Tuesday, 10 January 2012

12 months of being in France

And crucially I lack both a job and any real grasp of the language. While a hunt for the former won't really benefit from my blogging about it, I'm told that having a language log is a useful thing. And I may as well do it here, as it's more or less what I use this thing for.

How am I trying to learn?

-Anki. This is a "flashcard" program which is freely available and seems to have a fair old bit of content. It shows you a card and you translate it before hitting the reveal button. If you were right you can express how easy it was (this controls when you'll see the card again), get it wrong and it goes back in the deck. Personally, I find doing this extraordinarily awful. My short term memory is so bad that I seem to take much longer than necessary. Right now I'm rolling with these decks (Which I downloaded for free from the handy included database): Intermediate French, French 101 and French Linguistic Glue. I need to force myself through 20 cards from each every day. Joy.

-Assorted French learning books. I've picked up three or four of these. They're good because they have exercises inside that give me some structure.

-Being in France. It's amazing how I manage to get buy with minimal conversation. I can merrily ask for bread or whatnot but when somebody in the street stops me for directions it can take a while and involve more than a little mime work.

-And now: A strange Irish Guy called Benny. He's a guy who had no real ability with language, but at 21 ended up in Spain and got frustrated that he wasn't really learning, so he decided to try a new approach. Hopefully his insights will help me along.

-And a random collection of CDs I've gathered. Including "Earworms", which was a Christmas gift. Where you hear terrible ambient music with a conversation over it.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Damn it feels good to be a Pâtissier

Cake pictured: A chocolate tart with a raspberries I had lying about stuck on top. Verdict: Delicious.

While the French are relatively famous for their cakes, it's not the easiest country to try and pursue cake-making in. Most people seem more content to pop to the local boulangerie/pâtisserie and pick up whatever may be tickling their fancy. I suppose that this is true across the world, you tend to buy rather than make cakes.

Still, there's a point I'm trying to make. Yeast (not present in that delicious cake pictured, don't worry) is not always straight forward to find. In French, the word translates to levure, and indeed you'll find little packets of something labelled "levure" in most shops. Of course, nothing is so simple. If anything is just labelled "levure" then it's most likely to just be sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda/powder). Now it's true that baking soda is useful for making things rise, but the two are rarely, if ever, interchangeable.

The full (and correct) term for baking powder is "levure chimique". If you want actual yeast, then you need "levure de boulanger" (or "levure de bier" will work equally well. It's a slightly different culture mainly used in beer, but I really don't think that there is much difference between yeast cultures). Theoretically, you can (if your French is better than mine) buy this from a boulangerie. Otherwise you can just buy the dried stuff if you go to a larger supermarket and double check the labels.

And don't get me started on the ambiguity associated with crème fraiche...

[I'm uploading this in a slightly different way to the usual due to G+ auto uploading my photos. Hopefully it'll all just work out fine]

Monday, 25 July 2011

A gentleman's guide to kissing men

It's fair to say that the French kiss a lot more than most other nationalities. You kiss people hello and goodbye. Leaving a large gathering first can take hours, as you lean across tables trying to find one cheek and then the other*.

When I first started visiting France on a regular basis (before I actually lived here), I was a bit weirded out, but quickly figured out generally how it worked.

1) Everybody kisses children
2) Very small children tend to get one kiss on the head or cheek rather than the double-tap everybody else receives**
3) Women kiss everybody
4) Men kiss all women
5) Men kiss all family members
6) Unrelated men shake hands
7) Don't hug anybody***

This was my system and it worked. It worked flawlessly. And for me, not being related to anybody over here, it essentially boiled down to "Kiss women and children, shake hands with all men".

It worked flawlessly until recently, when a man went for a quick peck on the cheek. It was awkward, as I'd stuck my hand out. So he apologised, and we shook hands, and then proceeded to find important things to do elsewhere. I thought this was just a one time slip, a French person getting confused due to tiredness or distraction.

But no! The next time we met, it happened again. And the time after that he greeted his girlfriend's brother with a kiss. I've seen these two shake hands hello before. And he doesn't kiss his girlfriend's dad. And even more confusingly: They shook hands good bye.

There's another level of break down where you kiss hello and shake goodbye. An entire layer of this interaction I'd been missing. I might have been being super rude to people for the last couple of years and nobody has told me.

Now that I've found this mystery, I'm damn well going to get to the bottom of it.

