Les Flaneurings d’une Fille à Paris

Thoughts of love gather like dust in the attic of my mind and won’t be swept away. They cower like cobwebs in the corner, between boxes of broken promises, seeking shadow and shade at the first sight of dawn. Since love has knocked on my door and so often ran away, it is hard to believe that it really exists at all. It seems not everyone can hold a needle nor has the patience, never mind the skill, to sew a heart up so full of patchwork as mine, but French men don’t love like English boys do.

Sometimes monsieur and I don’t understand a single word of what each other says, and in some situations this proves useful. The language of love is different in each land, and communication difficulties create a helpful catch-net for the overspill of an over-eager heart. I’m allowed to call him ‘mon bien-aimé’, which is ‘my beloved’, after just one month because my palms have never felt the weight of these terms of endearment before. It’s a good excuse. These words are suddenly pearls that I’m scared to drop, placed in the palm of my hand I stammer and shake, the light they reflect is blinding, it scatters too far and falls short at my feet. I explain that it’s the fault of the French professor for forgetting to verse us the art of love, that we never had any lessons on how to address someone to whom we are attracted with amorous intent. This is followed by the innocent if slightly intentional hint that the only words of this kind that I know are ‘copain’ and ‘copine’, which happen to be boyfriend and girlfriend. At any rate, it worked. I’ve bagged myself a beautiful French boyfriend, a moustached connoisseur of cheese and wine who brings me croissants back from the boulangerie. I’ve never been so spoilt, though he insists on teaching me how to ski and eat snails.

In his arms, my heart is a beast raging out of control, thrashing its weight against the bone-white barbed-wire cage of a chest, but the futility of words frustrates me, particularly with the impossible task of trying to share it all in a foreign tongue. If I pick a flower and pluck each petal I will find out if he loves me, or if he loves me not, but l’amour à la francaise is much more advanced. Each petal that is picked brings love into blossom or bloom: “il m’aime un peu, il m’aime beaucoup, il m’aime passionnément, il m’aime à la follie, il ne m’aime pas de tout”. Whilst the English version may be bog-standard and boring, I either love you or I blatantly don’t, at least it is built upon the concrete structures of certainty that won’t crumble as soon as the sun comes out. As the hammer of my heartbeat threatens to rip through, tearing skin to shreds, my heart burst its banks in one sharp gasp: “C’est possible.” I am a bomb waiting to explode, burning from the inside out, a fire in my throat from the embers of words I never spoke: “C’est possible … que je t’aime.” If I have learned anything it is that the heart cannot be tamed, so don’t force it into hibernation.

When it is time to return to England, I wake and weep silent tears at his shoulder, trying to drown out the hum of his heartbeat though it can still be heard. The promise of love unstitching itself from my heart, again, I hadn’t anticipated that I would be this sad. It is like the sky has cracked and all the stars have slipped through. I wish I could stay. I wish I could sew the words “c’est possible que je t’aime” into a blanket, and wrap it round him to keep him warm through the winter. Sadly, the moment never lasts long enough, it flutters from the hand. Whilst I will return to Paris in just over one month, as after all, many more months of my year abroad await us, it feels like a lifetime and I will miss him every day. In any case, he takes me to the station and promises to be waiting on the platform when I come back.

Mattarella’s the Word

Sergio Mattarella, the newly incumbent President of Italy, has made the neutralisation of what he called a ‘pervasive cancer’ his main priority, and, as a man with personal experience of the violence of Italian organised crime (his brother was killed by a mafioso in 1980), he looks like a good bet.

The main problem surrounding the Italian mafia is that of omertà, the code of silence, an issue which has recently been raised by Trevor McDonald in his exploration of the American bob on ITV. In his programme, McDonald meets ex-mafiosi who have broken this code of silence, mainly by virtue of generous bribery on the part of the FBI. The indifference of some of these men regarding their participation in the mafia is staggering, especially when we consider that they are risking their own lives, speaking so openly on television.

There are obviously many parallels with the Italian mafia, however, there seems to me to be a clear difference between the American and Italian networks. That is, while the American mobsters appear to be solely driven by money, there is something extra that pushes the Italians to such immorality: family. Criminal activity is so entrenched in everyday, familial life that it becomes impossible to penetrate and destroy; everyone is involved and everyone is omertosi.

