Monday, December 21, 2009

'Je suis Erasmus, je comprends pas'

‘Belgium? A year? Are ya sure ya wanna do that?’

‘You’re gonna get so fat from eating all that chocolate!’

‘Belgium?...Brussels ya?’

‘Why can’t ya just be normal and go to France?’

Some people had their reservations when I announced that I was heading off to spend a year in Belgium. It wasn’t that they had anything against the country; they just didn’t know that much about it. It made chocolate, housed the Europe Union and it had a lot of beer. Oh, and Colin Farrell hated the place in the film ‘In Bruges’. But that was it really. So after saying my goodbyes as if I was leaving for the Moon, I set off armed with a suitcase, an address and a dictionary. A plane, two trains and many questions later, I found myself in a big, empty, dust-covered bedroom. Home.

If I had known then what I know now, as someone important once said, I would not have felt so worried or nervous. I wouldn’t have bought a new pair of shoes to wear going ‘clubbing’ either. (I write ‘clubbing’ because I was still ignorant of The Bunker’s grandeur). In any case, it is fair to say that I have never felt as alone as I did that first night in Namur. The ridiculously happy marine-themed duvet cover I had been given at the housing service only served as a taunting contrast to the thoughts running through my head. ‘Belgium? What was I thinking?’

Three months later and a lot has changed. The duvet still remains but everything else is generally more upbeat too. With the necessities, from food to friends, now more or less in place, I can relax and take it all in: the new, the unknown and the distinctly ‘unIrish’. So now that I’ve finished the first semester, have I achieved all I aimed to? Yes and no. However, I have also learned things of which I would otherwise have remained quite ignorant.

What struck me very early on was just how much of a blessing and a curse it is to come from an English-speaking country. On the bright side, I can take comfort in the ancient Anglophone proverb of ‘If the foreigner does not understand you, repeat yourself again and again in a louder voice until they do’. That said, it would be nice to pick up a bit of French, something which can be hard when everyone who can string together ‘hell’ and ‘o’ seems to see me as the perfect opportunity to brush up on their English skills. My new line of defence in such situations is now ‘Je suis irlandais mais je ne parle que gaélique.’

Fortunately, my classmates have been extremely understanding in this regard. They are kind enough to listen as I stumble and mumble my way through a massacre of their language, allowing me to gradually improve. While I am still a long way from perfect, my progress is largely thanks to their patience. At the same time, their ability to come to my rescue with a translation or explanation whenever I am in need highlights for me just how poor we English speakers generally are when it comes to speaking foreign languages.

Seeing as I study French back home, the language was always going to be the priority for me. It’s not the only thing though. It can be interesting to sample the local cultures and habits from the outsider’s perspective. For example, it took a while for me to acclimatise to the different student night life. Gone are the days of a shower, a shave, a clean shirt and a night club. Now it’s more dirty jeans, disintegrating shoes, a hoodie and...The Bunker. It was difficult to get into the swing of things on my first night in this Mecca of Namurois students. It was even harder the next day when I tried to explain the night to a friend on the phone:

It was in this big sort of car park place...but it’s not a car park, it’s just a big empty room and its filthy and everyone’s way too drunk and there were people getting sick and p*ssing against the walls and...but it was class!”

One of the major perks of being an Erasmus student is that socialising can now be counted as studying. So long as I am speaking French, a night out can be as beneficial as hours spent with my head in the books. This does wonders for a guilty conscience.

While doing such ‘study’, the magic powers of the phrase ‘Je suis Erasmus’ have become quite clear. Just like the ‘Forget about it’ line in the film ‘Donnie Brasco’, there are multiple meanings to these three little words. It can be ‘Help! I’m lost!’ or ‘Yes, I am going to skip you in the queue’ and quite often ‘Even though I’m only paying for two beers, we both know you’re going to give me three’. Failing that, there’s always Plan B of ‘Je suis irlandais’. One or the other usually works.

