Guest Post: On the perils of teatime.

Tallulah from Bilingual Babes and I are swapping guest posts. Which I think is excellent as not only do I get a fresh and funny take on one of my favourite topics, culture shock, but I also get to introduce everybody reading this to someone who finds the bicultural aspect of bilingualism as fascinating as I do.

So without further ado:

Solnushka suggested I write about culture shock, which I haven’t really done before, so I was quite keen!

Although France is just next door to the UK, it’s surprising how many differences there are. The music, the food, the films, so many little differences that add up to quite a bit of culture shock! For example, in one of the kids’ French books, there is a general knowledge question aimed at children of around 6 years old: ‘When do you eat the cheese course?’ and I had no idea, not being too familiar with ‘the cheese course’! Apparently it’s usually between the main meal and desert, thank you Google ūüôā

A funny gaffe that I made quite a lot when the kids first started going to French school was serving dinner during playdates. I always love it when my kids come home from a playdate already having had dinner and ready for the bath! So I was quite surprised to find that Schmoo was coming back from playdates, not only not having been served dinner, but having been given a large dose of cake instead, so that she no longer wanted to eat any dinner! I also didn’t understand why the French mums were looking at me strangely when I proudly informed them that their child had already had dinner when they came to collect them from a playdate at our house!

After a few months of this, the penny finally dropped. Like most other English kids, mine have a small snack when I collect them from school, maybe a piece of fruit or a biscuit, which they usually eat in the car on the way home. This way, they are ready for dinner around 5.30pm, which gives me time to get them in the bath for 6pm and in bed by 7pm. But the French take their food a bit more seriously! The after-school snack, known as a go√Ľter, is a very big deal! Out come the hot chocolate and the madeleines, out come the pain au chocolats and the brioches, and it’s a sit-down affair with a good half hour dedicated to it! They can do this because dinner is not served until around 8pm, usually after the bath. So now I serve a proper go√Ľter on playdates with French kids and am no longer ‘the weird English mum’… or maybe I am, but at least I get the meals right!

I must say, I could get very into the go√Ľter myself, and certainly into this Guest Posting business. Consider this an open invitation for anyone interested in writing something about culture shock to contact me at s underscore solnushka dot yahoo dot co dot uk.


On lies and damn lies.

You have to confess to a certain ambivalence towards news journalists.*

One of the charges the postmodernists throw at historians of the old school is that they create the illusion of empiricism by the style they employ in their writing. No hint of a mention of ‘I think…’, an attempt to surpass the amount written in the actual text by the number of words in footnotes, and the skillful use of prose so uninspiring as to put the reader to sleep within the first few pages.

Yet in the selection of information, and its juxtaposition with other so called facts, a powerful argument is, in fact, created which reflects the preconceptions, prejudices and sometimes sheer whimsy of the writer.

Now you emphatically don’t agree with the extreme extension of the argument that it it is possible to say anything at all about any given topic and call it equally as valid as any other opinion, but you do admit that there is enough truth in their criticisms as to mean that any news outlet claiming to be totally objective is sailing as close to kidding itself, or, more importantly its audience, as makes no difference.

Yes, it is the BBC you are talking about here.

Today, on heavy rotation as part of the reportage on the Russia/ Georgia contretemps, there is an interview with the Georgian president who is making a powerful plea to the West to intervene in the conflict in the name of saving democracy.

Georgia, he says, a democratic republic, is in danger of having its democratic rights trampled by the undemocratic removal of its democratically elected government.

Now the BBC is an organisation who can barely mention Russia without some mention of the autocratic (and artificially extended) rule of Vladimir Putin, electoral irregularity, suppression of opposition and crushing of the god given right of the press to say whatever the hell it likes. Even if it’s a story about how some old babushka¬†from Vladivostok who has roller skated backwards around the globe wearing nothing but a bikini and a purple feather boa in a bid to claim the ‘most completely pointless world record’ award.

However, the BBC¬†are running this interview without any sort of balancing comment to point out that calling Georgia’s President democratically elected is a bit like¬†taking Zimbabwean¬†president Mugabe’s similar claims at face value.

And irritating. 


* To which a regular reader of this blog** will no doubt be saying ‘no shit, Sherlock’ at this point.

** you absolutely refuse to add the qualifier ‘all five of them’ here.

On more comparative linguistics.

Incidentally, you did find something new out in your first trimester, and that is that it is impossible to sing while pregnant.

Unfortunately, you discovered this by collapsing in the middle of the winter concert of your choir.

Interesting programme. You have now added two new singing languages to your repertoire: French and Russian.

French, the conductor spent a savage five minutes saying, is the Worst Language for Singing Ever. If you remember correctly, which you probably don’t, it has no proper consonants to punctuate the words and sounds like a bunch of muddy nasal vowels run together. It is possible, he claims, to actually fall asleep from boredom in the middle of what should be the most fantastic piece of music by someone like Debussy.

