Apologies first of all for the terribly clichéd title, but it really is. Seven months have (nearly) been and gone and it’s almost time to go home.
I realised the other week that I’ve actually, shamefully, been quite bad at being proactive with regards to seeing other bits of France besides the town I live in and a couple of trips to Paris. With that in mind, I joined a couple of other assistants for a Sunday trip to the seaside town of Arcachon.
Arcachon in itself is not the most impressive of towns. It’s got a pier, a couple of beaches and a few ice cream shops: good enough for a picnic and a change of scenery, but isolated paradise or achingly trendy resort it ain’t. Its main draw, though, is the Dune du Pilat, proud holder of the title of ‘biggest sand dune in Europe’. This label didn’t really mean much to me before going. My geologist friends (and indeed any readers who know anything about natural science) will probably roll their eyes to heaven, but my experience of sand dunes had previously been limited to the North Devon and South Wales coastlines, neither of which boasts particularly impressive specimens. I always thought sand dunes were an inconvenience of beach holidays; covered in tall spiky grass and more often than not broken glass, which you had to navigate in bare feet or flip flops on your way to the actual beach.
I couldn’t actually conceive the size of ‘the biggest sand dune in Europe’ until I saw it, and it is impressive. It measures 3km from north to south and 500m from east to west, and is 107 metres above sea level (cheers Wikipedia), meaning that it is an absolute beast to climb up. Trying to climb a hill of sand whilst carrying a large cool box is not the easiest thing in the world.
It’s worth the very undignified ascent, though, to sit on the top, especially at the time we did. To the west all you can see is the Atlantic ocean with the sun sinking into it, then to the east a huge forest stretches out underneath the dune. It’s like being on a desert in the sky. Running down the dips and troughs in the dune is as close as you can get to unaided flying: they are pretty steep inclines, but if you trip you just fall on soft dry sand, so you can run as fast as you like.
It’s a truly invigorating place, and was much welcomed during the last few weeks of teaching, which were really starting to grate. I’ve moaned enough about teaching in this blog so I won’t reiterate the point. Suffice to say that I will not miss any of my classes, with one notable, heroic exception.
I have one class (who I think I have briefly mentioned before) who I see every week, half on a Monday and half on a Friday. They remain to date probably the only class in which I know every single name. They are studying for the bac scientifique, which basically means that they have to do more science than everyone else, and is apparently regarded as the best path to take. The mind boggles at the prescriptive nature of the French school system, but I digress. These people are, therefore, more or less the most intelligent students in the school.
This doesn’t show necessarily in their English, although a fair few of them are very capable and put my French to shame. But it has been an absolute joy to be in the company of sharp, often very funny people for at least two hours a week, amid all the grunting teenagers. I am steadfastly refusing to call them ‘kids’, because I know at least one of them is nineteen. This could have made it all the more difficult, with the problem of having no authority, but they are probably the only class I feel I have struck a rapport with. We have had fun, actual fun, and I feel like I would be happy to go on a night out with most of them. At the end of my last class with them they all came up one by one, kissed me on both cheeks and said goodbye, thank you and good luck. I don’t think I’ve been so touched in a long while. And probably more fool me for being sentimental, but it really felt like they meant it.
Today nearly all of my lessons were cancelled, and yet it feels like I did a full day, all because of one girl who nearly made me break the basic rule of not hitting the kids.
This particular shining example of French teenagedom, let’s call her Mary (because that’s not her name), happens to have one Anglophone parent, and thus is one of the handful of bilingual students across my various classes. I got to thinking about this today, because it’s the third week in a row that she has wound me up big style, and it’s mainly on account of her proficiency in my language.
