Monday, 24 March 2014

A Week in the Life + Bus Troubles

So, I've been in France now for three weeks! Time's flying by so fast I can almost hear it!

Now, I realise I haven't mentioned too much about what my job is actually like. So, without further ado... Tah daaah! I've written an account of my first week as a translation intern for Third Year Abroad (though I had to cut about half the words out to stop it being monstrously long)... So, yeah! Here it is:

This success (I wrote a thing for the internet! Yay!) just about made up for a slightly faily experience last week.

I had intended to go to a church small-group to meet French people and generally make friends, something I had been slightly failing at until then. It didn't start till eight, so there was plenty of time to hop on the bus to the big Carrefour and do some shopping. Or so I thought. 

Forty minutes and many many pages of my book later, I realised something was wrong. I no longer recognised the names of the bus stops (despite having been to Carrefour many times), and everything was looking strangely industrial. I'd definitely missed the bus stop. No matter, I'd just get off and hop on the next one back.

The bus drove off after depositing me safely in Bayonne, and luckily enough I could see the bus I needed coming in the other direction. I went to cross the road, but stopped. Why miss out on this perfect opportunity to explore Bayonne? After all, I had been intending to go the past two weekends but somehow never made it. It would be a shame to waste this opportunity, especially since the weather was so lovely.

So I trotted off to explore Bayonne, which was absolutely lovely and will definitely be the subject of another blog post if I ever get round to going back there (on purpose this time). Sadly, I didn't even have my camera on me to take pictures! (Sorry if you were hoping to see any...) 

After half an hour of wandering around the picturesque alleyways, peering in the shop windows (I swear half the shops in Bayonne are chocolate shops!) and having a quick mosey round the impressive cathedral (it's MASSIVE!), I headed back to the bus stop, just in time to see a bus rounding the corner to the stop. I quickly noted the number, and checked the map. Yup, definitely going where I wanted to be. And I would even have time for a brief stop at Carrefour. Perfect!

Or not. Turns out that same bus goes in two (completely opposite) directions, but starting from that same bus stop. And you guessed it, I was on the wrong one. Lovely. So I sat looking at the scenery go by while it gradually dawned on me that I was heading completely the wrong way, and silently debating whether to hop off and wait for a bus in the other direction or wait till the end of the line and come back round. In the end I decided on the latter, and dutifully sat there as the bus trundled off into the middle of nowhere.

Finally (after what seemed like forever) the bus reached its terminus and started heading back into Bayonne, but not before the bus driver had given me a patronising 'we both know you're an idiot but never mind' grin in the rear-view mirror. Lovely.

Anyway, I did eventually get on the right bus home, but it was too late to go to Carrefour and definitely too late to go to the small group. Oops.

Buses 1 - 0 Rachel

On the plus side, here is a lovely photo of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where I went a couple of weekends ago for a picnic (pique nique) and got sunburnt.

[uh oh! computer doesn't want to upload the picture. It's pretty, I promise! Will update this soon... sorry!]

A bientôt <3

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A Basque-Country Carnival

Let me start by boasting about an improvement in the weather... LOOK!
After! Not actually the same beach, but you get the idea.
So, I have now been working in France for two whole weeks! *gasp* I thought I would be seriously flagging by now after being softened up to the 12-hour week of a language assistant, but I have actually got into the flow of work and am really enjoying the placement. So yay!

But I'm not going to write about work. This post is about my interesting (and slightly bizarre) experience yesterday at the Biarritz Carnaval! I was a little miffed to be leaving Germany just before the Karneval in Cologne, so I'm glad to say this experience served to compensate a little.

Now, Biarritz is in the Basque country, so one might expect plenty of traditional folk dancing and Basque costumes going on. And you would be right. There were costumes and folk dancing galore. There was, however, a whole lot more to it than that!

My first inkling that something was going on in the city was hearing a weird rhythmic bell/drum beat whilst quietly minding my own business in a café. It turned out to be coming from a group of men dressed in sheepskins and pointy hats, with giant bells strapped to their backs, who marched rhythmically up and down outside the café window. Next came a whole procession of people in costumes (mostly involving paper streamers stuck indiscriminately onto hats, coats and skirts), followed by a road train. Obviously.
Sheep-men with bells
Also among the crowd were plenty of people wearing giant papier maché heads, some of them with slightly disturbing grimacing faces. Almost all of them seemed to be carrying sticks with small beanbag-style sacks hanging from them. The purpose of these was, as far as I could observe, to swing at passing children, who would then attack the bag with their toy swords. (Come to think of it, why did so many children have swords? Must be tradition...) The fancy dress ideas of the other procession members varied from overweight batman to entirely-wrapped-in-scarves, with a whole range of enthusiastic and not-so-enthusiastic participants in between. At the end of the whole parade came a slightly out-of-place-looking almost-rock band with electric guitars, bass, snare drum and accordion, all of them looking very French in their black berets.
One of the less-freaky specimens. Observe stick in hand...
In the meantime, I had received a text from my boss inviting me to one of the town's parks, where there would be more events and her god-daughter would be taking part in a hip-hop dance performance. On the way up there I spotted this wonderful gem:
It's a Battle Crêpes!!! (Or a crêpe battle, in case you hadn't worked that out!) The flyer instructed participants to bring half a dozen crêpes to the Parc Mazon for an epic battle... Only in France!

