Earth is Also a Star: Tin Marín Museo de los Niños

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I’ve always believed education to be the key when working towards the improvement of the world. Education provides the tools that we can use to build the better future we envision for ourselves and for our societies, creating paths and opening doors that help us achieve whatever we set our minds to.

I believe that investing in education for younger generations can be crucial in determining the future of a nation and its people, as we’re often told that children are the future. It is because of this that I decided to do my summer internship at Tin Marín Museo de los Niños (Tin Marin Children’s Museum) in El Salvador.

The museum was inaugurated on October 28, 1999, as a private non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the education, culture, and development of children through innovative and non-formal educational strategies. Since I was born in late 1998, I was able to grow up alongside the museum, which became an integral part of my life and one of the places I remember most fondly when thinking about my childhood in El Salvador. Casual visits, birthday parties, school trips – all of these I would look forward to knowing I would be headed to the magical place that was Tin Marin.

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This year, the museum will celebrate its 19th anniversary, having remained true to its mission from the start: contributing to the education of children and their companions to form integral and creative citizens through meaningful learning, cultural orientation, and fun experimentation with integrity, innovation, respect, and teamwork. The museum’s vision is also being met, as they strive to become the favorite, cultural, and fun space for children where they can learn and enjoy unique, exciting, and unforgettable experiences. Through this, the museum aims to be crucial protagonists in the development of the salvadoran youth’s personal, family, school, and social levels.

Today, the museum hosts 34 permanent exhibits that cover 5 different areas of learning: health, expression and communication, science and technology, environment, and culture. One of the permanent exhibits is El Mariposario (The Butterfly House), which hosts 16 different species of butterfly, where children can learn about the metamorphosis of a butterfly and how butterflies signify a healthy ecosystem. Another is La Cama de Clavos (The Bed of Nails), where children can lie on a bed composed of 1,500 iron nails and learn about different concepts of physics. El Mercado de Don Emprendedor (Mr Entrepreneur’s Market) is where children can shop for pupusas, milk, flowers, and more, and where they learn different mathematical concepts as well as enterprise skills. El Avión (The Airplane) teaches children about air travel at the museum’s small airport, and allows them to board the front half of a real Boeing 727-100 that was donated to the museum by the exhibit sponsors. Because the museum is a non-profit organization, all exhibits are sponsored by different private organizations that help fund and maintain them.

 

Along with the permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts different educational workshops as well as temporary international exhibits. The museum’s workshops include a Bubble Workshop, where children learn how to form different kinds of bubbles with special tools, a Recycling Workshop, where kids children learn how to make their own recycled paper, an Arts Workshop, where they can make art projects out of recycled materials, a Debate Workshop, where they learn the basic principles of debating for and against different topics, and a Science Workshop, where they can perform different simple experiments. The museum’s temporary exhibits are also quite varied, ranging from animatronic dinosaurs in their 2017 exhibit Mundosaurio, live farm animals in La Granja (The Farm), different reptiles in Reptilandia, and their current exhibit: Castillos y Dragones (Castles and Dragons), where visitors can see different animatronic dragons and learn about those mythological creatures.

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My first experience at the museum more recently, when I considered myself too old for the museum, was when I was sent work at the museum in 2014 as a part of my school’s work experience week. During this week, 9th grade students were sent out to different organizations related to different fields they were considering as career options for a 5-day internship. Myself and two other students were introduced to the Volunteer Guides program at the museum, where we worked as educational guides and helped give explanations and tours to visitors. While short, that experience was one that I really enjoyed and felt myself wanting to repeat. The program itself was quite small at the time, and I never could have imagined how much it would evolve in the following four years by the time I started my latest internship.

The Volunteer Guides Program as it is today is open mainly to highschool and university students, who serve as educational guides and help organize workshops and activities for visitors of the museum. The Guide’s role is to contribute actively to the education of Salvadoran children and youth, through an innovative method that allows the volunteer to acquire skills and abilities with a cultural orientation. It will allow you to create a real impact on Salvadoran children and youth, and at the same time obtain personal and professional growth.