So four months down, six to go. All in all, I can’t really complain. Hopefully, I will be saying the same in June. I would like to imagine that I will be speaking a bit more French, that I will have made some good friends and maybe I might finally have got the hang of this ‘kissing people to say hello’ thing too.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

An Gaeltacht

The term « Gaeltacht » is the Irish-language word which refers to the parts of Ireland where Irish is still the vernacular.
The main Gaeltacht regions are the County Galway (including Connemara, the Aran Islands, Carraroe and Spiddal), the County Donegal and the Dingle Peninsula. Smaller areas of an Gaeltacht are Cork, Waterford, Meath and Mayo.

At various times of their history, the native Irish were dispossessed from their rich lands and pushed towards the infertile western seaboard.
The maps below represent the evolution (or rather de-evolution) of these regions during the 20th and at the beginning of the 21st century. To remedy to such a situation, new political measures have been put in place. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht affairs, who acts jointly with the regional government agency Údarás na Gaeltachta, sets itself the following targets:
- To promote the cultural, economic and social welfare as the main source of the living language
- To promote the reversal of the decline of Irish as principal means of communication in the Gaeltacht
- To promote the extension of the Irish to the whole country
- To promote the tourism in this area given some aspects such as the Irish language, the distinctive culture reflected in music, in the songs, dances, etc.

Irish is officially the first language of the Republic of Ireland, English being the second one. Theoretically, every official document should be rendered in both languages, but it is most of the time only available in English. In 2003 the Official Languages Act was signed: it provides a statutory framework for the delivery of services through the Irish language.

An important factor of the aforementioned decline of the language is the fact that many Irish-speaking families tend to encourage their children to learn English, which is the language of education and employment. Another one is the movement of English speakers into the Gaeltacht regions, but also outwards, some native Irish-speakers leaving with English-speaking partners.
As a consequence, many now fear that the true Gaeltacht might be on the verge of extinction. However, active groups of speakers created their own Gaeltacht regions abroad namely in Britain, Canada, North America or Australia.

Vinciane Pirard and Cécile Leclercq

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Coca–Cola is a soft drink sold by the Coca-Cola Company. This American brand is seen as one of the most important symbols of Americanism.
It was invented in 1886 by a druggist, John Pemberton, who wanted to find a cure against stomach aches. The name Coca–Cola comes from some used ingredients: the coca leaf and the caffeine of the kola nuts. Its flavour is based on sugar, orange and lemon extracts and vanilla. Since 1980 Coca-Cola has no longer changed the recipe of the fabrication of its products. The formula was determined in function of Pepsi’s drinks which were according to surveys preferred. This has lead to a huge competition between both brands.
Coca-Cola is a big company, it consists in different brands: Coca-Cola but also among the most famous Fanta, Sprite, Minute Maid, Chaudfontaine, Dr Pepper, Nestea and many more. It also consists in a lot of tastes (like Coca-cola lemon, vanilla, raspberry and so on) as well as low-fat variations of the original one (Diet Coke, Coca-Cola Zero…).
The slogan of this year is “Open happiness” but it changes almost every year. The marketers try to find a link between the product and the social events and their repercussion on the people’s mood. For example, Coca-Cola compared itself after World War II to a member of a family whom everybody is happy to see again after years of absence and suffering.
The American brand continually insists that it is the best refreshing solution.
If you look around you, you will see that Coca-Cola is omnipresent in our everyday life: in stadiums, restaurants, magazines, at parties or events, on clothes… And you are going to notice it more and more because of the Christmas period. Indeed Coca-Cola is present at special events such as parades. And if you are a real fan you can even go and visit the “Coca-Cola” truck. It will soon travel trough Belgium.

Valentine Etienne and Maite Moriaux


Pimm’s is a famous cocktail in England, which can be made in different ways.

There are indeed six different sorts of Pimm’s which contain different alcohols. You can find Pimm’s based on gin, Scotch whisky, brandy, rum, rye or Vodka.

Everyone in England knows about Pimm’s cocktails. They are as common as British tea! Where does this tradition come from?

