Wednesday, October 27, 2004

customer service a la francais
I guess it is another stereotype of the French that they are rude and surly when serving you. As usual there's some truth in this, but it's not entirely true. I think it greatly depends on the type of business.

In most shops and restaurants, the service here is maybe a bit slow, but not usually rude. If you go into any French bureaucracy though... oo la la! Ask any person living in France for a story about a visit to Le Prefecture and you will see any pleasant atmosphere in the room dive straight out the nearest window as they start spitting expletives out as if they had filled their mouth with rotting nastiness.

I would say that there seem to be certain characteristics of French administrative organisations that are quite pernacious. The main one I can think of is a focus on the requirements of their processes, as opposed to the requirements of their customers. The customers are expected to fit inside the process and like it.

I suppose that this is quite typical of most bureaucracies, but the problem is that the bureaucratic mentality does seem to spill out a bit. The strangest example I can think of is when I went to a popular and busy restaurant with my family, Le Entrecote.

We were standing in a queue waiting to be seated to tuck in to our portions of steak and chips french style, and had reached the front when the busy head waitress whirled across my path and commanded me to 'avancez-vous', meaning move forward. I stepped forward a few paces, thinking she wanted me to make room for more people behind.

Suddenly one of the girls (never men) cutting up the steak informs me that I have to get back because I am bothering her chopping. So I move backwards again, a little confused, only to be harrangued by the head waitress again for not having moved forward.

"But I did..", I said, "..and your waitress told me to move because I was in her way"

"No no no monsieur. Advance over THERE!", she informed me, pointing to a little gathering space hidden behind a wall.

Clearly she had assumed I knew about her special customer organising system, and was quite annoyed that as an object to be processed in it, I didn't know my place.

The funny thing is that I work in Customer Services myself, and originally came over here with English attitudes which are generally more [insert your own annoying business jargon to describe an appropriate attitude, I refuse to put it on my blog].

I am ashamed to say that in the two years since I have been here, the bureaucratic French attitudes have slowly crept into my psyche and I sometimes find myself saying things like, "c'est pas moi ca" ("that's not me, that").

I guess it is inevitable that a person picks up different cultural methods. I think I shall call this 'culture creep' - the subconcious and unintended change from one attitude to another as a result of prolonged stay in a different culture.

Some of these things will be good changes I suppose, but in terms of customer service, I think these lazy and deceitful attitudes really would be best avoided. So I have decided from now on that my customers will get only the best service.

And I will stop my car for anybody waiting to cross a pedestrian crossing.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

a rainy reunion
It's nearly two years since I left the UK and roughly the same amount of time since I have seen a lot of my friends from Uni. Fortunately there's always someone who eventually gets around to organising a reunion and this weekend we all rolled into our old uni town of Guildford, just as we did a little over 10 years ago as freshers.

I'm glad the reunion was held there since it gave me a chance to pop in and see some other friends too, starting on blustery Saturday afternoon with Kev and Katie. I lived with Kev when I was a trainee here in France in '96, went to their wedding, and have now had the privilege of holding their dark and fluffy two week old daughter Florence.

After buying some Cornish Pasties with Kev to feed a famished Katie, I shivered my soggy way up the steep Farnham Road to dump my bags at a B&B, avoiding the torrents of rain pouring down in the gutters, dragging mulchy autumn leaves along in its race to the bottom of the valley.

I met the Uni gang down at The White House pub by the river around 5pm. A really good crowd turned up with names too many to list here. Of course it was great to see everyone, but I was very pleased to see Rose, Tricky and Steve in particular.

After a short stint up in the lower bar at the university's student union with a varied gang of strange musicians whose party we gatecrashed, we all headed down into town on the old route and ended up in Bar Med. By the time we got there most of us had had a fair skinful so it seemed like a fine place.

Amongst us there was only me and one other guy, Tom, who were single. All the others have more or less been together since university and are married or getting married, sharing houses and stuff. I don't have anything against this at all. Far from it. I am pleased to see so many stable and happy relationships.