The program itself is divided into different sections, that ultimately hold the same role at the museum but give different opportunities to those involved. The first branch is the Volunteer branch, where people can choose to help out at the museum out of their own accord for the experience. The next is the Social Service branch, where high school and university students can complete their national requirement of 150 hours of social service to obtain their high school graduation diploma, or up to 500 hours of social service for their university degree. This consists of a large part of the program, followed by the Scholarship branch. This branch provides those involved opportunities to obtain scholarships to help fund either their university studies, or language studies to help further their career. The final branch of the program is the Seminar branch, which started earlier this year and is about to finish its second round. This branch allows people to sign up for an educational seminar about leadership and entrepreneurship, and asks participants to contribute to the museum with a few shifts as guides.

In order to apply to any of these programs, the participants must first pass through the audition and training process. The first step is the audition, where volunteers must present themselves and participate in different dynamics that help situate them in the mindset of a volunteer guide. They must also present a game of their own and interact with the other people auditioning. Through this process, their dynamism and innovativeness is tested, as well as their interaction skills. Once they pass the audition process, they’re inducted into the training program where they are presented with 7 different exhibits from the museum. The participants then have one week to learn and memorize the information from these exhibits using the guide scripts, and they must present the 7 exhibits they were given themselves to the evaluators. If they pass this evaluation, they must then accompany official museum guides on 3 guided tours to get a feel of the job while having direct interaction with children from school groups or family visits. After this, they are officially integrated into the Volunteer Guides Program.

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Over the past month, I was able to contribute to the museum as a Volunteer guide but also help out with the Social Projection program at the museum, where they manage and control the logistical aspects of the Volunteer Guides Program, as well as help organize and record school group visits, attendance, seminar development, and more. They also help keep track of those involved in the Audition and Training programs, making sure that everyone is progressing at the right pace, as well as working on outreach to get more people involved in the program. The current project is that of their temporary exhibit – Castillos y Dragones – where the museum will include night shift options as opposed to only morning and afternoon.

I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity, as the museum turned out to be so much more than I remembered it being. I got to re-live my childhood through the children that I gave tours to. I gained a second family in the group of guides who welcomed me into the program with open arms. I was able to appreciate the effort and dedication that goes on behind the museum front with all the organization that goes on. I learned so much from the multiple exhibits that the museum holds. This experience is something that I’ll carry close to my heart for the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to go back whenever I have the opportunity to do so.

If you’re ever in El Salvador, be sure to stop by Tin Marín for a visit, regardless of your age. The museum has something to offer for absolutely everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, teenagers to adults. We are all young at heart, and this museum is the perfect reminder of that.

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Earth is Also a Star: a Midnight Sun for the Children of the Moon

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Hey, here’s a secret about me.

I never cried watching a movie.

I felt sad in front of The Notebook, had tears in my eyes because of James Cameron’s Titanic and actually sniffed a bit with The Theory of Everything, but that was all.

 

I mean, up until last Wednesday evening. When I started to cry so hard that I didn’t get what was happening to me. Half-laughing, half crying a river onto a handful of tissues, I found myself wondering out loud « But why the hell am I even crying?! »

 

Last Wednesday evening, I watched Midnight Sun by Scott Speer.

 

Actually, there’s nothing very original in this movie’s pitch, inspired by a 2006 Japanese movie. Young teenage girl Katie Price  (Bella Thorne) lives alone with her dad (Rob Riggle) after her mother died in a car accident. But she is sick: suffering from a very rare disease called XP – for xeroderma pigmentosum -, she has a very high sensitivity to sunlight, that can be dangerous and even fatal to her. So, she sleeps all day, protected behind special windows, and lives during the night, seeing her best friend and playing music in town. One night, singing and playing guitar at the train station, she is addressed by Charlie Reed (Patrick Schwarzenegger) – her lifelong crush whom she’s been stalking for years behind her window. But carried away by this new and incredible feeling of falling in love and having someone, she postpones again and again the moment to tell him about her sickness.

 

These past years have been rich of movies like this one, starring two young people one of which is hopelessly sick. The two of them fall in love, live as passionate a relationship as it has to be short, and eventually the sick one either dies or is cured. Their story works as an initiation for both of them – to love for the sick one, to life for the other (future filmmakers, please note that the sentence ‘You’ve changed my life’ has been too often used to have any remaining emotional potential). The sickness thus plays the role of the disturbing element, that makes the relationship stop at its peak – when you’re still too in love to realize that he or she or whatever may not be The One -, and before anything like love triangles, cheating or simply feeling annoyed can happen.

