Two Months in France

I have now been living in France for 2 months, and things have started to settle down.

Most importantly I’ve gotten out of the crappy “apart-hotel” which they stuck me in for the first 6 weeks or so.  I suppose it served its purpose, but it was basically a low-grade hotel room with a fridge and a sink in the corner, and a hole in the carpet.  Two days before I checked out I noticed a large wet patch in the carpet near the door, which the next tenant would no doubt squelch his way through.  The place was jammed packed with Arabic-speaking folk, who appeared to be living 10 to a room, wandered between floors in pajamas and slippers, all seemed to know each other, and clogged the lifts with shopping trolleys full of all manner of strange produce.  I don’t know what on earth they were all doing living in a hotel, but they didn’t look wealthy (these weren’t millionaire Gulf Arabs).  The hotel was served by two lifts, one of which broke down for a week of my stay leaving us with only one, and that was also used by the cleaning staff.  Even though it was a convenient 5 minute walk from the office, and infinitely better than the appalling Eko Hotel which I stayed in for 3 months in Nigeria, the initial period of staying in an apartment hotel when mobilising is something you are always glad to get over with.

We are given a budget within which to find an apartment, with the option of topping it up with your own cash if you want.  Up until the beginning of 2014 the budget for a single person or a couple was woefully inadequate, probably due to the people who select and administer the budgets not themselves being users of the expatriate housing system (and you can extrapolate that particular problem across any number of dysfunctional departments in a major oil company, and beyond).  But somebody saw sense and I was lucky enough to get a slightly higher budget than my colleagues who’d arrived earlier, and it was easily adequate.  You have a choice when you arrive in Paris, either to live in a tiny, older flat towards the centre of town near the nice cafes, bars, etc. which make Paris life so enjoyable; or you can live further out with the advantages of a larger, more modern place closer to work but in an area which lacks the vibe and liveliness of the arrondissements.  I chose the latter, wanting to avoid a commute to work (and the inevitable public transport strikes which are a French national pastime) and wanting a spare bedroom for visitors and enough space to store the junk I have accumulated over years of expat life.  Also, the budget doesn’t really allow you to live in places like St. Germain, you have to compromise and live in Neuilly which is very nice but neither in the middle of Paris nor far enough out to be cheap.

As such, I chose a very nice apartment in the suburb of Puteaux, which technically isn’t really Paris as it lies just over the Seine from Neuilly, but is a commune in the western suburbs situated 5 miles or so from the city centre.  The main attraction of living in Puteaux is that it is a 10 minute walk from my office in La Défense, the huge purpose-built business district which lies partly in Puteaux (it is the taxes from La Défense which makes Puteaux one of the richest communes in France).  From what I’ve seen so far, it is smart, well-maintained, and has a handful of bars, restaurants, and shops but obviously lacks the atmosphere of downtown Paris.  However, with the metro station only a 5 minute walk from my apartment and the RER 10 minutes away, getting to the city centre is pretty easy (although getting home after 1am might prove to be a challenge).  Another great feature of the apartment is the underground car park (finding a parking space in Paris is like finding a faithful male politician in the same city), and a cellar which consist of a large cupboard about the size of a passenger lift in which to store things like empty suitcases, skis, boxes, etc. which frees up a lot of space in the apartment itself.  It’s a great idea, one that is common in France but unheard of in the UK for reasons I cannot fathom.

I’m not so sure how much I’ll be visiting Paris city centre, as I am no stranger to Paris having been here numerous times both for work and on holiday, and I’ve done most of the major attractions.  I am far more interested in visiting the many, many places 1-2 hour’s drive from Paris and for this purpose I bought myself a German car of the type which immediately identifies the driver as the most obnoxious asshole on the road.  One of the things I missed when living in Dubai, Sakhalin, Thailand, and Nigeria is being able to take weekends away in other places and my wife and I had a wonderful time in Germany in 2012 just driving from one town to the next.  There is a lifetime of things to do and see in France, most of it within reach of a long weekend either by train or by car, and I see us doing this more than nights out in Paris (although I’m sure there’ll be a few of them as well).  We have gathered all the paperwork for my wife’s visa, and hopefully she’ll apply late this week and be here the weekend after next.  As the wife of an EU citizen she is entitled to residency here on the same basis as me, which is a clear advantage to me personally of Britain being in the EU.  That said, Norwegians enjoy the same advantages, as do the Swiss.

Of course, such excursions around France are weather dependent, and we were lucky enough to get a burst of warm, springtime weather this past weekend which was a welcome break from the miserable, pissing rain that’s been a constant since I arrived.  As such, I was able to throw open the windows to the street and the gardens behind in a very Parisian manner.

1948041_522037794584497_1232370602_n

10003516_522037874584489_1272885790_n

1527085_522037831251160_571157452_n

1794723_522037897917820_27665358_n

1017145_522037934584483_65157501_n

As commentator John B pointed out, the French don’t do as much cooking as we think they do (preferring to buy ready-made stuff from traiteurs and pâtisseries, or eat out).  This is the case particularly in Paris and one of the main complaints from the expats who come here is that the kitchens in the apartments are generally crap, and a lot of the time there is no proper oven.  Good quality ovens just don’t seem to be a feature in Parisian kitchens, and although I was fortunate enough to get a reasonable one installed in my place, some of my colleagues have nothing more substantial than an electric grill/microwave combined.  And if Parisians don’t cook there is no need to provide much space for storing things like pots and pans, and so I had to go to Ikea and buy a narrow table with drawers and shelves underneath for 155 Euros before I got the kitchen how I wanted it, i.e. functional.

