Thursday, July 8, 2010

New Blog

As promised, my new blog about my time on the road in the caravan through Germany and France is now up and running (although I've not yet written anything for it!) can be found on the following link: Musings des Campings. I hope you enjoy it as much as this one!


Now, I know that in a book, the acknowledgements would come at the beginning, but I don't have the ability to fiddle around with the website, so mine are coming at the end. If that's an issue, then tough!

There are loads of people I'd like to thank for the things they've done during my year abroad. In no particular order (partly because I'm too tired, and partly because I'm just too damned lazy!):

  • Sabine Kackert & Thomas Gross, for being my wonderful mentor teachers at Ludwigsgymnasium.
  • Kerstin Wittling, for her work as my mentor teacher at the Gesamtschule Ludwisgpark
  • Esther, Harriet, Claire, Jenny, Will, Tim, Greg, Lucy, Alec, and Lindsay for being my fellow English Assistants during the year; it would have been difficult to ask for a better bunch of people to spend the year with!
  • All the French Assistants, and Clara for much the same reason as above!
  • Niko & Priscille Halbach for being so accommodating and friendly during my time in SB/
  • Anne Binkle for being a fantastic landlady, and friend!
  • Anne Doktor for being a brilliant tandem partner, I learnt a lot of German through our meetings, and enjoyed our conversations greatly!
  • Herr Dr. Heinz Paulus, and all the staff at Ludwigsgymnasium. You really made me feel welcome!
  • Herr Stefan Doerr and all the staff at Gesamtschule-Ludwigspark. You made me feel part of a fantastic team.
  • Anyone else who I met during my time over there, if I've forgotten to mention you, don't take it personally, I'm just getting old!


So, as you can see from the title, this blog has come to an end! As I said in my last entry, I would make this entry to discuss things that the British Council, tourist websites, and indeed anyone else I knew didn't mention. This section will include hints and tips about living in Germany as an assistant; some learnt from bad experiences (some of my own, and others' too!), and others found through a streak of look and good fortune!

They'll be listed in no particular order, simply the order in which they come to mind!

1) German Efficiency
This is no myth, but it's no negative thing either. The Germans can be cold bloodedly efficient in almost every aspect of their daily life. Allow me to provide some examples from my own experiences: The bus will leave the bus stop if you're not there at the same time as it; running towards doing an impression of an epileptic windmill will not do you any favours (and will indeed get you some more strange looks!), Germans do not waste words being polite; it's simply not worth the oxygen; rather than saying, "That was a good effort, but you could have focussed more on a, b, c, and d", they would, instead, say "what about a,b, c, and d. You missed the aim of the task, and the work that you did is not entirely appropriate to the task set!". Both of these mean the same, you see, but the Germans see no need for unnecessary beating around the bush, they call a spade a spade, rather than a stainless steel garden tunneling instrument; as you can see, it saves a lot of effort. Naturally, the epitome of German efficiency is Deutsche Bahn, and to give them their due, I only had a handful (and although I've got big hands, First Great Western needed a shopping trolley) of bad experiences with them! German efficiency also extends to written forms of communication; if your e-mail, letter, post-it note, brick through a window doesn't directly require a response, then you'll be lucky! As I said, all this effiency is no bad thing, and I found some of it rubbing off on me, which will undoubtedly cause some culture shock when returning to the UK!

2) Rules and Regulations
The Germans are famed for their love of rules and regulations, and being a disciplined nation. This is also not an entirely inaccurate stereotype to hold! One of the most important rules that a foreigner in Germany must bear in mind is that it is a requirement to carry your Ausweis (papers) on you at all times. I believe shower and bed may be exemptions to this rule, but with the German police, you can never be too careful! For those of you who don't have a German Ausweis, your passport is sufficient, although I carried my registration confirmation (Anmeldungbescheinigung) around too, just to be on the safe side! In every German town there is an Ordnungsamt (Order Office), whose members of staff are responsible for issuing fines for the petty/nuisance offences. These are powers which these people relish! Examples of things their job entails are: Parking, Littering, Illegal posters, badly placed market stalls, noise, etc etc. As a rule, they won't really bother you, if you're not too irritating to German society! Another level of enforcement you will probably, no almost certainly, come across are the "Kontrolleur". They are the equivalent of Revenue Protection Inspectors, and they also relish their jobs, and like nothing more than to issue a 40€ fine for "Schwarzfahren" (literally, travelling black; equivalent "Fare Dodging"), and they can be remorseless in their search. Luckily, in Saarbruecken, they were slightly few in number and were easily recognisable once you'd seen them once, so if you were to consider fare dodging, you'd probably not find it too hard, providing you weren't in a hurry (as you'd have to get off the tram/bus when the Kontrolleur get on!). In spite of, or perhaps because of, all these different levels of enforcement, there is, generally, a fair amount of respect for these people with power. There seems to be a rather sporting attitude towards the police; very much "it's a fair cop" seems to be the way it works in Germany. People run the risk, and accept the consequences of their actions without too much resistance if they get caught; this was also my experience in school; kids messed around, they got caught and got issued lines to be brought in the next day, and usually they were waiting outside the staffroom the following morning to hand them in!

