Category: Adventures

Living in a Charismatic Commune

It is the end of college term and I have appeared with a rucksack and a guide dog at a Christian community house. This was a planned trip, I know someone who lives here and in need of somewhere to stay I took her up on her offer of a bed.

The house is large, almost like a stately home, with five acres of green space spanning it’s perimeter. On entering I was ushered through a bustling kitchen and into a room of many chairs. I had previously thought that a psychiatrist’s office is the place with the most chairs in this world, but this room was serious competition. I was directed to a large leather sofa facing the centre of the circle of chairs. I had been guided by the hand of T, a Northern man who I initially thought had a verbal tic; he seemed to say ‘bless you’ between every sentence. We talk about the city we both coincidentally come from and I am introduced briefly to the many faces coming through the room conveyer-belt styli.

I started to become aware that the people around me were intensely kind. They were interested in my story and my view of faith. Everyone ate together in the room of many chairs, starting with the grace accompanied by guitar and then everyone being served from large pots fresh from the kitchen. It reminded me of brownie and guide camps from the past.

Over the ten days I got to know all the residents in the community. I made friends and got into the routine of living in such a big group. Everyone refers to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ so this makes it feel even more family like, though a family of twenty plus people would be pretty impressive. Staying in such a religious environment was great as it gave me an opportunity to ask all of my questions about christianity. I also learnt how to knit, bake many cookies in one go, walked in sunshine, sang and played the guitar.

On sundays two meetings were attended. One was for the ‘serious and committed’ christians. Everyone was hugging and dancing, at first I found it slowly overwhelming and felt personally that the sermons were too overbearing. I viewed this meeting as an outsider, so instantly felt a bit removed from the praising. However the second sunday meeting was for those who needed ‘milk not meat’. This I found a lot better, I felt I could join in more and I could follow the sermon easier. I have always loved modern christian music and hearing so many people belting out the words was very powerful.

I also met and played with some lovely children who are growing up surrounded in this environment. I asked one eight year old what the best part of community was, and she said: “There’s always someone to play with”. Noodle had a good time, being generally adored by all and playing with the other guide dog in the house. Overall an amazing experience.

Noodle chasing after me on a tyre swing

A small girl in a tyre swing
“I’ll be the ballerina and you are the mermaid who teaches me to swim. Like God.”

Hear us Roar – Right Not a Fight

If you have been following my musings for quite some time you may remember that I had the pleasure of attending the Natspec Student Conference way back in December.

Since then Natspec’s campaign to give choice to young disabled people in education has grown into a rather stunning campaign called ‘Right Not a Fight’.

The title (of course) is referring to the battle which many young people have to go through before they can gain funding to get into specialist colleges. I loved the december conference and I was honoured to be a part of the group which coined the phrase ‘Right not a fight’. On tuesday I headed out with a group of students from my college to the capital to take part in a protest with Natspec outside parliament.

The day started bright and early and myself and friend T found ourselves to be the only two students to travel the four hour journey in the car rather than the minibus with the others. The minibus goers bided us farewell and began the journey, while staff member and driver K was still contemplating where on earth we were going to put the umpteen lunch bags we had been left to transport. Encased in egg sandwiches with a distinct absence of cool bags on one of the hottest days of the year, we were off.

Within college, marketing is somewhat a mystical department. We see very little of the staff there apart from when they appear at college events to snap a few photos. With only a vague idea of where they actually worked on the campus it was really nice to get to know K and L. We had some crackers of conversations on the long drive down including; comedy nose breaking, mockery of Nick Clegg’s tweet announcing his love for apple crumble and a lot of staff/student myth busting.

It’s relatively rare that staff find themselves trapped in a vauxhall with a dog, two students and many heat festering sandwiches so K and L appeared to use it as a student/staff ice breaking exercise. As the hours ticked by myself and T kept a close eye on a very suspicious looking cheese and pickle sandwich that in the heat appeared to be haemorrhaging chutney- it was our version of a barometer throughout the day.

On arriving in London and being presented with our ‘Right not a Fight’ t-shirts we went in search of a cafe and a toilet. To get accessible facilities we ended up going through airport-like security to use the ones in the House of Commons. We felt very privileged, and in the Foyer I met a group of small children who asked me if Noodle the Guide Dog was an MP. “Yes she is” – I replied with a smile. Apologies to the parents who likely later had to explain to their child that dogs, bow-tie wearing or not, cannot be members of parliament.

We were meeting on Old Palace Yard, Westminster and though we were strictly prohibited from using ‘Noise Producing Objects’ myself and T decided to take the risk and bring out our ukulele and Guitar. If I was to be asked previously what I thought the first time I performed in public would be like, I would have never have guessed it would be singing ‘Roar’ along to my ukulele in front of the House of Commons. Several MPs popped over the road to see us, and now that the noise rule had been well and truly demolished the group began to chant too. Other colleges who are members of Natspec were there also and it was lovely to catch up with people from the December conference and meet new friends too. My personal highlight of the day had to be meeting a charming young man called L who I communicated with through Makaton. I have been learning makaton since september, but this was the first time I had used it in real life. He was lovely and even told me about his pet cat.