A crowd seemed to be gathering on the park's fronton court (apparently fronton is a sort of violent form of squash (the sport, not the vegetable) which people in this region are very keen on), so I headed that way and observed the aforementioned procession (minus train) gradually arrive and form a substantial crowd. After a few minutes milling around, we were all shunted to the sides, leaving space for the performances to start. As mentioned, hip-hop dancing ensued, with impressive results (my boss tells me they have a pretty successful club going). After this came some more traditional Basque folk dancing, accompanied by a group of rather shrill whistles/recorders/pipes. Part of the dancing involved some intricate footwork around a glass on the floor, which seemed to be a bit much for the performers, most of whom managed to break theirs. This left the coordinators to rush on and hurriedly sweep up the broken glass and replace it with a new one for the next dancer to break.
Hastily replacing the glass
Glass-breaking aside, however, most of the dancing was great, with some very impressive costumes.
Glass-breaking dancers before the glass-breaking occurred
Dancers in baggy shirts, veils and streamer wigs.
Then everyone descended on the court again (slightly worrying with all the broken glass lying around) and enjoyed the many delights on offer such as the bouncy castle, coffee and crêpes (crêpe-battle leftovers perhaps?), and kiddies' tug-of-war. I'm not sure there's anything cuter than seeing a tiny child in a unicorn onesie trying to take on her entire friendship group in a tug-of-war. Another cuteness-overload moment occurred when two tiny children who could barely walk, one in traditional Colombian costume (complete with hat) and one in a tiny tiger onesie, started holding hands and dancing around giggling. The cutest!
Unicorn-onesie had called for reinforcements by this time
After some more general milling around, people seemed to congregate around a small fenced-in area at the far end of the court, where a dummy-man made of clothes stuffed with newspapers was sitting in a chair. I forget what the point of this was, but I gathered from my boss's interpretation of the commentator that the man the dummy represented was supposed to have jumped into some water and made such a big splash that it flooded some important places... Plus he didn't pay for his drinks at a strip club. I'm slightly vague on the details.

But of course, he had to be punished. So they set him on fire, much to the trauma of all the observing children.
Commentator recites the numerous misdeeds. Newspaper man still unsure of his fate...
Three against one! Seems a little unfair...
Things aren't looking great for poor newspaper man
After all this came, of course, some middle aged ladies line-dancing to 'God bless Texas'.

And that, following a lovely meal at my boss's flat (she is the best), was my experience of Carnaval! Beats Cologne any day! I'm just sorry I never found the crêpe battle...

Tuesday, 4 March 2014


I'm feeling too tired and boring to think up a punny post title today, but I will at some point, I promise!

So, as you probably guessed from the title of this post, I have officially arrived in my second year-abroad destination: Biarritz. "Where?" you ask. Good question. I had no idea either until I accepted the job here (about 3 weeks before my placement was due to start - last minute, anyone?), but thought I should probably look up where it was before attempting to travel there. (As you may have guessed from the last post, travelling there was quite an undertaking!) Biarritz is right on France's Atlantic coast, and right in the south, about 40km from the Spanish border. So far so good!

You might be forgiven for imagining a sunny seaside town with beautiful sandy beaches. That's certainly what I thought. And what google images led me to believe. Turns out that the sunny weather only happens in summer, and right now it is definitely still March. Biarritz is currently in the grips of the stormiest storm I've ever seen. Imagine constant rain, thunder and lightning, and gales to make you re-think your decision to accept a ride to work on the back of your colleagues definitely-blow-about-able moped. Umbrellas are a definite no-no. Sad times.
Bit different to how I imagined...
So much rain :( Let's hope my camera forgives me for taking it out in this weather!
But it's not all doom and gloom! Yesterday, I started my shiny brand-new job at a translation agency, and I have to say that so far I am loving it! Although it is a definite shock to the system working 9-5 (well, technically 9.30-5.30) when I've been used to working 12 hours a week as a language assistant, the work is so interesting that the time (so far) has flown by. While the thought of translating boring documents for a living has never exactly appealed to me, this job could not be more different. I'm translating things to do with culture and entertainment, like TV-show subtitles, cartoon scripts, literature, and BDs (Bandes Dessinées - a form of French comic book/graphic novel). Definitely more interesting than the stuff we do at uni!

