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

Karneval and final reflections on a German experience: Halt Pohl!

In the last few lessons with Class 5, Lena* has been asking me the same questions: “When do you leave?”, “Will you be here for my birthday?”, “Will you come to Karneval with us? Are you dressing up?” “Maybe…“, I reply. “But you’re a teacher!” they chant.

It was a coincidence that Hana* from Class 6 sat next to me on the bus home from school the other day. She was asking similar questions: “But why do you have to leave? Will you come back and see us? Do you have Whatsapp? Can I have your Whatsapp?”

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Karneval performance by years 5 and 6 on Altweiber-Donnerstag – “Old women’s day”

For those who are unfamiliar with the tradition, the carnival period started last Thursday (the week before Lent). The children had Thursday afternoon until the following Wednesday off school. Because the end of my placement coincided with carnival, my last day was on Thursday, known as Altweiber-Donnerstag, and it was full of mixed feelings. I prepared an Abschieds-Frühstuck (goodbye breakfast) – fresh bread rolls, Cheddar cheese (I’d managed to find some in Aldi the week before!) plus some Marmite – for the teachers of staffroom 5 to try. Although I wasn’t able to say goodbye to everyone due to the busy carnival season and others’ prior commitments, my last day was very happy. The children performed an impressive series of dances and songs in their many colourful carnival costumes, and the carnival party felt a party celebrating the end of my assistantship. It marked the fact I had seen the experience through to the end, despite the challenges and knocks along the way.

 

venn-karnevalkonzert
“Jecke Friedach”: The Prinzenpaar / prince and princess on stage

Following this, on Friday evening my choir was singing at the local carnival night at a Gasthof (pub) in my village. After watching the dance troupes, brass bands, and stand-up comedian (whose jokes I am sure were brilliant if you were fluent in both dialect and humour) all take to the stage, it was soon our turn to perform. We sung my favourite song in the local dialect (Kölsch) – here’s an excerpt if you’re interested… can anyone understand it!? Luckily one of the choir members volunteered to be my Kölsch Translator!

Et jitt kei Wood

Bear in mind we swapped Köln (Cologne) with Gladbach (Mönchengladbach). I felt so happy to be muddling through the words together on the stage with my friends. I knew this would be my last time singing with the choir for a least a few years, so I enjoyed simply being with them in that moment. The evening ended up being the most fun I had had in a long time.

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Kölle Alaaf! (The “Schlachtruf” or call for Cologne.)

I was invited by my lovely teacher friend to spend Saturday evening in Cologne with her and some friends. I have to say I was not prepared for the throng of people flooding the streets: in every direction there were unicorns and pirates. Before I knew it, I found myself trapped in a tight crowd of people chanting carnival songs, many of them already inebriated. kolle-alaaf

Unfortunately, I challenged myself too much here – the situation set me into panic because the crowds and noise level were overwhelming. Finding my way back to the central station via side streets was not without its stress, so I would recommend staying in a group at all times, or choosing quieter times and locations to experience carnival if you know crowds are not your favourite thing. Following that experience, I decided to keep out of the way of the chaos in Cologne on Rosenmontag (traditionally the highlight of the carnival period).

 

 

karneval-prinzenpaar
The Prinzenpaar – the carnival prince and princess, which reminded me of my childhood experience of being a princess at carnival.

Veilchendienstag (Shrove Tuesday) was the last carnival day, and incidentally my final day in Germany too. Before meeting up with a few friends to say farewell, I took a walk through the city centre, where a carnival parade was starting at exactly 13.11. I waited in the old market square, wondering if I were in the right place. I got talking to a lady who was anticipating the procession too, and she insisted that I follow her to the best viewing spot. Here, we picked up sweets as each carnival float went by, chanting “Halt Pohl!” – interestingly the words used as a call vary in each town and even district, making this a regional and local tradition.

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Eulen – owls hitting the streets of Moenchengladbach

My unique German experience ended on a high with Karneval. In a nutshell, from my time in Germany I will certainly miss the children, the staff, the strangers, the friends, the neighbours, the volunteers, the choir… the conversations, the bridge between generations, and the intercultural connection. In short, the solidarity, despite political goings-on. It was a privilege to have been able to get to know the young people and their stories from war-torn countries, but the downside of this was having to absorb and process their trauma, which still haunts me. The smiles and warmth of their final embraces, however, will stay with me forever.

gladbach-umarmt-die-welt
“Gladbach umarmt die Welt” – Gladbach hugs the world. I was touched by the international gesture of a small community festival.