Many photos, videos, chants and renditions of ‘Roar’ later we were back on the road. It did feel like we had been travelling for an awfully long time for just an hour and a half protest, but it was completely worth it. On the way back myself and T reflected on what our college has done for us, and how close the campaign is to our hearts. L and K joked that they should have had a dictaphone running to take quotes from us. Overall it was a fantastic day and I of course will be supporting Natpsec 100% as this campaign flourishes.

Myself and T playing our instruments and singing  The campaign group of all the students from different colleges and the staff


Then I did the YMCA with the Ladyboys of Bangkok…

To The Staff Members Whom It May Concern,

I am writing on behalf of myself and the other theatre-goers within the college. You may not have heard of us, we are one of the quieter clubs. We have only four permanent members including myself, and our theatre-going (up until last night) consisted of only one outing.  We meet in my common room, the one on the ground floor to the right of the picnic bench. It is here that once a term we rifle through the pages of theatre catalogues, feverishly starring and ticking ones of interest, occasionally mocking and discussing the ones which are not. We often have biscuits, sometimes they have fillings, but we always have ancient fully decarbonated fizzy drinks from the PSO office. It’s compulsory.

This was my second time at the theatre-goers circle. I hadn’t been aware that it was taking place that evening and by chance (in my pyjamas at four o’clock in the afternoon) I stumbled across them. The group had expanded to include several more students and thus they began to read. I don’t know what is going on in Hereford Sir/Madam, however there was a clear theme to the theatre’s offerings. “It will have your legs knitted in sexual tension”- one show’s description read, whilst others broadcasted the similar messages. Then there were The Ladyboys of Bangkok. Now I must admit that by this point I had began to slump, however my ears pricked up when I heard the name. Half way through the description I am sold. “We have to go!”. So to the rest of the group I told how it would be fun, how it would be a laugh, how it would be a good night out. The girls were all for it, they took hardly any persuading. Then a quiet voice from the second sofa, the one nearest the sleeping television, spoke. One singular male student had reluctantly agreed to come.

Now of course the event which our group had agreed on and underlined in the programme was hardly what the staff were expecting. C, who organises such things, tentatively said that she may have to ask you Sir/Madam first before booking the tickets. This was to avoid us attending an event which was possibly ‘inappropriate’.  It was at this point that I pointed out that if our request was denied I would simply write a letter to you explaining that we were disappointed to have been denied access this expressive form of dance created by the thai transgender community, and how surely not allowing us to attend such an event is an equality and diversity issue. But luckily for you I am writing this letter instead.

The night came and we found ourselves occupying seats on the first and second row, directly in front of the stage. As we took our seats there was an apprehensive vibe in the air. The locals were not knowing what to expect, some were there for the spectacle and some were there to ease their itching curiosity. The rest of the audience must have been mildly confused when seeing a group of young people with canes heading to the front row of a dance show, but it is 2014 after all and it is about time we broke some disability stereotypes. Music blared and the lights dimmed. Our group of five blind people and two staff members were sitting together. I was sitting alongside two of my good friends who are unable to see at all. Given my prime position and the lighting on the stage I was actually able to see a fair amount, so throughout the show I gave a running audio description to these friends. In doing so however I did have to lean in very close to the stage which likely made me look like a mildly dodgy and over-keen punter.

The performance was amazing and the cast of sixteen did an amazing assortment of miming, acting and dancing. They had elaborate costumes and the comedy sketches were unfalteringly hilarious. The apprehension I had previously felt from the audience appeared to have drained away and they were almost instantly in awe. Interval came and the public filtered in and out of the auditorium filling their glasses and emptying their bladders. Meanwhile our group joined a queue to have our picture taken with the Ladyboys. At five pounds a picture it was very dear, but it is a good memento of an excellent night all the same.

The second half was just as entertaining as the first and we were singing and dancing along with the tunes. When ‘YMCA’ began to blare out of the speakers the auditorium came to life. There was a buzz in the air as people seemingly began to madly gesture the famous letters to invisible deaf giants. It occurred to me that my friends may not understand what was going on, being unable to see the dance party unfolding around us. The letters ‘YMCA’ look very different in braille to how they look in print, and personally I am unsure how one would create the acronym in braille out of body parts. So in each chorus I took a friends hand and showed them how to do it, to their high amusement. It was at this point that one of the cast came running up to our row and gestured for me. He grabbed my hand and before I could really think about it I was on stage, with the ladyboys of Bangkok. This was not my average tuesday night and with the time only at 9:45pm I felt ending up in such a bizarre situation without the aid of alcohol to be quite an achievement.

As I twirled and wirled and made my body parts into giant letters for imaginary hearing impaired giants I thought. I thought about how my body looked and how my body moved. I felt so uncomfortable and I could feel the eyes of the audience on me. I was having a blast, but it was like when you get your bath water just slightly too hot- you can’t work out whether you feel uncomfortable enough to do something about it or not. I am not the most body confident. I never have been. However one thing I did see from the cast was their confidence. Their confidence to be whoever they want to be, and to go out and do what they evidently love despite what others might think. By the end of the night the audience did not feel that they had attended a ‘freak show’ or weird spectacle, they had seen a performance. The performers all looked startlingly wonderful and it was so very easy to forget the difference between what we saw before us and their biologically assigned sex. We saw on that stage that you should live at your happiest and be who ever you want to be.

