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.

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

It’s been 8 weeks!

I realise that I haven’t written a blog for about 6 weeks, which is totally UNACCEPTABLE. Apologies to anyone whose daily entertainment depended on my exciting life here in France.

A lot has happened in those six weeks. I can’t go into detail on everything, but here’s a quick summary:

  • 12th-18th October – my sister lived with me for a while in our flat in Vire. Highlights included: walking around the cascades and seeing La Petite Chappelle in Mortain, going to a chocolate shop in Avranches. Low points: being racially insulted by an old woman who thought I couldn’t understand her, and having to wait 20 minutes to get served in an EMPTY bar.
  • 19th-25th October – my sister’s boyfriend came to visit. Highlights: going to Le Mont St Michel and Deauville where I met up with my friend Rachel. Low points: eating a galette (which I would liken to a chewy brown net curtain) and getting a swollen ankle from a mysterious bite.
  • 26th October – 1st November – my sister and I went to visit our family in Brittany, which was a long drive but a lovely trip. High points: beating my 11-year-old (almost pro footballer) cousin at the beautiful game. Low points: None really.
  • 2nd– 9th November – I spent this week “working” and my sister returned home. High points: meeting up with Sarah for a day out in Vire; attending an art class. Low points: discovering that Mortain is the smallest town where you will always bump into someone you know; being leered at by old men ALL THE TIME.
  • 10th– 15th November – I went home for a few days and it was fantastic! I have never before appreciated carpet so much. Or central heating. Or spicy food. High points: seeing almost all of my friends and family; going out in Bath for cocktails and dancing with a 50th birthday party; watching my sister beat my Nan at Scrabble. Oh, and getting a surprise massage and facial. Low points: none whatsoever.
  • 16th November –  There was NO HEATING AGAIN. I was back to wearing a coat indoors, and making regular trips to the secretary to get them to sort it out. Obviously, other more important things took place. A minute’s silence was observed to remember those who were killed in Paris on Friday night. The teachers also were expected to discuss the events with their students in case they had any concerns. They are certainly more afraid than before, even though Paris is so far away.  I was asked to explain the UK’s reaction since I was there when it happened. I was also asked if it was difficult to get back to France because the borders were closed. It wasn’t difficult, but there were more security checks than usual, for obvious reasons.
  • 20th-22nd November – I went away for the weekend to Caen, with Rachel. To get there, I hitched a lift with a Blablacar, which took me to the outskirts of Caen, but I really wanted to get to the centre. As luck would have it, one of the other passengers offered to give me a lift from that point, as he lived in the centre. His wife dropped me straight at the hotel, whereupon I met Rachel, and we began an evening of pizza, wine and dancing in Caen’s clubs and bars. On Saturday night, we found this cute little Italian restaurant for dinner. If you ordered one particular dish, the chef would come out and flambé it in a giant parmesan. It was quite spectacular!

Who knows what the next few weeks will hold? Not me. But I will try to write it down here before another 6 weeks has passed!

à bientôt

Year Abroad: Days 12 and 13

Saturday morning was pretty chilled. At 2.30, my colleague and her daughters picked me up and we drove to St Hilaire. It’s much bigger than Mortain. It even has a nightclub. The younger daughter was driving because she is still learning and needed to practice. In France, you can learn to drive before you are 18 but have to wait until that age to get your license.

Our trip to St Hilaire was mainly for food shopping. I bought a few things including some cream cakes and what I thought was washing detergent. I think now that it was actually fabric softener. So, at least, if my clothes aren’t clean, they are silky soft.

On the return journey, we saw a wedding party. The bride, groom, and guests were standing outside a church whose bells were ringing. It seemed just like a wedding in England and was a lovely sight.

Below are my thoughts from Sunday morning:

Trust this to happen on a Sunday when no one is around, the day before my sister moves country when no one will be able to sort this out. I’ve been having trouble with my computer for weeks now, but foolishly decided against getting a new one.  It kept cutting out on me, but I thought, it hasn’t done it in a while, it’ll be fine. But no. Now when I’m actually in France, now when I am reliant on the internet to stay in touch with the world, now it fails.

I phoned my dad and he told me to take the battery out and let it cool down. Luckily that worked and it seems okay for now –  but I definitely know what is on my Christmas list.

There isn’t much else to say about Sunday, apart from the fact that my sister and mum are arriving tomorrow and I am SO excited! My sister is coming to live with me for a couple of months and I think we are going to have such a good time. By the time I write a new post, she’ll be here!

Year Abroad: Days 10 and 11

Day 10

I didn’t feel very well on Thursday. I woke up without a voice because I was dehydrated, I ached all over from the running the day before, and I felt generally exhausted – so I remedied myself with strepsils and chocolate. In the morning, I did some work and put together a presentation for the 3emes (year 9s) but little else. I didn’t have a class until 3.30, so it was a little boring. I went to the secretary and have now definitely signed my process-verbal-d’installation, so I will get paid. I also requested an advance because I have to pay rent for my flat in Vire, among other costs, and it is expensive to transfer money from pounds to euros online.

I had my one and only class of the day at 3.30 and it was okay. It was a class of 4emes (13 years old) and they had to make a leaflet on a country in the European union. None of them got very far because they were mostly messing around, but some of them did ask me questions about grammar and translation, with which I was happy to help.  What did annoy me was that I won’t see that class or my other Thursday class until November because of class trips and other things. So now I have another day off per week, with nothing to do!

At about 6.30 I went for a drink with some colleagues. It turns out that ‘cider and black’ is a totally foreign concept here. I think the closest you can get is a ‘Monaco’ – beer and grenadine, which is very sweet but quite pleasant. Nevertheless, I enjoyed that and then went back to the pavillon and cooked myself some dinner. The teachers staying in the pavillon were amused by my baked beans and quorn meat supplement because those things don’t exist outside of the UK, and certainly not in such a carnivorous country as France.

