Posts By: lesley warren

Adieu, Adieu (To You and You and You)

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

My placement at an end, I packed my things, got on a flight and came home for good today. Paris is currently in turmoil- in the past two weeks, protests against the law permitting gay marriage have blocked the roads and filled the streets with sound, a soldier was stabbed at la Défense, a man has committed suicide inside Notre Dame, and another in front of the Eiffel Tower. The airport was patrolled by armed soldiers, the boutiques locked down, security extra vigorous. Happily, the flight and journey home from the airport passed without incident- for once the Welsh weather trumped that of Paris. That’s a turn-up for the books.

How do I feel? I don’t truly know. It is a real mixture of emotions. It is lovely to be home, to know that I can sleep in my own bed without a dent in the mattress, that I can visit friends, get reacquainted with Cardiff, find out what has changed in the year I’ve been away. I can be satisfied with all that I have done, how much I have learned, changed, and, clichéd though it sounds, grown as a person (I’m not just talking about the after-effects of patisserie.) Linguistically, practically, interpersonally, I have made improvements. The year abroad frequently draws you out of your comfort zone, forces you to develop, explore, just try. Of course you will make mistakes. You’re (assumedly) human. I will readily admit that I have been reduced to tears over malfunctioning washing machines, accidentally ordered raw fish, been frustrated, confused, exhausted, embarrassed and occasionally asked myself Why am I doing this? But the friends I have made, the things I have seen and the experiences I have had have combined to make this an unforgettable and overwhelmingly positive chapter of my life, one that I am sure I will recall with fondness in the years to come.

After all, this is what it boils down to: for a relatively short period of time, you will have the chance to be a teacher, a student or an employee in a foreign country, teetering on the brink of responsible adult life. You might not always recognise it, but you are fortunate to have that chance.

You will never be in this time, this place, this state, again. So grab it with both hands and make the most of it.

To those of you who have followed my adventures, this is the end of the line. Thank you for your interest and your time. And if you yourself are preparing for a year abroad, the best of luck to you. Adieu. 🙂

 

Bones, Bonbons and Bits of Advice

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

Dear Reader, I may have worn you out with that last marathon post, but bear with me- I did, surprisingly, get round to other things aside from work.

It’s always seemed to me that Paris is a city whose mercurial moods reflect those of the onlooker. On Saturdays when I was determined to shake off the shackles of work and was full of the joys of exploration, the sun beamed indulgently over the gently lapping olive waters of the serene Seine, the bridges golden, reminiscent of Bath, and I truly believed that Paris was the most romantic, poetic city in the world. But when I was tramping home from work, brain buzzing with work and frustrated by power outages on the Metro, drizzle saturated my hair into limpness and all the buildings were grey and grubby and the mould in the corner of my ceiling frowned down at me. Often I just wanted to go home- properly, permanently home, like I had been up until ten months ago. It didn’t help that Munich and Paris really couldn’t be more different in most aspects, so the adjustment process continued for quite some time. Munich felt small and walkable, compact, peaceable- Paris is broad, flat, spread thin, with a constant simmering tension beneath the delicate layer of everyday life, the fraying threads of law and order. In Munich everyone seemed cold but thawed when spoken to, yet in Paris people can be surprisingly sharp and acerbic. Münchners were practical rather than pretty; Parisiens prance and preen. And the languages require entirely different mindsets- German is concise, packaged in bitesized chunks like Kit Kat bites, whereas French requires so many little bits to link it all together, like a rather optimistic Lego structure. I am, however, completely biased- German has always been so logical and so much easier to me than French. I love how every single syllable is clearly enunciated. French is more of a challenge because all the words seem to blur into one mass of liquid sound- but now, at the end of my time in Paris, I do seem to have got to grips with it, when the speaker isn’t firing linguistic ammunition at twice the speed of light, that is. It’s a work in progress...


With only four months at my disposal, my aim was to get a general overview of Paris and see the things I wanted to see rather than the things I felt obliged to see, as I wouldn’t have time to do everything anyway. Among my favourite places was the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, the final resting place of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Frédéric Chopin, to name just a few. It is absolutely enormous, with several tiers of hundreds of stunningly ornate graves and small stained-glass chapels studding the hillside. Oscar Wilde’s surprisingly Egyptian tomb is even surrounded by protective glass panels, covered in the fervent lipstick kisses of his admirers. A must-see.


Another slightly macabre sight is the Catacombs of Paris. My boyfriend and I had to go there three times before we were permitted to join the queue, which took an hour and a half- but it was well worth the wait. The bones of six million Parisiens, overspill from the overcrowded 18th century cemeteries, are piled up in former underground stone quarries which follow the course of the streets. There are solid walls of yellowed thigh bones, cracked, grinning skulls, organised by their cemetary of origin. Biblical and Latin quotes echo grim sentiments of the fragile mortality of man. It was a strange experience- the sheer volume of bones lessened the emotional impact, becoming dehumanised, almost prop-like. A Goth couple, handling the skulls as though they were innocuous as popcorn, were actually doing a photo shoot, posing with them. Shudder.

