بيت لحم – The Choir of London and the Palestine Choral Festival

As promised, I’m finally getting round to writing a little about my travels in Palestine in August. Embarrassingly, it’s been more than a month since I got back from there, but a rather busy interim period that involved going up to the Edinburgh Fringe and moving and settling into life as a choral scholar in Norwich means that I have only really been able to get to writing about it now. I feel that, by way of introduction, I should give a little summary of how I ended up travelling out to the West Bank in the first place.

In my final term of university, I was contacted through the Director of Music of my college’s chapel choir about joining an organisation called the Choir of London in their upcoming tour to Bethlehem, to take part in the Palestine Choral Festival. Founded in 2004, the Choir of London is an organisation that allows professional musicians to give their time and skills to working charitably with various initiatives to increase access to music, both in the UK and abroad. The Choir organisers were instrumental in the establishing of links with Palestinian music organisations, and have since worked together to create the Palestine Choral Festival, as well as setting up the Choir of London Bursary Scheme, to give young Palestinian musicians opportunities to study and perform in the UK. The Palestine Choral Festival aims to bring choirs from around the world together with Palestinian choirs to perform in a packed and diverse programme of concerts and workshops across the West Bank, 1948 (pre-Nakba) Palestine and, for the first time this year, Gaza.

Naturally, an invitation to join the Choir of London in their tour was incredibly exciting. However, my ignorance of the region to which the Choir was headed meant that I almost let my confusion and anxiousness get the better of me, and I very nearly declined the invitation. What with being stressed out with revision for finals, the prospect of travelling to what a lot of Western media brands as a warzone, in which (according to the UK Government’s travel advice page) the situation is ‘tense’, was enough to send me running in the other direction. It doesn’t help, either, that a lot of travel websites and guides that I checked discussed Israel and the Palestinian Territories in conjunction with one another, as if a tourist might expect to have anywhere near the same experience in Tel Aviv as they might in Jenin. In a similar vein, it took me far too long to establish that Bethlehem was even in Palestine, and not Israel. Checking Google Maps to try and get a sense of where the border between Israel and Palestine lies did not prove helpful either, but this may actually be down to Google not actually labelling Palestine on the map. This fact actually caused quite a stir online just before our trip out there was due to depart, with several sources claiming that Google was erasing Palestine from the map. It actually transpired that Google has never acknowledged the existence of Palestine, and Palestine has never been labelled on Google Maps. This seems a bit problematic from my, and indeed, the United Nations’ point of view, but it does explain why I was confused.

All this uncertainty was not particularly conducive to my wanting to travel out to the West Bank, but the ignorance I had unearthed in myself of Palestine as a place confirmed to me that I really ought to go. Very persuasive also was the fact our flights and accommodation had all been paid for, but even if that had not been the case, I could not pass up an opportunity to travel to this part of the world whilst performing music to the highest standard, meeting and performing with Palestinian musicians and, crucially, gaining first-hand experience of a place that is well-known but poorly understood by very many people.

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The Next Chapter

It’s once again been an age since I last wrote a post on this page. I’ve been kicking myself ever since I wrote my most last post almost a year ago, in which I claimed to be converting my Lyon blog into something more permanent, because it just wasn’t going to happen. I was sucked into my final year of university and spat out the other end, and with two dissertations and countless other essays to write, it’s not surprising that I didn’t really want, let alone have time, to keep blogging.

I had a fun year, though. Amazingly, I got cast in the 2015 ADC/Footlights Pantomime, Robin Hood, and this took up most of my first term back in Cambridge. I’ve never done a more enjoyable show: we did something like fourteen or fifteen performances, and I laughed as hard at the jokes on the last night as I did on the first. It’s amazing to think that the whole thing is written, composed, and staged by students. Fourth year was also great academically, with the course finally allowing me to study things that interest me. I took up Portuguese, and wrote dissertations on drag queens and Québécois cinema. I was so grateful for the scope that writing a dissertation opened up: the ability to research and write about something fascinating was a breath of fresh air within the rest of the Cambridge tripos system, which can be quite stuffy, students often having to write on a selection of set texts for varying reward in exams and supervisions, and marks frequently depending on whether supervisors/examiners like or dislike your point of view.

My final term was dedicated in large part to revision for just such exams, and it was horrible, as is to be expected. I did perform in another musical, which provided some respite for the first couple of weeks of term, but then I started my finals and felt positively miserable until they ended. It all went very quickly after that, with May Week, its May Balls and garden parties sliding into Grad Week until finally, it was time to graduate. Graduation was a very special occasion. Brexit happened on the same day, and I cried about that for a good while, but even the Referendum result could not overshadow the glorious sunshine, all the pomp of the furry BA hoods and the procession to Senate House, the Latin speeches and grabbing of praelectors’ fingers, and sharing the day with my parents. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

My first summer as a graduate was been extremely eventful. I went on one last tour with Emmanuel College Chapel Choir – to Munich, this time – and got involved in two operas, one at the Harrogate International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, one at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Most excitingly, I was offered the opportunity to travel to the West Bank in August, to perform with the Choir of London at the Palestine Choral Festival. This was an incredible trip, and I plan to write a little bit about it here, but first, I’d like to explain what I’m up to now.