Generally I love the bilingual kids. I am not ashamed to say that they are my favourite students. They help me out; they seem to be on my side, they help the others and make people generally more motivated about learning English. But just occasionally, you get the odd one who seems to take it as a personal insult that you are standing in front of them teaching them a language they already know. This charming young lady has a veritable repertoire of gestures she uses to make sure I know that she thinks I am a complete idiot. There is the lip curl that is permanently in place for the duration of the lesson, the eyebrows disappearing into the hairline, the derisive snigger, none of it anywhere near enough to take her up on it, but enough to make me have to deliver the lesson through gritted teeth. The gestures then become more pronounced according to the amount of errors when explaining something in French, until she eventually interrupts and corrects me with a huge sigh and a smirk.
I have no problem with the kids laughing at my French being pretty average at times. I am well aware that foreign languages aren’t given as high a priority in the British education system as they should be. I am also well aware that it generally is pretty funny to hear someone speaking your language in a halting, sometimes archaic fashion. But in pretty much every situation, they make a joke out of it along with me. They will laugh with me, not at me, and it is always tempered by the fact that they are doing the same thing with my language, so it’s a fair exchange. But in this situation, it grates because it is quite clearly not light hearted banter. The other reason it irritates me so much: it is a truth universally accepted that if you learn another language from childhood, with your parents, you don’t even have to think about learning it. You are in the enviable position of being completely bilingual with minimal effort, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you have a vastly superior intellectual capacity. If you start learning a language at eleven, or even later, and study it for only two hours a week, it is a long uphill slog to fluency. Personally I admire people who have learned a language from scratch far more than those who simply have two mother tongues, if you like.
So take note, please, Mary. Re: my poor French, I am trying. I assure you I don’t want to teach you English any more than you want to sit through my boring lessons, but we might as well play the game for the last few weeks. Just desist from turning up your nose at me, because I can find errors in anyone’s English: it will not be difficult to grammatically take you down in return.
Got crudely and aggressively chatted up in the supermarket by a fifteen year old while I was weighing my mushrooms…must be back in France. Having spent the last week or so in England, and specifically back where I normally go to university, it’s a mini culture shock once more. I hadn’t been in student land for a few months, and the difference between the university bubble and the ‘real world’, in its many guises, is staggering.
Having cultivated a comfortable, small-town existence over the last five months, I forgot just how pressurised student (or at least undergraduate) life can be. On one level it is brilliant: we all know the advantages of living with thousands of other people your own age, no responsibilities, joie de vivre everywhere. You can be anything you want to be, we are constantly told. There is a student society for every taste, there is (at least in my university town) a bar or club for every kind of music, you can get really drunk all the time and no one will care. Lash, banter, chundering everywah, that sort of thing.
But this in itself creates huge pressure and competition. My most vivid memory of the first half of first year was actually just being too overwhelmed by everything, feeling constantly on edge that I wasn’t fitting in, feeling like I had to watch anything and everything I said to avoid being exposed to ridicule, like I wasn’t being loud/drunk/witty/outrageous enough. Obviously one gets more adapt at dealing with these things. But I go back now, and I have to confess that the standard student experience bores me, just a tiny bit. The hordes of girls with their immaculately backcombed hair, a full face of slap and pyjama bottoms, slouching down the road to Sainsbury’s. The barely out of public school boys in their gilets and chinos, sitting on the bus laughing at the ‘gap yah’ video with apparently no idea that it is precisely their ilk that the video is mocking. The hoarse Surrey drawls. The constant fixation on ‘banter’. The clubs and bars filled with, as a friend astutely put it ‘girls wearing more makeup than clothes’.
I could go on. We’ve all been there and seen them. They aren’t even my friends, just my contemporaries, but the city is literally crawling with them. They are, I’m afraid to say, the same people who inquire where you are going this summer, and then after looking slightly puzzled when you say you’re probably working, proclaim that they are going to Ibiza, and last time they went there they spent a grand in a week, yah. You smile politely and wonder where the hell they are getting the money.
