L’origine modeste One Saturday morning in mid-May, I was sipping my first coffee of the day and flicking through Stylist magazine – a weekly ritual – when my gaze fell upon a little box in the bottom right corner of the page … Continue reading
Step 1: Open your wardrobe, grab every item of colour, and throw it away. Black, navy, grey, beige, cream and white are celebrated while hues with the slightest vivacity are scorned and abhorred. Think Chanel or Zara (circa 2012) and you’re … Continue reading
For a moment, let’s put aside all of the bad things I have ever said about Paris and just be completely superficial. Rustic, uniform, and architecturally exquisite, Paris is one of the most photogenic cities in the world come rain, shine … Continue reading
Many people think of Paris as the epitome of French cities; a prime example of fine foods and haute French fashion, laced with stunning Haussmann architecture and a healthy dash of culture. It’s not untrue that the French capital is representative … Continue reading
Obviously it’s a terrible idea… 1. You’ll be forced to sample all sorts of new and exciting foods… 2. …and you’ll probably get fat as all the delicious food moves towards your mouth, like a moth to a flame. … Continue reading
From the streetlights to café lighting, the buildings to the bridges, and all way down to the lighter end of a Parisian’s fashionably appropriate colour scheme. Paris is beige. The Palace of Versailles is beige. The Louvre is beige. The Musée d’Orsay … Continue reading
Let’s face it, Paris is expensive. With some museums charging entry in excess of €12 a ticket, and the average meal (main course + drink) costing approximately €20 per person, not everyone can fund their dream trip to the City … Continue reading
Oh the Parisian dream! When I was little I wanted nothing more than a Haussmann-style apartment overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg and to take my obscenely small dog for walks along the Seine. I envisaged my twenty-something self rolling around around … Continue reading
My Little Paris (not to be confused with My Little Pony…) is probably the most adorable and stylish company ever created. Much like its spin-off versions in Lyon and Marseille, the company deals in all things Paris and Parisian. Online, … Continue reading
Being an English Language Assistant in a foreign country is entirely comparable to being a C-list celebrity. Going shopping, eating out or generally walking anywhere near your school at the weekend triggers a series of resounding “HELLO HEATHER”s and “BONJOUR … Continue reading
Je suis Charlie because radicalism and terrorism have poisoned the Parisian dream I have striven for since I was a child. Je suis Charlie because Paris is my current home and it came under attack. The events that occurred this week now … Continue reading
As the capital city of the most visited country in the world, Paris is a hot destination for travellers looking to celebrate the New Year (or Nouvel An) in style. In France, New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a simple but … Continue reading
To the untrained tongue, fluency is the idea of speaking a language without error or miscomprehension. The mere sound of the question “Oh, so are you fluent?” strikes fear into my heart, because such a question would never be asked by person … Continue reading
My fellow English Language Assistants and I have been set the challenge of discussing Christmas in the UK without mentioning any element of religion. Actually, I lie. The law in France prohibits us from talking about religion in the classroom, … Continue reading
For the past two months I’ve had the privilege to live and work in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. The commune is basically everything you’d expect from Paris (sans Tour Eiffel) except with 112,000 people squeezed into its two and … Continue reading
Two years ago today I was hauling two enormous suitcases and a little green carry-on through Manchester Airport on the way to my year abroad adventure in Madrid. Exactly one week from today I’ll be hauling two enormous suitcases and a … Continue reading
(Originally for Platform Magazine) My first double-page spread! (May 2013)
I am currently sat on the floor in a corner of Lyon Saint Exupéry Airport at the end of the first chapter of my year abroad. I spent the weekend visiting my friend in Paris who is doing a 6 month work placement with HSBC on the Champs-Elysées. I visited Paris last summer with some friends from uni so this wasn’t really a sightseeing tour; however this time I did visit the Sacré-Cœur which was a new sight for me. We also spent some time sunbathing on the grass banks of the fountain below Place du Trocadéro and staring up at the Eiffel tower (which has almost certainly been repainted since last summer).
