Receiving a visit from a portion of my dear family (with a whole bunch of pain pills and goodies in tow) had done it’s job in cheering me right up and giving me the motivation to grab the year abroad bull by the horns again.
I was going to see the last of it out, however long on my legs I had, and I was going to see it out in style.
So I bought myself a hinged knee brace, a second crutch for emergencies and took a train the length and breadth of France to visit a friend in Alsace.
I would be staying in their family home for 5 days. Their very posh, very proper, very Catholic home. And while I’m hardly bad-mannered, I’m certainly not their idea of any of these things. Having been briefed by my Alsacienne friend (who’s originally from Bradford), I knew to avoid the topics of politics and homosexuality (it was enough for her folks having one big ol’ liberal gay-sympathiser in the house- and she’s not convinced her brother’s straight either). But most importantly I knew not to swear. By the end of the trip I’d bitten my tongue almost in half during a discussion of France’s current socialist prime minister and had the words “sod”, “bloody” met with disapproving glances and the expression “as near as damnit” was deemed “not terribly polite.”
That’s not to say they didn’t love me. As always in potentially awkward and socially stressful situations, I resorted to humour and it seemed to make up for my mild potty mouth.
I arrived after a many-hour train journey in Mulhouse, which doesn’t sound particularly French or German, but which has historically been both (and is in fact pronounced Mull-Ooze). In this part of the world, you are either in or just a short drive from France, Germany and Switzerland at any given time and in preparation for this, I had extended my knowledge of German to include words which when strung together sounded like “Where is the airport?” and “I ate a cockroach.”
So as you can tell, I was hoping not to run into many mono-lingual Germans.
The Bradfordian Alsacienne, who I’m going to name Kitten, after her un-imaginatively named young cat and love of all things feline, met me at the station in a French car, with her French driving license, having been taught to drive in France. I was a bit nervous. I love the French, but to extend that to their driving would be laughable.
The next day I trusted her to drive me into Germany, where I would be supplementing my Erasmus experience with the unapologetic national stereotypes of Europa Park. The gimmick is that each section has a European country theme, with related food and occasionally related rides. It’s like Eurovision on crack.
Here I learnt the German for “Two people” and “Would you like to go in front of us?” Everything I’d heard about the German’s lack of queue etiquette seemed not to apply here- and there’s something quite comforting in associating the massive rollercoaster you’re waiting for with German engineering.
Also I totally got eaten by a shark.
Europa Park is one of the many places I’ve witnessed (although not so much this year) where being trilingual opens up job opportunities in flipping burgers. Having French, German and English is standard, but English speech was strangely comfortingly scarce and I stuck to French, which then allowed me a beautiful moment of being able to surprise some American tourists with some spontaneous translation (it’s the little things…)
By the end of the day, I’d thoroughly abused my knee, which really didn’t want to fit into any rollercoaster carriage, and emerged wearing a smile-grimace from many a ride. To compensate, I’d taken a hefty dose of painkillers and promptly fell asleep in the car home, leaving my navigation duties to Kitten.
Having allowed myself to fall into a pill-induced slumber in Kitten’s car, I trusted her enough to get us into Switzerland, but still, we took the train. Never before have I purchased my ticket in French, got on a train and suddenly notice a shift into German, all without being asked for my passport.
We had a look around Basel, with its (what I imagine are) typically Swiss buildings- and fountains. Someone should advertise a Drinking Tour of Basel- the catch being that each stop would involve downing a pint of eau potable.
And of course we wound up in a chocolatier, where I attempted to buy my body weight in Toblerone and learnt that the Swiss German word for “thank you” sounds remarkably like “merci” and, answering “avec plaisir”, I wondered how I’d been rumbled as a part-time Frenchie.
Come the weekend, it was Kitten’s parents’ turn to play tour guides and our attention was turned once more to Germany, where I had the best lasagne I’ve ever tasted. Go figure.
We toured some cute little German streets, Kitten’s mum got me drunk over lunch (and my swearword replacements became more and more imaginative- even onomatopoeic). Having sampled Alsacien wine and German beer, we finished the day with a walk through the Black Forest (which has sadly nothing to do with gateau, but is extremely beautiful). By this point completely reliant on crutches, I hardly looked the hiking type, but with my newfound upper body strength, I managed to climb into some snug little coves and make it up to some handy viewpoints.
In my final hours before boarding my night train back to Toulouse (which I had thankfully had the foresight to book a lower bunk for), Kitten and her parents took me to see the monument at the point at which France, Germany and Switzerland all meet. Wherever you stand, you have a clear view of all three countries (for an island-dwelling being, this is kind of a big deal) The only catch is that the the actual point is underwater…
One might say we got as as near as damnit…
Having discovered the French medical system and seen close-ups of my poor knackered knee, I wasn’t surprised when it quickly became as temperamental as it did. Painkillers are expensive when your EHIC card is apparently not worth the crappy plastic it’s printed on and I was resisting the temptation to prescribe myself a merlot or five. So when The Coordinator told me she was coordinating a second visit, this time sadly without my father but with two of my aunties, I was delighted. She was bringing a seasoned GP and a stash of codeine-based painkillers. The mummy doctor was in.
Possibly having sensed I wasn’t quite my old self in the face of terrifying prospects such as “taking it steady” and “avoiding over-exertion” (oh and surgery), she also came armed with Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and Chocolate Digestives, just two of the things I miss most about the UK (and not only because Creme Egg season provides numerous opportunities to ridicule my good friend Columbo’s oddly French pronunciation of “Creme”).
In fact, she brought so many items intended to bring me joy, peace of mind or just to make life easier that the toiletry bag she’d packed for herself was comically empty by the time she’d made her many medicinal offerings.
A few weeks prior to their arrival, I received an email from one of my aunties, in questionable French, addressed to “ma petite”, reassuring me of her level of schoolgirl French. I should have warned Toulouse of their imminent crash-landing there and then.
And so it was on the train platform that we had our emotional and many-legged reunion (since I was by this point with crutch), as I marvelled at the fact they’d made it from Carcassonne to Toulouse without incident. They checked into their hotel, again without incident. And then we went out for dinner…
I’d chosen a simple, not overly French joint for eats, knowing it was late and the Intrepid Three could most likely eat a, well, Hippo. They made marvellous attempts with their French à l’anglaise, but in my excitement at having them there I forget to give the “you can go wrong with a steak” tutorial. After my auntie had politely requested (begged) hers be shoved under the grill a little longer (and it is of course against one of the Ten French Cuisine Commandments to suggest “blue” and “medium” are not culinary synonyms) it came back no longer mooing with an extra portion of veg and chips. Bref, we ate a Hippo and a half.
We spent some time exploring the sights of Toulouse: its places, its ponts and its people. All of which are usually more than up to scratch. Until Two Generations on Tour show up of course. I’ve had a theory for some time, which I call the Crazy Ratio. The Crazy Ratio can be as high as 3:2 outside peak times on public transport. You could assume the two crazies on either side of you are talking to each other. But you’d be sadly mistaken. Of course it turns out that at least one member of my clan is a insanity magnet. It’s usually me. Having politely declined to hand out my barely existent pocket money, I’ve been serenaded, called a slut and informed that this particular beggar does in fact take cheques. I’ve never been simultaneously called a slut and punched though. I left that honour to Rocky Auntie, who apparently has a surprising amount of feist hidden behind a cultured exterior. She would have brought home the nutter-wrestling lightweight… If she hadn’t had to run away. I’m just glad she didn’t understand exactly what was being bellowed at her.
When we’d seen plenty of Toulouse, my two aunties decided they would visit Carcassonne on the Saturday, leaving The Coordinator and I to have some mother-daughter time. My non-crazy-wrestling auntie, who has a few coordinator genes in her, had booked open train tickets, picked up a timetable and accosted an English-speaking tourist for a map. Yet Rocky Auntie and The Navigator, despite their best efforts and my own, managed to make it onto a train originating from Carcassonne and destined for Toulouse. Where it planned to stay. Oops.
My mum and I learnt of this an hour or so later as we sipped coffee outside a small café a good distance from the train station. As it happens, The Navigator had expertly found her way to a market at Place du Capitole. Of course, finding my rellies at said market was like finding two middle-aged women in middle-aged haystack.
They did make it to Carcassonne the next day. We rose early and over a Quick breakfast rehearsed our “pauvres anglaises” act, ready for the SNCF staff who may or may not decide to exchange my aunties’ already composted tickets. Thou shalt compost (validate) your ticket, says the SNCF, and obey its tiny printed gospel, lest all Hell break loose. It was a tense moment.
For their penultimate evening in Toulouse, I decided on a Lebanese restaurant, so my clan could sample some more unusual cuisine. I say restaurant in the loosest sense of the word, however. What I should have told them was that I was taking them to a glorified takeaway by the name of Chez Nous Les Libanais. My rellies were perhaps less surprised than the staff, who were far more used to groups of students coming in for their pre-Place Saint Pierre kebab. For those not in the know, Place Saint Pierre (which is what the French call Saint Peter’s Square) is precisely the opposite of its counterpart in Vatican City- party-goers hail the beer and worship Le Saint des Seins (look it up) more than anything else… Safe to say, I marched the Intrepid Three quickly through the swiftly-forming crowd of Saint Pierre earlybirds and hoped they wouldn’t notice anything too depraved at this point in the evening.