Naturally I revisited bits of the usual Parisian tourist circuit, joining the milling crowds under the Eiffel Tower and taking artistic (using the term lightly) photos upwards through the latticed structure, the lifts shooting up and down like beads of bright paint. The eggshell dome of the Sacre Coeur glowed hot and white in the afternoon sun. They say many things about Paris, and one of them should definitely be this: spend an afternoon there, and you start believing you’re a photographer. Fortunately, unlike people, beautiful buildings look good from (almost) any angle. For those of you who are Paris-bound, some words of advice:


  • Use common sense- avoid being out at night on your own. Trains and streets are liable to get rowdy.

  • Start the house hunt early, for obvious reasons. I cannot stress this one enough!

  • Make the most of your EU citizenship and/or student status to gain free entry to many museums and galleries, and enjoy feeling like a cultured grown-up for a couple of hours.

  • Beware: if you are of a certain temperament, viewing ‘Les Misérables’ may evoke the desire to burst into song in the street, thus rendering sightseeing a much more dramatic experience.
  • Bear this in mind: Paris isn’t quite like anywhere else you’ll have ever been before, or are likely to go again. In my mind, it wrestles Berlin for the epithet ‘poor but sexy’. It is, above all, an experience- probably neither wholly positive, nor wholly negative, but an intriguing mixture- and you may never feel like you fit. As Roman Polanski said, “In Paris, one is always reminded of being a foreigner.” Hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world will fly into Charles de Gaulle, buy a beret, put on a coat of red lipstick and tuck their hair into a chignon (and that’s just the boys), fancying themselves as Parisiens, but they’re just play-acting; they may learn the language to perfection and follow all the latest trends, but they can never hope to attain that certain something which all true Parisiens seem to be born with- a disdainful, haughty allure, a negligent, edgy elegance, never trying too hard, but getting it just right. As my team manager rightly said, “To survive in Paris, you’ve got to have attitude.” So toughen up and return the stares.

  • Last but not least: take the M14 line to Bercy Village, where you will find a shop called ‘La Cure Gourmande’. It is a veritable wonderland of sweet delights. Feast your eyes upon marbled chocolate ‘olives’, wonderfully fragrant lemon biscuits, slabs of creamy chocolate, square slates of fudge in dreamlike flavour combinations and Willy Wonka-esque lollipops, packed into rustling paper bags and ribboned boxes depicting quaint pastel scenes of Victorian France. Whatever you choose, it’ll be the right choice.

Alors: bon voyage, bon appétit, bonne chance. 🙂

 

Getting down to business- the cake is also a lie on the Continent

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

My job itself merits a lengthy description, so (brace yourselves) here goes.

The office is eeeeeeeenormous. The premises are actually shared by two separate companies, but ours is, broadly speaking, a translation company, working for big names of the luxury sector. It’s the kind of place where you need a special access card to get into the revolving door or use the lift, which for the first week or so gives you a slightly smug secret-agenty feeling (yes, I am easily amused.) There is an enormous marble lobby scattered with coffee tables laden with exclusive magazines for luxury products, just like you see in films, where smartly-dressed people of all nationalities flow in and out on their separate errands. This ground floor houses one large conference room, the HR department and a kitchen with a solid wall of microwaves and little cups full of plastic cutlery. One wall is painted with chalkboard paint, and underneath a deeply philosophical Victor Hugo quote you will often see such pastel-coloured gems as ‘THE CAKE IS A LIE!’ My personal favourite source of amusement is the passive-aggressive dialogue upon the following notice:

‘En cas de très grande faim merci de ne pas consommer le repas des autres!!!’- under a little ClipArt of a guilty-faced robber clutching a sack of loot.

‘Donc, quand c’est une petit fringole, on peut se servir?’- scrawled in black typically French handwriting.

‘N.O.N!!’

‘Quoique :)’!


The next two floors are where the IT department work on integrating our translations onto client websites and some companies have their own PR teams, such as Rolex. The third floor is that of the Pôle Multilingue, and that’s where I worked. It had a communal fruit basket (a veritable cornucopia on Tuesdays, one piece for 20 cents, all for a jolly good cause) and even the proverbial water cooler, where we actually had a few hasty meetings between emergencies.

Imagine my astonishment at entering the main office, filled with around two hundred smartly-dressed, multilingual translators, proofreaders and project managers, all typing away furiously or barking into smart executive phones. Inwardly I quailed. But the two stagiaires from the English team herded me over to the correct desk. There are roughly eight people per team.  Behind us were the Russians, whose conversation I loved to eavesdrop upon with my one semester’s knowledge of the language. Then there were the jolly Germans, the businesslike Spaniards, and the Portuguese, Japanese, Italian and French teams. A computer hadn’t been installed for me yet, so I meekly took the hundreds of sheets of paper handed over to me with reverence, and studied the differences between British and American English, also brushing up (read: learning) watchmaking terms. Little did I realise I’d be reciting them in my sleep after a week.


At lunchtime we popped to a local bakery for (what else?) baguettes and patisserie, and sat outside the elegant town hall, basking in the sunshine. One of the (few) financial perks of being employed in Paris came in the form of lunch vouchers, presented to us each month by the HR department, just like little chequebooks. Each voucher is worth 7 euros and can be redeemed in most supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants. It does make you feel rather flash, handing one over. I would soon discover the joys of the steak haché baguette, basically a pizza in baguette form, often the highlight of my working day- and so revered it is only sold three days a week. Sigh...


