The beginningIt was 2am on a September morning and the phrase “butterflies in my stomach” didn’t even come close to how I felt. The car was packed and ready to go, and my parents and I were about to leave for a journey that would take us through the Channel Tunnel, across France, down to Toulouse. It was the fear of the unknown in what would actually become the greatest year of my life to date.
As part of my Year Abroad, I chose to work as a part-time English language assistant in a comprehensive school: Lycée Saint-Exupéry, in Blagnac just north of Toulouse – a city I had no prior knowledge of.
Exploring BlagnacAfter my parents had abandoned me, I spent a few days settling in and getting to know the city by exploring the city using its extensive bike hire network, identical to that in Paris and taking in the narrow streets, checking out the markets, seeing the sights, and also arranging to meet up with other English-speaking assistants in the city. I quickly got to know Place St Pierre – the hub of la vie nocturne in Toulouse – and made some Anglophone friends.
Blagnac was a leafy suburbwith houses slightly bigger than in other areas of the Toulouse and many had pools - an immense contrast in working in one the wealthiest areas of Toulouse with living in one of the poorest, although I did love where I was living - just a few metro stops to town, right by the river, right by the stadium, near the markets.
Teaching in the LycéeI did find it hard to plan lessons for the job. I had next to zero teaching experience so I had to improvise a lot. Most of the time, I didn’t even have to actively teach. The best way to help the students improve their English was to just talk with them. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. The teachers were quite happy with this and so were the pupils, because they could talk about whatever they wanted, and they were secretly learning at the same time.
A mere three or four weeks into the job at the school, I was even allowed to go on a school trip to Poland. The reason for the trip was meant to be educational but I got to see plenty of the country, from small mediaeval towns, visiting an armoury and trying on majestic clothes and warfare materials, to the charming city of Kraków.
Discovering FranceIt was back to Toulouse in late November and I continued to explore South West France with a visit to Carcassonne, a fortified town that resembled no other that I had ever seen and steeped in so much history and had known so many changes of hand between kingdoms.
I also had a taste of the real contemporary France with my first ever mass strike. As I was casually cycling along one of the main roads in the city centre, I saw a huge mass of grey and black smoke rising high above the low-rise buildings. As I got closer and closer to scene, I saw that it wasn’t a building on fire, but a huge pile of hay and rubber tyres that had been dumped to block one of the main avenue thoroughfares. Splattered across the road were tonnes of rotten fruit. It was a demonstration of agricultural workers against E.U. policy which culminated in the farmers aiming enormous hosepipes connected to their trailers at the police that sprayed out chunky, very thick manure.
The Fête des Lumières in LyonAs winter drew in and temperatures plummeted, six of my friends and I visited Lyon for the Fête des Lumières, the festival of lights. Lyon itself had beautifully striking architecture set against the backdrop of the Alps to the east and a tall jagged hill to the west, at the top of which was Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a vast cathedral only built in the 18th century, and this point offered spectacular views across the city with the snow-topped mountains clearly in sight.
The festival was equally stunning. Around two-dozen installations were dotted around the city centre, but getting to each one was easier said than done. Hundreds of thousands of people had descended on Lyon for the festival. The crowds even filled the widest avenues from side to side, travelling at less than 5 mph. That said, we had a long evening and managed to see most of the exhibitions that lit up the city.
Winter in FranceChristmas in Toulouse, and France as a whole, is magical. The historic buildings surrounding the city’s main square, Place du Capitole, were draped with net lights, enclosing the Christmas market, which consisted of homemade crafts, products and produce sold in small rustic-looking lodges.
No winter is complete without ice-skating. Toulouse, surprisingly, had no seasonal outdoor ice rink, but this meant a trip to another town called Albi with some friends where there was a rink. We spent the afternoon wandering around the medieval town, dominated by its piercingly high Gothic cathedral, allegedly the largest brick building in the world, before taking to the ice rink. No matter how many winters I had been ice-skating, I always seem to forget how to ice skate the following year, so I actually spent the evening crashing into the sides of the rink.
With Toulouse ideally situated close to the Pyrenees mountains, this was a great chance to go skiing. What was great was that my friends and I were able to go fairly cheaply. A combined rail-ski ticket was about €30 and equipment hire was barely €25. As for the clothing, I fashioned up a ski suit using waterproof trousers over jogging bottoms and just a rain jacket over a hoodie. Not having skied for ten years, I soon picked it up again and we took to more adventurous slopes throughout the day. We even went back for another day on the slopes the following month, but that time I had neglected to take sun cream – resulting in an extremely red face, with a nice big white patch where I’d been wearing ski goggles. Needless to say that my students found it hilarious.
At one point, I unexpectedly found myself in Genevaafter a flight back to Toulouse was re-routed there. Being told to make my own way to Toulouse from there, this was certainly one way of seeing Europe. Geneva, allegedly an international centre of finance and politics, was remarkably small and not as modern-looking as I’d imagined. It could have been any generic small, quaint Romance city, with the exception of being situated on a vast lake that stretched for dozens of kilometres. I wandered the cobbled streets and ended up treating myself to an Italian meal with a couple of glasses of white wine, again courtesy of easyJet.
Visiting Montpellier and ParisBy spring 2010, I realised that my time in France was drawing to a close, and despite everything that I had done and everywhere that I had been, I still hadn’t seen as much as I wanted to. So I took action and hopped on a train to Montpellier, a city with typical façades of 19th century French architecture, vast public promenades and squares, and wide areas of peaceful greenery.
One of my favourite points in Montpellier was Porte du Peyrou, a triumphal arch smaller than Paris’s Arc de Triomphe but more majestic due to its golden colour, proudly flying the French tricolore. Later I released the inner child with a trip to Montpellier Zoo, notable for its Serre Amazonienne, a tropical greenhouse with exotic animals from anacondas to piranhas.
As I reached the end of my time in France, I didn’t want to leave the country without having ever visited Paris. So, two weeks after Montpellier, I took the one-hour flight from Toulouse to Charles de Gaulle at around 6am in the morning, returning at around 8pm the same evening. With my unlimited metro card and my meticulously planned route in an anti-clockwise direction, I took in sights including the Louvre (the outside only), the Champs Elysées, the Palais de l’Elysée (where the President lives), the Arc de Triomphe, La Défense (Paris’s financial district with lots of modern skyscrapers), Notre Dame, the Centre Pompidou (modern art gallery) and Montmartre.