Reflecting on Two Months in Toulouse
Coucou! After two months back in France, I finally feel inclined to reflect on and recount my experiences thus far in Toulouse. Summoning the motivation to write this post has been somewhat of a challenge because it's forced me to confront an unforeseen fact. Acclimating to life in France this time around has been tougher than usual.
My associations with France are usually all sweetness and light. I’m in awe and over the elegant architecture and chicly adorned, baguette toting locals—enamored by the relaxed pace of life and jubilant about the plethora of nearby boulangeries and cave à vins selling a juicy bottle of red for 4€.
It’s easy to romanticize being abroad—to overlook the things that are missing or wrong because you’re so freakin’ jazzed about every cool and new experience. Maybe I’ve done this France thing enough times now to not blow a fuse every time I bite into a flaky croissant (that sounds much more pretentious than I intended). Or, maybe my experiences over the past year have changed me—a lot.
I don’t mean to make this experience sound like an unhappy one! The first month was rocky. I was homesick for my family, friends and boyfriend. Making friends has been harder than usual—and being in France without my Dad's cute texts and emails has rendered me perpetually disoriented and lonely. But, I’m slowly rediscovering all the whimsy and charm that I feared France no longer held for me—and I'm starting to feel more like myself.
Physically getting on the plane was the hardest part about coming back. I battled with indecision for months before finally making up my mind to return—and that decision was largely based on the irrefutable fact that I couldn't stand to take another order or bus another table. I’m a wayfaring person by nature, but leaving my boyfriend ,Rateb, this time around was hard. He was sturdy beyond words after I lost my father and I wasn't ready to be away from him.
Saying goodbye to my mother and sister was also complicated—especially my mom. We spent a lot of time together this past summer and grew quite chummy. We lunched often and went to the gym together. I also helped her with many of the things she no longer had my dad for. Leaving felt like I was abandoning her and it shattered my heart—but I could see a dependency forming that would ultimately be damaging for both of us. We have our own paths to forge and if I had stayed for her it would be a lifelong regret.
So I left—alone with my plethora of heavy luggage I took two planes to Paris (thanks Kansas City International for STILL not having an international terminal) and a five-hour train ride to Toulouse.
Apartment hunting in Bordeaux last year was a nightmare—it took me three weeks to find a place to live. Potential homelessness is the nagging fear for TAPIFers those first couple weeks in France. We don't arrive until late September so most available housing is already claimed by students—landlords can be resistant to rent to foreigners and making phone calls in French to set up viewings is terribly intimidating.
This year, I was willing to sell a vital organ to avoid the stress of house-hunting in a foreign country. I thought I'd hit the jackpot when I found a family seeking a live-in au pair on Facebook. In theory, avoiding the apartment search and not paying rent seemed desirable enough that I was willing to ignore the fact that I living under someone’s roof and being responsible for their children made me innately uncomfortable. Though working as an au pair might be a great option for some—and a cheap way to live abroad—I think the situation would have left me feeling claustrophobic and unhappy.
By mid-August, my problems were solved. One of the référants assigned to primary assistants emailed those of us who had yet to find housing. She referred friend who lived near the city center and was renting out her renovated rez-de-chaussée (ground floor) as a separate apartment. I claimed the apartment without skipping a beat. Sure, I felt a little guilty for letting down an excited family. But two months in, I can’t imagine this experience from an au pair's perspective. The lack of autonomy and constant presence of children would make me want to rip out my own hair strand by strand. The older I get the clearer I see how vital it is to be aware of my own needs and to resolutely act on them. As I predicted, I'm quite happy in my little Toulousian apartment.
Last year I worked in a lycée (high school) as a secondary assistant. Although I requested and hoped for the same assignment this time around—I was given primary. I was completely put off by this. I'm admittedly not over the moon about little kids and had no idea how to interact interact with—let alone educate them.
As a primary assistant I'm allocated three écoles primaires pubilques within the city of Toulouse. I spend Mondays at École Élémentaire Publique Monge, Wednesdays at Bonnefoy and Thursdays at Rangueil. My twelve hours of teaching per week is divided amongst them—working with kids aged six to 11. I take various forms of Toulouse’s excellent public transportation (bus and metro for me) to arrive at my schools. I'm also lucky as heck that my longest commute takes 30 minutes—there are some assistants who travel up to two hours outside of the city to reach their schools.
Committing my class schedules and colleagues’ names to memory took a minute for me. Our contracts began on October 1st—but the first couple of weeks were designated for a welcome meeting, dispatching emails and scheduling rendezvous at each school to meet the teachers. By the third week, we were finally in the classroom—but that was immediately followed by fall break. During that time, I traveled to London, Edinburgh and Dublin (more on that later). What can I say? I’ve been working very hard and it was much deserved. 😉
I spent a couple of splendid weeks roaming the U.K. before finally finding my groove in Toulouse. I'm now comfortable instructing and interacting with my students. I know which teachers want me to come prepared with lessons and which ones prefer to integrate my assistance into their own plans. I've found—believe it or not— that I prefer working the little ones.
We sing songs, play games and use a lot flash cards with big pictures and no words. The don’t know English and some of them are still learning French and they have the attention spans of fruit flies—but they absolutely love having me in the classroom and their enthusiasm for my lessons is adorable. I’m finding a level of gratification in my work that was discernibly missing last year. Nevertheless, I'm still certain that I am not destined for a career in teaching. Kudos to all you teachers out there.
Finding Friends Abroad
I made some of my best friends during my study abroad, I still corroborate my previous statements that that summer in Lyon was the most fun I’ve ever had. In Bordeaux, I fell into a group right off the bat. We took an impromptu weekend trip to San Sebastián (maybe I'll eventually get to blogging about all of my travels from last year) the weekend after meeting. Three days of pinxtos, cheap Basque wine and merrymaking on the beach was all it took to create my little community abroad.
Things didn’t fall in to place as effortlessly this time around. For the first time in France—and maybe ever in my life—I've struggled to make friends. I was so homesick when I first arrived, and so affected by the pain of not being able to share everything with my dad. I attended a few initial gatherings with all the other assistants—and felt lost in the large group setting. I know this was mostly in my head—but I assumed my anguish was evident. I found it hard to relate to anyone and felt guilty for bringing my emotional burdens to an assembly people riding a living-in-France high. It felt easier to spend time alone. So, it was more like I alienated myself.
This perpetuated my entire first month here—and though I consider myself to be a VERY independent person who values their alone time, my unhappiness was a direct result of not feeling connected to anyone.
Since then, another assistant has moved into my apartment with me and I’ve made a resolute effort to socialize more. It’s strange needing to “try” to do something that once came so naturally—but I can tell it’s made a positive difference in my experience. I’ve found that people are generally more accepting than given credit for, especially abroad. It still doesn’t feel organic, and I still feel like I’m faking it at times—but I’m trying to remember to go easy on myself. Moving abroad is no small thing, and it's healthy to celebrate the small triumphs rather than dwelling on the moments that defeat me.
This is a wonderfully uncomfortable experience. Every time I’m in France my eyes are opened a little±I learn more about the world and my place in it. The fact that this has been my rockiest experience abroad thus far, is merely an indication that my outlook has expanded in a way allows me to look at the world more critically. Like it or not, my experiences have molded me and that is going to be reflected in every new adventure. I can’t change the past, but I can take these lessons in to the future.