Wednesday, 21 December 2011

French Fact – the clic clac

I thought I would dedicate this first ‘French Fact’ to the mystery of the clic clac, a word that many of the assistants in Le Mans have come to love, simply because of the nature of the word. Well you’re probably wondering by now what exactly a clic clac is. My hint: think about the sound. As you move it around, it clics and it clacs; figured it out yet?

It’s a sofabed. The French are linguistic genii, are they not?

Monday, 19 December 2011

Petits trucs

I often think of a number of random little trucs (things/tidbits) that I find interesting to do with my year abroad but will not post them because I haven’t written a proper update. What I think I will do though, instead, is as well as updating my blog (hopefully more often) is writing about these random facts for your amusement. So do start to expect in your inboxes – or at least on this blog – a number of additional very short posts with a short interesting detail about my French life.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Disastrous Telecommunications in a French city

The amount that we prize telecommunications (mobile, internet etc.) cannot be undervalued, especially with the number of smartphones now in possession. It is only because I have been living without Internet for the past few weeks that I can write about our reliance upon it. While we may get dozens of spam email a day, there are often at least a couple that demand a reply or even just need to be read.

In France, the system is a little strange and makes everything harder than it should be. Since my iPhone was unlocked, I’m fortunate enough to be able to use it in France and pop in a French sim card (many of my American friends don’t have the same luck).

Yet getting the Internet to work on it was somewhat more difficult as it required the network to unlock the sim card to be able to use Internet (which takes 24 working hours) – this was on a pay as you go phone of course. Getting a contract with the Internet included was easier, although the prices are most definitely more expensive than in the UK. It also seems strange that they seem to not value phone calls as much and often, contracts will include an hour of ‘free’ calls.

Getting a contract was relatively difficult also. In order to get a mobile phone contract, you need proof of address, which seems fair enough. Yet you cannot show your contract to the phone company nor even a bill that you have paid. You have to show your civil and house insurance. The problem I had though is that since I had only just moved when I was getting my contract, I did not have the insurance as the bank’s earliest free appointment was 15 days later.

Of course, I could have waited that long to get my contract. Yet pay-as-you-go is simply not worth it in France. €5 credit will expire after a week for example – which means that you have to pay at least €20 a month. What is more often the case though is that you will need to top up relatively often, simply because using a pay-as-you-go phone is also very expensive.

I therefore went to the shop of another phone network, on the same road, where they were more than happy to give me a phone contract. While they usually ask for the same details as the first store, I think they realised that it made more commercial sense to accept me as a customer especially considering that I was showing them a contract to rent an apartment for 6 months.

The next problem was getting Internet in my apartment, something I am currently without, 10 days after going to the store. Yet this is comparable with the UK, where people often have to wait a month or so to have a working Internet connection. However I received a text yesterday letting me know that my Internet should be activated in the next few days. The problem? I don’t yet have the router and other equipment to have a working Internet connection. Allow me to explain.

When I went to get an Internet connection, it was a very different experience to getting a phone contract. The only thing I had to give was my RIB (a little sheet with all the information about my French bank on it) so that the company could set up a direct debit. They then checked to see whether a phone line had previously been activated at that address by crosschecking the address with previous customers. At this point, I was shown a list on previous tenants and was asked whether any of them lived in my studio. Obviously I had no idea – so I dropped over to the nearest McDonalds and sent an email to my landlady asking whether [name removed] previously lived at my address.

Having confirmed this, I went back the next day, happy in the knowledge that I had saved the €50 activation fee and a rather weird experience. Another group of language assistants had to activate their line and were told, “A man will come to your building and create a line. You will not see this man but he will be there” and they then received an email with the same information.

Back in the shop, I then sorted out all the paperwork and asked about the equipment. Unlike in the UK, where technicians will often come and install the router, you have to go to a random address (it could be a café, a pub, a bar or just anywhere really) to pick up your equipment – and no, you cannot just ask to pick it up at the store, that is apparently too difficult. So I am currently sitting in a home that may have a live Internet connection and waiting for a text telling me that I can go and collect my router (Neufbox) from a bar.

However, I still feel a little lucky about this situation. Another group of friends in the same city were with Orange and it took over a month – and a lot of hassle and argument – to have working Internet. This is particularly strange considering that yet another language assistant with Orange acquired a working connection within 10 days.

