The First Two Months Are the Hardest- The Win/Fail Diaries
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…