New year, new blog, new me?


As is often the way, the highlight of my summer was easily the first weekend, at the Choralies festival that I alluded to in my last post. To recap: it’s a choir festival that takes place every three years in the small Provençale town of Vaison-la-Romaine. Over ten days, festival-goers attend workshops in the morning, amateur performances in the afternoon and professional concerts in the Roman amphitheatre in the evening. 5,000 people take part, including 400 volunteers to run the show, not to mention others who just drop by to enjoy the concerts.


Alas, I went only for a weekend, as our choir was performing on the Saturday. At the time of enrolment, I didn’t know what was happening with my work holidays, and though they were going to be later. Murphy’s law – it ended up being perfect timing and would have been the ideal was to spend them (one week all go, and one week recovering). Despite the FOMO upon leaving, it was so worthwhile though, and definitely confirmed that next time it rolls around I’d be game for the ten days – though doing so in a tent is another story…

As it was, a solid half of our choir made the pilgrimage, of which about half were there  the weekend. The weekend which happened to be the #1 holiday departure day aka worst day of the year to be driving south. Managing to leave around 4pm on the Friday, Flora, Delphine and I had a pretty smooth run (albeit via the scenic route) down to the true wopwops about 40 minutes from Vaison, where we were staying with some family friends of Flora’s for the night. Jean and Hélène were absolutely lovely, and it was such a shame we were with them for such a short time – and that we were three altos and did not give them a very inspiring performance! Hopefully they will be able to see us perform in all our glory in Lyon next year.

We made it to Vaison the next morning, where we had our rehearsal in the old church; had lunch, a bit of a meander and battled our tents in the afternoon before it was time for our concert. Which was a total success! The church was full, the acoustics fantastic and our performance really satisfying – even though we were half the usual number and not evenly balanced at all. Honestly, I think most of us were happier with that performance rather than the big one in July. Lots of good feedback, and lots of young people keen to join us when we start up again, so what more can you ask for! Photos courtesy of Thierry Wagner:


That evening we were lucky to have our one night coincide with the performance of the World Youth Choir, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary year. The first half of their concert was perhaps technically impressive, but rather boring. For the second half though, they all came out dressed in their national costume, introduced the different countries present, and sang a more upbeat range of songs from around the world. There was even one ‘from New Zealand’ – in fact, it was a traditional Samoan song that had been arranged by a Kiwi (I later found out, as the description was pretty confusing). Perhaps if Oceania had been represented amongst the singers, that confusion may have been avoided. Nonetheless, it was a great show, but what was really the best part of the concert was the chant commun. Every festival, a book of ‘common songs’ is published, with a few sessions to learn some of them beforehand, in order for the crowd to sing them together. There was a fantastic MC who went over the SATB parts, seamlessly switching between French and English, supported by the Choeur National des Jeunes (who we supported at their concert in February). There was a fantastic mix of songs: Che Gusto, La Dama de Mallorca (led by the WYC director, as they later sang it), Couleur Café, An Irish Blessing, Soulman, and Hlonolofatsa. 5000 people singing (tunefully) together…goosebumps.


With many of the choir members involved in various volunteer and organisational roles, after the show that night was the first chance we really had to all catch up. It was a late night, followed by little sleep for me (loooove camping), and a 7am run in the morning which was a great personal achievement! We than had a one-off workshop, the theme of which was ‘ethnic songs revisited’ so we had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, the director, Sabine Argaut, was fantastic, and in three short hours we learnt two songs I really liked (the third – not so much. I just couldn’t get my head around it). The first was Tres Cantos Nativos, inspired by indigenous music from Brazil, and the second was a traditional Breton call and response song, which we sang complete with dancing (of the circular, pinky-linking kind) – I was in my element! That afternoon we managed to beg/borrow/steal enough tickets to go to one of the concerts, which was a high school-aged choir from Valencia who sang a good mix of songs, and were pretty good. It was bloody boiling though and the makeshift venu in amongst the ruins didn’t have proper seats; after 3 hours at the amphitheatre the night before my back was killing me. I soon had the chance to recover though as after that it was hometime – fortunately no traffic issues and we were ‘back in time for tea’! All in all, I can’t recommend the Choralies highly enough – it definitely lives up to the hype. Rendez-vous in 2022!


After one day back in Lyon to do some washing, unpack and repack, off I headed into the unknown in Cantabria, where I had found a family to host me for two weeks. They had three kids aged 15, 13, and 10, and also two children from Western Sahara staying there for ‘vacaciones en paz’. The deal was that I would help them with English 4-5 hours a day, in exchange for bed and board.Screenshot 2019-08-29 at 21.15.46

This main part of my holiday all came together last minute, and was definitely a leap of faith – motivated more than anything by not wanting to waste away my holidays doing nothing in Lyon, with a bonus factor of ‘at least I’ll be in Spain and getting some language practise’. The ‘don’t spend any money’ factor was a bonus. With these objectives in mind, it was a success! Not an unqualified one though. The family was nice, welcomed me into their lives with open arms and took me to several surrounding towns and events with the wider family and friends. The weather was perfect – mid twenties most days (and even a few where I was a bit chilly!). The three kids sang in a choir and we went to two concerts of theirs in a neighbouring town, which were great.