Ikea in France is like Ikea everywhere: a version of hell.  In kitting out my place I had to endure two visits, one on a Saturday when half of France was there with their kids.  The queues at the checkouts were a disorganised shambles, which I’ve found is often the case in Paris.  I’ve been into a few supermarkets, DIY stores, and homeware places like Ikea and each time found the checkouts to be understaffed or poorly laid out or both.  The supermarkets here fall some way short of their British counterparts, for whatever reason.  The levels of cleanliness leave a lot to be desired (but then again, what is clean in Paris?) and the supermarkets inexplicably close on a Sunday afternoon, even the enormous ones in the shopping centres.  That leaves you having to find the smaller, independent ones which appear to be operated by north African or Lebanese families whose elder sons do everything from stack the shelves to man the tills dressed as if they’ve just been to a football match.  I was in one of these yesterday, and found myself in a queue with a French chap at the head who was complaining that some sausages he’d bought were (probably) 2 cents more expensive than they were advertised in the local paper.  The only two members of staff on duty spent five minutes reading the paper, going back to the shelf where he’d found the item, then discussing stuff amongst the three of them before any progress was made.  In the meantime a queue the size of a Nigerian airport line had formed, with nobody seeming to care.  Admittedly this was in one of the independent shops, but it’s hard to imagine this level of ineptitude happening in the UK, and even the bigger supermarkets don’t manage their logistics as well as the likes of Tesco or Sainsbury’s.

The French adopt a peculiar habit when grocery shopping.  Carrier bags are either free and useless, or useful and 5 cents a go, and so the French have taken to bringing shopping bags with them or using the personal shopping trolleys that my grandma used to use in the UK and have long since disappeared over there.  What’s more, the supermarkets don’t seem to mind their customers merrily filling up their own bags with stuff, emptying it at the checkout counter, and then packing it all away again.  In the UK stuffing items into your own bags in a shop is generally known as “shoplifting”, but there is enough trust and honesty in France that it appears to work.  I’d not recommend exporting this practice to Manchester or Lagos, though.

The other thing I’ve noticed is how much processed and frozen food the French eat compared to what the British are led to believe they do.  We are constantly told that the French diet is much healthier thanks to the widespread availability of fresh meat and produce at the local farmers’ markets which the French use instead of the ghastly supermarkets favoured by us Brits.  Except it’s bollocks.  Yes, there are farmer’s markets in every town and district, but supermarkets are also everywhere and they are chock-a-block with French.  And yes, the supermarkets also sell the meat, fruit, and vegetables that can be found in the local markets (I’ve not compared the prices yet) so there is obviously a demand.  The supermarkets feature row upon row of food in jars, packets, tins, and plastic exactly the same as you see in the UK (only with less choice).  Just around the corner from my apartment is a shop which sells only frozen foods, and in there you can find all the stuff you’d find in a British supermarket – pizzas, burgers, vegetables, chips, etc.

So it’s clearly not the case that the French shun supermarkets in favour of farmers’ markets, but that they simply use them both.  And the reason for this is probably less a matter of difference in shopping tastes between British and French than an approach by the local municipalities towards fucking over the population in the interests of boosting revenues.  I noticed when I was in Germany that the small towns had thriving high streets but – crucially – free or very cheap parking.  Try finding that in the UK.  I’d also be prepared to bet that the venue for the local French markets are owned by the municipality and made available either for free or at very cheap rates to the merchants, and free or cheap parking can be found fairly easily nearby.  Having nosed around one or two of these markets I’d also be prepared to bet that the regulations they have to abide by are somewhat lighter, or at least less enthusiastically enforced, in France than in the UK.

I’m not saying that either system is better, but I’ve always thought the argument that supermarkets kill British high streets to be weak: they were shite even in the days before supermarkets arrived, and the local businesses failed to adapt and the inept local councils failed to appreciate that fleecing drivers with parking charges would drive customers away from the town centres.  So it appears that the difference between the French and British systems of grocery retailing aren’t as different as the right-on lefties of Islington would have you believe: the British have world-class supermarkets in fierce competition but not much else, whilst the French have decent local markets and supermarkets which are merely adequate.  I’ve yet to decide where I’ll do most of my shopping, but I expect it’ll be a mixture of both as the French do.

One of the things which I am looking forward to doing in France is seeing how much of the vaunted French culture as imagined by Guardian readers is actually true.  I’ve already discovered that a downside to having the government doing everything for you is a population who doesn’t see the need to pick up their own dog shit.

Posted in France, Photos | 12 Comments

Uniquely Australian

There is a sport out there which involves:

“[L]ong distance cross-country navigation, involving both route planning and navigation between checkpoints using a variety of map types.

Teams of two to five members visit as many checkpoints as possible in the time allowed. Shorter duration [competitions] often allow solo competitors. Checkpoints are scored differently depending on level of difficulty in reaching them; therefore teams choose a strategy (for example, to visit many low score checkpoints). Teams travel entirely on foot, navigating by map and compass between checkpoints in terrain that varies from open farmland to hilly forest.”

The checkpoints are marked by this symbol:

150px-Orienteering_symbol.svgWell, yes.  It’s called orienteering right?

Apparently not.  It is a sport invented in Australia called Rogaining which:

“can trace its roots back to 1947 when the first of many events with some of the features of rogaines was organized by the Melbourne University Mountaineering Club. The events from the 1940s eventually led to the birth of the sport of rogaining in April, 1976, in Melbourne, Australia. The sport was named, rules were adopted and the world’s first rogaining association was formed (the Victorian Rogaining Association). Growth of the association and the sport occurred rapidly over the next decade.

