Sunday, November 11, 2007

French Horoscope

(Translated from Friday's Le Monde International Edition)

March 21 - April 19
Word of the day: Moisture

Just as red sea crabs fight epic underwater battles against blue crabs, so you must battle - against your own complacency.

April 20 - May 20
Soup of the day: Disguised Onion

A talentless pretentious obnoxious so-called film so-called director will sit at a table near you trying to flirt with a Japanese woman in bad English. A cute guy on the table next to you will flirt with the waitress you like and she will smile at him. The gay waiter will be the only one who smiles at you. Do you still want to go to the restaurant?

May 21 - May 25
Match of the day: Harlequins vs Wirral

The out of work actor is lying to you. He is paid handsomely to appear in sauce commercials. If you had a TV you'd know that.

May 26 - July 18
Your gemstone: Charcoal

Today is an auspicious day to read the book you bought when it was raining and you'd spent so long in the bookshop you felt you had to buy something. Start on page 8 and you'll enjoy it more.

July 19 - September 31
Your lucky cellphone: Nokia 3310

Don't try to commit suicide using electricity. Voltage is not fatal to you today.

October 1 - October 8
Au Gratin
Your lucky crab: Red

Confucious said, 'The child is the father of the man.' So don't call the police when you see an 8 year old spanking a 40-year old.

October 9
Your lucky number: Slevin

You will make a discovery. Not, like, gravity, or America. Something like 'your grandfather met Hitler' or 'red wine doesn't clean white wine.'

October 10 - December 31
Nouveau Gauche
Your lucky dead language: Latin

You are spending too much mental energy blaming your parents. Sure, you wanted to become a supermarket manager, but your parents were right to send you to mime school. It's time to pull on your tight black and white-striped sweater and pretend to be in a box.

January 1 - March 21
Your lucky ancient civilisation: Mayan

Plants can't grow without attention. Have you watered your relationships recently? Do it in the shower so your partner can rinse off.

March 22 - April 22
Fête Noire
Your lucky day: Yes

Finally, you will meet the man who has been writing about you. He's nice.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

English Rose vs French Femme Fatale

Part two of an extensive investigation into English attitudes towards France and the French.

My research into the differences between English and French women took to me Hleb Industrial Park in Devon, home of the National Stereotypes Union. "Tell me what to think," I said to a deskwoman. She picked up a leaflet, licked it erotically, and handed it to me.

It was a simple questionnaire, which I reprint here in part.

Anglo-Frenchal Female Characteristics Binary, version 2

You are hungry. There is an orange. How do you eat it?
a) Peel it first.
b) Leave the peel on and eat it like an apple.

Complete the sentence. "You can never have too many..."
a) condiments.
b) boyfriends.

wipe; stress; montage; blasphemy; pompous
Which word is the odd one out?
a) pompous
b) stress

Carrying your cat to the park is
a) vaguely sociopathic.
b) probably something the cat would enjoy.

Does the word 'artichoke' make you think about sex?
a) Yes.
b) No.

"Men seldom make passes..."
a) at girls who wear glasses.
b) at girls with fat asses.

When you were a girl, you wanted to be...
a) the Queen of France.
b) the Queen of England.

The test continues for three pages, and ends with:

If you chose mostly (a) you are English.
If you chose mostly (b) you are French.
If you chose an (a) and (b) equally, you are bad at maths. There are 31 questions. Think about it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

York 2007: Make Them Scream

The Ghost Tour

1. The Concept

C: "So the idea is: We wait till its dark, turn all the lights off, take them round the school and scare them."
K: "And at the end, we throw water bombs on them."
C: "They hate that."
R: "But how do you scare a child?"
C: "Children are scared of the dark. That's the main thing. And we hide and make scary noises and someone tells them ghost stories."
R: "Who's going to do that?"
K: "I think Andrew would be good at that."
C: "It has to be Andrew. The shit he comes up with is priceless. I don't know where it comes from."
R: "So I still don't quite get it. We get the kids - in groups? Yes? - and take them around the school. Andrew makes up stories. We throw water at them. The end."
C: "Yep. But they really do get scared."
A: "Okay listen. If you seriously want me to do this, then we have to do it properly."
C: "What do you mean?"
A: "I mean that if I'm bringing them round the school I want to scare them to death. I mean that my goal, literally, will be to scare the students so much that at least one student actually dies from the terror. I want creative control or I'm not doing it."

