If you’d asked me a year and a half ago where I was planning on spending my year abroad as a French and Spanish student, I’d have said South America. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have reluctantly confessed that my increasing embarrassment during French oral classes had led me to change my plans. I accepted my fate and went applied to be an English language assistant in France. I’d always liked France and my family drove there every summer for our annual retreat to the middle of nowhere. We’d spend two weeks going to the beach, cycling around the countryside and listening to my mother complaining about nobody else practicing their French despite her not-so-secret love of doing all the talking herself. I spent weeks on my British Council application, weighing up the pros and cons of each French “académie” before deciding on Grenoble. I love skiing and the prospect of being so close to the mountains was too good to turn down.
I found out at some point in April that I had received my preferences and would be working in a primary school somewhere in the (very large) region of Grenoble. It took until the end of July to find out that I had been placed in…MONTÉLIMAR! The home of nougat and not very many young people. I did my research and to be honest, I wasn’t all that thrilled. I spent weeks searching for somewhere to live and was totally unsuccessful in finding anything. I eventually resigned on the fact that I should try living with French people and emailed my boss. She told me that there was a French mother looking for someone to look after her two teenage boys every other week whilst she was away at work. Time rapidly running out, I got in touch and agreed to move in with them. This didn’t quite fit in with my idea of a year abroad, but thankfully it turned out to be one of the best things about this year. It made the whole process a lot less daunting and to my delight, the mother was an outstanding cook and extreme wine enthusiast. Le rêve français.
When I first arrived in Montélimar, I felt pretty down. I had spent a long day travelling, and when I got off the TGV, it was dark and rainy. Had I really left Scotland? Only the stray chickens roaming around the park and the strip of kebab shops à centre-ville could convince me. I traipsed from the train station to my hotel and went to bed feeling pretty sorry for myself. This sentiment did not last. After meeting the family and seeing Montélimar in daylight, I was able to come to terms with the next eight months. No – it was not what I had imagined, and no I was not actually that close to the mountains, and no there was not a university where I could meet cool French friends called Jacques and Pénélope – but it was wonderful.
For one, I absolutely loved my job. I spent my days at work playing games, attempting to bake with four year-olds and trying to teach the importance of different vowel sounds (think beach/bitch, sheet/shit etc.). I also had to put up with the children I taught correcting my French on a daily basis – an equally humiliating and humbling experience. It was all worth it, however, for the huge sense of accomplishment that came with seeing the kids learn and improve. Nothing quite beats the feeling of seeing your class of four year olds finally manage to count from one to ten successfully. My four day week wasn’t so bad either…
I’ve also had the opportunity to travel all over France and the rest of Europe and, even though it’s left me high and dry, it’s been amazing. I made some great friends and got to visit old friends in their homes away from home. French schools have a two week break in October, December, February and April, which made for plenty of time to travel. I got to see the beach in Barcelona, the Acropolis in Athens and the vineyards in Bordeaux, to name just a few. I also fulfilled my teenage dream of visiting Florence – I’d wanted to go ever since reading E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View – and return to Madrid where I’d spent two blissful summers with a host family. Not to mention take complete advantage of having access to the TGV.
That being said, in spite of all the travel, this year has not been without its struggles. Being abroad for such a long period of time left me vulnerable to severe home (and dog) sickness and a strange sense of FOMO when thinking of university. Sometimes it’s scary to be in a country where they don’t speak your mother tongue, and you have to constantly put yourself out there in a desperate effort to be understood. I have found it so difficult to be myself in French and have concluded that speaking in a different language makes your personality come across differently. Often you can’t say the things you would in English, so come across as shy, uninteresting or, god forbid, boring. I thought that I would have left France speaking French pretty fluently. Mais non. Whilst in Madrid those past summers, my Spanish had improved so much that I expected even greater things from my eight months in France. This is not the case. I now have a weird pidginized version of French and Spanish, and should also point out that my English has somewhat deteriorated too.
Regardless, however, this year has been one of the best of my life. I’ve met some amazing people and got to travel more than I ever have before. I may not have had a romantic love affair with Jean-Claude (soon I’m sure) or lived in a huge city with endless things to do, but my wee French toon and everything else about my year actually turned out to be pretty great. I have every intention of returning to live in France at some point, and I never did make it to the nougat museum so I guess I’ll be returning to Montélimar too…
Caitlin is a fourth year French and Spanish student at the University of St Andrews. When not singing with her a cappella group, The Alleycats, Caitlin can be found jamming out to Beyoncé and walking her baby (translation: dog) Bronte. She is able to play the piano and the bassoon and is currently attempting to master the guitar. She loves travelling and hopes to return to France after graduating from university.
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