The time quickly came to say goodbye and send my loved ones on their merry way back to Carcassonne Airport. Having waved them off on the train, I returned home to receive a string of email messages from my still-in-Carcassonne mother, who couldn’t believe she’d managed to choose the one French airport which will seemingly not be finished for some time. Having said that, my theory that France as a country is a tad unfinished stands.
Carcassonne Airport, some time before the time of writing, was apparently made of plywood, inviting in the aromatic odour of plane fluid and vibrating violently every time a plane passed (which, admittedly, is only every time a Ryanair flight dares touch down, distracting its passengers from a runway under construction with over-enthusiastic fanfare). Check-in consisted of a single assistant behind a desk probably nicked from the nearest primary school, buckling under the weight of a domestic printer, which he accidentally sent crashing to the floor, causing the same amount of noise as a Ryanair flight parking itself in the middle of the terminal and delays of an hour and a half. The same assistant, having checked the flight in, then took his position as the security attendant and began scanning hand luggage. The Coordinator says they were only playing at airports…
I had big plans for my Year Abroad. I promised myself I’d do things I wouldn’t dream of doing at home. I’ve made it up three physical mountains and countless metaphorical ones. I braved the thought of being seen undressed by strangers and took out a subscription at an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And I bought myself a pair of rollerblades.
The hilarious thing about practising a sport in France is that according to the Unwritten Sporty Type Code, you are obliged to wear the right gear. French sport shops are actually for these sporty types and not for Vicky or Ricky Pollards looking for a cheap tracksuit. At a public pool: no swimming cap, no swim. Go visit that vending machine over there if you forgot yours. A jogger wearing spandex and running shoes is a jogger. A jogger wearing jogging bottoms probably nicked something.
So I embraced this No Half Measures sporting culture… possibly a little too heartily as it turns out.
What with swimming and skating weekly, frequently hauling myself up mountains and twice daily jogging up and down metro stairs, I was starting to feel fitter and healthier than I had done in years.
And that’s when I was forced to discover the French healthcare system. I had many big plans for my Year Abroad and seeing a French doctor was not one of them.
Traumatology and Traumatism
By the end of my second trip to the Pyrenees, I had finally been forced to realise that all was not well with my right knee. Having a dicky joint was one thing Suffering Hippy and I had in common and we’d taken to stumbling and limping through the snow arm in arm, laughing at how mismatched our mental and physical ages currently were.
Hippy bullied me into seeing the on-campus doctor. The on-campus doctor sent me limping off to a sport injury specialist. Off to the sport injury specialist I limped, after a weekend of further resistance, denial and excuses (“It’s probably just a sprain and if it’s arthritis I don’t want to know”).
The cabinet de médecine et traumatologie du sport was “accessible” via a small staircase and a heavy door. I went to hand deliver my letter of referral and make an appointment. I came out having been bent into all kinds of shapes in hilariously inappropriate underwear by a terribly good-looking doctor, whose chiselled features I admired as he pushed my right leg past my ear and as I pleaded with myself not to accidentally fart.
It turns out I’m quite limber apart from the one knee.
Like I said, I’d gone with the intention of making an appointment, but had jumped at the chance of being seen straight away, marvelling at the efficiency of it all in comparison to in the UK. Of course, unlike in the UK, it was not free. The Trauma Doctor had seen me in skimpy lady boxers with pictures of frogs and the message “Hop to it” on them and it was me paying him 30 euros…
Let’s get a proper look at that knee- How will you be paying?
From here, I was sent to get some scans done- x-rays and a special MRI called an arthroscanner. I only learned it was called that after my third mispronunciation, however. If you think medical professionals in Britain have poor handwriting, try interpreting a French doctor’s scrawl over the phone to an impatient receptionist with the IQ of a sloth and the personality of a Venus Fly Trap.
Palm Tree, my Adoptive French Mother extraordinaire, accompanied me to the Médipole, a clinic way out of town and kept me amused as we watched people in various states of disrepair hobble, roll and drag themselves in and out of the waiting room. As well as the scans, which were uneventful apart from being told to “ne bougez pas” so many times that I daren’t even move my eyeballs, I was also there to have some injections. I’d had to buy the ingredients myself and leave them sitting on my desk during the lead up to my treatment, warning me not to drive or operate heavy machinery after their use… No chance of that.
Lying under a mirror and a machine that went ping, in slightly more appropriate underwear, an elderly French doctor shuffled in and told me to stay calm as he covered half my leg in iodine. He then proceeded to inject me not once, but three times with needles reaching the width of my knee. He seemed a bit surprised to hear the stream of English profanities I came out with as he went for knee-dle number two.
“Ah, vous venez d’où ?” (“Ah, so where do you come from?”), my doctor asked.
I’d entered the clinic fairly mobile, feeling sorry for the hobblers, the limpers, the two-wheelers, the four-wheelers… And upon leaving, it was me that got a good eyeballing as I dragged my fat, unbendable leg behind me, wincing as I was forced to put weight on it.
The whole experience cost me a disgusting amount of money, which I’m yet to see back from my insurance. But I did get a nice souvenir booklet. A “This is Your Knee” book, if you like.
My cousin, who came to visit a few weeks later (see next post) and who is a GP in the UK, gave me a brilliantly blunt idea of what was going on in layman’s terms: “It’s all a bit knackered around this bit really.”
I had big plans for my Year Abroad. I’ve overcome the agony of administration. I’ve had some shockingly bad test results. The Year Abroad Operation has felt a bit like extracting Water on the Knee from time to time. But I plucked up the courage to see a medical professional. I’ve learnt the French for “limp”, “crutch” and “knee brace”. I finally realised that when my doctor reaches out his hand, he’s not asking for the paperwork or scans I’m holding- he simply wants to shake it (that handshake costs about 11 cents by my reckoning). But most importantly, I’ve learnt how to crutch.
The Wife sent me a message asking how the knee and I were doing. I replied that I’d had a major breakthrough: “I’ve figured out a good place to lean my crutches when I go for a tinkle,” I told her.
It’s stuff like that you don’t think about until it’s you. How do people on crutches get off the John? Why don’t you notice the awkward camber on all French roads until you have four legs? How long does it take to go down 5 flights of stairs when the lifts are switched off? Can a can of Coke fit in my back pocket? How ridiculous will I look carrying this newspaper in my mouth? How do you yawn politely without the use of your hands?
And so my Year Abroad experience offers me a new life lesson. I currently feel like my average day could be put to Benny Hill music, fading out to the soundtrack of kindly French people wanting to give up their seats. Some prefer to offer an encouraging smile, or to ridicule their peers as they’re overtaken by a speedy cripple (true story).
And what a conversation starter. The amount of times a day I’m required to ask perfect strangers to borrow their hands, to explain what I’ve done and that I don’t quite know how I managed it and to graciously thank those who go out of their way to help me out (like the 4″8 Chinese girl who looked upon me in horror as backed impatiently/ threw myself backwards into a closed door and proceeded to run ahead and open the next three, nod at me and walk away in the opposite direction…)
For the first time in my life, I’m not “the ginger one”, “the English one”, or “the one with the green leather jacket”. A Glaswegian Erasmus student I met for the first time last week made me chuckle with her “Ah, you’re the one with the leg.”
And as I await surgery, with my crutches to play with, my transformation into a ginger Robocop is complete with my new toy: a high-tech hinged knee brace.
I’ve learnt many things on my Year Abroad. One is that it could always be worse. Another is that I am unlikely to grow old gracefully. And my favourite is that I’ll never manage to blend in.
Although perhaps more than a tiny nun.
I believe that although we like to think otherwise, we don’t realise just how much our friends and family mean to us until they’re, for example, 700 miles away. My folks and I email frequently and my father has even mastered the art of inserting emoticons into his messages to make them a little more personal. Well, almost mastered.
Email, phone calls and Skype dates are great, but I will never again underestimate the power of a bear hug.
Particularly the three-way bear hug I gave my parents having almost bowled over a small child in my sprint across Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.
I never did like French children anyway.
There’s something about having your parents visit you on a Year Abroad that feels like watching the two worlds you belong to crash into each other and cause a bit of a mess. For probably the first time in your life, your folks are completely reliant on you to make them understood. Just as they translated your baby babble, you now have to help them out as they speak slow, deliberate French with a strong Yorkshire accent, accompanied with pointing, confused grammatical gender and some interesting verb conjugation. You’re showing them around a place they’ll most likely never feel as comfortable in as you do, a place that probably feels more foreign to them than it did to you on your very first day. And it’s terrifying for all parties concerned.
Suddenly you realise just how the old folks felt as they tried to keep both eyes on you in the supermarket, with you wanting to see, touch and eat everything and them just crossing their fingers you didn’t end up under a trolley.
