30 Jan 2013

Productivity in Paris

If there's one thing doing an internship abroad has taught me, it's time-management.  OK, maybe there's a more fashionable saying than 'time-management'; I'm fully aware the word is thrown around in lecture halls at those dreaded Employability talks (which are actually bloody useful if you think about it).  So what do I really mean by "time-management"?  Well, essentially: learning to get all my sh*t together.

Despite my new 35 hour working week (so about 28 hours more than at uni), I feel like I've achieved much more than I would have if I'd spent the year in Exeter attempting to read Madame Bovary (without dying of boredom) and writing song requests to the DJ at Arena.  Let me elaborate...

1) I've signed up for the Paris half-marathon which is taking place on 3rd March and I'm training four times a week.  At uni I was going to the gym twice a week at a push.  More like twice a month.  If I'd told myself this time last year that I'd be running the half-marathon, I'd have laughed in disbelief.  My new equation: Montana + Gerry = Motivation + Goals.
2) I'm keeping a blog (tad-ah!) which I'm writing religiously and hence pursuing my love of writing!
3) I'm going to church every Sunday evening, the student church group every Tuesday night and helping out at Sunday school.  My life here in Paris wouldn't be the same without the church community and all that it's brought to me, particularly the friends I've made.
4) I'm raising money for charity thanks to my my new-found 'love' of running. 
5) I've taken to babysitting a couple times a month for extra pocket money.  I also get to play fun games and dress up in silly costumes!  #childish
6) I actually read the news and know what's going on in the world.  Ish.
7) I wake up at an acceptable hour every morning.  Weekday lie-ins are something of the past.
8) I've given up drinking for a couple months and in general I'm drinking far less.  When I tried to abstain at uni it didn't quite last a week.
9) I'm being cultured - I've been to plenty of new exhibitions and galleries.
10) I've learnt more about cheese.  (Don't laugh...I'm being serious)

And what hasn't changed?

1) I'm still rarely on time for 'social occasions', although I am getting better. 
2) I still spend far too much time on Facebook.  Hence all the status updates on how adventurous my life in Paris is.
3) I still watch Desperate Housewives at crazy hours of the morning.
4) I still put make-up on in the street/metro because I usually leave the house in a rush.  Although I'm happy to say this has been declining.

In fact, I've been pretty impressed by how fulfilling my life is out here and how much energy I've got.  Doing an internship with proper working hours has given me the reality check I needed and it's been great getting out of the university bubble.  I'm not as naive as I was before and I don't expect everything to be handed to me on a plate.  I've learnt to be fearless, to not take anything for granted and to accept opportunities, even if they weren't part of the 'original dream'.

I'm also relying on my own strengths a lot more and coming to terms with my weaknesses and ways to overcome them.  I'm getting to grips with balancing different parts of my life and I don't feel like I'm doing anything in excess.  I appreciate 'down time' but I still love socialising with friends.  My hard-core clubbing days are fini and have been replaced with dinner parties, open mic nights and cinema trips.

And what's even more exciting is that right now I am 100% in charge of all my funds.  I pay for everything: accommodation, food, travel, phone, general expenses.  It's the most liberating feeling in the world to not rely on your parents.  I haven't taken a student loan out this year either so I'm not building up any debt; my internship salary and Erasmus grant have covered me sufficiently and there's a real sense of joy when I purchase things because I know it's my money in my own right. 

Don't get me wrong - life out here has certainly thrown its fair share of challenges and complications.  You find yourself not wanting to adapt to certain cultural expectations and you'll often crave a slice of home-life.  But in the end, you just have to learn to take advantage of what life throws at you, because you never know what might be around the corner.

In conclusion, taking an internship in Paris was probably one of the best decisions I've made since being at university and it's preparing me for the future in ways I couldn't have possibly imagined.

P.S. Do excuse the excessive use of 'I' in this blog post.  I just read through it and found it quite sickening.  I'm not usually this self-centred, I promise. 

Interning Abroad

5 months into my year abroad and I've decided it's time for a little assessment.

Undertaking a year abroad is a fundamental part of any language degree; a time to improve on and hopefully perfect your superficial "A-level baptised" language skills and return to university still dreaming about your target language.  This is easier said than done.  Learning a language in the host country has many benefits, but when you find yourself in such a multicultural city like Paris, the opportunities to speak the language can be readily distinguished.  Most people in Paris speak English because it's considered a basic necessity, like the ability to read.  Even for the most mundane jobs, English language skills are expected at a minimum level.  In rural France however, the likelihood that the farmer at your local market has a strong grasp of anglais is rather slim.  You're therefore forced to communicate in French, or at least attempt to.  Hence, learning the language becomes a necessity, rather than a convenience.  A concept many English-speaking Westerners struggle with.

