One Semester Older, One Semester Wiser

With another semester of teaching under my belt, I think it’s safe to say that the cobwebs have been well and truly shaken off. I haven’t even taught swimming in more than 18 months but it has been at least four years since I actually taught English. There are some differences this time around but there’s a lot that I’ve been able to transfer over from my past experience. Saying that, there’s still been a lot to learn, or at least a lot that I’ve been reminded of, during these twelve weeks of classes.

Variety is the spice of life.

As tempting as it is to plan a lesson that can be used with all three year groups, it’s not worth it. I teach all three years of the English licence (or undergraduate degree) and I try to have a common theme or topic through all of them. However I’ve learnt that the time I save by having the same lesson plan for each year group, just with modifications for level, isn’t worth the boredom I feel after a day or week repeating essentially the same content with everyone. There’s only so many times I can repeat something and stay sane and 14 times is way past that. Even with different year groups, the way my timetable worked out this semester meant I often had the several classes of the same year group in a row.

An example of a lesson where I managed to avoid this was the week I talked about the Olympic Games. That was my overall theme for the week but I had different sub-topics with each year group. With my L1s, we talked about the new sports that were added to the Olympics this year (surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate if anyone was wondering). With L2 we discussed the idea of having E-sports at the Olympics. This was actually super interesting as a lot of my students are into gaming so there were some strong opinions here! I gave L3 a little bit more of a challenge with the topic of the inequalities associated with and caused by the Olympics. The strategy is a little more work for me but has a much bigger payoff, for myself and for my students.

Fake it till you make it can be applied to the classroom.

This is one of my general life philosophies that can be applied to many situations. Lacking self-confidence? Fake it till you make it. Imposter syndrome? Fake it till you make it. Not in the mood to teach? Fake it till you make it. This semester has been a little up and down for me on a personal level which has meant that I don’t always wake up with the best mindset to stand in front of a class. There have been days when I have been so tired that I don’t have the energy to motivate the class, I’ve been on the verge of tears on my way in to work or woke up on the wrong side of the bed but when I step in front of the class I can shrug it all off and pretend everything is ok. And sometimes that has the knock on effect of actually improving my mood.

Topics I am interested in are easier to teach.

This one might seem obvious but it’s good to remember. With all the repitition I mentioned above, it’s so much easier when it’s a topic that I’m actually interested in or passionate about. Some of my favourite topics so far this semester have included a discussion on gender roles and gender norms as well as talking about Scottish history to coincide with St Andrews Day. This goes for the students as well. I asked them all at the start of the semester for some topics that they would be interested in because at the end of the day they are more likely to participate in a lesson that actually interests them.

Everyone has good days and bad days.

Everyone is allowed an off day or an off week – teachers and students alike. Sometimes a student will be having a bad day and not want to talk or just won’t be in the mood and that’s ok. You don’t always know what’s going on outside the classroom. I have gotten to know my students though so I can usually tell when it’s a one off or when it’s becoming a pattern. There’s also sometime a topic or a lesson format that doesn’t suit someone or just doesn’t work as well in general. It’s been a learning process for me over the course of the semester to get used to teaching at this level and some things have been a hit and some things have been a miss. I’m sure there will be more of that as I go on but I’m grateful for what I’ve learned so far.

You can’t make a lesson perfect – don’t try.

There are too many variables at play for everything to go perfectly ever single time. In the same vein, you can’t spend all week trying to recreate that one time the lesson went exactly as you wanted. You have to be able to go with the flow and give the students a bit of space to guide the discussions the way they want to. There are certains formats where the discussion comes a lot more from the students and I let them steer me through the topic at hand. This means that no two classes are the same and these are the ones that I enjoy the most.

Speak, speak, speak is priority number one.

I get to decide what I teach and how, including assessments. I knew straight off the bat that I wanted to encourage my students to speak as much as possible so this semester, and in the future, participation makes up 50% of their overall grade. (I also didn’t want them to be able to pass my class if they didn’t turn up – you have to attend the class in order to participate). A couple of weeks in I had a small issue with some classes slipping in to French a bit too much. I perfectly understand French conversation as they come in or go out, the odd exchange here or there and particularily when asking how to say a word in English but beyond that everything should be in English. What’s the point in an oral English class otherwise? I communicated with my classes that it didn’t matter how much they participated in class, if it wasn’t in English then it wouldn’t count towards their final grade. I even told them that I didn’t care if they weren’t talking about the assigned topic, as long as they were speaking in English. We got back on track after that.

Now it’s the holidays I’m going to take some well deserved rest until the end of the year. I don’t start teaching again until the 17th January so my plan is to spend some time at the start of the new year preparing some lessons in advance and getting ahead of things. I’ve learnt a lot this semester and I’m ready to take it into next semester and make my teaching better. I already have lots of ideas and I’m excited to get back into it!

A Lot Can Happen in Three Months

Do you remember the 21st night of September? (If you didn’t sing that in your head we can’t be friends.) Well, that’s the last time I posted an general update about my time here. There’s been lots of big things happening recently, my trips to Paris, Spain and Andorra as well as my three month anniversary in France, which have occupied my most recent blog posts. These were great to experience and fun to write about but there’s also been lots of exciting things happening in the day to day as well. I think this update is well overdue!

Now that I’ve been here for more than three months, I’m really getting to know Mulhouse. It’s a small city which means that there’s enough variety to keep things interesting but not so much that it feels overwhelming. This includes lots of nice cafes, interesting restaurants and exciting bars. I’ve made a bit of headway in visiting them but still have a list of places to keep working my way through. I have already found a couple of places that have become favourites of mine but I’m not going to go into much more detail about them for now. I want to write a blog introducing you to all the spots I like around Mulhouse – I’m saying it here so that it actually happens! With the recent news that I’m going to be here for two years in total, it’s nice to feel like I’m getting to know my new home more but also that there’s still lots more to discover. Something I haven’t done much of yet is exploring the little villages around Mulhouse which I would like to do in the future.

A while ago, back in October, I met up with a group of language assitants working around Mulhouse (some of whom are now my neighbours!). Most of them are working in schools rather than the university but it was nice to be able to share our teething problems and insider tips, much of which are the same. We went for dinner at a restaurant called Volfoni and then went ice skating! It was actually really fun because on a Saturday night the skate session is just for young people with the vibes of a nightclub – boîte de nuit on ice! It was mostly teenagers absolutely showing us up as we tottered round the rink but I didn’t fall so that’s something!

Just after I got back from my trip to Spain and Andorra, more specifically the day I got back, it was Halloween and my new neighbours were having a party. I went as a very loose interpretation of Fred from the Scooby Doo crew, part of what was supposed to be a group costume but in the end only Shaggy could make it. In France, the day after Halloween (which isn’t really a big celebration here) is Toussaint or All Saints’ Day. Similar to Día de los Muertos in Latin America, it’s a day for remembering and celebrating the dead. It’s also a public holiday which meant a day off work!

Fred, Mia Wallace and Shaggy

A fun discovery in November was a natural wine salon that happened at Motoco. Motoco is a very cool venue in itself. It’s an old textile factory that has been transformed into an events space and also lots of workspaces for artists. The name comes from the phrase MOre TO COme. My fellow lectrice friend Àine invited me to Le Salon Brutes, a natural wine fair that had more than 70 wine producers. Many were from Alsace, but there were also representatives from other regions in France as well as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Neither of us are that knowledgable about wine so we wondered around trying to decide which wines to sample. Sometimes we were drawn to a stand because it looked popular, other times because it wasn’t so we could actually get in, sometimes it was for the artwork on the wine bottles. Highlights for me were a white from Domaine Goepp, an Alsatian wine producer, called La p’tite Bulle and a red (shocking because I don’t really like red wine) from Les Vins Pirouettes called Litron Rouge. They also had some food vendors so we got a tarte flambée and I tried my first oysters! I can’t say I was a fan but Àine did assure me that they were just bad oysters. It was a different way to spend a Saturday afternoon and very fun!