I will write again in the next few days to tell you about my journey back home, and my preparations for moving to Paris – it’s happening in just under two weeks!

As I have finished the first part of my year abroad (I still find that hard to believe as I write this), I want to say a big thank you to those who have been reading the blog and given their support.

Halt Pohl and love,

misspraxic

Preparing for Christmas Pt 2: going home!

Hallo!

As promised, I wanted to tell you more about what I have been up to more recently. That includes a trip to München, now a couple of weekends ago, to visit a friend I met up with in Heidelberg, but had not seen since. An added bonus was being able to spend a couple of hours with my German housemate at university last year, who studies in the same city.

Visiting München in Bayern


Munich.jpgI took a direct express train from Düsseldorf to Munich, as although this was the more expensive option, it cut out some of the stress – the train was delayed by an hour, but it didn’t matter, as I had kept my meetings with my friends flexible. Delays aside, the train journey was enjoyable – after I had found a seat, at least! A good tip for the travelling dyspraxic, if not everyone, would be to always book a seat reservation for longer-distance trains… On the train, I was also able to take note of how dramatically the landscape changes from one Land to another – I enjoyed the change from densely-populated NRW into more rural Bayern.

It was so great to catch up with my friend, at the same time as seeing part of a new Bundesland (federal state), since I hadn’t been to Bayern (Bavaria) before. I was amused, though, upon arriving at the station – I couldn’t understand a word of the German I was hearing! I have grown very accustomed to the Niederrhein accent and dialect, which sounds a bit like Dutch. I even find myself sometimes accidentally slipping into dialect forms, like “wat” for what instead of “was” in Hochdeutsch (High German)!

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Time to reflect: making friends and fitting into the community with dyspraxia


Social situations can cause varying amounts of panic and stress for many people with dyspraxic traits, myself included.

I have always enjoyed meeting new and like-minded people, though I must admit I was nervous about making friends in NRW – in another language and culture. I can say that I did feel very lonely at times in September and October. I was far from the comfortable university setting in September, where it would have  been undoubtedly easier to make friends the same age.

Since I joined the Dutch class, and the German course at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, I met people of all ages who enjoy languages, like me. I got talking to a lovely lady at Dutch, and was invited to her home for dinner twice, and to a local museum with her and her husband too.

Finding the life-drawing class at the local Volkshochschule has also been very good for me. Drawing wasn’t the same by myself – I enjoyed getting to know the tutor and the others in our small group of six. Although the semester has come to an end, I will remember my seven weeks of life-drawing in Germany, and everything I learned from the experience (not least some technical art vocab in German).

Not least, joining the choir that my landlady had recommended was the best decision I made. It enabled me to feel the community spirit, and grasp how another part of society functions, as well as in a school. I especially enjoyed singing with the choir, fighting against my rough sore throat, determined to “mitmachen” at a Christmas event just down the road from where I am living. Even better was my boyfriend being there to watch. Here is the church, next to the outdoor stage where we were singing, all beautifully “beleuchtet” (lit up):

church.jpg
Not sure whose idea it was to put squish two Christmas trees onto the stage with all the singers, though… I kept knocking off the baubles as I was singing, and felt rather unstable, but luckily there were no disasters! Hopefully nobody noticed…

The school has made me feel very welcome too – a couple of teachers and pupils in particular. I was very touched to be there for Class Six’s Weihnachtsfeier (party) on Thursday, and to sing along to Christmas songs and enjoy cake with the pupils! They even gave me a gift – a sweet hanging decoration, which is now hanging on my tree.

To sum up, these are the memories that stick with me the most – the warmth I have experienced, and the friendships that have started to blossom during my time in Germany. It required some patience and searching to find groups like the above-mentioned, but I feel much happier for it. When I return in January, I want to try something new before I leave at the end of February.