Once upon a time, James Pimm produced Pimm’s. When he woke up one morning in 1823, he did not know that the brevage he was about to invent would become the greatest cocktail in England, ever. James owned an oyster bar in London and began to serve this fabulous drink made of gin, quinine and a secret mixture of herb. Pimm’s was said to aid digestion. Pimm served his cocktail in a special tankard, commonly known as Pimm's No. 1 Cup. Gradually, Pimm’s expanded: several years after its creation, the alcohol began to be sold in bottles to others bars. Pimm’s No. 1 has so much success that its creator decided to expand the brand by introducing two other drinks that he named after it. Pimm’s No. 2 and No.3 were born. Their difference was in the alcohol used. Pimm’s No. 2 is made with Scotch and No. 3 with brandy. Eventually six Pimm’s cocktails were created. Nowadays, people still often drink Pimm’s in England, especially during summer.

Interview with Luke (Erasmus student from Oxford):

- Do you like Pimm’s?

- Yes I do, it’s such a good drink!

- Is Pimm’s really common in England?

- Yes, especially in the South and when the sun shines because Pimm’s is really associated with sun and is drunk during garden’s parties for example.

- Who drinks Pimm’s? Young or old people? Boys or girls?

- Everybody drinks Pimm’s but maybe more girls are fan of it than boys.

- Do you prefer Pimm’s or Irish coffee?

- Pimm’s of course!

Now, if you want to realize this fabulous cocktail, here is the recipe:

« Take a jug or glass and fill it with ice, mix one part Pimm’s No. 1 with 3 parts chilled lemonade, add some mint, cucumber, orange and strawberry ». (

Now you can follow a live Pimm's recipe:

Audeline Boucart

Audrey Deumer

Irish Coffee


What are the origins of Irish coffee, now iconic of the Anglophone culture? One of the popular beliefs was that aviators added cream to their coffees to be able to drink it warm and thus quickly, whereas the whiskey was supposed to give them courage. Nevertheless, after research, the following story was made official.

A young Irish chef named Joseph Sheridan worked in the restaurant at Foyne’s airbase (later Shannon airport) in Ireland in the forties. In order to warm up passengers coming back from a particularly unpleasant flight, he simply added whiskey to coffee. The American passengers were surprised by this cocktail and first thought they were being served Brazilian coffee, but Sheridan called it Irish coffee.

The travel writer Stanton Delaplane then brought this drink to the United States in 1952 after having tasted it at Shannon airport. Together with Jack Koeppler and George Freeberg, two bar owners from San Francisco, he worked to re-create this drink. The cocktail was popularized by Delaplane who frequently wrote about it in his travel columns.

This beverage consists of Irish whiskey, black and hot coffee, heavy cream and brown sugar (for more details about the recipe, please have a look at the video below). People have always struggled to obtain the famous floating cream on the top of the beverage. Another and easier variant among many others would thus be to use whipped cream instead of heavy cream. The look is crucial, indeed “A perfect Irish Coffee should look pretty much like that other famous Irish drink – Guinness”

Stéphanie de Wilde and Marie Defraigne

Chris Evans

Christopher Evans is one of the most famous British presenters. He was born in 1966 in Warrington and was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was 13. After this tragedy, Chris entered the Padgate High School but left it at 16 and had quite a number of jobs before setting up and working in his private detective agency.

His broadcasting career started in Piccadilly Radio in 1983, where he worked on Sundays afternoon and weekdays evenings before moving to the BBC London Radio station GLR. He worked there from 1990 to 1993 firstly as a producer and then as a presenter of a Saturday afternoon show. At that moment he decided to devote his time to his TV career.
His first show on Channel 4 was called: ”The Big Breakfast". He presented this mix of news, weather, interviews, audience phone-ins and general features from 1992 to 1994. He had a huge success from the first sitting and became a national star. Meanwhile, he formed his own company called Ginger Production and performed a new variety Saturday night show “Don’t forget your Toothbrush”. It was very successful and the number of viewers reached 6 millions. A year after he moved to the unique end-of-the-week TV show on Channel 4: “TFI Friday” from 1995 to 2000. At that time things went bad for Chris Evans who became a swellhead and got less “success”.