That’s not to mention the considerable stress of finding suitable cuisine for a tall and fairly rotund Yorkshireman when your own “eating out” habits extend to a Subway Student Deal. He raved about a good steak and cassoulet, the local speciality, but anything vaguely haute cuisine and you could just see his mind formulating a sentence out of the words “robbing”, “stingy”, “Froggy” and a mild expletive.
It was comforting to hear my parents praise my excellent choice of host city and the way I seemed to be coping with life abroad. And it was comforting for them to have a point of reference- although my accommodation (and university) are very basic, it’s nice to put a picture to a place name. And even more comforting was the knowledge that 700 miles and several months of separation had done nothing to endanger how in tune mine and my father’s senses of humour are.
Here, I refer to my parents as The Coordinator and The Bank. Classically, The Coordinator coordinated the trip and The Bank ummed and aahed about its cost. A month or so before their arrival mid-November, The Coordinator informed me that a trip out to see me before Christmas was going to be impossible, since The Bank had a new job and finding the time (and a convenient winter flight) was going to be almost impossible. I put a brave face on my disappointment. After all, I was brought up to expect nothing and to be grateful for everything- as a little girl, requests for new toys or the latest craze would most often be met with the same response: “Oh I don’t know about that. Mummy and daddy have to work very hard to be able to buy nice things.” But more often than not, a few days later, “nice things” would appear, as a reward for good behaviour or working hard at school. Unless the request truly was ridiculous- and my so far unbroken limbs can probably thank my folks for not caving in to my pleas for the first generation of trainers with pop-out wheels (a craze which lasted three weeks and left many kids with casts, slings and now ordinary trainers with wheels which refused to pop out).
You think I’d be wise to the way The Bank’s mind works. And yet when I received an email with flight and hotel booking confirmations attached, I was shocked and delighted. And a decade after the roller-shoe craze, I can now appreciate my parents for what I consider much greater offerings. They’d just earned themselves a new stamp on the Retirement Home card, earning them a shared, en suite room with golden taps (next up is the “within driving distance from one or both child(ren)” criterium).
Back to the bear hug then, after the near-ploughing over of a small, French child.
I presented The Bank with various ways of getting from the airport to the hotel. He rejected taxi and shuttle bus for the far more cost effective bus ride plus a walk. After 25 minutes of lugging a 30-kilo case (of The Coordinator’s making- and for which they had been charged luggage excess) over no less than three bridges (I ought perhaps to have mentioned the bridges), we checked in reasonably painlessly. And as The Bank recovered his breath and his sense of humour, he took a gander out the window at his surroundings.
“Well you can’t see the Eiffel Tower or bugger all.”
The Coordinator set about unpacking the 30 kilo suitcase. I’d made a few requests, including my Doc Martens and some Yorkshire Tea but she’d naturally come armed with items I couldn’t have imagine I’d wanted until that moment. My square French pillow which I’d folded up to fit inside my rectangular English pillow case could now be replaced by a rectangular pillow. Miraculous. And, having emptied the 30 kilo suitcase of 20 kilos of my stuff, we set about getting my weary parents some sustenance and several cold beers.
Despite the aforementioned Restaurant Strain Disorder (“Is there not somewhere I can get a good pie?”) and trying to persuade a French boulangère that a quiche is a perfectly respectable breakfast for a Yorkshireman (“I can’t be doing with this pain o’ chocolat”), we had a very relaxing and enjoyable four days together. Knowing the way to my father’s heart, I proposed we do the Airbus factory tour and take a boat trip along the Garonne. Both boasted typically Toulousain experiences, accompanied with crap or non-existent English translation. I was therefore promoted from guide to interpreter.
As a guide, I was perfectly competent on familiar territory, making regular trips to what we now call “Madame Miggins’ Sandwich Shop” and “doing Toulouse” but took us on quite a trek as we were directed by a wayward signpost to the Airbus factory. After asking members of staff in various Airbus buildings for directions, it was a group of Belgian tourists that finally pointed us the right way. Apologising to my father, who has arthritic knees, and my mother, who had the mother of all blisters on her foot, for having taken the scenic route across undeveloped or once-developed wasteland and then around the Airbus factory site (which was well worth a visit), The Bank, again recovering his breath and sense of humour, told me not to worry, sweetheart, and that I’d done brilliantly asking the locals and not-so locals for directions- “but was that the English speaking tour, do we reckon?” Is true zat ze guide require much concentration for understanding.
I did, however, manage to get us to Carcassonne and back by train. This is a destination my mum has had her heart set on ever since she read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (note that “e”). The cité, the castle and village contained within its walls, was definitely worth seeing and paying a few bob to wander around. It has a fascinating history, which has been well preserved, although in the village especially there are a few traces of the 21st Century, such as satellite dishes and the like. My father did not miss the opportunity to ad-lib a sketch about Sky Medieval (with jousting over on Sky Med Sport and Carry On Caesar on Gold).
Then, just as we’d explored almost all of the walled city, the sky turned overcast and everything went a little dark. It was just after that I spotted this little guy and the colour drained from my face…
I wouldn’t have felt we’d done the thing properly if we hadn’t almost ordered raw meat in a restaurant, got tragically lost, been subjected to many Kodak moments by The Coordinator, laughed at the size of the coffee cups and forgotten to ask for milk. It was strange to see the evidence that I’ve adapted to French life and culture quite naturally- but for all I’ve changed a few of my habits, I’m still so very aware of the pitfalls waiting for Brits in France.
As my dad quipped, “I’d hate to be foreign, me,” his stony expression upon delivery of a joke for once breaking into breathy laughter.
If you’ve been following from the very beginning of my adventures, Reader, or if you’ve gone back and caught up, you’ll know just how long it took for me to get my head around the idea of fecking off to France. I’d calmed down only a little before D(eparture)-Day (mainly thanks to a last-minute holiday in Lanzerote with The Wife, her beardy boyfriend The Messiah and our cuddly friend Chunk). As Auntie No Bull, who is incapable of bullshit, put it (although she had no idea I was listening), “She’s bricking it, isn’t she?”
But by mid-November, I’d been through what I have now fondly come to know as the Two-Month Period. This is the period I spent bemusedly wandering the streets of my host city, or the halls of my host university, constantly being surprised, generally feeling lost or unsure and frequently screaming inwardly, “But HOW am I supposed to x,y and z?”… Actually, I still bemusedly wander the halls of my host university inwardly screaming, but that’s because life at Mirail is akin to that of Alice in Wonderland…
As much as I fail to understand fellow human beings and as much as I’ve never truly felt anchored to my home country, I distinctly remember feeling alien here. All the time. It was not the behaviour of the people around me that made me feel all that different. It came from me. I put myself under (probably unnecessary) stress to fit in, to disappear into the throng and for nothing about me- my appearance, my accent, my behaviour or my way of thinking- to give me away as an outsider.
Of course, being a redhead, I immediately draw some attention. And then when the weather began cooling down in October (to less than 16 degrees) I drew even more attention by deeming it t-shirt weather. I still get irritated when, judging by my appearance or my speech, people guess I’m English. Or Irish. Or worse, German. …I jest.
The first indication I had that I was emerging from the Two-Month Period was a little after two months of living here- it was the point I started saying “I live in Toulouse”, the point I started feeling I belong in Toulouse and, not when I stopped feeling foreign (because I still do on occasion), but when I stopped caring whether I was foreign or not. The minute I stopped trying to force my being accepted, I became part of the backdrop.
It wasn’t until the end of December that I realised the process was complete. I was laying in the middle bunk, in the darkness of a moving train, plummeting towards Metz, in the very Northeast of France. As blurred shapes streaked across the window by my feet, it suddenly dawned on me that I was diagonally conquering France. And I was doing it on my own.
When did I stop being scared?
I spent 14 hours on trains that day. I travelled for 16 in total with nothing but a rucksack and my old noggin for company. And at no point did I feel the slightest ounce of fear. I felt giddy with some kind of assumed invincibility. And as I stepped off of the train and rushed to give Columbo- the reason I travelled half way home and back a week before Christmas (no points for forward planning)- a massive hug, I knew I had this Year Abroad thing down.
I was of course wrong. It turns out there’s also a Two-Months-After-the-First-Trip-Home Period. But that’s a story for another day.
Metz and Beyond: With a Little Help from My Friends
I covered almost 600 miles with the change at Marseilles, snatched a couple of hours kip on the bunk which conveniently found itself at the hypotenuse of a young couple (who had evidently booked their bunks according to likelihood of being able to stare lovingly at one another) was asked in rapid French at 4am exactly what time the train had been due to leave Marseilles and finally stepped off of the train in Metz at 8am looking and feeling surprisingly bloody chirpy considering.
I’ll admit the first thing that struck me about finding myself in the North of France was the cold, the dark and the sheer amount of dog shit. But it was 8am on a December morning, so the first two can be forgiven. And it turns out that despite the frequency one must avoid dog turd, Metz is a very quaint and picturesque town, with an obvious German influence (and despite this one must pronounce the name “mess”).
There is a clear Mediterranean feel in Toulouse- the view from my window is a jumble of shapes across different levels in white and ruddy orange, with the whitewash of the house faces against the terracotta roof tiles. Metz is decidely more beige. Sandy maybe. And I am of course used to living in a big, student-y city. Metz is not a big city. And the average age is considerably older.
