Tour Guiding Again

I did some tour-guiding three summers ago when I was pregnant with Léonie in my belly. It was in a coach, along the perillous, twisty-turny road that follows the twisty-turny Ardèche river and its famous and gorgeous gorges. You can read about that here. I was covering for another guide who had asked me to step in when she was busy guiding elsewhere. I wasn’t sure about it to begin with but she was convinced I’d be fine, and even good at it. So I tried, it worked out well for me and I really enjoyed the whole experience. Even the twisty-turny roads, as they were beautiful and every now and then I’d spot a wild goat with crazy horns munching on a bush.

Last year I began tour-guiding for Viviers tourist office. They phoned me up out of the blue and asked me if I would be interested in playing a ghost. I said no. Not on your nelly. The idea of dressing up as a phantom and “scaring” tourists felt like the equivalent of playing Santa in Tesco’s, or one of Mickey’s nephews at Disneyland. The tourist office persuaded me to at least go and see the actor already doing the job, so one freezing December evening I bundled myself up in a duvet and went along to watch him doing his ghosty stuff in very tight tights (him, not me). He was funny and he made the job look like a laugh, so I told the tourist office I’d give it a go. I got free reign to create my own mad, medieval ghost, mistress to a certain notorious Noel Albert who had lived (and loved) in Viviers the 16th century. My audience was made up of groups of Australian tourists whose luxury cruise boat was moored at Viviers port. It was fun performing the scenes, but there was a lot of hanging about in cold courtyards, waiting for the groups to arrive, and running through the cobbled streets in a medieval dress at 11 p.m. trying to avoid Viviers’ teenagers. One sweltering August evening I had to clean up cat poo and sick before the tourists arrived in that particular courtyard. And the whole thing was a bit cheesy. I felt like a character in ‘Allo ‘Allo, mostly because I was speaking English with a heavy French accent, but partly because my text could well have been written by the same screenwriters (ahem… I wrote my text). But the tourists laughed loudly and I got good feedback. However, the whole solo thing was getting me down (the actor playing Noel Albert and I never performed on the same evening, so our two characters never met), so I was relieved when the tourist office announced that I wouldn’t be ghosting this year as that particular boat has changed its itinerary, or something like that. I celebrated the end of my ghost career with champagne that evening.

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Marguerite de Lévis. A character worthy of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The other thing the tourist office asked me to do last year was actual tour guiding. Once again, I said no. I had no interest in medieval or Renaissance history, or architecture, or religion, and the walking tour through Viviers is basically all of those things. But once again, they persuaded me to have a go, so I spent 6 weeks reading up about Viviers as if I was studying for my finals, swotting and cramming and wandering about the town on my own, talking to myself and imagining what I would say to 30 Americans. As I worked I realised I had actually become interested and even passionate about the history and architecture of Viviers. When you can link the past to a building or a feature or a tree for example, it becomes real all of a sudden. I also followed a few different guides to get an idea of what to do, but in fact I learned more about what not to do. For example, panting heavily into your microphone whilst climbing the steep slope to the cathedral is not a good idea; your headphone-equipped tourists get your heavy breathing right in their ears and after five minutes of this they will be ready to kill you. The same goes for chewing gum noisily whilst wearing your microphone headset. I also didn’t like those who talked about “The French” as if the French were an inferior species. But I did follow a couple of really good guides too, that made me start to look forward to my first walking tour.

It went well. Really well. And it kept going really well. I enjoyed the job, I felt good about myself because I knew I was doing a good job, I was using my English and my skills as an actress and storyteller, and as an added bonus, I was pocketing fantastic tips which paid for all our shopping throughout the spring and summer. I hit it off with the tourists and was invited to visit a few of them in New York, Toronto and Edinburgh, and I became good friends with a lot of the other tour guides. But… there were a few of the tour guides who were very unwelcoming and hostile towards me from Day 1, and this only got worse throughout the season. I even received a couple of angry emails, one of which ended with “Good Riddance.”

