Book Review: Im Westen nichts Neues

This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war—even those of it who survived the shelling.
—Erich Maria Remarque

The reason why I decided to read Im Westen nichts Neues was a little naive. Aged sixteen and studying twentieth century history at school I was curious to read about the experience of the war from a German perspective. How often are we constrained to our own country’s version of events? I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, perhaps some portrayal of nationalistic fervour, slander against the English or a platoon of ferocious German men-turned-soldiers. Yet ironically after a few pages, one of the things that struck me most was that the narrative could have been written from the point of view of a British, French, or American soldier: the daily experience of war, the suffering, was no different.

Nonetheless, this is also a novel with a close focus, shedding light on the impact of the war upon the ordinary Private—a member of the ‘lost generation’. Our narrator is the direct, albeit sensitive 19 year old Paul Baümer, who has enlisted in the army in 1914 with his friends, goaded, initially, by a sense of ideological patriotism, and the spirit of adventure. It is this scenario which gives Baümer’s story its particular poignancy. Emerging straight from their school classroom, these boys experience the harrowing transition from students to soldiers as they face the blood, mud and massacre of trench warfare. Friendship is certainly one of the most uplifting themes of the novel. Remarque examines the enduring camaraderie which could stop a soldier taking his own life, or which could carry him bleeding, a ‘splinter of shrapnel in the head’ through a hellish wasteland.

Baümer’s home leave is an especially intriguing part of the novel. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he is unable to reconnect with his past life. His family doesn’t understand him, and their sympathies cannot help him. How can they? War seems to exist in a time-zone of its own. Returning home from the front he gazes upon the books, notes and letters which he once treasured, now devoid of meaning for him; there is no redemptive power to be salvaged from those pages. They are merely shadows of his past self: ‘words, words, words-they can’t reach me…’

The final lines of the novel are damning, but not out rightly cruel. Remarque dwindles between exploring the degenerative effect of war and the solace of finding peace in death. Baümer’s first person narration then abruptly changes to the third person. This switch of pronoun hits us hard. Baümer is snatched away from us and from his narrative. He is no longer the observer, but the observed; he becomes an outsider to his own story:

“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so still and quiet…that there was nothing new to report on the western front”

After reading Im Westen nichts Neues I was left feeling restless, saddened and a little empty. I began to research Erich Remarque’s life, which is truly fascinating and gives us a new insight into his masterpiece. Remarque was born in Germany in 1898 and experienced first-hand the horrific ordeal of life on the Western Front. His account is honest and realistic. When the Nazis had risen to power, and 10 years after the publication of the novel, they stripped Remarque of his German citizenship and later executed his sister. Perhaps most shocking of all is that the Nazis banned and publicly burnt Im Westen nichts Neues, seeing it as a betrayal of the German soldier. His novel, testament to the supposed “the war to end all wars”, was thus cast aside only to give way to a second war of mass genocide. A hundred years on from one of the deadliest conflicts in history, I urge you to read Im Westen nichts Neues. Wartime heroism never tasted so bitter.

Will Britain and the EU Make it Work?

All relationships are difficult sometimes. One person wants commitment, the other not to be tied down. These divisions can grow over time, and eventually some relationships sadly fall by the wayside. The UK-EU relationship has certainly had its fair share of problems, but after enduring for 40 years the two partners should have reached an amicable plateau—regular bickering, the occasional screaming match, but ultimately with a strong foundation underneath. The reality however is than it its fourtieth year this particular relationship looks as fragile as it ever has before, and with a 2017 membership referendum a very genuine prospect, there will need to be a concerted and genuine effort on both sides to renegotiate, rebalance and prove to a generally sceptical British public that they shouldn’t sign the divorce papers.

As has become standard with British political debate, discussion of the UK and EU’s relationship is largely based on what are euphemistically described as mistruths and misinformation. Important to note is that this comes from both sides—for every UKIP member wailing about how all British law is now dictated by Brussels, there is a Brussels civil servant smoothly spinning that the EU seeks only the bare minimum of powers necessary to run the Union effectively. None of these statements is on their own correct, and if British voters are to be convinced to vote to stay in 2017, a great deal more honesty and openness will be required on both sides. There is a compelling case to be made that the European Union of today—in terms of size, scale and scope—bears little resemblance to the European Economic Community that the British public voted to join in 1975. Many of the changes that have been made have undeniably been for the better—improving efficiency, bringing down trade barriers and helping Eastern European states forge a post-Communist future. But what has been lacking with these changes is an honesty about what the European Union is moving towards, what its ultimate goals are in terms of integration and convergence. And it is this that has led levels of British euroscepticism to increase rather than subside as our membership of the EU reaches its fourtieth anniversary.

The benefits for Britain of membership of the EU are both extensive and difficult to exactly quantify—and as a result will represent the key battleground should a referendum on membership take place in 2017. Business leaders are almost unanimous in their support for continued membership—the nature of the single market makes operating across different European nations, even those with different currencies, immeasurably easier than would otherwise be the case. There is also more in the pipeline designed to increase European efficiency further—as extending the single market to services as well as goods would make it easier for service firms—from plumbers and electricians to lawyers and accountants—to operate on a pan-European basis. The cultural argument is equally strong—Britain should be proud to play its part in a Europe that is hugely strengthened by the interaction and cooperation of its members.

