In-flight entertainment: Why the best laid plans fall flat

Monday was a long travel day, and it had its moments. My daughter is a seasoned traveller, and rolls with the rides. She tried to keep up our spirits by telling some bad jokes, but mine are worse. We rolled around the platform laughing as we waited for our connecting train to Paris, in the afternoon. The announcer first told us that due to “climatic conditions” the train would be five minutes late. Then, due to “traffic management problems” it would be 10 minutes late. It came in 15 minutes late. We still got to Paris about on time. While waiting, we shared corny jokes. We cracked up (pay attention), when I told her a joke about a kernel who was afraid to go to war. We had our last moments of French speaking when I told her “maize we” (mais oui, for the francophones). She’s 10, she loved it. All went well, but the moments were priceless. Let’s start near the end, then get to the beginning.

My daughter and I saw the funniest sight ever as we sat on the plane waiting to depart from Paris Orly airport. Dozens of rabbits were in the fields by the runways.


The picture may be fuzzy, but believe me, their running around and avoiding swooping crows was worth the wait for air control clearance.

Would you believe it? The last time I visited La Rochelle, on my last day, my friends and I were having such a good lunch with their neighbours, that we forgot that I had a train to catch. We then looked at the time, and horrified, jumped up, dashed back to their house a few doors away, jumped in the car, and dashed to the train station in no time flat. We all jumped out of the car and ran into the station. My train was still there and about to leave. I gave quick hugs and kisses, then I hopped into the first door and one of my friends put my bag in behind me. As the train pulled out of the station, we waved goodbye to each other, and I then found my seat and sat sweating and panting. I told my daughter this story before our current trip to La Rochelle. It was really a funny incident. It came up in conversation over the weekend with my hosts and we all had a good laugh. It was not going to happen again. We checked my train times before heading to bed: 12:52, I announced. One of my friends said he could not find that train on the schedule, but I rechecked and we all went to bed.

Strolling calmly into a minor storm

On the day of departure, we all got up later than usual. My jet lag was over. The night had been split with a huge thunderstorm: the day had been very hot–at 10pm, the temperature had been 88F/30C, the same as in Jamaica where it was 3pm. Wow! My daughter had crawled into bed with me during the night, afraid of the thunder and lightning. I had gotten up in time to see and say goodbye to the daughter who is the firefighter. She was making porridge, again, as she had every day since I showed her how. Her parents then woke and, as usual, had coffee and toast and jam. My daughter eventually appeared around 9am. We all ate and slowly my daughter and I packed and then sat to chill out. My hosts decided to take lunch for their firefighter, so we would leave around midday to also get the travellers sandwiches from the boulangerie. Once, we left, we met a traffic hold up, so turned around and decided to head for another route, as time was going, we got the sandwiches and went straight to the station. We looked at the board. No 12:52 marked! I looked again at my itinerary.

The time was there. I looked at the ticket…9:30. Aaargh! the 12:52 was arrival time, which had been misaligned by the printer. We looked at the board and saw a 12:28 train to Paris, and it was in the station about to leave. Yes. We started running. This time, my friends, my daughter, our suitcases and their dog. We scooted down the stairs and up the next flight, and flung the child into the train, then the bags. I paused. I gave hugs and kisses and let out a huge laugh. “Unbelievable!” I said. The train pulled out.

Fortunately, we had a good amount of time on the original schedule. We arrived in Paris-Montparnasse, walked out of the station to the bus 100 metres away, and headed to Orly airport. We checked in by 6:15 for our 7:40 flight. We cooled out in a lounge. Our plane left on time and we were in London within an hour. Our time had been better spent because of my mistake–less hanging around the airport, for sure. My daughter and I shared a strange adventure. You can plan and you can plan and you can still fall flat on your face. A lesson I learned years ago.


