Croissants, cooking and cultivation: a year abroad in Lyon
Anabel Judd covers her experience of living and working in Lyon, amidst a background of numerous struggles. After all of that, she happily reports back on her experiences of languages, food and trying to fit in…
It is a Saturday morning and I’m perched on a bench in Lyon, soaking up that spring sunshine. I’m that in-between temperature when all I can do is see-saw between being hot and cold, the sun playing a game of hide and seek with me behind the clouds. It’s mostly joggers out this early in the morning, running alongside the river in little troops like ants. I can taste the cold air in my throat, cold as ice. Inhaling deep breaths simultaneously convincing myself that these excessively deep breaths are eradicating any air pollution I will ever be exposed to. I’m exhausted as I’ve just spent the week at school playing games with students in an effort to improve their English; I’m exhausted, but happy. It is at this moment, I have the realisation. That realisation. The one that’s in the movies, the one we convince ourselves is merely a literary-induced lie that authors and scriptwriters claim to succumb to.
Yet, apparently not as I am here sat by the Rhone, realising that I have just spent a week in front of eighteen-year-olds, teaching English, explaining myself in French, I have negotiated prices at the produce market, successfully navigated my way around a French MRI discussion (I don’t know how I got through that either), met up with my Mexican friend whom I met six months ago for the millionth time, purchased a spontaneous flight to Spain and back and more. Tell my introverted self that six months ago and I would have thought you were insane, but it is crazy what the outcomes of a language degree are (the degree you thought would at a maximum increase your duo-lingo status to pro status).
It has been six months since I booked my one-way ticket to Lyon, a city I was unfamiliar with, both in geographical and descriptive terms. I packed up my two suitcases and began my year abroad, with absolutely zero expectations of what was about to happen. We’ve all heard at least one horror story about the girl stranded in the countryside with only one bus to take her to a station two miles away… But now, it is safe to say that, my story goes a little bit differently. France, and Lyon particularly, have both surprised me and not surprised me at all. I know, very paradoxical.
I packed up my two suitcases and began my year abroad, with absolutely zero expectations of what was about to happen
What I mean to say is, France has not surprised me in the context of culture. Having visited France a lot throughout my childhood, I was already aware of the culture and whether or not the ‘bread, cheese, wine’ stereotype was an exaggeration or not (I can safely say that it is not, maybe I would even call it an understatement). Food, above all else, is at the heart of culture, especially in Lyon since it is coined the gastronomical capital of France. As a country, people enjoy sharing and producing food from local produce and eat not just for nutritional benefits but as a form of socialising and spending time with family and friends. Whilst in England, a meal may take one to two hours of your day, in France – in certain circumstances – you can easily find yourself seated for hours on end, watching the sunset and sleeping in the company of a glass of wine and maybe one too many cheeses. I’ve had my fair share of lengthly meals here and I love this sliver of French culture, it is relaxing and the absence of rushing is refreshing to someone who usually takes as little time as possible to devour my pesto pasta. Similarly, I was not surprised by the architecture of France, the parks, the people playing pétanque, the markets, the striking (oh my, hey love a protest in France), the chic style, and the cycling. All of these things were expected as they form so much of my perception of France and have done from a young age.
What I was rather surprised by was my reaction to moving to France and how it changed and affected me as a person (I know this sounds super cringe but it is true – I would avoid the cringe at all costs but I would feel dishonest if I did). Moving abroad really tests your language and social skills – something I feel I lacked in, to begin with. I am working as a language assistant here in France (basically a dumbed-down version of an English teacher), helping lycée students improve their pronunciation and grammar. When I was allocated my placement, I was too overwhelmed by the fact they had allocated me the region of Lyon to realise that I would be teaching in a lycée (the French equivalent of a sixth form) and, therefore, teaching people whom I can only describe as my equivalents as they are aged 17-22 and I am 20. Can you see the issue?
You can easily find yourself seated for hours on end, watching the sunset and sleeping in the company of a glass of wine and maybe one too many cheeses
So, after my momentary block of any worries passed I began to panic and question how a socially awkward student was meant to teach people born in the very same decade. I remember my first day visiting the lycée, I was stared at as if I was some kind of foreign being (I even wore a trench coat, jeans and a white t-shirt but it was not enough to trick them into thinking I was French). I hated it, I wanted to get to the staff room as quickly as possible but this didn’t help considering they hadn’t given me an access key yet so I could do no other than conform to the ‘new teacher’ stereotype and stand like a little lost fish, waiting for someone to help me.
