No Age Limit

After shivering through the British winter I’m now experiencing the delights of Southern Spain.  There are orange trees, butterflies, white buildings with terracotta roofs and a mountain view right outside my window.   I learned to love walking in the mountains during my time in Reunion, so I did some research and joined a group of walkers in the village.

We met at the gas station early last Tuesday and set off for the Buitrera, which means Vulture Gorge.  There were about 10 of us and I was the baby of the group: to put it politely, in England they would have all qualified for a bus pass.  I soon realised though, that age is no indicator of fitness.  These senior citizens trekked up sheer rocky paths, across treacherous loose-scree slopes, through hillsides of vicious thorn-bushes, just as if it was a stroll down the High Street.

I made damn sure I kept up.  I was terrified at the idea of getting left behind, all alone in the mountains.  We walked for 5 hours and didn’t meet another soul.  Vultures circled in a rather menacing manner overhead, and we saw many close-to, hunched up on rock ledges like cross old men at a bus stop.  One of the group told me about how last year he got separated from the rest when his dog wandered off and he’d spent the night on the mountain.  “Weren’t you scared?” I asked in awe, and he said no, he’d had the dog with him.  I walked even quicker after that.

We went over a narrow concrete bridge built as a water conduit which I crossed without looking to the left or right, as the drop on either side into the gorge with the river winding far, far below made my knees wobble.  Meanwhile my more mature co-walkers were leaning precariously over the low parapet, jauntily pointing out landmarks to each other in a way that made me feel quite ill.

We stopped for lunch near a beautiful ruined house, perched on the edge of a mountain with panoramic views in all directions, and I marvelled at the self-sufficiency of the people who once lived there, with no neighbours, no roads and a three-hour trek to the nearest village.   Then on, down through more evil thorn bushes, while Patrick, our leader, yelled, “I’m sure the path’s here somewhere” and I let out a very loud and inappropriate swear word as my arms and legs were lacerated.  No-one seemed offended.  Finally we got back down to the valley bottom, half an hour from our walk’s end, with just the minor matter of a river to forge.  No problem for these sixty- and seventy-year -olds.  “It’s only up to the knees”, Patrick shouted, as I struggled, midstream, to maintain my balance in the current while the water rose to the top of my thighs.

Nothing tasted better than the beer in the cafe when we reached the village again.   I silently gave thanks that my trekking in Reunion’s Cirques had prepared me for extreme hikes.  And before I knew it, I’d agreed to go on next week’s walk.  “Just another gentle one,” they said.  Yeah, right, I thought.  I’m going into training.

Vocabulary

bus pass  –  une carte de bus
senior citizens – gens du troisieme age
scree – l‘eboulis
vulture –  un vautour
conduit – conduit

thorn-bush –  un buisson d’epines
wobble – trembler
parapet – un parapet
midstream – au milieu du courant

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Brass Monkeys

This week, the UK is in the grip of “the Beast from the East”: in other words, a weather front from Eastern Europe is bringing very low temperatures and some snow to our islands.  There is a funny and rather vulgar English expression to describe cold weather, which is: “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.  So people might say “It’s a bit brass monkeys” or even “There’s a brass monkey out there looking for a welder”.  It’s not clear where the expression came from – possibly statuettes of “three wise monkeys” sold to tourists in China,  but whatever the origin, it’s certainly brass monkey weather at the moment.

Londoners are feeble about snow.  A fall of just a few inches can bring the entire city to a standstill.   Everything stops working.  Trains, buses and tubes are cancelled.  Schools, shops and offices close.  This is not because the routes are blocked by snow.  It’s because Londoners treat snowfall as an unofficial public holiday, and stay at home.   At the first sign of even a flurry, they think “Great!  A day off!” and pull the duvet up round their ears.  People who do want to go to work, can’t, because the schools have closed and they have to take care of their kids. So the parks are full of stressed parents and their children, in a state of snow mania, tobogganing, building snowmen and having snowball fights as if their lives depended on it.  

Even workers who do go to their office, arrive several hours late, then spend the day exchanging tales of their heroic journey to work with the couple of colleagues who have also made it to their desks.  The country loses millions of pounds in man-hours for every snowy day.  