Adding to the list of pros about Biarritz (the weather is the only real con at the moment, but it's a big one!) is my living situation. I'm staying with a friend of my work colleague's, along with her 3-year-old son. Now, I won't lie. The prospect of living with a 3 year old did not exactly fill me with joy. But, assured by the previous intern (who also lived there) that it wasn't a problem for her, I decided to take the plunge and just go for it. (Who was I to turn down an offer of accommodation which would mean less long-distance organisation on my part!?) So far it has been great! Oona, the lady I'm living with, is really friendly and relaxed, and she keeps offering me more things to make my room feel more like home. I got home today to find that she'd sneaked a rug, chair and lamp into my room. I'm certainly not complaining! What's more, her son is absolutely adorable (well, so far anyway!) I helped him put together some Lego yesterday, so hopefully that put me in his good books! Fingers crossed...

All in all, the transition to France has been much less painful than it could have been, although this could be partly due to the fact that I'm too busy with my sudden full-time job at the moment that I don't have time to think about much else!

I have noticed a few small differences though. So, in the same way that I did when I arrived in Germany, I think I'll list them here:
  • Kissing. It's a big thing. Whenever anyone arrives at the office they have to do the rounds and kiss everyone (once on each cheek, which I'm told is relatively few kisses compared with other parts of France!). Sometimes they even do this when they leave the office as well. That adds up to a lot of kisses! I think I prefer the Germans' handshaking. Much less awkward-potential.
  • No one here waits at the red man! My inner-German is scandalised.
  • Sugar. So much sugar. Cake everywhere... Bit of a contrast to the German salt-obsession. (Not complaining!) 
  • French - Here I am back in the oh-no-people-are-expecting-small-talk-and-I-have-no-idea-what-to-say situation. So many times I have bitten back (or not quite bitten back) an ach so! which (sadly) is only met with confusion here. Darn those Frenchies for not speaking German!
  • Weird milk. It tastes different. I do not approve.
I'm sure there will soon be many more things to add to this list! I will keep you posted.

Until then, à bientôt!

Let's just hope the weather improves!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet!

So, I’ve officially come to the end of my German placement, and have bid (Bidden? Bidded? Bade???) a teary farewell to the land of sauerkraut and schnitzel, to embark on my three-day drive to Biarritz in south-west France.

Now, anyone who knows me at all well will know how terrible I am at goodbyes, and therefore what a generally traumatic experience these past couple of weeks have been. I hesitate to employ the cliché ‘emotional rollercoaster’, but let’s just say my emotional levels have been experiencing a metaphorical Alton Towers.

I barely had time to draw breath in between all the goodbyes to different people, which ranged from the slightly-anticlimatic to the full-on therapy-inducing tear-fest. Not only that, the past couple of weeks have been filled with ‘final’ things. The final time at Vapiano’s (how I’ll miss you!), final time seeing most of the other assistants (how I’ll miss you even more!), final trip to Bielefeld, final coffee in Beat Café, final cycle up that dreaded hill… I fear that my over-sentimentality may have gone into overdrive, however, as I found myself sighing wistfully over my last bus ride, my last piece of post, my last trip to Netto and my last time seeing that ear-ringed ticket collector on the Bielefeld train. Possibly a little excessive…
Leaving night - I know we don't look that sad, but I can assure you we're dying inside.
One thing I will genuinely miss a huge amount is my town itself. I remember vividly when I first read the name Lemgo, being thoroughly non-plussed by the totally unknown-ness of this tiny town. Couldn’t I be in some buzzing, big city like Cologne or Düsseldorf, rather than a place whose name inspires only confusion, even among Germans?

But my scepticism didn’t last for long. The minute I arrived, I fell completely in love with the place. And there’s nothing like knowing you only have a short time left to make you appreciate somewhere all the more. Last weekend I had a visit from some friends (the lovely Hannah and Hywel), and we spent most of the time taking in the quaint gabled houses, cobbled streets and abundant greenery that makes Lemgo such a lovely place to live. 
It didn’t hurt that we experienced glorious sunshine the whole two days. (I even managed to get a bit sunburnt… In FEBRUARY!) It’s safe to say that I’m very sad to leave.

So, thus concludeth my time in Lovely Lemgo. Following the final ‘final’ goodbyes to my school (so sad), my host family (so so sad) and my brilliant Lemgo-buddy Carly (so so so sad), at last I was ready to depart.

That brings me to here, a budget hotel on the industrial outskirts of Tours (wherever that is), on the second full-day of driving down to Biarritz. Very soon (woe is me) I will have to start all over again, with a new city, a new job, new people and (horror of horrors) a new language. Although, thank goodness, I now have a job and accommodation to go to (which was not the case 3 weeks ago)! Time to grit my teeth and get on with it I think. How bad can the south of France be anyway…?

Auf wiedersehen, Lemmy! Wir sehen uns bestimmt wieder <3