When is a walk a hike? Hiking Mont Vuache: a photo blogpost

Me posing and, ahem, wearing tights

At the weekend, Jen and I hiked up Mont Vuache. The small mountain is close by to us and we’ve been there before but this time we took a different route up and down. It’s a moderately difficult hike (that is, you can do it in trainers but not flip flops) and takes a few hours if you amble and enjoy the views as we did. We took the eastern route, which begins in the lovely hamlet of Chaumont and climbs steadily for around an hour before you reach a plateau with a much gentler slope.

An appealing part of the hike are the views. When higher, it offers an almost panoramic perspective: you can see a great deal of the Jura, Geneva and the Genevoise bassin, and Mont Blanc and the Alps. We loved seeing Salève, ‘our’ mountain close to home.

View of Mont Saleve, with the Alps in the background. Our home is down there somewhere.

You know when you’re arrived at the summit because there is a cairn there. You place a stone on the pile, rest for a moment, and if you’re like us, go and find somewhere to eat your lunch.

View from our lunch spot.

The descent was a little more difficult because the leaf fall of autumn hid the loose stones and rocks. Of course, the locals hot-footed it up and down in a nonchalant, carefree manner whilst I walked sideways like a crab, trying not to slip.

On the descent - the remains of the old castle are our goal

So – was this a walk or a hike? And does it matter? Well, it matters in how you classify it for Garmin’s Connect page, or Runkeeper, or any of a host of fitness sites that track and record your sporting activity. As for the definition, well – perhaps it’s to do with intensity, or how long you’re out there, or how fast you move.

We suspect these must be inedible - the locals would have snaffled them otherwise

I’ve tried for a while to define a hike and all I came up with is this: when hiking, you need a decent pair of shoes and you wear a rucksack. If what you’re doing on your own two feet fits this definition, then it’s a hike. Otherwise it’s a walk.

Clear view of Mont Blanc from Vuache, nice

Of course, you could easily walk the route we took to climb Mont Vuache in trainers and without a rucksack. But then it wouldn’t be a hike, would it?

Get the tongue wagging – wine tasting at St Martin at Peissy

Every year of living in France we’ve visited nearby Peissy, in the Genevois basin, to taste the wines as part of the St Martin’s Day celebration of new wines. It’s a fun day – the people are friendly, the wines (especially the whites) are excellent and there is some good food, too. I’m certainly no connoisseur, just an enthusiastic amateur but it’s a great chance to find out what the local Swiss wines are like.

Autumn is here. This barn is by Peissy, in the Geneva basin, where we went wine tasting.

It occurred to me while we were there that the tongue is at the root of wine tasting. Not only does it taste the wines, of course – but you get to talk about them. After a couple of ‘tastes’ (I drink, not pour) it gives you the confidence to speak freely about the flavours you find in the wines – I think it frees the palette, too.

The lunch of champions. The sausage is called an longeole, a long sausage made of beef and pork. Marvellous.

This freedom of the tongue stops short of declaring that the wines taste like ‘sweaty gym shoes on hot tarmac’ but it does mean you get to think about what you drink, which has to be a good thing. You might even find yourself saying things like ‘high tones’ or ‘long oaky finish’ if you’ve tasted enough. That said, no one appears to be drunk, of course – and young adults drink them, too. What an education. It helps understand why people are said to have a healthier attitude to drinking.

View from Peissy over to Geneva. The vines are changing colour.

A wine tasting event like this – which is informal, and run by the people who make the wines, so it’s an enthusiastic encounter, is perfect for tasting different wines all together, one after the other, so you get to compare. This is invaluable, I think – when you taste several together you can really understand some of the differences between them.

What a beauty… kept an eye on me the whole time. Lovely furry coat he's wearing, ready for the snow

Another pleasure is to take the camera. It’s autumn and despite some high temperatures for this time of year, the leaves have begun to fall and vines change colour. So, there’s some good opportunities to capture that my camera. Something for the eye and the tongue, then.


