World’s Next Door: A Week With Romanasul

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‘Buna Ziua’, ‘La revedere’, ‘Multumesc’, ‘Ce faci’; I was mentally rehearsing the few Romanian words I knew from a friend who was living there. My colleague guide and I, seated in an overheated car at the entrance of the town, were waiting for the bus and the 30 artists it would be bringing from Romania. It was a very sunny Monday evening and the international folklore festival of Montignac was about to start.

 

During a week, this 3000-inhabitant little town of the Périgord, in the southwest of France, would be filled by tourists and artists from all over the world. Every year, dancers, singers and musicians from ten different countries come to Montignac to share their traditions and delight the audience. Every time, this week would be full of great meetings, cultural exchanges, happiness and hope through seeing what this ‘youth of the world’, perpetuating customs and arts from before globalization even was a word, was capable of.

 

Ever since the age of eight, I have been coming to the festival every year: first, as a tourist; then, as a volunteer. I can still remember melodies I had heard years ago, and this little town, which I have also explored for an internship, had become as familiar to me as if I had always lived there. In 2015, the festival’s organizers had asked me to write the event’s newspaper, and I have been doing that, assisting a team, ever since. But this year, now that I was – officially at least – an adult, I wanted to have another challenge. I wanted to become a guide.

 

To make it simple, during the whole festival, the guide is the group’s Mommy or Daddy. They are in charge of establishing a link between the organizers and the artists, who often do not speak French. They have to make sure that their stay goes well and they also are, to me, an ambassador of the French legendary sense of hospitality – more or less supposed to prove that it’s not because we are often depicted as the least welcoming people in the world, that we actually are.

 

A few months before the festival, I was first given an orchestra from Brittany; and then, one from Spain; to finally end up with a Romanian band called Romanasul. My guiding buddy would be the most experienced guide of the festival; for nearly 30 years he had been there, taking care of a different group every year, most often from Eastern Europe; and here I was, the youngest one, over-enthusiastic and jumping all over the place at the idea of meeting new people and trying out my brand-new knowledge of Romanian – ‘I should have asked my friend how to pronounce this’.

 

From the first minutes with those who would become my closest friends for a week, I remember a firework of faces, colors, new sounds, new feelings, and too many names to memorize them all. Very kindly, my colleague had proposed that I would go in the bus with them for the end of their trip; and so did I, greeted by dozens of ‘Hi’s’ and smiles as soon as I came in. The week with Romanasul had started.

 

I had two fears before I met them. The first one was that we would not get along – I already knew we would manage to communicate, as they all spoke English and some of them a bit of French. The second one was that I wouldn’t like what they were doing – and besides being forced to see all their shows for a week, I would also have to lie and tell them I liked it. Before the festival, I had decided I did not want any kind of spoiler; I did not know what to expect, and did not do any research to know what kind of music and dances they would present. The pressure was even greater, knowing that it was the sixth time this group was coming to the Festival of Montignac.

 

They performed for the first time the day after, and I realized immediately how fortunate I was.

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The group consisted of two parts: an orchestra, and the dancers. The eleven musicians of the orchestra were accompanied by two singers. They played the violin, a typical Romanian clarinette called the taragot, the guitar, a range of saxophones and flutes, the double bass, drums, and a unique and wonderful instrument that looked like a piano without any keyboard: the cymbalum. They also used little ceramic birds filled with water that sounded like a cuckoo. I was enthralled by their dynamic and lively music the first time I heard it, and two weeks after, I still find myself whistling my favorite ones in the street.

 

During that week, I went from one surprise to another. Every evening, ‘my’ Romanians, as I had fondly start to call them, would gather in our dormitory’s courtyard, sing a type of Gypsy-Romanian music, manele, for hours and dance on it. Some of my happiest memories of this week lie in the way they would welcome me within their group, tell me about this custom and about the night-long parties they would spend like this in Romania, or dance with me as I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. At this occasion, I learnt that the main violin player was also playing accordion ‘and everything that has cords or a keyboard’, as one of my Romanian friends told me, and that the double bass player was also a singer – and what a singer! – and that the cymbalum player, besides also playing guitar, used to be a dancer.

 

And the dancers! I am glad I didn’t try to watch any videos of them before, so I could open my eyes widely when I saw them for the first time. Dancing and singing go together in Romania, which means that not only were they jumping everywhere; they were simultaneously talking and singing casually about men and women relationships or life in their country. One other thing men and women had in common was tap dancing, men in their boots and women in their heels, which I loved as the absolute fan of Irish dancing that I am. The boys would also throw their legs in the air on the rhythm of hand clapping and body percussions, while women would turn again and again in their flowery dresses. It looked like a colony of incredibly dynamic and gracious elves had suddenly invade Montignac.