The problem is that without fail a sense of loneliness always overtakes me when hanging around with these guys. As my friend of 29 years Nick said when I popped in to see him in Clapham on Friday night, "Well they haven't been away abroad so they're more established". God knows why, but I seem to be a different breed.

Nevertheless I had a great time with them all, bopping away bad club style and guzzling pint upon pint. Luckily, Sunday I woke up without too much of a hangover and managed to get down to the station to scoff an English breakfast before meeting Jennie.

Jennie is my friend and pottery teacher from when I lived in Aldershot at my last job before coming here. We went for a good stroll in the forest with her dappy dog and found some nice Fly Agaric mushrooms and stuff. Amazing what a great easy time we spent together just wandering and chatting, two years later.

I have to say that the flip side of what appears to be a life of extended singledom and ex-patriation seems fortunately to be the gift of some excellent, lasting and durable friendships. The sort of friendships that stay ripe, never have a moment that they go past and then fade away.

The same goes for my family, who I popped in to see later on Sunday and all of yesterday. Great Gordon is in the DGH and I went to see him. As I left I touched his arm and he reacted with an emotional gesture. Since Gordon is a man who has spent his life stoically hiding all emotion and flinching at physical contact, this was precious moment.

Flickr PhotoSet

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Friday, October 22, 2004

hold your horses
My network at home is actually still down. It only had a quick spurt of activity the other night apparently. To get this show back on the road, I will have to sort out an ISP and phone line, which could take a couple of weeks.

This is a bit frustrating since my head is bubbling with ideas of stuff to write about. On the other hand, I also need to think about the best way to tackle the subjects, so this break is probably quite fortuitous.

In the meantime, I am doing some reading instead. Some months back, my friend Owen lent me 'Zen and the art of Motorcyle Maintenance', by Robert Pirsig. I have just gotten around to reading it and am very impressed so far. I'll give you a review when the I'm all ISP'ed up.

This weekend I am off to the UK again. This time, to catch up with some old friends from uni, see a mate who has just become a dad, and to pop down to see my folks. Thank God for easyJet.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

le tour eiffel
Well the good news is that apparently my neighbours have sorted out our friendly neighbourhood network. And the bad news is that I am knackered so the amount of serious blogging effort I am going to put in tonight is next to nil.

Atleast I have a good reason for being knackered though. I got up at stupid-o-clock this morning to take a flight up to Paris for a meeting with some lawyers. Got back into work about 1630 and was busy catching up with emails when I got a call about going up there again on Thursday.

Not sure I can handle all those limp cups of tea and cheap wafery biscuits Air France hand out. But the Eiffel Tower was pretty nice to drive past today.

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Monday, October 18, 2004

Please excuse the lack of postage going on over here. My free internet access has temporarily blown a fuse and until it gets fixed by my neighbour, I won't be doing much. That'll teach me for teasing Thomas.

In the mean-time, if you are in the mood for a lesson in angry namecalling, you can content yourselves by checking out the interesting responses to the Guardian's Operation Clark County idea which I mentioned last week.

There are some here at the Guardian, and here at Perfect.

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Friday, October 15, 2004

scoffing sausages and stereotypes

A while back one of my French friends repeated the old line about how terrible English food is. I told him that if the French promised to stick to making food, the English would stick to making music.

It's pretty strange how these two sibling countries in the European family can end up with such different strengths and weaknesses. One explanation may be that historically we have mostly been enemies, so anyone found appropriating aspects of the other culture ran the risk of being called a traitor and dragged around town behind a fast moving horse. That would put me off cooking.

But of course, to some extent these ideas are stereotypes anyway. So last week I suggested to Sandrine, Thomas and Fabien that we test them out but having an evening eating English food and listening to French music. They came around tonight.