Can social media support social change? Geneva Forum for Social Change Conference

University of Geneva, 'UniMail', site of the 2011 GFSC conference

I recently attended a conference organised by the Geneva Forum for Social Change called ‘Social Media for Social Change: Bridging the Gap, Creating Impact’, held over two days at the beginning of April 2011. Geneva, Switzerland hosts several international organisations, including the United Nations, The World Health Organization and the International Federation of the Red Cross / Red Crescent, so it’s fitting that a discussion of social media should focus on issues of social change, global development, and humanitarian response.

It was timely, too: recently we’ve seen immense social changes in parts of North Africa and the Middle East, where a groundswell of public dissatisfaction has challenged the dominant power. The first discussion I attended addressed that issue directly and considered the role social media played in facilitating social change. Entitled ‘Social Media and Political Change: The Middle East Today and Civil Society’ we heard from the speakers how Facebook and Twitter, in particular, fulfilled several functions for those directly immersed in these periods of social revolution. Following this panel discussion, I listened to the next panel discuss ‘Innovative Social Media Trends in International Organizations‘ (you can learn who was on the panel and more about them by following the links above). Some members of the panels embraced the notion that social media has supported social change and continues to do so, whilst others probed more tentatively at its potential to harness activity.

We quickly moved beyond the notion that social media is neither inherently good nor bad but its value depends upon its use. The panels took turns to discuss their version of how social media might support social change. For some users, especially those in a repressed society, using social media meant that their story now had a global audience. The Twitterverse quickly understood that a primary source of news was available from those on the ground, intimately involved in events. Users providing updates through Twitter accounts offered an alternative source of news updates from the mainstream ‘old’ media. Yet, despite their apparent immersion in the event, such accounts, one questioner later urged, should be considered only as part of the entire ‘news picture’ we assemble and should not hold any special relationship with the truth. As with all perspectives, they should be evaluated in an objective, balanced and probing manner. Problems of authenticity remained: in some cases, often through no fault of the individual who reports on an event, information is inaccurate; in other cases, those sympathetic to the government are thought to mask their identity and attempt to undermine the people’s case, even posing as anti-regime protestors.

Libya and Egypt: net shutdown and ‘Speak to Tweet’

Even if we remain skeptical of the power of social media in particular and the internet more generally to facilitate social change, it appears that the ruling power in Libya is taking no chances. A well-reported shutdown of internet services, as shown in the graph of net traffic below, demonstrates how those in power there consider it a threat. As you can see, traffic flatlines at around 8am of March 4th 2011, thought to be a result of the Libyan government ‘pulling the plug’ on its net links.

Such examples also serve to show how flexible the net can be when its freedoms are threatened. In countries where net use was suppressed or unavailable, Google and Twitter combined to offer a ‘Speak to Tweet’ service. This was designed especially for those on the ground in Egypt who had little or no access to the internet. Users of the service would call a number and their voice message would be translated into text and tweeted onto a special Twitter account. No internet connection was required at any time.

Gladwell and Morozov: the revolution will not be evangelised

The arguments of Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, both of whom insist, in different degrees and through different arguments, that social media does not convincingly facilitate social change, were not represented in the conference. The reader can make up their mind for themselves: Gladwell’s most notable discussion can be found here. Morozov’s book, ‘The Net Delusion’ is available now; sample chapters, which give a flavour of the book’s central arguments, can be found here.

In my view, Gladwell’s assertions serve only to remind us that we shouldn’t rush headlong into the view that social media will revolutionise the frequency and the ways in which people will attempt to challenge repressive authority. Only the naive approach social media with an evangelical zeal rather than a energised skepticism. I don’t think anyone takes seriously his suggestion that social change appeared before Twitter, therefore Twitter cannot be central to social change – this misrepresents the view of those who understand social media to play a part, perhaps a growing one, perhaps even a central one, in the apparatus and resources of those who seek to challenge authority.

Development analytics: evaluating impact

Some panel members at the conference demonstrated their social media sites through slides and videos, mostly of Facebook (and equivalents worldwide), Twitter and other, sometimes bespoke, social networks. Many discussed the culture in which these social networks operated and the kinds of issues they raised. Even if not explicitly addressed, a theme was the two-way communication nature of social media. Users would seek and expect responses from organisational sites. Similarly, some social media services required moderation to prevent disinformation or inaccuracies, deliberate or otherwise.

