Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Here's to 2015

So that was 2014. It's had its ups and downs so thank goodness every year is a bit different. This year has been slightly more stable than previous ones because I had my contract renewed for its final year and there were no relationship wobbles. The only thing you can be sure of is the past. I keep telling myself that I'll just have to keep trying to deal with the massive uncertainty heading my way in 2015 but it's not so easy.

Will I get a job? Will I lose my apartment? Will I be tossed out of France with nothing? Or... will I get another short term contract (long-term ones are pipe dreams in France). Will I secure all the documentation to finally apply for French naturalisation? Yes, by the end of September I'll have lived and worked in this amazing and frustrating country for five years.

A few months ago I passed the language assessment test required to prove I have enough French competence to survive here so that's step one ticked off. In a few months time I'll need to spend a fortune on obtaining official documents from NZ, paying high prices to have them translated into French by official translators and negotiate the vagaries of the French immigration civil servants. Being optimistic but, hopefully, realistic I'll get my dossier together correctly to the State's satisfaction and then I'll have to wait up to two years to find out if I'm acceptable or not, all the while remaining employed at a certain level of income to satisfy the authorities, and trying not to worry about 'what if's. OK, I can do that. So 2015 could be a key year in my destiny, assuming everything else stays stable. I was reminded recently that even folks with comfortable and stable lives can have everything overturned.

Jean-Claude was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We think it has been caught fairly early (still waiting for the post op results) and he was saying he wasn't worried, he just wanted it out and to get back to his life. Naturally he was concerned though he tried not to show it. Then he seemed to think it was a good cancer to have because it's so treatable. His confidence and optimism were about to take a bruising.

The endoscopic operation knocked him about for several days and he decided not to go home as early as he was permitted. He didn't like all the tubes coming out of him and he was very uncomfortable, with so many restrictions. It's coming up to a month since the operation and he's frustrated at how he can't go back to the life he had. Despite the surgeon's best efforts there are depressing consequences to prostate surgery: urinary incontinence and impotence. Wearing ladies sanitary pads in your jocks is not a morale booster for a guy even if it's only there to catch a few wayward drops throughout the day and night. He's gaining more and more control as the weeks go by but what he really wants is to not have to wear pads.The jury's out on that.

We try to laugh about his new 'follies bergere' look. Operations of this nature now require patients to wear special black stockings to minimise the risk of developing blood clots. Trouble is, they irritate the skin and cause painful welts, don't stay up and make him look like a cross-dresser. He hates them and can quite understand why women prefer not to wear stockings these days. Happily he can consign them to the rubbish bin in a few days. His mornings have to be structured around the visit by the health nurse who comes to inject him in the waist with blood-thinning products or take blood samples. So, it's turned out to be a more complicated process than going into the clinic, having the prostate removed and then carrying on as normal. Normal is obliged to redefine itself.

 Tonight we'll get together over a glass of champagne and celebrate another year; 2014 - a year of visitors from NZ, a trip to Corsica, starting a gardening project together, my modest successes with my university students. I'll be celebrating that I'm still hanging in here with my job, he with his health.

2015 will see each of us changing decade milestones. I'll be 60 in the first part of the year and he'll be 70 in the latter.  Hey, no pressure, but 2015 could be a make or break year. Exciting! I don't need to make new year resolutions, simply to be resolute. How about you?

Photo comments: JC ready to attack his birthday pavlova (note his beautiful 19th Century candelabra); in hospital and able to eat real food at last - but he hates green beans.

Other photo sources:

Friday, 19 December 2014

Tertiary 'cultural' surprises

I think I'm approaching burnout from all the evaluations I've had to do for close to 250 students. There's scarcely a week when I'm not evaluating a class. It leaves precious little time for actually teaching. While it may be necessary and a good challenge for the students to work on oral assignments (indeed I agree with this requirement), the classes are mostly too large for language learning. It gets a bit tedious for the students and me to sit through oral presentations and debates for 6 weeks of a 12 week course. It would be alright if classes were smaller but with 25-37 students in the classes it's not ideal.

