Where Am I Now? (Part 3)

”Growing up, you think you know everything.
About those places you see in pictures.
But to see is not to experience,
You have to be.

I visited this country just once before,
And I thought it had shown me everything I ought to know.
It seems a straightforward practice..
In this world of connection and instant dexterity.

And yet I sit here,
Sapped by the relentless stream of information.
Does this deter me?
No.

The pursuit of experience cannot be burdened.
It only begins to spark further enthusiasm.
And this manifestation crowns my decision
as legitimate and just.”

 

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It’s not been easy settling in to my new surrounding. But it has been rewarding. Despite the progress I’ve made in learning French it is a tricky challenge made more difficult thanks to the level of detail and history of a language spoken by approximately 220 million people throughout the world. There are only five other languages with more speakers and these are Mandarin Chinese (leading the way with over a billion speakers), English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. And as is the same with most languages spoken there are many different variations as a result of accents, social elements, natural progress and countless other important aspects. Being a hugely influential language worldwide French is absolutely no different and this is where I would maybe aim criticism at popular sources of language education. For it is often stated that the best method of learning a language is to thoroughly immerse yourself in the culture and I cannot agree more. When learning in school or using online apps like Duolingo (which I have used frequently in my own time) it is very easy to learn the basics to work off. However.. this will never help to fully prepare a person for a conversation with the average native person. Certain words and phrases I have heard very often provide evidence of such. Here are a few examples…

‘Balle’

Pronounced like b-a-l.. Not balls.  A slang term for money, it’s literal translation                    into English slang would be ‘quid’ or for the Kevin Bridges lovers out there…                        ‘Smackeroonies’.

‘Bordel’

This officially is the french word for brothel (hoor hoose for us Scots).                                    However  it’s often used to describe a mess.

‘Mec’

The slang term for man and is also used for boyfriend. Kind of like when a                        Scottish guy says ‘ma burd’. Obviously the roles are reversed so well done to the                  ladies of France.

‘Ouf’

Very similar to the Scottish term ‘ooft!’ this is used to describe something mental                and is the French word ‘Fou’ (crazy) spelled backwards. This is a fairly common                   throughout the country to use words in their backwards form as slang.

 

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”Eh donc,  ça c’est un truc de ouf..”

 

Comparing Scottish food culture and French food culture has been one of the most interesting things for me so far. There is a great importance placed on meals and socializing to the point where I have felt I spend most of my time at a dinner table. It’s a good way of communication and interaction. Phones are off. The TV is off. There are no distractions. Being from a home where the norm was to eat dinner on the couch with the dining table relegated to an ornament until Christmas rolled in means that I am not very accustomed to this.

 

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‘Cheese is very important to the French. That’s why I’m reppin’ Swiss.’

 

The stereotypes of wine, bread and cheese are 100% authentic. There are aisles in the supermarkets dedicated to cheese and the smell is absolutely rotten (I should mention that this is just my opinion and not based on scientific facts, although i’m sure most degree swingers would agree). Baguettes are forever present much to my pleasure and wine is also a big game changer in foody affairs. It says a lot about the population however that alcoholism doesn’t seem to be a major health issue. Maybe it is for others but when you’ve lived in the West of Scotland for the entirety of your existence it pales in comparison. The quality of beverage is better thanks to production regulations and a truly continental attitude towards the preservation of the liver.

 

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”The laid-back nature of Europeans..”

 

France is one of the most diverse countries in the world when it comes to geographical standings. Each section of the country is more closely linked to the neighboring countries and their various aspects of culture. In the East where I reside now is mostly vast expanses of mountains which travel deep into Italy and Switzerland.  Winter is a big season for the inhabitants here. Holidaygoers travel from all over the country and other parts of Europe during this period to make the most of the snow by Skiing, Snowboarding etc. and this has an effect on the local economy. Most businesses will make their money in Winter before shutting down for the summer while hiring enthusiastic staff keen to earn some money while enjoying the surroundings in their spare time. Therefore the majority of these people will aim to work through winter before enjoying a long summer break. Obviously, the potential to have a three month holiday is enticing but what does this mean for the time being? Long hours and very little days off which are used up aiming to do anything that hasn’t been done throughout the week. It can be and usually is very tiring. It all depends on personal preference I guess but I struggled with this. I spent most of my time working, eating, sleeping or drinking and I can feel the fatigue now even as I write. Physically my fitness is gone and mentally I have struggled to continue at a creative level I was achieving before I started. So while the advantages are there.. is the work/ life balance really sustainable? Or are most folk at breaking point by the end of the season?

