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ETP in London at SOAS

February 26, 2008

Paris, Milan and now London. This was the final stage of the so-called “Inception Module” of etp. The etp group stayed altogether for four weeks in UK’s fascinating capital (more about my etp participation, etp in Paris and Milan and the official website http://www.etp.org).

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Sunset on Picadilly Circus
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For some of us it was the first visit. I went to London already in the early 1980s. It is quite unbelievable how much the place has changed since. I remember a city in black and white, no colors, endless fog and rain, gray faces and sometimes a teeth-less mad grin. Coming from Paris where I lived among Europe’s most beautiful people it was quite a kind of horror show for me. It was the time when Thatcher was just a few years in government, mainly fighting inflation. Her clashes with the miners and their radical leader Arthur Scargill were still to come. London was painted in the dark colors of poverty. And today? London has become a splendid, radiant and prosperous power-spot where tradition and hyper-modernity got married. This city shows one of the most beautiful faces of global capitalism in our time. It is difficult to admit, but Maggy Thatcher got something right. Moreover we were extremely lucky with the weather. Throughout the last two weeks it was sunny and unusually warm. The Britons, surprised as they were, started to sympathize openly with global warming.

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Anna (Hungary) at Covent Garden

Before coming to London we learned in Paris at Sciences Po about Japanese and Korean history, politics and culture. In Milan we got introduced to Asian economics, trade and financial systems at the Bocconi School of Management. Now it was the turn of Japanese and Korean language. At another famous university, the School of Oriental and African Studies SOAS, we studied for four weeks 5 hours per day and six days per week. Located in the very heart of Bloomsbury, surrounded by the memories of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Elliot and John Maynard Keynes, we shared an excellent time with a colorful society of students from all over the globe.

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Hare Krishna disciple spending free lunch to SOAS students

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SOAS is located at the beautiful Russel Square

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Russel Square seen from its café terrace

SOAS is an independent college of the University of London and one of the best universities in the UK (www.soas.ac.uk). We were divided in classes of 5 to 8 students depending of our command level of Japanese or Korean. There were in fact some students who were already quite good at their language. I was proud to be selected for the group of non-beginners in Japanese, but that turned out to be a big mistake. My first week at SOAS was terrible, I could not follow at all because I was supposed to be fluent in hiragana (phonetic syllable alphabet for Japanese words: あ=a; い=i; う=u; え=e; お=o; か=ka; き=ki; く=ku; け=ke; こ=ko) and katakana (same phonetic syllable alphabet for words of foreign origin: ア=a; イ=i; ウ=u; エ=e; オ=o; カ=ka; キ=ki; ク=ku; ケ=ke; コ=ko; etc.). With these two alphabets of altogether 208 characters you can paraphrase everything in Japanese, but only on a primitive level. Find a complete list of those characters here:

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Hiragana and katakana table: click on it

Learning to read and to write Japanese is mostly about replacing the long hiragana cascades by Chinese kanji characters: わたしはがくせいです (I am a student) becomes 私は学生です。For a good command of Japanese you need to know about 3000 kanji characters. Well, I even didn’t know all the hiragana and katakana and so I got badly lost during the first week. In the morning I had cold sweat before entering the class room and in the afternoon I was completely exhausted because I hardly understood what the teacher was talking about -in Japanese of course. I had the worst time because I was so bad at what I did which is something I am really not used to be. After one week I gave up and joined the beginners group. And there I found out what went wrong. Instead of learning Japanese with the kana version of the textbook Japanese For Busy People I before I went to join SOAS, I had been learning it with the romanized version of the same textbook which is much easier to read – as it is mostly written in English – and which doesn’t oblige you to learn hiragana and katakana by heart right from the start. This turned out to be a big handicap for me.

So watch out! Although they look alike, these two textbooks are quite different.

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While the classes at Sciences Po and Bocconi were extremely intensive in terms of information absorption, classes at SOAS were intensive in terms of concentration and the need of uninterrupted awareness. In small groups of hardly more than five students everybody had to contribute quite permanently. No way to relax and let the others just go on talking.

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Classroom scenes at SOAS

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If you do this five hours per day in a foreign language, you are craving for a beer already by early afternoon. And at this point British university tradition turned out to be more than progressive: Every college has its own pub! And there you get a decent pint of draft beer for two quid (i.e. 2 £). It took me hardly a day to fathom the basement of the main building and to find this gem of academic culture.

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From then on I spent most of my late afternoons at this place, marveling with a beer in my hand at student’s activities like conferences on “Rastafa Holistic Order”, discussions of esoteric text layers in the Qu’ran or sit-ins with the latest guru of transcendental meditation.

