Souviens-toi: Remember

A few weeks ago, while at a friend’s birthday party, a long conversation emerged on the subject of sites of grim historical significance and their place on tourist itineraries. (Yes, I know, it’s a bit niche – I blame the combination of my own historical nerdiness and a girl recently returned from a year studying in Berlin.) How do you ensure the correct balance of respect, the need for people to know about atrocities and ensuring that plenty of people visit them? Are gift shops appropriate? What about cafes and rest areas? To quote Alan Bennett’s History Boys, ‘…where do they eat their sandwiches?’

Little did I know that just a couple of weeks later I’d actually have a visit to one such site scheduled on my holiday itinerary. I’ve not actually been to many – aged 9 and 12 on trips to Munich, I was deemed too young to visit Dachau; aged 13 I made it to Anne Frank’s House (but got rushed round by a 10 year old sibling who found it dull – guess which of us got to make a return visit 4 years later?!); it was my sister’s year, not mine, that visited the Normandy beaches… For a history geek who took countless 20th century history courses at university, particularly on WW2, I’ve led a fairly sheltered life.

It turned out that not far from Limoges (the city nearest the building site) was a village that had been completely destroyed in 1944 by the SS. Oradour sur Glane was a community of 642 people, which on the 10th June 1944 was surrounded by a Waffen SS unit and destroyed – shops and houses were set on fire and the women and children sheltering in the church were massacred. The reason? The community was thought to have had strong links with the Resistance and the SS therefore decided to use them as an example to others. The atrocity took place just four days after D Day, with the Germans clearly aware of how important the Resistance would be during the Allies’ invasion.

After the war had ended, a campaign began to preserve the ruins of Oradour sur Glane as a memorial to the victims and a reminder to others of the senseless destruction war brings. In addition to the ruins is an exhibition centre (with a bookshop, not gift shop) that puts the events in the context of the war and the war in France particularly. The result is extremely moving, particular when visited on a blazing hot evening, when the sky is vivid blue and all seems idyllic – apart from the presence of burnt-out cars, semi-standing buildings, and signs that remind you of what took place nearly 70 years ago.

Rubble is particularly powerful – enough of an indication of what was, once upon a time, and what is no longer present. It can move you in a way that space cannot. If the buildings had been razed to the ground and the area left empty, I think few would have heard the story and learnt the lessons.

The day we visited was so gorgeous and perfect for photos that it felt almost like a film set from Band of Brothers. However, the atmosphere of silence and the hushed footsteps of people exploring (usually alone), made it dignified and real. It reminded me a lot of a similarly hot and sunny day when I’d explored the ruins of Lifta – a village outside Jerusalem whose Arab inhabitants were forced to leave in 1948. Oradour certainly merited a Flickr set separate to the general hilarity of the building site.

Witnessing, learning and remembering are important – in fact essential – if such things are not to be repeated. I learnt recently that it’s an required part of all German children’s education to visit a concentration camp; but why just Germans? I was privileged enough to meet with a Holocaust survivor when I was at school, but soon none will be left. But society, particularly in the years since WW2, has kept making the same mistakes so sadly, there are more survivors’ stories to hear – Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia…the list keeps getting longer.

One thing’s for sure, in the debate over the role such sites have as tourist destinations, some thought needs to be given to photography in such contexts. Capturing the mood of a place is fine, but presumably I’m not alone in thinking that group shots are inappropriate? In discussing the merits of visiting Oradour early in the trip, I heard a tale of someone being asked to move from the spot from which they were contemplating Ground Zero in New York so that a family could pose for a photo. Is that crass? There’s one thing such places being important sites to visit, but another if they’re simply another stop on a coach trip.

Divisions of language and culture

Spending time with a large group of people is usually fairly comedy, albeit often in a niche, you had to be there kind of way. [I always feel sorry for friends of mine who end up in the midst of my singing friends (particularly the girls of Girls’ Weekend Away fame) and a whole host of stories about events they weren’t at and people they’ve never met.] These situations often become even more amusing when you add to the mix people from different cultures who have very different ideas to you…

…like bringing together a load of leftie-liberal Londoners, mostly from the trendy East End, with a group of right-wing conservative Texans. Now that’s just asking for trouble!

Leaving aside the obvious political differences (the wildly divergent reactions to someone getting Al Gore in a game of Guess Who? were amusing to say the least and involved much biting of British tongues), there were many examples of language issues, often with hilarious effects. Oh ok, I’ll share one political example. We were in France, there was always going to be the chance that WW2 would be mentioned, or some other conflict in which the Americans ‘saved us’. And thus, the following exchange took place:
Brit: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
Texan: “War is God’s way of teaching the French to say no.”

