‘Mouton’s First Treatise on Awkwardness’ or ‘Mouton Fights Off a Chinese Man’

7 Feb

Part 1

The other day someone asked me how to say “awkward” in French. “Ummmmm, I’m not sure” I replied and for the rest of the afternoon was plagued by that annoying feeling, the one you get when you recognise an actor in a movie but just can’t remember where you’ve seen them before. I waited for that eureka moment when you shout “It’s Septimus from Stardust!” or “She was in an episode of Merlin!” but it didn’t come. So I had to conclude (with a little help from my friend Google Translate) that the French simply don’t have a word for awkward. It just doesn’t exist. The closest I could get was “mal à l’aise ” which means “uneasy” and that simply does not cover “awkward”.

Awkwardness is a complex thing. It’s suffocating, it’s in-your-face, sometimes it’s so tangible it’s as if you could cut through it like cheese. It descends upon a silent dinner table like a dense fog that envelopes the entire party. “Mal à l’aise ” simply doesn’t portray the feeling of utter mortification when, to use a completely random example that is in no way connected to myself or any of my friends *cough*, you made out with your friends brother the previous weekend, you remember, the whole school remembers, but you haven’t told her yet and on Monday morning you all have to sit together in religion class. Now that’s not “mal à l’aise ”, that’s awkward.

But why is there no word for this in French? The British have developed an entire culture around this concept: we have awkward turtles, balloons and even awkward beached whales for those moments so awkward that social norms just cease to apply. But the French, they seem to have this ability to just power through awkward situations using pure self-confidence and a complete refusal to recognise the situation as awkward at all! Maybe that’s why there’s no word for it, because it isn’t acknowledged in France. It hovers over a conversation but, like a naughty child, when no one pays any attention to it, it just walks off. (*Cough* I’d just like to draw your attention to that lovely simultaneous use of simile and personification but I’ll stop now with the crude attempts at imagery.. Don’t judge me, it’s been a while since I got to write creatively).

Going back to the point, I must now admit that even I didn’t know the true meaning of awkward until about 8.40 on Wednesday morning.

Part 2

I had decided it would be fun to sign myself up for t’ai chi classes. Yep, admittedly a little bit random, but I thought it would be a calm, peaceful start to an otherwise unproductive Wednesday: slow graceful movements in the seclusion of the back garden behind the uni’s main library. How wrong I was. I arrived 10 minutes late as usual and decided to cut through the main garden which is bang smack in the middle of the main university complex. Just as I reached the steps I noticed a short middle aged Chinese guy standing at the top of the garden. Alone. “It’s okay,” I thought, “There are a lot of Chinese people at my uni. That won’t be the t’ai chi teacher!” and kept on walking. A voice called me from behind. Shit.

I reluctantly turned around and re-climbed the steps.

“Is this the right place for t’ai chi class?” I asked tentatively. Please let him say no, please let him say no, please let his say..

“Yes”.

Okaaaay.

“Where are the other students?” I asked.

“Normalement there were four last time, but they aren’t here and some have switched to the indoor class on Thursdays”.

Brilliant.

May I remind you of three things at this point of the story?

1)      This guy was Chinese and obviously we were speaking French, both with quite distinct accents. But seeing as this is a translated version and I don’t even know if he speaks English I think it would be absurd and slightly racist to try and transliterate his Chinese accent in this text. So you’re just going to have to use your imagination.

2)      I think it necessary to stress the location of this garden we are standing in. It’s literally as central as you can get, the one used in all the prospectuses (no, it’s not prospecti, I did Wikipedia it). All the main buildings surround it, that’s seven floors of windows with a full view of the garden, not to mention the main lecture theatre. It is the only direct passage between Saint Guillaume and Saint Pères. All in all that’s about 200 students as witnesses to my humiliation.

3)      The temperature: -7 degrees centigrade. Wind chill factor not included. Need I say more?

The Garden, although it’s not as green in winter.

So anyway, the guy explains that since I’ve paid for the class I’m going to have to take it and deal with it.

“It’s a bit cold,” I mumble weakly.

“My weekend class likes to do tai chi in the snow.”

I shut up because there’s simply no answer to something like that.

“We warm up!” he says and starts to twizzle slowly on the spot.

Now I’m sorry, but even with the power of chi on your side how is slowly gyrating your hips in figures of eight going to save you from frostbite? Don’t answer that.

So I decided to keep him talking for as long as possible, we started with some slow, repetitive movements and I’m thinking “Okay, this isn’t too bad! To passers-by I might even look mildly interesting”.

