We only part to meet again

January: the first month of the year, surely a marker for fresh starts, new beginnings? Not the bringer of goodbyes left, right and centre. Yet they seem to be all that are coming to me. First I had the rather abrupt surprise departure of my laptop on Monday, followed swiftly by a wave goodbye to over a grand for a new one. But mere material possesions; what are they when confronted with having to bid farewell to the people we love?

This is the beauty and tragedy of exchange student life: whether it be after one year or one semester, the goodbyes are going to have to happen. And they aren’t easy. I remember floods of tears in my first year of university at the departure of a much-loved chum on exchange. Now, three years older and harder, I hope to retain my composure a little better as a far greater number of loyal allies fall away around me.

Last month already saw the back of a fellow exchanger, lost to South America (lucky thing); but it doesn’t end there. The upcoming end of exams means also the end of an era. Friends, comrades, cohorts, acquaintances: a good chunk of them are heading off, and in every direction possible. From friends like siblings, to familiar faces I only ever saw behind a pint at pubnights, the next semester will proceed only in their absence.

Yet the wonderful thing just about going on exchange is it shows how mobille we are, and, if we really want to (who doesn’t?), can continue to be. All the foreign buddies made represent another country to visit, and another friend to see while there. Hell, 1 in 10 students meets their lifelong partner while on ERASMUS, apparently. Now that’s what I call international relations…!

Lame jokes aside, it really is quite upsetting having to say goodbye to some really lovely people. In French, au revoir means literally “till we meet again”, whereas adieu is pretty much goodbye, for good – “to God”. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, the prospect of the more painful goodbyes, but they are definitely au revoirs, not adieus. I’ll be seeing you again…

Disaster Strikes

I can’t believe I am actually doing this. I am writing this post by hand*. I’ve broken out the old Parker fountain pen (which hasn’t seen any action in months) and my writing is barely legible from lack of practice. How weird to have to use these neglected hand muscles, and not see perfectly uniform letters appear instantaneously upon a screen.

Why am I subjecting myself to this? Because I don’t have a computer. My trusty Macbook Pro, which has been with me since 2008, finally croaked. It must have died in its sleep because yesterday evening it was fine but this morning would not even turn itself on.

It’s a terrible thing, being suddenly without laptop. I think I went into shock. While my rational mind was not at all worried (I had no urgent assignments or exam revision stored on it; I could buy a new one), my body was reacting completely differently. I felt oddly numb and shaky, and couldn’t seem to wipe the involuntary frown off my forehead. I rode the metro to uni in a daze, my glazed eyes for once blind to the stunning mountain views through the window, Nicki Minaj’s Superbass for some reason stuck inconveniently on replay in my head. I was dazed and confused.

Amazing, how utterly lost one feels without one’s ordi. It’s like missing a limb; you can survive without it but my god is it disorientating. I dropped my baby off at the uni IT help centre for them to try to recover data and only later did it hit me like a ton of bricks what I had just left behind. Plus I know I’m not unique in this respect. Many a peer has been left floundering and helpless at the passing of a loyal laptop. I defy you, youth who be reading this, not to feel the same if it happened to you. Especially if you, like me, have backed up nothing. This is what has become of our generation; we are utter bitches to our computers.

Luckily, nothing ever feels so bad in Switzerland; everything and everyone is calm and collected. The IT helper was quite placid when he told me he suspected the problem lay in the motherboard; the people in the Apple shop totally serene when they informed me that a repair would cost 1000 francs. I in turn smiled and nodded sedately before exiting to silently freak out. But the moutains didn’t suddenly collapse, nor did the lake rise up and swallow the town, nor did the surrounding Swiss students rush me with their lit cigarettes. No, when surrounded by such tranquility, one learns to take a deep breath of clean(ish) air and remain stoic.

So what have I learnt from this awful experience? That the twenty-first century knight in shining armour comes equipped not with steed and sword but rather an external hard drive and spare laptop, as my neighbour helpfully provided (even if it means I must use this accursed French keyboard). That I’m surprisingly zen at the possibility of losing all my files and photos (a clear-out was probably due anyway, plus there are loads of photos on Facebook) – and at the prospect of some computer technician at uni having full and free access to all of them. That an evening spent with friends in my technology-free kitchen is unaffected and no less enjoyable than usual without my laptop. That I should really back shit up.

*Obviously I typed this up later, slowly and painstakingly with the mind-boggling French AZERTY keyboard.

Some good old-fashioned hospitality

Back in Switzerland now, via brief sojourns in Madrid and Barcelona, constituting my first time in Spain. I could talk about mouth-watering tapas (food tourism: the best kind of tourism), flea markets and Rubens paintings in Madrid, or mountain climbing, more mouth-watering food and Gaudi architecture in Barcelona, but you can read about that anywhere; Wikipedia’s back up. What made my trip really memorable were things like spontaneous (disastrous) hair-dying in Madrid and skipping Catalan exams (not me) in Barcelona, and above all the hospitality that was shown to me by my friends and their friends.

