Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Europeans working together

Last week we had a group of interesting, talented and committed visitors to our workplace. As you may know some of my colleagues and I are involved in a major European Project funded by the European Commission. Among our visitors were those from Italy, Spain, Ecuador, Argentina and Slovenia

One of the work packages requires us all to work together on case studies, mostly current ones in the world, advise and teach valuation methodologies and aid environmental justice organisations to acquire the knowledge and experience to effectively collect data and plead their cases on behalf of the environment and their local communities.

So there we were, a collection of academics, scientists, and 'activists with good hearts and strong experience' working together for the benefit of our planet and its people.

Some of the issues we deal with involve: water, nature's rights, land-grabbing, oil contamination, fracking, bauxite mining, gold and copper mining, electronic waste, industries such as coal and steel, shipbreaking, uranium mining, nuclear energy issues.

My part in all this involves taking the case study information prepared by activists (under advice from my colleagues) and transforming the material into online teaching materials so that civil societies and others interested in how conflicts and environmental issues can be assessed and dealt with can study it.

As a result I need to develop an awareness of various ecological economics methodologies, along with the use of technologies for online learning and communication. Everything I do is a form of communication and is certainly requiring me to learn new ways that I never came across in my applied communications degree years ago.

There will be a series of project meetings between all the project members at Rio De Janiero in June. My colleagues and I will be participating. It's just before the UN Summit Rio + 20 which I won't be attending, alas. I will also be attending the conference for the International Society for Ecological Economics. I'll never want to be an economist but I need to understand the context in which I work.

Technology understanding and communication walk hand-in-hand now. Recently I attended a two-day workshop at the University of Nanterre. It concerned how to put together a web-documentary (not a web document or a video). A web documentary consists of a website which has interactive components with a pre-determined order accompanied by options. That means short punchy video clips, putting them in the best order to meet the objectives and organising the navigation between the various segments; something like a hybrid between creating a video and constructing a website.

I found it enormously challenging because it was in French with many people participating and no allowance made for my level of language. Trying to pick up on a new application which was being spoken about in technical French was a nightmare. They were referring to the Klynt software. It didn't help that some of us had a bug in the demo version and only a few hours in the morning to play with it. Slightly interesting though what I learned could have been said in an hour and it was gruelling. Not the least because of the four hours each day I spent getting there and back. I needed three trains each way, waits in between and always got lost at the unfamiliar Gare de la Grande Arch - La Defense. Up down several levels, this way, that way, signage inadequate for me.

During the presentations at the workshop I felt there was much too much blah blah going on and not enough getting to the point and being practical. Sitting on your bum with a powerpoint is not very riveting to my mind.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


Such a night. Splashing around in my indoor swimming pool was not what I had in mind last night. While I was writing my blog, things were happening in my bathroom. I felt the urge for a pitstop but didn't enjoy the cold tide that came out to meet me. It constantly welled up from the floor in the corner of my studio. Despite laying out my towels on the floor to soak it up it just kept flowing.

I tried to create a barrier of towels around the electricity connections on the floor. I uplifted my books and carpet, instruments and videos in case the flood spread towards my bed. It seemed to be fresh water but one can never be sure. Being just one room there wasn't much room left for me to escape the water. I was scared to go to sleep and worried about whether I could go to work the next day so I sent an email to my boss who rents me the studio. I sent it late at night hoping he'd get it first thing in the morning.My bladder inconveniently woke me at 4am - not nice paddling in such cold wetness and I could see it was going to be tricky using the bathroom at all. It was too deep to allow me to wear trousers and keep them dry.

I called my boss on his mobile the next morning and he called the property management company. Nothing's simple in France. Large ancient buildings like mine don't necessarily have one owner but a group of owners who rent space out- therefore there's a body corporate to deal with plus the real estate agency. I had no access to anyone. Fortunately the agency called me and told me a plumber would be arriving in the afternoon. Great, so I worked from home, wringing out towels to halt the wet advance.

The agency phoned their owner to alert her that a plumber would be arriving. Since she was in Cafeolait she decided to stop off and see if I was home. I invited her in to see the problem. "Oh, c'est grave," she admitted. Yes, pretty serious, and she agreed I couldn't live like that and that she'd better get onto the insurance company. Nice lady, understanding, and I appreciated her personal visit.

