Monday, August 31, 2009

The Festival de St Loup

So, about this trip to France...

It has taken a long while to write this post, for three reasons: I have been really busy, it is a really long post, and the first drafts contained some contentious material that I wasn't sure how best to handle. In the end, I have dropped this material, which has shortened the whole considerably.

The bus for France left at 6am on the Sunday morning, which necessitated getting up at 4 to get ready. This was just on my threshold for "is it worth even going to bed?", and in fact went beyond it when I found myself up later than expected completing my packing. Still, I did go to bed, and woke up feeling not at all refreshed. Little did I know that that would actually be the least tired I would feel all week.

The journey down proceeded well. We made good time, we didn't suffer any breakdowns, there were no notably bouts of travel-sickness, and all was good. I put my head down into my first book, and that was that. The ferry was fairly nice, but also mostly unremarkable - I have used ferries exactly like it before, and they are invariably much the same. The dinner was very expensive, but a reasonable spaghetti bolognese, and the after dinner entertainment was sufficiently inoffensive.

In the middle of the night, I was rather rudely awoken by one of the members of the band who was panicked by a desperate need to find the toilet, coupled with a complete inability to see in the pitch black. Unfortunately, once this was sorted out I was awake, as I would be for the day. So, I got up, and went for a wander. Then, breakfast on the ferry, which was both overpriced and deeply unpleasant. (Slimy scrambled eggs, lukewarm microwaved sausages, limp microwaved bacon. Not good.)

For the journey through France, the driver requested that I sit up front to help with the road signs, by virtue of my being the only person in the party with any noticeable ability to speak French. After a brief battle with our printout of instructions from the internet, and another brief battle with the satnav, we resorted to the use of a book of maps, and were quickly on our way.

We got to Guingamp, and were quickly confounded by the signs, which were numerous but also too small to read until after the decision of where to go next had had to be made. Eventually, we saw a tourist information office, and we went to ask for directions. Then to the town hall, to meet our contact.

However, he wasn't there. And, when I explained who we were, and that we were there for the festival, I was met with some rather unsettling blank looks. Had I not explained correctly? Were we in the wrong place? What was going on? So, I tried again to explain that we had to meet our contact at the town hall. Only, I found there was a key French word I couldn't remember: just what was the French for 'rendezvous'?

At length, we got the message across, they called our contact, and he came to meet us, together with our official interpreter for the week, a youth by the name of Raphael. Alas, our contact didn't speak great English, but that was okay because between his English and my French we were able to sort things out. And so, off to our accommodation!

We were staying in a former boarding house, in a wing containing lots of rooms. Most of the rooms were singles, which meant I was relieved to avoid sharing. Slightly more off-putting was the total lack of keys for the door locks (which, in the event, didn't matter; still, I wasn't too happy at this), and also a lack of seats on the toilets. Yes, we had to try to hover for the week!

We got settled in, then had lunch (traditional French fare; it was quite nice, but some of the kids had difficulty with the food all week), then a short practice, and then off to our first parade of the week. For the bus trip to that parade we were asked to provide a lift to one of the other bands, a Spanish youth band with whom several members of our band established something of a rapport.

The pattern of the week was then established: each day we were essentially free during the day, with an early breakfast and a lunch provided, but at 5:30 we would take part in a parade. After this, we would head back home for dinner, and then we would be free in the evenings. Various entertainments were available in the town, and as performers we were issued with access-all-areas passes. Also, there was beer.

The parades were also pretty much of a muchness. The bands would each be given a position in the parade, which would change each day. We would then march down the main street, before scattering to a parade at one of the local pubs (that were sponsoring the event). We played there for a while, then stopped for a complimentary beer, before resuming our march up to the Sports Bar, which was one of the primary sponsors, where all the bands would gather and play a little, and then have a complimentary beer.

In the Sports Bar, it was quite typical for the bands to each play a little. The fare was a traditional number from the region in question, frequently involving song and dance. The Spaniards, for example, had their own regional anthem that they performed several times. In response, therefore, we played our own very traditional Scottish tune, featuring a formalised dance, and ancient lyrics...

