Category Archives: France

Do you speak English? The politics of Language

This post has been incredibly difficult to write. So I will just drop all the gimmicks and get straight to the point.

You see, when I first arrived in France, many people were surprised that I spoke flawless (albeit heavily accented)  English. I remember one Spanish guy in my French class tried to break the ice by asking if we speak French in Kenya. After a long pause, I asked him ‘if we speak French in Kenya, then why am I studying beginners French with you?’

I guess the sarcasm was too complicated for his Catalan brain, because he asked me the same question three times. I ignored him and our relationship never really took off.

Quel Surprise

Much later on, when I got used to dealing all kinds of stupid questions and situations, I bumped into two adorable Japanese boys, who were amazed that I learnt  English so fast and were quite chuffed by my ‘ American ‘ accent.

I let them have their day because at this point I cannot be bothered to explain to people that most Africans and other formerly colonized people (I’m looking at you, South Asian people) speak several languages simultaneously.

The Guardian published a mildly interesting piece on the benefits of being bilingual. But come to think of it, did you ever think of yourself as bilingual? I never did, mostly because I imagine that being bilingual means that you speak a language that is recognized internationally.  But according to that article then, we, the urban citizens of our great continent shall never have to worry about Alhzeimer’s, as we continue to navigate between our native ‘dialects’ and the languages of the developed world.

So what exactly is my point? Language is strongly linked to identity. But unlike your average Estonian or Japanese, who’s first language is clearly named after their country (or the other way round) we don’t have that luxury. (Unless you are  as bullheaded as Ngugi, who insists on writing all his books in Kikuyu and then having them translated…)

Of course, it all goes back to our extreme touchiness at any perceived slight or racist attitude or remark. Because, once our basic needs were met, (unlike waaaay too many people who’s lives hang on a balance everyday) we are now obsessed with convincing people that we too are civilized like them. And I really wish we could stop. Because we end up looking like stupid imitations of the real thing.

Africa is huge. And we have lots of animals and untamed jungles. We are piss poor. And all the other poor and miserable people in the world can point at us and feel better about their own shitty lives. Deal with it.

And that is why I don’t immediately start defending my country by pointing out that we also have cities with tall buildings and roads.

I just say that English is the language of business in my country. And then I hang out with people who don’t imagine that I am the sole representative of my continent. And with people who Google phrases in Swahili to impress me. (insert giant wink wink here)

Feels good to get that off my chest.

Coming soon…hilarious adventures in India.

Meanwhile, enjoy this totally unrelated video on how to fake speaking French (and yes, I have used some of those tricks!)

When wtf becomes ‘G*d F*%#ing d@*nit’ and then some…

I haven’t posted in a while, mostly because I was festering in a great big pool of my own misery, and I couldn’t see any humor in my situation.

I wrote about my search for an internship before here: but as time went by, things did not really improve. I had one interview with one of the largest companies in France and in the world (hint, they were mentioned in Michael Moore’s movie Super Size Me, for serving crap, obesity inducing lunches to American high school kids, as well as complaints about everything from racism to environmental destruction: in other words, your typical eat-babies-for-breakfast-multinational-devil-incarnate.)

I should have known something was not right when they cancelled the first interview and asked to call at 8.00 am in the morning. Or when they called 15 minutes later. Or when they switched my second interview to 4.00pm. But none of that stopped me from preparing the shit out of it, in it to win it style.

But the girl I spoke to didn’t seem very impressed. In fact it seemed like there was something really smelly under her nose. Later, my professor cried racist like Julius Malema in this video:  but I wasn’t really convinced.

I mean, if I walk around screaming ‘is it because I’m black?’ How far do I expect to go? Saving the race card for later, okay? No need to max that sh*t out.

As the desperation threatened to burn an ulcer into my stomach, I watched my whiny classmates land fabulous internships with mega companies. I was in hell.  A boring hell at that, because all I could talk about, think about, dream about, was my lack of gainful employment.   Of course, I could always slink back home in shame and pretend that it was my plan all along. Or not.

The months dragged on and pretty soon I had to move out of my student room. My life was in the dump like this:

9 months worth of my life in the trash

And bought some caviar to celebrate just for the f*ck of it ( We have to ‘celebrate’ endings just as much as we do beginnings…yeah? ):

And took a final tour of my town:

As if YOU could resist!