Somehow it became my role during the week to document amusing quotes as they appeared and then recite them after dinner, the bulk of which related to Anglo-American confusion or clashes. For example, an education was conducted by a British furniture designer with a Texan roofer over the subtleties of British phrases – particularly the difference between describing something as “bollocks” and “the dog’s bollocks”. [Classy.] It took a while for the Texan to get the hang of it…
T: “That’s the dog’s balls!” 

B: “No, you’ve not got that at all right.”
It took a few days until the Texan achieved the right phrase in the correct context and when he managed it, it was rather touching…

Texan to his wife after eating a plate of food she’d cooked: “It’s the dog’s bollocks.” 

Texan wife in reply: “Thank you darling.”

A happy Texan couple and the Texan versus the Brit.

When with Americans, there’s always the temptation to deliberately use British terms that mean something else in the US, just to create something of a sensation – or stealthily getting Americans to use terms that cause British hilarity. Like the classic bum-bag versus fanny-pack scenario. To quote a Texan: “What’s wrong with calling it a ‘fanny pack’?” – that was a fun question to answer. Or a load of immature Brits collapsing with giggles when someone described how, following a broken ankle, “In this leg, I’ve got 2 screws & a knob…”. Still, in exchange I have also learnt that describing a smelly article of clothing as “fruity” stateside lends it quite a different meaning, especially if it’s a man using the adjective.
Perhaps my most favourite moment involved much immaturity. (In fact, as I read through the quotes with a London friend who left France early, I realised that there were many that involved me and two companions who seemed to consistently form the naughty end of the table.) We had use of a Swiss minibus for the duration of the trip, which required some force to be applied from outside in order for the passenger door to be shut properly. Usually this was only remembered once the passengers were inside and whoever occupied the front passenger seat would have to jump out and exert some pressure, via their posterior, to the door. 
Ultimately this resulted in a cry of “Shannon, you need to bum the door!” from one of the American occupants, which was met with shrieks from all the British passengers. We didn’t fully explain the multiple meanings that can be drawn from ‘bum’ as a verb, and when I retold the story to my two compatriots at dinner, I for some reason thought to talk about how I could have explained the joke to the Americans with the phrase “can I bum a fag?”. Of course I could…but I’d only intended to explain ‘bum’ in the context of borrowing something, not the other translation! We didn’t dare explain the source of our hoots of laughter to the innocent Texans. 
Inside the fun bus & some resulting hilarity. 
(The hilarity would have nothing to do with the substance in that glass…)

What can I say? It seems that my sense of humour lies very firmly in the gutter. On the plus side, I have come home with a host of new phrases which I’ll be looking to slot into conversation wherever possible. These would be two of my favourites:
“That tasted so good I’m gonna slap ya mama twice.”
“I’m as full as a tic on a hound dog.”

Construction Lessons

I like learning new things. Last week I learnt a heck of a lot – about myself, the French, my friends and, most importantly of all, the world of construction:

1. It is possible to be both stylish and practical on a building site. Well, kind of. I mentioned the pink hardhat the other day, what I didn’t mention was that I’d inadvertently managed to coordinate it with my bra. [Don’t judge me, but I wore the same pink bra on each trip to the site – once you’ve got a bra-full of moss, dirt and tile dust, it makes sense to keep getting the same one dirty.] 
2. Hardhats also require a particular kind of hairstyle. A low bun works well and fits nicely through the back strap. Headbands are also useful, both to keep hair out of your eyes and, if you have one of those hippy-ish thick affairs, you can soak it with water before donning it, thus keeping you pleasantly cool. 
3. When you hear “heads up!” don’t look up, look down. 
It took me a while to get the hang of this one – thank goodness for safety goggles/sunglasses – but quite important to pay attention to it when tiles or rafters are potentially about to fall from a great height. These cries also inevitably resulted in much detritus landing upon those below, even if you had assumed ‘position tree frog’ – my friend Rachel’s particular technique for staying safe on the rig. 
Position tree frog (which was followed by sloth, koala & meerkat) and my spectacularly dirty back.

4. While sun protection is always important, it’s not overly conducive to staying clean in a dusty environment. I guess it helped stop the sun’s rays from burning my skin (well, kinda, I am sporting a fabulous tan currently), but it also helped the vast quantity of tile dust, moss and rubble stick to the skin. Thus, not only is it nigh on impossible to remove the dust, you also get a slightly pebble-dashy tan. 

