Don's Diary

November 28, 1997

Tuesday

Waterloo International 8 am. I do not know why I do this to myself (and my family). I have left a sick son in London, a stack of marking in Hull, along with piles of paper for my long-suffering spouse to sort. It is that time of year when my second-year language students think about spending their third year in France. They are not worried. I am: the deadlines for applying to French schools etc are near. Colleagues are no better. I need reports for my students' testimonial forms: "Will next week do?" No, because, just like every other year, I never learn. I am off on a whirlwind trip visiting the current crop spending their year abroad. I have toothbrush, shirts, socks and pants for four days but the important luggage is the laptop containing draft testimonial reports to put into coherent English in between writing reports on the students I am checking up on. Three hours' work on the Eurostar. Many of the reports are random jottings, sketchy, and often in jargon. Some colleagues not only leave out initial pronouns (use their names, why don't you?) but start aphaeretic sentences with a capital.

Lille 11.29. This is not a good start. There is no one who looks as though she wants to see me. My visual acuity has long gone and I live in an Impressionist landscape. Cataracts and degeneration of the vitreous humour make faces featureless until they come closer than I usually get to my students, except for the customary cheek-pecks: (we are, after all, in France). Julia explains that her train was late and she has to get back in 40 minutes for afternoon classes. A quick blanche instead of leisurely lunch, but I get a cornet of chips (with mayonnaise) after seeing her off.

Amiens 14.38. And it is raining. Tonya has an umbrella; she and Melanie have more nerve than me, running across four lanes of traffic to a nice warm bar. Enough power left in the laptop batteries to write up two more discussions of teething teaching problems and gestation of dissertations.

St Quentin 18.45. Still dark and raining more. My cheap hotel should be across the road. Under the bridge, lunar expanse, sinister in the blue light of a seedy bar. Yes, that's it. What with serving last customers, swabbing floor, stacking chairs, it takes some time for the man to check me in and explain the back door, but the room is warm and cheap. Throw everything down and off out with Jackie and Rachel. Jackie wants to try the TexMex in town for dinner. Back in the cheap hotel, I discover the usual drawback: only power point is in the light fitting over the washbasin. Two metres of flex is not enough to reach the table. No manual with the laptop, but if there were it would probably be disparaging about dumping the computer in the basin to charge. Put it on top of the wardrobe (bolted to the wall), looping the cord over the curtain rail.

Wednesday

Up early: if I wake up I get up, because if I fall asleep again I might miss the train and my schedule would fall apart. My visits are mainly academic: face-to-face over a cafe table I can pick out ideas and show students how to make a dissertation out of what they have achieved. It is enjoyable and rewarding. An hour's typing before the battery gives out: it is usually better than that: back on the wardrobe. The bar downstairs is just as gloomy in the morning but the coffee is hot. The station bookstall is selling mostly rubbish (and most of that translated), but I treat myself to the latest Pennac in Gallimard edition. Departures board is too far and too faint for me, but the EuropCity Parsifal Paris to Cologne, SNCF number 33, must be on track one. It is.

Today, it is Belgium. No sign of Rebecca at Namur, but just as I am wondering where she might be she pops up beside me. I want a cash machine: minimum is 2,000 Belgian francs (Pounds 33) but I shall buy cigars and not skimp on lunch. First, a blanche, best beer for morning drinking and talk. Rebecca is the happiest student I have seen so far: Belgium lovely, Walloon museum fascinating.

Thursday

Nancy. Five students to see. Hotel Foch is expensive, but computer plugs in beside the table.

Friday

Up early to catch Orient Express (so-called: second class is standard Corail coaches) to Paris, change stations, TGV to Lille. Six students to see. More typing, shower, dinner. Sleep. Wake in small hours, scan FM band, find discussion on Fun Radio about sexual acrobatics. One caller votes for Cossack position: up on wardrobe with legs apart (so that is why it is bolted to the wall). Still raining as I walk wide open space to Lille Europe. Stopped by customs at Waterloo. Do I have any arms, drugs, or pornography? Wonder should I tell him it is free on the radio.

Saturday

Camden. A good blowy day for my son's washing. Portable plugged in on his kitchen counter. Borrow mouse so I can select and move chunks of text easily. Pack son's fridge with food, and catch afternoon train back to Hull. Dinner ready in the oven, and tonight Thripp are playing (unplugged) support to Franny Eubanks at the Adelphi. Our kind of evening.

Stephen Noreiko

Lecturer in French at the University of Hull.

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