In Italian contemporary literature and film (I am thinking of Non ho paura by Niccolò Ammaniti and Alla luce del sole directed by Roberto Faenza in particular) there is a very different feel: there is no ‘easy way out’, no FBI to run to for protection. Everyone depends on everyone else and so the very human chain is unbreakable. All the more so during this period of economic crisis: last year it was said that Italian banks’ reluctance to lend left more businesses turning to the mob for help. This resulted in the Italian Mafia having a bigger annual budget than the European Union. It therefore takes a daring and determined leader to start the process of demolishing the underworld that partly serves as a foundation for the successful running of the country.

Mattarella has initiated a dialogue; it is now up to his compatriots speak up.

Coffee Cooling: Café Culture in Valencia’s Coolest Barrio

How cool is too cool? I am a strong advocate of café culture, I love it. Before coming to Spain I spent many a summer’s weekend trawling London from North to South, East to West in search of the best spaces for coffee, study and chat.

I was convinced coming to Valencia spelt the end of that short-lived career. Instead, it has lived on, the service is just in good old español, the translation of which is work itself. I should have known this would be the case when I visited my new pueblo in June 2014. My best friend and outgoing resident Cambridge MMLer in Valencia took me to Dulce de Leche; it was all I loved about a good café and more. Splendiferous homemade cakes and quiches were stockpiled behind glass and the yellow top-of-the-range coffee machine gleamed majestically in the corner. Issues of Kinfolk lifestyle magazine hung from the walls and potted plants were on every table inside and out. I was sold. I was determined to live as close to this reverie as possible.

This meant looking for a home in Ruzafa, a former ‘immigrant area’. I did not know it in June 2014 but as seems to be the trend, Ruzafa was and in many ways still is the site or perhaps the victim of a gentrification which is sweeping its way through Europe’s once no-go zones. Dulce de Leche was only just the beginning—the wooden-fronted Sushi Room across the road should have been yet another giveaway.

Now, just months later, there is an abundance of Dulce de Leche-esque establishments and they just keep coming. These days, Ruzafa is known to locals as one of the “lugares más chulos” of the city and to tourists familiar with other global hipster hubs as the Soho of Valencia. Much like Soho for me, I’m beginning to tire of the cool. Every Sunday I go for brunch and almost every two weeks there is a new option, some independent start-up, defiantly individual and industrially bare save for the scattering of art show and bikram yoga flyers—admittedly, both things I enjoy but as these shops continue to pop up, I can’t help but feel like it’s all slightly contrived.

I like cafés, yes. I like culture, yes. I love café culture, yes. However, I also appreciate character. Where is the individualism if everything is the same and not even comfortable? It breaks my heart to type that if I’m completely honest with myself and with you, dear reader and quite possibly, fellow café-goer: The novelty of hipster chic minimalist coffee bars is definitely wearing off. Occasionally, a few get it right in Ruzafa with a welcoming mix of Home and Edge… Hedgey if you will: Bluebell Coffee Co., LaLa Land, Café Autor to add name to glory. And, for as busy as popular and busy as it gets, I will of course always keep un espacio dulce in my heart for the original Café simple. Still, more and more, try as I might to fight it, I’m left feeling cold and wanting more every time I try somewhere new, despite the warmth of the soya cappuccino between my hands. Probably because it’s just not big enough, no coffee here is big enough.

At least true connoisseurs of good coffee can rest assured that whilst their surroundings might be impersonal bordering on institutional, what’s in their mug is a more positive reflection of its brutally reduced environment since the Spaniards really do seem to stand by quality over quantity when it comes to their daily caffeine boost. As if the drastic drop reduction in general tamaño was not enough, the cortado, the smallest and strongest coffee of all—usually made from a quality blend, is the go-to choice. No watered-down chain-style ventis to nurse for hours here…unless you—like I—have mastered the art of the Bootleg Americano AKA the cortado-sneakily-added-to-an-extra-cup-of-boiling-water.

Now to sit with my concoction and ponder where-in lies my next obsession. Perhaps the realms of fine dining and tapas beyond tourism.

