Mazingarbe and other places I call home…

On Saturday I went to meet one of the other assistants in the area, Hannah. She’s an English English assistant, so it won’t be a problem for her when the pupils begin every single sentence with “In England, do you….?”. Elodie dropped me at the clocktower in the middle of Béthune and then I got to speak english-english, I think the culture-shock had hit her and the poor girl’s without wifi (an absolute essential when you’re away from everyone) so she was a bit upset through the day, but I gave her some tablet (has being away made me even more Scottish?) and that seemed to cheer her up a bit. We’re looking for a flat together, so had a wander about the streets of Béthune hunting estate-agents. It was not very successful, as the north of France (very marginally better weather than Glas Vegas) has a cheek to take a siesta, so it was depressing walking around on a Saturday afternoon in the town you’re hoping to live in, with about 4 people in the whole town, everything closed……and it started to rain. We managed to get a few brochures and went and sat in a nearby cafe where I had the typically french tea-and-muffin combo, ignoring entirely the offer of crepes. Hannah’s staying in a boarding school right now and as she has no fridge has to go shopping every day, so decided to go to the local Carrefour (France’s Asda), for something to do, as much as a dinner-buying mission. Stopped in at a pharmacy on the way for the purchase of lady-things, and was highly bemused when there were none….in a pharmacy. Questioning this later, apparently they’re kept hidden away behind the counter in a lot of pharmacies. In a country which didn’t legalise contraception until 1967, and which frowned upon abortion so much that in the 1960s sisters resorted to “doing it for themselves” with umbrellas and parsley, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Carrefour, I noticed, had a far more laissez-faireattitude to menstruation. Tom, if you’re reading this, I promise I’m done talking about lady-bits. Grace, if you’re reading this, Tom will need a cold compress and a few minutes in a darkened room. Later, we headed back to the square where Elodie was meeting me and like the tourists we are, headed to the tourist office. Hilariously, all their postcards basically just say the north is shit. There was one that was a cartoon, grey landscape, with a crane, a mine and a couple of houses and had a caption about there being nothing to do here. I’m not sure the prioritisation of irony over places-of-interest will benefit the local economy much. Whilst waiting on Elodie a lovely drunk man in shorts came and spoke to us and told us, repeatedly that “men from Montpellier don’t wear jeans”, whilst gesturing enthusiastically at his shorts. Politely told him we were terribly, terribly sorry, but we just didn’t speak a word of french. Which is (almost) true. Then, another man tagged in, and had the brilliant chat up line of asking me the time. Since I was right next to a clocktower, I thought he might actually be about to pick-pocket me, but I think in France people are actually pretty harmless, if you stand still for long enough (I think it’s about 4 seconds as a rule) someone will try and chat you up, but so far I’ve not been robbed. Thankfully at this point Elodie arrived so I was spared any more dire chat and we headed over to her aunty’s house to drop some things off. Again made the faux-pas of referring to someone as “toi” instead of the politer “vous”……quick grammar lesson, in France, someone that’s your senior in age or position, or a stranger, you refer to as “vous”. I, however, constantly forget this, and called Elodie’s uncle “toi”, not only have I only met him once previously, but he is considerably older than me AND the deputy-mayor of the town. faux pas x3.

I don’t know if I’m repeating myself but I think my favourite french custom might be the kissing when you meet someone, it saves all the sort of awkward do-we-go-for-a-hug-do-we-do-a-wee-wave-do-we-even-bother-going-to-say-bye-to-everyone we do in Scotland. So basically, you just kiss everyone to say hello and bye, friendly!