French lessons: Jamaica to the world

Centuries of history (not all good, not all bad) integrated into every day life

I’ve spent the past week in France, with a family I first met several years ago in Guinea, west Africa. It’s really been a great time, spent mostly lazing around, eating, watching World Cup football, exchanging thoughts, and taking some little tours. The trip was largely to get my daughter a little immersion in French life and language: she did very well, including leading the way for a day eating waffles and crèpes, finished off by a long bike ride through the old town centre.

Open space, to enjoy and to preserve with care

She got the chance to see how French people spend their Sundays in the summer: lazing on the beach, sitting in the park, playing in the park and at little squares, walking and talking.

I am always looking around at how life is lived. In France, it is hard to avoid seeing how orderly life seems to be. France is laid out very carefully, and villages and towns tend to feel much the same because many elements are controlled at the national level. Each town may have its own flair but there is a certain conformity that exists. You take a trip and road signs guide you clearly to small towns or larger towns and cities. You arrive at a place and you get a sign for centre ville (town centre), and you can then find your bearings to parking, or commercial areas, or open space. I contrasted that with Jamaica, where you may get no signs at all for long distances and may miss the town centre for want of any signs.

Boules, played leisurely, with a drink in hand

Our ride in from the semi-rural suburb to the town centre was eye-opening in terms of how a town can be laid out to make it easy to move around on foot or by vehicle or on a bike. There are paved pathways everywhere, and we could take several and meander our way into the town centre. We took a route that brought us through a park, where people were lazing on the grass, playing pick-up football, playing boules, walking dogs and children. It was all very clean and well-kept, even in a wild, rustic way because areas were left that way for ‘bio diversity’ (a sign told me); Contrast that with Jamaica. We let people create pathways by the sheer numbers who walk a route and wear out the grass so that a dirt trail is visible and becomes the route of choice. We tend not to have open space for lazing around and simple recreation. The space around Devon House and Hope Gardens, in Kingston, are rare exceptions. People tend to just hang around on a road or on a street corner.

Jamaicans do not seem to take great pride in keeping their spaces clean. I often see people sweeping streets early in the morning, but piles of garbage, especially with discarded plastic items, are part of the Jamaica scene. Even in so-called ‘upscale’ communities, we would not be surprised to see the small piles. Sometimes, they are worse and include items such as discarded household appliances.

Social order in France is different. It is not always clearly visible. French public sector workers, for example, love to exercise their rights to withdraw labour. So, French railway workers were on strike when we arrived. We had concerns about getting from Paris to our destination further south, but our train ran on time, as did many others that day. The ticket inspectors on the trains did nothing, however, to check that passengers had paid. So, I then felt aggrieved that I had bothered to order tickets online from Jamaica and print them off at the airport. My friend had to go to Paris one day during our visit, and he had the same experience, but he and most passengers travelled for free because they could not buy tickets at the stations. The railway workers are public servants. My friend complains that there are too many fonctionaires, and they are a public burden for all of their working lives and retirement. But, they are part of France’s broad state coverage.

Farm life is part of modern life

I’ve not seen any major strike during the past year in Jamaica. I’ve read about and heard stories of public workers taking money from the bus company and running all manner of schemes to line their pockets. I’ve seen a few, scattered protests. (Just to complete the context, I’m headed to London today and read that British airways cabin staff will strike from tomorrow, so the private sector worker flexing her/his muscle may grab me in England.) I have suffered, however, by a public sector that does not seem to be very effective or efficient. Services in Jamaica suffer from decades of neglect and underinvestment.

We reap that now with uncertain water supplies, for example. That’s life critical; train travel is not. I see the mess that is public road repairs. Dig up; patch up; wash away; dig up again; patch up again. Only a hard-headed idiot would think this is anything but rank stupidity or the effect of a permanent piece of bandoolism taking money out of the public’s collective pocket.

Go to almost any French town and you will find municipal camping; it’s now less than it was. But, you could arrive almost anywhere, up to about 9pm at night, and find a camp site. True, you needed a tent to pitch, but you could bathe, and sleep easily for a small amount. That’s not a part of our life style. Period. We stop on the roadside and sleep in the car or van, if needed. Our country is small enough that we can complete most trips easily within a day. France is huge, by contrast.

