Year Abroad Blog – #10 The Meaning of Life

DISCLAIMER: FRANCE HAS not turned me into a philosopher and this post is most definitely not of a philosophical slant. When I say ‘life’ I mean my little life here in France, and when I say ‘meaning’ I roughly mean ‘what I’m actually doing here in the first place’.  This was the first and only post in The Year Abroad Saga that I knew I was going to write, but so much has got in the way that I find myself writing it on a rainy afternoon near the end of March. March! Scarily, I can now count the working weeks left on even half of one hand, at which point I realised that I should probably enlighten you all on my life in Orleans before, well, I’m no longer in Orleans.

I would like to remind you that this is the original Orleans – or Orléans – not the New and Louisianan version, as Google likes to think when trying to search for local restaurants or taxis.

Although I often forget it, I’m still at university and have to go back there in September. They’ve let me out for a year to go off and experience the world, labelled the ‘year abroad’. We language students are presented in second year with a choice of either studying at university in a country of the target language, working in a graduate-type role in that country or doing what I’m doing – being a language assistant. Apparently Europe make better use of these ‘language assistants’ than we do in the UK; I never had one at school and I don’t know many people that did. Essentially we’re semi-teachers, semi-teaching assistants, but for some of the students, the first tangible, non-royal British person they’ve ever seen. And what a disappointment he’s probably been, too… he doesn’t drink tea, doesn’t really like The Beatles and has never even seen the Queen, let alone had afternoon tea with her.

As you might already know, I’m shared between a lycée professionnel (vocational college) and a collège (secondary school), and spend six hours working in each to rack up a grand total of 12 hours altogether. It’s an almost laughable number of hours per week, but part of the job is preparing lessons, which – I now respect my secondary school teachers even more for – often takes far longer than giving the lesson itself. The lycée is a vocational one, meaning that many of the students have chosen to go there because it isn’t a very academic college, and so it wasn’t a surprise when they weren’t chomping at the bit to learn about prepositional verbs and the past continuous tense. At times it’s been a mammoth challenge to even wring sentences out of some of them, but now, in the last term of my contract, I’m working with the final year students on their oral presentations. It gives them a chance to toothcomb their work with a native English speaker and it gives me the chance to finally learn their name. Honestly, it’s terrible – because I’ve seen so many students, some very fleetingly, I’ve barely had a chance to remember their names. It’s not easy to get an unruly student’s attention in English or French, I can assure you. There’s no point in saying ‘the one with brown hair’ either since they nearly all of brown hair. One tactic is to just say ‘Lucas’ or ‘Théo’ since there seems to be at least two in every class I’ve had.

The lessons with the secondary school students however, who sit with name cards in front of them, tend to follow educational recommendations from the teachers – be it vocabulary-based, grammar-based, speaking-based – and it’s simultaneously reassuring and satisfying when a lesson goes to plan and they’ve learned something at the end of it.  It’s a completely different experience from the lycée, and I’m glad to have a bit of variety. At the collège I’ve never felt so famous in my life. I can’t walk down the corridors without 11-year-olds waving and shouting ‘HELLO CONNOR HOW ARE YOU’ at me, even though they don’t quite know how to respond to ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’ At any rate, I’ve been hugely lucky with my random allocation of schools.  I could’ve ended up in some kind of borstal where you have to wear helmets at all times and are shown a big red button under the desk in case the kids turn nasty. But the students are pretty much all nice human beings and my colleagues even more so. From day one I was welcomed, even by teachers of other subjects, and I’ve been invited bowling and to dinner and to parties and it has certainly made this experience even more enjoyable.

I say I work in Orleans, but strictly I don’t. I work in a suburb towards the north of the city called Fleury-les-Aubrais, where the main attraction is probably its mainline train station to Paris. It’s a strange place; there’s not much there to attract anyone except, perhaps, its fairly unheard-of exhibition centre. What’s more is that from looking at the architecture, I’ve often wondered if the even place existed before 1975. Luckily it’s only a short tram ride from where I live, which I can’t complain too much about. What I can (sort of) complain about is that the local education authority somehow decided to make my other school about 20 miles away in the rural village of La Ferté St-Aubin. When I first saw it on the map I was a bit staggered to see how far away it was, buried in the forest of Sologne, even though it’s served by a direct train to Orleans. But now I’m glad, otherwise my life would have been hemmed in by tower blocks and avoiding getting run over by trams in the urban sprawl. La Ferté is not exactly that hillside village from Chocolat but, as you probably expect, is considerably more attractive than Fleury, even if it is bisected by a main road. It has a great little array of shops, including a bakery where they even know I don’t eat meat, and a very pretty chateau which I’m still yet to visit. Another good thing about working there is that it’s got a very friendly vibe, since a large number of the pupils and teachers live in the village.

As nice as La Ferté might be, I am glad to live in Orleans. I think I’d go mad if I had to take one of the irregular trains in and out of town every time and I’d certainly end up spending most of my time and money in that bakery.

Not that I don’t visit bakeries in Orleans, mind…

Orleans is to Paris what Sevenoaks probably is to London. It’s very attractive, fairly expensive and rather middle-class, enriched by regular direct trains to the capital as well as being the home of France’s thriving cosmetic industries. What I love most about it is that it’s impenitently French. People trot about with their stupidly small dogs and whizz around on their rickety little bikes, stopping for coffee or – more likely – a baguette, before heading out again (at an hour I’m still not that used to yet) to dine at one of the city’s great restaurants. It’s steeped in history, a lot of which revolves around Joan of Arc, who gives her name to the grand street leading up to the first-class cathedral. Orleans straddles the country’s longest and most famous river, the Loire, and its town centre is a harmonious tangle of medieval streets and elegant, Champs-Elysée-esque avenues that house expensive handbag shops and very bored-looking sales assistants. I get the impression it is a well-designed city; most of the centre is built in the same vanilla-coloured brick which, in the sunshine, makes the city feel as though it’s aglow. At that time all the French people come out of nowhere to lounge about smoking and drinking outside cafés, which is a pastime I have more than willingly joined in with.

We’re on a sort of mission to try and consume something at as many restaurants and cafés as we can before time is up, something I’m more than happy to do given the fact that I have nothing expect my bed to keep me at the foyer. I’m just afraid I’ll have developed an impractical appetite for eating out when I return to the UK with no job.

Orleans was not my first choice of location when I applied to be an assistant (I chose beautiful Bordeaux), but I am glad I was sent here. It’s close enough to Paris if ever I want to get around or need to see the Eiffel Tower for the 85th time and its size has made it possible to get to know it much better than I would have done had this year been spent in Paris or Marseille.

I should probably leave this café now. I finished my coffee over an hour ago and I think the waiters are probably starting to wonder what I’m doing. This evening I’m going for dinner at a colleague’s house, whose daughter wants to practise speaking English. Given my last stroke of bad luck with bringing gifts to people’s houses, I’ve perhaps gone against my better judgement and bought a bottle of wine for her. I did consider getting her some of the ‘best macarons in Orleans’ from one of the patisseries here, but I just gave in and bought myself a few instead. Woops.

Some snaps around my ephemeral home...

Some snaps around my ephemeral home…

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