Celti’cimes: Ireland in the Alps

About a year ago, I picked up the fiddle and started to learn Irish music. Like 99% of Americans, I claim Irish heritage. It was only natural that when M started learning the Irish flute that I join in on the fun!

I was really motivated the first three months and practiced frequently. Once I started back to work, I became too overwhelmed to practice anymore. (It’s unfortunate, because I’m sure that making music would have helped me get over the stress of teaching French high schoolers, even if it felt like I didn’t have time to do so.)

In February, we went on a trip to see our old neighbors from Lille who had recently moved to Brittany and then hopped on over to the Brittany Winter School Irish music festival for the last four days of the trip. I hadn’t signed up for any classes – there was no way I could follow, right? – but my old lessons teacher Adrien told me I should go for it, so I did. And I loved it. I got to learn from great players like Paul O’Shaughnessy and Antoin Mac Gabhann. I got a boost of confidence in seeing that I could learn quickly enough by ear and play pretty in tune without the dreadful “beginner tape” on the fingerboard.

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Albiez Montrond, where Celti’cimes takes place every year

For Celti’cimes, I immediately signed up for the workshop with fiddler Oisin Mac Diarmada for the first three days of the trip. It was a general level class, and I was definitely one of the two beginners there, but I struggled along and got some great tunes and tips out of the experience.

An outdoor session at someone's rental house - he later proposed to his girlfriend that night!
An outdoor session at someone’s rental house – he later proposed to his girlfriend that night!

Other than the actual workshop, the best parts of the festival were running into old friends that we had met at Brittany Winter School, making new friends from the workshops and sessions, and getting to meet and chat with the Irish players who were there to give the workshops and perform in concerts throughout the week.

Taking a break from the music
Taking a break from the music

Téada is one of the groups that was there for the week, and has been around for a long time, made up of amazing musicians such as Oisin Mac Diarmada (fiddle) and singer and accordion legend Séamus Begley. I got to watch Séamus Begley perform in a pub from three feet away while he sang with and accompanied Cathy Jordan from Dervish on vocals and bodhran. M and I survived an all night session with Tommy Fitzharris (flute) and Patrick Doocey (guitar). I spent a while chatting with bodhran player and TV/radio producer Tristan Rosenstock, one of the nicest guys around, who was willing to discuss American politics and listen to me chat about how much I love his show “Hup”. I got to meet one of my favorite fiddle players, Tom Morrow, who plays for Dervish. I watched some members of Dervish along with the Mulcahy sisters play in a private session in a pizza restaurant. We got to hear Eoin’s Polkas, composed by Séamus’ son, played live at a session by members of Téada. I learned one of the polkas from the recording I made at the live session.

Learning Eoin's Polka on a mountain trail
Learning Eoin’s Polka on a mountain trail

As for my personal musical experience, I practiced tunes outside with new friends from the violin workshop. I was “forced” by a new friend to play a suite of tunes at an outdoor session at 2am, after one too many beers, but had the best time ever when they encouraged me and played along. The last night, I played more than I ever have in a session before: 7 whole tunes! M and I even started a suite together. We taught each other tunes in the mountain trails, and imagined names of tunes we could compose based on the events of the week, like “The Fall of Victor” or “Breakfast Beer”. I even learned some Irish in an hour and a half class that M and I took. Now we’re both working on it together!

An outdoor session where I later played a tune by myself
An outdoor session where I later played a tune by myself
The end of an all night session, one which I will remember for many years to come!
The end of an all night session, one which I will remember for many years to come!

Experiences like this are what I love about Irish music. The tradition brings everyone together around a standard set of tunes, of all levels, of all backgrounds. We get to spend a crazy week together immersed in the music and everything that goes along with it.

I can’t wait for the next one!

hello, summer?

Summer in the North isn’t really the summer that I knew growing up near Dallas, Texas. 55° versus 100°. Rain versus sunshine. Windbreakers versus tank tops.

But when I have a view like this on my evening walks, can I really complain?

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This week has been better: the sun finally came out for my birthday, which was on the 22nd. M and I went for a drink in Lille where some of my friends surprised me and joined us. Since then, I haven’t had to put my winter coat back on – yet – so, maybe summer is finally here!

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My birthday gift: my very own violin, with help from my parents, grandma, and M. Thanks, guys!

Schoolwise, I finished classes in early June. I had half a week off and then had to go check on some 10th graders who were doing their mini summer internships. This past week, I picked up my “birthday present” of 90 national tests to grade in a week’s time. France, unlike the United States, has a national education board. Therefore, all seniors take the same subject tests at the end of their senior year to receive their diploma.