The word rogaining is derived from the names of three of the founders, Rod Phillips, Gail Davis (née Phillips) and Neil Phillips (RoGaiNe, hence ‘rogaining’, ‘rogainer’ etc.) who were all members of the Surrey-Thomas Rover Crew which organized the world’s first rogaine.

Uh-huh:

The history of orienteering begins in the late 19th century in Sweden, the actual term “orientering” (the original Swedish name for orienteering) was first used in 1886 and meant the crossing of unknown land with the aid of a map and a compass.  In Sweden, orienteering grew from military training in land navigation into a competitive sport for military officers, then for civilians. The name is derived from a word root meaning to find the direction or location. The first orienteering competition open to the public was held in Norway in 1897.

Next week: the uniquely Australian Aussie Pie, a dish invented by a Sydney chef in 1976 and sold overseas as a mince and potato pie since 1623.

Posted in Australia | 7 Comments

Some more on Melbourne

It was with some interest that I read this BBC article on Melbourne, having recently just quit the place:

With its grand Victorian architecture, and famous network of 190 lanes, Melbourne is regarded as one of Australia’s big tourist attractions. But city fathers have been selling some of the alleys to property developers – and Melburnians have an uneasy feeling that vital heritage could soon be lost.

Okay, Melbourne’s lanes are nice.  I had fun in my first few weeks there ducking and diving through the back alleys of the CBD stumbling across cool, independent bars with precisely nobody in them outside the hours of 17:00-20:00 on Fridays.  I particularly liked this one.  But I think a rather large point is being missed here, which I’ll get back to later.  Meanwhile:

But for three years running, Australia’s second city has topped the world for liveability, last year scoring 97.5% for stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure.

Yes, and it’s easy to see why it scores highly on those criteria.  Sounds like the perfect place to live a nice, easy, untroubled existence as a nuclear family, commuting from an overpriced home in sprawling, nondescript suburbia to a monotonous job while the kids receive a third-rate education which is more than enough to follow in their father’s professional footsteps.  Which sounds like heaven if you’re from overpopulated India, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, disaster-prone Bangladesh, or unpredictable China.  Or if you like that exact same kind of living in the UK but want some sunshine.  But to me, judging a place on those criteria alone is simply an exercise in identifying the most dull cities on earth:

CaptureHang on a minute!  “Culture” is one of the criterion, yet Calgary, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, and Auckland make it into the top 10?  Adelaide?  Seriously? Okay, so these places are stable, but so is London and New York, which rank at 55 and 56 respectively.  True, the environments are better, except for Calgary where it’s clean but minus forty for half the year.  From my brief visit to Sydney I’m not sure their infrastructure is so far ahead of London’s, and the gap will be closing fast.  I’ve been to both Vienna and Helsinki, nice places the both of them, but hardly the most happening places in the world.  And from what I’ve seen of the Australian education system, and heard about the health system, it’s hardly world class (sure, better than Britain’s, but that’s not saying much).

No, this seems more like a list of cities where British families like to be expatriated than a measure of which cities are the best to live in generally.  Note that there are only two cities in the top 10 which are non-English speaking, and English is widely spoken in Helsinki leaving just Vienna which would pose a challenge for an Anglophone.  I find it hard to believe that Perth or Calgary (both based around oil/mining) are considered more desirable cities to live than Berlin, unless the respondents to the survey were British housewives living in Aberdeen or London wishing hubby would get a job in a place where the houses are bigger, there aren’t so many swarthy foreign-types, and they don’t need to go to all that trouble of learning a new language or even, really, a new culture.

It is my opinion that life in these cities would be “good” in one sense, but interminably dull in another.  I’ve found living in rougher, readier places is an awful lot more fun.  Which brings me back to the article:

The Economist Intelligence Unit judges left out a few essential elements of Melbourne’s good life – like food and wine, beaches and forests, and vineyards an hour’s drive from the city centre.

The author thinks this is a good thing, whereas I expect Paris or any other major French city would have knocked Melbourne into a cocked-hat had these criteria been considered.  Take the food and wine, starting with the wine.  Yes it’s good in Australia, but fucking expensive.  If you know where to look, and shop around, and stumble on a decent offer, you’re looking at $15 for a reasonable bottle.  In central Paris you can pick up a bottle of equal or better quality from any random shop on your way home from work for €7, or two-thirds of the price you’d pay in Australia with a fraction of the effort.  Things aren’t much better in the vineyards.  A trip to a vineyard in France will gain you buckets of wine at giveaway prices, whereas in Australia you might as well buy it from Cole’s as far as price goes.

The food in Melbourne wasn’t bad, by Anglo-Saxon standards, but I have no idea how the city gained a reputation as a gastronomic centre.  The food that was excellent came at eye-watering prices, and the cheaper stuff was no better in quality than that which could be found in Manchester city centre.  The lunchtime selection in the CBD was superb, but you pay a considerable premium over the same stuff in Paris.  And the lunchtime selection in London is also superb, and you pay through the nose there, too.  I think that for years Australia was so devoid of a decent selection of food that when the Italian, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants arrived and dragged the standard of food up, Australians went bananas and thought they’d created something unique (examples abound of Australians reinventing what exists elsewhere and claiming it as unique or their own).  I am quite prepared to believe that the standard of food in Melbourne at some point in the last 20-30 years surpassed that of many other cities around the globe, but with the sharp increase in prices and the unarguable improvement in food quality and availability elsewhere (particularly in the UK) in the intervening years I really don’t see where Melbourne’s edge is supposed to come from.  Compared to Paris it falls well short, in my opinion.

