Wednesday, 29 May 2013

What I Learned About Russians as an Au Pair

(Published by the Moscow Times 20th May 2013)

People's first question when they hear that I've just returned from a winter in Moscow is usually: "What on earth drove you to go there?" The answer is not an easy one. I landed at Sheremetyevo Airport in January with dreams of balalaikas, samovars and golden domed churches. It did not take me long to realize that living in Moscow was less about folklore and literary romanticisms and more about surviving a harsh climate and an arduous routine.

When I contacted Dasha, a 30-something interpreter and family friend, looking for work, she instantly wrote back saying that her family would love to take me on as an au pair. Their dream is to immigrate to Australia within the next few years. "Life is safer there" she once told me "I don't want my children growing up in a society racked by drug and alcohol abuse. I want them to walk alone on the streets, free from danger."

But to adhere to the rigorous immigration laws, Dasha's husband Valera, an IT specialist, would have to pass an English language exam. So for 3,000 rubles ($100) a week, I was to care for her children, Sonya, 3, and Lyova, 2, and teach Valera English.

The family sleep in one bed in a tiny apartment in Zheleznodorozhny, an industrial town 21 kilometers east of Moscow. The apartment is also home to Dasha's 23-year-old brother Pasha, and his friends, a dog and a rabbit. The place is never quiet, and there's certainly no room for secrets. The lack of peace and bleak, unforgiving surroundings are enough to draw anyone into a deep depression...

Monday, 4 February 2013

Living in Toulouse: the many faces of la ville rose

Published article for Yuppee Magazine 04/02/2013

Picture this. It's 6 o'clock on a Sunday evening. In a gloomy suburb of Toulouse stands a red-roofed chartreuse. The landlady claims the structure is more than 100 years old - she whispers, with a mysterious wind, that it's VERY authentic, VERY toulousain. Inside, wrapped up in a duvet, a girl is reading Les Fleurs du Mal aided by the flicker of a lighter...

Click here to read the rest...

© Francesca Ebel D-504 blog

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Making war, not love: Moscow's "Kissing Day" turns violent

Russia's internal struggle over gay rights continues. Today, 30 LGBT protesters staged a "kissing day" outside Moscow's Duma: same-sex couples posed for cameras in an act of definance against the proposed ban of "homosexual propoganda" in Moscow. The demonstration was interrupted when protesters were attacked by a group of Militant Orthodox activists. The activists tried to break into the event and LGBT members were assaulted with eggs and obscenities. This is not unusual, nor is it an isolated case.

The bill would ban the promotion of gay rights, such as gay pride parades, in Moscow. A similar law has been passed in St Petersburg (November 2011) and in regions such as Arkhangelsk and Ryazan. It was under this ruling that Lady Gaga was unsuccessfully sued by Vitaly Milonov, a deputy in the St Petersburg assembly and United Russia member, for allegedly promoting gay rights to minors during her tour in Russia.

Lady Gaga on trial: the singer and gay rights activist was aware of the "propoganda" law but said she was not afraid to go to jail as her fans would undoubtedly bail her out

Homosexual acts were decriminalised in 1993 (gender change was made legal in 1997), however, homophobia remains strong. Indeed, nearly 44% of Russians support the re-criminalisation of homosexual acts. No action has been made to prevent the harrassment or discrimination of LGBT persons and, as illustrated at today's event, this has led to a lot of tension within Russian society. 

There is no official recognition of same-sex relationships in Russia - whilst Europeans are wrapped up in the controversy of gay marriage, Russia is a long way away from even accepting the concept of homosexual partnerships. Homosexuality was only offically removed from the list of mental illnesses in 1999 and the law against "homosexual propoganda" classes homosexualism, bisexualism and transgenderism in the same category as pedophilia: the love for another human-being is considered the same as an abominable crime. 

© Francesca Ebel D-504 blog

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A note for Gainsbourg

I realise that I am taking a liberty by putting up this brief, completely meaningless post. I apologise to those who don't understand: part of the reason I keep this blog is to express myself. It's not always coherent, necessary or inclusive.

On this fateful day, I'd like to take the opportunity to pay hommage to my principal source of inspiration: the brilliant and scandalous Serge Gainsbourg. Last year I conducted a research project on his life and work. I am fascinated by the way he provoked his contempories in France throughout his career. If you've never heard of him before I suggest you wikipedia him NOW. Right this second.

So, today has been one of the happiest days of my life and I know that he is spiritually responsible. Yes, you can laugh but thanks to the screen that separates you and me I can neither hear nor see you! So laugh away my good people!

Serge, wherever you are (probably entertaining the mighty Woland) I want to say thank you. You actually were my Angel of the Odd. We did it my friend, we actually DID IT!!!!

Serge, je ne sais pas ou tu es (j'éstime que tu fasses la fête avec le magnificent Woland) mais je veux te dire merci. Tu étais vraiment mon ange du hasard. Nous avons réussi 

mon ami, nous avons vraiment réussi!!!

