Monday, 4 July 2011

Nantes et au révoir!

The view from the terrace
This is a view of the vineyards that surrounded the villa where I spent ten happy days near Nantes.

I'm back in England now and my year abroad is over.  It's been a fantastic year.  Many thanks for visiting this blog and commenting on it over the last few months.  Au révoir!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Five things I learned about the French education system

Hello from Nantes!  Sorry about the delay, since I last wrote I've done some work experience and moved house.  I haven't had internet for a while and it's all been a bit manic.  I'm spending my last few weeks in France going around the country a bit.  I'm staying with a lady who wants to sell her house in the countryside near Nantes, and in exchange for some excellent hospitality I and a New Zealander are helping around the house.  I wanted to share a few thoughts about how my year as an assistant has been.  Guardian-style, here are five things I learned while teaching:

1. French students do too many subjects

With the bac you choose your broad path (literature, science, economic/social for the general bac, and others for the bac pro) and you do a variety of subjects.  For example a bac litteraire student will do two foreign languages, French, philosophy, Maths, History and Geography, P.E., maths over the course of their studies.  The main difference between the L/S/ES options are the weightings given to each subject.  I understand the idea of the bac: to give a well-rounded education to French students.  The problem is that very few students in any school are genuine all-rounders who are capable of excelling in every subject.  Most pupils will have strengths and weaknesses.  One might be strong at sciences and maths, another might be brilliant at languages.  The French system insists on producing these well-rounded students - in my school it seemed to produce students who got mediocre marks in almost their subjects. 

2. French students don't have enough choice over what they study

Every time I told my students about A-Levels and how they worked, they were surprised by the amount of choice we had.  When I was in school after my GCSEs I could choose to do whatever subject the school offered for my A-Levels.  The only condition was that you had to have the required grade set by the department at GCSE. 

On the other hand in France you pick the stream you want to be in, but all of them require you to study the basics such as French, Philosophy (they are hot on philo in France) Maths and a language. 

One of the things that made my job difficult at times was that I had dozens of students studying English who had no enthusiasm for the subject.  They were only there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be.  These seventeen and eighteen-year-olds had decided long ago that English was not their strong point and were marking time until the exam.  If French students could choose more of what they studied, hopefully you would have more motivated students in class.  Ask any teacher and they will tell you a class of motivated students is all you want or need. 

3. French kids have too much work to do

I remember when I first joined I asked the students what they would do at the weekend.  Always I got the same answers: "I sleep," "I am sleeping, whole weekend."  At first I thought I got these answers because they were boring kids.  However later on I realised that it wasn't so much because they were boring, it was just that they didn't have time to do much else.  My school started at 8:30am and finished at 5:00pm.  It ran Monday to Friday except Wednesday afternoons, and there was school on Saturday mornings (not for me though, thankfully!)  The only day they had entirely free per week was Sunday.  In theory, the Wednesday afternoon off compensates for the Saturday morning, but I would much rather a full weekend than two half days.  When you factor in the homework and travelling to and from school, it was no wonder I heard "I sleep" so much.  To be fair to some of them, they did dancing, played football and did other activities.  I used to wonder how they fitted it all in.

4. My school's teachers were fantastic

I couldn't have asked for a more welcoming group of staff.  They were always interested in me and how I was doing.  They invited me to do things with them outside school hours - off the top of my head I was invited to dinner, to drinks and to a play.  They often gave me lifts that cut short my longish commute.  They let me know when things were cancelled or changed, which happened quite a lot at the beginning of the year with all the strikes.  They care deeply about the students they have and I was lucky to work with them.

5. Teaching can be a very rewarding job!

Not all the time, but it was satisfying when something I saw on the BBC or the Guardian developed into a discussion (of sorts) in my class.  It was scary how easily my lessons could have fallen apart, and I got some lessons which veered off away from what I'd originally thought of (a girl asked me in my last week whether Prince William could have married a black girl, which threw me a bit...) but on the whole it was a very rewarding way to spend my year abroad.