Certainly you find it incredibly difficult to sing in French. This is because you have never had much of a grasp on the French accent. You may have learned French for five years at school, but the best you have ever managed in that language is ‘I would like a kilo of tomatoes, please’ uttered in the broadest of dodgy sub London tones.

So it’s quite a good thing that presumably the audience were not picking much up from the mass nose singing in that piece.

The Russian pieces, on the other hand, were easy, despite the fact that you had no idea of what you were actually saying. Perhaps because a lot of it was in Church Slavonic, but probably because your Russian has always been much more use in asking people to pass you another cup of tea than capable of sophisticated abstract discussions.

Still, it was nice to know that the language is not familiar enough for you to do the consonant clusters, which really do look jaw cracking in Latin script, without thinking and for the next syllable to be thoroughly unsurprising.

You also found the conductor’s brief masterclass on how to speak Russian quite accurate. ‘Pretend you are swallowing a watermelon’, was the advice he gave. This just confirms what you¬†have maintained¬†for a while: English vowels are¬†formed at the front of the mouth, and Russian at the back, practically in the throat.

There really isn’t much to beat some of the splendidly dark notes that this can produce.

Although you did find the conductor speaking Russian in order to demonstrate some of the strings of Russian sounds quite amusing. As a result of not having much idea of what he is saying, all the phrasing goes and it sounds much more like a record being dragged around backwards than actual Russian. Luckily, he is a fiend for getting it right when singing.

So B, who had been clutching his sides in glee at the thought of quite what middle class Britishness was going to do to Rachmaninoff and the boys, was quite surprised to find that not only could he understand us in the concert, but that we actually sounded quite Russian. Once he had looked that the words in the programme, that is.

Perhaps there was hope for the French piece after all.

You rounded off the evening with what is, judging by the look of ecstatic contemplation that came over the conductor‚Äôs face every time he mentioned it, a real singers’ piece of music.

Durufle‚Äôs Requiem. Wisely written, despite the composer’s Gallic background, in Latin.

Here it is, although you really don’t think that the Cyberbass keyboards are going to do justice to the modern Gregorian chant thing Durufle has going on.

Anyway, the fainting.

Well, to be honest, after you had gone through¬†three rehearsals without being able to stand for the¬†whole thing, having to sit down in the middle of the cpncert in order to prevent yourself falling off the stage didn’t come as a big surprise.

It was, however, a phenomenon that was beginning to quite worry you, until a woman you had noticed sinking gracefully into her seat at about the same time as you in both the dress and the concert waved away concerned enquiries by telling everyone she was pregnant. You nearly kissed her. It apparently being a pregnancy thing rather than a Solnushka and pregnancy thing and all.

So one of the five million and two things They don’t tell you about pregnancy is: as an amateur, you can’t sing in a choir after about ten weeks.

On the refuge of scoundrels.

As a fan of formula one, your years in Russia were a bit frustrating.

It’s true that the races were generally available on one of the terrestrial channels, although it always seemed to take a few races for a deal for the TV rights to be struck. Missing the opening of the season every year and having to keep an eagle eye on the upcoming schedules to see who had been the lucky bidder this year did tend to leave you a bit irritated.

Of course, there was also the problem that any kind of delay on the day would not result in extra time being granted by the channel bosses, meaning that, given that this was the era of Schumacher domination, the one genuinely exciting race of the year would invariably be cut unceremoniously short.

And of course, the idea of showing the qualifying sessions, or having a pre race show to discuss the ins and outs of the championship so far were not even to be thought of. Even the commentator was phoning his performance in, complete with occasional black outs when he got cut off.

Not that this was much of a problem for you – you didn’t understand a word of what he was saying anyway. Sport has a whole vocabulary of its own and while you’d think that you’d have been able to pick a few of those words up over the years, just as you tended to follow the weather by looking at the pretty pictures rather than paying attention to what the weather girl said, you managed to watch season after season of racing¬†and only ever learnt the Russian for ‘overtake’.

Probably as this happened so rarely it stuck in your mind.

So coming back to the home of motor sport should have been a delight. Hours of coverage on both days of the race, actual contact with most of the main names on a regular basis and former drivers in the commentary box.

Of course, the British think¬†the UK is¬†the home of every sport, or at least every sport worth playing. And yet to be honest you’ve never really thought of formula one as actually having much to do with a passion for patriotism.

Do you support the team whose engine manufacturer is located in your country? Whose technical director was born in your village? Whose second driver speaks the same language as you? Whose first driver used to share your nationality but now is a subject of King Albert? Or whose tyre manufacturer has done a lot to put jobs your compatriots’ way?

You can’t say you’ve ever given the subject much thought, and it certainly doesn’t dictate who gets your support.