In 2002, he developed programmes for his new radio and television production company, UMTV. One of these was “Terry & Gaby”, a weekday morning magazine host by Terry Wogan and Gaby Roslin, Chris’ former co-host in the Big Breakfast. But the show failed because the audience numbers stagnated.

Nevertheless, he pulled himself together and presented the Breakfast show on UK Radio Aid’s day of programming for the victims of the Asian Tsunami in 2005. The same year, he also presented a number of shows for BBC Radio 2, especially the Easter Bank holiday, the Brit Awards and the Comic Relief. He finally rejoined Radio 2 to present his regular Saturday afternoon show. In April 2006, Chris and Sir Terry Wogan worked together on "Drivetime", a show about business, sport and traffic

In January 2010, after 4 years on Drivetime, Chris will move to the Breakfast Show, presented until now by Terry Wogan. For the occasion, Chris will host on Wednesday 23 December « Bye Bye Drivetime: Hello Breakfast » from the O2, a concert arena in London.

Laurence Henriet and Bérangère Piccinin

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is an American writer, humorist, musician and radio personality. He was born in 1942 in a conservative religious family in Anoka, Minnesota. He has been married three times and has two children. He began his radio career on a student radio station while at university. In 1969 he hosted a morning programme called “A Prairie Home Entertainment” on Minnesota Educational Radio. However, the masterpiece of his radio career is the programme “A prairie Home Companion” which started in 1974 and which is still followed each week by 4 million listeners. It is an old-style variety show consisting of comedy sketches, music, fake commercials and a weekly monologue read by Garrison Keillor about Lake Wobegon, a fictional Minnesotan town. In 2006, “A Prairie Home Companion” was turned into a movie for which Garrison Keillor wrote the screenplay and in which he also acts.

Garrison Keillor has more than one string to his bow: he is also a well-known writer. He is famous for his articles in magazines and newspapers. Until 2001, he was the advice-giving Mr Blue at In 2004, he published a collection of political essays: “Homegrown Democrat” and the next year, he began a syndicated newspaper column about political issues. His interest in politics led him to support Barack Obama during the presidential campaign. He has also written several books for adults and children as well as poetry. In 2006, he opened an independent bookshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Besides his impressive height (1.90m), Garrison Keillor has a distinctive voice too. This has allowed him the opportunity to do voiceover work. His voice is to be heard, for example, in advertisements, animated series, documentaries and audio readings.

Throughout his brilliant career Garrison Keillor received many awards. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame under the comedy category in 1994. He also received the Moth Award – Honoring the Art of the Raconteur.

Thanks to the fame he has progressively achieved, Garrison Keillor has become a cultural icon. He is often referred to and parodied, partly because of his distinctive voice –as some say: his hypnotist tone– and his monologues are sometimes considered to be boring. He appeared, for example, in an episode of “The Simpsons” as a monologist with Homer exclaiming: “Stupid TV! Be more funny!” He is also referred to by music bands. The Pennsylvanian singer Tom Flannery for example wrote a song called “I want a job like Garrison Keillor’s”. This shows the important impact of Garrison Keillor’s work on the Anglo-Saxon culture.

Florence Vandevondele & Hélène Verhaeghe

Ford Model T

The Ford Model T was a car produced by Henry Ford's Motor Company from 1908 to 1927. The first Model T was manufactured on September 27, 1908 in Detroit. Its popularity was mainly thanks to its low price and robustness. Henry Ford was the first to introduce assembly line production for cars. This accounted for a reduced production time (about one tenth of the time it took to assemble any other car!) and, thus, a reduced price. A Model T indeed cost about $850 ($20,000 today) in 1908, but by the 1920s, the price had fallen to $290 (about $3,000 today).