Except, I’m not gone. I’m still here. Ha ha. And I begin this season’s tour-guiding on Saturday. I’ve been swotting up and I’m looking forward to starting again. On Saturday I’m with a bunch of friendly guides, which always makes the whole experience just lovely, as there are no killer looks or backs turned on me or curses muttered or clay effigies of me spiked with rusty pins and trampled underfoot. The downside is, it’s going to rain.  A walking tour of a medieval town in the rain with umbrellas up and blocking all the Renaissance buildings and gothic spires and view across the valley is always a bit frustrating. But given the choice between a rainy day with friendly colleagues and a sunny day with a group of griping, frustrated battle-axes, and I know which configuration I’d choose every time.

Some readers may have guessed that my blog has already been found and read by the aforementioned begrudging harpies. Or maybe you yourself are one of them, reading this with eyes wide open and feeling (hopefully) slightly sick as your stomach turns. If that is the case, just remember that I invited all of you to sit down with a cup of coffee and discuss what went wrong last season. No-one took me up on my offer. There was either total silence, a refusal to meet or a jolly “good riddance”. I did all I could to open up a dialogue and try to understand each other better, but nobody was interested. So here we go, for another season of pointless dark looks and hostility. I shall be countering this by totally ignoring it all and getting on with my job. And actually, I can’t wait to start.

Roll on tourists, I’ll be waiting for you on the quayside. I’m the one grinning and imitating all of your accents.

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Rue Chèvrerie, Viviers, Ardèche.

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No, this isn’t me guest-appearing with France’s latest boys band, it’s the only photo I’ve got of me guiding, except this lot aren’t off the luxury cruise boats…

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Frightened of the Frog

Every evening, when it gets dark, Léonie (2) points to the window, shivers and says “Mummy, me frightened of the frog.” Tommy (5) and I always chip in to check we understand what she means, “do you mean frightened of the dark?”. She nods and replies, “Yes. Me frightened of the frog.” So we just assume she is mis-pronouncing the word dark.

But maybe we are wrong.

Maybe there is a gigantic, drooling frog out there in the garden, one who creeps up from the valley every night and waits for me to feed the cats outside or get the laundry in, ready to leap on me and suffocate me in his frog slime, or simply blight me with his dreaded frog curse: “You will never EVER return to the stage again, NEVER! You will forever be wiping bottoms and carrying potties in your handbag and will never EVER get to sit down to eat a meal without getting up every 90 seconds to get a spoon/the ketchup/more kitchen paper. Your eyes will forever look tired and your eardrums will suffer permanent damage from toddler screams. Your friends in the theatre and film world will drift away, referring to you as ‘The Lost One’, you will end up filming yourself in character and putting the videos on YouTube in a sad attempt to continue acting, but NEVER EVER AGAIN will you reboot your career. HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAA!!!”

Blimey. Now I’m frightened of the frog.

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Clarinet bearfoot

I would just like to warn you all, that Tommy is learning the clarinet.

That is, he picks my clarinet up and blows so hard I worry his eyes might burst a blood vessel or at the very least his ears might pop. But he gets a damn fine sound from it. Seeing as I myself am learning the clarinet, I fear that if he keeps this up he will soon overtake me.

He also looks far cooler than me when in clarinet mode.

parp.

Maybe this will be the thing that actually gets me practising regularly. Competition with my son. Or more like a strong, parpy, screechy reminder from my son that my clarinet exists and should be played. In my experience, I usually need something more stressful to get me moving, like a major deadline. Giving a concert at The Royal Albert Hall with me as solo clarinet for example. Yes, that might do it. All I need now is someone to book me for next year. I reckon eight hours of daily clarinet practise for 12 months should be enough. So I’m taking bookings for May/June 2013. I’m crap at the moment – can barely play the high notes without insects dropping dead and the neighbours selling their houses, but I’m sure with some good hard practise I’ll be ready in time for the show. Otherwise I’ll send Tommy.

music bearfoot

PS: I sincerely believe we should all wear bear slippers. They make us look far less serious and far more cuddly.