The first two years, the obesession with Jenson Button not winning his first Grand Prix should have alerted you perhaps, but since he generally just continued chuntering around in forth or fifth place at best, not even the Brits could justify their comentators spending the whole race talking about him, and you remained blissfully unaware of what would happen if a British racer ever got a sniff of the title.

So you find yourself spectacularly taken aback that the new British hope Lewis Hamilton’s success seems to be some kind of national pride issue. Perhaps this was to be expected given that the British have so little other (sporting) success to make an issue of. But you do wish that a bit of perspective could be used, particularly in the ITV F1 coverage.

He’s great, of course, is Hamilton. He’s quick. He’s consistent. He’s extremely tough minded. He’s got good judgment. He’s not afraid to have a go. He’s very skilled. He’s extremely commited. It’s his first year and he’s been off the podium once. Because of circumstances largely beyond his control.

Why it doesn’t seem to occur to people that he’s just as¬†ready to play¬†head games and put one over on his teammate as the next ruthless competitor you don’t know. Especially as he’s very good at it.

Take this weekend’s debacle.

For those readers not as¬†into formula one as you are, Fernando Alonso – Hamilton’s teammate – screwed up Hamilton’s qualifying session so successfully that Alonso finished on pole position (or ‘in first position’)¬†for the start of the race with Hamilton one place behind him.

Unfortunately, he did it rather obviously, by sitting in front of Hamilton after having been given a public signal to move off¬†while they were both waiting to get their tyres changed for just long enough so that Alonso was able to go out before the session ended but Hamilton wasn’t.

Now the race officials, presumably feeling that blatantly blocking another driver, even if he is your teammate, is a precedent they cannot allow to go unpunished, then dropped Alonso five places on the start grid on a circuit where it is notoriously difficult to pass. Just for good measure, they also decided to punish the team too, who had tried to limit the damage to Alonso’s position by¬†claiming that it had been an argument about tyres that had held Alonso stationary rather than a willful desire to spoil Hamilton’s race. The team will not score any points for the constructors’ championship this race.¬†

Now, fair enough. It amused you and made for a lively programme today, but it was, perhaps, a bit much as a move, even for the cut throat world of formula one.

But after the initial outburst of indignation, everyone seems agreed that this wasn’t just Alonso being particularly spiteful.

It seems to have been a retaliation against Hamilton for disobeying instructions from the team to let Alonso past earlier as, for various technical reasons which it has occurred to you that explaining would have everyone here well past bedtime and has just impressed upon you how much time you have wasted keeping up with the sport because you actually understand them, in order for both drivers to have an equal shot at top spot when it came to putting in a fast lap, Alonso needed to be ahead of Hamilton on the track at that point.

Which just goes to show, you think, that Hamilton, as well as probably being the best all round driver on the track, is also the best all round manipulator. Had Alonso not lost his rag, the most the rest of the world would have heard would have been James Allen exclaiming again at how sick as a parrot Alonso must be at being beaten to the pole by a rookie.¬†Even as it was, the best response Alonso could manage was so lacking in the finesse of Hamilton’s move as to be seriously compromising¬† for him in all sorts of ways.

Yet the whole thrust of the commentary today was of Lewis, the determined driver who is confident in his ability, knows how to look after himself and is not to be pushed around by anyone, even his own team versus Alonso, the verging on a cheat for having the temerity to object publicly to Hamilton shafting him.

You thought it was a particularly nice touch that¬†an in depth interview with the man himself had¬†Hamilton saying sadly, and with just the right amount of disappointed regret, that at least today had taught him who he could trust in this sport… and who he couldn’t. You were hard put to stop yourself falling off the sofa and rolling around in delighted gales of laughter.


The race has just finished, and sure enough Hamilton won, with Alonso fourth.

Hamilton has now extended his lead in the championship over his nearest rival who is, now let me see, I wonder if this is significant, Alonso, to¬†seven points…

Mind you, did I mention he’s from S______? Yes? Ah.

On irrisitable urges.

You should have been reading about the barbarian hordes rampaging across Britain in the 500s. You should have been preparing lessons¬†– this week’s topic is¬†‘love’. You should at least have been scrubbing the bathroom.

Instead you decided to cook a Moroccan feast. It’s from your new cookbook. Arabesque by Claudia Roden. You’ve been staring longingly (and pointedly) at¬†this book¬†in bookshop windows for months now and when nobody took the hint, you just went out and bought it. And having bought it, you needed to use it.


Quite why you decided to cook a meal which involved boiling first carrots, then potatoes, and roasting a chicken, which meant you had to have the oven on for half the afternoon on a day which, although not actually hot,¬†was sticky, damp and close, is a bit of a mystery though. It is also a mystery as to why you decided, in addition to the actual meal, to make two entirely superfluous salads as well.¬†Of course,¬†it’s always nice to add more salads to the repertoire.