It goes without saying that throughout my final year of university, I was haunted by the question of What Comes Next. Almost four years of French and Spanish had left me not wanting to touch languages or language-based occupations with a bargepole for the foreseeable future, but even removing languages from the equation, I hadn’t a clue what I really wanted to do with my life. With that in mind, I got my act together for once, started looking around on the Internet, and found myself becoming interested in doing a cathedral choral scholarship. Joining and singing in a chapel choir was one of the highlights of my time at Cambridge, so being paid to do it in a big fancy cathedral immediately held some appeal. Because I started looking into it quite late in the day, a lot of cathedrals I contacted already had their full quota of choral scholars (many auditions happen at the beginning of the academic year, it seems), but I was lucky enough to be invited to audition at a couple of places, one of which was Norwich Cathedral. This is where I am now, and I am thoroughly glad to be here. The Cathedral and Cathedral Close are beautiful, and Norwich is a lovely, historical city that covers all bases. I am so excited to be singing with a cathedral choir, too: with a line-up of choral scholars and lay clerks, and boy trebles (although a girls’ choir sings once a week), the sound is different to any choirs I’ve previously sung with, and the increased frequency and standard of singing is something I can hopefully benefit from. I can’t wait to see what this year has in store for me musically.

I am relieved, for now, to have left Cambridge and my student days behind. I may want to do a postgraduate degree somewhere, at some point, but this year should be an opportunity to step back, relax a little bit and think about the future, whilst making brilliant music. It should also mean that I have a little more time to blog, and I am going to try and kick-start things again (famous last words) with a few pieces on my trip to Palestine, so if you’re interested about what I got up to out there, please do stay tuned and I shall try to get something written very soon…

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes…

… or maybe, in my case, a turd (“Poo… -nix”?), I’ve decided to revive this blog! I suppose the phoenix analogy is actually fairly valid, given that my attempt at keeping a Year Abroad Blog really did go down in flames. I don’t think I managed more than about ten or eleven posts before I gave up, and some of them were really quite depressing. People who followed the blog – to whom I don’t know whether to apologise or express my gratitude – will probably remember that my last one was about how I wasn’t having a particularly amazing time, and that at least one post wasn’t actually about my time in France at all. In my defence, I did try hard to at least write a post about my time at the ENS de Lyon coming to a close, but I was so busy with leaving and then summer goings-on that it was suddenly October and I’d been back in the UK far too long for it really to be worth trying to think of something nice to say about Lyon. This isn’t to say that I had a horrible time, but it’s just quite a way in the past now, and although I do get nostalgic about certain aspects, especially about all the brilliant people I met, I feel perfectly happy and ready to carry on with my life post-Year-Abroad.

I realise that I’ve digressed a lot from my original point. But yes! I have decided to revive my Year Abroad Blog and turn it into something far less masturbatory: a blog! I’m actually quite pleased to not have to restrain myself now to those insufferable clichés iterated by every single native-anglophone student of foreign languages who goes abroad, but before I go on, I’m going to digress for a little while longer and air my feelings about the mentality of these blogs in general. For example, why is it interesting to write about how people in Country X do things differently to Country Y, if this comparison is made solely for comparison’s sake? Why do we feel the need to congratulate ourselves for flying our privileged (both socially and, I would argue, linguistically) selves to a country where, for once, we can’t just rely on English to get us by (though many still do), by writing blog posts about how we’re managing not to die in the months we spend out there? I do know a lot of people who aren’t like this, so I’m not trying to tar everyone with the same brush, but I’ve read a lot of blogs of people who seem to think they deserve a pat on the back because they’re on first-name terms with the baker on their street in Perpignan (who knew people in France were actually called François?!!?!???!1), or because it feels SO(seaux?) unnatural to eat dinner before 4am now that they’re back from Granada (increíble, I know).

Sadly, too, a lot of them probably wouldn’t write quite so annoyingly about their experiences if there weren’t websites like thirdyearabroad.com that egged them on. I appreciate a lot of what these websites do, because they can be very helpful when it comes to deciding where to go, finding fact files about countries and cities and first-person accounts of what it’s like to live in a place. However, they also draw most of their content from students doing their year abroad or who have just returned. These people may write about “their” Colmar as if they know it better than anyone else, and maybe they do know where to find the closest coffee you’ll get to a Pumpkin Spice Latte in Colmar, but the problem is that they’re given a platform and therefore assume that what they are saying is important or interesting. Third Year Abroad in particular exacerbates this false sense of importance by hosting annual “Year Abroad Awards”, as if the Year Abroad were something you can WIN. Personally, I can’t imagine a more ridiculous or harmful stance to take on this year abroad we do. Such competition only serves to add to the already-quite-present pressure put on a lot of UK languages students to have the “best year of their life”. Admittedly, many students may have a wonderful time abroad, but is it really fair to make students who don’t have the time of their life even more acutely aware that their contemporaries are enjoying their year so much more, doing the Year Abroad so much better than them? I think not.

To cut a long story short, I’ve used the premise of talking about developing my Year Abroad Blog into a more general blog as a springboard to actually relate how frustrating I find certain attitudes towards the Year Abroad. But luckily, for any potential readers, the original premise still rings true! I will be, from now on, using this blog for writing about anything I like, which will hopefully continue to be interesting for both me and anyone who fancies reading it. I imagine that I may post even more sporadically than I did while I was in France, but I might suddenly feel very inspired… we’ll see. But I do want to keep writing, because I enjoy it, so please watch this space! I’m in my fourth and final year of undergrad study at Cambridge, so if nothing else, I’ll surely, at some point or another, be procrastinating and end up writing something far more interesting but far less important than the essay I’m supposed to be doing. Until then!