For my year abroad I could have chosen to study at a French university (or university in a French-speaking country), work as an English language assistant teacher for the British Council, or find an internship.  I knew I didn't want to teach because I'd undergone a pretty harrowing Au-pair experience in Spain after my first year, so my initial inclination was to go down the university route because it seemed the least risqué option.  It would be easy to make friends, I thought, because of the sheer number of Erasmus students, and the hours wouldn't be very intensive.  Grenoble seemed appealing, what with it's winter skiing and sandy beaches in the summer.  However, after talking face-to-face with a variety of students who'd just completed YAs, I suddenly became quite intrigued by an internship abroad.  One girl had done an internship at L'Oreal and another at Air France.  Many had done internships in translation and they all spoke to me about the benefits of working abroad.  Before long, the idea of going to university had shot out the window and I was well on my way to looking for an internship.  The main questions however were 1) What should I do an internship in? and 2) How was I going to secure it?

Thankfully, Exeter had a list of employers who had taken on their students in the past and we were allowed to send up to five Exeter-linked applications.  Surprise surprise, I waited until the last minute to complete them.  I remember that evening distinctly.  The deadline was 11pm on a Wednesday night in November and I was sitting in bed with my laptop on my knees, tapping furiously on the keyboard.  For each individual application, we needed a French version and I'd been struggling to translate it.  I was on the phone frantically with one of my best friend's who is half French; my eyes were sore, my head ached, and I was losing hope.  After a huge kerfuffle, emails with my applications were sent out at 1am and I could finally breathe.  Little did I know that this wasn't even half of it.  Weeks and months went by and I heard nothing.  Hours were spent at my computer screen, waiting for an email to come through with at least something.  The May deadline for signing off on my internship was creeping up on me but I was still holding out a vague resemblance to hope.  I desperately tried to contact anyone I knew who might have a contact somewhere in France.  I emailed a lady in Brussels who worked for the EU and subsequently introduced me to a man who worked at La Croix Rouge (The Red Cross) in Lyon.  That fell through, but I was still hopeful as he had contacts at France24 and another major French radio station.  However, I was only getting replies from him once a week and time was running out.  I soon had to let go of the rope I'd been getting tangled in for so long, but I wasn't ready to pack it in.

Then came a major break-through.  After speaking to the work-abroad coordinator at Exeter, I decided to spruce up my CV and covering letter and he resent my application to the International Herald Tribune in Paris.  To cut a long story short, I received an email that very night saying I'd got the job.  No interview, no phone conversation.  It was May 4th; the deadline for confirming an internship with Exeter, and I'd done it, just in the nick of time.  I could say goodbye once and for all to the prospect of going to university in France.  In retrospect, going to university wasn't such a heinous idea, it was more the fact that it would have been a humiliating defeat after all those months of agonizing anticipation and hard work.

Yet despite the gruelling application process, the restless nights and the unanswered emails, it all worked out.  The key is to come to terms with the fact that the majority of the covering letters and CVs you write will be either unanswered, thrown in the trash, or have coffee spilt on them.  But when you finally get accepted, the relief and excitement you get is second to none. 

An internship is definitely the toughest route to go down, because while you do receive a certain amount of help from your university, there's no guarantee that you'll get accepted.  Many students working abroad found internships through their own contacts or simply viewing postings online, and my biggest regret was sending off my applications through uni and viewing it as a 'waiting game'.  However good you think your chance might be, there's no use finding yourself in April with no internship secured, having not communicated with anyone since November.  The longer you leave it, the more pressure you're placing yourself under.  Of course there's a lot of risk involved and you end up putting a lot of time and effort into a process where there are no guarantees, but if you're determined and ruthless, that's only going to get you closer and closer to your goals.

I decided to come up with a list of reasons why working abroad is good:

1) You get to work with interesting, clever people, whose conversations don't revolve around how many jagerbombs they downed the night before. 
2) You find out what it's like to work overseas - certain work benefits, company atmosphere, dress code, office parties...
3) You're probably working 7/8 hours a day in your target language which will improve your language skills immensely.
4) You actually get paid for your work (particularly in France where they have great benefits for interns, often including 50% off transport, at least 436 euros a month, and restaurant tickets).
5) You're preparing yourself for the future! No more lie-ins till midday - you're in the real world now and you appreciate the value of weekends to go and explore your new city!

6) Hello CV.  You've only gone and made yourself more employable! Not only have you ticked the big 'internship/work experience' box, but you've done it ABROAD.  Future employers will love your new-found global perspective.
7) New skills.  Like photocopying, making spreadsheets, making coffee...I jest, slightly.  It's all part of the experience!
8) That 'dream job' you always wanted may seem a little far out of reach, but having work experience abroad could come in handy one day, especially if an opportunity arises where you'd need to manage someone overseas.
9) You could go back and work there one day, or even after you graduate!  You're not limited to living in the same shell morning and night.
10) You've just gone and shown you've got courage, determination and that you mean business!

Now what's stopping you?

