Holding back the years…
Fully aware that the third year of my French and Drama BAat Goldsmiths, would be spent abroad, I knew there were 3 choices available to me: to be a language assistant (which I had rejected as being too dull, a decision I now regret); to go to university in France (which I had decided would be too much like hard work and too tempting to hang out with English-speakers); or to get a job by making all our own arrangements (which I naively thought would be the best decision for me - and there was a recession on - but I was a mature student with a medical qualification, and what I considered to be a bit of resourcefulness). I didn’t even contemplate going anywhere other than Paris because of the drama and theatre connection. It was also where I knew one or two people, and a number of my year group were headed there and staying in student accommodation at Cité Universitaire.
It is fair to say that the year abroad was probably more relaxed in the 1990s in terms of work and deadlines; there is a strong vibe that the year abroad is as much about your survival in different circumstances as it is about gaining linguistic competence. Until you have sat in a crowded room at the police station waiting for your name to be called (and not hearing it for the cacophony of sound around you as well as the different pronunciation) in order to get your temporary resident’s permit, there is no way you can begin to understand what it means to be a stranger in another land - and I thought I knew a little of that from studying L’Etranger by Camus.
I was a self-paying student as I was a mature student, and I had worked in London (as a radiographer) to get by and to save up for my year abroad. Luckily my wonderful parents were very supportive of my change of direction and consequent return to university. They were able to help with my accommodation for 6 of the 9 months I was there. Encouraged to leave as soon as we could after re-enrolling at Goldsmiths (useful for obtaining a student ID card), I booked my ferry for early October after some of my friends had already gone over and were beginning to settle in at their student accommodation. So, I went with a little money and no external funding, but the crazy idea I would get work (I did, but only a little - the cultural shift to an equivalent job in a local clinic was too great) and an old car (which did not get through its final MOT a few months into my stay). I became an expert at how to spend a day in Paris with less than 50 francs (around £5). My lifelong love affair with Paris began.
Twenty years ago, I packed up my right hand drive Renault 4 (Henrietta) (ma quatrelle anglaise) for my year abroad, and headed for Newhaven to begin the adventure. The very same car ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe I took is still running to this day.
My lovely Mum insisted on accompanying me right up to the point where she had to get out (customs) and I drove into the yawning car ferry on a perfect sunny October day. I had deliberately worn a bright jumper so that I could wave for ages from the deck and Mum could spot me semaphoring my excitement from the ferry. When I could see her no longer, I went inside, pulled out my map, bought a coffee, and sat down to plot my route from northern France to the western suburbs of Paris where I was going to stay with a French friend I’d met a year earlier, when I was on a translation course at the British Institute of Paris. It was practically the only car journey made that year when I didn’t take a single wrong turning. Serendipity! I drove through villages where the early evening mist was catching in the autumn colours, and where chickens flew up around my car. Stunned to see a GB version of a French classic car, I probably almost caused several accidents as the ‘invisible driver’ - my steering wheel was on the right!
At that time, all communication was by phone in payphones and I tended to use phone cards, or télécartes. For quick calls, you could use coins (was it 1 franc per go in 1991? Answers on a postcard please) and like the payphones in the UK at the time, you had to push really hard to get the coins in. Nightmare if you were stressed or in a hurry! Ah, télécartes. I would use a whole card retailing at 100 francs on one call, or around £10. They were often branded and you could sell used ones to collectors, to make a bit of money, which was another valuable (if erratic) source of income.
A typical conversation in the tabac would go like this:
“ - Bonjour monsieur/madame, je voudrais une télécarte s’il vous plaît.
- Une petite ou une grande?
- Une grande merci!”
So. No mobile phone then - phone calls had to be made more or less in public; just like now with mobiles! We used phones in train stations, on the street or - my personal favourite - in posh Parisian restaurant phone booths. Frequently in the basement, they were at least a bit more private than the (fantastically designed) hexagonal glass booths in the street, where people would sometimes rap on the door if you’d been in there too long. Unfortunately though, they could be right next to the WC, so you’d only use them for short chats or to make arrangements.