It’s not as if it doesn’t snow every winter at some point.  London is, after all the capital of a northern European nation.  In Moscow, Prague, even Paris, people don’t take a day off whenever the snow clouds gather.  They just put on some sensible clothing and go to work. When I was a child in Yorkshire and it snowed, we just got extra scarfs and wellingtons and walked to school.  So did the teachers, and even the caretaker who had to shovel the coke into the boiler to heat the building.  We never had a day off because of snow.  Londoners are wimps.  

Anyway, if it snows next week, I plan to put on a thermal vest, thermal leggings, extra woolly jumper, two scarves, a hat and … build a snowman in my garden!  It’s not that I’m a wimp, it’s just that the buses and trains won’t be running and the university will close and students and staff will all stay at home.  What else can I do?  Oh yes, I know – I’ll stay away from brass monkeys.

Vocabulary

brass   – le laiton
welder –  le soudeur
standstill –  å l’arret
day off – jour de congé
flurry – bourrasque de neige

tobogganing  – faisant de la luge
man-hours – heures (de travail)
wellingtons – bottes de caoutchouc
caretaker – le gardien
wimps – des mauviettes

thermal vest – gilet thermique
thermal leggings – leggings thermiques
woolly jumper – pull en laine

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Christmas. What’s not to Love?

Usually, in English when we say “What’s not to love?” about something, or someone, we mean that they cause us only positive feelings.  The implied answer is “nothing”.  For example, you could say of George Clooney, “He’s glamorous, handsome, supports good causes and he’s stinking rich, what’s not to love?”  However, in this advent season, if I seriously pose the question about Christmas, I come up with rather a long list of things not to love.

First of all, there’s the creeping sense of stress.  This begins in early November when you spot the first chocolate Santa in the supermarket, and builds gradually as you hear people on the tube boasting that they did all their Christmas  shopping on-line in April and now “only need to get a few bits”.   It mounts to a level of utter panic by 22nd December when all you’ve managed to buy is one incense candle and a box of liqueur chocolates,  which you’ll probably eat yourself.

Then there are the crowds.  As I work in Regent Street, which is just off Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping venue, by the second week in December it is no longer possible to reach the tube station without queuing to walk.  There are even pedestrian marshals with loud speakers yelling commands at the shoppers in order to keep them from falling under a bus.   This is not festive.  This is a dystopian nightmare.

It becomes completely impossible to go and meet a friend for a quiet drink in a local bar or cafe because they are all packed with gangs of people on their “work do” – which is the obligatory office Christmas event.  They wear plastic antlers on their heads and they are all drunk by 6.30 in the evening.  Then, you have to go to your own “work do” when the challenge is to try and avoid all the colleagues you don’t like in case you end up telling them so.  And of course, the same thing applies to the ones you do like, so it’s best not to talk to anyone.

In pre-Christmas UK, if you want to do anything practical at all, such as find a new apartment, or sell a car, or get the hall painted, or speak to someone in any company or government office, you can forget it.  “Oh sorry, love, not before Christmas” they’ll say.   All business is officially suspended from early December until the New Year.

But let’s try and be positive.  There must be something to love about a London Christmas?  Well, there’s the outdoor skating rinks that appear in squares and courtyards of historic buildings.  They are really atmospheric, and you can whizz round on your skates in a magical setting, then fall over and go for a cup of mulled wine.  and then there’s the  perfume ads on the television.  All the women in them – supermodels or film actresses – behave as if they are totally insane, flinging open doors to scream at their lovers, throwing cascades of diamonds off balconies, or twirling around on snowy mountaintops in a ball gown, laughing hysterically.  Christmas has obviously driven them crazy, and I’m really not surprised.

Vocabulary

Handsome – beau
Stinking rich – plein aux as
Advent  – l’avènement
Come up with – fabriquer
Creeping sense – sentiment croissant 

The tube  – le metro å Londres
To boast – vanter
Few bits – deux ou trois trucs
Crowd – foule
Just off – juste à côté de 

Marshals –  les comissaires
Festive – de fete
Work do – soirée d’entreprise
Antlers  – les ramures
Skating rink  – une patinoire 

Whizz – aller à toute vitesse
Mulled wine – vin chaud
Ad – pub
To fling – jeter
Ball gown – robe de bal

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My Interstellar Trip

Last week, I went to see the sci-fi blockbuster, Interstellar.  It tells the story of a space mission to seek out a new home planet for humans, because earth is becoming uninhabitable.  The film uses lots of technical jargon such as wormholes, black holes, inter-galactical portals, star gates, space arcs; you really need to be an astro-physicist to have a clue what’s going on.  Luckily, the special effects are so spectacular that you feel like you’ve been on a space voyage when you come out of the cinema, so if you can’t understand the complexities of space-time theory, it really doesn’t matter.