So it is here that I address you, approving staff member. Thank you for allowing us to go on such a wonderfully diverse and entertaining trip. We had a blast.

Love from,

Student X

Well, Well, Well: We Have a Waitrose.

If you asked me last week what my plans were for today I probably would think for a bit, check my diary, check my calendar and my phone before replying: “Oh just revising”. Revision for my AS Levels appears to have taken over my life. One thing I certainly would not have said was: “cutting the ribbon to open the new Waitrose in town”. But life has its oddities.

Noodle the guide dog lying next to a pile of textbooks, she is looking at an open one by her paws as if she is studying.

As a possibly one-time Waitrose shopper (certainly not a fanatic) I was completely unaware that a massive new branch was nearing the end of its construction in town. In fact, on reading the email asking me to come along with a few others to represent the college, my first thought was: “We have a Waitrose?!”. But sure enough we do.

I met with the other two students and the staff who were going outside at 7:30am. This early wake up was certainly a little painful, but there was a brisk ten minute walk to the shop to brighten us up. On seeing the size of the place I was slightly embarrassed not to have known of its existence- not only was it a ginormous building, it also had an equally humongous new cinema and shopping quarter next to it. The complex is so big that I do not think I can even use my sight as an excuse for not knowing about it. We were met by J, department manager within the branch and then the photo frenzy began. The local press had come along to capture the moment, and we (both guide dogs and humans) found ourselves not knowing who of the people clutching cameras to look in the direction of. The college had been invited to do the honour of opening the store after the chairman of John Lewis came along to a college event with our local MP. It was at that point, whilst standing in the car park holding a green ribbon with the others from my college, that my Principal turned to me and asked if I would like to do the honours. Me. The child who had “Practice using scissors” in her homework diary nearly every week in primary school was now cutting the ribbon to a brand new supermarket. I was honoured to say the least.

Myself, J, R, principal and branch manager outside waitrose. I am holding scissors to a green ribbon.

The city isn’t the largest, nor is it known for being a commercial focal point, so a Waitrose arriving on our doorstep was a big deal. The store was by no means crammed but it was certainly very busy for 8am on a Thursday with people looking adoringly at the cheese counter and admiring the cakes on the many stands. We met the Mayor and Mayoress who described it as a ‘refresh’ for the city. I certainly learnt a lot whilst roaming around the shiny new shop- Waitrose makes a big effort to use local produce, sells Marmalade Vodka and incredibly beautiful looking cakes. After having a look around we all went into the café and had a coffee and were kindly provided with delicious pastries and biscuits. Something which really came across was the absolute passion that the staff have for the company. How it was fair, thoughtful and prosperous. I don’t think I have ever met supermarket employees so proud of their shop. We were told by J how he had been there for 14 years, ever since he was sixteen, and how many people stayed for 20+ years. He rolled off the history of the company; knowing it like the back of his hand. The opening will likely be in local papers tomorrow, but from what I could tell everyone seems very happy with the new addition.

So welcome Waitrose- may your marmalade vodka be riskily breakfast worthy, your cakes be creamy and your staff be always smiley.

Thanks for a fun morning.

A seven layered rainbow sponge cake with each sponge sandwich a different colour of the rainbow.

 

The Day I Will Always Remember, Which Never Should Have Been.

Day Six:

After a leisurely breakfast we were ready and raring to go on our surprise jaunt to Munich. I had never been to Germany before, and though some would say that going to just the airport of a country doesn’t count as actually having been there, I would like to think that it does. The journey from Lyon to Munich was very pleasant with complimentary sandwiches and it was only an hour long flight. However it was slightly embarrassing when the plane was taxiing because over the tannoy the pilot apologised for the minor delay because there had been some “unexpected special guests who needed attention for safety reasons”. This gave me a hilarious mental image of radioactive blind people, though what they meant was that we were all shown the safety equipment 1:1 so that we could feel it. I think it was really great that the crew took the time to do this because it gave us that bit of extra reassurance just in case of an emergency.