My official job was that of a trainee translator, so I obviously assumed it would be like Munich, but on a bigger scale. Woe is me, I was so, SO wrong! What I actually ended up doing each and every day, 9 am to nominally 6.30 but usually 6.50 pm, was sifting and filing emails (sorting them by client company or project name), finding out the day’s assigned tasks and noting them down accordingly for the team, translating anything and everything into UK, US, international, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canadian English, from executive Powerpoint presentations and user manuals to power of attorneys, but mostly advertising, proofreading, so-called ‘urgencies’ which had their own special protocol and often came with the stupidest deadlines, issuing payment orders, filling in timesheets, filling in the ‘launches’ file and colour-coding it so we knew who had assigned which project to whom, testing new translators, filing projects in the appropriate folders, assigning projects to external translators (the bulk of our daily work), phoning project managers and errant translators (we all had our favourites- and it literally paid to be a favourite, because the amounts we paid them for one project were often more than we earned a month), formatting documents for use in the translation software, creating translation projects in this software (oh so time-consuming and complicated and error-message producing!), terminology and product research, website integration (HTML and back office), and in my last month I even became the subsidiary contact manager for Jaeger-LeCoultre, responsible for sending our translations of watch catalogues to company contacts in America and awaiting their approval. One key aspect of the job was the fine art of avoiding our team manager’s wrath. I had the dubious pleasure of sitting opposite him, and sometimes just the top of his head and an accusing pair of eyes would slowly surface from behind the monitor, and you would hear your name said very slowly and deliberately, “Lesleyyyyyyy......” and your heart sank instantly as you desperately tried to remember what you’d just done/sent/filed, because you knew you were done for. I was there a month before there was actually time to train me, so my previous knowledge of translation software was invaluable, but honestly, nothing could have adequately prepared me for this position.


Eep! Are you still with me? Had I known what a crazy learning curve was ahead of me, I might have opted for something else, I fear! Understandably, I was a quivering wreck at the end of my first day, and absolutely exhausted by the end of the week. But my colleagues were very friendly and helpful once you dragged them away from their desks, and little by little, the seemingly pointless rules I encountered each day gradually ingrained themselves into my very psyche- Chanel uses the term ‘Haute Joaillerie’, Nespresso is always UK English, etc.- and our team manager said my name in that very scary way less and less often. By month two, it was just great. I had stopped making mistakes- or at least those which mattered. It was pretty satisfying to wander round Paris and know that I had translated the legal notes on the tourist tax rules for Printemps; to see our translated Cartier adverts in the windows on Champs-Élysées, our Hennessy articles in brochures, our Tag Heuer plastered over bus shelters, even our Dior videos on a massive screen at the airport.

So next time you see an ad for a perfume you will never be able to afford, or a necklace that costs more than a car, kindly spare a thought for the humble desk jockey behind it. Merci. 🙂

 

Paris is the spring is magical. Supposedly.

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

During my last weeks in Munich, the eternal conundrum had reared its ugly head once more- that of finding accommodation at an affordable price, at a reasonable distance from work, in a foreign city, sorting out the paperwork which would get the ball rolling, without being able to view any places that were offered to me. Many sites wanted to charge me an extortionate fee just to use their services, with no guarantees. I sent dozens of messages from one site which I only found out weren’t being sent a fortnight later- apparently either I or the recipient of the message had to be a paying Premium member before they’d actually leave my inbox. Hmm. It all conveyed a terrible sense of déjà vu. In increasing desperation, I asked friends, friends of friends, and even friends of friends of friends for assistance- calling on every single French connection (ha ha) I had. Finally, in sheer desperation, I posted a cry for help on Facebook. Who says social networking is bad? A coursemate immediately steered me in the direction of a website, where a couple rented out properties solely to British year abroad students. It was pricey (200 more euros than I would be earning each month), on the outskirts of the city, and two train journeys/thirty stops/one hour away from the office, plus about twenty minutes’ walk, but it was the best I could do.