*The system works by kissing the left cheek then the right. Sometimes you just kind of kiss the air, sometimes you make contact. This just seems to be unimportant and just depends on how you are standing. Never go right first, you'll end up kissing on the lips. You don't want to accidentally kiss your girlfriend's mum like that.

**This is largely as kids as twitchy little buggers and sometimes you're going for a cheek and accidentally end up kissing a three year old on the lips. Then you are sent to prison FOREVER.

***Hugging is just for couples. I like this; It means I get my revenge on my girlfriend when she visits the UK and my parents will hug her.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A third challenger!?

I found myself in a supermarket, or possibly a minimarket, earlier and while trying to find tuna happened upon an unreasonably large selection of coffee. And what caught my eye but the Maison Du Cafe's "L'or espresso", which I have spoken about previously. Those were priced at about three euros per box of ten and were for me at least noticeably lower quality. These were only two euros fifty a box of ten, so a competitive 25cents each (about 22p versus the Nespresso charge of 25ish) but what's more is that they are biodegradable.

Rather than a foil on the base of the cap, the material is more like a coffee filter and from my understanding of the helpful note inside about what to do with these strange little objects, they will merrily vanish in a few months in a compost heap. This is a fairly big deal, as even with Nespresso's recycling scheme, you have to physically go there and dump the capsules yourself, or be at home when the courier delivers your next batch.

So cheaper and easily to dispose of. That's two thumbs up, but such things are just notes in the margin. It's coffee, what matter is how delicious it is.

You can see in the photo that the espresso produced looks perfectly respectable and the taste is A-OK too. Looks like I need another blind taste test...

Monday, 21 March 2011

I know it's not twitter

Turns out that they have Jehova's Wtinesses in France. They lack the motivation to Jesus at me across a language barrier though.

Lazy buggers

Friday, 18 February 2011

I remember these from sunny Manchester

A typical Parisian scene (you can tell its in France as everybody is wearing a scarf), but what is that on the wall there?

Why it's either Bub or Bob from legendary C64 masterpiece Bubble Bobble. I'm not sure why he wants to be left alone, but he does have friends. Space Invaders are all over the show, and I can only assume that there are other classic characters in other areas.

Now, as the title suggests, this used to be common in another city. Manchester. Although there it was just Space Invaders. From what I remember it was some artist who then decided to make some trainers with a Space Invader in the sole, so you left them in your footprints when walking on sand, snow or mud. An interesting idea.

If it is the same person or group, I may have to pick up some of the shoes this time.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Focused Ion Beam Processing: Thesis Excerpt #1

FIB patterning is like making love to a beautiful woman. You've got to make sure that the sample is lying flat, that it's well bonded and most of all that the upper surface is electrically grounded. Then you start to get things going, you cast around, searching for an edge. Teasing. Playfully skirting around, catching a glimpse of where you want to be, but not lingering. You can't just move in for the kill, you have to put some work in. Get the equipment all set up. So you find an edge, and you trace along it, carefully, not wanting to see more than the faintest sliver, until you get to a corner. At the corner, it's time to really set things in motion. Move a little closer, make sure you've got a nice view and you don't worry too much about flooding the area. The corner isn't your goal.

After a few minutes of playing with the controls, you've got a good grasp of where the corner is, but one is not enough, you need another, you need its opposite. And you have to get there without crossing the body. So you skirt off again, flighty and far away, perhaps touching down once or twice just to make sure you're heading in the right direction. Once at the other corner, it's business as usual. A bit faster this time, you're getting impatient. So's the sample. It wants you. It wants ions all over it. Beating down onto its surface. Milling away material, causing localised regions of negative surface charge accumulation. So you find the height, and get a nice tight focus. Then you rotate the whole stage. Your sample has no idea what's coming next as you aligned you x and y axis to its carefully cleaved edges.

Then it's time to get out your map and find out just how far into the sample you have to move and in which direction. FIB patterning is all about having done your homework. Once you're sure, you check the pattern. Not delivering the goods. Not yet, but just checking. And then, with your eyes closed, you move again into virgin territory and raster out the pattern, the beam of gallium ions drawing out intricate and carefully prepared patterns. After the first one, you let it wait, before moving off and then doing it again. And moving. And patterning. And moving and pattering and again and again until the whole sample surface has been treated.

After that, you just bring her back up to ambient pressure and try not to make eye contact with the technician as you leave the room.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Today I...

...cleaned the plastic thingy that holds the cutlery. I did this rather than write about the joy of SEM.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Baguette News - The Viroflaysienne

Boulangeries offer a pretty dizzying selection of goods to say that they are chiefly concerned with the sale of bread. I suppose it's the same in the UK, and the difference here is that I'm just less familiar with the offerings. I'm not talking so much about cakes, as actual bread.