3) Travelling in and around Germany
This was somthing on which I became a bit of an expert, because I, along with the other assistants, was often away doing something every weekend. Below I've listed some cheap ways of getting around; some are more specific to Saarland, whereas others are applicable wherever you might happen to be!

Schoenes-Wochenende Ticket
This ticket is valid for up to five people, on any form of Deutsche Bahn's very extensive Regional Network throughout the whole of Germany, from Schleswig-Holstein down to Konstanz/Basel in Switzerland. It is valid from midnight on Sat/Sun until 3 am the following day (Sun/Mon respectively). The ticket itself costs around 35-40€ which sounds quite expensive, but when you divide the ticket amongst 4/5 people it becomes a very reasonable way of travelling around. The major disadvantage is the fact that you have to take regional trains (RB/RE/IRE/S-Bahn), which do tend to take substantially longer, so this ticket may not be so good if you want to go miles. That said, we used this ticket when we went to Nuremberg for a couple of days near to Christmas, and the journey took about 4-6 hours, but was substantially cheaper than buying individual normal IC/ICE tickets, which would have been towards the 100€ mark (each way)!

Saarland-Pfalz Ticket
This ticket is one of those that is particularly applicable to anyone staying in Saarland or Rheinland-Pfalz. There are both individual tickets (priced about 20€) and group (up to five) tickets (priced about 27€) available. These tickets are not just valid on Deutsche Bahn, although you'd find it easiest to buy them from a station, they're also valid on pretty much ALL PUBLIC TRANSPORT in the two Bundeslaender; buses, trams, trains etc. They are valid Monday-Friday (from 9 am until midnight), or weekends (midnight until 3 am the following morning). NB: Whilst this information only applies to the Saarland/Pfalz area, most Bundeslaender have their own Landesticket offering the same benefits. 

University Semester Ticket
I've saved the most financially advantageous until last for these travel options. By signing up to the local university, in my case Universitaet des Saarlandes, it may (and in my case was) be possible to get hold of a semester ticket which for a semester fee, 137€ in my case, provides certain travel benefits. The one for Saarland offers FREE travel on any public transport (DB regional trains only) within the state of Saarland. This proved quite useful on several Sundays when I was bored, and able to just turn up at the station and see where the first train was going! Now, obviously, not all universities will offer such generous benefits as free travel for the state, (Bavaria's HUGE!) but most will offer you some sort of concessions. On top of that, they're a useful way of getting student discount anywhere you go, without having to explain that your own university is in fact real, but lies outside the boundaries of the Fatherland. Oh, and another good thing for those of you who are constrained by time/will/energy/all of the above, you don't have to attend lectures...sure they'd prefer it if you did, but if it doesn't count for your uni, then don't feel compelled to. The German university takes the view that it's your lookout, and as such, don't harass you about it!

 4) Daily Life Etiquette

As I alluded to earlier, the Germans like efficiency; that includes punctuality. One of the biggest social faux pas is to turn up late, DON'T DO IT! First impressions count a lot in Germany, and tardiness is a massive social mistake. Only marginally better is turning up too early for an arranged meeting. The meeting was arranged at that time to me mutually convenient, if you turn up too early, you put the other person under pressure, which they won't appreciate in the slightest. Generally speaking then, punctual means punctual, not too early, and not too late. If, as I did a lot, you find yourself arriving early for meetings/parties/work, then walk around the block a couple of times until it's the right time for you to present yourself!

Jeans are acceptable working clothes for a school. For those of us who grew up within the sheltered embraces of the UK School system, jeans were a definite no no; both for teachers and for students. In Germany, where there is no student uniform, there is a generally far more relaxed attitude to work attire. 

Sie-ing and Du-ing. What a nightmare...prepare to get it wrong! It's inevitable; during the first few weeks you'll do it so often, it'll almost become your trademark! The German language, in a rather smug manner, provides three different ways of saying "you". There is Sie (Formal, both singular and plural), Du (Informal, singular), and Ihr (Informal, plural). All of these, naturally, take different conjugations of the verb, which you will inevitably not know when you need to use them. Working in a school, you will learn to become fluent in choosing the right one, almost instantaneously, but it takes you will probably end up addressing your class of 12 year olds as your equal, and your head teacher as your drinking buddy...but you'll get there!