 

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”Fin de saison.”

 

Considering how difficult the season can be it’s the people who make it easier to get through unscathed. I’m grateful to the people I met throughout my time. They made the experience worthwhile and I learned more from them than from any other website or textbook. My colleagues were fantastic and with our apartments all next to each other we formed a small community for the duration. I’ve heard many things about French people being historically moody or simply unpleasant but it could not be further from the truth. The customers aswell were mostly very receptive and often very cheerful when they discovered I was Scottish. Only two groups of people guessed this, which brings me on to my next statement… SCOTTISH PEOPLE AREN’T ENGLISH. It’s all in good nature but if you can’t remember Mel Gibson’s famous (even if historically tainted) blockbuster ‘Braveheart’ then sorry troops but it’s jist no gonny fly that way.

 

WILLIAM WALLACE

”And if HE were here, he’d consume the English with fireballs from his eyes.. and bolts of lightning from his arse!”

 

I had some great interactions in work. Many folk spoke about the ginger hair bellowing from my head and face (I let the beard grow out for a few months) while others continued to play ‘Guess the Nationality’. I was English, Irish, American, French-Canadian and even Swiss or Belgian. There seems to be some confusion about Scotland and the UK. It is often referred to as a region within Great Britain. I have to say this was fairly irritating even if understandable. People are only given information and in fairness the United Kingdom has become increasingly irrelevant while simultaneously being horrendously slaughtered by it’s European counterparts thanks to the way its been dealt with.

 

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”The Real Queen Elizabeth.”

 

A fleeting conversation I had with a gentleman from South Africa has stayed with me due to it’s insightful nature. This man was French by heritage and he claimed during the colonization of the country the Dutch banned the French navy workers from speaking the language in order to halt any possible revolutions. They were forced to learn Dutch and thus the French culture is only remembered by the ancestors (such as the Monsieur mentioned) and the names of towns and districts still preserving their distinctly French names. I found this fascinating however I’m still very unsure of it’s truth. If anyone could add to this or rectify any wrong points, I would be most grateful.

As stated in my previous post I would continue to share music currently soundtracking my journey. Here’s another popular French song by a well-known group here, and the video is quite a laugh too..

 

 

Where Am I Now? (Part 2)

 

‘The leafy browns of autumn infused with the retreating grassy greens of a summer gone by. The vast and panoramic background filled with huge mountains which continue to prevail through centuries, perhaps even millenials, of long and drawn out battles with the elements of nature. They tower over the scores of communities which now occupy the deep valleys between. Weathered roads and forests of trees abundant with generations of multiple species who just like their colossal neighbours have fought the good fight in standing their ground and keeping their homes. We as humans fight between ourselves, but it is those which seem forever still who truly know what it means to be alive.’

An excerpt from some notes I wrote back in November when I arrived in France.

After the tumultuous episode I experienced in Megève (discussed in Part 1) I found myself at a crossroads. I had no job. I had lost the confidence I previously shared in being able to find work as a result of my poor French language skills. And I had received some unfortunate news from home that suddenly asked of me which place was more important.

I returned to Scotland for a few days in January. It had probably come at the right time even if for the wrong reasons as the stress was beginning to break me. I’m a bit of a perfectionist which causes me great suffering at times. My romantic notions can be
overpowering which can then progress into some sort of psychological barrier once I take a step back and realize the unrealistic expectations I set for myself. It’s a dangerous trait to acquire and one which I have accumulated over the years, resulting in never feeling quite so content with the achievements I’ve made. And it would be fair to say that before I left home for the first time I put a lot of pressure on myself to settle in my new surroundings almost as quickly as I arrived.

By the beginning of the new year I was tired and empty of hope again. I was ready for giving up completely.

