A Day in the Life: Teaching in Perpignan, France
Elizabeth Gibson is a student of IPML French and Spanish at the University of Manchester and is spending her year abroad as an English Language Assistant at a Lycée in Perpignan, France. If you'd like to hear more about Elizabeth's year abroad, follow her on Twitter or check out her blogs - both English and French!
My alarm rings. 6.30am. I scramble to get ready to be out of the apartment by 7.10am. I succeed, and walk out into the quietly beautiful French dawn.
The walk to school takes around half an hour, through empty streets, past lush green summery meadows. The highlight is seeing the lilac-yellow sunrise reflected in the water at the Park Sant Vicens.
I stop at the bakery for breakfast. The lady there knows me well by now and smiles as she prepares my slice of cake. I sit outside and enjoy it before finishing my journey to the Lycée.
I fetch my lesson materials from the staffroom to arrive at the class for 7.55am. I collect my pupils – half a class, so around twelve. They are Secondes, age fifteen to sixteen. The topic is superheroes. We play a game where each pupil has the name of a superhero written on the board behind them and their classmates must help them work out which it is. “Am I a man?” “Am I strong?” “Am I fast?”.
Something I have noticed about French teenagers is how into superheroes they are. In the game, my French pupils guess not only the easy ones – Spider Man, Hulk, Captain America – they also have no trouble with what I would consider slightly more difficult heroes: Storm, Hawkeye, Green Lantern, Thor. We then answer questions about heroes. “If you could transform into an animal like Beast Boy, which would you choose?” “A turtle, so I can be a ninja!” “If you were in trouble, which superhero would you choose to save you and why?” “Iron Man, because he is beautiful.” Cue blushing and giggling.
The class ends at 10am and I head down the road to the bus stop to catch a bus to Canet. Canet is the second town of the Pyrenees-Orientales department, after Perpignan. It is on the bus map and therefore free with a pass (although of course, the pass itself costs money). The buses are pretty regular and I don’t have to wait long.
Even if you have no interest in Canet – and it is very interesting – the bus journey must be made as it is one of the most beautiful I have ever undertaken. The scenery really epitomises, for me anyway, the French Dream, i.e. the vision of the south of France that I fell in love with at seventeen during a trip to Carcassonne and Montpellier that led me back here to live and work. Towering, snowy mountains. Fields and fields of knobbly little peach trees covered in white and pink flowers. Brown earth. The sun beating down from a blue sky. Perfection.
We arrive in Canet and I disembark and wander the short distance to the beach, past the Lady of the Sun and Sea, frozen in permanent dance. The sea glitters ahead, silver and the lightest blue. I buy a sandwich – white ham and emmental – from my favourite bakery and sit on one of the many benches along the seafront to eat it.
I then drift down to Marenda, my favourite of the Canet beaches. The mountains loom, a great, peaceful backdrop; there are less tourists and less noise. There is also a great array of shells – mussels, cockles, scallops. I childishly but happily collect them. I find my best-ever shell – the two sides still attached from when it was on the animal, red, a perfect heart or pair of angel wings. It soon breaks into two and I stow them away in my bag, marvelling at the exactness of their symmetry.
I roll up my jeans and go for a run in the shallows. It is turquoise and cool and joyful. I am alone: there are people in the far distance but nobody anywhere near me. It is almost surreal.
Afterwards, I clean the sand from my feet as best I can, give up on my socks and put my bare feet in my trainers. My plastic bottle escapes me and flies into the sea and I have a frantic minute running after it before I finally grasp it. I catch the bus back to Perpignan. Some boys from the Lycée are on it and nudge each other and motion discreetly towards me: it is always such a revelation to my pupils that I have a life outside of school and may sometimes be sighted in the wild, i.e. in town or on a bus.
I arrive in town and breathe a sigh of happiness. Canet is a novelty but there is something lovely about being in dear old Perpignan, which I see very much as my home now. I stroll through the big arch in the Castillet – our ancient red castle – into the old town. I go to Columbus, my favourite coffee shop, and pick one of their famous (among us assistants, anyhow) Nutella muffins and a vanilla and hazelnut milkshake.
I am sitting out in the open, enjoying the late afternoon sun and the hustle and bustle of the old town, full of tourists and locals alike, when I am surprised by a call of “Liz! Liz!” I really should no longer be surprised by this phenomenon, as Columbus is the number one place to sit if you want to see other Assistants. It is our favourite haunt.
But it is still a pleasant surprise to see Nathan, an English Assistant from Canada, and Cristina, a Spanish Assistant. We sit together and chat and it is really nice. A friend of Nathan’s appears and needs to go to the shop so we all go together.
She then leaves and Nathan, Cristina and I find ourselves in the Place de la Republic with its big carousel and many little cafes. Cristina has bread and we feed the pigeons. They are too shy to hop onto our hands so we make do with scattering the crumbs on the ground and watching them enjoy them, silhouetted against the setting sun. It is idyllic.
Cristina and I say goodbye to Nathan and walk home (we live close to each other). We go a way I haven’t gone before, down a lovely little street with lots of blossomy bushes. We arrive in our neighbourhood and split. I decide to get a wood fire pizza from the little van near my home. I choose a “Royale”: cheese, tomato, mushrooms, ham and an egg. I get back to the apartment and sit on the outside window ledge – don’t worry, it opens onto the roof! – and eat my pizza. The sky is pink and orange and the birds are calling. It is marvellous.
I double-check that tomorrow’s classes are all ready. I call home and chat to my family. I watch some British TV on YouTube for nostalgia’s sake. Then I go to bed.
That was one of my more glamorous days, with the sea-running and pigeon-feeding and eating-pizza-out-of-the-window. An ordinary day might have one of those things rather than three. But Perpignan is a glorious, unpredictable place, and days like this can and will happen.