A new face in a small town

Picture the scene: I was chatting to an artist inside her workshop; the walls were covered in watercolour paintings of the Norman countryside, while stacks of prints and unique painted bookmarks bordered the room. There were paintings of cows, drawings of foliage and caricatures of ‘typical Norman people’, some of whom I thought I recognised from the high street. It was clear for all to see that this place deserved the monopoly in this small town when it came to art.

But business was slowing. Ever since the council restructured the roads so that it would be easier for drivers to pass through the town, that’s exactly what they did. With no through traffic coming through the high street and no curious tourists stopping in on a whim, it is no wonder that many of the once bustling shops are now boarded up and empty.

So when we spotted an unknown man, hopping from door to door, weighed down by a huge portfolio, the conversation stopped. We stared out of the huge shop windows at him, we watched him enter the butcher’s across the street.

‘If Caroline buys one of his shoddy prints, I’ll never buy another sausage from her,’ said the artist. She made it out to be humorous – she knew her friend would never buy from another artist – but there was no mistaking the serious undertone.

We stood and stared at the butcher and the door to door seller for what seemed like hours. I kept reassuring the artist that her friend was probably just being polite and that she would not buy anything, but I couldn’t be sure.

After a while, both the butcher and the door to door seller looked us in the eyes. They had caught us staring at them and were staring back. The butcher smiled and waved.

The door to door seller left the butcher’s. She hadn’t bought anything, so he moved on to his next potential conquest. We watched as he was thrown out of the café as soon as he walked in. Then he moved on towards the opticians, but our line of vision was obscured by a parked van.

‘I wonder if he’ll come here,’ the artist said.

‘What would you say to him, if he did?’ I asked, interested. I knew this artist to be a feisty woman. I knew that she would not take kindly to someone so brazenly trying to undermine her business.

‘I’d tell him to eff off,’ she said, seriously, ‘you get to use that word an awful lot more when you get to my age.’

When the door to door seller eventually did appear, I knew I was in for a scene.

‘Bonjour Mesdames,’ he said, upon entering the workshop.

‘Have you got a license number?’ the artist shot at him, straight away. Apparently he did and he had had one for twenty years, but he was unwilling to show it or his business card to us.

‘It’s so pretty!’ he beamed, overenthusiastically, upon approaching almost every painting in the workshop. He practically skipped around the place. Meanwhile, the artist and I stood planted to the spot, watching him still. It is now easy for me to see why my reception in this town was not a warm one; it appears they don’t take too kindly to strangers. I couldn’t believe that I was now part of that act.

I stood like the artist’s henchman as she questioned the door to door seller and eventually showed him the door, just throwing an obligatory ‘Bonne journée’ out behind him.

I wondered where he would go next. In which small town would he next try to sell his pastel drawings of African sunsets? Was he even aware of the massive impact a sale would make, not only to the local businesses, but to the friendships of the people who owned them?

I don’t know.

But I don’t think he will be trying his luck in this small town again.

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Some advice: Post-Christmas Blues

Getting the blues is almost inevitable after the decorations have come down and the lights have been turned off. January is probably the worst month of the year in that respect: Christmas is over, there is no excuse to eat your entire body weight in chocolate, it’s back to work and back to school and a bunch of extremely annoying people are telling you to start a health-kick.

To top that all off, I had to return to a cold, rainy, grey and sunless Northern France for the worst month of the year.

So, to make this month slightly more bearable for you (and for me!), I have a few important tips:

