Saturday, 16 March 2019

The Second (Home)coming

10 months’ since my last visit to London, it’s not just long overdue. It’s become a necessity for my morale and general equilibrium. The main thing that’s been stopping me is my irregular accommodation situation back in the UK.  I last stayed with a friend who gave me a warm welcome, although the environment was chaotic.  Mum is of course pleased to host her baby but doesn’t currently have the space.

A few months prior, I thus contact my old landlady to check if she has any spare rooms. Indeed she does, for a steal, the floor above where I used to rent.

The journey to and from London is mercifully drama-free. No missed connections. The only mild gripe is a fellow passenger who appears to have verbal diarrhoea, intent on punctuating any silence with a running commentary in a transatlantic whine to his significant other.

On arriving, there’s a bit of a hitch.  Despite having sent her a reminder the week before, my former landlady has an evening class and forgets. She lives all the way in Kingston. I’m standing outside my old flat in the rain, the no doubt Climate Change-induced premature summer having inconveniently vanished when I touch down.  After several unsuccessful attempts to phone her, she finally answers. Profusely apologetic, she sends her husband down with the key. It’s at least an hour’s drive. To kill the time, I bring forward a planned surprise visit to my aunt and cousin who live in the neighbourhood.

I am only in town for what is effectively a long weekend.  I squeeze as many visits into as many available windows. Meeting up with friends across the City, we discuss amongst others, the male: female ratio and gender politics in the church context, debate evolutionary biology vs. social constructionist theories, Brexit (inevitably), ponder the latest R. Kelly scandal and the impact of the controversial new MJ doc, my plans for the mid-long term but surprisingly little about my current life in Strasbourg. Considering.  Maybe that’s for the best.  I’m in London for a change of scene after all. 
I’m under no illusions of having strong nostalgia for the city itself.  Cramped into the tiny, dusty room which is my temporary residence, keeping my use of the poorly-maintained communal areas to a minimum, I’m reminded why. The money-bleeding transport system is another rude refresher.   I also reflect on the increasing aptness of the (admittedly quite pretentious) Citoyenne Mondiale descriptor that I have facetiously adopted on occasion.  Geographically, I don’t know where I belong. Everywhere and nowhere.

By contrast, my visit to my home church is a soul-enriching and centring highlight of the trip.  I’m always nervous about these guerilla cameos when I shouldn’t be.  The outcome is usually reassuring. I meet new babies, some of whom I don’t know where their parents found the time to conceive and give birth within the period I’ve been away.  After church I head to a local Wetherspoons with a couple of good mates, including fellow aspiring writer, Pete and mutual friend Amelia. She’s a captive audience to our latest creative efforts.

The following morning, I head to my old employers, The Medical School. I pass by the Chaplaincy for a well-needed refresher meditation session as well as a catch-up with the good Reverend.  En route, I stop by the security lodge of my old office building.  I run into some of the old gang; two of the ‘dream team’.  It’s more of an anticlimactic visit than I expect. I don’t receive the superstar welcome that my vanity anticipated. In spite of giving some advance notice, my timing still isn’t the best. The fellows are cordial but distracted. During my visit Josh learns from his wife of the death of one of his idols; Keith Flint from The Prodigy.

Josh is dazed.

He’ll have to go up on the wall of death, suggests a colleague, matter-of-fact. This is in reference to a makeshift homage of photos to celebrities that have passed, mostly-but not all-during this decade. Flint will take his place alongside Tupac and Big Pun as one of Josh’s lost heroes.

The rest of the day is more auspicious.  I spend a therapeutic afternoon with a church auntie, mutually comforting each other over the distressing experience of the old 'ministry' where we met.

That evening, I pass by mum’s one last time before I fly out the following afternoon.  She effuses enthusiasm about my visits. She treats me to favourite foods and all sorts of creature comforts to take back to Strasbourg, as well as graciously giving my twists a much-needed tidy up.  Mum approaches my hair like a sculptor does their raw materials. She’s always seeing some new angle to adjust.

Back at work later that week, I hit the ground running. There are several big meetings to prepare for in March and April. Sophie’s just back from maternity leave and a new project is about to be launched in another part of the former Eastern Bloc. Lucia, one of my several managers, seems to be in relatively good spirits.  Despite protests to the contrary, she appears well-rested after a recent trip to the UK which she says went very well. Alas, as I suspect, this ceasefire doesn't last very long. That's for a different blog post, maybe.

