Thursday, 27 December 2012

The year's ending on a sour note

I'm feeling sorry for myself. I've just returned from getting a second opinion from a French doctor on what to do about all the shoulder and arm pain I've been experiencing for 4 months. It started in the left shoulder (prone to bouts of frozen shoulder), moved around the top of my back to then include my left shoulder which is normally fine.

 My newish doctor in Epernon said I had to rest it and take anti-inflammatories. After several visits and nothing working I was told to stop playing the violin for 3 weeks. Very unhappy with that, I followed instructions but nothing improved so tonight I went to the village of Coulombs to see my violin teacher's doctor.

I have to give up the violin for now, keep on with anti-inflammatories, have echo and Xrays of both shoulders (at last some action there) and get some physio (first time in France). I must get this resolved but in the meantime I'm upset. I'm upset because I've really put in a big effort to claw back my playing ability and everyone has been so encouraging; my teacher and the Epernon orchestra conductor. In fact, I'd been given the Largo from Winter in Vivaldi's Four Seasons to practice so I could play a solo with the orchestra and there's an audition coming up in February for an orchestra. I've invested money in all this too.

It's all gone now. This comes hard on the heels of having to give up my jazz dancing because of pain. So I'm feeling bereft. I had so many interests in NZ. Many of them aren't possible here (gardening, bellydance, even the cinema is pretty difficult to do in English here). I have no pets (difficult in an apartment and foolish when I don't know how long I can stay here). The interests that were an important part of my life seem to have been ripped away by circumstances and I don't accept things like that easily. What can I find to replace them? I don't want to spend all my life on a computer- I need to move, get out, meet people, do things that make me happy. Alas, they seem to be in the past. Working on my book is still sitting on my bum at the computer- it's not enough to keep me interested. Tap dancing's no good - it doesn't interest me and it's no good with my old feet.

Good grief, how does one reconcile oneself with aging, accidents, loss of what helps make life worthwhile? Nothing's happening in a hurry because it's Christmas holidays so my rehabilitation is likely to take months. So here I am writing about my disappointment and frustration and helplessness. Yes it could be worse, but having given up a lot to be here in France I'm not keen on giving up still more. Note to self: find some other creative outlets somewhere, somehow in case this situation becomes permanent.

I'm not looking forward to explaining the situation to my lovely violin teacher, she's been so positive and looking for ways to help me progress. We played a duet together last week which really spoke to my soul. It was such fun hearing the harmonies and yesterday I practiced to the point where I think I've got the basics sorted... sigh!

The year's ending on a sour note (yes, pun intended). What on earth is ahead for 2013? I don't do New Year resolutions but I'm often thinking about what I can do differently, better. For 2013 I'd like my work situation to improve, to have my contract renewed, keep my apartment and resolve my health issues, and have my book published. OK, better keep working on that.

Monday, 24 December 2012

And a partridge in a pear tree...

It's Christmas Eve in France and it's a quiet one for me. I'm spending Christmas at Jean-Claude's house in the village of Ymeray, Centre, just the two of us, no stress, no expectations. Last weekend we bought a Christmas Tree for me to decorate. The trees in France are quite different. This year we chose a 'Normande'. It's densely branched but quite short and drops its needles in a less obvious way than last year's species.There's no room in my apartment for a tree, alas and anyway, I'm spending a couple of weeks with JC so I can take advantage of space and the tree. I enjoy using the little fibre optic lights as they tangle less and don't have bits that can get lost, break off or break down. [see photo at left]

My Christmas newsletter's out, I phoned my Mother in Christchurch. I think I'm organised.

Last night we drove to Paris to see The Hobbit in 3D 48 frames per second. I was curious about the new frame speed technology and wanted to see the film in VOST (original version with sub-titles) so that meant it had to be Paris. So there I was, wandering the Champs Elysée in weather that was milder than last year, looking forward to seeing some of New Zealand on screen, made by a NZer of a book I've read countless times.

The 3D wasn't as good as Avatar but the frame-rate didn't bother me too much except for annoying technical distractions with some of the fast action. It seems to flutter or the feet of fleeing bunnies or dwarves seemed to be invisible. Annoying.

