Friday, July 30, 2004

culture bubbles
It's funny how people can do exactly the same things, but for totally different reasons and in totally different ways. Talking with a French colleague yesterday made me ponder a little on the different things we do when on holiday.

For many of my French colleages, a holiday is defined by the absence of work. When you ask them what they plan to do in their workless weeks, they tell you that they are staying at home, fixing the house and stuff. Or else they tell you that they are visiting some other region of France where they have relatives.

When I quiz them on why they don't go abroad, I often get the standard answer, IIn Fraanz ve aav ze veary beeutiiful reejons... Eet iiz not necessairy to go aoutzide. Meaning apparently, that since they have lots of mountains and beaches, there's little reason to go to the expense and trouble of leaving their country.

I suppose that in a country that has good food, good weather and lots of things to do, this attitude is partly understandable. Especially since most people have swimming pools in their gardens.

When I think about reasons why the average British person goes on holiday, I reckon it is safe to say that we choose our destinations for getting the maximum amount of sun possible. Hence, there's nothing we like better than turning up in our thousands to a little British enclave stuck on the bottom of Spain, where they sell our beers and cook our breakfasts. You'll find us trying our hardest to get some colour onto our pasty bulbous bodies, sitting on the beach with a smeary layer of Sun Protection Factor -10, sizzling our skin to a nice healthy shade of radioactive red.

If you lived in a country where it rained 99% of the year, you might do that too!

The Japanese on holiday are also interesting. We have seen them in their gangs descending from tour buses, following their guide's flag like a brood of ducklings following mother duck. The sterotype about them lining up in front of landmarks, taking flashes of photos and then rushing off has been discussed the world over. If you want a reason for this, it seems to me that in mainstream Japanese culture a holiday is mostly an opportunity to get photographs which prove you have been to famous world sites. So under this logic, it's best to see as many sites as possible in the time you have.

If you lived in a country where people frowned at you for taking even 5 days holiday in one year, you might also want to see as many places as possible in the time you had.

So it is clear that the concept of 'holiday' is partly culturally determined, meaning that people from varied countries do different things with their holidays. No surprise there, or with countless others things we do within our nations.

What interests me though, is that no matter what the country we come from, we always take our culturally determined ideas of things with us on holiday. We might change the place we are in and things that we see, but we continue to look at those things, life, in the same way. We float about like cultural bubbles in someone else's air.

The reason I go on holiday is to try to understand my bubble. I suppose I do this in the hope that I can expand my bubble enough that I can find room to enter into someone else's world, see life through the lens of their bubble.

Is it possible even, to burst a culture bubble?

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Thursday, July 29, 2004

i'm outta here!
I've been walking around with a real spring in my step today, getting on everybody's nerves, being too happy. But who can blame me - I'm off on holiday.

My mate Nick and I have had this trip to Sri Lanka planned for months.

We were gonna go to India but we decided that we'd want to see it all. Since it's not a small country though, we were pretty sure that we'd never manage to get all the necessary months off work or fortunes of cash together. One day, one day.

Sri Lanka seems like a perfect option anyway. Beaches, diving, ancient ruins, rainforest and jungles, supposedly friendly people. And curry!

Beef curry, lamb curry, chicken curry, vegetable curry. Mild curry, medium curry, hot curry, burn-your-mouth-off curry. Curry with rice, curry with naan, curry and samosas... It's gonna be heaven but with better food.

My friends over here have been trying to scare me for months about the trouble there is in the north of the island. I've been scoffing at them for being such a bunch of cowards, but I thought I'd check the news reports today anyway.

Apparently a cease-fire agreement was signed between the Government and the Tamils in Feb 2002. There has been no trouble for ages.

Except for one bomb this month.

But it's alright though, because the UK Foreign Office says that tourists should be fine as long as they stay away from the North East.

Like, where I am going diving!

If you don't see any posts within three weeks, expect the worst ;o)

Thanks to Loki for kind recommendations.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

enemy sighted in Toulouse
Last night I consorted with one of my enemy’s people. Or to be more precise, last night I met someone that my company tells me is my enemy. And he met with lots of people who his company tells him are his enemies.

But myself and my apparent enemy were invited to meet each other by a professional organisation which we are both associated with. This organisation obviously thinks that we should regard each other as colleagues, rather than as enemies.

So which organisation do I believe? Do I treat this person in front of me with hostility, or with humanity?

What happens if I don’t belong to my professional organisation and I only hear my company’s message?

Will there then be anything to stop me from having an enemy?

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Although I have no complaints about my life over here, there are nevertheless some days which are hard for my head. Like today.

This afternoon I have had a three hour meeting where I tried to explain the intricacies of aircraft systems to non-technical lawyers, in French.

And after I had done that I had to listen to them debate the delicacies of various choices of French legal terminology, reviewing a document, jumping around between lines, references and dossiers.

A strange thing happens after being so deeply and complicatedly submerged in a foreign language for that length of time. Your ears and brain just disconnect from each other, like they've decided that it is time for a break.

Well, I know how they feel. I'm off home :o)

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Monday, July 26, 2004

the UK Jingoism Party
I recently read a funny report in The Guardian, about a British Member of the European Parliament's (MEP's) first day at work.

This MEP tried to join a committee devoted to women's rights. Obviously wanting to impress his potential fellow committee members, he apparently made various charming remarks, including mentioning that he believed women should spend more time 'cleaning behind the refrigerator'.

