Monday, 25 February 2013

Sadder Paris but still superb

Occasionally I still have the opportunity to do something here in France for the first time. And so it was that I took Jean-Claude to dinner, on a cruise on the Seine. We don't dine out much, hardly at all and Paris takes a lot of effort to get to but a special visit makes it all worthwhile even if the weather is rather harsh.

It can take 1 1/2-2 hours to get to Paris and the same back home from Epernon or Ymeray. We set out while there was still light, traffic was with us and we arrived at the quay early. There we were, sitting in the car with the engine running to keep warm, the Eiffel Tower barely discernable in the gloom even though we were fairly close by. Snow flakes whipped around pedestrians and settled on cars. The trees along the Seine were bare, revealing the historic architecture. It's a scene you don't see in Summer.

Paris celebrates its seasons but I'm not celebrating winter. I've had enough. It's been snowing solidly for 4 days. It seemed a trifle bizarre to be cruising the river of the most romantic of cities of an evening with snow and a very icy breeze. No one was getting very dolled up but I'd made an effort and hid it under my padded and hooded jacket, gloves and scarf.

The seating is two-tiered with all seats facing the river. It's very squashy with little individual tables very derivative of lecture seats with attached tables. A small bottle of bubbles and another of water was supplied. The first course consisted of foie gras and breadrolls. Naturally I was reduced to munching a roll. I tried the foie gras again but had to conclude I just can't tolerate what, for me, is a fatty rancid taste. JC declared it quite good. 

The second course was either chicken or salmon. Struck out again there too but I had known that when I booked. They did supply me with some rice topped with diced vegetables so that was fine. Dessert was something cube-like and chocolately with something biscuity topped by a raspberry. Not too bad. There was no cheese and no coffee.

The best part for me was sitting there in warmth and comfort watching the city slide by. The two of us declared that Paris just doesn't deliver the same experience at night for tourists as it once did. It continues to be a sad shadow of its former glory which we are putting down to austerity. The bridges are no longer lit, the buildings are no longer lit. You can't see any details. All is rather dark and invisible. The city of light is no more.

Thanks goodness for the Eiffel Tower then. In the evenings, on the hour, the lightbulbs go off and its famous sparkle plays for a few minutes and then returns to normal lighting. It's always magical.

 Our dinner cruise was shorter than we would have liked. It stopped before we got to the best part of Paris where stands the Notre Dame cathedral on Ile de la Cite. Perhaps our boat was too high for those bridges - something to keep in mind if you are booking an evening cruise - the itinerary. We used Paris en Scene company. There was car parking close to the boat as the tide was too high for the normal mooring. Consequently it was free. This is not usually the case - that you get free parking in Paris. Parking for cruises can cost as much as 55 euros - ouch!

Monday, 18 February 2013

Language acquisition at middle age

I'm a member of Kea Global Network and lately we've been discussing how a lack of second language ability could be holding Kiwis back from better job opportunities overseas. I'd agree with the assertion that this 'English is everywhere so I don't need to learn anything else' attitude really doesn't cut it in the wider world.

Now that I live in Europe I rub shoulders with people who regularly speak four languages, and they're doing very nicely thanks. Well done the Dutch who are masters of multiple languages even though their country is tiny (smaller than NZ). We all know there are intellectual reasons why learning a second language is a good thing but aside from that I'd suggest we need it as an insurance policy against unemployment.

It's no good assuming you'll get a job in NZ. Twenty-five percent of NZ's population don't think so and they are living overseas and not all of them are in Australia. They are not all young. I suppose I left it a bit late to make my move. I didn't realise I could make the move when I was younger - it would have been logistically much easier if I had and it would have been a lot easier to pick up the French language. I did study it at High School though I was never very competent in those read it and write it days. Arriving here I really struggled to understand the spoken word and to speak back. It's still the case.