The Fallas: a Festival of Fire

The five day festival of Las Fallas takes place annually in Valencia and marks the coming of Spring. Each neighbourhood constructs a giant, grotesque and often satirical work of art that will then be burnt in the culmination of the festival in the spirit of ‘out with the old, in with the new.’ Every March thousands of tourists descend upon Spain’s third largest city to experience a once in a lifetime assault on the senses.

The Fallas has to be experienced first hand in order to capture the true feel of a city that comes alive for five days and which erases the word sleep from its dictionary for the course of the festivities. Ross, an Erasmus student from Cambridge exclaims, ‘‘the city quite literally erupts into festival mode with constant exploding fireworks, brass bands and parties. It’s amazing!’’

Valencia during Las Fallas reinforces the Spanish stereotype of non-stop fiesta with the emergence of outdoor discos, pop up Mojito stands (beware the Spaniards aren’t frugal with their alcohol), firework displays, processions of Falleras (girls in traditional outfits worth thousands of Euros) and finally the incessant sound of children and excited adults launching fireworks and firecrackers in the street. Be prepared to sprint at the sight of a firecracker being thrown directly at you.

From the beginning of March every day at 2pm sharp a Mascletà takes place in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The ground shakes as hundreds of petardos or firecrackers are set off in rhythm, filling the skies with the pungent smell of gunpowder and your ears with the ruckus of unrelenting explosions.

Tradition is extremely important to the Spaniards who despite their economic difficulties put on the most extravagant spectacle bringing Valencia to a standstill. Ana, a student at the University of Valencia explains, ‘the Fallas are what distinguish us from other parts of Spain even within the autonomous Valencian Community. For years we’ve continued to follow the traditions of our ancestors and whilst parties are a highlight of the festivities, tradition is equally as important and there are many religious events such as the offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary.’

Bittersweet best describes the Fallas. Whilst the Falleras might cry at the sight of the burning Fallas (there’s no health and safety here), I’ll be glad when the madness that has invaded the city is over. The festival is definitely not for the faint hearted but if you’re in search of an edge of your seat, high energy experience then the Fallas are not to be missed. Now commences the city’s week long hangover…

Lost in Translation

A translation is often the only means we have of even standing a chance of understanding other people. Of course, by being able to read and understand this, you can sleep peacefully at night knowing that there are teachers, translators and interpreters out there who are being paid to adapt the world around them to you and the rest of the English-speaking population: we read literature in translation, we watch subtitled and dubbed films and TV shows. In many respects, we have become slaves to others’ interpretation of reality.

But this isn’t an attack on the existing English language bias, nor on the sense of complacency and reluctance of those who speak English when it comes to learning foreign languages. Even if you’re a polyglot turned YouTube sensation who can speak 20 languages, the chances are that, out of the 6000 or so languages that are spoken on our planet today, there will always be at least one (if not many more) that eludes you. So when the conventional, spoken language fails, as it inevitably does, we have to seek other ways of achieving mutual intelligibility between two cultures which don’t rely on verbal communication alone.

No film illustrates the struggle to overcome the language barrier in a more human way than Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy-drama, Lost in Translation. Bob and Charlotte, played by Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, are at very different stages in their respective lives: the former is in a mid-life crisis shooting Whiskey commercials when he should be starring in feature films, while the latter is married and recently graduated from Harvard, but hasn’t a clue what to do next. Fate brings together the two strangers in the bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo one evening, and it only takes a glance for them to figure out that they are both as lost and far away from home as each other.

After bonding over their jet-lag and a shared sense of irony about the culture shock that they are experiencing, they begin to venture out into the open together and soon discover that a human connection is possible even in the absence of a common language: they end up in a Japanese friend’s flat singing karaoke after being chased away by an angry bar owner armed with a BB rifle. Several days later, while Bob is waiting for Charlotte to have an x-ray, he strikes up a conversation with an old Japanese lady who bursts into laughter when he tries to imitate her unintelligible words and gestures, to which Bob responds with a smile—a rare occurrence in the hour and 41 minutes that comprise the film.

It takes meeting someone who is experiencing the same level of alienation for both protagonists to see the brighter side of a lack of translation. Not only that, but Bob and Charlotte manage to connect with the people who form part of the foreign culture in the absence of a common language, proving that acceptance on a human level and mutual respect is more important than a heightened cultural awareness and knowledge of the language. Having lost themselves, they find themselves again by going beyond words, losing the translation in the process.