Saturday night, Justine, the student-teacher from my school in Mazingarbe text me asking if I wanted to go for a drink with her, but since I had a migraine and felt pretty shady I had a wild Saturday night at home. However, did arrange to go to Lens with her the next day for the Lens braderie, big markety thing where all the local shops have stalls outside. Her boyfriend is portuguese and obviously speaks french, but not english, Justine speaks french and english and my french is pretty ropey, so in the car it was a mix of her speaking english to me, out of politeness, but me not wanting to appear rude to her boyfriend, Laurent, and answering her sometimes in english and sometimes in french. I’d imagine it would be what the EU would be like if they didn’t all have headsets hooked up to overpaid translators. Went to a wine bar where I tried to look knowledgeable about the wines listed on the board “ahhh I think I’ll try the 2007 Chateau Goudray, is it spicy?” and we shared a platter of pâte and cheeses. We were the only people in the bar and Justine and Laurent are regulars, so the owner was sitting talking to us and he seemed to know the history of every wine he stocked (and there were many). They also had a few familiar faces, ie bottles of whisky, on the shelves so managed to chat about that. To my shame when I left the bar I could actually feel the effect the wine had had, I think my alcohol resistance has shut down since I’ve not been drinking, god knows what I’ll be like when I get back to £1 drink nights in Glasgow, I surely can’t be a worse drunk than I already was? Went for cake after the wine bar and met Justine’s mum who was very chic, she owns a shoe shop so was begrudgingly open on a Sunday. The cakes here are unbelievable, all the chat about french food is so true, it’s very, very rich and very very good. I went for the “Princesse Laia” cake, purely for the name, they seem to translate names here which is odd. I might give all the kids I’m teaching Clydebank names instead of their own. However, despite what Clydebank High would have you believe, there’s only so many Destiny-Ebony’s and Chantelle-Mercedes you can have in the one class.

Sunday night, Elodie’s brother, Laurie (who I’ve mistakenly blogged as Lori) was over, he speaks good english but he’s not fluent, so had another double-language conversaton with him. He asked me to marry him the other night, I reckon it’d be a good way to improve my french.

On Monday, Mickael took me to a bombsite. Literally. It’s a big memorial for the Canadians that died here during WW2 in Vimy and there’s big areas that are grass-craters and bumps because there’s still unexploded bombs here. Hilariously, signs included “Do not walk into craters” and “No Picnics, Undetonnated Explosives”. The main feature is massive white towers, with the sunlight hitting them in a spectacular fashion. It was strange, all the names of the Canadians written on it were scottish names and I’ve not seen any of them in a while! There was also a museum-type bit which had many Ontarian staff and a quote from the Glasgow Herald on the wall. A Canadian lady came and spoke to us in english, then Mickael started talking in French, but I replied in English, and she then got confused and exploded. There were trenches outside you could walk through which were actually fairly challenging to find your way out of, let alone avoid Germans in. On the way home I was asking Mickael if there was anything he wanted brought over from Scotland when my parents come and he requested Coconut Ice. Since I am a Clydebank High Activites Week Sweet-Making vet I told him I could make him some so on the way home we stopped in at the supermarket and I tried to describe bisto, dried coconut and stock cubes to him in terrible french (I was also making a casserole, it wasn’t meaty coconut ice). Managed to buy a bag of coconut as big as a sandbag, yet forget entirely that there was condensed milk in it, so sadly the kilos of coconut ice has yet to be made.