The detail of the film is exceptional and I didn't mind the length of it but some of the unnecessary additions just interrupted the flow and stretched things out, adding yet more and more fights and battles which got tedious. I love the Tolkien books and the Lord of the Rings films and I'm grateful that Peter Jackson has made Hobbit films but I wish he'd stuck to the original 2 films instead of three. I think I'll buy the DVD in 2D at 24 frames per second. The 3D and 48fps add nothing valuable for me. I must say though that going to see a Kiwi film in the heart of Paris is still an amazing thing to do. The film was well-partonised too. [here's me in my early Christmas present jacket]

It was dark when we emerged from the cinema and the lights along the Champs Elysee were in full glow. The traffic was predictably atrocious. I don't get into Paris often so I asked JC if we could rive along the Seine to see all the lights. Easier said than done from the CE. We had to take the periphique out of the centre and come back in. There's simply nothing to beat the Eiffel Tower in full sparkle. Each hour in the evenings on the hour the thousands of light bulbs go off for a couple of minutes and I hadn't managed to be near it before at the crucial time.

This time we drove along the right bank as the Tour 'went off'. Wonderful, the searchlight turning. the standard lighting picking out the architectural skeleton so well and the sparkles. That was the only highlight. Whether it's a cost-cutting measure or not, I don't know but it was so disappointing that most of the bridges and public buildings were not illuminated. More eco but much less Paris the city of light. Dark, sombre and the beautiful details of the buildings completely obscured by night. Sigh!

French shops do do a good job of decorating themselves, especially with Christmas displays, some of them animated. Next year I'd like to visit Paris at Christmas to wander around the little cabins erected for Christmas vendors at the Big Ferris Wheel at the Place de la Concorde end of the Champs Elysee. There are so many of them, clean, beautifully decorated, food ones too, specialty items, great public lighting decorations.

A few days ago we had our staff Christmas lunch Everyone brought a dish. I contributed an apple tart and delicately flavoured whipped cream I'd made. We all contributed a small gift for a lucky dip. I ended up with a mug- very useful.

Earlier this month I took a train to attend a briefing by the President of the University. It was pretty much as state of the nation presentation. As usual, the 'talking head' sort of delivery. There was a good turnout  to listen to what he had to say. Probably because he had already alluded to financial problems for the university. I sat through two hours of rapid French full of vocab on areas I don't understand.
Consequently I picked up almost nothing other than that the university was developing but the budget from the State wasn't and that there was a shortfall. There were some changes in direction since he recently took office. That a very high percentage of  staff (not admin who are always pretty safe) were on short term contracts and so were at risk (yep, that's always me).
One professor on a contract kept asking questions and wasn't very happy. She tried to raise some valid points but the safe people make the rules so it's pretty difficult to get traction. Like too much in our world, it's all decided by politicians. Top admin at universities are all politicians. They are not altruists. It's just business. I do hope I'm good for business and can get another contract for 2013-2014 but I still don't even have my real titre de sejour. My second temporary one runs out in 6 weeks. Oh well. the holiday break is to get away from all that. I hope I can progress my book proposal while I'm having time out.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Long and Winding Road - Part 1

I'm working on my book proposal. This is an essential document  when trying to interest a publisher.It's time-consuming, makes you think deeply about your book project and is the single most important piece of writing I will do, other than my book itself. There are eight sections to a proposal. It starts with the hook- grabbing the publisher's attention and then moves on to a market overview, overview of the author and what the author will do to promote the book, a competitive analysis and marketing plan must be included, an outline of each chapter of the book, a sample chapter (at least one) and then a summing up.

Over the past year I've thought about what I'll include in this document and I've done a lot of internet research on what makes a good proposal, who and what my competition is. I've considered approaching literary agents (that requires a query letter- works of art in themselves) but that's my plan B. Recently I contacted a publishing company in the UK but they publish your book for a fee i.e the author pays all the costs of publishing it. Sometimes it's called 'vanity publishing' though I don't like that word. I don't have money to do that (thus it's plan C) and I would prefer to go the traditional route. If the book was a success it could then be released in other formats.

Make no mistake, I want to earn money from my book as well from as a second one... but the journey is long and fraught and most authors don't make it. A few days ago I flipped through my manuscript and was horrified to discover I needed to write more. A YEAR HAD GONE BY on other important things and I'd done nothing to progress it. The last time I serious sat down with it I edited out 30,000 words. Turns out I probably need to write at least 10,000 more. That's not too much of a problem because I accumulate more experiences as time goes by but the crafting of a book is much more than just writing the words and organising the chapters.

It's not badly written, I'm a competent writer but am I an author? I looked at what I had written and felt jaded. It didn't seem magical. I'm not objective so I've decided to show my proposal and first three chapters to someone who might give me an honest opinion. Someone who writes and has published in the past. Otherwise I'd need to pay a book editor and I really don't have the resources for that just yet.