The total lack of these people in France made me completely forget about them, and in my opinion they give English people in general, let alone English students, a bad name. While at uni I didn’t even register them: they were just the other people on the bus, the other people in my lectures, the other people in the bar. They were and are standard students. But suddenly last week I noticed as if for the first time the lashings of foundation, the false eyelashes to go to the supermarket, the Jack Wills joggers for the day and the oversize knickers for the evening. I noticed that you walk past three girls and they all look utterly identical. I remember one of my French friends telling me the usual cliché that, present company excepted, he was shocked by how garish British girls are. I remember being ever so slightly offended.
I appreciate that this sounds terribly snobby and old lady-ish, even a bit holier-than-thou. Maybe France has turned me into a snobby old lady. But having a brief few days back in the student bubble has made me wonder whether it might not be a good idea for everyone to have a year out halfway through their degree. Just to be able to appreciate the privileges of being a student, the main one being that you have absolutely no responsibility to anyone but yourself. It also might help to put all the cliques and social competition, and, dare I say it, the often sickeningly pretentious world of academia, into a bit of perspective.
Through the last two years of university there have been many things I have ‘been meaning to do’ for ages, but haven’t quite dragged myself out of the constantly hung over and sleep deprived state to actually make the effort. One of these was to join a gym, properly, three times a week sort of thing, with the headband and everything.
I am not and never will be, by anyone’s standards, a gym bunny. I play sport and walk a lot, and don’t mind doing exercise as long as it doesn’t really register that I’m doing it. But exercising for the sake of exercising doesn’t do it for me at all. Once in a blue moon I go for a fifteen minute run, collapse wheezing at the end of it and proceed to reward myself with a cake a day for the rest of the week, because the total calories of five large muffins are definitely, by my calculations, cancelled out by a quarter of an hour’s light jogging.
So way back in October when another of the English girls suggested going to a fitness class she had attended with her French landlady, I gave myself a stern talking to and agreed to go with. I will put my hand up and say it’s probably the best decision I have made in a while, for various reasons.
The fitness classes we attend are part of what appears to be the French equivalent of the Mothers’ Union gym group. They are overwhelmingly populated by middle aged ladies, which already gives me an ego boost, as I look like I am the fittest purely from being thirty years younger than most of them. They also contain some brilliant characters. Spandex Lady is one of my personal favourites: she is tiny, probably about mid fifties, with very short hair, and turns up to every class in a leotard, shiny leggings and bright pink legwarmers. Every time. We thought she might be a gymnast or something, but it appears these sartorial choices extend to her wardrobe outside the gym as well: we saw her the other day wearing tight leather trousers, knee high stiletto boots and an ankle length fur trimmed coat. Hats off. There is also Banana Man, as I like to call him, due to his ensemble of a pale yellow, slightly too small tracksuit that gives him the appearance of a Banana in Pyjamas. He has absolutely no sense of rhythm, and just very earnestly does his own thing at the back, no matter if there is music or not.
Then of course there is Hot Pilates Guy, our instructor who is by common consent the hottest man we have EVER seen. Never has being awful at Pilates had such benefits as when he patiently moves your back into the right position, while I and the two other English assistants giggle and blush like a couple of year ten girls. Credit to him: I have rapidly improved in Pilates, and now have to make do with appreciative smiles at my perfect ‘position neutre’. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.
All joking aside, though, the gym has been a great way of doing something with French people. ‘C’est parti’, ‘encore deux séries’, ‘inspirez, soufflez’ and ‘allez, hop!’ have become a natural part of my vocabulary, as well as teaching me the body parts, which seemed to be something we rather skipped over in school. Just listening to someone giving instructions in French and having to follow them for three hours a week is, I’m sure, helping a little bit. All that as well as finally making me get myself into some kind of shape. If I could just lay off the pain au raisins as well, I would be well on my way…
I am officially halfway through my year abroad. Fellow assistants are often remarking that they ‘can’t believe it’s been four months already’, but I confess it doesn’t feel like it’s gone quickly. This isn’t because I haven’t been enjoying it. It’s just because it’s so vastly different from life in the first and second year of university, that it’s not even comparable.
