The Mole Diaries: Aix en Provence (Volume 3)
Claudia is about to finish her year abroad, having spent 6 months in France and Germany. Here is her Aix en Provence Mole Diary...
Hi there, I’m Claudia, I’m 21 and I’m from Leeds, although it doesn’t feel like it so much recently, as I’ve spent the last year living out of a capsule wardrobe, constantly contemplating how I’m going to get everything that I’ve bought abroad back home again. I’ve studied French and German at Durham University for two years, and I am a week away from finishing my third year abroad (I feel sad even just writing that!). In France, I worked as an au-pair in a little village called Mimet, a half hour drive from the centre of Aix en Provence, and in Germany I am studying (or should that be in the past, as I just took my final exam this morning?) at the beautiful University of Heidelberg in Baden-Württemberg. Here are my top tips for spending your time in Aix en Provence:
My year abroad started in September of last year, the 4th to be exact, as I boarded the 7AM flight from Leeds Bradford airport to Avignon, France. Both of these airports happen to be very small, so there was none of the usual hustle and bustle of London, trying to navigate your way to the correct gate with ridiculous amounts of luggage. I was actually really lucky because my parents were driving out to visit me 2 weeks later so I didn’t actually need to take that much stuff with me, just the essentials. Actually, tip number one: If you are anything like me and you don’t understand the concept of ‘packing light,’ then I urge you to take time with your packing and work out what you’re really going to need, and what you’re taking just because. in other words are you really going to need a ball gown or 5 inch heels?! Given the temptation of filling big bags, you’re bound to just fill it with as much as you can, but remember you’re the one who’s got to get it all the way to your final destination, and in most cases, there will be shops at the other end, just in case you happen to have forgotten something ( or you find an occasion to actually wear 5 inch heels).
The place itself
Now this wasn’t my first visit to Aix-en-Provence, in fact I’d been many times with my family, as we often spent holidays in and around Provence. I think that I’d recommend going somewhere that you’ve never been before because, although it was exciting, it’s always more fun to explore somewhere completely new! On the other hand, I had only ever wandered around the shops and main tourist sights of Aix, so this was the perfect opportunity to really get to know the quaint cafés and winding backstreets of the city. I was actually based in Mimet, a tiny, typically French village, offering only a boulangerie and a 4-star restaurant, with Gardanne, the next town, 5 minutes down the road, hosting a few more shops, an art and music school, and even an SNCF train station. Although I was living in a very remote area, I had constant access to a car. Make sure that when you research the area before you arrive, familiarise yourself with the nearest train/bus stations especially if you aren’t in large cities. If you’re also au-pairing, make sure you ask the family about your transport options and how far you are from the nearest town or city, as this plays a crucial role in making the most of your year abroad. For example, if I hadn’t had a car, I wouldn’t have been able to get into town without help from the parents, and I wouldn’t have been able to travel further afield of my own accord.
Working as an au-pair
So what was I actually doing in France?! Well, I worked 5, sometimes 6, days a week as an au-pair, as well as studying three times a week at an international school in the centre of Aix. I know that 6 days a week sounds like a lot to be working, but when the kids were at school I was often free to do my own thing, once I had done my chores back at the house. If you’re interested in au-pairing then the best website to use (in my opinion!) is aupairworld as it is literally just filled with adverts from families all over the place, searching for that perfect au-pair. I placed my own advert on the site, just outlining what I was looking for, and for how long, and it did not take long at all for the replies to start flooding in.
Top tips for finding a family:
Don’t get overexcited just because someone replies and find yourself saying yes to the first email. Make sure you find out how many kids you’re expected to look after! I know it sounds silly but you don’t want to turn up to find octuplets waiting for you! The ages are also very important. Looking after a 6 month old baby is obviously very different to taking care of a 12 year old (well it depends on the 12 year old, but there should be a difference!). Know exactly where you are going, you don’t want to end up living in the middle of a field (like I did) without a car and without any buses or trains. Once the family tells you where they live, look it up on Google Maps and see how far away you are from the nearest city. There’s no point isolating yourself, making life more difficult before you even get there! Find out a little bit about your daily routine and what will be expected of you. That way you can work out if you will have enough spare time to enroll in a language course or join an art class or something, so as to fully immerse yourself in the culture and make friends in the process.