I've read a few books in my genre. There are few that are truly inspiring. There are some so bad I can't understand how they ever got published- absolute self-indulgent twaddle. Others are fun and light-weight but don't set anyone on fire nor do they promote thoughtfulness. All the authors in my genre have quite different stories and experiences to me but are mine too gritty, too 'real'? There's no sun-drenched do-up in Provence for me, no renovated chateau, no shacking up with a French boyfriend. My book is more like Big Brother, a reality TV show, a voyeuristic roller-coaster ride.

Self-doubt is natural. So is self-delusion. One thing's for sure, writing the proposal focuses the mind more on what I want, what I can do and, damn it, what makes my book a bit different. While it covers some of the same events as this blog it is definitely not this blog. It chooses its key events, it probes more deeply and delivers up some very personal recollections.

I don't believe it will disappoint my blog readers. In the meantime I'm also thinking about how to market it. Publishers expect authors to do a lot of the effort for themselves these days.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Christmas shopping-it's a bit different

What do you get for the man who has everything he wants? Ah, that age-old problem many of us women suffer from. Why is it men are so hard to buy for? Sometimes it’s because they have more money than women and can therefore afford to buy for themselves what they want throughout the year. Sometimes it’s because they have a limited number of interests. The older men get the more difficult the task of finding a Christmas or birthday present. 

Last weekend Jean-Claude and I travelled to a major commercial centre to find presents for each other. I think I’m easy to buy for, there are so many things I NEED let alone want but JC tends to want to do the shopping WITH me.  Many French men like to go shopping with their women and this is unusual for a Kiwi woman to experience because in my experience Kiwi men hate shopping, even when it’s for them. The cultural priorities might be a clue. 

In France, how things look is very important. Things must be as well presented as possible. People must be as attractive as possible. Therefore the men want their women to look good and they also have opinions on what makes them look good. JC wants me to look young, as young as possible. Aha, I hear you say. I pointed out to JC he’s not young. He may feel young, he may be well-preserved for his age but he is NOT young so why all this pressure on me to look young? It’s getting very hard to look Young now and each day I am constantly reminded that my physical abilities are deteriorating and my limitations expand. There’s a lot of societal pressure put on us to stay young-whatever that is. Oh 60 is the new 40? 
That aside, I do try to look as presentable as I can afford and manage, so the results are modest. JC likes to shop with women in Printemps. This is an upmarket store with big brand names. I usually feel very uncomfortable there because I can’t afford to shop there and it’s torturous looking at stuff that’s nice but way out of my league. It’s also French and I’m still not used to the differences in modes of dress and style. The difference isn’t tangibly huge but it’s there-just out of my ability to describe it. It reminds me that I’m not integrated into that echelon of France. My pay would need to double or triple for that.

So JC starts at Printemps because he’s got a card there and can sometimes get reductions. Fighting my discomfort I gave in and looked about, really looked about in case I could find something of interest. As usual I couldn’t find anything by a cursory look.  JC kept asking questions and doing some looking for me so I had to interact. He has good taste. He likes women dressing to show off their figures and he knows what types of clothes do that with taste. He was useful to learn from and a good moral support.

Me being practical, I didn’t even bother with the bags section. I have a bag. What do I need another one for when I really need oven gloves, a printer, a GPS…. But we were obviously here for womanly things. 
Something warm was one of the things I needed, so we looked at coats and jackets. I still have my 50 euros coat that the French gangster picked out for me and which I paid for back in 2010. It’s warm but picks up every bit of dust and lint and looks disgustingly dirty much of the time.

 JC constantly encouraged me to try things on. This was useful so it got me over my reluctance to try on things I couldn’t afford. I’m not usually comfortable with JC spending much money on me because I can’t reciprocate. I love cool things, expensive things. My eyes and good taste are constantly drawn to them but he’s not made of money and he’s retired so I’m not about to abuse his kindness.
Having explored the whole shop we’d narrowed it down to a jacket. I needed to choose between three of them, all somewhat different. In the end I chose something bold, colourful to brighten the gloomy French winters and also useful for cool spring and autumn days rather than wintery snow. Armani.  JC decided he’d rather I had a month’s use out of it instead of keeping it for Christmas Day so next weekend I’ll model it for him and enjoy the fun and warmth. A true luxury.

We moved on to shopping for him which wasn’t nearly as interesting or satisfying but the deed is done. Laura’s present is on its way to New Zealand, my shopping is complete. There’s just the Christmas newsletter to produce now.

Photos show images of this year's Christmas offerings.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A long-awaited party...