  • Don’t force yourself to stick to a punishing diet: a raw, gluten-free, vegan, carb-free salad diet might help you shed some pounds quickly in the height of summer, but it is a bad idea to do this in the middle of winter. For one thing, you might need that extra padding for warmth (student housing, I’m looking at you). For another, cooking warm, hearty meals can make any rainy January day feel so much better. The diet can wait until the sun appears.
  • Stock up on reading materials: classic novels, cheap beach-reads, trashy magazines – who cares? Gather all your old favourites and one or two new reads and indulge yourself – preferably in front of a fire, with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows. Perfect.
  • Get a colouring book! I know, not the most original idea. But they are best-sellers for a reason. I have found that colouring in Johanna Basford’s beautiful Secret Garden is both relaxing and satisfying. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing and generally will produce something pretty, whichever colours you choose.
  • Stick the radio on: listening to the radio is such a great way to feel better, whether it’s music or chatting, because the presenters put in all the effort that you seem to lack this month. Also, you can listen to the radio wherever you are in the world, so it’s also a good way to make you feel connected with those at home.
  • Get on the phone: or Skype, FaceTime or whatever you use! I know some people say that when you’re abroad or away from home at university you should avoid relying too much on people at home, but I think that’s rubbish. Sometimes the one thing that can make you feel better is a call to your loved ones, so just do it. Plus, they will want to hear from you too.

Day 73-76 dans la maison de grand frère.

For anyone who isn’t bored of my constant weather reports, I measured a positively balmy 3 degrees in my bedroom on Thursday afternoon. Members of staff here were ‘hoping’ that the part to mend the boiler would arrive on Friday but if it doesn’t, it is likely that it won’t arrive until Monday at the earliest. If that is the case, consider this my appeal for accommodation to anyone in the Manche region.

Also that evening, I was able to sample the best of French vegetarian cuisine. I must say, it was an excellent dish for a bitterly cold December night. What was the delight? I hear you cry. That delight was some cold couscous to start and a plate of air for the main course – délicieux! Some helpful stranger told me not to worry, the salmon quiche is vegetarian. I think something might have escaped him there…

Not to brag, but I timed my Friday morning to perfection. I managed to escape the school early enough to avoid the confinement safety exercise, but late enough that I still had a respectable lie-in. I pottered around the town for a while, before going to a café/bar that I have frequented on many occasions for a little hot chocolate. Seeing as I been to this bar numerous times, I was confused when my simple question ‘How are you?’ to the barman was met with an apparent shock and discomfort. Had I asked him on a date? I certainly hope not, but it’s hard to tell what is appropriate with these traditional country folks.

Sarah and I had planned to spend Saturday in a (relatively) nearby town called Avranches. I caught the bus early in the morning and, since I was the only customer, ended up having a chat with the driver. He has a daughter called Sarah, so remembered us well on the way back.

In Avranches, we did quite a bit of Christmas shopping, visited the morning market, and had some lovely food (tomato and mozzarella tartines to be precise). It was a great day out, but I stupidly forgot to take any pictures, so I’ve got nothing to show you!

Now it’s Sunday, and I’ve got my hibernation techniques down to a tee: Pringles + Guacamole + Cosmo = recipe for success.

5 days to go!

Rude emails, excessive kissing and freezing fingers

Dear readers, welcome to the latest installment of my thrilling French adventure. I am thinking of renaming my blog ‘Heating, and other problems with France’ but that is still subject to revision.

On Monday I went straight into work at 8am from my weekend in Rennes because I needed to sort out an incident involving a rather impolite email from a colleague and to find out what I was going to deliver in my classes of the day. As it turned out, the situation was resolved, and I was required to conduct debates on the UK’s intervention in Syria, which proved to be quite interesting. Many of the students were pro-air strikes, which I found surprising considering my own cohort’s reaction to the news. Perhaps considering the recent success of the FN in France, this is just a small example of right-wing politics among the younger generation. The afternoon found me wandering round the school looking for my students because no one had informed me of the room change for that class. Eventually, one of them found me in the corridor and led me to the others, whereupon I discussed with individuals their opinions on war films and propaganda. A day full of light and airy topics. I bailed on badminton in the evening because I have actually picked up an injury from going on the bumper cars on Sunday. This one girl had it in for me, I’m telling you. At one of her ‘bumps’ I actually cried out ‘BLIMEY!’ Very French.

