30 October 2012

Mal du pays...

That's homesick to all you non-francophones, and I've got a massive bout of it. I've just had my wonderful boyfriend, Paul, come to stay in France for a week and I think that's what has triggered these feelings. We spent a night in beautiful Nice which, to me, is like a high-end cross between Blackpool and Miami with yacht races and Jamiroquai house music in the background. We stayed in Grand Hotel le Florence, which had fantastically helpful staff and amazingly comfortable beds, and believe it or not we found somewhere to watch the Newcastle v Sunderland derby! It was in a bar (Wayne's Bar) similar to Hooters but nowhere near as sleazy, sitting across from two Mackems (boo, hiss, boo). We explored Aix-en-Provence as if I was seeing it for the first time again and discovered weird nonsensical art such as this... :

Sorry that it's sideways - but it was an abstract... something, so I guess it doesn't really matter!

We got caught in a few apocalyptic rainstorms, rode the Subway across Marseille to visit le Bol and the All City graffiti shop, which is possibly the first shop in France I've walked into where the staff haven't looked at me like I'd just done a shat on the Eiffel Tower and burned the tricolore whilst playing La Marseillaise with my armpit. In fact, they were some of the nicest people I've come across since being here and they even complimented me on my French, which is always a confidence boost! They didn't even mind that Paul didn't speak very much French, which I've often found a turning point of conversations (in that they just... end), but that's another post for another day when I'm feeling more rant-y.

There's also nothing like a romantic stroll around a Vichy government work camp set up in 1939 for the deportation of Jews to round up a gorgeous couple's holiday. Camp des Milles was an interesting way to spend €7.50 (€9.50 if you ain't a student bum like me) and two and a half hours of your afternoon. Or it would have been two and a half hours had everything not been in French and had the other half not been bored out of his mind because of this.

Here's a brief photo dump of some of the things we did:

This salad was €14... FOURTEEN EUROS.

Anyway, I began writing this to tell you about how homesick I am and that it was Paul's visit which triggered it all (if you're reading this, Paul, this is all your fault - I'm joking of course). Ever since I left England I've had recurring dreams about my old home in Heaton no longer being my home, but being my Grandparents' house, my mother's house and nobody I know's house simultaneously (you know what I mean, you've had dreams) and I had a dream early this morning which left a lot of nostalgic, emotional residue, the kind which leaves you feeling a little bit detached from reality for the whole day because you just don't know what the fuck your brain was doing last night.

Enfin, what I'm trying to say is that I never expected to feel homesick, but everything that would cause it has come at once; post-Paul blues, the fact that a lot of people have returned to England/Ireland for Blackberry Week or have visitors from home and I've been left to my own devices and then seeing photographs of all my friends dressed up for Halloween parties. All of this along with the fact that the temperature here in Aix has dropped from twenty degrees to five in the space of two days, which doesn't sound as cold as Newcastle but when you've been used to twenty-three degree sunshine for the past month and a half it is a bit of a kick in the hypothalamus.

I'm usually at home in England when the weather starts to get like this and I think it's the autumnal colours, the smell of burning wood and the cold air biting at my cheeks that's making me miss home the most. It reminds me of a time when I was younger when Autumn in England was actually a phase in the year where the sun shone through the multi-coloured leaves like through a stained glass window and was not entirely indiscernible from Winter (or Summer, in fact) because of sheets and sheets of rain, like it is now. It's nice to be able to live it again without having to don a mac, some wellies, a brolly and an emergency life raft, but at the same time ça me donne envie de retourner en Angleterre.

Alas, I'm not one to wish my life away and I feel it is important to live in the present moment, so I'm going to make the most of it by taking lots of pictures, begin knitting again (I'm going to do my very first hat - how exciting!), and making a Jack-o'-lantern along with some pumpkin soup, as soon as I can get a hold of a pumpkin that's not abîmée. 

Somebody posted this song on my newsfeed as I was writing this post and, as it goes, it happens to perfectly describe how I feel about Autumn in France and missing home. I don't know how, but it just does.

Alt-J (∆) - Taro

18 October 2012

The not-so-sweet life of a student in France.

Don't get me wrong when I say that the life of an Erasmus student isn't sweet; I love it because people practically throw money at you to go and piss about in foreign countries for a whole year, you don't wake up before 11am and your classes are all finished by 7pm so there's still time for food and drinks with the other Erasmus nutters afterwards and all the while the sun's still shining (most of the time).

However, as with all things in life, the sweet must come with the sour; the sour being the French university system and la bureaucratie. I'd heard rumours about how mind-numbingly tedious the insertion process can be and just how much hair you'd lose trying to find somebody to sign your bloody fiche pedagogique so you can actually sit the exams of the courses you're already registered on, but I thought they were just that. Rumours.

But no, there's no smoke without a fire, and we got chucked right into the middle of the flames, trying desperately to keep a hold of our home universities' apron strings in the process. The first thing I encountered when arriving at French university is that, when you take your arrival form to get signed, they don't do it there and then (like common sense would tell you to do) and you have to pick it up in a week's time. In the meantime, take these five other forms to fill in and bring them back at specified dates.