On touching German soil I did two things: took a selfie with P to celebrate our first trip to Germany and realised that I was desperately in need of the toilet. On asking the assistance who was helping us to the connection flight if we could all go to the toilet C was told that we had only four minutes and that we could use the facilities on the plane. We then slowly went in what appeared to be a giant circle around the airport, up and down lifts and on and off minibuses. We had to be checked by German passport control where we were told off by a very stern lady who felt we were not taking the process seriously enough. This was because P and I had been smiling when she asked where we had flown from and where we were going to. She didn’t see the funny side of the fact that we had gone an hour in the wrong direction in order to get to our final destination. Eventually we got on the plane and by this point I was hopping and beginning to lose patience with friends who felt it was funny to make water sounds- I was very relieved to see that cubicle!

a selfie of myself and friend P pulling enthusiastic faces

The take off of the flight from Munich to Birmingham sadly coincided with one of my panic attacks. I have had panic attacks for many years now and they take me by surprise and cut off my hearing, tense my muscles, cause heart palpitations, nausea and make it hard for me to breathe. I have been diagnosed with panic disorder and OCD and I am in the long process of learning how to manage these conditions. In hindsight it is rather darkly funny to imagine myself panicking whilst rocketing down the runway, supported by teacher C trying to keep me upright from behind and friend J reassuring me. Had what happened next not taken place I wouldn’t be telling you about this attack at all because I don’t like to talk about it. But I don’t think I should be ashamed, especially when something so inspiring occurred because of it. As I was coming out of the attack a very kind airhostess from the Czech republic gave me a colouring book (I hope she doesn’t mind I couldn’t stay within the lines) and a bracelet with a duck on it which rattled. I was aware of the fact that these were clearly the same things they gave to small children who were afraid of flying, but it felt rude not to accept. As the airhostess moved away I saw the lady in the green beret for the first time.

She was a fairly small lady with dark hair and glasses. She looked to be about the same age as my grandmother and I was surprised when she came and handed me what felt like some A4 paper. She explained to French teacher C in German that it was something her friend had made. She then returned to her seat a few rows ahead. On further inspection it was spiral bound and contained some photos of abstract paintings and some sheet music to what appeared to be some German folk songs. I first quickly flicked through the pages and then enjoyed looking at the beautiful pictures in more detail- focusing on each colour separately and how they merged together. I was so focused on this that I barely noticed the lady had moved back towards my teacher and had handed her a book too. It was a German book on homeopathy and she was pointing out paragraphs describing treatments which she thought may help me. C has limited German but the lady tried hard to get her message across before returning to her seat. Towards the end of the two hour flight she came back over and gave my teacher a small tanned piece of paper. On one side was some very delicate german handwriting which she said was a poem for me. She then took another piece of paper and tried to write out an english translation. With her limited English she could only manage a rough translation of half the poem, but after I read it I was speechless. The full translation which I received later (courtesy of a family member) reads like this:

“I carry within myself
The force which makes me strong.
I want to fill myself with the warmth of this strength.
I want to push myself with the force of my will.
I want to feel peace pouring over me in all of my being.
When I can do this, I will find rest and strength through the force of my own striving.”

The two sheets of paper written by the lady

I was still speechless when the flight came to land and the lady moved towards me again. I didn’t know what to say so I just put my arms around her in a huge hug. She said: “I saw your pain and suffering and I could feel it. I was trying to think how I could help and this is all I felt I could do”. She then revealed that she wasn’t supposed to be on this flight either, she was due to fly from Munich to Birmingham the day before but had broken down crying in the toilets and was unable to travel. She said that she wasn’t sure why at the time, but now she knew. She handed me a small polar bear keyring and said she had bought it from the zoo in Munich whilst she had time to waste before her rescheduled flight. She had intentionally bought a toy penguin for her son who she was visiting in England but she had wanted to buy the polar bear keyring too, as she handed me the small white bear she said: “I think this is yours.”

By this point I had tears streaming down my face and I think C was welling up a bit too. Then the lady in the beret said: “You need to throw it in the bin. It is all in your head, and you can do this”. She is a retired kindergarten teacher from Germany who later went on to start a youth hostel and she currently works in a hospice. She said that it is the work she is doing now that really makes her understand people. I remembered how the day before an airport member of staff had said that our flight being cancelled was destiny, and I now agree. We parted ways when I left the plane with my group and she stayed waiting to be helped off so she could meet up with her son. I didn’t stop crying until at least several songs into our cheery French music CD on the minibus ride back to college.

We were two strangers who were not supposed to be on the Munich flight- we met by pure chance. The kindness of that lady, who’s name I think may have been Ann, has deeply affected me. Her insight, despite never having met me before, was amazing. I returned to college 24 hours later than expected, having touched ground in three countries, with a strange feeling. Having spoken to family about what happened I have decided to share this story though it is still very personal to me. Amongst the people I have told about my experience some say it must be spiritual or fate, whilst others just can’t believe it. But it happened, and her words I am sure will stay with me forever.

Thank you friend.

Music:

Lucy Spraggan – Mountains

View from plane window of patchwork fields in Germany

View from the plane window of the alps

‘Last Day’ and Thoughts from Lyon

Day Five in Lyon:

Today was our last day in the wonderful city of Lyon. The trip as a whole has been absolutely incredible and the memories of it will be held in my heart very dearly for a long time. The experience of being completely immersed in a different culture is challenging but worthwhile and it is something I would recommend to anyone who is given the chance. The trip has given me more confidence to pursue languages in the future. I love studying French but before the trip I felt so deeply embarrassed to admit that I would like to study it further at university because ‘I’m not good enough’. I still don’t know if I am or not, but now I know that one day I will be. I am determined. The group has become so close during the week that it will be strange to go our separate ways when we get back to England. We have also made friends who are students here and we will hopefully stay in contact with them in the future.