I haven't looked behind my fridge for a while. Who knows, perhaps we do need to clean back there more often. Before we debate whether he is right or wrong though, here's some info on the party that sent him to have some fun at the heart of Europe.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a party that want the UK to leave the European Union. They state in their manifesto:

The UKIP is the only political party.. that will never abolish the pound for the euro. We are the only party left [in the UK] that genuinely believes in freedom - freedom for the individual, freedom for businesses and local communities, freedom from patronising 'political-correctness' and from intolerance or injustice.. The EU has shown itself to be one of the largest confidence tricks in human history. It claims to 'give us rights' while removing basic freedoms.
It's hard for me to know what to say about this. I am tempted to go off on one, but I want to avoid writing the very same hateful remarks that colour the debate about Europe in the UK. If you need to understand the depth of my repulsion to this though, it's enough to let you know that it is one of the reasons why I left the UK.

In the UK, national discussion of Europe is fundamentally mired in lies, distortions and images of the imagined manipulations of our so called continental 'enemies'. It isn't really correct to say that there is a debate about Europe because unfortunately there's just a lot of noisy people venting prejudices and stereotypes, sowing unnecessary hatred.

A significant example of the irrationality surrounding this issue is in the idea that if we have the euro, we will loose or undermine British 'culture'. I don't see how replacing the queen's head on a piece of paper will change the things we choose to do and buy, which is a much more fundamental aspect of culture.

If we have the euro instead of the pound, is Mr Average then going to walk into a shop and say, Well normally Mr Shopkeeper, my wife and I love to buy a loaf of fresh white sliced, but ever since we got these new-fangled euros we seem to be driven against our wills by a strange Brussels-shaped compulsion... I'll just take one of those stinking French baguettes please... Oh, and do you know anywhere that sells Bockwurst?

In contrast to all that madness, I sit here happily getting on with all my French and Spanish and German colleagues, passing around amusing emails about each other's national characters. And I can do this because under EU law I have the basic right to live and work anywhere in Europe I choose to.

Spain is a thoroughly beautiful and entertaining country filled for the most part with warm spirited passionate, tactile human beings. At the weekend I jumped into my friend Tanya's car and we popped freely across the Franco-Spanish border to see a few of them.

As EU citizens, my friends and I have been granted the freedom to travel wherever we like within 25 different countries, so when we crossed the border there were no customs officers glaring at us suspiciously, checking our passports. There wasn't anybody waiting to serve us at a money exchange kiosk either. It's a bit pointless changing euros into euros, so it shut down a long time ago.

What with all the time I saved not having my passport checked and not waiting in queues for currency exchange, I was able to get to a nice Spanish bar about 1/2 hour sooner. And with the money I saved by not paying outrageous commission fees on the currency exchange I managed to buy another couple of those 1 euro beers. Fantastic!

So to the people of the UKIP I say this.

I would rather keep the institutions which have given me freedoms of travel and rights of abode and employment. I would rather support the bureaucracy that saves me time and money whilst going about my business of enjoying life. And I would rather learn about my neighbours in intimate contact than follow your drum of intolerant hatred.

Please don't forget that it was the bloody result of the beat of jingoistic nationalism that caused us Europeans to create this cooperative path in the first place.

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Sunday, July 25, 2004

fox canyon
In the canyons of a dusty Spanish afternoon, the emerald waters have washed me clean. We said goodbye to humidity there in that sandy castle village poised on a hill, hidden in the wilds of a silver-leaved olive grove.

Caressed by a dry hot wind, our feet sent pebbles skipping on their way down to the river, where they carried us.

Floating effortlessly in melted snows, neoprene buoyant, currents lazily tugging at our black shapes like dried leaves, or fallen branches.

Under the tree, down into the cold tinted purity where our ears whispered our depth, with shapes blurred ascending in a bubble flurry.

Over the edge, tumbling down into a glimpse of heaven where the falls tickled lush green moss, roaring of their pleasure, where the ageless crowds splashed and swam, laughed and lived.

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Friday, July 23, 2004

total road domination chaos
Do you have a question that people always ask when they find out something about you? One of mine is, isn't it difficult driving an English car in France?

English cars have the steering wheel on the right side, whereas French ones have them on the left. Since I drive an English car over here, this apparently causes all sorts of confusion and amazement amongst my French friends. I must get asked this question atleast twice a week.

Now I could understand this question if the steering wheel in English cars was somewhere really weird. Like, on the floor, or in the boot, or facing out the rear window. But it's just a little less than 1 metre to the right, facing straight out the front of the car as it is required to. Since my head is displaced sideways only a small amount, my view of the road ahead is identical to anybody else's view.

So no, driving an English car over here isn't difficult.

Now maybe some of you are wondering to yourselves, but it must be harder when you overtake other cars because you can't see the oncoming traffic?

Well, under normal circumstances that might be correct. But in Toulouse it doesn't really matter that much because the driving style here is so outrageous that people are usually prepared to react to all sorts of crazy stunts. The rules of the road here are so loose that the experience of driving is like something between go-karting and Grand Theft Auto.

They go something like this:

If you arrive at a junction and find yourself with the possibility of saving 10 minutes by driving the wrong way up a one way street, fuck the traffic rules, go for it!

When driving at 150kms/hr on the autoroute, don't worry about leaving any sort of sensible stopping distance between you and the car in front, drive right on up his ass!

And when overtaking, no need to bother yourself with trivia like the speed of the porsche coming up behind you. If you need to pull out baby, you need to pull out.

