Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Le Havre, je t'aime

At 11pm on the 22nd of September last year, my boat had just set sail for France.

Here are some facts about that trip:

  • I was on my own in a cabin in a state of quiet disbelief.
  • I'd never travelled abroad alone before.
  • I'd never travelled as a foot passenger on a ferry before.
  • I'd only ever been to France three times, all of them with school (I haven't counted driving through it to get to Amsterdam because we didn't get to visit one single boulangerie on that trip).
  • I didn't have a clue who or what was going to greet me on the other side. (Well... I knew it was my colleague Aurélie but I didn't know the first thing about her other than that she'd be wearing 'colourful tights'.)
  • I didn't think I'd understand anyone when I arrived.
  • Perhaps more worryingly, I didn't think anyone would understand me when I arrived.
  • I was utterly terrified.
I needn't have been, of course. The fear of having an atrocious year abroad is a common one, but for the vast majority of people it's one which never comes true.

It is highly doubtful that there will ever be another period in my life where I have such incredible freedom:
  • I had just two tiny bills to pay during my time in France (my rent was a meagre 60€ [£50] per month, including utilities!) 
  • I had few responsibilities and enormous quantities of free time, even after working a not-insignificant amount of unpaid overtime and putting in enough hours to make sure my lessons were solid and well-planned. 
  • My timetable was incredibly flexible, I had wonderful colleagues and I was, by and large, free to do as I pleased.
  • There was never any excuse to be bored - everything was new, interesting and exciting. We made last-minute plans left, right and centre, heading wherever our whims led us. We never said 'no' to anything, even if it was something we'd never have considered doing in the UK.
  • In spite of apparently not earning the SMIC (French minimum wage), we believed ourselves to be absurdly well-paid for what we did and how much of our week we actually had to spend doing it. 
  • It was a nice break, too, to only have one job. Although my dissertation did take up a certain amount of time towards the end of the year, life was far from the education-employment juggling act at which I have to excel when I'm in Southampton.
As well as this, I was immersed every single day into the world of a language which I still believe to be one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. Learning evermore about French culture never bored me. The food... well, others have waxed lyrical about French food far better than I'm able to here. It's probably enough to say that the French are rather good at cooking and make truly wonderful hosts. I learnt so much, improved my language skills, met some incredible friends and fell completely in love with a town (Le Havre) and département (La Seine-Maritime) of France.

My only regret is that I did not fully appreciate all of this soon enough. Up to Christmas, I wasted so much time worrying about how I was fitting in, how good my French was, whether I was as good as other assistants... I panicked about things which were either unnecessary or unmeasurable. I did not allow myself to relax into the experience and enjoy it as I should have. Only in January did I realise my mistake and from that moment my experience of la vie française became something truly special.

France was almost like a holiday from life. This perhaps has something to do with the feeling now that it was all a dream, that I couldn't possibly have spent seven months in another country and certainly not just a few short months ago. I feel like a different person now to when I left for France - moving back to the UK caused me more confusion and unrest than heading for the continent ever did, something which many friends have also found to be the case.
I would unreservedly recommend an assistantship to anyone.

1 comment:

  1. and you can come back whenever you feel to do so!