BLAGGING IT IN PARIS : What I miss most about Manchester

In this episode my guest is an old friend, Georja Calvin Smith who is a TV journalist and producer currently based in Paris, France.

Here she talks about:

  • her relationship with and favourite memories of Manchester
  • her first experiences on the bus
  • her thoughts on chips & curry
  • how she bla… I mean navigated work situations that required French language skills before she had French language skills
  • and how she communicates her story of being from Manchester and more broadly coming from the UK when in international situations.


➤ This is exciting because I’m speaking to somebody who does this for a living. So now I’m a little bit, you know, I feel inferior.

No you don’t! [laughs]

➤ I do, because this is what you do. This is your thing!

I do nothing like this whatsoever. I sit down, I prepare my scripts, I spend a long time working out [how] to allow other people to say what it is that they want to say or they have to say. Maybe I might hold them to account or I might pick them up on some stuff but it’s quite well shaped.

Because it’s like, ‘Okay fine we don’t have a very long time. We’re going to talk about a festival or this new event or award or whatever – we’ve got five minutes bam bam bam.’ We move through it. Whereas this is like a normal person conversation — I’m hoping. Kind of, -ish! So I really wouldn’t waste any of my emotional energy on being feeling inferior. All good! 

➤ Okay, I want to talk about Manchester to start with because this is the theme of this podcast. Do you identify yourself as somebody from Manchester? What’s your relationship with Manchester? Let’s start there. 

Okay Manchester, this is so funny. So I find the premise of this podcast really interesting because I almost feel unqualified to talk about Manchester because I’ve been away from it for so long, even though it was extremely important to me and I was there for a good ten years. And I was going back – all together my time, my relationship with Manchester spanned about fifteen years. Crikey! 

➤ Now you’re in Paris. When people say, ‘Where are you from?’ how do you respond? 

Yeah but I’m a weird person — 

➤ We know that! 

Well yes and I celebrate that man, I love being weird. So I generally say, you know, ‘I’m British.’ ‘I’m English,’ actually. I used to say English because I really didn’t know what the big difference between English and British was but yeah I say I’m British mainly because I think that’s the easiest way that you can get a broadly relevant understanding of my outlook and influences.

But you know, I’m not just British. I’m not gonna, on the podcast, go into too much detail about you know my specific background but there are a lot of things going on in there. I’ve lived in Paris for a super long time. I grew up in London. I spent a long time in Manchester. You know, I’ve got some other countries going on in the background as well so for me, because I’ve always circulated amongst people with multi-faceted stories, it never occurred to me that when I was saying I’m British or I’m from London or I’m from Manchester, people are putting me in a box because I don’t do that. I’m like, ‘Hey, okay cool, so you’re telling me you’re from Singapore,’ and in my mind I’m like, ‘Singapore is part of this person’s story and I still have to find out the rest of the story,’ you know – this kind of open-minded approach to peopling.

Knowing that everyone has a complex story in a way for me is a bit of a privilege because I grew up in an environment where that was demonstrated to me through my schooling, through my family and it never occurred to me that you know a lot of the other people I was interacting with actually needed to boil things down to a simpler, kind of a smaller box. 

So for me basically Manchester is very important to me. I loved the city. So much of the most important things in my life happened in that city. I felt a lot of joy. I also felt a lot of pain and it’s funny, I was thinking just the other day if I went back to the UK where would I go? 

➤ I’m thinking the exact same! So what did you come up with? 

I don’t think I could go back to London because it just seems too much of a bother. I think Manchester might be a bit too painful actually, just because of how joyous some parts of my life were there and how secretly sad other parts of my life were there. And I think I’m all about fresh starts so I think I’ll probably go someplace like Liverpool. 

Really? You’re considering Liverpool? 

Yeah. I mean, I’m not considering anything but if I did, I probably would, I think. Manchester would be a bit too complicated just emotionally. 

With Liverpool you’re just far enough but also within reach. 