Travelling is wonderful and exciting, but it can also be stressful and scary. I personally have no sense of direction (awkward when trying to find my way round a new place), recognition problems (awkward when trying to find my way back to an old place) and only speak English, French (arguably) and a smattering of mandarin. That’s why having a friend who already knows the place you are visiting and can speak the language is invaluable.

This brief whirl in Spain was fun but relaxing, thanks to my two marvellous friends who live in either city. Doing some quality catch-up whilst sightseeing is a great way to kill two birds with one stone; I even met up with another friend who happened to be in Barcelona at the same time; three birds!

But what surprised me most was the warmth and generosity shown to me by the housemates of both friends. Not to mention patience (I’m thinking of a dire case of irreversible and inexplicable towel-staining and bathroom occupation during aforementioned disastrous hair-dying session in Madrid). These essential strangers cooked for me, took an interest and generally made me feel at home. It might not sound like a huge deal but I personally have a horror of imposing and am hyper-aware of my conduct in other people’s homes, so it means a lot to be made to feel genuinely welcome and allowed to relax.

My only regret is that I forgot to bring back some manchego cheese. Darn! No matter, I have brought back with me warm memories shared with gracious people, and that stays with one for much longer than a block of cheese could. No matter how delicious the cheese…

A day as a junior showbiz journalist

In my last post I said

as a work experience lackey at a magazine I don’t exactly get the most thrilling tasks; I’m not the one interviewing celebrities. I’m pretty much chained to my desk, writing up the stuff that nobody else wants to/has time to do.

Well, my ungrateful little self takes that right back. Yesterday I was treated to a preview screening of footage from Titanic in 3D with some nice canapés and a highly illuminative Q&A with Jon Landau, the film’s producer. Then in the evening I went to the premiere for Madonna’s new film W.E, where I interviewed celebrities, including the queen of pop herself. Oops.

It was good experience. It sounds like it was very glamorous but I enjoyed it more for the insight it gave me into the industry than for standing outdoors, fingers gradually numbing from the cold in order to catch a few snippets from celebrities.

I was surprised at how un-starstruck I was. True, my mind went a bit blank when a star would be led over, but mostly because I had nothing I really wanted to ask them; certainly nothing that would be relevant to the magazine that hadn’t already been asked a million times. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, and I got some funny quotes, but a famous person is just that – a person, who is famous. No closer in the flesh than on a screen; just a little more normal.

Much more interesting were my fellow commoners, such as the warm and kindly PR folks, the mild-mannered young gentleman from The Mail who bought me a cuppa, and the two lovely ladies from Hello and Grazia magazines squashed beside me in the press pens. They were all charming, engaging and only too willing to share their own experiences and tips. I eavesdropped with interest on the jargon-filled conversations of the journalists around me, most of whom knew one another already.

Showbiz journalism is mad. People all over the place; people are the focus. You’re trying to engage with an individual while PAs and publicists float around glaring, silently shouting at you to wind it the hell up. I was fortunate I had a good first time; my movie premiere cherry was popped gently. I had fun people around me with whom to share the experience. It was high-energy and hilarious and I enjoyed it enormously, mostly because I didn’t take it seriously. I can see how seductive this world must be for some, and how distasteful for others.

What a contrast to the calm, easy-going and non-celebrity-focussed culture in Lausanne. Swiss celebrities don’t really exist, except for Roger Federer; most of the French media comes from France. A mellow Swiss girl I met at a party once told me that if a Swiss person saw a celebrity, the reaction would be pretty bland: oh look, a famous person. Cool. That explains why so many Hollywood stars have homes in Switzerland. And the tax breaks, of course.

The best days… part 2

I never thought I would need to build up stamina to sit at a desk. I’m not kidding. It takes real endurance to sit, bum on seat, eight hours (minimum) a day. I don’t think I’m built for it.

For all of you who think, I can’t wait to get university over with and start working: think again. You don’t know how great university is until you get a taste of full-time working life. And this is a job that I really, really like. Sure, as a work experience lackey at a magazine I don’t exactly get the most thrilling tasks; I’m not the one interviewing celebrities. I’m pretty much chained to my desk, writing up the stuff that nobody else wants to/has time to do. But I still enjoy it. I’m writing – there’s nothing else I’d rather do.

Oh, but! How can it compare to university?

At uni, no matter the timetable, I still feel like my time is mine. I try not to (and I don’t of course condone it), but if I really want to, I can just skip classes. In Switzerland, where all classes are optional, I don’t even need to pretend to be sorry. When you’re working full-time, you can kiss goodbye to having that kind of liberty – your time is your work’s. I’ve interned at places where people don’t even leave their desks for a lunch break. Unacceptable.

