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…
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.
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.
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…
Not that there’s any truth to the stereotype surrounding Erasmus students- you know, that they are all die-hard party addicts (or “fêtards” as you might say in French), who spend their grants on beer, wine, coffee and Red Bull- but when I was awoken at half past 8 by a friendly electrician wishing to install a desk lamp, I nervously looked at the nineteen empty bottles littering my kitchen area and the random assortment of dirty drinking utensils (old jam jars included…)
And at that moment, the friendly electrician asked, “Ah, vous êtes Erasmus?”
Okay, so occasionally, there is some truth to stereotype.
This was the morning after my first clandestine room party. It was broken up at half past midnight by night security (which is quite impressively late by Chapou standards) and participants were treated to a lecture on how some students would be getting up in the morning to work to pay for their studies. Definitely a dig at the “sponging” Erasmus, but I wasn’t going to offer a rebuke about the vast difference in cost between studying in the UK and studying in France.
We were also accused of talking so loudly that he could tell we were speaking English from the elevator. This is half a lie, because we were playing Multilingual Twenty-One (there were a range of rules, such as “every player says odd numbers in their own language” and “language switches between French and English depending on the gender of the last player’s cat” or something- I lost track). Anyway, point being, we were in the presence of Token French Person and friends and The Ameri-Fin (a trilingual Fin, whose particular brand of English is a blend of US accents- sometimes to hil-AR-ious effect)- so there was definitely more French than Mr Night Security was making out…
The best thing about the morning after the clandestine room party, however, was that I had received (admittedly not much) notice that someone would be coming. I had been asked to clear my desk, which at the time of reading my note looked like this:
I assumed when they said “desk”, that they would mean, well, my desk. So, before going to bed, I quickly shifted everything off of my desk onto either the floor under the desk or onto the bed-side shelf (for want of a better term). I didn’t quite expect that the “desk” lamp would in fact be fitted onto the shelf and that the wire would need to be run across the floor under the desk…
(Night)life Toulousaine- Off the Clock Erasmus Students
There’s a clear difference in attitudes towards student life in England and France. In England, it’s pretty much accepted that “students will be students”, however right or wrong that is. And in France- well, it depends who you talk to.
In my experience, however, the cultural difference manifests itself a little like this:
[An email from the registrar to all students] University of York: I want to draw your attention to Regulation 7, Student Discipline […] to ensure that members of the University are very clear about the line between high-spirited fun and fundamentally antisocial or criminal behaviour.
We will not hesitate to take disciplinary action in cases where injury or distress is caused to others, or where the University is brought into disrepute.
[A stern telling-off at 9:56pm] Cité Universitaire de Chapou: “Vous faites trop de bruit. Dans la rue/ You’re making too much noise. Go into the street.”
I haven’t quite figured out where on the scale students of other nationalities lie either, ‘cos I’ve met some pretty crazy Germans, Spaniards and Italians… The trick to being an Erasmus student, therefore, is to make the most of your Year Abroad, meeting and keeping contact with as many people as possible, all in attempting to avoid being perceived as a foreigner misbehaving abroad.
Le Cercle de Feu
However, Reader, don’t be mistaken in thinking that all of our soirées are out-of-control gatherings of alcohol-fueled idiots abroad- some of them are really quite-well, sort of- well, a bit- cultural. And educational.
For example, one night we drank wine and sangria and translated Ring of Fire (popular drinking card game, for non-students) into French for the benefit of Token French Person and friends. We taught them “the waterfall (or “cascade” as it was called- where you start and stop drinking once the person on your right does) and we attempted a bilingual “storytime”. It was no Harry Potter.
Maybe that’s a bad example.
Wine-Tasting of the Cari-bean
Another evening, we had a wine-tasting (with cheese) at the Pirate of the Cari-bean’s flat.
This is the only photo I have of any cheese.
We got to try lots of different types of wine though…
Very few people chose to employ the traditional “taste then spit” method, however.
Okay, no one chose to employ the traditional “taste then spit” method.
Someone perhaps should have done.
So, as I woke up on a sofa in Jolimont at 9am the next morning, I declared that the wine-tasting had been a great success. The card game that we were playing just before I fell asleep, less so.
And perhaps I should choose my friends more carefully…
This wasn’t a good example either…
La Perruque Rose et La Chemise Perdue
Well, there was the Soirée Rose, organised by EIMA.
Now this definitely isn’t a good example.
It could have been the perfect example, in that it brought together all the Erasmus students, in celebrating our beautiful and lively ville d’accueil, our host city, our Ville Rose. The theme was, quite simply, “pink” and there were some daring get-ups- tutus, hair dye, onsies and skin-tight lycra suits. The theme was something of an issue for Larousse’s wardrobe- I own nothing pink. And yet I managed to acquire a wig. And clash or no clash, I was going to wear it.