The wine selection from Domaine Goepp

Continuing with the theme of new foods, I’ve continued my mission of trying more Alsatian foods. First up are Moricettes. Imagine a little sandwich made out of pretzel dough and that’s a Moricette. There is a chain of sandwich shops in Alsace calles Poulaillon and it was the owner of this chain that first created the Moricette, right here in Mulhouse. I even heard that it was named after his wife! You can put whatever sandwich filling you want in it and it’s very tasty. I’ve also been able to try a few more dishes with my water polo team who sometimes go out for dinner after training on a Friday night. We head to the rugby clubhouse which is just behind the pool and crash the club dinner where they are often serving up an Alsatian specialty. I’ve been able to try choucroute and spaetzle there. Choucroute is a dish that combines sauerkraut with various sausages, other meat and sometimes potatoes. No complaints from me! Spaetzle are a thick egg pasta, more similar to gnocchi in my opinion than actual pasta. I tried it served with gravy and an assortment of meat. Both are very hearty dishes which I’m learning is very typical of Alsatian food. Last up is a bit of Alsatian-British fusion from when I went round to my friend Àine’s house for lunch a while ago. She lives with her boyfriend and his sister who are half French and half British so the plan was to make toad in the hole but with a mix of Alsatian sausages. Despite a slight gravy mishap, overall it was a success!

I also took a day trip to Basel which was my first time in Switzerland! I’m not going to go into it to much here as I’m planning a blog on all the day trips you can take from Mulhouse (more promises!). I’ve already written about going to Strasbourg but there’s also Colmar, a smaller town halfway between here and Strasbourg. I’m just waiting until I’ve been to Freiburg, the closest city in Germany. For now I’ll just say that even though I’d heard that Basel was really expensive, I thought it wasn’t too bad. We found some cool, hidden spots and just generally wandered around the old town. It’s a nice city, especially around the river, but I think I prefer some of the other places nearby that I’ve been.

Basel, Switzerland

Obviously we are now fully in the festive period and there’s nowhere better to spend it than in Alsace. Christmas markets abound and I’ve managed to visit several of them. First up in Mulhouse, the Christmas markets are spread out through Place de la Réunion, around the back of the cathedral and down a couple of side streets. I’ve obviously never seen them before but to me at least it seems like they’ve done a good job of keeping it spaced out so that even on opening night which was the most crowded I’ve seen it, it was still not overwhleming. Some of the sellers include Alsatian alcohol, sweet treats like biscuits, nougat and candy, wooden toys, artisan tea, jewellery and lots more. I also ventured out to the markets in Colmar and Strasbourg which are both much bigger than Mulhouse. I liked the Colmar one a lot, there were a few different areas to walk around in, but the Strasbourg ones were somehow both overwhelming and underwhelming. Strasbourg is known as the Christmas capital so I knew it was a must see but I actually didn’t like it as much. To be fair, we did go on a pretty miserable day weather-wise but that was a conscious decision to try and avoid the crowds. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Strasbourg was absolutely packed which made it harder to enjoy the markets themselves.

Strasbourg – Capitale de Noël

And of course, you can’t talk about a Christmas market without talking about the food and drink. The star of the show on the drinks side is the vin chaud, also known as glühwein or mulled wine. I’ve seen all the familiar flavours of cinnamon and orange but also some specialities like cherry or raspberry. Something I’ve never seen before though is mulled white wine or mulled rosé, both of which were on offer as well as spiced apple or orange juice and hot beer. I tried the hot white wine which was actually very tasty but steered well away from the hot beer on advice from those who had been brave enough already.

Food-wise, the stalls were filled with all the things you would expect and plenty of Alsatian snacks as well. Obviously this includes tarte flambée (or flammekueche) alongside choucroute and spaetzle. There are also bretzels, essentially a pretzel, sometimes topped with cheese, lardons or other things. Also available are open baguette sandwiches, raclette and tartiflette. For those with a sweet tooth, there are crepes and waffles with an abundance of toppings and churros which are adorably called batonnets de Noël. Personally my food highlight was a crêpe in Colmar with Nutella and praline, the perfect combination of sweet and crunchy!

The markets at Place de la Réunion

And there we go, three months packed in to one blog post. I’ll try not to get too caught up and leave it another three months before the next one. My blog posts haven’t been that regular of late but I have lots of ideas and a bit more time now that it’s the holidays so expect a few more from me in the coming weeks!

3 Months in Mulhouse

It feels like a long time since I wrote the predecessor to this blog post, about having been in Mulhouse for one month, but at the same time the three month milestone has really crept up on me (watch me say this every time I write an anniversary blog). Nevertheless I’m back with some reflections on the last two months and some thoughts for the next few. It’s been a while since I did a general update about what I’ve been getting up to so that will follow soon with more information on any fun things I mention here.

Starting off, as ever, with my achievements. I feel like I’ve got a lot to be proud of recently. First of all, my French has continued to improve. I do still speak a lot of English, what with refusing to speak to my students in any other language and the fact that many of my friends speak English, but I have still noticed a marked improvement in my French level. I feel that I am able to go beyond the pure basics of being able to communicate, where the aim is to get your meaning across as simply as possible with no added frills, and can now actually express myself properly, with as many frills as I want. There is obviously more improvement to come but everything feels a little more natural. In my one month post I spoke about how it usually takes a month of immersion for me to feel comfortable and up to three to feel fully at ease. At that point I was definitely comfortable enough doing everything in French and I’m happy to say that I’ve now graduated to ‘at ease’. What I think of as my language reflexes – the ability to pull out what I need in a certain situation without really having to think about it – are at a point that I’m very happy with. There’s barely any conscious translation from English to French going on in my mind before I open my mouth to speak. These are all signs I have seen before that I’m improving in the way I want to and that is very encouraging.

With one and a half weeks to go, I’m also almost done with my first semester of teaching at UHA! Getting through a whole semester is something that I’m congratulating myself on, especially because so far I’ve not had any issues (touch wood that this continues). I’ve enjoyed this semester a lot, getting to know my students and getting into the rhythm of teaching again. My students have had some great discussions on topics ranging from the Olympic Games and gender norms to COP26 and most recently Scottish history in honour of St Andrews Day. I’ve also had to do some assessments this semester that have included presentations which we just finished last week. Now starts the mega job of grading everything from this semester!

In other exciting work-related news, I also got an (unofficial) offer to extend my contract! I will now be based in Mulhouse and working as a lectrice through the 2022-23 academic year! Most lecteur or lectrice contracts are for a year with the option of renewing it for an additional year. I very quickly decided after arriving in Mulhouse that I wanted to stay on for a second year, if they would have me. I like the city and the wider area, I enjoy the work and I get on well with my students and colleagues. Also, since I left school over five years ago(!!!), the only time I have stayed anywhere longer than a year was during my first two years of university in Edinburgh. Seeing as I’m not sure what will come after this, it seemed like a good time to stay somewhere for a little longer.

A major adjustment in recent months has definitely been the arrival of winter! It’s much colder here than when I arrived. I obviously knew this was coming and prepared by arranging for my sister to send me the essentials that didn’t fit in my suitcase the first time round – hats, gloves, scarves and most importantly, my dressing gown!