View of the school from the accomodation winow

This morning we went to the primary school on campus and joined in with an English lesson. They were doing a listening exercise like the one I had seen earlier in the week, except this one was about the school day. These students were about ten years old and they were fascinated by the differences between French and English schools. The audio was a series of statements about school life and after each one the teacher asked us whether it was accurately describing English schools. We confirmed that yes it is true that the typical lunch involves sandwiches, crisps and fruit but no not every school has prayer time. At the end of the lesson we were treated to a little song from the pupils which went: “Hello, hello, my name is…”. At the end of the lesson my little friend from Wednesday came running up to me and gave me a big hug. We walked out together and C asked her jokingly whether she would like me to stay and be her English teacher and I was amazed to hear her reply of: “Oui oui oui!” accompanied with: “You stay here!“. It was very heart warming.

Me and the little girl

But sadly it was time to go and we were soon packed up and in cars travelling to the airport. It was a lovely hot day and we were all very sad to be going. We had been saying to French teacher C all day how much we had enjoyed the trip and how we didn’t want to leave. However they may have a point when they say ‘be careful what you wish for’ because our first problem occurred at the very beginning when the check in desk couldn’t find our luggage booking and therefore didn’t want to take our communal cases which were holding all of our belongings. Whilst we were waiting for this to be resolved we had a very make-shift picnic composing of: cake, oranges, chocolate mousse with no spoons and apple juice. We were all absolutely exhausted now that the adrenaline of the week’s adventures had left our systems and I found myself cat napping with my head resting on a packet of baby wipes. Eventually C and J returned without our bags and we were able to go through security. Staff member CH had placed a large soft cheese in her hand luggage which she had rescued from going in the bin after being uneaten during our picnic. It was at the security scanners that I learnt my fact of the day: a large brie cheese is actually classed as a liquid. So, alas, fate got its way and the cheese went in the bin.

Once we were all in the departures lounge we settled down, though it wasn’t long until we learnt that our flight had been delayed. At frist we were not sure as to how long for, though there were rumours that our 12:30pm flight would be departing sometime after five in the evening. We decided to live up to our previously discussed British stereotype and get some sandwiches for lunch and wait and see. It was after I had eaten a very nice mozzarella baguette that I fell asleep on an airport bench and when I woke up I was told that the flight had been cancelled. Everyone was now slightly bemused as we had to go and collect our luggage (which we had to fight hard to be taken in the first place) from the arrivals carousel. Then C and J joined a large queue of passengers at the information desk to try and find out what would happen next. This was a long wait so CH entertained us with an incredibly difficult crossword from the back of a newspaper and R took us out to sit in the sunshine on the tarmac outside. On finding out that our flight was cancelled a member of airport staff said: “It must be destiny”. I thought this was a slightly odd thing to say. Eventually we got the news that we would have to stay in a hotel in Lyon over night and then fly to Munich, Germany, tomorrow afternoon. From there we could fly to Birmingham. The brief trip to Germany would almost double our flight time as it was an hour in the wrong direction, but it was the only way of getting back.

Welcome airport sign

Myself, J and P looking sleepy on an airport bench

The hotel we stayed in was very nice and the food was lovely. We joked about how we had probably been given a favour by the airline! The hotel even had wifi, something which we had all had to live without for the last five days. I discovered a good French immersion exercise:

  1. Lock your key card in your room.
  2. Go down to reception and explain this in French to the receptionist and ask for another key to a room which you think you remember as being yours.
  3. Go to the room and open the door.
  4. Find surprised staff member J in there.
  5. Go to reception and explain in French that you got the wrong room number and yes, there was someone in there.
  6. Go to the correct room and try to deal with the weight of the responsibility that having two keys brings.

All key chaos aside, keys seemed to be a running theme in this trip, we had a very nice time. We had time to socialise together because there was nothing timetabled, so a few of us stayed up until late in the dinning room talking. We are also all excited because in our rooms rectangular pillows await. Tomorrow will bring three countries in one day… well lets hope so anyway!

Inspector ‘Poireau’ Saves the Day…

Day Four in Lyon:

Straight after breakfast we went into an English language lesson inside the secondary school. These were older children doing an English listening activity. I found it hard not to laugh because the audio was something which you could imagine being on Radio 4. All the characters had impeccable English accents and had stereotypically British names like ‘Poppy’ and ‘Luke’. It surprised me that some of the words in the activity were unusualy complex- such as lawnmower. It reminded me of studying French before my GCSE and learning unusual words in the lessons that I could never imagine being useful. But who knows, perhaps one of the French pupils will become a horticulturalist and move to the UK.

A classroom poster explaining english negatives

Next we had a session booked to practice our speaking exams. The English students had topics to try out on us and we had ones for them. I was in this session with my friend C who is studying A2 French. We both found the session very difficult because we weren’t clear on what the French students were saying to us. Worry quickly set in as we realised that we would be doing this exam in a weeks time and we were nowhere near ready. Though the students were lovely I felt rather put back on the confidence scale because they didn’t seem to understand what I was saying and I didn’t understand them either. Myself and C did however help them on their topic of Margaret Thatcher because we both have very opposing views.