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This makes me sound very critical of this kind of teenage-girl-appealing movies – and for the sake of the readers, let me precise that I read The Fault in our Stars at least three times. Written evidence also exists that I did want to watch Everything, everything. I kind of like these books and movies that are halfway between an Ancient Greece tragedy (with sickness replacing Gods and curses) and modern young adult literature. But what upsets me to the utmost is that, to me, they contribute to making diseases look sexy. It’s Hollywood, so the actor and actress have to look cute and healthy – but still, when one watches Midnight Sun trailer, one couldn’t guess that Bella Thorne is playing a girl that is ‘allergic to sunlight’ (or maybe the choice of a redhead actress was made for her whiter-than-white skin and supposed freckles).

 

Many other critics have been made to that movie. Saying that main actor Patrick Schwarzenegger has been chosen for his name and celebrity but was not able to do more than one face – well, I didn’t notice. Saying, also, that the story was absolutely simplistic – and I agree, it’s a rather short movie and fifteen more minutes would have helped to develop the end that is pretty straightforward, with many important details not being explained.

 

But the thing is, it made me cry. And a week after watching it, I’m still playing again and again the music that fitted the trailer more than perfectly (‘Spirits’ by the Strumbrellas, whose end is amazing), and I’m still obsessed with that movie. So why?

 

First, because of the actress, whose acting I found authentic, touching and screen-bursting. Second, because of her amazingly cute relationship with her dad and of a couple of moments in the movie, that literally made me look aside, breathe out deeply and whisper « Ok… wow. That was something… ». And eventually, because despite its quite non-scientific basis, it caught me enough for me to spend the rest of my evening doing researches on Xeroderma pigmentosum.

 

The rest of my evening, and a fair amount of time during the days that followed.

 

And the more I read about it, watched videos, the more moved I felt and the biggest my will to get involved would get.

 

Xeroderma pigmentosum, XP in short, is a genetic recessive illness. It means that if the two parents have a faulty gene, the child does not get sick if he is not transmitted any; he doesn’t get sick if he is transmitted only one; but he has a 25% risk of getting both, and of suffering from this very rare illness. A child out of 1 Million in France, and a child out of 100 000 in other countries, for example Morocco, has XP whose consequences are mortal and devastating.

 

It is very widely known that sunlight ‘contains’ a range of rays called the ‘ultra-violets’, the UVs. What is less known is that these rays hurt the human being’s skin and cells, and that the only reason why we aren’t living cancers is that our genes are able to repair themselves. But the DNA of XP-sick people doesn’t enable this; and being exposed to UVs is enough for them to develop burns, skin and eye cancers, particularly on the nose and lips; different kinds of eye problems and various other health issues, notably concerning their nervous system.

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Most of the time, children are quite young when diagnosed, as abnormal spots start appearing on their skin. And because these cancers can metastasize (infect other organs), they need to be removed as quickly as possible. Some children have developed more than forty cancers, all removed by chirurgical intervention, before the age of 2.

 

Besides this preventive solution, the proactive one implies nothing less than avoiding any exposure to UVs. Sick people can only live a ‘normal life’ by night, at the light of the moon – reason why they’ve been nicknamed, in French, the ‘children of the moon’. And it doesn’t take much time to figure out why we say ‘children’, and not ‘adults’…

 

By day, the Children of the Moon need to be protected: inside, by special windows and UV-free lamps; outside, by a NASA-designed overall, which includes glasses and a hood; or by a new kind of mask that has been very recently developed and enables the face to be seen, or by powerful sun blocking cream that needs to be renewed every hour or two.

 

I think that eventually, this is what moved me so much in Midnight Sun. I’m this kind of person who feels happy whenever the sun comes out and sad whenever it starts to rain. And to realize, at that point, that the symbol of life that light usually is, can be mortal just because it’s the light, was beyond words.

Many of the children that suffer from this illness cannot even go to school. The risks would be too high. In France, there is a school in a town called Poitiers that, to protect one student, put UV-filters on all its windows; there’s also this specialized Summer camp, organized in the South of the country, that allows the children to enjoy activities such as a swimming pool during the night. But it remains terribly painful for them and for their families, forced to adapt their lifestyles to the illness.

