From a cybernat, with love

I’m feeling tired by the referendum. I feel like I should be excited – now is the moment, the final countdown – in a few days we will choose what country we want to live in. It’s an exciting time – a triumph of democracy, with unprecedented numbers feeling engaged in politics. It’s replaced weather as the number one topic of conversation. People are sharing their thoughts on matters from the economy to oil revenues to the NHS. We’re sussing out our collective priorities. Campaigners on both sides are giving up their time to chat to one another, share debates, inform undecided voters. Yeses and Nos bedeck windows, cars, lampposts and people.

It should be exhilarating.

But I’m tired. I’m tired of negativity, of sniping belittlements, of personal attacks. Neither the Yes or the No side have been blameless – people, online and in person, can be unpleasant and unfounded in their accusations. Nobody – on either side – is a traitor, for working to create the country they believe in. And whether you were born in Scotland, live here now, or simply care about the country and its people, you have a right to speak. Whether you have faith in the UK or in an independent Scotland, you’ll have your arguments. I won’t agree with them all – but I’ll disagree politely, or I’ll shrug and smile and wish you a pleasant day. I’ve seen a lot of that – online, at stalls, door-to-door. In fact, the majority of the political dialogue I have seen has been of this kind.

Yet I constantly see the Yes campaign – which I personally support, and of which I am a member– represented as a collection of malicious CyberNats and bullies at worst and idealistic naïve dreamers at best. And it makes me want to pull my hair out, really. Because involved in the Yes campaign are people who are inspired, passionate, intelligent and kind and who have – shocking as it may seem – thought this through. Economists, academics, manual workers, artists, lawyers, nurses, entrepreneurs, CEOs, shopkeepers – oh, the list goes on and on. We’re from all over the world as well – because while the Yes campaign has been portrayed as a scary nationalistic movement, in reality most people are just seeing an opportunity to make social change and to help build a better society. A glance at the #YesBecause hashtag on Twitter would tell you as much – a chat with a Yes friend or neighbour, a wander down to a local stall. The campaign is passionate, but from what I’ve seen, and experienced – in my long stretch as an undecided – it has been mostly polite.

I’m not saying that’s always so. Some people are dicks – and no doubt there are such people on both sides of the campaign, under the Saltire or the Union Flag. A few weeks ago, a pair of No campaigners at a stall reduced me to tears with their bullying behaviour. And sure, I need to grow a thicker skin – but I left that encounter feeling like hiding from the world, withdrawing from any political discussion (eating my cereal). I imagine I’m not alone in having felt that way through the campaign. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry that anyone has been bullied, or insulted, has been made to feel unwelcome, or stupid, or has wanted to hide away until after the Neverendum, hibernating through the winter of discontent.

And here, now, I’d like to say sorry to any No voters or undecideds who have been made to feel that way by anyone in the Yes campaign. It’s awful to feel that way. Your opinion matters – whoever you are, wherever you are from, whatever you believe, you have a right to believe it. I am sorry. Sure, I’m just one person, and maybe I can’t speak for all the thousands of people involved. But you see, if I’m going to be lumped in as part of one huge homogenous mass, if the media and campaigners are going to rail against the Yes campaign as a collection of bullies and extreme nationalists and – frankly – dicks, then I feel like maybe, just this once, I can speak for the CyberNats. Because just because I sport a Yes twibbon on my profile photos, and because I’ll join in with debates online, it doesn’t mean I’m a rabid nationalist (genuinely, I don’t foam at the mouth or nothin!). It doesn’t stop me still being me – someone who tries to be nice to people, to listen, to find opportunities for kindness. Like a whole lot of other people – on both sides of this referendum debate.

So – friends, acquaintances, people in the twittersphere – I’d love to ask you to think before you generalise. Your experiences are valid – but recognise that for every person bullied by Team A, Team B has reduced another to tears, and both teams have their share of troublemakers. They also have their share of wonderful, caring people working hard for what they believe in. I’m not going to characterise all of Better Together as aggressors because I had the misfortune to encounter two bullies on an ego-trip. Maybe before posting sloppy generalisations you could think of a friend who is voting differently, and wonder whether they fit into your 140 character pigeon-hole. Chances are they don’t.

