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!

Qu’est-Ce Que C’est Une Lectrice?

What even is a ‘lectrice‘??? I am coming to the end of my first week in my new job as ‘lectrice d’anglais‘ at l’Université de Haute-Alsace (the University of Upper Alsace) and I though it was about time to tell you a little bit more about what I’ll actually be doing this year!

First things first, a lecteur or a lectrice is basically just a language teacher. I am a lectrice d’anglais so an English language teacher. Responsibilities can very depending on the individual position. For example, I only teach the English licence students, so the students that study English for their bachelor’s degree. I take the English oral classes and it is up to me to plan my lessons, choose the topics we discuss throughout the year and also decide how to assess my students. Other lecteurs or lectrices d’anglais might be asked to teach translation, English for business or scientific English and here there is a different lectrice d’anglais for the students that want to take English as an elective course while studying different degrees.

Campus Illberg of the Université de Haute-Alsace

I’ve met almost all of my students at this point and there’s a lot! There are three years in a French bachelor’s degree or licence, known as L1, L2 and L3. I have six groups of L1 students and four each of L2 and L3 which is about 170 students in total. I see each class once a week for an hour. I really want to focus on getting them talking as much as possible. They already have a pretty high level, even the L1s, so it will be about encouraging them to explore different English sources, different accents and different ways of expressing themselves. I’ve decided that the assessments for this semester will be split between participation, a presentation and some in class activities, pretty much the same across all three year groups. My timetable is looking pretty good so far. Monday and Tuesday are my busiest days but I don’t have any classes on Wednesday and then only half days on Thursday and Friday.

The Learning Centre

I am working the Université de Haute-Alsace or the University of Upper-Alsace. There are campuses in Mulhouse and also the nearby town of Colmar. In Mulhouse there are two campuses, the Illberg campus where I work and also La Fonderie. They have strong links with universities in Strasbourg, Basel and Freiburg with some students travel into Switzerland and Germany for courses. There are about 10,000 students over the two locations and multiple campuses. I am part of the FLSH department, the Faculté des Langues, Lettres et Sciences Humaines. Within the English section, there is the English licence, two types of masters, one for teaching English and one for research, and the doctorate programme.

The FLSH building where I have all of my classes

I’m looking forward to getting to know my classes more as well as the other teachers in the department. I already have lots of ideas for things to talk about in class. We did some introductory activities this week and next week are going to talk about the Olympics. I also asked all my classes this week about their favourite English language films, TV shows, music and books so that I can try and fit some of them in later in the year!

First Impressions of Mulhouse

I have been in Mulhouse for a week and a half now, taking my time to get to know the city. I haven’t started teaching yet, classes start on Monday, but I’ve still been busy with setting myself up. I’ve gathered some of the first impressions that Mulhouse has made on me as well as some general ones about moving to France.

Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport was a breeze.

Big shoutout to the Irish passport for this one. After a long day of travelling, first from Edinburgh to Bordeaux and then on to Basel, it was super nice to waltz through the airport on arrival. In fact, my passport wasn’t checked at all when I arrived in Basel – the beauty of the Schengen area – and neither was my covid documentation which was all looked at before boarding.

A view of Basel from above

Transport in general has been very easy to navigate.

After getting out of the airport, it was just a quick bus to Saint Louis, the nearest town, and then the train to Mulhouse. It took under an hour and cost less than €10. From the train station, my landlord and his wife came to pick me up. Within Mulhouse, the transport system is called Soléa and you can get pretty cheap monthly passes that cover tram and bus travel. I live a one minute walk away from a tram stop and it’s just a couple of stops in one direction to get to the university and a couple of stops in the other direction to get to the centre of town.

Mulhouse reminds me of Edinburgh.

Mulhouse is a city of around 110,000 people, with 275,000 in the wider urban unit that includes the surrounding villages, some of which operate more as suburbs. It is quite a bit smaller than Edinburgh’s population of 524,000 but there’s some similarities I’m seeing. Both are cities that feel more like towns, especially around the city centre. They are very walkable, at least from what I’ve experienced in Mulhouse so far. Mulhouse has a lot of the small, cobbled streets that you expect from European cities, similar to the streets you would find in Edinburgh’s old town.

The city’s past has a big influnce on the Mulhouse of today.