So far, Project Change of Scene so good.
I immediately fell in love with the riverside, the grand Gothic structures standing tall (if foreboding) across the skyline and their sudden contrast with the shiny new Pompidou Centre (which is the subject of much excited conversation in Metz and Columbo could well have been lynched for not taking me there, so she did of course oblige).
We were of course in plain Christmas market season. So we spent a good bit of time admiring the range of potential gifts (and tat), looking up at the ferris wheel and eating local (German) delicacies. The Alsace-Lorraine region definitely has its food going for it. And of course we did the Pompidou Centre, which had some cracking exhibitions on, including one which involved stumbling around in the dark, with a wind up torch originally destined for an upmarket Christmas cracker, looking at photos. It left me feeling cultured, if with a mild wrist and neck ache. My favourite exhibition, however, was the result of a project worked on by dozens of art students, who had the patience to plan out a lot of very mathematical dots and lines. The finished works were a visual mind fart.
Of course, Metz wasn’t the only destination on my whistle-stop tour of the Alsace-Lorraine. I also made it to Nancy, which is a Versailles-like town with lots of gold and marble. Bits of it literally sparkle. Our exploration of Nancy included an impromptu trip to the zoo, hanging out with some friends of friends in a regular haunt of Columbo’s and strong coffee in a school (we were visiting a teaching assistant friend of Columbo’s who lives in the school he works at).
And we made it to Strasbourg, which did wonders for getting me into the Christmas spirit. We started off the day with Kono Pizza because where else can you get pizza in a cone? Turns out lots of places, but it was still pretty spectacular. Fuelled with ridiculous amounts of cheese, we hit the Christmas markets like the die-hard tourists we were.
Strasbourg’s population consisted of a beautiful, eclectic mix of Germans popped across the border for Christmas market tidbits and local and not-so-local French and German speakers, often bilingual. Sadly, I’ve never set foot in Germany and my German vocabulary consists of the words for “airport”, “yes, certainly” and “window factory” (true story and you can blame my father, The Bank, for the latter). The only complete sentence I can utter in German is “I have a rabbit, but I ate it”- this being the message that was left on my student flat fridge for several weeks by my wonderfully musical if a joker of a flatmate, The Voice.
The mix of people and languages just made it all the more new and exciting for me- although some of the oldy-worldy buildings made me very reminiscent of York. Strasbourg had a bit of everything- wooden bridges across waterways, buildings with traditional timber-framing… not to mention the countless market stalls and some of the biggest Christmas trees I’ve seen in my life. I managed to make an excellent start to my Christmas shopping- my judgement was apparently not impaired by the several glasses of mulled wine and cider I sampled along the way.
I came away, not only with the perfect gift (a wee model house with room for a candle to light up the windows) for my dear grandmother (a.k.a. Gribs), but also an assortment of plastic beakers, with various slogans reminding me how nowhere else in the world will ever compare to Strasbourg at Christmas. I use one to hold my toothbrush.
Home Sweet Home?
I spent the final night at Columbo’s abode drinking far too much wine, thanks to her favourite off-license down the road, where we earned ourselves quite a reputation for being regular customers. Columbo lives in a sort of renovated dormitory- it was clearly intended once for boarders- and the heavy doors and long, dark corridor were quite the trial when taking a 3am toilet trip. It does, however, have a balcony- when I say “balcony”, I mean “glorified fire escape accessible via a broken window”. So out we went, wrapped in blankets, to admire the silhouettes of Gothic constructions across the skyline and ponder upon a long weekend well spent… when we turned around to see a huddle of pubescent boys, students of Columbo, not quite believing their luck at spotting a teaching assistant on her balcony, dressing gown-clad, glass of wine in hand.
All too soon, it was time for me to depart and make the ten-hour trip to the opposite corner of the Hexagone. With the completion of this journey, I racked up over thirty train travel hours and had seen a good bit of France by railway. I knew I was approaching home when I clocked a couple of blokes adding a “g” to their “-ain”‘ and punctuating their sentences with either “putain(g)” (the Southern comma) or “con” (the full stop). It felt good to be home. Home from home.
I didn’t bother unpacking. I would be leaving for England with a case of dirty washing in a matter of days.
Prelude to Mountains- Exams, Beer and Revolution!
I return from another long gap in blogging, which can only be excused by the abrupt return to Erasmus reality after the Christmas period. Abrupt in that my Erasmus life was hauled from the dead (“Clear!”), jump-started and turned up a notch (“dun-dun, dun-dun”). And in our glee of being reunited, the Erasmus students ran off into the sunset and drank lots of beer. And then they were forced to take exams.
I swore to take this year as an academic holiday. So this was more a minor inconvenience than the source of much stress. Even where Université Le Mirail’s organisation was involved.
After an accidental night out with Gandalf on Coke* (one of my Idiots Abroad with quite a talent for forgetting where he’s been, making conversation with strangers and picking up phallic beer tokens), I took my Modern Greek written paper at 8AM one Saturday, having come to the conclusion that even the Greeks couldn’t learn their language in a day, so it was pointless me trying. Gandalf and I had been refused entry to a club “because the bouncer didn’t know us” at 3.30AM and had come away with two stolen flagons that had contained a litre of beer each… and inexplicably, some salt and a piece of wood shaped like a penis. This was quite a conversation starter on the way home.- three French people wanted to offer their opinion on where Gandalf might have picked up his “staff”.
And to be fair, there was hardly any point preparing for my exams… There is no preparing for what Mirail throws at you… An exam with no paper, no invigilator and nothing that remotely resembles an exam, for example.
The Exam that Never Was really brought the French out of the French. I’ve come to the conclusion that the desire for a good revolution is hard-wired into their genetic code. Put a group of French students into an exam room with an AWOL invigilator and there’s soon talk of democracy and a Popular Movement to Toss Off this Exam.
With exams over (excluding the replacement exam for The Exam That Almost Never Was), half the Erasmus students had to prepare to say goodbye to the second half, who were moving on to warmer climates, such as Spain and Argentina- apart from Nemo (who is a ginger Fin(n). And by way of goodbye, there was much frolicking around in Toulouse by night (in animal costumes or otherwise).
To stifle my grief at my friends’ departure, I watched three hours of fascist-bashing (Django), coming away with the (probably mistaken) impression that it is okay to shoot ignorant people in the face (or crotch). And then I took off to the mountains.
*I should add that the Coke Gandalf is so frequently on is in liquid form and comes out of a red can. Although we should perhaps stop him drinking as much, since when we ended up in the St des Seins for the second time, he turned to me dramatically and said “… I have no memory of this place…”
I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains!
Here, I have to admit that this is not the first time I’ve gone galavanting in the Pyrenees. A chalet in a tiny place called Latour de Carole, right on the Spanish border, was the venue for Erastmas. My Idiots Abroad and I took a train through the Pyrenees (and a blizzard), with stacks of food, drink and presents for Secret Santa.
Latour de Carole is so close to the Spanish border that we were greeted with “Hola bonjour”. As well as the French and European Union flags, we spotted a few Catalan flags dotted around houses and squares. The buildings had a Swiss feel about them. Next to the only supermarket (and sign of civilisation) was a ski and surf shop. And the mountains were tremendous. Snowy and grassy at the same time. Cold and sunny.
We hadn’t been there five minutes before a snowball fight broke out.
After a spot of lunch (Peter Kay family Christmas style, since there were nine of us and three different heights of chair) we headed straight out to conquer the nearest mountain. And we declared it Lord of the Rings-esque and promptly gave each other nicknames. I’m not sure how I ended up with Gimli- I may be ginger, but I am not short.
After quite a lot of running through snow and across mountain tops, in a LOTR-themed relay race (“Rohan will answer!”), whilst singing the film soundtrack and rehydrating with fresh, untouched snow, Kettle and I set about trying to find the very highest point we could make it to (I gave up before Kettle did). But soon this little adventure had to end, since light was fading and we were still halfway up a mountain. Kettle and I having made it higher than the others, we had some catching up to do. And to misquote the song, the only way is down.
I probably haven’t been scrambling before this day during my adult life. But there’s nothing makes you feel more youthful than throwing yourself feet-first down the side of a mountain, like tobogganing without the toboggan, with extra rocks to jump over.
I think I made it down in just over a minute. Just in time to witness Kettle’s dramatic entrance.
The evening was one of merriment. The Meerkat and Pirate of Cari-bean managed to rustle up ratatouille and pasta for nine… And we got through nine bottles of wine, whilst exchanging gifts (mine could not have been more perfect- a novelty Santa hat) and playing games. It was like something out of a Wham music video…
Return of the Mountain Queen
So yes, just nicely in time to distract me from the departure of half my Idiots Abroad, I headed off to the mountains again, this time in the company of a big ol’ group of Erasmus students, of which there are many Italians who I like hanging out with. Especially when there’s pizza.
There was no pizza this time (there has been, on occasion, pizza).
But there was a hell of a lot of snow.