Social Media for Political Change, a session at the GFSC conference

I asked a question about how the panel members measure the impact of their social media strategy. During the initial stages of projects on which I’ve worked, we’ve been faced with the question of whether to harness the popularity but suffer the inflexibility of existing social media networks such as Facebook; or risk creating a new social networks that could fall outside of everyday use but that would be tailor-made to fit our users. In all cases, existing social networks won and were used. But one insurmountable area of inflexibility is created by the ‘walled garden’ approach of much popular social media. Administrators of Facebook accounts will know that, in many other areas of the web, they might use metric services such as Google Analytics to measure web traffic and exposure: but because Facebook is behind a technological wall of its designers’ making, this is simply not possible there.

So, how does one measure the immeasurable? Needless to say it’s difficult. Both qualitative and quantitative analyses are inevitably cursory and relatively subjective. Members of the panel discussed how the quality of the discussions they found on their social network sites was a source of information of their impact assessments. The number of users or ‘fans’ of the account was less meaningful, given many sign up to such services (including for reasons to impress their friends) but do not actively participate. In addition to this, we have some tools at our disposal and used in conjunction, they can provided some indicators.

Another option is to think about how existing social networks ‘offline’ register impact. Outside of the web, there has been a great deal of research into this area; one might say that, in the absence of technological developments that measure web statistics, then ‘new’ media practice can learn from the ‘old’. Both marketing and the social sciences have been interested in assessing the quality of relationships for some time. We may also turn to businesses practice in thinking about our metrics, too: the branding of our international organisation often shares as many similarities with commercial marketing as it does differences.

Steve Bridger, the chairperson of the panel on social media innovation, was right when he retweeted the response of someone who said: ‘The only metric that really matters is ‘impact”, where impact means something like real tangible change to people’s lives. We all hope that these tools are employed to the benefit of those who use them. But if we’re interested in creating and/or facilitating impact, then thinking about the seemingly rather dry, seemingly rather bland areas of data analytics and metrics should be an integral part of any initiative which aims to inspire social change through social media.

Living in France: the honeymoon is over

We moved to France around 18 months ago from the UK, to the Rhône-Alpes region. I’ve blogged about it before (several times) and how much we love it here.

But now the honeymoon is over.

Things aren’t quite the same. The infatuation with the newness of our local surroundings; the striking novelty of the particular differences in people, culture, foods and customs; the thrill of gazing through the window to see the mountain outside – all these have gently, imperceptibly evaporated. It is no longer quite the same to buy croissants on a Sunday morning and eat them with a bowl of hot coffee. Nor are the always less thrilling issues with living in an other country in general, and France in particular, met with amused charm, a gentle shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders, and a reflection that it is these sometimes difficult but quirky charms that remind us we are somewhere else.

These immediate thrills are gone, never to come back.

And what has replaced them is a deeper love: a richer and more satisfying love, for the people and the places, for the culture and society, and for the abundance of opportunities in all facets of life that ‘our’ part of France and Switzerland offer. The mountain still sits outside my window: but when I gaze at it now, I meet it more as a familiar friend, a sight so well studied that I am beginning to know its nooks and crannies; the way the light meets the sheer cliff face at morning, noon and dusk; the effects of seasons – snows, blisteringly hot summers, the thick cloud of indifferent days; I know its paths, the climbs and the unique way it stands among the other mountains of the Alps. Familiarity, breeding something infinitely more sublime than contempt, rather seems to nurture a growing love, as if it feeds on itself. In a musical metaphor, gone are the teeny screams to The Beatles of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ to be replaced by the excitement, joy and sustained satisfaction of ‘The White Album’.

Le Grand Piton, dusted with snow

Le Grand Piton, dusted with snow

Not just the place, beautiful though it is – it is the culture – and for me the literature, history, politics, art in particular – that mean more than ever, that keep living here fresh and vibrant. Here, the more you look the more you find and its unending generosity is awe-inspiring, just as is the culture I have left and still love so. (Here, the addition of a new culture need not mean dilution: I love England as much as ever.) Without France’s and Switzerland’s infinitely rich history and culture, the landscape – the Alps, Lake Geneva, the beautiful Annecy, just for starters – would not be nearly so rewarding. They feed one another, mean something greater than the sum of their parts only when together, like a marriage. I’ve started to learn more about France through iTunesU, through podcasts and paintings, the French language and reading but, importantly, I have learnt as much as anything else by being here. It’s not an armchair adventure.