 

While discovering them as artists, I was also meeting them as friends. They told me about their country and we talked about the stereotypes our people had of the other. One of them told me a joke that said ‘one shouldn’t bend down to tie their shoelaces in Paris, in case they might be thought to ask someone to marry them’. I told them the reason why French people are often confused between Romanians and Gypsies: in French, we call the latter ‘romanichels’, which means ‘nomades’, and often shorten it into ‘Roms’, which can make people think it’s the abbreviation of Romanians. A few days after, I would also learn that our two countries have been friends for centuries, and the French embassy in Romania is part of the sixteen first embassies my country opened before World War II.

 

I also quickly learnt to never accept a bottle of water given by a Romanian with an innocent look; it may well contain their terribly strong (56%) homemade alcohol, the ‘palinka’, that they made me try out on the very first day – and all the days that followed. The very first word they taught me was ‘cheers’: ‘noroc!’. After the numbers from one to ten and a few other expressions, two of them, laughing so hard they were crying, taught me their favorite swears- that I won’t repeat here. I also learnt about a custom of theirs to give a child a nickname that would follow him until the end of his life, making a Mihai become a Titi, a Vasile become a Tica…

 

In a week, we had loads of adventures together. A dancer’s heel broke in the middle of a dance on the stage, but she continued to dance up until the end. When we visited the internationally well-known cave of Lascaux, only a French-speaking guide was available and I had to translate to English everything she was saying. The very last day, my colleague guide and I organized a small aperitif with French wine, foie gras and pralines, to help them avoid the shame of going back home without having tried those finest samples of French food. Finally, the very last day, they gave us Romanian clothes and arranged my hair for the final parade – that also made me realize how courageous they had been to continue to perform in those under the heat wave.

 

Sunday evening had come too fast. They were staying in France up until the upcoming Tuesday, but I would be the one leaving to go on holidays with my parents. Right after the last show and the closing fireworks, as they were gathering just outside the stage, I went to say goodbye. Before I could understand what was happening to me, two guys had lifted me from the ground and they were throwing me in the air like the French coach after the World Cup victory. When I turned back, leaving to join my parents, I was half-laughing half-crying, and had Romanian music in my earphones.

 

A week later, I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to meet and befriend these kind and talented people. It was even more moving, considering that many of them had met their wife or husband in the group and no less than four couples were dancing together. Thanks to them, this week – that I mostly spent bringing water bottles to three dozens of dehydrated artists! – has been like traveling without leaving home. Discovering their culture and gaining an interest in their unique style and language had been fantastic. So if you ever have an opportunity to go and see Romanasul, or to become a guide in a folklore festival, seize it! I am very much looking forward to experiencing this again – but before, I want to go and visit some people in Romania…

To discover more: https://romanasul.utcluj.ro (not entirely up to date, notably on the names of the singers/choreographers/…, but still enjoyable!!)

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World’s Next Door: Welcome to the International Folklore Festival of Montignac!

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I am seated on a ping pong table in a small lost village in the Southwest of France, my laptop on top of my knees. A few meters away from me, a band of happy dudes from Romania are playing music, drinking beer and enjoying themselves. Later in the evening, I will join them, and  then we will most probably be joined by other people from Spain, Brazil or Palestine. I feel so grateful for all these meetings right now.

I am currently at the international folklore festival of Montignac.

 

It all started when I was six. My France-trotters of parents had decided they wanted my brother and I to travel around the country and visit a different region every year. For our second regional trip, we went to the French Périgord, a delightedly green area in the Southwest, full of medieval castles, prehistoric caves and welcoming locals. But at the end of our stay, while we were supposed to leave and not come back, I told my parents – actually, I cried them a river – that this was my paradise on Earth, and that I was coming back no matter what.

 

To their credit, we did come back the year after. And the year after that, and so on. It has been more than twelve years now. I grew up with this certainty that no matter how bored and unhappy I would get during a full year at school, there would always be this parachute, those two weeks in earthly heaven that would make me forget everything but the very definition of happiness.

 

I was ready to welcome anything related to that place, to say the least. That is why two years after, when we discovered the international folklore festival of Montignac, a little town nearby, the dice had already been loaded so that I welcomed it with open arms. Quickly, this festival became such a tradition that I could not imagine missing it.

