Bonjour, 2017!

Well, look at that. Yet again, 6 months have passed since my last blog post. I really am getting worse and worse at keeping up with this thing. However, I refuse to delete it, or stop, because even if my life here seems more and more normal, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things worth sharing in more detail than I might on Facebook.

For this long overdue post, I’ve decided to start by picking up where my last post left off: Irish music festivals!

Last summer, M and I went to our second Irish music festival. We spent a week in the Alps and I loved every minute of it. In three weeks, we’ll be heading to the Brittany Winter School, an Irish festival that takes place in Arzon, in the region of Brittany. I’m so excited to go to the fiddle workshops, reunite with festival friends, and actually be able to play in a session or two. It’s such a huge change from last year, where I almost didn’t even bring my fiddle with me. One of my goals for 2017 is to record myself playing a tune every week from the Online Irish Academy of Music in order to see myself progress throughout the year. You can check out my Instagram if you want to follow along.

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My fiddle is ready, with its very own sheep cosy.

Other travel plans for this year include a week in Gosport, England at the end of March with my school, a week in Belfast in April with M, and some time in Dallas in August to celebrate our wedding (in July, in France).

I’ve had the chance to participate in the planning and realisation of an Erasmus + exchange project between our high school, a German high school, and a British high school. Over two years, 13 students from each school will work together with theater professionals to learn about WWI history and create a theater piece based on their reactions and feelings about the event and its relation to the current state of political affairs. After an international meeting in Lille in November, we will all head to England in March (and then to Germany in the fall) to finish the research and planning of the piece, which will then be performed in public in all three countries. It’s pretty fun to watch the students work together, mixing languages and personalities. It’s also nice to do something other than teach. Extracurricular activities do not take place at school in France; it’s up to the students to sign up for clubs or lessons outside of school.

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Our trip to Belfast is just an idea floating around right now. We have yet to buy tickets or book anything, but Northern Ireland and Ireland are so affordable to travel to from France that we’re not too rushed. Hopefully we’ll be flying into Dublin, driving up to Belfast, and then driving through a few other cities in Ireland, like Donegal and Sligo. We shall see!

Luckily, M’s parents agree to keep our dog Benji for us every time we travel. He really is one lucky dog. This next trip, however, they will only be keeping Benji for us, and not our dear rabbit Violette, who unfortunately died in December. We miss her so, so much. The impact that an adorable little ball of fur can have on someone’s life is incredible.

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Best bunny ever.

For our big trip to Dallas, however, we will have to find someone to keep Benji Boo for us, as Michel’s parents will be traveling to Dallas as well. We are so excited to be able to have our civil wedding here in France surrounded by close friends and family (including my immediate family who will be here!), and then to be able to celebrate with a blessing and reception in Dallas with even more friends and family who we see much too rarely. It’s going to be a busy month filled with excitement!

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Photo taken by Pierre Clément, all rights reserved.

I have a feeling things will go by very quickly up until then. I’ll keep you posted – or at least, I’ll try to!

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!

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.

Brittany Winter School

After two weeks back at work, I still have Irish melodies constantly running through my brain. Let me just take a moment to say that these two weeks have been the best weeks at work that I’ve had in a while, due to many different factors, I think!

Back to the Irish music.

Two and a half weeks ago, we arrived at a vacation rental house with several (about 10, give or take) people; some we knew, some we didn’t. All of them were musicians, and it was fun to have live Irish music happening on a regular basis. We came from all over France to spend a week at the Brittany Winter School, which is a 5-day Irish musical festival full of concerts, master classes, and more.

The first day, M went to the flute master classes while I hung out with Ma and Mu, rested, and listened to my housemates jam out. On Thursday night, M and his group played at the open stage to compete to play for the opening act of the big concert on Saturday night to close out the festival. They practiced for most of the day together, so I walked around Le Bono with Ma and Mu. The Britches were the first to play that night. Although they were rather nervous, they did a great job! One of M’s band mates ended up winning the opening spot with another group that he plays with.

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Exploring Le Bono with Ma and Mu
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The Britches live on the open stage

The violin player in M’s group used to give me lessons last summer. I joked to him about how I was disappointed that I didn’t have the level to take a master class, and he told me, oh contraire! They actually offered three levels of master classes for each instrument, so I signed myself up for the last two days of classes for beginner violin.

