This Week on teh Interwebs


Debrief on the DALF C2

When I took the C1, one of the jury members during the oral exam encouraged me to take the C2.  I didn’t need the C2 and nobody really needs it (you only need a B1 for a French or a Swiss (in Romandie) passport, a B1 at the university of Lausanne (I think because they make you take more classes) and a C1 for most French-language universities.  Out of pure vanity (bred from years of being knocked down by people with shitty English telling me how bad my French was) I decided to take the C2.  The key reason I wanted to take the C2 was because, like when I took the C1, my written French had gone down, paradoxically since working in the French part of Switzerland. At work, you mainly use French to talk with colleagues, and what you write in French always turns out to be the same thing. So your speaking skills grow as conversations change, but your writing skills stagnate because it is always the same formulas and stock phrases.

Most of the hits on my blog come from people looking for information on the two DALF tests.  As such, I hope the link above helps for the C1, and my advice below is pretty much the same for the C2: study the test format and how to “give them what they want” by taking a prep class; and work on your “peripheral” skills- if you don’t have a good “general culture” you will not have the gimme points you need. I passed in rather poor test conditions (had been in the hospital and was physically ill the day of the oral) and yet I hadn’t studied the way I wanted. This is not a humblebrag, read on:

1. To some extent, if you don’t have the level for the C2 you just don’t have the level.  You can prepare and study for the test and learn the proper techniques, but what wound up pushing me over the top despite an appalling lack of preparedness was the fact that I had a huge vocabulary. That’s not something you can work out over a couple of months. Either you have watched a lot of French tv and read a lot of books, or you haven’t. This is why I DO NOT suggest spending only a few months studying for this exam if vocabulary is your weak point.  At the C1 level vocabulary is important too. You can write gramatically and stylistically perfect French and speak without an accent, but if your vocabulary capital isn’t very high, you won’t pass either exam.  I would have failed this exam without my vocabulary.  I saw this in my prep classes: there were students better accents (ok everyone has a better accent than me) and with stronger grasps on grammar who were lacking the style and catchphrases of a larger vocabulary, which only comes from having a love for Francophone culture. This means watching tv, listening to the radio and reading books and magazines. If you don’t do these things already in French or don’t want to for the purposes of the exam, you might want to stick with the B2 or the C1.

2. The C2 is an unnecessary test- I can’t think of any place, maybe a journalism school or an advanced teaching school where a C1 wouldn’t do, and the C2 is a bit harder. Even the HEP in Switzerland only asks for the C1.  I think BS-ing the C1 is within the reach of a fair amount of people but trying to BS the C2 like I did is an expensive gamble. Ask yourself why you want the C2? Can’t the *easier* C1 accomplish the same goal?  I would be interested in any comments from people who were specifically asked for a C2 exam for administrative or professional reasons. As mentioned above, mine was pure vanity, and an exercise in regaining self-esteem after being told by people how shitty my French is. Well no, apparently it isn’t because I passed and now I have the piece of paper.  Also remember that language proficiency is the law of diminishing returns: someone with a high B1 in French isn’t getting much more out of his or her professional or social life than I am at C2. So…if you are taking it to be “papered up,” great, but if your boss or your school only wants a B1 or a C1, this is a tiring and difficult way to overkill.  (as an aside, another subject for another post is how the B2 is a bullshit exam in French and you might as well take the C1).

3. Even more so than for the C1, speaking good French isn’t enough, LEARN HOW TO TAKE THE TEST. The C2 is harder than the C1, with only two sections: the listening and oral are combined, and the written comprehension and the essay are combined. I scored much higher on the oral section (I had gotten a perfect score on the C1) but on both tests my writing was disproportionately lower (still passing but yeah). My score in writing was lower than it could have been because I didn’t respect the format, because I didn’t learn the format, because I missed so much class being sick and travelling. Know how to write a “plan”, know how to write the different types of essays requested. Like I said for the C1, you either need to take a prep class, get a ton of books, or have spent time in France-French schools to understand the pedantic way they want things. This advice goes for all language tests, actually: speaking well doesn’t mean you write well, and it doesn’t mean you know how to follow instructions and have good test taking techniques. Like the SAT, the DALF C2 needs prep time.

