Archived entries for France

Pay as you go

So Zoe and I were on the way back from a lovely holiday spent in the French Alps and then to Perpignan for a friend’s wedding, and at the airport we discovered that because we didn’t check-in online, Ryanair charged us 40 euro each to do so in person. We didn’t use the online option because, surprise surprise given the nature of our work, both of us were keen to stay “offline” for the duration of the holiday. So it came as something of a shock to be told that we had to pay extra to get boarding passes for the aeroplane at the airport.

I mean, can you imagine if other situations were handled with a similar, “give us your money first” level of arrogance?

At the hairdressers: “Sorry, Madam, but the density of your hair is likely to wear down the sharpness of these scissors. There’ll be an extra twenty euro charge to cover the excessive utensil strain.”

At the beach: “Excuse me, young man,” said the lifeguard. “There’s a large amount of sand between your toes. That means there’s now less sand for the others to enjoy. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s an on-the-spot fine of fifty euro under the Rules Governing Responsible Use of Sand-Based Recreational Areas. Time to pay up, I’m afraid.”

At the ferry terminal: “You forgot to validate your ferry ticket, madam, so I’m afraid there’s a two hundred euro fine attached. The validation machine is located in the engine room of the ferry. The fact that you need to board the vessel first in order to access said engine room isn’t my concern, madam. Cash will do nicely.”

It’s all a bit ridiculous, really.

From Sitting in Seminars to Sipping Champagne

European Parliament

 

Quite a busy first few days of properly getting stuck into my traineeship! The general atmosphere at the moment is hectic, with a police presence everywhere because it is the first meeting this year of the European Council (the Heads of State/Government of the Member States) on the 8th-9th March.

 

I drafted, as my first task, an article from a 27-page report on corporate social responsibility, and I’ve also produced my first genuine piece of work, a summary about the (slightly lighter, 17-page) report about the role of local authorities in the development process. I’ve been to a couple of introductory meetings, and also to an equal opportunities award ceremony, then on Wednesday afternoon I went to a three-hour seminar for journalists on Women Politicians and the Media. Wednesday evening, there was a nice social gathering for all the new stagiaires (work experience people) at a bar near the Parliament, and it was a great to chat with people of the same age, from all over Europe (I was only there for a couple of hours but had a good talk – sometimes in French, sometime in English – with a couple of Italians, a German, a Spaniard and a man from Finland).

The multilingualism is something which is particularly noticeable in the canteen at lunchtime. If you stop for a while, and just listen to the general buzz of conversation going on around the room, it’s almost impossible to make out what any individual is saying; anyone who might want to try and get a snatch of Parliament gossip would have a pretty tough job.

Today was International Women’s Day, so after registering at the Parliament’s library this morning I joined a small gathering in our building, where we had champagne and bread with olives and tomatoes as our own little celebration of the event. My champagne glass kept getting re-filled as I was talking to people, so in the end I’d had about three or four glasses of champagne and was feeling much more light-headed than when I entered the room!

My supervisor clearly has my best interests at heart, and, perhaps having anticipated my eager acceptance of champagne before midday, had already thought of a cunning plan to bring me back down to earth.

“If you could proof-read this before this afternoon” he said, handing me the Briefing document for next week’s Plenary Session. It was 40 pages long.

 

(By the way….you can find my article here.)

Plat du Jour

As the first weekend of my time here in Brussels draws to a close, through the white noise of change and constant novelty, normality is slowly approaching. I am on the platform of adventure, awaiting the steam train of stability. (Yep, three glasses of wine so far..)

I’ve moved in to my house, and my house-mates are all fine. Two girls, Angela from Blackpool and Martha from Warsaw, and an Austrian lad, Gernot, from Vienna. We all get on really well. There are plans to cook together at least on the weekend, which will be fun – and hopefully I’ll learn something in the process!

