Normandie in May: a Renaissance château, celebratory Champagne, and sketching in Monet’s garden

I am sorry my updates on the rest of the busy month of May are so late. In between work, babysitting, and everything else that I have been doing, I have not left myself with enough blog-editing time!


Following La Fête du Travail, the next May bank holiday was La Fête de la Victoire (Victory Day): an important day in France to mark the end of the Second World War, and to remember lost soldiers.

The family kindly invited me to accompany them to Normandy for the weekend, which provided another opportunity to take a break from Parisien routines. We had to leave as soon as I finished work on Friday evening, and one of the main Métro lines was temporarily closed for repairs! I had to take a different Métro, then an RER train, followed by a very packed bus, which took double the amount of time. Fortunately, my lateness did not matter at all, because we were travelling by car instead of by train. There was no point in rushing, and as my parents regularly tell me, it is often the case that “if you slow down, you can get there faster.”

I enjoyed getting to know even more of the cousins, aunties, and uncles who didn’t go to Brittany in April. Most of the children stayed in bedrooms in the renaissance castle pictured below, which I couldn’t quite believe, but I stayed in a comfortable gite (cottage) just down the lane.

Chateau
A château of overwhelming grandeur!

We could not have been luckier in being given a guided tour of the château by the grandmother’s cousin. As we climbed up dusty steps and paced through pitch black rooms, we discovered the secret side of its history. Family anecodes were documented in the form of black-and-white photos, sketches, geneaological trees, and even original paintings that apparently belonged in the Louvre! The château was an absolute haven; a treasure passed down from generation to generation, and how lucky I felt to be included in this one-off special occasion tour, involving 25 of us, aged 2 to 82, traipsing up to the top of the castle towers you can see in the above picture.

Normandy landing beachOn le Jour de la Victoire (Victory Day), we visited the musée du débarquement (D-Day museum) at Arromanches, which overlooks the remains of one of the Mulberry Harbours. The cinematic exhibition was particularly well done, and moved me. At work, coincidentally, I have been involved in translating some articles for a memorial project on the same subject, so visiting the landing beachs a few weeks prior provided me with a sense of context that I couldn’t find in a book.

I had to closely watch the younger children, who were climbing onto and into concrete bunkers, through very tight gaps. Inside, the bunkers were full of puddles but no daylight to see sudden steps or sharp edges. Needless to say, it was not the easiest part of the trip to chase them all – it may be a dyspraxic trait that I am less agile than many toddlers!

I also stayed up to watch the long-awaited results of la Deuxième Tour Présidentielle / the Presidential Election with the whole family (even all the little ones), and some neighbours. It was a moment in history that I was fortunate enough to share with a French family, listening to their debates, and asking them questions.

On Sunday afternoon, we celebrated the grandmother’s birthday with a delicious buffet in the castle grounds, with the whole family as well as neighbours and other local guests. It was such an experience – even if I did need eyes in the back of my head to keep tabs on all the little ones playing frighteningly near the unfenced stream.

All in all, it was another enjoyable weekend getting to know the children better, as well as experiencing more of French culture in the régions outside of Paris. It was great to have another break from the repetitive office environment, but it did take me a few days to get my energy levels back to normal after a physically and mentally tiring weekend.

Upon my return to Paris, it was the Nuit européenne des muséesso most of Paris’ museums were open and offering free entry, along with a variety of special performances, for one night only! Regrettably, I was not organised enough, so I ended up waiting in a queue for two hours, and only managed to go to the one museum, where I had been before: Musée de l’Orangérie. I did, however, get into the museum just in time for the second and final Japanese taiko drumming performance of the evening. Monet’s Japanese bridges and waterlilies provided the perfect setting for the music – it was well worth the visit!

A week or so later, I returned to Normandy to make a trip to Giverny near Vernon, which many of you will know as Claude Monet’s hometown. I had a wonderful time exploring the gardens which inspired the Impressionist artist’s paintings…

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I found a free bench in a quiet corner of the garden, where there were fewer tourists, and I sketched for some time… until I heard the footsteps and voices of a large group of American tourists approaching. Their guide said, “Look, just there, where that girl is drawing, that’s actually Monet’s bench. This is where he would have sat.” What a coincidence, I thought…!

In my next post, I will give you a less retrospective update on my life in Paris.