Day 11

Stage d’accueil, Caen, 9 October 2015

At 6.30am I got up because I couldn’t sleep with nerves, then a colleague picked me up outside the school at 7.15, it was freezing and before even the dawn. She drove me to Vire, which took only 20 minutes, dropped me at the train station from where I caught my lift (the car share I mentioned before).

It was a full car but a nice journey nonetheless; I think I will do more like this in the future. After about an hour’s drive, I was dropped at a bus stop in Caen. As luck would have it, I heard some English spoken and it turned out that the people speaking were going to the same place as me, so I tagged along.

When we arrived there was a breakfast prepared, which consisted of coffee, cake, and fruit. I hate coffee, but on this occasion it was necessary! I had a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see a friend from Exeter smiling at me. It was lovely to see her again and the assistant from St Hilaire.

The first presentation was about the region (Normandy) and important people in the academies, all in French of course. Many of the assistants volunteered to speak and their language was so good  – one guy even had a southern French accent. I think he had definitely done an Erasmus year before.

The assistants came from all over the world, but they split us into Anglophones (American, British, Irish, Australian, Canadian) and other (Italian, German, Hispanic etc) and we went to classes. I found it quite annoying that the classes were separated into ‘college’ and ‘lycee’, meaning that those of us working in both could only be trained in one.

My friends and I ended up in the ‘college’ class, where we had to come up with ideas for lessons and activities. It is safe to say that we were not prepared at all. To be honest apart from it being nice to go to Caen and meet the other assistants, I didn’t think much of the day. Or the dinner. As three vegetarians, we just ate a measly lunch of mashed potato and salad.

After we finished, I waited a while to be picked up and taken to the Mairie in Caen where I would get a lift back to Mortain. The Mairie (town hall) is quite stunning and I made sure to take some photos, but, unfortunately, I can’t upload them without wi-fi. I was a bit worried about finding the right people and car to get a lift back, so I asked some strangers and they were very kind actually and waited with me until I went. I think that was because I looked like a lost child but hey, whatever works. I tripped over twice saying goodbye and thanks to them.

When I arrived in Vire and paid my 2 euros for the lift (so cheap!), my colleague’s daughter picked me up. That was quite amusing because we were both texting her mum saying ‘what does she look like?’ when, in fact, we were standing next to each other! She studies languages (including English) at the University of Caen and is about my age. By this point, I was so tired that I could not be bothered to speak French, but she said she wanted to practice her English anyway.

At their house, I met my colleague’s other daughter, their cat and their dog, Cookie. Cookie was very docile, but the cat jumped on me at the dinner table and dug his claws in. My colleague made us some ‘Breton Galettes’, which is a traditional dish from Bretagne that I could liken to pancakes. We washed it down with a few glasses of cidre, which made for a very pleasant evening.

I’m not sure yet what the weekend has in store, but I will be sure to write about whatever happens.

A plus

Year Abroad: Day 9

Before I started work yesterday, I got talking to a philosophy teacher in the staffroom, and he offered to give me lifts to work on Wednesdays. This is great news because, as I’ve said before, public transport doesn’t really exist here.

The first class I attended were doing an exercise about heroes, which included people like Brad Pitt and Barack Obama. It seems that a lot of the English taught here is Americanised, for example, they say copybook instead of exercise-book. And ‘guys’ is said a lot.

One of my colleagues said that the older the pupils get the quieter and calmer and less willing to talk they become, which I found to be true. I thought this was very odd because at home, the kids at school got louder and more confident as they got older. Honestly, sometimes trying to get the older ones to talk here is like pulling teeth.

Later on, my housemate came to find me and said some of the teachers at the college were looking for me – oops!  There had been some miscommunication between the staff and I had missed an observation class. However, all was not lost. I made it to the second one, and the younger kids were much more willing to speak English and to come and ask me for help. Weird. Somewhat awkwardly, I did have to correct the teacher again on her pronunciation of ‘Illinois’ (don’t sound the ‘s’), ‘Kansas’ (sound the ‘s’) and maple syrup (the ‘y’ sounds like an ‘i’). I didn’t want to undermine her by correcting her in front of the children, but she said feel free to do it, that’s why I’m here.

In the afternoon, I met up with another assistant, based in St Hilaire, which is about 15km away. She came by bus to Mortain, and we got a drink and some chips. I thought the barman said ‘en bouteille?’ as in, would you like your drink in a bottle? He actually said ‘emporter’ which means, to take away? I said yes, we sat outside in the cold. Oops.

She told me that her journey to France has been really difficult – in fact, we had both missed the same ferry last week. She also had a lot of stories that I won’t repeat here, but it does show that a year abroad can never be dull. Even after one week.  One of the stories I will mention, however, is that one of the teachers where she is working died just before she arrived. What a frightening way to start a new job, with the air of loss and grief all around.

Anyway, we went for another drink and got to know each other. She was lovely, so hopefully we will stay in touch this year.

At about 6.30, I did something that I never do, and that I may never do again. I went for a run with some of my colleagues. First of all, I put my foot in it a little. I happened to mention that I met another assistant and that she had told me about the death in her school. One of my colleagues burst into tears. She knew the lady who died and hadn’t been informed. It had been over a week. I felt awful. It turns out that it is quite common for teachers to switch between the schools in this area, perhaps because it is quite small, so that is how they knew each other.

I was relieved when we began running because that appeared to take my colleague’s mind off of the bad news. We managed 2 miles in about 20 minutes, so it wasn’t fast, but that was enough for me. I am not a runner by any stretch of the imagination.

That’s where I’ll leave it for this post, A +