Friday, 20 April 2012

The sadder side of Spring

Occasionally I get the feeling these days that maybe we do have Spring, even if the weather is decidedly colder and wetter than normal. My pansies are doing really well. Perhaps it's deluded of me to think this but I swear their cheery faces are predominantly turned towards my window rather than to the sun. Really, I talk to them out of my window and deadhead when necessary and in return they seem to turning more towards me. They certainly get my full attention as it's too risky to plant anything else yet, in case we continue to have frosty spells.

Spring is dangerous for birds, especially baby birds that haven't fledged. The winds have been up and JC's dog is always prowling for prey. Something caused two nests to end up on the ground. One was empty by the time we found it , the other contained three baby birds still alive but clearly dehydrated and worn out. JC said they'd only die so leave them, but I couldn't. Every little creature deserves an opportunity to survive a dangerous situation when I find it. I can't turn away because I can't stand suffering and injustice. I held the damp nest and watched JC drive off to do some chores.

I wondered what he thought I would do, then forgot about that and did what I knew was inevitable for me. I tried to keep the babies alive. They were very tired and didn't want to be bothered but one was bunched up on top of the other two and seemed more determined, a little stronger so I put most of my energies into that one and a bit on the others.

JC had no eyedropper in the house so I used a cotton bud. Water didn't interest them so I tried milk. Too bad if they didn't like it, they needed nourishing. I had the dickens of a time trying to get them to open their beaks because I wasn't speaking the right language. I persistently rubbed the sides of their beaks and nudged their lower beaks. They wet their tongues only and didn't swallow much.

I grubbed desperately with my bare hands searching for small worms in the garden. There weren't many but I found two and washed them. The babies weren't interested and I didn't think me chewing one up and spitting it out was going to be more successful so I didn't try. I felt very uneasy for their future but it was warmer in the house and the stronger one gained energy and showed some interest in his surroundings. His little cheeps were so delightful.

JC came home and found the 'bird lady' with a nest on his dining table. He grabbed and ladder and popped the nest as high as he could out of reach of the dog but she knew they were there. She had probably known for weeks and had bided her time.

The next morning I could hear a tweeting and the dog was practically glued to the bushes. I saw the mother bird flitting around inside and so decided to leave her undisturbed for a bit. Not good. Five minutes later there was a horrified tweeting. We dashed over to encourage the dog to let it go. Eventually she dropped it on the ground. It wasn't mother bird. It was the strongest baby mortally wounded and greatly suffering. I was told to put it in the rubbish bin but that seemed so unfeeling to me even if it might be a practical thing. I cuddled it warm but it was dead within 30 seconds. I missed feeling its heart beating strongly against my skin.

I burst into tears. Nature is cruel I know (I'm an ex-cat owner) but if you try to save creatures you risk forming an emotional attachment. I'd rather cry than feel nothing at all. In the past I've been quite successful in saving small injured and sick animals. It's a great feeling when you succeed. I think JC was surprised I was so upset. I handed him the bird because I didn't know what to do with it and he was impatient for lunch. I supposed it ended up in the rubbish bin. Burying it in the garden would not have been a good idea with a dog around. One that buries pieces of bread and dead rabbits and pigeons. I don't like coming across those crawling with maggots.

JC discovered later that he'd forgotten to put a battery in the new dog collar which normally would stop the dog from entering the bushes. What a shame.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Return to campus

I spent last week in Michigan, USA with my boss. We had two practical objectives :1. to conclude all negotiations on aspects of the international agreement with a college and 2. to determine, agree on and implement the multitude of practical considerations needed to implement the new sustainability programmes for launch on 27 August 2012. 
The programme offers two options to College students : an International Diploma (post-graduate Certificate) that can follow an Albion undergraduate degree ; or an opportunity to Major in Sustainability Studies in Albion College’s undergraduate degree.
Putting an international academic agreement together can be complex: how and how often the two organisations would meet, what types of communication channels and presentation materials would be needed, consideration of Award Ceremonies, online teaching resources to be developed, distance accompaniment for Albion students, what collaborative platforms would be used, what sort of practical facilities might be required such as a base camp for French personnel visiting the college, assessment methods and timing, which staff and what sort of human resources would be needed to be supplied by each organisation.