And, French being the obvious lingua franca in a situation where, in this case, English and Italian folk were chatting, I was getting some good practice in.
I’m going to admit now that constantly switching between my two languages is taking its toll- on English brain as much as French brain (I forgot the word “potato” yesterday).
However this cannot entirely excuse confusing the words “chaussette” and “chemise”.
Having left a shirt in the vestibule (I was wearing it as a kind of jacket, as the nights were still reasonably warm), I went to collect it at the end of the night.
And insisted several times that I was looking for my sock.
Bless the EIMA guy for humouring me as long as he did. Although to be fair, if he’d had less sangria, he’d probably have twigged I was having a vocabulary fail much sooner.
Bilingualism and booze clearly don’t mix.
And the Year Abroad is not for partying. Not just for partying. I leave you with the promise that I have many more cultural and educational things to tell you, Reader. Things I will be truly proud of in years to come. But although I may not be too proud of being sussed as an Erasmus student by the quantity of empties in my room, or of the Cup Incident, or of the Pink Wig Incident, or of confusing my chaussettes and my chemises, these are going to be some of my most cherished memories. The things I will bring up when I’m boring everyone with my “This one time, on my year abroad…” stories.
And, as my friend @danjwalker would say, YOHOYA (You Only Have One Year Abroad).
I celebrated my one-month anniversary on the 18th October. And Chapou, my cité universitaire, as if by way of congratulating me on surviving my first month, fitted my window with some shutters. I had the pleasure of uninterrupted sleep and privacy for a grand total of three days. Then they painted them and they’ve never closed since.
There have been trials and tribulations, but some beautiful memories forged. So in honour of my first month here, I thought I would share with you, Reader, some my fondest memories so far and some of my reflections on jobs well done. And not so well done.
On a High Note… Mirepoix and Montségur
I’ll start here, since this day was a real high point in my first month. It’s been a real uphill climb at times, but seeing the view from Montségur put me on a real high. I truly felt on top of the world. Yes, I literally climbed a mountain.
The trip involved getting up at the crack of dawn and heading to the gare routière (which we eventually figured out was “coach station”- it was early, okay?), which is right next to the train station, Marengo SNCF (I had been acquainted with the train station a week previously after getting hilariously lost at midnight- details to follow). There I ordered a Quick breakfast (pastry, yoghurt, bagel, coffee and juice galore for about 5 euros). There’s nothing like starting the day right.
From there we headed first to a quirky church a little way out from Mirepoix- the Church of Vals. The church was pretty and had some interesting history, as well as an unusual ceiling, but the highlight of my visit was the“ugly Jesus”, as I called it (see below). Maybe it was the sugar rush from the Minute Maid, but I was in raptures- excuse yet another pun.
It was also here that I had my second laughing fit of the day. It was barely 9am. Having (admirably, I think, considering the time of day) decided to follow the French tour rather than the English, we were milling around the top of the church, in a balcony/courtyard of sorts, waiting for the English speaking tour guide to finish. In a lull in conversation, we just happened to tune in to the tour guide’s schpeel, to hear the words (completely out of context), “…that well known French word, ‘carrot'”. The next photo pretty much sums up my reaction.
We then headed to Mirepoix, which is like walking into Disneyland Paris. Everything is a bit oddly colourful and shiny. Maybe a little too happy-looking for a village that was constructed after a devastating flood. After a wander around and much picture-taking, we spent a good two hours in a restaurant (which, while very French, may have had more to do with the very un-southern temperature). Someone sampled a typically toulousain cassoulet and I identified a need to find out the French for “well done meat- like well done and then some”. We then treated ourselves to hot chocolate and I educated Team Excursion in dipping bread in everything. Nemo tried educating us in Finnish table talk. And yet all I can remember in Finnish is rated PG.
Having been warned of a 25-minute walk requiring trainers, I wasn’t quite expecting a 40-minute upwards hike up against all of France’s classic nonchalance towards health and safety (even our guide had gone royally arse over tit by the time he made it down) and in trying to save one member of Team Excursion from tumbling to her death, I managed to accidentally grab both of her breasts. How else do you make friends for life?
At the top, to the horror of the two members of the team with fear of heights, I was too tempted by the rocks and remains of the fort to not climb them and demand pictures, getting increasingly more brave (read foolhardy).
We also discovered a hobbit cave and put our resident hobbit in it (she made the mistake of telling us that she and a similar-sized friend are nicknamed Pippin and Merry back home- I however, have a better nickname for her…)
Piracy Makes a Splash- My New Hobbies
I’m going to call our resident hobbit “Pirate of the Cari-bean”, for reasons I am about to explain. We didn’t get off to a great start, my partner in piracy and I. Firstly, I mistook her nationality and had her pegged as a Spaniard with an amazingly native-like level of English (although she should take this as a compliment to her Spanish), then, as aforementioned, I accidentally grabbed her breasts. However, thanks to her, I’ve rediscovered my love of film (French and otherwise) and have even started going swimming at least once a week (which for someone who feels seriously uncomfortable in any state of undress is kind of a big deal- and you are obliged to wear a swimming cap…). And aside from her love of water, film and Johnny Depp, it also turns out that she’s kind of from the Caribbean and (perhaps as a result) obsessed with pirates. Oh and I nearly accidentally drowned her as she giggled at being called a strange bean.