There is a long history of industry in Mulhouse, to the extent that it has been nicknamed the “French Manchester”. In the 19th century, Mulhouse was the centre of France’s textile industry and the remnants of this are still visible across the city’s skyline. Another industry that developed around the same time was engineering automobiles and today Mulhouse is home to a number of well know museums including Cité de l’Automobile and Cité du Train. Now that a lot of this industry has left the city, Mulhouse has spent a lot of time, money and effort on revamping itself. There is a lot of greenery and there has been a rejuvenation of the town centre.

There seems to be lots to do!

Everyone that I’ve spoken to so far has been kind enough to give me many recommendations for things to do around Mulhouse. One thing I knew I wanted to find, even before I arrived, was a water polo team! I even got an email from my old coach the night before I left (hi David!) wishing me luck and letting me know that Mulhouse looks to have a pretty good water polo set up. I’ve been to a couple of training sessions now and I can confirm that! There are lots of other sports around as well, in particular I’ve heard that there is a very competitive women’s volleyball team. There is also the Université Populaire where I’m looking to take a Chinese course, lots of art museums and exhibitions, theatres and so on. Basel in Switzerland and Freiburg in Germany are both easily accessible as well as the French city of Strasbourg, all of which are worth a visit. To the west of Mulhouse is the Vosges mountain range which has stunning views and the ‘fermes auberges’, farmhouses where you can get a traditional bite to eat and something to drink during your hike.

L’Université Populaire

It is every bit as bureaucratic as you think… if not more.

A lot of my first week here was taken up by pretty boring life admin tasks like opening a bank account, setting up a French number and signing my work contract among other things. Some of these were easier than I thought they would be but even when they were easy, they often weren’t quick. What I’ve also found funny are the many jokes made at the expense of the French bureaucracy, both by expats that have had to navigate it and by the French who have grown up with it.

COVID-19 has had a big impact on education here.

The education sector seems to have been messed about a lot over the past 18 months. Schools and universities were initially told to go home and take up online learning but then told to come back for the start of the new academic year before things went back online again. It made it very hard for teachers to plan for anything and was frustrating for some students who gave up their students accommodation but were then told they had to come back to in person classes. Thankfully classes will be in person when they start on Monday and hopefully they stay that way.

The campus of Université de Haute-Alsace

I have a good feeling about my colleagues.

All the other teachers in the English deparment seem really supportive and friendly. I already had this feeling from a meeting I went to back in June but it has been confirmed after being taken around Mulhouse in my first day by the head of the department who had also only just arrived and in meeting a lot of other teachers at various meetings this week. Everyone seems to socialise outside of work and in normal times there are a lot of work functions which I always think is a good sign of an enjoyable work environment.

The fact I am in Alsace is very important.

I’ve not just moved to France, more specifically I have moved to Alsace. There is definitely a strong regional identity here. Alsatian is still spoken by the older generation although it hasn’t been passed down to the younger generation as much. I see a lot of parallels between Alsatian and Gaelic, not just this lack of intergenerational teaching but also that there has been a bit of a resurgence of interest in recent years. A lot of the street signs are in both French and Alsatian as well. Alsatian food can be found in many restaurants here. So far the only thing I’ve tried has been tarte flambée (or flammekueche in Alsatian), thin dough with creme fraiche, thinly sliced onions and bacon lardons on top with lots of other toppings optional.

Tarte flambée gratinée – all the basics plus cheese!

So that’s what I’ve made of my first ten days or so in Mulhouse. It’s still very early stages but so far, so good! I’m looking forward to getting started with the teaching on Monday and continuing to get to know Mulhouse and the wider area.

Cutting It Fine

I’m starting this blog while sitting in Edinburgh airport, waiting for my flight to Bordeaux where I will catch another flight to Basel. Then its a bus and train to Mulhouse and finally a lift from my landlord to my appartment! It’s a long day of travelling to come at the end of a summer of somewhat lengthy and somewhat rapid preparations for the big move.

In the immediate aftermath of accepting the position of lectrice in Mulhouse, there wasn’t really much to be done. It was only the end of March so not only were there still five months until I was needed in France, I had much more pressing matters to deal with – final year exams. After making intial contact with the head of the English department at the Université de Haute-Alsace (UHA) in Mulhouse, I pushed all other thoughts to the back of my mind, at least for the moment.

Saying a final goodbye to Edinburgh with graduation four days before flying to France

Once exams and pretty much everything else uni related were out of the way, there was still quite a lot of waiting around to do. I had decided almost immediately after applying that a visa was a hassle that I wanted nothing to do with. It was time to embrace my Irish roots in the most post-Brexit way possible – applying for an Irish passport. Even though the actual application was all done online and was super easy, there were a lot of delays due to covid. I wasn’t able to send of my supporting documents until June even though I applied in April. With an expected turnaround time of 6-8 weeks, it was pretty tight to even get it back in time for my expected departure at the end of August or start of September. I didn’t want to book flights or sort any accomodation until I had the passport in hand.