Old buildings are part of the real history of any place

France has a massive tourism market. It is based largely on French life and history, of which there is very much to see and share. Town that have survived for over a thousand years are common. Physical structures that have long history are part of the national treasure.

Jamaica has very little history, and for many, it reflects aspects that create discomfort because it reflects our past slavery. But, attractive buildings should not be discarded, in my view: we can tell the stories for our future generations to better understand. I’m one who would work hard to see restored our many old great houses or parts of sugar plantations or our mundane-looking railway stations. We would get a better-looking country in the bargain. French people tour their own country to sample its history; foreigners do the same. It helps to have land borders to ease the movement.

France shows the results of having national visions and putting the pieces in place to achieve them. France has nuclear energy as a major pillar of its power generation. Popular or not, it’s there: France, therefore, focuses on threats to its supplies or uranium. France has grasped the importance of energy conservation and environmental protection. You see many reminders of how to save energy. You see many places to dispose of items so that they can be recycled: elegant shells placed on corners to take glass, plastic, or paper recyclable material. In the home, people dispose of their rubbish with an eye to where it will go next. We have Riverton dump. We pile garbage up in racks or bins, all items mixed together, in shiny plastic bags. Our streets are littered with those bags, and styrofoam boxes, mainly because we just do not have enough places for trash and then do not clear them regularly. I have not seen one styrofoam box on a road, or a plastic bag flying around. The French use plastic bags; I went to the supermarket, and used them. Food to take away is served also in styrofoam boxes, sometimes. But, the French are better at disposing of their rubbish and clearing the places used for that. It was not always so; progress from lessons learned and provisions made to help change habits. Suffice to say, the French do not now have the same eyesores as Jamaicans.

I shouldn’t dwell on economic policy, but I will just glide over it. France is a large, open economy, within a common currency area, the European Union. It is not a new thing and took decades to reach where it is. One aspect of that is the existence of a common currency, the Euro, which is used in the whole area. It is a freely traded currency and is relatively stable in value. France is not under an IMF programme and can borrow freely from private financial markets, if it wishes. People in France or the wider EU area do not obsess about the level of the exchange rate. Jamaica is an economy that has suffered decades of mismanagement and has an exchange rate that is now reflecting that accumulated effect–it’s sliding constantly. It’s never a good idea to try to pick a bottom for an exchange rate, so more slide is likely than less. We depend heavily on foreign assistance, in part because we became dependent on foreign goods but could not produce enough to pay for them. French people wander the world with pockets and bank accounts full of Euros, using cash freely if they travel within the EU, or checks and credit cards within the area or further abroad. Money, in that sense, is no problem. I have about JD 1000 in my wallet because I know it’s of no value outside Jamaica and despite the high denominations of our money, it is worth very little.

But, both countries are full of silly people. Jamaicans love to stand up for indefensible idiocy in the name of following rules. France, too, has that condition, but with a nice accent. I went to the supermarket the other evening to get some French food items to carry to a friend in London. I went to the self-service cashier and started to scan my items. The laser beeped and the register showed my purchases. I got my total and popped out my credit card to use. The machine only accepted cards with a little chip in them–a security feature that has been in Europe for a few years, now. No go. The machine had a slot for swiping a card, though. I tried that. No go. A supervisor came over and looked at the card. No go. We asked about swiping. “I’m not allowed to do that,” she said. We all looked puzzled. We guessed she did not know how to make that work, or had missed the training session. She shrugged her shoulders and walked way. My friends and I rustled together some cash and I paid. I could have just bundled the items into our bags and walked out, there was no checker. We scratched our heads. Jamaica’s “that’s how we do it” would not be out-of-place.

Food, never the same; always interesting; alwys a talking point

I’ve loved being in a totally different language and thinking space for a few days.