29 Jan 2013

St Germain-des-Près

So back to square one again.  For those of you who haven't caught on, I'm currently living in St Germain-des-Près (the "fashionable area" of Paris), south of the Seine in the 6th arondissement.  But fashionable districts don't come without a big fat price tag, and that doesn't stop at renting an apartment.  Indeed, this infectious price tag has infiltrated bars, coffee shops, high street stores and supermarkets in the area.  In fact, it's home to two of the most frequented and prestigious cafés in Paris - Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore - which compete against each other on opposite corners of a buzzing street near the ancient Eglise St Germain-des-Près, founded in the 6th century by a Childebert I (ruled 511–558).  Tourists swarm the cafés like bees to sip the renowned hot chocolate at Les Deux Magots, once frequented by the likes of Hemingway and other famous intellectuals, or to soak up the philosophy of Café de Flore and its WWII style Art deco interior.  The literary culture of both hangouts is apparently infinite, but the modern-day crowd it attracts seems rather superfluous in comparison.  As Timeout says of Les Deux Magots, “The former haunt of Sartre and de Beauvoir now draws a less pensive crowd that can be all too m'as-tu vu, particularly at weekends”.  Yes; the real attraction is being seen on either terrace, sipping your poignantly expensive cup of coffee, because it makes you feel like you’re somebody.

That noted, I haven't actually been to either café, partly due to the extortionate prices (which is inevitable), and partly because I don't fancy being a sheep, let alone wait half an hour for a cappuccino while the couple next to me fuss about today's special.  There's something quite nice about going to off-the-beaten-track hideaways in a city, rather than squeezing into tourist territory, surrounded by overweight Americans and Germans speaking defunct French, yapping away like maniacs and pronouncing everything wrong.  Not that I've got the best accent or anything, but some of the pronunciations I've heard are almost offensively bad.  I may have snorted over a coffee and a croissant one too many times because of it.

But despite the hyper-lavish crowd, you'll be hard-pushed to find a more idyllic (albeit upmarket) setting in Paris.  For the food-lovers among you, Le Marché St Germain, hidden away from the hustle and bustle, is a daily indoor food market where you can purchase fresh fish, meat, fruit, veg, cheese and plenty more delicacies.  There’s even an Italian stall where freshly made vegetarian and meat lasagnes, ravioli, risottos and blocks of parmesan cheese are paraded behind glass frames.  A Japanese stand is located in another corner where freshly rolled sushi and noodle dishes are available at the point of a finger.  A man carving jambon cru from a pig’s leg serves a short line of customers at another end.  Food is flowing, and cash is being counted.  Although I should warn you; my only purchase there has been an €11,50 slice of Lasagne.  Not exactly the cheapest dinner-for-one, but it’s nice to visit the market from time to time to take in the pleasant aroma and vivid colours.

Passing straight down the middle of St Germain-des-Près is a long avenue known as Boulevard St Germain where you can find yourself bombarded with an influx of tasteful cafés (what would France be without them?), Swarovski crystals, expensive footwear, haute couture clothing and an infinite number of shi-shi bars frequented by Dior-clad diners.  The neighbourhood’s artistic license is confirmed by its number of reputed museums and galleries, notably L’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (the distinguished National School of Fine Arts), La Musée du Luxembourg (Paris' oldest public museum which showcases a vast array of the city’s artwork) and La Musée D’Orsay (housed in a former railway station) which is right around the corner.  It was mainly after WWII that the neighbourhood exploded into a hub of existentialist thinking and a haven of avant-garde theatre, painting and jazz, and much of this culture resides to this current day.

Yet while it may be excruciatingly expensive to entertain yourself south of the Seine in St Germain, if you like the words 'suave', 'sophisticated' and ‘swanky’, you've come to the right place.  One of my preferred night-time retreats is Le Pub St Germain, a restaurant-bar which opened here in Paris in 1968 during a time when English pubs were starting to flourish in France, partly due to the political climate in France as well as a revolution in gastronomy across the globe.  At the time, this new genre of establishment attracted many Parisians because of its atmosphere and conviviality.  Its classic décor with a hint of exoticism make it a charming hideout for drinking one of their original cocktails, sitting down to a dinner of roasted duck breast and gnocchi, or for enjoying a more traditional Sunday Brunch.  Whether it’s gossiping over a carafe of red wine with a friend, sipping a liquid nitrogen cocktail, or spicing up a tomato juice with a splash of Tabasco, each rendez-vous at the four-floored Pub Saint-Germain has been equally indulgent.  I need hardly mention the complimentary olives, peanuts and generous supply of cocktail sticks.  Nor the tap-dancer who gave us a private showing à la Singing in the Rain, umbrella and all.

And my favourite street?  Once when I wandered upon the back entrance of the pub, I discovered a charming, rather inconspicuous street arcade, Cour du Commerce-St-André, whose cobbled pavestones, archway and turret from the 13th-century wall of Philippe-Auguste lend it a rich antiquity.  The wall was originally built around the city as a means of defense and in former times, the passageway housed Georges-Jacques Danton, a leading figure in the French Revolution.  To this day, the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope (1686), whose walls entertained the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, remains a stunning part of the passageway's renowned aesthetic of picturesque boutiques and living history.

