not have a French bank account. It was clear to see the boss was thinking I was more trouble than I was worth. Still, she led me through vast room after room until we came to the one I was to work in...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Greeting the French way

Moissac (France) - August  

            In August, I travelled to France where I would be staying for a month with a friend of my aunt’s. Dominique lived in a quaint village about an hour from Toulouse.

            The first evening, my host told her son Luc to let me accompany him to his friend’s house. He was a good-looking 21 year old with dark hair and an extremely sullen demeanour. He didn’t seem overly enamoured with his mother’s suggestion (or rather order), although it was difficult to judge; he didn’t seem particularly enamoured with anything. I had the impression he was still going through the grunting adolescent phase, although the grunt is more of a ‘bah’ in French. The short car journey to his friend’s house was undertaken in complete silence. I found it difficult to strike up a conversation in a foreign language and Luc didn't say a word.

The kissing rigmarole

When we arrived at his friend’s one bedroom flat, there were about ten people already there ranging from 16 to 22 years old. Then began the palaver of having to kiss every person there on each cheek. This can be an excruciatingly embarrassing ritual, particularly when the people you are greeting are strangers. Firstly, it is quite possible that you both turn your heads the same way and thus risk bumping noses or, worse, kissing on the lips. Perhaps there is a set way you should turn? I’m not sure. Secondly, as I discovered during my travels in France, the number of kisses varies between two and four according to the region. So once again you can end up bumping heads if you pull away at the wrong time.
After this rigmarole was over, we all sat down in a circle on the floor in the small lounge.  For the rest of the evening I sat on the floor bored out of my brain. Not once did anybody make any attempt to talk to me. In fact, the whole atmosphere felt rather hostile. 

An unexpected discovery

After about two hours, out of sheer boredom, I asked if I could use the bathroom. Everyone shot each other furtive glances and I wondered if I had made some dreadful faux pas. Should you not use the toilet in somebody’s house in France? Nevertheless, the host directed me to the bathroom. I walked in and it was then that things began to become a little clearer. There, sitting next to the toilet, was a plant under a bright fluorescent light. I am no expert in such matters but I had a pretty good guess of what it was. I found it rather amusing now I understood the group’s horror at my request to use the bathroom. Did this also explain their unfriendly nature towards me? Was my presence preventing them from spending the evening how they had intended? Taking my place once more on the lounge floor, I decided it was easiest not to mention my discovery. Every pair of eyes was on me but when it became clear that I wasn’t going to say anything, I could see them all visibly relax. Still, the atmosphere remained cold and I was relieved when Luc finally drove me home and I could escape.