Archived entries for Work

Getting the message

I shop for herbal teas bilingually. Don’t worry, it’s not one of my chat-up lines; I can’t begin to imagine an appropriate response to such a declaration (“Really? I get my fruit and veg in Hebrew, myself”).
No, it’s just that in the health food shop near where I live, one of the girls working there is Francophone, and the other comes from the Flemish part of the country, and so it’s easier for her if we speak in English. So it’s often the case that I end up saying things twice, once in French and then once again in English. It’s one of the charming aspects of life in Belgium which, I think, brings a bit of variety to everyday life. Obviously another reason I support bilingualism is that I’m from Wales, where we live life in Welsh and English all the time. Even the sheep are bilingual.

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Getting the message across in another language can, though, cause more confusion that one might have bargained for. Translation’s not always easy, even for the European parliament, with it’s army of interpreters for the 23 official languages of the EU. When Yulia Tymoshenko (below), prime minister of Ukraine, came to visit yesterday, they had to resort to the stop-start method of waiting for an interpretation to be read from English to Ukranian and vice-versa.

It causes a bit of trouble at the individual level, too. I should know, I nearly found out the hard way. Last week I had quite a nasty cold, and so I left work a bit early and went to the pharmacy. I started speaking in French, trying to explain that I was blocked up and that I’d like something to relax my lungs. There’s a tightness in my chest, I explained, and I’d like to ease it a bit.
So after a bit of thought, the pharmacist asked if it was asthma that I was talking about, because I’d have to get an inhaler from the doctor, she couldn’t give me one just like that. I said no, sorry, I wasn’t being clear; it wasn’t asthma, I’ve got things for that. We discussed a bit more what it might be that I was after; me trying to explain that I wanted something to clear and relax my lungs, her trying her best to understand. On reflection, perhaps I used the word “relax” with too much emphasis. Eventually the pharmacist asked me my maternal language. As it happened, she was actually Flemish, and found English easier than French. Thank heavens we managed to reach an understanding. Instead of wanting a simple flu remedy, the pharmacist thought that I had been asking for muscle relaxant.

Flapjack challenge

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So far it’s been a eventful start to the new year. Last week involved a press conference with Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley and an interview with Hungarian MEP Pàl Schmitt, who happens to be a keep a piano in his office, as you do. Schmitt also happens to be a former Olympic gold medallist, in fencing. Interesting chap. (Too flattering, perhaps? Hey, it’s not everyday you get given a bottle of Hungarian wine.)

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My second week back at work and I’m in Strasbourg once more. As usual on the journey down, we stopped off in Luxembourg for 10 minutes and I had my usual mini-deliberation as to whether or not I would have enough time to go and get a coffee and something to eat. This ritual, I should point out, happens every time I make this journey down here. It’s all about timing. You see, the train sometimes stops for five minutes, sometimes seven, sometimes a whole ten minutes, but you can never be totally sure whether or not you actually have time to go and buy something.
What made it worse, this time, was that I could see the station cafe just down the platform. However, every time I think about dashing off the train, wallet in hand, a little nightmare scenario begins to emerge in my imagination.    
What if you get there, and there’s a big long queue? You spend the rest of the journey without that nice cup of tea and flapjack, muttering bitterly to yourself that you bet you would actually have had time to wait in the queue, it wasn’t that long. The risk, of course, is that as you’re happily putting your change back in your pocket, eagerly anticipating the first sip of your paned, and first bite of flapjack – you’ve been up since half six – you walk out of the station cafe to see the train slowly making its way out of the station. Oh yes, and you thought, genius that you are, that it would save time on Mission Flapjack to leave your bags and laptop on the train so they’re now going to end up in Zurich. Nice one, Mr Bond.  
Of course, all the while as I’m sitting in dreamland, visualising frantic phone calls to lost property in Switzerland and just dreading the thought of having to call the office (“I’m sorry, Matt, I don’t quite…flapjack…laptop…oh god”), there are people cruising to the cafe and returning triumphantly with minutes to spare, three coffees and a small bakery of treats. Next time, I think to myself, I might just risk it.