And beaches?  Forests?  Well, yeah.  Melbourne’s beaches are nothing to get too excited about, at least compared to Sydney’s.  I didn’t see much by way of forests, and I’m sure they’re all very nice, but I’ve yet to hear somebody tell me Melbourne is an awesome place to live because of the forests an hour’s drive away.  Whereas the Ardennes region is not only beautifully picturesque but it is also handy cover for invading Germans.

The other thing which is not considered – and I found this to be a serious issue in Melbourne, and I’ve heard others say the same of Calgary – is how damned isolated those cities are.  Perth, Auckland, Vancouver, Adelaide – great places to live if your entire life is there and nowhere else, but not so good if you have to visit family or like to visit a different culture every now and again.  Long weekends in another country aren’t viable, especially taking into consideration the price of international flights out of Australia, leaving you pretty stranded.  One of the best things about living in Dubai was the presence of a decent airport and its location slap in the middle of Europe and Asia and 6-7 hours from each.  Even living in Lagos had the advantage of being 6 hours flying time from Europe and in the same time zone.  I find it hard to believe that living at the arse-end of the world, whole continents away from everywhere else, shouldn’t get factored into the quality of life equation somehow.

Back to the article:

Melbourne is a leader in fields like biotechnology and financial services, also music, theatre, film, and festivals.

Hmm.  That would a local leader.  Melbourne is hardly a global centre of financial services, is it?  I think even Sydney packs more of a clout on a regional basis.  I don’t see how Melbourne outscores Manchester on any of these criteria.

The city was laid out in 1837 on the Hoddle Grid, designed by surveyor Robert Hoddle.

Yes, and as a result it is rather dull.  This is the first time I’ve heard somebody describe the grid pattern of a regional city as adding character.

Following the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s, the lanes led Melbourne’s trajectory downwards, with many becoming no-go zones and haunts for criminals, and buildings becoming brothels, opium dens and speakeasy gaming houses.

As suburbia flourished, the city centre slowly died and right into the 1980s the lanes were dark and dirty. Many disappeared beneath faceless office blocks.

With the urban renewal of the 1990s, the spirit of Melbourne’s lanes revived.

These days, they are not only a colourful reminder of the city’s past, but an integral part of its present – bijoux benchmarks of constant change, with Japanese tea houses and Chinese dim sum diners, fine dining and trendy bars and fashion boutiques, bespoke jewellers, art galleries, coffee grinders, hidden jazz clubs, and secret restaurants like the Italian Waiters’ Club, which opened on Meyers Place in 1947 and only recently put a sign over its door.

Now I have no doubt that Melbourne’s lanes were once as notorious, and later vibrant, as the back streets of London once were, but having walked up and down an awful lot of them, and visited a hefty sample of the venues therein, I think the author is guilty of bigging-up his hometown somewhat.  Like the food, it sounds to me as though Melbourne is trading on its past somewhat in this regard, as the nanny state which is so prevalent across Australia, and especially Victoria, is everywhere.  Rather than being a hotch-potch of genuinely avant-garde establishments, they are regulated into places far more sterile than the author is making out.  Walk into any bar and you’ll see enormous signs warning people about drinking too much, detailing hefty fines for various alcohol related offences.  At some point in the evening a squad of police in high-viz vests may well come walking through the joint, and you can be sure none stays open beyond the permitted time (or opens if there are no office workers around).

I think what summed Melbourne up for me was when a colleague of mine, who grew up in Venezuela, went to a Latin American street party in Melbourne.  They had all the food on the tables outside, the music, dancing, the lot.  Except drinking on the streets is banned, so if you wanted a drink you had to go inside and consume if there.  Only Australia could come up with a Latin American street party where drinking outside is forbidden.  If the author is concerned that Melbourne will lose its character if the laneways get sold to developers, he might like to consider what his state and federal governments are doing to it.

From my point of view, I’d take a bit of groaning infrastructure over sterility any day.

Posted in Australia | 27 Comments

South Africa vs Australia

During the drubbing of the English cricket team during the last Ashes test, I made the following observation of the Australian team:

Despite their success, this team has yet to demonstrate it can follow even a modest first innings total or bat a second innings from behind, and their bowlers have not had to bowl sixth and seventh spells.  In such circumstances, Warner’s shot selection, Harris’ knee, Clarke’s back, Watson’s suitability at N0.3, and Johnson’s consistency will all be severely tested in a manner they were not in this series.  It remains to be seen whether Australia’s ultra-aggressive brand of cricket will serve them as well in future as it has for this series, but I suspect it will not.

Firstly, I was partially wrong.  I thought the South African batsmen would make short work of the Australian bowlers, but they were blown away by Mitchell Johnson in the first test, ably supported by the very same bowlers who had performed so well against England.  Having won the toss and bizarrely choosing to bowl first, Graeme Smith gifted Australia the chance to start this series in the manner which served them so well in the last: bat first, rack up a huge score, skittle the opposition.  I was also wrong in that Australia – who have a very good record in South Africa – were able to bowl out a very strong batting lineup cheaply, not once but twice, and bat against the likes of Steyn and Morkel.

However, crucially they were under no scoreboard pressure at any point, and finally – in the second test at Port Elizabeth – Australia lost the toss, were told to bowl, and subsequently were required to walk out to bat 423 runs behind after bowling 150 overs and watching two South Africans score centuries.  As I expected, Australia lurched to 246 as their top order largely failed – although Warner’s capability surprised me, scoring 70.  Brad Haddin, the batting hero of the Ashes, was bowled for 9.  South Africa piled on another 270 and with an eye on the fifth day weather forecast declared with a lead of 448.  Once again Warner lasted longer than I expected against Steyn with the new ball, although an aggressive 66 was not really what was required under the circumstances.  Rogers, who I always quite liked, went on to score 107 while the rest of the team amassed a whopping 24 runs between the whole lot of them, losing 9 wickets in the final session of the day.  South Africa won by 231 runs.