By the end of that week I am exhausted. I harness enough energy to make it to my choir’s long but productive AGM.  The following day, it is late afternoon drinks with Gael in a new restaurant he’s come across; the waggishly-named Chez Mon-Ex (Round my ex’s). Original indeed and not, as I first thought, a veiled reference to Gael's unresolved relationship issues.

Soundtrack: Art + Studio by Benny Sings.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Alternative Arrangements

My treacherous laptop is back in the shop. Just over two years old and brand new on purchase, it’s given me nothing but grief since the time it was delivered. Thankfully, I’ve found a reputable-looking PC repair at the Rivetoile shopping centre. The downside is that a diagnostic takes anything from 1-2 weeks.  It’s not the first time I’ve had to make do without any entertainment at home thanks to Asus’ dodgy manufacturing.  I haven’t yet invested in a TV and I’m still debating whether it’s worth the additional expense.

I choose not to use smart technology, thus I’m out of the loop save for the four days out of the week I’m in the office. I hear about the postponement of the Nigerian elections as well as the shenanigans of ex-Labour Party saboteurs across the Channel, a day after the news breaks. Over the weekend I fear private email accounts overflowing with unopened messages. In fact, to my relief, it’s not that bad.

To keep myself distracted I catch up on my backlog of podcasts from the likes of Novara Media, The Sacred Podcast, On Being and NEF.  It’s a good time too to do some additional reading that I don’t always get round to during the day. I rediscover the singular interpretive talents of underrated Jazz vocalist, Anita O’Day. A jazz singer’s jazz singer, if ever there were one.

A weekend without Skype and Netflix gives me a Sunday afternoon free to attend a language exchange meet-up that I don’t usually frequent.  I’ve enjoyed myself a good deal at these events of late (the positive affirmation I receive regarding my language efforts doesn’t hurt, I must admit).
I’ve met a number of stimulating interlocutors. There’s Noelle whose birthday happens to be between Christmas and New Year but who was in fact named after a nun of whom her mother was fond. A Strasbourg native, we nonetheless have a few things in common. We’re the same age. She spent significant periods living and working in different parts of the UK. Although from the region, she can understand my trepidation regarding some aspects of life in Alsace. We both bemoan the unsolicited advice from those who believe they have the right to comment on the life choices of a 30-something single woman. There’s also the confusingly Anglophone-monikered Jim; an affable French polyglot who has picked up a number of Slavic languages as well as Italian on his travels. Good-natured Roisin wears away my initial guardedness with her unflappable geniality.  She’s on an intense linguistic sojourn in France, having always wanted to learn the language.  Currently based in Helsinki, and a former resident of Zurich, she’s also a fluent Finnish, German and Portuguese speaker ( courtesy of a month's intense study in Lisbon). 

Finnish? That’s impressive. One of the most difficult European languages, they say. Everything else must be a breeze.

Not according to Roisin. She still finds French a challenge.  It’s reassuring somewhat to learn that even seasoned multi-linguists struggle with La Langue de Moliere. I’m in good company.
Earlier that weekend I re-join the inter-denominational group in Strasbourg that reaches out to sexually-exploited women.  It’s been a while. The timetable of the outings has been more sporadic recently and there’s often a clash with my choir schedule. Being a new member, I’m not keen on missing too many rehearsals. However, neither do I want to abandon a ministry close to my heart. Skipping one practice a month wouldn’t hurt.

 (courtesy of Crossroads Bible Church)
We gather at what I am to find out is a thriving house church, with people of all ages and backgrounds; both genders equally represented. It feels like living in the Book of Acts. I meet middle-aged new convert Billy (another Francophone whose parents confusingly bequeathed him with an Anglophone nickname). I also rub shoulders with a couple of Austrian missionaries whom the church are hosting over the weekend. Initially feeling awkward, wondering if my struggle to make small talk in French will get in the way, I’m soon caught up in the invigorating energy of it all.  I recognise a few faces from church.  We're soon joined by the group leaders, Sabrina, Dieudonné and Luc. I help translate for congenial Austrian missionary, Karin.  Despite herself being a multi-linguist (including Turkish, which she learned growing up in Ankara), she does not have French in her linguistic repertoire.

It's a sizeable group.  Over 20 of us in total.  After a moment of prayer and praise, we split into smaller groups of twos and threes depending on our area of interests. Whilst some like Karin and I will be focused on the sexually-exploited, others reach out to those sleeping rough or, like Dieudonné, share the Good News with groups of young revellers. Contrary to expectation there are many millennials/Xennials and Gen-Z’s doing a lot of soul-searching, according to Dieudonné. This younger generation respond with more enthusiasm to the big metaphysical questions than the one before.  