While I waited, I enjoyed my last few months in Edinburgh and also a couple of months at home. I was put in touch with the previous lectrice, Annabelle, who also got the job through Edinburgh University and was able to video chat her and ask lots of questions. I wasn’t really worried about the job itself, feeling like it was a challenge I could take in my stride but I was still keen to get more information about the set up so I knew what to expect. I also wanted to know what Mulhouse is like! Around the same time, I joined the end of year meeting with the English department at UHA which was very encouraging. It was great to meet everyone, even through a zoom call, and everyone was really welcoming. I got a bit more information on what the position requires but mostly it was nice to get a feeling for the people I’ll be working with next year, and a good feeling at that!

What a beautiful maroon passport

I also cast a net out on Facebook mostly, looking for other people that might be heading to that part of France that I could connect with. Annabelle had recommended some FB groups for teaching assistants which have proved very helpful. Through that group, which covers all of France, I found a Whatsapp group for the area around Strasbourg, which includes Mulhouse. I even met up with one of the girls who is from Glasgow and doing British Council in Strasbourg!

My Irish passport finally arrived in the middle of August and it was all systems go! I booked my flight to Mulhouse, flying via Bordeaux, and also an AirBnB for the first week I arrived so that I had somewhere to stay while finding more permanent accommodation. When I started reaching out to flat shares last week, I had some very speedy responses and actually resulted inme finding a really nice room in a shared appartment! I also had my second vaccine dose pretty much the first day I could. In Scotland, you had to wait at least 8 weeks between your two doses, regardless of the make, which was cutting it fine for being two weeks in the clear before arriving in France. There was a little bit of tension around making sure that my proof of vaccination arrived in time but it all worked out in the end. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

A different type of preparation… packing!

This whole summer was a bit of a weird time. The excitement slowly started to build after exams were over and preparations for France were in full swing. At the same time, the excitement was accompanied and tampered by the stress that came with it. Trying to travel in the covid era is a whole different thing. I can’t count the number of times that I double checked and triple checked the entry requirements, that I had valid proof of vaccination and a million other things. With everything hinging on my Irish passport arriving on time, there were times when the stress overtook the excitement. There was nothing to do but wait and there’s nothing I hate more than things being out of my control.

I started writing this blog three days ago while sitting in Costa in Edinburgh airport and now I’m sat at my kitchen table in my new appartment in Mulhouse. As you can probably tell, everything worked out perfectly in the end, seeing as I’m here. It was a long but fairly easy day of travle and it’s been a busy few days since I arrived but more to come on that later.

Chaotic day before leaving vibes

Why France? Why Now?

Now that the blog is back up and running, I should fill you in on what has happened since you last heard from me. My last proper post was mid-lockdown. I did think about finishing off some of the blogs that were half written from when I was in China, like My Free Time which was ready to go, but in the end lockdown itself was enough to deal with. I was at home during the inital lockdown from March 2020 until the summer, trying to keep up with my Chinese and French studies and preparing for my final year at university.

I returned to Edinburgh in August 2020, ready to battle my way through one more year of studying. I won’t lie, it was not an easy year. When classes started again in September, everything except my speaking classes were online. That was two hours a week for Chinese and one for French, so three hours of in person teaching in total. And I was one of the lucky ones. Most people had just one hour of in person teaching a week, if that.

Waking up and sitting down one metre away for a day of classes was a big adjustment. Even after coming out of six months or so of lockdown and restrictions, some of which I had spent doing at least some level of studying, the intensity of the final year of a degree at the University of Edinburgh was difficult to handle at times. Along with this, I was treasurer of the Swimming and Water Polo Club as well as captain of the womens second team and was working in a small French bakery (very appropriate!). I can get stressed very easily so I took a few extra steps to try and prevent that this year.

The first of these was not to work from my bed. I have been guilty of this before but considering that most of my work was happening in my bedroom, usually a place for relaxation, I still wanted to have at least one place that was purely for rest. Another was that I made sure to get dressed for all of my classes even though they could have easily been done in pyjamas and a hoodie. It made me feel ready for the day and I was more productive. I also tried to make sure I left the house at least once a day, whether that was to go to the shops, to meet a friend for a coffee and a lap of the Meadows or for a swim during times when the pools were open.

