Diary

Record-breaking and wrong-doing

I seem to be surviving here in France, in fact its coming up to a month now so I thought I’d do a little update on my progress as an inept intern in a luxury boutique.

We established fairly early on that I was lacking in retail knowledge, specifically of the men’s-formal-wear-in-French variety, however, you’ll be pleased to hear that things have improved. Due to a collection of fortunate events I have inadvertently broken the store’s sales record, with a huge transaction last Tuesday morning (unfortunately I do not work on commission).

Basically a nice man from Kazakstan came in looking about as clueless and out of place as me. I was manning the shop floor alone so unfortunately he had no choice but to seek my ‘expertise’ in his shopping mission. I helped him find a nicely-fitted suit, he then went on to by the suit in another colour and found a winter coat to go with it. Four shirts and an overpriced pair of socks later and he’d wracked up 1650 euros! The nice part was that this customer wanted my opinion on every single item, he didn’t speak French so we communicated in a mixture of English and hand gestures, I nodded a lot and gave big thumbs up to express ‘wow that looks great!’ and it seemed to work. Anyway I was alone in the shop at the time and my boss was super-impressed upon his return to find me scanning through all these big items.

Unfortunately, I then rained on my own parade by making a huge numerical blunder on the till and overcharging the man by €200, however we soon sorted this out and he left the store about as patient and smiley as he entered – just with a few more bags. So maybe a career in retail could be promising! Except I don’t really like folding, or rude customers, or standing up all day….

And actually, as this little example shows, I still make plenty of mistakes. In fact I do multiple things wrong every single day. Despite breaking the sales record I am bottom of the league for the number of customer details I’ve taken (and I don’t mean chatting up the French men by asking for their numbers, although incidentally I’m terrible at that too). I’m supposed to ask each customer for their details when they make a purchase, in order to send them an electronic receipt, add them to the mailing list and all that. I hate asking as most people don’t like to give out that kind of information and I feel pushy. However last week 81% of my transactions were without customer details and apparently this is bad. I like to think I just respect people’s privacy more than the rest of the team, tant pis.

I also feel bad encouraging people spend money. Every person who enters the shop is obviously a sales opportunity and I’m told to try harder to encourage purchasing, but I find it hard to do this. Plus I’m secretly happy when people don’t buy things because it frees me of the pressure of operating the till and making an inevitable faux-pas (please don’t tell my boss).

Anyway, hopefully next month will be filled with fewer mistakes, especially as I can’t play the ‘sorry I’m new!’ card for much longer. I have a much-needed weekend off now so I’m going to explore more of Paris and catch up on sleep, à bientot!

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Paris

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For my first two days off I headed into central Paris for some sightseeing. I’ve been to Paris a few times before, on family holidays and French exchanges with school, however it’s such a huge city that I don’t think you could ever really see everything. Luckily I’ve got all the weekends from now until September to explore as much as possible. Yesterday I got the train from my suburban home straight to the Arc de Triomphe, where I was greeted by the most terrifying roundabout in history, I then walked down L’avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower to meet a friend for a picnic. From here we walked along the river all the way to Place de la Concorde, through the beautiful Tuileries gardens to the Louvre. To finish the day I then hopped on the metro to Place Monge where I met another friend for some Moroccan tea (I can’t get enough) at La Grande Mosquée.

I should also mention that it was 37 degrees this weekend in Paris. It’s been boiling all week and let me tell you, the metro is the last place you want to be on a hot day. It’s basically a furnace packed full of sweaty tourists, sweaty Parisians and probably all the sweaty people in the world, and their children. I don’t think anyone quite knows if its better to walk for miles in the midday sun just to avoid the cattle-transportation experience. I was weighing up sunburn and blistered feet against extreme armit-to-face proximity and limited oxygen. A tough call. In the end I settled for the metro because at least the pain is short-term. Anyway it’s beautiful in Paris so I should stop complaining.

Here are some pictures of my day… As I only photographed the pretty things it’s like the metro never even even happened!

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Back to France!

