I STARTED WRITING this entry in the baggage hall of Charles de Gaulle, long after most of the passengers had left the airport with their bags. I, however, lingered and made excellent use of the WiFi on offer to me. No, I didn’t traipse all the way to the other side of Paris just for internet connection; I’d just come back from a spell at home. For the last two weeks – yes, two – it’s been half term in France, and while the idea of having two weeks off work to gallivant and guzzle all that France has to offer was one I was more than happy to realise, I couldn’t. I’ve been waiting for my first pay check, as well as an Erasmus grant, and with rent due at the end of the month and still without a tangible French bank card, it was best not to go off spending splurges. But TWO weeks off work already! I’d barely even started my teaching job before I was kissed on both cheeks and wished ‘de bonnes vacances’ by my colleagues. I was facing two weeks without much to do, coupled with limited funds and stuck in that shabby halfway-house place forcibly listening to French rap pulsing through the walls and the sound of my sanity scratching at the sides of my head to get out. Hometime it was. At least there I could tell any neighbours to turn down their music without having the door closed in my face.
Going home after an intensive period abroad – no matter how short that period is – is a strange experience. You arrive, sort of expecting an almost fabled version of the land you fantasised about in bouts of homesickness, but you quickly realise it’s no different from how you left it, and that you can easily slot in to your original life with ease as if you’ve never been away. Yet at times, I found myself pouring cups of espresso in the mornings and afternoons and buying French sticks rather than homogenous Hovis at the supermarket. In my head I would compare things at home to how they would be done in France, weighing up which I preferred before deciding that the Germans probably do it better anyway, and then surprising myself with how successfully I managed to drive on English roads after weeks of being a passenger on the wrong side of the car.
That said, being at home for a few days is a refreshing thing to do. I’ve always found that to be the case at university, too. It gives you a sudden and sharp appreciation for both home and away, not least giving you a change of scenery – something I would have desperately craved had I been confined to the foyer for two weeks straight.
The foyer, by the way, is what I’ve been staying in – a place designed to accommodate young workers between jobs, etc. I found myself in here as sort of a last resort having got nowhere with attempts to contact French landlords before my arrival. It’s a bit hard to describe exactly what it is, probably along the lines of student halls, although my room has all the trappings of a prison – it is scarily bare and minimally furnished with a shower cubicle that induces slight claustrophobia, there is an activity programme for the rather indifferent residents here and there are stringent rules on guests and visiting hours. The food is fine but you have to find and pay for your own internet and there is one washing machine for everyone. Luckily, the director of this place offered me a studio beside some of the other assistants as of next month, so I will soon be able to stop scratching tally marks into the wall of my room.
Needless to say I don’t spend all my time there. Before half term, we took a weekend trip to Tours, a nearby city an hour or so away. It’s a really lovely place – seemingly bigger and more bustling than modest Orleans with medieval streets crossing the long, straight and Rue Nationale, leading up to a lush and fast-flowing River Loire. Tours has a vibrant student population in the centre of town, I’d been told, and thus an array of bars and clubs to go with it. On the Saturday night we had supper in the Place Plumereau, an achingly French-looking square, before ambling through the pedestrian streets to a bar where they sold carafes of wine with a number of different flavoured Monin syrups. One guy came away from the bar with a carafe of funny-looking liquid, when I asked him what was in it. He let me try some, before telling me that to his dry white wine he had added lavender, lemon, bubblegum, raspberry, cherry and mint syrups, turning it a rancid grey colour. It was as disgusting at it sounded, but I thinkhe was much too high to care. We moved on, having met a tipsy trio of French medical students who vaguely promised us VIP entry to their favourite club as well as a bottle of vodka for the table. I was sceptical but they kept their word, though! By half past four, it had turned into one of those random nights – we twice passed a man walking a goat – that both started and finished late (or early, depending on your viewpoint), but early enough that we could check out of the hotel by 10 o’clock with ease. Any hangovers or tiredness were ironed out by the walk through town to a bakery in the pouring rain on Sunday morning.
I have encountered my first manifestation in France, by the way – it was a massive group of construction workers gathering on the Place Martroi in Orleans, protesting about pay. I remember my French tutor at uni enthusiastically telling us to join in with protests and manifs, but this was one was so boring and quiet that if it wasn’t for their high-vis jackets I would have missed it.
On a final note, I came across this quote recently – la vie est trop courte d’être petite – which translates as ‘life is too short to be little’. I generally hate whimsical quotes but I thought that was nicely appropriate. Motto for the year abroad, perhaps? Well, it certainly won’t be ‘mix wine and bubblegum syrup’ at any rate.