I can’t imagine being anywhere else in the world right now.

Watch this space.


26 Jan 2013

Cheesy Choices

Food has always been a high priority of mine, so it is hardly surprising that this hasn't simmered down since my being in Paris.  While my fridge out here is often stocked with life-long milk, fruit juice, pasta sauce, a carton of eggs and other uninspiring purchases, I dedicate the worthiest part of it to my fondness of fromage, or as we Brits says, cheese.  My diet out here has notably consisted of a lot of cheese, and I mean A LOT.  Brie, Camembert, Comte, Chevre, Emmental, Gruyere, Mimolette, Mozzarella, Parmesan, Pecorino, Raclette, Ricotta, Roquefort, Tomme de Savoie.  The list goes on.  My aim was to buy a new cheese each week, but I soon became confused as to which cheeses I'd tried and which I hadn't.  The pre-purchasing process is a long one and usually involves poking the cheese to determine its texture, inspecting how old it is, and having a cheeky look at the price-tag.  I'm sure you're gawping at my cheesy expertise.

And cheese isn't just for spicing up a ham sandwich or throwing on top of your hamburger.  Before coming to France, I'd often eat it with Digestive biscuits, but the bread-loving French have converted me to smothering it on crunchy baguette.  The only thing missing is some good 'ol chutney or Branston pickle to accompany it.   However, since the quality of cheese in France is generally far superior to that in England, eating it sans chutney is perfectly acceptable.  Although I often see little jars of fig compote at the cheese counter so maybe that's the French alternative.  

I will never forget when I first arrived in Paris and bought a little boite of Camembert from the supermarket for under two euros.  My expectations weren't particularly high but when I took it out of the fridge, it was the gooiest, smelliest, mouth-wateringly delicious Camembert I'd ever tasted.  I've never turned back.  

But while on the whole I've been thoroughly impressed with the cheese out here, sometimes it's good to get back to my roots and raid a tub of philly every now and then.  And of course I get the 'light' version, because I think it tastes just as good.  That's how I feel about mayonnaise too.  Many mayo-eaters are offended by the concept of 'Hellmann's Light Mayonnaise' because they don't believe it's real.  However, light mayo is what I've been brought up on and what I'll continue to eat.  In fact, I think full-fat mayo tastes too rich and it feels like I'm spreading lard on my sandwich.  Hellmann's doesn't actually exist in France and there are plenty of other branded mayonnaise's which I am sad to say don't quite live up to the same standard.  I find the mayo here too strong, teaming with mustard which I'm not a huge fan of anyway and instead of complementing my tuna mayo, its taste is overpowering and combats the tuna's already strong flavour.

Anyway, I recently purchased a small tub of philadephia light at the supermarket and discovered that it tastes scrummy on biscottes (melba toast) with a splash of sweet chili sauce and parma ham.  I can't remember how many I devoured in one sitting, but needless to say I wiped clean half my pot of philly.  It probably didn't help that the hob wasn't available so I had to console myself with cheese.  It definitely worked; cheese is totally becoming the new ice-cream.  Sweet chili sauce is also something which I will happily garnish on most things (bar ice-cream).  Whether it's with cheese, noodles, prawn crackers, crisps, pizza crusts, in fajitas...sweet chili sauce is one of my favourite fridge friends and I can always rely on it to liven up my meal.  Philadelphia is another great fridge friend, but for very different reasons.  The cream cheese is perfect for adding to soup, mashed potatoes, stuffed in chicken breasts, cheesecakes, or spreading on a bagel with smoked salmon.  I'll also use it for making Smoked Mackerel pat which tastes great with lemon and ground black pepper on warm pitta bread.

I think that's enough cheese-talk for one day.  You know what they say about cheese and nightmares....

Watch this space.


24 Jan 2013

Secret Diary of a...Girl

I was tempted to go with the 'Secret Diary of a Call Girl' title but that would pose three relatively major problems.  1) Copyright.  2) I'm not a call girl.  3) It would hardly be secretive because my identity is already known.

Therefore, instead of amusing you with anonymous escort exploits, I will begin by telling you Montana's hand-bag must-haves.  I know that's a pretty radical jump and consequently the title makes little sense, but bare with...