Sure, you need a few jumpers when you’re used to warmer climes and you’re heading to the Haute-Pyrenees. But there was more (Italian) luggage on that coach than on your average Easyjet flight (and not just because they have an inexplicable talent for losing your baggage). And Italians never seem content that you are wearing enough layers to survive. I insisted that seven was enough. Much love for the Italians, with more layers than an onion, having bought out half of Decathlon between them.
I took a small rucksack and have never felt more obviously British in my life.
To all the folks in Blighty who pissed and moaned at the inconvenience a few centimetres of snow brought them, the hardy old folks of the Haute-Pyrenees laugh in your faces, with their four varieties of snow plow, front rooms converted into coffee houses and Carrefour Montagne.
It was three days of being often a bit chilly, often wet through and for those who wear glasses, often utterly blind. I loved every minute.
The first day saw us braving a blizzard wearing raquettes, or snow shoes. Simply put, these are contraptions designed to make even the most graceful person (which I am not) walk like a drunken toddler. In my case, they made me spend more time on my tiny hiney than anything else (although on one occasion I ended up falling on a Frenchman’s chest after a playful scuffle). At one point the snow was so deep, the blizzard so angry and the bit of mountain we were climbing so steep, that to get down our guide insisted “Servez-vous de vos culs !” For those who don’t speak French: “Use your arses!”
I had never worked up more of an appetite for something warm in my belly or a good glass of wine. I ended up getting both, thanks to my new Irish acquaintances. I’m fighting the urge to nickname them with typically Irish things, like rainbows, leprechauns, drinking and swearing… And excellent sense of humour (hopefully)!
All I know is that so far I’ve had to ask for eleven Irish translations and that Irish people are impossible to find on Facebook. Irish logic follows that if you think you know how to pronounce a letter, you definitely don’t. And there are seemingly at least three variations of every name.
The next day was devoted to tobogganing, walking to the next village (an hour on foot) to take some spectacular pictures of the frozen lake, to raid the Carrefour Montagne for its supplies of wine and chocolate and to drink hot chocolate and mulled wine in a French couple’s sitting room.
Finding myself in English-speaking company once more (which was admittedly a nice break), I watched some classic French comedy and had a giggle at the expense of the French music channel. And then drank far too much wine and danced with a charming German fellow, who may or may not have been too chuffed about this.
The next morning was devoted to soothing our heads, wrapped up in blankets like a big ol’ Erasmus midday sleepover. We managed to drag ourselves out to attempt to see some cheese-making in action. Admittedly, the half hour walk through slush, snow and up- and downhill climbs proved too much for mine and Suffering** Hippy’s aching joints and we took refuge in a mountain top Mairie with the rest of the Irish folk, the Frenchman whose chest I fell on and another new acquaintance. The Mairie, the town hall, was sort of shut, but huddled up on the staircase, or dancing along to some banging tunes, we managed to stave off the cold.
The Frenchman, who I will call The Count, provided bilingual entertainment with the aid of a banana. Holding the thing up like a gun, he bursts through the door, shouting to the wintery wasteland outside “Ze English! I ‘ave found zem- send reinforcements!” There was a sudden, loud chorus of “We’re Irish!”
The Count earned his nickname with his second bout of bilingual entertainment. Although quite the writer in French, his adaptation of an English novel proved hysterical. He stumbled somewhat over “The Count, in all his anxiety…”. If I tell you he pronounced that last word “ang-shitty”, I’m sure you can imagine, Reader, how he pronounced “Count”.
**”Suffering”, to the Irish, is an intensifier for almost any given swear word, or “Jesus”. Suffering Hippy’s favourite suffering combinations seem to be those which rhyme with “kite” and… Oh there’s no English word that rhymes with “bollocks”, sorry.
Happy New Year, Reader! I write this on my penultimate day in Blighty and will post on Day Zero of Take II. And as I look ahead to what I might get up to, I thought I’d catch you up with a few of the things I’ve neglected to tell you I’ve been up to (because of course the more I get up to, the less time I have to tell you what I’ve been up to)… My Big Adventures are to come, but for now, here are my favourite success stories and feck-ups of the term.
Misadventures Past : The WinFail Diaries
At this point last term, I was blissfully unaware of the travesty of timetabling that awaited me. This “build-your-own-timetable” lark turned quickly into a Lesson Lottery. One I often lost.
WIN: Found my Psycholinguistique lecture
FAIL: Spent the next 6 weeks walking through an apparently forbidden corridor, with a welcoming INTERDIT sign on every door, for want of a better route.
FAIL: Attempted to find a Logique et Langage lecture in the Dreaded-Even-If-You’re-Not-Superstitious Batiment 13 and soon realised I was in the wrong class
WIN: Realised the lecture was vaguely linguistics related and decided to stay anyway… For a term
WIN: Mastered Mirail’s layout by creating a detailed grid map (complete with coordinates and key landmarks- such as “broken vending machine” and “condemned door”)
FAIL: Used my map to find the elusive Amphi 4. Which resulted in me getting a door closed in my face. And locked.
WIN: One day I thought I might give doing work and other productive things a go for a refreshing change.
FAIL: I got lost in the library. And the exit lead to some as yet unknown bit of Mirail.
FAIL: I bailed awkwardly from a lecture, desperate for a wee. Of course I had no idea where to find toilets (I was so desperate I would have happily used the holes in the floor- yes, the French motorway station-style loo exists at Mirail- but they were closed)
WIN: I was able to ask directions from a wandering lecturer with a heavy Spanish accent… On the condition that I carried his computer monitor to the next building for him.
At Mirail, there are no worries about whether you’ll be able to follow the lesson or not. You cross that bridge if you ever find it.
Of course I didn’t just get lost around my Uni. There is plenty of Toulouse to get lost in. And a fantastic transport system which can get you lost quickly, efficiently and on time.
The Un-Frenchman (whom I woke up at midnight) reckons (and I’d hazard a guess he’s right) that the best sign you’re getting to know a city is getting lost in it. And boy did Kettle and I get lost in it.
FAIL: After a trip to the cinema with Kettle (who had by this point got to grips with boiling water in a saucepan), we decided to get the bus back to Chapou. Deciding that the bus that arrived was definitely the same one as I’d got coming into town (it wasn’t) and that it would go back roughly the same way (it didn’t) we got on. It wasn’t until we were one stop away from the terminus that we decided all hope was lost and quickly bailed, with a view to heading back on foot to where we knew.
There aren’t many bits of Toulouse I fear being mugged in. We found one of them. Having ignored a greeting of “Eh meuf, bonsoir !” (Hey lady, evening!) by a dodgy looking stranger, I was glad of Kettle’s presence as we discovered Toulouse’s red light district, were heckled by hobos rummaging through bins (“Excuse us for being hungry”) and received regular phone calls from the Un-Frenchman to check on our well being and location and to provide taxi numbers.
Kettle was the epitomy of bravery and masculinity, until we made it to the train station, where, having missed the last bus and metro, we took a taxi home- it was at this point Kettle admitted he’d been feeling a little more like a teapot on the inside.
Come to think of it, I spent a lot of my first term less than sure of my surroundings…
WIN: I discovered the delight (and fear of death by French motorist) of Velô Toulouse (bike rental is THE way to travel), with The Pirate of the CariBean, who’s little land legs reached the peddles with some adjustment. Of the seat, not her legs.
FAIL: Although we didn’t die, we did accidentally end up at the prison. Not in it. AT it.
EIMA, our Erasmus Association extraordinaire, did their bit in keeping us entertained and showing us what’s where (I promptly forgot). Even with the guidance of my adoptive French mother-guardians Trop Bien and Palm Tree (we’re a modern family), I still managed to make a tit of myself in style.
WIN: I entered a Toulouse-themed not quite pub quiz with a few of (who eventually became) my Idiots Abroad and came away with a free beer token (and beer is dear).
FAIL: At this not quite pub quiz was where I met CariBean, mistook her for a Spaniard, asked her if she knew what one of my facurite expletives meant and complimented her English. Turns out she’s from somewhere near Kent.
WIN: I was dead excited to get my Erasmus Treasure Hunt on, particularly because there were extra points for silly photos (and I happen to be a master, even unintentionally).
FAIL: Once we were let loose around Toulouse, we soon lost our bearings and motivation and ended up in a crêperie for the afternoon.
WIN: I was pretty proud of myself for getting up early for a cultural tour of Toulouse. And really enjoyed most of it.
FAIL: After two hours, Kettle and I bailed for a (semi-cultural at least) kebab.
WIN: We even managed a nighttime tour of Toulouse. I took loads of pretty pictures. Mainly of and from bridges. I like bridges. Especially when they’re all lit up and shiny.
FAIL: It took me three attempts to identify Pont Neuf. Which is, like, the big daddy of bridges in Toulouse. And contrary to what the name suggests, the oldest.
WIN: As you’d imagine, a bowling/ karaoke Erasmus night went down a storm, being completely universal. Aside from the Italians going wild for a few show stoppers I could only hum at. My bowling got steadily worse as I got through a few two euro fifty Desperados, but my abysmal score was more than made up for by knowing every word to L’Aventurier by Indochine. Our rendition was priceless.