Sometimes, as I’m sure I’ve already mentioned, I don’t feel like I’m here for the same reasons as everybody else. Every day, no matter how smoothly it goes, confirms more strongly that I never want to be a teacher. I clearly do not have the requisite patience or any inclination to enter that profession. I find teaching unmotivated teenagers mind‒numbingly dull. But equally, each day is making me feel more and more stable; more and more capable, like I have finally, finally reached proper adulthood.
I lead a fairly boring existence, to be honest. I work in a school in the French equivalent of Ledbury (if you’re reading this and you don’t come from Herefordshire, Wikipedia it, you’ll get the idea fairly swiftly). I go to fitness classes three times a week. I go for walks. I meet people for cups of tea. Usually once a week I go to some sort of soiree, dinner, very occasionally an actual night out. I have been drunk maybe four times in the four months I’ve been here, which compared to my last two years in university is utterly unheard of.
And strange, almost embarrassing and traitorous to the student commandments though it seems to admit it, I really quite enjoy myself. I feel capable, together, like I’m running my own life efficiently, healthily and in a different language to boot. I am no longer eighteen and running to keep up with everyone in the ‘cool’ stakes, constantly hung over, making a complete hash of various intense short-lived romantic liaisons. I’m just feeling quite smugly on top of everything.
Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes miss that heady student bubble, that being intensely INVOLVED in anything and everything, that entirely laissez‒faire attitude to every aspect of life. But I am very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to step out of it this year. Everyone constantly tells you that your year abroad changes you completely; it’s terribly exciting, the best year of your life, et cetera et cetera. I feel like in my case, it might have changed me quite a bit. You can never tell when it’s yourself. But if it has, it’s changed me through its very tedium, through the very fact that I am back in a town not entirely dissimilar from where I grew up; having a daily routine, doing a day’s work for a day’s pay and having to sort my life out entirely on my own on a small scale. It’s an experience I would not wish to forgo, however much sometimes I want to turn around and snap at the fourteen year olds sniggering at my broken French: ‘can YOU speak MY language? Well, can you??’
I have been wondering whether to write this blog post for a while, as I have a feeling it might ruffle a few feathers. But I think that as this blog purports to be an account of the differences between us Brits and our baguette eating, beret‒wearing neighbours, I feel it’s only fair to bring this particular cultural disparity to light.
It is, namely, the huge increase in…appreciative men I have encountered since coming to France. I cast around a while for the right adjective, as it covers all manner of sins. On the one hand, the amount of sleazy old men around seems to be about five times the number anywhere I have lived in England. My female friends here and I are generally in agreement that we are quite sick of being stared at, in sometimes quite an intimidating way, as we walk down the street. I walk past the same brasserie an average of five times a week, and more often than not there are three or four blokes sitting outside having a drink, whatever the weather or time of day. They don’t even whistle or say anything; they just stop talking and stare at you while you walk past them. It’s unnerving, and honestly not even flattering. I would be lying if I said that sometimes someone tooting their horn at you doesn’t make you feel all smugly attractive, but that hard staring is just slightly weird. Even the tooting gets old after a while, and there’s a time and a place. If a girl’s wearing a short skirt then fair enough, but when I’m wearing jeans, Ugg boots, a hoodie, bodywarmer and a hat and I still get tooted/shouted at, I feel like turning round and saying ‘come on sir, where are your standards?’
They just seem to be utterly unafraid of rejection, and have no sense of embarrassment or shame whatsoever. A boy who could not have been more than fifteen followed me and my friend the other day for a good ten minutes shouting variations on ‘vous êtes trop chaudes’ (French equivalent of ‘you’re well fit’). We didn’t even turn round, yet he persisted all the way to the train station. I just wonder what he got out of it: to my mind, someone who follows for more than a minute after a couple of women who are clearly having none of it is making himself look a bit of an idiot.
Then there are the more sinister characters, such as the man who cornered us at a bus stop one evening, draped his arms around our shoulders and persistently invited us back to his house. He then got on the bus with us and continued to try and take our hands, until the bus driver eventually told him where to go. It doesn’t sound particularly bad, but when it’s dark and a stranger is sleazing all over you in a language you don’t even fully understand, it’s quite scary.
