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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Evelyn's travel review

Our trip to France began at 4.30am from Kehtna when Johannes's mother Reelika and Liisbet's father Priit gave us a lift to the airport. We did the check in and soon our journey could start leaving snowy landscape behind and hoping to find warmer southern weather. The morning was foggy, but our departure was nevertheless on time.

In Munich we headed to the metro station and after a half-an-hour drive we were already walking at Marienplatz. Warm spring was in the air. The streets were quite sleepy still, shops were opened. As the viewing tower of Frauenkirche was closed for renovation, we climbed on top of Neue Rathaus where we could enjoy the views to Munich skyline and to the snowy Alps. In Munich we took another flight to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. The terminal building was rather strange - enormous, yet seemed abandoned or waiting for closure. Its walls were grey and bare, opposed to the usual full of adverts and shops kind of look. When we got our luggage I noticed the handle was broken, but luckily our student Larsen helped me carry it. We exited the airport and finally found the minibus awaiting for us. I was surprised to witness our driver couldn't speak any English, so we let him do the driving and some of us fell asleep in silence. Our journey from the airport to Grand-Quevilly'i took almost 3 hours. Though we used 3-4-laned motorways, it was a rush hour and at one point we seemed to drive 1kmph. We passed several tunnels. I couldn't help thinking about Princess Diana. The view out of the window by the motorways was depressing at times - lots of rubbish, ugly allotments, rows of huts where obviously people live year round. But there were also daffodils and evergreen trees adding different variations to those dominating grey tones. It was great finally to reach our destination and see familiar faces Nicholas, ValerieMeli, Sara and the others in front of the hotel. Our hotel Classe Premier was located right by the motorway and it took about 20 minutes to walk to the school. Our hotel room was very small, but considering its price, it met the basic needs well. Shower cabin was similar to those on ferries. After settling in we headed for a walk to find a restaurant. There were surprisingly many, but we chose a Chinese. We had spicy chicken, Choi Mein noodles with shrimps, caramelized pork, curry rice, we drank Jasmin tea. It was a good dinner, pricewise too.

In the hotel we could mainly have sweet things for breakfast, so I chose baguette with butter. Coffee was very good. On Thursday at 8 we started to walk to College Claude Bernard school. Our route took us through residential streets sided by nice little houses with gardens nicely looked after. The nearer we got to the school, the more we saw blocks of flats. I liked the alley where all trees had dappled bark. Everything was clean and neat. I got an impression that French rarely cross the street with a red light. As French drivers don't seem to stop in front of zebras, there were traffic lights for pedestrians even at most remote streets. I wondered which is worse for a driver, to stop and let a pedestrian cross a zebra or stop and wait in front of a red light seeing nobody being there willing to cross the street. College Claude Bernard school has about 450 students aged 10-14. The schoolhouse seemed to be well maintained and even though we were shown just a few classrooms, they seemed well equipped. It was so quiet in the schoolhouse at all times, though in the art lesson we saw that French students can be "full of life" and a handful for a teacher, but teachers seem to be well trained to maintain discipline. We learned that lessons begin at 9, their lunch break is an hour and 20 minutes and a school day usually ends around 5.30pm, sometimes earlier. Our students were divided into groups for different workshops where they could learn a bit of Spanish, flamenco, make music and create a cartoon. French teachers had prepared the boards for the cartoon, students had to move raindrops and snowflakes to visualize water cycle. To make a second of cartoon they had to take 12 photos. They had hired very good equipment, in addition to their school's, and this activity was well organized and interesting. In the meantime students could experience introducing themselves in front of the camera. I was asked to talk about the project and it surprised me how I had planned to mention 4 different aspects and when the camera was on, I could remember just one.

