Friday, June 29, 2007

Chateau folk

Introducing (most of) the Chateau folk and associated partay people

Me, army guy, Freddy (French guy) and Kathryn at Le Queen Vic

Tom - the eminently appealing guy who asked me out repeatedly (and has since been fired after being punched twice by different staff members, feel half sorry for him, but only half) - and Al at the chateau bar

Alice (my roommate) and Ben in Freddy's flat - you can probably view 90% of Freddy's flat in this photo

A charming photo of Sophia (who starts work in the chateau next month when she turns 18) and Freddy. Who's giving the finger I don't know

Another lovely photo - he's only pretending to grope her, for the record, but that sort of thing is pretty typical for our work environment. Al, Sophia and Mark 2

Mike, Mark and Freddy get their groove on at L'Afterclub

Mike and his (now ex) girlfriend Fleur - French girl and mates with Fredddy

A very unflattering photo of Mark, he'd probably kill me since his ego is the size of a small country

Mike, me and Helen

Me and Benji (aka Ben), whose last day at the chateau (after 9 months) was today

Home sweet home and my last can o' V for the duration

'Cosy' living arrangements for me and Alice

Thursday, June 28, 2007


This morning was a 6.30 am start, which was not pleasing to me, followed by helping the world's stupidest children make their sandwiches. I had to tell not one, not two, but about twenty of them that it actually helped to open the (cut) baguette up completely to fashion a sandwich, instead of slotting the butter knife into the narrow opening and then trying to insert the fillings in like a letter into a post box. Les enfants terribles! This, by the way, is a judgement in which the teachers wholeheartedly concur. All I heard all day was how terrible the kids are, how they're all looking forward to the imminent end of the year to be rid of them, and how they'd never take them on another trip again...

Apart from that though, I had a very easy day because there were two drivers with the coach, so no navigating duties for me. Even though I would have made a better job of it than the crazy route they took I tells you! First stop was a bakery, not the same bakery we went to the other day, but in fact a superior bakery where I got a free pain au chocolat AND a free croissant. Score! The kids also got to have a go here making their own croissants and pains au chocolat, which I trust were promptly binned on departure. Here I learned that, in France, a crescent-shaped croissant signals it's made with margarine, whereas the straight ones are made with butter. Talking of which, I couldn't see super well over all the kiddies, but his method of making the croissant dough seemed to consist of wrapping a sheet of pastry around a big lump of butter and pounding it with a rolling pin before putting it through the rolling machine. So that's why croissants are so buttery good!

After that it was another two hours down the road (driving time today of 5 1/2 hours, seriously ridiculous) to the Grottes de Naours, which my driver repeatedly called, in what I believe to be a non-ironic fashion, the 'grotties'. The grottes are man-made caves carved out of the chalk rock, which the people of Naours were wont to hide in in times of distress. Originally they were a Roman quarry - for some reason the Romans liked to somehow start down below and dig up, makes no sense to me, but there you go. When the Roman Empire collapsed and the barbarians overran France, the people of Naours got the bright idea to just hide in the old quarry for a spell. It obviously worked, and they decided to carve out over 300 underground rooms over the next 500 years. They would usually only spend a couple of days or a week there, but apparently on at least one occasion they were down there for a month - about 2500 people and their animals, which can't have been fun. And for some reason their toilet was in the sheep pen... As time went on, the grottes were also used to avoid paying the much-hated 'gabelle' or salt tax in the 18th century, and then the ceiling to the main entrance caved in and the grottes were unused and forgotten until 120 years ago, when they were rediscovered. After this, they were used as an Allied hospital in the First World War and by the Nazis in World War Two (nothing in this part of France is untouched by the world wars, seemingly). All quite interesting, and worth seeing, especially since no-one else here has been, so I'm lucky to have had the chance.

Disappointingly, the proposed 'rain-date visit' to Agincourt did not go ahead since today was the first day in forever without any rain, naturally. So instead we spent about an hour herding the kids through the gift shop, fun times.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I've been sacked

As punishment for some unknown misdeeds, I was sacked this afternoon....

Gasp! Yes, two of my lovely and mature male colleagues snuck up on me with a laundry sack, stuck it over my head and down to my knees, pushed me over into a pile of laundry and then piled the rest of the dirty laundry on top of me. Admittedly, it was a laugh, but you see what I have to put up with on a daily basis! Seriously, I think I must have done something evil in a past life to not only have to work with these guys, but also live with them 24/7. Well, at least life's not boring, eh?