Queueing. The stereotype goes that the Germans don't like queueing; just think back to your most recent holiday in Spain...How many of our teutonic brethren had their towels on the sunbeds even before the sun had thought about coming up!?! It is therefore time to brace yourself. Queueing is a complicated issue in Germany, there are no set rules, nothing written down; so the Germans are slightly confused by the whole concept. Nevertheless, I think I've gone some way to fathoming it out. First off, if there is a queue in place, then the Germans are subservient enough to join the back of it, and wait patiently, until it's their turn. If, for example at a bus stop, there is no distinct queue, then there's a mutually acknowledged order for getting on, you look to see who was there before you, and get on immediately behind them, at any cost. Trains, planes, and indeed anywhere else, is entirely different. It's the survival of the need to speak the loudest, stamp the hardest, and barge the most violently if you want to get somewhere this side of Christmas, be it getting on a train. Whereas in the UK, prams would probably get priority over others, this is not the case in Germany. You would have thought I had commited High Treason when I let a woman on a tram with a pram before me once!

So that's it really...all you could possibly need for living in Germany. Naturally, some (or perhaps most) of what I wrote is written with my tongue firmly in my cheek, but the general principles of what I say stand, according to my experiences, and it is those experiences that I've written about, I don't claim to be an expert on Germany, or life in Saarbruecken, but I've certainly learnt a lot, and if you take one piece of useful advice from this blog, then it's served half its purpose!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Chapter 32 - The Tony Blair Goodbye (i.e. very long!)

Monday 10th - Monday 31st May 2010

As I promised, here is the last of my diary-esque entries. Now, I will concede that, even by my standards, this one is quite late! (About 5 weeks in total!). There are several reasons for this, primarily everything needing doing at once, moving out, travelling around in a caravan and, not having a regular internet connection. 

For those of you with only a passing, or indeed non-existant, interest in politics, you may be wondering why I've selected this particular title for this entry. If you're sat comfortably, I'll briefly elaborate! Before the election on May 6th 2010, there was a nice scottish man in charge of the country, and whilst it may have looked from his facial expressions as though he'd been doing the job of running the country all his life, he had only been doing it from about 2007. He followed a younger, charismaticer (or indeed more charismatic) bloke who went by the name of Tony Blair. Tony Blair had managed to be Prime Minister for a whole 10 years before he realised he was quite unpopular, so after about 9 years in the job he said he would give it up. Then it began...the long goodbye...for a period of about 12 months, the British public and press were subjected to Tony Blair leaving, very slowly, dropping hints about exactly when, and who he wanted to succeed him. My time leaving Saarbruecken seemed to go the same way for me, although unlike the honourable Mr. Blair, my long goodbye was not entirely of my own making!

Let me start at the very beginning, for as Julie Andrews said (or perhaps sung; having never seen the Sound of Music I'm unable to be sure), it's a very good place to start. 

Following the excessive excitement of our Lille road trip, we had only three weeks left to enjoy our time in sunny Saarbruecken (the snow had finally gone for good, apparently!), we began the rather unhappy task of bringing things to a close. This meant organising the packing of our stuff, not as troublesome for me as for the others, for reasons I'll explain later. We also had to organise a mass of paperwork for various institutions, both German and British, to tell them we were leaving, and what we thought of our schools, and indeed what they thought of us! On top of that work was still a pretty much daily affair (well, as much as it ever was!). Being students though, we also had to fit some social events into our hectic schedule; simply to sample the culture (or indeed alcohol, as some may prefer to call it!). 

Now I'll try and deal with the various trials and tribulations of leaving Saarbruecken in the order I mentioned them above, simply to be as coherent as possible (well, I thought it was about time my musings began to make sense!). So, to packing then! Packing is rather a depressing thing to do, especially when you've spent the last nine months not paying attention to the fact that everything you have in your little room in Saarbruecken will need to be carried, by some means or another, halfway across Europe! It's only when you're packing that you really realise how much crap (or quality merchandise as my old boss in Woolies would have called it) it is possible to accumulate in a relatively short space of time. For those of you that have read this blog from the beginning (first off, have you nothing better to do!?!), you will know that the fact that I came in a relatively big car with my parents, which I had filled with stuff for my year abroad. This was a good idea, at the time, until it came to the repacking of it at the end of the year. Because I was heading off on a 10 week caravan holiday in Germany and France immediately after my time in Saarbruecken, I needed to organise all my stuff into two piles; one to take with me through France, and one to return home with my mum and sister in her little Citroen C1. Despite the miniature size of Mum's car, I was under strict instructions to make sure that the second pile was substantially larger than the first, in order not to have too much stuff loitering in the caravan. Still, I had it relatively easy, because my fellow assistants needed to cart all their stuff back either by plane, train, or indeed entrust it to the capable (hmm...) hands of Deutsche Post and Royal Mail. Still, after a week of evenings spent putting stuff in piles, and then moving the piles off of my bed (so I could sleep) onto the floor, and then back again (so I could get out of the door to work in the morning), I managed to gradually transfer the stuff I'd accumulated into a bloody great collection of containers (2 suitcases, 1 trolley holdall, 3 plastic boxes, 5 carrier bags, and a sports bag). This bloody great pile of stuff did eventually find its way into my Mum's C1 on my last day of school, Monday 31st May, from where it was sorted once again into stuff to go home to Chippenham, and stuff to come away to France with me. Needless to say, some stuff was put in the wrong place...still, not to worry, 90% ain't too bad!