South Africa bounced back from their first test trouncing in a manner which England had no hope of doing in Australia following the Brisbane test.  There is a reason why South Africa is the number one ranked test side in the world, and a reason why talks of this Australian team being great are premature.  If Graeme Smith wins the toss at the final test, he’ll know what to do.

Posted in Sport | 12 Comments

Grumpy Tim

There is an unfortunate side-effect to living in countries with an abundance of people hassling you on the street: you become very spiky and rude to people who come up and try to talk to you, for whatever reason.  In Nigeria it was best to avoid speaking to strangers on the street, but then you don’t wander the streets much there anyway.  Melbourne was a pain as it had more beggars, charity collectors, buskers, hawkers, and people otherwise looking to you for coin than any city I’ve been in recently.  Plus I’d spent 6 months living in Phuket prior to moving to Nigeria, and there you quickly learn to harden up and brush them off.  So nowadays when a stranger comes up to me in the street I tend to bark at them and keep walking, dismissing them outright with a wave of the hand without breaking step.

Unfortunately, sometimes people come up to me genuinely asking for directions.  I encountered a Chinese chap in Melbourne who asked me for help in finding somewhere, and I just stomped past him rudely.  Realising after a few yards that I’ve probably just behaved like an asshole, I went back to help him.

And so this morning I was on my way to work in La Defense, 5km west of Paris, when a middle-aged lady with a piece of paper in her hand which was probably a map said “Excuse moi, m’sieur” and I barged past rudely, saying (in English) that I’m in a hurry.  She was pretty shocked and started apologising but by the time I realised that I’d just been a Grade One Asshole I was around the corner and it was too late.  I felt pretty bad, and so when somebody else came up to me a few hundred yards later to ask me for directions to the Sofitel I was all sweetness and smiles.  Partial redemption perhaps, but I still feel bad for barging past the first lady.  Sorry, whoever you were.

I blame my past expatriations, but it’s something I perhaps need to work on.

Posted in France | 4 Comments

More on the Dismissal of KP

This is pathetic:

Kevin Pietersen’s international career was ended so captain Alastair Cook could create a culture where players can ‘trust each other’, the England and Wales Cricket Board has said.

[I]n a joint statement with the Professional Cricketers’ Association, the ECB said: “It has been a matter of great frustration that until now the ECB has been unable to respond to the unwarranted and unpleasant criticism of England players and the ECB itself, which has provided an unwelcome backdrop to the recent negotiations to release Kevin Pietersen from his central contract.

“For those demanding clear-cut reasons for Kevin Pietersen’s departure, this statement will be a huge disappointment.

“It’s more of a reaction to the criticism which has rained down on the ECB from many sources outside the game, and defending the integrity of those who have come under what they have described as unwarranted and unpleasant criticism.”

“Those negotiations have been successfully concluded and, whilst both parties remain bound by confidentiality provisions, the ECB would like to make the following comments.

“The England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia.

“To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other.

“It is for those reasons we have decided to move on without Kevin Pietersen.”

There is a term for this type of thing: meaningless guff.

What, exactly, do they mean by “a culture where players can trust each other” in support of Alistair Cook?  Trust each other to score runs when required?  To not get out repeatedly in single figures?  To not drop sitters?  To not miss easy stumpings?  To pitch it up against set batsmen who are punishing the short ball?

Oh no, none of those.  What they mean by “trust” is to ensure there is absolutely no criticism of Alistair Cook’s lacklustre and wholly unimaginative captaincy style, even if it is a major component in the team getting flogged savagely and repeatedly.  Conformity is more important, and everyone must comply.

How pathetic.

Posted in Sport | 10 Comments

Shooting in Sakhalin Cathedral

Sakhalin doesn’t get in the news much these days, and rarely for reasons unrelated to the oil industry.  However, friends on Sakhalin posting on Facebook alerted me to this:

A gunman has opened fire inside a cathedral on the eastern Russian island of Sakhalin, killing a nun and a churchgoer, say reports.

Six other people were wounded in the incident – most were said to have been shot in the legs and were not critically hurt.

An employee at a private security firm was detained at the scene in the main city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

The motive of the man, who is said to be about 25 years old, were not clear.

I doubt there was much of a motive, it sounds like the random act of a nutcase.  Being rather low-paid work, the average employee of a private security firm in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and is often an ex-conscript unable to find any other type of work.  It would hardly be a revelation if one of their number had mental health issues.

There was no apparent link to the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi about 7,500km (4,700 miles) to the west.

Well, yes.  If you want to make a statement about a major international event, getting within 7,500km of the place where it is underway is normally the way to go about it.

Posted in Sakhalin | 1 Comment

On the Dismissal of KP

I was going to write a post on Kevin Pietersen’s forced departure from the England cricket setup, but George Dobell has said it perfectly in an article already.  Some excerpts:

If you can’t manage, you shouldn’t be in management. By allowing the situation to reach this conclusion and in taking such a drastic decision, this is a catastrophic failure of management. England are not embracing change, they are embracing mediocrity.

Ah, but isn’t that just the very definition of modern management – and not just in sports: plenty of people with the title of manager with very little actual management going on?  For several years I’ve been fond of responding to supposed managers bleating about some administrative problem or other with “You’re a Manager: manage!”  Most managers do fine when the train they’re on is trundling along okay, even if it’s headed in the completely wrong direction, but when something unexpected or difficult comes up they either stand by and do nothing or thrash about helplessly.  Fair weather management is the norm.

