Sunday, September 25, 2011

Keith’n Aimée, Cathar Castles, and Carcassonne

The last swim of the summer.

 Yesterday provided me with some clear signs that summer has passed. It was cold because of a crazy mistral wind and it was the first day I had worn jeans in months. Sigh... hard to believe we were just swimming in the Mediterranean last Saturday. The impact of fall’s arrival has made a stronger dent than usual into my psyche because after a lovely week of adventures and late night conversations our good friends Keith and Aimee left to return to Canada. Having visitors makes me feel like I am on holiday, even though I worked three days the week they were here. And now with them gone, it seems like we must get down to the business of work and routine.

We only travelled three days outside of Marseille with Keith and Aimee but our magical surroundings made it feel like we were travelling centuries back in time. We started in Montpellier, which is a city devoted to an urban planned dream. Both the old and the new parts of the city are devoted to pedestrian traffic with tram lines providing connections between the different areas. Our friend Thieric showed us around his adopted city. The calm and beauty of the ancient buildings and green spaces along the canal makes Montpellier one of the most liveable cities I have ever visited. I guess it is horrible to get around by car, but really there seems so little need for that. We had a fantastic lunch and simply got lost wondering the streets and looking at the architecture.

We continued on that day west to Carcassonne. This UNESCO World Heritage site really does merit is renown. And after settling in at our B&B we crossed the river from the “town” to “la cité”  as the sun set. The walled medieval city is impressive by daylight, but at dusk with the lights of town below somewhat obscured and a silence encompassing the hill, it is easy to imagine yourself back in the 12th or 13th century.  

We walked the almost deserted streets looking for a restaurant with only the glow of open cafes and restaurants lighting our way. Aimee and I took a million pictures, while Keith and Keith imagined how you could storm the city, sustain a siege, or build more practical defences.  We finally settled on a quaint out of the way restaurant which served the regional speciality, cassoulet. This hardy stew of sausage, beans, and duck has a uniquely refreshing taste for something with so much sustenance that only people who do manual labour all day should eat. 

The next day we gathered with the crowds of other tourists into the different shops and the keep museum. As we got ourselves oriented within the twisting streets of the city, we explored the cathedral and were lucky enough to catch a short performance of Russian vocalists. There is nothing more splendid than harmonies filling the naves and echoing off the stone of ancient churches.

The keep museum provided some interesting commentary on how Carcassonne was actually restored beginning in the 18th century. The difficulties of restoring a structure back to its original purpose when the use of the structure has changed multiple times over a millennia are daunting. Today they are using x-ray type imaging to determine what parts of the building were built when and what has been changed over time. Really a fantastic study. Along the dry moat between the inner and outer outside walls it is also possible to view the remaining imprints of where houses were built after the border with Spain moved south and Carcassonne as a military outpost was no longer of strategic importance.

We also went to the torture museum, which was totally not worth the 8 euros, but did have some interesting facts about the Cathars who lived in the area and were persecuted by the inquisition. In fact, although Catharism was successfully dealt with by the inquisition, the number of references to Catharism in signage and historical summaries shows how the region valued this type of independent identity and thinking.

We also spent some time exploring the walls of the city. We started with a guided tour by a man who clearly learned English after two or three other languages and attempted to role play people from different centuries in Carcassonne, but got lost in using the wrong tense and not indicating clearly when he was playing a role and when he was actually stating his own opinion or a fact. Regardless he was able to lead us to the spot where we could access the ramparts of the inner wall and tour around half of the medieval city from above.

After getting our fill of interesting shops, cobblestone streets, ice cream/sorbet, and views of the plains and distant Pyrenees, we topped off our castle day with another wonderful meal. Keith and I both tried the chicken gizzard salad which was surprisingly delicious despite its ominous name. Then it was off to bed and much deserved rest after a sightseeing packed day.