The tests I’m grading are for the students doing a specialty in technology. They took a two hour test made up of two texts, comprehension questions, and a 150 word written expression exercise.

If any of you are wondering what sort of level French high schoolers are supposed to have in English, here’s the test subject for technology students.

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My 90 tests are anonymous, so I have no idea whose tests I’m grading. They’re definitely not students from my school, just in case I might recognise their handwriting. So far, I’ve had tests between 4/20 and 18.5/20. Some students just chose to not answer half of the comprehension questions; others didn’t even write anything for the written expression. But, once in a while, there are tests that are extremely well done. So it’s not TOO bad. I’ve made it through all 90 tests for the comprehension questions, and have done about 20 tests for the expression. So I should have no problem finishing on time!

I finish work for the year on July 7th. Between now and then, I have: my tests to finish grading, half a day of internship presentations by the 10th graders, the school’s end of the year soirée, and three days in Calais to grade make-up exams and act as a jury member of the final grade deliberations for any strange test cases.

After that, my friend Shane will be here to visit for a week! The week after that, M and I are heading down to the Alps for the Celticimes Irish Music Festival! Yippee!

Here’s hoping the weather doesn’t change anytime soon.

Deux bonnes balades

If I had to name this weekend, it’d be the Weekend of the Walks.

A couple of months ago, a colleague spoke to me about an event in Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel (a town at the bottom of Mont Cassel, where we live) called La Balade de l’Ortie: The Nettle Walk. Apparently, nettles are a huge thing in the North. You can find them everywhere this time of year.

This is a walk organised by some local business owners and consists in a 4 kilometre walk in the countryside with six stops along the way. There are several groups of about a hundred people that leave every twenty minutes. Each stop has some sort of show: comedy routine, storytelling, marionnettes, short play, concert, street art. Normally, there is a serving of nettle soup involved, but last year it was so hot that the soup went sour. This year it was replaced by chai tea. A nettle walk with no nettles?! Oh well!

We left from the town center of Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel at 4:20pm. First stop: the gardening store where we buy all of our backyard supplies! They had installed a seating area with a stage, where we were treated to a comedy routine by two actors that was fun for everyone. Thank goodness we were sitting in the back; they pulled multiple people onstage to help with the show.

We walked through a neighbouring field for about ten minutes before arriving at our next stop: an old barn. Music was playing through a small hand organ. Bales of hay had been converted into long benches, and a backdrop had been installed. A storyteller entered the scene; she told us a story about a magical forest, a young boy who falls in love, the first violin being created, and the boy and his wife living happily ever after…

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The backdrop of the storytelling stop

… and then in the barn next door, we attended the “wedding reception” of the couple from the story. Beer, juice, and snacks for everyone, accompanied by accordion music from a local music school. So fun!

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The group behind us; views during the walk; enjoying a beer at the “wedding reception”

(You’ll notice in the picture that I’m rather poofy, wearing a t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, rain jacket, and scarf. It was June 4th. Lord help us all.)

We continued on, with a longer walk this time, until arriving at a private property with a large house and lake. There was an outdoor stage set up with makeshift seating made from barrels and wooden planks. A marionnette performer treated us to a fifteen minute show with two different marionnettes: a cat and a caterpillar. When you hear “marionette show” and you’re over the age of ten, it may sound a bit silly, but honestly, it was so impressive. This cat marionnette had at least twenty strings controlling each part of the puppet. The little caterpillar was so cute. And the whole story of cat falls asleep, caterpillar comes out to play, cat hunts caterpillar, caterpillar escapes and turns into a butterfly… was adorable.

We continued on to another venue: another barn. This barn was in the process of being renovated, unlike the first one, which was in current use. It was a one-man show, just like the previous ones. This actor performed a skit of a crazy circus manager and his goofy Russian employee, who had to deliver some magic nuts to a fellow circus manager. The actor obviously performed both roles. It was hilarious. (Once again I was happy to be in the back of the audience – there was some very funny audience participation in this one!)

Our last stop of the walk had two shows. We arrived at a – yet another! – barn about a kilometre away. As we were walking up, we saw horses and cows and could smell that campfire smell. I felt like I was back in Texas. The feeling was even stronger as we entered the barn enjoyed some dinner with a live bluegrass concert.

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The stage was made out of bales of hay!