You put your left leg in,
your left leg out,
in, out, in, out,
shake it all about...

And that, essentially, was the week. The weather was very hot, and often sunny, which was nice. The town was really quite lovely, being built in a very old and traditional style. And, as I found when I went to Italy with my previous band, everyone was very friendly. That said, very few people could speak English, which created some problems...

At our stop in the middle of the first parade, our pipe major called me over. He had been speaking to Raphael, and it had become apparent that our interpreter didn't actually speak very good English. So, it fell to me to interpret for our interpreter. Excellent. But there was worse to come: one of the things we had hoped to do was to go play for the local football team on the Friday. The pipe major had asked out contact to look into this, but did Raphael know if it had actually been set up? Well, Raphael didn't know. There was a pause. Would we like him to go ask?

Well, it turned out that Raphael didn't ask. And, in fact, he pretty much disappeared after that point - he was frequently absent, he didn't speak to anyone in any language, and he was basically of little use. I think he probably just wasn't the right person for the job at all - some kid on a summer job, but who just wasn't really suited to dealing with the needs of a band of rowdy Scots. Or something.

The upshot was that I became the unofficial interpreter for the group. I translated newspaper articles (we starred regularly in the paper - they did like the kilt in Guingamp), I negotiated in shops, and I dealt with directions regularly. And, as all the information started to pass through me, I also seemed to drift into the role of unofficial team leader, which was slightly unfortunate. Still, it seemed to work reasonably well.

On the Thursday, we went on our one and only trip, to Mont St Michel. This proved to be a very long journey there, followed by a short stop in the town, and then a long journey back to attend the parade. A slight waste of time, but still better than nothing. (If we do this trip again, I'm going to advocate setting up some trips in advance. We couldn't do it this time because we didn't know the full format of the week, but now we do, and can prepare better.)

It was also at the trip to Mont St Michel that the issues with Raphael became known to the team of interpreters, because at the time we were ready to leave, he was nowhere to be seen. And so, the interpreter for the Spaniards acted as guide for both bands. The only problem there was that she spoke really good Spanish and, of course, French, but very little English. This meant she could only speak to me... and yet, she was of considerably more use to us than young Raphael.

Actually, there were three members of the team of interpreters. The third was Anne-Marine, who was a multi-lingual teacher, and who spoke really good English. For the weekend, she provided me with a detailed itinerary of what we had to do and when. Unfortunately, she was very busy looking after another band, and taking part in a dance display at the weekend, and so wasn't around much.

This left Marina, who turned out to be the most useful of the three, despite not speaking English. From the Thursday on, she made sure to keep me informed of what we needed to do, and where, and when. Which was good. She was also quite lovely - blessed with a smile that seemed to light things up, and she smiled a lot. A couple of the guys in the band expressed a certain jealousy at my ability to speak French, and so chat her up. (Bit of a nuisance that, actually - when I explained that I am spoken for, they returned with the inevitable refrain, "what happens in France, stays in France." I elected not to bother explaining the flaw in this thinking, and just ignored them.)

Anyway, that was the week. At one point, we considered going swimming, but when people heard that they would have to get swimming caps and (horrors!) wear trunks rather than swimming shorts, they elected not to bother.

Oh, actually, it's not quite. Remember how we'd asked Raphael to find out about the football, and he didn't bother? Well, we decided to go and play anyway. So, we showed up at the stadium (Raphael in tow), and set up and played a bit for the crowd as they went in. Then, I was dispatched to go and speak to security about the possibility of playing in the stadium. Naturally, I was to explain that it was all arranged, and surely it would be fine? (This task was made considerably easier by my reaching the gate just as three local youths did, youths who spoke really good English. After complimenting me on my French, they then helped haggle with the security guard, and we were in!)

So, we played on the pitch before the match, and again at half time. It was excellent. The match itself wasn't great, being a no-score draw, but the experience was quite good. At one point during the first half, the 'casuals' turned en masse towards us, and started chanting, "Scotland! Scotland!" Which was nice.