 

First, one needs to imagine what Montignac is. This small village in only inhabited by 3000 people, most of whom stopped working, which doesn’t stop it from being a dynamic place whose cultural offerings are much wider than in many other largest towns. Besides its pittoresque cuteness and awesome inhabitants, Montignac, ‘Monti’, has two richnesses: the cave of Lascaux, the most well-known prehistoric cave in the world, and its festival. Every summer, during a week, this place no one has ever heard about before turns itself into a center of the world. Every year, folklore groups from ten different countries come to town to demonstrate their arts, in a week full of talent, music, dancing, and multiculturalism. Around every two years, two people who met there get married, and the awesome president of the festival never stops reminding people that this event is about peace, sharing, and welcoming the ‘youth of the world’.

 

For years now, I have seen the festival as a tourist, stuck in a public like one another. Then, in 2015, I called its director to ask for an interview for the newspaper I was working for at the time. Not only did he say yes, but he also proposed me a spot as a journalist for the festival’s gazette. I haven’t left it ever since. For the first time, I spent a week interviewing people, getting closer to artists, musicians and dancers from countries I didn’t even know existed, and it was wonderful. I remember a lot of work and tears for that period, but it paved the way for what was to follow. I am writing the festival’s newspaper for the fourth year in a row, and this year, I also became a guide for a Romanian group.

 

Being a volunteer, I discovered that instead of one festival, there really were two: the official one, where a show would take place every evening on a stage and the groups would make shorter performances during the day; and the ‘off’ one, even better: parties at night, mixing up people from all the countries invited, meetings backstage, deep conversations, Facebook friend requests and a team that works together. Behind the artistic performance, this festival has a whole spirit and is all about the people themselves. The leader of the Romanian group told me yesterday that coming to France cost them a lot of money; ‘But the President of this festival is a very good friend of mine. When he asks us to come, we come’, he said plainly.

 

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// The Romanian group parading in the streets; here, on the bridge //

 

I have many wonderful and cherished memories from the ten years that I have spent looking forward to the festival every summer. I have lived things as extraordinary as learning a few moves of salsa by the Colombian World Champions. In 2014, I witnessed a Mongol singer interpreting, in French, the universally-known ‘La vie en rose’ by French artist Edith Piaf. He probably could not understand anything he was saying, but hearing this was wonderfully moving. I also still have melodies from the United States and Japanese taikos stuck in my head. I will never forget the image of these two musicians, from Spain and Scotland, symbolically swapping their pipes, and I receive regularly news from my Georgian, Ecuadorian or Irish friends, met at this festival.

 

To me, it has been nothing less than life-changing. When I was younger, I thought about working in astronomy or history, before eventually applying for a degree in international relations and social sciences. I cannot imagine myself in any other kind of studies now, and I owe it partly to the festival of Montignac. Wouldn’t it have shown me how much I valued multiculturalism, meeting people from the whole world, culture itself and traveling, I wouldn’t have been that sure of my choice.

 

There is something wonderful in the way that every year, this youth of the world gathers in this little village of 3000 inhabitants. They then leave with an image of France shaped by Montignac, as much as we stay with the idea they gave us of their country. However, when I talk about the festival around me, I can be sure I’ll always have a few negative reactions, of people telling me that we should let these traditions from another age die for good. In France especially, when one says ‘folklore’, one often thinks about old men and ladies in dusty traditional costumes, boring steps and music and lack of modernity. I would be glad to welcome those people at this festival. Most of the other countries have a completely different approach of folklore than us; many of the groups come from universities and have modernized their traditions while remaining faithful to their core. This leads to an explosive mix of energy and tribute to their culture that unites generations and links those people’s past to their present. For many of them, music and dancing are also a way to express themselves politically: recently, in Honduras, to protest against the regime’s policy, people filmed themselves dancing in the very particular Honduran way, so as to show that nothing could steal their joy and identity away from them; and this year, the festival welcomed a Palestinian group, whose opportunity it was to exist as a people, away from the conflicts that torn Middle East apart.

 

At the heart of the festival is a delightful paradox: by keeping alive those traditions that come from an age without any globalization, these artists pave the way for even more positive sharing with people from all over the world. I call it an open-minded nationalism, and every year reinforces the happiness and confidence towards the future that I feel thanks to it.