I'll write something about my last few weeks in due course.  A plus.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Bonnes Vacances!

Just to say that I'm heading back to England for the Easter holidays.  This blog is putting its feet up in the meantime.

Have a lovely Easter wherever you are.  A la rentrée.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Sunny Jardin des Plantes

Paris is experiencing unseasonably hot weather and the people are loving it!  The mercury touched twenty-three degrees today and it's set to be the same, if not slightly hotter, tomorrow. 

Parisians have been taking advantage of the sunshine by going to the parks.  The parks that are within the Paris cityscape are smaller than Hyde Park or St. James's Park in London, for example.  The city compensates for this lack of greenery with the huge Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts.

One of the most popular parks is the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement.  It is a museum, zoo, and a botanical garden.  It's also a very popular destination when the sun is out, although everyone seems to head for the shade!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Review of Mémoire de Zinc in Paris Voice

The Gallery at 3 Rue Jules Valles

I've been published again!  It's a review of a photography exhibition called Mémoire de Zinc, which is currently on in the 11th arrondissement.  It's a small collection of photographs showing Paris cafe life.  You can find my review in Paris voice here.  Go there and enjoy. 

Friday, 1 April 2011

Only Joking

Read all the questions before taking this test.

Cast your mind back to the days when you turned over exam papers at school.  Did you follow the above instruction? 

I didn’t.  I don’t think anyone else did either.  What was the point?  The exams were always in exactly the same format.  There were never any trick questions.  You just got started with question one.

Today, my teacher and I used this to pull an easy April Fool on our terminale class.  I created a double-sided test paper full of ridiculous questions with the instruction to read it all carefully before starting.  The last question ran, in English, “you don’t have to answer any questions on this test, it’s an April Fools’ Day joke.  Put your hand up, say you’ve finished and go next door.”  I went next door and waited.

The first girl turned up almost immediately.  She arrived so soon I was a bit concerned that they were all going to see through it.  I asked her whether the others were writing.  She nodded.  Another girl and a boy came in soon after.  He shook his head at me.  “That’s not funny,” he said.

The others began to turn up in drips and drabs.  I had them sit in the order they came in, while I sat there looking smug and revelling in my own cleverness.

After about fifteen minutes, they’d all come in.  I talked to them a bit about April Fools’ Day and what people do in England.  I mentioned some of the classic hoaxes such as the Panorama spaghetti trees and Sir Patrick Moore’s low gravity.  We then talked about some popular jokes such as “knock knock” and “an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman” (apparently in France it’s the Belgians who are the butt of the joke).  They told me the French call 1st April “poisson d’avril”.  Other bloggers have covered what children mostly do here and here. 

I rounded off the lesson with a couple of videos starring Vicky Pollard and Del Boy.  I wanted to show others such as Fork Handles or Peep Show, but my internet’s so slow that anything longer than two minutes isn’t really doable.

I hope most of them saw the funny side.  They appreciated the sketches, but I think some of them would have been quite happy to wipe the smile off my face.  At the moment though, as Gap Yah guy would say, it’s 1-0. 

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Quaint Île Saint-Louis

Here's my plan for my life: finish university, pursue a long, distinguished and lucrative career as a writer, save prudently and invest wisely during those years and then use the money to retire to the île Saint-Louis the day after my sixty-second birthday.

All right, so it's more of a dream than a feasible plan.  What I am fairly sure of is that in forty years' time Saint-Louis will probably be much the same as is today: quaint, calm and delightful.

During the recent spell of glorious weather, I've been taking in the sunshine around the city.  One of my favourite places to walk is Saint-Louis.  With its narrow streets and bustling cafés "it's almost as if someone dropped a small French village into the center of Paris".  With no metro stations or major landmarks, it's calmer than its neighbour île de la Cité, perfect for a wander.

These two photos are ones I've taken of Saint-Louis.  One is of a saxophone player by the Pont Louis-Phillipe, the other is of two fishermen.