A très bien tôt,

-misspraxic

A piece of cake… or not?

Bonsoir à tous,

The past two weeks have been chargées: full of new challenges, new routines, and new adventures. Last weekend was La Fête du Travail (Labour Day), the first of the May bank holiday weekends. ‘Holiday’ might be misleading, however, as the weekend was arguably as busy as my week!

La Vie Parisienne
Relaxing Saturday night play at the theatre with my friend: “La Vie Parisienne… ou presque?”

The family was celebrating a special occasion on Saturday, so I looked after the little ones in the morning. I had also been given a list of instructions to pick up a pièce montée (tiered cake) from a local patisserie (cake shop) later on in the morning, and also unpack a food delivery afterwards.

Typically, however, this task was far from a simple ‘pop out to collect a cake’! I eventually tracked down the right patisserie, but only thanks to trusty Google Maps. As I handed over the details for the order, the shop assistant looked at me with concern, as if questioning my competence in safely transporting such an exquisite cake: “How far are you planning to go with that cake?” The assistant strongly recommended I take the bus back to the house, and warned me to take extreme care.

It wasn’t just the sales assistant who was concerned. On the bus, my hands were haphasardly gripping the huge cardboard box that was protecting the cake (and also obscuring my vision). Before I had time to look for a seat, the bus started to move again. Both my hands were still on the box, afraid of letting the cake fall, so I had zero hands grounding me to the bus handles. I started to wobble and lose balance, and so did the cake’s delicate decorations. In the end, both the cake and I arrived back in one piece (sorry for the pun), even though I was late for the food delivery. I must say this, though: I admire the couriers who manage to deliver goods from A to B everyday without disaster. The skill and responsability involved cannot be underestimated.

Montparnasse
56 étages… incroyable !

After the cake chaos, I went off to meet a friend who was visiting for the weekend. Our first stop was Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower), an attraction both of us had wanted to visit for some time. It involved stepping into a lift packed full of people (think Eiffel Tower minus the lift attendant) and zooming up 56 floors. The view from the terrace at the top of the tower was the perfect backdrop for our lunch: it was an incredible feeling to be looking at the world from such a height once again. I felt surprisingly calm rather than anxious, and having my friend at my side helped to put me at ease.

Vineyard
Exploring les vignes de Montmartre !

On Sunday morning, we explored some hidden gems of the arty 18th arrondissement (Montmartre). Our guide was excellent – she took us to less known corners, such as an English-inspired street with its own 10 Downing Street, the Place Dalida (a tribute to the singer Dalida complete with bronze sculpture), as well as small cabarets such as Au Lapin Agile (frequented by Picasso and Matisse).

Fete du Travail
I did find this lovely little bouquet to brighten up my room, though – it’s symbolic of bonheur (happiness) and traditional on Labour Day.

As I mentioned above, Monday was the Fête du Travail, also known as Labour Day. We had the day off work, although I did babysit in the morning and again in the evening. It was naive of me to hope shops would be open, and foolish to leave my food shopping until the end of the bank holiday weekend. Note to self: forward-planning still requires improvement, as the only shops open were florists…

On Tuesday, I joined the Marketing and Communication department. My first task was a creative one – to write my own article in French for the online newsletter – which I enjoyed doing. I was left to take my time on it, and apart from a few grammatical errors to correct, the result was very positive. Following that, my tasks have involved a lot of precise data-inputting, which is far from the creativity I crave to express. Before my arrival in Paris, I hoped it would be possible to attend a life drawing class one evening a week as I did in Germany. In reality it is just too much to fit this in – relaxing is really the best use of any free evening time.

When I do something wrong at work, it triggers physical symptoms of panic: a tightness within my chest, a sudden breathlessness, and then uncontrollable tears. The feeling subconsciously reminds me of being at school, and of the drama teacher who put me off the subject. It is absurd that here in France, I feel more like a child, rather than remembering I am an adult who taught whole English classes, and supported refugees of all ages in Germany.

To end on a positive note, though, just over a week ago, I had a wonderful evening with an English family distantly related to mine, who are also coincidentally living in Paris at the moment. Some of them had also spent years abroad and been aupairs, and I gained a lot from sharing our stories and experiences.