Today I decided that, as I probably won’t be in Paris at any point within the next two years, it would be a good idea to carry out some active research for my dissertation by visiting places pertaining to the Holocaust in France, and particularly to La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv. Firstly I visited the Monument du Vel d’Hiv. It has recently been the 70th anniversary of this horrendous act of collaboration at the hands of the French state and there were flowers at the monument including some from Le Président de la République.
Later I visited Memorial de la Shoah which is a museum documenting the Holocaust in France and Europe. The museum is protected by iron fencing, x-ray machines and full-body scanners. At first I was alarmed by the intense security. Who would target a tiny museum in a quiet quarter of Paris? But it’s not simply a museum; it’s a Jewish museum. It’s really sad that, at this day in age, such precautions are still necessary and that people, regardless of race or religion, feel so threatened.
Today is the last day of my time as an au-pair and it’s been an interesting experience. My time here has prepared me for the move to Spain in so many ways. I’ve overcome homesickness, language barriers and culture shock, … Continue reading
Every morning there’s a different battle between T and I; sometimes it’s to do with bathing, sometimes breakfast, sometimes clothes, but I don’t think she’s simply being difficult. For these children it’s difficult to understand that although their mummy is … Continue reading
Ils font toujours des bêtises. These kids are always up to something. They’ve recently figured out that they can do things in order to earn money. In the space of a day they went from never cleaning up after themselves, to asking for things to do in exchange for 1€ or 1,50€. They’ve got this new Skylanders game for the Wii and they’re trying to save up to buy more characters which cost about 8€ each or 24€ for a pack of three. Even as I write, the boys are clearing out the out-house, which acts as their playroom, in the vain hope of earning a few centimes. The parents get a nice clean house at a bargain price; the kids get to buy their characters so that they can waste more of their summer inside playing video games. Win win.
Every morning I’m faced with the battle of getting T out of the bath. This morning she’d been in for over half an hour, the water had gone cold and it was almost lunchtime. When she was finally out of the bath we got her all dressed up in a pretty pink Ralph Lauren dress (I’ve never touched Ralph Lauren in my life, but this is a family with an Eton boy at the head!) at the request of her mum, which she then managed to get ketchup AND chicken poo (don’t ask) on. I’m no parent, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that you shouldn’t dress children in designer clothes, particularly if there’s food, farm animals or general outsideness involved. Later on we went for a bike ride and unfortunately discovered halfway down a hill that the brakes on youngest’s bike don’t work. She went whizzing down the hill and ended up tangled in a poor Frenchman’s hedge! Behold; one Ralph Lauren dress complete with ketchup, chicken poo, mud and grass stains. Note to self: don’t buy designer clothes for kids. Also, at the weekend, we discovered that H (the younger boy) had nits and so began a weeklong campaign to treat all the children and to wash their bedding and doudous (‘teddies’ in French). Even us adults had to wash our hair with a special shampoo just to be on the safe side. I feel 10 years old again. Just thinking about it makes me want to scratch my head. Eugh.
As I write I’m currently sat out in the garden. It’s a toasty 26 degrees and there’s not a sound except for the wind in the trees and the occasional cluck of a hen. I’m a born and bred city girl, but I have come to appreciate the countryside. It’s peaceful, beautiful and mostly safe. The houses are so rustic and sturdy, and I can totally imagine myself living in a house like the one I’m currently staying in. It’s a converted barn that dates back to the 1700s; there are huge disused barn doors at the front, and stone steps leading up to the thick wooden front door that uses an enormous brass key. The door opens into the kitchen that has pans and vegetables hanging from the wooden beams in the ceiling; there’s large oak table in the centre and antique furniture all around. There are books everywhere; in the kitchen, the corridor, the living room and even on the stairs! It’s exactly how I imagine my house to be.