We had lunch in the canteen. Slowcooked beef  and gratin dauphinois (creamy potatoes) were very good. It was great students can choose between different salads, something we unfortunately can't have at Kehtna, yet. In the evening we had 2-3 hours free time and we decided to go out with our Estonian group to explore the neighborhood a bit more. We wandered towards Petit-Quevilly. First we noticed a big football stadium and a cemetery behind it. Then  we found a grocery store and had a look for French brands, though there weren't many things we can't buy in Estonian shops. I bought peanut-flavoured snacks, something I had not tasted before. Our return walk turned out to be a much longer walk because we got lost and without realizing it we had walked much further from school. At last a nice French girl helped us. She walked for 10 minutes with us opposite to her needed direction and led us to the school. We gave her a bar of chocolate.

First there was a welcome concert at school. Johannes, Gladis, Larsen and Evita played some instruments together with some French students. Johannes took part in their fashion show. Unfortunately it was a bit difficult to follow the show - we sat quite at the back, there was a large post in front of us, the small room became quickly stuffy. The rest of the welcome show suited well to French students and their parents as it all was in French language. Then it was time for dinner. We tasted different cold cuts, salads and there was a table full of different cakes. Too many to be counted! They had invited a journalist and a group photo with 4 flags was taken for the Rouen newspaper.  Larsen had honour to hold our flag. The party continued with a Normandy folk group. They danced, sang and showed their national costumes. Students could go to a separate room where they had more modern dance music. After midnight we reached the hotel.

On Friday we gathered at school. We watched the cartoon, which was fab, and then it was time for presentations about water week. The Spanish team had given a lot of effort to their week, the French showed the posters they had created, the Turkish showed photos about how they fixed leaking taps and promoted saving water at their school and the Italians gave a review about the booklet they published last year. We handed our gifts to the headmaster and talked about further plans. Then it was time for a walking tour in Grand-Quevilly. We saw their local government building and walked through a park full of roses waiting summer to bloom in full glory. It can be quite a sight, as there seemed to be thousands of them! After rather long (high heeled boots!), but refreshing walk we reached a high school where vocational students had prepared lunch. We had a very tasty Camembert cheese in fillo dough and seafood dish to start with, then chicken with haricot beans and Gratin Dauphinois, followed by an apple tart for dessert. I was thinking if  the Turkish seem to have yoghurt soup every day, French have creamy potatoes. :-)

I couldn't help noticing a lot of people smoking in the streets and so it was in front of the school. We went to the centre of Rouen by tram, very convenient and eco-friendly option. Despite several attempts to learn how to pronounce "Rouen", I failed each time miserably. Architecture in Rouen was different, a bit similar to the style in some parts of Germany - painted outdoor wooden beams and a bit reminding of those slim tall buildings in Amsterdam with painted window frames. 19 year old Jeanne d'Arc was burnt in Rouen on 30  May 1431. Place du Vieux Marché, near to the spot of her execution, there was a big cross and a modern fish-shaped cathedral  reminding a Viking ship. I was told that years ago when local people learned about its planned  design it gave rise to quite a scandal, but for now everybody seems to have got used to this sharp-cornered (rather out of its surrounding atmosphere, to be honest) building. We also walked by Gros Horloge, an astronomical clock dating from 16th century. The weather was changing for worse, colder, windier and rainier. Rouen Cathedral was so chilly inside that sitting on a bench reminded me an Estonian classical movie "Spring" where a character was left to get sober in a cold unheated sauna and he wanted to leave and complained: "My butt gets stuck and stuck on the bench here." Back to the cathedral, Richard the Lionheart's heart was buried there and so was William I ( Duke of Normandy). Impressionist Claude Monet has brought fame to this cathedral depicting its glory on his great paintings.  To stand under such high vaults creates inevitably a feeling of a man's insignificance and tininess in this big universe and even an atheist might realize on such occasion that there must be something much more superior directing his ways and choices than just a man's  pure personal will. Call a coincidence, a good timing or God's will? Well, if that was the initial idea to build such enormous building to make people in it more humble and God-fearing, it seems to work on me.