Next comes the mass of paperwork I was required to complete for the various institutions that played a role in my time in Germany! First off, the paperwork for the British Council; I needed to get a form signed by both my mentor teacher and the headteacher at both of my schools. As anyone who has worked in a school will tell you; finding the headteacher can be more than a little challenging! After about two weeks of missing them both I did finally get that particular form signed by them. On top of that I had to fill out an online questionnaire that took about 20 minutes about my time in Gerrmany, and how I felt the British Council and their German partner organisation (PAD) organised it. When I'd done that there was paperwork to fill out for my university regarding Erasmus money (which as avid readers will know is basically free money from the European Union for being me, and for imparting (or perhaps inflicting) my knowledge of Britain and English on grateful (hmm...) German schoolchildren. For Erasmus, I was required to get another form signed by the headteacher, which, naturally, being disorganised, I didn't manage to get down at the same time. So, I had to devote some more afternoons to finding him, and getting this one done too! In addition to that form, I had to complete a form for Erasmus detailing what I'd done on my year abroad, and the more exact nature of the tasks undertaken. For those of you who are losing a) track, and/or b) the will to live, you'll be pleased to know that there's not too much more to go! There was also a form which my school were required to complete about me, grading me as an assistant, and detailing how helpful, punctual, organised (!), informative I was throughout the year. My German colleague also had to grade my standard of English, which we both found an interesting idea, but anyway! The final piece of bureaucracy I had to complete was a confirmation certificate which showed I'd actually been at the school for the required amount of time; the reason behind this form is entirely selfish though! Some LEA (Local Education Authorities) will count this year abroad as an assistant as a year's teaching experience when it comes to working out pay-rates; not an unuseful thing to have lying around I thought! So, once the paperwork was completed, you would have thought it was nearly!

As I said, working at the school was still going on at this time, which meant I still had lessons to prepare, and, naturally, teach. Indeed, for some reason which I've not quite fathomed out yet, I found myself planning and teaching more lessons in the last few weeks than I had throughout the rest of the year! It wasn't too bad really; the best place for me is in the classroom it turns out, although I didn't mind doing teachers' marking for them either. On top of the daily grind of school life (well, working 12 hours a week is challenging, you know!), the headteacher had asked me some weeks previously to write a short report for next year's "Yearbook" for the Gymnasium. Now, obviously I'd not forgotten about doing this, I'd simply filed it in a safe area of my brain near the bottom of the list of things to do. In order to counteract this, the headteacher sent me a very polite e-mail with a cover sheet asking for my report...hmm...cue a few hours of manic typing, in German, and then another half hour of grammar checking, and making sure it makes sense. Still, before I went to bed that evening, Herr Dr. Paulus had my yearly report in his intray, as if it had been done for ages! On top of that, the Gymnasium had insisted on inviting me to dinner to celebrate my leaving (although I prefer to look upon it as a celebration of my year abroad, rather than the fact that I was leaving!). This was done in a very pleasant restaurant, helpfully entitled, the Potato, serving predominantly Saarlaendisch speciality dishes made out! When it came round to leaving day at the school, the kids and teachers at the Gesamtschule went all out and through me a party, and insisted that I went and said goodbye to all the kids I'd taught durign my time much for slipping quietly out the back door! It was all very moving, and it may have brought a lump to my throat, although don't tell any of the kids that, they'll think I liked them! (PS: for the miserable brigade, this is meant in jest, I did in fact like most of the kids I taught; anyone who says otherwise as a teacher is lying!)

And now for the hardest part of the whole leaving process; the social events. There were plenty of them on offer from the other assistants. Rather than detailing them all individually, I'll try and remember some of them! There were several meetings down by the Saar in the sunshine with a beer in hand, along with a couple of barbecues, and the evenings spent in town too! There weren't many evenings in the last few weeks when I was sat at home with nothing to do or nobody to drink with. 

So, that's the pre-amble to leaving, now for a succinct (there's a first time for everything!) account of my last week in Saarbruecken!

My last week in Saarbruecken was as hectic as my first really! I still had a fair amount of German bureaucracy to cope with; things like de-registering, closing my bank account, and of course moving out! Let's start with the "abmelden"-ing process. Those who read the first few entries of this blog will know that it took me two attempts to anmelden (or register) at the local Town Hall. For obvious reasons therefore I was slightly apprehensive about the whole abmeldening process...for once, it turns out my worst fears were not to be confirmed! It was an exceptionally easy process, except for the difficulties my member of staff had with my address. (Apparently the British post codes are not compatible with the German computer system!) Nevertheless, I was eventually de-registered as a German resident, and took up my 'tourist' status again for the last few days in Saarbruecken. 

