Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Fancy an Indian?

From the first point of contact with my new colleagues all the way back in June this year I apparently stuck out like a sore thumb…but not in a bad way. I distinctly remember reading a group email where one teacher had enthusiastically responded to my cyber introduction with ‘PATEL…THAT’S AN INDIAN NAMEEE!!!!!!!!’ Clearly she loved our brown race and that whole screwing the light bulb and patting the dog routine. But love was an underestimation. Apparently I’m exotic in France, one because I am very “bronzed” as described by one of my darling students and secondly because I can cook up some exotic culinary masterpieces such as Aloo Gobi. 

This particular teacher of mine, who might I add is the world’s biggest sweetheart, has spent the past twenty years in complete awe of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh etc. trying to travel back and forth every year with her family. She is most certainly a seasoned traveller and by seasoned I mean with a hint of cumin. She has basically visited the homelands more than I have which is quite ridiculous really, but it brought about some in depth observations on French society, culture and my own.

In France there are a number of expats, immigrants etc. a lot of who stem from old French colonies such as Algeria. One thing that has greatly struck me since being here and travelling to different French regions, is that to let go of your ancestral culture is a no-go. It is not completely abnormal to see a tow of thirteen cars that stop in the middle of the street and all the passengers spill out of the car to dance and sing in Arabic. Yes, Moroccan weddings look extremely chaotic and raucously fun all at once, despite them not even being held in Morocco!

Some may be quietly thinking about social and political issues in France such as laïcité and how that could affect the integration of cultures. And those who maybe aren’t so sure of what laïcité really is, it is in no way a racist ideology but more of a term which describes a secularist law. To put it simply, the separation of church and state and nowadays this can be understood as no religious interference in official and governmental matters. Even to the point where no religious symbols are allowed to be shown in school. This may seem harsh, but if followed and interpreted correctly, it can actually prevent racism and bring about an understanding of human equality, which is not dependent on your race or religion. Of course, depending on how the secularist law is understood, this ‘mélange’ of cultures and religions could be seen as a boiling pot for future upheaval or social divide. But by saying all of this I do not mean to write that I believe culture and religion is the same thing – it is most certainly NOT but that is a totally different subject altogether.

And a quick mention on the good old stereotype that the French are racist. In fact I have not heard or witnessed any of these so-called claims that the French are “racist”. Maybe I’m being naïve and deaf at the same time, but from what I’ve experienced, everyone wants me to teach them how to cook chicken curry and speak English. YES, real French people want to eat curry and genuinely learn how to speak the Anglo-Saxon language. Shocking, I know.

It is apparent that racism still exists in France AND all over the world but it is far outweighed by the desire of many who yearn for knowledge and exposure to other cultural practices. Another member of the faculty and her ten year old daughter are avid Bollywood fans (they however are born and bred French) and have invited me to a Bollywood night – who would have thought?!  It is those particular unexpected interests that allow individuals to connect and continuously discover things together that at one point were wildly unknown to any of them. 

As I write this, I’m realizing just how important my own culture is to me. Being in a place where I really am one of few, compared to London where I am one of the thousands British Asians, I have understood that it is imperative to grasp, accept and understand your own culture before you can learn to truly appreciate others. As humans, I guess we are all built up of different things and culture is an integral part, whether it be the culture that you have created for yourself or one that you have grown up with. It is definitely one thing the French have no trouble being proud about or talking about but it is has been charming to be acquainted with people who are just as interested in you as you are in them.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Bienvenue à Bordeaux

So I haven’t blogged in a while…but I’m back! Following a short October term came the half term…yes I basically am on holiday all the time. Come the first Saturday morning of ‘les vacances’, I had awoken to an unbearably humid and rainy day in the apparently ‘sunny’ La Rochelle and the train to Bordeaux couldn’t have been more anticipated.