Teaching contributions by project academics into the College BA programme kick off August 2012 so we've got to pull this together rather smartly. In the autumn of 2013 the first group of  College Sustainability Studies students in their third year of study will arrive in France to spend one semester at a science faculty in  France. This will be an opportunity for them to improve their French language capabilities and develop appreciation of French culture while studying abroad. Courses taken will be in English.

One evening the provost  invited us to her home. I found it fascinating. She's got a thing for Napoleon and has so many wonderful collectables from her trips to France. She and her husband have also collected some very special antiques, such as a harpsichord, a harmonium shaped like an organ, a piano, rocking chairs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, books, plates.

This part of the mid-West was a thriving place based on the automobile. Now there are many houses in Albion which are derelict and will probably never be lived in again but you can also find some beautiful old homes lovingly restored, like Susan's.

Her home is well preserved and dates from 1885. She's is great fun and I hope she and I can explore Paris together the next time she visits France. In the meantime, she kindly gave me a personally signed copy of a book on Napoleon she wrote. She is something of a Napoleon specialist writer from the female perspective ie not all about battles.
I enjoyed seeing the key staff from the College again, staying at Bellemont Manor on their beautiful campus, working shoulder to shoulder with them. It's great to have a personal relationship with people when you are needing to work on something so unique from such a distance. Yes, this programme is unique.

I also enjoyed visiting the campus of Grand Valley State University which is located just outside Grand Rapids. It's very impressive and so clean. I didn't see a disgusting mess of cigarette butts absolutely piled everywhere such as you see on Paris campuses. I didn't see a one.
I didn't see a mess in the city of Grand Rapids either. I asked the Mayor Heartwell how this state was maintained. I asked the same of GVSU. They put it down to attitude and pride in their environment and attentive staff. Top marks for that, I say.

We sat together at Mayor Heartwell's home and caught up on what each party was doing in terms of promoting sustainability. The deputy city manager and the guy responsible for the energy policy of Grand Rapids were present. I found it really interesting to listen to as it's been a while since I was actively involved in a city's sustainability policies. it was great to be back in that milieu for a while and see how advanced other places in the world are. New Zealand is slipping behind.

We met also key GVSU staff involved in issues of sustainability. This uni has a strong commitment to that and is part of the Grand Rapids Regional Centre of Excellence (a network of regions around the world committed to encouraging sustainability and the education of that- overseen by the United Nations University). We are not sure at this stage what, if any, partnership might be developed but the folks at GVSQ are certainly enthusiastic and extremely hospitable.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

An unexpected birthday

Yesterday was my birthday and I spent my evening alone, cleaning out my fridge. Actually, it wasn't just cleaning the fridge. I was gagging through the job of removing rotten meat and vegetables and a flood of festering blood. Urgkk!

Just before I went off on my business trip to to the USA I had cleaned out my fridge though not the little icebox that masquerades as a freezer. I like to come home to a clean and fresh sort of home. In vain. While I was away a plumbing technician had visited the studio. Trying to see into the black hole in the bathroom to reassess the plumbing problem that had arisen weeks before from a burst pipe, he had connected up a lamp to an extension cord and connected it to an outlet in the kitchen part of my room. He took out all the plugs; the ones for my hotplates, microwave and fridge. And then he neglected to reconnect anything. By the time I arrived back home just over a week later things had become rather appalling.

Jean-Claude had dropped off my suitcase and decided that since it was my birthday it might be a major crime if he didn't get me a present and so he told me to come shopping with him. We abandoned the stench at my studio and took off for Parley 2 but it was clear my birthday was going to be a lot less than I would have liked. JC had been busy most of the day helping an ex-employee with some undeserved legal problems she was having so I never saw him until 2.30pm. I discovered he had made no effort to get me a present or arrange to do anything nice. Considering the effort I'd made for him last year with my limited time and resources that was a wee bit disconcerting. Well, we can't do things for others expecting anything in return I reminded myself.

I was still very tired and jetlagged from my trip so wandering around looking for clothes or shoes was a bit of a stretch for me. After hours spent looking at expensive clothes I could never afford, that didn't fit me or the rest of my wardrobe I ended up with a pair of low shoes, orange coloured (which I like) for the summer. Something modestly priced and practical. I needed to get a copy of the Road Code as I've decided to go back down the path of buying a car. We found an up-to-date copy at fnac. JC paid for it and dropped it in my bag. For your birthday, he explained. Such a practical person.

