700 Miles: Driving (Amongst Other Things) Home for Christmas


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.

Go Team Elf!

Go Team Elf!

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:

  1. The lack of general nonchalance in manner and pace- other than the  constant bonjour-ing and wishing of bonnes journées and soirées
  2. 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… )
  3. Legible handwriting- how odd it is to actually be able to read the written word- unless of course you’re reading a prescription
  4. 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…”
  5. 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”)
  6. The existence of Health and Safety as a whole (how irritating it is to be constantly reminded to “mind your head”)

    Le Mirail's "The Student Trap"

    Le Mirail’s “The Student Trap”

  7. 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)
  8. 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

    The mother of all Desperados...

    The mother of all Desperados…

  9. Crap public transport- it’s nice to be able to have a good moan at National Rail again
  10. 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 !

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