So all in all, driving is not difficult at all. In fact it is one of the greatest pleasures. We don't want any boringly ordered calmly stopping and starting in all the correct lanes type of traffic over here. We want go-kart swervy turning, sudden 10g braking, oncoming traffic hooting, total road domination chaos!

Have a good weekend :o)

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Thursday, July 22, 2004

a la prochain dood
I would love to write a nice little story type blog today but there is
just one problem. I am bloody knackered. Last night Tom, a good
American friend of mine, left town to fly back home.

Of course we had to give him a good send off, which meant that there
was none of this going to bed at a sensible hour to get up and go to
work malarkey. Just a lot of going to bed stupidly late and very
drunk, and forcing myself out of bed. As a result I have been dozing
off all afternoon and can barely muster enough energy to tap these
mere lines out.

I have said a few of my own goodbyes in the not too distant past. Two
that really stand out are the goodbye when I left Toulouse the first
time, and saying goodbye to Japan. They always sort of crept
up on me, nagging quietly for weeks about the fact that I was leaving,
and then suddenly I was there on that last night, all my friends
around me.

At some points in my life I have been pretty cynical about the chances
of people keeping in touch, and about the chances of making long
distance relationships last.

Japan was the hardest point I think. Out of the adversity that we
struggled against in building and maintaining our Tokyo lives, a gang
of us formed some really good friendships. Leaving behind those people
who had shared so much with me was really quite tough.

I can still picture them all very clearly, on a humid July evening
with the neon flashing around us; Ralph and pregnant Chika, Jerry,
Tomomi, Dave, Gavin, Jeremy. They helped me lug my 80kg of luggage
around Ebisu, down into open-air bars and up into tiny karaoke rooms. Thanks guys :o)

Over time I have become more accustomed to saying goodbye, not letting
it bother me so much. Whereas I used to think that most separated
friendships would just peter out, the evidence of my life so far has
been totally to the contrary. The people who really matter do stay in
touch. And anyone who really matters but loses touch always seems to
pop up again somewhere.

So for me now, goodbyes are not such a trauma to worry about. Fortunately this leaves me free to concentrate saying goodbye properly, letting my friends know they are valued.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

lessons learnt
My car has been making some funny noises recently, like nasty grinding and scraping and clunking noises coming from the front right wheel. My technical assessment as an Engineer is that the brakes are fucked, or that the brake pads are knackered to be more precise. Now, the car is still stopping quite efficiently but that doesn't prevent me from imagining the poor brake disks being ground down and gauged out by unlubricated metal on metal contact.

Some of you may understand how this sort of thing causes me physical pain. It's an Engineer thing; a kind of empathy with machinery. You should see me when people don't change gears in their cars properly and the engine starts going knock knock knock. I'm practically bent over double with stomach cramps!

To put and end to our mutual suffering, I took the car down to the local servicing centre.

Naturally my French vocabulary is always in need of enlargement and an occasion such as this is a perfect opportunity to learn new stuff. I already knew a few little things in the obscure 'technology -> motor vehicles -> brakes' category, but unfortunately not 'brake pads'. Still, it didn't take much to have a look at all the signs and things they had on display and figure out what words I needed while I was waiting in the queue to talk to the mechanic.

So I start talking to this guy, asking in my finest French, Bonsoir.. I would very much like some new plaques please.

He looks at me and says, Ahe, ay zee.. It iz ze plaques.. Dooz you wernt ze frunt and ze back plaques?

Just the front, I said.

Ok.. Dooz you 'ave ze Franch voiture regiistrasshion documaant?

Erm, no.. It's an English car and I don't have a French registration document.

Weeell in zat case I am afraid it iz nert possiibleh.. Zer iz a lauw.

Now, at this point I should explain something about France. Bureaucracy is rife, so pointless rules exist in all sorts of strange places. In such a rule-bound culture, there is often an annoying person clinging to some fantasy rule that you know they have made up on the spot because they want to go home. When someone tells me that they cannot change the brake pads on my car because they are forbidden by law to touch English cars, I immediately switch into 'so you are an annoying bureaucrat and you want an argument' mode.

Taking up a 'do I look like a chump?' posture and with a 'don't mess with me, mate' expression I calmly asked, I'm sorry, you are telling me that there is a law against working on my car because it is not a French car?

Weeeel ahh yees.. Zat iz wat I am seyink.

By this time people had started to turn their heads in our direction, anticipating a show-down. Looking him sternly in the eye, and with a tone raised a notch or two to express the same displeasure as my body and face I jibed, Well, I dont understand.. There is a problem with my brakes and you can’t do anything about it?! That’s crazy!


It iz ze breahks you zay?

Yes the brakes!

Ahha.. I sink monsieur you meen ze plaquETTES?! Ze plaques iz ze regiistrasshion plates.. Zay are nart ze zame sing!

The moral of this embarrasing tale is quite simple.

If things suddenly get tense when you are dealing with someone from a different culture, and when one of you is speaking a foreign language, it is safer to assume that there has been a misunderstanding and then patiently work forwards on that basis.

Treating the other person as if he is deliberately being an asshole can easily end up with you having to eat your own shitty words.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

sticky yuk
Humidity is an annoying thing. It's extra annoying because it is hard to do anything about it.

Some annoying things can be got rid of very easily, like those stringy white bits that taste disgustingly sour on a banana. Some annoying things can be ignored and forgotten, like a scratch on your car. Some annoying things can be a source of great amusement, like lying scumbag dumbass politicians. But humidity, when it arrives, is here to stay.