I looked across at my alarm clock. It said 4.05am. Today I would not be rolling over and settling in for a few more hours sleep. Instead I was out of bed, collecting my laptop from my office and getting a little fired up.

Today was the day that the world premiere of the movie The Hobbit would be happening in Wellington, New Zealand.I’m a Hobbit fan, a Tolkien fan and a serious Lord of the Rings fan but I was 18,000 kms away in France.

 Such an event. Such an atmosphere. Such a lot of time and money spent on it. For a little country of only 4.3m people, they had really gone all out and thanks to the wonders of live-streaming online via TV3 I could watch it from bed in Epernon, France.

Clearly, I had entered the competition to win a trip to NZ and attend the premiere in vain. Hot knee voyeurism was all I could muster up. The enthusiasm of the event participants, stars and media was rampant and even Wellington put on her sunniest and least windy attire. The only niggles I had were the Prime Minister’s usual slurring and silly tie, and the transmission being interrupted for a considerable length of time by the News. By the time they got back to the event it was all over. The speeches were done, the guests had entered the Embassy theatre and the crowds were starting to clear the red carpet.
Good effort NZ and I really liked the 777-3000 low-level flyby.

I’ve been thinking about NZ lately, not in nostalgia or homesickness, just thinking and wondering what’s in store for it and me. As I watched the ad breaks for the Warehouse and other businesses I knew there were things back in Kiwiland I don’t miss at all. I spent 55 years in NZ and I can say I took anything positive it offered me. It wasn’t enough. NZ couldn’t ensure my survival by letting me have a job that suited my talents. I doubt it does even now. If I’d had a great job I’d never have left home for France.
I’m a Kiwi, it’s even the nickname Jean-Claude calls me. I read the NZ Herald online everyday and read the news on TV3. I keep an eye on Rise Up Christchurch Facebook and tweets. I don’t forget my country and I hope I’ll get to come back from time to time when money can permit but I no longer live there and I no longer need to.

France is fascinating, interesting, beautiful and irritatingly and frustratingly backward in so many ways but it’s a place that has given me the chance to continue to work, to explore parts of the world, to try a lot of new things. Stress aside, I still marvel that I’m here. Looking at NZ almost every day, as I do, there’s nothing new there to offer me right now. I know NZ so well and I remember the struggles to survive there. I’m struggling to survive in France too but it’s more stimulating here. Most expats have much better jobs than me, heaps more money and financial safety nets. Most of them never come back because it’s too difficult to find an employer who will hire them. Being a member of Kea network has taught me that.

So, a very proud Kiwi thoroughly enjoyed watching NZ, Wellington (where I lived for 5 years and made other visits there from time to time).  I was charmed by the genuine affection that international guests seemed to have for Kiwiland – folks like Royd Tolkien (great-grandson of the great author).

Today I celebrated being a Kiwi. One who loves the country but doesn’t need to live there. It’s liberating and exciting. What’ll happen to us next? Will I be back? I don't know but I count myself lucky to have the best of both countries in my life each day.

Photos courtesy of Classicfm and Stuff.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Appreciating that special person

Jean-Claude has been a godsend over the past year. There have been so many difficulties and frustrations with French administration and systems, moving home debacles, many missing parcels a la poste and stresses at work. Leaving the later aside, it's clear that without a French friend available to help I'd have been in impossible situations, unable to help myself. These challenges have been tricky to sort out even with his aide. Indeed, some of them are ongoing still to this day such as my titre de sejour, my health card, my furniture. So as his birthday approached it was natural for me to consider how I could do something for him to show he's special and appreciated.

Christmas and birthdays are not important events in his life. He grew up not having a lot of attention paid to them and so it's not a big deal to him, his or other people's birthdays-just another day of the year. I pointed out that these are occasions to take time out and celebrate, to add colour to the year and he agrees with this-it's just not his practice, not important to him. I organised to celebrate his 68th birthday as an evening at my apartment.

It consisted of arranging a rather unconventional 'variety concert', a meal, romantic surroundings and a pressie. He'd never spent a night at my apartment in the 4 months I've lived here, despite previous invitations, so that was specified. Heart in hand I plucked up the courage to commit to playing two pieces on my violin to kick things off. Lots of practice required, lots of nerves when the moment came as the violin is very technical and I'd only had 6 lessons after a hiatus of 40 years. One of the pieces was chosen because it features on one of his Corrs CDs.

This was followed by a couple of videos of my performing bellydance in the past. He seemed to enjoy these a lot but I realise I have very little of this sort of thing of decent quality and that I miss the days when I could perform professionally and have private lessons, back in NZ.

