Bon soir! I’m halfway through my French sojourn and I still love France. Yesterday was the French national holiday. As a child, I learnt that this is called Bastille Day. Apparently, the French don’t generally say this. Instead, they imaginatively call it the 14th of July.
I remember being taught a lot about France as a child. I remember being taught that French people eat a type of bread called a croissant, and even though it’s bread, if you eat it with butter and jam, it tastes like a bun. It wasn’t until a company called Cuisine de France changed Irish eating habits forever in the 1990s that an Irish child would actually have eaten a croissant.
Anyway, I went out to see the fireworks in Strasbourg for the big day. The ceremonies were not being held in the beautiful old Cathedral Square, nor in the modern central Place Kleber. Instead, everything was happening in one of the few hideously ugly parts of what is a beautiful city. I asked why we weren’t somewhere more culturally relevant, aesthetically pleasing or geographically central. I received the comforting answer that we were on an island and if anything went wrong it could easily be cordoned off. I had a vision of me and my colleagues desperately swimming along the river trying to escape from rioting Gauls.
We sat in this ugly square and ate tartes flambées. This is the main regional dish in the Alsace. It’s basically a pizza, except it has creme fraiche instead of tomato sauce. They are surprisingly nice and very addictive. As we ate, the square (which is basically a big 1980s car park) filled up. There were babies and grannies, couples and groups of friends. People kept coming for hours. There was a band playing songs badly on a gig rig. Boney M, Dean Martin, Van Halen, Lady Gaga and Edith Piaf were all covered.
At 10:30, when thousands of people had gathered, alcohol had been served and the band had done a three-hour set, the fireworks started. They were pretty, but unexciting.
It was late when I set off for home. The streets were still thronged with people. But this was not an Irish crowd. Of the hundreds of people I saw, two looked drunk. They looked mildly tipsy. Everyone else looked perfectly sober. A few people were dancing. But not many. Some of the teenagers were having loud conversations. But not many. No-one was falling over. No-one vomited. No-one was slobbering all over a semi-conscious girl in the corner. No-one was fighting. No-one was singing. No-one was crying. No-one appeared to be carrying their girlfriend’s impractical shoes. It was very different to what I know. And while it is undoubtedly superior to the crowd events I’m used to, I felt kind of sad for France. How does France let its hair down?
Because of the national holiday, the Pole Formation – where I work – was closed on both the 14th and 15th. However, we still had to work these days because a CELTA course must last for four weeks. My boss found an alternative space. A Protestant Seminary.
Now, there weren’t a lot of Protestants around when I was a child. In fact, there were two. It was the 1980s, and while outward prejudice against Protestants wouldn’t have been tolerated, it was widely acknowledged that they were different.
Every time I enter a Protestant building, or for that matter, an Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim one, I get really worried that I’m going to inadvertently disrespect everyone by doing something overtly Catholic.
On entering the Protestant Seminary for work yesterday, I was filled with fear. I had visions of myself accidentally making the sign of the cross and getting us thrown out of the building. I don’t know why I was afraid of this happening. I don’t wander the streets of Dublin, randomly blessing myself with gay abandon. But by the end of the day yesterday, my arm was sore from the number of times I clamped it to my side to stop myself from making the sign of the cross just in case.
We had been told that we’d be using the laundry room and the courtyard. I haven’t taught outdoors in ages and the thought appealed to me. Also, I’ve never ever taught in a laundry room. I can’t say I’ve dreamt of teaching in the laundry room of a seminary, but the idea of analysing the procedure of a writing lesson amid dank cassocks and moist chasubles now appeals to me no end.
In the end, we took one group in an underground windowless cell, a bit like a dungeon. One of the (adult) trainees insisted that we keep the door open, because she was afraid of being trapped in there forever. Once we opened the door, it was widely agreed that we needed to keep an eye out for zombies.
The other group was in the chapel. One of those trendy, modern chapels, decorated with straw, with a feature wall in blue. I didn’t have access to a photocopier in the seminary. And I couldn’t photocopy in advance because the timetable keeps on changing. So I was using my computer and a projector. I was making a serious point when my screensaver flashed up. The trainees burst out laughing. My screensaver is a photo that makes me happy. It’s a happy, good-looking couple jogging. I thought it would inspire me.
Instead, I looked rather silly when 12 trainee teachers and my boss watched as the giant figures of Katie Price A.K.A. Jordan and Peter André flashed up on the wall behind me.