If you are tempted by life on the île Saint-Louis then have a look at this estate agent site where you can find the latest ads.  Sadly none of them are in my current price bracket, but maybe one day eh?

Friday, 4 March 2011

Palace of Versailles, part 2

Last Sunday I posted about the Palace of Versailles, focusing on the chateau itself.  After looking around the chateau, there was plenty left to see - including the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, the hamlet and the enormous gardens.

You only really get an idea of the scale of Versailles when you are in its gardens.  As I said before, you are only shown around the most famous rooms of the palace, so it's only when you walk around outside that you get a sense of how enormous the complex is.

Looking out to the Grand Canal

I didn't stay too long in the gardens because it was a cold, overcast February day, so I headed to the Grand Trianon.
A pool in the gardens
The Trianons have a much lighter feel, and were often used by the royals to escape the strict etiquette of the chateau.  This room below was used by Louis XVI, and also was the drawing room of Napoleon Bonaparte.  He chilled out here when he wasn't conquering Europe:

The Petit Trianon became Marie Antoinette's domain and she extensively decorated it to suit her own tastes.  It was around here that allegedly (and I do emphasise that term) two ladies went through a "timeslip" back to when the Trianon was used by Marie herself.  For me however it remained the 21st century for the duration, as you can tell from the photo below:

Finally, I went to the Petit Hameau.  This was a model village that Marie Antoinette had built in the grounds, where she and her attendants would dress up and "play commoner".  I thought this was one of the most interesting parts of the whole day.  Walking around the immaculate lawns and perfectly "rustic" houses, it seemed sad to me that someone like the Queen, who had all the riches she could possibly want, would choose to milk cows and dress as a shepherdess in her spare time. 

On that note, a plus.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Palace of Versailles, Part 1

I'm sure you've been all desperately wondering what I've been up to since I last posted about my weekend in Reims two weekends ago, so apologies for not filling you all in sooner.  I've actually been back to England for a while.  I stayed with my girlfriend, spent some time at home and visited my university town of Bristol for the first time since last June. 

I'm now back in France and this post continues the theme of visits to fine French historical buildings with a trip to the Palace of Versailles.

I don't suppose the palace needs a whole lot of introduction, but just in case it became the main residence of the French monarchy during the reign of Louis XIV.  Louis decided to build himself a magnificent palace on the site of an old hunting lodge at Versailles, conveniently close to Paris but distant enough for Louis to stamp his own mark on the royal court. 

The palace reached its peak of grandeur and importance during Louis XIV's reign, and was the home of the French royal family until 1789, when the events of the Revolution forced Louis and his family to relocate to the Tuileries Palace. 

Since then, it has changed hands several times during France's immensely confusing post-Revolution history, in which France has been a republic (several times), an empire, a partly-occupied territory and a monarchy.  Now that France is a settled republic, the chateau and its grounds are now a gigantic museum.  

The Hall of Mirrors
You can only look around a small part of the palace following a set route.  I guess this is because the palace is so huge that visitors would get lost if they were allowed to wander through the seven hundred rooms as they wished.  The route you take gives you its first "wow" moment with the palace's most famous room: the Hall of Mirrors.  Louis XIV used this room to entertain courtiers and guests, and it's easy to see why.  The entire room is a monument to Louis's power and wealth - the central painting on the ceiling is entitled le roi gouverne par lui-même (the king governs by himself). 

Peeking behind the royal covers
This next picture is of Louis's XIV royal bed.  The king was woken up by an attendant at around 7:30 a.m. and was washed and dressed.  Incredibly, he was watched through all this by a few close friends and courtiers.  No lie-ins for His Majesty.  The rest of the royal day was planned with equal care.  Louis XV and Louis XVI unsurprisingly hated the suffocating precision of the royal day, and the Levee became less frequent.

This is the Queen's bedroom.  Note the little door to the left of the bed: Marie Antoinette escaped through this door during the Revolution, when a mob of Versailles women stormed the palace demanding bread to eat.