During my time in Saarbruecken I had the fortune to bank with Sparkasse, who I would heartily recommend.  Whenever I had a problem/issue/question for them, they were genuinely only too pleased to help. The same could be said for closing my bank account with them. I will concede that it took a little while (the transfer slip needed two tellers' signatures, and they were busy), and I did need to go to two different counters, but after about 20 minutes I was walking out of the bank with the remnants of my earnings from my year abroad in my pocket. So, from what would have been an entirely horrific ordeal in any UK bank that I've ever dealt with, I was very pleasantly impressed with them again!

Moving out was done in two stages. The first stage was the moving out of myself! This was done on the Saturday before my last day at school when Mum, Dad and Stacey came over to Saarbruecken in the caravan. This entailed me taking a fair amount of my stuff on the bus network to the caravan site on the other side of Saarbruecken. This would have a been a painless experience had I not missed the bus from directly outside my house by mere minutes (why are they never late on demand!?!) and had to walk to the next bus stop and try and find an alternative route to the caravan site. Being, as I was, equipped with my trusty Saarbahn Timetable book I was able to recalculate an alternative route without too much trouble, and arrived, in fact, a few minutes before the others (who had, admittedly, had a coffee break on the way down!).
As an aside, there will be more about my time on the road in the caravan to follow in a later new blog, probably entitled "Musings des Campings", which I'll, naturally, link to in this one when I get around to starting it!
The second stage of moving out took place after my last day of school, and required me to take my sister and Mum's car to my flat and load it up with all the stuff to go home to Chippenham for me to sort out upon my return in September (ooh, I can hardly wait). It was like a Generation Game challenge (for those of you who are too young, or had better things to do of a Saturday evening; ask your parents (or even grandparents; it's been around for a while!)). How much stuff is it possible to fit in a Citroen C1 with driver and front seat passenger. Answer: shedloads! We managed it with a little bit of nifty shoving, and heaving here and there, but it all went in and we managed to shut the doors too! 

So, that's that...the cases are packed in the car ready to go home, school's time in Saarbruecken has come to an end! I hope you've enjoyed reading about it as much as I've enjoyed living it and then writing about it! It's been truly a fantastic experience, which I would recommend to anyone (although it helps if you can speak a foreign language and like children!). There will be another chapter in this blog about the things the British Council/Travel Guides don't tell you; detailing things I found out the hard way, tips to make your life easier, and anything else I think of whilst sitting in front of the screen. But for now, to quote Tony Blair's final address to Parliament, (it was, after all, in honour of him this blog is named!). "Thank you and Goodbye...That's it!"

Monday, June 21, 2010

***STOP PRESS***, err TWO

Just in case people thought I had forgotten about doing this...this isn't the case. It's just I'm in France at the moment with limited Internet access. My next blog entry should be coming in a week or two which will be all about my last weeks in Saarbruecken.

Following on from that, I will be doing "le blogging" about my time in France too!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Chapter 31 - Road Trip to Lille

Monday 3rd - Sunday 9th May

This week features the most eagerly anticipated of all our trips away! The road trip to Lille, more about which will follow very shortly. Firstly though, the rest of the ever, a normal week at school. Now that's out of the way, we can move on to the story!

The Road Trip began for us early on Friday morning. My first job was to head over to the car hire place and pick up the car. I'd arranged to pick up the car at 7.30 when the office opened. This meant catching the bus from home at 7, necessitating waking up at 6. Not particularly unpleasant really, given that I get up then two mornings a week anyway. So, the bus and tram journeys to the office were as normal as they get!

 We'd booked a car in their "Economy" range, because it had enough room for 4 people and was cheap too. The website said it would be a Volkswagen Polo or similar; so I expected an Opel Corsa, or a Ford Fiesta etc. To my surprise, neither of these was the car I got. The car I got was a Peugeot 308 cc. Still, it was a impractical and annoying could it be? 

The first drive in the car was very short, about 3 feet in fact, at which point I stalled it. Still, I expected that, unfamiliar clutch biting point etc, so I'd got my stall out of the way, so off I went. For about 6 feet, when I stalled it again. Never mind, it takes a bit of time to get used to a new car. The next journey took me the 15 feet to the exit of the Car Hire car park. Here I had to be quite nippy to get out on to the road without being involved in an accident. I fluffed it up again. I stalled on my first attempt, and had to wait about 5 minutes for a big enough gap in the traffic. Eventually I made it on to the road to the Hauptbahnhof, where I was meeting the others. Now I should point out here that I have never driven a left-hand drive car before, so judging the width of the car was a bit of a challenge at times. Hence why I might have bumped it over a couple of curbs, and maybe the tramline too. Still, I arrived at the station at 7.45, where I saw the others waiting dutifully outside with their suitcases. 

Now, the first concern was the size of the boot. I wasn't sure it would take all the suitcases we had. In fact, I needn't have worried, the boot was almost as big as the rest of the car! So, we managed to get everything in the boot. And then came sorting out seating arrangements. I thought it best if I took the front left seat. In fact, I insisted upon it. When we'd managed to get into the car, which was neither elegant nor dignified (certainly not for me). Despite sitting in the front, I had a getting-in issue; that the steering column and my right leg collided every time I got in! Still, we all managed to get ourselves seated, and then came setting up the GPS. We set Lille as the destination, and we settled down for a relaxing morning meander through the EU heartland. 