My new group had a spaz at me because some of the teachers had arranged to bring their daughter, who's about 15, along and they wanted a bed moved into their room for her. Firstly, head office didn't pass this information on; secondly, the boss said it couldn't be done for 'safety reasons' so they had a fit about how it had been arranged for 12 months and what were the saftey reasons and they'd done it before. Upshot was we moved the bed but they had to sign a thing saying they took responsibility for the decision. Which made me feel very awkward about interacting with them over the next couple of days. At least when they'd calmed down they said they knew it wasn't my fault, so maybe there's hope for me yet.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Why does it always rain on me?

Boulogne Cathedral

Looking up at the inside of the dome

The sadly-damaged frescoes

The ceiling in the Boulogne town hall - I just thought it was cool

I earned my money yesterday once again with some mad navigation skills. Let no-one henceforth question my abilities to be the navigator since I am officially paid to navigate large coaches around the north of France! It is, in fact, one of the few things I'm responsible for on tour, so it was actually quite nice to have a driver who had no idea so I felt like I was making myself useful.

Anyway, the day began with a trip to a boulangerie in the middle of nowhere, which was... longer than expected... Well, it smelt very nice in there and we got a free pain au chocolat which made the ones they serve at the chateau taste like crap by comparison - so light and buttery and chocolatey good! I also learnt that the weird skinny shrivelled looking baguettes you get in French bakeries actually weigh the same as their plump supermarket equivalents, the difference being that the boulangerie products are kneaded for longer and the air gets taken out, therefore they are smaller but denser. So there you go.

After that, we headed to Boulogne, which was nice, although we got caught in more than one heavy shower. By the way, temperature in Boulogne? Highs of 14 apparently, with biting winds from the sea. It's nearly JULY for goodness sake!!! Top tip? You can, in fact, haul 35 kids into the town hall to use the two available toilets, with nary a peep from the staff. Imagine trying that one on in the council buildings at home! The town hall also includes within it a world heritage site! Namely a 13th century belfry, which we had a look around while the kids were taking an age to file through the toilets. Then the kids had to do a 'treasure trail' - traipsing about in the Old Town pedestrian area answering questions like "how much is it for a peck of barley at the fifth shop on the left?" all in the name of improving their French. Meanwhile the teachers and I enjoyed a hot chocolate followed by a squiz at the cathedral, home of some sadly water-damaged frescoes. In fact, the roof was leaking while we were there. The cathedral is (was?) the home of a miracle-working statue of the Virgin Mary, which supposedly fetched up in Boulogne at some point on a pilotless boat. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in the place, but I don't think it was the genuine article, since there was also a disembodied hand with a card saying it was the hand from the famous Virgin Mary - where the rest is, I know not. Presumably they don't either. Ah, update - the cathedral was deliberately destroyed and the statue burnt in 1793, only the hand survives. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Finally, it was on to the chocolate factory, where I've been before and not much has changed. I was highly miffed that the teachers got a free bag of chocs each and a big box of chocs free for the kids and I got zip. This only increased upon my return to the chateau when I discovered that the groupie who'd toured Beussent in the morning got free choc! Grrr! I made up for it though, by eating most of his ha ha!

Today was a frustrating day - up at 7 to see the group off - they were actually really good kids. Anyway, after that it was a double changeover followed by the lovely surprise that the new group who were meant to be arriving at 9 pm were actually going to turn up at 2.30 for a hot lunch before leaving again until the evening. This meant working through lunch to prepare their building, then doing all the lunch washing up before setting the tables again for their dinner. Thanks guys! Wasn't finished until about 4.30 which is MUCH later than usual. However, I have this evening off and then another group arriving tomorrow, which means unfortunately a long morning of hoovering tomorrow morning.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Navigator

Yesterday when my coach driver got lost on the way to his bedroom, I thought it was a bad sign... Then this morning, he pulled out of the chateau and started driving on the wrong side of the road. Oh dear! I navigated our way into Belgium to the theme park fine, but got slightly confused trying to reverse the directions for the way back. Usually a driver might need a hand getting to a place, but they're quite happy on the return trip - not this time! However, he's a nice guy and we made it back without getting lost or having to turn, just with a couple of wee detours.

Today was a full day at the Bellewaerde (if that's how it's spelt) theme park, which is a pretty good park, pretty big. I went on quite a few rides with the kids, including some water ones, a rollercoaster that went backwards and loop-the-loop and one of those where you get raised up and then dropped down vertically. I never used to get sick on rides as a kid, but felt a wee bit dizzy after some of them today, I must confess. It rained off and on, unfortunately, but I just sat in the cafe whenever it was raining, so that's all good.

