Year Abroad Blog – #4 Or should that be 22?

LAST WEEK I had the most continental birthday ever – I woke up in France, had an Italian dinner, was bought Belgian chocolate by a colleague and had more birthday messages in German than I did in English. The following day I woke up and remembered that I was 22. Sounds so much older than 21, no?

At any rate, the main thing I had to share this week was the unavoidable rigmarole the other assistants and I have been going through trying to sort trips away. Part of the reason I chose to do the British Council language assistantship was that it has been deliberately designed so that the assistants have plenty of time to immerse themselves in the culture of the host country, i.e. be a shameless tourist. Apart from rent and pains au chocolat, most of my income has gone on train and plane fares, many of the former slashed by the great savings young people can get with a carte jeune railcard. France, for all its sins, is unbelievably well-served by public transport – better than the UK – and you can reach almost anywhere without much difficulty. Well, I say that, although when I first bought a ticket from Paris to Orleans, the ticket machine had me so stumped than an impatient woman in the queue insisted on doing all the screen-tapping for me whilst snapping down the phone in some form of French that I was too stressed to decipher.

And well, I say organising travel is easy – and it is­ – but it’s arranging accommodation that seems to have been the bigger challenge. For our prospective trip to Strasbourg next month, we tried for days and days to hunt out somewhere for six people for two nights a week before Christmas (no easy task, I admit), waiting on tenterhooks for landlords and hostel managers on airbnb and the like to get back to us, many of which to no avail. But don’t cry, all has been sorted. We won’t have to wander the streets of Strasbourg at night as I had at one point genuinely suggested.

All that aside, we successfully managed a trip to the Château de Chenonceau (shuh-non-sew) earlier this week, having found ourselves with a day off for Armistice Day. I’d been warned by travel books that ‘chateau fatigue’ is a common problem in this part of France. So numerous are the grand castles of the Loire Valley that it’s hard to know where to start and finish. But Chenonceau, whether you are afflicted with fatigue or not, is a most. It’s stunning. There are donkeys there, too, so you can’t nt love the place. It’s almost fairytale-like: completely hidden within the woods and arching over the lazy River Cher, it is opulent but unobtrusive, extravagant but modest, and more typically French than taking a whole day off rather than two minutes’ silence.

Any chateau joy, however, was marred by the phone call I received from the bank on Wednesday morning. ‘Bonjour monsieur, I’m ringing to confirm it was indeed you who spent €400 at SNCF (French National Rail) this week?’

OK, I’d spent a lot of time on their website of late – too much, probably – but not €400’ worth.

‘And you spent €30 at Café de Beaux Arts?’

‘Erm, no.’

‘And €25 at a bookstore in Le Mans?’

‘No.’

It was quite obvious what had happened. It turns out the friendly man who asked me to help him ring his wife at a phone box in town on Monday wasn’t so friendly after all. Against every single drop of my better judgement, I somehow agreed to help him after his ‘car had broken down’, clearly not astute enough to catch his sleight of hand as he swapped my bank card for an identical one. It was only when my bank rang me that I looked at the card sitting in my wallet, and realised I was not the name embossed on the card.

I’ve been encouraged by one of my colleagues to go and report it at the police station, but that would mean having to write a statement using the past historic tense. Any French student will know that we were warned at A Level that we would ‘never have to use this tense, only recognise it’. Miss Sims et al clearly didn’t account for credit card theft when I was in sixth form, then…

Bien, all will be resolved.

In other news, I met up with some German assistants also working in Orleans to practise my spoken German, I babysat the sons of one of my colleagues and with them I played football for the first time in eight years, and am three stamps closer to getting a free coffee at our favourite coffee shop in town.

This weekend, another assistant and I are making a trip to Dijon to visit a friend, which after the fraud fiasco this week, should cut the mustard indeed. Sorry, I had to do that.

Me at Chenonceau

Moi at a chilly Chenonceau

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