Now that I’ve gotten a bit of time under my belt, I’ve had a few adjustments when it comes to finances. Obviously when you move somewhere there’s a lot of initial set up costs that I was dealing with in my first month. Now I’m in more of a routine and figuring out how far I can stretch my salary which is the equivalent of earning the French minimum wage for the hours I work. Thankfully my rent is much cheaper here than it was in Edinburgh but I’m finding that things like groceries are very expensive. This means that my salary isn’t going quite as far as I’d like. It’s plenty to live on but I’m a natural saver and that has been a little more difficult since I’ve been here. Saying that, I’ve also been pretty lenient about spending money on things like eating out. I’ve also been on a lot of day trips and obviously had my big trip to Spain and Andorra as well. The run up to Christmas is a difficult time to be frugal but there’s hope for the new year. I also should be starting an extra job soon, running some conversation workshops for a private technology school. I was supposed to start a few weeks ago but was held up by the wait for my social security number (merci French bureaucracy!). I finally got that this week so I’m ready to go any time now, though it will most likely be after the holidays.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that my high point of the last few months was my trip to Spain and Andorra. I’ve already written about them both at length so all I’ll say here is that it felt so good to be travelling again. It felt like a little piece of normality which is very much appreciated now that COVID cases are surging in Europe and things are starting to feel a little more unpredictable again.

Another thing I’ve been really enjoying is the start of the festive season. Usually I struggle to feel in the Christmas mood until the last minute. The past few years there’s always been university exams that have to be dealt with before I can even think about Christmas. That, or I was in China where Christmas is just another day. This year however, I’m taking full advantage of the fact that I’m the one giving the exams. My Christmas tree has been up for a week and I’ve been listening to Christmas songs for at least two. With the opening of the Christmas market here last week, I’m in full Christmas spirit, as is everyone else.

Usually I’m lucky enough not to have to many low points to write about in these posts. Unfortunately I can’t say the same this time around. For starters, I had a few days where I felt absolutely horrible. It came on really suddenly, I started to get the sniffles one evening and the next day I barely got out of bed because my sinuses were so blocked and sore. Miraculously, I woke up the day after with an almost completely clear head! Thankfully the day that I was laid up in bed coincided with a day off for Armistice Day so I didn’t even have to miss any work. One of the only times I get homesick is when I’m ill but in this case it was over too quickly for me to really think about it.

I’ve also been dealing with some other more personal things that I’m not going to go into much detail about but that has made being away from home and my friends and family very difficult. I’m so thankful for the people who have been supporting me through it. They know who they are. I’ve said it before and I’ll reiterate it – this isn’t just a highlight reel and and I want to acknowledge when things get difficult.

Anyway, moving forward to more positive thoughts, there are still a few things I’m looking forward to. One of course is going home for Christmas. I’m looking forward to spending time with family, eating lots of good food, taking my dog for walks and not getting out of my pyjamas until it’s time to put on fresh ones. I’m also taking one of my flatmates home with me so that he’s not abandoned in Mulhouse by himself. He’s from Montreal so it’s a bit far to go back for what is a relatively short holiday.

I also have my friend Lucy, who I visited in Valencia, coming to visit me in a week or so. She’s just coming for a weekend so I’m looking forward to giving her the whistlestop tour of Mulhouse. And once those 30 minutes are up, I’m looking forward to escaping to Strasbourg or elsewhere with her! Just kidding, I’m actually very much looking forward to showing off my favourite parts of Mulhouse to my first visitor.

And now on to some goals for the coming three months. In a practical sense I want to spend a little bit of time over the holidays preparing some lessons for the start of next semester. I already have so many ideas that I didn’t get to this semester and now I know what works well with my classes so I can really get the best out of them. To be honest, I haven’t really thought much beyond the Christmas holidays so that’s the only goal I have for right now other than to take some time to rest over the break and look after myself. With the new year coming though that’s a great opportunity to think about some more long term goals so maybe you’ll hear something else from me soon.

Andorra – A Hidden Gem

Andorra might seem like a rogue choice for the second half of my trip but it’s actually somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years. There something about it’s tiny size, it’s position entirely enveloped by France and Spain and the fact that it’s relatively unknown by many people. I myself didn’t know much about it at all but just the fact that it’s a bit off the beaten track drew me in. I knew I was leaving Lucy in Valencia on the Wednesday, the same day her parents were arriving, so I thought I might as well make use of my remaining time by going somewhere else – and why not Andorra? This was my chance to finally satisfy my curiosity about the little country. In doing some research before booking my trip, I read varying opinions from different travel blogs about whether Andorra was worth a visit but regardless, I knew it was something I had to do for myself.

A little background for those of you who, like myself, don’t have a lot of existing knowledge about Andorra. Andorra, or technically the Principality of Andorra, is a landlocked microstate located in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It is the sixth smallest state in Europe with an area of just 468 square kilometres, making it about a third of the size of London, with a population of around 77,500. Catalan is the official language but French and Spanish are also widely spoken. Tourism accounts for the majority of Andorra’s GDP due to it’s tax-free shopping, ski resorts and hiking paths. Fun fact, in 2013 Andorra had the world’s highest life expectancy at 81 – must be all that mountain air!

Pont de Paris

From Valencia I took a bus to Andorra, via Barcelona, which took about 8 hours in total. It’s nothing I’m not used to but the buses were definitely more comfortable than the chicken buses in Honduras. There is no airport in Andorra nor any railways so the only way to enter is by road. The scenery along the journey was stunning, with the arid mountains on one side and the sea on the other on the way to Barcelona and then climbing higher and higher as we approached Andorra in the second leg of the journey. I arrived in to Andorra around 6pm. Andorra is in the Pyrenees so the last hour or so was coming through these amazing mountains that climbed up to the sky with the road sitting in the depths of the valley.

I arrived into the capital of Andorra La Vella, the highest capital in Europe. As most of Andorra is made up of mountains, the city is nestled in one of the country’s three valleys. I walked from the bus station up to my hostel which was technically in Escaldes-Engordany, another town that is basically attached to Andorra la Vella. It was about half an hour walk, slightly uphill all the way through the main shopping district. After a long day of travelling all I was really interested in that evening was going straight back out to find some food!

I had two full days and three nights in Andorra. I figured that between the two days I should have one in the city and one in the mountains. After looking at the weather, the next day, Thursday, looked like the better option for heading into the mountains. Considering that I didn’t have any proper hiking gear and that I would be going by myself, some of the more difficult or isolated hiking routes weren’t appropriate. I asked Rebecca who works at the hostel if she could recommend somewhere. She looked at the fact I was in jeans and sneakers and suggested taking the bus to a town called La Massana and walking from there to another town called Ordino.

It took me a while to find the right bus stop but eventually I was heading out of the city. La Massana isn’t very far from Andorra La Vella but feels quite different. I could really see the presence of the ski industry even though there was no snow yet. There were ski hire shops everywhere, ski schools, and even a chair lift heading into the mountains. It also feels more in the mountains than Andorra La Vella which sits in a valley surrounded by mountains by comparison. The timing of my trip, at the end of October meant that I had gorgeous views of the autumn leaves accompanied by soft sun and crisp air.

