What we’ve been up to….

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As the days get shorter and colder we’ve made an effort to squeeze in a few more outdoor adventures over the last few weeks including a local working wind-mill and a few visits to Nantes.  Nantes is about an hour away and is a pretty cool city with many interesting things to do and see including this gigantic mechanical wooden elephant which the kids rode and they are still talking about it. In 2004 Time voted Nantes the most ‘liveable’ cities in Europe.

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There are no more juicy blackberries to pick on the sides of the country roads so we went to collect clams from the muddy sand along the Passage du Gois (about 30 mins away) which one can cross only during 2 three-hour periods daily  (1:30 hrs before low tide, and 1:30hrs after low tide).

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To eat them raw you need to be very swift with your knife otherwise they ‘clam up’ and are impossible to open……a bit sweeter and ‘nuttier’ than oysters.

I have somehow ended up (not quite volunteering) teaching (for free) my daughter’s class of 27 7-year-olds English twice a week. The students are very enthusiastic which is more than I can say about the class teacher: The teacher said that to give the students some photocopies of the songs that I’ve been doing with them would take too long (?!?!) and for some unknown reason, she won’t give me a list of the kid’s names. It’s a stereotype to say that French teachers are rigid, lacking imagination and creativity, unlikely to give positive feedback and reluctant to receive feedback or have students ask questions….but my feeling is that this could very well be the case here. Very disappointing.

A British teacher (Peter Gumbel) at one of the leading universities in Paris  wrote a book about French schools, saying they “humiliate pupils” and that “the system focuses on the transmission of knowledge and doesn’t even remotely address the child or their wellbeing”. – The Guardian 5 Sept 2010

“Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?” Gumbel writes. “I believe France is missing a key element of what’s wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture.” and I’d have to say that after viewing a 45min video of excerpts of the school day at a class meeting last night ‘harsh’ was one of the many words that came to mind. As I watched the teacher telling the children not to talk (nothing but whispering is aloud in the classroom until after lunch-time recess) and shuffling the kids along and asking them  what ‘il faut faire’ (what they ‘need to do’…as if there was one and only one correct response) I was wondering WHY the teacher would actually want to show this to the parents….although the little 5-year-olds DID appear to be very ‘sage’ (well behaved) which is as important as being polite (see previous post ‘Back to France in August for a discussion of politeness). After the meeting I was relieved to find one other parent who was as ‘surprised’ as I was by the teaching methods…but she simply said with resignation…”c’est la France”… ‘It’s France’…. and then mentioned that she was considering moving to Quebec.

To finish on a positive note (because don’t get me wrong, there are some/many), here are some recent gifts from neighbors – delicious treasures from the last days of summer:

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La rentree

We set-out one morning recently to introduce ourselves to our new neighbors….but we didn’t get past the first house: there, a lovely elderly couple invited us in for a chat/drink, and after tasting but a small selection of his- 40liters of home-made aperitifs (using 40degree alcohol from a ‘secret source’): which is then macerated with fresh quince, raspberry, walnut…   we stumbled back home. The next day a second couple – equally lovely –  sent us home, after a chat, with a delicious homemade flan and the following neighbor insisted that we join her for an aperitif. Several days later we have finally introduced ourselves to our immediate (and very nice) community – none of whom failed to mention ‘c’est calme ici’ 🙂 Indeed it is calm, which is a nice change from Shanghai.

Last week we went to the local amusement park ‘Puy du Fou (which) is a bizarre phenomenon: a rural theme park without any rides. It’s trademark is spectacular history extravaganza shows – where thousands of actors and animals recreate high drama, from Roman gladiators to King Arthur, with mind-blowing special effects’. (The Guardian May 6th 2015)

DSC_0160Our 5yr old was thrilled to see plenty of ‘real’ Knights in shining armor and plenty of sword fights. Many locals had told me that it was voted the ‘Best Theme Park’ in the world, but upon a little investigation I discovered that it was actually given one of the ‘Worlds Best Park’ award…..not quite the same thing. 

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And so the summer vacation has come to an end… an end to knights in shining armour, to ‘Perrier tranche’ (Perrier with a slice of lemon) on the beach, oysters  eaten at the oyster farmer’s cabin and an end to the walks around the ‘marais salant’ (salt marshes) which connect our town and the beach.

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Below: very dry ‘marais’ and some salicorne which is a plant that grows on the banks of the salt water and which is preserved in vinegar (not very edible raw as I discovered) and typically used in place of the more well-known cornichons to accompany charcuterie (pork products).

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The first of September is ‘La Rentree’ – when everything in France moves into action ….including school. I was surprised to find that our children’s school week consists of 4 very long days (8:45-16:45 Mon,Tues,Thurs and Fri) despite the government ‘imposing’ 4.5-days since 2013: Actually in the not so distant past all French schools had one school-free weekday (the Wednesday) – opting to add classes on Saturday mornings instead. In 2008 the schools abolished Saturday morning classes and squeezed the curriculum into 4 days (not daring to change a tradition of a ‘free’ day which dates back to the 1800’s). In 2013 the government re-introduced the 4.5-day week (principally because kids are able to concentrate better in the morning….and because the standards in French schools appeared to be dropping) – but this time they included….(gasp!) the sacred Wednesday. Apparently the move was met with much opposition (probably because there is a general resistance to change and because many extra-curricular activities benefited from it) and as I discover, has not taken effect in all schools.

Anyway, the kids slipped into their new classrooms happily and it was nice to see Antoine’s teacher give him a nice kiss hello (which sadly would have probably ended her up in trouble in any anglophone country…….no physical contact allowed!).

Now the serious stuff starts….such as having a routine, working my way through paperwork and making professional-type telephone calls, which is something I dread…especially the inevitable little pause that the person on the other end of the phone makes after hearing my request (I always hope that this pause is simply an adjustment period to my accent and not shock/disgust at my destruction the French language nor complete incomprehension).