So, Tuesday was my first day (again) at school. Went in an hour early to sort out admin (ie I’d like to be paid some day) but once again the fantastic French system means you need about 87 documents to fill out a dossier, to apply for the forms to get a social security number. Oh, and 4 copies of your passport, please. You don’t have one translated into latin, with the photo a picture of you looking downcast holding a melon? no? You’re at the wrong office. Then headed off to my first lesson with Sarah, one of the english teachers to teach the troisième class (14 year olds). I’m basically meant to observe for 2 weeks, and just sit at the back of the class, but I think teachers love the chance of someone else in the classroom, so instead the pupils read out descriptions of celebrities, none of which I could guess (She’s young, she is an actress, she has long brown hair, she is pretty). It was also awkward, you’re not really meant to correct the teachers, but one girl said “he plays this part in a film” and the teacher was like “plays? he plays?? no, he acts” and I just had to sit there and keep schtum. I then stood at the front of the class while they asked me questions, naturally my name caused some bemusement. Also, it’s surprisingly hard to answer questions like “what do you dislike?”…. resisted the urge to tell them I disliked the buddhist philosophy of tandem attachment and separation from the world and instead went for “waking up early”, which confused them, so toned it down again to “spiders”, which I actually don’t mind, and, in fact, have become resident spider catcher of the house since Elodie is terrified. Sarah then hit out with the gem of “Who wants to give a physical description of L?”. There’s nothing quite like bilingual 14 year olds judging your appearance at 9am. Apparently I’m very tall and have blue eyes….who knew? My favourite was a girl that said “she’s very pretty and slim and has pretty eyes”. She’s going to be my favourite all year now. My timetable of 12 hours a week means I occasionally have an hour gap, so I went to the staff room and spent a good 10 minutes trying to work out the vending machine. Of course, you put your money in the coffee machine next to it if you want a cereal bar from the other machine. I’m shocked someone had to show me. I also have a pigeon hole which has been gradually filling up since the start of term with leaflets and now-expired meetings teachers were to attend. I did also get an invite to Mme Delgatte Brigitte’s retiral (afer 32 years at the school!), not sure who she is yet though… My next class was with Elodie’s class, who all get extra classes in english since they’re so good at it. Was very impressed, I don’t think my tutorials at uni even talk that much to be honest. They talked about school cliques and I was called upon to try and explain what a dog-collar was, and why goths wear them. Later in the day I was with younger classes, who aside from not understanding a word of my toned-down accent, also asked me if Scotland was in Norway (at which point the teacher told them Glasgow was the capital of Scotland…I’ve done wonders for Glasgow’s image in only 1 day in my role) and when I told them I was 21, a wee boy asked me in french if that was 31 or 21, I’m not at an age where that is in any way acceptable. They were also telling other members of the class about themselves, their family, their pets etc, and I was asked the words for stick insect and cockateel. The SQA have a lot to answer for in not teaching me this valuable vocabulary. After that, they all wanted to know what they’d be called in English, but it turns out very few french names have english equivalents. Did tell one girl she’d be “Leigh” and I got “my name is leg? leg??”. Also, you know when someone’s on the train and they have a bit of sellotape on them or something in their hair and you think I should tell them. I should really tell them. I’d want someone to tell me. I should tell them, shouldn’t I? Well, imagine it’s your first day in a classroom in France and the girl sitting in front of you is like 13 and has gotten her period (shit, I said I was done talking about periods, didn’t I?) to the point it has actually stained her dress. No. I absolutely did not tell her. I let her walk around like that for the rest of the day. I am a terrible teacher.

At night, I cooked Elodie and Mickael a sausage casserole (how very british), it was going so well, I’d even cut up the veg the night before and had everything ready to go. Since they don’t eat till 8ish here, I held off and mistimed it so that we were actually eating at like 8:45. In my head I was checking my potatoes thinking smugly “half 8 already, and still cooking….I am très continental” but at this point I remembered Mickael was working nightshift, so had to try and speed things along by cutting the boiling potatoes whilst still in the pan (to try and increase their surface area…to think, I failed chemistry!) and then trying to mash them with a fork, I ended up taking bits of potatoes out that I felt were not being team-players and cooking themselves quickly enough then furiously mashing, to present the best version of scottish cooking I could. Horror struck when I served the meal and cut into the sausages and they were still pink, but apparently though this is typical of Toulouse sausages, which I’d had to use since there’s nothing closer to a british sausage out here. Went down very well, with them both going for seconds so I felt better knowing I hadn’t poisoned a heavily pregnant woman and her husband, who’d taken me in out the good of their hearts.