Yeah I mean, I love the north of England. I grew up in London. The first time I went up north, I went to uni at University of Manchester and I remember my boyfriend at the time drove me up in a silver Beetle that kept on breaking down. I hadn’t actually visited Manchester, I wanted a university that was far away from London so I would be far away from my parents, that had like a really good reputation, but also you know, where I could party a bit, so I was like, ‘That’ll do!’ — and literally the way I made decisions when I was younger, Jesus!

And so about 40 minutes into the drive up to Manchester, I was like, ‘Where is this place? Like seriously! Are we still driving?’ I hadn’t really been outside of London. Like, you know, there were so many things I’d never encountered, you know. When I got up there, when people were like, ‘Oh bloody Londoners!’ 

➤ What were the things you first noticed in Manchester? 

The center. It was really small. I was like, ‘City center is really small!’ When people were like, ‘We’re going into town,’ I was like, ‘We’re in town, aren’t we? Like, what do you mean we’re going into town? You mean like, the place where there’s some shops?’ 

➤ ‘Go to town.’ Yeah, you’re right. You can’t say that in London. 

No. I was like, ‘What town? Aren’t we in town? Don’t we live in town?’ And like, one of the big things that struck me was: people are so nice on the buses! Like, [northern accent] ‘All right love!’ And people used to thank the bus drivers! I was like, ‘What is this craziness?’ I used to aggressively ignore all people on public transport, you know, survival rule number one as a child getting the bus into school and back from school. 

➤ Growing up in Manchester for me, it’s like the reverse of you, when I first moved to London the thing I noticed was in London you have to push the button to get off. In Manchester we don’t do that. You know you just go and stand there and the bus driver just assumes you want to get off which is a weird thing for Londoners. 

I know! Like, your humanity suddenly comes into the equation. You make eye contact. Like, [northern voice] ‘Morning!’ ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’ with everyone, when you’re buying your bus ticket. I mean this was a while ago. 

➤ I was gonna say, to be fair, neither of us have been there in over 10 years now. 

[I haven’t] lived there, but I’ve been there. 

➤ Right! Yeah ok but go on continue with the list of differences you noticed. 

Yeah bus drivers being really friendly. The city – it was like, ‘Wow I can now just budget like 40 minutes max to get from one place to the other,’ rather than like an hour and a half like in London. 

➤ Where did you live? 

When I first moved? Oh yeah, so I have a really funny story. So like you know, I used to live in… Oh god, what was it called? If you got off the bus in front of where the BBC used to be and then you kind of walked down past… what was the name of that huge club? The old Hacienda? No. What was the club? It was somewhere around there, some big old club that people used to get excited about that kind of passed me by, but anyway, past the Spar. Oh, that was another thing: Spars! I’d never seen a Spar before. But anyway and then you went straight down and you kind of got to the halls of residence. I know my memory is very hazy, it was a long time ago.

But anyway so, for a good ten months, when I came back from London, I would get off at the train station, I would get the bus to Oxford road and then I would walk to my halls of residence which was a good 10-15 minutes. And obviously I’d do the opposite to get to the train station to when I was going down to London.

And one day I was really late, I thought, ‘Bollocks to it, I’m just going to get a taxi,’ so I ordered a taxi and the taxi came and he basically turned left drove for like three minutes and I was in front of the train station! I was like, ‘Wait! What? What? What just happened? Did you just traverse dimensions?’

I realised I had been traveling in a humongous circle for ten months because the train station was literally behind the building in which I lived. So literally it took five minutes to walk from one to the other and I’d literally spent ten months paying to get public transport and, oh my god queuing in the rain to get a bus and then walking to the bus station then walking back. It was so funny. 

And then also I remember when I was walking through there I was like, ‘Why are there so many women standing underneath the underpass to the train station? Like, why are they here? Where do they go? 

➤ You were not that naive! You were from London! 