The situation is even worse in countries such as that of the Maghreb, where their prevalence, according to Dr. Mohamed Zghal, Tunis, is much higher due to consanguinity. However, the disease remains rare. In France, 91 people suffer from it; they are 400 to 1000 in Morocco. Rare, or too rare, at least, for research on genetic therapy to get easy funding; for appropriate equipment not to be mostly made by private actors; for measures to be taken so Children of the Moon can go to school, enjoy a ‘normal’ life, and like most people do, smile when the sun comes out.

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So here’s a challenge for you. Now that it’s available in all cinemas, go watch Midnight Sun – with a box of tissues. Spend a good time, smile, laugh, cry, get moved in front of this beautiful story and think about it. And when you go out of the cinema – or of your room if you’re a streaming person -, make a donation, at least equivalent to the price of the cinema ticket, to an association that fights against XP.

 

There’s this other book that I love and that is called « I’ll give you the sun ». That’s pretty much what this is about – enabling research so that one day, the sun and its UVs can become something else than a cancer-maker for these Children of the Moon.

 

Midnight Sun Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS-kCiCVEp0

 

A 1-hour long French-Moroccan documentary on The Children of the Moon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGqNd5cZk_w (in French)

 

More infos:

https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/7910/xeroderma-pigmentosum

https://www.verywellhealth.com/xeroderma-pigmentosum-2861056

 

Credits: IMBD, CNews, La dépêche, Variety

Earth is Also a Star: Anita back to school!

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On a rainy morning in May, I went to visit my Grandma’s cousin in my hometown. She is a short lady with light brown hair, always in a bun. I used to see her around my Grandma’s house; often with a friend or two, all of them equipped with a rosary and a bible. 

That day, she had prepared Arepas and coffee for us. A few days before, I had asked if I could come over to interview her, because I found her story heartwarming and worth sharing. Ana Leitón graduated 6th grade in 1971 and she is now determined to finish the 7th grade in 2018.

47 years after.

Anita, as most people call her, grew up in San Luis. This small town was firstly populated by traveling people from the Costa Rican metropolitan area of the central valley. During the 1920’s, these families were in search of new land for agricultural production. San Luis’s real development started in the 1960’s, when coffee production began. During this same period two schools were founded, one of which Anita attended. To this day, however, no high school has been constructed. Its neighboring town, Monteverde, although established about 30 years after, became larger both in terms of population and economic growth. Monteverde, the town I come from, is located about 40 minutes away by car and it does have a high school. In order for the inhabitants of San Luis to go to it, though, they have to take a bus that lasts an hour and a half each way. This results in many of the resident families deciding to pull their kids out of the education system past 6th grade, when primary school ends in Costa Rica. Only 7.4% of the current population of San Luis has finished secondary school and 25% of the population aged over 12 did not finish primary school.

Anita moved to Monteverde when she was 29 years old. During many years, and partially now, her way of generating income for her family was through the sale of snacks and small meals around town. At the time she moved to Monteverde, one of the biggest employers of the town was the Cheese Factory. She told me how she would visit it with a bag full of Costa Rican styled tamales one day; prestiños* another; and even slushies from time to time. She raised 6 kids this way, along with her husband who she mentioned had had alcoholism problems and wasn’t as present in the kids’ lives as she was. One of them is on his way to get his master’s degree in geographic sciences. On certain days, even currently, Anita wakes up as the sun rises, ready to prepare tasty foods and goes off to sell them- predominantly at the farmer’s market. Another of her main activities is to be part of a folkloric dance group that has gained popularity around communities in Costa Rica. They were even invited to Nicoya, which is a city 3-4 hours away by car, to perform at a civic event. Her group doesn’t charge to perform, but accepts donations, and it clearly is something she adores. Realizing that these activities, on top of her active participation in many of the catholic church’s events, must be greatly time consuming, I asked her why she had decided to add studying to her to-do list. I was not disappointed with her answer.

*Typical Costa Rican snack made of a thin, fried flour tortilla, often eaten with sugar cane syrup.

Ana told me she loved reading and writing. It may seem like an empty statement to many but, given the way this woman lived most of her adult life, these activities were not a daily necessity, as they are for many of us. As we spoke, I glanced at the various notebooks she had next to us, on the table; she had very neat handwriting. She always knew these were important skills, as well as much of what you learn in school. While her children grew up, she tried helping them as much as she could, knowing how education would change their lives. A couple of months ago, she hosted a someone in her house, as she has done many times. It was a teacher from the West Coast of the country, working temporarily in Monteverde. After a couple of days, the lady told her she was a smart woman who should go back to school, especially considering that the local high school offered a program for adults. Anita considered this for a few weeks, at first thinking it would not fit in with her busy schedule with church, dance activities, the farmer’s market and her long-loved hobby of quilting and sewing. Her children were very supportive of the idea and at one point she thought of one of her sons, Greivin, the one that had died 20 years before. One that was very close to finishing high school but couldn’t because of cancer. She decided to do it.