Tired and hungry and knowing I was going to have to go back home and spend the rest of my birthday evening cleaning out the 'nasty' stuff, we called into a creperie at Cafeolait for a quick feed. Not fancy but helpful under the circumstances as JC felt it might be better for me to eat something in a place where the stench didn't kill my appetite. True.

As I got out of the car JC said" The kitchen's too small for two to work in so bye, I'll leave you to it". He handed me two spray bottles of cleaning products and then he was gone. Intensely practical wouldn't you say?

There was nothing for it but to get stuck in. Everything went into a plastic bag which I put in a rubbish bin already on the street for pickup so that fellow tenants wouldn't have their noses assaulted for the next few days. Getting rid of a sea of old blood wasn't nice. I sprayed first with the Janola-based product. I knew from watching CSI TV episodes years ago that Janola is very good at getting rid of traces of blood at a crime scene. I was finished by midnight, leaving the fridge doors open.

The next day I repeated the cleaning with the second product, leaving the fridge open again. I also thought it might be a good idea to clean up the bathroom after the plumbers had left a mess in there. Tonight I'll go back to JC's for a few days while the fridge smell clears. The bathroom's not smelling great either right now. The temporary repair on the pipe is past it's expiry date and the studio owner is very worried because she can't find a plumber who is available AND isn't trying to charge exorbitant prices. Plumbers are hard to find here.

I suppose I'm lucky to have some days off this week so I can sort things out and plan ahead. I'm getting a bit fed up with my deteriorating studio. The paint is falling off in big flakes, it's old and run down and costly problems are occurring. It's always cold and damp in there.

It would be nice if we had warmer weather but it's been very cold and rainy for two weeks. Last night was really bitter. I went to bed wearing my thermal underwear and with a hotwater bottle between my knees and it's not even Winter. Oh come on France, you can offer a better experience than this!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Back in the saddle

Once a year my workplace runs a sustainable development week and it's usually held at the University Institute of Technology at Mantes-la-Jolie in the greater western Paris area. To my Kiwi eyes it's rather limited in its theming and presentation. To attend is to sit in an amphitheatre which is half empty with no real visual theming of sustainability. One then spends hours listening to a procession of talking heads with examples of 'death by powerpoint'.

The setup of the presentation area meant everyone was tied to using the microphone by the lecturn and scrolling through slide presentations. No walking about, certainly no connecting with the audience. Many researchers, businessmen and professors are poor communicators, even worse motivators and seem obsessed with trying to fit as many tiny words as possible on one slide.

I don't enjoy this French way of doing things. Everyone does it the same here. It requires no imagination or innovation. They speak as if they are 'presenting a written paper'. They really don't need an audience to be there at all. I just couldn't do that. I don't believe it's the best way to get your messages across but everywhere in France it's like that.

I watched a group of male students at the back of the room trying to hoon their way through the speeches. They were impolite, juvenile and not paying any attention. As an 'older person' I am becoming quite intolerant of people who have no manners and who can't be bothered applying themselves. In France students' education is virtually free. They don't realise how privileged they are, especially when France now has so much debt.

The programme for the day consisted of presentations from a number of Industrial 'Chairs' and partnerships with other organisations in the region who are involved in providing study opportunities, such as the Bergerie Nationale for agriculture and animal husbandry. We then had a number of researchers and PhD students talking about their projects. It was a great opportunity for them to practice communicating and presenting and profiling what was interesting in their work.

Some of that was a little more interesting but I still found it hard going sitting through it all in French. Some speak so indistinctly and fast it's quite impossible. None of them were projecting their voices so they relied on the microphone to do it for them. It meant I appreciated the clear speakers like Hanene from Tunisia. French is widely spoken there.

Students were alerted to the fact that they are given opportunities to contribute to the library of written information and that they are expected to do so. Some faces looked a bit startled. Why wouldn't you want to publish your efforts, even modestly, in our little collection of papers and articles, print and online on our various websites. And then it was my turn to talk about one of the aspects of my work - creating online teaching resources on websites.
To many of the students and teachers I was unknown. I spend most of my time in one room at my workplace which is spread over so many sites it's impossible to gain an appreciation for all that goes on and who who does what so opportunities like that day are important.