FAIL: I found myself a bit Desperado for a whizz, so tipsily trotted off to what I assumed was the ladies. Coming out of the cubicle, I was shocked (sobered?) to see two men. Red-faced, I slunk back to the group, marvelling at how I’d managed to end up in the men’s. Oh no no, say my newly acquainted Idiots Abroad, mixed sex toilets are perhaps more common than single sex, have another drink.
I finally started getting to grips with the place, especially after the first month. I call this the Marauders’ Map Effect. You get to know bits because your favourite Subway is there, or because someone had to take a tactical toilet stop there on a long walk home after a night out… And then all of a sudden you go for a walk, take a new route and the gaps in the map all fill in. You go from having a blank sheet to an inky mess of what and who’s where. And that’s when you start feeling like a local, or at the very least, less of an imposter. Even Easyjet emailed me in Toulouse to welcome me home.
WIN: I passed for a française for the first time just before taking my French proficiency test, a little after my first month. It helps that I have a French name. But it was nice to hear “So you’re definitely not French? Or Francophone?”
FAIL: Not only did the invigilator almost refuse me entry for having a French name, but the test was shambolic and I was almost thrown out again for having a giggle fit. I was already struggling, having seen the state of the room they’d put us all in, to take anything seriously. I’d already made a gag about them shipping all the foreigners into the one room with a roof that could cave in at any second.
Then imagine having to listen to a recording of the oldest, frailest French lady imaginable, with the most high pitched, croaky, wobbly voice. Bless her, she was hilarious. To top it off though, every 5 seconds Mirail’s finest speakers spat out an almighty fart. I’d just happened to be seated with a group of mainly English speakers, most of whom I’d already met. We almost managed to keep a straight face until we all looked at each other. Between us we did nothing for the reputation of British students.
I’d almost recovered when the one student taking things seriously (and she must have been the only one) turned to me and asked that I make less noise during a very important test. Like I said, I’d almost recovered. I quickly apologised. Then inadvertently cackled in her face.
WIN: Everything around me slowly switched over to French. Spotify and Google Ads were first to make the transition. Over Christmas, a cashpoint in York rail station accepted my English debit card with a “Vos détails sont en cours de vérification”. Facebook too, but strangely incompetently so (not that I often notice).
FAIL: I wasn’t immune from the Language Switchover. I call this Bilingual Seepage and it happens most when I’m tired, stressed, drunk and/or in the company of bilinguals. It’s led to a few inadvertent howlers, such as “good idée”. It’s also for this reason I don’t notice Facebook’s slip-ups.
I quickly got used to the food. Sure, it took living in France (and eating a 3-cheese panini) to realise I REALLY dislike cheese that tastes like cheese, but I’ve been delighted by French cuisine (as soon as I learnt how to say “well done”). I even got over the fact that compote has the consistency of baby food. But that doesn’t mean I always eat à la française …
WIN: After my third weekly Subway, I finally got to grips with the ordering system of the various establishments (I’ve found 3 so far). Questions such as “Have you chosen your bread?” and “What are we putting on this?” seem less strange to me.
FAIL: It still didn’t stop me getting the gender of turkey wrong.
DOUBLEFAIL: I got so used to French Subway that, upon my return, in the company of The Wife and The Messiah, I asked for “parmesan and origan”. The Messiah quickly stepped in with a “She means herbs and cheese. She’s been in France for a bit.”
WIN: The cleverdick serving asked whether in France you get wine and cheese as a side. I replied that no you don’t, but you can get Heineken.
I even (and as you might suspect, Reader, this has been quite a feat) managed to make Chapou kinda homely.
WIN: I bought Carrefour’s own cutlery and plates for an absolute bargain and some lucky Erasmus student to come gets to inherit them in their acid green glory.
FAIL: I still peel potatoes with a steak knife, Erasmus style.
FAIL: For the first three months my favourite moan was the lack of shutters in my room. As you may have already read, my solution was to hang a bed sheet over my window. Which was great until I wanted to open it.
WIN: After many arguments, being seen less than clothed twice and a privacy protest involving me leaving my bins on my window sill (this started out because I was too lazy to take a particularly smelly bin down, but it gave me an idea), Chapou fitted my room with a blackout blind. I like to walk around naked sometimes. Because I can.
WIN: Chapou even stretched as far as fitting a desk lamp, which I originally deemed nice, but unnecessary.
FAIL: Unnecessary until I realised that I have a bi-polar big light. The bulb is fine, but there are good days and dark days…
FAIL: I’ve said this before, but French pillows are inexplicably square. All of them. For weeks I had three rectangular pillow cases and a square pillow folded in half.
WIN: I’d accepted this as the Erasmus way and was quite content with the set-up when my Ma (you can see now why I call her The Coordinator) decided to make room for a rectangular pillow in her case when she and The Bank came to visit. Thanks, Ma.
For every day when anything or everything has seemed too hard, too frustrating, I’ve had dozens more that have seemed scarily effortless, or so much fun it ought to be illegal.
And even when things have gone thoroughly tits up, we’ve managed to have a good laugh about them.
So happy New Year, Reader. I hope you’re ready for the year to come and that it brings you as much laughter and adventure as I’m anticipating.
Toulouse, 20th December, 2am: I’m frantically packing my hand luggage- for this is all I dare trek across Toulouse, London and finally Doncaster with (with what little remains of my Erasmus grant).
I’m making fast decisions because I have to be up at six. Santa hat or pyjamas? Definitely Santa hat. I’ll be wearing that Christmas morning even if I’m in the buff under my dressing gown.
After three hours sleep, I make it to the airport, am checked in and security checked (the meat I later find it may or may not be illegal to transport outside the country goes unnoticed) and I’m napping in the departure lounge with two hours to go before my flight. Not that I’m keen.
London, 20th December, 1pm: Having spent the duration of the flight hearing and speaking French (helping a 4 year-old bilingual read her story book and effectively sitting through the safety demonstration twice), it’s a bit of shock to the system to arrive in London. Every time I bump into someone (which is a lot), one part of my brain is occupied with analysing whether it’s a bad enough bump to warrant a “pardon” (as is a necessary thought process in France) and another is responsible for finding the appropriate apologetic expression in the appropriate language. The result is the equivalent of a chunk of my brain announcing “GUYS, I GOT THIS!”, running around in circles a few times, then colliding sharply with a hard surface. Some combinations it throws at me are “par-sorry”, “sorry, madame”, “pardon me”, or simply “excuse me” in a strong French accent.
The more people and ticket barriers I have to contend with, the more my brain falls into disarray. And the more my brain falls into disarray, the less control I seem to have over my language.
Call it “language seepage”, “bilingual diarrohea”, “Franglish runs”… It results in a hilarious phone call with my dear father, who eventually gives up after I tell him “ ’Y a trop du monde and I don’t like it!” and he tells me to text him when I get to Kings Cross.
During said phone call, a woman approaches me and offers to help me with my rogue barrier. In her mind she’s probably taking pity on either an adolescent who at least looks old enough to be travelling alone or a lost foreigner. Either way, I gratefully accept her help with a desperate-sounding “Papa, there’s a lady- she’s going to help me” and a pleading look in her direction.
Doncaster, 20th December, 4pm: Baffled by the direction of traffic and feeling a little like Gandalf in the Mines of Moria, with (according to some) a disappointing lack of French accent, I’m safely back in my hometown. And after three terms and a long summer in York, it really has been a long time since I was properly here.
It slowly dawned on me, between stepping off the plane and climbing into my mother’s car that I felt a bit like a foreigner again. And I wondered at what point I’d stopped feeling so foreign in France.
I’ve become so used to France’s oddities that a few things about Blighty now seem odd, for example:
- The lack of general nonchalance in manner and pace- other than the constant bonjour-ing and wishing of bonnes journées and soirées
- The lack of a good weekly protest- my favourite being when Toulouse city centre was overrun by tractors- (there was also the procession of Santa Clauses on the backs of red motorbikes, pipping and heckling as they sped down the road, but it’s not always easy to tell what’s a protest and what isn’t… )
- Legible handwriting- how odd it is to actually be able to read the written word- unless of course you’re reading a prescription
- Zebra crossings actually being used as such- in France it’s very much a case of “Zebra crossing? What zebra crossing? Oh you mean the road decoration there…”
- No Entry signs actually being taken seriously (particularly at Mirail, barriers and the like are considered a mere inconvenience, a slight obstacle in one’s path- in fact one of my favourite routes to class involves marching through a door labelled “intérdit”)
- The existence of Health and Safety as a whole (how irritating it is to be constantly reminded to “mind your head”)
- Rectangular pillows (and they call Britain a nation of “squares”- I’ve been folding my square French pillow in half so it’ll fit inside my rectangular English pillow case)
- Differing approaches to alcohol consumption and ID’ing- in Toulouse, during the same shopping trip, I once bought a pudding containing 1% alcohol and was warned that excessive alcohol consumption is dangerous… only to self-scan a knife and two bottles of wine, no questions asked
- Crap public transport- it’s nice to be able to have a good moan at National Rail again
- Fast food living up to its (appallingly bad) expectations- even gourmet McDonald’s (served with beer if you like) gets a bit old
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and it’s nice to be back at my home from home. And in the New Year, I’ll be heading back to my home from home. I can’t decide if I’m home everywhere or home nowhere. But I’m glad to be here for Christmas. It’s nice to remember what life in Blighty is like. And it’s good practice for my English.