Although I’m not entirely sure if au-pairing is really my thing, I’m certainly glad that I stayed to give it a go. I’m now at the end of my fourth week here and next weekend I’m leaving for Paris, before returning to the UK. I can’t wait to have usable internet again and to be able to use my phone without worrying about the cost. I’m also looking forward to being able spend time on my own, in my own space without feeling like I’m being rude, ignorant or lazy. I can’t say that I’ve been exposed to as much of the French language or culture as I wanted and needed to be, but I have definitely improved and it has been a good experience nonetheless. Even when things like this have happened to my face…
Before coming here I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a child or to have a really young sibling. Coming here and living with four children aged 4-11 reminded me how completely difficult and frustrating they can be, but also how sweet they can be and how rewarding it is when they learn from you. I’ve noticed an improvement in the way the younger two speak English and they actually now repeat what I say when I correct them. I’ve also been reacquainted with the way children think and perceive things. To children things are mostly black or white with no grey area; you’re either a friend or an enemy, with them or against them. They can’t understand why they’re not allowed to ride their scooter on the motorway; you’re just spoiling their fun by saying no. They tend to look at things in relation to personal gain and they can be easily bribed. They can also be scared (a little unethical) into doing as they’re told. ‘You can’t eat any of the cake you’ve spent the last hour baking unless you put the bowl in the dishwasher and the butter back in the fridge’ – less work for me and they learn basic tidiness! The other day T was yet again refusing to get out of the bath, even after I’d pulled the plug. Once the water started to drain the bathroom sink started to gurgle and a look of horror came across her face. I told her that the noise was happening because she was still in the bath and that, if she didn’t hurry up, the house was going to fall down. I’ve never seen anyone vault the side of a bath and into a towel so spectacularly fast. Kids!
I was already a fiercely independent person before coming here, but independence in a foreign country is a whole other kettle of fish! If you’re a Brit abroad everything is the opposite way around; everything is metric or anti-clockwise. You can’t always understand or be understood and you can’t always find your way; there are different laws, customs, expectations and levels of politeness; transport isn’t always as safe or reliable (and neither are people), and the UK is about the only place in the West where Sunday is (almost) a normal day*. Culture shock isn’t easy to deal with independently and in that respect I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a host family to help me with things. It’s been a sort of halfway house and practice for when I move to Spain on my own. I’ve managed to travel internationally on my own without ballsing it up; I’ve dealt with extreme homesickness, extreme boredom, extreme countryside and the occasional extreme accent. And now, even though my Spanish isn’t as strong as my French, I feel like I have more confidence and experience to be able to go to Madrid and do it totally alone and do it successfully.
*In most European countries Sunday is still a day of rest. Most public places are closed and transport is extremely limited.
My primary motivation for becoming an au-pair in France was to expose myself to as much French as possible. A requirement of Modern Languages degrees is that you have to spend a minimum of eight or ten weeks in your target countries (countries where the language[s] you’re studying are spoken), and I as opted to spend the academic year as an English Language Assistant in Spain, I have to spend my summers either working or studying in France. I decided to au-pair because I believed that I would be totally immersed in French; this hasn’t exactly worked out. Aside from supervising the children while the mother works, the other key aspect of my role is to help the children to practise and improve their English, therefore I speak to them solely in English. Naturally I speak to the father in English as well. Initially the mother and I did speak in French however after the first week there was a gradual shift towards English, and I now speak English with everyone in the house. The kids speak French amongst themselves and to their mum as it is natural to them so, although I’m not constantly speaking French, I am constantly surrounded by and hearing it.
Over the last three and a half weeks I have noticed a marked improvement in my aural comprehension of the language. Written French is significantly easier to understand than spoken as French people tend to speak quite fast and ils mangent leurs paroles (the words often blend into each other and syllables are dropped); this has been the main issue I have had when it comes to fully understanding the spoken language, and I have found it increasingly less difficult over the past few weeks.