Cooking is one of those things which brings that level of normality to my experience here. You might, I don’t know, be one of those people who takes a certain delight in all the forward planning, time management and generally practical and hands-on nature of cooking. I normally take a rather more defeatist attitude, I’m afraid. I’ll look at a recipe and spot the one obscure-sounding ingredient (Like Oregano…to me that sounds like a Spanish resort, viz: “EasyJet Spring Breaks – Liverpool to Oregano only £29.99 one-way!”). Then I join the “Don’t Have It, Can’t Make It” school of straight-jacket thought and reach for the frozen pizzas.

Tonight, howver, I surprised myself with my boldness in the kitchen. I’d bought some chicken, and I was going to do the usual thing, where I just fry the chicken and throw in a load of curry sauce (“They don’t do curry sauce. It’s a no-go on the curry sauce…”) to have with it. I think it’s probably my general feeling of carpe diem that I’ve had since I arrived that made me venture out and try something new. So I opened Delia (so to speak) and had a go at a recipe called something like Poulet Basque. So there’s me, in our tiny kitchen, chopped veg and knives and pans everywhere. Gernot, meanwhile, is standing in the doorway offering words of encouragement, as I’m stirring a colourful frying pan that’s in serious danger of overflowing. Snatches of conversation echo from the kitchen amid the hiss of steam, the “thlunk” of chopping knife on breadboard and the occasional swear word (“Pardon my French”, doesn’t really work when you’re swearing in French), as my cauldron spits hot oil onto my hands, like an angry cat.

In the event, despite my being slightly too generous with the pepper, my meal was a success. Gernot tried some, and said it was very good, and Angela (who has said she’ll teach me cooking) tried some, and said it was a nice surprise from “someone who claims they can’t cook”.

It’s all about seizing the opportunities and going out of the comfort zone; something which I think I’ll be getting increasingly used to as time goes on…

Familiarity

I’ve started my adventure in Brussels and today’s post, ladies and gents, is on the topic of familiarity. I’ve just spent a really good weekend in London meeting some old friends, some I’ve known for less than a year and others who I’ve known for at least the last ten years. I met some of their friends, all of whom were instantly welcoming, and it was interesting to meet some of the people I’d heard about in the stories told by my friends from home, during university holidays.

I’d been to Brighton the night before, a place I’m beginning to get to know better, and even though London is quite intimidating it’s still obviously British in character.

Arriving in Brussels on the Eurostar, was a bit of a shock, for suddenly I knew nobody and nothing was familiar. I was relieved at how quickly things started to become familiar, however. I started speaking French with the taxi driver, which was a source of comfort as I’ve been brought up going to France on family holidays, and spent last summer living and working in Bordeaux.

I checked into the Youth Hostel, and then took a taxi to drop off my heavy luggage at the house where I’ll be living for the next five months. I told the driver where I wanted to go and tried to show him the address on a printed email, but after about twenty minutes of driving he asked me to give him the address again, and then realised he’d be heading for a similar-sounding street in the wrong direction. It was alright, though, because he reset the taxi meter and then started talking in a lively manner about how he absolutely had to be finished by 6pm or else his wife would be angry. I was trying my best to understand and respond to the French, but secretly I was just willing him to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.

That evening I went to a St David’s Day reception hosted by the Welsh Assembly, although I arrived only in time for the after-speech food and drinks. In the crowd there was a surprising absence of Welsh, and of familiar accents. Obviously I wasn’t expecting the unmistakeable sound of Maesgeirchen to come drifting (or rather, charging) across the floor, but the sounds of somewhere in Gwynedd would’ve been nice. I didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up randomly introducing myself to a few people who looked about my age. I met a political researcher and a couple of interns who were really friendly; they gave me their contact details and invited me out for drinks once I’d got settled in Brussels.

Yesterday I thought I’d better try and explore a bit of the city, so I wandered around the centre, with its shops, and unwittingly tried out the metro during the rush hour, which was heaving (“I am not a wall, Monsieur”). I had a new room-mate in the YH, Nicolas from Paris, so we went for a drink last night. He told me that if I want to sound more French I need to speak in a more monotone accent (“Ton accent, c’est trop vivant”), and I told him that yes, it’s true, there are people in Britain who really do enjoy Marmite.

 

 

 

 



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