They're a well posh boarding school, so all the kids have impeccable manners and do whatever you tell them, and the teachers are all nice, which makes life easy. The head teacher teaches Russian, so I managed to get on his good side by gavariting a little with him - in fact, he told the kids he'd found his soulmate! Here comes a good final report for me, I can just feel it!

Tomorrow I'm not looking forward to - well, the visits should be fun, but there's an issue with it raining again, and more importantly, quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, which should test my navigational abilities to the utmost. We're off to a bakery first (free tasting mmm), then galumphing about Boulogne, then to the chocolate factory in the afternoon (where I've already been). Then a disco for the kids to round off the day. Which reminds me, I have to run crepe making for them this evening, and since my lovely helper doesn't speak any French, I'll have to give the instructions in French, which is proper scary...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Free-Lilleing Gwan

Ha, apologies for awful pun, couldn't resist!

As you may have guessed, today we took a trip to Lille. I had been planning to go by myself on the train, as it was my day off, but the others finished all their work by about 10.50 am (grrr they should be working hard on my day off dammit!) so a bunch of us were able to go together in the car - Lille is only about 45 mins - 1 hour drive away, or about 35 mins by train.

We split up pretty sharply upon arrival into groups of girls and guys, and me and the two other girls hit the shops all afternoon, resulting in the purchase of a white H&M top for me - I'm coming over all summery...

Didn't get to see any of the touristy sights really - don't know what there is in Lille to be honest. We parked near the art gallery, which looks pretty big but don't know what's in it, and walked past the train station, which is the Eurostar terminal and is really central if you're ever considering Lille by train... This was also next to a big shopping centre, Eurolille, which we didn't have nearly enough time to explore! (The boys called just as we were walking in, which was half an hour before we were due to meet up, asking if we wanted to go home early because they were bored - fat chance!) We also walked through what I think was the Grand Place, which was really pretty. I really like the way French towns are arranged around a nice central square - they all have the equivalent of Prague's Old Town Square somewhere in them, although not always as picturesque and thankfully not nearly as tourist-choked! I love the narrow, joined-together buildings with all different façades, so pretty! There was also a great big cathedral, although it wasn't the most attractive building I've ever seen.

Anyway, I'm definitely going to go back when I get half a chance and see the sights and maybe do some more shopping, even though the budget doesn't really allow...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Somme

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

Mostly I just liked the way these trees looked against the horizon, but we are also looking across no man's land to the approximate position of the German line - I think it gives an idea of the distance and emptiness

Ulster Tower

The Newfoundland caribou dominates the landscape at Beaumont Hamel

The land at Newfoundland park still bears the scars of war

Today I got to go to the Somme, surely one of the most evocative names in military history. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the action on July 1st at Beaumont Hamel, the first stop on our trip. The fighting on this day was the bloodiest battle in British military history, when about 20,000 soldiers lost their lives.

Today Beaumont Hamel is the Newfoundland memorial - run by the Canadians today, obviously enough, although at the time Newfoundland was in fact a separate British colony, not part of Canada. The tour we went on was really interesting and informative, you could really see what went wrong and why so many people lost their lives (for the Newfie battalion, an 85% casualty rate). The problems began in the morning when the troops set off a mine behind the German lines - a good idea in itself, it was meant to provide shelter for troops to get into and fire on the Germans from both sides. The issue was that they blew up the crater and then waited some 10 minutes before launching the attack, which gave the Germans advance notice that something was up, leading them to prepare their troops and machine gunners etc. They had been in the area for about 18 months, so they had the high ground, the best cover, and the deepest trenches, all of which made life difficult for the Allies. So those that went into battle first were mown down, and the dead and the wounded choked the 'communication trenches', which were basically single-file trenches leading out from the living trenches to the front line. This meant that the Newfoundland troops couldn't go through these trenches, but had to go straight over the top, obviously increasing the casualty rate. It also meant that the Essex battalion which were meant to attack with them (this was in the 3rd wave of attacks in the morning) weren't able to join the battle for about an hour after the Newfies, because their communication trenches were likewise unusable and they didn't have the option of going over the top because their position was so vulnerable to machine gun fire. The next problem was in getting through their own barbed wire fences. The barbed wire had been cut to allow the troops through and in to no-man's-land, in a zig-zag pattern to prevent the Germans from seeing what was up. By the time the 3rd wave of attacks went through, however, the snipers knew where the holes in the barbed wire were and were able to pick off most of the soldiers. The last major problem was that the communications systems were poor - there were telephone lines, but it was all a bit chaotic as you can imagine. The commander at Beaumont Hamel saw white flares going up on the horizon, where the Ulster division were attacking. This was code for 'objectives achieved', so they thought all was going well on their flank. Pity that the flares had actually been sent up by the Germans for some other purpose, so they didn't realise that they had no protection on that side either. Being at the site really brought all this to life - you could see exactly how far apart the trenches were, how featureless the landscape would have been, and see how today it's all crenellated by the after-effetcs of so many trenches and shell holes.