Ford had an obsession with diminishing costs. That is why he introduced a series of measures: he reduced the working hours from 9 to 8 hours a day, so that there could be three shifts of 8 hours' work, covering the entire work day. From 1913 to 1926, Model T's were only painted in black, in order to reduce the costs. This accounts for this famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: “You can have any colour you want as long as it's black”.

Ford also made many efforts in order to shorten the time of assembly and, by 1913, it took only one hour and 33 minutes (instead of 12 hours and 8 minutes in 1908) to assemble a Model T! In the year 1927, the company was producing a car every 24 seconds! In the early 1920s, two thirds of American cars were Model T's.

Model T's were very robust cars. They could ride on nearly any road, and even through snow, with a top speed of 40-45 mph (64–72 km/h). Their parts were also replaceable, so that it was really simple to repair them. Model T is thus really the car that “put America on wheels”!

The 'Thin Lizzie' (or 'Flivver'), as many Americans called Model T, is now part of the American popular culture. There are a few songs about it, like 'The Little Ford Rambled Right Along' (in 1914) or even 'You Can't Afford to Marry If You Can't Afford a Ford' (sang by Jack Frost in 1915). There's also an Irish hard rock band called 'Thin Lizzy'. Model T has really become the symbol of industrialisation, in such a way that, in Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' (a book from 1932), Henry Ford is worshipped as a God, and the years are dated 'After Ford'. In this novel, people are created in assembly lines and make the 'sign of the T' instead of the sign of the Christian sign of the cross.

Amandine and Madeline

The Haçienda

Fac 51 Haçienda, also simply known as The Haçienda, was a nightclub and music venue located in Manchester. Its name comes from a slogan of a radical group: « The Haçienda must be built » which was a plea for a new urbanism. In Spanish, the word hacienda refers to a beautiful house or an estate. However, the cedilla was added in English so that the “çi” resembles the “51” from FAC51, which was the official number given by the Factory Records.

On May, 21 1982, the Haçienda, which was designed by Ben Kelly, opened its doors. It was mainly directed and financed by New Order from Factory Records. In 1986, during the “Madchester” years and the birth of the rave movement, it became the first nightclub to play (acid-)house music. DJ Mike Pickering, who regularly performed there, helped the Haçienda to have more success so that it could pack up to 2,500 people on a good night. However, the nightclub had constant financial problems. At the beginning, they did not make profit at all, and when they did, the money ended up being spent for drugs. As a result of these drug problems, a teenager died of an ecstasy overdose in 1989 in the club. From then on, the Haçienda was in trouble with the authorities leading to its closure in 1991. Despite its reopening the same year with a better security system, shootings in and outside the club as well as assaults regularly broke out. As the violence increased, the Haçienda had to close for good in July 1997. In November 2000, a charity auction was held allowing people to buy bricks from the building as well as all sort of memorabilia. In 2002, the nightclub was demolished and flats were built instead.

Many famous artists are well-known for having performed at the Haçienda. The club featured bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths and some bands from the Madchester years such as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. Moreover, some DJ’s are still known for their nights at the club, like Mike Pickering, Dave Haslam or Laurent Garnier. Last but not least, Madonna’s first visit in the UK was in the notorious nightspot in 1983.

The Haçienda achieved an iconic status as it was “the place to be” in the 80’s. Furthermore, Newsweek designated it as the “most famous nightclub in the world”. More recently, the British movie “24 Hour Party People” (2002) showed the Haçienda as part of the Manchester life in the 80’s. In 2007 and 2008, there was an exhibition where the visitors could (re)discover the nightclub and see the impact of the Haçienda on the economic and urban development of Manchester. Finally, Peter Hook (member of New Order) published the book “How Not To Run A Club” which is about his experience as one of the owners of the famous nightclub. To conclude, the Haçienda will always stand for a place of huge importance to the global music scene.

Sylvie and Caroline

Alan Titchmarsh

Alan Titchmarsh is an English broadcaster, novelist, journalist and gardener. He is especially famous in the field of gardening programmes on British television. He presents programmes on the BBC TV and also BBC Radio 2. He considers his life as colourful and active.