Come the 19th we’ll have to work together whichever way the vote goes. A little kindness and respect now may go some way towards helping with that.

Or that’s what I reckon…


The escargot revels

I sit in my green-wallpapered room, sipping wine and thinking about the past week. It has been a splendid one. After a fortnight of feeling somewhat flat for one reason and another, I have reclaimed my buoyancy of spirit, assisted by friends, and bonhomie and cheese.

The inventor of knock-knock jokes should win the Nobel prize.

Last weekend was a chaotic whirl around the city, punctuated by pauses for coffee and cold fanta and delicious food. On Friday night I visited Pia and Alex’s new pad. It is tiny, and thus for Paris enormous – the shift in perspective takes some getting used to. It has a lovely vibe and a beautiful view, and I passed a relaxed evening chatting, listening to Ricci play guitar and having food pressed upon me by the hospitable pair.  On Saturday afternoon I met Morgane after weeks bereft of her company and caught up over maple-syrup-smothered pancakes in an American Diner in Paris. We then made our way to the Slutwalk demonstration. I’d been looking forward to this, as a month and a half in Paris had left me feeling defensive and vulnerable when walking the streets.  I took photos, Morgane interviewed participants, and we both joined in the chanting with gusto. The day turned out to be far warmer than either of us had anticipated and we were melting by the time the procession made its way to the Pantheon. Once we had spoken with the organiser, we left, and drank deep of cold fizzy drinks in the Jardin de Luxembourg, listening to a brass band playing somewhere in the park and wrinkling our noses at the energy of joggers who streamed along the path before us.

I got home with only minutes to spare before I was due to leave to meet Annie off the train from London. I made it on time to Gare de Nord and spent a few minutes wandering around, wondering where exactly the rendezvous point might be and checking my phone for news. Then I spotted a red-clad Anne-with-an-e on the stairs, and much confusion was averted (it transpired that neither of her mobile numbers were working). Chance was on our side, and we swept onto the metro home in a wave of excitement and questions and joyful reunion. Once home, we deposited bags, collapsed into heaps for a while – it had been a long day for both of us – and only emerged when the pangs of hunger reminded us we still had an evening to enjoy. I cooked us baked potatoes with ridiculous amounts of cheese and we shared a bottle of wine with Sandrine before heading out to a party. There, we encountered a few mutual friends and I enjoyed watching Annie’s reaction as one friend broke the news of her pregnancy. (‘Ceris, you didn’t already tell her? I think she thought I was actually getting fat!’).

After a late night, we had a lazy morning, drinking coffee at the breakfast bar in the kitchen as we stumbled out of slumber. The caffeine did its job, and we set off for Parisian adventures – via, of course, the nearby patisserie for some sustaining pastries. From hatching great plans for future projects in the gardens of the Louvre, to sitting in awed tranquillity in the Monet waterlilies exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie, to sharing a cheese fondue in a back street of Saint Michel – our meandering day took us at last to the summit of Notre Dame, where we stood beside gargoyles and tourists and watched the setting sun light up Paris’ skies. To reach the top, one must first scale hundreds of steps to earn one’s place beside worn eagles and malevolent dragons – and so many have climbed the stone stairs that they are worn down in the centre. While my spirit rejoices at this sign of connectedness with thousands of others in years gone by, my knees grumble unceasingly. This is not their idea of a good time. Yet once I reach the top the pain is forgotten. Framed by Gothic architecture and with gargoyles as comrades, it’s my favourite view of Paris. That evening, Annie and I parted, as she returned to study in Gottingen (under the ‘M’ in Germany). I left Gare de l’Est through the somewhat creepy underground passage from the platform to the metro Chateau-Landon and made my way home, where I comforted myself with the remains of my Scottish cheddar (thank you Nicky) and considered the week ahead.