England’s new management team may feel that this is a strong decision. But truly strong leaders accept alternatives, diversity and imperfection. Strong leaders are flexible and embrace difference. Strong leaders understand that genius very often comes at a cost, but a cost that is worth paying.

Indeed.

There are two points here.  Firstly, when managers make what they think is a strong decision, it is usually the wrong one.  Now there are managers who consistently make bold decisions – although they are a rare breed – but I’m not talking about them.  I’m talking about those who through weak and ineffective management allow a situation to develop to crisis point before being forced to make a decision under pressure.  No manager who has mishandled the easy stuff is going to be able to make the right decision when he’s forced to act.  And the ECB, having sleepwalked into a situation which saw the England team lose 12 matches out of 13 down under, have lashed out in an unwise direction.

Secondly, that bit about embracing difference is important.  I must have sat through literally dozens of presentations about diversity in the workplace, complete with attendees and examples of people of all ages, colours, nationalities, cultures, backgrounds, and both sexes.  But never, not once, was diversity of thought even mentioned.  Personally, I think a diverse workplace is worthy goal to aim for, but there is little point in having everybody look different if they are all forced to think alike.  It’s ironic that modern management stresses the importance of diversity whilst at the same time fostering a culture in which unthinking conformity and being a sheep is the only desirable attribute in an employee.

The finality of this announcement will also hinder the next team director. Any credible applicant for that job will want to assemble their own team, appoint their own captain and make their own judgements on players.

And isn’t that also a feature of modern management?  Most managers are nothing of the sort, they are mere administrators with an erroneous title.  Give me 10 minutes in any enterprise, company, organisation, or project and I’ll show you somebody who is nominally the manager of an area, department, or process but isn’t actually allowed to make the fundamental decisions which determine success or failure.  In the best cases these people are merely automatons stuck in front of the public for show (e.g. branch managers at a bank, who in the case of Barclays have neither an email address nor a direct phone line); in the worst cases they are the poor sods who have responsibility heaped on them but with no commensurate authority.  And boy, do I know what that feels like.

Suppose the new England coach comes in and decides he wants Pietersen to play.  What’s the ECB going to say?  No?  In which case, the coach isn’t the coach, he’s just some patsy who’s paid to wear a coach’s hat for a bit.  The world would be a better place if more people didn’t take these jobs.

England supporters deserve answers. It is unacceptably arrogant to dismiss their legitimate interest with an evasive media statement. It is unacceptable to discard England’s highest international run-scorer without explaining exactly why the management believe the team will be stronger without him. It is absurd to claim that, with two global events in the next 12 months and one within weeks, that this is the time to start a long-term rebuilding operation. And it is disingenuous to claim, via off-the-record briefings, that all the senior players were canvassed and gave negative views on Pietersen. Several, at least, claim to be as confused by this episode as Pietersen seems to be. The ECB has to be more transparent and accountable.

It is often the case that the most incompetent managers are also the most arrogant and dismissive, unwilling or unable to justify the decisions which more often than not contribute to catastrophe.  Naturally, when this happens there is little self-reflection, just more arrogance and self-delusion.  I doubt any of this lot at the ECB are going to shoulder any of the blame should England cricket continue on its path of decline and we get thumped by India in the summer.  They’ll just find another scapegoat and move on.  Modern Management 101.

It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that it is the institution at fault, not the individuals. Change may well be required, but it is right at the top that it should start.

Perhaps, but that betrays all the principles of modern management.  Bollock the tea-boy, fire the engineer, kick the dog, but never, ever touch the senior management.

When people said not so long ago that English cricket had entered a new era and were the epitome of a modern sports outfit, they didn’t know how right they were.  Altogether now: baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

3-Sheep[1]

Posted in Sport | 8 Comments

Two Weeks with Two Families in France

I am still down in Pau, or thereabouts, studying French and am making considerable progress (says I) and reasonable progress (says my teacher).  I am into the second week of the course and now staying with the second family: even a French oil company is not cruel enough to foist me upon a single family for two weeks.

Apart from the obvious benefit of being forced to speak French, the time spent with the families has offered a fascinating insight into real French life (bear in mind all the French I have met at work so far have been expatriates).  One of the most obvious things I noticed, which came as absolutely no surprise, was that the quality of food surpassed anything else I’d encountered in Europe.  I was fed extremely well, and by that I refer to the quality of the food rather than the quantity.  When I first came to France a few years back I noticed that the quality of food – particularly the meat – was way higher than in the UK.  Step into a random brasserie on a Paris street and most of the time you’ll get a decent lump of meat for about 20 Euros, which has been cooked properly.  Step into a random eatery in London and the meat will likely require the use of carpentry tools to consume.  For sure you can find decent food in London, but you need to know where you’re going, whereas in Paris you don’t.  And that’s a major difference between the two cities in my opinion.

The quality of meat I was served with the families was superb, and varied at that.  One weekend I ate guinea fowl for the first time: two had been cooked whole in a casserole dish.  I also ate oysters – both cooked and raw – for the first time, a provincial French family being the first people I’ve trusted enough to convince me of their freshness.  I learned that I prefer them cooked.  The food was been quite rich, and most times far from simple in terms of ingredients – there was usually a wine sauce or some north African spice thrown in somewhere – but the method of cooking seemed straight forward enough with most dishes being left on a stove or in an oven for a few hours before being ready to serve.  Slow cooking seems to be popular in France.  On one occasion my host family used a Moroccan thing called a tajine which consists of a ceramic plate with a ceramic witch’s hat on the top, with the whole thing being put on the stove with food inside and left for hours.  The results were good.