Remember that impromptu telephone interview I had whilst half way up a mountain in Spain? Well, I got the job and, after a lovely few weeks in England, I hopped on the Eurostar and I started work in my new temporary home – Paris!

I’ll be working as a sales intern for just over two months. The internship is at a men’s clothing retailer which specialises in workwear, bringing the ‘English Gentleman’ style to France. It’s a British company with a Parisien store and I’m the sole British ambassador so my colleagues seem excited to have me here.

My first day went about as smoothly as I could have hoped. I had to learn many new skills, such as how to take mens’ measurements in order to advise them on the correct size shirt. This is an intimate and difficult experience which I am frankly TERRIBLE at. I have told many customers a particular shirt size based on my measurements and more often than not the shirt they then tried on was either comically big or embarrassingly small. I have the excuse that i’m learning on the job though and the fact that my previous retail experience involved potted plants and garden furniture.

The store is located in a luxury shopping village in which the footfall is primarily very, very wealthy people, fortunately almost everybody so far has been patient and friendly to me despite my incompetence. I also get to wander around during my break and lust after designer clothes that I’ll never be able to afford based on my intern’s salary!

Whilst I’m here i’m paying ridiculous amounts to lodge in a very pleasant family home. I have a beautiful bedroom however the etiquette of the lodging situation is taking some getting used to; I don’t quite know how sociable to be, whether to eat with the family or not, whether I need to label my food – there are many unanswered questions. Also I keep speaking Spanish…

Anyway this is the third and final part of my year abroad! You’d think I’d have it all figured out by now but you’d be wrong.. So i’ll continue to record my mishaps here – à bientôt! 

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My last day of teaching

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Teaching in Spain has been a rollercoaster of hilarity, intimidation, confusion, misinterpretation, frustration and exhaustion. Incidentally, I have also learnt that most Spanish kids struggle to pronounce words ending in ‘tion’.

In all honesty I’ve loved the experience about 64 times more than I ever thought I would. Equally, I would never want to do it again. 8 months was the perfect amount of time, the perfect amount of responsibility and pressure. I know that being a proper teacher is significantly harder, I mean I worked just 12 hours a week, speaking my native language at a slow pace and loud volume, occasionally whipping together a PowerPoint entitled ‘What is a Roast Dinner?’. I’m fairly sure professional teachers have to work a lot harder than that.

I like to think I imparted a lot of wisdom throughout my time here, and hopefully I did a lot to improve my students’ English. What I can be sure of though is that I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot myself. Ironically, I am now better informed on British, American and Irish culture as I had to give lessons on various cultural topics. Never before had I researched the story behind Halloween, the history of St Patrick’s Day or the rules of cricket (we did an entire lesson on this), wikepedia has definitely been my friend.

Perhaps less surprisingly, I have also learned a whole heap of English grammar. At the beginning of the year I’d be asked, on the spot, to explain the use of ‘the future perfect tense’ and I’d stare blankly at the teacher for a good four minutes. We know and use so much grammar instinctively but when it comes to explaining the rules or the reasons behind our bizarre language it gets quite complicated. I’ve learned about countable nouns, uncountable nouns, the present continuous… the list is endless (and tedious) but it’s been enlightening nevertheless.

There have also been numerous amusing classroom moments, some of which I have already shared here, here and here. Last month there was a listening task in which students had to identify sports from audio clips. The sound of a bat hitting a ball was clearly tennis, hearing quick footsteps on tarmac was obviously jogging but Judo was less straightforward; the clip was a medley of rude-sounding grunting and shuffling on the floor which prompted a class of stifled laughter, me included. Another case was when students were given titles to invent their own storyboards with; one group was given ‘Getting Dirty’ and thankfully wrote about a dog swimming in a puddle. Less innocent students could certainly have taken the title in a very different direction and I was VERY grateful it was a young class. My friends working at neighbouring schools have not been spared the amusement either. One of Emmy’s 13 year old students was asked about her weekend and answered “On Saturday night I sleep with my friend Lara” to which the Spanish teacher corrected “NO! You SLEPT with your friend Lara, past tense!” before Emmy had to correct them both and said “I think you mean you slept at your friend Lara’s house?” It’s never-ending fun.

