I promised myself that I was not going to post another blog, particularly on the subject of my year abroad, until I could do so in the comfort of my own flat. Annoyingly, due to unforeseen circumstances this seems to be a dream I get further away from achieving with each passing day. And so, this fine Tuesday evening here in La Ferté Bernard's branch of McDonald's, get comfortable and I will tell thee a (possibly quite wordy and short on photos so I'd get comfortable) tale…
I have officially been living in France three weeks now and I still cannot speak French, although I have learned some new words. For example, I have learned that when you end a conversation with someone in the middle of the day you can say "bonne journée" to them. This is something I was never taught, although it is a greeting used by most of the people I have encountered in the 22 days I have been here, and I have been speaking French since I was 11 years old. Similarly, should the end of a conversation take place in the evening you can leave with a jaunty "bonne soirée". Mind-blowing stuff. You'd think someone at some point might have taught me this, wouldn't you? No one did.
I also now know the French word for mosquito ("la moustique") I appreciate that learning one new noun is not exactly a great achievement, particularly given the similarity to its English translation, but it was a necessary word to learn so that I could explain to people that I didn't have two gigantic nipples in the middle of my face, but instead I was bitten in the night a total of six times during my first week here. Embarrassingly this meant that for my first night out in Le Mans I had to experience my first taste of meeting new people in France with two mosquito bites on my cheek, but it could have been a lot worse and it was probably my own fault for not fully closing my shutters when I went to sleep. I have also learned the French word for shutters which, for those who are interested, is "les volets". Don't say I never teach you anything.
While I have not been here for a very long time, I have so far met some very pleasant people, namely María José, a girl from León in the North of Spain who lives above me and is the Spanish assistant at the same "lycée" as me. Our friendship is based largely on the fact that we have both unwittingly submitted ourselves to the same accidental hell in the form of our living arrangements. Before arriving we were told we'd be staying in our own apartments with a corner kitchenette, bathroom and our own TV which on paper sounds like a pretty luxurious life when you consider we would not be required to pay rent. This meant we were less than pleasantly surprised when we eventually saw our living quarters which initially consisted of one room containing a bed, a microwave, a desk and a fridge. I was lucky enough to have shelves in my room, a luxury María is yet to be granted. Bizarrely, however, her room is permanently neat while mine resembles the aftermath of a small-scale tornado. I have somehow managed to lose my favourite bow tie in what can only be described as the world's smallest living space. This is truly something only I could find possible.
Since moving here, I have of course learned a lot about the French way of life. For some reason British people seem to have it in their heads that the French are rude, and I am here to offer my rebuttal to that. In order to arrive here I had to take a total of four trains over the course of a ten hour journey. Two of these trains left from stations in Britain, and two left from stations in France. The first saw me arriving in London dragging two comically oversized suitcases behind me, each weighing roughly my own body mass. Unfortunately when trying to dismount the train in London I accidentally tripped and stumbled off, which provoked a bystander to "tut" at me. I'm not sure if "tutting" exists outside of the UK but it is probably one of the rudest things you could to someone who hasn't intentionally done anything wrong. If I see a teenage mother blow smoke into her baby's face in a bus shelter then I agree that "tutting" is a good idea. When I watch a youth pushing past an old woman for the last seat on the metro, "tutting" is the perfect reaction. It expresses disdain. Really though, watching a young man struggling with two cases he is clearly unable to carry is not an appropriate time to "tut". "Tutting" takes place when you fall off a train in London. I am yet to be tutted at in France.
In fact, when I arrived in France it was a completely different story. Everyone was smiling and looking on apologetically, that was if they weren't offering their assistance with my obviously heavy suitcases. By this time I was sweating profusely and kicking out quite a stink, so perhaps it could just be that my discomfort was more obvious in France than in England, but that's not all.