I decided to treat my guests to a good plate of bangers and mash, complete with Red Wine Gravy and Branston Pickle. I can only report that they managed to finish all the sausages and mash without being sick. I guess Fabien saying he would marry me counts as a compliment of sorts, even if it did put me off my food ;)

On their side, Sandrine and Thomas brought around the Eiffel Tower of a CD stack to add to Fabien's 152 mp3 albums saved on a portable hard drive. I would list all the people we listened to but that will just bore you, so I'll sum up by saying that we started off in the 50s with Georges Brassens, and ended up in the present with Spook and the Guay and Zebda, both bands which come from Toulouse.

I think it's fair to say that English music has to have a good tune. As long as the words rhyme and the music is catchy, no problem. The lyrics can mean absolute jack. What I learnt about French music though is that it is the lyrics that are the important focus. They are expected to provide a message. The actual music is often a neglected support for the opportunity to make a point.

The music of Georges Brassens is as simple as you can imagine. Just a gentle and quiet dum dum dum rhythm, with very few instruments. His singing was the main focus.

Monsieur Brassens, who was friends with Victor Hugo, disliked authority so much that he wrote a song about a well endowed gorilla who escaped from the zoo and vented his pent up sexual frustration on an over zealous magistrate. I'll tell you about the song where Margot keeps a kitten on her breasts another day.

Strangely enough, we didn't listen to Jean-Michel Jarre, who was one of my biggest influences as a kid. And neither did we listen to the more recent Air, or Daft Punk.

Recipe for Mash:
Boil the potatoes until they are dead. Drain and add butter. After the first vigourous mashing. Add lots of a fungent dry cheese like Cheddar, some creme fraiche and a big spoonful of mustard. Carry on mashing until your arms ache.

Recipe for Red Wine Gravy:
Fry the sausages in lots of oil. When they're cooked, add a heaped tablespoon of flour into the same pan. When the flour doesn't look like flour anymore, pour in half a glass of wine and mix the gunk around. When it's all mixed add a stockcube, more wine, some water etc. Slowly with the liquids though - glass by glass at the most. Eventually you'll have something that tastes and looks like gravy.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

breathe deeply

Let me introduce you to my deep friends Ralph and Chika with whom I shared love, laughter, torment and confusion in Tokyo between 1998 and 2000.

American Ralph and Japanese Chika are married, and have a nearly four year old boy called Reggie and a two year old daughter called Mimi. Chika was diagnosed with recurrent cancer yesterday.

If you believe in God, please add my friends and their family to your daily prayers.

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want to influence the US election?
The Guardian has an interesting article today about how it is possible for non-US citizens to influence the coming election. My favourite idea is this one, where they send you the name and address of a swing voter in crucial marginal counties.

The idea is that you write the undecided voter a letter to explain how current US action effects you, how it effects people outside the US, and then expressing your reasons for preferring one of the candidates (i.e. Kerry).

I'm already signed up, and will be sending my handwritten letter off this weekend.

Although not a direct influence, BetaVote has an interesting site that has gathered around 300000 votes from countries all over the world, voting for either Bush or Kerry. Currently Kerry has 88% of the world vote.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

peak oil
So we all know that the War in Iraq was about oil right? No debate there any more. But why invade Iraq for oil? So that some elite Americans can get rich from the war money and the oil itself? Or for some other reason?

Well I am sure that some Americans are getting very rich form the war. And I am sure that some Americans will eventually get very rich from selling Iraqi oil. But I think the reason that Iraq was invaded was more to do with securing the oil.

The fact is that since the industrial revolution, our technologies have required power from extracted hydrocarbon energy sources. We started this way of life with coal in the 1800's, but in the post-war period we changed the foundation of our industri-techno civilisation to oil.

Oil now supplies over 90% of the world's energy needs, not to mention being the base product used to produce plastics, artificial rubbers, road surfacing and fertilisers.

Can you imagine a world where we can no longer produce or drive vehicles, have plastics for consumer goods, or enough food to support our industrially enlarged population? Would you rather not imagine it?

Well the good news it that industry experts predict that oil will be available for decades to come, atleast to the end of the century. The bad news though, is that highest ever point of supply is due any time now, between 2004 and 2015. After this time, the demand for oil will outstrip supply and prices will soar.