The highlight of my teaching experience however, as I’m sure most non-monstrous teachers would agree, has been the students. They were (mostly) funny, cheeky and kind, occasionally hard working, attentive and studious, often challenging but never boring. I’d be lying if I sad I didn’t have favourites; in every class there’d be at least two or three particularly funny or sweet kids who would make the lessons so much better. In the younger classes I had really cute ones who would make me paper flowers or drawings, in the older classes there were girls who filled me in on the school gossip, giggled with me over mutual love for the attractive Portuguese teacher, there was Juan-Manuel the Pretty Little Liars super-fan who I discussed episodes with. Having these allies was also integral to discipline, whenever I spoke these students would yell (in a passionate Spanish way that I could never replicate) for their classmates to shut up and listen – VERY useful if you’ve ever experienced the sheer chaos of a rowdy Spanish high school.

I will also undoubtedly be using my teaching experience in any future job interview; it has tested so much more than a year at university ever would. Can you give me an example of a time you when you had to work under pressure? Insert Spanish teaching experience here. Tell me about a time where you had to think on your feet? Insert Spanish teaching experience here. Please explain how you would handle a challenging working environment? You get the idea..

Like waitressing, I can tick ‘teacher’ off my future career list that’s for sure, however, now that the time has come to leave I’m actually quite emotional. As cheesy as it sounds, it has been so nice to make connections with students who I would never have met otherwise and will realistically never encounter again. Yesterday was my last day and it was very special, I taught 3 classes the ‘ChaCha slide’ dance routine and we did lots of goodbyes and present exchanging. In one class four of the students had clubbed together to buy me an impractical but adorable HUGE pink teddy bear. It’ll take some serious packing tessellation to get him home but I’m determined to do it. I’ll remember these 8 months forever and I can’t wait to read my diary in years to come to relive ALL the memories, both disastrous and wonderful.

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The Spanish summer has begun

photoExtremadura is known for it’s extreme temperatures (as the name suggests) and I am finally appreciating why. We are currently experiencing spell of extreme heat and its almost unbearable. It was 40 degrees today, it is also May. The locals are wearing shorts and all conversations begin with ¡Qué calor!, so you know it’s pretty serious. I checked the weather and it’s currently hotter than Morocco, Greece and Uganda. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the school classrooms were hotter than the Earth’s core.

The main problem is that it’s very dry and desert-like here; there’s no nearby beach, no lake and very few trees around the town. Unfortunately I walk to my students’ houses for private classes at around 3.30pm each day and I’m fairly sure I’m the only human braving the sunlight at this scorching hour. Everyone else is sensibly en casa with the shutters down. I actually have to apply sun cream for my ten-minute walk down the road, I also have to arrive an extra two minutes early to allow for cooling-off period during which I lurk outside the students’ house for necessary brow-mopping and water-guzzling.

I’ll try to find some silver linings to avoid sounding too whiny and spoiled: I’m lucky to be getting a healthy glow, I am grateful that this town is not at all hilly and I am pleased to have quite a decent deodorant.

But madre mía, any increase in temperature and I’ll have to be forcibly removed from the town fountain. Seriously.

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Expectations

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Back in January 2014 I attended a rowing ball with my boat club at Durham (yes it was as pretentious as it sounds). Unusually, to encourage mingling between members of different colleges, there was randomly allocated seating at this event. Now initially this situation filled me with great excitement at the prospect of being paired with a hunky oarsman who could later become my husband, passing his chiselled jaw line and natural athleticism to our future children (the dream lives on…). This expectation was soon dampened however, when the seat next to me was filled by a very posh, ponytail-wielding rower, who turned out to be a bit of an idiot. Despite immediate disappointment, I told myself that hairstyles were temporary and ploughed ahead with the small talk. We quickly covered the usual topics before moving on to discuss my impending year abroad.