If you, too, are English I want you to try an experiment with me. I want you to think about your home town. I don't mean your nearest city or your any of that shite, I mean your home town. The actual town you grew up in. Now I want you to think about that town's shopping centre. I want you to imagine that town's shopping centre on a Tuesday night at about 8pm. Am I right in thinking that the spray-painted shutters have been down on the Greggs for a couple of hours now, and there's some shady-looking characters hanging around outside Booze Busters? I can imagine there are some hoodlums, or "hoodies" if you will, sitting around in tracksuits. Perhaps one of them has a frightening-looking dog. The dog might not necessarily be frightening-looking in other company, for example if the dog were sitting between to gaily playing twins it may even be cute, but around these angry-looking youths the dog looks ferocious. Are you imagining it? Good.
Now I want you to imagine walking past these "hoodies", looking one of them in the eye and saying "good evening" to them. Can you imagine the reaction? In my head it ends with being chased by the "hoodies" presumably on their bicycles, while they shout profanities and their angry dog snarls frighteningly at me. And yet, if I walk around the town centre here in La Ferté Bernard and I make eye contact with them and don't wish them a good day, it is considered impolite. Instead, if you say "bonsoir" to a stranger as you walk around the town centre here, they'll smile politely and say it back to you. Imagine that!
One downside to living in this casual atmosphere is that things take a lot longer to get done. In no way is this more true than in the case of my French bank account. On my second day here in La Ferté Bernard I went with one of my main teachers Anne-Cecile (a lovely woman with the most impressive house I have ever seen or am ever likely to see. In a Pushing Daisies-esque quirky sort of way, she collects Victorian-style doll-houses. ISN'T THAT THE MOST CHARMING THING YOU'VE EVER HEARD?) to open my French bank account. It seems this was important should I hope to collect my wages. Now perhaps you don't know me very well but I am not known for my luck with banks, as I find them frightfully intimidating. It turns out I had no need to be intimidated as the staff at the bank were very reassuring, speaking in clear French to help me as best they could understand the ins and outs of my French bank account. I left feeling pleased with myself, even slightly more independent, but most importantly I was assured my French bank card would be arriving in 8 days and then I could really start my life here properly.
If someone could have told me that three weeks later I would still be waiting for my bank card to arrive, I would have reserved my initial feelings of calmness. Instead I find myself checking my mail each day in vain, hoping to have received something from my French bank but every day I get there and the cupboard was bare meaning, as my dear mother would say, "Mother Hubbard's dog gets nought". This is frustrating for a number of reasons, but truly the worst of all is the fact that without a French bank account it is impossible to start a contract for things like Internet connection or mobile phones.
Now, folks, this is what is referred to on Twitter as a "first world problem". Poor old Daniel has to go a few days without getting online. Boo-hoo. As my friend Anna said to me, "you'll have to go retro and buy yourself a dirty French magazine" but that is the worst of it. And this is true, provided you aren't branching out on your own for the first time and living in a country where you scarcely speak the language and don't know anybody. The fact of the matter is that for my first two weeks I felt terribly homesick and lonely for quite a lot of the time, and it would have helped to have had some Internet in my "flat". I learned today the reason my bank card (and that of María) is yet to arrive is because they took our address down wrong in the bank. Idiots.
María and myself. Cheesy grins.
Thankfully, there was a glimmer of hope in the form of the hub here in La Ferté Bernard: its glorious McDonalds. Since we arrived here, María and I have become something of regulars at the local branch of McDonalds for no reason other than its free Wi-Fi facilities. It is now at the point where I know the staff in McDonald's better than most of the teachers I came here to assist in the first place because of the amount of time I spend here. While enjoying a double cheeseburger "au natur" it is good to get back into the world of online shenanigans, as things like Blogger and Facebook (otherwise known as the two non-pornographic websites I use the most) are blocked on the staffroom computers. Unfortunately this means that I am often behind on my celebrity gossip, which usually I pride myself on being bang up-to-date on. The following are events I have heard about from the celebrity world over my time in France:
1) Steve Jobs died: It is a shame Steve Jobs died because truly without him my world would be a very different place
2) Rihanna upset a farmer in Northern Ireland by getting her tits out: No offence to Rihanna who I love, but I have to side with the farmer. It's his land and if he doesn't want her on it naked that's his prerogative.
3) Frankie Sandford and Sarah Harding in rehab: Awful shame, best of luck to the both of them
4) Frankie Cocozza and Janet Devlin through another week on X Factor: What the fuck is wrong with you, Great Britain?
