We were in France for almost 3 weeks and each week had a slightly different focus!
During Week 1, the French students were on holiday and were free to spend time with our girls. All host families had a son or daughter who had been to Nga Tawa and they were all very keen to return our hospitality.
Monday afternoon was spent becoming reacquainted during some fencing lessons, several traditional local games and a lively game of soccer.
On Tuesday we were treated to a boat ride through the Hortillonnages, a wetland area with streams, gardens and birdlife to appreciate. In the afternoon we took a tour of the Amiens Cathedral which is twice the size of Notre Dame in Paris and dates back to the 13th Century. The girls were beginning to comprehend the history of France at this point.
Wednesday saw a busload of excited teens, both hosts and guests, heading for Parc Astérix, a fantastic theme park based on the Astérix cartoons. We were blessed with fine weather and made the most of the attractions.
On Thursday we met at the local equestrian centre, Val de Selle, and were treated to a touching riding display as most of the handlers are intellectually handicapped adults. Their relationships with the horses are very special.
On Friday the teens all met up to go Lazer Tagging and Ten Pin Bowling and then we were driven to St-Valéry-sur-Somme, in the Baie de Somme, where we spent 2 nights in mobile homes at a camping ground and got to explore the town’s ramparts, church, market and some wonderful food.
Concert Week and VIPs
Week 2 was completely different as our hosts were back at school and so the days began very early and ended late. When the French students came to New Zealand in 2014 they were at Collège, or Junior High, but now they are at a massive Lycée (Senior High) complex with 3 different schools and a roll of over 4000 students.
Our girls attended classes on the Monday morning and then we were all given a tour of the technology facilities, along with our Rangitikei Mayor, Andy Watson, and his wife, Beth. The facilities were breathtaking and the pupils were involved in designing segways (which we got to ride), robots and a Formula 1 racing car simulator. The teacher teaches in English and is very keen to visit New Zealand with pupils.
Tuesday was an easier day and the girls nearly all had a horse ride at the Val de Selle, before going to Jules Ferry College for their first singing rehearsal with Magali Collet, the concert director. This was very special and the girls began to realise the magnitude and potential of Friday night’s concert. They also developed their own fan club among the young members of the French choir. The girls went to the Lycée again in the morning and were relieved to have some free time in the afternoon as classes were cancelled due to absent staff. (There is no relief provided for absent teachers in France; the class is just cancelled!)
Thursday was a very busy day, beginning with a 2-hour workshop on wind turbines, which we also attended as staff. The potential for an exchange was mentioned again as this teacher is also very interested in earthquakes and New Zealand’s geography. We also attended Maths and English classes.
That night we met all the singers in the concert, from Germany, England and France, and had our first rehearsals of individual and group songs. It was a huge undertaking with about 100 young people and an orchestra to direct, but the potential could be seen.
Friday saw the girls rehearsing all day and finally performing at 9pm, after speeches at 8.30 pm. During the afternoon, Andy, Beth and I were hosted by the Mayor of Conty and exchanged gifts with him. We were also invited to a pre-concert dinner where we met Air Vice- Marshall Kevin Short and his wife Sherylle, as well as NZ Defence Attaché Shaun Fogarty who were special guests at the concert along with local Mayors and members of the Education Department.
The concert was a resounding success with a variety of different styles of music, and a World War 1 theme. It can be seen on You Tube under madamemusique80.
The Nga Tawa girls sang He Honore, The Irish Blessing and God Defend New Zealand and were quite humbled when people stood for their National Anthem. They were also thrilled to sing encores and receive standing ovations along with their fellow choir members. One of our girls, Shauna Lane, also played violin in the orchestra for the last three combined songs and impressed the orchestra with her playing.
Caterpillar Valley Cemetery ANZAC Ceremony and more VIPs :-)
A very moving 3 days followed as we were special guests at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery ANZAC Ceremony on Saturday, we attended ceremonies at Le Quesnoy on Sunday and we had our own Marton ceremony at Gézaincourt on Monday ( ANZAC Day)
On a freezing cold Saturday we were honoured to represent our country at Caterpillar Valley and have Natalia McGregor do a reading and lay a wreath on behalf of the youth of New Zealand, joined by Louise Hatif, of Conty, representing the youth of France.
At a gathering afterwards, the girls met Hon. Murray McCully, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and New Zealand’s Ambassador to France, Mr James Kember.
They also sang He Honore for the Mayor of Longueval, accompanied by the New Zealand Defence Force Maori Concert Party.
The weather was against us the next day as well, as we traveled several hours to Le Quesnoy, a small town which was rescued by New Zealand Soldiers just days before the end of World War 1. Le Quesnoy is twinned with Cambridge, in the Waikato, and holds New Zealanders in very high esteem so it was a special place to be.
On Monday we were privileged to be guests of the Mayor of Gézaincourt at the Bagneux British Cemetery where soldier William John Ingle of Calico Line Marton is buried. We planted a red rose in his honour, on behalf of his family, and laid poppies on the graves of other New Zealand soldiers.
We were joined by a Year 10 class from Jules Ferry College and it was special to see the youth of both France and New Zealand coming to terms with the rows of white crosses and the relationship between our 2 countries. The freeing of four baskets of pigeons reinforced the importance of peace and freedom in our times.
We were warmly welcomed at a local café called Chez Marius where we all got to try our hands at some traditional regional games and relax a little.
We then visited the amazing War Museum in Albert, where we all faced the reality of war and understood the significance of the region we were in, where cemeteries dot the countryside every few kilometres.
That evening we had a very emotional final dinner with all the pupils and their families and made presentations to those who had worked so hard on our behalf: Principal Bertrand Cuvelier, French teacher Hélène Hatif, Dean Christophe Vroman and Music teacher Magali Collet.
There are very definite plans for these young people and their families to stay in contact and continue to visit each other and I firmly believe that we have created a very special bond between our two schools. To continue the WW1 commemorations, the French partners hope to bring pupils here in 2017 and I hope to reciprocate in 2018.
From Conty, we went on to Paris where the girls were amazed by the iconic monuments and ambiance of this city.
Our final ANZAC ceremony was held under the Arc de Triomphe on Thursday 28 April. We led the parade, followed by the NZ Defence Force Maori Concert Party, and no other than Dan Carter and Joe Rokococo! Even though the girls were overwhelmed by these men, they still took time to appreciate the fact that they had once again represented New Zealand and shaken hands with several highly decorated French generals.
I would like to thank the Shared Histories team for giving us this wonderful opportunity to forge a very real link with the people of Conty. I would also like to thank our school Board for their support of the trip, particularly when we had to decide whether to risk travel in light of the terrorist attacks. Thank you also to June Jackson for her support on the trip, and to Andy and Beth Watson for making the link between our two towns and regions.
Carol Coleman. 9/5/16.