The rear facade of the palace
I could go on with more pictures, but I think that's about enough on the palace.  Next up is the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, the gardens and Marie Antoinette's model village, which will come soon.  Bye for now.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Weekend in Reims

Notre-Dame de Reims
Last weekend I went to visit my friend Samir.  He's an assistant who lives in Reims in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France.  He has a blog which you can read here

Reims is the largest town in the Champagne-Ardennes region in eastern France.  Many champagne houses have their headquarters in and around the city.  It's famous for its magnificent cathedral which was where many French kings were crowned from the Middle Ages onwards.  It also has a long history of confusing English speakers with the peculiar pronounciation of its name: in English it's pronounced "Reems" but in French it's something like "Rinz".

I got up far too early to catch the train from Gare de l'Est.  Bizarrely the cheapest fare for that train when I booked it was in first class, so I enjoyed the comfier chair and extra leg-room that brought as the TGV made its way through the countryside. 

After meeting Samir and two other friends we went to look around the cathedral.  It was almost deserted as it was early last Saturday.  A few dozen people were wandering around while recorded organ music played gently.  It was all very peaceful.
Looking towards the altar
After that, we made our way to the Pommery champagne house for a tour.  We went down into the cellars where there are thousands of dusty bottles being left to age.  The guide explained to us the painstaking process of making the wine while we walked through various cellars marked "Manchester", "Hanover" and even "Bristol" - a "hangover" from the days when they tailor-made their blends to suit the customers in a particular city. 

I wonder how much all that's worth?
I asked the tour guide what he thought of Formula One drivers and FA Cup winners spraying champagne around.  He told me that often they cheat and use bottles that haven't matured properly so they can't actually be drunk. 

"They can waste their champagne, we drink ours," he said, cheerfully pouring a glass for the taster session at the end.

After that we went to a party, jointly hosted by Samir and a friend of his, which was a lot of fun.

Finally, another early start to catch a slower train back to Paris. 

Well done if you're still reading by this point, as this is probably the longest blog post I've ever done and it's completely off-topic.  That's all though, until next time.  Ciao.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Nouvel an chinois

The main parade on Avenue de Choisy

Last Sunday two friends and I went along to the Chinese New Year celebrations in the 13th arrondissement as it becomes the Year of the Rabbit.  Starting in the afternoon, there were parades, dances and general noise-making around Place d'Italie, Avenue de Choisy and the other streets that make up one of Paris's Asian districts.

At Place d'Italie you knew straight away that you were in the right place: there were decorations hanging from the streetlights and the appetising smell of Chinese food was in the air.  There were so many people lining the streets that it took a while to meet up with my friends.

By the time we had met it had become pleasantly noisy.  There were lots of people chattering, vendors selling things, drums and the periodic boom of a loud firecracker.  As well as the main parade there were smaller groups doing their own thing, such as these guys: 

After wandering around for a bit we decided to go to Tang Frères, the biggest Chinese supermarket in town to have a look at what was on offer, which was predictably rammed with people.  We ate and by that time the parade had begun to wind down.

I took home some food from a Chinese café including a chocolate roll (which has since been devoured) and Lychee, a tasty grape-like fruit.  A plus.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Gargoyle's Perspective

There are several places you can go to get a great view of Paris. 

The Eiffel Tower is the obvious one as the tallest and most iconic building in Paris, if you don't mind waiting patiently in a long queue for the lifts to the top, or braving the stairs.

Another popular choice is the monolithic Tour Montparnasse.  The featureless tower sticks out like a sore thumb in the skyline so it's popular partly because, to paraphrase Maupassant, it's the only place in Paris where you can't see the damn thing from.

For location though it's hard to beat Notre Dame.  Slap bang in the middle of the city on the Ile de la Cité, it offers a spectacular panorama of the entire city. 

I climbed up its 387 steps with two friends the other day, and this photo is from a gargoyle's perspective at the top balcony connecting the two bell towers, looking north towards the Sacré-Coeur.