You get to think about your own cultural biases well when they are not around you, but seen from afar. By comparison to Jamaica, France is much more tolerant of different life styles; that need not be limited to sexual preferences (one of Jamaica’s current hobby horses). French people greet each other with kisses, as well as handshakes; everyone kisses on the cheek, despite gender or age. It’s the French way, and is seen in French-speaking countries over the world. French men kissing each other are not homosexuals; they’re French. French men kissing young girls are not pedophiles; they’re French. It’s not a big deal.

I discussed with my friends what their children (two in their 20s and one still a teenager) were doing. One had graduated as an engineer, but did not want to pursue that as a career; he was working at a KFC and trying to figure out what to do next; his girlfriend is a biology graduate and working in another field. Another, went to university for a year but was not liking it, so went into the fire service and is happily training in that field, focusing on first-aid and ancillary services: according to local rules, her fire station does not allow her to drive fire engines, so she’s on a path that avoids that. The youngest is studying law at university, working in a restaurant part-time. Like most young people, they enjoy their fun and going out, within limits. They are all close to their parents, the two youngest still living at home, happily. We talked about graffiti–a feature of French urban spaces. We talked not much about politics, except about the shared curse of corruption. We talked a lot about travel to Jamaica–they had planned to visit earlier this year, but things had not worked out. We talked a lot about our languages: my daughter understands French quite well, and was getting braver and speaking more. She went shopping and managed well in the store; she’s only 10, and has to deal with language difference and age differences. I helped my hosts through many minefields in English, which they may be able to remember when I’m gone but maybe not. We had fun learning the differences between English words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as bubble, bobble, babble and bauble; as well as the chestnuts, there, their, they’re. We had fun with “ice cream” and “I scream”. French has its prickly language patches, too: my daughter played with sens (smell), sans (without), cent (100), s’en (within).

We had a great time Sunday afternoon, watching some people play boules, a form of bowling, played outdoors on a gravelly dirt space. They were having a few drinks (beers, pastis, sodas with syrup) and smoking the obligatory cigarettes. They wanted to let us pass on our bikes, but we explained that we had come to watch. “It’s a major championship, you know,” one man slurred. A young lady came to ask my daughter if she  was American; my French disguised my origins well enough. We joked about her staying in France to go to school. We watched the throwing of metal balls and the ribald jockeying for about 15 minutes. It was a nice slice of life: simple, inclusive, happy. Jamaicans would be playing dominoes and having their glasses of rum or a beer. My daughter covered her nose as the smoke of cigarettes hit her. Jamaica has taken a step forward that France has not yet taken, with its ban on smoking in public spaces. We can learn much from France, but we have a few lessons to offer.

Sunday afternoon strolling and exercising

I left my friends a jar of jerk seasoning; it’s been at the dining table every day as a dipping sauce; it’s very popular. I showed the fire fighter how to cook porridge: she normally ate her oats with cold milk.

Life’s not really that complicated, sometimes, if you are open to what others have to offer.




My name is… Je m’appele… : Jamaica and its place in the world

I have no grand designs for my youngest daughter, but I’ve told her she wont fail in life because of me. We are now in France, spending a week with a family we met some 8 years ago, when we lived in Guinea (French-speaking west Africa). The overall idea is for her to be immersed in another language and culture for a short while, to help her with her French. She spent three years of her life living in such an environment, but as a baby through age 3. Our hosts used to visit us almost every Sunday to play tennis in the morning, then have brunch; their eldest daughter used to babysit during the tennis. My daughter remembers none of this. So, she’s supposed to speak French as much as possible for the next seven days. Our hosts love it that they all get the chance to practice their English with us. We are being very flexible and tolerant of mistakes; it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

Yesterday, we arrived by high-speed train from Paris, a simple thing normally but a relief when the rail workers are on strike. We were greeted with typical French hugs and kisses when we got off the train. (Jamaicans will be curling up in fetal positions qt the thought of two men kissing on the cheek, but it’s a common greeting worldwide, especially amongst French-speaking people even in west Africa, where the norm is two kisses each cheek.) Within minutes of our arrival, my daughter was headed to a swimming pool.