The thing that everyone does:

That thing where you take photos at night because the lights look pretty

But, on the very last day, after scrubbing away all traces of my existence, bags packed with homelessness looming ahead of me,  I finally got it. THE phone call.

Hello, Kristin…yeah, so after talking to some other candidates [yada yada how is the weather Obama] I’d like to offer you the internship.

I’m not going to go into details of my wacky interview, because I want everyone to think that I’m cool and savvy and I have an awesome internship.

That thing that people do, ati can I have some time to think about it?


I said hell yes. Threw my arms up in the air and said ‘Take Me!’

All I have to do now is not get fired.

Honestly, it was hard.

FYI, I promise my next post will be more entertaining…

Laziness, Ignorance and Chance: the Weird Ways we Get it Right

Now that I am looking for an internship to possibly launch my glamorous and enviable career, a lot of little things are coming back to me.

Like one of the first times I was called for an interview. I had seen an advertisement on the USIU notice board  calling out for freelance writers, and I thought, ‘yeah, I could do that!’

So I sent my rookie cv and cover letter , with a sample piece I had written for my distance learning assignment, which, at the time I thought was a very clever piece. (Just like when I will read this post years from now and think, aaw, how cute.)

And then I waited. And waited. Aaaand waited.

Finally, I was called for an interview. ‘Hey, am THAT awesome- lets do this!’ I thought.

So I put on my only white shirt, a pair of odd looking pants I thought were formal, rounded off the newbie look with some inappropriate jewelery and got there on time, just like the career center advised.

I remember the reception had that nauseating chai ya maziwa kwa thermos smell and I nearly gagged as I waited for an eternity to be called into the interviewer’s office. (PowerPlay!)

Maaaan, the guy was old. And he was asking me all these questions about search engine optimization and ad words and all the shit we take for granted today, but in 2009, was cutting edge stuff. Obviously, it never occured to me to research on ‘writing for the web’ and so I fumbled around for answers- even cracked a couple of jokes. The guy was so old, it was impossible to be nervous- not even when he asked me, ‘If you love to write so much, how come you don’t have more work published?’

Good question. I still think about it today.

Then he went on to tell me that the ‘work is pretty basic, nothing special- just write 1 000 words on a destination that we give you, and you get a bob a word.’

I left, and waited for the call. It never came. Obviously, I did not impress enough to do the ‘basic work’.

A few weeks later, (or maybe months, not so sure) I saw another advert. Looking for freelancers. This one asked for an original piece to go along with the application.

This time, I was inspired. Probably smarter. Possibly a bit of both.

I wrote my article one afternoon at Fifi’s (and rewarded myself with a beer afterwards) and I have to say, it was much cheekier. A couple of days later, I got an email with a list of topics to choose from as well as instructions on how to write for the web. Pay was per articles, any discussion or consulting could be done face to face. In short, I was in. All I had to do was write, and if they liked it, they would pay.

How simple. How beautiful.

After a couple of stiff, awkward posts, I sort of got the flow. Then I was put on a monthly retainer. Yeah baby.  It was one of the best assignments of my life. The euphoria from finishing each task could have rivaled a hit of cocaine, I’m pretty sure. Eventually, the rumblings about a job offer came too.

(And then  I left for France)

Anyway, obvious differences:

Ancient guy asking for 1 000 word articles and conducting meticulous interviews. Who the hell reads 1000  word articles online? (You probably skimmed through this post, with like, five other tabs open.. )Versus, you write, if we like we pay- and keep it short and sweet.

I was still the same person, basically with the same skills- but who could make the best use of them? Who could see my potential?.

Honestly, where was I suited better? No wonder I failed the first interview- I just was not a match for the ‘mutton dressing up as lamb’ company. Thank God I wasn’t saddled with that dinosaur company: maybe by now I’d be going through three thermoses a day….

My point? Sometimes there is a good reason we fail interviews. Because it just wouldn’t work out.

Any stories about how you finally sold your souls to the corporation? Please do share

Tell Me About Yourself….and other invitations to shoot yourself in the head

This post is unashamedly about myself. In a way none of the others have been.

It started on Monday evening, when I checked my inbox and saw a magical subject line:

Phone Interview with Company X.

Wow, how incredible. Finally, someone had taken the time to open my resume and read my cover letter. Someone had decided that,

Hmm…this one seems interesting, I would like to know more.