Now we're in exam week. Each class has a two hour exam. This is a lot softer than the usual three hours in NZ. I was also rather surprised to find the French system doesn't actually require students to attend class in order to have a final mark. A student contacted me this week (week 12) to announce his existence and to tell me he needed an evaluation in order to complete his course. Thing is, he never attended a single lesson and was never on the attendance list. He had decided to make his other classes or his extramural work a priority and so wasn't available to attend any of my lessons. He wasn't available to attend the final class either yet I'm expected to give him a mark. Too bad about the injustice of this situation compared to the students who do turn up to class and do their assignments as requested by the administration. He spoke in English to me for 10 minutes and this had to be enough to pass a course. The administration tell me that's how things work in France.

When I was studying for my degree in Auckland we had to attend virtually every lesson and pass each assignment plus the final exam in order to pass. Clearly, France has different standards. I think this is very evident where foreign languages are involved. I don't see how one can develop competence in a foreign language if one doesn't actually study it in class. Some of my students (I'm not always aware of their existence) are in what is called contrôle terminal. That means they are excused from attending classes and doing assignments. They just need to turn up for the final written exam and pass that. Pedagogically, I don't understand how that's supposed to give you language competence. So what do their degrees really mean?

I come from a different culture and I have different values so I found myself suffering some more culture shock this week, just when I thought I was now vaccinated against it. I never cease to be amazed at how different social, political, educational and moral systems can be. France is not the land of égalité when it comes to tertiary education. The Grandes Ecoles get the cream of French students and the universities get the 'left-overs' and my students complain to me about feeling like second-class citizens.  has this to say... 
"More than half of the students with a Baccalauréat général continue their curriculum at university. University corresponds to European standards and offers the degrees License, Master, Doctorat which correspond to Bachelor, Master and PhD. French universities are open to all bacheliers, that is students who have passed their baccalauréat. However, while some types of degree course are open to all, scientific and medical courses are usually only open to students who have passed a scientific baccalauréat. In most of the countries in the world, the institutions providing the finest centres of excellence, are universities. Not so in France where the education pinnacle is represented by Grandes Écoles, small and highly selective schools which provide a cosseted higher education to the future elites. "

It's a pity, as the more capable and motivated students in a population can lift the efforts and aspirations of others in class. The consequences of this elitist system are evident in the lack of maintenance and cleanliness and facilities at French universities. Most days it's very difficult to find a toilet that has any toilet paper in it, black-out curtains that move, or even internet in a classroom.

I don't ever remember anything approaching this state of education in NZ when I was studying for my degree. Do you know of students passing without attending class or sitting exams - does this system exist in Aotearoa; or universities unable to provide basic toilet cleaning in New Zealand?

Photo sources:

Saturday, 13 December 2014

French family life-the statistics

Just what constitutes a French family these days and how does it differ to New Zealand families?  Information is taken from my own observations, as well as from Le Point 9 October 2014 and national statistics provided by INSEE;  Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research. It collects and publishes information on the French economy and society, carrying out the periodic national census. Located in Paris, it is the French branch of Eurostat, European Statistical System. INSEE was created in 1946. Le Point is a right-wing weekly political magazine.

France is a conservative country. It's only recent that Gay Marriage was legally permitted. This action saw large protest marches throughout France and they still crop up from time to time.
More than 7 out of 10 children are living with both their parents. The traditional nuclear family remains the norm. The French social security system tends to encourage baby-making and child-rearing. In 1999 17% of families consisted of one parent. This has increased to 21% in 2010. One in 10 Children live in a reconstituted family.

Forty-Five percent of families have one child, 38% have 2 children, and 17% have 3 or more children. I suspect this is higher than in New Zealand. What is especially of note is that 75% of children live with both parents.

The figures for people living alone continue to explode (as they do in NZ). Fifteen percent of adults live alone. That's more than double the  the 6% in 1966. Some of this is explained by the aging population.On average a man will spend 10 years of his life alone while for women this is 15 years.

Women with degrees are less likely to become grandmothers. This is explained by the fact that in France, the more children you have the less likely they will succeed in higher education. The less children you have the more likely they will have degrees and less children. The more education you have the more likely you will live in a same sex household. The more educated you are the more likely you will live alone even if you are in a couple relationship (rather like me and Jean-Claude).

