eet’s ah-preel!

It is April, and this year is flying by, as usual.

In February, M and I spent a week in Brittany attending the Brittany Winter School Irish music festival, reuniting with old festival friends and meeting new ones, playing at and enjoying different sessions, and making the most of the unexpected beautiful weather in Arzon, France. I met a woman who sells violins who absolutely loved my crocheted violin toppers and I may be selling them through her this summer. How fun! I’ll also be bringing some with me when M and I head to Ireland on Sunday.

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My high school’s Erasmus + project is really starting to develop. I accompanied, along with three other colleagues, thirteen of our high school boys to Gosport, England for a week in March. The students spent the week with 26 other high schoolers (a mix of British and Germans) working on their international theater project that will be performed in April and May 2018 in all three countries. This week long meeting, surrounded by the German theater team, really inspired me to start working on my German skills, again. Thanks, Duolingo. Now I know how to say things like “Ich bin Haley. Ich habe ein Hund. Er ist schön.” Very useful. But, progress is progress!

Gosport is a small, residential city of about 80,000 people. It’s located on the southern coast of England. Even though we were supposed to have cloudy, rainy weather all week, something went wrong and we had 5 days of beautiful sunshine. Yes! Our teaching team, due to the shortage of hotels in the city, stayed at the local trailer park. It was awesome. The first night, I saw a fox that I nearly took home with me. There was a bar/restaurant in the middle of the park where we could meet up with the others, and it was only 10 minutes walking distance from the school. We did have one day in London to explore the Imperial War Museum, but only saw the city center from inside the bus.

Something I noticed about being in England was the different way that British people reacted to my accent. In France, whenever I speak to (almost) anyone who doesn’t yet know me, the question nearly always comes up. “Ooh, you have a little accent… where are you from?” Now, now, curiosity is only natural, and obviously my American heritage is so exotic that it needs explaining. And once I answer the question with an “I’m from Texas,” I really don’t mind the question being asked in the first place, because the accent comment is far less offensive than what usually comes next.

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Texas?! Ooh, George Bush.

Texas?! Do you have a ranch?

Texas?! Home of the racists! (Yes, I promise, this comment is real.)

Obviously, not everyone reacts in such a way here in France, but I’d say that 75% of the time, they do.

It had been a while since the last time I went to England. I think it was something like four years ago with M, but that seems too long ago. As I chatted with locals in Gosport, usually the reactions went something like…

Texas?! I have an uncle who lives there!

Texas?! I love Austin, I went there last year.

Texas?! Wow, that’s great.

I don’t really know what the difference here represents. That the American and British cultures are more similar than American and French, so we have less stereotypes about each other? I don’t know. Or that we have to rely less on stereotypes to feel more comfortable with each other? That since more British people have been to Texas, less of them have stereotypical ideas about the state? That a lot of French people only really “know” about Texas through series like Walker Texas Ranger and Dallas? That an American is more exotic in France than in England? That when you’re less “exotic”, people don’t just zoom in on the one thing that makes you interesting to them (when you first meet)?

I knew I wasn’t alone when a post about this very topic showed up in a Facebook group called “American Expats in France” this week. The discussion that followed really entertained me, even after nearly six years living here. Fellow Americans talked about how sometimes their accents are commented on almost in a spectator-sport nature. How if they’re not white, the question comes even faster. How people feel proud when they identify the accent first! Hahaha.

I’m hoping that projects like this Erasmus + exchange will encourage young people to steer away from stereotypes, to get to know each other, and to learn each other’s languages in order to better exist together. There’s still much work to do – and I saw the problems from the point of view of a chaperone (omg, I’m a chaperone now) – but they’re on the right track. And that’s exciting.

 

 

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!

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.

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!