This past weekend (les elections), I went away with the family again, this time to Normandy. I will post my update on that very soon.

Bon courage (I need it too),

misspraxic

A Bretonne experience and Parisien chaos

Pont Aven 2
Wanders in Pont-Aven

Last weekend, I escaped Parisien chaos for the second time in two weeks: I spent the Easter weekend with the family in beautiful Bretagne, in an area close to the picturesque “artists’ town” of Pont-Aven, where Paul Gauguin and others were inspired to paint in the late 19th century.

Despite the early start on Friday, our taxi trip across Paris to the train station was exciting: the views across the river Seine and of the Tour Eiffel in the morning sun were stunning. Four hours later, after toddler tantrums, broken crayons, and shredded origami paper boats, we arrived at our destination.

Easter meal
Coquillages – I liked this typical dish more than I expected!

There were twenty of us staying at the grandparents’ house in the countryside, so this was a good opportunity to get to know some of the children’s extended family: aunts, uncles, and six of their cousins.

We had some lovely walks and meals together, and I was able to experience family traditions at Easter. On Easter Sunday, we enjoyed a delicious meal of Coquillages de Paques (seafood), followed by une chasse aux oeufs de Pâques (an Easter egg hunt) for the children.

Positions of responsibility are, however, continuing to test my judgement and reasoning skills. Keeping tabs on five young children at the same time was a challenge, as it required me to think quickly, but act calmly: two children were working on their den in the garden, and two others wanted to tie all the bikes together with rope. Meanwhile, the remaining and youngest toddler was mid-tantrum, and wanted to get off the trampoline. I had to pick him up carefully, whilst getting down from the trampoline safely myself. Putting on the socks and shoes he had just removed, at the same time as tying my own laces, required more dexterity than I have. I am always the first to fear an accident, and I am convinced that it is not just dyspraxics who find these sorts of situations difficult at times.

BaladeI had two hours to myself on Sunday afternoon, in which I visited the Musée de Beaux Arts in the centre of Pont-Aven, as well as some boutiques. I really enjoyed my time in this museum – many Gauguin and Monet paintings were on display, as well as other local and lesser known artists’ work.

On Monday morning, we set off on our return journey to Paris. By the time we had pulled into the station mid-afternoon, the tune of trois petits chats, trois petits chats, trois petits chats, chats, chats was successfully stuck in my head. As soon as our large group had stepped off the train, one cheeky toddler grinned at me, and suddenly dropped my hand. Predictably, he started to run off down the platform… Strangers and signs everywhere, my instincts told me the only option was to run after him. Of course I panicked, but I did find him in the end.

At work last week, I managed by myself at the reception desk! Although the multi-tasking moments were inevitably stressful, I found that it actually helped to have space at times – it meant I was able to develop my own coping strategies without interference. I have the feeling, however, that colleagues were more lenient about any mistakes made last week in the absence of the other réceptionniste

This week, I have had recurring encounters with the temperamental scanning machine. There are lots of different folders, into which hundreds of scanned documents must be tranferred. If I pick the wrong folder, or mix up the order of the documents even slightly, colleagues are understandably not well impressed, and I have to start from scratch. All it really takes for such a mistake is for me to get distracted – the phone rings, for example, and when I return to the scanner five minutes later, I am in a complete pickle.Pont Aven

On top of the scanning struggles this week, I have been taking clients to the wrong meeting rooms by mistake, receiving some pretty perplexed looks. Yesterday, someone asked me to renew the bill stamp, and I ended up getting ink everywhere in the process. On the same day, I noted down a phone message incorrectly – as a consequence, the colleague was not able to call back their client. In my haste to fulfill coffee orders, coffee was spilled, and I jammed the coffee machine.

These are all just little issues, which fortunately do not matter in life, but knowing this does not stop me feeling breathless – alongside the panic, frustration continues to build.

But, guess what? Yesterday someone else pressed the emergency button and set off the security alarm! It isn’t just me. Justice.

Next week, a new intern is arriving. I will continue to be on reception in the afternoons, but it has been confirmed that I will be moving to the Marketing and Communications department in the mornings! I am looking forward to the change – even though I doubt there will be any less multi-tasking involved.