I tripped. I was all like, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!’

Internship/Job hunting is a lonely business.  I knew from past experience that asking for advice on how to make myself pop on paper would yield little result- I got glowing reviews after sending my package for a critical analysis, only to discover grammatical errors, uneccessary statements and a host of resume no-nos.

Despite this, I still started by consulting on the axis of evil: ‘tell me about yourself, strengths &weaknesses,  5 year plan?’

After some uninspired advice, me and my friend Google spent long nights discussing the best way to answer ‘what are your professional goals’ and ‘do you consider yourself a team player’.

Gradually, I crafted (and I do mean crafted, like lovingly molding each word as though my life depended on it) my answers. I wrote about all the teams I had been involved in- from the Chinese group members who at best had a rudimentary grasp of English, to the Morrocan no-shows, to the AIESEC teams with their all consuming energy . Yep, I had been there, and I knew my sh*t.

I read about the company’s products, asking myself which ones in specific I would be involved in, and how I could contribute. I even analysed them using a business model we learnt the other day just to have it all together.

I was ready. I drank coffee like a fiend and did some yoga stretches.

What could possibly go wrong? We began.

Here are some excerpts from my session:

HR from X: Tell me about yourself

At this moment, I looked down at my prepared answer. And I asked myself, who is this person I have described? Can I really convince HR that she exists?

And then my descent into interview nightmare began. I could hear myself rambling on about my education, my school activities. All that about slipping in your achievements and talents? Gone. Instead, a stream of words colliding into each other. I remember I mentioned leadership. And something about challenge and learning quickly. And a lot of uuuums. I mean a lot.

Then I remembered to ask, ‘Anything else you would like to know?’

HR from X: You studied at USIU, why did you not go to the States instead?

Saaaaaay, whaaaaa? It had never ever occured to me to study in the USA. Especially after I saw the school fees. Now, I could simply have said, ‘My goal was always to study in France so as to improve my french. Also, France has excellent business schools’

Nice, simple, clear.

But noo….

After uuuming for a couple of minutes I said:

‘Well, there was the recession. And to be honest I do not like US business theories. I do not like US business models. I think they are right on the line of criminality and extreme greed and generally unsustainable. I think European businesses are a lot more balanced. Oh, and I wanted to study in France because they have good schools and to learn French’

There you have it- the birth of Comrade Wairish.

Somwhere in the middle of my ramblings, I mentioned I blog. She honed in on that and asked, ‘Is the address on your CV?’

I told her that I have one on my cv, but it contains the ‘professional’ stuff I did when I was in Kenya. (because apparently people sometimes google you before an interview, and I thought it would be nice to have something other than my tweets and FB profile out there)

She asked if I could send her the link and I told her it’s personal. (Then why did I bring it up? *Facepalm*)

HR from X: You know it is easy to find things online!

Was that a threat? 

Then came: What are you planning to do after you graduate?

Me:I want to stay in France for at least a year.

HR X: But you know this internship is only for six months?

Me: Yes I know, ideally I would like to be here for a year, but I need a minimum of six months to graduate. But I really like the JD.

HR X: So what do you want? Do you want to stay for a year or not?

Me: Look, I can see that your internship is for six months. I applied because I like the JD. It is fine, I am flexible

Can you hear the nails in the coffin yet?

My enthusiasm cooled down after she gave me the ‘stipend’ figures. Bonus included, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I would have to live on bread and water. And not buy any new clothes ever. And probably try to ride the buses for free.

Despite everything I still feel euphoric. I don’t know if it’s the after effects of a liter of coffee, or the excitement that I finally had an interview. Anyway, I’m going to send my thank you letter, and really mean it- the practice was invaluable.

And as, we say, the game ain’t over until this fat lady sings.

Aluta continua!

Oh, the Power of Retrospect: Why I Will Always Love USIU

At the end of August 2010, I finally graduated from USIU with a degree in ‘blah blah blah’. I shared the moment with my drinking buddies, best friends, former best friends, comatose class mates and other bits of USIU furniture.

In our day, bitching about USIU was an acceptable pastime. We couldn’t get enough. The not-quite-right food in the cafeteria, with all it’s creepy cats. The barely dressed freshmen at Fifi’s making eyes at the Nigerians. Too much work. No internet. Library books weighing a tonne. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz….the sound of endless whining and moaning.