1) Smints.  Or some form of gum.  Just in case I meet the man of my dreams after chomping wildly on some garlic bread.
2) Lipgloss.  I'm a girl.  Enough said.
3) My phone.  Not only for contacting people, but also for warding off eye-contact with potential creeps.  At least (pretending) to use my phone is a relatively acceptable activity.
4) A bottle of water.  I don't enjoy begging for tap water.
5) Face powder.  Oily noses aren't really in fashion atm.
6) A pen and a few old receipts.  For writing down random nuggets of information.  Street/place names, the title of a novel that may randomly pop into my head etc. 
7) Hand sanitizer.  I'm not a fan of germs.
8) Keys.  I don't like being stranded on my doorstep.
9) iPod.  To ease the journey from the apartment to the office with the tunes of Jason Mraz et co.
10) Metro pass.  Jumping over the turnstiles in a dress isn't very classy.
11) A hair tie.  For a spontaneous bun or ponytail midway through the day.
12) Umbrella.  The rain follows me.
13) Wallet.  For buying things like croissants, clothes and iced tea.  Oh, and smints when I run out.
14) Small change.  For vending machines, which surprisingly don't accept or give change for 50 euro notes.
15) Map.  My sense of direction is really quite shocking.  I may know the difference between left and right but that's about it.
16) Stamps.  For those last-minute birthday cards.
17) Scissors.  I'm kidding, who keeps scissors in their handbag?  Although I have been asked countless times if I don't happen to have a pair on me, so they may be a good investment.  I'm sure security checks would love that: "Were you planning to use these scissors as a weapon?" Me: "Hell no, just for recreational purposes..." (whatever that means)

And the must-haves which I can't fit in my hand-bag...

18) Morning coffee.  I cannot stress enough the importance of my caffeine fix(es).  Otherwise I look like I'm squinting by 2pm.
19) At least 8 (preferably 10) hours sleep each night, otherwise I want to punch people on the metro for walking too slowly and taking up too much space.  (nb: I usually want to do this anyway...) (2nd nb: wouldn't it be great if you could put your face in your handbag for a few moments and inhale a few hours of sleep?)
20) My watch.  I always want to know what time it is, even when I'm in the cinema, on a date...sleeping.  For me, time is an affirmation that I'm still sane and, well, alive.  (nb: my watch will fit in my hand-bag, but it does its job better on my wrist.)

So there you have it!  I'm no Mary Poppins but I try my best to have all the essentials.  And the greatest thing of all?  Their home is my Longchamp handbag, aka my baby.  Talk about embracing Parisian fashion!  It's also made me wonder how much the content of my hand-bag actually differs from that of a real call girl.  Probably not that much.  Apart from the condoms of course....

22 Jan 2013

Splashing out by the Seine

Tucked away on a luminescent strip of river, the boat looked every inch the glamorous water haven.  Its magnificence seemed unparalleled by twilight and I felt every inch the starlet as I walked across the jetty, my hair blowing gently in the icy breeze and my red ochre smile widening in eager anticipation.  I was wearing a strapless rouge dress, my new pearls, skyscraper nude platforms and a scarf made of rabbit fur draped gracefully around my neck.  I was going for classy with a hint of sultry.

As I walked through the grand entrance, I delicately slipped off my leather gloves, trying my best to retain an air of sophistication.  The waiter took my navy blue coat when I entered the aqua universe and swapped it for a numbered ticket.  I looked past the pristine white tablecloths towards the sparkling ripples of water magnified through the big glass windows.  We were to be dining on a boat.

It was already quite late when we waltzed in to celebrate my friend's birthday, so we swarmed the table with a vibrant energy.  Glowing lanterns were hanging above us like modern-day chandeliers, each one a different shade of yellow, pink or orange.  Menus were swiftly placed in front of our expectant eyes and before long I was persuaded by the lady of the evening to join her in ordering a Mojito Royal.  I thought of my ever-slimming wallet, and then of the occasion, and made a very blasé hand gesture as I finally succumbed with the words "oh, why not!".  I knew it wasn't going to be a cheap evening, and I'm particularly fond of my Mojitos.  Especially when they're topped up with Champagne for that added treat.  The perfect Aperitif.

The boat was a giant expanse of enchantment and it felt so liberating to step into this harboured beauty; like the world really was my oyster.  I looked around at the other tables, many of them empty, bar a large table of men and women who howled and guffawed in timely unison.  I soon conjured up images in my head of romantic soirées on boats in dazzling ballgowns, dancing to the music of Elvis Costello or Louis Armstrong.  All that was missing was a man in a tuxedo to sweep me off my feet and twirl me across the shiny strips of wood.  In this fairytale sequence, I playfully let my red ringlets bob up and down like the gentle waves lapping at the boat's exterior.  The fantasy was overpowering.

Just as I was picturing my dress revolving in twirling pleats, my eyes were suddenly drawn to the bread sticks, olive tapenade and fish paté which were sitting in front of me, desperate to be eaten.  I immediately swept the bread stick into the pungent olive mixture and let the strong taste melt in my mouth before the inevitable crunch.  It was truly divine.  To my right, an overflowing bowl of crusty bread looked too appetising to be ignored so I slipped a piece from the basket and nibbled on its soft, doughy goodness.

Before long, the waiters arrived laden with plates of different fish and meats.  A true seafood fan, I had ordered the salmon which came with a side of creamy tagliatelle.  I looked in awe at the heart-shaped pinky fish which was sitting beautifully in the centre of my plate.  It was fleshy and tender and I marveled at the infusion of flavours.  The eggplant purée and concentrated lemon and thyme juice were bursting in my mouth and complemented the salmon in delectable fashion.  A couple glasses of white wine only intensified the goodness.