4. For books, I used the same ones mentioned in the C1 prep, but also another Tegos book,    “Réussir le nouveau DALF – Niveau C2.”  Remember at this point in language study, you shouldn’t have any picky grammar issues. If you do, you don’t have the level. You should be able to write 300 words in a couple of hours without relying heavily on a dictionary or a spellchecker. I didn’t use my dictionary in the C2 except for reading it at the end when I finished an hour before everyone else.  You should be able to have an involved conversation about a specific news topic in reasonably full detail. So these books really only focus on listening and writing, and your teacher preps you for the spoken exam.  If you need a push in grammar (I did before the C1), I really like the Nouvelle grammaire du francais from Hachette for reading. I’ve used various editions of it since my Montpellier days and it is good to just flip through. You could then get a workbook, either the Hachette edition (niveau moyen, more on that next sentence)or the one CLE Grammaire progressive du francais  intermediate edition). I’m not suggesting getting the advanced books because one tip from my C2 teacher, who is right, was not to use the “advanced” exercise books for grammar help but to pick out books aimed at a B1 level- because if you are truly lacking in something, any advanced book isn’t going to tell you why you don’t know it, whereas an intermediate book is going to spell it out.

I hope these random thoughts help.  I’m happy to respond to comments and if you found this because you are taking the exam, good luck!


Requisite election day musings

I’m happy to have had a busy day in Amsterdam so far…work has slowed down but I have some French homework to do before my plane. The more I think about this election, the more sad I am. The election being over won’t change anything because people have gotten so nasty. I’m grateful to live in Switzerland and to have travelled enough in my youth to know that there are different and better ways to live than some of the shtick Mittens tried to sell us during the election in the US (note to naysayers: why yes, I will stay in Switzerland since it is so awesome, you can stay in your third world America, not my problem).  An Obama win doesn’t make me happy either, with all the drones and monitoring and all that.  Either way, the United States is a broken, messed up place, and the election outcome isn’t going to change that regardless of who wins. As I have said before, the only thing that scares me about a Romney win is that women will lose most of the rights our mothers and grandmothers fought for, as Mitt Romney and especially Paul Ryan simply hate women unless they are pregnant white married Donna Reed types. You say now “oh it is just abortion” but it isn’t- the War on Women is only just beginning. I don’t think Roe v Wade would survive a Romney presidency’s Supreme Court justice picks. And if Obama wins he is only pushing off the inevitable for a few years until teabaggers have full (instead of the current partial) control over national policy. But in other matters of policy the two mainstream candidates are essentially the same in my book.


I have a lot of work to do tomorrow at my first day back in the “real” office in a week and I am afraid I will wind up staying up tonight (last time the results were called around 4am), or not being able to sleep even though it really doesn’t matter who wins.  I guess I care because this is the last election that “means something” to me. Why? In 2016, I don’t even have to be American any more if I don’t want to. News flash: I DON’T, the tax burden is too high as I get older and no one elected anywhere wants to change our tax code meant to stick it to the middle class and until the United States stops being one of only three countries in the world- effing Eritrea and North Korea being the other two- who tax its expatriates, having an American passport will only bring me trouble when I retire because I can’t afford the accountants rich ppl like Mitt Romney have. People ask me why I don’t like being American? Well we fight wars I don’t want to fight, take rights away from women, forget about our old people, and tax expatriates. I don’t understand all the people I know who are proud of their countries. I don’t know what to be proud of. I had a professor in college from Benin, and he was like “yes but you had public services (like schooling) growing up I didn’t have etc” (I’m summarizing) but what he didn’t realize is that the American dream doesn’t exist any more and people are pretending that is does. I come from a middle class family and it took a lot of people hustling during the relatively prosperous 90s to get me through college, and what was spent on me meant less money for my cousins to go. I am the only one in my extended family with no school debt and I was one of the first of my cousins to actually complete a degree because of all the people helping me out. And I still worked 3 jobs. And. So if it was that hard for me, how hard is it now, in the recession, for someone from the lower classes to rise up? Practically impossible. Yet another thing this election won’t change: at the end of the day, our ruling classes, Democrats and Republicans combined, are all about keeping people in their caste, poor people staying poor, middle class people always struggling to stay there, and the rich getting richer off of everyone else’s backs. I’ve said it since college, it is all about the class struggle. Pick a social issue and I can bring it back to the class struggle.