It sneeks in through the windows and the tiny gaps in the walls. It spins around in revolving doors, clinging to the glass. It seeks you out like a mosquito and surrounds you entirely before wriggling like a leech to its favourite place between your skin and your shirt. Once there it magically changes from a subtle density in the air to a type of weak oily glue, leaving you in a permanent state of stickiness. And when you eventually do have a refreshing shower, it's right there watching you, waiting for its moment to strike and slap itself back onto you.

So I am sure that you have guessed that today is a sticky day. My face is sticky and my hands are sticky. My shirt feels sticky on my back, my socks feel sticky on my feet, and, well... you don't want to know what else feels sticky.

Still, rain is an annoying thing too. Looking at the weather forecast for England over the next week, I reckon I can suffer this humidity a bit longer ;o)

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Monday, July 19, 2004

Cheese and sex
If you met someone who told you that they thought food and cuisine weren’t very important in French life, what would you think? I’d think they were either joking, or had come from a parallel universe where the France cook like the English, and where the English make music like the French.
Well this weekend the impossible happened - I met a French guy who wasn’t joking, who didn’t come from a parallel universe, and who tried to convince me that cuisine wasn’t very important in French life.
I find it literally impossible to think of France without thinking of food. Food is everywhere and in everything.
I mean, the universally used ‘Restaurant’ and ‘Café’ are both French words. The ‘Michelin Star’ is the benchmark measurement for restaurant quality applied all over the world. The love of food runs so deep that French noses have even evolved to be larger than other noses in order to be able to smell the food and wine better.  What was that guy talking about?!
Food isn’t just an obsession here, it’s a religion. You may think that I am overstating the case a bit, so to prove my point let me tell you the tale of Roquefort cheese, as it was told to me by the artisans who make this pungent blue favourite.
In the beginning there was the sea. Over millions of years a thick layer of sedimentary rock was created from the bones of dinosaurs and fish who swarmed across the planet in ignorance of the glory of cheese.
When the sea eventually receded the mountains of the Tarn Gorges were revealed in their majesty, but a sudden disaster struck the earth and the they were shaken by a great earthquake. When the dust had settled the mountains of Tarn found that they had been fortunate and had held strong without collapsing. They had however, been cracked and fractured by all the vigorous shaking.
In the warm breezes of summer, the jagged fissures that had been formed by the quake allowed life-bringing drafts to blow deep into the depths of the mountain, where in the altered microclimate a special type of bacteria was born.
Eventually humans settled in the area, and slowly over time figured out how to make boring normal cheese from the milk of ewes. One day, while casting a watchful eye over his flock from the shelter of cave mouth, a young shepherd boy spied a beautiful maiden frolicking in the grass on her way home. Smitten, he immediately followed her, leaving his flock behind on the hill and his lunch behind in the cave.
Although the story doesn’t go into the details of what exactly those two got up to, the shepherd must have been gone for some time.
When he finally returned to his flock he was exhausted and had a craving hunger. He remembered that he had left his lunch behind in the cave. In the open cave mouth he found his parcel of cheese. This was not the same cheese he had left behind however. This cheese had mutated and grown a covering of blue mold. Being unable to contain his hunger he took a bite, and thus was discovered the first ever Roquefort cheese.
So whenever you take a little nibble of some Roquefort, just remember that you are not only eating – you are participating in the creation of the earth, the birth of a species, and the timeless magic of sexual passion.
You don’t get that from a plate of Fish and Chips.

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Sunday, July 18, 2004

Life's funny turns

There are times when you just know something is right. Not right in a mathematical 2+2=4 type of sense, but right in a completely non-rational, subjective This is the right move for me type of sense. My being in Toulouse is one of those things.

My first experience of Toulouse came about as a bit of a fluke. In early '96 I was in the UK at university, pondering over my options for my industrial training year. Almost hidden at the bottom of a faculty questionnaire, a tiny tick-box gave me the chance to express an interest in going abroad.

Whenever I'd popped over for a holiday, the French had always brushed against me pleasantly with their indulgently sensual land, food and language. So with the seed of my interest in culture starting to germinate, I ticked that fateful box.

A few weeks later and my tutor calls me in for a chat saying, Well Daniel.. I have some choices for you.. You can go to work for this company on the fumey grey outskirts of suburban London, squashed between the M25 and Heathrow airport, or you can go and work for this other company in Toulouse, a sun-kissed city in the south of France where the girls dance on the tables and where you can be snowboarding on the mountains within 2 hours.

Looking at that those options today, the choice seems easy. But back then I had to answer the vital, Do I want to leave my friends and family? question. I had more or less decided to follow the path of dullness, urban pollution and early death by heart disease. But on the same evening I was leaning towards staying, there was an impressive tv program about the Toulouse company I was being offered the chance to work for.

To say this is a weird coincidence doesn't really sum it up. I'd never heard of this company before their job offer, so to hear about them from two unrelated sources at such vital moments... That's what's called Synchronicity.

As a result of that tv program I made the choice to go, and came over with 2 great people. The year I spent here as a student was so abundant with people and passion, fun and exploration that it marked the highest tide of all my experiences.

As life ebbed and flowed over the next 5 years, that mark always remained. Its brilliant memories were left scattered so impressively across my conciousness that I would regularly wake up from vivid dreams of being back, going back. And so, in the summer of '02, a string of further coincidences nudged me to make the move I was literally always dreaming of.

First, I went on a stag-night with one of the guys from that year, after not having seen him for a very extended period. Then, while I was buried in tedium in Farnborough, the aircraft products of my previous training company started flying around outside my windows. Fuelled by the contrast of roused passions and intense boredom, I checked out their recruitment website and found a job advertised for the same team I had done my training in. Pure coincidence?