Home, sweet home


I arrived safely home yesterday, and it is wonderful to be back with my family again, as well as all my favourite foods that the German supermarkets don’t stock…

I do still seem to be stuck in Deutschland Modus, though, as I accidentally took out euros to pay for my cider at the pub. “That in’t English?” said the understandably perplexed barmaid, and a man at the bar had to check, “She must a just come back from holiday”.

Ah, yes, that’s right. A holiday, I thought!

Thank you to anyone who has been following misspraxic‘s adventures abroad since July – your support means a lot. I wish you all a peaceful and relaxing Christmastime with your friends and families, and best wishes for 2017.

Love,

misspraxic

Sense of community: Martinstag and Lehrertag 2016

Guten Tag Leute!

Today I feel tired after a busy week – let me tell you about it! This week’s experiences have got me thinking about community, participation, and how it makes me feel.

15050257_1179076542130055_1116128113_nLast Friday was Carneval in Germany. I was in Dusseldorf after my morning German course, and decided to take a trip into the city centre to watch the afternoon celebrations. A big group called the Regenbogen were all dressed in colourful costumes, and performed some great traditional carnival songs in German, such as “Min Ding is Din Ding” and “Düsseldorf macht sich fein“.

I was by myself and stayed away from the Bier tent, but nevertheless it was a fun atmosphere, if a little chilly!

The following day (last Saturday) the traditional Martinstag was also celebrated throughout the country. St Martin’s Day. Saint Martin was a Roman knight who, legend says, shared his cloak with a beggar on a cold night to save him. You can read more about the tradition here.

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Blurry photo, but you can see Saint Martin parading through the village on his white horse!

I had my own unique experience of Martinstag in my village in Nordrhein-Westfalen. At 18.00, most of the village’s young children and families gathered at the village cross: the central meeting point in the village. The children had made their own paper lanterns at school and everyone, young and old, were involved in the parade (called Laternelaufen). In keeping with the legend, a man dressed as Saint Martin rode a horse through the village, and was followed by a brass band. The village was lit up with the warm glow of all the children’s lanterns, and everyone started to walk and sing together:

Ich geh’ mit meiner Laterne
Und meine Laterne mit mir.
Dort oben leuchten die Sterne,
Hier unten, da leuchten wir…

15046226_1180253895345653_1500264126_nAt first I wasn’t sure where to stand, where to walk, what to do, as I felt like an outsider in this important annual tradition that connects families in the village. But once I chatted to a few people, and the music started, I felt at ease. I felt so happy surrounded by the warmth of the bonfire, and the bold rhythm of the brass band.

When the procession came to an end and the children received their sweets, I was welcomed into my landlady’s home to enjoy Gluhwein (mulled wine) with her and her family, and then ended up staying for some delicious soup and more wine. I got to know her children and their children, and a couple of members of the choir were there too!

I felt the community feeling again on Monday, as most of Lehrerzimmer 5 (staffroom for Class 5 teachers) went out for lunch together at a local restaurant before Lehrersprechtag (parents’ evening, which I thankfully was not involved in). Of course, I selected the Schnitzel option! I hope we can go out together more, as I would really like to get to know some of the teachers better.

On Tuesday evening, I enjoyed another practise with the warm-hearted choir group. It doesn’t matter that I get some notes wrong, or mix up the German lyrics, because I’m joining in with them, and I get the feeling they welcome that. Practising all the Christmas songs reminds me of being in the school choir, and although I am sadly not available to sing at the choir’s concert, simply practising the Christmas songs with everyone is enough for me.

lehrertag

dortmundThe big highlight of this week was yesterday. I woke up early and travelled to Dortmund for Germany’s annual conference on education (Deutscher Lehrertag 2016). Interestingly, this year the overarching theme of the conference was integration and inclusion in schools. I attended some workshops on the integration of refugees in English lessons, as well as a stimulating podium discussion between politicans and education representatives, including the Kultusministerin (Minister of Education) for Lower Saxony. I met a few interesting new people, including a government advisor for Special Education, whose son also has dyspraxic traits. Many publishers were present with their book stands, too – I couldn’t resist buying a few more books to add to my collection…

Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) have now started in many places – I’m looking forward to feeling the Christmas spirit over the next few weeks, when I visit a few of my friends in other cities!

Schönes Wochenende noch,

misspraxic