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// 1300 people are waiting for the final performance at the Terrasse de l’Amitié //

World’s Next Door: Getting Swept Up in Football Fever

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I’m not going to lie; I am probably one of the least qualified people to speak on the topic of football (or soccer, as some would call it). I’ve never been an avid follower of the sport like my cousins. I’ve never had strong opinions on the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid debate like my die-hard Real Madrid supporter grandmother in a family of Barcelona supporters. I can barely name the different positions played on the field. That’s probably why I figured it would be an interesting challenge to write about a particular phenomenon for my next article: the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Ever since coming back to El Salvador for the summer, there’s not a place I can turn to without hearing or seeing things related to the World Cup. The radio pauses always give recaps of the matches played in the morning. There’s always a conversation going on about the latest games, upcoming matches, or predictions for end results. And some things just leave me confused at the correlation between the World Cup and whatever product is being advertised (what does yoghurt have to do with football?). Still, one thing remains clear to me: football has officially taken over.

That passion for the sport (or rather, the event) surrounds everything I see in El Salvador, which some might find odd considering the fact that the last time our nation made an appearance on the international FIFA stage was in Spain in 1982. Although we managed to score our first ever goal at the tournament during a match against Hungary, we still suffered one of the biggest defeats in FIFA history with a final score of 10-1. We didn’t win a single match in the qualifying group. We haven’t qualified since then.

But how can a tournament that we haven’t participated in since 1982 still have such a large significance to so many salvadorans in 2018? I think that there’s a lot of factors that contribute to this passion, some of which you might identify with if you’ve also found yourself getting carried away with the football madness as of late.

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For one, there’s the classic supporters of the tournament itself and of the sport. Much like the hype for any other world tournament like tennis Grand Slams or the Olympics, there are people who love watching the World Cup due to passion for the sport and for a large event such as this one. Fans that work for months to fill out their FIFA sticker albums with all the players from all teams, fans who could give you the entire history of a particular country in all their past World Cup appearances, fans who watch every single match in whatever ways they can. There’s those who are fans of the major teams in the tournament, having chosen their favorites and supporting them throughout in hopes of them taking home yet another trophy. These supporters will always be present, no matter what.

Then there’s also football team supporters in other major leagues and cups, who follow the World Cup avidly to see how some of the best players in the world fare off playing with teams they don’t usually play with. This can also encompass casual fans of the sport, who recognize big names at the tournament like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar, among others. Most people have heard of these players at least once in their lives before, and the World Cup brings the perfect opportunity to watch them adapt to the different teams they play with and how their strategies may vary (or remain the same).

A particular factor this year, for me at least, has been the unconventionality of the World Cup so far, by which I mean how unpredictable matches have become. Like I previously stated, I’m not the best person to speak on this topic given my limited knowledge of the tournament, but I’m still aware enough of teams that are considered the “major contendants” to know that a match such as Mexico v Germany on the 17th of July took everyone by surprise. When looking at results alone for other matches, it’s easy to see that many teams expected to win have indeed managed to do so, but watching the matches as they aired provided the full picture of the efforts from both teams, as many matches have ended with last-minute (and even last-second) scores after having held ties for the majority of the match. It might be a little too soon to say, but the thrill of nothing being certain is definitely something that drew my attention to the World Cup this year.

I think that one of the biggest factors that contributes to the football obsession is the sense of community that the tournament brings to different people in many ways. I might not always enjoy watching the matches on my own, but I have a great time whenever I sit down with my family and we watch together. Due to the time zone difference, a few matches have had us waking up at 6am – something I can barely bring myself to do in most cases! And my family is not the only one – there’s countless of people around the country that tune in to Canal 4 (our official FIFA Broadcaster) at 8am sharp, and make an effort to watch every single match they can.

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Then, of course, there’s the larger sense of community when it comes to the countries playing in the World Cup. My mom has always made a point of supporting all the Latino teams that play, claiming that they’re out there still representing us all. Colombia’s win over Poland, Uruguay’s win over Russia, and others have led to chanting in the streets, and cars driving around with flags of these teams flowing proudly behind them. It’s truly remarkable, if you ask me.

In other cases, such as with my other grandmother who has never been quite the football fan, it becomes a matter of conversation. My family in El Salvador can get quite caught up in the World Cup, with matches and standings, following every detail they can. Whenever we visit each other, it’s bound to come up at any point of our conversation. Knowing that is the case, my grandmother makes it a point to ask my aunt about the matches and the results for the day (even if she herself didn’t watch any), so that when we visit she’ll always have something to contribute to our discussion. Now that I’ve started working for the summer, I haven’t been able to continue watching the matches as I did when the tournament started, but I always make an effort to check up on match results by the time they’re all done, since I know all my co-workers will be talking about it during our lunch break and asking what the results for each match were. For people looking to become a part of this conversation, following the World Cup has become a part of their routine.