After this, we went 5 minutes up the road to Ulster Tower, as the name suggests, a tower commemorating the actions of the aforementioned Ulster division. We picked up another guided tour of Thiepval wood, where archaeologists have excavated several trenches. It was interesting to see a different type of battlefield - a slightly more relaxing one I would think with the tree cover, although the guide informed us that it would basically take a direct shell hit to knock down a single tree, and by 1919 or so the wood was no more (it has since grown back). This area was fought over in 1916 and again in 1918 when the Germans came back, having previously beat a tactical retreat out of the Somme.

This region is, incidentally, the Ancre valley, which some might remember as the setting for Sebastian Faulks' novel 'Birdsong', which I have read but would quite like to read again now that I've been to some of the places he talks about. It's interesting because it begins in the tranquil Ancre valley before the war and then goes through during the fighting. There's nothing like 'on the spot reading' as anyone who's also read 'Ex Libris' might reflect, but I went and bought 'All Quiet on the Western Front' today instead.

Anyway, our last stop of the day was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a huge British memorial which records something crazy like 75,000 names of British missing in the Somme alone. It was designed by Luytens, who did the Cenotaph in London, and is pretty impressive. It's the biggest British war memorial in the world. Apparently, if a body is found and identified amongst those listed on the memorial, it's erased from it, so you can see gaps in the lists of names although I must say I didn't see 'em.

So again, highly interesting although at times I thought I'd die if I had to stand in a field or a wood for any longer. It was hot and sunny at least, which was nice and certainly makes a change! I've never been wildly enthusiastic about military history, but it definitely is different if you're there seeing the places and hearing the stories rather than just reading about it half a world away. Does make you wonder how the Allies ever won though, since all I seem to hear about is the massive Allied casualties and how the Germans had all the best spots!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Back in Blelgium

The Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate

Sombre statues overlook Langemarck German Cemetery

A poppy in Flanders Fields! Outside Langemarck

A New Zealand soldier at Tyne Cot Cemetery

Graves stretching into the distance

Tyne Cot is full of roses

It's hard to convey how many graves there are at Tyne Cot in a single frame...

More graves as far as the eye can see

Today it was up and out back to the Ypres Salient for a very long day. The day began at Sanctuary Wood, then Tyne Cot Cemetery, then Langemark Cemetery... Stop me if you're getting a spot of déjà vu here... I didn't go in to Sanctuary Wood, but felt I had to make an appearance at the cemeteries in order to justify my inclusion on the tour (this is actually a double group and they only let one of us come out with them, and almost said that neither of us should come "take a day off", they said - I had to subtly hint that there IS NO SUCH THING AS A DAY OFF at the Chateau!!).

After lunch on the coach in the pouring rain (lovely) at least we got to go somewhere I hadn't been before, Talbot House, which was a club for soldiers behind the lines in Poperinge, the only town that remained free (i.e. not in German hands) in the region for the duration of WWI. As the lovely man who gave us a little talk about the history of the house explained, Poperinge in WWI was rife with snooty officers' clubs, brothels and bars, and so Talbot House was set up as a place devoid of all those entertainments. "So," the guide explained "you can see why it was so popular". Um... no, I can't actually... But it would appear that some of the Tommies did indeed prefer chapel and song without the wine and women part.

After that, we headed for Ypres, where the kids had about an hour's free time to do some shopping, while the teachers sat in a cafe, nice. It was actually some sort of a special day in Ypres, the streets around the main square were shut off to traffic and there were crazy scary clowns on stilts, a market, and a beach volleyball tournament going on in the square, much fun had by all. Then half the teachers and all the kids went to the In Flanders Field museum, where I also was last week, so I stayed out with the rest of the teachers only to be caught in a massive downpour :(

Next up was dinner - my first non-Chateau meal in 5 weeks, hallelujah! It was chicken and chips and pretty decent stuff it was too, in a quite pretty restaurant called 'T Zweed, which I was informed was Flemish for The Sword. Pleasant as dinner was, it provided one of many of the day's opportunities to illustrate the truism that, if you want your blood pressure to skyrocket, all you have to do is try to move 95 kids and 12 adults around the landscape with reasonable speed. Seriously, disembarking and (especially) re-embarking on the coach takes 5 mins minimum every time, more like 15 if you add the time it takes to gather the kids up from the 4 corners of, say, a huge cemetery, count them, and get them seated and buckled up. Grrrr!!! On attempting to leave the restaurant we ended up in a human traffic jam for at least 5 minutes, when for reasons which were never made clear to me, we got halfway out of the restaurant and then were ordered back to our seats for about 1 minute before all getting up again and finally stampeding the exits.