Tuesday: I continued marking year 11 oral presentations, led a semi-successful activity for the year 8s, and did equally fascinating things with the year 13 and over-18s, which you can read about in my extended edition of ‘How to lose the will to live in 12 hours a week’. Besides that, I thought I’d better try doing some studying because I’m missing out on all the jokes in the staffroom. Half because I can’t understand, but I suspect half because I’m basically a lost child hanging around with my parents’ friends there. Two interesting things I noted today: 1) The excessive amount of kissing that goes on among the students before each lesson goes some way to explaining the stereotype of French lateness. 2) I’m not saying the French are unhealthy, but half of my students were rolling fags BEFORE leaving the classroom.

I began Wednesday by momentarily forgetting everything and ending a sentence with ‘I can’t even French.’ So that went well. I helped out in a couple of year 8 classes, then caught the bus to St Hilaire, where I met up with Sarah. We had pizza, cider and tarte tatin in a nice little restaurant, then chilled (literally) for the rest of the evening at my place. As I write this, I am covered in clothes, a dressing gown and a duvet and still cannot feel my fingers. If anyone would like to come and have a go at the people responsible for heating in this place, they would be very welcome indeed.

A plus (provided I still have the ability to type)

Churros, 007, and a funfair: My weekend in Rennes

It’s the 7th of December already and I can hear those sleigh bells jingling! I get to come home at the end of next week, and it could not come sooner.

Having said that, I have had a rather nice few days since I last wrote.

On Wednesday, Sarah and I sampled the delights of a cute little patisserie in Mortain, then returned to my place to watch Love Actually and make Christmas decorations. My bedroom window is now covered in glittery snowflakes, a Christmas tree, Santa and one of his elves.

Thursday proved fairly unproductive because my lessons had once again been cancelled, so I managed to catch up on some highly important aspects of Anglophone culture that I had missed: Forrest Gump, Black Swan and Aladdin. Day well spent. In the evening, I ate with some colleagues at the canteen, and was slightly taken aback when we all received condoms alongside our meals. Thankfully, it was as part of an AIDS prevention campaign, and not just a casual Thursday night.

Anyway…on Friday afternoon, Sarah and I set off for our weekend away in Rennes. The journey involved a bus, a car-share, the metro and getting lost in the city centre but we eventually made it to our hotel. After settling in, we began wandering around the city, only to stumble upon a Christmas market, complete with warm cider, beignets (doughnuts), churros and a merry go round! That was a lovely surprise indeed, as was the Irish pub in which we finished off the evening.

We had every intention of doing something to explore the culture of Rennes but, alas, shopping took its hold of us. Rennes has some very stylish little boutiques that were more suited to browsing than buying, but the market was more affordable and equally mesmerising. In fact, I may have bought a little something from the market, but I’ll have to keep quiet because I don’t know who is reading this…

Now, I won’t lie, I thought that Sunday would be awful. So far, France has shown me that Sunday is a day to lock yourself inside, watch TV, and try not to starve.  However, mercifully, in the city, there were a few things to keep us occupied. We managed to watch Spectre and the new Hunger Games film (in French), then find a restaurant that served, wait for it, VEGGIE BURGERS AND CHIPS, and go on the bumper cars at a fun fair. Best French Sunday so far.

After all of that excitement, we got a lift back to Vire late on Sunday night, stayed overnight in my flat and caught the 6.53 bus this morning to work. I think I need a coffee…

A plus tard

It’s December, so I’ve cracked the Bublé out

Monday began another thrilling week of work here in the metropolis that is Mortain. I began the day by leading 4 groups of students in debates about military service and I still have no idea why Harry Potter and the Death Eaters became relevant to the discussion. Following that strange turn of events, I attempted to do my weekly shop, only to be faced with shutters and fermé signs at every turn. Oh yes, that’s right. It’s perfectly reasonable for businesses not to open on a Monday, after having been ever so busy at the weekend. Sure.

So, I carried on to my badminton club in the evening, where I believe I ended up getting coached by my father. Actually, it was another club member. But, you know, when your dad would purposefully hit deep shots followed by drop shots just to demonstrate the value of running. Fabulous. One thing I did learn, however, was that I am not made to eat dinner at 9pm. How do the French do it?