After an Extended Period of Absence…

It’s been a loooong time since this blog got updated. It’s perfect testament to my inability to stick at things, and the story of my life: I start a task with roaring enthusiasm, treating each endeavour with the same love and care as if it were my life’s work, but then the energy inevitably peters out, I get bored, and then the life fizzles out altogether. My Year Abroad Project is a case in point. I think its potential subject has been pretty much everything from medieval lepers to French dubbing of Disney songs, and even now that I can no longer change my topic, I don’t like what I’ve chosen. It’s always been the same – even aged nine, about 95% of my Year-5 “Rainforest Project” was done by my Mum. I’m not sure how well that tactic will work when it comes to a dissertation, unfortunately…

I’ve also found it difficult to write over the past few months for fear that most of what I produced would be too negative. I tried about a month and a half ago to write a post where I presented some of the difficulties I was having, but trying ultimately to focus on the positives, but before I could stop myself I’d ranted for several hundred words about how crap my life was and how miserable a time I was having. I admittedly wasn’t feeling particularly great at that particular point of my year, but it hardly excuses how much of a whiney little turd I was being, so I didn’t post it in the end.

The past few months have undeniably presented difficulties, however. Something that is becoming increasingly apparent to me is how much I hate winter. Being trapped inside because of rubbish weather is a recipe for disaster: from November to March, I turn into a weepy globule of misery that can’t get its thoughts in order, can’t build up enthusiasm for anything and can’t feel any emotions stronger than “fine”. I noticed that this was a thing when I took a break in February to go home and be with family. We went to Cornwall and for a couple of days we had sunshine and mild weather. It took me a while to realise that the fluttery frisson of warmth in my core was actually me feeling happy for the first time in about three months. Maybe the lesson I should learn here is that I’m actually not a human, but a large anthropomorphic lizard, and that I should commission a man-sized terrarium to be built that I can live in, with an enormous heat lamp under which I can bask in the winter months. Or maybe I should just live somewhere sunny or take holidays in the Southern Hemisphere.

I’ve also had quite a low self-image recently, which probably correlates with the feelings mentioned above. Maybe it’s because I have so little to do in terms of work, but I’ve started obsessing over stupid things, like the fear that I’m losing my hair, feeling fat, and being talentless. Silly things, and I’ve kind of let them get out of control, but I find that if I drink a lot of coffee and give myself tasks to do, I can stop myself from panicking about them and my brain stops being silly and telling me that I’m a stupid, fat, bald blob that is going nowhere in life. Admittedly, I haven’t really applied to many jobs over the summer, and the couple of things I did try to apply for, I got rejected from, but I do have more of a plan now than I did a year ago. I’m thinking of applying for a Master’s at music college, hopefully in London or perhaps even the US, and failing that I’d quite like to do further study in something philological or historical-linguistics-y, but we’ll see! First and foremost, I need money.

Anxiety about the future has also featured quite heavily in my life recently. If I do want to go to Music College, I’m going to have to work hard for it, especially since I haven’t picked up any instrument for about 12 months. I’m desperate to have that part of my life back, though: when I think about how I played at school, I’m almost ashamed to think that it’s the same person sat here writing a blog and having all but left music behind. Similarly, the stuff I’ve started to find really interesting academically is quite Germanic-based, and given that I have done nothing but French and Spanish for the past two years and not really enjoyed much of either (granted, learning Spanish was fun in First Year), I’m hardly in an ideal position to go down that route. I’ve started reading around the subject in my spare time, but I’m going to have to put some effort in to convince my DoS to let me borrow a Germanic Philology paper. Emphasis on the lol. I’m also probably going to have to find a job over the summer, which although isn’t the greatest hardship in the world, means that I’ll probably be stranded in Grantham for several months, the very thought of which brings me out in a cold sweat.

NB: I have noticed that the last few paragraphs have been fairly negative, despite my having said that I was trying to avoid this. If you think of it as a necessary backstory, however, it hopefully gives some justification for me not blogging for a while. Now I can relay the more exciting stuff I’ve done in the time I’ve been off-air.

Firstly, I quit the choir that I was singing with at the start of the year. It was nothing personal – their concert I performed in was great and all the other singers were very friendly – but the only piece of music they would be working on until the date I’m due to leave was an experimental work which involved more blowing over bottles and rustling bags than actual singing. It was going to be the world première of the work, but it just wasn’t really my bag. I went to the ENS Gala, which was a black-tie event and Great Gatsby-themed. It was a lot of fun, and a great excuse to get dressed up and drink too much – definitely one of the best nights I’ve had here, despite me ripping down some of the decorations at the very end. Hopefully those running the ball interpreted my behaviour as just helping them to clear up, in my own special way. In February I went back to the UK for a week, went to Cornwall and saw friends in Cambridge and London. It was visiting my friend at the Royal Academy of Music that kindled my desire to start playing again. Mum and Dad came out to visit me shortly afterwards, and we had a lovely (if short) time together, and my brother George has come more recently, and he stayed for several days. It was great having him here, actually – we haven’t had a chance to hang out properly for a long time, and we did a lot of cool things, including going randomly to an exhibition about Star Wars! In the weekends in between I’ve been to Grenoble and Geneva, both of which are lovely places. Grenoble is breathtakingly impressive, with mountains literally in your face all the time, and Geneva, although clearly full of the very rich (I think I saw about twenty Ferraris and even a Bugatti parked outside one of the swankier hotels), all the UN buildings and missions provided wonderfully diplomatic intrigue. It was also beautiful weather when we went to Geneva, which made walking by the lake a wonderfully serene experience.