In a pub, you couldn't really get away with asking for a "A beer", you need to specify what type, or more commonly the brand. But, I've had no problems with literally asking for a baguette. Some, some of these long loaves of bread are baguettes and the rest are other things entirely.

The bread in the photo is not a baguette. Ask for a baguette and you get something similar but different. Today, there was somebody ahead of me in the closer of the two boulangeries (usually, I go for the distant one, as it's both cheaper and better, but the last baguette I had from there was not fantastic by any stretch, so I mixed things up).

Pictured, is what is known as a viroflaysienne. I would have ignored it, had the old man in front of me not requested two and a half of them. I wasn't actually aware you could have halves. That is something else I've learnt. The end if missing, this is because tasting the bread is crucial. It is much better than a traditional baguette, but I could not tell you how it is different. It is,. however, more expensive, stepping over the dangerous one euro line by a whole ten cents.

As a measure of currency, I feel disgruntled by paying over a unit of the local money for bread. It's bread. It should be sub-euro. Eighty-give cents is fine, but this is a whole quarter of a euro more and it goes over this critical threshold.

Still, it's the dawn of a new era of asking for the other types of bread, assuming I can spot their labels and prices prior to getting served. We don't want a repeat episode of the twenty-five euros it cost for a sausage and some cured ham. Delicious though they are.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The results are in

Two coffees. Two distinctly different coffees. You can even see the difference in the photo (which once again features the delightful cups which are most likely older than myself, like a lot of our crockery, which I am very prone to breaking).

So which looks better? Lefty or Righty?

Which is the "pirate coffee"?

Which tastes better?

This was a genuine blind test. Or as rigorous as I could manage early in the morning. One cup had a small piece of sticky tape on the bottom to mark out the non-official coffee. We then tasted. Opinions were split, I preferred the darker coffee, finding the other slightly weaker. My girlfriend preferred the right. We both agreed, however, that the coffee on the right was the official Nespresso "Indriya". Possibly it was not the best choice to compare against the Maison Du Cafe's more balanced Splendente. Regardless, we were right.

So the verdict was an event split in coffee quality, which was unexpected.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Taste the Difference

Pod coffee. Some is good. Some is bad. Luckily, I'm not an idiot, so I have a coffee machine that makes the good kind. Nespresso, I had my machine before George Clooney, so I think that makes me cool, right?

One of the strange things about Nespresso, is that they really try hard to promote their brand as not for the common folk. Only recently are there physical stores, and they are staffed by people in suits looking down at you (or, if you're my friend Tom, by gay gentleman offering cappuccinos for phone numbers). Keeps the riff-raff out. Aside from these stores, if you want to buy some pods, so you can, you know, actually drink coffee, then you have to do it through a website.

Your pods are then despatched by the best delivery service I've ever encountered. So good, that I actually feel comfortable giving them my home address. The next day, or perhaps the one after if something terrible happens and BAM, you have your coffee. Not a card, saying that they got all the way to your door and just gave up, but you have your coffee. Perhaps receipt of goods should be the standard for delivery services?

There's a downside here, you have to plan ahead and you have to buy a fair amount of the stuff at once (once you order over something like 250capsules, they give you half price shipping). So, there is actually a gap in the market for a company to step in and start selling their own knock-offs.

And somebody has. That is a knock-off there on the right. Maison Du Cafe's "L'or espresso". In fact, that there is their excellently titled Splendente range. What is not excellent, is that each is individually wrapped. Pod coffee's critical problem is that it generates a lot more waste than having a proper espresso machine (which just produces soil). Nespresso have recently started some kind of recycling scheme that I need to look into. Regardless, one black mark for extra wrapping.

Second, is price. I would've thought that selling an alternative type of pod, you'd gun for value. Maison Du Cafe simply do not roll that way. 3.05 for ten caps. which at today's exchange rate is around £2.60, which is the same as what Nespresso charge (minus shipping, which is a flat £2). So, approximately the same price.

Quality? You can see in the photo that the MdC cap is actually smaller. It's not a perfect fit, and this, I feel, is reflected in the coffee itself, but I'll need to have a blind taste test.

And yes, this is much more fun than writing my thesis. Much more.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Redspresso #1

A long time ago I came across a website pushing a product. A product which was just a new way of brewing the increasingly popular tea known as rooibos. That website is here.

