Sunday, 26 November 2006

You did ask

In my previous post I said en passant that ‘I liked the Berlin Wall’ and someone expressed surprise and dismay. I was going to answer it was obviously a joke and since my post was about my being bad at geography it just meant that before the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the dismantlement of the USSR the map of Europe was much simpler and easier to commit to memory. But, it wasn’t a joke: it was a serious remark ‘masquerading’ as a joke.

Why on earth did I not rejoice – like everyone else, it seemed – when the Wall was knocked down and all those people freed themselves from the yoke of Communism? I try to be honest on this blog so I will tell you why.

This is why:

Because for every one German who was murdering Jews in the Ukraine during the war ten local people were volunteering to help with their dirty work and murder Jews in broad daylight.

Because Slovakia, under Jozef Tiso (a Roman Catholic priest), adopted its own version of the German anti-Jewish laws in April 1939, long before it was occupied by the Germans, and deported 70,000 Jews.

Because Hungary and Romania became Nazi allies very early on, in 1940. When the war was already lost, between April and June 1944 (D-Day was on 6 June), 435,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to concentration camps with the help of the local population.

Because Serbia was declared ‘free of Jews’ in 1942, thanks to the efforts of the government.

Because Lithuania had auxiliary military units under Nazi detachments.

Because there was a Latvian volunteer police unit that shot 26,000 Jews at various locations.

Because there were local Nazi collaborators in Estonia... Croatia... Bulgaria...

I cringe and feel queasy every time I hear any of those names on the radio or the television, and I would rather the inhabitants of those countries were still safely hidden away behind the Iron Curtain and I wasn’t aware of their existence so much. Anti-Semitism was never eradicated during the Soviet years but it wasn’t allowed to flourish, as it is now once again. The Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church too) has regained its influence over the population, and nationalist movements are getting stronger by the day. Hundreds of magazines are once again spreading anti-Semitic propaganda all over Eastern Europe.

In July 1946, i.e. minutes after the true horror of what had happened in Eastern Europe was revealed to the rest of the world, there was a pogrom – a pogrom! – in Kielce, Poland. Germany, where 44 per cent of the population voted for Hitler, has apologized and made amends. But the other countries haven’t and continue to deny their part in the Holocaust. If it’s ever shown where you live, watch the shocking Channel 4 series Holocaust, which recently broadcast hitherto unseen footage of Nazi sympathisers committing the same horrific deeds as their German counterparts. And if you haven’t seen it yet rent out Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and see how Eastern European peasants who lived a few miles from Auschwitz or other concentration camps acknowledge they knew what was going on and at the same time refuse to feel any remorse or shame about letting it happen. See how people live in houses still bearing Jewish insignia. ‘How did you get to move into this house?’ they’re asked. ‘The Jews “went away”.’

And, then, there’s France, where, before the war, my father had a business, a business that was taken over by the Vichy government. The first document below, dated 4 June 1941 and issued by the ‘Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives’, says that a Monsieur Georges (may he rot in hell!) has been appointed to manage my father’s business. The second document, dated 12 June 1941, says the business doesn’t belong to my father any longer and he’s now just a ‘technical adviser’. He must stop using any of his bank accounts immediately, give Monsieur Georges complete access to his premises and his account books, and provide him with any information he may need in order to manage the business. Furthermore, he must be at his disposal in situ until further notice.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Needless to say, my father left Paris at once and hid here and there for the duration of the war. By some miracle, he managed to recover his looted flat cum workshop several months after the end of the war.

I should cringe and feel queasy when I hear the words ‘France’ and ‘French’ – just as I do with the other names mentioned above, but I can’t: my father chose to stay in the country and that's where I was born. The French are only just starting to come to terms with the fact that, contrary to what they have told themselves and others over the years, they weren’t all in the Résistance and quite a lot of them in fact have a shady past. If you want to know more about the German Occupation in France, watch Le Chagrin et la Pitié by Marcel Ophüls, and listen to shameless ex-collaborators lie and try to justify their crimes.

Perhaps, in time, I will get used to hearing those names and stop wondering what the people concerned or their parents were doing during the war, but it’s still a bit too soon.

Addendum (28/11/06): I should probably have mentioned this before: I have a personal grievance against those unrepentant Eastern European Nazi collaborators: I'm not just outraged on behalf of other Jewish people or because I've seen film footage of what they did.