Throughout the final year of university, the focus is not just on the now but also on the future. It becomes about multitasking the classes and responsibilities you have right now with figuring out what the hell you’re going to do next and how you’re going to do it. For me, this was… challenging. To be honest, challenging doesn’t even cover it. I had multiple breakdowns while trying to figure out what was next for me and even a little bit of an identity crisis.

The first idea I had won’t be unexpected to anyone (at least anyone that has been around a while). From the moment I first set foot back on UK soil in January 2020 I was desperate to return not only to China but specifically Dalian. After a while though, this desire waned. I began to think that trying to recreate the time the I had there, or the time that I lost, could only lead to disappointment. I had an amazing experience in China but the parts that were specific to Dalian were the people. With many of my friends having finished their studies since I left or not being able to continue their studies because of the pandemic, I’d be missing out on the parts that I wanted most.

I’ll be back to Dalian one day

After coming to this realisation, I kept my sights on China but adjusted the angle, if you will. The Chinese deparment at Edinburgh were periodically sending out information about various masters programmes and there was one that caught my eye. Johns Hopkins University has a campus in Nanjing, China and run various masters degrees in their School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The focus on global affairs and politics, specifically in East Asia, and the fact that many of the courses are taught in Chinese was a big attraction for me. This was the first time that I realised that International Relations might be an area of work and study that would interest me. It would be a great way to put my languages to use and combine my interest in politics and social issues. Lightbulb moment!

However, it took one of the aforementioned breakdowns to decide that while the Johns Hopkins course had been instrumental in deciding on IR as a future career path for me, the timing wasn’t right for me and the course itself wasn’t a good fit (mostly for my bank account, American unis are ******* expensive!). Something I maintain all the time is that there is no rush. Sometimes it feels like you have to come straight out of school into university and then straight out of university into a career that you will have for the rest of your life. This is absolutely untrue – as already evidenced by the fact that I took a gap year. It was time to remind myself of this and take a step back.

With a future in IR and a potential return to China in the back of my mind, I still had to decide what was next. This is when I turned my gaze towards France. I’m sure most people know by now that I missed out on the opportunity to go to France at all because of the pandemic. Maybe this would be the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time.

I really felt like my French suffered more than my Chinese from the interrupted year abroad. This might sound obvious seeing as I did at least get 5 months in China and no time at all in France but it’s a bit more complicated. My French was definitely at a higher level than my Chinese when I left for China and my reading and general comprehension still is but my confidence and ability in speaking Chinese just skyrocketed in a way that only comes from immersion. Unfortunately my French hasn’t had that opportunity since a week long French exchange when I was 16.

This desire to improve my spoken French was a driving force in the decision to move there. My aim with all my languages is to get them up to a high enough level that even if that level dips over time or with lack of use so that when I need it I can pull it out of my back pocket again and brush it up to where it was. I definitley achieved this with Spanish through living in Honduras and I’ve had opportunities to test this logic on a trip to Barcelona, a return visit to Honduras and with various friends. My Chinese isn’t quite there yet but with a return to China on the cards for the not so distant future, I’m not too concerned. Due to the nature of Chinese, I also see it being much more of a life long learning process and effort to keep it up (not that its not the same for all languages).

Barcelona in 2018

I turned my sights to how I could get myself to France, looking at internships, jobs, anything I could find. There is an English teaching assistant programme run through the British Council that a lot of language students do on their year abroad instead of attending university but what I hadn’t realised was that it was open to graduates as well! I applied but also kept looking as it would take several months to hear anything back.

In the meantime one of the lecturers from the Edinburgh University French department reached out to all the final years with an opportunity to work in France. The department has close links with a number of french universities and every year basically recruits a number of students from its ranks to go and work as lecteurs or lectrices (like a speaking tutor or language assistant). There are usually quite a few places but there were less this year because of covid-related uncertainties. This year there were 2 spots in Rouen and one each in Caen, Metz and Mulhouse. I sent in my (French!) CV and cover letter and was given an interview. It must have gone well because I was offered the position in Mulhouse (but you already knew that).

So that brings us a bit more up to date. I am currently procrastinating by writing this blog instead of packing (and even rewriting because the previous draft didn’t save…). I will of course give you more information on what Mulhouse is like and what being a lectrice even is as soon as I know myself! But for now I should get back to packing because I leave tomorrow!

A random photo from the day I got the job – 30th March