After refueling on beer, bread, and cheese, we walked to the barn next to this one for another show. Two guys performed street art with Chinese YoYos. It felt like an act that you would see on America’s Got Talent. It was amazing! How did they do it? We’ll never know. The best part of the show is that the guys seemed so proud and amazed that they made it through the act with only one drop. It was so much fun.

At this point, we started to head back to the town center. Our final stop was in the town’s church, where a rather large jazz group of about twenty people performed three songs for us before we walked back to the community center for dessert: ice cream and coffee!

We got home around 10pm, so it was a 6-hour affair! I’d definitely do it again next year. For only 12€, we had tickets to six shows, a nice walk in the countryside, two beers, a light dinner, and dessert. Not bad for a Saturday afternoon!

M was so inspired by the experience that he planned a 7km walk for us near Cassel on Sunday. We left the house around 3:30pm and followed the “yellow trail”, which was supposed to take us down the hill, around a neighbouring hill, and back up to the town center of Cassel.

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You can see Cassel’s church in the background horizon.

The walk started out well, so I felt comfortable telling M about the recent article I read about a 65-year-old woman who got off track by a few hundred yards while hiking the Appalachian trail in Maine and ended up dying because the area was so dense that even if you were a hundred feet from someone, you wouldn’t be able to see or hear them. That wouldn’t happen to us, right?

We reached a point where there were a few different marks and decided to go left. Thinking back, I’m sure this is where we went wrong…

Good thing we brought water, because we ended up walking for over 13 kilometres instead of the 7 that we had planned.

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I was mostly scared for Benji, who has never walked for more than an hour or two. This time, he went on for three hours! Brave puppy. (He’s still sleeping as I type this. Yes, he’s breathing. No playing this morning!)

Even I was done by the end of the walk. The great thing about going back to Cassel is that, seeing as we live on top of a giant hill, the last thirty minutes are a rather steep incline. But we made it. We survived. And we’re one step (or 13 kilometres) closer to our summer beach bodies for 2016. Ha!

Needless to say, we stopped at our favorite estaminet on the way back where we ran into our group of friends and consumed most of the calories that we had burned with beer, cheese, and pizza.

A successful, well-balanced weekend, I’d say!

Mom & Dad, Part 2

Two weeks later, I’d say it’s time to finish up this post on my mom and dad’s visit to northern France in March!

After three days in Paris, we took a train – or three – to Cassel, France, population 3,300. We had a weekend to enjoy together before I had to go back to work on Monday.

On Saturday, we enjoyed lunch with M’s family in Cassel at the best estaminet around: Kerelshof! Welsh, carbonnade, tarte au pavé de Cassel for everyone! It was fun to have both sides of the family reunite. We had all eaten together the last time my parents came, in 2012.

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Once again, it was a lunch full of laughter, translations, franglais, and lots of good food.

I also showed my dad around the ramparts of Cassel. Cassel still has many of the old walls that were once used as defense against invasions. Now, they’re used for quality walks with Benji.

Walking through one of the passageways
Walking through one of the passageways

 

I wanted to give my dad an idea of the city layout before going back to work so that he could navigate his way around on long walks later that week. In just an hour, we had seen all of Cassel: the park, the ramparts, the church… that’s it!

On Sunday, Michel and I wanted to treat my parents to a nice brunch in Lille, the biggest city close to us. We both work there – and lived there for nearly two years – so we have lots of places that we like to go to. For Sunday brunch, there’s nowhere better than Tamper Espresso Bar. We’d both been there several times, but never for brunch, so this was just the right occasion!

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Fresh bread and jam, French toast, fruit salad, a main dish, a dessert, and a hot and cold beverage for everyone! It was so, so good. We enjoyed a small walk around the city center of Lille before heading back to Cassel.

Monday was my first day back to work after two weeks of holiday. My parents used that day to rest a bit after all of our adventures. They deserved it!

The animals flocked to Mom. When she was on the couch, bunny was too!
The animals flocked to Mom. When she was on the couch, bunny was too!

 

On Tuesday, we all drove to Lille together in the morning. (Oh my gosh, I am so glad that I take the train to work normally. Traffic is horrible!) Mom and Dad hung out at a coffee place and walked around Lille for a bit until I could meet them for lunch around noon.

Mom and me at lunch, at Be Yourself Café in Lille
Mom and me at lunch, at Be Yourself Café in Lille

 

We strolled around the city center for a bit until I had to go back to work. Then I left them for the rest of the afternoon, where they apparently enjoyed reading at another coffee house until they walked to my school to meet me to drive back to Cassel. I let the reception desk know that they would be stopping by, and that they spoke no French, as to not freak out my colleagues. All went well!