I team up with Karin and founding member of the initiative, Luc.  We always aim to have one male per group, bearing in mind the target group’s clientele.

It's the day after Valentine's. Alongside the usual hot drinks, Luc has brought along some roses for the women. He gamely speaks in English for Karin’s benefit. Eager and full of compassion, I try to gently disabuse her of certain preconceptions regarding the women without dampening her spirit. As we approach a couple of the girls, a car approaches and discussion ensues.

Wow, this is heavy stuff. Karin observes. 

Yet her presence that evening is auspicious. We come across several women, even the more withdrawn amongst them willingly accepting our offer of warm drinks and conversation. (We're fast running out of hot water but, by the grace of God, there's just enough to go round.)
A number of the girls also welcome our prayers. When asked if she has any requests, young Diana only speaks her family's needs back in Albania. Life is tough, she explains. Luc asks if they know what she’s doing in France.


We exchange kisses with the bright and assertive Laura. She switches with ease between French and fluid German with Karin; just two of the several languages she speaks.  

There are quite a few women with whom I’m yet to become acquainted. Collette is one such.

Collette. That’s very French.

That’s because I am.

I’m not used to meeting nationals who work the street. I compliment her mesmerising eyes, which bear the Maghreb traits of her mother’s Moroccan heritage.  They moisten whilst we pray for her and her two year-old daughter.  Collette dreams of one day becoming a seamstress; or any in-road into fashion retail. 

Round midnight, the various groups reassemble for an encouraging debrief. Billy’s gang were so warmly received by a group of rough-sleepers, that they used their meagre funds to buy a bouquet of roses to express their gratitude. Billy gives one flower to each of the women. I’m usually bah-humbug about Valentine's, with all its build-up, caricatures of romance and cynical commercialism. In these circumstances however, I am only too pleased to accept Billy's floral offering. A pink rose takes pride of place on my dining table. 

Soundtrack: Gilles Peterson in Brazil (Part 1), Anita O’Day: Four Classic Albums.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Bonne Continuation

Between Brexit May-hem and The Organisation’s financial problems, I have the impression that those of us with Brit connection are being pressed on all sides. Honorary Londoner, Claudia tells me the atmosphere during recent trips to Blighty has been demoralising to say the least. Everything is in suspended animation. Brexit and all its uncertainty only aggravate existing socio-economic problems. She’s seriously considering moving back to Sicily.  My Labour International branch have heated discussions about strategy and possible outcomes via video conference or email. British colleagues and acquaintances with the opportunity of acquiring another nationality are doing so sharp-ish.

The putative effects of a hard or No Deal-Brexit are indirectly being felt in The Organisation. Not that they don’t already have their own difficulties.  With two major donors pulling out, the belt is going to be tightened. It looks as if the last-in-first-out policy will be applied, signifying the potential loss of hundreds of jobs.

I attend my first Union meeting since I (belatedly to my shame) joined a TU. I’ve been invited by a former French classmate.  The speaker has one of the best French accents I’ve heard on an Anglophone. She switches effortlessly between the two, giving us the latest feedback from the higher echelons on how to navigate the crisis. Not surprisingly, there’s much opaque management-speak on their end. Over free grub we discuss possible future action including a demo. Colleagues speak of eye-watering financial waste within the organisation; the cumulative effect of which would be the equivalent at least of several salaries. I can’t say I’ve witnessed anything so profligate yet in my own department, I’ve observed where sacrifices could comfortably be made.  Boss Man for instance, gives me a rollicking –more than once-for reserving a seat in a second class train carriage for a mission to Zurich. He waxes indignant over the need for leg room (diminutive man that he is), noisy children and wishing to work in transit. Always having travelled by second class on principle, I can attest it’s perfectly possible to be productive without the need for total silence and capacious surroundings. Hmm. Here am I thinking that I was saving The Organisation money. I’m learning that it doesn’t always pay round these parts to show initiative.

Lucia, one of his deputies, is proving to be a challenge with her disjointed instructions, gauche manner and underestimation of my abilities. She isn’t vindictive. I can tell when she’s making a special effort to be friendly. She just isn’t the most socially adept of managers. I’ve noticed on both sides of the Channel that such skills aren’t valued nearly enough when considering candidates for promotion.

Lucia’s management style and I aren’t gelling. It’s having a counter-productive effect and I find myself making silly errors more often than usual. I attempt to own up to my mistakes whilst being diplomatically forthright about my reservations. There's a limit to how much this can be done. She’s also responsible for my appraisals. It’s stressing me out. As a coping mechanism, I try to reframe the situation as yet another opportunity to adapt to different ways of working and show patience and compassion towards Lucia. 