Last stop of the evening was the Menin Gate - yes, I've been here before, too, but this time it was for the Last Post ceremony, held nightly at the Menin Gate since the 1920s. The only time it hasn't been held was under Nazi occupation, but the very day the town was freed, the Last Post was heard again at the Menin Gate. The crowds that turned out were incredible when you consider this happens not once a yaer, but every day - we were a hundred strong, but only really a drop in the bucket. I'm awful at estimation, but I wouldn't be surprised if you told me there were 1000 people there tonight. The ceremony was quite moving, especially the part when they read the lines of the poem:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

at which point I had to put my sunglasses on lest I start crying (luckily I did not, but seriously, I'm going to be a mess at Auschwitz people).

And of course you're all wondering "what about the chocolate shop, Gwan?" (that's right, OF COURSE!) It turned out to be a bit of a non-issue since the teachers, lovely as they were, faffed about saying that they wanted to go to a different chocolate shop, then that there was no time for a chocolate shop, then letting the kids go off for free time (during which most of them bought chocolate anyway) then deciding to go to the chocolate shop after all. Probably about half the kids wound up buying from this chocolate shop, others bought from a rival establishment, which must have been duly noted because although I got free chocs, this time there was no tip...

And so ends another 13 hour long, tiring, but pretty fun working day. Tomorrow it's touring around the Somme, none of which I have done before, so should be interesting. Laters!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Shake ton booty

Everyone's favourite French song - 'J'aime trop ton boule' a.k.a. 'Shake ton booty' - watch the clip if you want to see some lycra-clad men shaking their bonbons in a most unattractive way. Sample lyrics 'Toi et moi ce sera Brokeback Mountain' (You and me, it'll be Brokeback Mountain), 'Je ferai Angelina et tu feras Brad Pitt' (I'll be Angelina and you'll be Brad Pitt), 'allez tout le monde les bruns, les blonds, chauves,les roux
non... pas les roux' (come on everyone - the brunettes, the blondes, bald, the gingas, no... not the gingas). It's basically an ode to man-on-man ass appreciation and I loves it! Check it out...

I also enjoy 'J'suis blanc' albeit to not quite the same extent as 'J'aime trop ton boule':

Monday, June 11, 2007

Adventures in the land of Tintin

The trenches at Sanctuary Wood

Shell crater at Sanctuary Wood

More trenches

Mine crater at Spanbroekmolen

A relative on the Menin Gate?

At the Menin Gate

The Menin Gate

If you ask me, this makes Ypres very much NOT a cat city!

The Cloth Hall at Ypres

Yesterday I finally got to go out on tour again. Yes, one month (can you believe it?) into my job and I've only been out on tour for 3 days... This is not what I signed up for!

Anyway, I was super excited because we were going to BELGIUM! Yes, another country on my list of 'places I have been'. Belgium is only about half an hour's drive away from here, a little longer to get to Ypres, our destination for the morning. Passport control was non-existent - there were booths at the border but they were unmanned in both directions, and from what I've heard it's very rare to get pulled up at the border. So if anyone's wanting to go into France (or, for some strange reason,) Belgium illegally, try the land route. In fact, from France you can probably even smuggle yourself into Britain and live like a king cleaning toilets. Rock on!

It was weird, then, to realise that you are suddenly in another country - the signs are different, the traffic lights are another colour, and so on. This would be, in fact, my first international border crossed by car (or coach, as the case may be). Sweet, that makes trains, planes and automobiles all covered, and ferry thrown in for good measure. Northern Belgium is the Flemish-speaking part, so even though French is spoken in Belgium and it's so close to France, all the signs went into Flemish straight away, and at the museum we went to it the signs were primarily in Flemish and English, not Flemish and French. It's considered a bit of a faux pas to speak French to people up here, so English is your best bet if you're ever visiting the north of Belgium (except Brussels, where French is the primary language).

