The Mole Diaries: Aix les Bains
The dream year abroad for most students often comprises a bustling city life, unfaltering sunshine and plenty of socialising. However, many English Language Assistants find themselves teaching in small towns for their year abroad where their lives can be very different from the stereotypical year abroad. I taught English in a collège and lycée in Aix les Bains, a small town in the French Alps and I learned to appreciate small town life. Although living in a small town for your year abroad can provide unexpected and different challenges than city life, the advantages will more than outweigh the negatives.
Trying to find accommodation somewhere you've never been before can be tricky but small towns pose extra problems. France in general doesn't have the same online support as in the UK so it can be difficult to search for somewhere to live. It may be a case of who you know rather than what you google.
1. Try to find accommodation before you get there.
In larger towns and cities the advice seems to be to stay in a hostel while you search for somewhere to rent, but Aix les Bains doesn't have any hostels so that option was out for me and I'm sure it's the same in many other small French towns. Searching online for estate agents and properties in my town didn't return many results so I had to depend on my email contacts to get help.
2. Contact your responsable.
If your responsable can't give you any advice about where to find accommodation, ask them to pass on your details to the rest of the school staff or their friends to see if they can help. I ended up renting a small studio from a retired English teacher.
3. Get in touch with other year abroad students in your area.
There were only two other assistants in my town but there were many more in nearby Chambéry. You can ask them for advice or even suggest looking together - if the other assistants are teaching at different schools you can ask them to put you in touch with their responsables for help finding accommodation. My friends’ responsable had lots of spare contacts. You could always think about commuting from a nearby city if you are really struggling to find somewhere, but this will depend on public transport links.
4. Don't always go for the cheapest option.
Transport links in small towns are not as frequent or widespread as they are in cities, so try to find somewhere convenient for work or a bus route to work. I paid more for my flat so that I could be in the town centre, which was ideal for the bus and for my social life. I saved a lot of money on taxi fares!
5. Consider living with a local family.
Although I lived alone, I know my friends benefitted greatly from living with French families. The obvious advantage is that you will greatly improve your language skills, but they can also offer you tips on what to do in the area and inform you of local customs. I enjoyed the independence and flexibility of having my own place (again more ideal for a social life), but this came at the price of less interaction in my foreign language. Really think about what you think you can live with and what will work best for you.
It's true that you really are thrown into the deep end with an English Language Assistantship – I only had two days of training with my local académie (Grenoble), which was split between information about social security and information and advice on teaching. As time is limited at training, you’re unlikely to learn everything you need about teaching and you will just have to learn on the job. This really isn’t as scary as it sounds and in fact leaves you plenty of freedom to develop your own teaching style and work on lessons that you’re interested in.
My Top Tips for English Language Assistants
1. Plan some lessons before you arrive.
I wrongly assumed that I would have access to things like printers and computers at work. Neither of my two schools had computers in the classrooms and the printers were so often out of order that I gave up relying on them. I used the photocopier more than anything else, but it was very difficult to plan lessons around things I had to either write on the board or handwrite and photocopy. Print some materials before you leave home to cover yourself if you find school resources lacking. Some lessons that I found worked really well were: debates, poster adverts, Articulate, blanking out words in a text to be filled by the students, creative writing and other general activities that can be adapted to suit the topic or theme of the week. I would have loved to be able to show my students YouTube clips or images on the computer but I really challenged my creativity with thinking up lessons that didn't involve electronics. At the collège the teachers mostly gave me ideas or materials on the day to teach their students but I always had a back-up activity prepared in case they forgot. If the staff have a copy of the syllabus (and this is less likely as it sounds), you could ask to see it to help you plan your lessons.
2. Chat to all school staff members.
At first a lot of the staff were hesitant to talk to me, but I learnt a lot over the year through talking to my colleagues, especially as I lived alone and needed advice on what to do locally and I needed to practice speaking French. It can seem scary at first but I found everyone from the English staff to the secretary very friendly and helpful, which was a relief because I'm naturally shy so I was glad they were so welcoming.
3. You will see your students regularly.
I normally prefer a bit of anonymity, but I had to get used to the idea of being recognised very soon after arriving. In fact, it is one of the things I miss most about living in France because I grew to appreciate the friendly smiles, waves and hellos I got from my students in the street, around town and even in bars and clubs. Even when I didn't see my students, I would often meet people around town who knew one of my students. In a small town, everyone knows everybody (which can be good or bad if you're not careful).
4. You're in charge.
I'm shy, but when teaching you have to be in control no matter how you're feeling on the inside. I did have to pretend a lot at the start like I knew what I was doing but by Christmas I felt really confident and comfortable at the front of the class, which is saying something when you're faced with a bunch of grumpy teenagers at 8 o'clock on a Monday morning.
5. Keep busy.
12 hours of work a week really isn't a lot so you may find yourself twiddling your thumbs in your free time. We went to the cinema every week to watch films in French, we chilled in local cafés, we organised day trips to other towns and cities nearby, we skied regularly once the snow arrived and we walked along the local lake (incidentally the biggest in France). During the school holidays I booked trips to Sweden and Germany to make the best use of my time off. Remember that you’re only there once and you should see and do as much as you can from the beginning. You don’t want to be moving home and realise you didn’t do everything you wanted.
General advice for living in a small town
1. The shops shut, especially at lunch, weekends and often Mondays or whenever the owners feel they need to pop across the road for a coffee at their friend’s café.
2. Join a club to meet people. We joined a club for the appreciation of British culture and had a laugh singing Christmas Carols, playing Bingo and attempting Scottish Dancing.
3. Ask around about bus and train youth cards as soon as you arrive to start saving money. My train card gave me 50% off fares in the Rhône-Alpes region.
4. You will stick out from the locals. We don't know how they did it, but everywhere we went people knew we weren't French before we'd even said anything. This can work in your favour and can prompt some great conversations.
5. Start CAF early, as the paperwork takes a long time. The nearest CAF office in Chambéry only ever had appointments when I was teaching so I couldn't pop in and do it the quick way.
6. Talk to everyone! The locals in the supermarket, boulangeries, cafés and bars loved to chat to us and they even gave us free drinks and croissants when we told them we were leaving at the end of our placement. The best way to really profit from your year abroad is to dive straight into the community.
7. Don't expect the nightlife to be like it is at home. The French are far more comfortable in a bar drinking wine than dancing the night away in a club (more often than not to Gangnam Style). Nightclub quality in small towns leaves a lot to be desired but there’s still lots of fun to be had as long as you’re open-minded.
Aix les Bains came to feel like a second home to me by the time I moved back to England and I know it was because of the friendly and welcoming community. If I ever get the chance to visit again I hope I will still bump into people I met on my year abroad and they'll still remember me, the strange English girl who tried (and often failed) to improve her French.
Follow Emily’s blog for more tips and thoughts on life in Aix les Bains.