A brief French adventure

Brittany“You go 20k and a donkey means a ladle.” This is how our interpreter for the European project I am working on, an Englishman who moved to Brittany over 20 years ago, described the idiosyncrasies of the local dialect. Frankly, I would be happy if I knew the French word for donkey, or ladle for that matter – being in France for a few days has starkly highlighted my poor grasp of the language. I just about struggled through basic conversations with Marceline, the proprietress of the village B&B, about the weather and how to make coffee, but in the project meetings my French was precisely useless.

I am writing this on the train back to Nantes following our stay in the Breton countryside. The train is packed, with people sitting on the floor and leaning against their suitcases, but someone got off the train at the last stop, enabling me to sit down and write. I had hoped I would be able to write, and draw, in the evenings before going to bed – but between daytime meetings and evening eating, drinking and putting the world to rights in two languages (and lots of hands and feet), there was little time to do anything but sleep.

I’m aware I haven’t yet said much about the EU-funded project I got involved with about a month ago. If I’m totally honest, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go and I had decided to ‘watch the cat out of the tree’ for a while, to offer up yet another untranslatable Dutch phrase (it means something like ‘see how it goes without committing to anything’). The project lacked structure and it seemed challenging to deliver on its aims. This troubled me because I am fiercely pro-Europe and therefore nervous about wasting EU money, and giving it an even worse rep than it already has in the UK.

Now, I’m not saying that we’ve emerged from these few days with a regimented project plan and clearly defined structure. As I had expected, there was a lot of heated debate, heavy with gesturing and occasionally halted by our poor interpreter trying to obtain half a chance of translating what had been said. Pouch upon pouch of tobacco was smoked by the entire team – well, all except me as the only non-smoker in what seemed like the whole of Brittany. Gallons of bitter black coffee were drunk (again, not by me, except on the odd occasion where the previous night was catching up with me and the need to wake myself up outweighed my aversion to the stuff). Towards the end of the day, plastic cups were rinsed out with the only water supply, a cold-water hose in the brewery downstairs, and freshly brewed beer by the name of Couille de Loup (Wolf Balls) was passed around.

As you can probably tell from the above, our project meetings didn’t take place in an air-conditioned office but rather on a farm in rural Brittany. Our project partners are a French musicians’ collective who built their own headquarters there. Their workspace is upstairs and the brewery downstairs helps to fund the operation. They are an amiable and passionate bunch of people, whose English is a darn sight better than our French – even despite the occasional unintended hilarity, for instance when one of them asked my colleague “is there anyone up you” instead of “is there anyone above you [in the organisation]”.

As I said, I can hardly say that the project magically resolved itself into a neatly structured entity in the few days I spent in France with the UK project lead. Musicians are not known for their advanced organisational skills, and why should they be? But we made real progress on several important issues and emerged from the discussions with a much stronger understanding of each other’s cultural context. And that’s exactly why projects like this one are funded by Europe, and long may this type of funding continue. The hard work definitely starts now, but I’m feeling a bit more confident about actually delivering something – maybe even a little excited.

I had a moment last week when, at the end of the day, I had dragged a chair out from under the farm’s high roof to sit in the sun for a bit. I thought about my old life, pre-Wild Geese. Catching trains at 7am and trying to work on a packed commuter train to London several times a week. Watching stupid TV in a Premier Inn in Preston because there was not much else to do. Churning out work every week that was all about process and not about creativity. It made me think that perhaps this EU project, challenged by inter-cultural differences and language barriers and at times ill-structured and slightly frustrating, is really nothing to complain about.

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