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Her class is made up of 28 adults ranging from 20 to 59-year-olds, Anita being the oldest. The program is aimed at people wishing to get their high school degree past their teenage years; it is a three-year course composing the 6 main high school subjects, namely Spanish, math, science, English, social studies and civics. In order to accommodate for the students’ jobs, classes go from 5:30pm until 10pm Mondays through Fridays. As she is the oldest, she told me, people look up to her, and she said they have told her having her there is a good inspiration. Every now and then, Anita brings tortillas or some snack for the class, which makes them really happy. Between the class, she says, there is a feeling of familiarity that motivates everyone. The first time she missed a lesson because she was sick, the group called her to make sure she was ok.

In 3 years, this woman will finally have her high school diploma. Ana is evidently determined to, not only finish her studies to feel accomplished with herself, but also to use this certificate and her new-found knowledge to get a job she otherwise wouldn’t be able to. “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?” I asked her. She answered that in a touristic town like Monteverde, English is the new ‘official’ language. I agreed, any job you look for will ask you how well you speak the language, and finally Ana will be able to say ‘decently’. When I asked her what one of the most interesting things she had learned was, she answered the fact that Egyptians were buried with belongings because they believed these would be useful in their afterlife. Then I asked her what the hardest thing she was learning was. She smiled and said, “Math back in the day was a lot simpler then now.” I chuckled.

Ana told me she was pleased to finally experiencing this part of life that she had helped her children go through, seeing both the effort one has to put in and the value of what she was studying. Her excitement over her studies reminded me of the privilege that schooling is, and I left her humble house that drizzling day feeling happier about my student status than I had for a long time. My only hope is that this text made you feel a similar way.

Before leaving, she showed me a quote she had written on the cover of her folder. Her daughter had found it for her. Later I realized it was a quote by Mark Twain:

“La edad es un tema de la mente sobre la materia. Si no te importa, no importa.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

France: Elle s’appelait Joséphine Baker…

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Elle s’appelait Joséphine Baker, and I couldn’t say she was American, I couldn’t say she was French, I couldn’t say she was Black, a patriot, an artist, a singer, a dancer, a meneuse de revue, a World War II hero, a Civil Rights Movement activist, an actress, an icon, a feminist, a castle owner, a mother – because she was all these and much more than that.

Her story is that of a princess, gone from the black suburbs of Saint-Louis, Missouri, to the stages of Paris. She inspired while living and continues to inspire by her talent, her dedication and the multiple causes she defended until her very last day.

 

But let’s get back to the beginning. Not to hers, but to mine.

 

Ever since the age of 6, I’ve been spending one week every summer in the Périgord, southwest of France. When I was 5, my parents had decided that every year, they would take my brother and I to a different region of France. The first year, we went to Alsace, of which I can remember the colorful vineyards, traditional folklore clothes and tasty bretzels. The second year, we discovered the Périgord.

I don’t exactly know what made my parents decide that, from now on, we would go there every year. However, I vaguely remember my 6 year-old sef crying them a river and threatening them to flee their house and walk back there alone. I officially became the saddest little girl on Earth for the two weeks after we went back to Lyon – and more or less made them understand that I had found my paradise on Earth and would never feel at home anywhere else. So we renounced to this Tour de France – I’ll never feel grateful enough. Then, I stuck to my wall, in Lyon, a little calendar on which I would draw a cross every week that passed, and that would bring me closer to our reunion. Try to think about what you love the most on this planet. For me, it was that. The Périgord.

 

So, I was, to say the least, particularly predisposed to enjoy anything I would see, or visit there. In eleven years, you have plenty of time to discover new locations, but also to judge which of them you prefer. Among all those we saw- the Périgord pretty much contains as many castles as I have hair on my head. The Château des Milandes, Castle of the Milandes, quickly became one of my favorites. I knew that a Great Lady used to live there, that her name was Joséphine Baker and that she was American. I also knew that she used to dance in Paris’ cabarets with nothing on her but a belt made of bananas and that she adopted twelve children from many countries in the world. But, unlike many American celebrities who decided to live in Paris or on the French Riviera, she had chosen the Périgord and that was enough for me to adore her and to want to learn more.