So now I wait for a text to pick up my router while my emails are (mostly) read on my phone. The only problem is that when I need to properly work or need to send articles or documents, I need the Internet on my computer. Ah well, I guess all this time frequenting cafés is helping the French economy…

Monday, 14 November 2011

What I’ve been doing, my studio and what it means to be (kind of) vegetarian in France

It’s been a little while now that I’ve written, far too long in fact. That’s not to say that I’ve not been writing at all but it has simply been a little bit difficult. I’m working on a piece on the Olympic torch right now for TSJ and wrote an article about the Charlie Hebdo affair (I’ll link to the articles on my main site once they’ve been published). If you’re an assistant in France, you may be particularly interested in the second because Charlie Hebdo is, obviously, based in France – even if it not that well known – and its story is worth following.

I should probably pick up now where I finished off. Finding a place to stay. In fact, I found a place relatively quickly (the first place I looked) but I could not move in until the beginning of November. It is relatively costly though it is fully furnished (which is generally quite difficult to find around France), very close to the main train and tram stations, a 10-minute walk from some other teaching assistants (who are also good friend) and a 20-minute walk to the city centre.

All places are though not perfect and there are some problems wrong with it though; it is not too close to a large supermarket (but it seems that big supermarkets are not based towards the centre of the city in French cities but rather the peripheries), it’s not too close to a small supermarket (if you just want to get a quick snack on the way home for example or have a craving) and it is lacking an oven of any sort so I need to buy one.

What I have already learnt though is that I love having my own place to stay as opposed to a foyer, somewhere that I can call my own, somewhere that I can cook (and save money by cooking my own meals), somewhere that I can relax and feel entirely comfortable.

Yes, in a foyer I was forced to speak French a little more often, be it with the receptionist or over dinner with some French students. But I was also forced to go to the canteen to eat meals as a means to save money and with the French tendency to expose all meals to some form of meat; I was often only eating chips as there was no vegetarian (or halal) option. There was one occasion in which I was unsure about a vegetarian rice dish and so I asked the chef.

“Is this vegetarian?”
I am then given the dish at which point I probe at it with a fork and find little pink pieces floating around. “What’s this?”
“Oh, that’s pork.”
“You just said that it’s vegetarian.”
“Yes, because they’re only small pieces.”
I am then met with a disgruntled look as I say, “I can’t eat this. Vegetarian means no meat.”

Indeed, this has happened on a couple of occasions, albeit slightly differently, in various areas around the city. For example, in my first few days I was looking for somewhere to eat lunch and came across a large sandwich shop/restaurant. After initially being told they had no vegetarian paninis, I asked whether they had a single item on the menu that was vegetarian and was flatly denied. In another restaurant where they had no vegetarian options, I asked them to make me a cheese sandwich, so they literally cut two slices of cheese and put it inside a baguette for me. Since the French pride themselves on their food, this was not the least bit impressive.

There are a number of other things that have happened since I last wrote and some require full blog posts such as some of the experiences in my lessons, my trip to Downing Street (last week) and my time in Paris (this past weekend).  Something I can tell you easily is that I now have a lift to and from my school and so I save an awful lot of time travelling. It also means that I can speak French for a number of hours a week while in the car, hopefully improving my French all the time. After all, I’m told that’s why I’m here.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The first week

It’s now been a week since I first set foot in Le Mans and it’s certainly been a busy one. The most important aspect of the week was simply trying to settle in, make some friends and find out exactly I would be doing over the next 7 months.

As it is said, we are the ‘Facebook generation’; everything at university is now primarily organised through Facebook - similarly, many English language assistants have a Facebook group to stay in touch and also organised soirées and get-togethers. While learning French is the main reason for the year abroad, I quickly learnt that being on your own in France can be lonely, depressing and extremely stressful.

With everyone around you speaking French at an extremely quick speed, your confidence lowers and it’s comforting to know that there are others who are in a similar position, looking to improve their language whilst also wanting to enjoy their year abroad.

So while I am able to spend time with fellow Anglophones, I try and take every other possible opportunity to speak – and understand French being spoken. After all, even simply speaking the language and being forced to recall the language, I find, helps to boost your confidence, especially when you manage to have a serious conversation with someone.

Who have I spoken to and whose conversations have I eavesdropped into? The random people on the tram coming back after passing their exams, the receptionist at my foyer, the assistants who teach other languages (German and Chinese for example) and even the girl who gives out the 20 minutes in the morning near the station.

