Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sporting Spectacle

Sure, France isn’t exactly known as a great sporting nation. This of course excludes what Aussies would call “European” handball, or just handball here. The French Women’s team just won the World Handball Championship last week – whoo hoo to you girls! Actually, the French men aren’t too shabby either having won the World Championships at the start of the year, beating. Ok they dominate handball.

Yes, I must also concede that they recently made the final of the Rugby World Cup too. Narrowly losing to the All Blacks (some say they should’ve won). Although, as at 19 December 2011 the International Rugby Board still places Australia above France at second and third respectively in world rankings.

However, what the French really excel at… is having fun at sporting events.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bubbles, bubbles and more bubbles

As synonymous as France is with baguettes (I prefer the ‘tradition’ style of bread personally), croissant, cheese, wine and foie gras….mmmmmmm cue Homer Simpson style drooling, perhaps its most famous export though would have to be Champagne. Real Champagne, none of this sparking wine stuff, but real bubbles directly from the Champagne region of France. What best way to indulge in the very beautiful liquid gold substance, then to attend a Champagne tasting. No ordinary Champagne tasting though, but a private event of Les Grand Curvées de Champagne. All in the name of blog research of course.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Wimoweh

From the south-westernmost point of the African continent to the corner where the borders of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana meet, dealing with African airlines that randomly cancel flights, passing through dodgy and dusty boarder controls whilst having exorbitant amounts of hard currency extracted from you under the guise of a ‘visa’, never sure of which country you’re actually in, visiting one of the natural wonders of the world, spotting elephants and hippos while sipping new world wine as the sun goes down, observing the vast plains from the river boat cruising down the Zambezi River - this was my “out of (southern) Africa” experience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fun and not-so fun

Signing up to do a marathon in Amsterdam on 16 October after having a French wine fuelled dinner with Ausssie friends a couple of months back was probably not the most considered decision I had ever made. Irrespective the number of my week day runs slowly increased and my weekend runs became progressively longer. However, during the same months, so did my professional work load, as did the number of injuries I was persevering with. My second attempt to train for my first marathon (the first being in Australia in 2009) was starting to look pretty shaky.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mission Report - Peru

Another Secret Squirrel mission, this time back over the equator into the Southern Hemisphere and my first foray as an agent deep in South America. The mission brief looked interesting. Pose as an Economist for an international organisation in the capital of Peru for a few days, and then undertake some serious high-altitude training, where I would travel through the Sacred Valley, scale a mountain summit, run downhill in the jungle, climb 1,600 steps before dawn, all in an attempt to secure the most revered gift of all. However, this was not before inadvertently falling in love with a man named Gastón, drinking cider at the highest Irish pub in the world and being involved in a 5 day Spanish language immersion group. Surely the makings of the best mission yet.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Saving the best for last

With some sadness, my triathlon season in France for 2011 is over. Whilst I’ve subsequently done some high-altitude training since my last French triathlon (more on that next week), it is coming that time of year where the mornings are darker and the evening sunsets are earlier. The summer sport of triathlon is being abandoned and winter is on its way. However, I couldn’t think of anything better than my final French triathlon hoorah being an Olympic distance event at none other than a 14th century French castle. Was I saving the best triathlon event until last? Would it be my best performance for the year?
 

Monday, August 29, 2011

My third ever

A couple of weeks have sufficiently passed and I think I can now safely say that I’ve recovered from my birthday celebrations. My third ever summer birthday turned into a four day event. Spontaneous early drinks, special  international guests, an apartment crammed full of people, a birthday cake, then ‘the cake’, and endlessly flowing champagne, all made for a memorable birthday.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tour de France

With the Tour de France well under way a couple of weeks ago, culminating of course in an emphatic win by a fellow Aussie - Cadel Evans, a group of Aussies (and one other)also set off at that same time for their own Tour de France. A four day cycling tour of the Loire Valley resulting in pushing the pain barrier for some, visiting a number of spectacular châteaux, various winery hydration stops, huge women beers vs small men beers, long lunches with carafe-loads of rosé,  strange green shots and an underground French night club. It was certainly a tour of France like no other.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Paris Triathlon

Only five days out from the premier race of the French triathlon season – the Olympic distance Paris Triathlon, my beloved Cervelo P2 time trial bike was still considered illegal equipment in the draft legal race. Not to mention that faulty spokes on my Easton Circuit wheels meant that I had no wheels to race on either, as yet another spoke randomly broke two weeks earlier, this time on my front wheel.  With two friends from Australia also arriving in days to compete in the race with me, I was cutting it fine to get to the start line.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aussie language lesson

Boucles de Seine was the scene of my second foray into triathlon in France. I was equipped with the mandatory three safety pins, I seared into my memory that I had to rack my bike by its saddle in reverse on completing the cycle leg, and that my race number must be displayed on my back whilst cycling but on my front whilst running. All the French bureaucratic administration was taken care of, it wasn’t going to distract or slow me in this race, nope.