Next, you have to go to classes. Oh wait, no, sorry, it's not as simple as that. I mean you have to spend hours a day hunting around this labyrinth of a university, of which the only method of navigation is to use the graffiti and political propaganda as a sort of guide to remind you where you are, in order to find out the hours and classrooms of the modules you have chosen. You then have to make a rough draft of YOUR OWN TIMETABLE (first-world problems) to see if any of these modules clash with one another. If they do, you have to go and find other modules, note down their times and rooms, and see if they clash and so on and so forth until you have something that is sort of, a little bit, all right.

Smooth sailing from now on, yes? No. Of course not. This is France. Once you've managed to arrive at your classes, you're presented with the worry that there seems to be more people than places (which will happen in 99.999% of cases) and so, since you've already been here a month and know that queueing does not exist in Europe like it does in Britain, you put on your best stiff upper lip and break The Golden Rule of Queueing: you push in. You race to get a seat as far from the door as possible in the hope that that will mean you almost definitely won't be thrown back out, tail between your legs, and have to go looking for yet another class, but this is not the case. You must meet yet further requirements to be able to stay in this class:
  • priority is given to students who are staying for just one semester (strike one, I'm alright, I can stay)
  •  you must be 100% sure that this class is suited to the level of language that you possess (strike two? I don't know, I've not had any classes yet...)
  • you must have registered online on Gigue. (GIGUE?! What in the blue hell is this Gigue?! Nobody told us foreigners about this, I demand a rematch)
Thankfully, for me, Gigue seems to have only been relevant to my Spanish class, which I managed to find and register for and am therefore now immune to eviction from the Big Brother House (I honestly do feel like this is one big joke and somebody is watching me and putting up more red tape wherever I decide to walk until I'm in a tiny little square and can't go anywhere else so they just set fire to me - like on The Sims). 

There are possibly hundreds of other examples I could give of how frustratingly and unnecessarily complicated the French university system is, but really it's just more of the same old sign-this-paper, try-this-phone-number bureaucratic shit. And it's not just in institutions either. When preparing to come to France, I thought the stereotype of French bureaucracy only applied to things to do with the government and customs and banking, but this mentality leaks into everyday life as well. Again, I have encountered hundreds of examples and I've only been here a month and a half, but put it this way; if you go to Géant Casino or Carrefour and you're looking for a jar of haricots blancs, don't ask the woman on the meat section because she'll just tell you that she can't help you, it's not her section and will walk away from you, leaving you forever haricot blanc-less. Stereotypes come about for a reason, and remember kids, you're always wrong in the eyes of a French bureaucrat, even if you're right.


I thought that, as a 21 year-old hard ass from the North-East of England, having braved the bleak horizon of unemployment and low investments in my local area, nothing would prove too much of a problem, but the arse end of September and the dawning of October have really tested my patience (of which I have very little to begin with). I come from a long line of tough Geordie women who let neither man nor mishap stand in the way of what they want to do and thankfully, this has helped me. If I didn't have the Lockey gene, I don't know if I'd still have a full head of hair after the shit-storm of paperwork, heures de permanence and red tape I have just endured for the past two and a half weeks. I'd like to take this brief moment to thank my Nana Pat, all of her sisters, my Auntie Andrea and my mother, Bev, for always telling me to do what I want, don't let anybody stand in my way and to stick it to the man. NIQUE LA POLICE! VIVE LA REVOLUTION!

9 October 2012

Croatia; nature's playground.

When I came to France, I thought I'd be hard pushed to ever see anywhere more beautiful; the streets are (relatively) clean, there are beautiful provencal buildings and there's so much green everywhere. It's miles more beautiful than the boring, grey, orange-street-lamp-lit streets of England. But I was so wrong in thinking this...

A few of us (I say a few, I mean sixteen) decided on a whim to book a trip to Zadar in Croatia. Eastern Europe's never really been on my travelling bucket list, but I thought I'd give it a go because how can you go wrong with a return plane ticket for €60, even if it does mean being shot through the sky in a tin-can with Ryanair painted on the side? I thought if anything it'd be a long weekend of beach, bouffe and booze and that we'd all return to Aix-en-Provence slightly worse for wear. In this instance I was correct, but this was only a fraction of how amazing the weekend actually turned out to be.

For those of you who don't know where Croatia is, it's here (B).

This is the city where we stayed; Zadar.
Photograph taken from Google Images.

First impressions from the plane window were lasting ones; this country is so green and sparsely populated (only about 4.5 million people live in the whole of Croatia - that's less than the population of London!) that it looks like what I imagine most countries would have looked like before us evil white men arrived, took over and built our big ugly corporation buildings everywhere. It was nice to see somewhere that hasn't yet been destroyed by tourism or capitalism. It's even more surprising that a place can be so naturally and architecturally beautiful when you learn that the war between Croatia and Yugoslavia only ended in 1995, and the whole independence process only concluded in 1998. That's only 12 years ago. Wow.