PPS: Not that Tommy needs to look more cuddly. He is cuddlesomeness in itself, as I am sure you will all agree or else be bopped on the head by me his mummy.

The Charlston Ardècheois

Last month I realised I had an extra morning of L’Homme-at-home, a morning I hadn’t banked on. QUICK, I thought, I must get out there and DO something while he looks after the kids. But what? Too windy to go running. Not enough time to get to Avignon and back. So I made myself a coffee while I pondered what to do and while cleaning up the breakfast explosion debris I picked up a leaflet about one-off dance classes that week-end. There happened to be an introduction to the Charleston that morning, from 11 to 12:30, just a ten minute drive away. Hoorah I yelled, grabbing a pair of high heels (you can’t do the Charleston in trainers, it’s illegal in France), jumping into the car and speeding off euphorically in the way only a stay-at-home mummy can understand, ignoring L’Homme’s cries of “But you already know how to dance the Charleston! Come BAAAAACK!”

When I got there it turned out I was the only one who wasn’t part of the amateur orchestra group who were being forced into the class to learn the original point of music – ie: that you dance to it. They shuffled into place reluctantly, in trainers (I considered calling the gendarmes), eyeing up my shoes as if I was a total wierdo. Which I was; throwing myself into the moves like a dance-starved prima ballerina, shimmying and shaking my booty in the fashion of the 20’s, simply euphoric not to be at home sorting washing. The teacher, a stout little woman in her 50’s, was great. But slightly put off by my enthusiasm when I started teaching those behind me two different Charleston steps as a sort of finale cherry on the cake. Then the orchestra’s singing teacher arrived and got the singers amongst them lined up, ready to sing a Charlston piece for the rest of us to dance to. Quite a complicated one. Acapella. Well, I don’t have words to describe the piece but the singing teacher gave up at the piano after two goes and tried to direct them by singing all the parts at once. And when their voices kept fizzling out so did we ‘dancers’ so she shouted  “DANCE!! DANCE!!” at us which was very frightening, so we kept dancing and then someone popped in and took photos and I thought it was one of the orchestra group but it turned out to be the local press (not a lot happens around these parts) and a few days later the farmer down the road proudly told me had cut out and saved the article of me and my ‘dance company’ (I tried to correct him but he was having none of it and asked when we were next performing). Here is the article. I feel this says more about where my career has got to than anything else. You can see all my pent up energy channelled into dancing a few steps in a small village hall, alongside a load of slouchers who couldn’t care less and wanted to stop for lunch. But there I am: eyes front, chin up, poise and kick! So sad. For my next post I’m going to photograph all the reviews and photos in Le Monde and Libération that I featured in oh so many years ago, just to show off a bit and offset this pitiful state of affairs which is my (ex – but hopefully back on its legs soon, albeit shorter legs) job.

Guess which one I am ...
(clue: the only one who chose to be there and thus the only one enjoying herself

Poop.

I just got the phone call. It was a very heartfelt phone call. They chose 3 actors out of the 8 who auditioned. I was the 4th. The other three were hardcore clowns with years of clownishness in their trousers, whereas let’s face it, I kind of invented Teapot for the audition. But they loved me, my musicality, my energy, my inventiveness – they just couldn’t quite seize my clown character, which is very fair criticism as not only was I busking it, I was also holding myself back for fear of going too far and dancing naked on a hospital table/singing rude songs to under 5 year olds/squirting passers-by with milk. Oh well, I’m on the waiting list – apparently I’ll be the next one in, the day one of their clowns leaves. Which will probably be in three years or so, unless one of the newcomers turns out to be a neo-Nazi or I persuade them to move to Mexico. Well, that gives me time to do a clown workshop or a cabaret as Teapot and whip her into shape. But for now it’s back to the drawing board. Back to being a stay-at-home mummy, picking squashed peas off the floor, pushing a tricycle to the post office/farm/cheese lady, counting pennies and using nappy cream as moisturiser. Poop indeed.