In July 1941, the Germans occupied a small town in Belarus, called Shklov. By the end of the year, they had killed almost all the Jews. Local fascists killed 6,000 men, women near the town. According to an eyewitness, ‘the children were put alive into a pit with their murdered parents and the pit was filled up’. My father’s family were probably thrown into that pit.

During the night of 13 July 1942, the inhabitants of the Rowno Ghetto (Ukraine), where there were still about 5,000 Jews, were liquidated. According to an eyewitness who testified at the Nuremberg Trials, ‘shortly after 22.00 hours the Ghetto was encircled by a large SS detachment and about three times as many members of the Ukrainian Militia.’ My mother’s family were probably among the people who were massacred that night.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Where am I?

I have this little book where I keep newspaper cuttings that have made me go, ‘I don’t believe it?’, and, since nothing majorly annoying has happened since Saturday (if you don’t count the fact that some more of my bathroom tiles have fallen off the walls; I did help by banging them with a metal bar, but they were holding on by a thread and threatening to land on my head while I had my next shower…), since nothing majorly annoying has happened since Saturday (thought you might have lost the thread by now), since nothing, no, I’m not repeating it again, I thought I would take out one of those cuttings and share with you something that stunned me recently.

Apparently, ‘more than 20,000 children in London do not know they live in the capital. One in five six- to 14-year-old British children cannot find the UK on a map of the world and one in 10 was not able to name a single continent. Boys had slightly better geographical skills, with 65 per cent being able to locate countries compared with 63 per cent of girls. Scottish children were the most geographically aware.’ (London Evening Standard)

I was never very good at geography; I’m still a bit vague on quite a lot of countries (I liked the Berlin Wall for all sorts of reasons) and there are some countries I don’t believe in at all, like Colombia. Don’t ask me why. It’s a quirk I have. Still, I do know where I am, most of the time, and when I was between six and 14 I knew I lived in the capital of France. After that, it became more complicated and confusing: a few years here, a few years there…

Slapping those British kids and myself for not paying more attention during those excruciatingly boring lessons!

Saturday, 18 November 2006

Being rude in an email is... being rude

I don’t work full-time as a translator any longer. The short deadlines I used to have to meet were killing me – literally. Until recently I was still doing three ‘big’ jobs a year, now I have only two left (hope I didn’t jinx them for next year): you may have read the story of how I lost the third one. Anyway, since those jobs aren’t enough to live on – far from it – I also update a couple of guidebooks a year for a well-known publishing company specializing in helpful tomes (they are rather big and heavy) for the ‘discerning traveller’.

In order to get up-to-date information, I email all the tourist offices mentioned in the guides and kindly ask them to send me their address, phone number, URL and opening hours. Things like that. I leave spaces for them to fill in the details and all they have to do is to return the email to me. Since I need to update information about hotels, restaurants, museums, etc., I also ask them if they would be so kind as to send me any brochures they might have, because, although everyone has a website these days, I’m not paid by the hour and don’t have the time to trawl the Internet and search through hundreds of sites that are all organised differently (some websites are very good at hiding info). Most of the tourist offices understand my predicament and send me loads of literature; I plunder it and write down anything that’s new, before phoning most places to find out what is still missing. There’s always something, but at least it cuts down on expensive phone calls abroad (they’re not paid for by my employers).

I am currently updating the guide to Provence. Last week I emailed the tourist offices and, as usual, mostly got wonderfully courteous responses from them, and a whole pile of brochures is at this very moment sitting my floor, ready to be taken apart by me.

I said ‘mostly’ because this is what I received a couple of days ago from the tourist office of a very very small place near Arles. The person (a woman) filled in (badly) the blank spaces in my email and added this – in bold red type – at the bottom of it, before returning it to me:

Un peu de perspicacité, de curiosité, de créativité, surtout si il s'agit d'enrichir sa culture personnelle et rendre son travail plus intéressant me semble indispensable lorsque l'on travaille dans le tourisme. A quoi servirait tous ces outils fantastiques mit à notre disposition (le dialogue, le téléphone, internet etc. …) si non à l'enrichissement personnel, à la communication avec l'autre, avec le monde ENTIER.