2. Brainstorming

A: "Right. So after the White Lady and the Zombie Room, I want to calm it down a bit."
K: "Take them into the grotto."
A: "Grotto? You mean the games room?"
K: "I call it the grotto because it's underground."
A: "What can we use in there?"
R: "The lockers! Get one of the kids to open a locker. Then when they are about to open it, just scream at them!"
A: "Can I get a foghorn? Maybe? And then we need a big finish."
K: "What about another White Lady?"
A: "What would be great is if we could get a big piece of meat shaped like an arm. And we could chain someone to a radiator and give him a saw and when the kids arrive he starts to saw his arm off."
K: "The meat would go bad."
A: "Think of the smell though. That'd be perfect."
K: "No-one wants to carry a rancid piece of meat about all day."
A: "Fine. I've got a better idea anyway. Have you noticed how Sasha's hair is sort of Japanese?"

3. Practice

A: "And then when we get up here I'll tell them about the girl who was trapped in the school waiting for a phone call, and we can make the phone ring and scare them."
J: "That's strange..."
A: "What?"
J: "Someone left the light on in that classroom. I'd better go check it out."
(When Jason and Lucy go into the classroom, I hide in the darkness.)
L: "Maybe it was me actually. That's my room."
J: "Where's Andrew?"
L: "Oh, no."
J: "He was just here."
L: "I don't like it."
J: "Andrew?"
L: "Jesus, Andrew, this isn't funny."
J: "Andrew! Where the hell did he go? He was just here."
L: "Andrew I'm going to kill you! Come out, now. Jason... What...?"
J: "This is really creeping me out!"
L: "I'm going."
(I hear them run away. I follow them down the corridor and use my key to unlock the library, which is never used. I wait. A few minutes later I hear Jason come back - with Keely.)
J: "He just disappeared. Seriously."
K: "This is so creepy..."
J: "I keep expecting him to jump out at me. He must be up there somewhere."
K: "Maybe he went-"
(I have crept up close behind them and suddenly shout 'JASON!' They freak out.)

4. Screams

The first group comes into the lobby. I ignore them. They are the youngest students, already worked into a frenzy after being forced to watch Scream. Some of them giggle at my bizarre makeup. Carolyn has painted my face white, with black Joker lips and an entire can of hairspray keeping my hair in a manic explosion. They stop giggling when I stare at them. Their apprehension is palpable.
"Before we begin," I whisper, "I must ask if any of you have weak hearts." Their eyes widen. "Are any of you taking medication? No?" I pause. Most of the students are already holding on to one another. "There has been a school here forever. Many students have come through those doors there... some have died. The Romans brought Death. The Vikings brought Death. The Plague brought Death. The War brought Death. This is a school," I tell them, "of Death."

We walk along a black corridor. I don't mention the White Lady. The students notice her walking through the door. Then Sabrina throws loads of spoons down the stairs and the noise is tremendous. The kids recoil but I force them up the stairs, where Sabrina - made up like a zombie - chases them down the corridor. The kids have been startled into a state of hyper-awareness.

"Come in here. Come in. Don't worry. Nothing bad ever happened in here." I think about what I have said. "Nothing... except for the zombies." I have turned the torch off so there is no light at all in the room, but I can sense the students shiver. I give them a narrow beam of light and very slowly lead them around the room as I tell the story.

"In 1919, a local man named George Lazenby began using this room. He had lost both his sons in the Great War. He cursed God and vowed to learn the secret of eternal life. He began to perform strange experiments, taking arms and legs from dead people and giving them to sick people to make them live longer. The results were amazing... George Lazenby became an international celebrity.

"In France, they called him George Le Zombie...

"But George Lazenby went too far... He began using children in his experiments, and police came to arrest him.

"They never found him...

"But the people of York believe that if you say his name five times he will reappear..."
(Some students plead, 'Andrew, no, no, Andrew.')

"Le Zombie... Le Zombie... Le Zombie! Le Zombie!! Le ZomBIE!!!"
Jason, unrecognisable in zombie makeup, impossibly emerges from nowhere.

5. Tears and Betrayal

I take the kids into the 'grotto' and turn the light off. They have a bit of a panic while I take a breather. I take a short walk and find a girl on the stairs, crying. In my head, I punch the air. I have scared a child.

I sit next to the girl and give her a little hug, and promise that there is nothing else in the tour that is scary. She sniffles, and nods, and seems to think about standing up, but then she notices the foghorn in my back pocket, and she resumes crying.

"This way. Come on." The students follow me, looking everywhere, alert for the danger they know is there. They know something is going to happen because I promised them it wouldn't. There is a lot of whimpering. We arrive at the end of a corridor. We hear something strange. It is a tape of Keely singing 'Ring a ring o'roses.' It is really creepy. There's an invisible bubble around the door, it seems, as the students simply refuse to go through. I push some of them inside. The others follow.