One in five people aged 75 or more will never become a grandparent. Those who do have on average 5.2 grandchildren. There are 15.1 million grandparents in France today; 9.9m are women who become a grandmother at an average age of 54 years, while 6.2m are men becoming grandfathers at an average age of 56. The highest concentrations of grandparents can be found in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Lorraine regions. Grandparents are least evident in Ile de France.

Of course, despite the generous encouragement, by the government to make babies in France, the economic situation makes unemployment a real possibility and this may affect things in future. 
Eleven percent of French are unemployed and the country is in a financial mess. Check out the latest figures from INSEE on gross domestic product and the business climate

A few of my female students were brave enough to say they won't be having children, even though family life is traditionally very important in France. Yes, it still is but some of the old traditions are fading. Women are working more now and so those long lunch breaks are less spent in eating several courses at home, than eating in a cafe or in the staff cafetaria. Jean-Claude may be French but he buys a lot of pre-prepared meals and the growth of facings of such products is evident in any supermarket. We don't have time to spend two hours cooking after work, even if most French don't sit down to dine until 8pm.

  And what about NZ's situation? Statistics New Zealand's latest family and household projections show that couples without children at home overtook couples with children at home in 2008 for the first time since at least World War II. Traditional families of Mum, Dad and the kids are projected to shrink further from 31 per cent of all adults aged 18 and over in 2006 to just 23 per cent by 2031.

For info on NZ families today go to:

Image source:

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Kiwi weapons of mass destruction

What do you  get for the’ man who has everything’ for his birthday? It’s the perennial wail from many a woman and totally applicable to me.
Last month Jean-Claude celebrated the end of his 60s. He’d also be having an operation to save himself from his prostate cancer so I thought it would be appropriate to acknowledge his milestone and raise his morale while he’d be recuperating. But what to get ? He has everything he needs and isn’t interested in collecting things. He had no ideas to offer.
He’s never been to NZ but I couldn’t afford a trip. Why not give him a taste of NZ all the same ?
I imported foodstuffs originally from NZ. They travel by boat to the United Kingdom and from there you use a website to order them into France. The items are getting a bit pricey and closer to their use-by dates by the time you get them but it's not as if you'd do it every week.
I went to a lot of trouble to wrap his pressie in the spirit of things. I cut up an old calendar of NZ and stuck the pictures around the sides of the boxes, but he scarcely noticed in his fixation to open them.

 Note: I ordered from

Here's what he found inside- carefully chosen to represent NZ tastes and culture:
12 bottles of Mac's Gold beer
Griffins Chocolate Chippies
Griffins Chocolate Macaroons
Griffins Afghan Biscuits
Cadbury Jaffas
Bluebird chips
Pascall Pineapple Lumps
Whittaker's Peanut Slab
Cadbury Coconut Rought _ King size
Maggie Onion Soup (for making dips for Christmas)
Trident noodles
Hubbards Breakfast Cereal
Whitlock's Mint Sauce
Whitlock's Tomato Chutney Sauce
Bell teabags
L&P Lemon & Paeroa
Watties Creamed Corn
The whole lot (almost) lasted him 2 weeks. Being a self-confessed 'gourmand' if it's there he eats it. I explained that some of it should be reserved for after his operation, to lift moral. He agreed, but that didn't happen. So, what was the verdict? His reactions were interesting.

His favourite item was undoubtedly the pineapple lumps, declared awesome. I was surprised when he handed me the packet a week later and he had thoughtfully left ONE in the bottom reserved for me. What a symbolic sacrifice. My god that lump was good.
He decided to try the Vegemite. I explained that product is actually Australian and that there is a kiwi equivalent but that my preference had been Vegemite. I explained you put it on sandwiches and toast and in soups. He reached for a spoon to dip into the pot. Just a small spoon I advised, it's not like jam you know.
Tentatively he tasted it and then put the lot in his mouth. It looked like a nuclear bomb had exploded inside him but he was desperately trying to be 'cool'. As I looked away he disappeared into the laundry. I popped my head around the door and saw him retching and desperately trying to wash his mouth out with water. He declared it absolutely inedible - this from the Frenchman who states he can eat anything. He was incredulous when I told him we kiwis love the stuff, such products are a national treasure. We tested it on Baika his dog. She licked for a few seconds and all seemed well but then she too thought better of it and refused to try any more - this from the French dog that eats everything.