My quartier général, my regular haunt, has become the Gaumont cinema. It’s fast becoming a bi- or even tri-weekly thing, since it’s so cheap and easy entertainment when you’re already pretty knackered from Le Mirail’s hefty timetable. I ended up tagging along with Cari-bean (and our mutual friend, The Meerkat- one of the most animated characters I’ve ever met, mainly in facial expression but definitely also in personality) to see Frankenstein- the National Theatre performance which had been recorded. We seemed to get a lot more out of it than the French-speakers. Our group being apparently the only Anglophones in the room, a lot of the humour, not quite captured by the French subtitles, bypassed the French, leaving us chuckling to ourselves in our little English-speaking corner…
A Moment of Weakness
You can promise yourself you won’t do it. That you’re living abroad to have a taste of a new life, a new culture, a new country. And then you’ll find a pub that serves Newcy Brown and fish and chips…
We all succumbed- Cari-bean, The Meerkat and I. It was beautiful and amazing and just what we needed and we might even go back. So there. And no, I’m not touching foie gras, thankyou very much.
Dangerous With a Non-Lethal Weapon
For the first time in my life, I am within perfectly reasonable distance from a Laser Quest. So, aged 20, I was ridiculously excited when I found out EIMA was planning to book the place for all the Erasmus students.
The first time around I was so excited that my heavy-footed running about and cackling manically as I did so kind of gave the game away and I finished 22nd. I had also become so disorientated in the dark, the warm and in my childlike glee that I ran headfirst into a wall, poked myself with my non-lethal weapon and ended up with the most glorious purple bruise the following morning.
The second time round however, my team was keen to make up for its awful overall performance in the first bout (with three players actually ending up with minus scores). There were therefore many calls to “take the bridge”, a strategy that would allow us to pick off opponents that had not managed to make it to higher ground.
I was ruthless.
Hiding behind a barrier, holding my gun over the side of the bridge and peeping through a hole in the structure to aim, the voice that accompanies you around the Quest (in English) barely had time to tell me (in a creepy, Terminator-esque voice) “Well done…” before I’d hit my next target. Then, high on adrenaline, I began running down to the lower levels, creeping up on opponents sneaking around the maze-like ground level, then running away giggling as they tried to retaliate.
That time I finished 4th, with over 80 “kills” and a respectable number of “deaths” (when hit, you glow white, are deactivated for 5 seconds and the creepy voice declares, “Hit. Don’t give up! Don’t give up! Don’t give up!”)
Moral of the story: when given a non-lethal weapon, I am a danger to myself and others.
More Cultural Pursuits and the Pique-uh-Nique-uh Toulousain(g)
Don’t get the impression that I spend all my time indoors however. One thing I really love about Toulouse is that I struggle to not be contented with being anywhere outdoors. There are so many beautiful squares, quirky little streets, gardens, parks, not to mention the canals and the River Garonne.
A popular pastime, weather permitting (and it usually is), is picnicking somewhere pretty. So far, we’ve done La Prairie des Filtres, which looks out over the Garonne and is often host to various fêtes and festivals, the Jardin du Grand Rond, which was hosting a photography exhibition at the time, and the chateau on Le Mirail campus- perhaps the only pretty thing in the vicinity, I’ll be honest. On all occasions, we were all out in t-shirts and shorts in September/ October.
At the Jardin du Grand Rond, we discovered Crusty Crocs (don’t say that too quickly) and soon polished of an entire box. At the Prairie des Filtres, we tucked in to several boxes of wine between us and just, well, pickled over the course of the afternoon.
This, however, gave me the impression that drinking in public was perfectly acceptable, nay encouraged, in French culture. This lead to my first (and only so far) run in with the law. Oops.
Having been invited to have some drinks one evening at Place Saint Pierre, I gladly accepted and bought a bottle of wine for me and Kettle to share. Little did I know that this wasn’t a similar set-up to that which I’d experienced at Grand Rond. This was more of a riverside piss-up. Although there was also a photography exhibition.
Having almost finished the bottle, I was surprised to look up and find myself face to face with a police officer, who began to explain that I was kind of breaking the law and that the bottle of wine I was holding “must disappear”. Maybe I panicked, maybe several large glasses of wine had impaired my judgement, but I don’t think he was quite expecting me to neck it.
Thankfully he shrugged and moved on to have words with the next group along, who were evidently in the same (or worse) position than us.
To be continued… More of my (més)aventures!