It turned out there wasn’t going to be time to go home in between my placements- I’d finished work in Munich on Friday afternoon, would arrive in Paris on the weekend and start work bright and early on Monday morning. Phew- no rest for the wicked. So I bundled my life into a couple of suitcases and set off on my travels again, roping in my mum to help me (nice excuse for a mini-break!) For some reason known only to the airlines, the cheapest way to go from Munich to Paris was to fly to Brussels, wait an hour, then take a connecting flight into Charles de Gaulle. By some strange twist of fate, my mum got sent to the back of the plane while I ended up in Business Class, and I spread my belongings over a whole row of unoccupied seats, reading the in-flight magazine as if I could afford the unnecessary bags and bijoux displayed there, and pretending I was the privileged daughter of a wealthy Asian businessman until brought back to earth with a bump- literally and figuratively. Before we knew it, we were on a battered tin can of a train, keeping our beady eyes on the luggage, speeding into the city. I won’t pretend it was a good journey, because none of the stations in Paris are equipped with lifts, escalators or anything else remotely helpful to the seasoned traveller. Reeling as we tried to get to grips with the fluorescent spaghetti of a Metro map, we bumped the cases up and down dozens of flights of steps, and- just as I was at the end of my tether- there it was, the tiny station of Porte de Saint-Cloud, which sounded rather quaint. A friendly lady who happened to live near my street escorted us to the block of flats. After a lot of waiting around and hammering on random doors, we found the Filipino janitor, whose cold facade immediately thawed when my mum started talking to him in Tagalog. He unlocked the flat I’d be sharing with seven other people and handed me the keys. I took in the cupboard-sized room and several breweries’ worth of beer bottles scattered over the sticky floors, and inwardly went “Hmmmmmnnnnhhh...” We went to pick up some groceries- I hadn’t located the local LIDL yet, so was stunned at how expensive everything was. I also met my housemates- half were studying abroad, half working like me- and burrowed grouchily into my pillow while they partied into the wee hours, and returned like a herd of bulls stampeding into a china shop. They would do this up to five times a week, while I would grow steadily more irate and sleep-deprived, before finally throwing in the towel and switching apartments, having heard of a vacancy in the 2-person flat upstairs on the grapevine.

In fact, the whole of my first week in Paris would turn out to be rather “Hmmmmmnnnnhhh.” It was a massive shock to the system, I admit. I felt like an aquarium fish who wanted nothing more from life than a regular flake breakfast and a resin tunnel to swim through, maybe some pretty neon gravel- but I’d been unceremoniously scooped up in a net and tossed tail over fins into the Dead Sea. Even things like the enormously long streets and thin buildings were enough to disorientate me. I’d been pretty cosseted in Munich, living a stone’s throw from the office and from all the main sights, actually earning a small profit, with plenty of time to socialise and unwind outside of work. Heck, even complete strangers were friendly. But this was Paris, my working hours were 9.30 am to any time between 18.45 and 19.15, you had to sell your first-born child just to buy mincemeat, everyone had their attitude switches set to lofty/aloof, and my life had assumed the standard Parisian pattern- métro-boulot-dodo. Rinse and repeat...

 

So Long, Farewell- my last few weeks in Munich

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

It was time for me to go back to Munich, and I was feeling pretty deflated and sluggish- not just a direct result of mass turkey consumption. The novelty of abroadness was, truth be told, wearing off, and two weeks hadn’t been long enough for me to see all the people and do all the things I’d wanted to; yet it had been long enough for me to have got back into my old life, which was why I was feeling awkwardly displaced. Returning after Christmas is always the hard part, I’d been warned- and sad to say, it’s true. The permanently dark and dismal weather didn’t help (and considering I come from Cardiff, that just tells you how grim it must’ve been in Munich.) There is also such a thing as too much snow. Trust me on this one. I had bought heavy-duty winter boots which I wore from mid-September onwards, and by the end of February I was getting increasingly soggy socks as the soles wore through. Not ideal.


My birthday was drawing closer alarmingly quickly, and aside from work, I really wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Although it wouldn’t be my first one outside the UK (I had my 4th birthday with family in the Philippines), it would definitely feel different. Finally I decided to spend the day itself in a laid-back fashion- going for sushi and a late-night swim at the Müller'sche Volksbad, a beautiful public swimming baths with quaintly old-fashioned changing cubicles. The building reminded me of the Roman Baths with its elegant arches and pillars. The next day, I summoned everyone I’d befriended and we ate, drank and were merry.


My boyfriend came to stay for intersemester break. We took a guided tour around the main sights of central Munich, almost contracting hypothermia in the process- but it was worth it to learn that the people had once attempted to put out a fire in the theatre with beer, with disastrous consequences; and that the police apparently stole the airport’s maypole and only gave it back once promised great quantities of food, beer (no surprise there) and a party! Wahnsinn...


We also visited Dachau, which was a thought-provoking and sobering experience.


And for any Discord-goers, I have but one word to say: Rockstudio. And, oops, another two: Go there. The night we went, the guitarist from Marilyn Manson was choosing the set- there was an interlude which consisted purely of Irish jig-type songs. You will never see anything funnier than black-clad German goths in their heavy studded boots and curtains of hair linking arms and riverdancing. Really.


There was also Fasching to look forward to- officially a celebration of the dawning of the (so-far non-existent) spring, in practice, an excuse for shops to sell their Halloween stock in February and an excuse for all Münchners to have a half-day, dress up ridiculously and party with friends and copious amounts of... yep, BIER! Clouds of confetti littered the snow, a brass band blared from a stage on Marienplatz, and the whole city centre was a glorious, teeming chaos of colour and sound.


It was a triumphant end to my time in Munich. I arranged to see all my friends one last time, did  my final open mic evening and got myself abgemeldet. At times it had been stressful, it had been hard, but it was also a wonderfully enriching experience. I’d felt completely at home there, and was sorry to have to leave. But I’m sure I’ll be back.


Bis bald, München!

 

Mozart, Markets and Myriad Monsters- Munich is invaded by the Krampus

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

Even scarier than me in the morning...