Leaving La Massana

I headed out of La Massana towards Ordino as instructed. The walk took about 40 minutes in total, heading uphill along a valley. The sun was shining and it really wasn’t cold at all, though Andorra was definitely cooler for me having come from Spain, mostly because of it’s altitude. By the time I reached Ordino I had taken my jacket and jumper off and was just walking around in a tshirt so still not that cold! All the way up I had views of gorgeous mountains with the most amazing autumn colours blazing across the forests. On my way I passed by a vineyard and also the Ruta del Ferro which charts iron production in the area.

Ordino was cute and even smaller than La Massana. I wanted to find somewhere to sit and have a drink and I came across a place that had such an amazing view that I had to stop. I sat for a drink and some lunch – a delicious crispy-based pizza topped with rocket, tomato, parmesan, beef carpaccio and a balsamic glaze. A big shoutout to what might have been my best meal of the holiday! The view itself was so gorgeous I almost felt a bit emotional! I really took my time there, enjoying the crisp air and the warm sunshine while eating my pizza and appreciating the view.

I got the bus back from Ordino and had a pit stop at my hostel for a wee rest before heading out for a walk around town. Safe to say my step count was off the charts this week! I set out towards the old part of Andorra la Vella that has most of the main things to see. The sun was starting to go down so it was a really nice light. First up, and probably most surprisingly, I walked past a sculpture by none other than Salvador Dali. The Nobility of Time (or ‘La Noblesse du Temps’) has been there since 2010. I remember studying Salvador Dali at school so it was pretty cool to see an authentic piece out in the wild.

Thank you to the couple that provided the only picture of me while in Andorra!

Public art installations are actually an important feature around Andorra, including another of Andorra’s must sees – the 7 Poets. The seven figures sit around 10m off the ground and represent the seven parishes of Andorra. It can be found below Andorra’s government building and lights up at night in a range of colours. Nearby is Casa de la Vall, an old manor house that was the parliamentary building until as recently as 2011. The square in front of Casa de la Vall gives an amazing view over Andorra la Vella, over to Escaldes and the surrounding mountains.

The 7 Poets
Casa de la Vall

After going for a walk in the mountains yesterday and also walking around the old town, I decided to take it pretty easy today. There wasn’t really much else I wanted to do and after almost a week of travelling and some pretty busy, activity-heavy days I was feeling a bit of the old travelling fatigue. I had toyed with the idea of going to Caldea, the famous spa, as it’s not actually super expensive but in the end I decided against it. I had a slow morning and then went out just to have a wee walk around and a coffee, mostly for something to do. I headed down to the central park and then looped back up to the main shopping street.

I spent most of the afternoon just chilling in the common room at my hostel, reading my book and chatting to people. One of the things I like most about staying in hostels is making friends with other travellers. It can be an intimidating thought when you’re by yourself and it definitely pushes me outside my comfort zone but sometimes that’s where the best experiences and connections happen. My hostel was full of Argentinians (and one Venezuelan) who had all recently arrived in Andorra for seasonal work. I got chatting to them on my first evening and got to know them more during the rest of my stay. It was nice chatting to them in Spanish, though the Argentinian accent is one I find difficult to understand. It was fine while I was directly involved in the conversation but it got a bit overwhelming once they all started talking to each other. After just a day though, I was able to follow their conversations a bit more as I got used to the accent. I ended up speaking way more Spanish while in Andorra than I actually did in Spain!

Now might be a good point to talk about some interesting things I noticed around Andorra. First of all, while I’ve already mentioned the fact that French and Spanish are both widely spoken, I only ever used Spanish. In my hostel, this was obviously because of all the Argentinians that were staying there but even when I was out in the streets, I heard much more Spanish than French. Whenever I was in a cafe or shop or spoke to a local I would naturally start in Spanish. I think Spanish’s proximity to Catalan, the actual official language of Andorra, might have something to do with it being more widespread, or at least seeming that way. Interestingly, the school system is also split into Andorran schools, Spanish schools and French schools, with the teachers in the latter two systems being funded by Spain and France respectively. The student population is pretty evenly split between the three, with slightly more in the Andorran system and slightly less in the Spanish system. Andorra also doesn’t have it’s own postal system. It relys on either the French La Poste or the Spanish El Correo.

I could definitely see the effect of the ski industry, even though there was no snow yet. Particularly in the smaller towns like La Massana I was reminded of the places in France I’ve skiied just without the snow, which I think is coming soon! The temperature was already getting cooler though I was lucky to still have good weather, at least for my first day. It was cool and clear and with blue skies and sunshine there was nowhere nicer to be. Saying that, on my second day I saw just how easy it is for the sky to fall in. It also took a long time for the sun to appear in the mornings and the opposite in the evening, the sun disappeared long before it actually got dark. I blame this on the steepness of the sides of the valley that Andorra La Vella and Escaldes-Engordany sit in.

Looking down the valley towards the Spanish side of Andorra

When it comes to the people of Andorra I have nothing but good things to say. Rebecca, who worked in my hostel, was lovely and very helpful whenever I, or anyone else, had questions. She made the hostel a warm and friendly place from the moment I arrived. Everyone I encountered, from servers in restaurants and cafes, the woman in the tourism office and the old lady at the bus stop who helped me find the bus I was looking for, to the woman I got chatting to before my bus out of the country, all were very open and willing to help or chat. I’ve already spoken about the other people in my hostel that I met and got to know, they had such an impact on my trip as well and are a big reason I’ll look back on Andorra with such fondness. It actually wasn’t just my hostel that was brimming with Argentinians but the whole city of Andorra la Vella. Just walking down the street I would see multiple people sipping on mate, a traditional tea-like drink from Argentina served in a gourd cup and drunk through a metal straw.

My journey back to Mulhouse started with a bus back to Barcelona on Saturday. I had the afternoon and evening there before flying out early on Sunday morning. I arrived about 2pm and walked to my hostel, stopping for some food on the way. It turned out the hostel I had booked was on the Passeig de Gracia, which I didn’t know by name but recognised when I got there. It’s one of the main roads that comes off the opposite side of Placa de Catalunya from Las Ramblas. It’s also just one block away from Casa Batlló, my favourite Gaudí house in all of Barcelona. My hostel was huge, quite a different atmosphere from the cosy, friendly vibe in Andorra. It had a fantastic roof terrace though, with views across Barcelona.

The view from the roof of my hostel
Casa Batlló

It was pretty late in the afternoon by the time I was ready to do anything, plus I was tired and Barcelona was uncomfortably humid so I decided to just go for a short walk. First up I headed to Palau de la Musica Catalana, quite possibly my mum’s favourite building in the entire world. I obviously had to phone her to rub it i- ahem, I mean let her enjoy it too… I looped round to the Barcelona cathedral (different from the Sagrada Familia) and headed back to the hostel to prepare for my 4am start.

After one of the worst night’s sleep of my life, I was on a plane and back in Mulhouse by 11am. It was a very easy journey home, if a little slow. As it was a Sunday, I had to wait longer than usual for the bus then the train then the tram back to my apartment. Even after an incredible week away, it’s safe to say I was happy to get home and into my own bed!

I really didn’t know what to expect when it came to Andorra but I was blown out of the water. I mostly came to satisfy an interest that I’ve had for years. I was prepared for it to be a bit underwhelming but at least then I would know. But that is absolutely not what happened at all. I loved my few days here. One thing I would say is that if you come any time other than the ski season, you probably don’t need very long. If you wanted to do a bit more hiking by all means come for a few extra days but my two days were perfect. I’m very tempted to come back in the future to experience Andorra in full swing during winter but I’m glad that I came when I did for my first time. The blazing autumn colours of the leaves were a sight to behold and were such a gorgeous contrast with the bright blue sky and dusty, far off mountains. I loved Andorra and think it’s perfect for a more unique long weekend away. A hidden hem indeed!