I shine the light around the room. "Oh...," I say, "There's nothing here. Unless it is around this corner." I gather the students so they can see and wave the torch around. They are aware of a shape at the far end of the room. Slowly I move the beam closer to the shape, and we see a flash of white, and more white, and the students relax. It's only the White Lady again. That's not scary at all. But something is different. The figure has long straight hair which covers her face, and I shine the light on something - yes - a baby. The students gasp. I move the light up towards the face, but very slowly.

"Who are you? Are you all right?" I ask. Some students have edged forward to get a better look. At exactly the right moment, the light hits the face, and the eyes open, and the head jerks back as the mouth opens and screams, and the creature runs through the students, and the students have turned into jelly. Scrambled jelly.

We have scared the children. They will have bad dreams. Maybe they will have flashbacks. It is extremely satisfying.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Moss Side Stories


York, Summer 2006

The kids stood on the roadside; Italians to depart, French to say goodbye. After 10 minutes of this, they progressed to the hugging and last minute exchange of emails. A mere ten minutes later they were told for the final time that this final time was really the final final time and if they didn't get on the coach they would have to walk back to Rome.

They wailed, they gnashed teeth, they got on the bus. As a final symbolic act, the most uncool Italian kid, the geeky twelve year-old with the bottlebottom specs, the one voted 'Most Likely to Be Bullied Forever', the only kid in the entire school uncool enough to actually want to learn English, wept bitter tears into the arms of the genetically cool 17-year old French heartbreakers, and their hugs were not sarcastic or forced, they were, to my astonishment, genuine and full of affection.

I stared ahead with my eyelids half closed. "Time for class," I said.


North Manchester, January 2007

"Andrew, it's Emma's leaving party this Friday. We'll go have some drinks, maybe some food. Are you coming?"
I stared ahead with my eyelids half open. "I'll go," I said.



The worst lesson I ever taught. The remainder of the group were French, all with tears in their eyes, wounds fresh and raw. The Italians had gone. Their friends had gone. Their reasons for living had gone. Nothing could console them. I stared out the window.
One French boy, a good kid in a group of good kids, his eyes red and his lips awobble, asked me if I wanted him to do any work. I showed him my journal, full of seemingly random words and dates and little pictures. A bed, a car, a matchstick Zidane. I gently explained how each picture reminded me of something that had happened. I began telling the stories behind each picture, and slowly more of the class listened to me, until they all together heard the story of the Big Hangover, the mystery of Junction 45, and why the word 'ashtray' reminds me of the World Cup final. I encouraged them to make their own diary, with cute little pictures, if they wanted. And if they wanted to cry instead, I wouldn't shout at them.

Then I stared out the window again.
"Teacher," said a boy. I turned to look at him. It was Éugénéménté, an intelligent, wilful, sensitive lad, who probably carried a note from his mother exempting him from playing rugby, but who probably played anyway and was quite good at it. "Teacher," he said, his eyes big with tears, "Don't you feel sad?"
His words overwhelmed me. He was saying, 'Andrew, you're not sad, you DICK. Why not? I know you should be sad. You've lost people you were close to, too. They were your friends who left. Is that what life does to you? Does it make you so sad you can never feel sad again?' And in that moment I felt as wretched as any time in my entire life, and tears filled the backs of my eyes. I realised if I cried then I would never stop.
"Éugénéménté," I said, "I have been to many countries and left many countries and met many people and left many people."

He looked at me and nodded, and he understood, and that was the only thing I ever taught him.


Manchester City Centre, January 2007

I looked at my mobile. Nearly midnight, and I had to go to Trafford. "I have to leave now," I told one of the ladies.
"Stay a bit," she said.
"No because there are no lights in my house and I have to go to my auntie's house in Trafford."
"What's wrong with the lights in your house?"
"They exploded."
"So? You can find your bed."
I motioned my hand forward, up, and backward, miming the route from my front door to the bed. "It's far," I moaned. I turned and looked at Emma for the final time. A vicious voice in my head said, 'You're a writer; write something to say to her.' Emma looked at me. "I have to go now, Emma." And having said that, I left.


Town Centre

There were no buses to Trafford, so I took the 42 toward my house in Moss Side. The bus was half-full of people who had left parties early. I looked out the window.



I felt my way into the bedroom and found a bag of fireplace candles. I lit one to
see the way, then blew it out in case it burned my house down during the night. My face was expressionless. I can't prove it, because I was alone and my lights had exploded. But if
there had been any lights, and if there had been someone watching my face for whatever reason, they wouldn't have seen an expression.

I got into bed and stared ahead with my eyelids half closed. 'Andrew', said a voice, 'aren't you sad?'