So it was of course with much dismay, that after leading for two thirds of the race, that I stood a metre from the finish line prohibited from crossing it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mission Report - Mexico

Yet another secret agent mission - this time I land deep in the sprawling metropolis that is Mexico City, under the cover of darkness, shrouded by the throng of its 20 million inhabitants I am to execute one of the most demanding covert operations to date. My mission objective is expressly clear: seek and capture evidence of the existence of the elusive and revered Mexican deity. Worshipped by the select elite upper echelon of society; was it simply a myth, or was there a much deeper conspiratorial truth to uncover.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

A French Storm

Her skin was velvety, so smooth and shiny. Her physique was voluptuous, with curves in all the right places. Her feet were dainty and perfect. Best of all, she was just so sweet on the inside, maybe even a little nutty. I was reasonably chuffed with her!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Your assistance required

Dear Sir/Madam,

My name is Mr Moses Odiaka. I work in at Union Pension Fund of Nigeria, in Abuja Nigeria. I write to you in respect of a foreign customer with a private pension account. His name is Engineer Manfred Becker. He was among those who died in the recent demonstrations following the election win of President Goodluck Jonathon.

Since the demise of this our customer/member, Engineer Manfred Becker, who was an oil merchant/contractor, I have kept a close watch on the deposit records of his pension account and nobody has come to claim the money in this account as next of kin for the late Engineer. As such, I beg your indulgence and request your assistance to come forward as next of kin. This is a time critical situation. It is believed that a delegation from the OECD in Paris has recently arrived in Abuja to hold talks with the Nigerian Pensions Regulator and in that delegation is a covert Secret Agent.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Good, Bad, Ugly

The first race of the Paris triathlon league was run last Sunday 1 May, on a gloriously pleasant day in Étampes, which is about 45 kms south of the city. This also marked my first triathlon in France and my first race in four months. As it seems customary for me, competing in the triathlon was not simply about doing the race, non non mon amis, it also involved me undertaking my first driving experience in Paris, navigating the haphazard race day logistics and almost getting disqualified from the race on no less than three separate occasions.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Parlez-vous anglais?

Happy Easter,-   Joyeuses Pâques,- Sretan Uskrs,- Христос воскрес!!

English, French, Croatian and Ukrainian are all languages that I’m using to varying degrees and ability at the moment. However, arriving in France not speaking a word of French, I can see now, was a very brave thing to do. Being a debutante, a beginner/novice, has presented many hurdles and challenges, like the time I mistakenly told a waitress in a cafe when she asked if I wanted anything, “I’m learning a boyfriend” I said as I smiled.

Later in one of my many French language classes I came to realise that I had used the wrong verb, and should have used  attendre, waiting, instead of apprendre, learning, and that for friend it would be un ami  as opposed to mon ami. Here I’ve been gallivanting around Paris calling everyone my girlfriend or boyfriend. That might explain a couple of the strange looks.

By far learning French has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It has been a very long time since I’ve had to learn something completely new, where I have no prior knowledge, not even an inkling to rely on. Even my postgraduate degrees were easier than this.

At the moment I’m taking 8 hours of French a week. A class at work, two classes after work and a session with a private tutor, and it’s still tough going. My reading comprehension is coming along the best because I pick up a free newspaper everyday and try and read at least one article. Not to mention that many words in French are written either the same way or very close to English. But it’s the speaking part and the sentence construction that is taking time.

For someone who has spent most of her adult life either working in a job where I have had to be articulate: University Lecturer delivering presentations, Principle Analyst writing reports, or an armature blogger, and most definitely a general non-stop chatterbox, I now feel that I have had a piece of masking tape stuck across my mouth for the last 3 months and it feels completely debilitating.

I feel like I’m two-dimensional, “ I am Australian, I  am an Economist,  I live in the 15th arrondisement” is all I can manage, I feel ignorant and worst of all illiterate. French people don’t know me as the girl who is a cheeky smartarse, willing to have a ‘discussion’ about anything, tells a story that has to start back from the time I was 6 years old, or the girl that is full of useless trivia. Well at the moment they don’t, and I’m thinking it’s going to take some time.