Food

Between the main course and dessert (all the dinners, and the lunches at the weekend, consisted of four courses followed by coffee) a platter was brought out on which rested five or six types of cheese (names like Mimolette Vieux and Saint Albray I wrote down, the former being Dutch) which everyone tucked into along with the bread sliced from the baguette which had been on the table from the start.

Cheese

At this point I’ll mention that it dumped it down with rain non-stop during the first 11 days of my 14 day stay.

Rain

It rains a lot in the south west of France (in fact, it is similar to England in many respects, and indeed belonged to us for three hundred years) meaning there is lots of lush pastureland.  Lots of pasture means lots of cows, meaning lots of milk.  The Acquitainians need to do something with all this damned milk, so they turned it into cheese.  Having barns full of cheese is all very well but you need to find somebody to eat it, and therefore traditions were invented and laws past requiring everybody in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques to eat cheese at half-time during meals.  And the whole of France followed suit.  (Note: I’m an engineer, not a history professor.  But they do get a lot of rain and there are a lot of cows.  And they do eat shit loads of cheese.)

I love cheese at the worst of times, and I tucked into this French (and Dutch) stuff like Obelix tucking into wild boar.  It was great.  This part of the meal usually took about 20-30 minutes, meaning the whole meal was spread over two hours.  The French meals take ages.  Who knew?  Anyway, along comes dessert, usually something genuinely very simple, and then coffee.

Needless to say, wine is flowing like a river throughout the whole affair.  From 20 mins before kick-off until the final whistle, wine is consumed by the bottle by the whole table.  I observed a few things about wine during my time with the families.  Firstly, the French wine is damned good.  Secondly, they mix the wines during the meals.  You may start with white wine (depending on the starter) and then move to red, but as a bottle is finished it is not replaced by one of the same brand.  So it is quite possible to drink several glasses of three or four different types of wine during a French meal, and nobody bats an eyelid or cites rhymes about it being a bad idea.  I trusted their judgement and followed suit.  Thirdly – and I asked them about this – they do not always drink the same wines in general.  They’ll have some favourites, but will always be on the lookout for new ones.  If they find a decent one in a restaurant or at a party, for example, they’ll take a photo and seek out a crate later.  The French are remarkably open-minded about their wine, and will drink anything provided it is French and good.  Or at least European.  I saw bottles of Spanish and Portuguese wine but nothing from the New World or the Penal Colony.  On the weekend we went to a small vineyard to partake in some wine tasting (and buying).

Vineyard

I noticed more stuff.  The French eat dinner late, way later than in the UK, and go to bed immediately afterwards.  An expatriate mate of mine, inviting me to dinner at 9pm when I first arrived in Paris and hearing me complain that at 6pm I was already starving, told me I’d better get on a French schedule without delay.  Surprisingly, I was able to sleep straight after eating, but then again I didn’t stuff myself.  French food is not served in bulk and that, along with the slowness of the proceedings, allows your stomach to be quite settled within a very short time.  Which explains why so many of them are not fat bastards despite being in love with food.  It became obvious that the centre of French social life is to be found at home (as opposed to down the pub), and the culture revolves around – and is absolutely inseparable from – the food.  The dinner table is where families and friends meet and discuss things, with by far the favourite topic (and I paid attention to this carefully) being – you guessed it – food.  At first I thought it was only discussed because I was bringing it up (as a subject, not chundering over the floor like a Brit on a Saturday night in Manchester), but even if I said nothing on the subject at all the conversation would inevitably move to food and remain there for an hour or more.  The French discuss food like Brits discuss house prices, and I know whose dinner table I’d rather sit around.

That said, I’m not surprised the French don’t discuss housing, being inferior to those in England.  For instance, the swimming pool in the garden below could be a bit bigger, and I’m pretty sure you can enjoy a view of snow-capped mountain peaks from the average living room in Coventry.

VistaYeah, these French have got it all wrong.

Posted in France | 27 Comments

Learning French the Easy Way

I’ve now been living in France for 2 weeks, having left Melbourne for a new assignment in Paris.  So far things have been going well.  I spent a week in Paris getting to know my new colleagues and sorting out a load of general administration, before coming to Pau in the south west of France for a 2-week intensive “full-immersion” French language course.  Speaking, writing, and reading French to an acceptable level is necessary for a life in France both in and out of the office.  The working language of my company is English, which means only three-quarters of the correspondence you receive is in French; and although all meetings commence in English within five minutes they have all, without exception, mysteriously switched to French without anyone but the Anglophones noticing.

Aside from that, France is famous for the volume of bureaucracy which accompanies every activity, and corresponding with numerous authorities, filling out forms, and liaising with various service providers requires one to have a pretty good grasp of French.  I will need to deal with the prefecture, whatever the hell that is, which will give me my residency card and that of my wife also; I need to get my internet, landline, and mobile phone sorted out; I need to arrange to get decent television beamed from the UK into my apartment otherwise I’m going to be watching a bunch of blokes with bad haircuts discussing things instead of test cricket and Super XVs rugby; and I need to get some car insurance.  Within a week I’d already managed to buy a car having first identified the expression which you must enter into a Google search to find second hand cars in France.  As with many things in the digital age, I was able to research the vehicles and pretty much decide on a model before I’d set foot in France and it was just a matter of finding something decent once I got there, which I duly did.  My company arranged for me to visit 4 apartments from which to choose a place to live for the next 3 years, and thankfully I found one which more than fits the bill.  I chose to live close to the office in the suburb of Puteaux rather than closer to the centre of Paris, mainly because I want to avoid a daily commute at all costs and the budget won’t get you very much if you want to live much further in.  With a pattisserie, a wine shop, and a small supermarket on the next street, plus a balcony and underground parking, I’ll not go far wrong.

