Year Abroad Blog – #11 Home and Away

MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I’m English that I find myself beginning this update with talking about the weather, but I would feel horribly unsatisfied if you reached the end of it without knowing how great the weather has been.  Recently Orleans has been blessed with a continual stream of sunshine, with temperatures creeping well into the 20s and my sunglasses making an almost permanent appearance. So much so, in fact, that my colleagues didn’t hesitate to tell me I’d got some colour, except for the faint outline of sunglasses around my eyes and temples… Anyway, it’s been glorious – the cafés have been fit to burst and perhaps for the first time since September, I’ve really felt as though I’ve been abroad.

Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux

Even more astounding in real life: Place de la Bourse

A long time ago, when we applied to be assistants, we were required to indicate our regional preferences from three groups (A, B and C) with one from each group. Naturally all the popular places were in the same group – Paris, Lyon, Nice – including Bordeaux, which was my first choice. I can still recall the time I visited Bordeaux as a child on a French holiday: it was grand and cream-coloured, with tinges of gold here and there, with tiny, almost charmingly dingy side streets where we once stayed in a Best Western hotel. For some reason that formed the basis of my decision to apply to the wine capital of France, but, as you might have gathered, I didn’t end up working there. Nevertheless our final weekend trip together as assistants was southwest to Bordeaux, some four hours away on the (delayed) TGV, where I had great expectations of the city ‘which could have been’. Bordeaux does not – and still did not to me – disappoint. The French all seem to rave about Bordeaux, and I can’t help but praise it too. For a city that was not so long ago a sorry state of affairs, packed with rundown warehouses along the riverfront and countless quartiers which were simply no-go areas, it has emerged like an architectural phoenix into a UNESCO World Heritage site and European Best Destination 2015. Its crowning glory is surely the marvellously majestic Place de la Bourse, far more impressive at night, but much of the city’s appeal lies within its centre: an alluring ensemble of well-to-do shopping streets and squares lined with clipped topiary, peppered with wine bars (of course, this is Bordeaux), restaurants in the St-Paul district and antique shops in Chartrons. It’s beautiful, even in the temperamental rain. I think it might have overtaken Strasbourg as my favourite city in France so far, in fact. I could have spent all week there, helping myself to cannelés, the local treat – can I liken them to a sweet and more substantial Yorkshire pudding, perhaps?


Please ignore the grey skies over St-Emilion

On the Sunday, I took the local train to St-Emilion, known amongst oenophiles for its superior red wines. I was looking forward to ambling around this little hillside village, until I realised the hoard of Japanese tourists who got off the train with me, hurrying to open up their umbrellas for what was then just a pitiful flurry of drizzle. Luckily I managed to slink off to the village (around a mile from the station) and shake off the Japanese who had already begun taking pictures of the train station, and found myself in the heart of St-Emilion. Although its number of very high-end wine shops borders on silly, it is surely one of France’s most attractive villages, probably even more so when the sun is shining. It consists more or less entirely of street after alleyway (steep and nearly all cobbled, by the way) of old stone houses with terracotta roofs, dominated by the bell tower of the monolithic church. Going on a Sunday was a great idea, actually – it wasn’t busy at all and nearly all the shops and restaurants were open, allowing me to indulge in a glass of local red. If you know me, I don’t like red wine, but when in Bordeaux…

St Honore

A gateau St-Honoré ‘revisité’; a precocious way of saying ‘how I want to present it’. Still nice though

Back in sunny Orleans, our attention started to turn towards going home. We’d managed to tick off a good deal of restaurants on our ‘NEED TO GO HERE BEFORE WE LEAVE’ list.  It’s so bizarre, I thought, to think that this assistantship I feel like I started just weeks ago is coming to an end, and that the life I have grown so used to will disappear as if it were a dream. Everything quickly became our ‘last’: our last week to school, our last private tutoring lessons, our last coffee… Also, my last haircut – I’ll sort of miss going to Julien, my hairdresser, with whom I have a relationship built mainly on me pretending to know more about Premier League football than I actually do.

Speaking of leaving, the collège marked my departure with panache as they always do, with each member of staff bringing a plate of something or other for us all to share at lunchtime. Then came the present-giving, which consisted of a hamper of sugary French delights and a six-ringed crêpe griddle, something I’m excited to use when I manage to get hold of a French-to-UK adaptor. I am a little disheartened that they didn’t include some sort of bursary for a dentist’s bill, which I am inevitably going to need. What’s worse is that they had all prepared vegetarian dishes, so I was compelled to try a bit of everything, including Catherine the librarian’s legendary tiramisu, resulting in a rather overfed English assistant.

