I’ve been in France for a little more than two weeks now. As perpetual foreign student (until now), France has been a stark contrast to the immediate and non-stop party of the Netherlands and Taiwan. The past two weeks have been an endless tirade of unexciting essential stuff–searching for an apartment, opening a bank account, trying to figure out how to get internet in my apartment. (I’m not there yet so I’m writing from the teacher’s lounge at the lycée.)
In the end, I chose to live in Strasbourg. Sélestat was actually bigger than I thought it would be. In my head I envisioned a main street full of shops that sell nothing of interest to anyone under the age of 65 (like the “downtown” in every small town in Canada.) The downtown, if you will, is small but decent-sized with a number of bars and cafés. I particularly enjoyed the internet café with a sign boasting “The only internet café in Sélestat.” However, there was no real moment of revelation. As soon as I got to Strasbourg, I decided to look for an apartment and if I found one in time, I would take it.
I live near the train station, a neighbourhood my coworkers tell me is kind of seedy. My building looks like the typical French apartment building, which is to say romantic and historic by Canadian standards. The stairways banisters are wrought-iron and the ceilings are high. My room is almost the size of my room in my parents’ house, except here I have a walk-in closet. My favourite part of the room is the ivy growing outside that covers the side of the building completely and surrounds my windows.
My roommates consist of one Spanish girl, who is doing a year of exchange, and one ghost. We have another roommate who had living in the apartment before us but whom we have never since we moved in. We have pieced together a few theories and life stories about her based on what we heard from our landlord and the former tenant and are waiting to see who will win the bet.
As for the job that I came here to do, I feel completely overwhelmed. I have 12 classes spread out over four days. Each hour I work a different teacher (nine in total this semester) and each with a different class of about 30 students. The teachers generally have paired me up with their weakest classes in hopes of giving those students more practice, so they can pass their exams. They have given me brief explanations about my responsibilities for each class. Many of these involve me taking half the class and teaching them a lesson I came up with. The whole thing sounds awkward and terrifying.
All I did this week was introduce myself to each class. The teacher then told the students come up with questions for me, which yielded one week of very siliar crops. How old are you? Are you homesick? What are your ‘obbies? (They never fail to ask that last question yet always fail to pronounce the “h.”) Some of the better questions include: Are you married? How much money do you make teaching here? Do you want to stay in France forever? Do they eat snakes in China?
Originally, I wondered if I would be the only Asian in Sélestat. In one of my classes there are two Vietnamese girls, so I’m not a complete oddity. Still, the students are curious about my ethnicity. I have had several requests to speak and write Chinese so far. They’re a bit intrigued at hearing the same sentence in two types of Chinese. One student also requested that I speak some French, just to hear what I sounded like I suppose.
I’ve never changed schools in all my years in the Canadian public education system. After spending all eight years in the same elementary school, I was shipped off to the high school where all my other classmates went. For the first time I feel like the new kid in school both with the students and the teachers. In the teacher’s lunch room, I fear the day I go in without an English teacher and have to try to start a conversation in French with a 40-year-old math teacher.
My Spanish roommate told me last night that it feels like the days are really long here. I would have to agree. It feels like I’ve been here for much longer than two weeks. I’ve been busy everyday trying to get things together and I’m wondering the day will come when all the annoyances of moving to a new country are finished. I feel a little frustrated that there are so many more things I need to do before I feel I have my life set up here, or at least a comfortable habit. Socially and linguistically, I’m nowhere near where I want to be. The former can’t seem to happen without the latter. It requires almost no effort to make friends as a foreign student. It’s not hard when everyone else has no friends or responsibilities. It helps that the international party language is English. Waking up at seven most mornings is not conducive to wanting to go out at night alone to try to meet and befriend people in broken French.
The German assistant at my school quit before classes started and before we ever met. The teacher in charge of the language assistants told me her father called to tell the school his daughter would not be doing the job after all. After two weeks in the country and one week on the job, I can’t say there that idea doesn’t have any appeal for me. This is, without a doubt, the most difficult time I have had abroad. The hardest thing for me right now is to remember just because I’m in a foreign country, doesn’t mean I’m on vacation. My previous idea of life abroad was a bit of a bubble existence that I can’t deny that I miss. I thought France was a way to avoid the real world for a little while longer but, apparently, it comes with its own set of problems. This, it seems, is the time to master a brave face and learn the meaning of sticking it out.