Bonnes fêtes à tous !
Year Abroad veterans, such as The Un-Frenchman, Palm Tree and Trop Bien warned me that the first two months would be the most difficult. There would be tears. Missing people. Missing inanimate objects. Missing things you’d never imagine you’d miss. Like baked beans. More tears. Anger. Frustration. Confusion. Hurt. Wanting to bury your head in sand until French people seem less foreign. Getting lost. Fearing for your life/ safety/ possessions. More tears. Getting so bloody irritated by the amount of paperwork certain simple transactions require. Marvelling at how wonderfully (or otherwise) bonkers and unpredictable life au Mirail is. And more tears.
But sure enough, my two-month anniversary came around (on the 19th) – it flew by and yet it felt like I’d been here forever all at the same time. On this day, I had a real sense of belonging to my beloved ville d’accueil. In a weird sense, I’d laid down some tentative roots, developed a sense of pride, of loyalty, gone from tip-toeing around the place to rediscovering my swag. My still slightly socially awkward swag, but swag nonetheless.
I’d emerged from the Two-Month Zone feeling like I was on top.
I had lived in a foreign country for two months. And not died. Not even got that close to mortal peril. And all the things I’d panicked about pre-Feck Off seemed either irrelevant or like distant memories.
It was of course at this very moment that a mass of proverbial merde descended upon my head.
Out of the Zone- On the First Day of Failure…
The morning of my first day out of the Two-Month Zone saw the start of my “partiels”, my mid-term exams. I had spent a good portion (20 minutes) of the evening before revising Modern Greek. I was as prepared for my exam as I was prepared to be.
I arrived with plenty of time to soothe my lack-of-caffeine-induced migraine with the largest coffee France can offer (a café long or allongé, which despite the comical size of French mugs is still only half the size of a small Starbucks). My caffeine-starved brain was not best impressed by the three old wenches too busy gassing by the coffee machine, which was flashing “prélever”, to notice that their drinks were ready. I recovered from a near-homicidal meltdown with two cafés longs and some choco-vanilla Madeleines (possibly the best vending machine breakfast one can get).
Sufficiently dosed up and thoroughly unfussed at the prospect of taking an exam, I rolled on over to the (only slightly less dreaded at this point of the term) Batiment 13, with just a little more than a few holiday Greek phrases in my head. The Greek/Arabic section of the department is always (perhaps expectedly) quiet, but at that moment it was suspiciously so.
Realising after some time that (due to a classic Mirail miscommunication**) I was supposed to have been in a, wait for it, Communication Studies exam for the last 45 minutes and that my Greek exam wasn’t until the following day, I left campus in an utter strop and sought to console myself with Grimm, my current dose of crap American TV of choice.
I checked my post on the way in, to find three official and important looking letters, that would probably require at least some thought to read. I tossed them unceremoniously onto my bed.
Waiting for the episode to buffer, I began opening one of the letters and was surprised to see that is was from Chapou, my residence itself. I looked up to my laptop screen to check progress and spotted a suspicious-looking message in what even I could recognise as slightly awkward French.
I was in the bad part of the internet.
Quickly closing down the live sex chat website I’d stumbled across, as well as several pop-ups from the Chapou server reminding me I shouldn’t gamble (and being asked several times if I was sure I wanted to navigate away from this page), I looked again properly at the letter in my lap.
The letter politely but firmly reminded me that I was 11 days late in paying my rent and requested (ordered) that I pay up in the next two days (and left out the implicit “or else” in everything but tone).
The evidence would suggest, then, that I am a failing student who doesn’t show up to exams or class and instead spends all her time (and rent money) on porn websites.
So if I haven’t been kicked out of my host uni or my residence by Christmas, I’ll deem this year a success.
**I would love to share with you the exact nature of the classic Mirail miscommunication, but, in my lack of foresight, I have linked my York Erasmus coordinator to my blog and I fear I would shoot myself in the foot somewhat to go into any more detail (let’s just say, for the record, I was ill?)
The Second Day of Fail- From Bad to Worse
Having sufficiently laughed off my first major academic Erasmus fail, I dusted myself down and told myself that at least I had been prepared for my Modern Greek exam for over 24 hours by this point.
You’d think I’d have made it on time, wouldn’t you?
So I give myself a good 50 minutes to get there and to hopefully have 5-10 minutes spare before the start (and given the phenomenon of FMT- French Median Time- it’s likely to be more).
I decide that since it has been known to be quicker in some circumstances, I will take an alternative route. This involves a (rather picturesque) walk along the canal, then across the river to St Cyprien, which is halfway along the right Metro line for Le Mirail and cuts out the bus journey and the connecting Metro. It does however take about 20 minutes on foot.
No matter: I have loads of time, remember?
I’m also using this occasion to test the reactions of French people towards an adult female wearing a capped beanie. It’s cold and I’m feeling nonchalant enough to pull it off. Mixed reactions as it turns out.
So I make it to the Metro station in reasonable time and I flash my Tisseo card at the disabled access metro barrier for the sole reason that it’s closer and that I’m starting to get nervous about being late. Despite the complete absence of wheelchair users, I immediately regret this decision (and not only because there’s something quintessentially British about disapproving of this kind of thing). I’m faced with an able-bodied but older man attempting to use the same gate as an exit.
Although I may look like a devil-may-care adolescent, in my capped beanie and baggy jeans, I’m not prepared to act like one. So regardless of who’s more in the wrong in this situation (there is a- if somewhat tenuous- direction of flow in all metro stations), I step back to let him pass.
My crucial mistake here is that I’ve stepped back having already validated my Tisseo card. And as in most metro stations worldwide, patience is not a virtue. You validate, it flashes green, you go. There’s no going back. There’s no hesitating. And I’ve done my fair share of eye-rolling as “tourists” find themselves in front of the barriers before rummaging for their ticket. This act of kindness or whatever has cost me the chance to enter the Metro in the conventional way.
So in a moment of panic at the thought of missing my second exam in as many days, I jog over to one of the general access barriers, plant my hands on either side of the thing, tuck my knees to my chin and launch myself over the barrier.
Faced with many disapproving looks and some audible tutting, I decide in my infinite wisdom to continue the facade of having done whatever wrong-doing they suspect me of and continue my jog down to the lower levels like a smooth criminal.
In a stroke of apparent luck, there’s a metro waiting, so I can avoid any further judgment.
I allow myself a smug smile as the doors close and as I let less-experienced travellers hold on to the poles for stability (I feel at this stage that I know every bump, turn and sudden acceleration on both lines).
It’s not until we reach the second stop that I realise that I’m travelling in completely the opposite direction to the one I intended.
Long story short, I turned up to my exam breathless, flushed, 15 minutes late, but with a cracking excuse, which I enthusiastically recounted (sadly not in Greek).
Instead, I told my Greek teacher that her cat was called Aphrodite, that I am from Toulouse but am currently in England, that I am married and that I am 10.
Passed with flying colours then. Kinda like my Erasmus year. Flying fecking colours…
Special Edition- Multilingual Blogging Day: Una Soleta Lenga Basta Pas Jamai (Mon Aerolisador Es Plen d’Anguilas)
Cher lecteur, chère lectrice,
Aujourd’hui c’est le Multilingual Blogging Day, qui a comme but d’encourager les gens à s’exprimer dans d’autres langues, surtout dans la blogosphère. J’aimerais donc en profiter en écrivant non seulement en ma langue maternelle (translation for anglophones below !), mais aussi en la langue que j’ai passé la moitié de ma vie à apprendre et à perfectionner.
Quand j’étais petite, j’étais obsédée par les codes secrets. Je voulais être espionne ou détective (mon rêve de devenir détective comme le fameux Hercule Poirot s’est réalisé le jour de mes 20 ans, où je me suis déguisée pour une soirée Eurovision…) De toutes mes ambitions pour l’avenir, c’était la moins stupide. Je voulais être vétérinaire. Mais je déteste les animaux. Je voulais être médecin. Mais j’ai peur du sang. Je voulais être conductrice de bus. Mais je me perds super facilement et en plus, j’aurais du mal à stationner une bicyclette…
Je m’éloigne du sujet.
Cette obsession de parler en code secret, je l’ai toujours. Mais cette obsession s’est transformée en un désir de bien parler plusieurs « codes », de langues, quoi. Même là je savais que je voulais appendre des langues, d’être linguiste même.