Jean-Claude likes to listen to music but doesn't retain the names of artists or their songs, but I do. I took note what what songs he likes to play on his car CD so I programmed several YouTube viewings of artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and threw in others of our generation like Lionel Richie, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, finishing with a French artist Etienne Daho. He recognised some of the music but in most cases had never seen a video of them in action. Downloading the tracks can be tricky with the buffering problems but we got there.

The meal identified the restrictions of my little kitchen. There's little space for equipment as such. I don't have a real oven. Instead I use a combination microwave and oven which is not all that powerful, or large. The pyrex dish I bought to roast the vegetables proved a wee bit too big for the oven. Impossible to cook a casserole and vegetables at the same so I improvised.

 It wasn't ideal. I have a mobile induction cooktop- it's not built in so it takes up precious bench space and it means conventional cookware doesn't work. Even some pots that say they are compatible with induction cooking can prove competely useless. Unless a pot is designed for induction cooking it never heats up and instead the cooktop switches itself off. Tricky when trying to cook several items and courses.

We ate but it wasn't what I had in mind. Lessons learned- must find ways around these limitations, especially lack of a powerful oven of a decent size and don't have a lot of guests. One's about the limit.

But it was great to share my environment and a bit of my culture and life with him, otherwise it gets pretty one-sided at times. It was also good to have him over where he didn't need to do handyman stuff. However, he just couldn't help himself in his urge to change the height of one of my dishwasher drawers or remove a defective light bulb.

As a pressie for the man who wants or needs little I gave him a large digital photo frame and a USB stick loaded with photos to enjoy.

So, we had a lovely, relaxed evening pottering around with what I'd organised, and some time spent in my candlelit bedroom. Viennoiseries for breakfast and then he had to leave to feed his dog.

We lead separate lives that are interconnected at times. I'm learning to lead this sort of life and relationship. It's not what I had envisaged finding but is the current reality. He's a lovely guy who operates differently from me which is not a bad thing. He came into my life at the right time and we each offer the other something important I believe. I'm looking forward to lots more weekends together. He's always the bright spot in my week.

Monday, 12 November 2012


After being subjected to having to empty my belongings out of my bedroom yet again, thinking that finally a guy with half a neurone would arrive as scheduled and put it all right I was grossly disappointed again. JC took time out of his day yet again to wait in my apartment for a guy who could only manage to screw on a drawer handle before leaving. Worse, in trying to fix the armoire door he made it worse. So pieces of my bed, and other furniture is still propped up around my walls

 It's November. I bought and paid for the furniture AND the installation back in June. I was fuming and told JC that behaving typically French, shrugging shoulders and saying 'c'est la vie' doesn't cut it. Noise, action. Jean-Claude rang the service manager of BUT and thinks that the NEXT time someone comes to fix it all it WILL be done. I do hope he's not disappointed. I hope I don't have to seek out a consumer protection organisation in France.

Trying to put all that behind me for a bit we headed south to Surgeres to spend a couple of nights with my very distant cousin Gilles and his wife Micheline. I was delighted when they suggested we visit. I've always been looking for a family, somewhere to belong and, although this distant French family will never be the family I needed all my life, I'm happy to be recognised, invited and to share stuff.

We shared meals and a trip to Saintes. In Roman times, the city was known as Mediolanum Santonum.

Saintes is the second city in Charente-Maritime, with 26,470 inhabitants in 2008; its metropolitan area, the second urban area in the department, counts 56,598 inhabitants. The city is located 60 km southeast of La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, and not far from Rochefort where my ancestors left to found a colony in Akaroa, New Zealand. The A10 autoroute (France), operated locally by Autoroutes du Sud de la France, passes through the commune in its western part, in a north-south axis. By the A10, Saintes is 125 km from Bordeaux, 140 km from Poitiers, 470 km from Paris.

It was the centre of Roman civilisation for Aquitaine and also a stopping point for the pilgrims en route for Santiago de Compostella.It was one of three great regions conquered by Julius Caesar. There remains a well-preserved amphitheatre, thermal baths and triumphal arch. The cathedral is having some renovation done. We visited the amphitheatre, a women's convent, the arch and part of the archaeological museum.

The arena was completed around 40 AD and had room for 15,000 spectators who came to see circus games and fighting. It must have been magnificent in its heyday as it had very high walls. Women had to sit in a separate section.

The Germanicus arch was built 18-19 AD at the point where the Romand Way from Lyon intersected and was the gate into the town on the bridge over the Charent River. Demolished in 1843 it was rescued and re-erected on oneof the river banks of the town centre.