After about 10 minutes driving, I found a flaw with the SatNav. It was in German, which may not sound like an issue, but when you're driving round an unfamiliar city, you don't have time to translate the instructions or ask stupid questions, so we changed it to English. Problem solved...almost! The SatNav insisted on telling me to "Enter the Roundabout", which is not an instruction with which I am overly familiar. Aside from this minor irritation it was a tool without which we may never have found Lille city centre!

After about 2 hours of driving, we had passed through Luxembourg and had entered Belgium. Now, anyone who has ever driven on a motorway will confirm that motorway driving is the most boring of all types of driving. Irrespective of where you are, miles and miles of concrete with limited exit points and nothing exciting to look at cannot ever be interesting. In Belgium, they have taken measures on this subject. They have planted trees on both sides of each carriageway, thus providing a green wall on both sides of your side of the motorway. So when the SatNav pipes up "Continue on the motorway for 189km" you can understand why I began to lose the will to live! If that wasn't bad enough, the maximum speed was 120km/h, which is 10km/h less than in France and Luxembourg, and infinitely less than in Germany. 

After what seemed like two lifetimes of tree-lined motorway, we arrived in Lille, the capital of the Nord Pas de Calais region of France. It was in Lille I was reminded of the style, finesse, and skill of French drivers. As I was going round a roundabout, in the correct fashion, a car appeared off my nearside wing and showed me that his horn worked, naturally I was pleased for him, and expressed my gratitude for his musical display in some clear, yet concise, French adjectives. Shortly afterwards we found a street in front of a car park, where people appeared to be parking for free. So, being British, and therefore not keen on rocking the boat (unlike Hazel Blears' brooch), I followed suit and parked behind a remodelled Renault 5. By remodelled I mean dented. 

As ever, our first aim was the Tourist Information Office, which we found. Then, following our Standard Operating Procedure, we headed for a cafe, where we enjoyed some of the French cafe culture, and consulted the map. We did a circular walk of Lille, taking in some of the sights, including the Cathedral, the Citadel, the Place de la Republique (obligatory in every French town), the City Hall. The walk ended in the shopping centre between the two Lille train stations (Lille Gare Europe [handles the TGVs & Eurostar] and Lille Gare Flandres [handles the normal trains]), where we popped into Carrefour in order to get food for the morning, and the following day. About five o'clock we decided to head for the hotel. 

This should have been relatively easy...I'd consulted the map on the website of the hotel and wrote down the junction where the hotel was. I input this into the SatNav. I followed the instructions to the letter. We found ourselves in a town, which wasn't too much of a problem, from my experience of staying in HotelF1's before I knew that they can are often on industrial/commercial estates. So we drove round a bit, this didn't help. After about 30 minutes of driving around aimlessly, I pulled over and accosted a man putting his rubbish out. He gave me some pretty good directions (in that they took me to the right town). When we got to the other town, we reached a T-Junction, and being whimpish and slightly annoyed at the whole saga, I did a U-Turn and drove to the Novotel we'd previously passed to ask them for directions. (They're both part of the Accor group, so I figured, correctly, that they'd know). After finally receiving adequate directions we got to the hotel, some 90 minutes after leaving Lille. We checked in and went off in search of food. After food, we popped over to the Auchan, just to see what it was like. We spent the rest of the evening playing cards before heading to bed relatively late.

Saturday was the trip to the beach. This was Harriet's main reason for wanting to go to Lille! We set off for Calais about 9.45, and arrived about 11. So it wasn't too far. On arrival in Lille, we drove following Harriet's sixth sense for finding the sea. We arrived, shortly after, at Calais/Bleriot Plage, which is just South of Calais, and has a long sandy beach. The beach itself, though, was swathed in an unidentified white foam. Still, it was a beach, by the seaside. Even I deicided to go paddling in the English Channel. The Channel is not the Med, nor is it the Carribean. It was bloody freezing, but after a while you stop being able to notice it, largely because your toes have dropped off and are feeding the fishes! As we walked along the beach we saw some of the German pillboxes and beach defences that have collapsed down the dunes in Calais. After taking in the view, and enjoying the feeling of sand under your feet, we headed back to the car and set Boulogne as the destination (when we'd worked out how to spell it!).

After about half an hour of motorway driving we arrived in Boulogne, from where we walked down to the town for a spot of lunch. After lunch we walked down to the harbour, and turned right towards the beach. We spent a bit of time sat on the beach passing the time of day, or in Harriet's case, burying Esther's hand!?! On the way back to the car, we came across a seal show in an aquarium-esque place. We watched it for a bit, before heading back up to the Old Town in Boulogne. The Old Town in Boulogne is very picturesque. If you took away the cars, it could have easily been a scene from the immediate post war period. It looked almost unchanged! We walked back to the car, and began the drive back to the hotel, which I had saved as a favourite, to save the hassle of trying to find it again! The journey back avoided the motorway most of the way, which meant that it was quite an interesting drive, with plenty to see on the way. Another evening of cards followed a very nice day out.