Il est bien plus facile de suivre la culture du pré-mâché, du pré-pensé et suivre le chemin de l'uniformité en recopiant les informations que j’aurais pris le temps de vous transmettre, car mon temps n'est jamais compté.
Avec toute mon compassion

It translates like this:
A little perspicacity, a little curiosity, a little creativity, especially if it means enriching one’s personal cultural knowledge and making one’s work more interesting, seems to me to be essential when one is working in the tourist industry. What would be the use of all those fantastic tools we have at our disposal (face-to-face communication, telephone, the Internet, etc.) if not for one’s personal development, for communicating with others, with the WHOLE world.

It is much easier to settle, like everyone else these days, for what is pre-digested, pre-thought, and follow the path of uniformity by copying down information that I would take the time to send you, since my time is never taken into account.

With all my sympathy

My jaw dropped when I read it. I was so shocked. I felt as if I’d been slapped. That woman doesn’t know me. How dare she assume that I’m some ignorant, lazy and narrow-minded person who is scared of new technology! How can anyone be so rude and patronizing?

I wrote back to her and told her who I was and what my qualifications were. She apologized. She said ‘culture’ is what matters to her most of all; she deplores the lack of it these days and she thought I was one of those people who didn’t have any. What, in my well-phrased email (in French, I hasten to add), with its correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, made her think that, I don’t know (especially since her email contains no less than six grammatical errors). Furthermore, the whole point about what I’m doing is that not much ‘culture’ is required: all you need is to be able to speak and write the language properly and be very thorough. I am not ‘writing’ the guide; I am just ‘updating’ it. Keep also in mind that it is November and that the village in question is most probably devoid of tourists at the moment so the woman is unlikely to be overworked and short of time. Anyway, she works in a tourist office, what else is she supposed to do but supply information about her village?

I’m sure she would never have said any of that to my face. Although she signed her name, she must have felt protected by the anonymity afforded by the Internet. That was what allowed her to behave in such an outrageous way.


Monday, 13 November 2006

Don't you dare!

As many of you know… oops, sorry, thought I was someone else for a mad second.*

In last Friday’s ES (the Evening Standard’s colour supplement), there was one of those made-up interviews that purport to reveal celebrities’ beauty secrets. It was Jane Birkin’s turn to tell us what she puts on her face to look so young, etc. As if we could believe anything she was supposed to have said; as if the products mentioned weren’t sponsoring the newspaper in some way; as if I cared what an aged nymphette, who couldn’t act herself out of a paper bag and who only acquired notoriety because she hooked up with a singing legend, said. Anyway, her parting shot was:

My best beauty tip is…
Smile and be happy.
Gee, as they say over there, thanks for the advice! Without it, I might have thought I needed to behave like a normal human being and react to any misfortune that might befall me in the usual way and be miserable for a while. But, no, now whenever something terrible occurs I will just put on my best smile and pretend it doesn’t affect me. This goes further than other similar crappy pieces of advice – like ‘Be positive’, for instance: it somehow says that one can be, and indeed is required to be happy, regardless of what’s happening in one’s life.

It’s so dismissive and patronizing. You say something to someone; they listen to you and go, ‘Never mind. Be happy!’ ‘Oh, OK, then!’

At least one person seems to have managed it: Nigella Lawson. She’s determined to find happiness at all costs. Bad things happen to her, but she always bounces back without a backward glance. I find it obscene. (I’ve already slapped her, for that among other things, so I won’t labour the point, but she does annoy me). I thought she was the only cold, calculating, heartless, er, woman, but it looks like she’s got disciples.

Don’t ever say that to me or I’ll slap you!*Women on the Verge of Thinking

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Un véritable scandale

Il y a quelques jours, j’ai lu, dans le journal, une nouvelle qui m’a complètement suffoquée : dans un lycée anglais sur cinq, l’apprentissage des langues vivantes n’est plus obligatoire. Que va-t-on enseigner aux élèves à la place ? Comment envoyer un texte au moyen d’un portable ? La meilleure façon de porter un capuchon ? Quoi ? Déjà que les langues mortes ne sont pratiquement plus enseignées du tout ; que le latin, qui est d’une si grande utilité sur le plan de la logique et du raisonnement, est tombé en désuétude, que va-t-il bientôt rester des disciplines qui produisaient jusque récemment des individus cultivés ?