¡Vamos a Valencia!

Carrying on from my whistlestop trip to Paris, there’s no rest for the wicked as I left the next day for Spain! I had a week off from classes so had decided to go and visit my friend Lucy who is studying in Valencia for a semester at the moment. The plan was to stay for a few days and then head north to Andorra. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit and this seemed like as good a chance as any! You can hear more about that part of my trip in the next blog.

Thankfully my flight wasn’t until late afternoon so I was able to sleep in after my busy day in Paris. The travelling was all pretty easy, the flight is about two hours from Basel to Valencia and I only had a backpack with me. I breezed through everything on either side, so much so that I actually beat Lucy to the airport. It was so good to see her when she finally got there as we’ve been able to support each other going through some of the same things in the past few months with moving to a new European country around the same time.

We took the metro straight to somewhere in the old town to get some food. My first night in Spain called, of course, for some tapas. Lucy had heard good things about the place we headed to but in the end it was a bit disappointing. It didn’t have a lot of choices so we just had some olives, manchego cheese, olive oil crisps and a beer. We caught up on how France has been and how Valencia has been and then walked around a little bit to find somewhere else. We found a new place near the Mercado Central and got some patatras bravas and a wee cod fritter each. I also tried a version of Valencia’s signature drink, Agua de Valencia. Typically it is made with cava or champagne, orange juice, vodka and gin. The one I tried was a little different, I think it had a little bit of cranberry juice or something in it but either way it was very nice!

Lucy actually still had classes that week including an 8am the next day so we headed home after we finished eating. We walked through Plaza del Ayuntamiento which is the city’s main square with the council buildings, post office and art museum. The buildings are all beautiful and very Spanish looking. Our taxi got us just opposite the main train station and the bull ring which looks like a mini coliseum. Apparently they still run the bulls in Valencia even though a man died during a bull running festival in the Valencia area only days after I was there.

The next morning I headed off on my own, following some of Lucy’s recommendations while she was in class. Lucy had suggested that I head down to the City of Arts and Sciences (La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciènces) which is a really cool area to wander around. It was about a 25 minute walk from her apartment in lovely warm, sunny weather. The main buildings there house a science museum, an IMAX theatre and a performance centre in some incredible architecture. There is also the Umbracle which is a strip of enclosed garden space that was full of cats! From there I went and sat in La Turia which is a park that fills the old river basin. After a flood in the 1950s the river was diverted out of the city and the space converted into a 12km park that runs from the City of Arts and Sciences in the east around the north of the city centre.

After lunch – a local favourite of tortilla española in a baguette – we headed towards the beach. This was one of the only things that I requested we do because I love the beach and the sea but am very solidly landlocked where I am in Alsace. We walked via the port but it still didn’t take long to get there. It’s a really long, wide beach and it had some decent waves, not quite big enough to surf in but fun for swimming. After we’d been for a swim and jumped around in the waves a while we headed to a bar just off the beach that Lucy wanted to try called La Fábrica de Hielo. It was a really cool space that apparently does live music sometimes. After that it was time for some dinner and I couldn’t leave Spain without eating some paella and drinking some sangria!

We started my second full day by going to the Mercado Central where I got some maracuya juice (passion fruit, a favourite from my time in Honduras) and a caramelised onion and goats cheese empanada. From there we walked around the old town and saw La Estrecha Valencia, the narrowest building in Europe which is just 107cm wide! We headed towards Torres de Serranos, one of the gates in the old city walls that gives you a good view over La Turia and the city. The afternoon included a stop at 100 Montaditos, a little chain that serves cheap beer and tiny little sandwiches, and Cafe Ubik, both in the Russafa neighbourhood, an area popular with young people. Cafe Ubik is really more of a bar and a bookshop than a cafe but was really cool. At this point we were really just killing time until going to a Honduran restaurant for dinner, the second of my specific requests for my time in Valencia.

Valencia has quite a few Latin American restaurants and even a few specifically Honduran ones. Lucy was in Honduras with me so we were both super excited for Honduran food but a little apprehensive in case it didn’t live up to our fond memories. The restaurant was called El Saborcito Hondureño and was decked out with a neon sign with the name of the restaurant and also the outline of Honduras itself. We obviously had to start with a Salva Vida, one of Honduras’ national beers, and then decided to split a couple of things. We ordered a portion of baleadas con huevo (a flour tortilla folded in half with refried beans, dry cheese called queso seco, mantequilla which is a bit like sour cream and scrambled eggs in the middle), catrachas (a deep fried tortilla topped with refried beans and cheese) and pupasas de queso y frijoles (tortillas stuffed with refried beans and cheese). It was… perfect. It tasted exactly like in Honduras and immediately took both of us back. When we were paying we got talking a little to the staff and I’m pretty sure they’re all a Honduran family which explains the authentic taste.

We ended the night with a drink at another bar by the beach, Mercabañal. It was like a food hall with different food and drink vendors. It was Lucy’s 23rd birthday the next day so we had a pre-birthday drink before heading back to her flat to celebrate at midnight. It was a nice way to finish my time in Valencia and visiting Lucy. My bus left at 10am the next morning so that pretty much wraps up my time in Spain. Even though I’ve been on wee staycations in the UK, this felt like my first proper holiday since Covid started and it was amazing. I really liked Valencia as a city, it’s a bit bigger than Mulhouse but not an unmanageable size. There’s lots to do, lots of neighbourhoods to explore and of course the beach is a big plus! Thank you to Lucy for being my host, tour guide and translator for the length of my stay – your 5 star Tripadvisor review is coming soon!

12 Hours in Paris

Mulhouse’s position near the borders with Germany and Switzerland, as well as the richness of the surrounding area makes it perfectly situated for day trips. I’ve already taken advantage of this by going to Strasbourg and Colmar (blog coming soon!) for a day each but my next day trip was a bit further afield, to the City of Lights – Paris!

A few weeks ago, the head of my department at the university asked me if I would be interested in a space that had become available on a day trip to Paris that she was running for the students on the English research masters. It was the day before I left for Spain, at the start of my week off, but that only made me hesitate for a second. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

The view from the Pompidou Centre

The plan was to head to Paris and see two art exhibitions but to fit everything in we needed to leave early. I’m talking 5.30 in the morning early. We took a train to Strasbourg which is about an hour away and had enough time to grab a coffee and a pastry in the station before our train to Paris. We were in first class which was very comfortable and I think everyone slept most of the hour and a half of the TVG (high speed train) ride there.

The head of department, Jen, used to live in Paris for 15 years so all day she was able to navigate through the back roads and cut down little streets. For example on our way to the Centre Pompidou for our first art exhibition we passed by Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges (ironically the Vosges are a mountain range in Alsace, visible from Mulhouse). We had a bit of time to kill so we took the long way to the Pompidou Centre past part of the old city walls. We also walked past Hôtel de Ville where you can just see the roof of Notre-Dame (and all the scaffolding) peeking out from across the river.

Victor Hugo’s house on the corner of Place des Vosges
Hôtel de Ville featuring some Paris 2024 prep

Our first exhibition was the work of the American artist Georgia O’Keefe. I didn’t really know what to expect from her having never heard of her before but I was presently surprised. She is known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, landscapes around her chosen home of New Mexico and the skyscrapers of New York. She was known during the 20th century as the ‘mother of American modernism’. As I said to my sister afterwards, I don’t know much about art but I can appreciate and enjoy a pretty picture. That’s definitely a massive oversimplification of anybody’s art, especially Georgia O’Keefe’s but it’s the best I’ve got for you. One thing I was impressed with was the variety in her paintings. There were nudes, there were the massive close ups of flowers, very minimalist designs, landscapes, bright colours and dark monochrome.