Fortunately it is absolutely gorgeous weather and for the moment I’m quite happy to spend the springtime at home with my two pea-squashers. I have a garden to re-haul, pirate costumes to repair and a table to sand down.

PS: Anyone looking for an actress?

The Audition !

I had my audition on Monday morning, in La Timone children’s hospital, Marseille. For those of you not tuned in to my every breath and burp, here’s what I’m on about (Hopi-clowns), and for those who are, IT WENT WELL. It went really well. I arrived well on time via the Marseille metro, losing about a kilo at every stop from sheer nervousness, or should I say shit-scared stagefright. Not that there was to be any sort of stage in sight; I was to be clowning in the hospital corridors, bedrooms, entrance hall, lifts, everywhere and anywhere, but not on a stage. As I drank coffee with Caroline Simonds (the lovely Big Boss) and her soft-hearted assistant J-L in the hospital café, I could feel myself breaking into a cold sweat as the minutes ticked by and the moment to get up and get auditioning approached. One huge comfort was that I knew the two clowns accompanying me, Alfredo and Molette, although Alfredo walked in and said “Wow! You’re all skinny now! With short hair! I hardly recognise you!” Molette reminded him that the last time we met it had been during a crazed pasta cabaret when we were playing an Italian family, getting the entire audience (100 people) to make tagliatelle with 5 pasta machines, and I was 8 months pregnant, running about in fishnet tights, heeled boots and a pink dress that made me look like a blancmange. I even did the splits, repeatedly, which may be why Léonie was born 2 weeks early. Once Alfredo had been acquainted with the after-effects of giving birth (losing the huge belly, hair falling out forcing you to hack it all off) I realised he was talking to my tits when he adressed me, which wasn’t surprising, as it had been over 18 hours since I had fed Léonie. I had driven down to Marseille and slept over at a friend’s house, thinking “oh, Léonie is 15 months old now, she’s feeding less, my breasts will be fine without her for a day.” Alas, I was wrong. I had woken up that morning with huge tits, firm and full of milk. If only they could look like that all the time. But I am side-tracking … back to the hospital cafeteria and me with the physical problem of very possibly squirting a doctor in the eye with milk or at least having a “special effect” costume which ends up soaking wet from the waist up. As I got changed in the little Rire Médecin dressing room I discovered I couldn’t even do my dress up. I was going to have to put this problem to the back of my mind and concentrate on being a crazy little clown, rather than a lactating Mummy.

While we were changing and putting our make-up on we messed about and the boys told me to keep things simple, to take their lead in the beginning, and bit by bit they would let me take more initiative and start up games and songs. “Ready?” “Erm … yes … I mean no, I mean yes, okay, let’s go.” We opened the door to the dressing room and tumbled out into the corridor, and that was it, we were off, non-stop for two hours of clowning in the children’s oncology ward (cancer ward), the day hospital and all the lifts and corridors linking the two. It went by in a flash. We began by singing La Llega Crescera in harmony with Alfredo on the ukelele, which was great because it filled me with confidence and got us messing about until we knew who was the boss (Molette) and who were the total idiots. I can’t remember what order things happened in but I do know we went from playing musical red-nose puppets in a doorway for a one year old with Down’s Syndrome to me blasting out an improvised rap in French for a teenaged lad with a broken arm. We tried to steal a little girl’s crisps, we rocked out with a four year old who had his own little guitar, we managed to persuade a moody 17 year old cancer patient to let us in his room and mess about until he got his phone out and started filming us, Alfredo tried to start a fight with a bloke eight times his size, Molette kept us singing and dancing and moving on to the next room (and washing our hands every five minutes), a little girl ran up to me to tell me I looked like Little Red Riding Hood which was BRILLIANT because I had a Red Riding Hood puppet in my basket which changed into granny and the wolf, we blew bubbles and sang ‘Pirouette Cacahuète’ for another little baby, leaving his mummy wearing a foam red nose, we sang “When the Saints come Marching in” in 12 different languages, we bounced up and down past the rooms with high windows … we kept going, full of energy, and all of a sudden we were back at the Rire Médecin dressing room door and it was all over. We piled in, along with Caroline and J-L, thirsty and laughing. I felt very happy.