I decided to commence in French to gain their attention and then switch to English so that I would feel more confident presenting for the first time in France. My style was unlike any other speaker for the day, a different type of energy.

Feedback described me as strong, punchy, clear, really good. In short, it woke everyone up, surprised a few and was appreciated by others. Good enough to feel happy with my efforts. In future I will try to produce my slides in French, where possible and deliver in mostly English. I work in an environment that should be somewhat international so English is acceptable. I'll see how I go.

A two-hour seminar followed by Dr Marie-Laure Lambert-Habib who is from the Paul Cezanne University at Aix-en-Provence. She was speaking about a study done on the vulnerability of coastal systems along the Mediterranean. The implications of climate change and rising sea-level is thought-provoking. There are so many settlements, luxury homes, unregistered buildings along the Cote d'Azure form Marseilles. There is the wildlife and lifestyle of the Camargue at the mouth of the Rhone. What must be done with all this? How might it be managed? Tough decisions must be taken. People will lose money, beaches may disappear, buildings will be abandoned.

The more you know the more sobering it is and the implications for coastal landscapes, such as the whole of New Zealand, should be practically planned for now. The real issues we need to face are not the ones in the day to day spotlight.

Monday, 2 April 2012

On high, Palm Sunday

The narrow stone steps wound up and up, endlessly it seemed. We stopped at intervals to catch our breath. Anyone coming down had to squeeze past us. Climbing the bell tower of the great Cathedral at Chartres is quite a workout. It's confined and I hugged the walls where possible.This is not a place for anyone suffering claustrophobia or vertigo.

We wanted to walk up along the edge of the roof of the cathedral but it was closed, perhaps because it was the first Sunday of the month. Those days, many monuments in Paris have free entry and crowds can be large and more difficult to manage. Never mind, the view of the countryside was great. There was little of the usual haze. The cathedral is situated 80kms south-west of Paris and dominates the Eure et Loir area.

Though it shows a lot of wear and tear with some decoration broken and missing its still in an exceptional state of preservation despite its great age. Most of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century.
The building's exterior is dominated by heavy flying buttresses which allowed the architects to increase the window size considerably, while the west end is dominated by two contrasting spires — one, a 105 metre plain pyramid dating from the 1140s, and the other a 113 metre tall early 16th century Flamboyant spire on top of an older tower. The three great fa├žades are each adorned with hundreds of sculpted figures illustrating key theological themes and narratives.

Since at least the 12th century the cathedral has been an important destination for travellers - and remains so to this day, attracting large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom come to venerate its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ's birth, as well as large numbers of secular tourists who come to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In fact it seemed we'd happened upon a key pilgrimmage date, Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. On Palm Sunday, in the Catholic Church, as well as among many Anglican and Lutheran congregations, palm fronds (or in colder climates some kind of substitutes) are blessed outside the church building. A procession also takes place. It may include the normal liturgical procession of clergy and acolytes, the parish choir, or the entire congregation.

We watched various groups from each Diocese and Paris enter the church carrying branches (not necessarily palms). They were all young people. After the representative groups were seated in the church the main doors were closed. Outside the archbishop and the various bishops and clergy had gathered according to hierarchy.

The top guys were all carrying palm leaves accompanied by the altar boys carrying cathedral candles and swinging incense. The significance of the pink caps was unknown to me. Cardinals?

The archbishop knocked three times on the massive doors. The doors then opened to allow the wooden cross carried by more young people to be transported inside.

Next to file into the church were the head clergy followed by priests. It all took quite a long time. An interesting spectacle, but I had no interest in remaining at the church to watch the mass.

We headed out into the nippy sunshine, through the streets of Chartres and on to the parking building. I imagine that the Cathedral of Chartres must be one of THE places of pilgrimage for believers at this time of year.

They are still cleaning the interior of the church. It's a massive, slow undertaking. Most of the church is utterly black from centuries of grime but where the cleaning and restauration has been clompleted it's fantastic what has been revealed, the gold, the marble, the colours, the clean windows that could not have been imagined. I can't wait to see more of the incredible workmanship revealed as the years go by.