Between 1989-1990 I spent a year living and working in France as part of my degree course. I was excited about this and when I received notification that I had been placed in Boulogne, I foolishly believed that I was going to live just outside Paris in the Bois de Boulogne, famous for its association with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was placed in Boulogne sur Mer. A small coastal town about a stone’s throw from England. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. In those days it was a town full of English people going on day-trip booze cruises to buy duty-free beer and wine.
I was told that I would be working and living at Collège Angellier: a secondary school for pupils from 11-15. I would work eight hours a week as an English Assistante, teaching pupils spoken English. The school provided me with a very small flat above the school, which was little more than a single room with a shower and toilet. There were no cooking facilities. I was told that there would be a ‘Stage’ a few days before my contract began, where I would be able to meet other assistants from the local area. The ‘Stage’ never happened for some reason and so by the time I travelled to Boulogne in September 1989, I knew no one.
My Dad took me over to settle in. I was in a foreign country, living in a place where I knew no one and I don’t mind admitting that I was terrified. My Dad stayed over a night and as I waved him goodbye he told me ‘Give it two weeks. If it’s bad, then come home.’ I felt our relationship change over that day. My Dad had gone from being the parent of a grumpy teenager who was mortally embarrassed by him, to someone that I knew genuinely cared about me and was as equally terrified as I was. To help me to settle in, my Dad bought me a French black and white television. It cost over a hundred and fifty pounds which was a small fortune in those days. Looking back now, it was the best thing he could have done, because it wasn’t long before all the local Assistants wanted to come and watch my television.
The next few days were incredibly difficult. I spent time with some of the teaching staff as they prepared me for my lessons. I had no idea how to teach. I’d done a very short TEFL course at University but that was all. I was only a couple of years older than most of the students. I knew that there was a lycée a few minutes-walk away and there would be another English Assistant there for me to befriend. I managed to contact her, and we arranged to meet up. Her name was Cathy and she came from Canada. She was nice enough, but we were very different. I’d lived away from home for two years already, whereas this was her first time away from home and she was incredibly home sick. In all honesty she was several thousand miles away from home. All I had to do, was put my foot in the wrong direction and I’d be back on English soil.
I only saw Cathy a couple of times and then she was gone. She’d returned home and so my hopes of having a nearby friend were dashed. However, during that first week I was introduced to the German Assistant, who was called Barbara. Barbara was very dry and had a certain sadness about her. We were complete opposites. Yet Barbara also had to work in another school and so she knew another English Assistant who she was eager to introduce me to. Her name was Lydia and she was Australian.
Lydia came around to meet me at my flat and we got along almost instantly. She was what I called typically Australian. She had this lovely cheeriness and like me, she loved to laugh and joke. That night I knew I’d finally met someone who could help me settle in. We arranged to meet again the next day at a local café, where she said she would introduce me to other local assistants. So that was how I managed to meet all the other local assistants. There were other English girls, some Spanish and a Scottish girl from Edinburgh called Eleanor. A few weeks later, Cathy’s replacement arrived, a guy named Seamus from Belfast.
With Seamus and Lydia, I developed a very close-knit friendship. We spent just about every single day together. It wasn’t long before we settled into a routine. We found a very welcoming café in Boulogne called La Chope D’Or. It was right on the seafront. The French in Boulogne hated the English as the only English people they came across were on booze cruise daytrips. When the French people got to know us, they realised that we were desperate to learn about French language and culture and so flattered by this, we developed quite a large circle of friends who were locals. We spoke in French most of the time and it wasn’t long before I was dreaming in French.
Two of our closest local friends, were Léon and Yves. Léon was a fifty-something Ronnie Wood look-a-like, who was probably an alcoholic. Yves was in his early thirties, very French with shoulder length hair and a very old Citroen DS. He always reminded me of what I believed Heathcliff looked like. We’d regularly be taken to different parties to meet other French people and it’s no understatement that a lot of these were really dodgy and were the type of people my Mother had warned me about. Yet they spoke French and because of this, we wanted to meet as many of them as possible.
Yves and Léon would take us to French nightclubs. In those days, French nightclubs would be situated in the middle of nowhere. Usually in something that resembled an old church hall. This was the days of Black Box, ‘Ride on Time’ and house music. French clubs usually started about 2am and were very expensive to get into. Fortunately, Yves and Léon knew just about everybody and thus, we rarely paid for entrance. We’d meet them in the Chope D’Or about 1am and then armed with bottles of water, we’d drive somewhere in the middle of nowhere, get into the club and just dance until sunrise. We’d stumble back home about 7am, sleep for a few hours and then start teaching about 2pm. I remember one very strange night. Seamus and I had been taken to this club several miles outside of Boulogne in the countryside. We were dancing away, when suddenly chairs started to be flung across the dance floor. Seamus and I took refuge behind some benches. Seamus tentatively looked up and in shock declared,
’Oh my God. Yves is having a fight.’ It had been Yves who was throwing the furniture. It was something to do with someone’s girlfriend. We had to make a dash out to the car and drive off in a mad hurry. As we made our way back to Boulogne, the car developed a puncture. Neither Yves nor Léon had any idea what to do and so Seamus and I tried to change the tyre. As we looked up there was a full moon in the sky and Yves had turned the radio onto an Opera channel. I vividly recall looking up at the full moon, as Maria Callas sang out through the car’s speakers. It felt surreal. I then realised that Yves and Léon had been taking something and were completely spaced out. I must have prayed to God for the first time that night. Asking Him to get us home in one piece.
We made the most of our year abroad and wanted to immerse ourselves in as much culture as possible. At Christmas time, we all remained in France and experienced a real French Christmas. We followed the French tradition of eating a banquet from early on Christmas Eve through to the morning of Christmas Day. We also attended Midnight Mass. The phrase, ‘When in Rome’ couldn’t have been more apt. We delighted in discovering new phrases, new tastes and new experiences. When I look back now, I really do believe that it was the very first year of my life when I felt that I was living.
Sadly, the days passed all too soon, and it wasn’t long before it was time to leave to return for my final year of University. My Dad came to pick me up and I know that he found a very different daughter when we returned. I’d grown up that year. As we walked together back onto the foot-passenger ferry, I felt like Mr Benn being called back into the Fancy Dress shop after having experienced an amazing adventure. I’ve been back to Boulogne many times since and I still meet people that I once knew. When I look back on it now, I find it incredulous to believe that I could have spent a year living and working in a foreign country knowing no one, when I was little more than a teenager. But I suppose it was so successful because I didn’t really fully consider how scary an experience it was. I just jumped in the cold water and learnt to swim. Thank goodness I did!