During the first week here I visited the mother’s cousin and I had the opportunity to listen to and practise real French. If I didn’t quite understand something they slowed down and explained what they meant, and tried to tailor the conversation to suit me. I’ve spent some time chatting with the children’s grandmother and, at the local school’s end of year picnic, I spent the evening chatting to other French mothers. During the first week I also had the chance to watch the children’s end of year school show. It was performed in and themed around the garden which the children kept – thankfully it was a hot and sunny day.
I didn’t understand the entire show, especially when the younger classes were performing, but this was not necessarily a reflection on me as, at times, the mother said she couldn’t understand what was happening. Understanding children is probably one of the biggest obstacles in a foreign language, as they’re difficult enough in your mother tongue! Children are still learning to speak and often make mistakes in their native tongue that non-native adult learners wouldn’t even make. Their knowledge of spelling and grammar aren’t amazing, they often stutter or slur their words and speak in fast high-pitched voices. They’re a nightmare but, having lived with four French children for almost a month, I know have almost no problem understanding them. I’ve gone from only understanding the odd word to only not understanding the odd word! It feels so wrong to correct them on their own language, but it is my responsibility to help them no matter what the language.
Simply listening to the kids speak is really useful for learning colloquialisms and set phrases. At school we were taught to use le mien/la mienne for MINE and le tien/la tienne for YOURS, however here I have noticed that they often say à moi or à toi instead. One thing that I understood in theory but found difficult to apply was the use of the pronouns en and y, but I heard them used so much in the first few days (particularly en) that their proper use has been embedded in my brain. It’s the small things like this that you can’t pick up without spending time in that country.
Three weeks ago today I arrived in France to begin a five-week placement as an au-pair with a French family. Strictly the family aren’t entirely French as the father is English, and dinner time tends to be a free-for-all language-wise with both French and English being shouted over each other depending on whose mouth the speech leaves and whose ears it falls upon.
I have to be honest and say that initially, when I arrived, I hated the situation. I was living in the home of complete strangers in the middle of nowhere; I missed my friends and my family, and I’d just said goodbye to my boyfriend who I wasn’t to see for about 6 months. I’d also realised – a little too late – that I didn’t want to be an au-pair after all. It was the first day of my year abroad and I should’ve been excited, yet I cried the entire way to the airport and even in the airport terminal. At one point on the flight I was crying into my porridge; the French girl next to me must’ve thought I was nuts! I’m not a crier, I’m usually thick-skinned, but for some reason I saw that day as an end instead of a beginning.
The first week was tough. I was homesick, bored and uncomfortable living in someone else’s home. The family live in a little village called Bissy-sur-Fley in the French region of Bourgogne (‘Burgundy’ in English). The region is known for its rolling hills, quaint farm houses and its vineyards which produce such wines as the Montagny Chardonnay (from Montagny-lès-Buxy). I’ll try to paint a picture of just how rural this place is. The nearest train station is approximately 20km away (excuse the metric system, but I’m terrible at maths and can’t be bothered to convert all the Frenchness), and to catch a bus I have to get a lift to a village 8km away! Once you’re on the bus it takes at least 40 minutes to get to any given small town so that you can go shopping, go to the cinema or take a train somewhere. The village in which I’m staying really has nothing except for a few cows and stunning hilltop views. There are no shops or attractions (except for a tiny castle which Lincoln’s puts to shame), so you have no choice but travel incessantly. It would be nigh impossible to live around here and to get by without a car.
The family is lovely and consists of four children and their parents (French mother and English father). The father works for wine company and gets to travel around a lot, and the mother works from home as a freelance translator. The children are aged 11, 9, 6 and 4 and are almost completely bilingual. The two eldest children are completely bilingual and only occasionally trip over their words; the two younger children need a little help with their English grammar and occasionally vocab, however they fully understand when other people speak English to them. I have noticed a lot of improvement in their speech, especially the four year old who, when she doesn’t know an English word, says it in French with an English accent- “Heather! I can’t reach my joooop*!” “Can you sorteeee my vello*?” – Too cute!
*(‘Jupe’ = skirt)
(’Vélo’ = bicycle / ‘Sortir’ = to go out or take out)