I tossed my shoes out onto the roof to dry, and flopped onto my new bed. My eyes were tired, but every time I tried to close them, they begged to be wide open, taking in every French thing in the room my host-mother had set up for me.
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The thing about travel, I thought, is that it’s insanely easy. You can leave one country behind, and just as easily leave yourself there. This new French-me was such a child. She was exhausted by endeavoring to comprehend all the conversations that had been shouted over her head on the bus from Marseilles to Aix. She was nervous meeting her host-mother; she was as shy and polite to a fault. And she was enchanted by billboards and McDonalds (Ã la francais) and roads, and that her entire school would shut down for a 2 hour lunch break.
Danielle, my host-mother, was a sweet, perpetually worried sixty-something woman who wore four-inch heels to work at the restaurant she owned and smoked like a forest-fire. After a week or two, her relic of a dog, Nelson, and I seemed to reach an unsteady understanding. We avoided one another on general principle unless he felt that he absolutely must have a piece of bread right that moment and I was the only one home, or the much more rare scenario, if I perhaps had a fit of the I-must-cuddle-a-white-fluffy-carcass-right-this-moment’s.
IAU, my school, was a converted chapel, and up, up, up several rickety circular staircases, in my phonetics classroom, there was an etch that Cezanne had doodled on the wall, seemingly one rainy afternoon. I didn’t care much for the style of the drawing, but I loved it for its unconventionality.
Guillame Durant is an archeologist, and as one of my professors, he had this nervous tick of brushing his hands together if her had to speak more than a sentence of English. I liked to think that he was skimming the “dust” off his hands as though he was at an excavation site, because that was where he felt most comfortable.
Guillame—or “Will”, as my friend Andrea and I came to call him—was the kind of professor that loved his subject so much you could just about taste it in the air of his classroom. He would get so excited over “seated warriors”, charnels and mausoleums that he would sometimes trip while rushing over, dry-erase pen held aloft, to the board. The whole class willingly followed him over ruins and excavation sites while he babbled happily, spewing facts that Howard Carter probably wouldn’t have uncovered.
As a self-proclaimed boulaguer, or soccer fanatic, he unabashedly described (in front of the entire class) how he once set fire to his seat at an Olympique de Marseilles game, in celebration of their winning goal.
Will became more like a friend than just another professor as the weeks went on. Andrea and I went for coffee with him more than once after class. As a Frenchman only a couple of years older than us, he was able to exhibit what being a 20-something France-native was like.
“I have parties many times in a week, you understand?” he said, after taking a long drag from his cigarette. “But I always get up and teach then. We are French, we work, yes, but we love to have fun, are you understanding?”
I told him that I was about to start teaching a CM1 (9-10 year old) class at St. Catherine’s, a school down the street.
He downed the rest of his coffee and shrugged his rounded shoulders. “School…I remember the BAC. It is the test to see if you go on to university. Rememorizing, rememorizing, rememorizing, yes? I knew everything when I took the BAC. But, university…” Will grinned enigmatically. He slapped two Euros onto the table, calling “thonks” to our waiter as we left.
Andrea and I laughed. “Yeah. Thonks.”
St. Catherine’s is one of the few private schools in Aix-en-Provence. As soon as I rang the doorbell outside the weathered wooden doors and entered the hallways, I was enthralled. An older woman showed me down the hall, through the courtyard that was used as a play area, and to my little class. The seven children were sitting in a bright classroom, looking up at me with winning French smiles.
“English lady!” cried out a sunny-faced blond boy.
The teacher rose from her desk with a quick look at him. “Husht, ThÃ¨o,” she said, walking toward me. She gave me a very American handshake. “All right,” she said to me in elegant Parisian French. “The class is yours for an hour. Speak as much English as possible.”
I was thrilled. The children were excited and eager to please me. I was just as ready to be impressed. I was astonished by how much they knew when I came in. Most weeks we made flashcards, and they actually practiced at home. Camille, a sweet little brunette with no front teeth, had a lovely English accent that she had acquired from “going there on holiday.”
We read picture books, played vocabulary bingo, and colored our way through elementary English.
I skyped my boyfriend at home and told him all of our triumphs. I raved about their adorable accents and bragged about ThÃ¨o, who had finally broken his habit of saying “coo” instead of “cow.”
One day in late March, the classroom teacher I was working with, asked me if I wanted to teach English in France. Of course I did, it had always been a sort of unattainable Everest that I liked to think about if I was feeling particularly ambitious. I told her so. She laughed and told me that St. Catherine’s was hoping to open up a new position for a native English speaker, and since I had experience with teaching at that school, they would be happy to talk to me about it first.
Listening to her, my heart was in my throat. As a student with ADD and dyslexia, I had never been particularly remarkable in my schoolwork. I thought briefly of a horrible moment when I, in my teenage years, had told a relative that I wanted to get my PhD. He had actually laughed. But here was something truly worth dedicating my time to. I, an ungainly physical education major, was practically being handed my childhood ambition. I was shaking as I left the room.
After thinking, I turned it down and returned to America, opting for what I thought to be the more daunting, but perhaps more rewarding task of teaching French to American kids. I would like to share what I found—that, while there are stuck-up, haughty French citizens, in the same way that there actually are some Americans who dress like cowboys, the reality of France is so much more than our simplistic American projection of “France”.
That was my greatest discovery while abroad, and that is what I hope to share with my future students. France produces awesome music, classy clothes, touching literature, and brave soldiers. Just like we have here. Their history is breathtaking—Normandy still has fields that are cratered like the moon from WWII artillery. You can’t make up stuff like that.
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