I’m calling it for posterity: I think Obama would win a free, fair election but we don’t have those in America any more (see Bush v Gore), so I’m calling it for Romney, who will take Ohio and Florida due to voter fraud, vote tampering and other forms of disenfranchisement.   My intuition tells me there will be some court challenges- I don’t think this election is over tonight.

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Carmex Emergency!

Like many lip balm addicts, we all have a story about our tipping point: the event that turned us from casual balm users into full-blown addicts. For me, several painful events at university whereby I got cold sores if my lips got too dry made me associate the lack of lip balm with nasty cold sores. Further experience showed me that lack of carmex, specifically, was responsible for at least one cold sore episode. I won’t get into the details but years of use has meant i usually use carmex twice a day, keep a pot in my purse, and use other balms or lipstick during the day. (Here i could talk about why i don’t like carmex in a stick but that is another topic for another post, also the fruit of years of personal research).

Travel has meant that my purse contents have changed a bit and today I found myself in the middle of a foreign city with no less than seven lip products in my purse… but no carmex nor its backup tube of zovirax (full disclosure, but what is nice is that it was bought in Algeria so Arabic lettering on the tube means less shame IRL). Panic. I have not been without carmex since exactly September 2003, when I made an ill fated trip to Colette in Paris, 45 minutes from Melun, to spend 7€ on a pot of Carmex (which costs 93 cents at wal mart). What made me realize the error of my ways today was sitting in the sun and feeling my lips tingle. Not the good tingle of carmex but the bad tingle of “impending cold sore meaning weeks of crusty burning pain and throwing out all my wand lipgloss.” I assessed my surroundings. No stores or pharmacies nearby. I briefly considered blistex but then decided the peppermint lip balm i had in my purse would have to do until i could find a pharmacy. I suffered through the three hours my afternoon activities were separating me from the hotel hotel, where my trusty pot of carmex was waiting on me but it seems i may have gotten out of this episode unscathed. And that first hit of carmex felt real good and am sure on some cosmic level prevented a cold sore.

Moral of the story 1: if i ever get stuck in an elevator, i am not having a panic attack because i have to pee or think i am going to die, but because i don’t have carmex.
Moral of the story 2: today i didn’t but i can and will cancel plans and spend ridiculous amounts of money to ensure a steady source of carmex.
Moral of the story 3: it has been over nine years since i was last without carmex for more than a few hours.


Unbelievable how dependent we are on technology. This is my first WiFi of the day. I must say it is restful to disconnect. I don’t know how i feel about people taking technology “breaks” but i like the idea of spending several hours disconnected at a time. I still checked my work email, but only once at 8am and once again just now.

At the same time, some of the things i did today wouldn’t have been possible without twitter- a chance meeting with an online friend, a restaurant recommendation- but i have so far enjoyed my mini technology break. As i am on the slowest wifi of the world, i will leave you with one picture of Pablito, taken by the lovely Swiss Twist, who is also taking part in the back2blog challenge.



Getting to know Packing Cubes

This post is part of Stephanie Booth‘s 10 day blogging challenge.  You can read about the details and join in here , and check the hashtag #back2blog for the others who are doing the same.  While I blog regularly at Muslimah Media Watch, I should do more here. So here is post 1 out of 10, enjoy!