Our first stop in Ypres was the cloth hall - once the largest non-ecclesiastical gothic structure in Europe, now a building that looks like the largest non-ecclesiastical gothic structure in Europe, but actually dates from some time in the 1960s, since Ypres was thoroughly destroyed in WWI in particular, and rebuilding hadn't really gotten underway by the time another war came along. This houses the 'In Flanders Fields' exhibition, which basically details the WWI experience in the Ypres region. From what I saw, it was well done, but I didn't spend a huge amount of time inside, since I'm pretty sure I'm back next weekend and I had more important things to do...

Namely checking out the unofficial chateau chocolate shop. There is a chocolate shop in Ypres where we all take our groups, since they provide a free bag of chocolate with a sneaky 10€ tip every time you go in. This was nice, but my god, did I feel like a dirty hustler or what? Just reflect, if you're ever on a guided tour and they steer you towards a particular souvenir shop or what-have-you, chances are they're getting a discreet kick-back out of the whole affair. I felt distinctly guilty upon seeing pretty much every one of 44 kids spend at least 10€ a pop in the place, all in the space of about 15 minutes. They were obviously well used to the whole thing, and the kids were relieved of their money with great efficiency while I stood there having a crisis of conscience. Will I take my next Ypres group back to the chocolate shop? I suppose so... They all want Belgian chocolate, and they might as well get it at a place where I get something out of it (and the teachers likewise get free chocs) as anywhere else. Will I feel bad the next time too? Probably...

After the chocolate shop, it was to the Menin Gate, a memorial to the British missing who fought in the area in WWI. It's a huge (marble?) archway in what used to be the city walls of Ypres, covered in more than 55,000 names. When you reflect that these are just the MISSING in this small area, it really helps to emphasize the loss of life this region saw. (Incidentally, I idly counted the marked British cemeteries on the one page of my fairly large scale map of the Ypres Salient region - there were 14!) I even found a missing soldier sharing Gwan's name, which as you know, isn't super common.

After that, we left Ypres and went on a mission to find the Pool of Peace, aka Spanbroekmolen, the largest single-charge detonation crater from WWI, or something like that. It took about half an hour of going round and round tiny country lanes in the coach, trying to avoid weight-limited roads and once backing the coach up a street after we discovered it was too narrow to get past the cars parked on both sides, but we got there! I was quite pleased because the group leader said they'd tried to visit a couple of times before, but the coach driver had never been able to find it, go my navigational skills! On the way, we passed through Messines/Mesen, which wasn't on our route at all but we were a teensy bit lost. This is home to a New Zealand memorial, which I didn't see, but there were at least 3 NZ flags flying in the town, including just in someone's window, which I thought was pretty cool. Usually, as most Kiwis will know, if you see a flag that might be from NZ it winds up being the Australian one, so it was cool seeing a wee bit of NZ in Belgium... Anyhoo, the Pool of Peace just looks like a big, pretty, placid lake - you'd never know that it used to be a hill-top that was blown up by the Brits in order to give the Germans a bit of a fright or something. Was it worth all the effort finding it? Sure it was!

From there, it was on to Sanctuary Wood, a private museum which offers a selection of reasonably graphic WWI photos, WWI artefacts dug up on the side of the road at some point, which just lie around the museum out of glass cases for the most part, and 'authentic' WWI trenches. The group leader, a history teacher, had his doubts about how authentic they were - there was certainly fighting there and trenches dug, but he said, for example, that the corrugated iron now lining the trenches would have been added at a later date to shore them up, so it's hard to know what other changes may have been made. Presuming they are essentially reinforced originals, they were surprisingly narrow and shallow, it's hard to imagine daily life being lived out in these little holes in the ground. The site was also liberally pockmarked with shell holes, which in contrast to the trenches were bloody big! I suppose I always thought of shells as maybe enough to take out one guy, but from the size of the holes I think probably 3 people at a time could be comfortably blown up if they were standing close together.

Our last two stops of the day were cemeteries - the British (Commonwealth) cemetery at Tyne Cot, which is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world - rows and rows of neat little white headstones, with rose bushes growing around them, and the German cemetery at Langemark, which was more sombre, with plaques in the ground rather than tombstones. Also at Langemark was a mass grave where more than 25,000 bodies were buried - mostly German soldiers, but also about 1000 who couldn't be identified even by nationality... The teachers had the kids pick a row of tombstones and count up how many graves there were, and how many were named versus how many were unidentified, and this very informal survey suggested that about 50% of the graves were unknown soldiers, sometimes identified by nationality or by army unit, sometimes completely unknown. The Tyne Cot cemetery had some NZ graves, and a section of its wall plaques were dedicated to the NZ missing in the area (for some reason, although Australia, South Africa and India are represented on the Menin Gate memorial, NZ is not). And at Langemark I saw some real live New Zealanders - recognisable by the NZ flag and 'lost Jafas' sign on their car, so I had a wee chat with them which was nice.