“Now bring  both arms round, bend and PUNCH TO THE FRONT!” he says, and demonstrates what I can only describe as the most grotesque and alarmingly violent movement I have ever seen. He looked like he was having a sudden severe attack of diarrhoea.

“Uhhh, excuse me?”

He repeats.

“Ummm, we didn’t do anything like that in my last tai chi class. It was more focussed on balance, relaxation, respiration…”

“That’s t’ai chi qigong! This tai chi ch’uan! Wu style!”

This meant nothing to me.

In order to try to explain, they say a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s how I’d pictured t’ai chi would be like:

This is what I’d signed myself up for:

*Note to Self: Never presume to understand anything Chinese.

And that’s how I spent the next hour jumping up and down the garden, sometimes being assaulted by a Chinese man, other times fighting off imaginary assailants and all the while wishing I were still in bed or a hench Chinese man so I wouldn’t look so ridiculous attempting martial arts, cursing both my own stupidity and the establishment for creating a class with only one student in it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what is wrong with these people???

Once my ordeal was over I went straight to the cafeteria to defrost and started writing this, giving serious evil eyes to anyone who looked at me oddly. In retrospect, even awkward doesn’t cover what I experienced that day. In fact there is a saying I rarely use which may actually be fitting to describe this exact situation. It’s a saying so universal that it is completely translatable from French to English. VDM i.e. FML!!!

Mouton (almost) attends Paris Fashion Week

28 Jan

Parties — Carnival

It’s fashion week so I thought I’d say a bit about Parisian couture and everyday clothing which, if you study in Saint-Germain, turn out to be practically the same thing. Fashion is a complicated business in Paris and, as you will discover, it’s surprisingly difficult to strike the right tone.

Picture your average British student. Jeans, hoodie, trainers right? Perhaps in Oxford you’ll find a higher percentage of corduroy and slightly shinier shoes but the essentials are the same. However, the Parisian student is a whole different species.

The female Parisian student is a smart, tidy creature who dresses approximately 10 years older than she actually is. Common items of clothing include black lace tops worn over a similar style bra, knee-length skirts paired with tights and medium-heeled fur-trimmed boots and don’t forget the signature cherry-red coat (although emerald green and plum purple are equally acceptable).Hair never covers the face which is generally make-up free save for a dash of lipstick.

The male is an equally impressive specimen. He, unlike his British counterpart, will spend time in the mornings putting together his outfit. In some ways he is far more comfortable in his sexuality: you will find heterosexual male students sporting tight ochre jeans, fur-lined coats, cream woollen cardigans, above-the-knee bright green shorts and an alarming array of multi-coloured socks. And one must not forget the designer-beard! You see unlike in England where a beard equals caveman, slob, mid-life crisis, a serious case of “challenge accepted!” or any combination of the above, in Paris (or Saint-Germain at the very least) a beard represents wisdom, age and knowledge and serves to thinly disguise the fact that half the professors are barely much older than the students.

Trends change so quickly it’s almost spooky. For example, one day in October I walked into la Péniche to find everyone was wearing beige trench coats (below centre). Not cream, not khaki: beige. I mean everyone. Students, teachers, men, women alike! I wavered for a couple of days and then, when sure the wave of beige wasn’t going to go away, headed straight for Les Halles for some emergency shopping. I suppose that seeing as uni is situated on the same street as Ralph Lauren, Armani, Gucci and Hermès, we get all the new fashions first. For example I can exclusively tell you that the next big thing will be velvet, then satin, then African-print kangas (Cost: either 5000 shillings or 5000 euros depending on whether you buy one at Sonya Rykiel Paris or Oweno market Kampala).

Unfortunately, this state of affairs put me and my wardrobe of hoodies, trackies and hats with raccoon faces on them slightly at odds with social convention. At first I tried to rebel but after my third week of stepping out of the metro to a display of leopard-print playsuits and bottle-green cocktail dresses, the stares started to get to me. It’s difficult to overdress at uni (anything short of ball gowns and white tie seems to pass), but it’s all too easy to underdress. When not even the boys are on your side you know it’s time to adapt.