However, what is really mind boggling is the fact that you chose a recipe involving couscous. Well, not really, as it was the only recipe in the book which involved you going out to buy only half, instead of all, the ingredients. But you hate couscous. Admittedly you’ve only had it once before but that was in France. And if the French can’t cook couscous, you’d think…

It turns out that French school canteens are not an infallible guide to which unusual foods you may or may not like. Despite the fact that you accidentally mixed the honey with the main marinade for the chicken far too early, and¬†came over all British and boiled the vegetables for the salads at least twice as long as the recipe stated, this did not seem to have any appreciable effect on the outcome. Any cuisine that can stand up to your sublime disregard for any process you can’t be bothered with and your habit of doubling everything just in case is definitely worth attempting again. Although possibly with a bit less oil next time.

And couscous, when mixed with orange blossom water, almonds and raisins is really very nice indeed.

It’s a shame¬†there isn’t¬†a recipe for kasha. But perhaps that is beyond help.

On how to produce a good Eurovision entry.

You¬†adore the Eurovision Song Contest¬†and you say this totally without the kind of qualifiers that Brits usually add at this point. Such as ‘it’s so tragiclly kitsch’.

In fact, you are rather bemused by the fact that the British persist in regarding the thing as a monumental joke and yet follow programmes like Pop Idol with depressing sincerity. On both shows the musicianship these days is pretty good, but whereas the Eurovision entries are varied, interesting and sometimes quite original, the other shows are wall to wall bland.

The UK spectacular missing of the point is usually neatly encapsulated in their total inability to send a decent song along.

This year, we fielded the sort of entry we fondly imagine the Eurovision is full of. Except, of course, ours was better because we were doing it ironically. So we had people in flight attendant uniforms making suggestive remarks about champagne bottles, doing aeroplane impressions and singing about how they wanted to fly the flag over all the countries in Europe.

Fly the flag over all the countries in Europe? The flag? The flag?

Really, you were quite disappointed anyone voted for us at all after that rampant display of unrepentant imperialism.

The French entry, on the other hand, was funny. Since the French, year after year, have traditionally rather humourlessly sent women stubbornly singing ballads in French even when everybody had succumbed to doing it all in English, the fact that they did it in Franglais showed a proper entry into the spirit of things. And they wore pink PVC, were jolly, and it was a much better song all round.

But to really get the full beauty of it¬†you had to be quite good at both English and French. You don’t think many people are that good at English or French. The default language of the tournament may be English, but the trick is to try and string together the English words which are universally recognised (‘love love love love love love love love’) in some kind of logical order rather than anything more sophisticated.

 So nobody voted for it either. Except you.

Actually you are quite pleased that the rise of digital TV systems which allow translations and such seems to have encouraged people to start singing in their own language again.

The whole point, for you, of Eurovision is to enjoy a¬†small lifting of the fog cutting the continent off from the UK, and this does not include having to pay attention to the words, which really don’t deserve it, particularly when they are written in someone’s second language. You positively enjoy listening to the other languages in fact.

This year you had your own awards for ‘ most random English lyric’¬†. Russia won hands down for some really ill-conceived ‘ummy’ rhymes and calling each other bitches. You are so proud. The UK came a close second though, which is really quite embarrassing when you think about it.

Anyway. You generally refuse to vote for anyone singing totally in English, although you streatched a point for Georgia this year because, although the song was a blatant rip off of Madonna’s Ray of Light, you did feel that the ethnic dancers pulled one back for national flag waving. Plus, the singer was, as a singer, rather better than Madonna, and you happen to like that song.

B was forced to vote for Romania, on the grounds that they were the only people singing in Russian.

But there’s a bit of good humoured patriotism and then there’s the Ukraine.

Who sent along a well known TV personality of the Dame Edna Everage type to do a bit of techno bopping.

Terry Wogan described it as incomprehensible, mainly because the entirety of the lyrics submitted for the Eurovision’s subtitlers to play with were pretty much ‘I want to see… Lasha Tumbai.’ Although the silver costumes complete with a hat with a¬†large five pointed star and energetic dancing might have had something to do with that too.

You have visions of the¬†BBC’s researchers running around and trying to find out who Lasha is in Ukrainian popular culture and why¬†she’s a suitable person to sing¬†about at Eurovision.

They should have ignored the spelling and had a go at imagining what it might mean if you are singing in English with a strong Ukrainian peasant accent and you don’t want to tip your hand too blatantly.

It’s supposed to stand for ‘I want to see… Russia goodbye.’

Which you find incredibly insulting not primarily to Russia, but to the competition, which sees itself as one of these goodwill hands across the border type affairs. And you also find mean spirited the the fact that they presumably deliberately set out to trick Europe into singing along.

So you were hugely relieved when Serbia won with a perfectly pleasant, well executed song sung in Serbian about love.