Students used their free time to their own liking, Meeli and I went to a nice cozy cafe for cafe au lait. During this trip I wished many times to acquire more information about the places, its buildings or history or people. Even in shops meant for tourists I couldn't find books in English worth buying and reading. Plenty of choice in French though. 

 Saturday was a day for a bus sightseeing tour in Normandy. The weather was warm, windless and springlike. Trees became greener and greener each hour. Our first stop was in a fishing village Honfleur. Actually with its 8,000 inhabitants it was more like a town than a village. Its houses were amazing - like taken off from a film studio and made of cardboard. I could understand why this town has attracted many famous artists and still does. Buildings and ships gave such wonderful reflection to the water in the harbour, inviting to hold a paintbrush even by those who have never painted. Its narrow streets with shops, cafes, restaurants and galleries being full of attention in detail were just pure joy to look at and stroll by or pop in. Wooden church Sainte-Cathedrine is the biggest existing wooden church in France. As it was a market day, the streets were buzzing. Meeli and I walked along different streets trying to sneak into every corner or courtyard possible, taking photos and enjoying this sunny day to the fullest. I ruined my boots to its cobbled pavement though, but sometimes emotions are more worth than a pair of boots.

Next we went by bus over the Seine by crossing Pont de Normandie, a  2,143-metre long bridge. When this bridge was completed in 1995, it was the biggest of its kind in the world. After driving about 60-70 kilometres we reached Le Havre. Hmm...Then Meeli started to sing an Estonian song about sailors and hot nights in Le Havre. Anyway, this town with its population of 200,000 is an important industrial town and the second largest port in France after Marseille.  Its architecture reminded of what I have seen in Romania or Bulgaria, even of Russia. An explanation to it was that in WW II  the Germans demolished the town by bombing and the town needed to be build up from scratch. Architect Auguste Perret used his understanding of a modern town, obviously influenced by communist or soviet style. Or maybe he was just under the influence of calvados, In 1995 a 133-hectare area was included to  UNESCO list of buildings to protect and value its uniqueness in the world. Our French teachers said the tram line and football stadium must have been built last year as they had not seen them a year ago. Estonian team decided to take a funicular to the top of the mountain to get better views. Then we had a bit of confusion with lunch, but  everything got sorted out eventually.

Next stop was at Etretat, a small town by the coast. Its dark brown wooden buildings created an atmosphere similar to a western movie. Its coastline was very nice - grey pebbled beach, blue water and high limestone cliffs in the background. There was a small wooden church on top of the cliff and I wished to walk up there to visit it, but I was said we didn't have enough time.  As a result Estonians were 30 minutes before the others by the bus, waiting, waiting.... Etretat associates also with The White Bird, a small plane that was last seen there in 1927 before it mysteriously vanished above the Atlantic. It was the first serious attempt to cross non-stop the Atlantic Ocean from Paris to New York. 

Saturday's dinner was organized so that students were hosted by local French families and teachers were taken to a restaurant in Rouen. It was a good idea as it allowed students to learn more about the French way of living and eating. I liked our waiter, a young man who was so enthusiastic about explaining the dishes that at one point used his own body to show which part of the body was the used beef from.  I started with a carrot soup. It was served in a small preservative jar with a lid and had 2 layers - top one was a slightly whipped cream and then an orange layer with a hint of carrot taste. It was neither a warm nor cold soup and I classified it as an interesting apperitif to be drunk with a spoon and with a chunk of white bread. For a main I chose beef with French fries. The beef was said to have been slow cooked 22 hours. It was tender indeed!  You can't go very wrong with creme brule, as it seems to be a dessert every French person knows how to cook it properly. We certainly must have had a French chef, as it was delicious. 

