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A Canadian in Bordeaux

I'm now in Bordeaux for Rencontres Mondiales du Logiciel Libre, or the Libre Software Meeting. Before I left, I was frantically finishing other tasks before this trip, so this is the least prepared trip I've ever made. A few shocks ensured.

First, I should clarify that I generally over-plan, so "the least prepared trip" doesn't necessarily say a lot. I mean, before I moved to Singapore, I used google maps to find the nearest pizza hut, McDonalds, and Burger King to my accommodation. I knew that I wouldn't want to think about where to eat on my first day there.

Anyway, I got up at 7:01, packed, and left my residence at 7:21. I'd decided to try taking the 747 "air bus" instead of a taxi, so I was at the bus stop at 7:35 for a bus that arrived at 7:50. Arrived at the airport at 8:24, done with security at 9:02, and my flight left at 10:00. I forgot to power off the wireless on my laptop, so I left the laptop turned off for the flight to London.

London Gatwick international terminal is a dump. I couldn't see any power sockets available other than the ones for the "internet station". I was also disappointed by the lack of cheap hamburgers -- the only place that seemed to sell them was a sit-down restaurant. I ended up having a pair of sandwiches from a box. This becomes relevant later on.

Flight to Bordeaux was mostly uneventful -- I happened to look down just as we reached the France coast, which was neat scenery. Oh, and halfway through the flight, there was an announcement of the local time in Bordeaux -- apparently France is one hour ahead! WTM, they're directly south of the UK. Why would the time zone be different?! WTM*2, the fact that I didn't know this already is a bad sign. The next surprise came as I was walking through the airport towards the taxis -- everybody was speaking French!

Ok, I need to explain that part. Yes, I knew that people in France spoke French. But (for no reason) I was kind-of expecting it to be like Montreal... yeah, it's a French city, but you still hear tons of English. In contrast, I really stressed out about Singapore (even though English is one of the official languages, I knew that most people were primarily Chinese-speaking), but that was way better than I feared. By contrast, I hadn't thought about the France trip at all, and this part didn't live up to my unexpectations.

I also realized that this was the first time that I'd been in a country in which I didn't speak any official language(s). (yes, I visited France and Italy in a high school trip... but we had a tour guide and teachers for that. Besides, I was 17, so that doesn't count for anything)

I haven't really tried to speak French in the intermediate 14 years, and it went worse than I imagined -- in almost all cases, I resorted to speaking English, which made me a rather lame tourist-person, rather than an up-and-coming global academic. :(

It doesn't help that I keep on thinking of Japanese words for things but can't remember the French ones. That's completely reasonable, given the amount of time I've spent learning and listening to Japanese over the past few years... but not as all helpful when trying to communicate in this part of the world. :|

Part of the problem is that people seemed to assume that I'd be speaking French. Growing up in Vancouver, you find that people speak English fluently and/or have an obvious cultural background which indicates that English might not be their native language. Sure, I'm terrible at recognizing the difference between Chinese and Korean people... but when you see somebody of Asian background, you know that they might not speak English as a first language. However, whenever you see any Caucasian in Vancouver, you can safely assume that they speak English fluently. I found the same thing in Singapore... even if they were actually German or whatnot, they spoke English fluently.

To make matters even more confusing, I seem to (visually) fit in more with people here than I do in Glasgow. Maybe it's just because I haven't found a large group of computer geeks in Glasgow yet, but I really don't look Scottish. I find it quite believable that I look "French enough" that people here are unpleasantly surprised when I can't say simple sentences in French and ask if they can speak English. (as least I ask that in French)

Being the cause of language difficulties is a rather humbling experience.

Anyway, I managed to sort out my room and internet access (not at the same place, but I don't mind walking a few minutes to send emails), then looked around for dinner. I ended up going to a casino.

What?! Sweet little Graham has been corrupted into drinking and gambling by those degenerate French...!? well, no. Apparently there's a supermarket chain here called "Casino". I bought a 6-pack of bottled water, a diet coke, and two boxes of sandwiches. Yes, my first meal in Bordeaux -- famed for fine wines, fine dining, etc. -- was a boxed sandwich and a semi-chilled diet coke. (the other sandwich is for later this evening)

I'm not being totally lame here... at least, I don't think I am. I'm exhausted by travelling (I am not a good traveller), short on sleep, and still need to finish half the slides for my talk on Friday. A quiet dinner, an hour or two of editing, and an early sleep is just what I need so that I can enjoy the rest of the conference.

Let's see, what else... oh yeah, my room! It really reminds me of Shaunigahn (sp) Lake. Now, that means nothing to everyone but my family and 1 or 2 readers, so I'll elaborate: my family is highly involved in the West Coast Amateur Musician Society summer music camp, which used to be on Vancouver Island at a boarding school next to Shaunigahn Lake. So... not the best quality, but certainly good enough for a couple of days. Oh, except that instead of having open showers (like summer camp 15 years ago), these ones have separate stalls. The atmosphere is also much more like that music camp than an academic conference... which makes sense, since this isn't an academic conference. :)

The final touch: despite the language, Bordeaux actually feels more like Canada than Glasgow does. There's space here! I mean, buildings are separate -- light filters through the spaces between buildings. And buildings are different -- it's not all the same brick or sandstone imitation brick. The dodgy-looking businesses are in awful off-yellow buildings. The fancy places look fancy. The malls look like parking lots, with something glassy and shiny off in the distance.

Ok, probably if I went to Bordeaux city center, I'd see the same type of architecture as in Glasgow city center. But I've seen small towns and the outskirts of big cities in the UK, and this place is much more Canadian than those places.

PS: I brought my cell phone charger so that I wouldn't have to worry about running out of power and could take pictures without concern... but on the first plane trip, I realized that, although I had a set of "worldwide plug adaptors", those adaptors were for North American plugs. My laptop is just fine, but not the cell phone. Sorry! (but really, you didn't want to see blurry cell phone pictures in the first place)