As hard as I’ve resisted it, the Earth has kept turning these last few months and somehow, I find myself suddenly at the beginning of my last week of teaching in France. A summer camper seeing my parents’ car pull up outside the camp, I am overcome by a feeling of intense dismay. Surely we haven’t reached that point already? I must have just left my bathers in the car. Six months ago.
At this juncture, I’m left with two options – either I can be depressed about the way my household is starting to disintegrate, with my housemates leaving one-by-one, and my own departure being imminent. Or, I can be optimistic, and enjoy my last few weeks as much as possible. After all, I still have the better part of six weeks to hug this precious slice of Earth to close to my chest, whisper sweet nothings to it and promise – cross my heart and hope to die – that there will never be anywhere else that makes me feel this way.
In the spirit of that optimism, here is a more-or-less randomly selected look at some of my most favourite things about life in France for me.
Number One – The Food
Of all the things on the list, this is the one that is most thoroughly appreciated when mashed vigorously into the face-hole. Such enjoyment during my European séjour takes many forms, and I hesitate to rank any one higher than the others.
Of course, French Food is an unqualified delight, in all the ways that the stereotypes proclaim. Good bread, delicious cheese and wine are as abundant as they are appallingly wonderful. Market Day Lunch each Sunday – Pâté aux pommes de terre from my favourite bakery, a warm baguette and fresh salad and olives from the markets – is something I will struggle to live without.
However, I’ve also spent no small amount of my time here learning to feed myself. I admit that my culinary skills remain fairly basic in nature – no amount of French living can change that – but I have at least moved a little beyond “oui chef” and into territory where I am in no danger of starving. Fresh ingredients from the markets help me to stay enthusiastic about this, and it is satisfying to eat something I made “from scratch”, even if my repertoire is small.
Finally, of course, is food eaten elsewhere. This ranges from the greasiest of foul fast food – my beloved kebabs from Paris to Brussels to Prague – to fancier and more traditional restaurant food. Funnily enough, the fast food is often the most memorable; burgers in Amsterdam, currywurst in Germany, Sunday Roast in England. Each place I’ve been has a taste attached, even if it’s just the taste of garlic sauce and chips.
Number Two – The Kids
Of the many virtues that teachers possess, patience must surely be one of the most important. Children can be very tiring sometimes – I’m sure my parents would emphatically agree. Not being known as the world’s most patient man, I must admit to being apprehensive about being charged with the temporary care of several classes of miniature French folk before my arrival.
This is why it’s such a surprise to me that I am so sad to be finishing my service in just a week’s time. Teaching English at both Middle and High School levels has been an unexpectedly humbling and wonderful experience, with every class being unique – some difficult, some easy, some delightful, some depressing. With my Terminales, I love being able to share openly with them, make jokes and empathise with their terror of the final exams. At Collège, where most of my students are between 11 and 14, I adore their enthusiasm and motivation, the frank, earnest questions that make me clap my hands in delight – “what is the utility of the Big Cow?” one boy asked. A very good question, on reflection.
I’m just as surprised by how much I empathise with them sometimes. Learning a language is hard work, and many of them didn’t choose it – it’s mandatory in France. As much as I probably could have done this job in a very lazy way, I don’t want to – most of the time. The kids deserve better than that. Some of the motivated, curious ones have even become friends, and their enthusiasm and drive makes me feel like the future generations aren’t as much of a lost cause as the common wisdom would have us believe.
Number Three – The Travelling
This may seem obvious, but please attend carefully; I didn’t say “the destinations”. There’s an expression I really like; ce qui compte c’est le trajet, pas le lieu. In English, we would say that it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
An argumentative reader could be forgiven for insisting that my life here has been made up of nothing but destinations, but in my idle moments, it’s often the travel itself I find myself thinking about. My memories of the places I’ve been are buried in an inscrutable blur of dozens of trainstations, airport lounges, métro cars, bus stops and pedestrian paths.
Watching the French countryside flash by through the window of the TGV, listening to reggae music on the plane to Berlin, and trying desperately not to fall asleep on the stranger next to me or spill crumbs on them from a hastily-bought trainstation sandwich. I wouldn’t have thought so before my departure, but these have turned out to be very fond memories in their own way.
Number Four – Myself
On the surface, it is a counter-intuitive proposition, but being away from home and familiar things has given me the opportunity to be myself in a way that took years of hard work in Australia. My arrival here was almost like being born a second time – but with all the experience and wisdom of a Young Man, such as it is. Nobody knew anything about me, and so there was no pressure to act a certain way, or profess particular beliefs. I was given the rare and precious opportunity to choose my own adventure.
Because of all that, I can unreservedly say that French Daniel is – in my opinion at least – a better person that Australian Daniel. Less shy, more assertive, more willing to ask for help (obligatory in a foreign place) and more confident. Less introverted, too, perhaps, although I don’t count that as an improvement so much as a necessary reaction to living with housemates, as is my increased willingness to “agree to disagree”.
Equally important has been the challenge and reward of speaking French all day every day. I’ve learnt to make jokes – both at my own expense and others’ – to say things that are passably clever and defend my point of view in an argument. Though they may take extra nurturing sometimes, my burgeoning friendships with French people are somehow neither stilted nor awkward – well, no more than is usual for me, anyway.
Growing into the language and becoming comfortable here has shown me that my hard work at University was worthwhile, and such validation is a precious gift from a place that has already been more than generous with me.
To view a gallery of photos from a recent trip to the nearby town of Nevers – which has nothing to do with this post – click here. To instead view a definition of the word ‘entropy’, which is seldom used but may come in handy in your professional life, click here.