So, for this reason I have found myself staying with a nice French family (actually a couple whose four kids have moved out) in a tiny village 10km or so outside of Pau where nobody speaks a word of English.  During the day I have one-on-one tuition from two separate French teachers, and even at lunchtime they assign me somebody French to converse with, presumably to prevent me from sneaking off and finding somebody who speaks English.  (Actually, the first person they assigned to me for lunch was from Scotland but I didn’t realise: she’d been living in France for 20 years, and I have nowhere near the skills to detect an accent yet.)  The course is hard work, and I am pretty tired each evening as there is no chance to switch off and relax, but it’s not impossible by any means.  I have noticed I am improving a lot even from when I came a few days ago.

When I first took up with this outfit and arrived in Nigeria, I was asked two questions by almost every non-local I met:

  1. Can you speak French? (Answer: no)
  2. Do you speak any other languages? (This second question came after a frown and a pause following my answer to Question 1.)

Almost everybody told me I should really speak French if I want to get anywhere in a French company; but when I approached the management to get lessons I was told French wasn’t necessary because I was in an English speaking subsidiary.  But five minutes later I was being harangued for not knowing French.  This pissed me off quite a bit, the inconsistency of it all, and I dealt with it not only by complaining a lot but also doing something about it.  I bought a French textbook and used it to learn the basic grammar, and in 2 years I went through all 3 modules of the Pimsleur French course on my computer.  The latter I can’t recommend highly enough, it had me speaking basic French within a year and enough to get by on trips to Paris.  This meant that by the time I arrived in France a couple of weeks ago, and got sent on a French training course, I already had a foundation and wasn’t starting from scratch.  To be precise, I scored 1/5 on the Bright Test, where 0 is no French at all and 5 is a native speaker.  I need to be at 2.5 to communicate effectively in the office after the course, and the expectation is I’ll be at 3.5 after 1 year.

Learning French in Nigeria turned out to be a smart move on my part, because it has given me a huge head start in the formal training, effectively allowing me to skip over the beginner phase and get stuck into the meat of it.  My knowing Russian has also helped a lot, mainly in learning the basics of French.  Whole concepts – gendered nouns, adjectives which must match the gender and plurality of the noun, polite and familiar forms, and reflexive verbs – are not new to me, and having been (mostly) educated by illiterate teachers in a British state school system which didn’t bother to teach grammar, I am extremely glad I have Russian grammar to refer to.  The perfect and imperfect tense makes sense to me in French, even if I struggle like hell with it in Russian.  I now understand it in English because I have had formal training on the subject in French.  At this rate, my French will soon be better than my Russian, especially given the level of practice I’ll have in Paris.  Once I’m good enough, I’ll get working on my Russian again.  And then I’ll knock the whole learning languages thing on the head for a while.

It’s funny how many French words spill over into not only English (which is well known), and Russian (slightly less well known) but also Welsh.  The French word for church is “eglise”, and in Welsh it’s “eglwys” (pronounced “eg-loise” for my readers who didn’t learn Welsh at school).  I assume the French-speaking Normans introduced the concept of a church to the Welsh, who hitherto were worshipping local rugby players and shagging sheep.  The French word for bridge is “pont”, and in Welsh it is the same.  I suspect those same Normans were unimpressed by the Welsh engineering expertise on display when they first arrived.  (Incidentally, the word for window is very similar in French, Welsh, German, and I suspect a whole load of other languages.)

So I reckon that in another week I’ll be pretty good at French, and in another few months extremely good – by British standards at least.  There’s a certain irony to all this.  Back when I was in boarding school, leading up to my GCSEs, my French teacher – possibly the most despicable man I have ever encountered, and worthy of a blog post of his own (and a good filling-in, daily) – used to assign us pointless homework (or prep, as it was called) tasks which would take up hours for little benefit, e.g. writing out lengthy passages of French which we’d not even studied and didn’t understand.  Fed up with this, and finding it was seriously denting my revision for chemistry and physics as well as the fact that after years of attending French lessons I couldn’t speak a damned word, I persuaded my parents to speak to the school and allow me to quit.  My parents reluctantly agreed, but advised that I really ought to learn a language as I would be at a disadvantage without one (as it happens, this conversation was a significant motivating factor in my starting to learn Russian years later).  They were probably right, but I had figured out that learning a language in adult life is relatively easy compared with learning chemistry or physics.  As I’m finding out, it is possible to teach yourself a language, and is relatively straightforward to find a well-structured and accessible language training course.  By contrast, I’d really not fancy trying to teach myself the basics of chemistry from a textbook, or pass even a GCSE exam in physics on the basis of a few weeks’ classes.

Looking back, I’m pretty glad I dropped French because I nailed the chemistry and physics exams, went on to do both subjects at A-level which got me into university to do engineering, and I’ve ended up knowing French to at least GCSE standard anyway.  And as far as I know, I’m the only person in my family who speaks a foreign language (let alone two) and I was the only one who dropped it at school.

It’s for this reason that, despite my appreciation of the importance of knowing a foreign language, I don’t necessarily agree that languages should be taught to a greater degree in British schools.  I’d rather see British children given a proper education in the core subjects, and later on they can learn any language of their choosing.  Churning out kids who can’t speak English while people say they should be spending more time on French and German suggests something isn’t quite right.  The idea that Brits are suddenly going to become polyglots by shifting a few hours around in a school timetable is somewhat fanciful.  For me, it’s more important to instill an ability to learn, and make sure the kids are well grounded in those subjects that are difficult to learn once they’ve left school.

Posted in France | 13 Comments