After finishing the main course, the birthday girl wowed us all with a huge birthday cheesecake.  Mojitos, salmon and cheesecake are possibly my three favourite luxuries; I was literally in heaven.  The cheesecake had a gelatin-type top layer which was adorned with fresh passion fruit and mango, a soft creamy centre and a crumbly biscuit base.  I think I must have scraped my plate clean; a testament to my satisfaction.

According to my mother, I need to find myself a rich husband if I'm planning on living the high life and taking it seriously.  My expensive food tastes, my love of cocktails, my slightly rash spending habits; the money has to come from somewhere.  Happiness comes in many different formats, but for me, dressing up, eating fancy food and sipping complex cocktails while soaking up good company in glamorous surroundings is a sure way to make me smile.  Why?  Because I know I'll savour the experience for years to come.

Restaurant sur la Seine - je veux retourner.

18 Jan 2013

12 Shades of Paris

My chest is thumping incredulously; the same feeling you get when you accidentally skip a step whilst running down a flight of stairs.  A river of adrenaline floods through my veins like I've been injected with a thousand boosters of something my body can't seem to register.  I want more and more of it but it's making my vision hazy and I'm starting to feel like I could melt into the air in its all-embracing warmth.  I feel my chest starting to glow and a rush of heat cascades down my spine.


In some respects this is the perfect Saturday night, but in many others, it couldn't be worse.  He's affecting me in unimaginable ways and the more time I spend with him, the tighter the knot connecting the two of us is becoming.  And short of cutting the knot with a pair of scissors, it's becoming so richly entwined that untangling it seems virtually impossible.  Yet a big part of me won't consider untangling the mess I've created either, because despite the ultimate heartache, I couldn't be happier.  I suppose that's what you call living in the moment.  Or, as I like to refer to it, foolishness.

aloneYou know what?  I always thought there was something wrong with me.  Believe it or not, I have my struggles with falling 'head over heels' for any man, so why should the fact that he's French make it any different?  I can be passionate and intense in my own special way, but I try to escape heartache by not falling hard in the first place and it's worked so far.  I suppose I'm a pessimist in that respect; I always see some looming obstacle on the horizon and figure it makes more sense to back off than to take the plunge.  But this just feels different.  No safer, mind you, except I've actually fallen this time, and there's no turning back.

What has happened to the unabashed girl who always took the right footing?  How have I given away my heart in a matter of 5 days, and why am I embarrassed to admit it?

I hardly notice when he slips something into my pocket.

"Don't read it until you're alone" I hear him whisper.  Alone.  The word is like daggers to my chest, because I know it means 'without him'.  And I'm scared.

14 Jan 2013

Eternally Single

I'm already planning on what I'm going to name my 14 cats.  While love-struck teenagers are thinking up baby names, I've been seduced by the life of a spinster.  It was either that, or join a convent.  (The nun garb wouldn't do anything for my pallor.)

While I don't tend to parade my love life (or lack of it) on the Internet, an article I read recently in the New York Times entitled 'The End of Courtship?' really hit home and inspired me to write a blog post.  I'm starting to understand more and more why I am, as my title suggests, eternally single.

Of course every girl will go through that stage when they question why they haven't yet been courted.  Too ugly?  Too fat?  Too spotty? Too boring? Too annoying?  Too weird?  Too vain?  Are my boobs not big enough?  Do I look like a man?  You then wonder why every time you get 'close' to a guy, he either just wants to be friends, or wants to pop your cherry and then leave you, because either he's "just got out of a serious relationship" (two years ago hardly counts as 'just'), he's "not really in that place for a relationship right now", or "it's not practical".  You then find out that two weeks later he's off the market and his new Facebook relationship status feels like a bullet to your brain.  You then start going through every single 'moment' the two of you had together and wonder how you could have possibly misread the signals.  Were you ever that important to him?  Well of course you were, you tell yourself; he always put three kisses on the end of each text, told you he fancied you and he made you feel like his beautiful little princess.  But just when you think he's about to make it official, he disappears into a huge, fat, grey cloud hanging over planet loserville.  (Apparently they don't have 3G signal or wifi there...hence lack of contact.)  He missed you?  Get real.  You were his accessory of convenience.  So alas, Cadbury's chocolate and tissue boxes suddenly become your new best friend but all you're left with is another inch around the waist, a red nose and a broken heart.  And then you find yourself hoarding tins of Vaseline at the check out.

I remember in my first year at university when I hadn't called my mother for a week, she automatically deduced that there must be a man in my life.  After explaining that this was definitely not the case, she hasn't really brought the subject up since.  Now discussions re: my love life only resurface after I've been watching too many romcoms and accidentally let slip something like: "Why can't I find a boyfriend?  What's wrong with me?"  A heart-to-heart ensues before I come to the same conclusion each time: that I enjoy my freedom and it's probably better this way.  But as much as I love my friends, mugs of tea and watching episodes of Miranda, sometimes the only cure for a bad day at work is a boyfriend to cuddle you, look into your eyes, and tell you that you're the most wonderful person in the world.  The irony of this of course is that I've never had a boyfriend so this medicinal remedy hasn't exactly been available to me, let alone tried and tested.  A boyfriend isn't something you can get over the counter at Boots for a standard charge of £7.65.  I can't go to my local GP and ask them to write out a prescription for a 6 foot tall muscular man who likes musicals, cuddling, travelling and has a cracking sense of humour.  (Although of course if you fit the bill, please apply below...)

