Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fleurir et Harry Potter

As you can see things are beginning to bloom here. It seems so extraordinary that it is February and things are showing signs of new life. Even as the mistral blows down on us this week, the rose bushes in front of our building are breaking forth new leaves. Keith has also discovered that he hates the smell of mimosa. No not the drink! The lovely yellow flowers have quite a pungent odour that people either seem to love or hate. Keith’s nose is able to pick up the smell of the flowers before we even see the tree. 

For the past couple of weeks we have been doing some more practical exploring around our neighbourhood. After it taking us over an hour to get home the other weekend (it should have taken 20 minutes), we decided that this was a bit of a necessity. We have discovered that we live about a ten minute walk from a great health food store and a teaching farm. The farm is surrounded by apartment buildings, and it is funny to see sheep and cows eating framed by a backdrop of high density suburban buildings. In addition to this, we have now completely walked the bord de la mer from our apartment to the old port. Along the way we found the machine that initially was used to measure the standard sea level for all of France. Since the run ways of the Marseille airport extend right into the Mediterranean, it is still the place were all plane reset their instruments.

Our most recent encounters with French culture have included eating raclette, playing patanque, and buying lingerie. Yes, I actually went to a sous vetements party. The concept is much the same as a tupperwear or candle party in Canada, but instead it takes the feminine aspect of the party a step farther. A friend of mine hosted the party, and it was a good chance for me to meet some new people and to indulge in buying myself some French lingerie.

This past Sunday we were invited to a birthday party and exposed to the alpine tradition of raclette. Keith had been told about raclette by some colleagues at work, but all we could figure out was that involved potatoes and cheese. Raclette is a cheese, but little did we know that the meal is so important that it deserves its own appliance. The meal starts with boiled potatoes, cold cuts and cheese on a plate. You place the cold cuts on the grill of the appliance, while at the same time placing the slices of cheese in the little triangle servers below the grill to heat up. Once the cheese is melted, you take your meat off the grill and then cover your potatoes and meat with the cheese. Bon appetite. Of course, I couldn’t have the cheese but I find it fascinating that one would buy an appliance solely for the purpose of this meal. Where do French people keep them? Our small kitchen is already packed to the rim and I don’t have any of the appliances I would consider “normal” like a blender or electric mixer. 

Both of these parties have brought forward again the strangeness of the bisou. The bisou is the kiss on the cheek that you use to greet people and to say goodbye. Firstly I must say it isn’t actually a kiss, but more of a pressing of cheeks with the sound of a kiss. Everyone here does it which I find fascinating. You see teenage boys giving eachother bisous when they meet and I just chuckle to think what many of my male students back home would think if they witnessed this type of greeting. I had originally thought that you just use the bisou with good friends, but it has now become clear that you are expected to not only use it with your friends, but also friends of friends. I don’t know if it is just my cold North American ways, or if it is the mantra of sanitization that has been pounded into my head since H1N1, but I find the bisou a bit awkward. At both of the parties above, it was expected that you go around the room and greet everyone with the bisou. Again it was a bit of a surprise for us, but I think that Keith’s friends from the lab have been letting us use handshakes because we are, as they would say in Newfoundland, “from away”. Being in a bit more of a traditional home for the birthday party and lingerie party, the bisou was simply customary. Greeting people with the bisou is a good way to make sure you know who everyone in the room is, but having to use it to say goodbye can be a bit of a long event. The French seem to be very particular about saying hello and goodbye specifically to each person. In comparison to the Canadian custom of shouting goodbye to the entire room or simply giving everyone a big wave, we find this a bit formal and at time tedious. Oh well, a chance to improve our manners I guess.

The studying continues in earnest, although time always seems limited. The moments of panic continue over not having a real job, and not belonging to a school community. Hopefully, if I continue to improve in the language department this will be rectified (eventually). Regardless I have picked up one student to tutor and have been doing a bit of babysitting. I know I have said many times how I would like to go back and just be a student again, but now that I do have the opportunity I find I am worrying more about money than I ever did as a student. Does this mean I have really grown up and I will never be able to re-capture those days when the biggest worries I had were handing in papers on time?  I know I should be enjoying where I am right now, but as always I want it all.

The student life has allowed me to supplement my learning with some quality reading. I have just finished the second Harry Potter book in French. Yes that adventurous young sorcerer inhabits the world of French literature too. I have found the reading very helpful in terms of building vocabulary, but I feel like I’m in grade four again because it takes me forever to read a chapter.  Keith has also been reading the series and has in fact dropped all English reading to indulge in the world of Hogwarts or Poudlard in French, yes that is actually the name of the school. Loosely translated it is the fat of the louse. For the most part the translation retains the names the characters and places, but some changes are equally as entertaining. Firstly, a magic wand is a baguette magique. It is hard not to imagine the students of Poudlard waving around long loaves of bread instead of magic wands. Secondly, they changed Professor Snape to Professeur Rogue. We have asked around a bit and Snape has no other meaning or connotation in French. I really think this is an unfortunate change. It distances Snape from Slytherin, which is neatly translated to Serpentard. Finally the funniest change I have encountered so far is in the Chamber of Secrets when Tom Marvolo Riddle reveals that his name rearranges to form the anagram “I am Lord Voldemort”. For this to work in French Tom’s name needed to be changed, so he is Tom Elvis Jedusor. “Je suis Voldemort.”  I don’t know about you but Elvis doesn’t really make my spine tingle in the same way. I’ll keep you posted as I encounter other fascinating translations.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Amis et Voisins

Our French is improving and our social circle is expanding!