Even scarier than me in the morning...

With the dawning of December, Munich put on its Christmas hat, and instantly became magical. Shop windows filled with tinsel and baubles and heavily-adorned trees, an enormous tree appeared in Marienplatz and strings of glowing star-shaped lights marked out the territory of the Weihnachtsmarkt. Later in the month, an ice-rink was built (free entry once a week if you wore traditional costume!) and finally, several Christmas markets opened up, selling all sorts of gorgeous things- brightly-painted wooden figures who ‘smoked’ if you put specially-shaped candles in their pipes, pick-and-mix style decorations ranging from the gaudy to the sublime, lace, ceramics, chocolates, the world-famous gingerbread hearts, sausages, candied nuts, fluffy plumes of candy floss, baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, and a Bavarian staple, Käsespätzle, which are very short egg noodles absolutely smothered in stringy cheese, and which are delicious, certainly life-shortening and make you want to hibernate for at least a week until you’ve managed to digest them. The nearby Odeonsplatz market had a fairytale theme, complete with Red Riding Hood, Santa and his elves and brightly-coloured Nutcracker soldiers as tall as me. Brass bands braved the cold and performed carols. It was all positively frolic-inducing.


At work, the office chocolate fairy visited and left Nikolaustag gifts on our desks on December sixth- chocolate Santas. We all exclaimed in delight, then proceeded to bash them to pieces and devour them. And since I was on a chocolate theme, I went to the Milka Welt shop and got an advent calendar, because you can never be too old for one! It wasn’t too difficult to catch up on all the missed days, oddly enough. The Germans, like the Swiss, don’t skimp with their chocolate. The sleighs, parcels and snowmen inside this one meant business.


My mother came to visit, and I proudly dragged her to my second poetry reading and choir concert in the Gasteig concert hall. Dressed in black with hints of festive red, we performed some Mozart, some Biebl, a couple of traditional carols and a Christmas medley which really put everyone in the festive spirit. One of our songs was aired on the radio, which was another really great experience. A couple of weeks later, we shivered our way through a Christmas market in temperatures of minus seven (!) and were rewarded with free Glühwein. I took what I was told was a cherry Kinderpunsch, but even inhaling the steam coming off it made me cough. It tasted like Calpol plus extremely concentrated Ribena, and I was forced to admit defeat, much to the amusement of my choirmates.


One weekend, I was minding my own business in Marienplatz, browsing the winter sales and admiring the markets once more, just enjoying the festive atmosphere. It was growing darker and colder, and the snow was beginning to fall anew, so I was about to set off home when I heard a steadily augmenting din of what sounded like cowbells clanking together, drumming and cheering. A stream of people was filing out of the market into a side-street, and I got sucked in and sandwiched between tourists, peeking out through gaps. Was I really seeing a parade of strange furry creatures with shrivelled faces, horns and beards, clutching drums and sticks, with enormous bells hanging from their bottoms, leaping out and growling at the children? Apparently so. This was the Krampuslauf, an ancient tradition, and these creatures were the Krampus, kind of an anti-Santa entity, whose mission it is to punish children who haven’t been well-behaved during the year. Eeep...


The crowd snaked through the streets, persistent in spite of the blistering cold; trailing the creatures through the markets, finally ending up in a field alongside Marienplatz. There the Krampus rounded on each other, roaring and brandishing their sticks, leapt up and down to make their bells jingle in unison for the amusement of their audience, and were kind enough to pose for photos, looking like something out of the Lord of the Rings films. You have to hand it to the Germans- they uphold most traditions, no matter how bonkers, exceedingly well.


A friend took to me to a painfully indie gig in a tucked-away little club. The first band gave out bananas to the crowd, as you do, and the second was a whole orchestra crammed onto a tiny stage, and a masked singer who had put a filter on the microphone so that when she sang, she sounded like something out of Doctor Who. That was a pretty strange night.


After a lot of patient waiting and also a lot of rather less patient waiting, it was finally time to go home for a couple of weeks, for the first time in six months. Excited didn’t even begin to cover it!

 

Roaming and Reading- ticking one more thing off my Bucket List

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

munichreadrey

The forum turned out to be highly useful for spotting events around Munich. I was able to attend several meet-ups, join a choir, go to an open-air book fair along the River Isar and get restaurant recommendations. I also went to the gorgeous though peculiarly-named Englischer Garten, which has beautiful lakes for rowing, beer gardens, a massive Chinese Tower in which a brass band plays on Sundays, restaurants, monuments and a Grecian-style temple affording a breathtaking view over Munich, among other things, and not the slightest bit English. It is absolutely enormous. Every time I went there, I feared I would forget which direction I’d come from and still be there several years later, utterly lost, living in a tent made out of my coat and some branches, and spit-roasting squirrels to survive. It is a must-see, especially when the first autumn leaves are crisp underfoot and everything is rich with colour. Another sight not to be missed is the lovely Schloss Nymphenburg, which has several beautiful miniature outhouses scattered around the grounds.