My Year Abroad: Working in Paris

For what seems like the majority of second year, the big question of the Year Abroad was like my own personal raincloud, constantly following me around and opening on up whenever the spectre of ‘next year’ was mentioned. Even though I was certain that I wanted to work and earn my way through the year, there were just too many question marks for my liking—what kind of job? Paid or internship? Italy or France?

Applications were sent off, telephone interviews stumbled across (may have used the excuse of ‘bad reception’/feigned a coughing fit on more than one occasion) and finally – on the day of my Italian oral in the first week of Easter Term—I was offered a job in Communications at HEC Paris, a business school just outside of Paris (emphasis on the ‘outside’). With a monthly bursary, free accommodation and the promise of hours and hours on Facebook, I was sold.

I wouldn’t be lying if I said that my Year Abroad was one of the best years of my life. My job was varied and challenging, with real responsibility and end-of-the-day satisfaction—I worked on the new MBA website, managed the social media accounts and worked on promotional material such as brochures and videos for the program. I was able to work closely with the students (read: I was able to have many coffee breaks with the students) and the fact that I lived on the campus gave me the best of both worlds: a working wage during the day and the student social life in the evenings.

I did salsa and rock ‘n’ roll classes, I attended deep philosophical debates about the meaning of love in French (didn’t understand a word but looked intelligent) and even attended a very memorable hip-hop break-dancing class in an attempt to woo a Frenchman (it didn’t work out). I was a cheerleader in a sports tournament, helped run an international summer school program and interviewed the ex-Vice President of Amazon (he liked my nail polish, fun fact). And you know what? I loved every second.

But of course, the Year Abroad is about more than the work you do. It’s about the things that you choose to do, the opportunities you take and the adventures you have. If I had to give a piece of advice to someone currently on their Year Abroad or looking ahead to theirs, it would be to say Yes to everything (as long as it’s legal); many people find it scary going to a foreign country where you don’t know anyone, but you really do take away what you put in. Go to dance classes, to strange bars in new neighbourhoods, take advantage of your new location to do a bit of travelling – I managed to get to Belgium, Germany, Alsace, Italy, the Loire Valley and even a military academy and I only wish I’d done more. Stay positive, keep smiling and put yourself out there. It’s scary but well worth it; you’ll find it’s not just your language skills which grow, but your self-confidence, too. And that’s pretty priceless.

Living the Life of A Local

Crossing the road. I’d say that this is what separates the true Roman from the tourist. I’m sure there are many other ways to identify a local, but for me this is the best. It’s the steadily-maintained eye contact. The unhesitant first step out into the road. The way they own the zebra crossing.

Of course, holidaying with a local is about more than just being able to cross the road. It’s amazing how disinterested they can be about the widely celebrated tourist attractions; you can walk past numerous interesting, historical-looking buildings, ask them what they are and find out they never even realised they were there.

The Colosseum will probably barely feature on the radar of a Roman. It’s always been there, it always will be. Tourists come and go but the monuments stay and this is what makes visiting a friend abroad so interesting. Sure, you can take a thousand pictures outside the Pantheon, or spend hours savouring the view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, but you are unlikely to experience the ‘real’ Rome that way. Visiting a restaurant with red and white chequered tablecloths may be nice, but it doesn’t compare for one second to the smell of a home-cooked Italian meal diffusing through a home.

On a practical note, interacting with locals becomes much easier when you’re actually with one. Buying a street umbrella is suddenly several Euros cheaper, I’m sure your meals come quicker and your stay is instantaneously warmer and friendlier as a result. The danger of being ripped off (although still present) is minimised. And if, as happens to even the best MMLer, your language skills fail you, there is an instant back-up to avoid the mortifying return to English.

My favourite night in Rome by far was spent on the terrace of my friend’s apartment. His friends all came round, his mother cooked a fantastic array of snacks including onion pizza (much nicer than it sounds) and we saw the night turn into morning, drinking sangria and enjoying the one am warmth. Perhaps an experience that could have been had without a local contact – but it would have been a lot more difficult to come by!

So try to visit as many of your foreign friends as possible (if you haven’t tried to blag your way abroad already); you’re guaranteed to have a unique and, most likely, unforgettable trip.