Today, we had our orientation in a city called Nantes. While most of it consisted of giving us administrative information, it was a chance to see the city (realising in the process that I will need to return to see it in more detail!) and it also gave us ideas for how we could teach the students.

Our first class, for example, could consist of the assistants talking about their hometown in a little bit of detail and then allowing questions, in the language they were learning of course, about the city. I think that I may do the initial introduction but will then move onto roleplays with students pairing us to participate in conversations that would normally exist in London. I found that in my own lessons with the assistant, students (myself included) would start having other discussions if we were left alone to have such conversations and so I will give the students time to prepare and then will call them to the front to perform in front of the class.

For those of you still wondering what I’m exactly doing, I’m going to acting as an English language assistant to students between the ages of 15 and 18. For the oldest students, I will often be with them on a 1-to-1 basis, helping them to practice for an upcoming exam (the baccalaureate) and with the other students, I will take about 12 students and teach them myself (with guidance from the English teachers).

My final, and ongoing, task is to find my own apartment to live in. While I do have the option of staying in a foyer (essentially, a youth hostel), I would much rather prefer to stay in my own apartment. Somewhere that I can cook my own food, somewhere that I can call ‘home’, at least for the year, and somewhere that I don’t have cigarette smoke wafting into my room when I’m lying in bed! I have a few places that I hope to see so the next time I write my blog, I may be writing from my new apartment. Wish me luck!

Friday, 30 September 2011


I arrived in Le Mans on a TGV (think National Rail) train yesterday after making my way to Paris via Eurostar. Fortunately, it didn't take too long. What wasn't helpful though was after that journey, which included lugging around my suitcases in a daze-inducing heat (about 30 degrees), when I got to my foyer,  the receptionists asked me where I was teaching and started laughing. Yes, although I had been placed in a town called Mamers, I opted to live in Le Mans, deciding to make an hour-and-a-half-long commute to work. Why? Mamers has a population of 5000, has one high street, bad transport links and just about nothing going on. More on that later though. You can see more detail on the map.

So there may already be a couple of questions: firstly what is a foyer? Right, well a foyer is similar to a student accommodation and they ask you to pay a certain amount, which includes electricity and water bills. It doesn't include gas bills because most students in France will stay at such places during the week and use canteens and so student accommodations will either have one hotplate or, in most cases, none at all. Fortunately, the canteens are quite reasonably priced although I would prefer to be able to cook. And have a fridge. The room I've been given isn't too bad either. It may be a little on the small side, especially when it comes to finding places to put clothes, but then again don't you always find that your room is too small? Anyway, I've added a couple of picture taken from my window.

And why am I not living in a flat? France has a rather odd system of doing things in that in order to open a bank account, you need an attestation de logement/residence which gives proof of your address yet generally to rent a flat you need to have a French bank account. That reason aside, I thought it would also be a bit easier to have somewhere to stay where I didn't have to worry about other bills and focus on settling in. Now I'm here though, it's time to start finding somewhere to live - and I have to do it all pretty fast.

What now? Well today I managed to sort out a few things. I opened my bank account with Credit Agricole, I tried to get a contract so that I could use my iPhone in France (which I couldn't do because I don't yet have a French card or cheque book) and managed to sort out a few other bits of paperwork. On Monday I have to go to Mamers for the first time and I'll have to go in on Tuesday too, although it'll be mainly just meeting the other teachers and filling in yet more paperwork. It's certainly one thing I've had to get used to from January of my second year; the amount of paperwork that has to be filled in and sent back, by specific dates, seems to be limitless. I also called my responsable today, my contact person at the school, and she let me know that a lot of the teachers at the school live in Le Mans so I might be (and I really really hope that I am) able to join one of the car-shares that they do. It would cut down my journey by about 45 minutes, as my responsable said, it's just a waste of time.

What are you doing by the way? I forgot to mention that in detail, didn't I? I study French with International Studies at the University of Warwick and it is a requisite of my course that I spend my third year in a French-speaking country. Despite my interest in the Middle East, I chose France (instead of the Maghreb) because of the purity of the language and thought that I would aim to improve my French over the course of the year. I had a choice of either studying at a university of teaching and I decided to teach instead and that is what the next seven months will be about.

This blog is here to update friends, family and anyone else interested in my year abroad or thinking about taking one. I also collate all my articles at so you can read my other stuff if you want!