I enjoyed the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition a lot but honestly the best part of the Pompidou Centre was the view across Paris. To get to the top floor, you go up escalators on the outside of the building and you get the most amazing panorama (photo above), from Sacre Coeur looking over the city on the right and the Eiffel Tower peeking out on the left.

Me and Àine, one of the masters students who is also an English lectrice for another department!

Our next exhibit was at the Palais de Tokyo over by the Eiffel Tower. We had to get the metro but we walked over a couple of stops to get to a less complicated station, passing by Les Halles which is a big marketplace with some interesting architecture that makes it look almost like a stingray. After we got off the metro we passed by the Flame of Liberty which is a memorial for Princess Diana as it’s on the bridge over the tunnel where she died.

We were at the Palais de Tokyo for the Anne Imhof ‘Natures Mortes’ exhibit. It was… interesting is probably the nicest way I can put it. It was one of these more spatial, abstract, experiential exhibits and I just didn’t get it. I don’t really know how to explain it but there definitely weren’t any pretty pictures in this one. At this point everyone was very tired and I think we were all confused and frustrated by the fact we were confused. Maybe the artist’s intention was to make us think and question what we were seeing and if that was the case, mission accomplished.

It was back to Gare de l’Est for our return journey next. It was pretty much the inverse of the morning journey, a brief stop in Strasbourg again but with a Burger King instead of a pastry this time. I got back to my flat at about 11pm, so all in all not that late but after doing more than 23,000 steps I was exhausted!

Home time!

French People All Wear Berets (and other lies)

There are certain images that come to mind when you think of France and the French. I’m sure one of the first is someone carrying a baguette and a string of onions, wearing a beret and a stripey top, riding a bicycle in front of the Eiffel Tower. I always try to approach a new place without expectations or preconceived ideas but with France it is a bit more difficult because there are already so many cultural references in the British psyche. In my time in France, I have encountered some well known stereotypes but have also noticed others that are completely untrue, as stereotypes often are. I put a call out to family and friends to hear their ideas about France and the French and either confirm or debunk them. I’ve got plenty more up my sleeve than those included here so expect a part two at some point!

The uniform is a beret and a stripey top.

I’ve already mentioned this iconic image that I’m sure you can easily picture. While the only beret I have seen here was worn by my flatmate from Montreal on his way to a Matrix-themed party, the common stereotype that the French are very stylish is one I would agree with. Even when the occasional student comes to my classes in loungewear, the outfit is still put together very well. In general though, the style a little more elevated. I don’t really have a dress code as a teacher so I dress pretty casually. I often feel like I blend in with the students while walking around campus, and not even the well dressed ones!

Your National 5 level French will be met with disdain.

I feel like a lot of the stereotypes that us Brits have about France and it’s people actually come from Parisians. It is quite common in Paris that when you attempt to speak a little French, as a gesture of good will more than anything, you will be met with an eye roll and a reply in English. I have found the opposite to be true, at least in Mulhouse. Everyone has been very pleased and impressed (myself included) with my level of French. Every time I’ve had to use French to navigate a part of the moving process, I’ve actually been met with patience and understanding.

Baguettes are love, baguettes are life.

A classic, iconic staple of French cuisine, matched only by croissants, is the simple baguette. It is every bit as loved and appreciated as it seems. My most French moments so far have been stopping by the boulangerie on the corner of my street for a deliciously light €1 baguette that is still warm no matter what time of day I buy it.

French women don’t shave.

I think this is an oversimplification but body hair does seem to be more embraced here. Particularly after overhearing a conversation between some colleagues in my office, it seems that removing body hair, especially for women, is not as much of a cultural given as it might be in the UK. My personal opinion on body hair is do what you want with it but especially if you choose to remove it, reflect on whether that is a conscious decision. Often the decision is one driven by patriarchal standards of beauty that are so ingrained into our culture that it takes a lot of work to unlearn these expectations. Regardless of whether this stereotype is really true or not, I like that it is a more open conversation.

They’re all alcoholics but in a classy way.

I would like to preface this one by saying these were not my choice of words, blame my family and friends who I asked for these stereotypes. And I’m going to refute this idea anyway. I’m not saying the French don’t like a drink, they do. But the way that alcohol is consumed is a world away from the binge drinking culture of the UK. Alcohol is something to be enjoyed, savoured, appreciated, not poured down your throat with the aim of getting as drunk as possible. It’s not uncommon to enjoy a glass of wine with lunch and half pints are actually the favoured size for beer which slows down the enjoyment to a more leisurely pace. The attitude here seems to be more along the lines of little and often rather than at home where it’s a lot… and also often.

Cheese and wine are their own food groups.

100% can confirm and there are no complaints from me. I am a cheese lover, of all kinds, so this was one of the things I was most looking forward to about moving here and I have not been disappointed. My heart belongs to a sharp Scottish cheddar but I have been enjoying picking up fairly cheap blocks of French cheeses like Comte (my favourite) while doing my weekly shop. The most popular cheese around Mulhouse is called Munster, named after the nearby town that it comes from. It is notoriously stinky, both cooked and uncooked, but I’m a fan! Due to Mulhouse’s proximity to Germany, I think it’s a bit more of a toss up in popularity between wine and beer here but wine is definitely still very popular.

France’s middle name is bureaucracy.

You’ll have to fill in this form, send off photocopies of every official document you’ve ever received and then wait 4 weeks for a response to this. I think that says all you need to know.

A Day in Strasbourg

A week ago I set foot outside Mulhouse for the first time since I arrived here more than a month ago. A quick note before we dive in, my mum pointed out that it might be a good idea to establish how you actually pronounce Mulhouse. If you are anything like me, your first instinct is to say it Mull-house but in actual fact you’ve got to lean in to that French accent more. It is actually pronounced Muh-lose, as in to lose your keys. I’m sorry if this shatters everything you thought you knew but it was time you knew the truth.

Anyway, back to the point. I spent the day in Strasbourg with another recent graduate from Edinburgh who is working as a lectrice as well but in Metz. Strasbourg is about an hour on the train from Mulhouse and just over an hour from Metz where Aislinn lives. Funnily enough, Aislinn and I never crossed paths at university but we’ve been in touch a fair amount since we got these jobs. We decided it was about time we met in real life and Strasbourg was the perfect place for that.

Strasbourg is the largest city in the Grand Est region of France, located right on the border with Germany. It is the official seat of the the European Parliament and along with Brussels, Luxembourg and Frankfurt is one of the de facto capitals of the European Union. The city is known for its gothic cathedral and its traditional black and white timber-framed buildings. There’s lots to do in Strasbourg, you can visit the European Parliament, take a boat down the river, climb to the top of the cathedral or visit one of the many museums and parks. Not that we did any of that…

We arrived mid-morning to glorious sunshine. As soon as we started walking from the train station towards the centre of town, without a particular plan in mind, I immediately understood why everyone loves Strasbourg. Ever since I’ve arrived I’ve been told that I have to see it, that Mulhouse is the ugly duckling of the pair. Now, I’m a big fan of Mulhouse and its understated charm but Strasbourg is like Mulhouse on steroids. It’s absolutely GORGEOUS.

