My year abroad

For my year abroad, I travelled to Valencia last summer to work as a hotel receptionist and am currently working in the marketing department of the Clínica Universidad de Navarra. However, I spent the majority of my year as an English Teaching Assistant in Hirson, Northern France. You’ve never heard of it? That’s probably not surprising; the population of Hirson is four times smaller than Durham and the nearest city is well…Brussels!

Teaching was really good experience, I mainly helped students preparing for their Baccalauréat oral exam, discussing topics like WWII, the Monarchy and Margaret Thatcher. They all seemed to think that Winston Churchill was a very important figure in WWII but also liked to stay patriotic to their own country. One girl’s work read ‘Churchill led Britain to victory in World War II, indeed with lots of help from France’ Vive la France!

Alice SMy favourite class was Biology (taught in English) as it was so different to what I usually study and I was able to have more complex conversations as the students’ level of English was very good. I helped with their pronunciation and often played an Articulate-esque word guessing game, desperately trying to explain a lymphocyte, meteor and an Airbus A380(!) in the simplest English possible. The teacher was fascinated by Afternoon teas in Britain and I ended up doing a ten minute presentation on scones including a pie diagram to explain the different pronunciations! I then made them scones for their last lesson which they all seemed to really enjoy. But, after mentioning tea at the Ritz in my presentation, the kids seemed to think that scones were the new caviar as the imaginary cream teas they wrote about were racking up bills up to £100!

I only did a 12 hour week, so outside of work  had a couple of tutoring jobs, joined a choir and volunteered at a local homework club for children aged 6-14. The children loved asking me about life in England: One Direction’s love life, whether all men in Britain wear suits at all times and if I’d been to Queen Elizabeth’s ‘house’. I’m really glad I did this as I got to meet new people, visit different schools and it was a much bigger challenge than being an Assistant as there were no English speakers to fall back on if the kids didn’t understand!  Finally, Hirson’s small town charm meant I  met some lovely people in the local community including the ladies in the Crêperie who once opened up just for me as everywhere else was shut and the adorable treasurer at aerobics who wouldn’t let me pay the 2€ each week as we were her invited guests.

During my year abroad I lived in the school’s boarding house with the two other assistants and a few teachers who stayed there during the week. To celebrate the end of term, we had dinner together and everyone brought a dish. We pulled some desks and chairs out into the corridor as unfortunately, although the rooms were a great size, our communal kitchen was the size of a broom cupboard! The food was delicious as everyone made an effort to bring homemade items and my favourite dishes included the Ch‘tiramisu (a tiramisu with a Northern French, or ‘Ch’ti’ twist) and of course there was a Maroilles pie (Maroilles is the local cheese and lives up to the French reputation of being particularly smelly!).

Alice SpenceMy weekends featured regular weekend trips to Paris, Lille and Bruges, especially in December when I must have visited every Christmas market in the area! I loved meeting other assistants and sharing experiences about students who still hadn’t mastered the fact that ‘eight’ is not pronounced ‘hate’ and that just because a word ends in ‘-ed’ it doesn’t mean you have to create a whole new syllable. It’s also great to immerse yourself into the country and see some of sights you’ve heard about in lectures, for me I was really happy (and surprised) to see the Château in which François ler signed the document stating that all official documents would now be written in French not Latin, whilst strolling through the Retz forest one Sunday, which we’d learnt about in our first year Language and Power module.

Overall, my experience in France was definitely a unique and I felt very fortunate to be welcomed into the local community by the people who lived there. I’m sure I’ll remember my many slightly surreal experiences in rural France for a long time to come!

Alice is an undergraduate student at St. Mary’s studying Modern Languages. 

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