The museum of Gallo-Roman civilisation presents objects from everyday life. We visited an annex that was open and free to see statues and carved blocks.

On Saturday evening another related cousin, Alain and a not-directly-related cousin Michele arrived to share dinner with us. It was a lively affair with bold and interesting conversations. The only downside for me was all the food I can't eat, like fish, seafood and chicken. I got by though with the champagne and wine.

We also discussed the latest and revised edition of the Libeau family genealogy book. It's a disaster - full of mistakes, some of them very serious, like getting the head of the family wrong. I discovered I'd been married to someone I never married and there was a date given. Surely I'd have remembered that if it had happened?  Each one of us found glaring mistakes.

We  visited a tiny fishing port on the banks of the Charente. A really working fishing village specialising in oysters. The oyster shucking team showed us their moves and micheline got to eat an oyster raw, straight from the sea. Gilles and Micheline will be visiting NZ early next year and are hoping to swallow a few famous Bluff oysters.

 Photo below: Me and Michelle at the little fishing port.

It was a four-hour drive back to the Chartres area of France. I enjoyed watching the beautiful French scenery changing. I hope my cousins can come and visit us one day.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Cause for concern

It's been a tough week. It started Monday morning when my boss told me plus a colleague who has only recently joined the workplace that our jobs are at risk. If shit hits fan we'll be the most vulnerable, the first to go. Was this done in a thoughtful way with consideration? Not at all, standing in the print room where anyone could come in, made to sound like it's our fault. It's not, of course. These are risky times but the crisis is only part of the reason. I can't discuss possible reasons at this time. But this is a catastrophic thing to say to me. I have everything to lose, more than anyone else at work.

I recently took out a bank loan in order to be able to buy basic furniture for my apartment. I didn't own so much as a bed or a tin opener prior to my move out of the depressing old studio. So, knowing that my contract had been renewed for another year I made a commitment to France. With no job I'm not able to stay in France. I lose my home, my only friend, this country, my dream, my income- my existence really. I don't even know how I'd even get back to NZ. How would I find the money to bring my bits and bobs back? No car, no home I could afford to live in, no job and probably no unemployment benefit for months. This is not a prospect that aids sleep. So I'm not sleeping well.

The previously mentioned furniture is STILL not all in a functioning state. Four months after I ordered it I have a head board, sides and foot of my bed lying around. My dresser still misses a functioning drawer. My bedside table has no way of closing the door properly because the first guy broke the key and the second guy put the door on the wrong side. My wardrobe door is still buckled and needs replacing. There's part of a dresser (a part I don't need as I've already got it) propped up in my little hallway. From time to time I receive a letter in the mail to tell me a screw has arrived. I might get a separate one telling me a hinge has arrived, a few weeks later I might be told a nail has arrived. Wow! On a rare occasion a guy might arrive to install something but, wouldn't you know it, he doesn't have the right screwdriver so he leaves. He's the official installer. I paid a lot of money to have my furniture put together but not one guy has been able to do his job, and they don't care. There is no accountability because he's contracted. But when it all goes wrong I, or often JC, have to make the endless phone calls, visit distribution centres to identify types of screws, be around when the installer visits (and then abruptly leaves having done nothing). This is France. There is no concept of service. If you buy anything you take a risk.

Months after I paid a lot of money to have the internet and pay TV installed I've only NOW got the TV working (reliably I hope). I've been through 2 routers and 3 decoders. Each time we've had to go miles to find a decoder and queue for it. Each time JC has spent hours waiting at my place or on the phone listening to endless menus. This is a hopeless way to run a business but it's happening all the time it seems to me here. They have no idea of service, effective business strategy or management. It seems to be one a very unproductive country. Dysfunctional. The one company I CAN rely on to get it right is DARTY, a national appliance and electronics chain. Just goes to show it's possible to get it right if a company actually wants to.

I'm STILL waiting for my Titre de Sejour - my legal entitlement to live and work in France. The application was done months ago. I waited with my temporary one. That's about to expire with no sign of the legal/real one. JC made enquiries months ago only to be told the department of immigration is having a restructure, it's all a mess, nothing ever gets done during the frequent and lengthy school holidays, someone on holiday- too bad, no one's following my case. A woman at the prefecture knew I was in the system and advised I come back two weeks before my temporary was due to expire. I did. So what, I was told by someone else to go away and  I'd have to wait until it expired in case by chance it arrived. Hell, that would make me illegal. Worse, without a valid SdJ I don't get paid. I went away empty handed having been told he'd try to put my file near the top for priority consideration, WTF. This is all guaranteed to create anxiety.