Téléphérique up to the Bastille, Grenoble
Téléphérique up to the Bastille, Grenoble
Lake Geneva with the Jet d'eau in the distance
Lake Geneva with the Jet d’eau in the distance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think one of the most exciting things I’ve done, however, was taking a trip to Denmark and Sweden. Admittedly, it was a bit naughty of me because the trip was actually a tour organised by my college’s Chapel Choir, and I joined them to sing tenor (so not really part of my Year Abroad). Nevertheless, it was a brilliant ten days. Several concerts’ worth of singing was really revitalising for me, and it was lovely to catch up with friends from university, and make some new ones too. Copenhagen, where we spent most of our time, was an intriguing place, albeit cold. We also took daytrips to Odense, and across the Øresund Bridge to Malmö. I developed a fascination for the Danish language and found it very interesting to hear and compare it to Swedish on the same trip. In both countries I felt very inferior that I couldn’t speak the native language, but there are admittedly fewer opportunities for Brits to learn Swedish or Danish than there are for Swedes and Danes to learn English. I’d still like to give one of them a go at some point.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen
Nyhavn, Copenhagen
Odense Cathedral
Odense Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosenborg Slot, Copenhagen
Rosenborg Slot, Copenhagen

 

By the statue of the Little Mermaid
By the statue of the Little Mermaid

I came back from Denmark about two weeks ago. Since then, not much has happened besides George coming to visit, but I’ve now just finished all my classes for the academic year here! I can’t say that what I was studying was particularly tasking (mainly language classes and a bit of Latin and Roman History on the side), but it’s still a relief to have finished. Many of the classes were in the evening, and I would spend most weekdays feeling that I couldn’t do too much or go too far afield due to having to be back for German, or whatever. Now that burden has gone, I have a few weeks to do things my way, which is very exciting, if a bit nerve-wracking. My dissertation needs doing, and I have a lot of reading and admin to do, but hopefully if I’m strict, I should be able to figure out some sort of timetable for myself which also allows me to go and travel. The weather here is getting really nice now, and if it stays, I’d love to go and see some places down south before my time is up. I’m suddenly quite close to the end of my year, and I’m not sure how to feel, but that topic is undoubtedly best left for another time.

New Year, New Post

The playlist I’m currently listening to on Spotify has, with utmost humility, awarded itself the title: “The Most Beautiful Songs in the World.” I dispute this claim on the grounds that half of the tracks in the playlist can’t really be considered “songs”: they’re purely instrumental and therefore lack the crucial part of a song that is known among some radical thinkers as singing. The other half belong to that annoyingly edgy genre of music in which the vocalist mysteriously half-murmurs, half-burbles some meaningless drivel about coffee and radiators, while someone else lethargically flops their pick back and forth across some guitar strings creating not harmony, but rather an accompanying one-chord dirge that is undoubtedly filled with some tumultuous, troubled deeper meaning. Beautiful.

The playlist does have a couple of saving graces. One in particular Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1 (mainstream, but what else can be expected from Spotify), and it was during this track that it dawned on me that this sort of uneventful, ruminant music was making me feel like writing something. Awfully pretentious, but it is pleasant to have something on in the background beside silence that doesn’t interfere with what I’m thinking. I’m guessing that caffeine probably has something to do with it too.

So here I am, writing. Probably nothing that interesting, but I am writing nonetheless, and I think it’s about time, since my last entry was before Christmas. That was last year – something I find simultaneously refreshing and terrifying – and I was on the eve of returning to the UK. Now, the two-thousand-and-fifteenth year of Our Lord is upon us, and this is my first post of the year! How exciting! Happy New Year! Let’s pretend I’m not two weeks late.

It’s bizarre: in the fortnight that I was in Grantham, being back on home ground didn’t feel like home ground at all. I remember going into Aldi on one of my first days back and finding it bizarre to hear English voices. Maybe it was because they weren’t very nice-sounding English voices; maybe it was because it was Aldi. For a few precious moments, I almost attained something that has always fascinated me, but until then I had thought impossible: the ability to observe the British from a non-native point of view. Imagining my own country and its language through the eyes of another, for me, holds the same intrigue as being able to look at myself from someone else’s point of view. Those split seconds in Aldi weren’t very much, and probably weren’t the best circumstances to have such a revelation, but that day shall go down in the history of me trying to be something other than myself as “The Aldi Incident.”

I had a pleasant Christmas and filled the days around it with fun, more fun, and no work. I went to see Matilda, a phenomenal musical based on the Roald Dahl children’s novel, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and also had a great reunion with my A-Level French class. I hadn’t seen some of them since we left school, and now a couple of them are coming up to finals! Time throws itself through the air. When not in Grantham, I visited Norfolk, and got to go to the coast, which did me a world of good. I hardly know how much of Continental Europe manages with just lakes and rivers, but then again, I was spoilt with the North Norfolk coastline. It’s a Sight of Special Scientific Interest (SSSP), and gorgeous. The sky goes on for miles, geese cloud the crisp winter air in their cacophonous thousands, and the villages and their pubs are wonderful. Why we upped sticks to the Midlands I’ll never know.

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Moonrise at Blakeney

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It is the time for New Year’s Resolutions, and on the whole, I’m sticking to mine. One in particular was to start keeping a diary again. I’ve bought one that has a nice large page for each day of the year, and it gives me the impression writing a new chapter every day, gradually completely an extremely boring 365-page novel about me that nobody gets to read. Nonetheless, I’ve found in my diary a good form of discipline, as well as an outlet for a lot of negativity that was a burden for a considerable chunk of my second year at university, and that had also started to creep in with the winter nights at the end of last semester. That isn’t to say that I’ve been bitching for a page every night, or that I’ve been keeping some sort of self-indulgent Burn Book; I’ve just found it useful to commit whatever’s on my mind to paper, and to then shut the book and leave the thought inside, allowing me to concentrate on other matters, like my sorely neglected dissertation.