Monday, June 25, 2007

Polish Joke

Opole, a small town in Poland. Late 2006.


"I know a Polish joke," I told my students.
They sighed. "Go on," they said.
"It's from an old British sitcom called Yes, Minister. Very funny; superior writing. You'd like it. Well there's this one episode where there's some diplomats and one of them says to another, 'Hey, have you heard the latest Polish joke? Jaruzelski!'"
"That is not funny for us. It was a very serious time."
I tutted. It got a laugh on the BBC. "Fine. God. Tell me a joke then."
"We don't know any."
"Then that's your homework."


"Jokes. Go."
"There are two pigs eating from a..." He swept his hand sideways.
"Trough," I said.
"There are two pigs eating from a trough. One of them vomits into the trough. The other one says, 'Hey! Stop making more work for us.'" His fellow students giggled.
"Right. Interesting insight into a certain way of thinking. Ah, Evalina. Your joke please."
"Me? Okay. There is a man who borrowed money from his friend. He can't pay it back. He is worried. His wife says, 'Why are you worried?' He says, 'I borrowed money and I can't pay it back.' 'I will deal with it,' says his wife. His wife goes to the phone and calls the other man. 'Hello,' she says, 'my husband doesn't have the money. Goodbye.'" The class laughs furiously.
"Yes?" I said.
"What?" she said.
"Then what happened?"
"That is the end of the joke."

Monday, June 18, 2007

Disco Polo Polo vs Disco Polo Ruskie

Which came first, Disco Polo or Disco Polo Ruskie?

Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES are you to stop the video before you get to 3:01 (counting down). You must listen to the chorus or you will have bad luck for 10 days. And check out the SPECIAL EFFECTS at 1:17.


New Year
All our dreams will come true
We will remember the new year - all year!
Don't regret wasting candles

If you are planning to train to be a CIA operative or a professional chess player at any point in your life, see if you can pass this test of mental durability and concentration: You have to watch this video WITHOUT nodding your head in time to the beat.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Disco Polo

"How long have you been in Poland now?" asked Ola.
"Three months. Four. I dunno," I replied. "But I feel like I've learned a lot about Poland in that time."
"Do you know about Disco Polo?" she asked.
"No," I said.
"Then you know nothing."

Jestes szalona means "you're crazy."
'Boys' remain the highest-grossing artists in Polish history.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Life in Poland

Weirdness, part one

1) Chimney sweeps. There are chimney sweeps in Poland, and they transport themselves on bicycles. They wear a grey uniform and top hats. If you see one, you should hold a button until you see a woman wearing glasses.

2) Nuns. Are everywhere. I have seen nuns in Pizza Hut, shopping in Tesco, queuing for a bus, and eating an ice cream with two scoops.

3) Paying the bill. In a restaurant, if you say 'thank you' when you pay the bill, it means you don't want change. Polite foreigners beware!

4) Shyness. Poles are shy about speaking English. The woman who works in the baker's shop next to my school speaks English. But if there is someone else in the shop, she speaks Polish.

5) Politics.

One of Poland's foremost politicians is this man. At the 1:00 mark he is saying, "I have a mother, I have a brother. My daddy is dead. He is in heaven now." Later, he assures voters that if he is elected mayor of Bialystock, there will be no more drugs or crime.

The President and Prime Minister are twin brothers. Their party won the election after a religious radio station known as 'Radio Maria' told its listeners (predominantly elderly women) to vote for it.

Two Polish MEPs were accused of raping a prostitute. One of Poland's top politicians said, "You can't rape a prostitute." He was not fired.

The Minister for Education (and deputy Prime Minister) doesn't want gays to be teachers. He wants schools to fire them. A journalist pointed out that this contravenes European employment law. The Minister suggests headteachers "Just make something up then." The Minister looks like Frankenstein.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Great Brzegspectations

The conference room at the Besel electric motor factory in Brzeg is a comfortable, bright and clean space. It's the sort of room two countries would use to harmonise bra sizes, or a place where an actor could give a bitchy off-the-record interview with a gossip magazine.

In one corner is a stand on which sits a variety of electric motors - all seemingly identical but different in staggeringly complicated ways. On one wall is a map of modern Europe. Through the window lie the factory gates, where matchstick workers trudge home after their daily toil. My student sits opposite me. He has finished his shift but remains for 90 minutes to practice his English. My ignorance of engineering, Polish culture and Polish history delights him. He wants to tell me everything.