Of course, these aren’t all the factors that can help explain the phenomenon that is Football Fever in the times of the World Cup. Some of you might not relate to any of these at all and remain indifferent to the tournament as it unfolds, and that’s understandable as well. My sister still can’t understand how I caught the fever and why I’m suddenly interested in a sport that I’ve previously shown no interest for, and I’m not sure I can give her a solid explanation for it.

I think for me, it comes down to the experience I’ve had watching games with my parents and family. It’s the gleam in my mother’s eye as the underdog teams put up a fight against major ones. It’s the way my dad leaps up whenever a team gets close to scoring. It’s the way my grandma raises her arms in joy whenever any team scores, claiming that she “supports the team that wins”.

It can be fun to let yourself get swept up by football fever.

 

Credits: eurosport, programme-tv.net

World’s Next Door: This Is How Shrek and Harry Potter Taught Me English

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If I had to mention something I am certainly not talented at – aside from singing -, it would be languages. My country’s disastrous language education did not help. As my 11th grade German teacher explained quite concisely: « A French student is not taught German so that they learn to speak it ».

What is France’s problem with languages then? Is our broken English a product of our aversion to globalization? Is our German poor, because of an enduring ‘Germanophobia’ after two World Wars? Facts do not support either of these hypotheses. A Chinese friend recently told me, to my surprise, that she thought it was easier for her to learn English than it had been for me; because it was a completely new alphabet for her, there was no possibility of confusing English with her mother tongue. It is true that as French is a language that is both very close to and very far from English, it can indeed get confusing. English conjugations are a blessing compared to French ones (that certainly considerably enrich our language but could also be considered a crime against humanity). That being said, English words are stressed whereas French words aren’t. While it is true that English and French have many words in common, there are several “faux amis” such as ‘deception’ which in English means ‘dupery’ whereas the French ‘déception’ is to be understood as ‘disappointment’… that’s enough for anyone to get mad. And added to this, the natural French tendency to not dare to try, here is, Madam, Sir, the perfect cocktail for one not to improve.

Anyway. To me, the main reason for our love-hate relationship with languages, and particularly English, lies elsewhere. I hold school responsible for this. The French schooling system is known for its very academic, traditional, ‘you’re-gonna-learn-this-by-heart-and-not-think-about-it’ approach. Though it may be quite efficient for mathematics; it is an uphill battle when it comes to learning English. This explains why we end up with French Presidents who say « Sorry for the time » when apologizing for the weather, or « You can be, do what you want to do » in a supposedly inspirational speech.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to study in a bilingual primary school, with a native English teacher who had a very personal way of teaching. Stephen initiated us very early to the sarcastic British sense of humor, a mix of pitiless French bashing and jokes that he would utter in complete deadpan, his eyes sparkling with joy and mirth. He taught us vocabulary by use of hand-made drawings, making us play rugby, and by giving us dozens of British songs to learn. Secondary school happily destroyed my level in English by its merciless French teaching method, but I thankfully retained the ability to sing ‘Message in a bottle’ (The Police), ‘White winter hymnal’ (Fleet foxes) and ‘What a wonderful world’ (Louis Armstrong) (those give you a very good insight in Stephen’s taste in music).

 

A few years later, after high school studies in a so-called ‘international section’, a two month-long exchange in Australia, and a year of university with all my classes in English: a friend from Honduras and I stopped to randomly talk to a woman who has asked us a question in the street. After a fifteen minute conversation, she asked us where we were from, and looked startled when I answered I was from Lyon, France – ‘You’re French? But you speak French with an accent!’

My first reaction was to laugh, astonished. And then I remembered that French people would now often start to speak English to me, ask me with genuine curiosity how long I have lived in Great Britain, or even have this flattering but surprising question ‘But are you sure you are from France? You have a British accent!’

For someone who was used to having a Frenchy-arguably-Australian-ish accent, this was a revolution. But after thinking about it, I started to realize that indeed – completely unconsciously, I was now speaking French with a bit of an accent on some words. So now that my level in French is even decreasing, that my level in English is certainly not perfect, and that after eight years of studying German, I am still not able to ask where the toilets are, I am the last person who should give advice on ‘how to learn a language and improve’. But considering that the situation would have been worse without those, I’m still gonna do it.