I have been on very few "proper" dates.  Although, contrary to the NYT article's opinion that dinner-dates and movies no longer exist in the 21st century dating world, I have been fortunate enough to experience both.  But for some reason, despite reluctantly allowing the guy to pay for my meal each time, nothing has ever materialised.  There was always something missing.  A spark, chemistry...biology.  You try and persuade yourself to like him because perhaps he's a gentleman and you're fed up with your life of singledom, but instead you find yourself falling for the type of guy who would eagerly accept a free drink from you, burps in public and doesn't understand the saying 'ladies first'.  As much as we've moved away from traditional courtship and a woman's role in society has moved on significantly from being the 'perfect wife and perfect mother', it's becoming rarer for a man to hold the door open for a lady, or top up her glass of wine first, or pull back her seat before she sits down in a restaurant.  Yet there's something so romantic about this little charade which makes butterflies flap their wings.

But while romantic candlelit dinners are a great way to up the ante, I'm not so sure if I'd feel comfortable having my first rendez-vous with a man over a bottle of Chablis and an Entrecote.  This particular setting calls for a certain type of behaviour or impression.  You're worried about which fork you're supposed to use for the starter or about leaving lipstick marks on your glass.  You're anxious he might judge you on how much you eat, or that you'll get salad stuck in your teeth.  There's nothing more off-putting than concentrating so hard on twirling spaghetti neatly onto your fork or correctly using chop-sticks that you can't enjoy one another's company.  It usually takes a few initial meet-ups before you feel totally comfortable being yourself.  You know you've conquered that stage when you can happily order a plate of ribs and have BBQ sauce smothered all over your face and laugh about it.  Even more so when you feel you can comment on the fact that he or she has BBQ sauce half way up their face too.

And then of course you get those casual coffee dates which sometimes extend into hours of mind-numbingly boring conversation because neither of you has the guts to make an exit.  It's hardly polite to make up an excuse and dash during an awkward pause.  You might as well be saying "I've run out of things to say to you so I'm just going to go home and never text you again."  But when you realise nothing better is coming into your line of vision, you organise a coffee date for a month's time, by which point you've forgotten about how mind-numbingly boring it will be and you end up discussing the same things as last time.  You make a mental note to keep coffee dates with them to a minimum but you inevitably agree to several more soul-destroying lattes.  And no amount of sugar will make them any sweeter.

I've started asking myself how and where I'm supposed to meet the man of my dreams.  In a lecture?  The furthest I usually get is 'Hi, my name's...' before the PowerPoint presentation starts.  I also study particularly female-dominated subjects so I'm not exactly spoilt for choice.  In halls?  Too late - I'm no longer a fresher.  In a society?  Too many egos in the ones I've been involved in.  At Church?  They're thinking about God.  In a nightclub?  He's looking for a one night stand.  At the gym?  Sweaty.  Need I say more?  Dating website?  His picture is probably from 1985.  On public transport?  He's desperate.  At work?  He's probably married and/or 30 years your senior.  At a wedding?  A little bit cliched, and he might be distantly related to you.

Gone are the days of meeting men in ballrooms, endlessly hoping that Mr. Darcy will surreptitiously invite you to dance with him.  We've got to face the facts: people don't make the same sort of effort in this new era of fast-paced technology.  Why would he ride four hours through a thunder storm on his horse just to embrace you when he can ping you on BBM?  Like the article suggests, women are starting to act more as tag alongs rather than invitees to one-on-one soirees.  As much as it pains me to think of modern-day dating culture as leaning more towards group hang-outs, in some respects this is probably healthier in the initial stages of getting to know each other.  If you share mutual friends then your relationship won't seem like such an isolated affair and is more likely to blossom naturally at a pace suited to both, rather than an awkward memory you'd rather forget involving a premature kiss and cryptic text messages.
http://adsoftheworld.com/files/girls_2.jpgMeeting in a more informal setting also means there's less pressure and you don't feel obligated to buy anyone a drink out of courtesy.  However, an overly 'lax' approach to dating could result in both boy and girl being too anxious to discuss their romantic feelings for each another and it's a lose lose situation.  Furthermore, dating culture has evolved into a game where young men and women are often dating multiple people at once, keeping their options open and struggling to commit even to being 'exclusive' with just one person (which in many circles, still doesn't count as 'official').  This ongoing struggle to stick to our guns and 'pick' a boyfriend or girlfriend is becoming absurd.  Have we become a generation too preoccupied with forming our own liberal agendas?