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For years, I forgot about her. And then I saw her name on the cover of a book in my school’s library. A week ago, I went back there to borrow it and put it on my table, before going back to my political science study sessions. I resisted two minutes before putting my notes down and taking the book instead. I read it in one sitting and it was like a postponed love at first sight.

 

Freda Josephine McDonald was born in 1906 in Saint-Louis, Missouri, from a Mother who was a dancer and a Father who was a musician, that would soon leave the family. Her first years were plagued by misery. In a highly segregated America, this young Afro-american had to perform menial jobs very early to help the numerous children her Mother had with another man. This free spirit even left school at the age 14 to get married, but her very first husband and her quickly got separated. She then joined a band of street musicians to perform her true passion: dancing.

Freda Josephine is 16 when she leaves her second husband (Willie Baker, she always kept his name) to go to New York, her head full of dreams of Broadway. There, after many failures and refusals, she joins a theater whose band is entirely black, but soon leaves it to join another one… until her path crosses that of Caroline Dudley Reagan, wife of the American ambassador in Paris. It’s Reagan who, impressed by the talent of this black dancer that squints and gambols on stage, asks her to come to Paris with her.

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1925, Paris. It’s the opening of the Revue Nègre. On the stage of a cabaret, for Reagan’s very first show, here dances an astonishing black girl that challenges all the clichés. Naked at the exception of a belt made of false bananas, she embodies an actual revolution. She dances in the foolish, unleashed and almost dismembered way black Africans could be thought to dance, and she makes fun of these prejudices with a sense of humor and a talent that lets no one indifferent. It’s first a scandal, but it soon turns into a success. Advised by Pépito, her boyfriend of the time, Freda, who switches her name to Josephine, is adopted by Paris. She becomes meneuse de revue at one of the most famous Parisian cabarets, Les Folies Bergères. She then shoots a movie, opens a club: At Josephine’s, sings a tremendous hit: J’ai deux amours, in 1931, and embodies a new dance: the charleston. Unfortunately, her success does not seem to reach America. However, in 1937, she officially becomes French by marriage and a few years after, gives back to France everything she thinks France gave her.

At the outbreak of World War II, Josephine is indeed recruited to serve in the Resistance. For years, due to her incredible success, she gathers informations and spies on high authorities. Her scores are used to transmit discreetly capital data between the resistant networks. She joins the female Air Force and sings for wounded soldiers to encourage the progression of the Army of the ‘France libre’ led by de Gaulle. At the end of the war, she receives many medals and distinctions to thank her for her fight.

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At this point, we’re in 1945. Josephine is an internationally-known actress, singer and dancer (at least in the Mediterranean area) and she is a war hero. It would already be enough to fill up two lives – but she won’t stop there.

A few years ago, in 1941, she had contracted a very serious illness that eventually led to sterility. So, in 1947, when she married her last husband, Jo Bouillon, she decided to make one of her dreams become a reality and to gather a ‘tribu arc-en-ciel’, a ‘rainbow tribe’ of children from all countries and all colors of skin. In 1954, she adopts her first son, Akio, from Japan; he will be joined by Jano, Luis, Jari, Jean-Claude, Moïse, Brahim, Marianne, Koffi, Mara, Noël and Stellina, from Colombia, Algeria or France, among other countries.

But to host such a grande âme and such an original and tolerance-fostering family, nothing less than a castle was needed. And indeed, in 1947, Joséphine bought a huge XV century castle in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Périgord. It used to be called the Château des Mirandes, but her rolling American accent made it the Château des Milandes. The name has never left it since. Despite this new tie to France, Joséphine continued to travel. In 1963, indeed, she attended the March to Washington. Along with Martin Luther King, she delivered a speech as both an afro-american and the Mother of the ‘rainbow tribe’. Her most famous lines will probably remain the following: ‘My friends, I am not lying when I tell you that I went in King and Queens’ palaces, in presidential houses. And even more. But I couldn’t get in a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee. And that made me mad.’