I spent the next week thinking the idea over, mulling the now old Do I want to leave my friends and family? question. By Sunday I had decided to go for it, and was set to spend Monday morning filling in my CV and completing the online application. Just before starting that though, I happened to check my hotmail and was hit right between the eyes by one particular message.

The mail in question was from another friend from my training year, again someone I hadn't heard from for ages. He was writing to tell me that he'd left New York, had moved to Toulouse, and was working in the same department where he'd done his training. I reckon that that is just too spooky for any rational explanation.

Anyway, after all that I didn't need any more prodding. I applied, I got the job, and within 4 months I was back in Toulouse.. dreams fulfilled.

Since then, life just keeps getting better.

If you want just one example of how, let my friend Thomas Le Danois tell you about the start of my weekend, while I tell you that yesterday afternoon I was napping in a country garden, the sun on my back, pigeons cooing overhead, ants tickling my toes, chill-out on the stereo next to the pool, enjoying life together with new friends from France, South-Africa, Senegal, Algeria, Cape-Verde, Indonesia and Sweden. Thanks for that Alex, much appreciated.

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Friday, July 16, 2004

It's just a sodding football shirt!

I have just witnessed an English colleague change out of his shirt and tie and into relaxing weekend attire, namely jeans and an England football shirt. The guy is entitled to wear whatever he likes, I have no issue with his choices. I am just interested in the contrast between his choices and mine.

I wouldn’t like to wear an England football shirt. In fact, under normal circumstances, I would feel distinctly uncomfortable in an England football shirt.

I could wear one if I was paid.

I might be able to wear one if England was playing France and I was watching the match.

I could definitely wear one if we beat France and I was going into the office where I would see my cheeky French friends, since I have had to suffer their gloating during the recent Euro2004 championship.

But I would never choose to wear one just to go out and do normal stuff in normal circumstances.

Why? I guess it is about identity.

For me, wearing a shirt like that is the equivalent of saying ‘I am English’. The very act of putting one on in a foreign country seems to reveal a need to state that you are English. Obviously nationality forms an important component of identity for some people, but not for me. ‘I am a human being’ is more how I would state things.

Shouting about my Englishness feels tribal and divisive, threatening and restricting. Being human allows me to put aside prejudices and stereotypes, both about myself and about other people living on different parts of the planet. It allows me greater freedom to choose how I see the world, and what I do in it.

The guy who put on his shirt has only recently arrived in France, and has been submerged in a real cultural blender. This little spot here in Toulouse is a microcosm of Western Europe and that is quite wonderful, but it can also be a bit unsettling. I remember when I left my country for the first time to live somewhere else, I also needed my national identity.

When living abroad we are confronted every day with different ways of doing things and different ways of thinking. We’ve spent so long in our own cultures that our own ways of doing things and thinking have become natural, sunk deep into our subconscious, and have blinded our perception. Do we remember how we learnt to walk?

There’s a moment when you confront a different way of doing things. At that moment we can easily react with either fascination or with dislike according to our levels of tolerance. But the fact is that the person you are watching is acting in accordance with all that is natural to them, all that has shaped their subconscious behaviour. We do exactly the same.

If I had been born into that person’s world I would not now be experiencing any reaction, since their behaviour would not arouse my sleeping subconscious perceptions of normality. I could easily be that person.

For me, since I could easily be that person, it makes saying ‘I am English’ feel like a pointless and irrelevant statement to make. And wearing a shirt saying exactly that feels like injecting myself with a dose of restrictive stereotype. So that’s why I wouldn’t normally wear an England football shirt.

Well... That and the fact that they look crap and they’re a rip off :o)

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Thursday, July 15, 2004

Another happy customer
After spending the day doing almost nothing I got an emergency call to sort out a customer in need. Took me just one hour, which is a personal record. Without the little piece of signed paper I sent the guy in Spain, about 150 of his customers would have been stuck in an airport.

I like imagining all the people whose lives have progressed smoothly today, whilst just behind the scenes of their holiday adventures there was a monstrous delay waiting to happen.

They would all have been waiting happily in the lounge, reading their newspapers and drinking their duty free whiskey, and then suddenly the loudspeaker would announce, Ladies and Gentlemen.. we are sorry to announce that Flight 762 to Alicante will be delayed.. This has been caused by a small technical issue.

Men and women alike would throw their hands in the air and gesticulate in disgust. Some of them would gather around the airport staff like a lynch mob, demanding information and action, compensation for wasted time, toys for the kids to stop them shrieking and lumps of chorizo and slices of jamon to stop stomachs from growling.

But no. No problem. Life proceeded calmly to plan.
Boarding was announced on time. People got up from their seats and jostled into a queue. The English complained that people were pushing in. Tickets were checked, gangways walked down, seats sat on, and finally happy people lifted freely into the sunny evening skies where they could look out over Spain's sandy south, and perhaps beyond to exotic Morocco.

Happy holidays, mystery tourists :o)

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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Bastille day
Today is Bastille Day here in France, where the nation celebrates the act of toppling their old aristocratic class by the means of chopping their heads off. That is about all I know about the French Revolution, except that the king's wife, Marie Antoinette, is reported to have really pissed off the starving French peasantry by wondering why they couldn't eat cake if they didn't have any bread.

Nice one queenie! Perhaps they should have tucked into the caviar aswell.