In reality you don't really need to buy it from them. After all, I am 90% sure it's just tea.

Sunday was a strange little day. It was gloriously sunny. This is not so unusual for January. You get those crisp, sunny winter days but this was not at all one of those. It was warm. As in, just wearing a t-shirt (& trousers) sitting outside in the garden, warm. Global warming. Literally. It'll be minus two again later this week. Having a temperature variance of around twenty degrees in five days is not right at any time of year.

So, sitting outside, enjoying a cold beer, doing a spot of reading and suddenly I remember this website. I remember the concept. And I realise that I have both loose leaf rooibos and an Italian-style stovetop espresso pot. So, off I go and the result is as above.

Now, there's no crema (the light brown, slightly foamy top that an espresso has). Although, that is a problem that I have noticed with the pot itself. I'm sure I've had stovetops in the past that have made a proper espresso, but this one doesn't seem to manage it. I'll have to delve through the hell of online coffee snobbery and check on that.

Rooibos espresso, the taste is different, if only very slightly. But then, you might expect this as it has only "infused" very briefly, but at increased pressure. I'm not sure it's the way forwards. But it's interesting. And I want to try again.

Friday, 14 January 2011

My key complaint with this country

Zebra crossings. While not take as they are in some countries (Japan, I'm looking at you), nor are they a designated place where pedestrians can cross without getting run over. Instead, they are just offer a reasonable probability than an approaching car might slow down or stop.

And I do not like this.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Determining the King of January

On the twelfth day of Christmas we all go to the boulangerie. And once there you buy a "Galette des Rois". Now despite the name, this is not a cake made from Kings. It is almond flavoured, frangipane to be exact. Although the cake itself bears a resemblance to the pastry you might get from a Greggs Ham and Filth slice. Regardless, it is delicious. This is not the point.

So you have your cake, nice and warm. You have your knife, deadly and sharp. You have your audience, hungry and drinking cider (cider that the boulangerie included for "free". When you pay 10euros for a four person cake, it is the least they could do). You have your table, laid and ready.

The youngest of the group must now climb under the table. I am not making this up. This is a true recounting of events. With the youngest safely under the table, you slice the take into the same number of pieces as there are people. You then take each piece and ask the unseen youth who it is for, doling them as told. Then the youngest is allowed out, their task complete.

All have a piece of cake. All begin eating. And at some point, somebody will break a tooth as they encounter some hard little object (I believe it was originally a coin) within their slice. This means that they have won. They are the King (or Queen). In my case it was a small plastic figurine of one of the chefs from Ratatouille, the Pixar film with the rat.

Upon winning the King must choose his Queen, or vice versa. He also has to wear his crown. Yes, the friendly boulanger will include a cardboard crown with this special cake. The King and Queen kiss. The cake is finished.

(I am the King for this year)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Civilisation - Now Available in France for the low, low price of 4 Euros a cup

The French enjoy their coffee. This is good, it shows that they are not entirely devoid of human emotion. The bad news is that, like the vast majority of mainland Europe, they do not enjoy lingering over coffee. Go into a café and ask for a coffee and you will be presented with a shot of espresso. This takes almost sixty seconds to drink, any longer and it will be cold. So whoosh, the coffee is gone.

Sometimes, you've bought the international edition of The Guardian and you want to do the crossword. And you'd like to do this with an occasional sip of coffee. So, what is the solution? Drink lots of espressos? Never sleep again? Die of a heartattack in the café?

OR you can go to Starbucks*. Here, you can spend a vast sum of money (between 4 and 5 euros for a medium drink) for a coffee which you can enjoy over the course of half an hour. However, nothing in this world is perfect and such coffees are always presented in paper takeaway cups. I don't know why. The French don't know why.

Until last Saturday, when approaching the bar and asking in my best French for some coffee and a muffin, the girl at the encounter replied, in much better English, with a question: Would I like "cups like this", pointing at the takeaway ones, or "cups like that", pointing at the stack of fresh, new porcelain mugs. I was overwhelmed. A tear came to my eye.

Coffee. In an actual cup. Civilisation. At last.

Oh, and I managed to opened a French rules bank account. A far more complicated process than it aught to be, involving a meeting with a bank manager, a questionnaire about my investment habits and the commitment to one day actually be earning money. All, this and they will only be charging me the cost of a coffee per month

*If you live in or around Paris, because they only exist in Paris and Versailles right now. I believe there is a store opening in Lyon soon, and perhaps one in Marseilles.