The benefits are obvious, the advantages clear, therefore what exactly is needed to keep this relationship together, to end Britain’s simmering euroscepticism and cement our place within a strong and united Union? The answer is a fundamental renegotiation of the powers that Britain cedes to the EU, a chance to review all that has changed since 1975 and, on an almost line-by-line basis, explore both whether it can be improved upon and—realistically given the political situation—whether it is palatable to the British electorate. The result may well be that the EU agrees to give up control over some areas of British social, justice and welfare policy—in exchange for maintaining the cultural and business benefits that make Britain such a valuable partner. What a 2017 referendum would do is limit the power of UKIP rhetoric, allow the public to understand our relationship with the EU outside of tabloid dramatics, and potentially put the issue of EU membership to bed for a generation. After fourty years of sniping and on occasion even open warfare, those potential benefits seem like a chance to start afresh and reposition Britain within the EU for the long haul. They seem like too good an opportunity to miss.

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.

La Poésie

« La poésie doit être le miroir terrestre de la Divinité, et réfléchir, par les couleurs, les sons et les rythmes, toutes les beautés de l’univers », Madame de Staël a-t-elle philosophé il y a des siècles.

At-elle parlé de pertinence économique ? Des ventes ? Ou de quelque chose de plus important et d’indéniable ?

Pour s’exprimer de façon vraiment sincère, pour raconter une histoire qui vient du cœur, choisissez la poésie.

On a besoin, en tant qu’être humain, de la beauté, de l’écriture dont l’apparence est aussi belle que le son est beau ; on a une capacité innée à apprécier ce qui satisfait l’œil comme l’oreille.

Évidemment, donc, la poésie, avec son rythme, sa forme, n’est pas que des mots, comme les millions de mots parlés partout dans le monde jour après jour ; la prose, des phrases sans structure rythmique délibérée, se laisse décrire ainsi.

Sans la poésie, comment indiquer définitivement qu’on ne veut pas parler à la tête et au raisonnement, mais à l’imagination et au cœur ?

Infiniment complexe, elle dévoile le caractère, les pensées, les émotions de son poète tout en s’infiltrant dans le lecteur : personne ne peut se cacher d’elle.

Elle nous captive, nous parle, nous émeut d’une façon que la prose ne peut que rêver de faire. Choisissez la poésie.

Shunned Exile to Shining Example: Jules Dassin’s Rififi 60 Years on

13th April 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the initial 1955 French release of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes) which, now regarded by many as a film noir classic, has continued to serve as an inspiration for filmmakers from François Truffaut and Stanley Kubrick through to contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino.

Renowned for its 28-minute heist sequence free from both dialogue and music and its innovative parabolic structure which places the heist at the heart of the film, Rififi is a seminal work in the film noir genre.

However, Jules Dassin remains anything but a household name; blacklisted by the American government in the late 40s and early 50s and with Rififi banned in several countries, Dassin both threatened the Hollywood superpowers and provided a shining example for the Nouvelle Vague, the film noir genre and numerous directors from all over the globe.

Born in the USA in 1911 to a Russian Jewish family, Dassin joined the Communist Party USA in his early 20s, only to leave after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, a non-aggression pact made between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Following WWII, Dassin began to make a name for himself as one of the principal figures in the film noir genre, yet his career in American cinema was soon to be cut short. His leftist political stance led to his being blacklisted under the McCarthyite policies of the American State Department, his denouncers were fellow filmmakers Ed Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle. Dassin then struggled to find employment as a director, the US distribution companies preventing the distribution of any film associated with blacklisted artists.

But, upon his return to Paris, Dassin was to have a remarkable change in fortune. Already recognised in France as one of the important figures in American film noir, the continuous rejection of Dassin by the figureheads of American cinema helped Dassin to find work; he was supported by the French directors’ guild thanks to French director Jacques Becker.

In 1954, Dassin was offered the chance to direct a film adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s novel Du rififi chez les hommes. Although disgusted by the cruelty of the novel and its inherent racism, Dassin accepted the job as he was in need of employment. Dassin wrote the screenplay in six days, changing much of the novel’s content, using the plot and its characters more as a starting point from which he could depart and create a film noir classic.

The distinction between the novel and the film could not be starker; a young François Truffaut, the now famous film critic and filmmaker, claimed that ‘out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen’.

He changed the nationality of the rival gangsters not to American, as the producers had hoped, but to French, albeit with the German name of Grutter.

Disliking the cruelty of the novel, Dassin placed an emphasis on the humanity of his characters; thus the film does not end with the heist but with its fallout, focussing on the relationships and fates of the gangsters after their betrayal by Cesar ‘le Milanais’ (played by Dassin himself).

Such an emphasis has influenced filmmakers ever since, most evidently the first feature film of Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs (1992), which neglects to show the heist scene altogether, focussing rather on its aftermath.

Dassin also focussed heavily upon the heist itself, which in fact played a minor role in the novel, splitting the narrative into three main parts: the build-up to and planning of the heist, the heist itself, and its aftermath.