I'd never consider time spent learning Maori useful to me, though I did enjoy teaching kids a few words, songs and kapa haka. I needed to go somewhere else to find a job because NZ's not in a good state at the moment, neither is Europe but somehow there's a job here for me but not in NZ so I've ended up in France just trying to survive because I couldn't survive (get any ordinary sort of work) in NZ. I'm acquiring a second language the hard way. French is far more useful  than Maori if you have to leave the country and go somewhere else.

The isolation of NZ leads to a difficulty in appreciating other thought patterns in other cultures. Frankly, I'm gobsmacked just how different France is to NZ in terms of work ethics, attitudes, behaviours, values. It may be sort of Westernised but it's nothing like NZ. I'm still trying to come to terms with the label of Anglo-Saxon. (I thought I was simply a Kiwi).

 Kiwis are insulated from natural exposure to other languages and cultures by the distance. Come to Europe and you are suddenly exposed to so much choice, richness, different ways of doing things. The problem is that Kiwis are not EU citizens and are normally shut out, so it's harder to leave NZ now and experience living in the EU.

I still find myself rearranging words in sentences on the white screen in my mind. I'm getting faster at it but that doesn't lead to fluency. If you tell me something French once or twice I won't remember it- I need to see it and hear it many times. My aging brain works well but it's not as plastic as when I was younger. Phone conversations are especially hard for me.
Less than 100% hearing ability creates a significant obstacle to determining what is being said. My tongue still hasn't found the gymnastic trick for French Rs.

The difference between me and a child learning a second language (leaving aside the plasticity) is that I arrived having to jump into the complicated adult world with its adult vocabularly. A Research Centre deals in an even more specialised area. My brain was busy trying to survive all the practical aspects, few things were repeated for me. When a child learns they learn in school with a limited vocab, limited topics, situations they can relate to, slower speech rates, plenty of encouragement,no domestic issues to worry about. As an older adult you just can't pick it up quickly unless you've a big linguistic talent.

Folks who meet me several times remark on what great progress I've made since the last time they saw me. That may be true but the progress slows down and plateaus. I've acquiring synonyms, mots d'argots, expressions, a little more speed but I have to say it's really, really hard. I live alone most of the time and I'm always tired from the concentration of trying to work out what people are saying. Language shapes thoughts. Try thinking in a different language - it's a different identity. It's starting to happen- I catch myself using French in my thoughts quite often so that's a good sign but one language interferes with the other- it's a scientific fact. I have lost the wippet-like speed of recall of English words I used to have and that's scary. The filing system has two sides to it now.

At my age it's hard to round the sharp edges of my preference for thinking and behaving and assuming as a Kiwi Anglo-Saxon (not British, American or Australian). I'm learning a bit of humility, lots of patience and hopefully acceptance of others even if I don't agree how they do and think. It's difficult to gain all this living in NZ's bubble.  Intercultural studies/communication should be compulsory in NZ schools as should learning another language (but give people a decent choice). In my opinion NZ has definitely gone backward. I don't see second language learning (except for Asian languages) being of interest to the Ministry of Education.

Back in 1977 in Wellington I was a one-woman pilot programme for teaching eight-year olds a foreign language. They made such impressive progress that the school and the inspectorate allowed the children to continue with me into the next year. And then nothing. The Ministry didn’t follow through and didn’t get back to me. Opportunity lost.

I'm not interested in Asian languages. I'm not interested in Asia or its various cultures. I belong to Europe and that's where my roots are, my enculturation. It's like that for many NZers. Thank goodness I learnt one European Language a bit, even a little bit helps. So I'd encourage every NZer, especially those under 30, to choose another language of a country that might interest you in future and learn it. You never know what opportunities it might open up for you when the ones back home aren't there.

Today I had a French conversation class in another town. With me in the class were two Russians, a Pole and a Czeckoslovak. Each Monday I'll travel to class for an hour-long class and hope to lift my language plateau. With time I just might be able to communicate adequately. I estimate I'll need another 5 years minimum. Wish I was younger.

For information on the incredible Kiwi diaspora read

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Frozen states

 I was looking forward to the needle. Yes, really, because for me it represented a reduction in the shoulder pain I've suffered for 5 months. After two GPs, xray and ultra-sound and the diagnosis of a rheumatologist I was on my way to have a cortisol injection into the shoulder joint. First time in France.