 My Carte Vitale (health card) hasn't been functioning for months. I received conflicting information from doctors and pharmacists. One pharmacist told me it had been cancelled. I thought this might be because of moving to a different region-it's all so complicated here. I took time off work to go to the bureau and investigate it. I was told it was in hand and that I'd receive a letter in 15 days telling me to go to a pharmacy to activate it. I've been waiting 2 months. Without it I pay full price with no reimbursements for doctors and pharmacy visits even though I'm paying for this in my taxes. More time off work and another visit to the prefecture to be told that people on a salary have to prove they are employed each year in order to have it renewed. JC had never heard of this. No-one had told me this-they just cut it off. My previous visit had not told me that either even though I'd brought pay slips that time- she'd said they weren't necessary.

I will have to come back yet AGAIN with various proofs that I'm working in order to get it all going again. Yet the tax department is very efficient and knows I am working. The government departments have no integration at all. This can all do your head in when you come from a simpler, better organised country like New Zealand. It's also scary because these departments can make life in France impossible for one or miserable at best. Appreciating this comes slowly to me- it's really difficult to accept this way of doing things. Just because that's the way it is doesn't make it any good. It's not that I'm anti-French, far from it- I'm just relating what actually happens to me in real life.

 There are some great things about France. I want to become a French citizen but I hope I can survive- literally survive- long enough. In the meantime, it's not a lot of fun right now. I'm scared about my future or lack of. It's extremely stressful never knowing where you can live in the world from one day to the next, if you can work again in your life, how you will spend old age, if you will lose your only friend. Will I be reduced to absolutely nothing again? How do I pick myself up and carry on again if that happens? How would I live knowing I gave it everything and still lost it all with no hope of getting any of it back? These worries may account for the significant chronic pain I have now-I really need that health card. I haven't lost my vision, nor my determination, nor my sense of humour. I'll hang in there for all I'm worth and fight for what I want. I'm just a little tired...

Saturday, 27 October 2012

A corporate Versailles

Last week some international visitors and I had the opportunity to visit the Head Office of Bouygues Construction, one of the largest companies in France. We were there to look at their sustainability initiatives.

Challenger was first opened in 1988 by Francis Bouygues. Twenty years later they decided to undertake a complete renovation programme but this time to improve on aspects of energy and the environment, upgrading the place for the 3,200 employees.

The renovations will be complete in 2014 and it is expected that energy consumption and carbon emissions will have been reduced by 90% and water consumption by 60%.

 The site is enormous and reeks of money, lots of it. The architecture remains similar to what it was, on the exterior, and is really ostentatious. Here was a man who wanted to make a statement about his wealth and influence. Very Louis XIV complete with statuary.

They are going for environmental certification and have created a control room or 'cockpit' as they call it where they can monitor the functioning of this complex as well as the buildings of their clients.

Key points for the site:
  • Naturally ventilated double-skin facade
  • Indoor environment with controlled lighting and acoustics
  • Lots of parking alongside the central ponds. Of 413 new parks, 250 will be equipped to provide electric car charging facilities
  • Solar roof panels- 12,800m2  of photovoltaic panels
  • Thermal solar panels to heat water
  • Solar farm of 6420m2 inclined at 5 degrees as well as some mobile units which follow the sun.
  • Filter gardens (swales) to collect and filter rainwater
  • Wetlands for encouraging wildlife biodiversity
  • Ground-source energy (geothermic power) - 75 dry bore collectors
 It's well done and somewhat interesting but it IS a showroom for a corporate. It's not as green as it could be. Coming from a past of working in Waitakere City Council's green building with its roof garden, water storage, internal eco systems etc it was difficult to impress me. I think I was more impressed by the flashy PR handbook in English that was available.

I'd rather have a large company at least trying things out and demonstrating technologies for the current and future than one who couldn't be bothered, but the site struck me as being quite an indulgence and over-the-top. Being green should include using as little of the planet as possible to keep your footprint small. NZ had cutting edge ideas, once. That was before the population voted for money-men and greenless politicians.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Getting sustainability messages across (or not)

I've spent the last week learning about issues and connecting with key players in the concepts of eco-cities and sustainability. The public organisation where I work and other organisations  organised a three-day international workshop on Eco-cities of the Future. It was an opportunity to reconnect with folks I'd met in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Grand Valley State University MI, the college in the US and others I'd been wanting to meet like Jos Eussen from Regional Centre of Expertise Rhine-Meuse in the Netherlands and Françoise Laveuve from RCE candidate in Brittany, France. I met many other interesting people from other European countries as well as China. Many of them were in academia, a few were from the applied worlds of business and lifelong education.