The centre of Strasbourg is based around the Grand-Île, a neighbourhood surrounded by the River Ill. It is full of nice little streets lined with cafes, restaurants, bars, boulangeries, patisseries and more. It was a nice area to get a feel for the city. Aislinn and I spent some time just wandering the streets, getting our first glimpse of the cathedral, looping down to the river and scoping out a nice spot to sit for a drink. We settled for one of the cafes on the square facing the cathedral, probably a massive tourist trap but worth it this once for that view. We eventually left when we started to get hungry and went on a mission to find some food. Mission successful and with stomachs full of some amazing aubergine parmigiana pizza we carried on our wandering around the city.

Before I came to France I was able to meet up with a girl from Glasgow who was going to Strasbourg to work as an English assistant with the British Council. Aislinn and I met up with Lyndsey and another girl doing British Council, Libby, during the afternoon. Our original plan was to go out of the city centre to Parc de l’Orangerie but this was foiled by disruptions to the trams caused by protests. It’s a bit of a stereotype but the French do like to strike and protest a lot. Currently there are a lot of protests happening every week against the passe sanitaire, the system that requires you to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test in order to use certain public facilities or go to restaurants and bars. Instead we set off to an area of Strasbourg known as Pétite France to find another park but instead stopped for some ice cream. We sat there chatting for a while before Aislinn and I had to catch out trains home.

All in all it was a really lovely day. It was nice to meet some new people who didn’t feel like strangers, Strasbourg is a really lovely city and even though we didn’t do any of the touristy things, it was nice to get to know the city. Strasbourg is known for its Christmas markets so I’m looking forward to those but I’ll definitely be back before then!

1 Month in Mulhouse

This week marks one whole month in Mulhouse and I don’t know about you but I can barely believe it! It seems to have flown by but when I stop and break it down, a lot has happened already (you can read more about that in my last post). Something I started doing while in China was writing more reflective blog posts to mark the anniversary of arriving, so at 1 month in, 3 months in and so on. I want to continue this and hopefully get to do a few more than I did in China. I never quite made it to the 6 month mark and the ensuing blog post… These posts give me the chance to sit down and reflect on my time here, which I like doing and really see the benefit of but struggle to do without some kind of outside impetus.

In the short time I’ve been here, I feel like I’ve already achieved so much. I would say the biggest thing is how at home I feel already. Mulhouse is exactly the kind of city I like – small, very walkable with lots of little streets to explore and full of things to do. I’ve managed to set myself up as far as all of the logisitcs go – I have a bank account and French number and all those kind of things. I feel very comfortable walking around and am starting to piece together all the little streets and create a map in my mind. I’ve only taken the wrong tram once which is an achievement in itself! I’m here for at least a year, the length of my contract, but there is the option of extending it for another year. I don’t know exactly what will come next for me but I like the idea of being rooted somewhere for a little while. Since I left school I’ve been lucky enough to live in a lot of amazing places but there has only been one stint anywhere that lasted longer than a year, during my first two years at university in Edinburgh. I’ve tried to approach setting myself up here with that in mind, thinking of this as a more permanent move rather than something temporary, regardless of how long I end up staying here.

I’ve also completed my first two weeks of teaching and it now feels like I never left the classroom. It was a bit intimidating at first, the idea of being back in front of students, especially some that are my age or older. My first few days felt like a case of fake it ’til you make it – going in with the confidence I needed but didn’t necessarily have. It’s very different dynamic to any of the teaching I’ve done, whether in Honduras or as a swimming teacher, which took a bit of getting used to. Now though, two weeks in, I genuinely am feeling confident and comfortable. I’m excited to keep working with my classes and getting them talking as much English as possible.

The biggest adjusment since I’ve been here has definitely been the amount of French I’ve been speaking! I’m sure that’s a surprise to no one but what has been surprising to me is how well my French has been holding up. The main reason I took this job was to have the chance to live in France and improve my French. I managed to get a distinction in the spoken French part of my degree which took me by surprise because the speaking part of it has always been the most challenging to me. I know what it’s like going into an immersive language experience. It can be very overwhelming and a bit rough to start with. It has always taken me at least a month to feel comfortable and up to three to feell fully at ease but this has been much more accelerated here. I’m not fully in the ‘at ease’ stage yet but I haven’t struggled. What has been nice is that whenever I’ve been trying to do something in French, nobody has twigged that I’m a foreigner and starting talking to me in English, as they are likely to do in some other parts of France…

You’d think I’d be used to all the covid-related adjustments by now, especially when it comes to university after spending the last year trying to finish a degree in the throes of the pandemic. However, things are a bit different on the other side of things. Thankfully, teaching is in person for me and the majority of my students are vaccinated. Masks must be worn inside although social distancing is not required in educational settings by the French government. Where possible I still try and have my students spread out but sometimes there are too many of them in my fairly small room. Instead I have the windows open for ventilation and am very strict about keeping their masks over their mouths AND noses. One unexpected side effect of this is that sometimes it is much harder to understand or hear what someone says when I can’t see their lips moving! It’s something I never thought about before masks were necessary but I noticed in my job at a bakery in Edinburgh last year too.

Another smaller but even more life-threatening adjustment has been everyone driving on the right! It sounds silly and it is definitely a more lighthearted one but every time I cross the road it takes me a few more seconds than normal to figure out which way to look so that I don’t get hit!

Luckily there have been many high points so far. One thing that I was very apprehensive about before coming was making friends. It feels like the first time in my life that I’ve gone out completely by myself and had to find my people. In Honduras, I was part of a large group and found some amazing friends there. Even in China there was another student from Edinburgh there with me which was a comforting thought. This time I came here alone and didn’t have the built-in mechanisms to make friends that you have at university for example. Thankfully that’s not been an issue. From my very first night I immediately got on with my flatmate Emma and flatmate number two, Andy, arrived last week and it’s been the same thing. I also met a great group of people through Annabelle, the last lectrice in my position, and Àine, another lectrice this year but who has been in Mulhouse for two years already. I also know some girls that are here on their Erasmus year from Heriot Watt. I’m quite a sociable person and I like keeping busy so I knew that not being able to go out and do things with other people would be a sure fire way for me to get homesick and not enjoy the start of my life here. Just having people that you can message to go for lunch or for drinks or to do something new makes such a big difference.

Another highlight has definitely been getting back in to water polo. The last time I was able to play and train consistently was in May 2019, before I went to China. I had a brief return to the game when I was back in Edinburgh in early 2020 but we all know what happened next. In my last year at university I was honoured to be the captain of Edinburgh’s seconds team, the Queens, which I loved but there wasn’t a whole lot of playing because of restrictions. Once I arrived in Mulhouse, one of my priorities was to find the water polo team. My first session was about a week in and was my first time playing in an outdoor pool – very cool! I’ve been training mostly with the elite women’s team but don’t be too impressed! They are definitely far above me in ability and even more when it comes to fitness but I’ve been enjoying the challenge and being pushed harder than I have in several years. I have also trained a few times with the U65 mixed leisure team which has been great fun. Usually you don’t really get to play mixed polo after you turn 18 and it goes from juniors into men’s and women’s teams. It’s also great fun seeing a range of ages all the way up to higher end of the under 65 limit.

I don’t want this blog to be just a highlight reel (although it is great for that) so I think it’s important to talk about the lows points as well. I’ve been fortunate in that there haven’t been many so far. One of the hardest moments was when my aunt got married and I had to miss the wedding. I got major FOMO (fear of missing out) from seeing a lot of my family members in the same place which is hard to make happen! I did join the reception via Facetime for a few minutes but the tunes were too loud so they couldn’t really hear me. I was disappointed to be missing out on what looked like a fabulous weekend but congratulations and all my love to the happy couple, Auntie Gillian and Kipper!

