A Week in the Life: A Language Assistant in south-west France
Rachel Middleton is studying Modern Languages at the University of Cambridge and is currently on her year abroad working as a Language Assistant in a Lycée in Albi, France. She is also blogging about her adventures! Here is an insight into a week in her life...
Having arrived in France just over a month ago, I’m definitely still in the process of adjusting to my new life here. At university I love being busy and so for me, the challenge of these past few weeks has been adjusting to the slower pace of life here in the South West of France.
Thanks to my twelve hours per week of work as a language assistant, Monday morning does not mean the start of the working week! I instead spent the morning researching my travel options for the upcoming Vacances de Toussaint and chatting to my landlady. I knew that living alone was not for me, so I looked on websites such as leboncoin.fr and roomlala.com to find colocations or rooms with French people. I made sure I had some appointments arranged before arriving in France and after four viewings, I decided to live with a retired French woman whose children have left home and who has a spare room in her house. It was a great decision because she has time to show me the area, I have been able to meet her friends and, perhaps most importantly, she insists that I eat my share of fresh food from her allotment!
I did actually have one lesson in the afternoon; it really varies from teacher to teacher what I have to prepare for each class and how I work with the students. For example, this lesson involved me taking three students for 15 minutes at a time to discuss statements which I had prepared about technology. The students didn’t need too much prompting, so all good!
No lessons today! So, in true rural French style, I accompanied my landlady on her search for cèpes, the wild mushrooms which grow in the area and which fetch around €22/kilo in the local markets. We had to get up early as the places she knew were a short drive away. Contrary to the weekend’s glorious sunshine, the grey overcast skies added a gloomy touch to the rambling French countryside. As we sped along the country lanes, feeling more than a little car sick, I nevertheless felt lucky for being accepted so warmly into the wonderful and ever so slightly eccentric life which my landlady leads! Unfortunately, we were not so lucky with the cèpes and gave up after a couple of hours of searching, deeming the ground too dry!
In the afternoon, I decided to get my teeth into what many people say is the most frustrating element of French administration: CAF. CAF or caisses allocations familliales is essentially a housing benefit that assistants can be eligible for. A monthly payment directly into your French bank account, this is some money definitely worth trying to acquire. Although I had heard that the process was long and difficult, I began my application process online and followed this up by giving a copy of my passport, birth certificate, arrête de nomination and EHIC to my local office. So far so good, they told me to wait 15 days for confirmation of my allocation amount: on verra!
An 8am start is a harsh reality check! I had two hours of conversation lessons, again talking about technology, and then the rest of the day was free to do as I liked! This meant another afternoon in the French countryside with my landlady and her adorable but stubborn two year old grandson, this time hunting for chestnuts. We were successful in harvesting two full bags, which she will freeze, roast and put in soups. I was also able to see some more of the beautiful surrounding countryside, small picturesque villages and churches clinging to the cliffs.
Wednesday night means my weekly yoga class; both a physical and mental challenge, the class tests my French almost as much as my fitness! I have to admit to many sideways glances and looks in the mirror in order to see what is going on. Despite having been called Kate a couple of times by my yoga teacher (given the royal connections of my surname, everyone I meet is intrigued to know if I am related to HRH), everyone in the class is very friendly and makes an effort to chat before and after the class. I think it’s important to try to keep up with your interests whilst abroad or even try something new - I would recommend going into your local tourist information and picking up leaflets and magazines, as that is how I found my class.
Another 8am start! It really does surprise me how the students are awake at this time… Nevertheless, I was able to give two successful lessons to Seconde (Year 11) students on the upcoming Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, asking them to discuss and debate the pros and cons of Rio hosting the Games. Whilst planning my lessons, I have been able to find lots of resources on the BBC website, including great videos and articles, perfect for language learners. In the afternoon, I kept myself busy by giving two private lessons. Through contacts with my landlady, I have been put in touch with a couple of families who would like an English tutor for their children as a support for their school lessons. As native English speakers, we have linguistic knowledge which people are interested in and so private lessons are one way to use this, as well as being a great way to earn a little bit of extra money. The two families I work for are friendly and the children definitely more studious than I was in primary school!
Five hours of class today. Safe to say by the end, I was certainly ready for my two week holiday! Again, the classes varied according to what the teacher had requested, so I worked for three hours with small groups of Terminale students, roughly equivalent to Year 13, on the theme of immigration. They had lots of ideas and thoughts on the subject, which meant that my life was made a bit easier. I also had to take some students for five minutes for a one-on-one conversation on the theme of progress. This was more difficult, as without their classmates to provide support or to hide behind, some of the students struggled to express themselves. The final (and my favourite class, if I am allowed to say that!) was a more literary group, where I had been given a bit more freedom from the teacher. I decided to look at an extract from one of my favourite novels, Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The students seemed to like it and thankfully found the video clip I had found amusing!
I have been lucky in that my school has been welcoming towards me, with my mentor teacher communicating with me regularly and the other staff in the English department being equally friendly and approachable. I have also found the staff room to be a good place to meet new people, for example during my free hour or so in the middle of the day, one teacher gave me the number of her daughter who is a student in Albi and I ate lunch with another group of teachers, one of whom offered to show me around Toulouse. Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to say yes to as many things as possible, you never know what it could lead to!
Saturday morning means market day here in Albi and every Saturday so far I have been to the local market at the end of my street to buy my fresh fruit and vegetables for the week. I find that the local market is much cheaper than the supermarket and it definitely feels like the best way of buying produce. Without wanting to bore you with my shopping list, I bought lots of salad things, aubergine and courgette, locally produced goats cheese and plenty of fruit all for less than €10. Life is good! There is also a more picturesque market in the centre of town, which I visited with two of the other language assistants. There are eight of us in total working as assistants and living in Albi and it has been wonderful to have a network of young people in the area to meet up with and share stories and experiences. I was most nervous about arriving in Albi and finding people my own age with similar interests, however having other assistants in the area meant that I immediately had people to meet up with. In the evening, we had a little party to celebrate the 21st birthday of one of the assistants and had a great night in Albi. Although it is a relatively small city, there are still busy bars at the weekends. There are definitely benefits to a small city – the bar we went to brought my friend a birthday cake as they remembered that a few nights before, she had mentioned her birthday!
For me, Sunday is a day to relax and prepare for the week ahead so that means a few Skypes home to friends and family, a good meal and a little bit of planning for the holidays. I am looking forward the week of holidays ahead: I have two friends coming to visit and we are planning to visit nearby Toulouse and also Biarritz, where a friend of ours is working. Although in my short experience so far the SNCF has not been the most reliable transport service – the midnight bus from Toulouse to Albi last Friday was delayed by 2 hours, meaning we didn’t arrive home until 4am! – they have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves this week! In the evening I went round to one of the other assistant’s house to eat raclette with his colocs. A delicious meal of cheesy, potato-ey goodness, this was the perfect end to a busy but exciting week in France.