All this anxiety exacerbates my already grim outlook on Strasbourg. I feel the absence of the moral support of family and close friends. On that note, one or two of my friendships back home are in a state of flux. My stubborn Love Jones for my former heartache wants to make a resurgence. The slowness of my linguistic progress brings me low more than most things. Trying times.

Never say die. I persist. I’m doing my best to simplify my life and, where I can, eliminate unnecessary aggro. I’ve discovered some helpful French grammar channels on YouTube. I decide to re-enrol on a different advanced French class at work, having already had my fill of the tutor's dismissiveness, passive-aggression, mordant humour and the suspect political views of one of my classmates. I miss my old class.

I know I’ve made a good decision when, having used a refined French idiom, the tutor Léa condescendingly declares before my fellow students that I must have looked it up in a dictionary.

As ever, keeping active is a good remedy for navel-gazing. Choir rehearsals are slowly returning to life as more members get back into the swing. I’m invited by erstwhile contralto, Yvette to watch her perform with her reggae band; a swan song of sorts before she relocates to Brittany in March. We’ve met up a couple of times since she announced she was leaving.  A few weeks earlier I have an unexpected melt-down over my linguistic frustration when we meet up at a bar in Krutenau. Yvette is most sympathetic, recounting her own experience of moving overseas (albeit, much further afield in Mali). Tears dried, the conversation turns to the global political situation, her lovely singing voice and great musical taste. 

For the reggae gig, I take my little church sister Stacee along. It’s a school night and the band is last on the bill. Alas, I can’t stay for the show but it’s a good opportunity to bid Yvette farewell before she moves on.

A couple of days before the gig, I attend a matinee of THRO Theatre Company’s long-awaited Lewis Carroll/Brexit-related musical parody.  The show is a hit; sold out performances almost every night of its brief run.  It’s as topical as satires come, casting a scathing eye at the whole post-referendum debacle.  The show has evolved quite a bit since I sat in on the first reading. There’s still a cast of thousands. You can tell the experienced from the ingénues and the kids’ performances are more wooden than anticipated. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage and David Cameron are given too easy a ride.  Nevertheless it’s still a pretty sophisticated affair, poking fun at Britain’s lost empire-complex and the illegitimate offspring of national identity; racism and xenophobia.  As is often the case, the bit-part actors steal the show once again (Doris Schaal's Cheshire Cat, Mihail Stojanoski's myriad roles, Paula Hinchy's Cook...). Stanislavski was right.

Soundtrack: Outer Peace by Toro Y Moi

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Not Such Idle Hands

(c) Daeya Malboeuf
On the way into work the other day, I overhear a discussion between otherwise unknown colleagues.

‘How are you settling in to life here?’ asks one interlocutor.

‘Actually, I don’t find it very friendly’ is the reply.

Instinctively, I chime in

Me neither

Later that morning, I have a similar conversation with new colleague Predrag, fresh from Croatia. He’s soon to be joined by his wife and small children. We swap pleasantries and notes about finding accommodation.  He then asks my thoughts on the city. I try to be diplomatic.

Well my experience moving here on my own would be different from yours…

Not missing a trick, Predrag sees through my evasion. He tells me his single Bosnian friends have found Strasbourg rather alienating too.

It’s great if you have a family but…

…As his friends put it, it’s a City with a village mentality.

When I share this conversation with sis and a friend, independently of each other they reply:

Strasbourg doesn't sound very appealing, or...if it weren't for your interest in the language, I'd wonder why you're still there.

A part of me feels it's unfair to give the town a bad image. It is so easy on the eye. It's just compared to a city like London where, for all its faults it is open, diverse and any and everyone can potentially find their own 'tribe', Strasbourg by contrast closes in on itself.

Speaking to Predrag about his friends' experience, it feels good to be understood. It’s not all in my head then, which has been a gloomy place of late. I’m also missing the regularity of choir practice after a sporadic start to the year on that front.

I'm doing what I can to resist the grim thoughts. The devil makes work for idle hands and minds. Thus, I’m in default busybody mode.  

My melancholy seems to be a good creative fuel. A friend in the UK and I are keeping each other accountable regarding our fiction exploits. We both agree that when inspiration flows it’s truly a spiritual experience. I believe I feel closest to God in those moments.

I’ve also volunteered to take on more tasks at work whilst a colleague is on extended sick leave. It’s certainly more hectic, and there are some teething problems adjusting to working with different budgets and management styles. At least the job feels more rewarding.