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After all this, and after making her mother and family leave America to settle in France, she would have deserved the best. But in 1964, everything seemed to begin to fall into pieces. Broke due to her expensive lifestyle and the money she invested in the Milandes and single after her divorce in 1961, she had to face the risk of selling the castle in which her children were still living. Only the reaction of another French icon, Brigitte Bardot, who she didn’t even know but who called for a surge of solidarity towards her, saved her property over the Milandes. However, that was nothing but a respite. In 1968, the castle was eventually sold for 1/10th of its value. Joséphine was violently expelled.

So she went back on stage to earn money again. Her tremendous success reborn from its ashes, and she gained the protection of an actual princess, Grace Kelly of Monaco. But in 1975, the day after her last show, she was hospitalized because of a cerebral hemorrhage. She eventually died in Paris on April 12, 1975.

Terribly sad is the story of this princess, full of infinite talent and generosity, that shaped an epoch but died broke and sick. The tale of Joséphine Baker still remains, first and foremost, that of a woman who started from nothing to gain everything. She federated around her a formidable network of hope and solidarity and she fought for the world to become a better place. She was a free spirit who always managed to bounce back, and used up to her last spark of energy to keep the dream alive.

And the dream still is. The day you go visit the French Périgord – congratulations, it’ll be the best decision of your life -, do not forget to go see the Château des Milandes, to get a closer insight in what Joséphine’s life was. You’ll be able to admire her stunning cabaret dresses, as well as an impressive show with raptors – she used to love animals, and would even go on stage with a leopard (yeah, you read that well). You can also go watch the links below and discover her unique and mesmerizing style, her humor and her elegance on stage. You’ll see this way she had to amplify an American accent on some words before it completely disappeared on others. You can also read the fantastic comic ‘Joséphine Baker’ by Catel & Brocquet, or you can even do all of those! The most important thing is, that we keep the memories of this embodiment of talent, tolerance, combativity and dedication alive.

 

Joséphine Baker was a proof that not all heroes wear capes. Some of them even wear nothing but a belt of bananas.

 

Additional links:

‘J’ai deux amours’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRfrUdsL4Pk

‘La petite Tonkinoise’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGr3c1dCm74

Joséphine’s Charleston: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGr3c1dCm74

The Castle of the Milandes: http://www.milandes.com

 

// Credits // milandes.com, pinterest, france-amerique

Antwerp’s Acrobatics: the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships (1/2)

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Spring 2016, a random evening. I was very busy doing nothing and watching videos of Irish dancing on YouTube, when I accidentally – and probably fatefully – happened to find the starting point of a now burning passion of mine: acrobatic gymnastics. From the first video that I watched, dozens followed. I fell literally in love with the sport; I began to support Great Britain’s team, which was the very first time in my life I ever actually supported a team. I started to train, on my own, got one of my splits, lost it. And eventually, I learnt that following that customary rule that makes the World Championships take place every two editions in Europe (2010 in Wroclaw, Poland; 2012 in Orlando, Florida; 2014 in Paris, France; 2016 in Putian, China), the 2018 ones would be in Antwerp, Belgium. And luckily enough, I had move closer to Belgium at the beginning of the year, from Lyon to Reims…

And there I found myself, on the 14th of April 2018, in a weekend with friends in Antwerp, witnessing the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships and thus, making one of my biggest dreams of the past two years come true.

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Acrobatics is a sub-discipline of gymnastics, quite less well-known than its colleague Artistic gymnastics (the one that involves beams, uneven bars, floor exercises and vaults: Simone Biles, geddit?) but, to me, much more impressive. It is practiced by teams of two, three or four gymnasts, composed of a ‘top’ and one or more ‘base’. It thus entirely relies on trust and cooperation: each gymnast is responsible for no less than the life of the others. The routines consist of an alliance between artistic elements and transitions, as well as ‘balance elements’ – human pyramides, static, and that need to be held for three seconds – and ‘dynamic elements’ – huge throws, somersaults, tumbling, stunts… you’ll be stunned. All gymnasts are divided in five categories: men’s pair, women’s pair, mixed pair, women’s group (three women) and men’s group (four men), all having different characteristics, balance and dynamic elements, which makes it a sport wonderfully diverse, rich and amazingly flabbergasting.

In every international competition, the teams first have to present three routines during the qualifiers: a ‘balance’ routine, a ‘dynamic’ routine, and a ‘combined’ routine. The sum of the scores of those three is computed, and the six to eight best teams go to the final, in which they present their combined routine again, from scratch. Every time, they are graded by judges on three main criteria: the difficulty of the routine, the artistic value of the performance, and the quality of the execution. Eventually, a 0,3 point penalty is withdrawn when a static element lasts less than three seconds.