So I bought the high-waisted brown trouser-suits. Oh yes! I bought the medium-heeled boots and the elbow-length button-up shirts. I even bought a turquoise, wait for it, FUR-TRIMMED coat (top right) ! And the extent of my transformation was revealed to me only this Tuesday when I was walking past a fashion week evening event at Prada. It looked, ironically, like something straight out of “The Devil Wears Prada”. You had your glamazons in their chiffon skirts with legs up to there and hair down to there, you had your fashion photographers and interviewers, you had your men in clean cut suits with equally clean cut hair, all waving large white invites and sauntering up the plush, white (slightly soggy ‘cause it was drizzling) carpet. I decided to walk straight up to the barriers calmly and confidently because this is a free country, the capitalists don’t own the pavement yet and I’m just a honey-badger i.e. I really don’t give a shit! The tuxedoed men guarding the entrance paused and looked at me quizzically. Quizzically! As if they weren’t quite sure whether I was meant to be there! Are you getting this?? Has it clocked yet??? Bouncers for a Paris fashion week event actually hesitated when deciding whether to let me in to an exclusive Prada party! They hesitated as opposed to looking me up and down before throwing me off their pavement! Score or what?!

I didn’t attend the Prada party because, frankly, I have more important things to do (wink!) and to be honest the bouncers looked pretty relieved when I turned left at the last minute. But my new-found Parisian look does have some disadvantages. Let’s not forget that I live in dodgy-to-say-the-least southern Paris where the uniform consists of duffer coats in exciting shades of black, grey or brown. Consequently, the walk from Monsouris to the metro in my turquoise coat attracts many “Who the hell does she think she is?” evil stares. These persist on Ligne 4 until I step off the train at Saint-Germain-des-Prés and people go “Oh! That explains it!” and go back to staring blankly at their shoes. I leave the metro and breathe a sigh of relief as I join my people: the fur-trimmed, heel-wearing, colourful race of the 6th arrondissement. I think I’ll just have to get used to this change of environment every morning, short of buying two coats and changing in the metro there’s not much else I can do. Anyway, soon I’ll be too stylish to care!

Mouton’s Theory of Relativity

26 Jan

(Note before I start writing this post: DON’T JUDGE ME!!!)

Earlier I spoke of the noticeable concentration of ever so slightly deranged people on the metro. I now wish to speak of a rather more interesting conglomeration I have noticed within the walls of my university itself. Hmmm, how to phrase this in a family-friendly way? A significant proportion of the male staff have certain traits and characteristics in common, traits that could be interpreted as appealing and/or just strait up gorgeous.

There are certain things professors who possess these traits just shouldn’t do. Like professors who buy sexy new glasses and spend lessons elaborating upon the history of orgasms, examiners with deep blue eyes that make you curse over and over again the fact that you slept through half of Institutions Politiques, Geopolitics experts clad in shirts with no tie and the top button undone: now that’s just cruel! And this isn’t just a French thing in general! This kind of excessive attractiveness simply does not occur in places such as the metro or the streets of the 14th arrondissement. I’m convinced there must be something behind this bizarre and disorientating phenomenon, and if you smell something as fishy as I do (and it’s not the fridge by the way, this week’s chosen fragrance is a mixture of pasta carbonara and 2 day old kebab) then keep reading because I have a theory!

Mouton’s Theory on the Relative Attractiveness of Male Professors at a certain Institute of Higher Education

( Note to academic readers: this theory has been tested neither empirically nor using any form of regression linéaire or anything to do with causality. It is purely hypothetical with some elements of caricature similar to the idéaltype. It is of course completely original, therefore copyrighted, patented and detectable through urkund )

Okay so as we know I go to a uni which is pretty demanding or, as a friend’s academic father once so eloquently put it, “quite a hot-shit place”. It’s competitive in that your overall mark partly depends on your ranking in the class but, unlike Prepa, they don’t actually want you to fail. Now most boys, as I learnt from my experiences in Maths 5, are naturally competitive. They don’t need much extra motivation, rather they seem to gain more energy and drive as they bounce off each other’s testosterone. I say this in the least sexist and least euphemistic way possible. We girls however, although just as driven in both theory and practice, are less inclined to intellectually rip each other to shreds and more prone to switch off when the professor gets to the more intricate details of the challenges to the French Second Republic (1848-52). However if said professor possesses desirable traits such as youth, charisma, a nice suit and smokin’-hotness, the female population is more likely to pay attention to his explanations of the possible effects of the 1848 Printemps des Peuples or causalité au sens de Granger and equilibrium is restored.

So there it is: my chef d’oeuvre, my pièce de résistance, my theory of relativity. Any feedback is most welcome.