I just wanted to cry.
But now, looking back at it, I laugh as even just yesterday I walk down the corridors with little worry about the students. As time passed, and I began to explore and discover the school, I gradually began to find my way around and became more confident (I even opted for silly things like opening the staff room door when other teachers were approaching just so they would know I was also teaching and not one of the other students they had just spoken to).
Over time, I got over the fear and just accepted that I am receiving a salary to help these guys so I just have to get over it. Much to my surprise, I did. Although I will admit, sometimes I’m faced with difficulties where students won’t listen or accept that I am teaching them or just want to chat about the latest episode of peaky blinders instead of practising speaking, most of the time now teaching is good and enjoyable and I feel like I am helping (the most a language assistant can help, that is). So, this definitely surprised me.
Cringe aside, another thing that surprised me is the effort you have to put into getting better at the language. Although moving abroad tests your social and language skills, it is not the cure to your language-related problems (At least living here for just a year, in a big city that is, definitely won’t solve your problems). I had this illusion that I would move to France and become fluent and able to speak like a native within a few months. It is safe to say that that is not the case, although my French has clearly improved and I’m more confident in my ability to get by and communicate with locals, although I am by no means fluent.
Although moving abroad tests your social and language skills, it is not the cure to your language-related problems
Why is that, you ask? Well, there are several reasons. Firstly, we forget we have the privilege of being able to speak one of the most widely desirable languages out there. Being able to speak English is a blessing in my opinion and I only realised this when I moved abroad. So many people want to practise and improve their English with you; in bars, restaurants and in other social settings, if you are in a city expect people to switch to English once they see any indication of a struggle or hear your accent. This happened to me a lot at the beginning and I found myself resorting back to English as I felt I had to, however, over time I began just remaining in French and found that helped sometimes. This surprised me as I thought I would be the one in the position who could communicate in French, but in big cities, this is bound to happen (it happens in many places, not just in Paris).
Secondly, as a language assistant I have made friends with other assistants and therefore speak English with them when we are exploring France. I do not regret this for a second as I have made friends for life and we enjoy relating to each other about our teaching struggles and experiences etc (as, if you are a language assistant, everyone’s school varies). However, when or if you move abroad I would advise you to make several friendship groups so you can speak a mixture of languages! I also found living with native people is a game-changer. Personally, I live in a host family with a retired lady and we get along great! I never thought my friendship group would go beyond the twenty-five-year-old age limit but it definitely has, my host and I regularly share meals, speak French and compare what we would define as ‘normal life’.
Being able to speak English is a blessing in my opinion and I only realised this when I moved abroad
But it is not just the host family system that works well; I have made other friends who live in colocations and fulfil their ‘auberge espagnole’ dreams, living with people from all over the place. Whatever you decide, living with other people from abroad helps improve your language skills, especially in the context of spontaneous conversations. Other things I would recommend would be to watch films in your language constantly, listen to the news, use language apps to find native people to practise with and (most importantly) don’t expect immediate change. I only now realise that I can hold a French conversation much better than in September, so don’t stress yourself out if you’re not fluent within 5 minutes of passing the border!
I found that finding a job abroad can be extremely hard so I can offer some advice that may help others. Firstly, and most obviously, if you’re at all interested in working part-time (you only work twelve hours a week) and earning a bit of money whilst doing so, I would recommend looking at the British Council language assistant scheme. Although there are difficulties that come with the job and it may not suit anyone, I would confidently say it’s a good option if you want to work but also have time to travel and explore your country of choice. Even with zero teaching experience like myself, I have navigated the role just fine and you can share ideas and lesson plans with other assistants! If you don’t fancy this option, reaching out to family and friends is a good option; not to mention, good old-fashioned job hunting on the popular online forums.
So, France and my experience in Lyon so far has surprised me in the sense that I am a lot more confident now, both linguistically and socially. I’m surprised I didn’t get on the next plane home after some bad days at work, it has surprised me that I’ve met people from all over the place and it has surprised me that I want to stay longer in France, as I thought I’d be counting down the days left at the school on my first day by the gate.
I’m happy to discuss my experience doing the language assistants scheme with anyone interested, feel free to email me my address is email@example.com.