That night, we went back to Kerelshof to enjoy an Irish session that takes place once a month there. M and I both play in the session – he plays, I try to play – so my parents came along to listen to some Irish music while sipping on an Irish Coffee. Apparently Kerelshof makes the best Irish Coffees they’ve ever had!

Luckily I only worked half days on Wednesday and Thursday. M took his Wednesday afternoon off to go with us to the planetarium in Saint Omer. Both my dad and M are obsessed with anything related to space, so everyone enjoyed the show… even if the entire presentation was in French! I think Mom napped a bit. But we all had fun.

For the last day, my dad made use of the morning to take a long walk/run from Cassel to another nearby village. He went to the tourism office to ask for a map of the walking trails in the area, but they didn’t seem to be much help. He ended up taking a picture of the map they had inside the office and made his way towards the Mont des Recollets. He took lots of pictures, but here’s my favorite one:

And another one from another walk my parents took together to Cassel’s park:

So much fun!

To end our week together in Cassel, we visited the local museum, which I had never been to before. It’s full of history about the village and surrounding region. This beautiful museum is worth a visit; I’m glad we had time for it.

I’m so glad my parents got to come and see where I’ve made a life for myself: boyfriend, dog, rabbit, and all! To be able to welcome them into our home and have them stay with us was an added bonus. Even though I had to work for a few days, they were able to enjoy Cassel and its walking trails, small shops, and more while I wasn’t there.

Dropping them off at the train station on Friday morning was definitely tough. And going to work immediately after was tough, too! But a week and a half together was so perfect. I can’t wait for them to come back again!

Mom & Dad, Part 1

I was so excited for my mom and dad to visit this spring. So excited, in fact, that I somehow gave them the wrong dates for my spring break. Instead of coming for a week and a half during my two week break, they came for half a week during my break and a week while I was working. At first I was so disappointed in myself, but then I just blamed the French bureaucracy for the problem, let it go, and made the most of my time with them here!

Last time my parents flew into Paris, I was also working (as an assistant at the time). They had to haul all of their luggage to the hotel, where I met them later that day. This time, I was off, and met them directly at the Paris airport. We even spotted each other through the glass between the arrival hall and the baggage claim.

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Crazy eyes for everyone! (Also, take a look at those gums!)
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Mom and Dad on the train into Paris from the airport

We booked two night in Paris in order to do some sightseeing while they were here. The first day, we took it easy: lunch near our hotel (croques and onion soup) and an elevator ride up the Eiffel tower.

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We had been there during their last visit, but we had never all gone up together. My dad had fun taking photos from the top with his 40x zoom lens on his camera.

The next day was our big outing to Versailles. My mom had wanted to go for a while; we tried to go last time they were here but everyone was ultimately too tired at the end of our stay in Paris. Therefore, we prioritised the trip this time and headed out to Versailles the second day of our time in Paris.

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We had absolutely beautiful weather so the 30+ minute wait to get inside was not a problem for us. Plus, I had grabbed a pair of 5€ sunglasses at the ticket shop on our way to the entrance line. The château was definitely worth the trip, even with the crowd from spring holidays. Mom and I especially enjoyed the gardens, where we goofed around and Mom did her mom duty of telling teenagers to get down from the garden walls (I mean really, those kids could fall at any moment! So dangerous! That’s just my teacher voice, right?).

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Peekaboo!

Once back from Versailles, we rested for a bit before heading to a pub style restaurant for well-deserved beer and food.

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Like father, like daughter.

Our final day in Paris was really only a half day, since we were taking the train into Cassel later that afternoon. Both Mom and Dad wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe, so of we went for a stroll down the Champs Elysées.

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Can you believe we gave our camera to a stranger to take a picture? So 2000s. I’m pretty sure we were part of the 10% of tourists that didn’t have a selfie stick.

That afternoon, we headed to northern France. After a train from Paris to Arras (I think), another train from Arras to Hazebrouck, and a final train from Hazebrouck to Cassel, we had gone from giant city to tiny village.

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Mom, the Luggage Queen.

Overall, our time in Paris was just as nice as the first time around in 2012. We saw new things together, enjoyed lots of pastries and coffee, and just enjoyed being reunited. Thankfully, the weather was much warmer this time around, being in the 50s instead of the 30s.