There were some presentations I enjoyed immensely and others that never gave a thought to effective communication or consideration of their audience. As an experienced Toastmaster (public presentations) I felt the gulf between the good presenters and the rest was huge. I don't understand why most (though not all) French academic and even business presenters think that presenting to an audience requires you to be a talking head sitting behind a big desk with or without an example of why powerpoint can be such a turnoff. They sit there and drone on and on, indulging themselves it seems, unaware that the audience maybe can't even hear them properly, or can't sense any passion from the presenter. Some presenters don't even face their audience - they simply gabble to their laptops and rarely lift their eyes to their listeners. This is insulting and particularly bad when the audience is international with many people trying to understand a foreign language. In my opinion it's gross incompetence and impolite to be on a stage with an audience that has to be there or who has paid a lot of money to attend and to behave like that.

Even some of the most 'experienced' speakers were among the most ineffective. They'd be very surprised at what a Toastmaster's honest evaluation of their efforts would reveal. Many need a course in effective communication and presentations- probably running for  12 weeks. The University doesn't offer this and seems to have few staff capable of running one. It's disappointing because professors and students may have great scientific information or experiences to share but the audience is left to sit there politely struggling, or sleeping, or working on tablets and laptops or checking emails on smartphones. They are not really THERE. Wasted money and time. And I'd encourage non-native speakers to have a native check their English text on their slides. Glaring grammatical errors are not a good look for anyone involved in higher education in the international arena. I was gobsmacked to watch one presenter waiting his turn by brazenly and probably unthinkingly working on his laptop throughout the proceedings instead of listening to his fellow presenters on the stage. What a message that sends.

I'm sure everyone there would agree that the best presenter was George Heartwell, Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He moved, he stood, he used body language, he projected his voice, he physically illustrated what he was trying to say and his slides weren't a reproduction of a research thesis or text book. He pleaded, persuaded and inspired. I feel that if we are in the field of sustainability we need to be passionate and effective communicators of messages because the world needs to sit up and take notice. Even the professor from China, for whom English is a second language was more effective than most of the French. Jos Eussen from the Netherlands had a very provocative style as well as content, made to get people questioning the status quo and their own ideas. Everyone could hear him, he connected with his audience and he wasn't boring even if they might not all have agreed with him.

Ah, you say, but it's another culture. Yes, I totally agree but there are basic qualities to making an effective presentation that can fit within any culture. It's not about culture, it's about getting your message across, and this was an international event. So hat's off to those who used powerpoint as it should be, or who used their own words effectively without powerpoint. Hat's off to those who could be heard with or without a microphone. Hat's off to those who connected with their audiences and related material to them instead of reading from notes on a laptop. Hat's off to those who, knowing they were all being videoed, put some life into their presentations.

One of my responsibilities was to chair a Round Table (for the first time). The other was to produce around 15 videos covering each session over the three days. I enjoyed working with the production team and will spend next week polishing off material and post-production for each of these future teaching resources. Each video will eventually be available online. I also seem to be responsible for making sure students write reports on each session in English and in French so those can be posted online too. Last week I was a guest lecturer to two groups of Masters students to explain what was required. I enjoyed being  back in the classroom on an ad hoc basis.

Sustainability messages: integrated, linked, relevant, topical, bundled with rich media for future exploration and learning, communicating what's important for an audience. It's too important to be left to chance or ineffective presentations.

Waitakere City Council was very successful at getting its sustainability messages across. I asked permission from ex Mayor Bob Harvey to use a 'comic' produced towards the end of the city's existence in the Auckland region, to illustrate how an eco-city can be envisioned, implemented, its struggles, it's successes.

How a city created its own identity to international acclaim in only 20 years. A green, sustainability identity, an example to the rest of NZ and the world. Auckland City provided me with a pdf and so copies of a NZ success story have found their way into European, Asian and US hands.

First to receive a copy was Mayor Heartwell [see left] who is instrumental in moulding his city as an eco-city. He enjoyed reading about The Journey, in fact he read it from cover to cover. Those of us who were part of the reality of that journey to create a city based on the principles of sustainability enjoyed being part of something that made a difference. The city identity and governance has been destroyed by politicians but the spirit of the people and their messages last and can still be influential on others around the world who are passionate about encouraging sustainable living.