The young plumber duly arrived but had no idea where the central control for switching the water off was. Neither did the agency (not professional I thought). He guessed there must be a 'cave' under ground somewhere so we looked up and down the driveway, he buzzed an intercom and the resident 'grump' answered, glaring at me in non-verbal French. She directed the young chap to a doorway hidden inside part of the building and supplied the key.

My tiny bathroom was now full of water, towels, welding equipment, solder, displaced tiles and a young man whose trousers headed too far south when he squatted. I turned away to get back to work when I heard him muttering in frustration. Did I have a lighter? No, of course not, I never smoke. It seems the plumber had no way of lighting his own plumbing equipment. Incredible. He was becoming agitated so I suggested matches. He went through half a box because each time he lit one and turned on his gas it blew the match out. Then he looked up and noticed a candle sitting there so he tried that with more success. My studio smelt like a blacksmith's shop by now.

Bad news, he said. He could only do a temporary fix. The water supply pipe was pierced and needed a major repair. This would affect the whole building. Everyone would lose water supply for some time, he'd have to break into walls to get decent access to fix it and fix the leak in the toilet. There would be expense and mucking about. As a result of the expense and loss of water supply to the building there would need to be a decision made by the body corporate before true repairs could proceed. The temporary repairs would only hold a short time.

Repairs to buildings such as mine which were built in the eighteenth century before the French Revolution are fraught with difficulties, especially since most like mine are chopped up into individual units of one or several rooms for rent. The services are very difficult to locate. At least I hope to have an event-free evening where I can chill out but not in water. My dirty towels are dripping outside in front of my windows. An eyesore but I've no alternative. If any one wants to steal then good luck to them.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Spring Encore!

At last it's really here after 6 months of single digit temperatures. Consistent sunny weather has arrived, for a while. What a difference it makes to me to feel the warm sun on my skin and hear the birds chirping, admiring a cock pheasant patrolling his territory, talking to the ewes in the paddock (short attention spans), marvelling at how the buds on the chestnut trees have suddenly sprung open and and are unfurling leaves and flowers simultaneously.

I do believe that by the end of the week many trees will be dressed in their greenest greens, most prunus will be riotously in flower and my winter blues will be behind me. The animals are well and truly paired up. nests are being extended,

There's a bank of grass at work that isn't mowed frequently and the benefits of that are beautifully obvious - primroses, wild ones have ruffled faces everywhere. It's delightful except when silly me decides it looks better if I pull out a young nettle. Instant burning pain which lasts a week. Something made a hole in my right thumb and got inside with the nettle juice- caution next time Frances, near the nettles.

A visit to the garden centre is always a source of pain too. I so miss and need a garden of my own. Whenever I was stressed out I used to be able to tend my plants, potter around the plant shop, make baby plants from division or cuttings, plan new flower beds and vegetables for the coming season, smile at the butterflies and bugs and best of all, watch the spectacle of tuis bathing near me in the bird bath. But that's all gone. It's been gone for nearly two years. My favourite hobby (other than reading) is not possible where I live. I'm barely getting away with being allowed to keep my window boxes and herb container.

I'm so frustrated by the loss and the lack of connection with animals. No pets for nearly two years too. No possibility to have any with my current lifestyle. I see so much potential in other peoples' properties which is never used, tidied, all just wasted through lack of interest or imagination. I wonder if people with unused land realise how precious that is and how important it is to use it for leisure or food production.

At least I managed to cut some fresh chives today. They survived the ice and frost and were so tender and fresh in my salad tonight. I'll get some basil plants in a few weeks when all danger of frosts is past. Yes, visiting a garden centre is a mixed bag of emotions including curiosity.

So many beautiful displays-the French have real flair with plants and in flower shops. The Easter displays are already out. I loved the use of birds eggs and feathers. Were they really real? I do hope no chicks suffered in the making of...

It's so icy in France in Winter that the rose plants have wax protecting their cane stumps. There's a wonderful choice in lilacs if you've got a garden with space, and fruit bushes and canes galore. Nice presentation. And oh the pots. How did they know to order in my favourite colours. I must save up and get one for indoors. I can't use anything nice outdoors as it would be stolen by passers by.