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First, learn some songs. Pick up one that you particularly like, print the lyrics, translate them yourself, and learn it, while you’re queuing at the supermarket, sitting in the bus or walking to school. After I left primary school, my Father would walk me every morning to secondary school; and every morning, we would rehearse English and German songs that I loved and that I would translate with him. Years after, even though my German is still as poor as a college student, I can sing Nena’s 99 Luftballons by heart. What is great with songs is that they endure. I would strongly advise you not to try Adele’s – no one sets fire to the rain or rolls in the deep in one’s everyday life -, but Abba’s are quite easy and catchy.

fundo de tela sherek.jpgSecond, watch movies. And put subtitles in the language that you’re trying to learn; if not, it won’t help. I would particularly recommend animated cartoons; their stories are easy to understand, so you can more focus on the language – plus, if you’re 30 years old without kids and your friends catch you watching Cinderella in secret, you can argue that it’s because you want to improve your English/German/Spanish/Khmer and show them my article as an excuse (do not say thanks, my pleasure). After years of watching cartoons and animated movies to improve my English, I can say that the best choice, without any doubt, is ‘Shrek’. First because it’s brilliant; the characters speak a very clear English, with different levels (Donkey’s accent is quite hard to get, Shrek is very understandable but quite familiar, the Queen speaks more formally); and it’s a clever criticism of authoritarianism, discriminations and sexism. It’s brilliant.

ZR3l1ez.jpgEventually, read books, and books that have been written in the language that you’d like to learn. The best choice you can make is to read books that you’ve already read many times. This way, you’ll already know the story and will be free to focus on the words, sentences and idioms. A few years ago, I decided to reread ‘Harry Potter’ by Joanne Rowling, in English this time, and wow – I couldn’t have taken a better decision. It helped me a lot, because the puns and writing make the book a thousand times better in English than it is in any other language, because it is catchy, entertaining and captivating, and because Rowling’s style is both very good and very pedagogical.

 

Here are three simple, fun, not time-consuming, and almost magic means of improving in any language you’d like to learn. They are way less expensive than travelling or going on exchange, and way easier than finding a native speaker to talk to – even though I strongly advise you to do that -, and they’ll make you want to improve. Because even if you’re the laziest person on Earth, you’ll want to finish this funny movie, to finish this fascinating book, to learn this moving song! Wanting to improve is probably the best thing that can happen to you.

 

That being said, it is now to be done. My plans for the Summer include using the Harry Potter Method to improve my Spanish and German and re-watching the whole Shrek series because let’s be honest, my English still sucks – and I also really want to watch Shrek.

Feel free to add, on Facebook or in the comments, your most useful tips and life hacks to learn a language, and good luck with that!

 

Credits: super kuka, Nightflights, and Harry Potter wallpapers on wallpapercave.

Norway: the Unknown Artist both Made and Ripped Apart by Louis-Philippe

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It’s quite telling: all the way up in the corner of the Louvre – in the innermost corner of the Northern Europe-section – there hang 26 small paintings by a Norwegian artist: Peder Balke. Virtually unknown in his home country – but one of the only Norwegians honored with a spot in the Louvre –, here is the story of how France’s last king both ruined, and possibly also made, one of Norway’s most undermined and under-appreciated artists.

Balke was born in a rugged town in Norway while Bonaparte’s war was raging in France and Europe – then of course completely and blissfully unaware of the role the events of the tyrant would play in his personal life. Balke – growing up surrounded by mountains and farmland in the Norwegian countryside – miraculously managed to save up enough money, with the help from local farmers, to pursue higher education – where he would later serve as a pupil for some of Norway’s finest national romanticists. Balke finished his education at the same time as legends, like Gericault and Delacroix, were becoming notorious for the paintings we today all know – and embarked on a journey to pursue the love for nature that the Scandinavian national romanticism was trying to emphasize. In 1830, Balke completed several long hikes in the fantasy-like Norwegian paysage, later going on trips to Russia, England and France.

In 1832, Balke completed a journey alongside the Norwegian coast – the same one as Louis-Philippe had conducted right before the end of the last century – and the outset of the French revolution. There, he captured in his mind the vivid pictures of the sea hitting cliffs, of the sun breaking the cold and unforgiving Arctic air and of the feebleness of people, in contrast to the great nature surrounding them. The same things Louis-Philippe had seen.