Scrolling through the forum’s events page one day, one post in particular leapt out at me- an ‘Open Mic’ evening at a English-language bookshop, The Munich Readery. I tried my hardest to ignore it, but a little voice persisted, getting steadily louder, just like your alarm seems to at stupid-o'-clock in the morning until you throw the clock at the wall. This one said: “You know that it’s long been a dream of yours to read your poetry out to an audience, and now here’s your chance handed to you on a plate.” And (here goes my street cred- what street cred?- oh, never mind) it was true. I assumed the facial expression of one ascending the scaffold to hang, picked up my mobile and rallied a troop for moral support- friends who wouldn’t let me chicken out, and would physically drag me in there if need be.


If that seems a tad dramatic to you, let me explain further. Imagine being stood before a large window, on the other side of which is a crowd of strangers with magnifying glasses, torches, binoculars and telescopes, all pointing directly at you. Imagine, if you will, being naked under this relentless scrutiny. Not nice, is it?


That, ladies and gentlemen, is how I feel and have always felt every time I have been asked to share my literary works in person, even if it’s just with a bored class who isn’t paying the slightest attention anyway, or a friend on the bus. WIthout the veil of internet anonymity to hide behind, the silent scrutiny, the feeling of being judged is terrifying. With every word I read aloud I feel as though I am warding off an impending army of lions in tanks with a sheet of tinfoil. This was no different.


The days rolled around with startling rapidity until we were sat in neat rows between bookshelves, and the American couple who owned the store opened up the (metaphorical) stage. I leaned back in my chair, affecting nonchalance, and silently wailed Why am I doing this to myself?


A couple of old dears read lengthy, sweetly-accented accounts of their summer holidays and getting to grips with Skype (a pair of German guys next to me sniggered into the science-fiction.) A nervous-looking student rather like myself read some gloomy but atmospheric poems. A flamboyant actor/writer barked out a few line-long poems which were more like the punchlines to jokes and festooned the baffled audience with leaflets advertising his next play. Then I looked all around to see if I could possibly put it off any longer, but I couldn’t. It was my turn. I perched on the desk at the front and read to my shoes (I don’t think they appreciated it all that much.) I did get some great feedback at the meet and greet afterwards though, so I suppose I did something right.


Plus there were crackers. Everybody loves crackers.


Me and my Musketeers (grammatically incorrect for alliterative effect) befriended the sniggering Germans and exited with them, into the dark, damp and slightly blurry night.


Blurry? Yes, the snow had finally begun to fall- worth mentioning, because I would barely see the pavement again during my remaining time in Munich. We went to an Irish bar to ward off the sudden chill. Ah, multiculturalism.

 

Events, Tents and Experiments

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

2012-09-21-logo_tag_der_deutschen_einheit

The next week, there was a public holiday- the Day of German Unity, which explained the profusion of white tents which had been popping up on the stretch from Universität to Odeonsplatz. The day itself dawned bright and clear, arches of black, red and yellow balloons fluttered merrily overhead, and the world and his wife came to see the festivities, including, somewhere, Angela Merkel. Each tent represented one of the Länder- the Berlin tent even had a mini Brandenburg Gate to pose by for photos. Jolly whiskered Bavarians beamed over their accordions, the scent of Bratwurst and the clinking of tankards filled the air, and in the evening, everyone gathered in solemn silence to watch a documentary of the events leading up to reunification, projected onto a large screen.


I also went to a gig that week, at Backstage, which is like Bath’s Discord, only more so- and was lucky enough to see OOMPH!, a German rock band from which Rammstein got their inspiration, or so it is rumoured- had an amazing time in the front row (until the singer and guitarist started crowdsurfing, that is) and definitely felt the after-effects the next day, sleep-limping through the drizzle to work.


“I’m sooooo tired,” I moaned to a colleague in barely coherent German, thunking my head down on the desk while my neck twinged painfully.

“Yes, sometimes it’s hard,” my French colleague agreed. “But we’ve got a safeguard.”

“And what’s that?”

He smiled sweetly, came into my office and opened the cupboard under the dictionary shelf to reveal a secret stash of bottles representing the alcohol aisle of a supermarket- vodka, brandy, whisky, still sealed (mostly) and waiting for that day when one of us would finally snap over ridiculous deadlines, tetchy customers and demands to create rhyming couplets over the phone (yes, it’s happened to me.) Even as a non-drinker, I had to laugh.


I was starting to realise that I could really do with some more friends, and so I joined a forum for English speakers living in Munich (it wasn’t cheating; Germans who wanted to learn English were members too!) The first meet-up I went to was in a pleasant bar with good music, extremely long sofas (a good thing too, looking at how many people turned up over the course of the evening) and a football table. But of course, as is the case with any gathering of slightly-drunk twenty-somethings, it did turn into a bit of a speed-dating circle, whereby you got steadily more uncomfortable, politely excused yourself and found yourself lumbered with a new well-meaning but completely misguided stranger.

“Do you believe in destiny?” said one beaming Mexican.

I was like, Really? Do people actually say that? I had to laugh, but he laughed too, which was weird. Did he realise his chat-up line was appalling, or did he just like to mimic his target for reassurance? Either way, I made my excuses. I also took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity- that of speaking Finnish to a real live Finn. Doubt it will ever happen again, but hey, it was fun while it lasted (read: about two minutes, while I used up my rather scant knowledge of basic greetings and realised I couldn’t shoehorn any colours in.)