Anyway, fast forward 2011, and  I was logging on to my current school’s intranet to upload some assignments. My friend asked me, ‘did you have that shit back in Kenya?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah, and it worked most of the time!’

And that got me thinking…

A little comparison between USIU and my current school wouldn’t do any harm….

1. Show me the money: Every year in June, GoK lets us know that we have to pay a little more for bread and beer. And USIU adjusts the budget, upwards. Because students still need to eat poisonous mince meat in the cafetereria. And the the little issue of the multimillion dollar library (that was) being built. Not to mention the expansive hockey fields, multimedia center and the like.

But my peoples up here? Finally got a ‘triple crown’ rating. It’s a big deal, because only six other schools in France have it. It’s prestigious and presumably says something about the quality of education here.  Their reaction? Increase the school fees, increase the number of students (minimum sixty), reduce the number of trips and fire a couple of lecturers. Also, charge for all the other previous freebie stuff. Oh, and nothing else changes. Capitalism much?

2.It’s all in the fine print. You said Internet: Students are often a bunch of whiney little brats who will complain at the slightest defect in facilities. ‘What do you mean I have to carry three free course texts per subject?’ What is this? ‘A three storey, fully stocked library with private study carousels?’ ‘Jesus Christ! You threw in a shitty dispensary AND a free gym?’ ‘Have mercy Lord, we can subsidize our club trips and activities?’ Off with their heads I say! Communists!

In the land of accreditations,  there are at least 4 000 students here. Our library is spread out over one floor. I can see the entire collection by doing a matrix 360 degree turn in slow motion.  But don’t worry, we have ‘wi-fi’ and you can log on to do ‘research’ (facebooking each other about the professor’s gay earring) as long as you are willing to try connecting for at least half an hour. Really, I should have brought my safaricom modem.

Our projectors turn the most artistic  ppts into a hideous mass of yellow, and the cool lecturer who wants to show  a movie? He cant- our sound system died a slow death somewhere at the beginning of the century. You want to exercise? Take a walk to town. Feeling sick? Practice your French with the public health system. But don’t forget to pay your triple crown fees, s’il vous plait.

4.Rainbow Nation: We go starry eyed talking about diversity. We salivate over posters of happy, multicolored university students. Triple crown has got diversity. Lots of it. It’s a mini UN up in here. It’s a pity we spend all day with exactly the same people.

I don’t know, I liked rotating classes in USIU. Seeing spaced out Psych students and strung out IST guys. Collaborate with nerdy accounting types. I liked that I could pick and choose my classes, and there would always be that weird guy at the back of the class with ‘out there’ opinions.

But I’m back in primary school. Same faces, different day. Over and over again. 9.00 to 5.00. At least we get to go to ‘open bar’ parties with ambulances waiting outside to treat the regular alcohol poisoning and sprained ankle.

The thing is, we are like a hundred little schools crammed into a couple of buildings. There is the MGE which is not the same as the Msc, which is better than the IFI, which ranks better than the ISCPP which is not as bad as the ISCE…so we live together, but only because we have to- and our directors battle viciously for financing, so not much love lost there.

5. Event Management: You know how they say ‘too many cooks spoil the broth?’ They knew what they was talking about. Things can get tricky when the person in charge of examinations is not the same person in charge of assignments who is not the same person in charge of course outlines who is not the same person in charge of the classroom who is not in charge of the timetable and no one knows where your lecturer is. Let’s put it this way- I sat an exam in October 2010 and I don’t know if I passed or failed- even though school ends in May.

So Kudos to USIU, who had my certificate ready in April- a whole 4 months before graduation.

And then there was Fifi’s, where we all happily complained about Gillie and Ken and not knowing anyone in the bar anymore. Nothing will ever compare to having a drink with my people there. Call it nostalgia. (And, as soon as I leave triple crown, I will have another basket full of nostalgia too)

…One thing I won’t miss though, is that ridiculous song we called our Alma Mater. I mean, really???

Of course, I will remember all the good and beautiful times I had here. And all the nutty professors and all the afternoons spent discussing the nuances between branding and selling. Most of all, I will remember all the things that forced me to grow up, or as my professor says, ‘You brats need to learn to look at the bigger picture- and stop complaining so much’.

btw: what do you miss the most about school?