Reflections on being bilingual and bicultural

Having parents from different racial backgrounds has meant that I have spent most of my life comparing the social customs of England, where I have lived for my whole life, and Japan, my mother’s country.

There are a number of ways in which the linguistic differences between English and Japanese highlight cultural differences between the two societies. Japanese differs drastically from most European languages due to its grammatical ambiguity.  There are no articles, no distinction between singular and plural, no genders for nouns, pronouns are used only in exceptional circumstances and there are few verb tenses. The ambiguous nature of the people reflects this linguistic ambiguity. Questions that the British believe to require a direct response are approached with extreme caution in a Japanese context.

This difference attitude is illustrated by the following story. My mother’s Japanese friend came to Britain to study English and when asked by her host family whether or not she wanted some cake she declined the offer. In truth, she had been craving a slice of victoria sponge all week, but she felt that she could not accept the offer, especially after only being asked once. A few hours later, she returned to the kitchen to discover that the family had devoured the entire cake and that there was not a crumb left for her to eat. She was shocked. In some regions of Japan, anyone who accepts an offering of food before being invited to eat at least thrice is considered to have the social awareness, emotional sensitivity and self-restraint of a hungry elephant.

Japanese is also unusual in that the speech of women collectively differs from that of men and vice versa, a convention to which even toddlers adhere. There are many words and grammatical structures which a man could use without disapproval but would be considered vulgar should they be uttered by a woman. In my opinion this reflects the position of women in Japanese society, who are subject to a great deal of injustice, whether it be with regard to employment or a general sense of inferiority. For example, it is still common for women to be excluded from conferences, even if they hold the same positions as men within the company.

These are but a few examples of how the linguistic disparities between English and Japanese reflect differences in cultural norms as well as how people wish to present themselves to others.

I gave up on trying to order this ice-lolly in Portuguese!

I am standing at the till. I feel a bit like Eminem. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy (but don’t worry, on my sweater there’s no spaghetti). I have one shot, one opportunity to exchange a few words in Portuguese with a real life lisboeta:

“No, sorry, I don’t have any change”, “yes please, a bag would be great”. I open my mouth, but the words won’t come out. I’m choking, how!? Everybody, in the queue behind me, is joking now (while also getting very impatient). I stutter. But the clock’s run out, times up, over. The words that every language-learner abroad hates come tumbling out of the cashier’s mouth. “Don’t worry, I speak English”. Snap back to reality.

I have recently started watching a soap called Bem-vindo a Beirais to keep up my Portuguese. It’s about a man from Lisbon who moves to a village in the country to look after some greenhouses. As enthralling as that sounds, the main reason I watch it is so that I can pause and rewind the characters when I want, increase and decrease the volume when I want and, most importantly, the characters don’t stop and start speaking English when they discover how poor my Portuguese is. If only I could say the same for the locals I came across in Lisbon this summer. Practising your language abroad is a bit of a catch-22. You’re trying to improve by speaking with the locals but the locals, either to spare you the effort/embarrassment or because they can’t be bothered to deal with your feeble attempts at sounding authentic, find it easier to just launch into English. As I had daily classes at a language school during my week in Portugal, you might wonder why I didn’t practice with the other students. To get a general idea about the level of Portuguese amongst most of them, all you need to do is think back to GCSEs. Let’s just say that the only subjects we were able to approach comfortably were the weather and climate change. Not much of an Eco-warrior, I had little to say about both.

Returning home from my trip was bitter sweet as it made me wonder how helpful travelling really is for a language learner. But maybe that’s missing the point of the trip altogether. I came back with about the same level of Portuguese as I had when I left (although I had somehow mastered a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish known as portunhol, which was spoken by most of the students at the school). I did, however, manage to catch glimpse of how true lisboetas speak. I can pore over lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations to my heart’s content at home, but if I hadn’t gone to Lisbon, would I have known that “muito giro” is no longer the cool way of saying “cool” in Portugal? Or that in Brazil, these words would be met with utter incomprehension and condescension as they are simply not “legal”? You can imagine my confusion when my surfing instructor nicknamed me “bifana”, pork sandwich, before I knew that in Lisbon, it is slang for “fresh meat”. It’s much harder to lose yourself in a foreign culture than it might seem. So, if you get the rare chance to speak Portuguese in Portugal, you better never let it go.