It was a chance encounter however with a funny gentleman which allowed me a renewed energy and willingness to continue. This man is still my boss today and will be for another week when the winter seasons draws to its long-awaited conclusion. I had not long discovered the activity of hitch-hiking and had begun to feel a real buzz for it. The great thing about hitch-hiking is that you’ll never end up with someone who doesn’t want your company (unless their psychos). This naturally means you can get a decent conversation from folk. My partner was working in the resort where I am now while I stayed in the family home at the bottom of the mountain. Thanks to my naivety and excitement of being able to drive the stunning routes that weaved flawlessly through the mountains I managed to damage the car I was using. She is now back in full working order and I have learned my lesson.

 

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‘Baby’

My partner asked me to meet her at her work for an afternoon so we could hang around the resort for a few hours. So I managed to make my way by throwing out the thumb and looking nice enough to offer a lift to. The first driver to stop was Jean-Marie, a young farmer from just outside Geneva. He was a physical contrast of the Swiss city. Billionaire yachts line the docks while the nearby buildings display signs of famous brands such as the supremely expensive Rolex. Switzerland is of course famous for watch-making and the stereotype is utilized thoroughly. Whether that be in the airport or in the area’s of commerce. Jean-Marie was not a typical Genevois.

 

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The Rolex Building, Geneva city centre. 

He was a pleasant man. He spoke lovingly of his flock of sheep, the journey from his Swiss farm to the depths of the French Alps to buy more sheep and he even questioned me on whether there was many sheep in Scotland. I’m not in the business of counting sheep unfortunately but I told him there was (correct me if i’m wrong).

He took me to the next town, Villard-sur-Doron, and sent me on my way. I stood at the side of the road again in search of another generous car sharer. That’s when along came ‘Le Patron’. I didn’t expect him to offer me a job but after speaking together for the rest of the route (with my very poor French) he proposed to me a position in his ski rental shop. We stopped at his store and he took me inside for a tour, showing me the room dedicated to ski equipment. Shoes upon shoes. Rails filled to the rafters with hundreds of skis of different disciplines.

Ski Alpin, Ski Nordique, Randonnée, Telemark..

If I didn’t know anything about this sport I was soon about to.

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‘I wish I could Ski as half as good as I tell people.’

I’m not totally decided on my thoughts around destiny and the concept of events taking place for a reason. The word ‘coincidence’ almost gives me the fear. But for the owner of a business to drive by me at that exact time while I was looking for a job in this area whilst he was in dire need of staff.. well it is funny. And I should add that previous to this I had been looking for work in this area since before my first job without success. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. He offered me everything I needed. Work, location, and an apartment of my own which I now occupy. It’s small but cosy. Packed but practical. And it means I can wake up 10 minutes before my shift starts.

 

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Piles of snow averaging 2 metres high directly outside the apartment. Claustrophobia.

And since this chance encounter I have been working with some great people, with a beautiful surrounding landscape and an opportunity to experience life as a Ski Man in the French Alps. I never once thought I would be able to say that. But now, it’s another small tale written into my history.

In Part 3 I’ll discuss my own perspective on different aspects of the French culture and what it’s like to be the token Scottish guy in a French Ski resort. For now here’s an example of some of the music shaping my journey so far. Music has always been important in my life and it’s no different now. It took me a while to change my mind but French music has finally started to grow on me.

Enjoy and see you all next week X

 

Where Am I Now? (Part 1)

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Les Saisies and the Mont Blanc.

Photo credits to http://www.france-montagnes.com.

On top of a mountain. Really. Well to begin with it was at the bottom of another. In a cosy wee village called Ugine which rests deep in a valley in the East of France. It’s a two-hour drive from Switzerland (handy) and an hour or so from the country’s second largest city, Lyon. The nearest city however is Albertville, famously known for hosting the 1992 Winter Olympics. This is evident on arrival thanks to the various complexes and
Olympic ‘signage’ dotted around. The other famous Alpine city close by to this area is Grenoble (which is ironically the flattest city in France).

 

France is split into 13 different regions. After that the regions are split further into 96 ‘departments’. To my knowledge this is similar to council regions in Scotland/UK. I find myself now in Les Saisies. It’s a small, typical village close to the top of the Mont Bisanne, proudly standing at 1941m. In the Alps that’s way off the big players such as the Mont Blanc which reaches the dizzy heights of 4810m and is by merit the highest mountain on the continent. However with Scotland’s highest peak Ben Nevis being 1341m it’s very much a grand mountain. And it paints a picture when you imagine the thousands of people who live their lives here all year round and the city dwellers who travel by car for their winter holiday break. Unfortunately I can’t see the Mont Blanc from where I am living but I can see another distinct peak which I now jokingly call my own and that is the Pierra Menta (2714m).