5. Even I didn’t need to be told that old clothes are perfect for building sites (I had a whole section of my suitcase devoted to ‘clothes that don’t matter’). One might have said that the guy who brought jeans that were on their last legs with him for this purpose was being eminently sensible. Jeans with holes are fine, but perhaps it’s worth thinking about where the holes are – especially if you’re going to be in a situation in which you’re often stood above people who have to look up at you. Once aware of this situation I tried to not to look in the wrong direction at the wrong moment, but still managed to ascertain one day that it wasn’t just the ladies who could match the pink hardhat with their underwear… 

6. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. I’m not the world’s most agile person and I occasionally freak out when in precarious situations – like climbing down hills where one’s footing is unsure. As I climbed above the scaffolding’s first platform, I was slightly uneasy at my ability to get back down again. Sure enough, I got stuck and even a helpful American offering me a piggy-back didn’t particularly help! But I was not to be deterred, the next day I tried again, remembered how I’d got up and safely made it down again. The major achievement was scaling the heights of the rig on my last day, spending what felt like forever engaged in a potentially dangerous task that ultimately we failed at. I know that doesn’t sound much like an achievement, but I didn’t die; I got down safely; and I got to take this photo of the village church through the roof’s rafters: 
7. Building sites can bring out all sorts of gender stereotypes (and I think I have a whole other post brewing on how I moved from being a post-feminist to a feminist-feminist last week). Boys suddenly become patronising in ways you’d never expect them to; all of sudden they know everything there is to know about building – even when they’ve never worked on a site before; girls will be expected to cook and come running whenever a cry of “ladies!” is made. However, I also discovered that there a men in this world who are too scared to clear a 400 year old building of cobwebs and icky stuff – men who are more than willing to let two girls get on with the job, while they stand around ‘planning’; and who will only remember that there’s masks & goggles when the girls have been sweeping clouds of dust for nearly two hours. 
Observe: cobwebs
(On the left is a chicken roost within the chicken coop, handily used a century ago as a wine cellar.)

Cathers and I were not enamoured with our job, but we got on with it. She hates spiders and there were lots of them. I can deal with spiders (as I believe this video ably demonstrates) but the sheer quantity of webs and fossilised skins was icky in the extreme. Sporadically we’d squeal and a boy would appear to mock us. Then we discovered a snake skin – at which point I flipped. I couldn’t extract it and daren’t go near it – I simply stood by and took photos as Cathers tossed it out of the window. Ewwww! But I think with the completion of this task raised our standing with the boys and demonstrated that we were good for more than just lunch preparation. 
Ewww, ewww, ewww! 

8. There is nothing better than physical work to distract you from an otherwise stressful life. Working at a computer all day is highly over-rated – wouldn’t everyone rather be stretching their muscles in the open air? That feeling you get knowing you’ve put in a good day’s work, that all that lies ahead of you for the rest of the day is a drink (or five), a swim and an excellent meal in excellent company – utterly priceless. 
To quote our Texan roofer on first viewing the above tool belt:
“Did you get these from Bob the Builder?”

9. When on a building site, it is important to maintain control of your temper. I’m not given to temper tantrums that often (though at the beginning of last week there was a potentially unfortunate incident involving a crochet hook being thrown in frustration), but can explode if motivated. At one point, when particularly exasperated with a ridiculous situation, I realised I was on the edge in a rather dangerous situation, and took myself off to the car for half an hour. I’m rather proud of this decision as the alternative may have involved throwing a hammer and causing serious injury… 
10. I am stronger than I realised. Clearly, the years of pilates have paid off. No, I couldn’t lift all the scaffolding sections on my own like the men could, but I could lift most of them – I was very pleased with myself. Never did I think that the following sentence would ever be uttered: “Where’s Liz? We need muscles!” I didn’t mind the comparison with She Ra either, although the initial reference went a bit wrong…

S: “You were like She Man today!”

A: “Don’t you mean SheRa? Or are you saying she was a transvestite?”

So, anyone know of any part-time construction work going in the capital that could supplement my meagre theological student income? Just one condition: I don’t work when it’s raining and/or cold. 

Where have I been?

Apologies, I didn’t intend to take an unexplained blogging hiatus, but life rather ran away from me the week before last and I didn’t get the chance to forewarn you of my absence. (Just in case you noticed and were worried.)

Nothing exciting happened, I just went to France for a week’s holiday.
I lie, I didn’t ‘just’ go to France and my definition of ‘holiday’ may not quite be the same as yours. I spent a week in the Limousin region helping transform a 400 year old French property.

Last Sunday, it looked like this:

By the time I left at lunchtime the following Saturday, it looked like this:
(What you’re meant to note is the absence of roof tiles in the bottom picture.) 
Working on a building site would not be many people’s idea of a relaxing break, but it was just what I needed – especially when combined with a great group of people, awesome food, gorgeous weather, a pool and lots of wine. I learnt many new skills and have much blog fodder – you have been warned. But this week has brought new challenges and therefore forthcoming blog posts may be something of a mixed bag – the life of Liz is all rather up in the air at the moment…
Oh, and one final photo, just for your amusement. For a lot of last week, I looked like this:
(Actually, I had to give up on the pink hardhat after a day as my head was a little too big for it and move to a somewhat duller white one, but basically, I spent a lot of time wearing one.)