To change the subject - hope you don't mind - I promised to give you an account of my week in France. This is what I have put together. Some, though not all, of it will be a report for the school magazine. Hope I can make you feel as if you were there too!
So there I was. Shivering, hot and insomniac on my coach seat; coughing incessantly, thistle-throated, eyes leaking and raw-scraped nose streaming, and moreover irritated by a football DVD poking at my vision out of the darkness. Mutinous as well as glutinous, one might say. Why do I do it?
I do it for the companionship and laughter of understanding colleagues as we sink into our fat, squeaky, faux-leather armchairs at the close of day over a glass of wine or a hot coffee, and the citron-sorbet refreshment of a chilly Normandy dawn over the dewy château grounds. For Mont St Michel and its Diagon Alleys, rising regally from a marsh populated by 'pre-salted' sheep (the marshes where they roam are so salty, on the sea's edge, that it flavours their meat), and the necklace of bobbing boats on the twinkling blue waters of St Malo. For the endless invention of fancy-dress creators and the gifted performers at the end-of-week show. And most of all, I do it for the thirty year 7s who all find something new either in the food, culture, language and activities or in themselves. This is education in the raw – leading others to discovery.
The trip retains the popular format of previous years: a diet of visits to the local market and hypermarket, Mont St Michel, St Malo, the animal sanctuary and the chocolaterie is seasoned with afternoon activities (fencing, archery, wall climbing, aeroball, zip wire and initiative exercises) and topped with the evening lashings of treasure hunt, blind date, French quiz, fancy dress competition, talent show and discos. It sounds impossibly hectic, but I’m probably understating it. It didn’t daunt our boys, though – they were some of the most enthusiastic participants this trip has had. They were well-behaved and interesting to talk to (mostly possessing a huge armoury of fascinating random facts, which is why I find 11-year-olds so intriguing), kept their bus and dorms tidy, threw themselves into all activities with abandon, displayed a healthy curiosity and considerable knowledge about France and spoke some excellent French. Sadly, the same could not be said of Rachael and Alex, our guides for the week. As a rule, the ‘animateurs’, while not always expert, speak reasonable French and are entirely committed to entertaining the visitors. On this occasion the accents were embarrassing, particularly Rachael’s, sweet and helpful though she was, and Alex was a thorn in our flesh at times, seemingly more given to self-promotion than to developing a genuinely sympathetic relationship with the students. Luckily this did not hinder my overall enjoyment or the kids', but one of my colleagues really did find him intolerably rude.
I have to confess to being primarily an onlooker this year. Previously I have been involved with the fencing and archery, and have always taken part in the fancy dress; but this year, recalling that last time a) no-one recognised me as Joan of Arc and b) I injured my knee quite badly while fencing - I may have mentioned this to those of you with whom I was friendly by this time last year - I decided to take a break and concentrate on my photography! However, having been a fencer in adolescence, I still cast a critical eye on the participants, and was very impressed with the boys. The elegance of the born dueller is evident in some of them. Not to mention the aggression!
This trip was remarkably problem-free. Hardly any possessions were abandoned on the coach (admittedly, someone inadvertently brought a dormitory key back in his pocket <<mournful shake of head>>), there were no passport issues and no-one was ill, save for some passing sickness on a slightly choppy ferry and a few back pains, unsurprising on such a long coach journey.
As I write, the dorm key and the hacking cough have yet to be, respectively, packed and sent and sent packing, but after more or less two days’ sleep, I am past the ‘never again!’ phase and once more feeling that the experience is completely worth the hassle. It's a bit like having a baby - you forget about the painful bits and remember the enjoyable ones. But being back is great as well. A chance to revel in the presence of son no.1, who's already been home for a week and has helped tidy up the whole house as a surprise for me, and to catch up here with you people, my friends. Don't really want to go back to work.....
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"We make our lives out of chaos and hope. And love." - Angela Montenegro