But there is a flip side to all this sleaze. I have met some young men whose charm offensives totally blow me away. They just seem to be so much more confident, so much less insecure than British men. There was the man in the street who asked to use my phone, ascertained I wasn’t French and led into a lovely, easy conversation, with no obvious chat up lines but with nicely placed compliments. (OK, this guy was Dutch, but he grew up in France, and was still more charming than any English guy I’ve ever met.) It made my day.
Even some of the older boys in my classes, at seventeen or eighteen, are streets ahead of most of the English guys I know of my own age in the charm stakes. They are just clearly very charismatic, engaging people without being self‒centred who make you feel good about yourself, and it’s lovely to be around. It’s quite a nice break from the ‘lad’ culture that seems to be prevalent among young British men of my age. Not that I don’t know some very charming English men, but sometimes I wish they’d concentrate less on ‘banter’ and more on some good old fashioned charm. So just less of the intimidating staring and horrendous chat up lines, please, les mecs français, and you’ll be on to a winner.
I am currently nearing the end of my stint as a full time resident of Lycée X. I have lived where I work for the last (nearly) four months and it has been, to put it politely, instructive. To put it less politely, it has been a gradual stripping away of my dignity, as my entire life is based in a prefabricated box of a room, hemmed in on all sides by screaming French teenagers, some of whom I then have to assume authority over for an hour a week.
I probably exaggerate a little, but at this point it really does feel like that. Having accommodation provided for you by the school was billed as a huge advantage at the beginning: it was hugely convenient and hugely cheap. In my case it was free, which compensates for everything, right? Not having to pay rent is an advantage which outweighs pretty much any inconvenience encountered by living in your place of work, right?
Wrong. So totally, horribly wrong, it makes me slightly angry to hear people telling me how lucky I am to have a free room. Things like not having a proper kitchen sink, or any cooking equipment besides a microwave, might seem small to begin with. Or having a kitchen which is a windowless cupboard containing a microwave, a bathroom sink, a fridge and nothing else. They all sound trivial, but they start to grate after a while. Especially when the drains become blocked, you ask politely if they can be fixed, and you are told that the problem arises from you washing your dishes in the sink. I had to suggest, to a man who was allegedly a plumber, that actually there’s only one sink in which to wash the dishes, and that maybe just putting a grille over the plug hole might not be a bad shout. Never have the words ‘head’ ‘brick wall’ and ‘against’ sprung so quickly to mind.
Then there’s the extremely loud alarm that starts without warning at arbitrary times of the day and night (so far midday, 3:45am, 6am and 5pm are on record) in the locked room at the end of the corridor, and continues non stop (the record is five and a half hours) until the caretaker comes to switch it off. In the day; annoying, no problem. Quarter to four on a Sunday morning, when myself and the other assistant are the only people in the school, BIG problem. I am not a patient person per se: at that time in the morning, the caretaker can probably be glad he wasn’t there.
But the most annoying thing, really, is the constant presence of work wherever you are. Every time I set foot out of my room there are children, and school aged children are not the most forgiving or courteous of creatures. I have less than ten years on all of them: I’m struggling to keep a semblance of authority as it is. Once they’ve seen me sprinting past them for the shower in my pyjamas while they wait to see the school nurse, I might as well give up all pretence. It might be convenient to live two minutes from your classroom, but I came to the conclusion that you cannot put too high a price on retaining your dignity. So began an (eventually) successful flat hunt…
Oh la la, I have been neglecting my poor blog. It feels like nothing particularly amusing or noteworthy has happened recently, although maybe that is, as a fellow assistant wisely said, that I am just becoming more used to la vie française. Plus I’ve spent the last two weeks back in England, so nothing really to report there re: cultural differences across the channel.