Friday, 4 February 2011

More strikes in the education system

The magnificent facade of the administration building

French teachers are planning a strike on Thursday 10th February in protest at the planned reduction in teacher numbers as of the next school year.

The strike is planned to begin in Bobigny.  Next week, students at my school will be taking their mock exams for the baccalauréat.  

16000 posts nationwide are to go nationwide next September.  According to Le Parisien 571 of those will be in the Créteil academy.  That's despite an apparent rise in the number of pupils in the academy.  The Education minister said that "quantity is not the right response to the problems in the education system".  

Around twenty of my colleagues went on strike yesterday, protesting in front of the administration building in Créteil.  Apparently the tightening will mean classes have to merge in my school.  Considering that some of the classes already have thirty of more pupils, it's not surprising that many of my colleagues are unhappy.

It's a familiar story of having to do "more with less" as cuts bite.  They don't seem anywhere near as bad as those in England where 19% is being axed on average per department.  Still, there's not much point in telling the French that things are worse elsewhere, as any cuts that are planned with always be met with fierce hostility from the CGT.

The strike was voted by those who were in the staff room earlier in the week by a show of hands.  This appeared to me rather unfair on those who weren't there.  I spoke to one teacher on Thursday who told me he wasn't fully aware that there was a strike on.  In Britain Thatcher made pre-strike ballots part of the law.  Now you won't find too much praise for Maggie on this blog (we teachers and assistants are Left wing ideologues) but it doesn't seem fair that if you didn't happen to be in the staff room at the right time, you missed the chance to have your say (although you have a right not to strike if you don't want to).  Nor did it seem right to have a public vote - if you are in a minority of one it takes courage to contradict your colleagues.   

For me though, I'm now on holiday as I'm not needed for the mock exams and then it's half term.  I'm planning to explore France a bit more, and if I do I'll post reports, photos and what not. Ciao.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Sometimes I get stuck for things to write about for this blog.  I'll be sitting at my computer on Twitter or the BBC pondering what could be the subject of my musings, and nothing will jump out at me.

The solution to these writer's blocks is normally to take a walk.  I might subconciously have been following this advice from Wannabe Hacks about looking carefully in the streets for news.

At any rate, I was taking a stroll and noticed this enormous piece of graffiti (street art?) in the 11th arrondissment behind a cafe. 

This piece was truly massive, at a guess I'd say about 50 feet high on the Rue de Charonne. It refers to Cubism, a form of art that Picasso amongst others practised.

If you want more examples of street art in Paris, check out this post by Anne or UrbanmediaA plus.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

New exhibition at La Monnaie

I was browsing the Paris website at the weekend for things to do and a new exhibition caught my eyePeurs de la ville is about Paris (bien sûr) in some of its most troubled and turbulent moments.  It captures the fighting that raged during the Liberation of Paris in 1944, May 1968 and more recently the unrest in the banlieues in 2005 and 2007.  Many of the photographs are provided by Paris Match. 

That alone would make it worth a visit, but what makes this exhibition a bit different is the section, which elsewhere has been called Guerre ici by veteran war photographer Patrick Chauvel.  This photojournalist has taken images of conflict and war from war-torn places such as Afghanistan and superimposed them onto photographs of famous Parisian landmarks.

The results are highly realistic images of street battles by the Sacré-Coeur, a solitary tank in front of the Arc de Triomphe and a stricken Tour de Montparnasse.  As a fan of dystopian fiction, I found the images extremely interesting.  They are also designed to make us appreciate the peace we enjoy in the West by bringing war closer to home.  The original conflict photographs are displayed as well, allowing the viewer to compare and contrast.

There is another small section about Google Street View and its controversial attempt to photograph the world's streets, but compared with the Guerre ici section it is rather uninspiring. 
If anything, the exhibition is slightly too short; but at 6 Euros for a plein tarif, I would definitely recommend it for a thought-provoking visit.  It's on until mid-April.  A plus.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Don't trust this blog

Or at least don't if you believe Ben Vautier.  He's an artist who creates a lot of his work using text to form paradoxical statements.  The one above means "you must not trust words".  As someone who is hoping to write for a living one day I was mildly offended at this stab at my potential future profession, but a more Machiavellian side of me spotted an opportunity to spin the irony of the message still further and write about it instead.