In the next few months, I’m looking forward to a little bit of travelling! I have plans to go to Strasbourg for the first time on Saturday and I also want to get over to Basel and Freiburg for a day each. There are other lectrices who got their jobs through Edinburgh University, the same as me, in Rouen, Caen and Metz so there may be some weekend trips on the cards too. I also have a week off at the end of October so I’m planning on visiting my friend Lucy in Valencia who is on her Erasmus year there. I’ll be there for a few days and then I’m going to head up to the tiny, little known country of Andorra. It is nestled on the border between France and Spain and covers just under 470km². I’ve always wanted to visit and I was determined to make it happen this year!

I think a nice way to end these blogs is with a few goals for the next few months. Most of what I want to work on is teaching oriented. I want to push myself to try new formats with my classes and have a diverse range of subjects. I think it could be easy to settle into a routine and keep using the same formulaic lesson plan that works but that’s not interesting for me or my students. I obviously also want to keep using my French as much as possible, keep putting myself out there to make new friends and get to know Mulhouse more!

Three Weeks of La Vie en France

Here I am, three weeks in to la vie en France! So far so good, as I’ve been saying to anyone who has asked. I started teaching last week but the first two weeks I was here were still busy! So here is a little update on what I’ve gotten up to in that time.

I haven’t really talked much about the journey, mostly because it was very straightforward, if a little long. I started off with a very unceremonious departure from Dunblane, just me and my dad. Previously when I’ve been making a big move, I’ve always had an airport entourage to wave me off. Because my flight was at midday this time, it was a reduced to me and my chauffeur. The fact that I’ve made a bit of a habit of leaving the country and that France is a lot more accessible than either Honduras or China also contributed to the lack of fanfare, which I was totally ok with.

The view coming into Bordeaux

I wasn’t able to get a direct flight from Edinburgh to Basel so I flew via Bordeaux. This was my first time flying since leaving China 20 months ago. Travelling in covid times can be stressful but I can’t say that I found it much more stressful than a normal trip through the airport. I think having gotten used to living through a global pandemic made it a bit easier to get through the extra steps that are involved in travelling now. I had to present proof of vaccination before boarding both of my flights, although not when I landed. On one flight I had a whole row to myself but only by chance, on most rows there were people in all the seats. When I finally arrived in Basel, my destination airport, I thought it would take me a while to get to Mulhouse but it was actually very quick! Even though the airport is known as Basel, it also serves Mulhouse and Freiburg in addition to the Swiss city but is actually in France. A bus from right outside the exit of the airport took me to the nearest town, Saint Louis, and from there I got a short train to Mulhouse where my lovely landlord and his wife picked me up.

I was lucky enough to have arranged my accommodation before I arrived. I had been looking for a colocation which is a shared flat. Because so much of my job will be in English, I wanted to live with French people, or at least people I could speak French with. I wasn’t planning on committing to anywhere before I arrived because I didn’t want to get scammed but I did reach out to some apartments I found in order to arrange a visit for my first week. In doing so I had a video call with one appartment and got a really good feeling from the landlord, Cédric. The flat looked great, freshly renovated, and best of all Cédric told me that if I wanted the room I wouldn’t have to pay anything until I arrived. I thought about it and decided to take it. There were no red flags and in the end, I was right!

The view from my room

The flat looked exactly like it had when I saw it on the video call. It is so light and spacious with a lovely open plan kitchen, living room and dining room. My room is great as well with lots of space. So far it is just me and one other flatmate, a French girl called Emma who is finishing up a masters in communications. There are two more flatmates to come, a French-Canadian guy later this week and a German girl next week. Emma and I are getting on well but I’m looking forward to meeting the others too!

Even though I was exhausted after the day of travelling, I had a busy first day! I met up with Jen, the head of the English department, in Place de la Réunion which is the main square in the centre of the city. We had a coffee and talked about what I would face in the coming year. When we were finished we headed down to the university campus and Jen gave me a tour around the FLSH building, where the English department is. I met some of the administrative staff and saw the classrooms I’ll be teaching in. We also dropped by one of the other teacher’s houses on the way home to say hello and have a glass of wine.

I didn’t have any work obligations during my first week so most of it was spent setting myself up. I opened a bank account, got myself a French mobile number, bought some things for my room, picked up my university card and just generally settled in. It took me a while to organise a tram pass for myself so I walked around a lot. This was great because I got to see more of the city, especially the area around Place de la Réunion which has the main shopping street nearby.

Place de la Réunion with a summer art installation

In my second week I still didn’t start teaching but I did have a few welcome meetings with the students. As I’ve said I will only be teaching the licence students but I also met a lot of the English masters students over the week. One of the other English teachers invited me over to her house for lunch which was really nice. I’ve also linked up with a few girls from Heriot Watt who are here on their Erasmus year, it’s been nice hanging out with others who know Edinburgh!

Having been here three weeks, I’ve had a few weekends to get to know some of the nightlife of Mulhouse. With the state of the world, I can’t imagine anything worse than going to a club right now, as much as I would love a boogie, but I have visited a few bars. My first outing was actually to an Irish pub! Annabelle, the lectrice who was in my position for the last two years, was back for a visit so I joined her and some of her friends, including another English lectrice at the university, Àine, and a Scottish girl called Lynzie who is from Alva! I love serendipitous moments like that when you meet someone who grew up 20 minutes from you while both living in a totally different country. Shamrock was great, I didn’t see any Guinness behind the bar (not that I would be ordering any…) but on the first Tuesday of the month, which this happened to be, there is live Scottish or Irish music. I felt very at home!

I also went to a bar called Gambrinus in the city centre. Gambrinus is the name of a European cultural hero who is an icon of beer and joie de vivre so it is only fitting that the bar specialises in beer, with 26 different types on draught. Gambrinus (the bar) is also known for serving a traditional Alsatian dish called flammekueche, or tarte flambée. Its a thin layer of dough covered in crème fraîche or fromage blanc and traditionally topped with thinly sliced onions and bacon lardons. Some popular additional toppings include various types of cheese or mushrooms and it can also be made into a sweet dish.

Flammekueche gratinée – the traditional plus Gruyère cheese
Fleischschnackas

I’ve been able to try a couple of Alsatian dishes at this point. When I went to my colleague’s house for lunch, she made pâté Lorrain, meat pâté in puff pastry with some chestnut and red onion, carrot and salad. It was all really nice and we had a little bit of Muscat and some German beer with it and apple tart for dessert, made with apples from their garden. When out for lunch at little cafe one day, I also tried fleischschnackas. These are made from cooked meat stuffing, eggs, onions and parsley, rolled up in fresh egg pasta. I had no idea what I was ordering but I was presently surprised! In a less traditional turn of events, or maybe more depending on your viewpoint, I also had toad in the hole for lunch at a friend’s this weekend! It did have a bit of an Alsatian twist though as we used some local poultry sausages.

I’ve already spoken about my first week of classes and introduced you to my job so that about covers everything else I’ve been up to since I arrived here! I really feel like I’ve hit the ground running which is a nice feeling. I’ve been trying not to put too much pressure on myself and approach everything with the mindset that I plan to be here for a while so there’s no rush! (Although the last time I thought like this, I ended up leaving China in a rush four months early… fingers crossed there’s no repeat of that.) I’m also pretty proud that this is my first super long blog post since I started writing again! I’m sorry or you’re welcome depending on whether you’ve enjoyed the first long post in a while!