Year Abroad

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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Thoughts about May

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I can’t believe its May already. I couldn’t believe it was March, or April and then suddenly here we are. May is my final month in Spain and it’s also the month I turn 21 so it’s simultaneously sad, exciting and strange.

This weekend I popped to Seville to see the Alcazar, a place I hadn’t visited but knew I needed to see before I left Spain. It was really, really beautiful, with sprawling gardens, fountains and courtyards. They use it as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series and you can definitely see why, it’s a magical setting and quite incredible that it all sits within a big city centre.

Unbelievably it was 40 degrees in Seville the day I visited. 40 degrees on the first of May, blimey. It was around 30 degrees on the first of November if I remember rightly, so I’ve probably had one of the shortest winters ever. I am now appreciating the perks of a Spanish apartment too. The white tiled floors may have been icy in winter but they now cool my feet all day long and it’s fabulous. Gone are the January days of me cursing the drafty windows and echoing rooms, mi piso was built for the summer and I now realise how great this is.

So, my final month in Spain will consist of a trip to Córdoba to see the famous los patios festival, a weekend in Granada – where I will celebrate my birthday in the beautiful Alhambra, then two final weekends of parties and goodbyes. I will be making the absolute most of the hot weather too because a British summer can’t always be relied upon.

**I’ll also be negotiating the cancellation of my wifi and phone contract, closure of my bank account, deep cleaning the apartment and packing my belongings into suitcases. I’ll then be lugging the contents of the past 8 months onto various modes of public transport before inevitably collapsing in a heap of emotion and exhaustion at Heathrow arrivals. But we won’t dwell on this.**

Time to enjoy the rest of the month!

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Feria de Sevilla

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Yesterday I visited my favourite Spanish city, Sevilla, for the famous April Feria! Every year the Feria opens it’s doors and the Sevillianos enjoy a week of dancing, drinking and tapas-eating whilst dressed in traditional flamenco style dresses or suits.

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On area of 450,000 square metres you can find endless streets of casetas (marquee style tents) which belong to various families or companies in the city. Each caseta is beautifully decorated in unique but typically-Spanish styles. Along the outside walkways between casetas, thousands of lanterns brighten the sky by day and glow at night.

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A British equivalent of the caseta is probably a beach hut – each owned by a different family, each with different character and style. They obviously serve VERY different purposes but it’s the only familiar concept I can think of.

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The caseta concept is quite unique to Spanish festivals, the casetas vary in size but they are essentially rooms with bars, seating areas and dance floors so that each family can have their own private party with friends. There are also large public casetas (for the riffraf like me) but the feria is first and foremost a celebration for the people of Seville.

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Seeing Sevillano dancing was a highlight. All men and women know how to dance Sevillano, they do it in pairs, they clap and stamp along, moving their arms in perfect synchronisation and looking at each other intensely as they do so. I wish we had a similar dance culture here, it puts the awkward shuffling that occurs in British clubs to shame. There’s also there’s nothing more attractive than a man who can dance, especially if he is well-dressed in a blue blazer like so many of the Sevillanos.

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The best thing about the Feria for me was seeing the beautifully colourful trajes de flamenca, the dresses worn by the majority of the women. Each dress was unique and they are so beautifully intricate, flamboyant and amazing. I also noticed an ingenious design on one woman’s dress which I imagine is a common feature. Under some of the bottom ruffles was a zipped pocket to store a phone, money and other essentials – these beauties are practical and stylish.

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The Feria is known for being quite exclusive and I suppose it probably was, but tourists like me can enjoy it too and I am so glad that I witnessed it whilst I’m here. For me the Feria epitomised Spanish culture and it was a brilliant spectacle to observe. I did do my fair share of participation too though; my friends and I didn’t return home until 4am (this was actually due to a cheap deal on buses rather than a desire to stay so long) so we saw the partying continue way into the night, we attempted to dance along AND we sampled the typical drink rebujito. A successful day all round!

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Monday musings #11

Believe it or not, when I’m not travelling or sunbathing I’m actually working here in Spain as an English language assistant. Last week I helped in a class based on pronunciation. The teacher rightly told the students that they can get by in England with a Spanish accent but they need to pronounce words more or less correctly in order to be understood. In English there are so many words that sound similar but can give completely different meanings so it’s important that the difference can be heard. There’s a ridiculous amount of these words if you think about it and for those learning English these words sound mostly identical, causing all kinds of confusion. For example, bird, beer, bar and bear all sound the same to many Spanish students. English is a lot tougher than we realize.

So my job for the day was chief enunciator (or something), I had to read out lists of subtly different words and the students had to repeat after me. So there I was slowly repeating perk, park, peak, pick, peck and puck doing my best to emphasize the difference in sound. The students struggled so much with differentiating between park and puck so I repeated them with excessive emphasis paaaarrrk and puuuuuuck so many times that I sounded like I’d developed a speech impediment. After the 34th time I’m fairly sure the students pretended that they heard a difference between the two, to save hearing my drawn out vowel sounds for a minute longer.

We then moved on to ‘notoriously difficult words for Spanish speakers to pronounce’. This mainly consisted of the ‘sh’ sound in words like procession and a personal favourite, the adjective social. I had to repeat the word so many times that after a while I was struggling with the different ‘s’ sounds as much as the kids. They try to say sho-ssial and after the 50th attempt I was starting to mix up the sounds myself. Disastrous. I’ll probably never be able to say it normally again.

To make matters worse the teacher enforced silence (a rare phenomenon in Spanish schools) so that the students could listen intently to my pronunciation. I felt the responsibility of exemplifying correct pronunciation because I am effectively the only access most of them have to natively spoken English. It didn’t help that the teacher gave a long lecture about how I speak ‘standard’ English because I am from Surrey and it’s important for the students to copy exactly what I say. Under all this pressure I definitely crumbled and some questionable examples of correct English were given.

What I have concluded from this experience is that a) when standing in front of 30 pairs of expectant eyes it becomes difficult to function normally b) English is really very difficult and I am eternally grateful that its my mother tongue and not a language I have to learn.

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