Sunday was the final day of our road trip, and the day we'd decided to spend in Brussels. Brussels was on the way back to Saarbruecken, and only about an hour away from the hotel. So, at about 10.30 we set off from the hotel, and I got used to looking at trees for a while.  We got to Brussels in good time, probably because it was a Sunday! Then came the issue of parking. I imagine this problem is the same for every capital city. Finding a space was the first challenge, but that one was solved after only about 10 minutes, which I thought was quite quick. The next, and biggest problem, was actually putting the car in the space. Now, as anyone who has been in a car with me will know, reverse parallel parking is not my biggest strength. Now remember that I'm on the other side of the car, and trying to do it. Three attempts later, I'd managed it! 

Following the parking debacle, we undertook a walk around Brussels. Taking in sights such as the Grande Place, Le mannequin pis, Cathedral, National Palace, Royal Palace and a series of churches. The weather for this was perfect, it didn't rain during the day, and was actually a very pleasant and warm day. We spent a bit of time in the afternoon sat in the park reading our books and enjoying the sunshine. After we'd finished our walk, we headed back to the car, to try and find the EU Parliamentary buildings. This wasn't too difficult, nor was it too difficult to find somewhere to park nearby. They are quite impressive buildings, and somehow not out of place in the midst of a park, and older residential buildings. So, that was Brussels, we did do it in quite a whistle-stop way, and saw an awful lot there. It was more of a would be nice to go back at some point, maybe for a couple of days and take it in a little more slowly. It was a very nice city, but it lacked a certain "wow" factor. I can't explain what it lacked, but it just didn't make me fall in love with it, like Berlin did. 

After enjoying the sites of the Belgian Kingdom's capital city, it was time to head back to Saarbruecken. Back to trees...the most depressing thing was when the GPS told me I had 201km of Belgian motorway to go. There's only so much time you can spend looking at trees. And I think I had more than my fair share! We filled up with Diesel at Schengen in Luxembourg, because it's substantially cheaper there than in Germany, and headed for home. I dropped the car off at 21.30 and headed for the train station to catch the bus home. 

Some of you probably think that was the end of my fun & games, but no SaarBahn & Bus hadn't played their role yet. I was waiting for the bus at 22.17 which should have got me in about 22.30, which never arrived. There was a 123 (mine is the 121) that had been through, but that doesn't go in my direction, so I didn't get on. About 22.35 I saw a 105, which would take me to the bottom of my road, and while we were going along, we passed the 121, which, it turned out, was the bus masquerading as the 123. So, it had run, but had lied about its route! So, after a bit of a walk up my hill, I got in about 23.15 and was in bed shortly afterwards. Exhausted, but very happy! Ready for another week of fun and frollicks at school, albeit a short week this time!

As ever, you can see my pictures of the road trip here!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chapter 30 - Sunshine, Saarbruecken, and a trip to Bonn

Monday 19th April - Sunday 2nd May

So, with the Black Forest barely behind me, it was time to return to school! Monday saw me doing my normal lessons; no covered required this time, which made a pleasant change! However, that record was no longer standing by the end of Tuesday! Tuesday saw me doing 2 full cover lessons, with little more than 5 minutes preparation for both of them together. Wednesday was a pretty standard day at the Gymnasium, although I had the chance to work with a new class (to make up for the 12. Klasse kids who've left. My new class is a 7. Klasse (Year 8 equivalent/12-13 year olds) and they're a charming class, who are very curious, and seem to be keen to learn and practise their English. I'm looking forward to working with them more in the last month of my placement here. Thursday was my busiest day of the week; I had 5 lessons straight through at the Gymnasium. Luckily, all the classes with whom I work are pretty good kids really! 

As you can see, work wasn't overly exciting this week. But, and I'm reverting to type here, the weather has been pretty fantastic this week. I read in the local paper that Saarland is the Bundesland (Federal State) in the whole of Germany, which has seen the biggest change in climate due to global warming. Now, I understand that Global Warming is a threat to the planet, but, in a purely selfish and tongue-in-cheek way, I'm more than happy for people to bring their 4x4s and drive them round Saarbruecken for the rest of the month if they want! The average high temperature last week was 19.7 degrees celsius, and the sun has been shining almost perpetually. It's now at the stage, where I can leave for work at 6.45 and not require anything more sustantial than a short-sleeve shirt. That said, the weather today has been a little bit hit and miss; we've had some very nice sunny spells, but also a couple of very loud and wet thunderstorms too. 

