The Mole Diaries: Épernay
Epernay by Josiah Mackenzie
Mair Roberts is studying French & Linguistics at Oxford. She chose to be an English Language Assistant with the British Council as she was curious about teaching. In the end, she was given the Champagne-Ardenne region and taught in a town called Epernay. Here’s her year abroad account...The Assistant Experience
If you’re less than enthusiastic about the thought of leaving your university town, don’t really have any ideas of what to do or where to go, and want the minimal of fuss in terms of organisation – the British Council Assistantship is definitely for you! Everything is tailored to your taste, from the town/city you’re allocated, your school, accommodation and even your great group of friends. Considering the hours, the money is also great; the assistantship offers a time + money combination unequalled by any other job. A word of advice: choose your regions carefully, as you could end up absolutely anywhere within any of the 3 regions that you choose!
You might not have heard of Epernay before. Grab your nearest bottle of champagne, be it Moët or Mercier, and the chances are that it will have come from this little town, with a population of around 25,000. Every time I’m in Tesco or M&S now, I take comfort in seeing this name on the bottle and want to take it off the shelf, point at the label and screech at anyone who’ll listen “I LIVED HERE!”. One might expect it to be, as the champagne capital of the world, oozing with sophistication and to have champagne flowing freely from the taps. However, when I arrived on that Monday lunchtime last September, it couldn’t have been any more different. Something I didn’t know about French lunchtimes – everything closes between 12.30PM and 2PM, so you can imagine my reaction when the French equivalent of Boots was closed at 1PM (for that emergency bottle of shampoo I’d forgotten to pack). My school, also, wasn’t quite what I was expecting. The photos on their website only showed the newest buildings, and didn’t mention that it was going under construction work. It was on top of the steepest, longest hill I’d ever seen. Despite the fact it was the 2nd or the 3rd right from Avenue de Champagne (and not on the Avenue de Champagne like the other lycée in town), it definitely lacked its class. However, my fears were laid to rest as soon as I saw my ‘responsable’ waiting for me and waving with a Cheshire-cat grin on her face when I arrived and I spent a very happy 7 months there.
One of the reasons I’d applied for the assistantship was for the prospect of having cheap accommodation organised by the school. Many state lycées in France have boarding schools, especially in rural regions such as Champagne-Ardenne and most assistants in the region lived in one of these facilities. I had a large bedroom with two single beds, and there was a bathroom and kitchen between the four of us.
The best part about the accommodation was my neighbours; I lived with the school’s German and Spanish assistants and the town’s only primary school assistant, who’s from Florida. Two other assistants (an English girl and a Mexican girl) lived in the other lycée on the Avenue de Champagne, just a 5 minute walk away. My grandfather joked that it was like the beginning of one of those “There was an Englishman, an American and a Chinaman…” jokes, and he was pretty much spot on! Another great aspect of the accommodation was the price, only €70 a month, which is less than 10% of an assistant’s monthly wage. Generally, other assistants were paying no more than 100 € per month, and I even know of one girl who lived at her collège for free.
Before coming out to France, I’d imagine making friends with some super-chic French girls or falling in love with a charming Frenchman. What I hadn’t expected was the great group of people among the assistants and how much we’d be interacting together. We may have only had two things in common – being an assistant and not being French, but this formed the basis of a tight-knit community. All of the assistants in the region had a 2-day stage in Reims to get to know each other, and it was just like Freshers’ Week all over again. Although everyone ultimately stuck with the other assistants in their town or city, there were a couple of parties at Christmas and for someone’s birthday, when everyone got together, which was always great fun. In Epernay, there were 6 assistants, including myself (4 English, 2 Spanish and 1 German), and as French was our only common language, we had plenty of opportunity to speak the language. From this point of view, I’d definitely recommend choosing a smaller town, as assistants in larger towns or cities tend to stick with their language groups and only speak French at school.
This was my first time teaching, and the thought of convincing French teenagers that English is cool was fairly daunting. Yes, there were 18 year olds who didn’t know the word ‘nose’ and referred to reindeer as “a Christmas horse”, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the pupils and their attitude. On the whole, they were extremely well behaved and ready to participate. The first few lessons were filled with awkward silences, but this improved throughout the year as I became more creative with my lesson planning and the pupils became less shy about speaking to me. For anyone considering becoming teacher, this is the perfect place to start, as you get to teach your own classes with very small groups. My personal highlight was helping out on a school trip to London, when the pupils got very excited at every mention of ‘Lady Di’ – this free trip definitely felt like more of a holiday than work!
Working only 12 hours a week and regular holidays means that you have a lot of time on your hands. Epernay is in a great location, as it’s only 30 minutes away from Reims, and better still, just over 1 hour away from Paris. On Saturdays, there’s a deal on called Paris pour tous, where you get a return trip to Paris Est for only 15€; there’s just one catch, you have to take the 6.30AM train to get there, but it’s definitely worth the early start to make the most of a cheap day out in the capital. Metro tickets are also cheaper for those under 26 on a Saturday. Wherever you’ll be in France, the 12-25 rail card is absolutely essential – I’d made all of my money back after the first month.
Epernay – capitale du champagne
Despite its self-proclaimed title as the champagne capital of the world, Epernay is still a small and ordinary French town. For me, it was the perfect size, as it had all of the local commodities (supermarkets, clothes shops and book shops) but it still had a very personal feel to it, and you were always bumping into people you knew in town. Of course, les Sparnaciens (the locals) are very proud of their champagne, and it’s quite normal to open a few bottles on a Friday night, with a great selection of the big brands and some smaller producers of champagne in town. Avenue de Champagne is probably the richest and one of the most beautiful streets in the world, and is especially pretty at night with all of the Champagne houses displaying lights on the pavements.
Must-do list in Epernay:
Spend an evening at C-Comme, a very stylish Champagne bar, which only sells champagne from small producers. In December, go to the Avenue de Champagne for Les Habits de Lumière, where the entire street is lit up and you can sample champagne from house to house. Visit De Castellane champagne house and climb the tower for some amazing views. Go on a minibus tour of the Côtes de Chardonnay and explore the vineyards with Nathalie. Take advantage of the Paris pour tous deal on Saturdays. Pop to Reims on the train and play king (or queen!) in one of the most important cathedrals in French history. Have a picnic in the town hall’s park (take-out champagne optional!). Try some exquisite cakes and hot chocolate at Vincent Dallet’s. Say bonjour to Maxime in A. Bergère on Avenue de Champagne and do a champagne tasting for 4€. Exchange in heated debate about where you can get the best baguette in town!