Monday’s meeting was met by a rather sleepy Ceris. Despite my smothered yawns and bleary eyes, however, I kept track of the fast-paced French conversation – my French comprehension has improved greatly since my arrival. To begin with, my response to fast-paced French conversation was to smile dazedly or, if it looked like a question had been addressed to me, to implore ‘lentement… s’il vous plait?’ Now the smile has been replaced by a look of intense concentration and I rarely speak, knowing that by the time my words and thoughts are sufficiently gathered the conversation will have left me by the wayside. During the meeting we perused the site statistics and to my mingled pleasure, pride and embarrassment I saw that of the ten most-read articles in September I had authored three and translated two more. Number one was a ‘European literary sex guide’ – credit for the idea goes to Nabee and Katha – which looked at raunchy moments in classic literature across Europe. Yes, this is what my degree was preparing me for! The political philosophy parts have come in handy too, as I’ve written on feminism, human rights and state control in the UK, and attended a ‘To Russia with Love’ kiss-in and a Slutwalk. Hurrah for the Liberal Arts! And they said I’d end up living in a cardboard box… Well, to be fair, I still might, particularly if David Cameron’s vision for the future comes to pass. His speech on Wednesday made me so angry! –

But I digress. Oh dear. Yet I do feel now that I want to become more politically engaged. The problem is that whenever I think, yes, I am going to join with people and change things, then I read the comments on any article, really, about any –ism, and they scare me off. Back into the shell I go, cursing myself for my cowardice, yet unable to understand how to be an environmentalist, a feminist, an anarchist, an activist, when within each –ism there is such misunderstanding and fighting and griping that progress feels impossible. Des-ist?  I suppose I lack the courage of my convictions – but truly, when it comes to trying to make change, I don’t know where to start… I’m planning to set up a cafebabel Edinburgh blog when I return home, partly in order to cover the developing Scottish independence debate – I’m hoping to work out how I feel along the way – but also because I feel I have found my niche here in this journaloust business, and I’d like to keep writing. We shall see!

The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence.

Oscar Wilde —The Importance of Being Earnest

It’s now just under two weeks until I leave Paris. When I told Nabee this yesterday she greeted it with dismay: ‘I thought you were here for another month!’- ‘I was. Two weeks ago’- ‘But who am I going to talk bullshit to?’ Oh yes, I’m indispensible…

This morning, I washed my sheets, hoovered my room, unloaded and loaded the dishwasher and realised that it had become this afternoon. Torn between the desire to make the most of my time left in Paris and my desire to just chill out and do nowt, I grudgingly allowed motivated Ceris to make the decisions and wrestled socks and shoes on before levering myself out of the door. Once I was outside, however, the fresh air lightened my spirits somewhat. With letter-writing materials in hand and frequent pauses to write, I walked the Promenade Plantée. The promenade is an old railway viaduct which has been transformed into a green walkway above the streets of Paris. There’s something beautiful about this slice of countryside above, on the level of the rooftops, while the hubbub of life below continues unaware. The walk started in sunshine but ended in clouds and pelting raindrops, sending me skittering for the metro.

Now, I am home. A parcel this afternoon from the incomparable Sarah ensured that my remaining fortnight will taste sweeter, with bramble and cardamom chocolate, stronger, with much-missed Marmite, and more like home, with Orkney oatcakes. This evening, I have dined, and supped and enjoyed good conversation. La vie est belle!

Site of the day: Exactitudes

Song of the day: Cackling Farts

The escargot is tired

This afternoon after work, I was standing by the metro chatting to Nabeelah, and I became aware of a man behind her taking photos on his phone. Glancing around to check for anything photo-worthy and finding nowt, I mentioned to her that I thought he had taken a photo of us – of you, she replied, looking around. He was middle-aged, grey haired, unassuming looking. I could probably have dismissed him as one more creep in Paris, but he didn’t stop, and I realised that he was filming me. Now, while someone taking pictures of you is discomfiting, being filmed is even more so. When we turned to look at him he veered away and disappeared around a corner, while a concerned security guard from the nearby Monoprix came out to tell us that the man had been taking several photos of us and to ask if we knew him. Non. And now he has photos and films of me. It’s not a pleasant thought. Here, in Paris, I feel intensely vulnerable.

I’m tired of being ogled and catcalled every day on the streets of Paris, of ‘hey mademoiselle… tu es belle’, of feeling unable to respond because I don’t want to aggravate them – and because, especially in French, I just don’t have the words. It feels like through my own helplessness, and confusion, and fear, I grant them a sort of immunity.