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Of course I was recognized as a foreign substance, a potential contamination from the evil outside world of globalized capitalism. Indeed, a good campus has always some characteristics of a social and psychical cocoon. Nevertheless I felt like a tolerated observer in a headquarter of ATTAC. I cannot say that I disliked it. I have certainly grown more bourgeois and conservative over the years. And it would have been an easy game to discredit those people as naifs who where twenty years younger than me in the average. They talked mostly about political, social and economic issues they had at best little understanding of. But I felt true, unpatronizing sympathy for them because there was no sign of a denial of life for the sake of higher political or religious ideals, the common symptom of ideologies. Altogether SOAS was by far the most bohemian, intellectual, cosmopolitan and genuinely youthful place on our etp journey through Europe.

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Algis (Lithuania), Giorgio (Italy) and Julian (Germany) from the Koean Group
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Christina (Portugal), Fabienne (France) and Eric (France)

We had also social events outside of SOAS. There was this cool pub The Eagle on 159Farrington Road (map) where we spent our first big evening in January. It was a hot recommendation of my friend Phil Whyte who is an expert on all kinds of eateries in London. Then we had a excellent and highly entertaining dinner with the Korean group and their teachers in a nearby restaurant (see pics on flickr). Some of us went to the annual party of the UCL Korean Society and arrived next day with impressive hangovers in their SOAS classes. Another great event was the Chinese New Years Dinner we had with a group of 13 students in Chinatown. Yulin was our perfect guide that night and we had a delicious dinner with many dishes that we didn’t know before.

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Martin (France) and Yulin (France)

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Julian, Giorgio and Frederic (France)

Phil showed me other places of high quality. I was particularly interested in how English cuisine is doing nowadays. The best place to find this out might be The Anker and Hope, 36 The Cut, Waterloo, just 100 m from underground station Southwark (map). We went there twice and that means we had two splendid dinners. The first time I had hare (rabbit) the consistency, color, texture and taste of it being like raw tuna. Delicious! Another English restaurant was St. John on 26 St John Street (map). This was a highly exotic experience as even Phil as a native Englishman hardly knew any of the dishes on the menu. The motto of this place is “Eating from Nose to Tail”. I had for the first time in my live pigeon which was a strange feeling. But I chose it because it was the only dish from the menu I could halfway imagine to eat.

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St. John’s menu

Besides, in London I fell in love with Amy Winehouse. I bought her new album Back to Black Deluxe Edition and my absolute favorite song is the demo version of Love is a losing game. Obviously drunk Amy plays her guitar and sings with a husky voice. It’s just beautiful and original, not the kind of canned music played by plastic people, this trash the majors bore us to death with. Amy was omnipresent these days because she had just won five absolutely justified Grammy.

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Ubiquitous Amy, here near Brick Lane

The Farwell Ceremony at SOAS was very emotional though kind of strange. Many people from Waseda and SOAS went on stage and delivered speeches, even quite good and funny ones. But none of the students was invited to say a word, even not the speakers of the two groups. As delegates of the Korean and the Japanese group Frederic and I took the initiative during the reception. It was the last time that we were all together. After London we will split up, the Korean group going to Yonsei University in Seoul, our Japanese group to Waseda University in Tokyo. In a stand-up speech we informed all of our mates that we had filed a proposal to the European Commission to organize mutual visits of the groups in Tokyo and Seoul. We also felt a need to say “Thank you!” to all the teachers at SOAS who where working as hard as we did and to everybody who has taught and supported us before at Sciences Po and Bocconi. This little speech was very well received and the Director of SOAS promised to offer an open mike to the ETP participants next year.

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Please find as usual the updated picture gallery here on flickr (more than 290 pics).

ETP Group at SOAS 2008
The Korean and Japanese etp groups 2008 with teachers

Message to my etp fellows
Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy ’cause Europe is going bye-bye” See you next week in Tokyo!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2008 9:24 am

    I found your site on google blog search and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Just added your RSS feed to my feed reader. Look forward to reading more from you.

    – Sue.

  2. Sebastien permalink
    May 31, 2008 3:39 am

    Hello

    I recently heard from ETP staff that the next promotion (2009 – 2010) could be the last one.

    Before talking to my boss about this program, what do you think about the ETP Japan (Waseda business courses, networking, japanese courses)?

    Thanks in advance for your help

    Sebastien

  3. September 13, 2010 3:36 pm

    I would be happy to see my blog linked to yours.
    Thanks for your interest.
    Cheers
    Regi

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