Range of movement determination, assessment of pain levels, history of the problem, a detailed fossick under ultrasound again and suddenly the orthopedic specialist stood up and told me there would be no infiltration today. It wasn't appropriate, the previous diagnosis was not correct.

I'd psyched myself up for it, comforting myself by the thought I'd feel less pain and be able to start exercising my shoulder, arm and hand again. Maybe I could get back to dance classes, take up my violin again, make love other than like a log of wood. Jean-Claude asked about surgery and almost got his head bitten off. No, under no circumstances would that be happening and the infiltration would probably do more damage than good. So it's inflammation, cause unknown but would generally come under the nomika of frozen shoulder, Quelle surprise, I've been saying that for 5 months.

This is not the first time I've had this problem. Years ago in NZ it occured with my left shoulder as a consequence of flinging a briefcase onto the passenger seat of my car. I was promptly (as in a few weeks) diagnosed with frozen shoulder by a sports doctor and injected by him on the spot, physio done over a few weeks and I was on the mend. It took more than a year to get most of the function back but at least I could use the shoulder and the pain was considerably lessened in the meantime.

But now I'm in France and I can't understand why things take so long to get done and always, always seem so complicated. It's always wait, wait, wait. I can't see a sports doctor and have him treat me on the spot. I have to go through a GP (actually two because the first one literally tapped my back, said I was a bit tense and should rest even longer and didn't investigate anything) to a rheumatologist who does nothing but send me to someone else who gives the injection (and then, perhaps rightly, disputes the diagnosis and refuses to give me the injection).

It all seems  inefficient to me. It's been an increasingly depressing 5 months with no end in sight, well, not this year, it seems. It's not just the shoulder issue, it's the layer you have to go through to get any action and there are no instant appointments, you can wait weeks, months to be seen with each layer. I have to go back to see the Rheumatologist because the diagnosis has been disputed and get advice on what I can and cannot do because, frankly, if I'm going to be in such pain I might as well play my violin in pain rather than watch TV in pain. I've done a bit of research on the effects of cortisone injections- they kill collagen cells and others so the advice against the infiltration may be sound but I just need some pain relief that works. My left shoulder's not in great shape either.

The physio required is a bit specific, apparently, and so I should go to Chartres for that rather than the convenience of my town, The later has so far proved completely useless for the condition, I must admit. Odd, in NZ the physios knew immediately what to do for frozen shoulder, I didn't have to go to another town to get specialised expertise.

It's another country, another system. I have to continue to try to roll with the punches. It would be nice if there were less 'frozen' issues for me in France. The frozen situation with my furniture took 6 months to be resolved, my titre de sejour is still frozen  8 months after I first applied. And then there's the 'Rive Gauche" mistral....

I've been living with the Mistral in my apartment since I moved in. The ventilation whines and screams like the maddening French Sirocco wind - the Mistral, only in my apartment. Everyone can hear it as they walk down the corridor but at least they can't hear it when they close their doors. It emanates from my apartment. In my case, the only time the screaming wind sound stops is when I open my door- clearly not a long-term option. How do you suppose I might have this resolved? Phone someone? Who? The building corporate body, the rental agency, the promoter who sold the building, the landlord who has nothing to do with the management of the apartment?

 JC has had to phone around, send emails which take a very long time to elicit a response, if at all. No-one is taking responsibility (this is France). I did complain early on and a plumber tried to fix it. The building ventilation was then shut off for several days but the sound came back and has gradually increased to the point where I must close all doors to try to deaden the sound to sleep. This is not always successful and I don't like the closed in feeling. France, please lighten up on me. I think there's a lot of cool stuff about you and I feel a great affinity but I DO feel I'm having more than my fair share of obstacles to overcome.

JC did his best to advance something for me today. Four months after ordering a light fitting I finally got it (though they neglected to tell me it had arrived). He installed it and put up another shelf for me. At last I have a light fitting in my dining room and I'm happy with it. I have a shelf to pop my cups and tea and sugar on within reach of my good arm.