A few weeks ago, I was walking along the street at lunchtime with one of my colleagues and a middle-aged guy groped my arse. I swung around and attempted to communicate ‘what the fuck?’, which seemed to surprise him, but more than anger my first response was shock. As I walked away, Morgane complimented me on my response, but by then I felt angry with myself – for not elbowing him, or shouting, or demanding an explanation. I suppose I wished that I could have made him feel uncomfortable, or vulnerable, too. I don’t have good instincts, I freeze – which, when one considers fight or flight, is surely the least useful evolutionary option.

Responses differ. ‘Does it really happen that often?’ ‘Get used to it, it’s not going to change.’ ‘Hey, take it as a compliment.’ Yes it does, but I can’t get used to it, and it’s not a compliment – please, nobody tell me it’s a compliment.

I’ve lost my country mouse habit of smiling at strangers. Instead, I wear a blank mask, walk quickly, shield myself and my belongings. In the metro I stand with my back to the doors, hold my bag close, listen to music and look out of the window. I feel safest wearing jeans but in terms of harassment what I wear makes little difference. Baggy grey t-shirt with pictures of bikes on it: ‘Nice bicycles!’ Ugh.

I’m going to the Paris Slutwalk on Saturday with Morgane. I’m planning to write an article: talk nomenclature, rape culture, and other feminism. I’m looking forward to it, to escaping this feeling of helplessness, to being granted an opportunity to come out of the shell which I have built around me.

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute – Rebecca West

Site of the day: cafebabel: the unbearable heaviness of being

Song of the day: 20 mile zone 

The escargot in Paris

It is the end of my fifth week interning in Paris. Four weeks remain. Last weekend, I did not write, but instead spent a weekend with my wonderful boyfriend in Paris, city of love. We drank wine, ate crepes, walked by the canal, and saw neither hide nor hair of the Eiffel Tower – some feat! Instead of flowers, my love brought me cheddar cheese. My joy was great. I am rationing it strictly. Two months feels variously a very short and very long time. When I miss home, it feels long. When I think of how much time has already passed, it feels short. Now, thinking of the next month, I swither between the two poles. A month is a twelfth of a year!- yet the weeks go quickly, and I have only six more days off before I return home.

I realised this morning that thus far I have not been making the most of the fact that I am in Paris. My realisation was prompted by talking to my little sister. ‘What’re you up to this weekend?’ she asked, innocently. ‘Oh, well, I need to go food shopping, stock up for the week… and I was thinking I might wash some clothes.’ She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. I am in Paris, city of romance, culture, history, art. And somehow I have managed to make it mundane!

Shamed into action, this afternoon I set off to the Louvre. It’s on my metro line, it’s free for under-25s, and yesterday my landlady had given me the fourth Harry Potter book in French, which I reasoned would ward off the boredom of long queues. Sitting on the metro I immersed myself in the slightly altered world of ‘Harry Potter et la Coupe de Feu’. The Riddle family is the famille Jedusor, Wormtail is Queudver, Muggles are Moldus, and instead of getting the collywobbles the villagers get ‘froid dans le dos’. What better way to improve my French vocab?

Alighting at the Musee de Louvre metro station, I wandered around in an attempt to find the entrance to the museum. Asking directions from one member of staff resulted in his complimenting me effusively upon my excellent French, although as our entire conversation had consisted of ‘excuse me, sir, where is the entrance?’ I feel as though his perspective may have been slightly skewed. Before me in the queue were a couple who fulfilled the unfortunate stereotype of anglophones abroad, increasing their volume to aid comprehension. Such scenes always make me cringe slightly. It’s not because I think that they should know French – although it is always nice to make some effort to speak a few phrases of the language one visits, it is frequently much easier to converse in English. It’s more because it gives an impression of arrogance, projects the idea that others ought to know English, the universal language. It makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable – and more determined to improve my French. Moldus, Queudver, Jedusor.

