Saturday, 30 April 2011

C'est une belle opportunité, quoi

It's over. I've finished working at the school. In a years' time, in two months' time even, the whole experience will have already found its narrative; when people ask me how my year in Paris was, I'll say something about how interesting it was to work in a French school, how strange it was to teach students older than me, and  how difficult it could be when their behaviour veered from hostile through to levels of enthusiasm for learning English more appropriate to coma victims. I'm glad I've done it, but I'm not too sad that it's over.

So before I leave, a series of anecdotes. What comes back to me now as I think about the seven months I spent as an assistante de langue in a school in the Marais?

- A terrible class that was dominated by two loud, thuggish boys who made it impossible for me to teach anything. I asked them to stop giving out chocolate in the lesson; they wouldn't, but they did offer me some. As I was eating it, I heard a "Mizz, he ztole zis shoclate". Right. Eating shoplifted chocolate with them - very professional.

- A class where I made them create roleplays based on random situations, where they got so into that I laughed until I cried. It was like an awesome GCSE Drama lesson, in English.

- My last lesson where I taught them the beautiful English expression "I don't give a fuck".

- Painful two-hour sessions on Friday mornings with a Terminale group who barely said ten words between them for the entire session. I would hand out an article, force them to read it out and then spend 40 minutes desperately trying to cajole them into giving any kind of feedback on it while they shrugged and acted like I was forcing them to do this because I wanted to, rather than because it was my job. I'm an introvert, I don't like speaking in front of large groups of people in the best of situations - this was like a personal form of torture and I am so glad it's over.

- Two-hour sessions of 10-minute conversation practice with 15 year olds, where I would ask the same questions at least twelve times in a row until I wanted to tear my hair out. "Ok, tell me one place you have been on holiday recently. Ho-Li-Day. Vacances." They weren't all that bad, although a lot were.

- On one hand, the librarian and my responsable were lovely, and I had the kind of relationship with them I've had with colleagues back home - random chats about life and what we were doing in the holidays, bitching about the students, as well as a few discussions about things like the education system, politics, current affairs and stuff like that. I'll miss seeing them, especially for the opportunity to speak at length in French, something I do much, much less than I'd like to. However, that was a contrast to the other teachers at the school, who barely spoke to me. One or two made my acquaintance when I first started; after that we stuck to communal Bonjours and Bonne Weekend upon entering and leaving the staffroom, and that was literally it. I don't know if it was a cultural thing, or if they were just busy people, but the workplace vibe seemed a lot more formal and a lot less sociable than I imagine, for example, the staffroom at my old secondary school was.

- Insane amounts of time off. Ultimately the entire experience boils down to "I was paid 850 euros per month to work, on average, 8 hours per week". I'm mentioning all the above about the pros and cons in case anyone finds it interesting, but I have no right to complain about any of it. Working for the French State is like working for your rich, indulgent grandmother who doesn't like to think of you working too hard. Better than that even, because the body responsible for paying me never once took any interest in how hard I was working; I was employed centrally by the Ministry of Education, and certainly the school never bothered to inform them if I took a day off (which I only did once or twice), let alone to mention whether or not I was working hard. France is so incredibly centralised - as far as I can see, the Proviseur (headmaster) at the school has no power at all - he doesn't employ any of the teachers as it's all decided centrally by the Ministry of Education. Anyway, because I was an assistante and thus not really necessary in any way, the teachers would often just give me days off because the class had something else to do. And that's before we even get into the number of strikes, teachers being ill, school trips, classes that didn't turn up etc.

- Last Tuesday, I had my last class with the very small group of BTS students who will be doing work experience placements in Belfast next month. I like this group, because obviously they are motivated to learn English. I ended up giving them a bit of a motivational speech before I left, along the lines of "make the most of it, make friends from lots of different countries, try and explore Ireland, you will learn so much about British culture, but you'll also learn a lot about your own culture, because it's only by going away that you realise that a lot of aspects of yourself are neither universal human traits, nor individual quirks, but linked to the culture you come from". Actually I didn't say that at all, but it was what I was trying to get across. I finished off with perhaps the most French expression ever to have left my mouth, as I described the entire living-abroad thing as "C'est une belle opportunité, quoi". It's French because I've heard belle (beautiful) being substituted for bon (good) on many occasions, which says a lot about the esteem they hold beauty in, but I think it worked here. And to finish with "quoi" is like tagging on "you know" to the end of the sentence, which I've picked up as well, not that it's a particularly beautiful use of the language.

And now? Well, I still have my babysitting job with the 8 year old and the 3 year old, who are sometimes delightful and sometimes infuriating. On Tuesday we spent half an hour playing Pokemon School, whereby the 8 year old made us decide which Pokemon we were, arranged into the "Class of Fire" and the "Class of Plants" before making us practise attacks before we could evolve and thus move into the next class. When I asked who was the teacher, he informed me that the teacher was invisible. At times like that I actually start to get what people say about children being whimsical and charming. Roxane also told me I was belle yesterday (yes, the fact that a 3 year old has started conflating the concepts of "beautiful" with "things that I like" does annoy me, but in any case, I could see she was trying to be nice). On the other hand, yesterday I paid out of my own pocket for her to ride on a carousel, just cause I'm nice like that, and all I got afterwards was a load of whinging about how she wanted to ride it twice. Alex can also be vile towards his sister. Oh well, c'est la vie.

I should be starting another babysitting gig on Wednesdays, although I'm going to meet the family first before committing to anything. It's pretty obvious that childcare is not really my thing, but I'm lazy and it's very easy for une Anglaise to pick up childcare work here. I'm also applying for jobs in shops, which would be more interesting, I think, and might give me the chance to actually meet some French people before I leave. I intend to stay for June and possible July.

Tonight I am finally getting around to going to the (English language) writers group at Shakespeare & Co with my friend Tiffany. I haven't posted a photo for a while, so in honour of that here's one I took a while ago, when the whole city was garlanded with pink, outside of that bookshop.

This has been a summation of sorts, even though I'm not leaving Paris for a while yet. You know what conclusion I think I'll come to? Wherever in the world you live, the same kinds of things affect you. It's a beautiful city, and I was still bored sometimes, and lonely, and had headaches and hangovers and arguments among other, better, experiences. Of course that's what it was going to be like - if life didn't offer a similar palette of emotions no matter where one lives (excepting war zones and North Korea and such), then what would be the point? It's still your relationships, your work, and your material quality of life that stay as the deciding factors in your happiness. A change of location doesn't offer the promise of a change of self, but nonetheless... it's been interesting. I can't put it any more eloquently than that - it has been interesting to live here, and to do this.


  1. Loved the post :), your conclusion makes sense to me; yes its a beautiful city,a change of location, but the people in it and yourself still have the same issues as others around the world.
    All your observations on culture have been so fascinating, it is easy to dimiss the significance of culture sometimes especially when we block the world into bigger groups the west vs the east, the global north and global south etc. It can be easy to disregard the importance of culture beyond issues of ethnicity or religion.Sometimes people talk about culture as if its a respect for a country's history but you've reminded me at least that its so much more than that; its effects one's worldview, political beliefs etc.
    Kate xx

  2. That is such a good conclusion, I definitely agree. You finish work a month earlier than me! Jealous. Also, I learned some French from this entry, thanks! I will aim to add the word "quoi" onto sentences if I ever go to France and try to speak French (similarly, in German, you say "ne?" at the end of sentences...I think it sounds ridiculous but I still feel proudly integrated every time I do it). xx