In fact, it is impossible to discuss Rififi without mentioning that sequence: those 28 minutes sans dialogue or music in which Tony’s gang (Tony being the protagonist) carries out a meticulously planned theft from a Parisian jewellers. The tension is extraordinarily palpable. The music stops, not a word is spoken, the spectator desperately craves some form of sound to break the silence. Yet any sound is just as intolerable as the silence which it shatters: a stray note cast on a piano; the infrequent thud of hammer on chisel; the restrained wheezy cough of the sickly Tony; the prolonged outburst of a power-drill; the scratching, screeching and scraping of metal upon metal; the final, solid thump of a mallet.

The film can, to some extent, be read as an allegorical account of Dassin’s own exile: we learn that Tony has served five years in prison for theft, around the same amount of time that Dassin had been out of work; Tony’s betrayal by Cesar ‘le Milanais’ resembles the betrayal of Dassin by Dmytryk and Tuttle; the death of Cesar comes with Tony’s admission that he rather liked the Italian, echoing Dassin’s sentiments towards his fellow filmmakers; and Tony’s final heroic act is perhaps a symbol of Dassin’s accomplishment of having finally directed again, despite the attempts of the US State Department.

The parabolic structure of Rififi and, it must be added, Robert Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, changed the approach not only to film noir but to the art of filmmaking as a whole but it was Rififi‘s focus on the humanity and heroism of its underdog protagonist which served as an inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague and marked a distinction between the traditional film noir of the USA and that of France.

Nouvelle Vague critics such as François Truffaut used Dassin as a shining example of their politique des Auteurs, championing directors who used cinematic apparatus in the same way a novelist was able to use a pen.

Although reportedly banned in a number of countries (such as Finland and Mexico) for fear it provided a detailed and accurate account of how to plan and carry out the perfect heist, Rififi, along with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece Les Diaboliques opened up the American market to European film.

Despite Hollywood’s previous attempts to quash Dassin’s involvement in the world of cinema, Rififi was released in the USA in 1956 and was loved by the critics. The film won Dassin the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 and, despite attempts to lure him back to the USA (on the condition that he would renounce his communist past), Dassin stayed in Europe for the majority of his life thereafter, continuing to direct films until his last release, Circle of Two, in 1981.

Dassin died in Greece, where he had lived for over 30 years, at the age of 96 in March 2008.

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.

Translation: Sleep! by Mihai Eminescu

Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889) is hailed as Romania’s most important poet, his works are said to have revolutionised Romanian verse. Famous in his day firstly and fore mostly for being a journalist, he spent his life working as a substitute teacher, school inspector and newspaper editor in Iaşi, and later Bucharest. He belonged to Junimea, the literary society that counted many of the celebrated writers of the time as its members. Aside from being the epicentre of cultural life for about a decade, it is considered to have been the most influential intellectual and political association of the 19th century in Romania.

Eminescu’s political and cultural engagement made its way into his poetry, much of it being social commentary, and re-telling of historical events in verse. His years in Vienna were also hugely influential for his work: he attended Philosophy and Law classes at the University of Vienna for three years, and his interest in German philosophy, that of Schopenhauer in particular, can be noted in his verse. As an Orthodox Christian, his religion also proved to be a source of inspiration; nonetheless, much of his poetry plays with Buddhist, agnostic and even atheist themes.

Western Romanticism served as a huge influence in Eminescu’s poetry and the particular impact of his works could be compared to that of Keats, Shelley or Byron in England. Unfortunately, much like these celebrated poets, Eminescu also died young, at 39, due to mercury poisoning, while being treated for what doctors claimed to be syphilis. His death is shrouded by controversy, and various theories circulate about the potential causes for his premature death. He published only one collection of poems in his lifetime, with the rest (some 14,000 pages) being offered as a gift to the Romanian Academy in 1902 by the president of Junimea. The poem Dormi (Sleep) is representative of his poems about a beloved: a sensual mix of observing, longing and desire.

What is it that you fear? Are you not here with me?
Let the rain beat helplessly against the windows
Let the hopeless wind sigh in amongst the trees,
You rest, be still. You are with me here.
Why are you up and staring at the floorboards?
Startled and seemingly awaiting,
Your stare cannot pierce through them.
Or is there something you’re trying to remember?
Lean back against the pillows—I will give you peace.
You sleep- and let me stay awake.
When I am reading, I always like
To cast my eyes straight toward you from time to time,
To see you sleep…
I love to watch you
Breathing… so silent, your mouth scarcely open:
Abandoning my pen, I pull my hand away
And sad thoughts yield to stillness.
Beautiful you are, and all too beautiful.
The paleness of your face is marble.
I want to run straight to you
And as you sleep, contain you in my arms.
But then you’d wake… I do not have the heart.
Sleep peacefully, your head upon your arm.
From time to time I steal a glance toward you,
From time to time the book drops from my hands.
And I am content… Time pulses by
In clocks with rhythmic steps…
What is it that you fear? With me there is no fear.
If you won’t fall, I’ll have to make you… Sleep!

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.