I have to admit, I don't think it was too bad an idea to depose the entire exploitative class and make sure they couldn't come back. The relationship between the French state and the citizens is very different to that of the British, and possibly results from that period of their history.

An English perception of French politics
The government of France does seem to listen to the voice of the French people much more keenly that that of the UK, for example. The French will demonstrate or strike, and demonstrate or strike some more until they get their point across and something is done or government policy changes.

In their demonstrative way, the French influence their politics successfully and maintain a very high quality of life. Like having 40 days holiday a year, a well subsidised and highly participatory artistic culture, and the most beautiful cities and countryside you could wish for.

Naturally, the demonstrative approach of the French population is sometimes used for highly selfish and ignorant reasons by groups of lazy gits who are full of self-deceipt and who want to pretend the world is still flat. Nevertheless, the positive side is that this political culture has helped to steer the country away from such disasters as the recent Gulf War, and from the election of a xenophobic racist as President.

Meanwhile, in the UK even the biggest demonstrations in our history didn't convince our pathetic leader to stop listening to his greedy American friends.

Pissed off with our systems of government
In the final analysis however, the French are not very happy with their government. But can we name a single country where the population is happy with their rulers? I put this disillusionment down to the fact that there isn't a single nation on earth that isn't ruled by a self-propagating and self-interested elite class, which dominates and exploits their populations.

For me, this class includes the politicians, business owners, financiers, and media. It seems impossible to me that these elite groups don't get together and plan our exploitation. And surely this occurs on a global level?

Of course they don't discuss exploitation, or think about their actions in the terms I used above. In their world, their actions are explained within a structure of morality encompassing economic growth, development, education of the workforce etc. But it still all amounts to the same thing – the few deciding on the way the many live.

Musings on the nature of power
The way I see it, whilst we tolerate any political system that contains a single figure-head character who holds ultimate power, we will be perpetuating the domination and exploitation of ourselves and the planet we depend upon for our existence. Societies certainly need structures through which people can agree on forms of co-operation. But all current forms of government are based on the idea of concentrated power.

Concentrated power is an idea which attracts people whose instincts are to impose themselves and their wills upon others. Problems arise because the desire for power over others is a poorly understood subconscious urge. If anybody has any ideas what causes this urge, feel free to comment. For my side, I think it comes as a failure to admit to ourselves the sacred validity of other people’s lives and experiences – the validity of the infinite variety of life if you like.

Whilst we fail to understand this urge within ourselves, and I propose, whilst we continue to close our minds to all but our own experiences out of fear that we will discover that we are irrelevant, our conscious mind will continually invent a system of justification to explain the validity of our dominating behaviour.

Ideas on why politicians are so unpopular
Thus we live in a world where the unimaginative and insecure amongst us are attracted to our political structures in order to justify the self-images/egos they have built during their denial of the variety of human experience. And so we arrive at a situation where the implementation of power necessarily requires a denial of the experiences, capabilities and aspirations of those who are governed.

So the reason why we are all pissed off is simple: We are ruled by ignorant unimaginative psychopaths who think it is us who are stupid, not they, and who will do almost anything to prove to themselves that it is so, including killing.

Some solutions proposed
The French peasantry had the right idea - stop the whole system, and start again. We need to do the same, in order to introduce radically updated principles of organisation.

The fundamental basis of the new principles would be that all life is sacred. This includes all that is in the unknown and infinite universe, as well as what is on the equally poorly understood planet Earth.

To produce these principles, all of our culturally embedded prejudices will have to be reviewed, right through from the Hebrew belief that God told man to dominate the earth, to the Greek indulgence in the idea that only humans possess intelligence – a very questionable assertion whichever way you look at it!

In defining the shape of our new ways and means of co-operation (the details of a new ‘system’) we need to design a way of producing consensus decisions amongst diverse populations and cultures, in a process that considers all life as an equal partner in human decisions.

Regarding administrators and officials, my instinct is to try to avoid them in order to prevent a separation of human communities into the Rulers and the Ruled – the cause of all the trouble. This will require considerable decentralisation of decision making, as well as an ownership of responsibility. But imagine the brilliant diversity that will be its result! We will we free to exercise our collective imaginations in ways currently unimaginable.

If any official responsibilities must be assigned, we should have no single point of power for psychopaths to focus on. If we spread power in a decentralised system which requires mature co-operation, this will be unattractive to those who seek to dominate and impose. Furthermore, a rigorous psychological examination should be conducted for anyone taking up official responsibility.

The shape of the system and its use must be constructed so that whenever we operate the system, we symbolically encounter the belief that all life is sacred. For example, in order to remember the value of all life when making our community decisions, we should move outside our human environment. Perhaps the diverse communities making a decision could walk together into a forest to an area where nature expresses mystery and power.

That way, we would break down the barriers between ourselves and at the same time remember the voice of the planet upon which we depend for our existence.

Finally, in the process of changing our society, we should avoid chopping off people’s heads.

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Sunday, July 11, 2004

So much for the beach
There was a plan to go the beach today but the weather put paid to that. So I slept all afternoon instead, and then went out and ate a kebab before heading off to the cinema to watch a film about junkfood,'Super Size Me'. As it turns out, I had read the french listings completely wrong and was a whole day early.

Seems to be a cinema weekend this one since I went out with JC and HK last night to watch Fahrenheit911. Mr Moore chose some lovely clips of various messed up leaders revealing their selfish logic.