Coliseum - Pula, Croatia
I went to visit my Aunty and cousins in Pula, Croatia for Easter. Prior to leaving I had thought that my Croatian wasn’t all that good. Although it came as a pleasant surprise when I arrived that my comprehension was probably up around 80%. It felt comforting to be in a foreign country and actually understand the people around me.

 I think learning French and using that part of my brain has actually helped improve the other languages I know, particularly Ukrainian. When I’m searching for a word, or when I associate French words, often Ukrainian pops into my head. I guess this is understandable considering this was the first language that I learnt, and not English, despite interestingly my mother being school teacher – clever on her part. I even found myself waking myself up from talking in my sleep (I told you I was a non-stop chatterbox) and I’m actually speaking Ukrainian. That hasn’t happened in a while.


The Family - how did I turn out to be so short then?

So there I was in Croatia, trying to convert my oui  to da and my merci  to hvala, which unexpectedly came naturally. Hanging out with family during the holidays was also nice, as was the plentiful yummy food. Having both of my first cousins there, Zeljko and Ivica, with the eldest cousin, Ivica arriving with his family, was great. Particularly to have three generations in the one place. It was also good to get a little English reprieve on occasion with my second cousin Rino, where we’d wonder down to the local cafe telling my Aunty (his Grandmother) that we drank  samo espresso, only espresso coffee thus needing to go for these walks.


Rovinj, Croatia

Having my cousin Zeljko there also, who now lives in London and had only visited me a few weeks before, was like seeing a brother, I brother I don’t have. I also trust his tortoise style driving that happened to beat the hare like driving of his brother after we took a day trip to Rovinj on Easter Sunday. Both of which would have to be better than their mother, my Aunty, who true to form, scared the bejesus out of me when she picked up from the airport, as she did the last time in late 2009, this time bumping into the car behind her when she reversed from the parking spot and again driving on the wrong side of the road. I think I’ll drive next time thanks  Teta, molim te.

Enough cakes - you think?
Easter was filled with great Croatian cuisine. Arambaš, is my favourite which are traditional cabbage rolls filled with mince meat (no rice) from my dad’s hometown of Sinj, near Spilt on the Dalmatian coast. We also enjoyed a variable array of kolaci, cakes, both Croatian and Italian, given that Pula is close to the Italian border and my Uncle works there during the week. Although the Croatian wine simply can’t compare to the French wine I’ve grown accustomed to.

I was also able to catch up on my Croatian reality TV, namely Croatian Idol where the female judge has the most amazing ice blue eyes I’ve ever seen – check it out. They are her real eye colour my cousins assure me. I also tuned into the Balkan Big Brother...yes, Big Brother still lives on somewhere in the world. I say Balkan, because this version includes people from all the former Yugoslav countries with the exception of Slovenia (Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Macedonian). FYI – one of girls is openly cheating on her husband with a 22 year old opera singer who surely plucks his eyebrows and uses eyeliner. Oh and she has a 2 year old daughter for good measure. Slavica was kicked out on Sunday night and she has the most enormous hooters I’ve ever seen, and she did some unnecessary, but amusing, running on her exit from her house – check it out.

However, my visit to Croatia was short one, and I arrived back in Paris to a glorious spring day, reminding myself that was oui and not da. Every time I’m away, even just for a little bit, I feel like it takes me a couple of days to tune my ear back into French. I’m only catching perhaps every 4th word at the moment. What makes aural comprehension hard is something called la liaison which is when the French run the ending of the previous word to the start of the next word, which changes the way that would sounds when pronounced. This only happens if the beginning of the second world starts with a vowel and the previous word ends in a consonant. For example, les enfants, the children, would be said “lay-zohn-fohn” as opposed to the worlds if pronounced individually would be “lay” and “ohn-fohn”.

In addition to this, the French are staunching protective of their language. Meaning that they try to keep it as ‘pure’ as possible with no foreign words infiltrating the language. So the word for computer for example, is not simply ‘computer’ with a European accent as it would be in many other countries in this part of the world but ordinateur. Further, French sentence structure is incredibly formal and verbose. You can certainly be a lot more succinct in English.

Like with everything when you are learning something new, you have some good days when it clicks and you’re remembering your, albeit, limited vocabulary and there are bad days where I’m ready to burst into tears at the post office because I can’t explain I want to send a package to Australia. I’ve just have to persevere with it. My trip to Croatia did teach me something though, and that’s just to get out and have a go at speaking. Sure I’m going to make mistakes...lots of them, but as long as I’m sort of understood that’s all that matters. Apparently my accent when I speak French doesn’t sound Australian at all but Easter European. The French do, however, make a point of suggesting they don’t understand you if for example, you say a vowel in slightly a different way. Ah well, so be it.

