Some observations and musings about my first four weeks in the land of frogs and snogs.
An undeniably romantic country it may be, it’s hard to see the glamour when days are spent speaking broken French to an unforgiving bitch in the bank then traipsing home (to a convent) in the rain unsuccessfully trying to manoeuvre the shit-splattered pavements.
The dog shit is both omnipresent and inescapable; overpowering in its frequency and its smell. I saw a dog take a dump in the shampoo and soap aisle of a reputable supermarket; its owner glanced back, acknowledged the shit, and put a bottle of Head & Shoulders into her basket.
Whilst living in a convent I confirmed the belief I’d always had that I had no desire to become a nun. The staff on the welcome desk were surely employed out of goodwill, because, Praise the Lord, they were special. On my arrival, I asked if there was internet connection in the building. “Pourquoi?” came the reply from an 104 year old woman with as good a moustache as any I’ve seen. Why the fuck do you think I’m asking if there’s wifi? So I can sit and look at it all day? Religious conversion incomplete, I left the convent a week later swearing about the weather and slagging off a rude cleaner. Amen.
My only friends thus far are Americans, nuns and the men by the cinema who drink bière for 20 hours of the day and watch their dogs fight for the other four. The other assistants are predominantly American and I often feel I speak a different language to them, too. They simply cannot understand me, be it the words I use, my accent, or the alien sarcasm I employ bien trop souvent. My reaction to just missing a tram (“for fuck’s sake”) went down a storm because swearing, I have since learnt, is a more severe thing in the US of A. NB: http://www.bbcamerica.com/mind-the-gap/2013/01/24/10-things-brits-dont-realize-are-offensive-to-americans/. NB 2: In week three I made friends with loads of French people, got invited to a house party, got too excited, downed a litre of vodka and then vomited all over everyone in attendance, hence why I can no longer claim the French on my list of friends.
I teach in three primary schools in and around Le Mans. I was welcomed to my first school with an emergency staff meeting on the increasing correlation between violence and immigration. A small proportion of the students are new to France, their parents having fled war-stricken countries to seek solace in this seedy quartier on the outskirts of Le Mans. I was half expecting the kids to have no shoes on their feet, so entrenched in poverty and suffering. I had visions of myself swooping in and changing lives, bringing hope, making a difference. In fact, the kids are alright. I had no Prince Siddartha childhood. Yet the comparison to my rural schools, each with under a hundred students, is what highlights the difference. My visits there resemble a cross between Jay-Z playing at the O2 arena and a spaceship landing in the playground; a mélange of confusion and awe. To put things in context, the kids at all my schools got to ask me a series of Q&A style questions when I first met them. First question from 9-year-old rural school kid: What’s your favourite fruit? First question from 7-year-old city school kid: Can I have your phone number?
Convent living is neither sustainable nor enjoyable for the atheist among us, so I quickly moved in with the headmistress of one of my schools. A perfect family who rose early, swum a few lengths, breakfasted together, did some educational reading, lunched together, did something cultural, indulged in an aperitif and a few canapés, then took a late supper. No TV, no laziness, no slack. Somehow my presence in the family home was incongruous; my creeping home drunk at 5am, crashing about and spilling water, then passing out in bed for 12 hours, was frowned upon. I made the decision to find somewhere else to live when they refused to declare me as an official tenant in their home for tax reasons.
So I find myself in a dirty but charming room with mouldy walls and a bad smell and a cracked mirror which already feels more like home than the convent or the family home ever did. Third time lucky.
NB: I crashed the headmistress’ bike when I was drunk cycling home please don’t tell her.
The French eat an insane amount of yoghurt. On Sundays the city feels like a ghost town. Strange men keep inviting me to get into their cars. French people like to talk a lot to young girls and I have developed the bad habit of nodding and saying “oui” when I have no idea what someone is on about.
I have learnt to appreciate my own company and to use my mind; thoughts tumbling through spheres of emotion late into the night. There is something aesthetically pleasing about formulating such thoughts, though they are often accompanied by an inescapable isolation, like the rhythmic, sad lyrics to an Arctic Monkeys song. Although I have developed a penchant for drinking Perrier and tiny cups of coffee, my French has not much improved and I feel rather lost in this country. There is so much land. It is so vast, so sparse.