The past year, having done many trips back and forth Zurich-Lausanne, trips to France and Italy and Spain (if you stretch the definition of year) and regular work trips to Amsterdam and London, I have been trying to resist my natural urge to overpack and become a more zen traveller with less ballast.  Two criteria have helped me whittle down: I refuse to check luggage so I must limit my toiletries to the 3-1-1 bag (a makeup lover’s nightmare); and, if whatever I want doesn’t fit into my Patagonia MLC, it doesn’t go (nb: the MLC is too large generally for three or four day trips, but I find it holds my work laptop and assorted textbooks as well as my clothing, thus reducing the need for a book bag or a tote).

So once I found the perfect bag and the “as good as it is going to get without checking the bag” toiletries situation, I started wondering how I could streamline further, and chats with Stephanie as well as journeys to the ends of the internet led me to packing cubes, the little rectangular things that help you sort your clothes even further. I’m usually skeptical of the little accessories of a capitalist, consumer society, and I feel like some sort of poseur  flashpacker (halfway there with the Patagonia bag anyway). However, that balances out against the “digging through my luggage in a hotel room at 8am when I am late for work in Amsterdam” and have gotten cubes in the hopes of just having the peace of mind of knowing where my crap is without dumping the compartment-less MLC upside down on the bed.

My trip to Amsterdam in the coming days will be my first trip with the cubes. I have two smaller cubes (socks), two medium size cubes (t-shirts) and one big cube for dirty clothes as they get dirty (trick I learned online, somewhere at the ends of the internet). I’ve already packed everything but shoes and trousers. My first assessments are:

-cubes are definitely a “nice to have” item rather than a necessity.  For the usually-under-four day trips I do, they might be overkill, and to be honest, I could easily pack the MLC without them. I’m not in love yet. I feel like this is another one of those things, like armpit bleaching deodorant, that capitalism tries to tell us we need or something, but no.  I think I would only start getting my money’s worth out of cubes at the day 7 or 8 mark but for 4 days I’m still in “gadget” territory. But like a good sport, I’m giving them a try for this short trip.

-In my case, since i pack reasonably light, the cubes add bulk for shorter trips. The ones I have are no-name brand but pretty light but the MLC has soft sides and the cubes make it pooch a bit.  However, the bulk is offset by everything being there color-coded by cube (underwear in one, socks in one…), and the organizational aspect is currently worth a few more centimeters to me. (For MLC fans- if the MLC is stuffed it will not fit into some of the smaller European jet overheads. Best bet Europe intramuros is to keep it only 3/4 full so as to smush it).

So I’m not sold on the cubes yet, but am excited to try. I’ve gotten to the point professionally and personally where I need to think as little about packing as possible (I probably spent an inordinate amount of time agonizing over buying the cubes, then the birthday GC helped stop that) and I am hoping that the milliseconds I save each trip not looking for underwear will somehow add up.

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Some more thoughts on skincare in airplanes

While looking for ways to tweak my airplane routine in prep for my trip to New York, I was surprised at the number of people google told me about who don’t do anything for their skin before getting on a plane. I’m definitely not a barbie girl, still pretty low-maintenance, but just hopping on the plane I don’t get, it can really mess up your skin for a couple of weeks.  For those of you who have met me, y’all I’m definitely not a person who cares about looks and clothes, but for me, skincare and light makeup is about overall maintenance and how we present, regardless of weight or “fashion” issues. 

Anyway my usual routine goes a little like this:

1. Overall Hydration: you should start this a few days before you get on the plane. Drinking five liters of water on the plane is just going to make you pee a lot and do very little for your skin. I up my water around three days before- that is what will make the difference for your skin, not loading up on the plane.  This also means cutting out the salt and the alcohol (for those who do that) a few days before.  The night before I also do a mask and shovel on the night cream and usually have some coconut water for the magnesium. 