The beer was declared quite good, the biscuits - in particular the afghans - were demolished in short order, the chocolate coconut rough was very much enjoyed and he shared a 'taste of home' with me on one occasion. The peanut slab wasn't his thing. The cereal was mostly eaten but it lacked chocolate (hey, he's French and must have some chocolate in his breakfast cereal).
He was cooking lamb leg chops for lunch so I suggested we crack open the bottle of mint sauce. He has the typical French attitude to English-style sauces - they are to be despised. With a bit of nudging he plopped a bit on his plate and watched how I ate mine. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him reach for more, seconds and thirds. It was hard not to smirk but I managed to keep it in. In the end he said it wasn't for him but he'd keep the rest of the bottle in the fridge for the next time I wanted to eat some lamb with mint sauce.He declared it bizarre how the English like sugar in their sauces with meat dishes. Certainly this dietary practice is looked down on in France, land of patisseries.

There's little left from this exploration of NZ but it's a certain thing that if NZ airdropped pots of Marmite or Vegemite over the islamic extremists, the coalition troops would then have an easy time of it, mopping up these radicals bent double by a kiwi delicacy. Prisoners could then be doused in mint sauce et voila! Sheer torture.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Snip! Snip!

There are so many parts of my life on the cutting room floor, literally.

Recently I've managed to access copies of a couple of movies I acted in during the early part of 2010. They came out much later and I didn't get to see them at the cinema so it's just recently I've been watching them only to discover all my hard efforts have ended up edited out.

The first movie was Yogi Bear 3D: thirteen uncomfortable hours filming outdoors in unseasonably cold winds in Auckland, New Zealand, January 2010.That was the day where, due to a very early casting call, I missed the opportunity to confront my scoundrel French boyfriend who had been stringing me along for two years.  Well, blink and you'd miss me. My only appearance reduced to a nanosecond where Yogi and co are at the shopping mall and a plane flies over with a banner. That's me, a shopper, looking up at the plane. Snip!

Yesterday I finally got hold of a copy of ICE, directed by Nick Copus, and starring such big names as NZer Sam Neill, Stephen Moyer (True Blood), Richard Roxburgh, Claire Forlani. According to this movie is about:
Environmentalist Prof Thom Archer, warns of a new ice age and points a finger at sinister energy giant Halo. The multi-national is drilling on the Greenland Glacier and causing it to melt. But his warnings are ignored. Then, after a colleague is murdered, Thom realises he must put years of desk-bound theory behind him and fight for his survival and the survival of Earth itself.

 This started out as a movie, but it was so bad they decided to release it an American mini-series instead. The first third isn't too bad but the rest? I really didn't think these top actors would be involved in anything so unrealistic in plot line and special effects. It could have been good, but under this director it gains less than 5 stars on imdb. I actually bought a suit so I could act in this movie because that item of clothing was a requirement. I also had to supply the rest of my costume changes.

They spent a lot of effort on my hair for one scene; sort of a very corporate Princess Leia arrangement on the back of my head because this area of my anatomy was supposed to be important in one shot. Really? Elaborate, odd. I walked across a floor which was supposed to be the British Parliament but was, in fact, the Auckland War Memorial Museum. So many takes and my hair and I don't appear at all, nor does my determined descent down the museum steps, and the scene in the lift with Sam Neill? Horrors, they've chosen the take with a skinny young thing instead of me. I had my doubts at the time as they kept changing their minds as to how they wanted to run it.

It was a bit weird looking at this film and recognising the locations. There was my old workplace, Waitakere City Council (council chambers and external shots), doubling up as some British climate change conference venue (very appropriate as it was NZ's eco-city).

Sam Neill kept to himself and didn't mix with the extras between takes, just reading his newspaper while the huge camera crane swung over the set. I got paid half-peanuts for 12 hours, spent $300 on a suit that never appears and which I could never really fit into again. Ah, the price of being snipped!