I was back in France by the 6th January due to musical commitments. I sang in a concert full of Italian things at the weekend, at the Auditorium de l’Orchestre National de Lyon, with Rossini’s Stabat Mater as the crowning jewel. It went well enough, though I had been starting to get ill so my singing was unfortunately not as on point as I would have liked. Other than that I am glad to have returned. We’ve been blessed with the weather, the Sun shining and temperatures not being too severe. To be standing at the start of a semester without the burden of dedicating its first month to finding my bearings is very relaxing: I know Lyon, I understand it better, and that has done wonders for my confidence. Speaking French is more comfortable, rather than an intimidating chore, which is brilliant considering that I had worried that I’d have lost it all over the break. I think French people still sense that I’m foreign – one person yesterday benevolently welcomed me to Lyon despite my having been here more than four months, and I was recently followed down the street by looks of revulsion as I ate patisseries out of a box on the way home – but even if I am an étranger, I’ve decided to embrace it. After all, I can live in a place and find myself at home despite being an outsider. Otherwise, if you were only allowed to live and feel comfortable where you were from, I’d have to stay in Grantham, and that would be tragic indeed.

End of Term: Lights, Vin Chaud and Other Distractions

It’s the last week of term. Finally! I thought it would never arrive, but after almost four months of what can fairly be described as the Kraken of the semester world, insofar as it has wrapped me up in its tentacles, refused to let me go, and almost succeeded in dragging me down into the tenebrous depths of despair, I no longer feel like the Jules Verne of depression, but can make out the surface glimmering above me. This Saturday, I’ll be back in the UK, left with the slightly uncomfortable realisation that half of my Year Abroad will have just elapsed. I’m choosing to ignore this, and instead try and be excited about Christmas.

I’ve been a bit of a hypocrite since my small rant about Noël (Nohell?). I will readily plead guilty to charges of listening to Christmas Carols, going to festive gatherings, and drinking lots of vin chaud, as it is known in France. “Hot wine” sounds infinitely less romantic than the same product mulled, but it tastes the same, and once got me through a particularly patience-trying Arabic lesson. For those wishing to follow my example, I used the following method:

  • Go to a Christmas market a good distance away from your classroom.
  • Buy “hot wine.”
  • Realise you’re late.
  • Jump on the tram back to class.
  • See off aforementioned wine faster than you normally would whilst on the tram.
  • Spend the first half of the class in a not-unpleasant daze, vaguely listening to what is going on, but not really.
  • Sober up with half as much boredom as you had originally anticipated.

Clearly, those out there who pride themselves on their ability to drink more alcohol than that necessary to knock out a bull elephant might struggle to achieve the same result with just one cup, but I’m sure that quantities can be adjusted as necessary. Also, please bear in mind that I wasn’t actually sloshed in class; that would have been hideously disrespectful. I just felt slightly more relaxed and cared less that the class was slow.

There are a couple of Christmas markets that have popped up in Lyon recently, full of stalls that sell artisanal products or tat, depending on your levels of optimism/goodwill to all men/saturation with vin chaud. Walking through them all wrapped up in the evening is pleasant, and makes you feel a little bit festive, but in general, other areas of l’hexagone are better known for how they do Christmas. I’m talking the Alsace, and more specifically, Strasbourg.

If you look in the right places on the internet, you can find a website, sadly not the type where you can find the Frisky Frauen of the Alsace or a pretty quiche-looking Lorraine, but rather one that tells you that Strasbourg is the “Capital of Christmas.” This is not just a bad translation, because the French and German versions of the site translate it as la capitale de Noël and Weihnachtshauptstadt respectively. Asserting oneself as the veritable centre and pinnacle of what Christmas can be is a very bold claim to make, and I’m sure that the Strasbourgians, or however they call themselves (it’s Strasbourgeois, according to Wikipedia), find justification for this statement in their many busy Christmas markets. I therefore went on a foray out there with a couple of friends to try and get more into the spirit of the season, reasoning that its proximity to Germany would yield quaint architecture, hearty food and perhaps the opportunity to blow the cobwebs off my A-level in German.

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I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. The buildings were lovely, and the cathedral magnificent, if a little crowded, but the markets that are supposedly among the best

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in the world boasted nothing that I hadn’t seen before. The wares sold in the prettily decorated sheds lined up back-to-back in the Place de la Cathédrale, or hemming pedestrians in along one street or another, seemed to follow a rotation of model houses, jewellery or exotic blends of tea, and even one market that promised culinary specialities of the Alsace proved to be nothing more than foie gras, pretzels or biscuits being sold by at least ten stalls each. Actually, I’m being unfair: some of the more renegade stalls sold Flammkuchen.

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I do feel somewhat guilty for finding fault in supposedly one of the best places in Europe to feel Christmassy; after all, the lights and the decorations on the upper levels of shops on the main shopping streets were tasteful and enchanting. A 5am start, choosing to visit on a Sunday, and miserable grey weather could also have contributed to my less than amorous first impression of the town. Even with that in mind, however, I’ve seen better. I went on a school trip to Berlin three years ago almost to the day, and I preferred the markets there. Strasbourg was just full to the brim with tourists searching for the magic of Christmas, and although it was lovely to go on a trip with friends to a distant and admittedly pretty location, it would, ironically, probably have sold itself more to me had I seen it in summer, minus festive hype. But of course, as a student with just one year to try and see as much as I can of the vast country that I have come to consider as my temporary home, I was inevitably going to choose Christmas to pay (rather extortionately) my visit, and a return visit is looking doubtful.