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For the past two years I have been an acrobatic gymnastics junky. It even made one of my gymnast friends say that « Camille is the only non-gymnast that knows more about gymnastics than actual gymnasts » – which if it happens to be true, could also not be a compliment at all. But the truth is, I do watch acrobatics whenever I wash my dishes, eat alone, stretch after dancing…

So I arrived in Antwerp, Belgium, the day before the weekend started. Oddly enough, my carpooling driver let me right in front of the Lotto Arena, where the Championships had started a few days ago, with other age categories. Being left, without any access to Internet, in a country I didn’t speak the language of, I started the weekend very successfully by getting lost, for two long but deliciously funny hours, alone in Antwerp. Eventually, thanks to the help of locals, I arrived on time to the house I was couch-surfing in, and after a few other adventures but tons of meetings with nice people, I got in the Lotto Arena on Saturday morning, with the amazed eyes of a fangirl who sees her dreams come true.

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From the first minutes, I can remember having a perfect seat and thus a perfect view on the stage. I can remember the opening music and the: « Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships » that was finally real. Everything I have watched on a screen for years was in front of me, I was there – and even more than the rest, I can remember an explosion of colors and assisting to the first routine I’ve ever seen somewhere else than on my computer. It was the combined routine of the German female group and beyond any rationality, I suddenly thought, « Oh my God, they are shaking, they are actual humans! »

From this whole Championship, I’ll remember a little disappointment. Two years ago, after the last World Championship, the FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique) had decided to double the value of the execution and to make difficulty count for at least ten points less than before (scores being most generally around 25 and 30 with a precision of 0.001). Most probably because of this, I found the elements much less difficult and thus impressive than the years before, as it gave less incentives to gymnasts to actually take risks, and more incentive to achieve easier stunts, but to achieve them better. Even worse, it was not always the objectively most impressive routine that would get the best score. On a little happy note, I had the feeling that there were numerous routines on actual songs with lyrics – we saw routines on « We will rock you », « Bella ciao! », « Raining men », « Hit the road jack » or even Lindsey Stirling!

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But before anything else, it was even better than everything I could have imagined. I did not have many surprises on the winners – Russia won in all categories but the Men’s Group, in which they were third. But for the rest, it was as if these Championships did their best to surprise and impress me, myself, personally. On Sunday, when I was queuing to buy my ticket, I saw, completely by chance, Ineke van Schoor, the 2015 women’s group European champion, a meter away from me… And as I was about to leave, my friends suddenly asked me « Is that not the gymnast you’ve been constantly telling us about? » and I saw, a few meters away, Adam Upcott and his base Charlie Tate, the British men’s pair I was supporting and could exchange a few words with, after they got a completely unexpected – it was their very first year as a men’s pair – but well-deserved bronze medal…

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It has been great, for a weekend, not to care about school but about Great Britain getting a medal. It has been great to go crazy when seeing Marina Chernova, a Russian living legend that I had seen so many times on my screen. She eventually got a third world champion’s title with her mixed pair. It has been crazy again, but for another reason, to understand that the reigning men’s group champions, China, who achieved two years ago the best routine I’ve ever seen, would not even get to the final. They were replaced by another Chinese group, that at the general surprise, finished second behind Israel! And I’m not even talking about the Ukrainian mixed pair that performed their combined routine on a French song – absolutely not well-known, but it was FRENCH, and it made this moment nothing less than perfect.

When it ended, there was nothing else remaining on the stage than glitter, that had fallen from the leotards like dust from the stars. I had dozens of notes and photos, a brand-new acrobatics sticker on my computer, life-lasting memories and a strange feeling of achievement. When I saw that we were back to France, I had a look backwards, and one last thought for the Myself that used to regret not to have started gymnastics when I was still young and flexible. I left that one in Antwerp; seeing gymnastics with one’s own eyes can also help one choose one’s fight. Indeed, there are other ways to fight for this incredible sport to be more recognized than by practicing it.

In latin, « arena », from the Lotto Arena, means « sand »; and if I can add my small grain of sand to the pyramid by writing about this sport’s beauty, I’ll consider the work as done – even if it implies being still that bad at doing handstands and cartwheels…

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