À bientôt!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fearing my first

“Fear is a great motivator” a friend once told me, and it has certainly proved true on many occasions in my life. Most generally it’s when I’ve left studying for exams or completing various Masters’ thesis/assignments until the last minute before they are due.

So following true to form, I’m once again motivated by fear. I’ve really have to get a wriggle on as I don’t have long now.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Familiar Friend

There comes a time where the people you meet consistently are no longer strangers, they are no longer new people who’s personalities, attitudes and opinions you don’t know, rather you embrace and are accepting of. There is a point at which these people become your friends and their presence is familiar and comforting. Last weekend my Croatian cousin, who lives in London, came to visit me. Family provides yet another level of familiarity based on an innate sense of connection through heritage. However, his visit made me realise that I now have another very dear familiar friend.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Holy Grail

You would be sorely mistaken if you thought you could get a good cup of coffee in Paris. A city that has a cafe virtually on every corner, serves the most atrocious excuse for a coffee I’ve ever come across in my life, after the American’s that is. I’ve even had outstanding takeaway coffee in an airport...albeit it was in Venice. I knew I was up against it before I arrived. My keen interest, ok ok ‘keen interest’ is being somewhat diplomatic...”My name is Taliya and I am a caffeine addict”...there!...my addition lead to watch a documentary made by a former World Barista Champion, who happened to be Australian, and his tour of the globe in search of the great cuppa. It is he who warned me years ago that I would be bitterly (quite literally) disappointed with the standard of coffee in Paris. So my search for the perfect coffee has now become a quest for the Holy Grail. Does it possibly even exist?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mission Report - Jordan

Jordan Mission outcome – outstanding success!

Following the safe return to Agency HQ in Paris, the Jordan mission achieved its objectives of collating and disseminating critical knowledge and data with key international operatives, whilst also undertaking reconnaissance in strategic locations including Mount Nebo, Madaba, Petra and the deserts surrounding Wadi Rum.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Agent C

This week I officially became a resident of France and I have a card that proves it. Perhaps the last few weeks were a test of my commitment, will, strength and ultimate patience to truly become a Parisienne. I’m no ordinary resident however, “non, non, Madame ou Monsieur”, I’m an International Woman of Mystery...a Secret Agent if you must, and I have diplomatic privileges!

My day job where all my Secret Agent covert research and training is undertaken is at the Organisation of Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD). The mission of the OECD is to promote the economic and social well-being of people around the world. It does this through research and policy development. Whilst it’s a long and convoluted story of how I came to be here, let’s just say that I’m a double-agent as I still belong to an Australian Federal Government Agency. My cover (job title) at the OECD is Economist / Policy Advisor, however, for all intents and purposes, I am actually quite truthfully internally referred to as an Agent of the OECD.

OECD HQ is in the prestigious 16th district of Paris where a lot of Consulates and Embassies are also housed. It’s also where little Parisian woman in fur coats donned with red lipstick swoon around with their even tinier dogs...mind the dog poop on the footpath!


OECD exterior fence

Gaining access to the OECD HQ is like getting into MI5 in London, I’m sure. The OECD works very closely with the G-20. The Group of 20 (G-20) Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors bringing together systemically important industrialised and developing economies to discuss key issues in the global economy. So the work and information of the OECD is highly protected and quite sensitive.

Walking into work each morning is like the opening sequence of each episode of ‘Get Smart’, the 1960s TV sitcom about an American spy agency called Control, and its nemesis, presumably Eastern European spy agency called Kaos. I have to pass through no less than 3 series of doors, each one having to close behind me before I am able to access the next one. Although, it’s not as simple as being in an airlock chamber, no, I have to stand specifically on a green dot on the floor. If I disobey the strict instructions of standing on the green dot then a French security guard gets onto the PA system and instructs me in stern French to stand on the green dot. What the green dot actually does, I’m not sure. It could perhaps be similar to a full body scan, ala, ‘Total Recall’ perhaps.

The green dot

The security doesn’t stop there. I must wear my Agent badge at all times. This is necessary if I want to access one of two secret tunnels under the building in order to reach the Château across the road. The Chateau is where the offices of the Secretary-General are. The Secretary-General is the head of the OECD and is like  a mythical figure that people fear and respect, that is never seen but sends important communiqués to ‘his people’ that must be followed. I shan’t liken it to one Asian peninsular that is equally mysterious and is closed the outside world.