This state of affairs was first predicted by Hubbert in his Peak Oil Theory. The implications for our society are immense.

The long and short of it is that without action now we could see the end of industri-techno civilisation. We need to start planning the implementation of existing alternative new technologies right now if we are going to maintain anything like the same lifestyle, and we need to research and develop completely renewable and abundant sources of energy and power production.

At the moment, America seems to be choosing the short sighted competitive option. I hope that us Europeans can be a bit more progressive and do what is needed without resorting to violence. We have over 60 years of cooperation under our belt that may make it possible.

If you are interested to learn more, or are thinking that this is just a lot of old scaremongering, wikipedia has a good set of links for you to read.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

bowled over by London
London isn't a place I am only passingly familiar with. I have lived and worked in London, at periods visited London almost every weekend, frequently rolled around drunk and eaten kebabs in London, sat poe-faced on the tube in London and woken up dazed in London more times than I can remember. But something about this last weekend over there with my Spanish and French friends was different.

Living abroad is giving me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of my home, the people and their ways, its culture, social structure, street design and the environment, its place in world history. Everytime I go back I see things in a new and refreshing light, and in a way that reminds me so deeply of my roots.

I remembered London as a fairly drab place full of miserable people. But on this occasion it was completely the opposite.

With the Egg and the Gherkin up by the Tower on both sides of the Thames, the incredible futuristic grandeur of Westminster tube station, and a general splattering of well designed buildings, the country seems to be dragging itself out of its depression about lost past glories.

In the shops people were chatty and open. I just love the simplicity with which I can slip into easy chat with people, sharing a common language and humour, a deep understanding of the sensitivities and nuances around which I should navigate. In the streets the whole world was in to stay or to visit. Multicultural London is really a wonder.

With my friends Tanya, Sara, Oscar, Jenny, Noemi, Cindy, and of course Larry who generously let us stay at his place down on Docklands, I had a fantastic weekend. And I mustn't forget Nick, Owen, and Gav who joined me in the pub for some Sunday afternoon beers. Cheers guys!

See complete Flickr PhotoSet

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Friday, October 08, 2004

the last few days
So I have spent the last few days just doing stuff, and not bothering with blogging. I generally just needed to sleep and think, digest, watch some tv, order some books and take some art classes.

Tomorrow I am off to London for the weekend. Tourism, friends, curry, clubbing, mushrooms maybe.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

how to flirt in esperanto
A few weeks back my American friend Dena, tried to tell me about the dubious psychology of the French guys who chat her up. I thought she was exaggerating at first, but she insisted that she really was being hunted by a pack of complete mental cases.

To prove her point she took out her mobile phone to show me an example text message from a guy she had met once, "My vorld 'as been alive wiz passion zince I met you. I merst zee you again my beautifuel Americaine". This started my curious mind thinking about the cultural differences of different male flirting styles, and I've come to the conclusion that there really is quite a contrast between the English style and the French style.

It seems true to say that the language of latin romance relies on very flambuoyant and dramatic turns of phrase that conjure startling beauty and cause the laws of physics to fail. Maybe this works fine in French, and amongst French romantic expectations. But when translated into English, I'm not sure that it is quite the right style.

Even the most goodnatured English girls I know would fall about laughing if they heard that their "eyes had captured my heart", whilst the more suspiciously inclined would go white as a sheet, stiff as a board, and make a hasty departure after being told that "my nights are sleepless as I can think only of seeing you again".

This is just "a bit too much", as we say. There are definate hints of obsession in this language when heard by an English mind. They create a distinct sense of unease and distrust, a sort of combined "either he's trying to get into my knickers or he's a stalker" type of reaction.

Us British seem to be much more comfortable with insults and teasing to provide us with a sense of intimacy. I suppose the idea is to find a specific characteristic about your someone, usually a habit or personality trait, and to say that you like it. But in English this statement must be indirect, and coated in humour. Hence teasing and insults.