Titchmarsh was born on 2 May 1949 in Ilkley in Yorkshire, England. He is the son of Bessie, a textile mill worker, and Alan Titchmarsh, a plumber. His sister, Kath, is five years younger than him. Titchmarsh developed his love of gardening at a young age. He went to Ilkley County Secondary School, leaving in 1964 at age fifteen to become an apprentice gardener. In 1972, he enrolled at the Shipley Art and Technology Institute to study a City and Guilds course in Horticulture. Following that, he studied at Hertfordshire College of Agriculture for his National Certificate in Horticulture. He then gained a Diploma in Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London.

Titchmarsh stayed at Kew, being employed as a supervisor and latterly as a staff trainer, leaving to pursue a career in gardening journalism in 1974. In 1979, after editing gardening books and magazines, he became a freelance writer and broadcaster, making his first appearance on BBC Nationwide. In 1996, he presented “Gardeners’ World” on BBC 2 from his own Hampshire garden. In 2002, he presented “How To Be A Gardener” before working on “British Isles – A Natural History” and then “The Nature Of Britain” both on BBC 1 and BBC 2. Later he also had programmes such as “The Proms” and “Songs of Praise” on television and “Melodies For You” which you can catch on Sunday evenings on BBC Radio 2. He has presented “The Alan Titchmarsh Show” since 2007 on the ITV.

He met his wife Alison in 1972 when he was still student at Kew and married her three years after in 1975. They have two daughters, Polly and Camilla. The family home is in Hampshire, England. Titchmarsh also keeps a second home on the Isle of Wight, where he likes to do most of his writing.

Patron and president of more than 30 charities, he is trustee of his own charity, “Gardens for Schools”, which helps with the funding of gardens and green spaces in and surrounding primary schools. “Seeds for Africa”, another charity of which he is trustee, is involved in encouraging sustainable vegetable gardening by providing communities with the seeds and tools, as well as the training required for starting their own vegetable gardens. The charity also prepares the land and provides water installation. His charitable work with wildlife includes being Vice President of Butterfly Conservation and he is a supporter of The Wildlife Trusts. In line with his love of boating, Titchmarsh is a trustee of the National Maritime Museum.
Désirée and Jennifer

Monday, December 07, 2009

Julia Child

Julia Carolin McWilliams was born in1912 in a Californian well-to-do family. At 22 she got a “Bachelor of Arts” degree in history. The next seven years she worked in advertisement for different firms. After the Pearl Harbour tragedy, she wanted to join the Women’s Army corps but was refused because of her height: one meter 88centimetres. Thus she decided to enter the Office of Strategic Services i.e. the American information office. When the War was over, she met and married Paul Cushing Child, an artist who had lived in Paris for a while but who was working in the US at that time. The couple remained childless. Paul played a major role in Julia’s life because he was the one who introduced gastronomic cooking to her. Indeed, in having to move to Paris in1948 to fulfil his function, he gave Julia the opportunity to discover a new passion: cooking.

At a restaurant called “La Couronne” in Rouen, she had a culinary revelation. She defined the meal as “an opening up of the soul and spirit”. As a result, she attended several culinary courses where she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle with whom she wrote a French cookbook for Americans. In 1951, the three women began to teach cooking to American women in their Parisian school “L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes”. For the next decade, they travelled through Europe, researching and testing recipes that Julia then translated into English, making them easy to do. After her travels she came back to the US. They published the book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in1961 after having had some difficulties to find a publisher because of its encyclopaedic style. The accessibility of the book made it a best-seller which encouraged them to write a second volume ten years later.

In 1962, she was seen on a show on a Boston channel during which viewers discovered her way of cooking an omelette. A year later she appeared in the cooking television programme “The French Chef” which was immediately successful thanks to her enthusiastic and modest personality. Seeing that she was appreciated by the public, she wrote two other books, “The French Chef Cookbook” and “From Julia Child’s Kitchen” which were both based on her show.