5) Alex Reid proposing live to Chantelle Houghton: Best of luck to them but they do themselves no favours, do they?
That is all.
Thankfully I do get the occasional break from McDonald's, during which I have visited the nearby city of Le Mans for a couple of nights out so far. The first party I went to was for Spanish students in the Le Mans area (obviously I went as María's guest). Probably one of the most foolishly arrogant things I have ever done in my life was going to this party, clearly over-estimating my abilities at the Spanish language I was clearly under the impression that a 'B' at A-Level two years ago meant that I could conduct a conversation on a variety of topics with Spanish people. Somehow I ended up telling a girl named Veronica in Spanish that my drag queen alter-ego was named Veronica Electronica (for some reason the Spanish word "reínona" is one I have never forgotten, although I can no longer remember simple vocabulary like "knife", "fork" or "spoon"), though how I managed for the rest of the night is something that I will never know. One lesson I learned that night is that my Spanish is not great.
I also met some very cool English-speaking people in Le Mans, which is good because sometimes I just need to speak in my broadest Geordie accent and have people understand what the fuck I'm talking about. I'm currently sitting in a fairly crowded fast-food restaurant and I'm confident that no more than 10% of the people in here will know who Cheryl Cole or Katie Price are? Can you imagine? I get to Le Mans whenever I can to see lovelies such as Jenni (who is the The Only Way Is Essex to my Geordie Shore), Harriet (who I thought was posh until she started telling me about how she loves the word "cunt") and Nik (who I spent a considerable amount of time discussing the camp value of crazy bitch films such as Sweeney Todd and Mommie Dearest, although I daresay he will not remember these conversations as by this point in the evening he was rather under the influence of white wine). It is nice knowing some people, although living far away is not great. I thank God every day that María is living here too, to perform showtunes with me in the staff room and applaud me when I say two words in correct Spanish.
Of course let's not forget that I am here primarily to help today's French youth learn English. I'm going down a lot better than I'd anticipated I would, the teachers are all super-nice and so far none of the students have openly called me a faggot. Nothing too embarrassing has happened, although the other day I did accidentally tell a group of teenagers that Nicki Minaj made me sexually aroused which, while true, is obviously not what I had intended to say to them. Embarrassing stuff. This weekend I was invited (with María) to get to know some of the teachers a bit better at a pot-luck lunch thrown by many of the languages department. We all know, of course, I don't do well eating in front of strangers in such social situations, and ended up trading my food with María in exchange for her glass of rosé wine. This, of course, meant that I ended up having slightly more to drink than everyone else and two more glasses of wine and two shots of "genièvre" later I found myself at a grown-up social event too tipsy to remember how to speak the French language. Needless to say, this being a grown-up social event (with the teachers I came to France to assist, no less) I felt it would be inappropriate to say "woopsie, it seems I've had too much to drink and forgotten how to speak French" so I simply had to keep schtum, nod along and laugh when everyone else did.
Reading over this account, it seems I've done nothing but slag the place I'm currently living in off which is actually the opposite of what I'd hoped to do because it truly is beautiful here. I have gone from someone who would sooner chew off his own feet at the ankle than walk anywhere more than five minutes away, and I've actually turned into someone who goes for walks FOR SOMETHING TO DO, such is the prettiness of this town. When I go for my shopping and have to walk through the medieval town centre I genuinely feel like Belle from the opening scenes of Beauty and the Beast, and not just because as I walk past the villagers they mutter to themselves about how peculiar I am ("a beauty but a funny one...is Beeeeelle").
This building behind me is actually an optician or some shit like that, but isn't it pretty and French?
This seems like as good a place as any to wrap up this rather disjointed account of my admittedly quite short time here, largely because there is a group of small children who are literally shrieking like seagulls in the soft play area of this McDonald's and if I don't leave soon I am going to walk over there with my tray and brutally murder them.
Don't forget if you want a more regularly updated (and chronologically accurate) account of my time here in France you're probably better off following me on Twitter here!
(Silly Old) Daniel