On Sunday morning at 8 it was time to get back to Paris and say good-bye to our Comenius partners. The weather was now bitingly cold and local news showed landscapes covered with snow causing traffic chaos. The same minibus took us directly to our hotel in Montmartre, without any hassle. As I had booked the second cheapest hotel available in that region, I wasn't too sure what to expect other than a few facts their website exposed (they promised there to give us a bed and Wifi), but in fact "Perfect Hotel" turned out to be perfect considering its location (near to the metro station), its freshly renovated and clean rooms, its comfy bed and pillow and its general atmosphere which you often can't get from those international chain hotels. An older porter took our suitcases to the storage room as it was too early to check in. He seemed too old to lift heavy suitcases and I insisted to help, but he refused giving me a mysterious talk in French. I won't argue with any French porter next time. :-) Another older French gentleman served us breakfast the next day. He too made me think, is that the age we are all ought to work. We, Estonians are more used to see young girls waiting in restaurants and hotels, but in France I've seen more men that women in cafes and bars. Well, when a cup of coffee costs not less than 5 euros, perhaps this explains it.

The Turkish Comenius group stayed in the same hotel and we went all together on a sightseeing tour. First we took a metro to Pere Lachaise, a cemetery where lots of famous people are buried, a cemetery so huge that a streetmap is needed to guide you. Something I had not printed out and brought along. We had agreed to meet an hour and a half later and with that time I couldn't find the graves of Oscar Wilde and an Estonian painter Eduard Wiiralt's, but we managed to find Balzac, Flaubert and Fredric Chopin's. Next we visited Notre Dame. We walked to the other side of the Seine and I felt more and more how inappropriately we had dressed for the weather. Across the street from Notre Dame we stopped in a creperie to have lunch. We ate onion soup and crepes. Notre Dame was beautiful, magical and powerful as it always has been. When we entered it, we could listen to a very dramatic, loud and powerful part of the organ music. Our girls were more keen on souvenir shops. Next we walked towards Louvre. A gypsy girl approached me asking in English for my signature to support deaf and mute children. After several times refusing to sign anything, suddenly shopowners nearby started to yell, ran to me and drove that girl away. Then one man asked me to check my bag whether nothing was stolen. Then it was time for me to tell our students how to wear your handbag and handle tens of young men trying to sell Eiffel tower figures. At Louvre I spent some time in the bookshop, the students went to see Mona Lisa. After Louvre we walked via Concorde along Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triumphe. I gave in to the students' wish and had coffee in McDonalds's instead of sitting in one of those street cafes and watching the world walk by. This McD was rather dirty and full of noisy youngsters in the middle of all those expensive flats, shops and restaurants. People say Champs Elysee isn't what it used to be and perhaps they are right, but at least it seems to welcome everybody. Under the Arc de Triumphe there was a ceremony to worship soldiers. Flowers were taken to the tomb of an unknown soldier, music was played, speeches were made. Slowly it was getting dark and Champs Elysee was lit into lights. We headed to the Eiffel. Due to such cold weather we had to wait just 15 minutes to buy tickets. At least something good about it. Views were breathtakingly beautiful, wind was without mercy. I was watching down, hundreds of cars in the streets, thousands of windows in lights and was thinking of those two extreme sides of a metropolitan as Paris comprises in itself - luxury and wealth, but also lots of poverty, people with their wasted hopes and  expectations, dispair, violence, unmannered behaviour, smell of pee... And in order to cope with it, a lot of ignorance, intolerance and prejudices. I recalled what I had read about the life of  Edith Piaf, Victor Hugo books... As I felt totally bitten by cold, it was such a pleasure to end up in a warm hotel room and continue reading a book titled  “Paris Wife” , about young Ernest Hemingway and his wife and how the city of love shapes their marriage into....a lack of love. 