Little did I know, the classes were taught by absolutely amazing Irish musicians who were there for the festival. The teachers were so nice and helpful and I ended up learning a lot. I left after two days with tons of recordings – I don’t even have the names for all of the songs I learned – and great memories of working with such talented musicians.

Paul O’Shaughnessy taught the first morning and the second afternoon of master classes. He’s been playing for a long time and has a style that is very approachable. He has a fondness for tunes from Donegal, which are known for their quick tempos and fiery tones. He was witty and interesting and made the class worthwhile! He even convinced me to take the third-finger tape off of my violin. That was encouraging!

Antóin Mac Gabhann, also known as Tony Smith, gave the first afternoon of classes that I took. He was so incredibly friendly. He’s been playing for years. The stories he told us were amazing. Back in the day, he would have to pay, along with his music buddies, for a room to rent to play sessions in because the bars didn’t want any Irish music inside. He laughingly told us that now he knows musicians who refuse to play if they aren’t paid. You can really tell he loves the music. Even when we asked him about his favorite pieces or his favorite players, he said he “loves all of the tunes equally” and that his favorite players come from all over and are not necessarily well-known.

Mairead Fitzgibbon taught the second morning of classes. She was so easy to learn from. Her style was so clean and she had such a wide knowledge of so many tunes. She even explained some simple techniques to help embellish the tunes we were learning.

I didn’t even look up any information about the teachers before getting home on Sunday. I’m glad I didn’t, or else I would’ve been super intimidated!

Since then, I’ve been practicing at least four days a week. We’re already looking at festivals for this summer…!

 

La belle vie en Bretagne

As I described in my last post, work has been pretty rough lately. Thank goodness for the French school system and two weeks of holidays in February.

Holidays came right when I needed them to this time around. The first week all I did was crochet, clean, cook, and cuddle the bunny and puppy. It was rather therapeutic.

The second week, M took holidays as well and we headed out to Bretagne, or Brittany as us Anglophones call it. Neither of us had ever been, and we had two great reasons to go: our two amazing neighbors from back in Wazemmes (let’s call them Ma and Mu) recently moved to Brittany and we missed them like crazy, and the Brittany Winter School Irish music festival was happening in a town called Le Bono, also in Brittany. So off we went!

M was extra happy to take this 7.5 hour road trip with me, because this time I could finally help him drive!

Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, we spent some quality time with Ma and Mu. Now that they’ve been living in Lochmariacher for a little over 6 months (and vacationing there for even longer!), they knew exactly where to take us to show off their new region.

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Ma and Mu’s backyard
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Mu and M heading out to fish for clams
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The town of Lochmariacher seen from the docks

The first day, we walked around their town via the beach. Lochmariacher is on the inside of the gulf, so the climate is usually calm. In the afternoon, Mu took M and I clam fishing at his favorite spot. M and I have both been vegetarian for a few years now, but for our own reasons, we decided to eat the clams that we responsibly fished and oh-so-lovingly prepared on our own!

Day 2 was another sunny day so we made good use of it by spending it at the beach! In the morning we visited the town of Trinité sur Mer, with its enormous dockyard and adorable hilly streets. We even got a personal tour of the atelier of an artisan and former Navy man who restores sea-related treasures. After a yummy lunch at a crêperie in the cute little town of Carnac, we wandered around the beach and played on the rocks at the beach on the peninsula called Quiberon. On the way back, we stopped at one of the naturally preserved – yet free to visit! – sites of menhirs, which are basically large rocks that have been placed into formations thousands of years ago. We don’t know why, but it is rather impressive.

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The docks at la Trinité sur Mer
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Menhirs
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M playing on the rocks at the beach

On Wednesday, the Brittany Winter School started. It’s the tenth year of this Irish music festival, and it was a blast. Famous musicians from all over Ireland come to play with musicians from all over France – and other countries! – to play in sessions, show off their instruments, give masterclasses, and more. Since M was rehearsing with his group for the open stage session later that day, I headed off to Vannes in the afternoon with Ma and Mu to visit the city. That night, we enjoyed the first of many sessions in a local bar.

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Session #1 of many at Le Vieux Pont Bar

The festival merits a post on its own, so check back later this week to hear all about it!