My language flunk continued into the next session which was ‘Torball’- the French equivalent of goalball for VI people. I was really wanting to get the flow back that I had the day before but every time I tried to speak French to someone they told me they could speak English. I had a go at the sport and I was lucky because no balls came my way. England won 3 – 0, literally beating them at their own game.

J, K and P playing Torball

I don’t think I have ever said the phrase “I was saved by a leek” before. But today it certainly applied. We were doing a sensory activity with the pupils studying gardening and landscaping. This involved wearing a blindfold and trying to identify different smells, tastes, textures and sounds. I was shown around the activity by a lady who didn’t speak much English, she was very friendly though and laughed at my extreme facial expressions when sniffing the strong smells and touching the odd textures. I was doing my best to tell her what I thought the items were in French but my language ability seemed to be really fluctuating. That is when I was handed a leek. I was surprised because there is nowhere in the Edexcel syllabus which describes it as necessary vocabulary for the AS course- yet I knew it. ‘Poireau’ instantly came up in my mind, accompanied by an image of a leek as an inspector. When I gave my answer of ‘Poireau’ to the lady and she said it was correct it felt like my fears had been lifted. If I know the word for something as bizarre and specific as leek I can’t be that bad at French right?

A hand drawn cartoon of a leek dressed as inspector Poirot

After lunch we went to the Lyon football stadium. It is a huge arena which used to be a velodrome, but a replacement stadium is now in the process of being built because the current one is too small. We saw the VIP boxes and the changing rooms- we even chilled out in the team’s pitch-side chairs! The tour didn’t last long so we went on to do some shopping in a huge mall which appeared to be neither inside nor outside. We only had a short amount of time before we had to go to our meal reservation so we all had to prioritise which shops we wanted to go to. Myself and French teacher C were the only ones who had book shops at the top of our list so we went together to ‘Decitre’ which is a very large book store. There were so many books to admire and I loved finding the French translations of books that are currently popular in the UK. C got herself a very nice copy of Les Misérables which I loved because it was so chunky, and I couldn’t help but get a copy of Wonder by R.J Palacio (a book which isn’t hard to fall in love with). I also got an audiobook called ‘La Mécanique du cŒur’ which nearly every worker in the shop told me is an amazing story.

The group sitting in the team seats

As it was the last night we all went for a meal out in a huge restaurant. It was very grand and had mirrors on the walls making it look even bigger than it already was. French teacher C (after a glass of wine) decided that she would tell us some swear words in French so that we could ‘avoid situations’. Much laughter ensued. A few of us tried snails and most who did liked them, though I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

After coming out of the metero we got a tiny bit lost. We couldn’t work out which way we were supposed to go to get back to CSRP and it was another late night. R ended up running up and down the road (which was quite funny considering he had already had a rather strong rum cake by this point) in order to try and find our turning. We ended up reading one of the large maps which seem to be scattered everywhere in Lyon and eventually we crept back into the internat where we were staying. All the pupils here go to bed with lights out at 10:30pm sharp. I can’t imagine that working at our college for some reason…!

The Monster from Fish and Chip Land Settles In

Day Three in Lyon:

There was a very heavy tiredness over the group. We had all returned home from the family dinner at around midnight the night before and were subsequently hugging our duvets yawning when it was time to get up. For the brave few who managed to move for breakfast it was chocolate brownies, which prompted a discussion as to why the French eat so much at mealtimes but somehow stay slim! On our way out R went to elaborate lengths to sneak some sugar cubes out of the dining room; we were fast running out and didn’t know how to ask for some more in French.

Our group then split to do one of two activities- one group went out on an excursion to a beehive and myself and the others stayed to do some drama. The children in this class were practicing poetry with a visiting workshop leader. They were talking through the many aspects of successful poem recitation including: breath control, stance and intonation. At some points in this session I was the only French speaker so I had to translate for my group. I was really surprised at how much I could understand and I really enjoyed doing it. I also found that it is a real buzz when a French person speaking English looks to you and says a French word and you can give them the translation that they are looking for. At the end of the lesson we took it in turns to recite a french translation of a strange haiku about a frog which jumped into the water making a ‘plock’ sound. When I had a go the teacher running the class comically remarked: “I do like the English plock”.

We had a break between activities so we headed onto the playground for some sun. The other students sat down on a bench beneath a tree whilst myself and R, on a whim, decided to see if we could join in a game of football with the French primary school pupils. At first they looked at us like we were giant aliens from the land of fish and chips, however with some persistence and some French from me we were soon involved. R was immersed into the football and I was pulled aside by a little girl. She preceded to introduce me to all of her friends and involved me in a very complex imaginary game involving a ‘big mouse’. In return I taught them ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and how to spin a hool-a-hoop on their arms. The highlight was definitely when the little girl (with her arms wrapped round my neck) told me that my french was ‘very good’ and asked me how I know French and English. It occurred to me that with children you don’t really need to speak the same language anyway. The language which will get you the furthest is the one you learnt in your own childhood- one of imagination, ball games and make believe. Being with the children made me more confident because I wasn’t so scared of making mistakes around them because I felt that they would be a lot more willing to bare with my clumsy errors than adults might be. Talking to them and them understanding and talking back made me feel on top of the world and it cemented in my head the fact that languages are certainly for me.