On Monday we woke up early again. At 7.30 we were having breakfast as we wanted to stroll around Montmartre before going to the airport. The weather was misty and grey. First we walked up to Sacre Couvre. The building was as grey as the sky and it looked as David Copperfield had made it disappear. It was strange to see so few people there. A man collected burnt candles and told me in English: " You are very lucky to be here today. I am a cleaner here and one day I washed away some blood. It was from Jesus. So you are very blessed, too." I smiled and walked on. Didn't give any money. Not sure he expected it anyway. The difference between mental insanity and a true faithful believer can be rather thin at times and instead of pondering which case was it this time, I tend to respect them both, equally. But as for money, I do feel a need to leave some money for such churches that don't ask for entrance fee because the communities are becoming smaller and tourists (especially non-believers) who go to appreciate the art and architecture shouldn't take it for granted. When dropping some coins in, I caught myself thinking cynically, for the second time that morning. As there were so many collection boxes, I wondered whether all this money goes to maintain the church or ...

I tried to lead our group via those streets that have something interesting to see. I wanted to see the wall where a figure of French writer and humorist Marcel Aymé comes out of the wall, but ended up in Pigalle without seeing it. We managed to see "love wall" where lots of "I Love You's" are written in different languages on a tiled wall. We also walked past Moulin Rouge. Then suddendly, I noticed a man dressed and looking as if it was 1813, wearing long blue woollen coat and a top hap, who had black curly hair and burnsides, white pale face. He was so similar to Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean. 

On our way to the airport a few Spanish buskers got on and started playing those warm Spanish rhythms full of joy and life. I looked around and didn't see many people were amused. Perhaps it can be annoying when you're heading to work and again somebody starts to sing, loud, and steals your opportunity to tune yourself for a day waiting ahead, for tasks to be completed before it ends. They certainly affected me. Our return flight was uneventful in a good way. We had 4 hours between the flights in Munich and time went fast. Some flights were delayed or cancelled because of snow in Germany and ours was 40 minutes late too. Free hot drinks are still available at Munich Airport and Lufthansa gives a fair share to maintain the idea of what "German quality and preciseness" used to mean without turning it into a myth, yet. I felt it was weeks ago I was at home. The French teachers had given enough effort to introduce us a bit of their world, so that in the future we could discover more of it. Many thanks to them for that. I'm not sure whether I have learned some French by then or I  keep expecting to manage with English.

Our group was fantastic and everything worked out well. Meeli, Evita, Liisbet, Gladis, Larsen and Johannes - Merci!

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Partner schools

ESTONIA: Kehtna Primary School is situated in the village of 1,200. There are no big towns nearby, although the capital Tallinn is just 60km to the north. We are surrounded by forests, bogs, farmland and therefore paying extra attention to nature studies and the environment is important to us. We are a school of the Green Flag and a Health-Concious school. There are 155 students and 20 teachers in our school. Students are aged 7-17.

ITALY: Liceo Classico "Megara" con sezione scientifica annessa is a secondary school for students aged 14-19. It mainly offers three different courses for classical, scientific and social science studies. The school mainly serves students from Augusta. Our school is located in a very important area for its nature, history, archaeology and tourism. Our suburban town of Augusta is very near to Siracusa, one of the oldest and most important Greek colonies in Sicily. Our students are all members of "Legambiente" which is a national leading environmental organization which offers educational programs in schools. We live by the sea and our area is very rich in waterways, rivers and ponds.

FRANCE: College Claude Bernard is in a suburban city (Grand-Quevilly) with about 30,000 inhabitants. A town with 400,000 people called Rouen is near to us. The area has little industry nowadays following the closure of the chemical factories and the Renault car plant.

TURKEY: Tepeköy Ilkögretim Okulu is a public school serving children aged 7-15, starting from pre-school till the 8th grade. It is a rural school and caters for 226 students and 18 teachers. Our school is in Nevsehir (Cappadocia Region), being situated in agricultural region. Our region does not have sufficient water resources and we need to focus on environmentally-friendly options.

SPAIN: IES Concepcion Arenal is a secondary education centre located in Ferrol, a town with 70,000 inhabitants in the region of Galicia (north-west of Spain). There are 85 teachers and 700 students in compulsory (12-16 years old), post-compulsory (16-18 years) part and in vocational training.