I’m not at all sure the actors knew what was happening either.  Not only was it hard to figure out where they were, (after all, the universe is a pretty big place) you couldn’t figure out when, either.  What with the time warps, wrinkles and folds, if you spent an hour or two on the surface of a planet, it was the equivalent of 23 years back on earth.  As a consequence, the poor crew-member who got left on the space station waited for his gang to come back for 31 years!  He had grey hair when they returned, and a bit later he got killed, although that’s probably because he wasn’t a very well-known actor.  They never survive space voyages for long.

Luckily, Coop, the astro-pilot hero managed to figure out a plan, using a whiteboard and marker pens.  This seemed rather lo-tech to me.  But what was  truly amazing was that their pens were still working after so long in space.  As a teacher, I use marker pens a lot, and mine don’t last for 31 minutes, never mind 31 years.

I started to think about our experience of time in our mundane lives down here on earth.  Going home from the cinema, the tube train I was on got stuck in a tunnel for several minutes.  It was a little like being in a black hole and I wondered if my hair might turn grey.  Every moment seemed like a year.  It was the reverse of the expression: “Time flies when you’re having fun”.  And it’s true that a really good party might last for eight hours or so, and yet it seems to go by in an instant.  

I also think that time differences are very problematic.  Three weeks ago, we turned the clocks back one hour in the UK.  This is called daylightsaving time, but the name is inaccurate, because there are no more hours of daylight, it just starts an hour earlier.  And it gets dark an hour earlier, so no daylight is saved at all.  It makes the winter evenings longer, because the sun sets at 3.30 in the afternoon.   When the clocks go back in the UK, the time difference between here and Reunion goes from three hours to four.  This makes it difficult to skype friends because by the time you think of it, usually after you’ve eaten in the evenings, everyone in Reunion is going to bed.  I think messing with time is a bad idea.

So if you have three hours to spare, you could go and see Interstellar.  It may, or may not, be time well spent. As Einstein would agree, it’s all relative.

Vocabulary

Tell – raconter
Seek out  – chercher
Such as – comme
Wormhole – un vortex
Black hole – un trou noir 

Portal – portail en espace
Going on – se passer
Special effects – effets speciaux
Warp – deformation du temps
Wrinkles – un pli (dans le vortex espace-temps) 

Folds – pliures du temps
Earth – la terre
Marker pen – marqueur
Lo-tech – a faible composante technologique
Mundane – banal 

Daylight –  le jour
Go to bed – aller au lit
To mess – jouer
Spare time – temps libre
To spend time  – passer le temps

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Yes, No, or Who Knows?

This morning I woke up to the news that Scotland voted No! to leaving the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  I have mixed feelings.  Overall, I am very relieved that our country has not lost a big chunk of itself.  During the campaign, people have talked about the UK as a family and it certainly does feel that if Scotland had left, it would have been like losing a brother or sister.  On the other hand, there was something very exciting about the Yes campaign.  The idea of a new, independent country, proud of its strength and character, making its own decisions, breaking away from the rule of the London parliament; all of this was very appealing.  I asked myself, if I was Scottish, how would I have voted?  I think I would have voted “Yes” to being independent.

I started to think about identity.  I come from Yorkshire, in the North of England, a part of the country that has its own traditions, attitudes and character.  Although I have not lived in Yorkshire for many years, I still consider myself to be “a Yorkshire lass” underneath.  I am also a Londoner, with a great affection for the city in which I am now living.  I am English, but I prefer to think of myself as British, because that identity feels more inclusive.  I am also happy to be European, and part of a union of many different countries and cultures.  And being European means I am lucky enough to be able to work in many of these countries, including my beloved Reunion.

So I have many identities, and depending on time and place and circumstances, I may feel more like one of them than the other.  People in Reunion also have many identities: you could be Malbar, Creole, Reunionais, French, part of Europe, a member of the Indian Ocean community.  You can be one of them, or a bit of all of them at once.  I think the idea of identity is a very shifting, changeable concept.