My favourite one was Bush in front of the camera haranging the entire world to join the fight against terrorism, trying so hard to sound like a real leader, a man of purpose. No sooner had he finished his important speech about how to save the world, he gave us a good picture of the seriousness of his belief by saying 'now watch this swing' and walking off to give a chance to admire his golf strokes!

Other than that, I thought that it was a bit strange that the UK wasn't mentioned as part of the 'Coalition of the Willing'. I mean, I don't mind if we erase the miserable episode of domination and bullshit from the UKs history, but it just made the film look a bit flimsy with the facts.

After the film, JC went home since she wasn't in the mood to drink beers like a good little consumer. I found TB and SGD at Bar Basque, drank a demi, and topped the evening off with videos of SGD and the European Space Agency students flying around like astronauts in zero gravity conditions in a modified Airbus A300. Lucky cow!

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Saturday, July 10, 2004

not a first date
What a nervous feeling, writing this first blog from an internet café in a crumbly Toulouse basement. It seems that the guy who owns the café is the same dood who had the burger shop over the road. I noticed a few weeks back that it had reinvented itself as a phone centre, unsurprisingly.

He once offered me a five minute glorification of their flagship burger, waving his hands in the air as he described passionately how the meat was marinaded in a mélange of spices imported from countries afar, and how it would be cooked gently on the grill with other sumptuous ingredients to produce a wonder of the culinary imagination.

I was drunk and hungry so I went for it and spent the next ten minutes salivating until he handed the finished sandwich to me, wrapped as it was in greasy beige paper.

Have you ever had a philly cheese steak? Well that's about the closest comparison I can think of of the spodge that was squashed between those burger buns. Thin slices of meat had mated with grated mozarella on the grill, and turned into a sorta bland grey sticky goo.

Well, despite the disappointment of the end result I couldn't fault his passion to the idea or his commitment to customer service. And it seems that he is applying these same qualities to his internet café.

I walked in here about an hour ago and he greeted me with a big smile, enthusiastically and efficiently catering for my every need. Problem was that he did it all whilst sitting on a bar stool with his legs spread about ninety degrees apart, and wearing a pair of very very short shorts. Euuuuyeuck.

After I'd got over the shock of being moved from one computer to another, I noticed that there was a cat sitting on top of the monitor opposite me, and it has its paw over the screen. Nobody takes their cat to the internet cafe so I am assuming it lives here. The guy using the computer is patiently scrolling the page up and down, rather than disturb his new friend.

And so, in this glamorous location I have come to chose the name 'glacons' for my blog. I wanted to call it iceberg. That had already gone though, and I am glad it did 'cos glacons is french for icecubes and that seems more like my idea.

The idea is that each of us is constantly being tripped up by our subconcious: sent spinning over by our collections of assumptions, and challenged daily to admit to ourselves that we hardly know anything about life here in these bodies or in this universe.

Just think of one of your friends who has some repetitive behaviour trait which they are unaware of, but which you have come to see quite plainly. Whatever we think about it, the amusing thing is that they look at us and also see things we are unaware of. And so we go on, generally keeping our mouths shut and preserving each others egos and fantasies.

As an English guy living in France I am fortunate enough to be confronted every day with the many varied subconcious assumptions embedded within different cultures. I am in contact with lots of europeans but also with people from potentially any nation in the world. My job is to figure out how all these people see the world, what's important to say to them, and how we should treat them and present ourselves to them so that we don't irritate any of their subconcious cultural assumptions and predjudices about how things are done.

I might not be very good at it yet, but it makes me believe that is a fascinating and diverse world where there is no one way, and definately no superior way of thinking or doing.

So since in any one picture the small amount of reality each of us sees is defined and supported by all that is buried in our subconcious, and since we are 5 billion people or so, icecubes seem a more appropriate symbol than an iceberg. And glacons sounds nicer than icecubes.

So that explains my idea for this blog: the amazing and amusing futility of taking ourselves and our cultures seriously whilst their shape is formed purely by relative experience, and sits on top of all that we have forgotten.

Lets laugh at each other on the of-chance that we might learn about ourselves. We could easily be someone else entirely...

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Thursday, July 01, 2004

posts about politics
Sometimes I just get so pissed off with the bollocks that we put up with from politicians, that I can't help throwing my annoyance out into the world through this blog.

Naturally, a fair amount of this is about iraq.

But it's not all cyncism and misery. I have tried to be constructive too, and given some ideas about what sort of political system might suit our needs better.

The idea of Britain changing its currency to euros is discussed in very emotional terms in the UK. This explains why I am happy to be in europe spending euros.

Since I am a white European you might assume that I would not experience prejudice against me, but when you leave your country you immediately become a minority. Here's how it feels to me to experience prejudice.

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multiculture - the mixing of different realities
A lot of my life is spent living in the space where cultures meet. Sometimes they rub together happily and end up in bed. Other times, they end up at war.

Like competitive children in a dysfunctional family, England and France have been at each other's throats for centuries. Our wars with the Frogs are engraved on our national psyche to the extent that we have written folk tales and songs about it.

We've had over 27 wars with France from 1066 until we signed the Entente Cordiale in 1906. You could say that it's hardly surprising given how different our cultures are. But the more I come to understand these two countries, I have come to think that our cultures have not suddenly formed themselves independently of each other but have grown up together and, more importantly, in contrast to each other. Here's my best attempt at an explanation of how.

Whenever my French friends jeer at me telling me how terrible English food is, I always reply that if the French promise to stick to Cuisine, then the English will promise to stick to Music. Finally I got fed up of these stereotypes so I had some French friends around for me to introduce them to sausages and mash, and for them to introduce me to French music. Here's what we learnt about ourselves and our different conceptions of food and music.