However…it was a village with NOTHING to do. In theory I had free time, but I honestly couldn’t be bothered navigating the infrequent rural buses or walking for miles to do anything with it. Tagging along with the family and sharing their life with them was what I had in mind anyway. That meant many days spent lazing on a beach, which I’m not good at, and to make matters worse the latest book club book I had with me was a total dud (we are yet to officially discuss it, but it seems everyone has the same level of enthusiasm). I was really trying to keep an open mind about the cultural experience but eventually decided that my initial hunch was right. The family had no discipline and no routine; the kids would wake up when they woke up and stay in their pyjamas all day until the mum told them we were going out and they needed to get dressed; until then they would basically be plonked in front of the TV. There were the usual dramas between kids but especially between the Spanish kids and the Saharan kids. The former were quite frankly not very nice to the latter, and not kept in check much by their parents. The dad was the most ‘normal’ one, but at work most of the time, and when he was home seemed pretty resigned to the situation. He was the only one who really seemed interested in the highly improbable circumstances of having someone from the other side of the world with a totally different experience of life in his house, and actually wanting to ask questions about that. So while I was doing my best to speak as much Spanish as possible, and definitely improving my listening comprehension, I was just altogether a bit bored really. Still, better than being bored at home!

The only excursion I did go on was a day in Santander, the capital of Cantabria, about 40 minutes in the car or a solid hour on the aforementioned unreliable buses. I spent a whole day there with nothing planned, and ended up walking 25km around the place! This was mostly around the coast, first to the Palacio de la Magdalena (built in 1909 as a summer residence for the royal family; also the backdrop to the series Gran Hotel), then further out to a lighthouse ‘just cos’, and back again. The only other thing on my list the Centro Botín, the contemporary art gallery on the waterfront, and yet I still didn’t even have time to sit down, write my diary or watch the world go by! I also spent an hour or so having a much needed catchup with my dear friend Lucy, who had in fact spent a month near Santander in 2017, and serendipitously messaged me at just the right moment.

After my two weeks in Cantabria it was time to head home via the scenic route: first, I had a bus to Bilbao (capital of the Basque Country), where I two hours to quickly bolt to the Guggenheim. I had visited before, in 2013, when I went there especially while on exchange. I was going more as I would feel remiss passing through Bilbao and not seeing more than the bus station. As it was, I had to zoom around, and didn’t really get a chance to appreciate things properly. Fortunately, contemporary art’s not really my thing, but the big Jenny Holzer exhibition was rather interesting (and used a lot of text) so it would have been nice to have a bit more time there – especially due to the steep entrance price!

From Bilbao I had a blablacar to Zaragoza, where I was passing through to catch up with my friend Rafa on the way home (because why not). After asking to bring the departure forward, the driver ended up being late, so I could have spent more time at the museum after all. On the upside, he’d managed to fill his car with passengers so forked out for the €38 toll to cut a whole hour off a trip (at least, that is what I surmised). So before I knew it, I was in Zaragoza which was all reassuringly familiar and, well, civilised, after my last couple of weeks. I had spent five days there last year, so this time had no agenda other than catching up with Rafa and eating croquetas. Success on both fronts! We also drove an hour north to Loarre to see a castle, for the sake of something to do. It was bloody FREEZING, and not the most exciting castle, but I did understand just about everything in the tour (unlike the one we went on last year) so that was validating. Our ticket also got us entry to the church in the nearby village, which we drove to only to discover it didn’t open until 4pm, so we drove back to the city and had a siesta instead. Checking off all the cultural boxes!

La rentrée

After all this, I was really ready to get back to Lyon and get on with things. Once again, I’d moved flats about a week before disappearing on holiday, so I was keen to get settled in properly and more importantly start slowly working my way through all the eateries in the neighbourhood! Although work this year was picking up where we left off after a short break (rather than new job, big change as it had been for the last few years), it was nonetheless good to get back into the swing of things. That said, a lot of our students are still on holiday so we’re slowly cranking back into gear – I had some weird déjà vu on the first day back, which felt just like when we started last year and the school was very quiet. September will be a different story though with lots of new students joining us and everything in France coming out of hibernation. Until then, my free time really is free time, and I don’t really know what to do with it. Hence the unusually prompt (and dare I say it, succinct) blog update. I’ve even been running out of my own free will! What a state of affairs…as always, time will tell how it continues!