Raphael, meanwhile, must have weighed up this situation, decided he was going to get in a heap of trouble for being unable to control these crazy Scots, and fled in terror. Poor guy.

As I have alluded to previously, things were a bit different at the weekend. On the Saturday, we were taken to the nearby village of Pabu, where we played a very short parade, followed by ten minutes in the street for the locals. There was then a reception with the local luminaries, including the mayor. For this, we were asked to nominate two people to go forward to receive a medal of friendship from the town (nice), which would have been the Pipe Major and myself, except that they then specified one male and one female. So, I was let off. This proved to be particularly amusing when the local committee member asked if they could say a few words...

Saturday's evening parade was then slightly earlier than usual, after which we were taken to dinner in a school in the town (I wasn't impressed by that one). For that, I had changed into my other kilt, and looked positively dashing as a result. It's actually quite surprising the difference between the green and the red, more than I would have expected. The reason for this is that in the evening, after the dinner, there was to be the Fest Noz (night festival), the Breton equivalent of a ceilidh, something I had been looking forward to all week.

But, would the king of the ceilidh and the master of the barn dance prove similarly adept at the fest noz?

Well, it turned out that the answer was 'no', although not for the reasons I had feared. I had expected the format to be very similar - there would be lots of couples dances (so I could just copy the people in front), and also a Caller (albeit in French) explaining the dances.

But, alas, there was not. In the forty-five minutes I lasted before I gave up, there was a grand total of one couples dance (which I duly danced, with moderate success). The rest of the time seemed to be taken up with an endless repetition of a single dance involving everyone in a big long chain, with pointless shuffling steps and crazy hand movements. I tried it once, but wasn't very good. Also, there was no Caller, in any language. It seems everyone just knew what they were about.

It was all very weird. Eventually I gave up, and went to the pub instead.

The Sunday was a very long day. In the morning, we had to head down to the town to play a short performance on one of the stages. Then lunch, followed by a parade down to the town centre. This parade seemed suddenly to stop dead for forty minutes, and then was suddenly over almost before it starter - we would later hear that someone had taken a bad fall, had had to be taken to hospital, and that the parade had been rerouted as a result.

We were then free for a while, although there was a solo piping competition that two guys in the band entered (including our Pipe Major). Naturally, five minutes before he was due to play, I was grabbed, and told we were expected to be playing on the stage at any minute!

So, I rushed off and found an organiser. I explained the situation, and asked if it would be possible for us to switch with the next band. So, he and I went to speak to the leader of that band, and all seemed well... for about two minutes.

It turned out that we hadn't switched with the band that were to go on after us, but the band that was to go on before. Oops! (Although, I really am sure that I explained the situation correctly. Hmm.)

Anyway, I rushed back to the guy, explained the mistake, and got us put back to our normal slot. I decided not to try to get us pushed back further, not wanting to push my luck. So, instead I had to get the band together, quickly tune up, and go on without the Pipe Major. Not ideal, but not too disastrous. (In the event, he finished playing a whole minute before we had to go on, and so was able to take over. So that was another crisis averted.)

But I did get my chance to lead the band. Later that evening, there was the final parade, a shorter parade down the main street without the prospect of complementary beer at the end, and for which we were asked to play without stopping. Fair enough. However, the results of the competition were also due any minute, and so our two pipers wanted to stay for that instead. And so, for that final parade, I led the band down the street.

After the parade, there was one final reception, at which I had to serenade Madame the Mayor, with a view of getting invited back next year (I am not permitted to reveal the result of that), and then back to our accommodation to pack.

The journey home was very long and tiring, but largely uneventful. There was a pantomime on the ferry, but that was the only thing of great interest. And so, we returned.

I had a really great time in France, far better than I had expected. The band held together really well, and there wasn't even a single moment of trouble of any great note. It was quite odd becoming first the unofficial translator, and then the unofficial team lead, but it did work quite well for all that. And I had a couple of days afterwards to recover before returning to work suitably refreshed.

Unfortunately, with the weather now being as it is, I feel I really need another holiday...

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