© Francesca Ebel D-504 blog

Monday, 31 December 2012

A snippet of the most intriguing stories from 2012

2012: the year that changed everything. Or did it?

I’ve been lucky enough to spend this Christmas with my family on the beautiful island of Antigua. Every day, just before sunset, I take a walk through the luscious Caribbean rainforest which surrounds the area. Whilst these daily exertions have run the risk of being hounded by packs of savage dogs and, on one terrifying occasion, murderous donkeys (like cows, they have an evil glint to their eyes) they have also been an opportunity for reflection. Today, I was contemplating how innovative 2012 has been.

It’s been a big year. I've turned 18, left school and been financially severed from my parents. Britain held the Queen’s diamond jubilee, the London Olympics and is now expecting the birth of their future monarch. The world has been dragged through elections, uprisings, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars, economic turmoil and, through all the chaos, records have been broken, discoveries have been made and random acts of kindness endure. In a farewell salute to the past 365 days, I thought I’d ponder over some of the elements which have shaped 2012 in their own, unique way. This is not a summary. Nor is it a list of the most influential events or individuals. It's a snippet: a handful of newspaper cuttings from this incredible year.

Bradley Wiggins

It is as a lowly and inactive observer that I celebrate the achievements of Bradley Wiggins this year. He is, in my opinion, the British icon of 2012. Sir Wiggo (knighted at this year’s honours) became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France and, during London 2012, joined Sir Chris Hoy as the most decorated British Olympian. He beat the French at their own game and he effortlessly rocks canary yellow and sideburns. The man is a true role model and made me care that bit more about the world of cycling than I did last year. I pray that he doesn’t do ' a Lance Armstrong' on us.

Marie Colvin

This is a personal tribute as well as a nod to the news story which has dominated media outlets throughout 2012 and has inflamed sensibilities across the globe: the Syrian revolution. This year has not been without heartbreak, disappointments and tragedies. Among those was the untimely death of Marie Colvin. An award-winning War correspondent, her remarkable bravery and determination are an inspiration to me and thousands of others. In 1999, through her reporting and refusal to leave a besieged compound, she was credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children. This was not an isolated incident – she was not deterred when in 2001 she lost the sight in her left eye after falling under attack in Sri Lanka. Right up until the end she was a woman who fought for the causes she believed in: despite the Syrian authorities’ attempts to prevent foreign journalists from covering the uprising, Colvin crossed the border illegally on the back on a motorcycle. It was a move which led to her death in the city of Homs in February – she has not, and will not, be forgotten.

The Evolution of the Meme

How could we forget Gangnam style, Kony 2012, the Overly Attached Girlfriend and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy? We couldn’t. Because as an internet user, and I assume you are one if you are reading this, you will see them ALL over the internet. Whilst you can dismiss spending hours mindlessly watching videos of cats flushing toilets and chimpanzees on segways as a waste of time, it’s important to put it into perspective: we are possibly witnessing the beginning of a universal sense of humour. Just think, if the world shared the same jokes we could solve conflicts and prevent wars just by showing the “other side” a meme of the Grumpy cat. It brightens my day to have a little giggle at, what really is, a shared celebration of the absurdities of life. Whilst it is imperative that we pay attention to the monumental episodes of this year, it is also important that we don’t forget the small ones…

Images from

Pussy Riot

It’s time I wrote about this. Like L’Affaire Merah it’s something I’ve been following all year but for some reason cannot bring myself to write about properly. Nevertheless, I need to address one of the central effects of Pussy Riot: the incarcerated Russian rockers have revolutionalised the nature of political protest. They have illustrated, like the Occupy movement and Kony 2012, that the internet is a powerful political force: upload a video to YouTube and you can trigger a worldwide political movement, supported by stars such as Madonna, Paul Macartney and Lady Gaga. It doesn’t even need to be a universal struggle – make it “stylish” and the trends of the Internet will bring in the cyber troops. I will not attempt to defend Pussy Riot: what they did was wrong and I cannot abide the hypocrisy of western “democracies” in their accusations. Their punishment, however, was disproportionate to their crime and justice should always be fought for. 2012 also saw the re-election of Vladimir Putin, a strong leader often criticised for his inflexibility. This event alone will have long-term consequences for Russian politics and the country’s relations with the West.

The Denver and Newtown shootings

The killings shocked America and the world. Lack of gun control meant that the lives of hundreds were needlessly lost because of an out-dated, dangerous clause in the American constitution. Whilst some argue that it is unbalanced to focus on these events when the American government has been responsible for the deaths of so many innocent citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan , it doesn't change the fact that gun crime brings grief and hardship to families every year. This pain could be prevented. Shootings happen all over the world but it happens more often and more violently in the US. This needs to stop. Everyone knows it. The die-hard protection of the 2nd amendment has always been seen as inevitable and its revision impossible. Will 2012 be the year that the NRA finally starts to see eye-to-eye with the rest of the world?

If you’re not drunk already, take a moment to reflect on what 2012 has meant to you. I wish you all a very Happy New Year!


© Francesca Ebel D-504 blog