In the 70’s and 80’s, she was the star in two television programmes: “Julia Child & Company” and “Dinner at Julia’s”. In 1989 she published “The way to cook”, her main work, which contained a book and some videos. In the 90’s, she appeared in four cooking television broadcasts where she invited other famous cooks like Jacques Pépin. Her home kitchen in Cambridge was even changed into a functional set which was used for nearly all her shows. In 2001 she retired from public life and died three years later.

Her last book relating her life with her husband in post-World War II France, “My Life in France”, was published in 2006 and was the basis of the film “Julie and Julia” which was released in 2009.

Amélie and Nathalie

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Reader: What would you have done?

After the moving Billy Elliot in 2000 – the story of a little boy who wanted to become a ballet-dancer – and the outstanding The Hours in 2003 – a brilliant adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel –, the British director Stephen Daldry has once again released a new masterpiece: The Reader.

One can say that Daldry is one of the best when it comes to adapting a novel for the cinema: those who like the book of the German writer Bernhard Schlink will not be disappointed. What is more, Daldry has a great sense of staging. His stories have a particular genuineness that can do nothing but seduce you. The drab and almost grey photography brings you back to post-war Germany rising from its ashes. The music is soft, beautiful, but never invasive. It takes you by the hand and accompanies the viewer and the characters in their peregrinations.

But the best asset of this movie is its casting. A tormented and cold Kate Winsletacademy award winner – gives the line to a “haunted by the past” Ralph Fiennes. Not to mention the young David Kross, sparkling with sincerity, who takes on his shoulders one of the leading roles of the movie.

The Reader is an interesting story because it can be read at two different levels. At first sight, it is a love story. But it is a particular one. In 1959, the young Michael Berg falls in love with Hanna, a woman who helped him a few months earlier when he was sick. This almost incestuous passion – Hanna is as old as Michael's mother – lasts only one summer. A strange kind of ritual takes place: every day, Michael goes to Hanna's apartment, they wash each other, Michael reads out to her, they make love and then they lie on the bed, side by side. This strange relationship suddenly breaks up when Hanna, without warning, suddenly disappears to never come back again. This loss ruins Michael's life forever: he will never be able to really love a woman again. He will always try to find a “new” Hanna, a woman who looks like her, smells like her, moves like her. But his quest is hopeless.

However, the story does not end there. Seven years later, Michael and Hanna see each other again... in court. Hanna and a few other women are accused to have killed hundreds of people when they were guards in a concentration camp. Michael, now a law-student, is completely devastated by this revelation. During the trial, he also discovers Hanna's secret.

This secret could reduce the sentence, but Hanna prefers being regarded as a criminal rather than revealing it. She is sentenced to life-imprisonment.

What is so particular and interesting about this movie is that it can be read at a second level. The Reader is not only a love-story, it is above all a comment on the post-war culpability of young Germany. This subject is omnipresent in the movie, even if it becomes apparent only in the second part, during the trial for crime against humanity. The story raises an essential question: how can we live after the horrors that we have committed ? Two generations are concerned by that question. Firstly, the old generation, who went through the war: Hanna, but also Michael's parents and teachers. This generation is divided in three groups: the culprits, the victims and the others, those who did not kill anybody but who did not do anything either to prevent these murders. Has that last group the right to try and sentence the culprits? Are they not also culprits because they agreed to the regime or because they knew there were camps but refused to act?

Michael's generation is also concerned by this question. They are all children of one of the above-mentioned categories. As far as Michael is concerned, his father did not take part in the massacre, but Michael feels guilty because he is in love with a murderer. He has to face a Cornelian dilemma: that of judgment or forgiveness.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding … I wanted to pose myself both tasks — understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.” (extract from The Reader, by Bernhard Schlinck, p. 157)

Many years after the trial, Michael tells his story for the first time. He also wants to decide whether Hanna's secret could reduce her culpability. But is any excuse valid enough to wipe away the weight of murder?