Zoe might not agree with this analysis I suppose, but I reckon her her blog is about the best living example you are going to find of this style of flirting. Her boyfriend Quarsan reportedly comes out with such flowery compliments as "You look like you've been air-brushed on photo-shop" when presented with the results of Zoe's expensive makeover. For her part, her whole blog is called "My boyfriend is a twat".

The point is that the English generally distrust feelings which are verbally expressed, and prefer their silent demonstration. Behind the teasing there is always a subtle reality which can be understood within a glance.

So if that is how the French and the English flirt, what about all the other cultures out there? What have I missed about English and French flirting? There must be loads of stuff to say. Get commenting people.

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Sunday, October 03, 2004

a gentle stroll
If ever there was a weekend to NOT have a violently flatulent bottom, this was it. I guess it could have been the four pints of guiness on Friday night that set me off, because when I got up on Saturday morning to head off to the mountains I was managing about one stinker a minute.

Eight of us, three French, three Germans and two Brits, left Toulouse for a weekend of 'randonée', or hiking. We hadn't been in the car longer than 10 minutes and I had to wind the window down.

It took us around 2 hours to drive from Toulouse to the car park at the bottom of the trail to the 'Peak d'Estats' on the border with Spain. I managed to behave myself but I can tell you that it was painful.

We started hiking up from the car park at 1180m, but had to stop only 10 minutes into the little jaunt since our bodies were a bit shocked. When I say 'our', I am excluding Holger. Holger is an ex-soldier and the mastermind behind the weekend. He eats mountains for breakfast.

My gastric turbulence wasn't much help in propelling me up the mountain, so it was lucky for my legs that we stopped for lunch in the sun about 90 minutes in to the hike. Nobody had brought any glasses so we had to make do with drinking wine from the bottle.

It took us about another 90 minutes to reach the 'Refuge du Pinet' at 2224m. There are quite a lot of Refuges in France. They provide basic food and dormitary accomodation to people hiking about in the mountains and stuff.

We had a dorm to ourselves, which was equipped with two rows of 5 beds stacked on top of each other like a massive bunk bed. Knowing that hot air rises, I thought it would be best if I went on the top so that's where I dumped my stuff before heading off to the facilities.

The meal was basic but tasty - sausages and onions with pasta. After we had all eaten one of the guys working in the Refuge took his guitar out for a sing-a-long with us and the fourty Catalonians also staying there. I'm not lying when I tell you that we sang 'Blowing In The Wind' by Bob Dylan.

Today we got up before dark, and after a rather disturbed night. This time though it was the wind outside the Refuge that was the culprit. After our breakfast we set off up the trail for our 3 hour and approximately 2000 vertical metre climb to the Peak d'Estats (3143m).

I can hardly begin to describe the pain of this experience. Although I haven't been getting much exercise recently, I didn't have a problem with my breath or anything. I just had massive problems with sore feet. Plod plod, pound pound, skip skittling on loose shale, the ascent was just tough on the poor things.

The pain was diminished by the amazing view that confronted us when we arrived at the top. We were at the highest peak in the area surrounding us so we could see for miles into Spain and back to France. We just sat up there laughing and joking and enjoying it, eating cheese, sausage, cake, tuna salad and rabbit paté. Since it was the first time a few of us including myself had climbed above 3000m, Sebastien opened a bottle of champagne. It didn't last very long.

There was a four hour descent after this, all the way down back to the carpark. Something I had eaten on the peak caused my stomach to return to its state of near volcanic activity, so I walked at the back of the pack in fairness to my friends.

By the time we reached the car park atleast half of us were stricken with the gait and expression of a starving three legged dog. Having got home via McDonalds, which usually kills off any sort of healthy activity in the stomach, I have just about mustered the energy to write this post.

Now though, it is time to limp off to bed. Does anybody have an overnight blister cure?

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Saturday, October 02, 2004

Check out this fantastic scene from the river today. Like I mentioned previously, the Printemps De Septembre arts festival is going on in town. Tonight there were lasers dividing the sky and the river as if Toulouse was a cake to be cut into slices.

I know it hardly looks real, but I assure you it was. This is no Photoshop job.

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