Mouton’s Guide to the Metro

25 Jan

Every morning when I step out of my extremely humble abode in the 14th arrondissement I face a dilemma. I must decide whether to take the RER and risk being squished into one of the dodgy side cabins unable to breathe let alone move, or risk line four’s infamous delays. Once, when returning from a club at 5:30 in the morning, it announced delays “suite à” some kind of malfunction of the train ahead. The metro had only just opened! How can there be delays at 5:30 in the morning?? Who overslept? This is just the first in a number of challenges you have to face when using the Parisian metro.

It helps to familiarise yourself with the metro map first. Interestingly many of the metro stops are named after French historical figures such as Vavin, Raspail, Chaligny, Ledru-Rollin. No? Am I the only one interested by this? Okay, point taken, moving on.

Before you start taking the metro in Paris you’ll need a ticket or, as I was informed on my first day, a “Carte imaginR”. “Carte imaginaire??” I thought. Wtf? An imaginary card? What have these people been smoking? In fact it turned out to be a student discount metro ticket and I have grown to like my imagineR card. It makes a great “Ping!” sound when you pass through the barriers as if to say “Hello loyal customer and owner of an imagineR card! Thank you for letting us take 40 euros a month out of your bank account! You are now an official resident of Paris the most beautiful city in the world! (not that you’ll get to see any of it since you’ll be spending all your time in the metro)”. It’s far better than the Carte Navigo I had to use for the first months. You have to top this one up every week unless you remember to buy a month’s worth on the pinch punch first of the month. When it needs topping up it makes this sickly noise, more of a “braaap” than a “Ping!”, and attracts the pitying glances of other more long-term metro users. As a semi-Parisian now I feel highly superior to those lowly tourists that use “billets de metro”; flimsy cardboard disposable metro tickets. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll be a fully-fledged French metro user and take to pushing over old grannies and people with luggage on the escalators.

If you’re skint or if you’re just one of those people who likes to, as the great Dizzee Rascal once said, “get their thrills for free” you can jump over the metro barriers but you risk incurring the wrath of the ticket inspectors. It’s always obvious when the metro police are carrying out a ticket inspection. They lurk round a corner just beyond the ticket barriers. Men who’d been striding along confidently in front of you come to an abrupt halt as if they’ve suddenly lost interest in taking the metro at all. They dither for a few seconds before retreating… presumably to walk to the nearest police-free station. This intrigues me as I have no idea how they might sense the waiting inspection officers without being able to see them. I’ve concluded that there must be some sort of collusion between fare dodgers so that the ones coming the other way (who aren’t searched since they are leaving the station) give the incoming dodgers some kind of silent signal.

Once you’ve got your ticket and got past the inspectors onto a train you’ll discover that one of the many downsides of the French metro is the seating arrangements. Seats are in fours facing each other which have passengers sitting uncomfortably knee to knee and face to face. This is highly awkward for me, I find avoiding people’s eyes on the Tube bad enough. God forbid you should want to leave the train if you find yourself on an inside seat! The only rare times when I don’t sit there cursing the invasion of my personal space is when pressed against an attractive guy. Unfortunately this has only happened three times in four months of metro use; I must conclude that all the hot men in Paris own cars. Shame.

People will invariably try to get money off you on trains. Aging singers are the best, or at least the least annoying, especially the ones that can actually sing. Strangely there have been no accordion-players yet. I think the importance of the accordion in French music and culture is exaggerated outside of la France. Some try to sell booklets; they’re only mildly annoying. The really irritating ones are the boom box carriers who attempt to rap and/or break dance. This may sound exciting at first; you may be picturing the opening scene of ‘Step Up 2’ with dancers sliding under metro seats. The reality consists of a couple of slightly obese Moroccans who shout incomprehensible syllables at you for half a minute, flip once or twice using the poles lining the aisles (often revealing a butt crack mid-flip if you’re unfortunate enough to be seated behind them) and then expect you to pay them for this unpleasant experience. I’ll give them points for trying though. Then there are those that get straight to the point. They walk onto the carriage and recite a short speech about how they’ve been homeless for 7 months now and please need money for food and lodging. Some drag toddlers along with them. I feel really bad for these ones, how desperate must you be to resort to outright begging? Come on France! I thought you were meant to be big on socialism and sécurité sociale (or some shit like that)!