Secret Tunnel 1


I travel the secret tunnel each day and I have had the privilege of attending one soirée in the Chateau for our Directorate (the secret division I work in) where I had the pleasure of indulging in fine champagne, the most amazing canapés and the biggest table of the most veritable selection of cheeses you’ve ever seen.







The Chateau - view from my office

Working as the OECD means that I am also officially a diplomat – my residency card confirms this! This only makes sense since I’m a Secret Agent of course, and I require diplomatic privileges. Whilst, I don’t have any ‘immunities’, well sort-of, parking fines are not a problem apparently, my privileges are beneficial. I am able to obtain a visa for any country in a matter of days. I have my own bank teller at the branch of my bank and I don’t have to queue ever! I receive preferential treatment by most community service providers, such as the police, and I can also get special diplomatic licence plates should I want to, so that way I can hoon around town not really having any regard to the applicable road laws...or so I’m told. 



My attache for the dead drop

Whilst being a diplomatic Agent for the OECD I am required to go on ‘missions’. Missions are where OECD Agents meet with local agents and their global counterparts at conferences and seminars, to discuss the espionage work of the OECD and other international organisations. The mission may include a ‘dead drop’ where whilst in a secret location materials can be left in concealment for another party to receive. This may require the use of my attaché that I obtained through a counter operative during my Mission to Turkey in late 2009.

My next clandestine mission, which I’ve chosen to accept, is for me to fly out to Amman Jordan this Saturday.

The Eye, in our Reconnaissance (security) Division sent the following communiqué to all Agents travelling on the mission to Jordan.

The advice has not changed although sporadic anti-government demonstrations are likely to continue in the short term.

Last Friday was the seventh consecutive Friday of protests in the country. At least eight people were injured in Amman. Although anti-government demonstrations have been taking place for several weeks, this is the first time that violence has been reported. The development suggests that tensions are rising.

While rallies to date have not been on the scale of those seen recently in Tunisia or Egypt, and opposition groups continue to call for reform rather than the overthrow of the monarchy, these gatherings could grow in size and intensity should the new government appointed on 1 February fail to deliver on its various promises. Protests are likely to be largest following Friday afternoon prayers, and may be held in the capital and other urban centres. A significant police presence and possible traffic restrictions should be expected in the vicinity of any such gatherings.

We continue to monitor the situation and should you require any assistance during your mission please contact us immediately.

The mission to Jordan will also include a ‘cover stop’ (i.e. a stop made whilst under surveillance to provide an ostensibly innocent reason for visiting the said target destination) to Petra – the historical and archaeological city in the Jordanian governorate of Ma’an.

During my mission to Jordan I will go deep undercover so as not be compromised and will need to maintain communication silence.
My residency card

However, on return from my mission I will provide a fully debrief in my Mission Report detailing the operations that I successfully executed.

Til then...

OVA & OUT!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Never Smoothly

Who would’ve thought that a simple weekend outing to IKEA would turn into one of the most arduous, emotionally draining, physically painful, soul destroying experiences of my life…and this is coming from no softy but a triathlete. Not to mention I narrowly avoid death on not one, but two occasions.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Same, same, but different

I’ve moved to a smaller city. That’s right, Paris is smaller than Melbourne.

Paris has a population of 2.2 million people, as compared to Melbourne’s 4 odd million. It also only has an area of 105 km2, and now that I’ve lived here just shy of a month, you actually do feel how small the city is and how accessible everything is. Melbourne on the other hand has an area of 8,806 km2, and therein lies the technicality. The Parisians are very particular about this too!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Colonel Mustard

There is a vast array of venues in Paris to get suitably tipsy in. You can choose from cafes and bars, which serve a variety of drinks and snacks, bistros which are small bars often family-run, serving local and traditional dishes and brasseries, which are usually larger and noisier. Last Friday night I found myself at the Brasserie Triadou Haussmann, or so the Police report reads.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chocolate and Lemon

I slipped into the country with a simple “Bonjour”, a smile and not even so much as a raised eyebrow from the French Customs Official.

This may not seem that remarkable, if it weren’t for the bureaucratic, lengthy and arduous process I had to go through to get my French visa prior to leaving Australia. Following several letters from my prospective French employer and the French Foreign Ministry, a must-do personal visit to the French Consulate in Sydney, where I even digitally fingerprinted, the Custom Official didn’t even see my visa!