Yeah I was that naive. Until somebody told me, ‘They’re prostitutes.’ And I was like, ‘Oh! [long pause] Okay. I see now.’ I actually remember how sad I felt because I was like, ‘Oh my god, that must be so cold.’ Yeah, when my heart was still soft back in the old days. 

➤ When you still had feelings! 

Exactly! Before I exorcised them from myself to survive! 

➤ So the taxi driver blew your mind. 

Yeah, he showed me the importance of maps and actually paying attention to your environment before you make big travel decisions. That was okay. 

➤ Today living in Paris, you don’t speak much about Manchester, you just say UK, in general? Or does it ever come up? Like, ‘Where in the UK are you from?’ 

It depends on what’s going on you know. If it’s something about my experiences, I think Manchester is more relevant because some of the biggest things that happened to me that shaped my later life happened in Manchester. However, if it’s in terms of who I am, where I’m from, I’d probably still kind of talk about London because that kind of shaped… that gave me my emotional foundation that I took later to things that happened in Manchester.

So yeah, I think they’re both equally as important but in different ways. You know I did a lot of living in Manchester but to be honest I’ve done a lot of living in Paris, you know. Life is, you know, you never stop, it’s just different phases. So each one of these places has had a different version of me. 

➤ So we talked about moving to Manchester. What were some of the first things you noticed when you moved to Paris? 

Okay! I noticed that the architecture was very nice! And I noticed that I had a good job. 

➤ What about the language? Was there a challenge? 

[Laughs] Yeah of course there was. I mean, I totally blagged the job interview. At the last minute the person doing the interview was like, ‘[French accent] Er.. Parlez-vous français?’ And I was like, ‘[English accent] Oui! Je parle un petit peu de francais! Je l’ai appris a l’école! Je m’appelle Georja!’

And she was like, ‘Okay that’ll do.’ So to be honest, you know what? She wasn’t stupid. So I don’t even know if i can call it a blag. She must have known it was pretty basic because I literally reintroduced myself because that was all I could remember from school. 

➤ So you didn’t have it prepared? You had these sentences already off the top of your head. 

That’s just what I remembered from learning French at school for like a minute. I mean, actually I think I did GCSE but I’d literally forgotten everything.

I remember the first meeting that I had when I arrived and the meeting was in French and then afterwards, all I could remember, all I could understand was ‘Iraq’ and then the boss turned to me and he was like, ‘Right Georgia, I want you to…’ well, he said it in French but I kind of put it together, he was like, ‘I want you to do a piece on Iraq,’ and I was like, ‘Oh… kay!’ 

➤ That’s brave! 

I mean I didn’t really have a choice, did I? I couldn’t be like, ‘[Exaggerated voice] Excuse me! I feel that perhaps my linguistic abilities are not up to be doing my job, so I’ll just stick this one out if that’s all right with you!’ 

➤ Okay so you have to tell me what happened! 

So yeah. I went and googled Iraq and I looked at the top stories of the day. They had a big long meeting about it and I had no idea what anyone was talking about so I just googled whatever was happening in Iraq and then I kind of went back to him and I was like, ‘Yeah. I just want to double check. Did you want me to do this story or this story? Just because I think both are equally valuable.’ And he was like, ‘Obviously this one.’ I was like, ‘[Casual] Yeah. Yeah, I knew that. I just thought you know, it’s important that we discuss this.’

I mean obviously I was working in English, I just didn’t understand what he’d said to me in French. So once that was established I just kind of did what I had to do. And that was pretty much every morning. I just used every other trick in the book to try and establish what was going on and be looking at people’s notes over their shoulder. I’d like go back and write down key words and then like try and work out what people were saying. I’d literally just ask people like, ‘I did not understand any of that. What happened?’ 

➤ That’s amazing!
I mean the thing is, you can get away with that. I mainly work with English people. There were lots of French people but most of them knew that a lot of English people didn’t speak French. A lot of English people did speak French but and then I just kind of go to them and be like, ‘Hi, I’m one of the ones who does not speak the language of the country. Will you please help me?’ And then, bit by bit it kind of came together, you know.