On Sunday the 26th of this month, I will have been in Avignon for two months. That means it's two months since I was home, since I saw my family and my dog and my boyfriend. In all the pre-year abroad departure days, one of the things that was stressed to us was how quickly the time will pass when you are away. It's hard to believe until you experience it yourself – how has it been two months already? I now only have five months left, which includes two weeks holidays for Christmas and two weeks in February.
The first couple of weeks were difficult, that can definitely be said. Settling into a new city – a big city – where I didn't know anyone and where pretty much no one speaks English was hard. For a while I thought I was going to be the one with the "bad" year abroad experience, the one who was miserable and who just wanted to go home – why me? However, I stuck with it – I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn't – and the old saying of "it gets easier" really is true. During those first few weeks I didn't think it would become easier; but it did, although I can't pinpoint the exact moment that I realised this. Staff and final year students at Queen's had warned us that the initial settling in period would be tough, but it's hard to know what to expect until you’re there and experiencing it for yourself.
But now, I can't say how glad I am that the British Council placed me in Avignon. The friends I've made here, it feels like I've known them for a lot longer than just two months. Work is easier; you get used to being like a teacher, and any stress is worth it when students come up to you after an hour and say how much they enjoyed your lesson. I teach in two schools; 8 hours a week in a lycée, teaching a range of ages from 15 – 26, and 4 hours in a collège where I mostly teach very lovely 11 – 13-year olds. I'm the first English assistant in both, and definitely the first Irish person even many of the teachers have encountered. Their knowledge of the anglophone world is essentially London; even the older years I teach barely knew where Ireland was, and so far, they seem to be really enjoying learning about Ireland and Irish culture.
I only work from 2pm on Mondays to 11am on Wednesdays, so I have a lot of free time during the week. It's a mix of milkshakes and donuts (not very French), my personal mission to find the best margherita pizza in the south of France, and visiting different towns and cities in the region. Favourites so far have been early-morning wine tasting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a famous variety of wine from the Rhone area, and l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which was a very spontaneous and unexpectedly lovely small town. I also spend more time in the garden of Temple Saint-Martial, eating 1€ crêpes sucrées and reading Jane Austen in French, than I'd like to admit to.
There are still things I miss about home. Christmas spirit is practically non-existent here, especially in comparison to Belfast; although there are signs of a Christmas tree being constructed in Place Pie. It's mid-November, and although the wind is strong and it's very cold, it's also still very sunny – and the weather forecast for this week is up to 18 degrees. I never thought I'd miss dreary, grey Novembers in Ireland! I also miss my mum's cooking, something I never fully appreciated when I lived at home, and of course my dog.
However, Avignon has so many positive points in its favour that will make the four weeks until I come home more than bearable. Dogs are allowed everywhere; there is even a café here with a live-in German Shepherd called Eleven. There are also a lot of second hand clothes shops, and shops selling books and records; these are my favourite places, especially book shops. I'm slightly concerned how I'm going to come home for good in April with all these books.
Avignon's people are still constantly and pleasantly surprising me with their friendliness and general niceness. They completely go against that unfortunate stereotype of French people as rude and aloof; everywhere here you can get a smile from a stranger and some very patient people willing to help you with your French.
And that is, of course, the main goal of this year – improve my French. The first few weeks I was in a complete panic; I found the accent and the speed they speak at daunting and difficult to understand. I though the language had completely abandoned me; I found myself tongue-tied a lot. Again, I'm not sure when exactly it got easier, but I had a real breakthrough moment recently, mid-conversation, when I realised just how much better my French has become in just eight weeks. When we were told that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in the home of said language, that was right. Being surrounded 24/7 by my target language and being somewhere where very few people speak my native language has been tough yes, but amazing. So, although I speak English with my students – French is Not Allowed in class – I'm so pleased and so proud with how my French is progressing. That initial period of anxiety every time I had to say so much as "bonjour" to a French person has actually been so worth getting to the point I'm at now, and I can't wait to see what the next five months can do. I'm constantly rediscovering why I loved this language so much in the first place.