So anyway, we stayed at The Drunken Monkey Hostel which I would now highly, highly, highly recommend to anybody thinking of going to Zadar in Croatia for a cheap stay. It was around €17 a night, I don't know how anybody could turn their nose up at that, especially when it looks like this:

Photographs taken from Hostelworld.com.

The staff there made our stay fantastically comfortable and we really felt like we were at home; there were a few rules as there is with any place but there was a massive feeling of mutual respect between owner and client. The first staff member we met, Kyle, even helped us organise our whole weekend since we pretty much just arrived without any sort of plan. This was my first time staying in a hostel (aka, I was a hostel virgin) and I can't have asked for a better first time (ha). 

So since I've bored you with facts and figures, I'll explain what the title of this post is all about. Croatia, for me, really is nature's playground. The first day was a long one (but not in a bad way) spent walking along the coastline of Zadar towards the Old Town, where you can see the most amazing view of the Adriatic Sea and the Croatian island of Uglijan, but it's certainly not uglij to me (bad Dad joke, sorry). 

We had our friend Katy with us who had visited Zadar before and she directed us through the town towards something called the Sea Organ. This is the first thing which opened my eyes a little bit more to how fun nature can be when her natural powers are harnessed in a creative way. The sound the Sea Organ produces is caused by the movement of the waves pushing air under and up through holes in the pier on the waterfront and, depending on which way the wind blows, different notes create hauntingly relaxing tunes that are all too easy to fall asleep to (see below). This is the kind of thing that makes you feel at one with nature, because you're seeing it (or hearing it, in this case) in a different way to usual. Normally you can just see the waves hitting the shore, but when harnessed in this way you hear them in a weirdly existential way which makes you feel really surrounded by the sea.

This video, taken from YouTube, shows perfectly what the Sea Organ sounds like and also shows Zadar's "Salute to the Sun", which I unfortunately didn't get to see while I was there.

Asleep on the Sea Organ.
Photo taken from a friend's Facebook.

As of yet I unfortunately don't have any photographs of this part of the trip, I'll add them to the picture post I'm going to do once I've got all of my photos developed from my film camera, but this was just another great way we were able to enjoy something that nature put there. The beach takes about twenty-five minutes to get to from Zadar itself, and the sand (once you dig for it) turns black. It apparently has medicinal properties, which I'm not too sure about, but there's definitely something in it that leaves your skin amazingly soft. You look like a bit of a divvy (idiot, for non-geordies) standing with dirty limbs and stomachs (you're not meant to put it on your heart or kidneys, for some reason that I haven't discovered yet) but once you've let the minerals soak in and have rubbed it around for a good bit of exfoliation, you wash it off and are left with super smooth skin. I can't say it smells too great, so it's no wonder it hasn't been marketed as a product or a go-to location yet, but the mud baths at Nin are definitely worth a visit. 

Now, I know that this post is already getting rather lengthy, but this is the part that I really, really, really, absolutely want to go into detail about. The higlight of my weekend; Krka National Park. I'm just going to post pictures because it speaks for itself really. It's so majestic.

Photo taken from a friend's Facebook.

I can't express how at home I felt in this nature park; I've always had something for huge lakes surrounded by evergreens and cascading waterfalls, but didn't really realise just how much until I came here. Maybe it's the hours upon hours I spent with my Granda Bat watching Bob Ross paint scenes like Krka and saying things such as "let's give this little tree here a friend, trees don't like to be lonely either." I love trees, there's something so modestly proud about them, which is a paradox if I ever saw one. I was so happy to be able to peacefully walk amongst these giants which have been on earth for longer than my family name has existed. At the time that the bottom picture was took I was actually staring at a hole in a rock which had obviously been created by the way the water had moved against it for the past however many hundreds of years, and I got to see it. This is the kind of thing that makes you feel small and insignificant, but also makes you appreciate being able to experience something so grand and so beautiful (even if they're the tiny things), and makes you want to make the most of everything because your life, really, is just a blink of an eye on the timeline of the universe's existence. 

I always get stick for being too much of a hippy at home because I say stuff like the above, my boyfriend even told me once that he "knows I'm one with the wind and all that shit", but it's true what I'm saying. I have never felt more zen than I did in that national park, being able to swim next to a monument of a waterfall with friends and then sit on a log soaking up the sunshine with my eyes closed, just listening. I'm not the cheeriest of people a lot of the time, but I am so happy to have been able to experience that.

I have seen sunsets before, but never one quite as good as this. Sat on the Sea Organ, listening to the waves, surrounded by friends and looking at this:

I could not have asked for a more perfect end to one of the best weekends of my life. I don't think this blog post does any of my experiences in Croatia any justice. With all things, you have to experience it yourself to really feel just how amazing it is. And I urge you to. I really, really want you to, at least one in your life, visit this amazing country. You can't miss out.