Archived entries for French language

A refreshing glass of ale from the Ardennes

Last night I sat down with a refreshing glass of La Chouffe, which as well as being a delicious, award-winning Belgian ale reminds me of visiting the Ardennes.

It was our second trip down to rural Wallonia, and we were staying with friends in a nice little farmhouse gite near Houffalize. You could walk straight from the house along a path to a nice forest, a river, fields with horses and some great views. A fairly steep climb up to the viewpoint and then a leisurely descent down into the valley.

Ardennes trees Stream in Ardennes

The first time we did this walk, we got close to where we thought we were supposed to be going but, in typical Belgian style, there was a complete absence of signs, no halfway maps or anything. We asked some locals who were having morning coffee in their garden, who reassured us that yes, we did indeed need to keep walking in the direction of the dark forest road that looked as if led to nowhere in particular.

Sure enough, we carried on for only a couple more minutes and there it was, nestled snugly at the foot of the valley, surrounded on all sides by trees: the Chouffe brewery.

La Chouffe

Outside right now, there’s still snow on the ground and the temperature remains at a level that can only be described as Cold Enough To Freeze Your Nuts Off. It’s nice to drink a glass of Chouffe and to look forward to more weekend adventures in Wallonia.

Icicles in Waterloo

One word, two syllables

How to mime a root vegetable? Recently, I’ve been doing our regular Sunday market shop by myself, armed with a list, written by Zoe, of all the fresh fruit and veg for the week ahead.

Now, most of what’s on the list is perfectly legible, but sometimes there’ll be a word which looks like it’s written in a certain way but is in fact spelt and pronounced slightly differently. Oh, and it’s all in French, of course.

So there I am, at the market fruit and veg stall, and because I’m on autopilot I’ll just be asking for things directly from this list. Which is fine until we get to the point where the word written down as I read it…makes no sense to the man – let’s call him Bernard – on the market stall:

“I’ll have some…parnasse as well, please.”
(A confused silence.)
“Parnasse?”
“Yep, just a small one.”
“Parnasse? What’s that?”
“You know, parnasse, it’s er, quite small and yellow and…”

How on earth do I describe it?

“…and you put it with carrots as a side dish.”

Now I’m miming chopping a vegetable.

Does it work? Of course not, it could be any vegetable I’m miming. I don’t consider myself to be that bad an actor but he’s looking at me as if I’d just pretended it’s something I need to add to get the lawnmower started.

In fact, it’s starting to get a bit embarrassing as he turns to his fellow stall holder:

“Eh! Georges! What’s parnasse? This lad’s asking for some…”
“Never heard of it…oi, mate, can you see it anywhere here?”
(It’s at this point that I’m suddenly all too aware that a delighted audience has been watching our little drama. Why didn’t I just say something else quickly?)

“Er…”

Got it. After what feels like several weeks I finally spot what I need, and point it out to Georges, Bernard and the rest of the people waiting in the queue.

“Ah! Panais!” declares Bernard, triumphantly.

What I was after was a parsnip. I had in fact been asking the poor man at the market if I could have a Nineteenth Century French literary tradition.

Waterloo market

The Sunday market at Waterloo

Fringe benefits

It was time, on Friday, to get a haircut. My hair had grown to the point where it could have housed a small family of birds for the winter; something had to be done. So off I went to the nearest hairdressers, and thus the ordeal began…

“Bonjour, Monsieur. How would you like it cut?”

 (Remember this is in French and my vocab on hair terminology is somewhat limited…) “Well, it’s too thick, you see, so I’d like it thinner.”  

“Right. Do you want it layered?”

“Layered? Er…can I just have it cut?”

“Well what sort of style did you have in mind?”

 “I was hoping to go for the “Now I Have Less Hair Than When I Came In” look that seems to be-”

(Of course now she’s giving me a look that I do not want to see on someone grasping a pair of sharp scissors, so I stop talking. Sharpish.)

“You already have layers, Monsieur”

 “Of course I do! Silly me! You see, sometimes you forget, don’t you? Forget to take the rubbish out, forget to feed the cat, forget your hair is layered….”

“How much length do you want me to take off?”

“Well, actually, can I…sorry, please could you keep it quite long, if that’s alright?”