It’s heated, which is great because summer is still on its way here: 65-70 degrees fahrenheit is on the cards, a far cry from the 90+ we left in Kingston. A short while later, the two young women of the house (now 19 and 23) came home and greeted my daughter with more hugs and kisses. It was mid-afternoon.

We talked for a while, then the young ladies took my daughter out to look at the town centre, while the father and I headed off to a golf course. He’s retired early, too, and recently started to play. He has plans for my week that sound ideal 😉 The mother was left to relax for a while. When we all got back, it was time for the young ladies to have their own time. My daughter and I then talked with the parents, while getting ready to watch the first World Cup match of the day. France is seven hours ahead of Jamaica and I am not yet adjusted to watching games later in the day.

The parents and I talked freely in French, my daughter listened mostly. I suggested that she try to just pick up words and see how she went. We then decided it would be good to have everyone speak English so that my daughter could see and hear that the difficulties were shared. It was funny. We went through a period when I tried to make clear the differences between English words with the same sounds, but some had the same spelling but different meanings (sew, for instance), while some were spelt differently (so, for instance). It got interesting when I tried to pronounce clearly some words beginning with w (double v sound in French): word, world, weird, wash wish, whirl, etc. We played with some English chestnuts, like they’re, their, and there. Our hosts were getting a headache and it was dinner time.

Food is usually good to get people more relaxed. We continued our word play.

I’d brought some hot pepper sauce as a token gift. Everyone tried it, but only the father didn’t need an extinguisher. Our hosts told us what was in the meal (vegetable lasagna), and they learned that English people say pepper for both the vegetable (or fruit, green red, or yellow) and the spice. French has two words. Aubergine was the same in both languages. Onion (oignon) sounded similar. Garlic (ail, pronounced aye, in French) was not at all alike. So, we went on all evening. My daughter was getting bolder and began to name things in French, mostly cognates such as chocolate, or words she knew well like glace (ice cream). Everything we touched, we named in both languages.

The match between Brazil and Mexico started and we put language lessons aside in place of easily understood yells and groans. The French TV ads were interesting, not least because they focused on things different to the publicity in Jamaica. No LIME browse and talk or Grace products.

I was about 12 when I first went to France; my daughter is 10. I went on a school trip with a class and teachers, and we spent our time with French counterparts. We slept in our own lodgings, though had French catering, such as hot chocolate, bread and jam for breakfast. We toured with the French children and spent free time with them. We had a good command of French from our first year at secondary school.  Most of the French children spoke English well. We learned how they lived: going to bars was allowed, but no alcohol; riding two-stroke motorcycles (mobilettes) was the norm; uniforms were never worn by most French children. Being in a small family may seem intimidating to a child when everyone is older and not familiar. My daughter was very at ease with the family dog, even if she really didn’t understand English commands. The little one will progress, little by little.

My hosts had cancelled their visit to Jamaica planned for early this year; they wanted to have that and looked forward to improving their English. I warned them that Jamaican English may be easier for them to understand and speak, but was not like most other English. I gave a few examples, such as ‘wata’. They laughed as that was close to how many French people pronounced the word water.

I’m no linguist, but have a hard time not being able to communicate verbally when I travel, so I relish trying to learn a new language. Most people are not like me, and quail up if they have to try to speak. I told my daughter to free her voice box. Let the mistakes flow and fill in with whatever you know. Make sentences with gestures. Draw pictures. Whatever it takes, do it. I often talked to myself in a mirror, on the advice of a Russian teacher. Need often helps speed learning. My daughter wants to find some boutiques (a good French word) and look for arts and crafts (artisanat) items. She has some money and will find ways to spend it 🙂