(Ne Pas) Passer pour une Française
Quand j’étais un enfant, je voulais pouvoir parler avec mes amis sans que personne ne nous comprenne. Aujourd’hui, si je parle et on ne me comprend pas, c’est un catastrophe, un désastre. Un peu dramatique, peut-être, mais j’ai beaucoup travaillé pour pouvoir passer pour une française (bien que j’aie les cheveux roux et la peau très pâle, ce qui n’est pas très courant dans le sud de la France, ça m’arrive de temps en temps)… Cependant, il y a quelques semaines, j’étais au Stadium de Toulouse pour voir le Stade Toulousain joue du rugby contre l’équipe de Leicester et puisqu’on m’a entendu parler en anglais avec mes amis britanniques, américains et finlandais, on m’a traité de fan de Leicester. J’étais folle de colère !
Mais voilà le probleme ! Je parlais en anglais. C’est un fait de nos jours qu’il existe très peu de gens qui ne comprennent pas au moins quelques petits mots en anglais. Et quel vrai fan du Stade, fier de leur équipe (qui avait gagné) parle en anglais, la langue de l’équipe opposé, en quittant le stadium ?
C’est une question d’identité et de fierté. Je suis fière de ma ville d’accueil (et de son équipe de rugby) et je suis fière de là d’où je viens, mais surtout, je suis fière de mes deux langues et du fait que je parle deux langues (même si je parle souvent du franglais !). Ce qui est difficile, c’est de savoir quand je devrais parler l’un ou l’autre.
La Fierte Linguistique, La Fierté Occitan
Au sujet de la fierté linguistique et du multilinguisme, ici à Toulouse j’ai eu l’occasion de voir un peu de ce que c’est que la fierté occitan. Pendant ma première semaine ici, il y avait le festival Occitania, avec de la musique, des gens en déguisement et en costume traditionnel et énormément de vaches (en plastique).
J’ai donc décidé d’apprendre quelques mots et expressions en Occitan pour votre plaisir ce jour de Multilingual Blogging Day. Pendant cinq jours, j’ai tenté d’apprendre le plus que possible- étant étudiante à Toulouse, au cœur de l’Occitanie, je pensais que ça ne serait pas trop dur comme challenge… Mais bon.
J’avoue que j’aurais pu assister à un cours d’Occitan au Mirail, mais puisque ça a pris un mois et demi pour avoir un emploi du temps, j’ai décidé que ça ne vaut pas la peine, que ce serait de la torture quoi… Ben alors, j’ai parlé avec des gens qui ont appris quelques phrases en occitan de leurs grands-parents, j’ai bien écouté les annonces en Occitan sur le métro, j’ai regardé les noms des rues, j’ai cherché un peu sur internet…
Ça n’a pas été facile. Mais j’ai appris de l’Occitan en l’honneur de Multilingual Blogging Day.
Bon vèspre ! Va plan ? Fa bèla pausa ! Me dison Larousse. Encantada ! Soi pas nascut a Tolosa. Parlatz Occitan ? Jamai de la vida ? Eh ben perqué parli Occitan ? M’escapi, que soi pressat. Mon aerolisador es plen d’anguilas. Vate cagar a la vigna !
Bon après-midi. Ca va ? Ca fait longtemps ! Je m’appelle Larousse. Enchantée ! Je ne suis pas née à Toulouse. Parlez-vous Occitan ? Jamais de votre vie ? Bon ben, pourquoi je parle en Occitan, moi ? Je file parce que je suis pressé. Mon aéroglisseur est plein d’anguilles. Va chier dans le vignoble (fous le camp) !
Bon voilà. Après cinq jours de petites recherches, je peux me passer pour une folle Occitanophone, qui ne sait plus d’où elle vient ou bien à qui elle parle. C’est ça la joie d’apprendre.
La Belle Vie d’une Bilingue
Promouvoir la diversité et la fierté linguistique, c’est pour ça que ça existe le Multilingual Blogging Day. C’est pour ça que me voilà à Toulouse, moi, un linguiste francophone qui parle un peu d’Occitan et qui se perd toujours très facilement- et non juste parce que Le Mirail est un labyrinthe (un piège pour l’étudiant Erasmus qui n’en soupçonne rien…)
J’ai appris une centaine de choses pendant mes deux mois ici, mais la plus importante, la plus personnelle, c’est que la langue (soit-elle la deuxième, ou cinquième), ça fait partie de soi. Le bilinguisme, le multilinguisme, ça donne mal à la tête, des rêves bizarres (et multilingues), c’est dur, c’est fatiguant, mais il y de quoi en être fier. Penser du monde de deux (ou plusieurs) perspectives, ça c’est quelque chose à désirer à mon avis.
Vous ne pouvez pas savoir quand vous aurez besoin d’expliquer que votre aéroglisseur est plein d’anguilles…
[Traduction anglaise/ English version]
Today is Multilingual Blogging Day, the point of which is to encourage people to express themselves in other languages throughout the blogosphere. So, with or without your permission, I’d like to take this opportunity to write not only in my mother tongue, but in the language I’ve spent half of my life learning and perfecting (see above).
When I was little, I was a bit obsessed with secret codes. I wanted to be a spy, or a detective (my dream of becoming a detective like the famous Hercule Poirot came true on the eve of my 20th birthday, when I went as “Belgium” for Eurovision…) Of all my ambitions for the future, it was the least stupid. I wanted to be a vet. But I hate animals. I wanted to be a doctor. But I’m terrified of blood. I wanted to be a bus driver. But I get lost ridiculously easily and I’d have trouble parking a bike, if I’m honest…
This obsession with speaking in secret codes has stayed with me, but it’s become a desire to speak quite a few “codes” well. I’m talking about languages of course. Even then I knew that I wanted to learn languages, to be a linguist even.
(Not) Passing for a French Person
When I was a kid, I wanted to be able to speak with my friends without anyone understanding us. Now, if I speak and people don’t understand me, it’s a catastrophe, a disaster. Okay, a little dramatic maybe, but I’ve worked bloody hard to be able to pass for a French person (even though I have red hair and very pale skin- which isn’t all that common in the south of France-it does happen occasionally). However, a few weeks ago, I was at the Stadium de Toulouse to watch Stade Toulousain play rugby against Leicester and since someone heard me speaking English with some British, American and Finnish friends, they mistook me for a Leicester fan. I was outraged.
But there’s the problem. I was speaking in English. It’s pure fact today that there remain very few people who don’t at least speak a few words of English. And what kind of true Stade Toulousain fan goes around speaking English, the language of the other team, as they leave the stadium?!
It’s a question of identity. And of pride. I am proud of the city I’m starting to belong to (and of its rugby team), of where I come from, of my two languages and of the fact that I do speak two languages. What’s difficult is to know when to use one or the other…
Linguistic Pride, Occitan Pride
Since we’re talking about linguistic pride, here in Toulouse I’ve had the great opportunity to see a little of what Occitan pride is all about. During my first week here, the Festival Occitania was going on (making a lot of noise!) with great music and people dressed up in costumes and traditional dress… And a heck of a lot of cows. Plastic cows.
So I decided to learn a few words and phrases in Occitan, for your reading pleasure this Multilingual Blogging Day. Over the last five days, I’ve tried to learn as much as possible- and being an Erasmus student in Toulouse, at the very heart of Occitania, I didn’t think this would be a huge challenge. But anyway…
I’ll admit that I could have tried going to an Occitan class at Le Mirail, but since it’s taken me a month and bit to get a timetable of my very own, I figured it wasn’t worth the very torture that this would entail. So instead, I talked to people who’d learnt a bit of Occitan from their grandparents, I had a good listen to the announcements on the metro, I looked more closely at the street names and I had a gander online.
It’s not been easy. But this is what I came up with, in honour of Multilingual Blogging Day.
Bon vèspre ! Va plan ? Fa bèla pausa ! Me dison Larousse. Encantada ! Soi pas nascut a Tolosa. Parlatz Occitan ? Jamai de la vida ? Eh ben perqué parli Occitan ? M’escapi, que soi pressat. Mon aerolisador es plen d’anguilas. Vate cagar a la vigna !
Good afternoon! How are you? It’s been a while. I’m called Larousse. Pleased to meet you! I was not born in Toulouse. Do you speak Occitan? Never in your life? Well then, why am I speaking Occitan? I’m off, I’m in a hurry. My hovercraft is full of eels. Go take a shit in the vineyard (piss off).
So there you have it. After five days of doing bits of research, I can confidently pass for a mad old Occitan speaker , who’s no longer sure where she’s from, or even who she’s talking to. And that, my friends, is the joy of learning.
La Belle Bilingual Vie
To promote linguistic diversity and pride- it’s for this very reason that Multilingual Blogging Day exists. It’s why I’m here in Toulouse- me, a French-speaking linguist, who knows all of about 8 sentences of mad Occitan and who still gets lost very easily (and not just because Le Mirail is a labyrinth, no, a trap for the unsuspecting Erasmus student…)
I’ve learnt hundreds of very useful things during my first two months in Toulouse. But the most important and the one that means most to me personally, is that your language (even your second, third, or fifth language…) becomes a part of you. Bilingualism, multilingualism, it gives you headache, it makes you dream strange things in several languages, it’s hard, it’s tiring, but you can be pretty bloody proud of it. And that’s really something, in my humble opinion.
You can never know when you might need to explain that your hovercraft is full of eels.