A tout,

-misspraxic

Arrivée à Paris: settling into new routines

Bonsoir à tous,

I arrived safely in Paris last weekend, and have now been here a week. I took the Eurostar, and was full of nervous excitement for the duration of the journey. I kept opening and closing bags, zipping and unzipping pockets, constantly checking that nothing vital had been lost or forgotten. Fellow dyspraxics can probably relate, and after the phone-toilet-lampost-hill scenario now a month ago, I wasn’t taking any chances.

Montmartre 2
A studio at the Musée de Montmartre – my first visit to the artists’ quarter!

Last year, during the planning stage of my year abroad, I had almost ruled out the possibility of spending the French half of the year in Paris as I feared my struggles would deem me inadequate for an internship in such a fast-moving place. I changed my mind through listening to the advice of those around me – “you can do it, you’ll love it”, they said. I believed them, because privately I loved the idea of living in the Ville des Lumieres and being in close proximity to renowned musées d’art and cafés around every corner. Most of all, though, I anticipated a completely new challenge, which would contrast to my experiences at the school in Germany.

On my first day as an intern at the real estate advisory company, I was greeted with a flood of information. Within minutes I was introduced to the receptionnist with whom I would share the front reception desk, handed my guide sheets, and given a series of forms to return to Ressources Humaines (Human Resources). I also needed to send my photo to someone ASAP. I didn’t catch the name.

Before my first hour had ended, the other receptionnist had given me a tour of the office and its various departments. I was introduced to about a hundred new people, and my first worrying thought was this: how on earth am I going to remember a hundred new names and faces? I retained one name, which I suppose was was un bon effort, and certainly better than none at all.

When the brain’s capacity is reached, by means of defence mechanism we often just stop taking in any more information. But of course this wasn’t an ideal time for my brain to play this trick on me. I needed to clear space for yet more information – how to operate the phones and transfer calls, how the scanner and photocopying machines work, how to sort through post (actually using the letter opener efficiently was my biggest challenge). Following this, a challenge arrived in the form of something many of you probably do without a second thought: making coffees. I wish I could say the same; that I too were able to make coffees without thinking.

The truth is that I struggle to make coffees even with intense, focused thinking. I need to repeat the instructions several times and regularly in order that I retain them. As I don’t like the drink at all anyway, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for me to master this particular skill. It might seem like a silly thing to be proud of, but I do feel satisfied to have managed to make several coffees today by myself, and to have carried them to the clients sans spillage. Touchwood. I better not have jinxed it!

The phone lines are extremely quiet, so I find myself being pulled further into the desk, as close as physically possible to the phone box, to try to understand what is being requested. I screw my eyes up tight in order to help me concentrate, but often this results in panic, especially after saying pardon, je n’ai pas compris (sorry, I don’t follow) three times. It certainly will be interesting to see how I cope alone when the receptionnist goes on holiday in two weeks time…! I might need a lot of luck.

My colleagues in the office are all very friendly and smile warmly each time they pass by the reception desk, which helps to put me at ease when I do make mistakes. I have even met a German lady and have to deliver the post to her each morning – exchanging even a few words with her helps to bring back the contact to the German language and people, which I already miss.

To continue on a positive note, I have surprisingly not got lost (yet)! I managed to take the Métro to and from the office without too much confusion – the more often I take the journey, the easier it should become… in theory! I worried I would accidentally travel in the opposite direction, as I have done many times on the London Underground, and again on the Heidelberg trams in August. Looking out for specific road names or objects in certain fixed places – i.e memorable shop fronts – helps me figure out my approximate location, especially when my friend Google is unavailable.

The family whose children I am looking after are absolutely lovely, and I am enjoying being around little ones again – their energy never fails to put a smile on my face. I will give you an update on this, as well as some other aspects of my life in Paris in my next post.

Bon weekend alors !

misspraxic

 

PS – Today I was sent to the nearest boulangerie to buy croissants and pains au chocolat for some clients. The scene in which fashion magazine assistant Andrea (Anne Hathaway) is sent to fetch coffees, skirts, and a number of other items ASAP in the film The Devil Wears Prada sprang to mind. I have felt a bit like Andrea this week!

 

 

Year abroad experiences: chaos at supermarket checkouts, collapsing music stands, and carrying A2 drawing boards in the rain…

Hallo zusammen!