Our past weekend was busy one and very French which was really quite nice. On Saturday we went to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer and went for a bit of hike with Pascale and Jacqueline, two of Keith’s team mates from his lab. Instead of simply calling it “the lab” like we did in Kingston, people here call it “l’équipe”.  The hike was fantastic and included a picnic lunch on the beach. Yes, I’m going to rub it in a bit more, it was 16°C and Keith wore shorts. In addition to this the conversation was fantastic.

Later in the evening, some other members of l’équipe got together for snacks after dinner. More French and more good food. They had little cut up hotdog wieners, which I thought was kind of funny, but they were definitely not hotdogs. Just ask the four year old who served me (sometimes without my asking). He quite insisted that they were sausages and not anything else. But really, in my opinion if it looks like a hotdog wiener, and tastes like a hotdog wiener... Well you know the rest.

After losing our way walking home at midnight, we got up fresh and early to get ready for a visit from our neighbours.  This is one of my goals over the next couple of weeks; I would like to have all of our neighbours on the floor over for tea or drinks. There are four apartments on our floor including our own and so this should not be too difficult, although it is key that we have them over separately. I am finding I have difficulty completely understanding what is being said to me when other conversations are happening around me. Those words, that in English I would just simply fill in because I know the sentence structure, are lost. With a bit of fatigue from the night before and two very energetic neighbours and a child playing mini bowling in the foyer, I was not in top form. Regardless, we had a fantastic visit with Noelle, Frederick and their ten year old son (whose name I have forgotten). Noelle is a primary teacher, so we had some common ground to talk about. They brought over a special bread stick that is a Marseille specialty. They smelled very lemony, but according to Keith turned into a paste once you took a bite. He brought the leftovers into the lab and they were snapped up, with many comments on how awesome our neighbours are because they got us the ones from the best bakery. I hope that we were appreciative enough Sunday afternoon, not having any idea of the significance of the bread sticks.

While we were having coffee with one set of neighbours, our other neighbours knocked on our door to offer us some of their excess plants. How great is that? We now have some fun cacti and other baskets on our balcony. This has put these neighbours next in line my hit-list of invitations.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Patinage et Un Rhume

Last Sunday we actually went skating in Marseille! There is one skating rink in town and the excursion has been planned since before Christmas. The arena is in a sports complex which also houses skateboard and BMX ramps. Before we even stepped on the ice, Keith and I were already laughing. As soon as we got there, one of the guys from the lab had to turn around and go back home to get gloves because gloves where required for skating. That’s right it was INTERDITE to skate without gloves. I don’t really know what the rationing is on this, really a pair of magic gloves is not going to make a big difference if your fingers come into contact with a skate blade.

The skating was amusing to say the least. I usually think of skating as a pretty laid back, calm activity, but as with everything else, the French engage in skating with a frantic energy that seems unnecessary. Firstly the rinks were packed. There was a circular rink attached by a tunnel to a regular sized hockey rink. By the time we had got our skate rentals in the mid afternoon there was a snowy coat of shavings on the rink. As is customary peopled flowed in a counter clockwise rotation around the ice, but as many people were novices this motion was not as smooth as we are used to. Predicting someone’s path when they are barely keeping their balance is difficult and avoiding those who had stopped for no apparent reason, or who had fallen down, really hampered any efforts we made to get any type of rhythm going.  Add to this the chaos of a couple of hotshots who would cut you off as they played tag around the people and I’m hoping you get the picture. I felt more like I was at a swimming pool with a bunch of teenagers randomly jumping and swimming in all directions than at a skating rink. I find it interesting how certain modes of behaviour and customs we just take for granted, even with something as unregulated as a free skate.

Regardless we did have a good time. Some of Keith’s lab mates where actually quite good and had had a lot of experience on rollerblades which seem to be ultra popular here. There were only a few who made their way around the ice in a halting manner. The rental skates where completely plastic and within five minutes of starting out Keith has a hole in the heal of his sock from the strange fit. There was also a place in the plastic moulding where your ankle was “supposed” to fit. This really wasn’t the case and we both came home with sore ankles, but enjoyed the active afternoon and the good company.

I had many goals for this week and one of them was to be sure to write on the blog at least twice. Well as you know this didn’t happen. I have been weighed down by a cold this week and it has sapped most of my energy. The interesting thing about having a cold was getting drugs. As my nose was continuously dripping and I had a bit of a fever, we thought it best to get something so that I could at least sleep. Well first of all, there is no over the counter medication. You tell your symptoms to the pharmacist and they go into their back room to get you whatever they think is best (even if it is just cough drops!). The other interesting thing is that combination medications don’t seem to exist. You cannot get something for nasal congestion and fever, but instead have to take two different types of medication. Another thing I find somewhat strange but also fun, is that medications often come in tablets or powders that need to be dissolved in water and then are meant to be drunk for faster digestion, I guess. All in all it has been a bit of a learning experience, but what I wouldn’t have given just to have a cup of warm neo-citron before bed instead of a pill and fizzy drink.