He typically talks for 89 of the 90 minutes - the perfect student. Once he starts talking he doesn't stop. He's like one of the machines in his factory. ('This machine,' says the foreman to the visitors from Warsaw, 'can pump out 15 English sentences per minute'). I choose my first question carefully, because it will be the topic I hear about for the next 45 minutes. But whatever the starting topic is, his mind is irresistibly drawn to Polish history, and the second half of the lesson he talks of Hitler, the Battle of Britain, Yalta, the Communist Era, but mostly Stalin - Stalin above all dominates his thoughts. The tangents that lead him to Stalin are remarkable. "Brzeg has a high unemployment rate. Under the Communists we had full employment. Of course, we also had Stalin." "This factory was bought by an Italian company. Stalin wasn't Italian."

But as he mentions Stalin, I interrupt.
"Rafal," I say, "I'd love to talk about Stalin again, but I have a question." His eyes widen slightly. I let the pause last for a few seconds. "You work in a factory and that. Electrics. I need a sort of adaptor thing, so I can plug my English things into Polish sockets."
He understands. He makes a phone call. "I know where you can get them," he tells me. I pick up a pen to take the address. "Let's go," he says.
"Go?" I am stunned. "Go to buy them? Now?"
"Yes, we should have time."

He drives me into the centre of Brzeg. We go into a phone shop. There is a queue. Rafal ignores the line and goes to the front. "Good day. This is my English friend Andrew. He needs a phone adaptor." This isn't going to work, I think to myself, I tried this already. It doesn't work - they don't sell them in that shop. The queue doesn't appear to resent me. We leave.

We race to another shop. On the way we are nearly hit by a blonde woman driving while smoking and putting on lipstick. She smiles at us. She has two children in the back of the car. "Did you see that?" asks Rafal. He stares at me for no less than ten seconds - while entering a roundabout. I have a vision of my mother being informed of my death. A man is telling her that my presence in the car was a mystery, and that the lorry which hit it was undamaged, though the driver dropped his phone after the impact.

I open my eyes and we are in a sort of general purpose electronic peripherals store. Rafal ignores the queue again, and the shopkeep hands him two plug adaptors. "They will solve your problem," the man says to me in English. Rafal insists on paying for them.

He drives me back to the factory, then drives home, twelve zlotys poorer. I roll the adaptors around my hand and wait for the other teachers to finish.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Opole Mio

Andrew Humiliates a Tramp

Copernicus Airport. Great name, miniature airport. It is located 9 bus stops away from the train station in Wroclaw. Whichever way you mentally pronounced 'Wroclaw' just then, know that it was wrong. W in Polish is pronounced 'V', C is pronounced 'TS' and L (with a line through it) is pronounced 'W'. Of course! So the city is called Vrotswav. Easy!

I asked the man at the information desk for some information. He looked terrified and went to get someone else. I had a look around. It didn't take long. Vrotswav's airport is bigger than my house, and probably bigger than your house, but not bigger than your house AND my house. I saw an ATM machine - necessary, as I hadn't brought any Polish zlotys (or xwafkas if you want to pronounce the currency properly.)

Another, taller, man came to give me some information. I needed to get bus 406. I thanked him, and for the next four minutes he watched me like a hawk as I tried and failed to get money from the ATM. I wondered if he would lend me some money. Probably not. Fortunately, a generous auntie had left me twenty pounds in a game of Monopoly so I had just about enough for the bus and train.

At the train station I joined a random line. Or was it random? My queue was full of stunning women. They were slow though, which gave me time to look at all the helpful English signs. Yes, that was sarcasm: there were no signs in English. I didn't have a clue what was going on or how to get to Opole. I started to panic slightly.

At that moment, a tramp decided to stand next to me. He poked me in the elbow, said some things, and finally started pointing into his mouth. His teeth were rotten and distorted, like a row of diseased trees, each of which has been repeatedly struck by lightning.

'Don't be touching me,' I said. 'Shoo.'
He wouldn't leave me alone. I stared ahead at the unmoving queue. He poked me again and repeated his curious gesture. Finger into the mouth. Finally, two girls behind me started to berate him. 'Leave him alone, he's a foreigner,' they probably said. I turned and realised they were pretty.
'Hi,' I said to the best one, 'Do you speak English?'
She giggled shyly. 'A little. Giggle.'
'Please can you tell him,' I pointed to the tramp, 'That I am not gay?'
It took a moment to sink in, and then the girls laughed, delightfully. To my surprise, they passed the message on to the tramp. 'He's not gay,' they said in Polish.
'Nie, nie,' said the tramp, then waved his hands in exasperation and moved on. One nil!
I turned to the hot girl. 'Can you help me get to Opole?' I asked.
'Of course,' she said.
She was delightful. I'd probably be married to her by now, if our first meeting hadn't involved me being really mean to a homeless man.