“I’ve got a better idea”

(Oh, Christ. Here it comes. Skinhead. Mohican. Just A Fringe.)

“Just let me cut it.”

 Well, it was a fantastic haircut, in the end. I wish all hairdressers could be like that from the beginning, instead of making me feel like I’m taking part in some sort of Hairdressers’ Mastermind.

Taking risks…

With Marta at the Commission press area

 

Security seems to be this week’s theme. I wrote an article about security at football matches for the briefing before the plenary session in Brussels, and in the report the committee called for the establishment of national football information centres, which would exchange personal information with the police about high-risk supporters, in accordance with domestic and international rules governing the exchange of information.

I also forgot my identity pass twice this week, the second time much to the amusement of the man on the security desk:
“Do you mean, you’ve lost your ID badge? So you need to get a new one?” asked the security guard, wearily.
“No, sorry…I’ve just forgotten it, that’s all.”
“Wait a minute…didn’t you forget it yesterday as well?” he inquired, a slight grin forming at the corners of his mouth as he savoured the moment.
“Yes” I replied, sheepishly.
“Hang on, so you’ve not lost it” he continued, “Just forgotten it again. Yesterday…and now today.”
“That’s right, yep. Sorry…” I said. “If you think about it, though, forgetting things makes life a bit more exciting, in a way…”
(Rule 1: Don’t try and be funny in another language.)
“What? I don’t understand. Forgetting things is exciting?” he asked, bewildered.
“No, what I meant was, if you got everything right all the time, wouldn’t life be so boring?”
(I should have just shut up.)
“Do you like getting things wrong? I don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t like getting things wrong, exactly, but solving problems like forgetting stuff…makes life a bit richer.”
“Problems make life richer? Are you crazy?”
“Probably, yes. Could I have a Visitor’s Pass now, please?”

It reminded me of my first day at the Parliament when I managed to get into the main building without first registering for my ID card. As I was walking away from the first introductory meeting, the lady who was showing us around asked me where my ID card was. I told her I hadn’t got it yet, and after a short, puzzled pause she asked me how I had managed to enter the building without an ID card. Was I escorted by another member of staff?
“Not exactly”, I replied. “I just walked in.”
Maybe this answer would have carried less of an impact had I been clean-shaven, and without my a large rucksack covered in environmental campaign badges…
(The football security article – I wrote the second half- can be read here.)

New horizons

The gang from 46 Ave Albert Jonnart

It’s been a busy few days since the weekend, beginning with a wonderful day out with my housmates to Ostende, a chance to get out of the city and also to spend a bit more time getting to know the people with whom I’ll be sharing a house for the next 5 months. For me it was a strange resort because right next to the beach, there is a very built up area consisting of tower blocks of hotels and appartments. Even when you look along the coast, further along through the haze you can make out the tall buildings rising up from the sea and sand nearby. A visit to a new place with new friends, I stuck to the theme of novelty and tried some new food. The “Warme Wullocks” (sea snails), which Marta had bought, were very hot and very chewy, but didn’t really taste of anything. It was quite satisfying in a sort of “Yeah, I’ve had snails” way, but also disappointing in that I had sort of perversely hoped I might faint with disgust.

This week the Parliament has a Plenary Session in Strasbourg, a monthly meeting in which MEPs give speeches, debate issues, vote on resolutions and adopt reports. I’ve been following the proceedings closely, with a little help from Felix, a stagiaire with the French press service, who has been very patient and explained how a lot of things work.
This morning I followed a very important debate on the Berlin Declaration, which is to be signed to mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and which will set out a rough agenda for the future of the EU. It was an interesting debate in which many colourful views were expressed, and I helped produce our subsequent press release which can be viewed here:


MEPs expect a Berlin Declaration worthy of today’s EU

It’s been more relaxed on the cooking front so far, because often when I come home Anglela and Marta will already be making something and will just ask me if I’d like some. Fear not, though, because I have agreed to cook for a certain girl I’ve got to know – somehow my intial offer of a restaurant didn’t register – so we’ll see how that goes. I shall place my trust in Delia once again and hopefully can look forward to a kitchen that features many flavours rather than many firemen…

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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