I’m not sure how to put it nicely but the Parisian metro has a significantly higher-than-average percentage of mentally unstable individuals! The first week I met a really philosophical guy with dreadlocks who was raving to himself about meaning of life and, more interestingly, the secret to retaining a long lasting relationship with a lover. Unfortunately, just when he was getting to the point he completely forgot what he was saying so sorry, I can’t pass on any wisdom. There was the budding entrepreneur who shared with me his idea for a department store where the clothes floated around the shop attached to balloons and offered me an inflated sky-blue balloon to carry my bag which looked a bit heavy. I politely declined. There is still a man at the tram stop at Porte d’Orleans who is convinced that my friend and I are both his wives! And of course there was the woman who peed right in front of me, which was pleasant. But then again, French men do it all the time! Who am I to judge? Maybe she was making a statement about the sexism which is still present in modern Parisian society.

By the way, eating is a no-no on the metro, unless you want to attract a large audience. I sometimes feel like saying “What’re you looking at fool? Never seen a banana before? Tchah!”. But the worst food type to attempt to consume on the train is yoghurt, not for sanitary reasons but because it really seems to disturb your fellow passengers. I tried this one morning, pulled a spoon out of my handbag and people looked positively alarmed! Not sure how to analyse this so I’ll put it down to being a French thing, along with chain smoking, minute cups of coffee and all the other things I don’t understand about this place.

I could go on to elaborate about the downright offensiveness of couples of all ages who think it’s alright to subject the rest of us to their explicit demonstrations of affection whilst on the metro but this is a large subject and deserves to be saved for the entry on relationships.

Here is a final list of connections to avoid when using the Parisian metro:

1)      Châtelet Les Halles if you don’t want to walk half way to your destination

2)      Gare de Lyon if you don’t know what you’re doing

3)      Montparnasse Bienvenüe or Montparnasse Dégagez as I like to call it ever since it swallowed my iPod.

4)      Bastille AT ALL COSTS, it’s a completely incomprehensible station. And by the way, if you didn’t know already, the Bastille (ancient prison and symbol of the oppression and arbitrary arrests of the old regime) is no longer there! I suppose I should have guessed; it was stormed rather impressively on 14th of July 1789. But still, they could’ve at least left some ruins. Anyway, I’m going hors-sujet.

So that’s it! Congratulations faithful reader for getting to the end of this extremely long post! I hope this has provided you with some insight into one of Europe’s oldest underground systems. Conclusion: if you’re not in a hurry, just take the bus!

Hi, bonsoir, bienvenue, welcome and ahlan wa sahlan!

23 Jan

Not quite sure how to begin so I thought I’d start by stating my reasons for starting this blog so in no particular order…

  • I’ve become aware since my last trip back home to England that when asked about living in Paris I tend to either attempt to explain a full history of 19th century France or list the details of the 2008 constitutional revision and its effects on French democracy. These seem to be the only subjects that immediately spring to mind. So more recently my answer to “So how’s life in Paris??!” has been “Oh good, you know, lots of work… so how’s Glasgow/ Exeter/ Oxford/ Cambridge/ Sussex/ Cardiff/ London/ Boston/ school/ work?”. This is a shame since there are plenty of witty and interesting observations to be made about Paris and Parisians in general. For example did you know that while the British call the French “frogs” they call us “roast beef”?! Okay so not the wittiest, most interesting of facts but bear with me!
  • I’m feeling a bit of an underachiever next to my yoga-teaching, rugby-playing, sports-reporting, mobile-phone-display-designing friends so I’ve picked three hobbies for this term which involve the least possible physical exertion: tai-chi, crocheting and blogging.
  • Since passing English class and no longer having weekly writing exercises such as “Compare and contrast the characters of Arabella and Sue in Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’. In what way do both women contribute to Jude’s downfall?” my level of written English has deteriorated fast. The situation became critical last month when I forgot how to spell “apparently”. This cannot continue.
  • I’ve attempted keeping diaries in the past but none of them lasted more than a few weeks and all in retrospect were just the mad ramblings of a confused teen. So I’ve decided to start blogging not because I think anyone is remotely interested in my weird life but precisely to save myself and all of you from diary entries dripping with self-pity and existential nonsense. You see, once other people can read your material the pressure is on!
  • I doubt any of my other New Year’s Resolutions (staying awake in lectures, not leaving dissertations till the night before they’re due and jogging on Monday mornings) are going to last long past February.

So finally I’ve decided to blog for my own amusement and yours as well hopefully! Heeheeeh I’m so excited about this! I’ve rambled enough for this time but am thinking of drafting an entry on the Parisian metro; there is a goldmine of material there! Oh and I’ll have to cover French wine, fashion, banks and men of course. A bientôt mes amis!