Because the weather has been so good, I've spent a fair amount of the week outside! Wednesday evening I met up with a colleague from my Gesamtschule who wanted me to meet her daughter and her friend who were visiting from Paris. There was no alterior motive here! She suggested it would be a good opportunity to practise listening to and speaking some French, and she was quite right! Thursday afternoon was spent by the Saar with a few friends, which wasa very nice way to spend the time. It was easily warm enough to remain by the Saar long past the half 8 we were there until, but I needed to have something to eat! 

Friday saw me make a trip to Homburg in the evening for Will's birthday party. He has had the misfortune to turn 21, and leave me in the 20-club alone! It was actually my first trip to Homburg properly, excepting changing trains. On the train coming back to Saarbruecken there was a Ticket Inspector who was raking it in with 40€ fines being given out willy-nilly. I had already bought a ticket, so saved myself some money there; but because the majority of DB's Regional Trains are unchecked many people like to play russian roulette with the Inspectors. As one philosophically said to the Inspector; "you win some, you lose some" - or a rather more complex German equivalent! 

Saturday, as the previous week, required an early start, which was fine. Lucy and I were going to Bonn for the day, and were taking the 7.02 train. Last Saturday it was perfectly possible to catch a bus into town at 6.14 and walk to the train station in plenty of time. Yesterday was different though. Saturday was the 1st May. In Germany the 1st May is a Public Holiday; that means places only open their Sunday hours - largely none at all, and buses only run a Sunday timetable; this is not helpful when the earliest bus round by me is at 9.32! Luckily, with a quick check using their text service I was able to see that there was a bus from the bottom of my road to the train station at 6.32. With a bit of a jog, I made it in time and managed to safely get to the train station. The train from Saarbruecken went to Koblenz, and does some have some fantastic views over the Saar and Mosel on the way; and it's double decker, which still hasn't worn off yet! From Koblenz we changed to a train directly to Bonn, which took about 45 minutes. We got there about 11ish. 

En route to the tourist information office (always the first port of call; for a street map) we got distracted by an artisan's market in the Minster square. Some of the stuff there was good, some was quaint and other bits were bordering on "Why?" standard! After looking around the market for a bit, we headed over to the tourist information office, got our street map and then trotted off to explore Bonn. 

The first thing we went to see was Ludwig van Beethoven's birthplace, which was pretty much a house, with a plaque on the window. It has a museum on the ground floor, but seeing as it was a Public Holiday it was closed! Shortly after Beethoven's house we came across the Communists/Socialists/Trade Unions all having a parade, which from what we could grasp was not authorised by the place, yet was still taking place. The parade, was actually not parading at that moment, instead it had turned into a stationary protest about the police arresting one of their contingent. So, as nothing exciting seemed to be happening we moved on, and returned to the tour of Bonn! The next focus of which was to be the River, after a drink! After we'd replenished our liquid levels we walked down to the River, which is a river I saw last Sunday in Basel....can you remember what it's called? (if no, it's the Rhine). We walked along the Rhine to see the old West German Parliament building and the Post Tower. While we were there we discovered that there was a trail along the river side of the planets, with little signs about them all the way. The planets were distanced to scale, and the overall trail probably went on for about 5km. We walked all the way to Neptune from the Sun, before we came across a building site and the industrial port in Bonn. And as Pluto is not technically a planet any more (it's, in fact, an asteroid), we abandoned the search there and headed back into the city to find somewhere for lunch. We got back into the city about 15.30 when we decided to have some lunch. After lunch I had to go and rendez-vous with the main reason for coming to Bonn, Ruediger. 

It would be useful, I realise, here to explain who Ruediger is, and why I had to meet him. So, that's what I'll do, but I shall answer the key questions in reverse order. (Partly because it makes more sense like that, and partly because I can!) But before I can even explain why I had to meet him, you need yet more information! You need to know that Dad collects clocks, lots of clocks, but that he prizes his modest collection of "Perpetual Motion" Atmos Clock. Now rather than me try and explain to you exactly what they look like, or how they work - I counsel you to click here to find out more! I had to meet Ruediger to collect one of Dad's Atmos clocks off of him, because Ruediger repairs them and restores them. Ruediger was previously a senior diplomat in the UK working for the German Government and it used to be much easier to take stuff to him in Wimbledon. He was then re-posted and now works in Bonn, so as I live in Saarbruecken, the decision was taken (not entirely by me, if I remember correctly!) that I would go and collect said Atmos Clock and bring it back to Saarbruecken for Mum & Dad to collect when they come over in a few weeks time! Needless to say, the clock managed the train journey home unharmed, which is good for two main reasons: 1) it's very valuable, and 2) I like breathing!

So after being a very cheap courier, I spent Sunday moping! I did do some useful things like clean the bathroom, and prepare a couple of worksheets for lessons next week! But my main achievement of the day was avoiding the thunderstorms that arrived in Saarbruecken today!

Now, for the avid and attentive reader, you will notice that this blog entry was actually written on time! So enjoy, it doesn't happen very often!

Next week comes the expedition of the year - Lille!