Balke knew this – and in 1845-47 he managed to get an audience with the Orléans king in Paris. The king accepted the offer from Balke, and ordered more than 50 pictures in commemoration of his journey. Balke delivered. And shortly after he presented 54 oil paintings as examples for the king. The king, however, then told him that the time was not right, as the embers of a new revolution were glowing bright. Balke spent the following years trying to convince the king to pay him to finish the mission properly, which never happened. As Balke gave up, so ended what could’ve been the future career of an artist in the ranks of the Norwegian Edvard Munch and Peter Nicolai Arbo. Balke would never return to painting, other than for the sake of feeding his own artistic taste.

Only recently Balke has received renewed interest by international galleries, such as the London National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Balke is only now being recognized for the methods he was despised for at the time – his creativity and imagination, that amongst other things, included painting by imagination, more vividly demonstrating his own emotions and thoughts in accordance with the nature that he was actively displaying. In Paris, 26 of the small and iconic oil-paintings are now on display, as they have been since 2001 when they were put up after having been hidden away when Balke was turned down by Louis-Philippe – for more than 150 years. But the lack of conservation and care given to Balke’s painting can still be seen on some of them, where long cracks spread through the Norwegian landscape that he was so touched and moved by.

France: ‘The Angkor Massacre’, by Loup Durand

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Four years ago, I encountered one of those life-changing books that made me want to travel so much that it became viscerally painful not to.

It began as a love-hate relationship. I used to read a lot, at least three hours every day, and more than two-hundred books a year. When I turned fourteen, my father decided to introduce me to the novels that had changed his life. He brought me a pile of books, all of which smelt old, with their yellow pages and damaged spines after having been open too often. All of them were from different authors – except for two. These were written by former journalist Loup Durand, and my Father instructed me to read ‘Daddy’ first; and then, ‘Jaraï’ – which translates into ‘The Angkor Massacre’.

I loved the first one. It immediately reached a good ranking into my Top 10 Favorite Books Ever. The second one gave me such a headache by its endless explanations that I would have given up on it, were it not for my absolute rule to always finish a book. I don’t know why, but I read it again. And again. And again, and again, and again, until it became as essential to me as breathing, and my second favorite book ever.

There are as many summaries of the book as there are readers of it. The maelstroms of locations, characters and events, in a period of almost ten years covered by the story, make it almost impossible to objectively define who the main character is and what the book is really about.

The only thing I’ll say is that it takes place in Cambodia in 1969. Most of Indochina is still under the French colonial control while the Vietnamese war is tearing the world apart. Everything begins when Jon Kinkaird, a young American soldier, deserts and disappears. Financially supported by her grandfather, his sister Lisa flies from the US to Asia with the fierce will to find him and reason him. And there, she meets Lara – a plantation owner that her grandfather used to vaguely know, who he contacted from the other side of the world to help her.

 

‘Lara nodded, his heart aching with crazy love for the small country. Few men had loved or used to love Cambodia as he loved it; even fewer were able to survive all of its events. None was more determined to stay there no matter what happened.’

 

But as the French Denoël edition very clearly and relevantly states: “‘this is neither a story nor a war novel. It is first and foremost the story of Lara, the last White, and of his crazy love for a small country with the unimaginable sweetness of life, Cambodia, which today is almost dead; it is the story of Lisa, Ieng Samboth and Roger Boues, O’Malley, Charles and Madeleine Korver, all of whom have existed under other names; it is even more, perhaps, the story of Kutchaï, the giant Jaraï, with strange and silent laughter. And it’s upsetting.’

It’s upsetting, because in the frame of a Cambodia at the dawn of one of the most horrible genocides that has ever been committed, we follow the story of two young men, soulmates and almost brothers, who embody the two sides of the broken country. On the one hand, Lara, White and eighth-generation heir of colonizers; on the other hand, Kutchaï, native khmer who will join the khmers rouges. In 1969, when the story begins, the Vietnamese war is about to spread to Cambodia like a mortal disease. In unstable Indochina, the balance of powers is upset between the French colonial administration, the American imperialism, the indigenous revolts, the declining authority of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, and the rising influence of the Khmers rouges who, from 1975 to 1979, will seize power in Cambodia and kill 1/3 of its population in a genocide that left the country ‘almost dead’.