I've been snipped many times in my life. Another occasion was when I was appearing in two theatrical productions at the same time. Grease and Camelot. The Camelot audition was really tough and we had to be able to dance on cue. I secured the part of Nimue (Merlins' love interest) and had to create a seductive dance around him to distract him away from King Arthur to be with her, casting my magic. I also had lines to learn but rehearsal times were radically changed and Camelot now conflicted with my performance dates for Grease. I chose to drop out of Grease because I had a more important role in Camelot. Oh disaster! Camelot ran out of funding and was cancelled half way through rehearsals so I ended up with nothing, Snip!

Jean-Claude is facing a snip too. He has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is scheduled for surgery on the 3rd of December. We hope this cancer has been caught in time. Chances are it has, but he'll be out of action for a couple of months at least. There are many surgical techniques but the one he seems to be having is the one with all the holes in the tummy, rather than the perineum or right up the urethra. Risks include permanent incontinence and impotence. A message to the doctors - snip but don't slip!

Friday, 24 October 2014

What's realistic and what's just modern pressure?

Sometimes the media is a curse, and especially social media. It shows me things I don't want to see. Like 80 year old women doing advanced gymnastics on double bars.

It's starting to irritate me as I'm getting a wee bit sensitive about my aging and each day I wake up wondering if I'll be able to do what I had to do or wanted to do yesterday, today.

No, I'm not being morbid. Quality of life, being able to do the things that really matter to me is getting difficult, if not impossible and like so many of these sorts of issues, the media isn't helping. Nor are those folks who say one must just accept things and be grateful and that we are healthier than our parents and so we should be cos the modern world makes it possible. Life expectancy could be beyond 120 years in the near future. Really?

I've noticed an increasing tendency for TV and Facebook to disseminate videos of elderly people who seem to be eternally youthful, capable of marathons and gymnastic marvels and, of course, everyone admires them as some sort of role model. Magazines are full of happy smiling retired people leading full energetic lives and life just goes on, and on like this... apparently.

Facebook had the effrontery to put one of those links to an article that said anyone can get back the muscle strength they had when they were 30. It just takes the right sort of effort. Really?

I think that the media paint a picture that is not that realistic. We are told we can have the muscles of a 30 year old if we really work at it. They don't say that the bones and ligaments won't support that. This insistence on being eternally youthful baby boomers and how we are so much more youthful than our parents isn't easy to swallow. I know I'm more active than my parents were, who never exercised for health, but the reality is I've made much more effort than they ever did yet suffer the same, if not more pain (due to years of effort to stay' healthy') but I feel under much more pressure than they ever did to 'stay young' and I have to work a lot harder in life just to get by, than they, my parents, did. 

You're only as old as you feel - ha. My brain 'feels' eternally young though in practice it's much less supple than it was and just won't memorise like it used to. That's why older folks like me find it hard to learn a new language, that and the fact I'm becoming deaf and can't hear the words much of the time, but the rest is a big disappointment. 

My mother has dementia. I suppose she's forgetting what she's missing. She's a real face of aging. My best friend has prostate cancer and major problems even walking. He's had to buy a special chair just to minimise the pain of sitting still or standing up. Is this the real face of aging? It's worse than I imagined but it's staring me in the face. It doesn't match up with the image.
There's such a gulf between what a few well-gened individuals can do and the rest of us. If effort and determination was all it took, lots of us would be gardening for 6 hour stretches, dancing on stage, carrying our suitcases without much effort, running across the road (remember running?).

Regularly I'm faced with people around my age who struggle to do the basics, like put on their own shoes. Folks who've had their anus removed by cancer, have had to give up all their beloved hobbies no matter how sedentary they are, because of pain and degeneration. Most of my own daily pain is a result of my efforts to stay fit and youthful by gym workouts, yoga and dance in the past. I'd probably have had less musculoskeletal problems if I'd been a couch potato.
My sports doctor once told me, "Frances, there are two types of people; those for sprinting and those for marathons. You're a sprinter. That means nature designed you to be very flexible when young, fast to escape being eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. Now you're middle aged nature doesn't need you to to be like that, you're surplus to reproductive requirements so your collagen has made a rapid exit, and arthritis and tendonitis have made a grand entrance." He's probably right. Some women don't have such a rapid loss of collagen and other post menopausal problems. My mother is an example of that but she was content to be overweight and do no exercise at all.