2. Sunscreen: A lot of blogs say you should sunscreen while you are on the plane. While it is true that you can catch UV in the plane, sunscreen is bad for your skin- it clogs pores and doesn’t let your skin breathe.  As anal retentive as I am about sunscreen (every day of every month of every year), I never wear it on planes. It just isn’t worth the irritation and big pores from having 12-18 hours of it sitting on top of your skin in a compromised environment.

3. Cleansing in the plane: I don’t want to know where the plane water comes from.  So I am not a big fan of using that water on my face, and I don’t think wipes do the type of cleansing you need in that environment.  So what I do is take my shower and wash my face as close to leaving as possible, then slather on what I would use as a night treatment, regardless of it being a day or a night flight. Then I don’t touch my face, except to put on more eye cream, until I get to the lounge (why yes that is how i roll). I think wipes are good to have on you if you are dealing with delays or accidents, but I don’t think they should be your main cleaning situation because they won’t go as deep as you need for 12 hours of plane funk on your face.

4. Makeup on the plane: I don’t, not at all. Like sunscreen, some products are bad for your skin in certain environments. And don’t give me the crap about mineral makeup if you don’t want to hear the story about the woman who used Bare Minerals and never washed her face ever again, because it was “natural.” This is where wipes have an admitted benefit- if you absolutely must be somewhere when you get off the plane and don’t have a lounge, then by all means wipe off your night cream and throw on some TM and mascara before landing. I’ve also found that in business class people are more worried about getting their sleep on or finishing that presentation they need, so no one is going to be looking at you. 

5. Lip balm etc: you want the richest, heaviest, thickest lip balm you can find. Personally, straight up lanolin is your best bet, but plain shea butter or cocoa butter can work too. Then throw something on top of it like vaseline to seal it.  I generally use a cuticle cream on airplanes too, because the hand sanitizers rip my skin like my mofo. 

6. What do I carry for the plane:  because i do my skincare and hydration before, those items get packed and ziploc bag gets what I take for when I land.  Before getting on the plane, I use  my beloved nuxe oil on my entire body, including face and hair, then touch up my face with  clarins flash balm and the “matching” eye balm. For when I land, I wash my face at the first clean bathroom without a dubious water source with whatever is on hand (this trip will probs be Shiseido Perfect Whip in the tube), then moisturize with whatever LRP moisturizer I am using lately (right now Rosaliac) or some DDML.  The two or three days around flying are not the time to do harsh scrubs or retinols or any moisturizer with “weird” ingredients- wait until day two or so after landing when your skin has adjusted to your new climate.  Keep loading up on eye cream for a couple of days as well.

And please, unless you want to hear the NSFL Bare Minerals Lady story, wash your face before you get on the plane. 


Reforming Islam

*rant from phone at lunch so forgive formatting issues*

I’ve gotten a lot of crap lately, bordering on harassment at times, regarding my points of view on religious freedom and what it means to be a practicing Muslim.


Beyond the old classics like “Muslims don’t condemn terrorism/violence against women/skittles” arguments, I think my favorite trope of them all is “But so-and-so disagrees with you and she’s a feminist and a Muslim did you read what she wrote!” Well good whoever this week’s reformer or so-called Muslim feminist is.  While some public Muslims are doing very good jobs at building bridges and raising the dialogue, some of them are out there to get a paycheck. Money talks so pay attention to who is paying them and why.


I’ve said it before in a number of fora but it bears repeating: One of the criticisms the “Muslim community” has raised (why yes I will speak for Teh Islamz since everyone else does) is that no one listens when “normal Muslims” condemn terrorism/violence against women/bad stuff.  Now flip that coin. When the MSM “listens” to a “Muslim”, ask yourself why? Are MSM outlets really interested in what Muslims of all walks have to say, or are they interested in points of view that feed their tired stereotypes about what it means to be a Muslim woman?


That’s my answer to those who pull my feminist card or my Islam card. Your reality is not mine and you don’t speak for me.