But from this cruel and grotesque environment, emerges the sublime light of a story about solidarity, love, loyalty, and friendship. ‘The Angkor Massacre’ is about a fantastic network of absolute mutual aid, federated around the character of Lara. In this book, a person from one side of the world only has to speak a word for other people he has never met and doesn’t know, to mobilize all their resources to help beyond their means. ‘The Angkor Massacre’, is about friends from China, French Corsica, Cambodia, Thailand and many others, rising to help an American deserter, because his grandfather happened to have met Lara eleven years ago. All of these people are friends of Lara. All of them owe something to him, and he owes something to all of them. And what is beautiful about this network is its openness and the absolute confidence of all its members in each other, because all of them are incredibly far better off trusting than remaining on their own. While this network goes far beyond Lara, and works because every individual within it is ready both to give and to receive, this man remains its keystone whose name can trigger marvelous achievements.

 

‘Had it been announced to Roger Boues that Lara had just left with two or three men to conquer China while annexing the Tonkin on his way, he would have immediately packed his bags – ‘in fact, I only have one’ – to go and wait for him in Beijing’

 

To me, this network is the main character of the book. And what I love even more is that us, the readers, cannot help but believe in it because of the delicateness of Loup Durand’s unique writing. Every time I read it, I would forget that it was a book, because its characters are not realistic, but real. Not credible, but incredible. They shine even outside of the pages. I can only read ‘Jaraï’ (I do not like the English title – how can such an enlightened and positive story be called a ‘massacre’?) when I’m alone, ready to be touched and moved, to smile and to live along with these characters. I can only turn the yellow pages with deference and almost veneration, because ‘Jaraï’ is far more than a book printed on paper – the smell of its paper is enough for me to leave this world and join Lara, Kutchaï and all the others within a story that gives me a fantastic amount of hope and trust towards the world.

This whole book is a marvel and sometimes, its moments, sentences, and words are such a breathtaking slap that we cannot help but close the book for a while, close our eyes, turn our head back and breathe in deeply. Still, this is not enough for us to leave Cambodia.

Besides becoming one of my favorite stories ever, ‘Jaraï’ also made me fall in love with the ‘small country with the unimaginable sweetness of life, which today is almost dead’. I would not call it an obsession, exactly. I only watch every TV show related to it from near or far, and I only buy books without looking at the content because there’s ‘khmer’ in the title, and I only instantly notice every word written anywhere on it, and I only crave to go there one day. I feel like going to Cambodia would be, somehow, like going back to my roots – because ‘Jaraï’ played such an important role in my Father’s life and in mine, that I need to see this country with my own eyes.

Cambodian inhabitants could feel insulted by me saying this – after all, I do not know anything about the reality of this land besides what I have read. I know nothing about Cambodia. But that is the inevitable irrationality that falling in love necessarily contains. I need to go there, would it be to discover that everything I thought I knew on this culture was wrong.

It is difficult to write about a masterpiece because we’re always afraid we won’t find the words to do so. Eventually, I’ll let you make your own opinion about it. I just want you to know that I read this book once a year now, during holidays in my paradise on Earth (the southwest of France); that last year, when I finished a series of months working on highly selective application contests, the first thing I did was read it again; that once I decided to write every quotation I particularly loved on a notebook and that I stopped after realizing that if I continued, I would have had 751 quotes; and that eventually, to me, it is both a story that always manages to make me smile and cry and be crushed under the power of its words, and an inspiration that is part of me now.

So please trust me. Please read it – it is not very easy to find, as all hidden treasures. Allow this book to change your vision of life and mutual aid as much as it made mine evolve. And next time a letter from the other side of the world will ask you to help the friend of a friend, don’t even think about it. Life becomes strangely easier when we let ourselves trust.

 

‘ “There’s nothing in the world like Angkor”, said Lara. “Angkor moves your skin and your blood. Angkor is to be breathed, as much as it is to be seen.” ‘

 

MY TOP 10 FAVORITE BOOKS EVER (Today – that may change tomorrow)

  1. ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, by Edmond Rostand
  2. ‘Jaraï’, by Loup Durand
  3. ‘Harry Potter’, by J.K. Rowling
  4. ‘Daddy’, by Loup Durand
  5. ‘Here, there are dragons’, by James A. Owen
  6. ‘I’ll give you the sun’, by Jandy Nelson
  7. ‘Airman’, by Eoin Colfer
  8. ‘Emma’, by Jane Austen
  9. ‘Hygiene and the assassin’, by Amelie Nothomb
  10. ‘The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (Tiger at the Gates)’, by Jean Giraudoux