Me turning a skipping rope with a small boy jumping

For lunch we had a meal at a catering college. This was at the other side of the city and involved a short journey on the metero. We had all been given day tickets so I retrieved it from my pocket when we reached the machine. I held it up to a member of staff to check it was the right ticket, but she burst out laughing. It was then that I was told that I had very nearly fed a plaster into the metero machine instead. When the ticket was found and we were on the train I was next to a French student called A. She was listening to James Arthur’s ‘impossible’ and singing along.
“Is that James Arthur?” I asked. She looked puzzled.
“James Arthur?” I tried again. I was about to try for a third time whilst beginning to regret my question in the first place when my French teacher ducked down to our level and said: “James Arthur?” In a thick French accent. It is at this point that A’s face lights up and she says: “Oui!!”. It is amazing what difference an accent can do. The students at the catering college are learning how to become cooks and servers and the food was delicious. As we were now in an unknown part of the city after lunch we decided to go out to do some shopping and tourism. Once we had separated from the french students who had lessons back at CSRP staff member J did an impression of an enthusiastic tourist in order to get us to where we needed to be. His charade even included a very large map held at arms length and a puzzled expression. We decided to go up to the basilica on the hill, to get to which we went on the small tram which goes up the incredibly steep incline. The priest inside the basilica was very kind and said that we could touch everything and anything we wanted because there were so many beautiful things to see. He was right- there were ornate chandeliers and carvings to explore and we enjoyed taking the time to just sit in the calm and take in our surroundings.

The basillica roof held by ornate collums

A sculpture of the cruxifiction

A stained glass window with the sun coming through it

Outside the basilica there was a fantastic view of the whole of Lyon. E, a french student involved in the trip last year, was able to point out her house in the distance below. I had been squinting through my camera at the beautiful view but I was delighted when we found an amazing tactile map of the scene with Braille and representations of all the tiny houses and monuments. We spent several minutes exploring this and taking our fingers on journeys through the maze of miniature apartment blocks. Next we went to the FNAC- a ‘buy anything you can think of’ kind of shop- in search of audiobooks. There were no titles which particularly caught my eye in the audio section, but I couldn’t help myself from buying a print copy of the ‘fault in our stars’ in French. I will have to try and scan it or put it under a CCTV magnifier, not the easiest way for me to read by a long shot, but ‘Nos étoiles contraires’ has a very firm place in my heart. Even if I can’t read the words I am so glad to have it.

The view of Lyon all the way to the horizon

The metal tactile sculpture of the scene

French supermarkets are similar to English supermarkets in the sense that there are a lot of things which are just too good to buy! We ended up buying far too much food for all of us to eat, even with our dinner guests from the college. When we got back we had the food in a big picnic style with drinks of Cola and Grenadine syrup squash. We relaxed on the sofas and myself and P played a complex game of chess with many missing pieces. This game’s complexity was increased by the fact that we had to use alternative pieces for different missing figures, meaning there was always an element of confusion over what we were actually moving. The night finished with us all discussing how much we have become like a family over the last few days. And it is true, we really are like a family now.

Myself, C and P sitting on the sofas playing chess

The Language Nerd is Unleashed

Day two in Lyon:
After a night sleeping on slightly bizarre cylindrical french pillows we were very excited to encounter our first French breakfast. Breakfast appears to be a big deal here, with tables littered with platters and jugs of hot drinks. As an ad-hoc breakfaster myself I was initially wary, but I can never refuse a hot chocolate. A few people in our group were fascinated by the concept of brioche: “So it is like a cake without fruit or chocolate or anything?” They asked before grabbing another slice.

After eating far too much we headed over to the CDI. It stands for: ‘Centre d’Information et Documentation’ and is the equivalent of a learning resource centre with computers, books and desks to work at. It was here that I attempted to write the blog I published yesterday using the french AZERTY keyboard. This wasn’t overly successful so I ended up, despite initial deep reluctance, buying some roaming data from my phone company. The things I do for this blog…

books in the CDI

One of my favourite parts of the day was when a few of us helped out in an english class. The pupils were preparing their speaking exam texts (something I have just finished for my own oral exam in a few weeks time). The language nerd in me was thrilled with the task and I was soon on with editing an essay about Rihanna with a pupil. I know myself that there is nothing more frustrating than someone correcting your work without any reason as to why you were wrong in the first place; I therefore made it my personal mission to explain every correction I made to her in French… No matter how hard I found it to translate. This however did make me realise how complicated English is as a language, and how little attention I give it on a day-to-day basis. The past tense for example: I ate, I have eaten, I did eat. How do you justify one as correct but not the others? I found myself desperately rummaging in my language knowledge for anything but “It just is” as a way of reasoning. It was fascinating- and after all the mental language analysis explaining in French was the easy part!