My disillusionment with Strasbourg may of course be linked in part to my slow-burn attitude to festivity in general. It takes me a while to warm up and get excited, and sometimes I don’t quite manage it before the Big Day itself has been and gone. When I was younger it was easier: we lived in a village, close to lots of places perfect for wintery walks, Santa existed and of course, Christmas telly was a constant source of joy. Now I live in a town, I can’t stomach the idea of watching The Grinch or Elf ever again, and wintery walk opportunities manifest themselves in a brief jaunt across a park full of despair and derelict skateboard ramps, where you’re so busy looking over your shoulder that you don’t notice the festive poo lying in wait, left by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier of Christmas Past, until it’s too late. If you’re lucky, the gift you hastily try to wipe from your shoe might contain the bones of a small child. Joyeux Noël.

It’s not that bad. I’m certain there hasn’t been a child-eating in Grantham recently, and quite a nice stately home good for walks can be found just down the road. My point about slow burning remains though. Occasionally I need a bit of a Christmas catalyst to kick-start the excitement. I always used to enjoy going round the Lincoln Christmas market when I was younger, but I’ve come to realise how crowded that gets. Still, it was something that made me feel a bit Christmassy close to home, and that was pleasant. This might seem a little irrelevant, but in Lyon a couple of weekends ago I had a similar experience.

The weekend of 5th-8th December, Lyon saw itself transformed by the Fête des Lumières. Originally an event to commemorate the Virgin Mary banishing the plague from Lyon, in which residents of the city put candles on their windowsills as a token of thanks, in recent years the festival has gone large-scale, attracting millions of visitors in a flurry of spectacular colour and light.

Alarm bells may be ringing for some at the mention of “millions of visitors,” and this is well justified: the crowds verged on intolerable. Streets where one can easily be the only pedestrian on the pavement during a normal weekend were thronging with such dense levels of human life, both from Lyon and elsewhere, ambling, jostling, pram-pushing their way towards various light features in the centre of town, that sometimes entire areas of the main shopping streets came to a standstill. On one occasion I remember standing in a stationary crowd of people on a road where there wasn’t even anything to see, but the queue to see whatever lay in the adjacent square was so gargantuan that it had sprawled outwards into neighbouring thoroughfares. Add to that the biting cold and draconian crowd-control measures installed by the event organisers, which involved blocking off certain entrances to roads or squares and even the metro, and you have a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. The amount of people actually made me feel lightheaded. The metro was also subjected to a bizarre one-way system in the busiest areas, forcing travellers to leave the station and re-enter by a different entrance, even for very simple line changes.

For many of the Lyonnais, the Fête is four days of frustration: people are not only sad that a tradition peculiar to their hometown has been so shamelessly hijacked in the name of profit, but many also because visitors who travel great distances to Lyon with high hopes for the Lumières go away disappointed, with an unfortunately bad impression of the city, remembering more keenly the insufferable crowds than the spectacular lights.

Happily, this by no means spoiled the Fête for me. My wonderfully hybrid position as half-local, half-temporary-visitor meant I was probably keener to see the lights than the average resident of the city who sees the lights and the accompanying plague of tourists year in, year out, but also allowed me the privilege of time that other visitors to the event were denied. What others had to cram into one evening, I could see in four. In the end, I made it out into town every evening except Sunday. I didn’t see everything, but what I did see was magnificent.

One evening took me on a fantastical walk through the Parc de la Tête d’Or, transformed in the darkness, where lanterns hung from the trees, glowing wraithlike characters paced through the foliage, and the instead of birds, huge fish tumbled silently overhead, illuminated, long fins billowing in the night air.

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The next evening took me on a foray into the seething crowds, but I was rewarded by wonderful spectacles at both Place des Terreaux and the Cathédrale St Jean, where images were projected onto the faces of the buildings to a music soundtrack, changing their colour and bringing them to life. I don’t think I’ll ever see a cathedral throb in the same way again, or watch ballerinas and break-dancers get their groove on with quite such enthusiasm as those projected onto the 18th-centry façade of the Hôtel de Ville. The spectacle at the Place des Terreaux was impressive enough to make me quite emotional. That might have been partially down to my exhaustion and relief at having finally wrestled my way through the crowds to see it, however.

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On Monday, many families put up lumignons (rows of candles) in their windowsills, and there was a firework display, of which I caught the latter half before heading to Place Bellecour to watch another light show. Rêves de nuit (“Night Time Dreams”) was a piece that paid homage to the famous Lyonnais Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, aviator and author of Le Petit Prince. As the audience watched, Tonio, perhaps a young Saint-Exupéry, took off on his winged bicycle and flew to the far corners of the world. Again, the accompanying soundtrack provided brilliant storytelling, and there were even acrobats, suspended and somersaulting fifty feet above the ground. I felt quite sorry for them, because it was freezing, and spitting with rain. The show ran on a loop every twenty minutes or so, so I imagine they must have had to get hoisted up into the firmament far more often than they would ideally have liked. Perhaps they just did it all drunk; after all, there was enough vin chaud going round for that to be achievable. It’s what I would have done.

It was an inspirational weekend. Despite my dig at the crowds, the wintery, nocturnal spirit of the whole event made me feel quite festive. Perhaps the most amazing thing was that it was all free, and perhaps within that, the sense of providing an event where an entire community, both local and global, can come together and be inspired, let their imaginations run wild (for that is what I feel is the true essence of the Fête des Lumières), was what made it so special.