All these little aspects of life that I discover are less than ideal and more frustrating than the ways things are done back in NZ are not to be underestimated when moving to another culture. They cannot usually be predicted in advance and often not even imagined. It's a part of the learning curve. There's always a sort of culture shock when I experience another French system. There are good aspects to the health system which make treatment reasonably affordable for most people though you still need to take out private insurance to top up. It's good that doctors question other doctors' decisions but can't we just defrost these situations  a bit faster?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Little things that stir

It's been a week of little things, positive and negative, that have caused me to examine my feelings and responses to France and New Zealand.

New Zealand was my country. I'm still a Kiwi but I'm becoming more integrated into French systems and French life. I'm not feeling especially homesick for NZ but I often feel alone and cut off from the type of life I lived there. I have very few items that link me to it. I had to give them up even though I didn't want to, for practical reasons. Sure, they were just things but they represented my experiences, feelings, shared during events, connections to people, and those memories are still in me but fade. That fading disturbs me at times. What also disturbs me is how small things can kick off remarkably strong emotions towards the past. This was strongly illustrated by the arrival of my Christmas present from my daughter.

Yes, it was very late and I've dealt with the disappointment of not getting it sooner. I was excited to get it and I knew there was something inside that had once been mine, something I had enjoyed for a very long time, something that reminded me of the life I'd  had when my daughter and I were together.

As I rummaged through the polystyrene bits I was horrified to discover the treasured old object was smashed to smithereens. An old essential oil vaporiser I'd used to perfume my home. No big deal but it would have been a wee touch of home and a reminder of who I had been, a wee something from NZ in my apartment here in France. I was gutted. And surprised at how strongly I felt, how sensitive.

I don't want to live in my old house in Auckland again. I look at photos of it and I remember I felt ready to leave it and my beloved garden too, but I miss that sort of Kiwi lifestyle; a house, pets, a garden, birds singing in the trees. I don't feel the need to go back to New Zealand right now otherwise what was all this sacrifice for to change my life for the (theoretical) better? France is great but why do I have moments of intense sadness when I think of some of my old belongings? A lot of them are linked to life with Laura and I don't have that any more. I don't need to be living with my daughter but the  separation was extreme, there wasn't any choice. Clearly I still have some adjusting to do.

I had two rare opportunities to discuss New Zealand and its culture, shared experiences in the past week. I met Valerie for lunch in Rosieres. Valerie is French but lived in NZ for at least 18 years. She speaks Kiwi, she understands the culture, places, people, idiosyncrasies of life in New Zealand and how different they are to France. France has serious problems, we both agree on those. As a country it's much bigger but it isn't necessarily better in some areas. It was great to speak French and English with someone who understands the differences and likes both countries, as I do. It also reminded me how difficult it is for me to even visit NZ now.

My second opportunity was having lunch with a local government politician from Auckland city. Linda and I had worked together from time to time at Waitakere City Council and we are still interested in eco and environmental issues for residents. It was a pleasure to meet her as she visited Paris and swap stories almost as if time had stood still. Unfortunately, I am well aware time has not stood still for some hapless Auckland residents and quite a few of my ex-colleagues. I'm still horrified at the conditions many Christchurch residents are still living in two years after the two earthquakes.An avid reader of The NZ Herald online and TV3 online  I'm up to date with issues facing New Zealanders. All these changes, my own and my old country's remind me of the speed of change in so many people's lives.

Another positive event of the past week was Jean-Claude confirming to me that at last all my problems with substandard furniture and service have finally come to an end. All outstanding problems have now been rectified thanks to his liaison with the management of the furniture store where I bought my apartment furniture back in June 2012.

If the furniture had been manufactured in France a lot of the problems would never have arisen but these days it seems most of us can only buy substandard products from Romania or China and hire substandard men to try to put things together. These ways of doing business are not sustainable but I wonder how long it's going to take the world systems to change things for the better. I'm not holding my breath.