But one thing I do know: If you're not totally satisfied when you're single, you're naive to think having a man in your life will fill all the gaps.  Sometimes you have to experiment with the glue first before you let someone else stick you back together.  Because who's to say they won't go pouring glue in the wrong cracks....

11 Jan 2013

Flirting Females

The word flirting is so titillating.  It's even hard not to say it in a flirtatious way.   Flurrrrr-tingggg.  I think it's partly the thrusting of the tongue against your teeth as you say it.  Thrust: now there's another titillating word.

There's something so wonderful about the concept of flirting; trying to get a member of the opposite sex - or same sex depending on your sexual orientation - to fancy you, even just for a moment.  We all become like peacocks, flaunting our feathers to lure in our prey.

For a woman hunting down men, there are various different methods she may use:

Hair twirlSometimes it's subtle: she's twirling a lock of hair around her finger.  Perhaps this is just a habit or maybe she's nervous and needs to occupy her hands to avoid cracking her knuckles (an awful habit which I dip in and out of.)  However, it could also mean she's subconsciously attracted to the handsome specimen sitting opposite her.  She enjoys flaunting her femininity at him because she thinks it makes her more desirable.  She may even go one step further and flick the contents of her hair away from her face, showing off generous proportions of her neck.  Or if she's really trying to create a scene, she may purposefully pull her hair back into a pony tail, only to skilfully slide it off at the precise moment a man walks into her periphery, before shaking her locks in slow-mo style.  She'll deny it was staged.

Not only that, she subconsciously becomes more girly.  Her voice gets that teeny bit higher and she giggles rather than laughs, and does that half smile half pout because she thinks it makes her look more seductive. She bites her lip from time to time and keeps her eyes as wide-open as possible, hypnotising her target with a dreamy gaze.  He loves it because it creates a moment of intensity before she feigns embarrassment and looks away, all the while wrapping the same lock of hair around her finger.
She pretends to be simultaneously silly, naive and cute, because she thinks it makes her more endearing.  She doesn't want to come across as overly opinionated or clever because she's worried this may intimidate him.  As soon as he escapes to the WC, she reapplies her lipgloss and subtly massages her lips together when he arrives back at his seat.  She catches him staring and her eyes sparkle.  She likes to remain mysterious and uses teasing lines like 'a lady never tells', to keep the suspense up.  She describes herself as 'innocent' even though she knows she's not, because she knows he'll find this appealing.  A truly innocent girl rarely describes herself as innocent and he's well aware of this.

poutShe shows an overly eager interest in everything he has to say, nodding a lot, making 'mmmm' noises, even though she knows nothing about his subject of choice.  Everything that comes out of his mouth seems gold plated from behind her rose-tinted glasses and she humours him with little comments here and there to encourage him to keep talking.  She laughs at all his jokes or musings, even when they're not funny.  She pretends she's interested in sport and talks about the time she used to have season tickets for her local team, supported by her Dad and brother.  She doesn't mention that the best part of the match was buying a hotdog at half time.

Then there's the not-so-subtle flirting which involves flinging herself at men, commonly in nightclubs after one too many Long Island Ice Teas.  If you know anything about cocktails, you'll know that knocking back the aforementioned will practically be the end of you.  And I mean THE end.  Instead of locking eyes with you, she'll stare straight at your mouth, before walking past you, accidentally brushing your arm, and 'accidentally' pinching your arse.  She wants you to pinch hers back.

Watch this space.


3 Jan 2013

11 Shades of Paris

11th installment

“I never knew you could cook so well!” I muse at him with a mouthful of spaghetti and my eyes full of wonder.   I can feel the warm chilli-infused sauce trickling down my chin but before I can wipe it off, he leans over his plate towards me and rubs it off gently with his napkin, holding my gaze all the while.  I can feel my cheeks blushing, tingling even, from this small gesture.  My tongue is burning and my mouth seems to go numb, but I can’t figure out whether it’s the chilli or my body’s reaction to this hot specimen before me.  He winks at me again and I fall into oblivion, clutching the table with my hand as I peer down at my shaking fingers, trying to keep my mind off the inevitable.  

I excuse myself and go to the bathroom.  Closing the door quietly behind me, I lean back against its wooden frame in pure delight, agony, confusion.  Part of me wants to scream with excitement, to share the feelings bottling up inside me.  I notice that my chest is thumping uncontrollably and my head is spinning in giddy circles.  Take a hold of yourself Anna, I tell myself, but it’s too late.  I have fallen under the Frenchman’s charm and he has wholeheartedly arrested my desires.  It is clearer now than ever before that I have become his captive.

I wander back into the kitchen to see that he has cleared away the plates and dishes and it looks like the untouched, glowing creation which first struck me.  How long have I been gone?  My giddiness has removed all sense of time and space and I scowl at my inability to remain calm, pinching my arm to assure myself I’m not just dreaming.  The red mark and lingering pain proves that I am not.  I feel a soft hand on my waist and my sanity hisses with anticipation.  “I’ve got something for you” he whispers.   I nod my head robotically, caught under his spell.