Tuesday dawned and I embarked upon my busiest day at work. In the morning I marked year 10 oral presentations; in the afternoon I worked with year 8, year 11 and the post-18 groups. The day was fairly uneventful, except for when one of the teachers left me in charge of the class while she DROVE HOME to get their work that she had forgotten to bring. I’ll admit, I did feel a bit stupid when I later asked her if she had already planned anything for next week’s class.

That’s all for this post, except for the fact that I am SO happy it’s December! Yes, I have opened my advent calendar. And yes, I have already started playing Michael Bublé. As it should be.

A+

Maze Runner, Michelin Man Jackets and Christmas in November

On Tuesday, I actually felt proud of myself for having delivered my first real lesson, unaided! Most of the time, I take students for one-to-one sessions or help the teacher during her lessons. However, on Tuesday, I had to plan and deliver my very own lessons to about 30 12-year-olds. And it went really well. Of course, I knew that using a funny YouTube video would help keep their attention. And as it turns out, I did manage to have authority over any less-than-perfect behaviour. I don’t know how much of the vocabulary they will remember because I had to introduce them to a new topic, but it was a good foundation to build upon, and I am pleased with how it went.

And to top off a day of great achievement, I made myself a ruddy good cottage pie for dinner!

On Wednesday, I worked for a few hours and then met Sarah at the bus stop. We cooked a fabulous roast dinner at mine, then settled down to eat the creamy, chocolatey cakes she had brought for dessert. They were delicious! Afterwards, we ventured out to the cinema to watch the new Maze Runner film. I was a little apprehensive because I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to keep up with it in French, but actually it was quite easy viewing – except the zombies, that was not welcomed by me! We finished off the evening with loads of chocolate, just how a Wednesday night should be spent.

Thursday was decidedly uneventful, so much so that I have almost forgotten what I did…

Despite it being my day off on Friday, I decided to get up early and catch the bus to Vire for the market. It was a typically French affair: cheese stalls aplenty, people lining up to get their daily fruit, vegetables and bread, and strange, puffy, Michelin-man jackets for sale. But before I even arrived at the market, something interesting happened. After about 15 minutes on the bus, it stopped in a small town called Sourdeval, where two women got on. They were English and clearly struggling to understand the bus driver, so I thought I would give them a hand. As we got to talking, not only did I find out that one of them was also called Nikki, but that they had lived in France for over 8 years! As I hopped from one cafe to another, then back to the bus, I continued to see the women and chat about how we all came to find ourselves in rural Normandy.

When I returned to Mortain, I opened up a package that my sister had given me a few weeks earlier. She had told me not to open it until I had a free day, with no plans. She had also told me not to get too excited about it. But it was worth getting excited about. The package contained a copy of Glamour Magazine, a sachet of Cadbury’s hot chocolate, a pocket Sudoku book, a face mask, and a family-sized bar of Galaxy. Now, that is DEFINITELY worth getting excited about.

Saturday. I made the brave step into one of the many local hairdressers and hoped for the best. After having seen the results of the client before me, I was not hopeful. Thankfully, the hairdresser did not leave me with a wild, red bob, so all was well. I managed to successfully have my hair highlighted, trimmed and straightened, AND do a fair amount of useless chit-chat. When I left the salon, I went to check out the little Christmas market that had popped up in Mortain. It was a bit strange really, because it is still November, and as I write this, the market has already been taken down. Apparently, this strange arrangement is due to the fact that Mortain does not own its own market chalets, so they had to be borrowed from another town nearby. Nevertheless, the market was quite sweet; especially the ponies pulling children along in their sleighs.

So there we are, one more week over. There isn’t anything to write about today because it’s Sunday, in France, so naturally everything has gone into hibernation. However, after the market I am feeling more in the Christmas spirit, so I’m settling down to watch Elf.

A plus tard