No internet either - you’d have to make social arrangements in advance, and stick to them, or get used to waiting for your friends, or adapting your day to take unexpected changes into account, a valuable life skill to pick up. In order to do research or to work, you’d go to the library - I used the one at the Pompidou Centre. Fantastic! I really enjoyed that, and the whole experience of being in such an amazing building to work on my year abroad assignments (just in case any of my old tutors are reading this!!).
Minitel. A pre-Internet invention, this little terminal used the phone line to give you information a bit like the telephone directory, but because it used the phone line you couldn’t then make the call until you’d finished the session. A pre-internet gem!
Booking flights and car ferry tickets home (pre Eurotunnel, Eurostar)
Again without the internet, it was a bit hectic to book something in advance. One day I drove to Dieppe only to find there was a strike on, so then drove on to Calais (news really didn’t seem to travel as fast, and although I knew there had been a rumpus at Dieppe, didn’t realise the magnitude or effectiveness of the strike) but I was pretty philosophical about it, you have to be, you’re on your year abroad and learning all the time about another place, another set of customs (autre pays, autre moeurs). I do remember sleeping on the ferry and being very glad to finally arrive home, late at night.
For flight bookings, we (me and my merry band of fellow YA buddies from Goldsmiths) made great friends with the team at STA travel, which had a branch near La Bourse in Paris. We used them extensively including when we had to book flights in emergencies. They were fantastic, and I can only think that it is perhaps a shame that we don’t have so much personal contact with people now...
Forums or answers to questions and case studies
There wasn’t the same opportunity to ask a question round a bunch of people. Basically, you’d ask your own circle and maybe they would ask their circle of friends or family too, so you’d have to wait until they got back to you. You’d ask in the tourist information office, the museums and galleries, the library, or at favourite music store, la FNAC (depending on the question). You would ask your French friends cultural questions and throw yourself into whatever was going on at the time - birthday parties, the Winter Olympics, the Cannes film festival.
Accommodation and part-time work
Pre-internet, we searched for accommodation and jobs in newspapers, free papers and on notice boards, so there was a great deal of wandering about and actually searching for information - but on the plus side, a chance to explore Paris even more and find some more great coffee shops and bars. You’d learn where the good notice boards were. I remember the American Church came out tops. As your confidence in the language grew, making calls, leaving messages, spelling your family name by letter aloud in the language, and having interviews or meeting people became easier. I got very skilled at sitting in a café for hours with a pile of postcards, one coffee and a glass of tap water. It’s an art! Perfect for people watching, you could also make friends with the waiter and get a good table with a great view away from the hustle and bustle. Plus if you are alone, you’re listening to the language around you, reading the paper, your course books or the latest new novel in whatever language you’re into. With any luck, the telly’s on in the bar, and you are catching the Tour de France, or the tennis, and discovering another nation’s favourite sports, as well as talking to complete strangers. On the down side, if your country are playing and winning and you are the one dancing on the tables, you may find yourself asked to leave.
Back in the 90s, student discounts were available by having one of a number of student cards (ISIC card, anyone still got theirs?) but they weren’t universally accepted. So, you could get free or cheap entry, but you’d have to be ready to argue your case or perfect your Gallic shrug. Nothing like the universal online discounts that are available now; and I’m not convinced that there were insurance policies that grasped the year abroad situation fully either; I remember taking out policies on the spot when I needed cover for sport.
I have several favourite ‘free’ memories. Getting a free backstage tour of the new Opera house as a drama student. Standing for 3 hours in the queue on 14 July to see Swan Lake for free (I sat 2 rows from the front).
Back in the 1990s, we were using books and libraries, conversation classes and the usual round of special interest classes as opportunities to learn more language. We were advised to sign up for an evening class, or to join a sports club, choir, band or amateur theatre group. In those analogue days, we spent more time searching, on foot or on the phone, more time waiting, for photos to be developed or friends to turn up; but we had to be just as inventive and inquisitive to hunt for bargains and to explore the surroundings.
Twenty years on, I returned to France at the beginning of 2011 for the funeral of my best year abroad friend, who had died in her old age. Asked by her family to read prayers in the cathedral, I was proud to do so; and to reply to the ‘so which part of Paris do you live in?’ with the answer, London.