I know there are certain limitations to being a student, the top one being of a financial nature for most, but you are also theoretically freer than you will ever be in your life, ever again. Ever. Old enough to do what the hell you want and answer to nobody; young enough to do crazy/stupid/irresponsible/selfish/insanely fun (take your pick) stuff, with obligations to absolutely nobody. Except your sweet young self. Presumably no dependents or (god forbid) children to care for, i.e. worry you and slow you down. What on earth could be better than that?

Of course there are lectures, and work, but life is easy (most of the time) as a student and above all life is fun. Learning is fun. No, really, trust me it is. Even if you have taken on a very demanding course, if you are really interested in it and choose to be responsible about it, you’ll be fine. You’re learning, a privilege in itself; you’re garnering wisdom, you’re improving yourself. Even though the workload can be tough, there is an almost tangible feeling of infinite possibility when you’re not yet jaded or exhausted from a demanding work life, not yet on the proverbial ladder or entered into the rat race. Your whole life lies before you, as yet undefined. It is not reduced to a predictable timetable of day in and day out at the office (with or without lunch break). You are free to choose.

That’s not to say work life provides no stimulation, possibility for self-improvement or happiness, etc. Of course not, quite the contrary (depending on the job, naturally). But take the opportunity while you are still at university to be idiotic, spontaneous and unrestricted. Meet as many people as you can from every kind of discipline. Never again (probably) will you be in one place with such a mixed bag of nationalities, backgrounds and areas of study, and surrounded by so much youth.

Perhaps the true beauty of university life lies in its transience. Everything is more effervescent precisely because it will all end soon. You have on average three to five years to live in a sort of bubble, subjection to the real world (through work and internships) optional, before you must enter it for real. Three to five years. A brief period of magic and chaos, formation and conception; a time for dreaming and plotting, costless soul-searching, and forthright, unhampered and uncalculating love and friendship. By no means do I wish to stay a student forever, but boy do I relish it at the moment; and, if you are lucky enough to be a student, you should too.

The Best Days part one can be found here.

Turn down the chatter for some real talking

If you go on one diet this new year, let it be a digital diet, as espoused in this excellent article from the Independent. For the vast majority of us Generation Y-ers, this means one thing. You know what I’m talking about – the F-word, which is uttered far too frequently in our daily lives…Facebook. But also phones, and whatever other little gadgets connect to the Internet and magically drain away our time and social skills.

There’s nothing more irritating than when you are trying to talk to someone and they are simultaneously and unapologetically holding a BBM conversation or texting someone; nay, it’s just plain rude. If I receive a text mid-conversation, I will only reply if it is urgent, and apologising profusely.

One thing I particularly liked from the above article was the idea of

requesting dinner guests to leave mobile phones on silent in the hallway, just as medieval diners used to leave their weapons at the door.

It’s an idea worthy of some consideration. The presence of mobiles, like weapons, are something of an atmosphere killer. We are living distracted lives, and if we cannot even focus on the people around us when we are sat face-to-face with them at a table, when can we?

Interestingly, the kitchen at my residence in Lausanne is a perfect example of how erasing (more or less) gadgets from the equation only serves to enhance face-to-face relations. There is no television, nor is there wireless internet, therefore no laptops around. We have only the cookers and the table; and one another for entertainment. Very rarely do I hear a phone go off, let alone see one; I’m not even entirely sure what my housemates’ phones look like, and that’s a first. I’ve spent time with people who are so glued to their phones that I’ve felt like I knew the backs of their phones better than their faces.

Some of the best conversations have happened in that kitchen, whether one-on-one, highly intimate heart-to-hearts, or noisy group discussions, in French or English. A friend once told me that our conversations were so good she was amazed that hours later, she hadn’t even thought about checking her facebook. What does that tell us? That facebook does not come close to replacing real, living connections, though it does serve as an effective diversion.

Think about the times when you really enjoyed yourself, were really absorbed in what you were doing, in the people around you, creating the memory that you now recall. I doubt sitting at a computer, or neck bent over a smartphone, springs immediately to mind. Let’s face it, the majority of the time, the kinds of things you read on facebook are hardly profound, and probably do nothing for your state of mind.

Don’t get me wrong, if we’re talking about diets here, I’m definitely morbidly obese on the digital scale. If every hour spent on facebook were a calorie, I’d have racked up enough to feed half of Africa, like any other young person. I’m not preaching abstinence – every good diet is about moderation. Facebook has its uses of course; you’re probably reading this because you’ve been referred by Facebook. However, nothing will ever really replace being in the real, bodily presence of a friend, looking them in the eye, being really absorbed in the conversation and talking away the hours. With not a bleep or a notification in sight.

French version here.