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It’s understandable why, after Oktoberfest, Rio’s Carnaval, and Kumbh Mela in India, it is one of the most visited events in the world. I feel privileged to be living within arm’s reach of it. I could have quite easily spent my entire Year Abroad elsewhere in France and never known it existed. It was a wonderful way to see off my first semester at the ENS and, with all the cheesy cheese possible, as the nights draw in and the first half of this year comes to an end, it’s provided a beacon of hope as I look towards 2015 and the semester to come.

Just Popping Back…

Last weekend, I was a bad MML student. I went home. What’s worse, I couldn’t wait: I couldn’t think about anything else for two weeks beforehand, and I almost broke into a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia as the plane touched down at Heathrow. I don’t think I’ve looked forward to anything so much since Moving-In Day for my first term at Cambridge.

These introductory sentences are undoubtedly quite revelatory as far as is concerned the sort of person I am. Oxbridge-centric, I am unable to cope with life outside of The Bubble. The very act of alluding to the Oxbridge environment as if it were some vast protective soap sud, under the shelter of which one can reside and read books without the worry of such grown-up concerns as taxes or cooking, is telling in itself: suddenly my bubble now has burst, and I’ve found myself struggling to remain afloat in this new culture, so far removed from Chapel Choir, gowns and candlelit three-course dinners. The only feasible course of action for me, clearly, was to swan brainlessly, predictably, arrogantly back to that flat and windy cluster of colleges that I’ve come to call home, with the hope that people would be pleased to see me. Because of course, as an Oxbridge student, I know that I’ll never find another place of learning quite like the one I’ve temporarily forsaken.

I swung by London and home home before I descended on Cambridge (I know, my self-restraint is admirable). Four months doesn’t feel like that long a time, but it’s the longest I’ve ever been continually away from my family and as a result, Grantham was positively beautiful when I stepped off the train. It was as if the boredom, misery and discontent of an entire town had miraculously vanished to commemorate my return. I had the best two nights’ sleep in four months, probably due to my sleeping on something other than an air mattress, or else a bed so hard that it probably ought to join a gang. It’s as if it has some sort of small-mattress syndrome: four inches shorter than my previous one, it feels the need to compensate by being super tough. It’s such a shame that lad culture is so prevalent nowadays that even items of furniture can’t escape.

I’m sure that most beds haven’t really contemplated the insecure phallic pressure that is most probably not weighing them down, but still, wannabe Alpha-Bed at the ENS could learn a thing or two from my bed at home: sometimes, being as hard as nails can just make you into a bit of a pain in the neck, arse, and various body parts. My two nights at home cured four months of back pain that was starting to become debilitating.

I just lost track of where I was. Whoever lives downstairs from me is playing the most amazing classical guitar music. So far we’ve had Jeux interdits, the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and even The Entertainer. I feel very honoured, and also slightly insecure, given that if I can hear this person’s guitar music, they can probably hear me wailing S Club 7. Ah well – it at least makes a change from whoever hammers out the same offensively loud rendition of Chopin’s Polonaise No. 6 in the piano room at the bottom of my building. I hear it almost every day, and it makes me want to become the hulk and throw said piano and its torturer into the Sun!

Musical side-tracking aside, I had two wonderful nights’ sleep. Perhaps I am exaggerating the seemingly Elysian nature of my repose, but if this is the case it is indeed only because the rest of my forty-eight hours in Lincolnshire were so agreeable: it was crisp and cold, but not wet, I had tea and cake in some villagey tearooms (I honestly think the Cakehole in Barrowby is one of the things I miss most about the East Midlands), watched The Hobbit, squeezed in a curry and saw my family. God I miss them. Apologies for being soppy, but it’s not until you’re sat on the sofa at home with your Mum and Dad and brothers that you realise that a phone call doesn’t really cut the mustard. I suspect that this sentence must have been written by circa one billion Year-Abroad students already, but it’s probably because it’s true.

When the time came for me to head to Cambridge, I was of course excited but filled with a reasonable amount of sadness at the prospect of quitting my family again after such a short time. I was also quite sad that I’d managed to get on the train without packing my phone charger, but if I’d said that first you’d have got all righteous about me being so materialistic. Maybe I should have left it out. Whatever. The English countryside is beautiful: it’s not mountains or vast, shimmering lakes, but sometimes miles upon miles of black-soil fields, dykes and endless sky with iron clouds is surprisingly charming, especially when a just a few miles before, the scene viewed from the train window was one of gentle hills among which nestle huddles of pretty little cottages.

View from the train, Grantham-Cambridge
View from the train, Grantham-Cambridge

Cambridge hadn’t changed much. It was still wet and cold, as is its wont in November, but arriving essentially as a tourist (God forbid), I found myself looking at it differently. For example, I had no idea why it was suddenly Christmas: John Lewis had its dangly lights display, every shop was playing Christmas music, and I finished one evening of my stay there romping round a half-empty college bop, surrounded by freshers I didn’t know, drinking something called “Sex on the Sleigh” whilst bawling the Fairytale of New York. Apart from the butt-plug Christmas tree that emerged and promptly disappeared again in Paris, and Starbucks, who insist on throwing Gingerbread Latte all over you as soon as Hallowe’en is over, France, and more particularly Lyon at least, doesn’t seem to join Mary quite so zealously on the back of that commercial donkey that is Christmas in the UK. It is only now, as we stand on the threshold of December, that things are starting to look (tastefully) festive.