Hitchiking to Morocco and reflections on Language Learning

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I am convinced that the only way to truly become fluent in a language, for you to speak it (perhaps not always flawlessly) without hesitation, is to put yourself in a situation where you have to use it as opposed to merely studying when you feel like it. Nothing will force you to use a language quite like being stranded at a French petrol station in the middle of nowhere, knowing your only way out is to convince someone to give you a lift…

It’s no secret that at Cambridge, in MML the emphasis is placed on having a sound grasp of the written languages you are studying, knowing the ins and outs of its obscure grammatical features. (L’imparfait du Subjonctif in French anyone?) For our lecturers, this is more important than a solid grasp of colloquial usage. If your aim is to read medieval literature and philosophy, great! But not so great if you aim to actually speak the language fluently. Reading fluency and oral fluency are two separate phenomena. This is perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard (and made) to my peers studying MML at Cambridge; some have even said that their oral French/Spanish has gotten worse since coming here. But hey, that’s what the year abroad is for right?

I’m not bashing the fact that Cambridge is often more concerned with literary forms of language than the colloquial forms; I’ve just come to accept that gaining colloquial fluency has to be something extra-curricular. On a life changing two week trip hitch-hiking though France and Spain to reach Morocco, I came to appreciate what a gift speaking a second or third language fluently truly is.

In April 2012 myself and Leah Knight, both of us Language Freshers at Girton (me French and Arabic, her French and Spanish) and both eager to actually get some speaking practice in before our dreaded oral exams, decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. We signed ourselves up for Link Community Development’s Charity Hitch-hike, and chose Morocco as our destination. The months flew by and before we knew it we’d raised our money, both through legitimate fund-raising and badgering friends and family, and were on a ferry bound for Le Harvre. Let the adventure begin!

Le Havre, our first sight of France
Le Havre, our first sight of France

Okay so we didn’t get off to the best start. Le Harvre was a wet and miserable place when we were there and we had to walk half a mile outside the city centre in the drizzling grey mist that enveloped the town in order to even stand a chance of getting a lift. To add insult to injury there were two other groups participating in the same event, both headed for Morocco. We had chatted with them on the ferry, and felt a quiet sense of smugness upon finding out that we were the only group that actually spoke the languages of the countries we would be hitching through. Upon arrival in Marrakesh we met up with one of the groups again, and their stories of how great it would have been to understand what was going on half the time confirmed to us what an ace we had up our sleeves being linguists.

However, when you’re standing outside a petrol station beside a busy road trying to thumb a ride, it doesn’t matter how good your French is, and the other two groups were picked up first. Demoralised and soaked, after a couple of hours we had begun to give up hope when a slightly bemused commuter stopped and offered to take us a few miles down the road. We came to realise that lifts like this weren’t always the best idea as we ended up stranded in an even worse location with even less passing traffic. But hey, we got our first lift and more importantly we had our first conversation in French. (maybe we could do this after all?)

Please stop!
Please stop!

As the day wore on we got better and better at hitching rides, and after having to reject an offer to stay the night in Nantes (too far off course to the west) we had somehow managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of Le Mans by mid-afternoon. This is where disaster struck. The next town on our planned route south from Le Mans was Tours (and putting Morocco on your sign probably wouldn’t get you very far) so upon arrival at Mans we got the biro out (note to self – bring permanent markers next time!) and scribbled ‘Tours’ on a shabby, damp piece of A4 Paper as legibly as we could manage.

Unfortunately for us, the Romanian lorry driver who would pick us up didn’t have the best knowledge of French Geography and thought we were lost tour guides! He was a lot of fun, blaring Romanian rap music and honking his horn whilst driving way too fast and showing us photos of his family, but unfortunately he was headed towards Paris, not south via Tours and before we had time to tell him and get out he’d turned on to the A11 towards Paris. He was such a nice guy, but unfortunately between his rudimentary English and our non-existent Romanian I don’t think we even managed to convey that we didn’t want to go to Paris but were heading south to Morocco; I think he just thought I liked drawing routes on maps. We managed to convince him to pull over at the next service station (which, thank god, had a bridge to the other side of the motorway for us to double back). He was sad to see us go – “in the you go? Ok 🙁 In the bye” – but going to Paris was sadly not an option.