A typical day
As the children were always doing different activities, no two days were the same, which I definitely enjoyed more than I would have, if it had been a set routine. As soon as I arrived, I was given a list of my responsibilities, basically outlining what would be expected of me, and explaining how many hours a week I would be working. Every morning I had to wake up the little girl at 7.20AM, having already set the table for breakfast, and make sure that she ate and got ready for school by 8AM, when we were to leave the house. After I dropped her off at school, I often had the day to myself, depending on what time I finished my chores, and what time the kids had to be picked up. I enrolled in an art course in Gardanne, which took place once a week for 3 hours, so as soon as I’d finished the school run, I could go and do something that I really enjoyed. The class was actually made up of French women between the ages of about 30 and 60, so I was definitely the youngest but that meant that they were all even lovelier to me and I was able to spend 3 hours speaking French and doing art, two of my favourite things. Three times a week I drove into the centre of Aix for my French lessons. I really recommend enrolling yourself in a French school as opposed to getting a French tutor, as it’s a great way to meet other people of a similar age. The classes were only small so it was really easy to make friends, and I still talk to so many of the girls in my class as we all became really close and ended up spending a lot of our free time together! In Aix I would definitely recommend IS, an international school for foreigners who want to learn French. Although it was expensive, I felt like I really got my money’s worth, as the lessons were very interactive and we covered everything from grammar to listening and we never stopped talking! English was actually banned as a common language, so we had no choice but to talk in French.
Little gems of knowledge for year abroad survival
Talk to everyone. I find it quite difficult to start up a conversation with a random stranger, but that random stranger could turn out to be your new best friend. Putting yourself out there is pretty daunting but it’s also the best thing you can do. I mean don’t walk up to any old man in the street and start sharing your life story, but if you’re enrolling in any classes (which you definitely should), take the opportunity to talk to as many people as you can, it will immediately make your year abroad so much more fun. It’s easier to sit in your room talking to friends back home, than to go out and make new ones. I urge you not to do this! Print out all of your year abroad paperwork before you go and get it all organised in a folder so that you know where everything is, and you know what and when you need to fill in and send off various forms. There is so much to do in terms of Erasmus Grant forms, attendance forms, etc., and instead of risking missing a deadline, just make life easier for yourself and sort it all out before you go. Internet is important for keeping in contact with your family and friends, but if you arrive and have no internet access, don’t let this panic you. I know that it can make you feel a little isolated so get yourself to McDonalds, and no not for a Big Mac, but to make the most of their unlimited free WiFi. Get yourself a coffee and just spend half an hour or so communicating with the outside world to make yourself feel a little bit closer to reality. Blog. I love my blog. As you can tell from my babbling, I’m a bit of a writeaholic and I also love taking photos, but I happen to have a really bad memory. Blogging has been an amazing way to document all of my adventures and experiences, so that I never forget what an unbelievable time I’ve had this year. Try new things. I am a massively picky eater, so I thought that I’d have rather a few problems in the land of snails and frogs legs, but I kept an open mind and learnt, for example, that I love scallops, sea urchin (yes, I know that’s weird!) and smelly French cheese, but I don’t really like prawns or veal. Wine is a definite in terms of trying something that you usually wouldn’t. I really didn’t like red wine before I left, but it’s so beautiful out there that you can’t help but fall in love with it (and it makes you feel seriously mature and sophisticated!).
I hope that this gives you a bit of an insight into life as a year abroad student. Make the most of every second, because before you know it, you’ll be heading back to England, wishing that you could stay for just more one week.