Most Jamaicans have lived under the shelter of English and not embraced their foreign language neighbours, either French or Spanish. Jamaicans travel to non-English speaking countries to support our athletes, but not with much linguistic backing. I’m a firm believer that our lack of progress since Independence was made harder to break because of our reluctance to understand that we had some language gifts, being notionally bilingual. In my world, I would have had more young people going to non-English speaking countries to study, and made use of their language skills, like my Jamaican friend who studied medicine in Russia and is fluent in Russian. Small countries like ours need leverage in our people’s skills. Just doing what others do wont get us far. We need an edge. Language skills is one such. Look at small European countries and how they use their surrounding foreigner neighbours to make learning their languages seem so sensible. When you flip over several borders in a day it’s useful.

The children in most of Europe (and worldwide) learn English as the language of business. We have it already but cannot compete with it alone. In that sense, being Anglophone is a curse. Listen to many top athletes and how they function in English, if it’s not their mother tongue. Listen, too, to how they can often function in a third language. How do our stars stack up, for instance? How is Tuffy Anderson doing in El Salvador? I hope his Spanish is functional now. If Real Madrid want him next will he fall over his tongue?

We make light of our deficiencies, but the world doesn’t. We don’t see many of the lights that shine straight into our eyes.

Coin toss time: Brazil 2014

This is the week–June 12, to be precise. Kick off for the Brazil 2014 World Cup. These events have become mired in stinky, sticky stuff for many years. I don’t follow that very closely, but glance at much of it. What has been hitting the fan and spraying off onto walls and neatly pressed clothes?

Cameroon were in a spat about bonus pay, so were refusing to travel to Brazil. Well, a fool would have known that would not last long. However, it was resolved, Samuel Eto’o was not going to pass up a last chance to show his Chelsea team boss that age ain’t nothing but a number.

Eto’o was too funny after his age was questioned by his club coach.

The players settled their dispute with the government and Fecafoot (the national federation), and will receive 5.8m CFA francs (about US$ 12,000) more than the 50m CFA francs originally offered to each player for their participation in the tournament. The federation had to borrow the funds privately to pay the bonuses, pending money from FIFA months after the tournament.

Cameroon’s coach, Volker Finke, must be thinking what next? Anyway, the lads headed off to Brazil and are already happily snapping selfies on their smartphones.

Lots of teams played friendly matches to warm up for La Mondiale. Jamaica got a face planting by France in Lille on Sunday, 8-0. The Jamaican newspapers were full of guff, talking about ‘humiliation’, as if Jamaica, who made it to the big dance in 1998, in France, were in the same league as les Blues, who won the World Cup that year. Really? Jamaica limped in last in their group qualifying, and didn’t register a win: that was humiliation, not being beaten badly by the likes of France.

But, Italy did the strangest thing, playing against a top Brazilian club side, Fluminese, and winning 5-3. We were treated to Mario Balotelli sporting two different coloured football shoes, along with another haircut.

Mario ‘two coloured shoes’ Balotelli, keeps his hair on while playing Fluminese.

But, wasn’t that playing with fire? What if the local team had been on the phone with Brazil’s coach, ‘Big Phil’ Scolari: “So, which of them do you want seriously hurt, and which ones just banged up?” Italy’s coach, Prandelli, might have had a few players looking like chopped salami in a deli. Maybe, I’m just an old, cynical player, but my mouth would have been watering at the prospect doing ‘my part’ for my country. 🙂

Finally, for now, two points. First, teams have moved a long way in preparing for matches. England have done extensive preparatory work. This included team players being given iPads that contain a Brazil 2014 scouting app specially developed by the Football Association and tailored for each member of the squad’s needs. Makes you wonder: Candy Crushing Italy, before the first game.

What about nutritional preparations for the World Cup? Reports suggested fans would find local food will be much more expensive than usual. An app, Ju$to, has been created that allows price comparisons. I thought I would travel with some popular fare from Jamaica. Patties? Grace prepared meals? No, bully beef, produce of…Brazil. Well, here’s how it may be made into something very appealing.

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