I bonded especially with an English au-pair. We agreed to meet up on the weekend to visit an art exhibition advertised on the forum. When the time came, we took one look at how tiny the gallery/shop was and how knowledgeable and arty all the other visitors looked and stood around in the rain trying to be inconspicuous until someone spotted us and beckoned us in. Luckily the art was all very accessible- we didn’t have to make up highbrow comments about it, it was all genuinely pleasant to the eye, and you could tell what everything was supposed to be. We admired the use of light and shade, painting techniques and the skilful interposing of photographs into paintings, where you could barely see the painted-over edges, and generally felt grown-up. A band played jazzy covers of English songs in the corner. Quietly my friend slunk to the refreshments table and politely toothpicked a couple of cubes of cheese, crackers and chocolate hearts, washed down with an artistic wine glass of Prosecco. On the return journey we achieved the rare feat of getting hideously lost and disorientated in a city where there are U-Bahns on virtually every street, entered a bar to ask directions, got chatted up by a middle-aged Münchner (the waiter said he should either buy us a pizza or leave us alone) and parted at Hauptbahnhof, promising to do it all again (minus the getting lost) soon.


So, in case you’re still expecting this blog to be vaguely advisory, that would be another Handy Hint. Get involved- there’s always heaps of things going on, if you know where to find them.

Oh... and don’t fall for creepy chat-up lines.


Unless you like that sort of thing, of course.

 

Tracht und Pracht- how my apron told the world I was widowed

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies, Uncategorized

Oktoberfest

Every year, round about the end of September through to the first week of October, Munich, the Bavarian capital, is hit by an internationally-renowned, centuries-old phenomenon which completely changes the city’s character from a pleasantly cultured air to an alcohol-fuelled haze of sea-shantying, swaying, beer-swilling madness. Locals call this ‘die Wiesn’. Some call it ‘ein Chaos’ and make plans to be out of town for its duration. The rest of the world calls it Oktoberfest.

It all kicks off with a parade of national costume groups from all over Europe, waving flags, dancing, blowing horns, riding horses- there was even a carpenter carving wooden sculptures on one of the floats. They all walk through the city, up to Theresienwiese, the site of the main festivities. Some lovely old ladies, pitying my shortness, let me stand at the front of the teeming crowds lining the street, opposite the Bayerischer Hof (“I’ve translated for the Hof!” I couldn’t help thinking smugly.) A thrilling addition to the proceedings involved whips... men in scarlet waistcoats stood in formation (everyone cowered) and simultaneously struck the ground with a din like gunshots.

What couldn’t have been clearer was that one integral component of the Bavarian lifestyle is traditional dress: Lederhosen with stockings and waistcoats for men, and Dirndls and perky little hats for the ladies. It isn’t just reserved for Oktoberfest; you genuinely will see people of all ages and nationalities wearing them all year round. Around Oktoberfest time (even up to a month before), seeing someone who isn’t wearing it is unusual. It thus became apparent to me that I, a registered Bavarian citizen, could embrace the ever-growing trend myself. I wasn’t a mere tourist, spending a small fortune for something I wouldn’t wear after this visit. No, I was now a Münchner on paper and in affinity. I took a sneaky trip to C&A, along with about half of the western world, or so it seemed, to take advantage of the sale to pick up a Dirndl.

For those who have not yet had the pleasure of doing the same, let me put it thus: Wearing Tracht is like being allowed to wear fancy dress even though it’s not Halloween and you aren’t five years old. It makes you feel special, but not silly, because everyone else is wearing it too; and the special feeling reflects itself in the little spring in your step, the swish of your skirts. I don’t usually get like this about clothes, much to the benefit of my purse- what with that and being a non-drinker, my boyfriend delights in my relatively low expensiveness. But it was just one of those things- I saw it, heavy blue cotton with a print of faded roses, a dainty puff-sleeved lace blouse under it, laced with bright frills and ribbon, and thought immediately, “That one- if I am actually going to do this- is definitely the one.”

What a mad profusion of colours and fabrics and bijoux. Older women wore more sober colours and prints, but their dresses were the genuine article, passed down to them from their own mothers, down through the generations, and they accessorised them with jaunty little feathered hats and jangling chain belts of charms. Most girls stuck to the traditional checkered pattern, but chose lime green, fuschia pink and sky blue, bearing gingerbread hearts and tiny heart-shaped handbags and heavy glass pendants. Thus musing, and now suitably attired, I braved the crush on the train and did Oktoberfest.
What’s it like? It’s a funfair teeming with all sorts of rides and food stalls, but so much BIGGER. It’s a mad mélange of chair-o-planes, Ferris wheels, rollercoasters, candy floss, Bratwurst, pretzels, candied nuts and neon lights. Oh, and everyone is dressed like something out of a storybook, even the ones vomiting profusely on the grass verge. What makes this fair different is the beer tents, built as solidly as actual houses. I went to the red-and-yellow Hippodrome, where a brass band played before the teeming masses- and of course, every other song was ‘Ein Prosit!’, the cue for swigging and tankard-clashing. Furtively I glanced around. All the Münchners had their apron bows tied at their hips, not at the back. I retied mine accordingly.