The garden centre had a great display of BBQs. They seemed generally to be of a different design to those found in New Zealand and the prices were either very reasonable for the bottom end or ridiculously pricey for the outdoor kitchens; not much in between. It's been 35 years since I've bought a BBQ. I hope it won't be too many years until I can do it again - I love indoor-outdoor flow.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Proust's Museum

I didn't know much about Marcel Proust the famous French Novelist, essayist, critic.The opportunity arose to visit the museum which was originally his Aunt Leonie's house so I thought, why not.

The house is situated in the village of Illiers-Combray in the Centre region. It was last owned by Jules Amiot, Marcel Proust's uncle, until his death in 1912. His wife Elizabeth was the sister of Marcel Proust's father. Marcel vacationed at the house as a child until his first attack of asthma or hay fever in 1880. He never came back to the village after a last visit in 1886 when he was fifteen years old. He did a lot of reading and writing while there.

What interested me in particular was the original decoration of the rooms: the fabric on the walls,curtains, flooring etc. It's not in a great state, in fact the house is quite shabby but still, it's interesting as an example of the times. Unfortunately, this museum doesn't cater for Non-French speakers.

Proust's father, Achille Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, responsible for studying and trying to find a cure for cholera through Europe and Asia; he was the author of many articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust's mother, Jeanne Weil, was the daughter of a rich and cultured Jewish family from Alsace. She was literate and well-read.

Proust's long holidays in the village of Illiers combined with recollections of his great-uncle's house in Auteuil,Paris became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place.

As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a social climber whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of discipline. His reputation from this period, was as a snob and an amateur. He attended the salons of Mme Straus, widow of Georges Bizet and mother of Proust's childhood friend Jacques Bizet, and of Mme Arman de Caillavet.

Proust had a close relationship with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at the Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he obtained a sick leave that lasted for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at his job, and he did not move from his parents' apartment until after both were dead.

Proust was a closeted homosexual, and homosexuality is mentioned several times in his famous work In search of lost time. Lucien Daudet and Reynaldo Hahn were known to be his lovers.

Proust lived at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in the centre of Paris. He spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his cork-lined bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922, at the age of 51. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a cemetery renowned for containing the remains of many famous people.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Surrogate Speaker

Today my daughter turns 21 years old and I'm not there. It's a source of sadness for both of us. I know she worries about all the events and milestones in her life that I might miss; never get to share because of distance. I never imagined I'd be separated from her by 20,000 kms. It happens in some families - I just didn't think it would be me. Kids move overseas all the time looking for work or holidays or adventure but in this instance it was me who moved, not her.

I wracked my brain for ways to show her she is always close to me in my heart. I wanted to make a book of her life but I don't have the means. She was born before digital cameras and I don't have a scanner or a printer. I'm realising how important it is now to convert precious memories into formats that can be digitally stored, and even improved. I've got many hundreds, possibly a couple of thousand photos that need to be digitalised.

Most photos I have of her are on photographic paper. Some are negatives. Some of the digital photos I have of her are very low-res. Technology marches forward so fast these days I can certainly see the difference in quality between my older digital photos and my current ones.

So instead of a book I created a large poster and had it printed online from what little I did have - recent shots of her sprinkled with little momentos of her old home and garden, her great-grandmother, her cat, her birth (well, 2 days after it).... Just to acknowledge that a 21st is a milestone and a time to look back on life and how she has become a woman. Her present arrived safely in Auckland, what a relief, with the French lingerie tucked inside.

She's having a party at her father's place and I'm sure there will be speeches and lots of humour. Unable to stand beside her and give a little speech about her I decided to contact her boyfriend on Facebook. I've never met him but he seems to treat her well. He agreed to read out a letter/speech I've written for her, celebrating so many great memories we shared and telling her how I feel about her in my heart. He's nervous about speaking but I'm sure he'll do a good job.

Hopefully all goes well. I've been thinking of her, but that's not unusual. This is one of the bits about living in France that sucks! But our lives no longer revolve around each other. Who knows what's ahead in our futures.

I'm going to keep myself distracted by visiting the Saturday markets in Cafeolait. maybe I'll come across something unexpected. Spring- hurry along, I'm ready for you.