After that we went into some classrooms and spoke to some students. They were all very friendly and we got to see the “Iris”. The Iris is the equivalent of the Humanware Braillenote which is a Braille computer that is very popular with VI people in the UK. The Iris also has a LED display so a teacher/parent can read in characters what is displayed in Braille on the refreshable display. It was very interesting and the pupils clearly found it vital to their learning.

After lunch we had a talk about traditional Lyonnaise food and then we went out to an Art Deco 30’s style apartment. It was set out exactly how it would have been in that era and it was fascinating to see all the furniture. The flats were used like council flats, with rent at a subsidised rate. They were very popular with massive waiting lists. I especially loved the giant communal balcony looking onto the busy main road.

the  view from the 30's apartment

The final adventure of the day was a family meal. I was very nervous about this because I was worried about my French not being up to scratch and also being faced with a lot of unfamiliar food. Myself, K and staff member R went to a lovely lady’s house a couple of stops down the line on the metro. She made us a wonderful chicory salad followed by creamy oven baked potatoes. I really surprised myself with my French and found that it was getting easier as the night went on. By the end I was barely thinking before replying to something in French- a big improvement on my usual ‘I have to get it right’ attitude.

R, K and Me at the dinner party

Bonne soirée!

“Have You Got the Keys?”

Day one in Lyon:

For the first time in my life I was willing to wake up at 5am. Granted, I hadn’t slept in the first place with all the excitement and pre-trip jitters but I still count this as an achievement. We were on the bus and eating a ‘continental’ breakfast (being that it included a pain au chocolat) by 6:30am. After several rounds of ‘is this the way to amarillo?’ we arrived at the airport where we were zipped through security by the special assistance desk. At every stage our guide announced to the waiting staff “It is a group seven blind people”- probably not her average day at the office!

On the plane we had a small hiccup. C (my french teacher and the trip organiser) had been given an ipod touch to take photos with by an IT teacher back in England. It was on the plane that we discovered that the ipod was permenantly in ‘selfie’ mode. So whilst attempting to take photos of the outside world all that could be seen was your own puzzled expression staring back at you. It was sometime later that we discovered that it was actually the world’s most egotistical ipod, and it didn’t genuinely have an outward facing camera.

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At the other side, having landed in Lyon, we were greeted by a very enthusiastic man called V from the college. I was told that he didn’t speak any english, and yes I would be one of the only French speakers on the minibus. I was very proud when half way through the journey, after much nagging from my fellow passengers, I somehow managed to ask what time we would be arriving at the college. Even more surprisingly, he seemed to understand me and in turn I understood his eerily accurate response of: “seven minutes”.

After briefly going to our accommodation to put our bags down we headed into Lyon to find some food. Before we left C found herself surrounded by our francophone friends who were enthusiastically describing the intracate nature of locking a gate. We were hearing different recommendations of correct key usage from all directions and, possibly more confusing, they were all talking simultaneously. Also in very fast French. From what I could gather the key centred concern was based on the fear that a child, on seeing the unlocked gate, would break out into oncoming traffic. I was later told that this was a ‘very french’ way of going about matters: loudly, enthusiastically, repetitively and whilst a group of others are also attempting to do the same. This was certainly an incentive to check and double check the lock before we went anywhere and we found that keys were a centre of discussion at multiple points during the day.

We then went onto a ‘Casino’ supermarket and began grabbing ourselves snacks for lunch. This included; crisps (which we couldn’t identify the flavour of- though our guesses took us to somewhere between mushroom and mustard) and baguettes. We hadn’t thought about the fact that we would be eating outside in a park, and subsequently found ourselves creating inventive methods for cutting slices of Emmenthal from a chunk. The picnic was great fun and it was so lovely to be out in the sun and having a laugh together. I was beginning to get to know the group and my excitement was building for what was ahead.

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The first event in our programme began before dinner. It was a party with a mixture of students and staff to mingle with and a table of nibbles to choose from. This was the first time during the trip that I found my french was very much put to the test. The students were all lovely but I found that I was really struggling to think of anything to say in general- rather than having a lot to say and not enough french to say it. Myself and a member of staff from my college who shared this feeling tried to explain this finding to one of the french members of staff. In an attempt to make our english easier to understand she said “We find it difficult to make friends” as opposed to “We are shy”. The realisation that this lady now possibly felt we were implying that everyone was unfriendly hit hard, and we deeply feared that we may have accidentally severed our college’s anglo-franco connection for good. This worry was intensified when the lady made her excuses before moving on to talk to other people.

After dinner we had the pleasure of listening to a little performance by the french students. The Cité Scolaire René Pellet is different to our college in England; in that it accepts both blind/visually impaired students and their siblings. This means that they have a mixture of sighted and VI students. They sang several songs for us and I got the strong feeling that they share our college’s ethos of supporting and caring for each other. Later the ‘girls’ of the trip shared a herbal tea, some fruit and a snack. In France they drink most hot beverages from a bowl rather than a cup- I really like this and think that bowls of tea would certainly help me during those late night revision sessions!

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