The reason I’m telling you this anecdote is because when I mentioned I would be spending the Spanish part of my year in Extemadura, this boy, who we’ll call Charles, had a very strong opinion to declare. He raised his already up-turned nose a further two centimetres and loudly scoffed ‘That’s the ugliest of the Spanish regions, it has a bland landscape of nothingness and its not worth visiting at all’.

Now this was a bit of a conversation killer for me as I was soon to be not only visiting, but living in this ‘bland region of nothingness’ for a whole eight months. I didn’t bother asking, as I should have, just what evidence or experience qualified him to make that statement, instead I turned to focus on eating my garlicky chicken and wallow in self pity.

What Charles said went on to stay with me long after the garlic aftertaste that evening and I added his comment to my growing list of reasons to be anxious about my year abroad.

After living here for six months I can safely conclude that Charles was wrong. There are definitely more beautiful regions in Spain (the absence of a coastline is a bit of a downer) but Extremadura is still really, really beautiful. As I described in my previous posts about the waterfalls and cherry blossoms in Plasencia, the roman ruins in Merida, and the beautiful parts of my own town Zafra and nearby Badajoz. This region is actually really diverse, interesting and pretty. I am not sponsored by the local tourist board, but I have spent a lot of time in this part of the world and I now feel qualified to prove Charles, and anyone else wrong.

Yesterday for example I went for a hike with my friends and found fields and fields of wild poppies. The other beautiful thing is that the area is mostly untouched and sparsely populated, possibly due to Charles spreading his ill-informed message.

So, the moral of this story: DON’T trust men with ponytails and DON’T write off places before you visit for yourself. I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!

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Half way

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It’s incredible to say that I’ve passed the halfway point of both my time in Spain and my year abroad as a whole. All in all, although of some individual days and weeks do drag (lessons with 15 year olds often feel like lifetimes of pain), it has gone really quickly. Over the past few months I’ve established myself as a private English tutor, I’ve become familiar with plumbing vocabulary and I’ve finally adapted to Spanish mealtimes. I have built solid friendships with the eight other language assistants here and I’ve made plenty of Spanish friends too. Bizarrely, one of my closest Spanish connections is a seventeen year-old student with whom I’ve bonded over a shared interest in Harry Potter and One Direction. My other closest connections are fellow teachers (mostly middle-aged) and my language-exchange partner Maria (aged 35), with whom I enjoy weekly cups of tea and life discussions. It seems that I have bypassed integration with people of my actual age and so the whole Spanish party lifestyle has alluded me so far. I’m very happy though and I always feel like my head is simultaneously younger and older than my 20 years anyway. Having said that, just last week I made a new friend – a 22 year old local girl called Ana, she invited me out with her friends and we were chatting in a smokey bar until 2.30am. Perhaps my granny lifestyle may be set to change after all!

In September I was really terrified to come here and the whole first term flew by in a blur of settling in and mild panic. I got through any moments of sadness with the thought of Christmas and my impending flight home. Luckily, since returning in January everything has seemed much more familiar and relaxing. I’m now witnessing lighter evenings, easier conversations and I’m enjoying everything a whole lot more. I’ve got through January and I’ve started planning trips for the remainder of my time here, I’m off to Madrid next weekend, Morocco the week after – it’s all going far too quickly.

Now though, for memory and comedy’s sake, let’s reflect on my lowest moments:

  1. Tripping over and falling flat on my face in front of a group of students whilst on an afternoon jog. Knee severely grazed and pride dented.
  2. The power cut in out apartment on cold November morning, which lead to icy showers and a day without internet (tragic).
  3. Getting stranded on a broken down bus and watching in dispair as fellow passengers were, one-by-one, rescued by family/friends with cars. I had to wait for three hours with the driver and a few other abandoned folk, I cried silently and felt very abroad and alone.

However, as bad as these experiences felt at the time, they’re hardly terrible. I’ve had so much fun, so much sunshine and I’ve visited so many beautiful places. These can be summarized in the picture montage above.

Here’s to the rest of my time in Spain and thank you (once again) for following my year so far.

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