After that it was back to the chateau and back to cleaning and so on for another week... Next weekend I have a joint tour with one of the other girls here, so that should be good fun, and it's back to Belgium on that one I think!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

French letters

My French-language abilities continue to improve somewhat. In this edition of the blog, I bring you some random observations on the French language (hopefully tolerably amusing/interesting ones, don't run away).

First there is "ooh là la". Thought this was a cliché and French people don't actually say it? Think again. Actually, I thought this as well, since everyone here actually says "oh lo lo". But upon asking around, it appears that this is a northern thing, and ooh là là does exist. What is more, you're not restricted to just the two là làs by any means. For added emphasis, you can là là là until the vaches come home. When watching the French Open the other day (French learned: le tie break, slicer, la double faute, les balles de break) a particularly cack-handed shot on an important point earned no fewer than 8 là làs - Oh là là là là là là là là if you want to play along at home. This reminded me of a show on French TV (never seen it, but seen the ads) with the interesting name of Bo bo bo-bo-bo bo bo-bo. Riiiight. Carefully hyphenated and everything!

Talking of 'northern French' (sorry if I'm repeating myself here, I can't recall) apparently they speak faster and slur their words together more up here than they do down south, where a more nasal drawl is meant to be de rigeur. Clearly, this means that I should move to the south of France, where I might have a fighting chance of understanding normal-speed speech and where the weather is probably not (as it is here) overcast and humid with 20° highs. Seriously, I haven't had a full summer in almost a year and a half, come on!!!

My next fascinating observation is on the subject of 'verlan', a bizarre form of French slang. The ethos behind verlan is to reverse the syllables of words to come up with new slang terms, although that makes it sound far too logical. For example, verlan for 'femme', woman, is 'meuf' - I can kinda see that, I suppose. 'Laisse tomber' - 'drop it, forget about it' is 'laisse beton' (why not laisse bertom, I know not, but whatever). But 'homme' mysteriously becomes 'mec' in backwards form. Where did the c come from then eh? And whose idea was it to monkey about in this random fashion anyway?

I have recently finished reading Merde Actually, sequel to A Year in the Merde, both mildly irritating novels about an Englishman in France. They are irritating, amongst other things, for the way in which the main character is compelled to itemize the appearance of every woman he comes across, in a cross between some sort of porn, a medieval blaizon, and the beginning of every Sweet Valley High book ever written (don't pretend you don't know what I is talkin about). He then mostly proceeds to sleep with them. On the other hand, he is occasionally humorous on the subject of French language and culture, and it provides for some arch little 'oh yes, I too have experienced that particular facet of the French psyche during the period I have spent living amongst the strange creatures' moments. One subject upon which he waxes in exaggerated fashion is that of Franglais, having a character who speaks entirely in butchered Franglais form.

Franglais is not, unlike Engrish or the like, a term denoting the mangling of the language by non-natives. Rather, it is generally used to indicate the judicious sprinkling of one's speech with French terms (if you're anglophone) or English terms (if francophone). Despite the Academie Française's best efforts, English c'est cool - reflected not only by such hilarious French music videos as "Shake ton booty" but also by the fact that the road signs say 'STOP' not 'ARRETEZ' (much snappier, you see). People here are also in the habit of dropping in the odd French term. My personal favourite is indicating that I'm just popping upstairs for a 'douche' - French for shower you see, and mildly amusing to the more juvenile amongst us. One term I find particularly grating, on the other hand, is the use of 'on y go' - a nails-down-the-blackboard blend of 'on y va' (let's go) and, obviously enough, the English word 'go'. I do, however, enjoy 'on attaque' - pretty much, 'let's do it' but with the pleasantness of conjuring up some sort of a determined Viking assault on the chore of mopping.
Or 'le mopping' if you so desire.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Party in the lobby

By Saturday afternoon, the car still hadn't come back, and as indicated, we were all getting desperate when someone hit on the idea of walking to a supermarket. Said supermarket was advertised first as being a 30 min to 45 min walk away, which was subsequently upgraded (or should that be downgraded) to a 45 min to an hour walk. It ended up, in fact, taking us 1 hour 15 to get there, leaving me plenty of time to bitterly regret wearing my jeans on the trek across the suprisingly boiling French countryside. (The weather for the past few days has taken on the pattern of misty, cool mornings followed by the mist burning off and being replaced by hot, cloudless, sunny afternoons, which caught me out on this occasion.)

