Tagged: paris

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.


‘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...