Merde! On est où là?!
Merde! On est où là?!

So there we were, off course and disoriented, sitting in the French version of Welcome Break, sipping coffee and despairing about what to do next. Up until now, all the interaction had come to us. If someone stops to pick up a hitch-hiker, it’s usually out of curiosity or for company. They will more often than not be friendly and willing to talk to you. However, now it was a different kettle of fish. We were stranded and the only way to get out was to actually convince a French person to let two slightly soggy (although not yet smelly – it was only day one) English teenagers in the back of their car.

At first we were both reluctant to approach people, but we came to realise it was getting too late to be picky or shy and we plucked up the courage to talk to literally everyone who pulled up to refill their tank. Eventually, Leah managed to convince a reluctant woman from Le Mans to take us to the outskirts of her town. Persuading someone to give you a lift when you are stranded will certainly flex your language muscles a lot more than anything in French Grammar In Context, Third Edition ever could. She eventually warmed to us, after we assured her that her husband would not find out that she’d picked up autostoppeurs as she was adamant that he’d kill her if he found out!

Our 5 Star forest retreat
Our 5 Star forest retreat, just off the Motorway outside Le Mans

We camped by the side of the road that night (a tent is definitely a must for any hitch-hiker) and the next morning, after brushing off the light dusting of snow that had settled overnight (this was the year that spring got lost somewhere on the way, remember?) we parked ourselves by the side of the road, thumbs outstretched, smiling eagerly, patiently and hopefully waiting. Blanche DuBois was proved right, time and time again, you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Over the course of our 1800 mile adventure we were picked up by some amazing and diverse people, who we simply never would have interacted with otherwise. Single men, families, single women, ex-hitch-hikers and ex-gendarmes; teachers, builders and civil servants; we met them all, a complete cross-section of both French and Spanish society. We listened to their amazing stories, which I simply can’t do justice too in a short article like this one, all of which were in their native languages. That beats a 9am Use of class hands down! But after a while the fact that we were speaking another language almost became secondary; the important thing was that we were interacting with these people, sharing our stories with them and listening to theirs. For me, this is fluency. Fluency is not being able to conjugate obscure grammatical tenses that are barely in use today or being able to read centuries old literature. Fluency is being able to express yourself meaningfully and convey emotion – the basic goal of language – the basic goal of being a human being!

Backpacking in Bordeux
Backpacking in Bordeaux

The trip has solidified my philosophy on language. Language is about communication, about culture, and both these things are about meaningful interactions and shared experiences with other people. For me, languages are not about grammar and phonology, interesting though these areas may be to many. For me, being multilingual is such an amazing skill because of the interactions it enables you to have with others who have completely different life experiences and backgrounds. Languages are a means to an end. Taking part in the Hitch was one of the most rewarding and interesting things I have ever done, both in terms of my language ability and my own personal development. So what’s stopping you from going on the adventure of a lifetime?

Link Community Development is an amazing charity who does some great work in Sub Saharan Africa. This incredible event began back in 1992 as the Cambridge-Casablanca challenge, but, believe it or not, myself and Leah were the only group from Cambridge to participate in 2012. And she only heard about the Hitch from her sister at the ‘Other Place’, where it is actually a popular event, akin to Jailbreak (although Hitch-hiking is arguably more meaningful, rewarding and difficult than using your connections to get free plane tickets to Hawaii or Australia). This year me and Leah are determined to get the Hitch up and running again in Cambridge.

If this hasn’t convinced you, here are some photos of what awaits you in Morocco! (Where, let’s not forget, they also speak French… hint hint, nudge nudge)

If Morocco isn’t your cup of mint tea, or perhaps if you’re studying German/Italian then maybe Croatia is the destination for you? The Hitch is of course open to any University student  with a sense of adventure who can find a partner, and navigating the language barrier is certainly very fun at times (see the bit about Romanian lorry drivers), so if you don’t speak the language don’t let this put you off! I just want to stress what an amazing and rewarding opportunity this is for us linguists to actually use our language skills!

Sign up today! You won’t regret it!

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