The escargot contemplates

There was no queue as I entered the museum and after only momentary indecision I wandered into an exhibit of Greek sculpture. Hermes, Athena, Apollo, Bacchus, Silenus… It was Elysium. The cool marble figures stood in attitudes ranging from anger to serenity, or lay languorously, arms outstretched towards lovers. Myths of gods and heroes intertwined with the artists and muses who gave them form. Nudes poised eternally in perfect youthful beauty, while their models grew old and their sculptors lay down their tools. I imagined the long hours in which models would pose for sketches, wondered whether they were privy to the finished piece, what they thought of themselves etched in marble. Their names are lost yet thousands know their faces, the curves and lines of their bodies. Great art makes me contemplative. I sat and thought of the people who created it, of those who had seen it across time. Also, if I’m honest, I mused over the fact that the male nudes were not particularly well-endowed. It’s sort of like everything else was scaled up. (I’ve read that small phalluses were indicative of high status in Ancient Greece. There you go then).

Why do Ancient Greek statues look so shabby?
Because they have been Aegean.

I moved from Greece to Renaissance Italy and for the first time encountered the Mona Lisa. Last time I was in the Louvre I passed her by, deterred by the crowds which thronged around her and in no mood to battle in their midst. Today, however, her fans were fewer, and mostly short, so I had an opportunity to gaze upon La Joconde unhindered. Beautiful, enigmatic, and so very celebrated – she’s quite something to see. Yet I left swiftly, disheartened by the cameras and camera phones held high in an attempt to capture a moment that the photographers were losing even in the act of trying to preserve it. I gazed instead upon the vast murals on the ceilings of the Louvre, flecked with gold and held aloft by stone angels.

Paris is pretty incredible.

I’ll do my laundry tomorrow.

Site of the day: The Oatmeal

Song of the day: Mona Lisa

The escargot reminisces

What did one raindrop say to the other? 

Two’s company, three’s a cloud 

Silliness on the banks of the Seine. I confess, this video is not from this particular adventure. However, I was walking in the same spot at the weekend and remembered singing and dancing and laughing with Annie in the grey Parisian winter last year. Where is my umbrella?

Il pleut comme vache qui pisse –  It’s raining like a pissing cow.

Oh idioms, how I love thee!


Site of the day: 8 fairytales and their not-so-happy-endings

Song of the day: Singing in the Rain

The escargot flâners

I am getting the hang of weekends. Yesterday afternoon I met up with my Austrian colleague Ben to have a wander around the Notre Dame area and take pictures. We waited on different bridges for the other to arrive at the rendez-vous point (I’m near the statue of the man on the horse?- This is Paris! Which one?!). We meandered by the Seine and walked through various small streets on a quest to discover the fondue place I once ate at. My thrilled recognition of a place selling fondue was greeted with a wry ‘yes, the only one in Paris’. Ben leaves in a week’s time, which saddens me. I will be the only one left of the three interns. All for one and one for… hey, guys? Where’d you go?  

Ben appreciated my bread puns in the article I wrote about European idioms for friendship. The office now understands me when I call them thoroughly good eggs, however scrambled I may be.  He also rescued me on the one occasion when I accidentally managed to delete the German version of a text and replace it with an English one. I should probably learn some more basic German. (Aside: Sommersprossen is German for freckles. I like it. Probably not as useful to me as learning the ‘edit’ button though).

What do you call a baby fountain pen?

An inkling!

Today I awoke at 7am to the sight of clear blue skies and the sunshine streaming into my window. I promptly pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep for another two hours. My body clock has yet to realise the sanctity of Sunday morning lie-ins. I finally arose in a disgruntled fashion when it became clear that my goal of sleeping until my ten o’clock alarm went off was, alas, to remain unsatisfied. Breakfasting only on black coffee – very Parisian – I set off to the 17th arondissement to meet Morgane for a lunchtime brunch. This consisted, oddly, of tomato and mozzarella salad, feta and aubergine quiche, hotdogs and a fruit pot. I promise that I will not start detailing all of my meals – it has not yet come to that – but nonetheless I thought this peculiar combination worthy of mention. Morgane and I talked feminism, frat boys, and other things beginning with patriarchy, before setting off on an expedition to pair a camera with a memory card with a LGBT kiss-in demonstration in front of the Russian embassy.