So, I’m glad this morning to find that I’m still a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (because I could have been part of a new country – United Kingdom of not-so-great Britain, maybe).  But out of all my possible identities, perhaps the one I enjoy and delight in the most is: Citizen of the World!

Vocabulary

mixed feelings – une melange d’émotion
chunk – un gros morceau
campaign – la campagne
rule –  le mandat, dominion
lass – une jeune fille

beloved – bien aimé
glad  – contente
citizen – citoyen
to delight in – prendre plaisir a

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Different Worlds

It’s now six weeks since I returned from Reunion to London.  I’m teaching a summer school in English for Academic Purposes at the University of Westminster.  This means my life has completely changed.  Instead of jumping into my little Peugeot and racing along the coastal highway by the beautiful blue ocean, I squeeze into the Docklands Light Railway carriage with dozens of other commuters, and rattle along the high-rise buildingsinto the city centre.

Instead of winding through sugar cane fields with a backdrop of spectacular velvety-green mountains, I walk from the station over the River Thames on a pedestrian bridge, with a panorama of St Paul’s cathedral, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.  Instead of listening to Maloya or Séga on my car radio, I can hear the sound of a busker who plays English traditional songs on a trumpet – very badly.

Instead of a low, modern campus with a courtyard shaded by palm trees, Westminster University’s Regent Street building has stone columns and a marble entrance hall.   Instead of a leafy car park there’s a busy street, where red double-decker buses and black London taxis trundle past all day long, creating noise and fumes.

In the class, instead of students who all speak French, there are learners from all over the world: China, Brazil, Viet Nam, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Japan and Iran.  Instead of explaining some difficult words or phrases in French, all the classes have to be given entirely in English.  This is an intensive language course, so the students are in class for five hours each day.  And of course, so am I!

At the end of the day, instead of unwinding by stopping off for a drink at a beach bar and watching the sun sink behind the horizon, I sit with a friend or colleague at a busy pavement cafe, and watch the never-ending stream of people, heading to the late-night shops on Oxford Street, the bars and restaurants in Soho or Fitzrovia, or home to the suburbs.

London is a busy, dirty, noisy, vibrant, multicultural city in Northern Europe.  Reunion is a lively, crazy, friendly, uniquely beautiful island in the Southern Indian Ocean.   Every day I ask myself: where would I rather be?

Vocabulary

rattle along – bringuebaler
high-rise buildings – tours de bureau ou d’habitation
velvety-green – vert foncé de velour
busker –  musicien de rue
trundle –  cheminer

unwinding  –  se détendre
never-ending – sans cesse
Soho, Fitzrovia – quartiers de Londres

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Roundabout

Here’s a true story…

When you are speaking a foreign language , you can expect misunderstandings to happen from time to time.  But even speakers of the same language can have breakdowns in communication.

A few months ago, my friend Danielle and I drove into the centre of Ravine des Cabris.  She had an appointment at the dentist and I was heading for a cut-price household goods store.  We’d arranged to meet up later at a cafe.   She was running a little late and so, at the roundabout by the dentist, she pulled over to the side of the road and said, “Okay, I’m going to leave you here”.  I decided she wanted me to leap out of the car quickly as she hadn’t time to drive me to the store.  So I did.  But what she wanted was for me to take over driving, and for her to hurry to the dentist.  So she did.

An hour and a half later, I was sitting in the cafe, munching a croissant and reading Le Journal.  Danielle charged in, looking furious.  “Is that how you take care of the car?” she yelled.  I was completely confused. I even replied, idiotically,  “What car?”  The car had been at the roundabout, windows open, engine running, keys in the ignition for an hour and a half.

When we realised how we’d managed to completely misunderstand each other, we found it very funny.  So did everyone else when we told them the story.  We decided that Reunion is probably one of the few places in the world where you could go back and find the car just as you’d left it.  In London either you’d be in major trouble with the traffic cops, or the car would be stolen.  Or possibly both.

For a while after that incident, whenever we made arrangements, we checked very carefully that we were both clear about the plan.  Sometimes even in two languages.  You can’t be too careful when it comes to communication.

Vocabulary

breakdown – rupture
cut price – bon marché
running late – etre en retard
pull over – arreté
munching – maché

ignition – allumage
charge in – entre en pas de charge
yell – clamer

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