In work several days later, I brought the Dirndl out again, and a colleague gave me an amused look. “You’re wearing your bow on the wrong side,” she said.
“Again?!”
She taught me the rules. An uncomfortable thought occurred to me.
“So if you wear it at the back...”
“Oh, whatever you do, don’t do that. It means you’re divorced, or widowed.”
Ah well, we live and learn...

So anyway, if you happen to see someone who looks like they’ve stepped straight out of ‘The Sound of Music’ waltzing around Bath next year, full of the joys of spring, don’t be alarmed, and don’t send for the men in white coats. It’s only me. 🙂

 

Getting to know you- Münchners are like chocolates

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies, Uncategorized

And so, my life as a Münchnerin began.

Münchners are like chocolates.

And so, my life as a Münchnerin began.

It did take a while to adjust, I have to say. The train system still had- shock horror- announcements from the drivers, rather than automated ones like in Berlin. Though the prevailing mood in these announcements seems to be ‘bored out of my skull’ (if you are on the verge of slipping into a coma, please do not drive a train!) Often when I hear `Zurück bleiben’, it has been savagely whittled down to two mere pops of syllables- ‘Zük blei’. The stations were different too. My home station, Münchner Freiheit, is a stark contrast to all of the others- fluorescent green tiling, glowing blue pillars and a mirrored ceiling, in which you can see yourself reflected upside-down. No chance of missing that stop.

I had to register as a citizen again, but unlike in Berlin, it didn’t take all day. I did have to get up ridiculously early to queue outside the door, but that was to be expected- Germans’ internal clocks just seem to be set a couple of hours earlier. I was hoping this might rub off on me, and that I would be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, gaily leaping out of bed to embrace the new day with a shout of ‘Guten Morgen München!’

Well... it hasn’t happened yet.

Another thing I learned the hard way is that Münchners do not restrain their curiosity. If you are wearing a brightly-coloured coat or your features are not wholly Caucasian (in my case, usually both), you are likely to incur accusatory stares. Men may whistle or mutter darkly to themselves (thought the muttering might be due to the preponderance of the hands-free earpiece. Either way, it’s a tad disconcerting.)

In my view, Münchners are a bit like chocolates- cold and hard on the outside, but in actual human interactions, the shell cracks and they are actually sweet and soft-hearted. They will give you directions before you ask for them, or start up a good-natured conversation in the lift (us Brits would stare at the floor or fiddle with our mobiles, anything to avoid having to chat!).

One wonderfully quirky Münchner, Ingo Maurer, has a local studio filled with beautiful madness- whole flocks of lightbulbs with wings and lampshades made of glass bottles of cherryade. He designed my neon station too.

So, my daily journey to work goes thus.

I wander round the flat in a haze of exhaustion and throw myself into the lift (not for claustrophobic- there are even scratches on the walls, as if someone’s tried to claw their way out...) The next thing worthy of note is the beautiful St. Ursula church with its pale green dome. If I’m ahead of schedule (or really behind, which I never am, of course) I hear the bell ringing in the quarter-hour. The street connects to an arterial Munich road, Leopoldstraße, home to rows of shops, restaurants and cinemas. Narrowly avoiding death-by-cyclists, I cross into another tangle of side-streets framing the enormous English Gardens. On the corner is a little art shop, whose works I always admire (this means I can let the postwoman on her yellow bike go past without flattening myself against a wall.) In the third window I pass are two little bronze people sat upon a bronze bench, folded like paper- one man and one woman. Between them is a golden apple. The sign declares this to be a ‘Liebesbarometer’- affection portrayed by the distance between the couple. I always peek in to see how they’re doing. Sometimes they’re overlapped, the apple forgotten. But as I write this, they’ve been at opposite ends of the bench, not facing each other, all week. One wonders if things are rocky between the shop owner and significant other...
It never fails to amuse me when I look up from my desk and see a stream of helmeted tourists whizzing past the window on segways with a mild `Bzzzzzzz’.

Sometimes my colleagues and I pop to one of a plethora of bakeries.
“Haben Sie noch einen Wunsch?” said the woman who served me once, handing over the Nusshörnchen.
Did I have another wish? It sounded scarily final. “Yes, I would like world peace with my croissant.”

After work I often wander to Marienplatz, the definite centre of Munich, dripping with high-class fashion and gorgeously gothic buildings, like the famous Rathaus with its glockenspiel. There is a gloriously talented musical group I keep bumping into called Scherzo. Their line-up varies, but most of the time there’s a double bassist, a pianist, a clarinettist (“Please ladies and gentlemen don’t make any video recordings our CDs are here to buy we are taking a short break thank you”) and a violinist, plus a different singer each time. They even bring their own grand piano to wherever they perform. That’s dedication to your art if ever I saw it.
I just had time to get into a comfy little routine before the madness of Oktoberfest hit Munich with more force than the WW2 bomb detonated just down the road from my office, which blew all the windows out and started some fires...

Anyway ... Bis zum nächsten Mal!