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 Fran├žoise 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.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Having fun with medievalists

September is a month of fetes et foires, festivals and fairs. I love learning about history and was keen to attend the Medieval Festival of Saint Mathew (Eure et Loir).

They put on a great effort. Many of the locals had dressed up for the part and looked reasonably authentic. The streets were decked our in bunting and heraldic symbols. I had to negotiate the narrow streets in order not to get spiked by a pikeman or pricked with a blunt sword.

The festival had been going on for two days and I was disappointed I'd had so many problems, still, with trying to sort out lack of service issues with my apartment that I only had a couple of hours to visit while things were winding down on the Sunday. I missed the banquet, the troubadours and a concert. At least the weather was fine.

Many of the colourful characters were itinerant (workshop vagabonds). They go from town to town re-enacting things and explaining their crafts. A camp had been set up near the bottom of the hill on which the church stands. Cool.
An expert in pointy arrowheads and other  killing tips was explaining what each design was supposed to do to inflict various horrid injuries and how tricky some were to extract form unfortunate bodies.

To keep the kids occupied there were various rides, an ancient form of skittles, and jugglers. There were things to suck and things to munch. At the end of it all was a brief parade which I couldn't capture as my camera battery gave out. Very colourful, these 'animations'. 

There were others who specialised in mock fights (the dogs of war). A musical celtic group Bagad Ruz A Gwenn had come from Brittany with their special type of bagpipes.

The mock fights were conducted with gusto and the warlike spirit continued after the match with one chap threatening to stab me in the back while I was having my photo opportunity. Delightful motley crew!