And all this is made the richer by having – for the first time, it seems – memories attached with here and nowhere else. I played an album the other day (one of my favourites: ‘The Courage of Others’ by Midlake) and realised that I had, unlike much of the music I listen to, only ever heard it whilst living here. It is from here, like me as I am now.

If this sounds like a lovesong, it is. If I sound pleased with myself, I am – and lucky, too. Now the honeymoon is over, let us start the marriage.

Sunrise concert at Lake Geneva

Up at five, we leave the house for Lake Geneva for the sunrise concert. We’re all tired and share a sense of unreality that being awake so early brings. To keep us going, we pack flasks of coffee and ‘l’escargot’, those delicious snail-shaped breakfast pastries.

When we arrive, there are already dozens of people there. The concert is free, but it’s still a surprise to see so many people. The conductor taps his baton on the music stand. The audience settles down. We wait…

This has to be one of the most serene moments I’ve spent amongst a (albeit smallish) crowd of people. The bains des paquis, on Lake Geneva’s rive droite, is usually quite lovely but this morning it was more tranquil than ever. We had promised that one day we’d see the sun come up over the lake. Now here we were.

At first the lights of Geneva and the moon were still visible on the left bank.

The dark before the light: the moon is top right

But soon the sun began to rise and swimmers took to the lake.

Swimmers in Lake Geneva, early morning (sunrise)

After an hour or so, the sun had risen completely and set that dazzling column of light in the still water.

Sunrise over Lake Geneva

The concerts take place most weekends during the summer; there’s no doubt we will be back next year. Like Le Tour de France, and the various beer and cheese fêtes, these concerts will remind us of the long sunny days we’ve spent here.

What I like about France, what I miss about England: leaving the UK, one year on

It’s been a year since Jennie and I left England to move to Geneva Switzerland, and later to nearby France where we live now. I won’t go into the sentimental details of the ‘anniversary’ – suffice to say that there was a little reminiscing over a glass of champers last night, thinking about the year that has passed – so instead here’s a list of how French life is great and the things I miss about the UK. In no particular order…

Why I love France

Weather. It’s hotter here in the summer than the UK, there are more days filled with sunshine, and it’s relatively consistent and predictable too. Summer last year was like the feted one in 1976 in the UK, the one we think all summers should be like. Since meteo.fr is particular to my specific area, the forecast seems always to get it right. There are some indifferent days, of course, but generally it is less damp than England, less gloomy. The barbie gets more use. Conversely, when it snows, it is colder than the UK, colder but a dry cold. What this means is there is a greater range of…

Outdoor activity. In the summer you can plan days out because it’s likely you’ll get decent weather. Since we live in the countryside, more or less, we have some excellent hiking, golf, cycling, climbing, swimming… the list goes on. We have a tennis court and football ground at the end of the road. The key thing is, as the winter comes the sports only get better: when it’s snowing, we go snowboarding or snowshoeing. It’s this kind of year-round activity that is one of my most favourite things about this place.

The mountains and the water. We live in the Rhône-Alpes region, so as you might expect there are lots of mountains and there is lots of water. We live around an hour or so from some of the best Alpine locations anywhere and I can see the Salève and Jura mountain ranges from my window. We have Lakes Geneva and Annecy, which we plan to boat on soon. What’s more, we have Geneva on our doorstep, so we get to do all the city things, too – and there are the all-important opportunities for work.