Any sort of real exercise results in faster deterioration but is it just me or is there a wall of silence out there where the truth is not spoken, where we're supposed to be age-defying boomers. Even that word age-defying on the pots of skin cream says it all. Are we just being defiant? It'll all be rather pointless in the inevitable end.

There will always be individuals outside the norm who can do things the rest of us cannot but my beef is with the pressure and 'expectations' put out there of what aging is all about. Who's telling it like it is? 

I don't know what to expect of myself. I don't know what's normal because each body reacts differently to life but my generation seems to expect or believe they won't be nodding off in an armchair in the afternoons, or avoiding kneeling down to pull a few weeds. Those problems are for old people, not those of us aged somewhere after 50 and less than 90.

On a forum this week late-middle-aged and elderly members were discussing what to do about dead bodies, funerals, can we 'go' eco-friendly, that there's a product in development that will reduce us to non-toxic atoms quite ecologically, being developed. We'll need it, with all us age-defying elders popping off on mass in the nearish future - no room for traditional send-offs in future I suspect.

These photos are of me celebrating being youthful through my life when I was aged 9-57. I wish I'd done even more physical stuff before I was 35.

I know there will be many readers who will disagree with this post but I'm wondering what losses are acceptable and which ones we need to keep battling. I'm losing what's important to me; the ability to fall down and get up again, waking up refreshed, gardening, playing musical instruments, dancing, getting out of bed within 3 seconds. How do we deal with loss through aging? So far aging has not provided the compensations some people say exist.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Corsica - Corte, Pigna and Saint-Florent

In this final post on Corsica I'd like to introduce you to some must-dos. I found Corte an interesting city. It was once the capital of Corsica though was not established by the Genoese.

Independence leader Pascal Paoli stormed the citadel in 1755 and took it for Corsican independence. Naturally there are statues to this leader. The citadel, built in 1419, is in quite an outstanding location on a rocky outcrop. Goodness know how Paoli and his men got up all the steps and took it.
Napoleon initially admired Paoli but they eventually had a falling out, with Bonaparte taking the side of France and setting out on his path to immortality by consequence.

The Museum of Corsica is located inside the citadel but our tour didn't, alas, include a visit. Just getting up to the viewing platform to look at the citadel can leave you puffing a bit, but the view  of the citadel and city is worth it.

Corte is smack bang in the middle of Corsica and has the only citadel not on the coast. I was captured by Dr Gaffori's house in Place Gaffori. While fighting the Genoese to defend the town, the good doctor was killed in a hail of bullets. A statue recognises his valiant defence and you can clearly see the bullet holes peppering his old house. They've been left there to illustrate history.

There are quaint alleyways full of old-fashioned shops, plenty  of cafes catering to tourists. There's also a university, originally established by Paoli, alive and thriving in the city.
Our group visited the small town of Pigna. There's not a lot to see, though it is a good example of a perched town with its cute stone houses and narrow streets inviting discovery. I think that if you want anything ceramic from Corsica, this is one of the better places to buy some. I came away with my second (and last) souvenir of Corsica from here; a beautiful beautiful blue vase that reminds me of the sea that splashes the coast of Corsica.

We spent several nights at Saint-Florent in the north of Corsica. It's a handy base from which to explore the Cap and surrounding areas. I didn't find anything particularly note-worthy about the place though it's pleasant enough. Each night we dined in a restaurant jutting over the sea, watching the sun go down in brilliant red and pink hues, lulled by the sound of water lapping the old stone buildings at the water's edge.

In summing up. I'd say that if you like the climate of the Mediterranean in summer, an island that's French but is even more Italian in flavour, wine that's not as good as the rest of France, cold cuts that get a bit monotonous, local honey and jams, bullet holes ancient and modern, sharp knives, mountains and coastlines, Napoleonic history and a rather too-laidback approach to enterprise and service then you'll feel right at home. It's not like the rest of France, and it doesn't want to be.
Below - the gorgeous 'ceiling' above us as we lunched one day.