I was especially excited to show them our new house in Cassel. In 2012, I was working 12 hours a week as a high school language assistant and living with three other girls in an apartment attached to the high school. Now, I’m a full time certified high school teacher, and M and I live together in a real house in an adorable village with a dog and a rabbit and a backyard. We even have a guest bedroom, where Mom and Dad got to stay for the week. Oh, how times have changed!

An American in Paris

Paris is a special place. It’s filled with architecture, history, people… lots and lots of people… so many people that I can really only handle a few days there at a time.

Although I may not like the crowds, there is something that I really love about Paris: each time I go there, I reunite with someone. Whether it’s family or friends, someone I’ve seen recently or someone I haven’t seen in ages… I’m never alone in Paris!

It was the first real French city that I ever visited, after getting off the ferry in Cherbourg, dropping off my extra luggage at the train station in Caen (thanks for helping out, Jonathan!), and then finally stepping off the train.

Since then, I’ve been back several times.

Although I’ve had to go to deal with visa issues, paperwork, or passport stuff most visits, I make the most of each time I go.

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Michel especially loves (making fun of) Paris. Ha!
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I picked up my friend Amber in October 2014 from the Paris airport. We spent a few days there and then spent time in Lille and Belgium. It was her first trip to Europe, and her first time taking a plane!
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Three weeks ago, I met up with my childhood friend, Kate. We were reunited after several years of not seeing each other!
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I’ve met up with Baylor study abroad friends several times in Paris. Three weeks ago, we celebrated our friend Flo’s birthday – three of us came in from Lille, London, and Brussels!
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A few years ago I met up with my friend Heather, who was traveling in Europe at the time.
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Two weeks ago, I met my parents in Paris to spend a few days there (and in Versailles) before they stayed with me for a week in Cassel.

In July, I’ll meet up with my good friend Shane there, too!

So thank you Paris, for only being an hour and a half away by train, and for serving as the official meeting point for me, my friends, and my family in France.

Stuck in the middle

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I’ve called Lille, or at least northern France, my home for the past three years. Although I’ve spent time living in Douai, Hazebrouck, Lille itself, and Cassel, I have always been a student or worked in Lille. It’s my favorite city in France. Full of culture, friendly people, great beer, and just a train ride away from other great European cities like London, Paris, and Brussels.

I live 12 kilometres from the Belgian border. We’re there at least once a month, whether it’s to drink a beer, go shopping, or pick up tobacco for M’s parents. I’ve visited Belgium more times than I can remember. (Luckily I have some documentation of my trips to Bruges,  Brussels, Bruges again, and Brussels again. But that’s definitely not all of my trips there.)

I fly out of Brussels International airport more than half the time I go back home to Texas.

The people who died in the horrific attacks that took place yesterday are like any of us: traveling to work, traveling to see family or friends, traveling to new places, out and about.

The images that I saw – and had been trying to avoid – on the news last night saddened and shocked me. I don’t know how else to describe the emotions I felt. Just shocked.

Not so long ago, we heard similar stories from Paris…

For lack of my own better words, I want to share this post from Rick Steves, a man whose guidebooks were the keys to my traveling success the first time I ever traveled Europe on my own.

Learning of today’s tragic attacks in Brussels, my first thought was of that city’s unique knack for celebrating life. It’s a city of great humanity, and great joy. In recent visits, I’ve been inspired by beer pilgrims who flew all the way from New York for a three-day weekend of sipping the world’s finest monk-made brews. After taste-testing decadent chocolates in a line of five venerable shops in a row, I’ve spied yet another shop…and popped yet another praline. And standing on the Grand Place, which was lovingly blanketed with flowers, I’ve enjoyed the best open-air jazz I’ve ever heard — forever giving Europe’s finest town square a joyful soundtrack in my mind.

Half of Belgium speaks French, and the other half Flemish — but, with a battlefield called Waterloo just a few miles beyond its suburbs, Brussels understands the importance of getting along. And, as city beloved for its cartoons, beer, chocolate, and buckets of mussels, it knows the rewards of cooperation are rich.

Brussels is the capital of Europe — an experiment in pluralism more open and determined than anywhere in the world. And not surprisingly, forces against freedom and pluralism have attacked it. In a world of soft targets, easy access to explosives, and vivid media, terrorism is here to stay. And our challenge to maintain a free and open society is here to stay, as well. Europe is strong. It will pursue both safety and the bad guys. And, as a matter of principle, its people will continue to embrace freedom. As a matter of principle, I will keep on traveling. How about you?