Considering how well Keith and Aimée kept up with us in Carcassonne we decided to really push them to their touristing limit. Those of you who have travelled with us know that we like to see EVERYTHING , and we go pretty much non-stop when we are on vacation. Well as we got more interested in the Cathars and their run from the inquisition, we decided to go to some of the last strong holds of the Cathars as the Inquisition was burning and pillaging their lands and villages. Now when I say strong holds, I mean strong holds. These breathtaking fortresses were amazing to photograph, but I think our excitement for extreme tourism pushed Keith and Aimée to the point of vertigo at stages. Not only did we drive some pretty crazy roads to get to some of these castles, but then we made them climb the narrow paths to the top. In the end it was all worth it but there were definitely some nail biting moments.

The first castle, Puilarens, had a 16% grade hills leading up to the parking lot. Our car handled it wonderfully and I am thankful we paid that extra bit for a more powerful engine. From the parking lot it was a twenty minute hike of switchbacks to reach the actual castle. You will notice, Keith and I did not come prepared with alternate footwear. We have been wearing our birkenstocks to the bone this summer. 

Perched on top of these high ridges, these fortresses were also the line of defence along the Spanish border. There is no way and army could have moved in France without being spotted from these heights. The second castle we visited Peyrepertuse is actually composed on three different levels of fortress, each one a bit higher than the next. If you look closely behind Keith to the right you can see the blue of the Mediterranean in the distance!

In addition to the glorious views from the castle, you can see in the photograph below the castle of Queribus across the valley from Peyrepertuse giving both the ability to pass on signals. It all felt very Lord of the Rings like, and although I wouldn’t have wanted to live in these isolated and I’m sure very cold castles, my imagination was captured by the vistas below us and the mystery of what life might have been like here centuries ago.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rentrée "Back to School"

A mixture of the work of school and summer past times.

I know it is the third week of September and I am only now posting on my blog on going "back to school." As many of you know, I have been working part time for an English language institute which caters to business people. This job is going well, but is really not enough for me to sink my teeth into. Since the end of August, I have also been working for a bilingual school two and a half days a week. It has been a big adjustment and I am still adjusting. I have a class of eleven students both Anglophone and Francophone and in addition to the language challenges I also have three different grade levels within that one class. By the end of this year I'm going to be the queen of diversified instruction. Most of the challenges I am encountering are based on my prior teaching. I had no idea how different elementary and high school teaching really are. I have students asking me what colour pen they should use to do their corrections and where they should put the label on their scribbler. I feel like I am teaching them how to develop routine, more than I am teaching them how to read or write. Eventually I will get into the groove of it all, but for the moment I am planning way too much and then getting frustrated because we are not moving fast enough. Really I just need to chill and realize that it is okay to let them colour once and a while. It is funny but I thought I would be daunted more by teaching all of the subjects, instead of being stalled on classroom organization and helping them acquire basic skills.

Working for a small private school is another interesting experience. There are only seven other teachers and three assistants plus one part time secretary. The team is great but with most of them working with the really little ones, I feel sometimes like I can't relate to giving time outs on the chair or get equally excited about colourful name tags. This whole thing is a bit of a re-education for me. Being a very small school there are few resources and even fewer in English. I am still waiting for my textbooks and on the Friday before school started all of the teachers were unloading school supplies so that the students would have scribblers for the first day! Another example the lack of resources is the fact that I bought an English dictionary this past weekend because I didn't have one in my classroom. To top all of this frustration, the internet hasn't been working so I can't even tell students to look things up on the classroom computer.

The school itself has only five classrooms and is on the second floor of a 100 year old building. There is no proper gymnasium and we take the children to the park or to the public gym for sports. By the way because the park is on a hill you have to take an elevator to get to it! Another crazy difference is that I can take the children off school grounds whenever I want, without permission forms. Anything that is within walking distance from the port to churches or the library is fair game.  Some of the perks are that for physical education we are going skating this fall and in the winter we will be skiing for a week! Interestingly snacks and lunches are provided for the students by the school.

Things will come together eventually, but for the moment the chaos continues with lesson planning and trying to understand all of the information that is fed to me in French. I know that the beginning of the year is always crazy and I am simply trying to get as much as I can done while I am at school. The philosophy is I am only employed part time and I need to leave the rest of my week for my other work, tutoring, and a bit of travelling.  Funny I remember making this same promise to myself in years gone by ...