One afternoon in early January, the strains of fluid piano playing float down the corridors of Le Chateau whilst I’m on my lunch break. My curiosity leads me to two colleagues having an impromptu sing-along to Billy Joel’s She's Always a Woman. Of course I join in, mangled lyrics and all.  One should never pass up such serendipitous artistic opportunities. It’s as if for an instant, I've woken up in a musical.  Thanks to this happenstance I discover that a colleague at THRO regularly organises open mic nights. A suivre...

That weekend, I attend a short story workshop with po-faced American author, playwright, musician and artist Mark Safranco. A talking shop, more like, since we don’t get any writing done. Polymath Safranco is ironically averse to workshops, preferring a Q&A format. An audience with....if you will. It’s a useful session nonetheless. There's much to be gleaned as he discusses his journey and writing methodology. He graciously answers questions with a broad East Coast inflection over a two-hour period. Although we don’t do any writing exercises, I still leave with a short story idea.

That evening I meet up with Gael, a mutual acquaintance of the Afropean team.  Having reached out to me over the Christmas break, we’ve agreed to meet up in the New Year.  No romantic intentions; strictly platonic.

He has travelled all over Africa and Europe, thanks to his job as a chemical engineer. Add to this his Senegalese, Lebanese and French heritage, not surprisingly he's also multilingual. Gael is not a pedant like me, who wants to be a scholar in every language. He’s happy to make himself understood for functional purposes. His experience of learning Portuguese for example, was a baptism by fire whilst working in Mozambique.   

Gael and I spend an agreeable evening speaking about everything under the sun including a lively discussion about the Christian faith vs. indigenous practices; not too dissimilar to that I had at the Afropean symposium with one of his idols Tété-Michel Kpomassie.

Gael also has a passion for music and hospitality. He’s returned to his old stomping ground, Strasbourg to open up a bar that reflects the Afropean ethos.  He proceeds to qualify what that means. He extols the virtues of his European girlfriend who has a passion for Congolese culture and politics. He believes she’s more qualified to be called Afropean than those Francophone Africans born in France with little active connection to their culture. I agree culture trumps ethnicity. Someone of mixed-heritage like Gael, who was born and raised on African soil before moving to France, is culturally more connected to the Motherland than yours truly although I am ethnically ‘thoroughbred’. Still, I don’t think his girlfriend his automatically a candidate for the Afropean label. I am also frank about my distaste for what I call Kim-Kardashian syndrome; black men who want a ‘black-white’ woman instead of the real thing. I explain to Gael that although I don’t have any truck with the cultural appropriation argument, (there’s no such thing as single ‘black’ culture or identity for one) I do take issue with the apparent self-centredness of many black men. It's as if the struggle concerns them alone.

 They seem to ignore/be oblivious/indifferent to the plight of women of African descent. Neither are they self-aware of how much they have bought into the narrative of disregarding us whilst venerating Caucasian women.One can’t ignore the fetishisation either of the stereotypical African buck which has nothing to do with valuing culture.

I have female European friends who genuinely take interest in various African/Caribbean cultures and are married to men from that background. I too have eclectic taste in men. But let’s not pretend it’s a level playing field for women of all backgrounds. From a global socio-economic and media perspective, women of African descent are often at the back of the queue.

Gael and I discuss the desire of many immigrants to assimilate, in a country that insists you’re French before (or instead of) anything else. We speak about colourism. I remark that some of those of lighter hue aren't as sensitive to the issue as they should be. I tell him about the documentary Dark Girls and mention the case of former Brazilian carnival queen Nayara Justino, stripped of her title for being considered ‘too’ dark-skinned. We both acknowledge the reality that most high-profile brown women are light-skinned and/or mixed race. Gael nods sympathetically and makes all the right noises. Yet there seems to me a cognitive dissonance in regards to his reaction and whom he’s dating. It’s too familiar a story. I wonder if he has, or would ever, date a woman with a similar background to his Senagalese mother, for example. I mean to ask but somehow don't get round to it.

 It’s not to say every brown man that dates someone from a different background is a sell-out. I just don’t think they’re honest enough about how much of the European ideal (both aesthetically and economically) they’ve imbibed.

At the end of the evening, despite an otherwise pleasant exchange, I can't shake the vague sense of disillusion.

This Week's Soundtrack: Oxnard by .Anderson Paak, Sade Birthday Mix.

The Second (Home)coming

10 months’ since my last visit to London, it’s not just long overdue. It’s become a necessity for my morale and general equilibriu...