Breathe in the air

I’ve changed the theme on this blog and also, hopefully, begun the process of writing entries more regularly. A lot has happened since my last post, I’ve been to stranded in Strasbourg in the snow, I’ve watched the Belgians out in force to try and preserve the unity of their country, and I’ve found myself suddenly, marvelously in a relationship with a lovely girl, Zoe. Hence the reason for the slight diversion from documenting my goings-on here. Only to be expected, of course. One can easily imagine the outcome in the first couple of weeks if I’d have devoted more attention to online reportage than romance: “Could we leave that meal I was going to cook until maybe tomorrow? It’s just that I was planning on writing a blog entry tonight about a hilarious conversation I ha…hello? Are you still there?”

This last weekend was good. I went to meet Zoe for a short trip to Geneva, where she was attending a meeting of the Grain council in her capacity as an agriculture journalist for Agra Europe. The weather wasn’t too great on the Saturday, but it was great to be close to nature again, and it was dry and cold as we walked along Lac Leman and to the Jardin Botanique. Just to hear the sound of the lake and to actually see the horizon was a much-welcome break from the cluttered streets of Brussels. The real highlight though was Sunday morning, just before we caught the plane back, because it was fantastically clear and sunny, revealing the snow-topped Alps all around the city. Next time, we’re going to plan in advance to try and get out into those mountains. Obviously it’s always good to get away from work from time to time. As an EU journalist, perhaps there’s a deeper appreciation when it comes to escaping for some fresh air.

Speakers

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 Lovely day out to Bruges on the weekend. The pictures, as usual, can be seen here.

I’m helping to cover this month’s plenary session in Strasbourg, and it’s got me thinking about speakers, speeches and the incredible range of ability when it comes to speaking to a group. I was at a meeting last week and listened to a fantastic talk for journalists by Michael Shackleton on the complicated process that is the co-decision procedure. By leaving out much of the jargon, and by keeping up a really enthusiastic attitude throughout, Mr Shackleton was able to get across just why the procedure was so important for the division of power here amongst the European institutions. 

On the other hand, I remember being in another meeting about three weeks ago, and listening in astonishment to someone who managed to speak for about 10 minutes and at the same time managed to say absolutely nothing. I was supposed to be taking notes, and I kept asking myself, after every few sentences, “What has he actually said?”

Sometimes it reminds me of this “management-speak” that you get on a lot of recruitment posters for big companies. You know the sort of thing I mean:

“Kick-start YOUR career by helping us to find strategic solutions tailored towards a client-orientated global financial leader.” 

“This (grinning idiot, pictured jumping in a field, in his suit, with his work mates) could be you. You too can a key player in developing an innovative, people-centric management system for today’s commitment-driven, asset-focused businesses. Reach further, faster.”

The only thing I’ll be reaching for is the dictionary.

Young and, er, wild…

A quick trip to Cardiff for an interview for a place on the postgraduate diploma course in journalism – and, in response to the forthcoming question, I think it went OK and I’ll probably find out next week – and, at the Youth Hostel, I got my suit out of the suit bag…only to find it had crumpled inside. I had got up especially early that day in order to first wash then iron a shirt for this interview, so I was pissed off. “What’s the point of you being a suit bag” I fumed (at the suit bag) “if all you’re going to do is abandon your duties?! Well? No, don’t just shrug your shoulders like that. That’s not going to get the creases out of my shirt now, is it?”
I’m glad no-one entered the dormitory right then and caught me arguing with my suit bag.

So I had the interview in a shirt that had more creases than Keith Richards, but I hope they were paying more attention to articles rather than attire. I had a really nice evening following the interview, actually. At the YH when I got back there were a load of teenagers and my first thought was “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? A tiring and testing day and now a noisy rabble to contend with. Fantastic.”

Actually, though, they were all surprisingly well behaved, and as I was cooking my dinner and hadn’t yet been stabbed by one of the sharp meat knives, I struck up a conversation with a few of them and it turns out they were all Danish, on a school trip to find out about the UK. We ended up chatting for a good while, me telling them about my work in the Parliament and about the great times you have at university, and they told me all about Denmark and their school. It was a fascinating couple of hours. Eventually their teacher came in and reminded them that they were supposed to be in bed 15 minutes ago. They all lept to their feet, apologised to him profusely and scattered upstairs. It could have been such a different set of circumstances, with them coming back at 3 in the morning having been out all night finding out whether beer or wine bottles have the best impact when thrown against a shop window. They had, in fact, been sitting around a table, politely making conversation, and had forgot about the time. I was impressed.

Today I have been mostly…learning about the co-decision procedure and sampling Greek food and wine at a reception.

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.)



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