Random Confessions

Cute friend: ‘Hey Ms W, have you been writing of late?’

Me: ‘Eeerm, no, not really, not much going on…’

Cute friend: ‘Surely you must have something interesting to say, especially since you are in France’

Me: ‘…I guess…’

So that is the conversation that inspired this post.  Haven’t done much inspirational travelling of late. (Tried booking a trip to Italy but when I saw the prices I nearly vomited, so, well…)

Neither have I had any profound, life changing experiences, at least not that I can openly share without extreme embarrassment, since I choose not to hide behind a secret internet identity…

But I always wanted to write about the mundane things about my life in France, and it seems that the moment is now. So here goes: a random list of the things I find weird, bizzare or hilarious about my life in France:

1. The only French food I have ever eaten is in the school cafeteria: People like to think that France is the gastronomical capital of the world. Maybe it is, I wouldn’t know. My experience with French food is mostly from the school canteen- that is, under cooked meat, ‘mystery’ stews and some over cooked french beans. Oh, and some very, very frightening cheese.

Don’t you have any french friends?

I do. Only that they are the kind that will make pancakes and eat them with ham (still don’t get it, I hate pancakes, even when they call them ‘crepes’ and dress them up with jam and cheese and fish and make a party around them.) Or buy bread and eat it with some greasy pork fat, elegantly packaged and named as something I cannot remember right now- all I know is that it looks like Kimbo with some black sh*t in it.

Why not go to a French restaurant?

Indeed, why not?

Hmm…let’s see. There are all kinds of cheap here. Cheap Chinese, Cheap Lebanese, Cheap Turkish Kebabs (remember those?), Cheap Japanese, Cheap Congolese, Cheap Afghanistani (yeah, that’s right). Only thing missing here is cheap French. Which does not exist. The day I am willing to spend my rent money on a meal in a french restaurant, you will be the first to know.

2. My effin hostel: I live in a hostel charmingly named ‘Bois’ (the forest). After living there for a couple of weeks, we renamed it the ‘Ghetto’. Why? Well, it is dominated by minorities.   Africans on the first floor, Chinese on the second, Indians on the third, and a few misplaced exchange students and more Africans and chinese on the fourth.

Any time I want to lose my appetite I open the windows and let in the smells of ethnic cooking waft up to my room. Or leave my door ajar, and inhale that very special smell that only six foot plus basketball players can manufacture with their shoes. The smell that sticks to the back of your throat, the kind that only a very, very strong shot of whiskey can erase.

Did I mention that we have to share kitchens and bathrooms? All I can say is that we once found bloody intestines in the kitchen. Where did they come from? Lord knows, because I have never seen anyone buy a live animal here.

3. Embarrassing Africans: It’s not news that we have a poor reputation here, and almost no respect (with the whole thing about the entire African economy being the same as Mexico’s and all that..) but the brothers ain’t helping at all. Any time anyone mentions a story about harrasement, sexual or otherwise, you can bet that somewhere in the story is ‘and this black guy..’.

I’m not saying that all black people behave as though they come from the lawlessness of the Congo forest, but, you know the deal with stereotypes.

One good thing at least, is that no one messes with me. (At least not yet). Though the only people that make me uncomfortable are these gangs of Moroccan/North African boys, who’s moves I  can never predict. And who are contenders for the ‘Most violent/misbehaved’ immigrants, right with the best of them.

4. My classmates: When I was applying for my masters studies (I know, how pompous..) I had these images about how I would suck the knowledge from my wiser, OLDER and more mature classmates. Oh, how I was wrong. I am in a classroom full of fresh faced, barely-out-of-their-teens young’ins like me. On the plus side, the parties rock. On the down side, I am in an intellectual wasteland.  Topics of conversation include: ‘Did you notice that Saad has a big belly like an old man?’, to ‘I wish I had more time to go shopping!’. Spoilt for choice, aren’t I?

5. The old men: I don’t know, the last time I looked at my pictures, I don’t think the word hooker came up. But it doesn’t stop wrinkly little french guys asking what my price is, or desperate middle aged men offering me lifts in their flashy convertibles…

Of course, there is a lesson in all of this. Diversity, multicultural understanding, tolerance and all that jazz. Right now, I cannot see it. But then again, I’m sure that it’s one of those things I will understand once I leave and I can tell everyone, ‘Back when I was living in france…’