Je ne vais pas énumérer les avantages qu’apporte la connaissance d’une ou de plusieurs langues étrangères : la liste serait trop longue et d’une trop grande évidence. Tout simplement, les langues étrangères ouvrent l’esprit, et si l’Angleterre persiste à se refermer sur elle-même de cette façon, elle ne pourra que produire des individus encore plus bornés qu’ils ne le sont actuellement.

Je ne sais pas comment les langues sont enseignées de nos jours : elles l’étaient assez mal de mon temps. Vers la fin de mes études, j’ai passé un an dans deux lycées anglais : les professeurs de français ressemblaient à mes professeurs d’anglais en France, c’est-à-dire qu’ils étaient un peu ennuyeux et n’obtenaient de bons résultats qu’avec les élèves qui avaient une aptitude naturelle et un goût pour cette langue. Mais, même les autres élèves, ceux qui n’avaient pas d’oreille et dont la mémoire n’était pas assez bonne pour retenir les règles de grammaire et le vocabulaire, même ceux-là avaient au moins un aperçu de la manière dont une autre culture fonctionnait et, au bout de six ou sept ans, il leur en restait quelque chose. Ils étaient au moins capables de commander une tasse de thé ou de café et de lire les étiquettes des produits en vente chez Marks & Spencer ou à Monoprix, quand ils venaient passer un week-end à Londres ou à Paris, de nombreuses années plus tard.

Un jour, je devais avoir treize ou quatorze ans, sur le chemin du lycée, je me suis dit, comme ça, tout d’un coup, combien j’aimais être capable de lire et de parler l’anglais. A l’époque, mes connaissances étaient bien sûr limitées, mais je me souviens d’avoir compris que ce n’était que le début d’un long chemin qui ne pouvait que se révéler de plus en plus intéressant et utile. C’est ce jour-là que je suis vraiment tombée amoureuse de l’anglais. Et, lui, il ne m’a jamais déçue.

Les imbéciles qui ont permis aux directeurs de lycées de mettre au rebus les livres de français, italien, espagnol, russe, etc., méritent une claque bien sentie!

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Guest Slapper of the Month X

I hesitated before asking GreatSheElephant to be my Guest because she does quite a lot of whingeing on her own blog, entitled, er, The Great She Elephant, and I thought it might be boring for her to come and kvetch on mine, but she said that being grumpy was one of her greatest pleasures in life - that and speed-dating (at least I think that's what she said; I may be wrong). Apart from living in overcrowded London and being freelance and loving pussycats, what she and I have in common is that we feel murderous on a regular basis. I was nodding furiously when I read her Slap. I bet you will too. Thanks, Jane!

Dirty pig

I’m at Leicester Square tube station, waiting for a female friend, when I see him. He has just passed through the Piccadilly Line barriers and he seems to be walking straight towards me. He’s handsome in a debonair, terribly English sort of way. No, let’s make that gorgeous. I can’t stop staring. Our eyes lock. Casually he reaches into a pocket as he nears me, brings out a piece of paper…

And as he walks past, he screws it up and throws it on the floor. “Pig,” I mutter.

In the novels of Carl Hiaasen baroquely awful things happen to people who litter, mostly at the hands of the deranged, bath cap wearing, heroic ex governor of Florida. In fact, for Hiaasen, littering is a signifier of a weak or often downright bad moral character and I can’t help feeling that he’s right.

So, to the business man on the Tube sitting opposite me who takes an orange from his briefcase, peels it, eats it and carefully leaves the peel on the seat next to him, I say, “Death by alligator is what you deserve.” If the orange complete is clean enough to put in his briefcase, why isn’t the peel?

Here, I must make a disclosure. I leave newspapers on trains when I’ve finished reading them. And I love to find newspapers on trains that other people have left for me to read. A copy of Vogue or Harpers would be nice occasionally too, maybe a good book. But not orange peel, water bottles, juice cartons, burger wrappers, salad containers and stinking, half eaten packets of chips, still smeared with ketchup.

Littering shows a complete disregard for others, a lack of consideration for others who share your environment. Litter isn’t just physical rubbish – it can be noise leaking from headphones, overly loud (and never interesting) conversations, the smell emanating from unwashed, undeodorised armpits during rush hour.

London may be one of the largest cities in the world but at the same time, it’s a small, crowded place and we all have to live here. Don’t take up more than your fair share of space and pick up after yourself.

Or my alligator will get you.