Yesterday was the induction day for all the assistants in Lille. Got up bright and early and got to the station with plenty of time, and met one of the other assistants ‘Annah ‘Ooodson, who I really clicked with, I think we’re on the same wavelength. She really reminds me of Katie, but a Katie from Hertfordshire. So went with her to the overly complicated we-only-take-cards ticket machine, gave up and went and joined the queue where we met Hannah Bristow, stood in the queue for roughly a day and a half by which time we’d missed the train, so settled for the next one which was half an hour later. Managed to make it to Gare Lille Flandres where I also coped with a woman asking me where I’d bought my jacket, sounded very continental when I told her it was from Spain. So a short ride on the metro later we arrived at the right station for the school the induction was being held in, but feeling very lost we stopped at the Moulin d’Or patisserie to ask directions. Paris may have the Moulin Rouge (and world-famous monuments, and lots of people, and things to do after 6pm at night) but we have the Moulin d’Or, and don’t you forget it. Eventually found the school and wandered in, where a woman with a fly in her hair demanded to know if we had lodging problems, I thought we did since we currently do not have permanent lodging but apparently we do not, so we went in and sat for the next 3 hours listening to mind-numbingly boring french lectures on how to sort your VISA paperwork, which since I’m not American, was of no use and even less interest. They also seemed to say “vineyard” a lot, apparently one of the documents you need sounds very like vineyard. Maybe they just throw the word vineyard in every few sentences to remind us we’re in France. Somehow managed to cry laughing several times, not really sure why….I think I got cabin fever. I also utilised my time by sending Mickael a text, yes, grammar-lovers, text-singular took me around 15 minutes, with a dictionary….I think in English I must use very complicated grammar because I take ages to translate what I actually would say in English. After that we all (about 100 of us) formed a queue to pick up a document. Despite France’s love of paperwork, they are rubbish at queue-ing, managed to get to the front to be told I had to see another woman. C’est fantastique! Then we were led to a nearby uni canteen for a complimentary lunch. Apparently there’s no such thing as a free lunch, what they actually should have said was, there is such a thing as a free lunch but HA! we had you going, it’s actually baby-food and hard turkey, served with questionable yoghurts. Being France though there were water jugs on the table which you could go and refill. Can you imagine that at Strathclyde? The closest we get to a lucky table find is if someone’s left a half-full print card and a Freddo there. The afternoons meetings were very helpful since they were in English, but it was all the same information as the morning so it seems odd that they would do both. Went back into the city centre with Hannah B and ‘Annah ‘Oodson and had my first swatch of Lille. Wasn’t very impressed with the first street we saw as it was basically McDonalds and stuff we have at home, but a couple of streets away there’s the main square and the obligatory impressive-fountain, alongside the massive Opera de Lille. Elodie had an appointment for an ultrasound, and was picking me up at the station, so just had a quickie wander round Lille, bought some postcards and headed back, still got lots of Lille to explore. You could say I only saw a Lille bit of it…..ho ho…..

This morning I was woken up at 6 by Tornade (the cat) scratching at my door for ages, then coming in and lying on my feet. I wouldn’t have minded this had she not starting cleaning herself and basically fleeing about the place and I was that way I was really really wanting to push her off, but really really tired. It was a vicious circle that was ended by my alarm going off, then a phonecall from an unknown french number which I point blank refused to answer. Who phones anyone at 8am, let alone someone wanting to talk French at me? Was back in the school today, being gawked at by the pupils. One girl in the class this afternoon, literally just turned round and stared at me the entire hour. I even made eye contact with her several times and she didn’t have the decency to look away. They’re all very cute though a wee boy told me I was very beautiful, used the “vous” form and called me madame. I have become a grown-up this week! So I sat in 3 classes today, mostly very boring, spent a lot of time flipping through their English textbook. Hilariously they had a chapter on New York that had an exercise on a maffia man called Jim Ricotti, on trial for smuggling pasta into the country and money-laundering. Apparently, this is the image of Italian-Americans and apparently it’s now illegal to smuggle pasta. There was also a picture of Susan from Chicago going home on a plane wearing a crop top and shorts, I’m fairly certain, aside from the arctic circle and Neptune, Chicago is the coldest place in existence. They also don’t seem to understand the value of money, there was a cartoon of a shopkeeper telling a customer “this hat is 90p, it is cheap. These boots are £5, they are expensive”. Granted, for a pair of cartoon yellow cowboy boots with blue stars on them you might not get much interest apart from from Rhuraidh, but £5 is hardly market value. After that we listened to a tape of a creepy middle aged man saying “I’m a friend, are you my friend?” I hope subliminally they were trying to do some sort of stranger-danger campaign. The teacher also wrote “a air hostess” which was bad enough without the “an” but then proceded to tell everyone it was pronounced “a hair ostass”, but again, I kept in mind the pecking order and kept schtum, then 15 minutes later she was looking at her textbook and said “ahh my mistake, it’s AN air hostess”. So she must’ve known I was sitting there, judging her.

Managing to make a few half-baked plans, got the parents coming mid-November, with Claire’s visit to Paris overlapping, so I’m going to have One Night in Paris with her then rendezvous with the parents to come back to Lille. Also have 10 days off in a fortnight so hopefully make it down to Madrid or over to Brussels for a few days.

A bientot!

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