At around 11.15pm, after two hours of waiting for my good friend Katherine, she finally stepped off the TGV from Paris, which had obviously been delayed for forty minutes because it ran over an animal. Of course this ACTUALLY happened because we are in the one and only France. So here we both are, complete tourists in the middle of a city (which is also a UNESCO world heritage site) trying to find our hotel, which we later realized, was apparently a 40-euro cab drive away.

To many people, Bordeaux is the wine label of a bottle one picks up from his or her local Threshers, but in reality it is so much more. Imagine a picturesque scene of ancient cathedrals, designer boutiques, dapper men having a café allongée before work, and the sun beating down on a rippling river. That is the real Bordeaux. Not to mention the wonderful Bordelaise people – one even gave us an extra free large glass of specialty wine because he thought we were cool.

On the first day of exploration, we tried to hail down a bus forgetting that on Sunday, France generally stops moving. So after much deliberation we headed back to our hotel (which of course I booked and was in the middle of a motorway) and demanded a cab, which in the end took forty minutes to come. Typical. Upon arriving back in town we realized we had been had the night before. It only took 20 euros and a much more direct route to return to the place we had come from the previous night…cheeky sod of a nighttime cab driver.

We got off at the Jardin Public which is a beautiful green space inhabited by fountains, a grand café, lots of sporty people who enjoy a good morning run and apparently a group of 80 year old women who love doing a bit of Tai-chi.  

Le Jardin Public

A little further up there is the Place des Quinconces which houses a magnificent bronze fountain comprised of all things ancient such as leaping sea horses and chariots overthrowing muscly men all of which symbolize peace, happiness, lies and ignorance. Above the fountain stands the centerpiece, which is the Girondist Column. The Girondists were a small revolution group in Bordeaux who played a part in political history but of course I won’t bore you by giving you a history lesson on what is meant to be a blog with easy to read writing and fun pictures. To put it simply, the column is extremely tall with yet another statue at the top of a winged lady holding a broken chain in her hand. This depicts the abstract notion of liberty and being free from oppression while the laurel branch, which she holds in her other hand, symbolizes victory for the republic. Bordeaux has it all - symbolism, history AND bronze! 

Girondist Column


On the opposite side to the Place des Quinconces, you have the Place de la Bourse, which overlooks the Garonne River. Again it is grand, historical and altogether quite breathtaking. It was originally known as the Palace Royale and was dedicated to King Louis XV. 

The River Garonne

After seeing the touristy bits we moved inwards, up the long and cobbled French streets, stopping at every turn to take a picture of apartments that we wished we lived in. Yes we’re sad but whatever, the architecture was amazing. And the cathedrals were the absolute epitome of architectural splendor. My favorite was the Cathédrale Saint-André which is centuries old and sits next to the equally lovely Hôtel de Ville. 


Another one for the list

Cathédrale Saint-André

Front facing
Stained Glass

Now I should really mention what opportune timing we had picked to go to Bordeaux seeing as it was basically summer in October at 25 degrees each day. So of course there was much wine drinking and steak eating in the sun going on. Most people joke around about French cuisine assuring everyone that it a mix of butter, bread and cheese and I won’t hesitate to say that I have also made this same joke. But being in Bordeaux there was an evident variety of cuisine available from Japanese to Indian. It almost felt quite surreal because the only Indian in La Rochelle is a market stall run by a dodgy guy who charges 3 euro for a naan bread. Bordeaux is very ethnically diverse which is quite a relief for someone who comes from London and it must be the reason for the good choice of cuisine here. We even found the Bordelaise ghetto; it was like little Armenia/Nigeria/Lebanon all in one!

No Pub in the Ghetto

On the last morning we had a gourmet breakfast next to the Grand Théâtre and soaked up the last moments of the trip. Leaving Bordeaux was a genuinely sad experience and after seeing the city for all it was I only wish I had put it as one of my year abroad options. It is a place definitely worth visiting for the food, the people and the quintessentially French ambiance and one that I will most definitely return to. 

The Grand Theatre