As we got changed back into our everyday clothes they gave me a ton of feedback. Apparently it had gone really well for me and they were very pleased with what I had done. But there were 7 more people to audition over the next four days, and they were all great candidates for the job. Today is Thursday – the last of the hopefuls finished their audition this afternoon. Tomorrow all the clowns who accompanied we “learners” will sit down around a table with Caroline and J-L and choose two of us to join the company. Apparently there was another girl the day after me who was also great and another bloke auditioning today who has already done a year of Rire Médecin school … so I’m feeling less sure of myself now. I wake up in the middle of the night sweating from dreams where I am chosen/not chosen/fly out of the window wearing nothing but a red nose. I think about the outcome every 4 seconds (that’s more then a teenaged boy thinks about sex). I CANNOT WAIT to find out but I am going to have to wait … until tomorrow evening.

Oh readers, please pray to the Clown Gods for me and cross your fingers and everything crossable (toes, legs, eyes, bra straps) that they choose me. I so want to do this job, I know I would be really good at it, I would be so motivated and so happy to join the crazy band of generous hopi-clowns that makes up Le Rire Médecin. KEEP IT ALL CROSSED. GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES AND OFFER UP OFFERINGS – chocolate, beetles, goats – whatever makes those gods feel like consenting to my wishes. At least until tomorrow, when I will let you know if your efforts have reaped ripe rosy-nosed fruits.

This is a photo of me, as Teapot, in our shower. It’s the only place in our home where you can take flattering photos. Pardon. Did I say flattering?

(As for the milk-laden booby bother, I found an unexpected solution whilst visiting friends at lunchtime. To be continued …)

Interview, tick… next step: The Audition.

The title of this post rather gives away my latest news. Which means this will be another short post – yippee for me and my new decision to be in bed by half past nine every evening until Léonie starts bloody well sleeping through the night.

I dropped Tommy off at school at half past eight Wednesday morning just in time for him to bundle himself into a coach with his suitcase and wave goodbye to me through a steamed-up window; one of 40 little noses pressed up against the coach windows. It was his first school trip, his first time away from home for two nights without being able to phone Mummy or Daddy, and he was perfectly happy about it all. I had spent the night before writing T.O.M.M.Y. on his clothes/shoes/toothbrush/Dog & Donkey and tagging up his various bags with mini postcards of his grinning face. It took absolutely ages – precious time I should have been using to a/ prepare myself for the interview, and b/ sleep. But it meant Tommy left equipped to the hilt, and I didn’t get any of those stomach-lurching jolts when you realise, “oh damn, I forgot to pack him any pants.” I had been planning to drive down to Marseille later that morning, but having slept just 5 hours in bits the night before with a poorly-yet-wriggly baby in my bed, I went home and straight back to bed as Léonie crashed out in my arms. We ended up driving to Marseille late in the afternoon with me wondering how my exhausted brain was going to react in an interview the next day. Slowly, probably. Stupidly, no doubt.

I slept at a friend’s house. With Léonie in my bed again. And thus, another five hours of broken sleep, a 6:30 am start, and a double shot of paracetamol with 3 expressos. The interview was at 3 o’clock. I dropped Léonie off with another friend who was meant to be painting her workshop but was quite happy to have an excuse to take a break and push a baby around Marseille in the sunshine. I got the tram to the children’s hospital and was amazed at how huge it was. It is gigantic. I found my way in through the A&E entrance and got into one of four big lifts. I looked at the buttons. 16 floors. I pressed 9 and got out on the orthopaedics floor. I wandered out, looking for the meeting room and ended up doing a circuit of the ward. Again, enormous. I am used to small town hospitals with cosy little children’s wards. This was all long, long corridors and neon strip lighting. It was too hot. Or maybe that was just me sweating in anticipation of the looming interview. I found the salle de réunion and just then the door opened and a very smart, tall, bald man in a white suit and a pink shirt came out, grinning. Another candidate for the job. He looked like a very professional actor with perfect qualities for playing a clown. Damn. And he was grinning. His interview had gone well. Double damn. But then Caroline Simonds came out and gave me a wide, welcoming smile. “Ah, you must be the very lovely, very British ‘Teapot’!”