I actually took this photo on a wander around Belleville before Christmas but it's been languishing in my camera memory until today.  It's home to a large Chinese population, with lots of Asian restaurants and supermarkets around the Rue de Belleville, where this picture was taken.

On another amble around my quartier today I spotted a few more interesting examples of street art.  They'll be along soon.  A plus.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Progress Report

I feel it's time for an update on how the teaching is going.  I blog often about Paris life and what's going on here, but I spend around half the week away from Paris in Créteil at my lycée.  This blog hasn't said so much about my day-to-day life as I am but one cog in the larger machine that is the City of Light.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to bring you up to speed every now and then with what's been occurring in my life, so here goes.

I've settled in at my lycée fully now.  I spend a lot of time in the staff room chatting to the other teachers and I think I have a good rapport with a lot of them.  I've started to be invited to a few things here and there.  This is great as it's hard to meet French people in any other contexts.  I spend a lot of time at the school, and several teachers have remarked that meeting new people is difficult in Paris; everyone keeps to themselves.

I get a lot of freedom to discuss different subjects with my students.  The past week or so I've talked about gap years, London, Cockney rhyming slang (with my best class, and they hardly got it...) and a film made entirely of YouTube clips called Life in a Day.

The vast majority of the kids are all right, as they say.  They might not be the strongest at English in the world, but most them try hard and we normally get somewhere by the end of the lesson.

Incredibly, I only have two more weeks of teaching left before the bac blanc (mock exams) and then the holidays.  The Year Abroad flies by.  A plus.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Review of Andrée Putman in Paris Voice

Some of you may recall that I reviewed an exhibition in Paris Voice recently.

Well, the editor very kindly published another review I did for the online magazine about the exhibition currently on at the Hotel de Ville about Andrée Putman.

You can find it here.  You can also find all sorts of stuff on the magazine's website about Paris - film and book reviews, things to do etc.  Have a look.  A plus.

Monday, 17 January 2011

2011: what's new?

Parisians have been going to the sales

Well, a belated Happy New Year to you all!

Last time I blogged Paris was shivering in extremely cold December weather.  The snow had forced Eurostar to drop the "high-speed" from its high-speed rail, thus the journey from Paris to London was painfully slow.  Add to that "frozen doors" at the deserted Ebbsfleet International and I very nearly missed the last train back from London home.

I had spent nearly three months away from Blighty, easily a personal record.  It took a day or two for the habit of speaking French to wear off.  My sleeping patterns were happily disrupted by the Ashes.  Christmas and New Year were lovely and quiet and I also turned twenty-one. 

Before I knew it I was back on the Eurostar opposite a screaming toddler and two embarrassed parents on the way to Gare du Nord.  I knew I was back when I heard the annoying "dah, dah-dah dah daah" of the SNCF tannoy system.

So what's new, you may ask?

For a start, it's warmer.  We've been blessed with sunny and warm-ish weather these last few days, and Parisians have been taking advantage of this to browse the sales.

There have been changes on the political scene.  President Ben Ali of Tunisia resigned and fled the country he had ruled repressively for twenty-three years.  There have been demonstrations in Paris and around France in support of the uprisings in the North African country.

Jean-Marie Le Pen has also called it a day after decades of being at the heart of far-right politics in France.  He hands over control of the Front National to his telegenic daughter Marine.  The high point of Jean-Marie's career was shocking France in 2002 by bringing his unpleasant politics into the second round of the French presidential election.  Marine has her sights set on disappointed Sarkozy supporters in the 2012 presidential election, and Le Monde reported that one in five French people have a positive opinion of her.

Well, a reflective blog post to start 2011.  Apparently 'tis the season for introspection - today is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year.  I hope you cope all right.  A plus.