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‘La Pierra Menta’ 

Every day I take 5 minutes to myself and look out into the landscape. Most days I will sit for longer. My girlfriend is right when she says every night is a different view. The sunlight hits the mountain tops in an almost infinitely changing routine whilst the clouds sometimes crowd the valley in a mystifying sea like position, thus allowing themselves to balance in a suspended and lifeless nature.

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‘Look at the View’ taken by Lucile Dalla-Libera.

Since the middle of January I’ve been working as a Ski Man in a local small business. The season is drawing to a close now and it feels like it has come and gone as quickly as it could have. Before I arrived here I was working in another town, Megève, in a swanky Cashmere store. I somehow managed to navigate through a French-speaking interview successfully but the achievement was short-lived. After my boss came to the conclusion her employee couldn’t speak the language very well and I discovered that selling 400 euro cardigans to disgustingly rich folk was simply not for me I managed to jump ship and get out of there. I lasted a mere three weeks. Alas it was an interesting experience for many reasons. I had obviously never worked in a job where I couldn’t speak the language and this I found tough. It was even more difficult as my boss seemed to stress that I wasn’t able to fulfill what had been asked of me. So instead I was to do everything else except talk to customers. This was in my opinion taking an absolute liberty. I was the bitch for the rich. I had customers shout at me, throwing clothes at me and this wasn’t enough for my boss who still thought I could do more. It was three weeks going on three years. An unforgiving nightmare.

In truth I never really felt comfortable thanks to the money and the people. After talking to an older man for a few minutes my boss asked me if I knew who it was. I had no idea but in an earnest attempt to impress at work I turned on the Glesga charm and gave it a good go.

Regarde Aidan, that’s the man you were just talking to.

I was then shown a Google image of the gentleman standing next to Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. I investigated him a little bit more after she gave me his name and so it turns out his ancestor invented something very important to traditional French culture.
He inherited billions. It was another world to me.

Another group of customers came in on New Year’s Day and informed us they were from Bahrain. The gentleman was cheerful and repeatedly exclaiming ‘Bonne Année! Bonne Année!‘ like a delirious party goer. But after he had spread his festive cheer he left the store quickly again to gaze down the decorated streets of busy folk. He left his wife with her assistant who swiftly continued to clear the shop of its stock in a similarly bizarre fashion.

I’ll take this. I’ll take this. Do you think this will be nice with these? No? Ok I’ll take it anyway.

Over the course of two days this woman spent close to 14,000 euros on products. Each time she left her assistant to pay who consequently stumbled out of the store
with a ridiculous amount of bags to carry.

With all this in mind, it was a very brief visit from three other customers which still shocks me even more. A very rich and arrogant woman entered the store with two other slightly refrained characters. The first of these two was much older, perhaps some relation to the aforementioned snoot. The second was a younger woman with her hood up. She hid her face well in her jacket but her eyes were visible and she looked exhausted. Her frail posture and surprisingly cheaper garments paled in comparison to the women she followed, who dressed impeccably and looked rather well fed (if you catch my drift). The first woman swaggered around the store picking various pieces of clothing from their designated place before shooting a sharp stare of disapproval. It only took seconds for her to assess the items before chucking them away with her stiff nose turned firmly towards the heavens. The older woman merely day-dreamed without making any sort of gestures. But the young woman was running behind the pair in a desperate fashion. At one point there was a slightly aggressive change in atmosphere between the three which could only have been this maniacal characters grave dislike for something so completely unwarranted. The younger woman looked dejected, daunted and severely panicked at most times. Was she really living in this state of fear permanently?

This utterly saddening situation didn’t last very long but the opportunity to see people who lived like this was particularly shocking. Where I am from there is no such thing like this going on. It truly troubled me and gave me a great distaste for the type of person
who is able to treat another human being with such disrespect while flaunting their riches. It was an environment I felt totally out of. Stories of folk like that have passed my ears before and the way they condemn these assistants to a non-stop onslaught of meaningless work. And although the village itself was really beautiful I could not take myself away from this track of thought just to become another bit-part player in the pointless games of those with too much in their pocket and not enough in their conscience…