Sex is of course, much more important than war, food or music. It's amazing how much flirting styles can differ across cultures. Here's what I've figured out about the contrast between Latin versus Anglo styles.

Finally, if you've ever seen a bunch of Japanese tourists and wondered what the feck they were all doing, then here is my explanation.

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posts about England and being English
Although I have lived full time in the UK for the majority of my life, I've also lived in both France and Japan. Naturally, my perspective of England has been shaped considerably by these experiences.

Britain needs a thoroughly good makeover and to boldy step forward into the future instead of droning on about the past, as if that counts for everything.

For the makeover, here's my suggestion for a revamp of the national flag. And for stepping into the future, here's what I think would be a good start.

I'm also not very keen on all the noisy political hyperbole about the preservation of our national sovereignty, especially when it turns into bigotry.

And what's all the irrational fuss about us losing the Pound? This explains why I am happy to be in europe spending euros.

After all that negativity you might think that I hate being English, but infact my genuine cultural identity is something that is important to me since it is a fundamental aspect of my character.

On the other hand though, I am not much keen on a contrived national political identity. And I think the class system and all our efforts to define ourselves within it are ridiculous.

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posts about ex-pat life
I prefer living my life as an ex-pat. One reason is because there is much more freedom to define your identity than there is at home. I'll get around to writing about that one day.

For the time being though, here's a couple of posts about the tougher side of ex-pat life.

Since I am a white European you might assume that I would not experience prejudice against me, but when you leave your country you immediately become a minority. Here's how it feels to me to experience prejudice.

But you can't always blame the locals, since we can quite often become irrationally agitated with culture-shock.

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posts about France and the French
If you're interested in stuff I might have written about France, the French, or anything like that, then maybe you'd like a look at 'cheese and sex'.

Talking about sex, the French are supposed to be a romantic bunch. Before I moved over here someone told me that this wasn't true. I didn't believe him at the time. Two years later, still in 'frustration hell', I think I can see what he meant.

French politics can be pretty hairy, especially if you value your head being attached to your shoulders. In 'Bastille Day' I give my impressions on the relationship between the French state and the French people.

People often say that the French are aloof, rude even. After some thought, I reckon there is the possibility that they think they are being polite.

Working in a French office is considerably different from working in a British one. Here's a discussion about how.

Anything you'd like to hear about? Leave a comment and I'll see what I can muster up...

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mostly boring posts about work
I try to avoid posting stuff about work. I never know who's reading for one thing. On the other hand though, my job does have some interesting aspects.

Don't believe me? Well read 'another happy customer' if you've ever been delayed for a flight, pleading with your God that someone would fix the damn plane.

Another aspect of my job that I find interesting is that newspapers all over the world are always writing stories about my company and our rival in such dramatic terms, like we're out to kill each other.

The post 'enemy spotted in Toulouse' is about that, and more generally about the mentality of having enemies.

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about this blog
I guess the first thing to get straight about this blog is why it is called Glacons. Any French dictionary will tell you that 'glacons' means 'icecubes' in French, which is the language people speak around here in Toulouse. But what have icecubes got to do with anything?

Well firstly I spend a lot of time out having fun with friends. Glacons seem like a pretty spot on symbol for all this simple pleasure. But there is another reason I chose the name Glacons, and that is to do with the way I look at life.

The way I see it, each of us is constantly being tripped up by our subconcious: sent spinning over by our endless reams of conditioned assumptions, and challenged daily to admit to ourselves that we hardly know anything about life here in these ageing bodies or in this mysterious universe.

The image of an icecube represents all this unknown, and especially the unknown within our own selves. The bit of ourselves we see is just the fractional aspect visible at the surface of our senses. Unless we keep looking, of course.

So the purpose of this blog, aside from recording the surface of my life, is to try to figure out the shape of the submerged. If you like, you're welcome to watch as I keep looking. Although I warn you that I will no doubt be talking a lot of bollocks on the way.

I have seen some of those blogs with links to "disclaimers" giving you instructions for what you're allowed to do or not to when reading or commenting. Seems like a pretty moody type of approach to me.

I don't put stuff up I think will compromise me or to which I am not open to hear different perspectives, so feel free to comment however you wish, if you wish.


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about me
If you are interested about in knowing some stuff about me, you should know that I am an inquisitive fiddling fidgeter. I've always been like it.

When I was a kid I had to spend a saturday night in my room because my mum reckoned I'd fiddled with the bathroom scales and broken them. As it happens I had been fiddling with them, but they weren't broken - I had just adjusted the dial. I guess she stood on them and got the shock of her life when it seemed like she'd put on 5 stone overnight. As a punishment, I missed that night's Jim'll Fix It.

Despite this traumatic experience at the age of 8, I have continued to be a fiddler. My curious mind just won't stop asking questions about stuff and so I go and investigate.

Don't worry, the days when I wanted to pull expensive gadgets apart are long gone because my job as an Aeronautical Engineer has exhausted this geeky habit out of me.

My mind now keeps itself busy asking questions about the world we live in and culture in particular, which explains why I keep leaving England to live elsewhere.

I've spent a couple of years in Japan on The JET Programme. Right now though I am living in the South of France where I have live a lifestyle that I could only dream about in the UK, doing loads of snowboarding and other adventurous stuff, and hanging out with a load of friends from all around the world.

If you want to know more, feel free to check out my Blogger profile, or email me at glacons [at] gmail [dot] com.

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