Go and see the movie to make your own opinion; you won’t regret it! As you leave the cinema, you will perhaps feel uncomfortable, Hanna's question echoing through your mind:

What would you have done?”

Friday, December 04, 2009

The didgeridoo

The didgeridoo is a musical instrument which was invented by the Australian Aborigines approximately 1,500 years ago. It belongs to the category of the wind instruments, such as the flute or the clarinet. A wind instrument is usually made of a tube in which the player blows to produce different sounds, resulting in the vibration of the air. Different ways of blowing exist, each producing a different sound; to achieve this, the position of the tongue and the lips of the player is the determinant trick. In order to obtain a significant result, regular practice is said to be the only way to succeed in mastering the didgeridoo. Furthermore, in order to play this instrument, you have to be able to blow uninterruptedly in the tube which is a technique that acquires a lot of practice: for instance, very experimented players manage to blow continuously in the didgeridoo during a whole hour. Nowadays, the use of the didgeridoo is widely spread all over the world. Modern ones are cylindrical or conical, and their length differs from one another but its measure is usually from 1 up to 3 m long. The didgeridoo is traditionally made out of Eucalyptus wood, the interior part of which has been hollowed out by termites. Beeswax is used to strengthen the mouthpiece, which is the place where you blow in. It is often said the didgeridoo is the world's oldest wind instrument. It was originally used during ceremonial gatherings, but is now mostly used for recreational purposes or by music bands seeking more archaic tones, as exemplifies the most well-known didgeridoo player Xavier Rudd.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Fortune Cookie

It only takes egg whites, vanilla, almond, vegetable oil, flour, cornstarch, salt, a lot of sugar and water to bake a handful of these moon-shaped, vanilla-flavored wafers more commonly known as Fortune Cookies. However crunchy and appealing, Fortune Cookies are remembered for the ‘fortunes’ – read: predictions – they contain. The fortune is the little piece of paper (no bigger than your thumb) inside the cookies. On it, you will find an omen or a piece of advice, which is meant to give general statement that work for anybody, anywhere, anytime. Originally, fortunes were based on verses and proverbs from the Bible or even English translations of 'Confucius’ thoughts'. Nowadays, fortunes are more and more catchy, funny, self-reflexive; they say things like: “Never believe anything you read in a fortune cookie.”

Where can you find Fortune Cookies? In China? Japan? And the right answer is, surprisingly: they’re served together with the dessert in Chinese restaurants in America. While Americans believe the tradition originated in China, it appears that the Chinese have never heard about it. The rightful inventor of the Fortune Cookie is baron Makoto Hagiwara from the Japanese Tea Garden in San Fransisco and dates back to around 1900. Fortune cookies were made to match the taste of green tea and to lighten the tea garden’s mood. They were then introduced in the San Francisco markets by the Hagiwaras. Demand became larger and so did the production at the Benkyodo Company, the appointed bakery. After WWII, the cookie became largely associated with Chinese restaurants. There is one theory that explains the ‘defection’ of the confection from Japanese-Americans to Chinese-Americans. During WWII, the American government was afraid of the potential threat the Japanese immigrants represented in their own country and decided to lock them up in internment facilities: the so-called relocation camps. Chinese restaurants saw this as an opportunity to take over the cookie and the business that went with it. Americans continued to love the concept all the same. It was becoming so popular that it spread to most major cities. After a few years, San Fransico and Los Angeles started vying for the honorific title of ‘inventor of the Fortune Cookie’. Nowadays, historians try to link the origin of the Fortune Cookie with the Mooncake: a Chinese pastry that had supposedly been used during the Ming revolution (14th century) to pass secret messages between soldiers.

Much more than a dessert, the Fortune Cookie has become a real trend in the USA. Americans just can’t get enough of it. Not only do the sales hit the ceiling with 3 billion cookies each year, but the amount of by-products available is also beyond belief. Movies, usb-keys, wedding treats, jewellery, gourmet cookies... you name it.

Mélinda & Benoit