By the way, if you think that all I do with the collège lot is eat, then you’re right.

But I still haven’t quite realised that that’s it; that there’s no more teaching, no more lesson planning, no more having to wake up at 6.30 on Friday mornings to get the train to school. I’ll realise it when I’m back in the UK having a lie-in, I suppose.

Back in November, I was invited by the lycée on a school trip which would take place in April. I’d told myself at the beginning of the year to say ‘oui’ to any invitation I was offered, and so I agreed with gusto, especially since this was a school trip to London! I was buzzing to show off my nation’s capital to the twenty young adults who, I had no doubt, would love it as much as I do. Suddenly it was  Monday, and after a day of travelling which began at 3.30, we had arrived in a radiant London, and had lunch in Regent’s Park, where, much to be utter bewilderment, the students went gaga when they saw a squirrel, taking picture after picture of it. Many of them had apparently never seen one in the concrete wilderness of Fleury-les-Aubrais before. A lot of them also seemed to enjoy chasing pigeons in Trafalgar Square, much like I used to do when I was FOUR and not NINETEEN. One of the students actually only joined the trip last minute after she realised that London was in England and not in the USA. It took another student until Thursday for her to realise that cars drive on the left and another thought the Queen lived at Parliament. Unfortunately things like the British Museum and the National Gallery were wasted on most of them; they much preferred the mime artists in Covent Garden or the allocated two hours on Oxford Street, which they spent entirely in Primark. They did enjoy the curry we had on the Tuesday, although the London cornerstone that is Pret A Manger did not please them, with one student telling me she ‘doesn’t like healthy-tasting food’ and that ‘McDonald’s is better’. We really maximised the Underground and the travel cards we had for the week, even though I was constantly asked ‘where do we get off?’ and ‘which stop is it?’ for the hostel we left and returned to every single day. Bar a couple of students, whose attitude I genuinely found really, really unpleasant, most of them are nice kids, I guess, although the incessant ‘my feet hurt’ and ‘I’m hungry’ and ‘what are we doing today?’ and ‘what’s that?’ has very much delayed any desire I had to have children.

Yes, this is London with perfect blue skies

Yes, this is London with perfect blue skies

Friday night topped it all off, however. After returning from Thriller Live, one of the students took a paracetamol before bed. A few hours later there were students bursting into my room telling me she wasn’t well, followed by one of the hostel staff attempting to speak to me in French, who calmed down a bit when I told him I was English. After waking the other two teachers, we went down to see the girl who had collapsed in the corridor with a raging fever. Fast forward half an hour to 2.15 and she, Sylviane the teacher and I were sitting at University College Hospital waiting to see the doctor. I played interpreter for the night to Andre, the Lisboan nurse, and it turned out she had a virus and was dehydrated and that she needed to take the tablets prescribed and drink plenty of water to feel better. Don’t worry! She was fine by Saturday afternoon. She was in a better state than the woman in the cubicle next to us, however, who at times I thought was being exorcised because she spent three hours straight regurgitating the contents of her entire body, or so it seemed, gracing the ward with the deafening sounds of bawling and retching, occasionally interrupted by the friend or relative who was with her who begged her to stop or told her to ‘shut up!’ when it got too noisy. Sylviane and I found the whole thing hilarious, even more so when they propped up the ‘WET FLOOR’ sign outside her cubicle.

We left the hospital at about 7am, two hours before we had to get up to check out. It was a beautiful ending to what had been a calming, stress-free week of helping to manage twenty fairly lazy students with short attention spans.

Despite the melodramas, one thing I realised is how much I adore London. I could go on and on (in fact, I did do an article all about London once) but I’m brimming with revived enthusiasm after my trip back home. In my sometimes blind admiration of France, I think I have been led up the garden path with Paris, and believed it to be as fantastic as London, and perhaps even better, but it is not. I really like Paris, of course, but London is something else. It is more interesting, more colourful, cleaner, greener, and even the turnstiles at Tube stations are more practical than those on the métro. London’s greatest asset is without doubt its quantity and quality of green spaces, from which you are never more than a few of streets away. Quite rightly, the students were mightily impressed by the ‘trop beaux’ parks in London. I couldn’t help but think that Paris’ nice Jardins du Luxembourg or des Tuileries just don’t compare. Fear not, Boris, my heart lies firmly embedded in the lawns of Regent’s Park. Next to the famed squirrels.


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