The rally was colourful – rainbows aplenty – enthusiastic, emotional and full of people waving flags and chanting in support of the Russian LGBT community. For a change, I was glad of my height – in crowds it gives one a distinct advantage. We inched ourselves through the crowd to interview various activists and artists for cafebabel. Well, I mostly nodded and smiled. While I can generally get by in comprehending at least the sense of conversations in French, the words were ricocheting past at a startling rate and a smile seemed my best defense. I was designated photographer, but have yet to examine the results of my attempts to swivel the focus and the zoom and to press the button before the moment was lost. Je crois les doigts.

The escargot squirms

While my French aptitude may or may not be improving, I fear my English is deteriorating. I find myself occasionally forgetting the English word for things and anglicising the French. I will envoy you a message, I say, or, I must regarde this programme. One can only hope that when October brings my arrival home I shall retain some sort of grasp of my native language.

Despite the exceptional facility with which my colleagues speak English, nonetheless some things get lost in translation. Self-deprecation was perhaps the most troubling of these. I suspect, but am not sure, that it may be a cultural difference. In Scotland, anyone who goes around thinking they’re all that is thought a wee bitty big for their boots, and is swiftly brought down to size (peculiar Cinderella reference there). Therefore, we tend to preface our suggestions with apologetic provisos, to speak of ourselves and our achievements with a touch of irony. Here, however, this is seen as fishing for compliments. The horror! At the first editorial meeting my suggestion of a possible article idea, maybe, if it’s the right sort of thing, was met with the cry of ‘Fishing!’ and I, red-faced and flustered, attempted unsuccessfully to explain that oh no, goodness no, it wasn’t that, oh dear… Although I’m trying to learn to apologise less for my work – anything, anything to avoid that shameful cry – humorous self-deprecation is quite an ingrained habit. I doubt I’ll lose it. Yet I’ve learnt to respond to ‘Fishing!’ with the rejoinder that indeed I am single-handedly to blame for the deaths of thousands of dolphins and that compliments go down well with chips. Going with the Orinocco flow.

Tomorrow, I shall return to the confusion that comes with switching between QWERTY and AZERTY, attempt to write an article on government censorship in the UK, answer reams of emails and dare a glance at my photographs from the rally today (picture of my thumb, anyone?). Hopefully going to a celebration of The Great Gatsby tomorrow night at the wonderful bookshop Shakespeare and Company. I’m counting down the days til my sweetheart Nicky comes to visit me (it’s a lot easier now I can count them on my fingers). I booked my ticket home today. Caledonia, I’ll see you in five weeks.

For now, au revoir from Paris!


Site of the day: People who are way more awkward than you

Song of the day: If I only had a brain 

The escargot’s day off

I have been babysitting the English edition of cafebabel since Wednesday, fretting about whether the milk is at the right temperature and wondering where the sunhats are kept. Yesterday was grey and confirmed my sober analysis that sunshine in Paris would limit itself strictly to my office hours. So I stayed home in front of the computer, preparing for work on Monday – writing, editing, translating, emailing. Burping the babel baby.

What do you call an alligator in a vest?

An investigator!

Today, however, Paris broke its recent trend of sunny weeks and drab weekends, and I, in my turn, broke my weekend habit of staying home and working. Having missed the past 2 MotoGP races, this morning’s mission was to find a pub showing the race. Canadian bar The Moose (elk-moose, not mouse-moose), promised beer and biking. And so! I took the metro into town and sat on the Pont Neuf, reading stories by Roald Dahl on my Kindle and basking lizard-like in the sunshine, before heading Moose-wards. There, my Italian colleague Alex and I talked bikes and skateboarding and the weather (Me: It’s so sunny! Him: Kind of… Oh, these Italian sunshine standards). Peering over the beer taps, and attempting to block out the unce-unce strains of bad pop, we watched the race and drank Canadian beer. The race was tense and I unsuccessfully attempted to restrain myself from swearing in several languages (sadly, the only kind of situation in which multilingual tendencies seem to come naturally to me- although this week I did discover that German editor Katha, who missed the beginning of the joke, thought that I actually can speak 13th century Polish).

I am pleased to have broken the shackles of my to-do list today. I feel a great deal better for it. For now, bed beckons.

-tomorrow is our permanent address

and there they’ll scarcely find us (if they do,
we’ll move away still further: into now
– ee cummings

Site of the day: Babies eating lemons! 

Song of the day: Sunny Afternoon