Food and wine. I’ve done some independent studies* on this and, in short, food is better in my part of France than in the UK. Much better. Even local stores have local produce, lovingly laid out and presented. (There is one exception, as you’ll see.) Even the small fact that France loves whisky, as do I, seems as if it is just the right place. The aisles dedicated to cured meat and cheese found in the hypermarché should be enough to convince you of its culinary superiority; if it doesn’t, try some of the local wines from Satigny, or the Rhône, or…

Secular, liberal, republic. So far, I’ve counted the physical things, like weather and mountains. But there are political or philosophical things, too. One of the latter is the fact that France is a modern, democratic secular, liberal, republic. This generally coincides with my approach, my politics. It doesn’t mean that France is without its issues. But nor does it mean that these high ideals are completely detached from public life either. You’ll find them in bars and restaurants and in the fabric of life out here. I even found a copy of Camus’ ‘L’etranger’ at the local supermarket.

People work to live, not live to work. Shops are closed on Sunday here (some large supermarkets are open in the morning) and often closed on Monday, too. Many more close for a long lunch, between 12.00 and 14.00. It’s annoying sometimes and takes getting used to, but it illustrates how the French try to put living before working. It’s not perfect, and we’ve been affected by strikes and so on, but it’s something I can believe in (and not just because I’m lazy, either).

Before you get on the plane (or not, as the case might be) to leave it all behind, there are some downsides, at least as far as I’m concerned…

What I miss about England

Family and friends. You have to leave your family and friends behind. That is, unless you can take them with you. I’m working on the latter. You get more popular when you live in a nice place and I try to convert every member of my family who comes through the door to move out here. France isn’t a million miles away, either, and it’s only a short plane flight to go to the UK. We all do a lot of social networking stuff, too.

Newspapers. The quality of newspapers here is very high. Le Monde, Le Figaro and even the free or cheap newspapers like 20 Minutes focus on more on news, not just gossip. But since I’m still learning French, I can’t read them effortlessly, which is how I like to read a newspaper, especially at weekends. The French Paper is quite good but it doesn’t have the frequency or sheer heft of a good old weekend broadsheet, stuffed with magazines and reviews.

Marks and Spencer. There’s plenty of good shopping out here, but there’s nothing like a Marks and Sparks. It’s the corduroy, you see – the cardigan. There is one in Geneva but it sells only clothes for women and food. However, I can order online, and it’s fairly cheap at around £5 to ship to France, so all is not lost.

Curry. Despite an ongoing fervent search, I still haven’t found a convincing curry house. The curry in Geneva, even in what appear ‘authentic’ places, is adapted (read ‘made innocuously bland’) to a Swiss and French taste in the places I’ve been. It’s just as well my wife Jennie is a great cook. On a related note, you can get Marmite and baked beans (other staples) but they are often horribly expensive.

Language. It’s hard sometimes to know that everyone around you doesn’t understand what you might want to say, that you are divided by a language, even if you might share common interests and beliefs. The answer is to learn French. If you’re like me, you might find this tough. But when you get a moment of breakthrough – perhaps you listen to the radio, and understand what is being said, at least in part – it is completely rewarding and worthwhile.

I can’t say I miss UK culture – music, tv, movies – because we get them all here. Without them it would be difficult, I think. And I can’t say we’re completely immersed in French culture, either. Some of it, especially some of the pop music and comedy shows, I’m happy to leave aside for now.

If you think these lists amount to my succumbing to the temptation (common in other ex-pats, I’ve found) to criticize their home country when they leave it, then think again: I love the UK and always will. A move away from home can mean that you love it just the same, not less. I’ll be supporting England in the football World Cup. It’s just that I now have another couple of teams to shout for, too – France and Switzerland. Addition doesn’t mean dilution.

But the biggest thing I’ll take, though, is not necessarily to be found in either the UK or France and is this: we feel good because we took ourselves from our relative comfort zones and tried something new and challenging; that we developed a new confidence and broader outlook that comes with the huge upheaval of moving to a country with a different language and culture; that we’ve not just sat and thought it would be nice to move, but actually gone and done it.

It’s not that people don’t do this kind of thing every day, or that it’s particularly unusual or daring or brave. We’re none of those things. It’s just that it is unusual for us, a challenge, something that has allowed us to be different from ourselves and one we’re lucky to say has worked out wonderfully. And who could not love an area like Haute-savoie when it has the motto: ‘In tartiflette we trust!‘ This is a place I’m happy to call ‘home’.

*I mean I’ve eaten in both France and England quite a lot.