Since early September I have been looking for productive ways to use up my free time. Thankfully, this tactic seems to be working a bit better this term. When I feel busy, my mind has a positive focus, and this helps to manage the emotions involved in missing home. When I say busy, I do need to strike a balance. If I take on too much, I rush, things go wrong, and then I feel overwhelmed.

So, just what have I been up to? Let me tell you…

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Beautiful autumn colours in Duesseldorf

You might remember that in September, I mentioned I had signed up for a semester at Duesseldorf University, and that I would take German courses later in October. After a misunderstanding (!) about the location of the compulsory language test, I am happy to at last be taking German classes again. The classes are similar to those at Heidelberg, and probably similar to the content of some of my friends’ Erasmus study modules, but I am just taking two classes a week. It makes a difference to have assigned some structure to the long, empty afternoons after my working hours in the school.

The International Summer School at Heidelberg back in August was a wonderful experience. What I had missed most about it was definitely chatting with diverse people from all over the world, solely communicating in German rather than in English. I’m very lucky to get to do it again, this time in Duesseldorf, with classmates from Brazil, Georgia, USA, Italy, Scotland, and so on… In our first class we discussed German’s status as a major language, and it interested me to hear each student explain their reasons for studying German, and its importance to them.

And my favourite class? This won’t be a surprise to those who know me: the grammar class!

donuts
Lecker! Delicious  🙂

I am also learning to be more patient with myself. More and more bus drivers are in fact saying “Guten Morgen” and smiling, which makes me smile too. And during a Friday evening trip to the supermarket (tip: avoid rush-hours), the shop assistant showed some kindness and understanding. I was in a fluster trying to open my bags, pack all my shopping into them, move all my things away from the counter for the next customer, find my REWE points card and my receipt for the Pfand recycling (you can redeem money from recycling bottles), all at the same time as picking out the right amount of euros to pay. Information overload! The poorly-designed plastic box containing tomatoes I had just bought split open, and tomatoes dropped all over the place. But like my stepdad always tells me I stayed calm, and was very kindly offered a fresh box! I am also grateful to my generous landlady who has shown an extreme amount of kindness towards me, bringing me these donuts last week, a typical speciality around Martinstag, and today brought me some Spritzgebäck (typical biscuits in the period leading up to Advent and Christmas). Mönchengladbach-Windberg_Denkmal-Nr._A_024,_Annakirchstraße_88_(5373).jpg

On Tuesday I had my first experience of a German Catholic church service, as I was invited to sing with the choir to commemorate the dead on Allerheiligen (All Saints). I helped set up the church ready for us to sing, and someone foolishly trusted me with the technical aspects – I inevitably got into a muddle with microphone wires and soundboards, and not to mention the screw falling out of the music stands and collapsing around me… But once the service started, it was a very unique experience. Usually I struggle to follow sermons in English, but I managed to follow and understand most of these Sermonen. Halfway through the service, everyone was asked to wish eachother “Frieden” (peace). The way everyone got up out of their seats to embrace, shake hands, rub shoulders filled me with a feeling of warmth that I know I crave here.

On Sunday I also sung in a local hospital chapel with the choir, for a “Gedenkgottesdienst” – memorial service – for those recently deceased. I felt much more nervous singing here as I didn’t know many of the hymns well at all, and found myself mixing up verses and words – I hoped nobody noticed, though I suspect they were too overwhelmed with the touching nature of the service to be worried about my mistakes. Nevertheless I am glad I attended the service, because I learned more about how the community works, and got to know a few members of the choir better.

I’m getting back into my Dutch classes, which I am finding more difficult as we delve further into the complexities of Dutch phonetics (pronouncing the words is the hardest thing for me to grasp as a beginner).

A shout out to my University’s wonderful art society – I miss you, and to keep me sane in the meantime, I have joined a life-drawing class at the local college where I learn Dutch. I think the tutor is great, and I like the fact that there are only six of us in the class. I missed attending regular art and life-drawing sessions with other people, as drawing in my scrapbook just isn’t the same, so I think this will be very good for me! One small draw back, though – pardon the pun – is having to travel on a bus and walk for half a mile juggling my hand bag, my rucksack with art materials, and a silly sized sketch book… oh, and an A2 drawing board. It must all be good practice for Misspraxic’s juggling skills, though. 😉

Tschüß!

-Misspraxic