Remember ‘The Simple Life’? It was, and remains, a work of performance art. Two young, affluent socialites working normal jobs and chronicling every detail for our amusement. I’ve just swapped twenty years of city living for an academic year in the French countryside, in the name of education (and entertainment, I guess, for everyone who knows me). All language students spend their third year of study abroad. My options were to study in French-speaking Europe or Canada, or to undertake a work placement there. Instead, I chose* to teach English to high school children in a French commune which is ten times smaller than my hometown. I’m sure Paris and Nicole will relate, somehow.
*I didn’t actually choose specifically to come here. Rather, the local education authority placed me here, after applying to be an English language assistant in the region. You’re allowed to give preferences, but there’s no guarantee that they can accommodate them.
Here’s some context for you. I lived for eighteen years in a town three miles from Liverpool city centre. We gave the world, or at least English football, some of its most famous names. We have one of the safest Labour constituencies in the UK. Two years ago, I swapped the north west for the west end, thus have never really lived anywhere that’s not densely populated. Right now, sat at the desk in my flat, I can see pretty much the entire town from my second-floor window. The place itself has a bigger football stadium than it does a population.
Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I want to do is to come across as ungrateful – being able to go abroad is an opportunity I’m immensely thankful for. I’ve spent the last few years reading blogs by language students of years’ past. The year abroad is repeatedly, and suspiciously, painted as the best year of your degree/decade/lifetime. I mean, of course it’s 100% fine and not at all bizarre to move your life overseas for a few months… The year abroad can be made more difficult by multiple factors – finances, health, family problems – you’re not being sucked into a vacuum where the rest of the world stops. It might even seem a bit unfair that this is a compulsory part of a degree course: at Glasgow, at least, you have to complete it to progress to honours.
So far, it’s been a good laugh adjusting to living somewhere so small. I keep getting affectionately laughed at by locals – most recently because I had mispronounced the number twenty. I’m in the third year of my degree. Always promising. I’ve had the ‘what-the-fuck-I-can’t-speak-French-help’ panic a few times, and nearly a fortnight in, I am starting to not completely clam up when someone speaks to me. (Pro tip: if you get a bit nervous speaking to people you don’t know in your own language, it doesn’t get easier doing it in another.) Another thing about France is that shops hardly open – at all – on a Sunday. Nada, rien, zip. I’d heard from friends already abroad that this was the case, but truly found out the hard way when I paid €2 for a tiny bottle of Evian from the bakery next door. (Bakeries are probably the only exception to Sunday Shutdown, because, of course.)
So far, though, the biggest surprise hasn’t been the culture shock, nor the language. It has to the near death experience at the hands of a car-full of French boy racers. A loose rear tyre sent their shoddy car into the square I was walking across, careering past at such speed that I just about realised to get out the way of the big, fast lump of metal. The boys in the car found it hilarious, fixed the tyre, and went back on their way – THANKS PALS. Thanks. If I’m going to die for whatever reason in the next year, I would rather it wasn’t by a red Peugeot.
I’m only a few days past counting how long I’ve been here on my fingers, so bear with me while I adjust. I’ve spent those days finding the local Lidl, filling out seven thousand (give or take) forms, and trying to breathe for five consecutive minutes. At Glasgow, I had met people who had moved from the middle of nowhere, and the city was a huge culture shock for them. I have no idea what the next academic year will hold, nor where it will take me, but I hope you get a giggle out of me doing the same – albeit the other way around.
[Amy Shimmin –@amylfc]