Coming back after a brief holiday has made me appreciate how vastly easier everything is the second time around. I know my way around. I know my timetable. I know my students’ names (mostly), which is always a good start. I am currently looking for a new place to live, and that in itself doesn’t seem like the insurmountable obstacle that it did in September. I’ve got people to call on, friends, it’s all a bit more like normal life. Despite spending most of the flight back to France debating with my friend how we could hide on the plane and stowaway back to England, it feels OK being back. It even, dare I say it, feels like I could reasonably consider staying here a little longer than the end of April. But let’s not jump the gun too quickly.
So being nearly at the halfway point, and in my current, cautiously optimistic mood, here are the best things about France (or my little corner of it) so far:
1. The food. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but it is just stellar. It’s like a smoked meat and pastry lovers’ heaven, but somehow always feels healthy because it’s clearly so unprocessed. Maybe also because I eat bags and bags of lettuce as my only green vegetable. And good wine for a euro always goes down well too.
2. The fact that lots of people think my British accent/awful French is cute, or at least different, rather than just ‘posh’ or ‘dull.’ Although after two years of Yorkshire bashing among my northern friends, there are a surprising number of French people who think I come from the North of England. The aforementioned friends from Yorkshire are highly amused.
3. The little medieval (I think) roads in the old town.
4. The fact that French libraries (or the one in my town anyway) don’t fine you for overdue books, even if they’re nearly a month late. This is a MASSIVE advantage in my opinion: all they do is block your card for a couple of days. I couldn’t believe this and assumed there must be a charge as well, which caused a rather awkward situation when the lady behind the desk thought I was trying to bribe her to unblock my account.
5. A horrible cliché, but the way that being abroad makes you squeeze out every last bit of enjoyment when you go home. My two weeks at home were pretty much perfect, because I knew I only had those two weeks with my friends and family, rather than those long holidays from uni where by the end you’re climbing the walls, desperate to get out.
So six weeks of teaching await before my next two week break. Among my many New Year’s resolutions: blog more regularly!
One thing that we have been told to do from the beginning is to have an ‘English only classroom’. I do agree with this concept; it’s obviously the best way to go about immersing your students in the language. But apparently this goes further than I thought: you are also, I am told, supposed to not let them know you speak French at all.
To be honest, I have never understood this strategy. It immediately shuts you off from the students. Its disadvantages are twofold: the first is that they constantly talk behind your back because they think you can’t understand. You can’t reprimand them if they say something offensive, therefore they continue to do it because they know they can get away with it. The second has to do with respect and motivation: if you claim you can’t speak their language at all, how are they supposed to be motivated to learn from you? While I was learning languages at school, the thing that motivated me most was the thought that one day, I could be able to speak perfectly in English and French alike, like my teacher. I had limited experience of language assistants, but I had vastly more respect for those who could speak fluently in English and French/German, but just chose not to speak English around me.
Pretending you don’t speak their language is pointless. It stops you from building up a rapport with the students. You are in their country: obviously you’re employed to teach them English, but using French when you’re at a total loss to explain something, or when a student is giving you attitude, is not a bad thing. You’re supposed to be teaching them to be, on whatever small level, a little bit bilingual: how are they going to take that on board if you act as thought you have no knowledge of any other language but your own? What model do they have that it’s a useful thing to do if you claim you can’t even speak their language? If you can’t speak their language, why should they learn yours? They all seem pretty rational questions to me.
I don’t use much French in the classroom, to be honest, except with the younger students who really can’t form sentences in English. I give all my instructions in English and try not to translate things unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I don’t see how pretending that I don’t speak their language would help me at all. They would just give me endless grief, and I would have to sit there gritting my teeth as I understood their chat, however offensive, and couldn’t do anything about it. As it is they seem to respect me a little bit, and I haven’t had to come down really hard on anyone yet, which is as it should be. Maybe they’re just taking pity on me because I’m clearly not very good at teaching, maybe they’re just really nice kids, but I tend to think it’s because I demonstrate that I’ve done exactly what they’re doing in the reverse, that I have bothered to learn another language and can now communicate in it.