“Erm, yes.”I stammered.

“My, did you put those big blue eyes on to match your t-shirt?” she asked. I was so nervous my sense of wit failed me , and I just blurted out, “erm, no, I mean, yes, I mean …” but she saved me, by explaining they needed a few minutes to make notes about the last bloke, so did I mind waiting? “Don’t get lost!” she called. So I didn’t go far. I just went a bit further along the corridor so I couldn’t hear them talking. I listened to the noises in the ward : various footsteps, a bleeping machine, a child crying out “Maman, Maaaamaaaaan” over and over again, two nurses exchanging notes, a small family chattering as they walked down to a room at the end of the corridor. I looked out through one of the bedrooms which was empty, and gazed at the view – Marseille rooves and behind them, rocky hills topped with blue sky. I smiled at a couple of nurses and visitors who came past. It was hot. I wondered if I wanted to work here.

Then the door to the meeting room opened again and Jean-Louis welcomed me in. I sat down with my bag on my lap as protection but didn’t actually need any protection, as the two of them immediately made me feel very comfortable. It didn’t feel like an interview, it felt like chatting with a couple of people who you happen to find yourself traveling with. We talked about all sorts of things, not just work and CV’s. It felt like they wanted to know who I am, not what I have done. The conversation was natural and fun and funny. “You’re wearing the same t-shirt as in your CV photo” Caroline said. “Oh no! Am, I?” She whipped the photo out – one I had taken a couple of months ago, very unprofessionally – standing in front of the stone wall on our terrace. “Oh no, now you’ll remember me as the girl with only one t-shirt in her wardrobe … I did actually have a purple one on this morning, but my baby girl wiped snot all over the shoulder, so I put on a black one and it got the same treatment. I’m down to my last t-shirt. Honest.” By the end of the interview we said goodbye as if we were friends. And quite sincerely, if I don’t get to work with her this time round, I hope we get to be friends. This woman has a huge heart. And a wicked sense of humour. And the biggest eyes I have ever seen. She thought I had the bluest eyes she had ever seen.  I think it was the t-shirt that did it.

As I left she said, “we’ll be in touch, Butterfly”. I assume this was to do with my current haircut which sticks out on either side of my ears a bit like wings. It was quite nice to go for an interview and to know that looking a bit odd was probably a plus, seeing as they are hiring clowns.

On my drive home the next afternoon, Jean-Louis phoned me to tell me they want me to audition. HOORAH! But now I’m nervous. The auditions take place IN the hospital, WITH the children patients. I’ll be with two experienced Rire Médecin clowns, but still. I just need to stay calm, stay alert, improvise with my partners, be as Teapot as Teapot can be, and focus on each child. It’s going to be quite a day.

It is half past ten. Whoops. And this is not a short post. I am wrong about nearly everything these days. I’ll take that as a good sign.

Chicken in a Bag

Papa Le Bike has complained (again) that my blog posts are “too long”. So here is a short one. This is a fine excuse to write very little and go to bed. I leave you with a poetic image of utmost interest. It’s me playing a chicken in  a version of Animal Farm by George Orwell. In this scene I had been pecking at some groceries and got my head stuck in the bag. I was a fantastic chicken. I can still do it now, and regularly do, much to my children’s delight and everyone else’s embarrassment. At school I was nicknamed Chicken Legs – and that was years before I played this role. But I think everyone could see I had it in me. The chicken that is.