Emmanuel College
Emmanuel College
View from Orgasm Bridge
View from Orgasm Bridge
Rainy Cam
Rainy Cam
The most photographed thing in the University, probably
The most photographed thing in the University, probably

I don’t think I like Christmas that much anymore. I’m not particularly Christian, so I’ve never been drawn in by the religious aspect of this time of year (if indeed there is anything left of that), and I never know what I want from Santa, so presents aren’t a big motivator either. You’d think that I could at least look forward to spending time with my family for a few days of chilling out and eating too much, but apparently even that is off the cards now: my brother works at NEXT, and as such, he is required to work both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. Apparently it’s impossible to get leave over the Christmas period, and consequently he’ll be tied up at work when it would have been great to see him. Seemingly, people nowadays balk at the idea of having to wait any longer than twelve hours to rush into the shops in a flurry of disgusting ingratitude, returning all the things that they didn’t want. I don’t understand why they don’t all just ask for a stocking full of money! But then again, I suppose they would still be sat bored on Christmas day, that “happiest time of the year”, whiling away all those intolerable hours that they have to socialise and enjoy each other’s company (sounds horrible, doesn’t it), until the next day when they can go and manifest their self-centredness in material purchases.

Of course, I occasionally take presents back if they’re not what I want, or pass them on as a present to someone else, but I like to think that I don’t disrespect the person who took the time to buy me the gift in the first place enough to get rid of what they gave me as soon as the shops open again. People just want everything NOW, and it’s quite sad to watch. Writing the word Christmas makes me feel physically ill, and I can’t even talk about the “time of year” this time of year without feeling horribly cliché. Perhaps we should rename the whole concept of being disappointed with presents on the 25th December, because it isn’t Christmas any more. This isn’t me getting on my ecclesiastical high horse, because, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have strong Christian tendencies; I would just rather reduce the awkwardness I feel about commandeering a religious festival in the name of gratuitous present-buying. Maybe we could call it “Present Day,” in the same way that the 5th November is now often called “Fireworks Night.” It would still coincide with the first day of Christmas, but just would be separate, out of reverence and respect for something that was never meant to be about a living room full of wrapping paper.

I’m sure a lot of other people have had the same moan as me about this whole issue, but it is the fault of NEXT, then their customers, and then society. I’m going to form my own perfect society when I graduate. Yep, that’s right, I’m gonna take my knowledge of horny medieval nuns, my average-to-poor French skills and even worse Spanish, and abolish Christmas. Don’t even try to stop me.

When I wasn’t christmassing it up at Bar Extension, I managed to see a good deal of friends, and it was brilliant. I only regret that I hadn’t had more time to see more people. I had two lovely formal halls, and one of my friends was even kind enough to let me steal her room for the weekend. It was all too easy to forget that even though it was coming to the end of the Cambridge term, all my friends still had lots of work. At the ENS, I’m required to validate 30 credits’ worth of classes in the whole year (in comparison, normal students here have to validate 60), I have one class per day, and I can cheat the system. With my FLE (Français comme langue étrangère) classes, beginners’ Arabic and Latin, I already have 25 credits, and that’s only this semester. I’ve never had so little work to do, and I certainly don’t envy the days where I my weekly workload averaged out as 1 ½ essays, 2 translations, endless grammar exercises, 2 commentaries on either articles or film passages, and preparation of material for oral classes, plus singing in chapel services two nights per week and rehearsals for various shows. Thinking about that now, sat in France, where I can’t even motivate myself to write a four-page short story, has me on the edge of panicking. I can’t believe that I thought that that amount of work was normal for a university student. Perhaps it is, but it certainly is no wonder that institutions such as Cambridge have such poor records of mental health among their student bodies. I feel a bit naughty throwing in such a blasé, fleeting reference to something which is a really big problem, but I suppose in a way it is testament to the problem’s seriousness that it can even find its way into blog posts of students that are lucky enough to escape that environment for a year. Sure, we might all get dressed up and get drunk at lavish balls for one week at the end of exam term, but this is only provided that you can survive the ordeal that is the rest of the year. It is wonderful to be away from Cambridge in this respect, even though I miss my friends and, to a certain extent, the place. Since I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever felt guilty about not working hard every hour of the day. I’ve occasionally done all-nighters to get assignments done, but this is more because I find it easier to work for long periods alone without distraction to finish a job, rather than out of their necessity due to several simultaneous deadlines which I would not otherwise meet. I suppose I could resolve the problem of having no time to do my work by giving up certain extra-curricular activities, but I know that if I just had my degree and nothing else, I would go crazy.

Anyway, Monday arrived to mark the end of my brief sojourn back to the Motherland, and I must admit that when I had to catch the National Express to London Luton at eight in the morning, I was feeling quite low. Now that I’ve been back for a week, I realise that it wasn’t the prospect of coming back to my life in Lyon that made me sad, but more the leaving-behind of lots of other aspects of my life. I suppose I have always had a problem with attachment, given that I find it hard to even throw away shopping receipts, or exercise books from primary school, kidding myself that I might one day need them again. I guess this is something I’m going to have to learn to deal with if I don’t want to become a clinical hoarder, but I suppose it’s good that I’ve clocked it now, so I can be less hard on myself for being so pathetic when I feel homesick. I guess I’ll just have to keep having fun here, and it’ll soon resolve itself! Next weekend is the Fête des Lumières, one of the highlights of the year in Lyon. I’m guessing it’s about light and stuff, but I honestly don’t know much more than that. It’s supposed to be good, so undoubtedly I shall be mentioning it at some point soon.