This wouldn't have been such a problem except I had a group coming in that evening, and it was estimated that I should begin walking back to the chateau at 4 pm - we didn't in fact arrive at the supermarket until 4.15, leaving me with a slight scheduling difficulty. Plus the 'supermarket' was surely the crappiest institution ever to bear that name. It didn't even stock such things as Coke or Pepsi, just no-name 'brands' and only one type of everything. And my shopping list, which featured such exotics as hummus, pesto and nail scissors, was destined to go unfulfilled. On the plus side, I could, had I so desired, have picked up a bottle of table wine for 75 euro cents. Our trek also took us through a village-wide garage sale, complete with icecream and pizza vans, carnival rides and blocked-off streets - if only we'd had the time to stop and browse. Seriously, if there's one thing the French crave, it's evidently the opportunity to purchase their goods in a stall-based setting.

The return trip was not fun, as I was forced to leave the rest of the dawdlers (who had nothing bar dinner to rush back for) and hoof it across the countryside at double-quick speeds, seriously regretting my clothing choice, but making it back in 55 minutes and with 5 minutes to take a quick (cold) shower and await my group, who rewarded my efforts by turning up 45 minutes late, d'oh!

The group was only a one-nighter (I personally question the wisdom of departing Oxford with a group of 11 and 12 year olds at 6.15 am on a Saturday, hauling them out and around the north of France all day, arriving at the Chateau at 7 pm, then getting them up and out the next morning for more tripping around France and finally back to Oxford at 11.45 pm on Sunday, ready for school on Monday, but then it's not my call) so, since I talked them out of partaking in any organised evening entertainments, I had very little to do with them. (Incidentally, on the report they filled in, they gave me marks of 4 and 5 for everything, except for 'staff at evening entertainments' which received a 3, doubtless because all except two members of staff buggered off to a party for the evening ha ha.)

Ah yes, the party. We were all invited to a house-warming party for one of the French guys we know, although 'house' is a term to be taken with a giant lump of salt. The gentleman in question abides in a 'foyer' - no, not in someone's lobby, but a 'foyer pour jeunes travailleurs' - a 'hostel' for young workers. Hostel is an apt term, as the inhabitants of the foyer have their own teeny weeny little room, with a bed and a desk and a wee bar fridge, but share toilet, shower and living-room facilities. I'm not entirely sure if there's a communal kitchen, I didn't see one but I would imagine so. I suppose the point is to give young people who could not otherwise afford it a place to live - don't know if the concept of flatting in a house with other people is common in France. Don't know that I'd want to live in one, but an interesting idea nonetheless. And a party with about 11 of us in this tiny room was also an interesting concept.

Yesterday I had to get up and mooch around while my group were 55 minutes late in departing, only to find that they'd misinterpreted my speech about stripping all the linen off the beds and also removed the plastic matress covers. Why, god, why? From my point of view, these things are practically part of the mattress - they zip all the way round, for a start. When I discovered this, I gritted my teeth in an approximation of a smile and said it was quite all right, but my heart rightly sank, since it wound up taking about 3 times as long to change the beds since it involved wrestling the covers back on to the mattresses.

One good thing that happened yesterday was that the car arrived back from the garage. On a Sunday, no less - incroyable! It can only have been because we had all given up hope of it that it decided to turn up again. Since France is closed on Sundays, the plan was to take it out for a spin in Belgium, le plat pays to which I have not yet been. This would have been a fun day out, but we had to drop this girl back home first - she is English but lives in France and is coming out to work at the Chateau just as soon as she turns 18, and had come to the party the day before. Incidentally, I told her she had some food on her tooth, which backfired on me when it emerged that she, for reasons best known to herself, had some sort of jewelled tooth ornament. Crazy! Why wear something that looks like tooth crap and lures others into committing social faux pas? See, this is why people are too embarrassed to tell you when your fly is down or you have food all over your face - sometimes it can all go horribly wrong. Anyway, her home turned out to be an hour's drive away, so the only afternoon fun we had was being stuffed into a hot car for an hour there, drop her off and then turn straight around and drive an hour back to the chateau. I can, however, confirm that France is 90% fields for an hour south of the chateau as well - educational.

Here's hoping that we get out to the real hypermarket this afternoon.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

So bored!

Arrrgh really really am going insane! The car is STILL not back, haven't left the chateau in a week. We only worked for 1 1/2 hours this morning - sure, sounds great, but the boredom is crippling! Have been going on walks but there's nothing within walking distance, just empty country lanes where you'll see maybe one car per half hour walk. There are a couple of bus/train stops but the bus/train only goes a couple of times a day at inconvenient moments. Not sure if we'll be able to get out to this party tonight... Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!